This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Matthew Hayes, researcher, filmmaker, and educator at Northern Lakes College, about his highly-acclaimed book, Search for the Unknown: Canada’s UFO Files and the Rise of Conspiracy Theory.
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SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Matthew Hayes, a Canadian educator, researcher, and filmmaker who earned his Ph.D. in 2019 and today teaches as a permanent instructor at Northern Lakes College in Alberta. He’s also the author of the highly acclaimed book, Search for the Unknown: Canada’s UFO Files and the Rise of Conspiracy Theory. I’m grateful to speak with him about the history of UFOs in Canada, what they tell us about the relationship between citizens and the Canadian state, and how we ought to think about the renewed interest in UFOs today. Matthew, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.
MATTHEW HAYES: Thank you. And thanks for inviting me.
SEAN SPEER: The book started as your Ph.D. dissertation, and in its acknowledgments you thank UFOs, whatever they ultimately prove to be, for their “efforts.” What got you interested in UFOs? Why did you choose to pursue them as a doctoral topic? And what did your friends and family think about the idea?
MATTHEW HAYES: I think my friends and family were pleased because I think the reason I originally got into this topic was because of my dad. I just grew up watching TV shows about the Bermuda Triangle, and you know, tales about the Egyptian pyramids, and Sasquatch, and just all that good stuff. So I was raised on that stuff. And it apparently never went away. I didn’t at all anticipate that I’d be writing about this subject. My research up to that point was completely different. But I stumbled across this archive of files, and I just was flabbergasted that it existed, I had no idea. It was just at the right time and it just kind of snowballed into a Ph.D. project. All the way through the Ph.D. project I remember telling people like, “Somebody’s going to come and tell me at some point that this is not okay. You can’t be studying this kind of thing.” But it never happened. And people seem interested and pleased with it all the same. So yeah, it’s just a bit serendipitous. But it was fun.
SEAN SPEER: You say in the book that you were proactively approached by the McGill-Queen’s University Press to ultimately publish this version of your doctoral dissertation. So it seems like the audience might have been larger than you initially anticipated.
MATTHEW HAYES: Oh, definitely. Yeah, I really had no idea what was in store. I picked it because I thought if I’m going to spend five years studying anything, I’m going to try to find something that I don’t hate at the end of it, which is a common pathway for a lot of academics. So I picked right. I got lucky with UFOs.
SEAN SPEER: You write at the end of the book’s introduction that you came to realize that in a way, your research wasn’t about UFOs, per se, but broader post-war changes in Canadian society. What do you mean? How is a book about UFOs not really about UFOs?
MATTHEW HAYES: I think that’s the kind of standard historians’ gambit, is that we say, “Here’s a thing that we think we know about, but really getting into this bait and switch and this is really about something else.” So I’m doing the standard historian thing. But I came to realize just through reading the archival record—letters that people had sent into the government, and then letters of the government sent back—that everybody is talking about UFOs, but the thing that everyone’s getting really frustrated and passionate about is not really UFOs. It became this other thing, and it becomes more explicit as the decades go on. In the early 1950s, into the ’60s, it is all very much seemingly about UFOs. Like, “What are they? We want to know what it is, and we think you might be covering up some information about it.”
But then you get into the ’70s, and the ’80s, and politics change, culture changes, and all of a sudden, people are not really talking about UFOs. They’re using UFOs to talk about other issues like government transparency, or government secrecy, or just the very experience that a citizen might have of the government or of the state. Which is not something that you necessarily experience on a daily basis, or in an explicit way where you’re actively communicating with government officials. And so I just realized that there’s this creeping sense that UFOs are still the ostensible topic that everyone is communicating about, but they’re really seeming to communicate about much deeper issues that they’re frustrated with. The UFO thing becomes a lightning rod for other issues that are swirling around in the postwar years, or, in a lot of cases, just really idiosyncratic issues that people have with the government and their previous experiences with it, or what they think is going on based on other media that they’re consuming. So it becomes this hinge point for a bunch of other stuff going on. But the UFO thing, in particular, seems to crystallize it in interesting and kind of wacky ways.
SEAN SPEER: Yeah, let me ask you to elaborate a bit further. How do UFOs fit in the broader countercultural dynamic of the post-war era? Maybe to put it differently, how should we understand UFOs as part of a broader political dialogue about evolving notions of the state’s monopoly over truth and knowledge?
MATTHEW HAYES: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, yeah, okay. So I think it’s central to that. But I think that a lot of people have dismissed it as this fringe concern. You know, not a lot of people are that interested in it, especially in the early days—or seemingly. But of course, when you really dive into this, you realize that lots of people are interested in UFOs and these topics that otherwise seem kind of wacky. I was reading a statistic the other day that in the 1950s alone, Hollywood produced something like 130 sci-fi films, which is a massive amount of content. A lot of those were about UFOs and alien abduction. So it obviously was in the air, people were really interested, but the government wasn’t particularly interested. They thought it was just this far out there fringe kind of activity. The very typical image of the conspiracy theorist in their RV in the desert broadcasting to, you know, unknown numbers of people, that kind of thing.
So I think there are a lot of stereotypes that are still around and very much still powerful, even today, that people just took for granted. But when you get into the files, you realize that these underlying issues that people are talking about are not wacky or fringe at all. It’s really basic questions that they’re asking about the relationship between the government and the people. What does the government owe us in terms of disclosure of information or services of various kinds? And then on the government side as well, what expectations do they have of citizens and what it means to be a good citizen and to support the government and to support the state? And this is what the issue really became: this massive conflict between these really different ways of understanding society and how people fit into it and their relationship with the government.
And so, again, it seems like this wacky, left-field kind of topic, but I find like most topics like that—I think is what draws me to the fringe kind of things—is that it’s just a veneer covering up very, very basic questions about politics and society. And so I think the UFO thing, you know, you can frame it in a number of different ways. But I’m arguing in the book that actually looking at this stuff is pretty important because I find that if you look at these kinds of wacky topics, they are often getting at things that have not really come into the limelight. Or won’t for a few years. But you get this really early sense of fears and confusions and anxieties that haven’t quite articulated themselves. And I think people attach them to objects like this because they are unknown—you can attach whatever you want to UFOs because nobody really knows what they are and outer space is just a vacuum that we fill with our fantasies and our fears. I think it’s actually a really productive place to look to try to string these kinds of things into a more central place to analyze.
SEAN SPEER: Well said. I would just say in parentheses, it seems to me one of the lessons we’ve learned in recent years during this period of political disruption and the rise of populism and all the rest is that if governments are dismissive of some of these nascent ideas or subjects or whatever, they’re not going to go away. The risk, of course, is that they start to fester and then they ultimately combust.
So a ton of insight there. I will just say that this narrative in the book about the relationship between the surface-level story of UFOs and these deeper questions about knowledge and truth and the relationship between citizens and the state is really powerful and another reason why listeners ought to read the book.
Another reason, though, is it’s full of great stories. Each of the chapters tells a story of different individuals or issues or experiences or events that are reflective of some of these broader trends. And I want to ask you about some of those if that’s okay. First of all, who is Wilbur Smith? What’s his role in your story?
MATTHEW HAYES: Yeah, Wilbur Smith is a pretty fascinating guy. He takes up an entire chapter—chapter one is all about Wilbur Smith. He’s mentioned kind of all the way through the rest of the book as well. In UFO-olgy circles, in the community, I think he’s a fairly well-known name. And it’s because I think mostly that he was someone who was very interested in UFOs, like many others at the time, but had a government position. So he was a qualified radio engineer, had a Master’s degree in electrical engineering, and worked for the Department of Transport—which still exists, is still a department in the Canadian government—and had a senior position by the end. And one of the really amazing things is that his work into UFOs didn’t stop his career advancement—which is typical for a lot of other scientists—he continued to be promoted because everybody knew that he was very good at his job. That lent a certain credibility to what he was doing in a way that many other people didn’t. It’s not necessarily clear that he really had government sanction for what he was doing, but it could certainly be played up to that effect.
In essence, he ran a project. He called the Project Magnets, and it ran from 1950 to 1954, ostensibly under the auspices of the Department of Transport. They did give them permission to do this, although they were always fairly clear that it was supposed to be kind of a part-time thing and using equipment that isn’t being used elsewhere. “This is fine if you do this, but don’t trouble us with it too much.” And so he spent a few years just trying to make sense of UFOS. He came to it and was interested because he was an engineer, and thought “Well this seems like an engineering issue or problem.”
The really interesting question to tackle is, how do UFOs propel themselves? If these things are real craft, what are they, how do they work? He didn’t really come to any conclusions. He just hit the brick wall that every researcher does that you just can’t really know in the end, because we don’t have a flying saucer to examine. We don’t have alien bodies to examine, depending on who you believe. This kind of thing. So he did a bunch of different little studies. He put a balloon up into the air in Ottawa to try to test the observational capacities of citizens. He tried to do a bunch of complicated mathematical weighting factors to make sense of the sightings that he was looking at. And it all came mostly to naught. You know, he made a lot of interesting colleagues and friends. He was running a UFO study group out of his basement in the suburbs of Ottawa for a while.
But eventually, the project gets shut down because of publicity. The word gets out that this Canadian engineer working for the government has official government sanction to study UFOs. And the journalists just come calling constantly to the point where it starts to really frustrate his superiors at the Department of Transport. Other people get wind of it that are higher up in the government, and so they kind of quash the whole thing. They appeal to their mandate that what he’s doing has gone so far outside of what he originally proposed, which seemed to be a legitimate study of magnetic phenomena, magnetic propulsion. And by the end, Smith is pretty clear that he thinks that these are extraterrestrials living in the ionosphere of the atmosphere and communicating with him through radio morse signals, all kinds of stuff that the government just is not okay with. And so they put an end to this. So it’s not a super happy ending for his work. He feels very frustrated in the end.
But I think that Smith’s story is really interesting and important because it lays the foundation for what’s to come. You have this conflict between a couple of different ways of approaching this, a couple of different senses or styles of knowledge about this, of where knowledge about this might come from, or how you would obtain knowledge about UFOs, and that conflict spreads out. It doesn’t remain within the confines of this particular department in the government. You really start to see it reflected that the government takes on this very scientific positive, optimistic attitude that things only exist if you can measure them using our standard tools. And that conflicts in a very big way with a lot of citizens who think that that’s not the only way to find the truth about these matters—and maybe is the worst way to find truth about this. So nobody wants to back down, of course. Everybody mistrusts everybody else. They think that they have ulterior motives, or that they’re just uneducated or delusional. The government’s favourite phrase is that “UFOs are the products of delusional minds,” or that more benignly, they’re just normal atmospheric phenomena that people are misidentifying. And so Smith’s story really sets the stage for what’s to come decades later. This conflict really doesn’t get any better. It just seems to get worse over time.
SEAN SPEER: We’ll come to the subject of the government’s institutional response to these developments, but before we get there, I want to ask about a particular episode. What happened at Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia in October 1967? And what’s its role in your story as Canada’s “Roswell”?
MATTHEW HAYES: Yeah, the Shag Harbour one was interesting, I argue in the book, mostly because it left behind physical evidence. I was saying that the government quickly takes on this attitude that we’re really only going to take this thing seriously, this UFO phenomenon, if there’s stuff to measure: “You point us towards an actual craft, or a piece of a craft something physical that I can pick up or measure with a Geiger counter or something like that, and then we’ll take this seriously. Up until then, it’s just sightings.” And so in one of the chapters in the book, I present three cases that leave behind physical evidence, which force the government, based on their own reasoning, to take seriously. They did, they took them much more seriously than any other sightings that they received.
And so the Shag Harbour one was really interesting because, especially, it’s not just citizens that witnessed this. It’s a bunch of RCMP officers as well. You immediately have, to the government at least, a higher level of credibility about this. This takes place in October, I believe it is 1967. I would say it’s part of now Canada’s founding myth about UFOs, if you could say we have one. And it’s been called Canada’s Roswell because there was a crash. It was a witnessed crash of, seemingly, a flying saucer that hit the water at Shag Harbour, which is in the far reaches of Nova Scotia on the southwestern tip, I think it’s in Yarmouth County. So there’s not a lot of people there, there’s not a lot going on. But all of a sudden, this flying saucer crashes into the bay after people have been seeing stuff and lights in the sky for a couple of days. They track this thing. And it sits there, it sits in the harbour. So it’s not like it just crashes and disappears. It crashes and it sits on top of the water while people are on the shore watching, including, as they said, a couple of RCMP officers. So there are multiple eyewitnesses to this, and there are very good descriptions of what happens all the way through. Then somebody tries to pilot a boat out to see if there are survivors. Because the first thought is, this is not necessarily a flying saucer, this is some kind of experimental military craft and they need help. Maybe there are survivors that need help coming back to shore. But as soon as the boat gets close enough, this flying saucer sinks underwater and it’s never seen again.
The Canadian military sends out a couple of divers to actually try to find it, and they come back with nothing. There are theories that maybe they did find something and they’ve covered it up, the typical kind of thing. But the records show that nothing was found. It remains unexplained. Just like the other two—there are two other cases like this. They all remain unexplained because again, they hit this brick wall of evidence that you have more eyewitness testimony, but in the end, there actually really isn’t anything physical to study. They didn’t recover anything. Whereas in other cases they did—you know, there are soil sample readings that have higher than normal radioactivity, pieces of craft that fell from the sky. So there’s sometimes a miscellany of evidence. But in this case, it’s still mostly eyewitness testimony.
But the significant thing is that the government did take it seriously, saying “We’re not necessarily saying that this is a UFO or a flying saucer, or anything we just don’t know.” And that’s a reasonable response to take, of course, unless there’s more information for coming, which there never is, unfortunately. So it stands—I think I describe it as really the combination of the climax of the story, that this is now 1967, Canada’s centennial year, and things are building, building, building up to this point. Citizens are getting angrier and angrier that the government is not taking this seriously. And then this happens amongst these other two incidences with physical evidence left behind, and it seems like the culmination of the government’s investigation that they do send people out, they do try to take it seriously. They take the readings, and they write the reports, but in the end, there’s just nothing else that they can do. So the investigation seems to decline quite precipitously. After that, I think, they say “Okay, we’ve done the job. You know, we studied the best that these things had to offer and in the end, we’ve come to the same conclusion.” So it is disappointing.
SEAN SPEER: Your answer, Matthew reflects a broader idea or trend in the book. And that is the tendency on the part of government departments and government officials to be mostly dismissive of these claims about UFOs. A good example is Project Second Story, which was launched by the Defence Review Board, a military science agency, in 1952, to in your words, “assert its expertise by debunking UFOs.” You go on to write, “For Project Second Story, UFOs were a waste of time because it was evident that they did not exist.” Why was the government seemingly so invested in a particular conclusion? Is it risk aversion, bureaucratic group think, or something else? What explains the government’s institutional aversion to the idea of UFOs?
MATTHEW HAYES: I think is a combination of those things. But if I had to distill it down, it’s probably just that the government was really afraid of being embarrassed. I think that’s what comes through really clearly in the documents. There’s so much reticence from government officials, and it’s all over the government. There are so many departments that encountered UFOs in some way, usually because someone sent a letter in reporting a sighting or asking for information. So there are four main ones that I talked about in the book, but there’s a number of them that have some kind of encounter. And none of these departments are communicating with each other as well. That’s one of the main issues. But the one thing that they all seem to have in common is that they’re very, very worried about embarrassing the government. “We cannot put ourselves out there and try to take UFOs seriously in the way that the citizens want us to, in case it comes back and bites us.” That’s very much the sense that I get.
There are other things animating that as well. There’s very much a sense, this technocratic scientific, or scientistic sense, that “We are hardline scientists, and we only believe in the things that we can measure. Canada is a very practical country. We need to use science to develop good technology to help us live better.” That’s really the main goal here. And I think that’s why Wilbur Smith’s project was granted permission at first, because he was couching all of this study in those terms. That maybe, we can discover something new here, maybe some new piece of technology. And so that’s fine, as far as that goes. But as soon as it goes beyond that, all of a sudden you’re getting into the range, where, you know, the Canadian government is cautious. Its main mode of operation is to be hesitant, is to not put itself out there, not make big splashy pronouncements or decisions, the way that the Americans like, for instance. Very much trying to set themselves apart from that style of doing things to maintain order, to maintain good, peaceful, orderly governments. That’s always going to be been the goal. And so I think there are a few of these things that are animating this response.
It just seems, in the end, to come down to there’s just not enough evidence to really say one way or the other. Canadian politicians or Canadian bureaucrats certainly are cautious and they don’t want to put themselves out there for fear of being wrong of embarrassing the government, and a lot of this stuff is just too outlandish for them at that time, especially in the 1950s. You know, they’re coming out of the Second World War, just trying to reconstruct everything, move on with their lives, and just have faith in the power of science and technology. And we’re getting pretty frustrated that citizens seemingly didn’t have that faith, or at least not to the degree they wanted.
SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up on your answer. You write elsewhere in the book that the Canadian military wanted, “Answers, not mysteries.” It’s a great line. I’ve thought about it a lot. What do you think about the hypothesis that the people who self-select into government bureaucracies preference order and process, such that something like UFOs would offend their sensibilities? If that resonates with you, what does it say about the government’s institutional ability to investigate UFOs even today?
MATTHEW HAYES: I think that’s on the mark. It sounds accurate to me. I mean, yeah, I think that was a quote from the Department of National Defence, or something like that. Can’t remember exactly where. It does capture a lot of what’s going on in that it certainly explains why the government is just so resolutely reticent to explore this stuff. It is just a total mystery. And I think one thing that citizens in Canada communicating about this with the government, or trying to, didn’t quite grasp was just the influence that American policy and bureaucracy had on Canadian security. Bureaucrats were just waiting to see what happened. Again, they’re very, very hesitant to put themselves out there. And so they’re just waiting to see, you know, “Let the Americans make the big pronouncements about flying saucers, that’s not really what we do here. We’re much more practically minded. This is just too far outside of the scope of what we are called to do as bureaucrats. We are not called to try to make sense of extraterrestrials.”
So it’s very much a very down-to-earth kind of approach. That’s probably true to some extent, that people self-select into the bureaucracy because it’s, it’s boring, it’s kind of safe, it’s run of the mill. You know, you collect your paycheque, you do your work, there’s nothing that exciting going on in most places in the government, I imagine. I’ve never worked for the government full disclosure. So I don’t know. But this is certainly what I’ve been told by people, even after since the book’s been published. I’ve heard a few stories like this, that this is kind of the approach that’s taken. And I certainly see that in the documents. So I think there’s definitely a lot of that going on.
It seemed especially that one thing or phenomenon that I noticed is that the harder each side pushed on the other, the further away that they get. And that’s probably not that surprising. If you keep pushing, pushing, pushing, each position is going to harden. And so that’s why I described this as becoming so intractable. There’s really no progress made on this issue, even in decades of citizens trying to get some kind of disclosure, because they’re just pushing each other further and further away. It really is offending the sensibilities of bureaucrats who just want to clock in and do the paperwork and then clock out. And that might be a bit cynical, but that’s certainly what I’ve read, or certainly read between the lines in a lot of documents. That it was offending sensibilities.
SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue to my next question. You reviewed something like 15,000 archival documents from the departments of national defence, transportation, and communications, as well as the RCMP, the National Research Council, and others. Matthew, did you find any evidence over the period that you studied, which is roughly 1950 to 1990, that the political arm of the government was engaged much on the issue? Did any prime minister or ministers express interest in the file? Or was this mostly carried out at a bureaucratic level?
MATTHEW HAYES: It’s mostly a bureaucratic level, and very unwillingly even at that, I would say. That’s a great question. Because I did search for that. There are a couple of rare examples of members of parliament reaching out, for instance, to Wilbur Smith. So in the late ’50s, there are one or two MPs who reach out who just say, “You know, I’ve heard that you’re doing this kind of work. And I think it’s great. And I hope that there’s going to be more of this, let me know if I can help in any way.” But of course, especially in the early days, before Wilbur Smith starts kind of leaking, all the stuff that he’s doing to the press, there’s not much information circulating about it.
And so I think that one of the problems is that a lot of politicians simply didn’t realize that the Canadian government was dealing with this in any way at all, because they really tried to keep it secret. There are very explicit directives, for instance, from the Department of National Defence to say no to the CBC: “Do not take press requests about this kind of thing.” And then there are other examples where you see why, because they were taking press requests, and then there are government officials who are inevitably very frustrated with what is written about it. They think it’s very inaccurate. it characterizes the Canadian government in a way that they’re not comfortable with. And so there’s not a lot of action on the political front.
I actually did email every still living ex-minister of national defence to ask that question, “Did UFOs ever come across your desk?” And of course they may not have been telling me the truth if they did, but everyone without exception they said “No. Absolutely not. It never came across my desk. It was It’s not an issue that I ever had to deal with.” And I do believe that to a certain extent. So you know, maybe in the case that they heard about a sighting or two, but it doesn’t seem at all like it needed a chain of command. The one exception, of course, is Paul Hellyer, which everybody knows about. And I did interview him on the phone before he died. It was a very interesting interview. But the one thing he made very clear was that UFOs were never on the agenda when he was actually in office. He didn’t come to the subject at all until the 1990s is what he told me. After, there was one particular book written by a retired American colonel, I think, and that’s what kickstarted his interest. I think people like to make a lot of to do about Paul Hellyer’s views, but when he was minister of national defence, as a politician, it was just not on the radar, as it seems to be the case for most. So if that particular politician had an interest in any way in UFOs, maybe they would send a letter, but again, I think it was considered political suicide at the time, just like the bureaucrats would have thought.
SEAN SPEER: I would just say in parentheses, Matthew, I worked for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper for about seven years in relatively senior roles. Of course, I didn’t see everything that went to him. I didn’t have top-secret clearance, for instance, and so it’s possible that he received briefings or information about UFOs that I wasn’t aware of. But I can say that in my time at the centre of the Canadian government, this was just not an issue that ever rose to the level of the political arm of the government. So much so that as I was reading the book, I regretted that I didn’t ask for a briefing on the file.
Let’s move on to the key narrative of the book. That is the tension between expertise and hobbyism. You write that the gap between these worlds has a tendency to become more entrenched over time. It strikes me though, that in recent years, experts haven’t served themselves especially well. In fact, we’ve had some pretty spectacular failures. How has your research come to shape how you think about the public’s trust and the role for experts, including government officials, to ultimately earn it?
MATTHEW HAYES: Well, I think one of the main issues that the Canadian government encountered was that they took it for granted that everyone trusted them and trusted their expertise. That turned out to be false. Pretty false. And I think that in the early 1950s, certainly, I’m gonna make the claim that it wasn’t widespread enough. That it was not really on the radar for bureaucrats that “Oh, not everybody believes us, not everybody trusts that we are benevolent. That what we’re doing is for the public good.” And so I think that’s the value of studying these kinds of fringe topics is that’s typically where you first find these rumblings that all is not well. That, you know, the people—if we can take UFO enthusiasts during this time as representative in any way of the public—that they’re not happy, that they don’t fully trust the government.
And in some cases go much more extreme, believing that the government is actively keeping information in a kind of sinister, malicious way. That’s not a super common view, but it seems to have become much more common. So I’m viewing the UFO thing as a harbinger of what was to come and now is seemingly more realized in politics today. But I think that’s the main thing, that there is this gap between state expertise or government, especially scientific technical expertise, which they take for granted, as the forefront, that they are making progress and they’re making the lives of everyone in the country better. But they have not actually convinced the public, necessarily, of this. This is an assumption that is made at a lot of points. I think that’s one of the main values of the work, which is to show where and when these assumptions broke down, or when people just simply flat-out refused to accept them.
And that’s very confusing for the government. You can see that in the correspondence—they just don’t know how to make sense of this. And it seems on the surface that they don’t know how to make sense of people who are asking about UFOs. But I think the thing that really vexed the government was that I’m not sure they even really realized this. That’s me reading into it. That the thing that they couldn’t get over was that people just didn’t trust them. They just didn’t have this trust that government officials assumed that they did. They just could not make sense of that. They put it on to all kinds of other things. But they avoided what was actually staring them in the face: that when you say that we have this under control and that UFOs are nothing but bunk, that they’re just normal atmospheric phenomena, people don’t believe it. They have a range of reasons for not believing it based on experience with the government or otherwise.
I’m not sure that that attitude has really changed that much in the government. In fact, I would argue that it hasn’t because I think I saw basically the same thing play out when COVID started. The government was making pronouncements in almost the exact same way as they did in the ’50s. I remember watching the news, and I remember watching the back and forth between government pronouncements in mainstream news and more public reactions on social media and the interplay of all of this like, “I’ve seen all of this before, this is literally the same thing playing out, because apparently nobody’s learned a lesson here.” And it’s not just the government, it’s all around.
The government just cannot fathom that people don’t trust it, that people think it might not be benevolent and that they have all the expertise. But then on the other side, of course, you know, the government can’t believe that citizens are not being rational actors. This is the basis of the bureaucracy: that people will be rational citizens who will see through the fog of superstition. That’s not how things work. You know, that’s not necessarily how it ever works. It’s a particular model of government-citizen interaction that I think is mostly false. Or at least that’s what I’m getting from these documents, that people never really did. They were never like that. The government expected that, but they certainly didn’t do much to try to foster it. Or, you know, when it became clear that they weren’t like that, all they did was dismiss it as crazy people. And what’s the best way to drive someone into their beliefs further and further is just to call them a crazy conspiracy theorist. So I saw the exact same thing happening with COVID, which wasn’t necessarily a conspiracy theory, although it can manifest like that. It’s just that we live in a very fast-paced, quick, changing, confusing world. There’s just a lot of stuff that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Things are changing too quickly for a lot of people and the government just can’t quite seem to wrap its head around that people couldn’t necessarily keep up with those changes, or that they’ll come up with their own explanations of what’s going on that conflicts with the official narrative.
SEAN SPEER: Yeah, that’s a great answer. Matthew, let me put a penultimate question to you. We’re living in a period of renewed interest in UFOs. How do you interpret this development? Is it a sociological phenomenon? Does it reflect the broader rise of conspiratorial thinking? Or is it a sign that UFOs may indeed be real?
MATTHEW HAYES: Well, okay, I’ll never discount the possibility that they could be real. I think that’s part of what got me into it. You just don’t know. You can’t say for sure. And I think anyone who says that they know for sure, he’s talking out of their hat. You just can’t know for sure. So there’s always that possibility.
I think it’s unlikely that UFOs are real. I think the thing that makes it clear to me is that this is almost exclusively an American phenomenon. Of course, I’ve written about the Canadian files, you can read about the U.K. files, the French files, etc. But this is at the end of the day is 99 percent an American phenomenon, which should tell us a lot about what’s going on.
But I’ve been asked this a number of times, of course. I suspected at least that the UFO thing would pop up again. But what I’ve kind of realized, I think, is that if you track it over time, there are surges like this all the way through, it’s not a constant state of interest in UFOs. There are peaks and valleys. And this is another one of those peaks. It seems like these peaks happen when the world seems to be the most confusing, when we have really intractable big problems that we have to deal with that we just can’t seem to make sense of, or we don’t seem to have the will to change. It seems like in those moments, people start looking to alternative explanations, whether it be conspiracy theories or otherwise.
But I think especially with the UFO thing, people have always looked to the skies for answers. It’s the exact same thing that was happening in the late ’40s, the ’50s, when the Cold War starts and you’re not sure if it’s Soviet planes coming over, or if it’s some advanced technology. You can use outer space, you can use flying saucers, to explain away almost anything. Because again, they are these empty containers that you can fill with whatever you need to. I think that if you track that change over time, you’ll see those big periods of conflict, periods where we have really big problems that nobody can seem to solve and that are starting to affect us in existential ways or really concrete ways, people turn to what we would otherwise see as kind of outlandish explanations for things. But they are big umbrellas that keep you dry from a lot of different things. So they’re very attractive in that way.
SEAN SPEER: As a final question, you write in your conclusion that we aren’t likely to know the truth about UFOs, including whether they’re extraterrestrial in origin. Why not? What do you think ultimately stands in the way?
MATTHEW HAYES: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, again, as a historian I would say that the odds are not in our favour that these things are real, just because of the way that the history of UFOs goes. In a sense, they didn’t exist prior to Roswell, let’s say. So they seem to be a pretty squarely historical phenomenon reflecting very specific historical technoscientific years. So that’s one part of it. But I think that we’ll never know, because I think that in the end, UFOs, again, are this thing that wasn’t really about UFOs. UFOs were just this foil to explore other much deeper anxieties that have been around for a long time. So those anxieties are probably not going to go away, because there are such big questions and they manifest in many different ways in society. The UFO thing crystallizes them in a certain way because again, I think UFOs exploit the limits of our knowledge, and they expose the limits, especially of expert knowledge. And that’s something pretty intractable to try to get over that seeds a lot of doubts and that filters out in a lot of unseen ways that only become seen far too late.
I think that’s the case of the UFOs—that we’re now, I think, seeing much more clearly in contemporary politics the role that UFOs play. But it’s kind of like too little too late as well. If you look back at the history, they’re asking literally the same questions and saying literally the same things in the 1950s and late ’40s. So nothing has changed. That, to me, shows that again, this isn’t really about UFOs. These are about much broader political questions that we’ve been debating for centuries at this point. It’s gonna take a long time to work them out.
SEAN SPEER: Well, I’ve been grateful to talk to you about some of those questions and your must-read book, Search for the Unknown: Canada’s UFO Files and the Rise of Conspiracy Theory. Matthew Hayes, Canadian educator, researcher, and filmmaker, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
MATTHEW HAYES: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.