A memo written sixty years ago has created a minor storm as some take it as proof that the government is covering up the existence of aliens. To some, it's more interesting in the way it shows why people believe things.

The memo was written by Guy Hottel, special agent in charge of the Washington field office. It describes an air force investigator who said another person reported finding a crashed spacecraft in New Mexico. The informant (whose name is redacted) also said that alien bodies were found in it. The informant says that the craft was disabled by high powered radar in the area.

Paul Kimball, a Halifax, Nova Scotia-based documentary filmmaker who has done extensive research on the UFO phenomenon, calls the furor surrounding the memo - billed by news outlets such as the Daily Mail as proof of a government cover-up - as interesting to sociologists as it is to people interested in aliens.

He says one reason that such documents from the 1950s engender such interest is precisely that people were afraid at that time. It was a fearful society, he said. The cold war was just beginning.

Another reason people tend to believe in government conspiracies, he said, is that in the years since there have been very real instances of the U.S. government attempting to cover things up, or fool the public. The Gulf of Tonkin incident, which precipitated the Vietnam War, is just one example. The Watergate break-in and subsequent revelations only served to make such paranoia seem even more reasonable.

Kimball added that this does not mean that governments don't cover things up or engage in conspiracies - just that they are usually much less elaborate than in popular depictions.

The Hottel memo, he said, is probably the result of a hoax. The memo itself surfaced decades ago, in 1977. But the hoax began decades earlier.

The Hottel memo was the end of a long chain of tale-telling. The memo repeats a story from the Wyandotte Echo, a legal newspaper in Kansas City, Kansas in January of 1950. An Air Force investigator read the story (and pasted into a memo himself. Such practices were common in the days before scanning documents was possible and memos had to be typed out). He then sent it on to Hottel.

The news story draws from the account of a Rudy Fick, a local used car dealer. Fick got the story from a two men, I. J. Van Horn and Jack Murphy, who said they got the story from a man named Coulter -- actually a radio station advertising manager named George Koehler. Koehler got the story from Silas Newton. Kimball said that a combination of his own research and others has established pretty well that the unnamed informant is Newton himself.

Silas Newton was a con man, who had a partner, Leo A. Gebauer. Newton and Gebauer were peddling doodlebugs -- devices that could supposedly find oil, gas, gold, or anything else that the target of the con was interested in finding. The two claimed that their doodlebugs were based on alien technology.

Ben Bradford, a New Mexico-based researcher who writes for the Skeptical Inquirer, also said the informant was probably Newton, who told his story to as many people as he could. He said the big question that arises, assuming the alien story was true, is where the spaceships or alien bodies are. A conspiracy theorist will always say they covered it up, he said. But you have to figure out what to do with three 50-foot long spaceships.

When the original scam was hatched, Newton and Gebauer went to someone who was predisposed to believe the story, a gossip columnist named Frank Scully. You wouldn't go to Edward R. Murrow with something like this, Kimball said. Kimball studied Scully's background, and found he was a man with a strong distrust of government generally. A conspiracy story would naturally attract him - and it did, resulting in a book.

Kimball adds that there really are UFO cases worth investigating. But they are often drowned out by hoaxes like the one that resulted in the Hottel memo.

Kimball notes that the combination of a fearful society, and the need for an ordered world, is partly what drives both believers and non-believers. (He says he is neither). Conspiracy theorists, he said, need to have some way of ordering the world. He likens it to the 9/11 truth movement, which posits conspiracies that would require thousands of people to all keep silent. They are the kind of folks who can't believe that bad things happen to good people, he said. So there has to be a conspiracy.