by Carl Sagan
Sunday, December 3, 1995
The phrase "flying saucer" was coined when I was in high school. The newspapers were full of stories about ships from beyond, in the skies of Earth. It seemed pretty believable to me.
Many people seemed to see flying saucers: sober pillars of the community, police officers, commercial airplane pilots, military personnel. And -- apart from a few harumphs and giggles -- I couldn't find any counter-arguments. How could all these eyewitnesses be mistaken?
What's more, the saucers had been picked up on radar, and pictures had been taken of them. You could see the photos in newspapers and glossy magazines. There were even reports about crashed flying saucers and little alien bodies with perfect teeth stiffly languishing in Air Force freezers.
In college, in the early 1950s, I began to learn a little about how science works -- the secrets of its great success: how rigorous the standards of evidence must be if we are really to know something is true; how many false starts and dead ends have plagued human thinking; how our biases can color our interpretation of the evidence; how belief systems widely held and supported by the political, religious and academic hierarchies often turn out to be not just slightly in error but grotesquely wrong.
Everything hinges on the matter of evidence. On so important a question as UFOs, the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness's say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money, attention or fame. People occasionally misunderstand what they're seeing. People sometimes even see things that aren't there.
Essentially all the UFO cases were anecdotes -- something asserted. Most people honestly reported what they saw, but what they saw were often natural -- if unfamiliar -- phenomena. Some UFO sightings turned out to be unconventional aircraft; conventional aircraft with unusual lighting patterns; high-altitude balloons; luminescent insects; planets seen under unusual atmospheric conditions; optical mirages and loomings; lenticular clouds; ball lightning; sun dogs; meteors, including green fireballs; and artificial satellites, nose cones and rocket boosters spectacularly reentering the atmosphere. (There are so many artificial satellites up there that they're always making garish displays somewhere in the world. Two or three decay every day in the Earth's atmosphere, the flaming debris often visible to the naked eye.) Just conceivably, a few might be small comets dissipating in the upper air. At lease some radar reports were due to anomalous propagation -- radio waves traveling curved paths due to atmospheric temperature inversions. You could have simultaneous visual and radar sightings without there being any "there" there.
There was the suspicion that the field attracted rogues and charlatans. Many UFO photos turned out to be fakes -- small models hanging by thin threads, often photographed in a double exposure. A UFO seen by thousands of people at a football game turned out to be a college fraternity prank -- a piece of cardboard, some candles and a thin plastic bag that dry cleaning comes in, all cobbled together to make a rudimentary hot-air balloon.
How modest our expectations are about aliens -- and how shoddy the standards of evidence that many of us are willing to accept -- is demonstrated in the saga of the "crop circles."
Farmers or passersby would discover pictograms impressed upon fields of wheat, oats, barley or rapeseed. Beginning with simple circles, first reported in southern England in the middle 1970s, the phenomenon progressed year by year. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, countrysides were graced by immense geometrical figures, some the size of football fields, imprinted on cereal grain before the harvest -- circles tangent to circles or connected by an axis, parallel lines drooping off, "insectoids." Some of the patterns showed a central circle surrounded by four symmetrically placed smaller circles -- clearly, it was concluded, caused by a flying saucer and its four landing pods.
A hoax? Impossible, almost everyone said: There were hundreds of cases. It was done sometimes in only an hour or two in the dead of night, and on such a large scale. No footprints of pranksters leading toward or away from the pictograms could be found. Besides, what possible motive could there be for a hoax?
People with some scientific training examined sites, spun arguments, instituted whole journals devoted to the subject. Were the figures caused by strange whirlwinds called "columnar vortices," or even stranger ones called "ring vortices"? What about ball lightning?
But meteorological or electrical explanations became more strained, especially as the crop figures became more complex. Plainly, they were the work of UFOs, the aliens communicating to us in a geometrical language. Or perhaps it was the Devil, or the long-suffering Earth complaining about the depredations visited upon it by the hand of Man.
New Age tourists came in droves. All-night vigils were undertaken by enthusiasts equipped with audio recorders and infrared vision scopes. Print and electronic media from all over the world tracked the intrepid "cerealogists." Best-selling books on extraterrestrial crop-distorters
were purchased by a breathless and admiring public. True, no saucer was actually seen settling down on the wheat, no geometrical figure was filmed in the course of being generated. But dowsers authenticated their alien origin, and channelers made contact with the entities responsible. "Orgone energy" was detected within the circles.
Questions were asked in the British Parliament. The royal family called in for special consultation Lord Solly Zuckerman, former principal scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence. Ghosts were said to be involved, also the Knights Templar of Malta and other secret
societies. The Ministry of Defence was covering up the matter. A few inept and inelegant circles were judged to be attempts by the military to throw the public off the track. The tabloid press had a field day. The Daily Mirror hired a farmer and his son to make five circles in hope of tempting a rival London tabloid, the Daily Express, into reporting the story. The Express, in this case at least, was not taken in.
"Cerealogical" organizations grew and splintered. Competing groups sent each other intimidating doggerel. Accusations were made of incompetence or worse. The number of crop "circles" rose into the thousands. The phenomenon spread to the United States, Canada, Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, the Netherlands. The pictograms, especially the more complex of them, began to be cited increasingly in arguments for alien visitation. Strained connections were drawn to the "face" on Mars. One scientist of my acquaintance wrote to me that extremely sophisticated mathematics was hidden in these figures; they could only be the result of a superior intelligence. In fact, one matter on which almost all of the contending cerealogists agreed was that the later crop figures were much too complex and elegant to be due to mere human intervention, much less to some ragged and irresponsible hoaxers. Extraterrestrial intelligence was apparent at a glance.
In 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two blokes from Southampton, announced that they had been making crop figures for 15 years. They dreamed it up over stout one evening in their regular pub, The Percy Hobbs. They had been amused by UFO reports and thought it might be fun to spoof the UFO gullibles. At first, they flattened the wheat with the heavy steel bar that Bower used as a security device on the back door of his picture-framing shop. Later on, they used planks and ropes. Their first efforts took only a few minutes. But, being inveterate pranksters as well as serious artists, the challenge began to grow on them. Gradually, they designed and executed more and more demanding figures.
At first, no one seemed to notice. There were no media reports. Their artforms were neglected by the tribe of UFOlogists. They were on the verge of abandoning crop circles to move on to some other, more emotionally rewarding, hoax -- when, suddenly, crop circles caught on.
Bower and Chorley were delighted, especially when scientists and others began to announce their considered judgment that no merely human intelligence could be responsible.
Carefully, they planned more elaborate nocturnal excursions, sometimes following meticulous diagrams they had prepared in watercolors. They closely tracked their interpreters. When a local meteorologist deduced a kind of whirlwind because all of the crops were deflected downward in a clockwise circle, they confounded him by making a new figure with an exterior ring flattened counterclockwise.
Soon other crop figures appeared in southern England and elsewhere. Copycat hoaxers had appeared. Bower and Chorley carved out a responsive message in wheat: "WE ARE NOT ALONE." But some took this to be a genuine extraterrestrial message (although it would have been better had it read "YOU ARE NOT ALONE"). Doug and Dave began signing their art works with two Ds; even this was attributed to a mysterious alien purpose.
Bower's nocturnal disappearances aroused the suspicions of his wife, Ilene. Only with great difficulty -- Ilene accompanied Dave and Doug one night and then joined the credulous in admiring their handiwork the next day -- was she convinced that his absences were, in the marital sense, innocent.
Eventually, Bower and Chorley tired of the increasingly elaborate prank. While in excellent physical condition, they were both in their 60s now and a little old for nocturnal commando operations in the field of unknown, and often unsympathetic, farmers. They may have been annoyed at the fame and fortune accrued by those who merely photographed their art and announced aliens to be the artists. And they became worried that, if they delayed much longer, no statement of theirs would be believed.
So they confessed. They demonstrated before reporters how they made even the most elaborate insectoid patterns. You might think that never again would it be argued that a sustained hoax over many years is impossible, and never again would we hear that no one could possibly be motivated to deceive the gullible into thinking that aliens exist. But the media paid brief attention. Cerealogists urged them to go easy -- after all, they were depriving many of the pleasure of imagining wondrous happenings.
Since then, other crop-circle hoaxers have kept at it. As always, the confession of the hoax is greatly overshadowed by the sustained initial excitement. Many have heard of the pictograms in cereal grains and their alleged UFO connection, but they draw a blank when the names of Bower and Chorley -- and the very idea that the whole business may be a hoax -- are raised.
An informative expose by the journalist Jim Schnable is in print (Round in Circles, Prometheus Books, 1994). Schnable, who gives a firsthand account of the whole story, joined the cerealogists early and in the end made a few successful pictograms himself. (He prefers a garden roller to a wooden plank, and he found that simply stomping grain with one's feet does an acceptable job.) But Schnabel's work, which one reviewer called "the funniest book I've read in ages," had only modest success. Aliens sell. Hoaxers are boring and in bad taste.
The tenets of skepticism do not require an advanced degree, as most successful used-car buyers demonstrate. The whole idea of a democratic application of skepticism is that everyone should have the essential tools to effectively and constructively evaluate claims to knowledge. All science asks is to employ the same levels of skepticism we use in buying a used car or in judging the quality of analgesics or beer from their TV commercials.
But the tools of skepticism are generally unavailable to the citizens of our society. They're hardly ever mentioned in the schools, even in the presentation of science -- its most ardent practitioner -- although skepticism repeatedly sprouts spontaneously out of the disappointments of everyday life. Our politics, economics, advertising and religions (New Age and Old) are awash in credulity. Those who have something to sell, those who wish to influence public opinion, those in power, a skeptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging skepticism.
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