Far from being just a historical curiosity of the 20th century, the debate over the existence of UFOs since the 1940s could offer valuable insights into how people mistrust scientists today.

According to historian Greg Eghigian from Penn State University, the conviction of those making the case for UFOs during the Cold War draws strong parallels with the approach of those in current denialism and conspiracy theory movements, such as anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers.

"One of the things that marks the long history of this [UFO] movement is the question of mistrust, and I see this as part and parcel of some of the skepticism we see out there today," said Eghigian. "Although there are some differences, the UFO debate was kind of the granddaddy of them all and could be a model for looking at some of these other controversies."

In a new study published in Public Understanding of Science, Eghigian examines how a sense of mutual mistrust between the scientific establishment and amateur UFO investigators (aka 'ufologists') ended up perpetuating and defining the conflict between the two groups.

But just because conspiracy theorists – in the historical case, layperson ufologists – might disagree with scientific findings, doesn't necessarily mean they're biased or ignorant (although, of course, it can sometimes).

"My experience with the UFO phenomena and the history of ufology is that these amateur investigators have not at all been ignorant of science," said Eghigian. "This goes with other theories that it's less that people distrust science than that they distrust scientists and scientific institutions – that is the disconnect that needs to be explained."

Evidence for this viewpoint comes from how ufologists in the 20th century didn't reject scientific approaches outright – instead, they impersonated them. After being edged out of mainstream research due to their views, UFO believers formed separate groups that intentionally emulated the bodies and practices of establishment scientists.

"Ufologists didn't try to take over scientific fields or institutions," said Eghigian. "What they did was to create parallel institutions and mimic what academics did, create organisations, hold conferences and do research and investigations."

But according to Eghigian, the UFO community's over-reliance on their own research only fuelled academic mistrust of their results, compounding the fractured relationship further. It's this back-and-forth acrimony that can end up defining the discourse – something that might be worth bearing in mind today, given the vehemence of contemporary conspiratorial thinking.

"The study really isn't meant to weigh in on the question of whether UFOs are possibly extraterrestrial in origin," said Eghigian. "I think the bigger point is how scientists, officials and ufologists have attempted to understand each other."

As for aliens in spaceships, the strength of the ufology movement seems to be waning in the 21st century, Eghigian believes, at least to the extent that it captures the attention of everyday people.

In a sample of 25 newspapers, the historian found headlines mentioning UFOs or flying saucers had fallen to less than 20 headlines each year since the end of the Cold War – less than half of what it was prior to the 1990s.

This could be one of the reasons why the much-anticipated return of The X-Files on TV has been met with somewhat of a muted response from critics. Whereas once Mulder's obsession with aliens and conspiracy theories seemed cool and provocative, now it has not resonated so well.

"I think there is evidence that [UFO belief is] not the same phenomenon that it once was, at least as a mass movement that people are mesmerised by," said Eghigian. "It was Cold War anxieties – but also Cold War enthusiasms and passions – that had a direct impact on this."