The View From Here

The paranormal sells because people like mystery
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Do you ever agree to things and then wish you hadn't? I do, and I've just gone and done it again. But then, maybe I was right to say "yes".

This week is the 50th anniversary of the first UFO sighting. Sorry, that's a daft thing to say. UFO stands for "Unidentified Flying Object" and I bet even Neanderthals and homo habilis used to look at the night sky and see objects they couldn't identify. I expect my cats do too. What I mean, of course, is that it is 50 years since someone saw a UFO and journalists decided it was an alien spaceship.

That someone was Kenneth Arnold, a Washington salesman, who saw points of light moving fast across the sky and was baffled. When journalists questioned him he said they moved like saucers skimming across a pond. Thus was born the myth of the flying saucer.

Half a century on we have no physical evidence of alien landings, no alien artefacts, and no further knowledge about who the supposed aliens are or where they come from. We have thousands of people who have seen UFOs or think they have been abducted and deserve some answers. And we have a vociferous group of people who "know' that aliens landed at Roswell, that there's a government cover-up and that people like me are paid a fortune to suppress "the truth".

This Friday on ITV we will be treated to a live 90-minute debate which "asks the studio audience to decide if aliens really exist". As Brenda Maddox pointed out last week, that suggests that popular votes can decide on matters of fact. Will the aliens be poised to act on our decision? If we vote one way will they all leap into real existence, and if we vote the other meekly disappear in a puff of virtual smoke?

Experts will give their evidence and viewers at home can phone in after every segment to cast their votes. And yes, you've guessed it, I have agreed to be an "expert". The dilemma is this: there are several of us "sceptics" who are regularly called on to provide the "balance" for programmes on the paranormal. We are mostly academics, magicians or (in a couple of cases) both. We have all studied at least some aspects of the paranormal in depth and have real knowledge and even a few answers to offer.

But the popular shows are not interested in answers. The paranormal sells because people like mysteries, and leaving them unsolved goes down better than explaining them. Take near-death experiences. When close to death, people report dark tunnels and bright lights, leaving their bodies, seeing dead relatives and having their lives flash before them. Substantial research reveals how and where in the brain these experiences arise.

Or take poltergeists. I have investigated several that turned out to have normal explanations, from a faulty clock that jumped along a shiny mantelpiece to the effects of aircraft noise. Or take incredible coincidences ...

I really do know something about these things - not everything, but there is lots of research and I have studied it. Now what happens when we sceptics are invited on to the programmes? In one Bristol show a studio audience of a 100 included 99 people who had seen ghosts - and me. In a recent Paul McKenna extravaganza we sceptics watched while psychic experiments were repeated several times until they produced the "right" result. "Experiencers" are encouraged to tell long fascinating stories but we are given 10 seconds to "explain that". Unfortunately , "explaining that" may take a lot longer and require a bit of mental effort from the viewer.

Simple - you might advise me - just say No. But it is not that simple. Consider what would happen if the informed sceptics refuse to go on? Either no one will be there to provide a scientific alternative, or the producers will invite uninformed sceptics or "scientists" who know nothing about the topic at hand and who may, with the best will in the world, make fools of themselves. That is why I said Yes.

So what can I contribute tomorrow? I have met many "abductees" including some in abductee "support groups". I have seen how therapists encourage them to elaborate their faint memories into fantastic stories, and how easily support groups can distance "experiencers" from their concerned family and friends. I have seen "alien implants", and shown one to be a dental filling. I have been subjected to magnetic fields across my brain that induced the most bizarre sensations, and I have had sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences (yes, they do happen, and we can explain them!). If I get the chance to talk about any of these it just might help the voters decide.

Was I right to say "Yes"?n

The writer is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England.