UFOs, ghosts, crop circles: sceptics fight back

Fifty years ago, an American pilot spotted flying saucers. Now gullibility seems to have taken over. Roger Dobson talks to some doubters
Almost 50 years to the day after flying saucers first burst upon the world, Britain's sceptics have had enough.

After half a century of private fuming over claims of UFOs, alien abductions, the Bermuda triangle, not to mention people who say they can bend spoons, the doubters are on the attack. A national network of sceptics has been set up to demolish publicly what its members consider bogus, unscientific, or unproven and their hit list is wide-ranging. It goes beyond aliens and takes in astrology, alternative medicine, crop circles, telepathy, bogus hypnotists, lucky lottery numbers, ghosts, and superstitions about the millennium. The Association for Skeptical Enquiry intends to counteract what its members, who include psychologists, scientists, academics and civil servants, consider to be wild and unsubstantiated allegations, by contacting the media, or talking to any other interested party.

Its launch comes just before this Tuesday's 50th anniversary of the birth of the flying saucer legend. On 24 June, 1947, Kenneth Arnold, an American pilot, reported sighting nine disc-shaped objects over Mount Rainier in Washington state.

"We believe we need a network of people who will be sceptical of unusual claims and demand that they be supported by evidence," said Dr Michael Heap, a clinical psychologist at Sheffield University, who is a member of the association's steering committee. "People should not be allowed to get away with making all these claims or engage in practices that are not supported by existing science or are contradicted by it."

Dr Heap and his colleagues have ready explanations for a lot of what less sceptical souls think are spooky phenomena. UFOs and ghosts, they say, are products of people's imagination. Alien abductions may be epilepsy. Spoon-bending is sleight of hand. "A lot of these claims have no evidence to support them and are irrational. A lot of superstitions have, for instance, been generated around the lottery about lucky numbers and so on," Dr Heap says. The sceptics are advertising in The Psychologist magazine for fellow doubters, with the aim of building a directory of sceptical specialists who will respond to unsubstantiated claims.

Their first newsletter, The Skeptical Intelligencer, tackles astrology, homeopathy, alternative medicine, and Chinese pseudo-science. Mystical beliefs about Stonehenge, Vitamin C as a cold cure and telepathy are next on the list. Wayne Spencer, the editor, is particularly sceptical about astrological claims of links between the position of planets and births of eminent people. "It is suggested that the tidal pull of a planet affects the Sun's magnetic field, which, in turn, creates a resonance effect in the distinctive pre-natal nervous system of the eminent professional-to- be, which, in turn, causes him to be born when the parent planet is in a certain position in the sky," he says.

Dr Heap, who is shortly to become president of the British Society of Experimental and Clinical Hypnosis, says it was partly his years of involvement with hypnosis that made him a sceptic. "Ninety-five per cent of claims made for it are wrong, and over the years my eyes have been opened to pseudo-science," he said. "It is about personality too. I, and many other people in the network, do not like to hear people making claims that appear to be bogus. Often there are people making money out of it by publishing books about disappearing ships and visitors from outer space."

The British sceptics, who hope they will at least be able to ground some of the more fanciful theories and ideas, are planning to meet like-minded sceptics from Europe in Spain this year.