Scrutinising the Sceptics

"The Pelican"
Magonia 86, November 2004

In a response to a television programme titled "Kidnapped by Aliens?" shown about nine years ago, Budd Hopkins wrote: "What evidence does Dr Sagan, for example, present to buttress his sweeping and to the abductees, damning indictment of their ability to separate fantasy from reality?" Hopkins says he presents no evidence whatsoever, and here The Pelican has to agree with him.

But of course, Sagan was a famous scientific pundit, who was wheeled on to pronounce on controversial matters concerning not only astronomy, but various other topics, regardless of whether or not they were within his sphere of competence. And, of course, there were people gullible enough to believe that if he knew about astronomy then he probably knew a great deal about many other subjects. This sort of thing is typical of scientists who pride themselves on being sceptical, the eminent or at least well known scientist as a fount of all wisdom and knowledge.

The most notorious such person in Britain is Professor Richard Dawkins, zoologist and expert on evolution. His work on lucidly describing some of the more difficult details of evolution theory is widely praised-but he is equally well known to many for his anti-religious rants. These contain such absurdities as treating religious doctrines as if they purported to be scientific propositions, rather than considering how they are interpreted and what meanings are assigned to them in a religious context. Of course, Dawkins takes religious writings as being intended to be taken literally, word for word, just like scientific theories. One gets the impression that his concept of God is the childish one of a bad-tempered old man sitting on a cloud somewhere.

He prefers secular humanism as a philosophy of life and sometimes seems exasperated when that is also subjected to sceptical attack. (What's the point of it? Why not hedonism, it's more fun? etc.) Dawkins is the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, but his anti-religious fulminations tend to alienate many of those who might benefit from a better understanding of scientific methods and achievements.

Of course, Dawkins is smart enough not to make what Stanton Friedman would call "proclamations" about UFOs or whether or not intelligent life exists on other planets, but Sagan was only too willing to waffle on about there being aliens, but only at a safe distance from us, what they would or would not look like, etc, and all without a shred of evidence to support his speculations.

Thus UFO believers never saw him as being much of a threat Those who not only don't believe we are under surveillance by ETs in flying saucers, but actually know a great deal about the subject are seen as the real enemies. First it was Donald Menzel, as chief bogeyman, later replaced by Philip Klass (kindly old Uncle Phil).

Klass tended to concentrate too much on speculating about the possible motives of UFO witnesses and investigators, rather than being content to establish the facts and let them speak for themselves. Other weaknesses, such as his tendency to uncritically accept the findings of polygraph operators, so long as they told him what he wanted to hear, and a tendency to over-simplify the situation in order to arrive at a neat conclusion, made him less effective than he might have been.

Menzel tried to explain many reports it terms of atmospheric optical effects, but the distortions of the testimony and the discarding of inconvenient details needed to do this made some of them seem too contrived to be convincing.

Other, less notorious, sceptics repeated the same error of fixing on a particular class of explanation and trying to make the vast bulk of UFO reports fit it. Steuart Campbell adopted the theory of ball lightning to explain puzzling c1ose-encounter reports, but this generally pleased neither sceptics nor believers. As ball lightning is a controversial topic in itself, and as it could possibly explain only a very small number of UFO reports, a more adaptable theory was called for. Campbell eventually wrote a book which provided the definitive explanation for all UFO reports worth considering mirages!

Most investigators of UFO reports amateur or professional have found that mirages can explain only a tiny percentage of them. This didn't bother Campbell, whose idea of mirages seems to be derived from the diagrams in school physics textbooks, in which the angles of refraction are greatly exaggerated for the sake of clarity. Campbell was not happy with the equations used to describe mirages, because they didn't provide much scope for spectacular optical mirages in the Earth's atmosphere, the angles of refraction in the real atmosphere, as opposed to those shown in explanatory diagrams, being much too small.

With his new, highly elastic version of optical mirage theory, Campbell was able to use it to explain such classics as Socorro and the film shot in Utah in 1952 by Delbert C. Newhouse, in a book which was greeted by guffaws by some and an embarrassed silence by others, depending on their views on ufology.

Albert Budden capped this, though with his electromagnetic theories of UFOs, which started quite reasonably, as these obsessive ideas usually do, with the hypothesis that artificially or naturally produced electromagnetic forces could perhaps account for some UFO experiences. Of course, in the process of developing this hypothesis it was downhill all the way as theories and explanations became ever more implausible, especially as Budden followed the usual practice with novel approaches to physics of avoiding all those precise measurements and difficult equations, which people who study real physics have to grapple with.

It is worth noting here that the absence of quantification is always a good indication of a cranky, pseudo-scientific theory. Even crazier theories are indicated by figures and equations which, on expert scrutiny, are shown to be meaningless or irrelevant.

The Pelican's ruminations, in preparation for filling a page of this august journal with his words of wisdom, have served to reinforce his conviction that while many eminent scientists are cranks, hardly any ufologists are eminent in any field and all but a few of them, sceptics or believers, are decidedly flaky. Believe them or not, respect them or not, but don't give them your credit card number and you should be OK.