Alien unintelligence

Fifty per cent of Britons believe in extra-terrestrials. Then there's astrology, homeopathy, the occult and feng shui. But now a new group has declared war on the weird.
Wendy Grossman is unnervingly cheerful for a woman given just 10 days to live after appearing on the Richard and Judy show. She was asked on the programme to discuss a casket containing the cursed remains of an 18th-century sailor who died in curious circumstances. Sportingly, Ms Grossman took her life in her hands and lifted the lid. Risky? Maybe. But it's all in a day's work for a professional skeptic (more on the American spelling of the word later).

Being a skeptic may sound like a strange vocation, but it's an increasingly important one, says Ms Grossman, a writer and one-time folk singer. "Almost everyone you know now holds some sort of irrational or strange belief without thinking these views through," she believes. "It's too easy to talk of energies in crystals, homeopathic remedies, the paranormal - people just don't realise how many outrageous things they now believe."

Evidence of this is now all around us. According to research from the Policy Studies Institute, sales of occult books have risen by 75 per cent over the past five years while science book sales fell by more than a third. No figures are yet available for the booming interest in feng shui. The country enjoys tales of a couple who sued the vendors of a haunted house in an attempt to get the courts to rule on the existence of ghosts; the Church of England's working party to investigate the rise of exorcism; and Liverpool John Moores University's latest research programme into ESP.

Furthermore, a survey in Focus magazine reveals that more than 50 per cent of the British public now believe in aliens. And the Fortean Times' Weirdness Index confirms a marked rise in paranormal activity as the millennium approaches. Their latest calculations - based on paranormal reports ranging from ghosts to holy vegetables - show the world was 4.1 per cent weirder in 1998 than in 1997.

Harmless fun? Or lazy thinking that can result in people being misled or, worse, conned? Well, that depends on the evidence that exists to prove or disprove such claims - evidence, Ms Grossman says, which rarely gets a fair hearing in mainstream media.

Thank goodness for the skeptics, then - a movement launched in the US in 1976 as part of a backlash against the hippie obsession with mysticism and the paranormal. Leading exponents, including Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and James Randi, have since inspired sympathetic groups of non-believers elsewhere to come together in the pursuit of concrete proof. And now, just in time for the millennium, skepticism is attracting a following here.

Today, Britain boasts two skeptic magazines - The Skeptical Intelligencer and The Skeptic, whose latest issue exposes astrology and debunks claims that milk can be kept fresh by paranormal means. There is also a national organisation - the Association of Skeptical Enquiry - and a monthly skeptics' forum in central London.

"The skeptic's role is to question," says Tony Youens, a safety officer at Nottingham Trent University, part-time illusionist and ASKE spokesman. The American spelling is used to set skeptics apart from those who are merely "sceptical", which literally means "disbelieving", he explains: "Skepticism is about encouraging a balanced view of the world. And more critical thinking."

The skeptic approach, however, has taken time to establish in Britain - some have been deterred by the stridency of American exponents, says Dr Scott Campbell, skeptic and philosopher at London University's University College.

James Randi, for example, has made a high-profile career from publicly debunking a broad range of claims. In possibly his greatest victory, he exposed as a fraud a French scientist who appeared to prove that homeopathic remedies work. Randi also offered $1m to anyone able to prove paranormal or supernatural powers in lab conditions. The prize remains unclaimed despite numerous attempts, including one by a human magnet.

Another reason for skepticism's slow uptake is our reluctance to hear our beliefs challenged. "The British public is pretty complacent," Dr Campbell says. "When confronted with hard facts, some people are intrigued but a lot are hostile - they're not interested in finding out if what they believe is true."

Ms Grossman agrees. "There's too much emphasis now on 'if it's true for you, it's OK'," she says, highlighting the pick'n'mix-style approach to spirituality illustrated by ex-England coach Glenn Hoddle. Mistrust in established religions has led many to look for spiritual guidance elsewhere, she says. "But I don't subscribe to the argument that you can believe anything if it gets you through the day. You wouldn't buy a washing machine on the promise that maybe it will work on Saturday morning."

We fool ourselves in lots of ways, says Dr Matthew Smith, who's leading the John Moores research into telepathy and ESP. "A lot of people have personal experiences they find difficult to explain," he says. Others have grown wary of science - a situation exacerbated by the controversy over genetically modified food. "In times of uncertainty people cling to beliefs which given them a sense of purpose or control," he adds.

Medical-related misbeliefs are most disturbing, Ms Grossman believes, pointing to the "natural" Chinese herbal remedies recently shown to contain steroids. Religion, however, remains a grey area.

"Being a skeptic is not the same as being an atheist. Skeptics have no view on religious faith - their concern is with beliefs which can be challenged through proper investigation." And there are plenty of those to keep Ms Grossman and her friends busy for quite some time to come.