1. Astrology, flying saucers and ESP
Aisha is slumped in an armchair.
1: ILLUSTRATE AISHA (FROM THE PHILOSOPHY FILES) IN TYPICAL STUDENT HOUSE, SLUMPED READING MAGAZINE. WE CAN SEE OXFORD SPIRES OUT OF THE WINDOW.
She’s idly flicking through the pages of a magazine. Suddenly, in rushes Tom, one of her housemates. Tom has been shopping and is rather excited about a book he’s just bought from Big Al’s Discount Bookstore. The book is called Mysterious World and has a big picture of a flying saucer on the front cover.
2.ILLUSTRATE: TOM IS NEW CHARACTER-GIVE HIM DISTINCTIVE LOOK, E.G. BIG SHOCK OF BLOND HAIR). EXCITED TOM LEAVING BOOKSTORE HOLDING THE BOOK MYSTERIOUS WORLD BY DICK ALAN. WITH UFO ON COVER .
TOM: I’ve got this fantastic book! Take a look. It has lots of great chapters on weird and spooky stuff: ghosts, alien abductions, the prophecies of Nostradamus, the Loch Ness monster, astrology, numerology and palm-reading.
Aisha takes the book and flicks through the pages. She looks unimpressed. In fact she’s rather rude about Mysterious World.
AISHA: Ah yes. I’ve seen it. It’s a load of rubbish.
Aisha passes Mysterious World back to Tom, who seems a little disappointed by her reaction.
TOM: Why do you say that? Shouldn’t you be more open-minded?
AISHA: I am open-minded.
TOM: But there’s plenty of evidence in this book to suggest that there really is a lot of weird, paranormal stuff going on in the world. You shouldn’t be so dismissive.
Like Tom, many people firmly believe in the things discussed in Tom’s book. A great many suppose that by looking to the stars astrologers can predict what will happen and provide us with valuable advice on what we should do.
3.PERSON LOOKING UP AT NIGHT SKY. THE STARS SPELL OUT “MOVE TO SWINDON”.
Some believe in palmistry: they suppose that how your life will go is written into the palm of your hand.
4.ILLUSTRATE: PALM WITH THE LINES ALL LABELLED. LIFE LINE, ETC.
Lots of claim to have seen ghosts. A surprising number think they have been abducted by aliens. And many people believe in extra-sensory perception ¬or ESP – the ability to “see” what is happening, or even what will happen, without our having to use our five normal senses of sight, touch, taste, smell and hearing.
For example, you occasionally hear tales of people who say they “just knew” that someone close to them had suffered an accident even though that person was miles away at the time and there was no normal way in which they could have known.
5.TWIN ILLUSTRATE: (I) DISTRAUGHT-LOOKING WOMAN (LIKE “THE SCREAM”?) SAYING “OH NO! RANDY’S HAD A TERRIBLE ACCIDENT!”. (ii) A BURNING CAR GOING OVER CLIFF WITH FIGURE LEAPING OUT “RANDY” ON WINDSCREEN VISOR).
It seems it must have been some sort of weird, paranormal experience that let them know what happened.
Many people believe in the paranormal. But, of course, there are also many who don’t. Like Aisha, they dismiss claims about astrology, flying saucers and ESP. Sometimes they can be pretty rude. They accuse those who believe in such stuff of being gullible fools.
So what should we believe? Is belief in astrology, flying saucers, miracles and ESP a lot of silly superstitious nonsense? Or might there really be something to it?
How open-minded should we be?
Of course, we want to be open-minded. We shouldn’t just assume that there’s nothing to any of these claims and simply ignore the kind of evidence presented in Tom’s book.
But, on the other hand, we don’t want to be too open-minded. We don’t want minds so open that any old rubbish idea can easily end up lodging there.
6.HUMAN HEAD AS BIG WASTEPAPER BIN (HEAD CUTAWAY ON TOP WITH INSERTED BASKET) PASSER-BY IS CASUALLY THROWING SCREWED UP PAPER BALL INTO THE BIN.
After all, there are so many ridiculous beliefs you might pick up: that the Moon is made out of concrete; that ice is poisonous; that humans have three legs, and so on. If you are too open-minded, your head will soon fill up with junk beliefs.
So let’s be open-minded. But let’s also try to filter out, as best we can, silly or unreasonable ideas. Let’s think hard about the arguments and carefully weigh up the evidence before we allow new beliefs in. That way, there’s at least a fair chance that many of our beliefs will be true.
Belief in weird stuff is popular
Let’s get back to Tom and Aisha. Why is Tom so confident that there must be something to the claims made in Mysterious World?
He begins to flick through the book and comes to a stop at the chapter on astrology.
TOM: Okay, what about astrology? It says here that astrology is thousands of years old, and that some of the world’s greatest scientists – including even Isaac Newton – have believed in it. Millions of people all over the world use astrology and testify that it does work. Even a US President is reported to have consulted an astrologer. Yet you confidently dismiss astrology as a load of old rubbish. How can you be so sure?
Tom is right that many millions of people are convinced that astrology can give them an insight into their future. Many people claim that they really do “fit” their astrological star sign. In fact astrology is now a huge industry. Billions of pounds are spent every year on astrologers. Isn’t Aisha is being far too quick to dismiss astrology as “rubbish”?
She doesn’t think so.
AISHA: Look, I admit that very many people, often very intelligent people, believe in astrology. But the fact that lots of people believe something doesn’t necessarily give us much reason to believe it’s true.
TOM: Doesn’t it?
AISHA: No. After all, lots of people don’t believe in astrology. So you see, either way, lots of people must be wrong.
Believing what we want to believe
But Tom’s point is not just that a great many people believe in astrology. Tom thinks they have good grounds for believing in it.
TOM: But surely the reason so many people consult astrologers and have done for thousands of years is that there’s plenty of evidence that astrology really can give us an insight into the future.
AISHA: So you say. But sometimes people believe something not because there’s good evidence that it is true, but for other reasons.
TOM: Like what?
AISHA: Well, sometimes people believe things because they like to believe in them. The fact is that we desperately want to believe in the weird and wacky. It’s exciting to suppose that there are ghosts and demons, that there are cosmic influences shaping our lives, and that we have supernatural powers.
Liars, fakes and charlatans
Tom admits that he would like to believe that the claims made in his book are true. But, as he points out, that doesn’t show that they aren’t true.
TOM: Okay, we want to believe in the weird and supernatural. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to it, does it? And in fact there really is lots and lots of evidence of weird and paranormal stuff happening.
AISHA: Is there?
TED: Certainly. Thousands claim to have witnessed supernatural stuff going on.
AISHA: But many of these people are simply lying!
As Tom points out, it is hardly likely that all these people are lying about what they have experienced.
TOM: Well, yes, some may be lying. But not all. Many people really do believe they have witnessed something miraculous happening.
AISHA: True. But perhaps they have been deceived. There have always been people willing to take advantage of our huge fascination with the weird and wacky. Throughout history there are well-documented cases of tricksters happy to con the gullible by telling them fantastic tales, offering to put them in contact with the dead, selling them “magical” charms, and so on.
7.ILLUSTRATE: MEDIEVAL SCENE IN WHICH PUNTERS WALKING PAST TWO STALLS. ONE CHAP IS SELLING RELICS: “GET YOUR MAGIC CHARMS HERE. GUARANTEED TO WARD OFF EVIL SPIRITS.” ANOTHER CHAP IS UNDER SIGN: “BROTHER MICHAEL – HE TALKS TO THE DEAD!” ANOTHER “LET PSYCHIC PETE CURE YOUR AILMENTS WITH A LAYING ON OF HANDS!”
There’s little doubt that, even today, a huge amount of fraud and fakery is going
It’s easy to fake it
Aisha is correct that there are undoubtedly many fakes and charlatans about.
You have probably seen illusionists performing fantastic feats. The magician David Copperfield flies in front of an audience of thousands, apparently without the help of any harness or wires.
8.ILLUSTRATE: COPPERFIELD FLYING OVER AUDIENCE WITH WOMAN IN HIS ARMS.
Others catch bullets in their teeth and cause people to vanish.
Now, as I say, these people are illusionists. They are happy to admit that they engage in trickery and sleight-of-hand. Yet their tricks are at least as convincing as most supposedly “genuine” cases of the paranormal.
In fact, it’s easy to master highly convincing illusions in just a few hours. A friend of mine recently learnt how to bend spoons. He can even do it without touching them. I have no idea how he does it. Yet he tells me it’s all a trick.
Given that it is so easy to master tricks that are just as convincing as the “genuine” paranormal events, it’s highly likely that at least some of these “genuine” cases are also faked.
Peddlers of tales
As Aisha also points out, there’s plenty of money to be made, not just from faking miraculous events, but from re-telling stories about them.
AISHA: Because we like to believe in this stuff, there’s no shortage of books, magazines, newspapers and TV companies willing to feed our fascination.
9.ILLUSTRATE: BOOKSTAND WITH BOOKS AND MAGAZINES ON WEIRD AND WACKY: ASTROLOGY NOW; PALMISTY FOR BEGINNERS; MYSTERIOUS WORLD; THE LEGACY OF NOSTRADAMUS; MORE TALES OF ALIEN ABDUCTION; THE UFO SPOTTER; DEVELOP YOUR PSYCHIC POWERS, ETC.
Newspapers will always run astrology columns, whether there’s anything to astrology or not, simply because they can sell more newspapers that way and so make more money. Television programmes on the weird and wacky can get huge audiences, particularly if they sensationalize reports of fantastic things happening and give little time to anyone who wants to look at the evidence more critically.
Twisting the tale
Aisha is right that people usually have an interest – sometimes a financial interest – in telling tales of the supernatural. That should lead us to treat their “evidence” with caution.
Another reason to treat such tales with care is that they often reach us third or fourth hand. People may think they are telling the story just as it was told to them. But it’s still easy for the story to become embellished along the way. The storyteller is likely to focus on those aspects of their story that are most amazing, and to play down any features that would make it seem less fantastic. A report of a “strange light in the sky” can quickly become a tale of alien abduction.
10. (WITH “TOM” ON HIS SHIRT) SAYS TO B “ I SAW A STRANGE LIGHT IN THE SKY” B SAYS TO C: TOM SAW A UFO”. C SAYS TO D “TOM SAW FLYING SAUCER” D SAYS TO E “TOM SAW ALIENS” E SAYS TO F: TOM MET ALIENS. F SAYS TO G: TOM WAS ABDUCTED BY ALIENS1”
Aisha sums up her case:
So it seems to me it’s not at all surprising that there are these reports of the weird and supernatural in our newspapers and on television. In fact, given our gullibility, the ease with which we can be taken for a ride, the extent to which stories can evolve along the way, and the huge profits to be made from telling them, you would expect such reports anyway, whether or not there was any truth to them. So the mere fact that there are all these reports gives us little if any reason to suppose they are true.
Is Aisha Right?
Tom accepts that many of the reports concerning weird and supernatural goings on probably are unreliable. But he remains convinced that it’s still perfectly reasonable to believe in astrology, flying saucers and ESP.
TOM: Look, I admit that there are fakes and charlatans. I admit that there’s lots of money to be made peddling dubious stories about astrology, ESP, ghosts and so on. But that doesn’t explain away all the evidence we have for these things, does it?
AISHA: It doesn’t?
TOM: No. We also have good, solid evidence.
AISHA: Give me an example of this good, solid evidence.
TOM: Well, my own experiences confirm that astrology really does work. So I don’t need to rely on the testimony of others.
Tom starts to tell Aisha about his recent experience of an astrological prediction “coming true”.
TOM: I’m a Sagittarian. Last Monday I read in the astrology column that I could expect a pay rise. And this week I got a pay rise. So you see, there’s a piece of evidence that astrology works! And this bit of evidence doesn’t come from a dubious source. It’s based on what I have experienced myself.
Many who believe in the power of astrology can point to countless such examples of astrological predictions turning out to be correct. How are astrologers able to make all these correct predictions if astrology doesn’t work?
Making vague predictions
Aisha scratches her head.
AISHA: Let’s take a closer look at your evidence. You say this astrological prediction was in Monday’s paper?
She rummages in the pile of papers beside the sofa and pulls out Monday’s. Then she starts to rifle through the pages.
AISHA: Ah, here we are. “The Great Magica’s predictions for the next week. Sagittarius. Next week brings good news and bad. A friend feels betrayed, and there may be some hostility. Honesty is the best policy. At work things are looking up. You will soon be rewarded for all your hard work.”
11.ILLUSTRATE NEWSPAPER COLUMN “SAGITTARIUS. NEXT WEEK BRINGS GOOD NEWS AND BAD. A FRIEND FEELS BETRAYED, AND THERE MAY BE SOME HOSTILITY. HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY. AT WORK THINGS ARE LOOKING UP. YOU WILL SOON BE REWARDED FOR ALL YOUR HARD WORK.”
TOM: See? It says I’ll soon be rewarded for all my hard work. And this week my boss gave me a raise. The Great Magica knew I would get a pay rise!
But did she? What do you think?
The Great Magica’s predictions are pretty vague, aren’t they? She doesn’t actually say that every Sagittarian will get a pay rise. She says only that there will be a “reward” for hard work. But she never specifically mentions money.
This means that, even if Tom had received a box of chocolates or a day off from his boss, Mystica’s prediction would still have come true.
12.A ILLUSTRATE: .BOSS GIVING TOM CHOCS. TOM’S THOUGHT BUBBLE “THE GREAT MAGICA WAS RIGHT!”
It would also have come true if he had if he managed to sell more cars than usual. That too might count as a “reward”.
12A. CUSTOMER POINTING TO CAR AND SAYING “OKAY, I’LL TAKE THREE”. TOM’S THOUGHT BUBBLE “THE GREAT MAGICA WAS RIGHT!”
In fact, the astrologer’s prediction could be seen as “true” if Tom had received a tip or even just praise from a grateful customer.
12C: CUSTOMER WAVING GOODBYE, SAYING “THANKS FOR ALL YOUR HELP!” TOM’S THOUGHT BUBBLE “THE GREAT MAGICA WAS RIGHT!”
Still, Tom did get a reward for his hard work. And that’s what The Great Magica predicted. The Great Magica was correct.
So did she really know what would happen?
13.THE GREAT MAGICA, FINGER RAISED, SAYING TO THE READER: “SEE! I KNEW!”
How astrology columns really work
No. She didn’t. In fact, astrology columns don’t provide us with any sort of insight into the future. Aisha explains how astrology columns really work.
AISHA: Look, you read the astrology column every week. Every week Magica makes a number of rather vague predications. Now because her predictions are vague – because there are so many different ways in which they could come true – you should actually expect quite a few of them to “come true” just by chance.
Aisha is right. But then the fact that one of the Great Magica’s vague predictions came true this week doesn’t give us the slightest reason to suppose that astrology gives her some strange power to see into the future.
AISHA: Also, notice that the Great Magica made a number of predictions for Sagittarians For example, she said “A friend feels betrayed, and there may be some hostility. Honesty is the best policy”.
Tom: True, she did.
AISHA: But you have just ignored this prediction, haven’t you?
TOM: Er. Yes, I suppose I have.
TOM: To be honest, I forgot about that one. It doesn’t seem to have come true.
AISHA: Right, because you don’t immediately see how it applies to you, you ignore it. In fact, some weeks you can’t find anything in The Great Magica’s predictions that rings true, can you?
TOM: Well, yes, some weeks I can’t. But she usually gets something right!
Aisha is getting pretty exasperated.
AISHA: Of course she does! Because the Great Magica makes loads of vague predictions, she is bound to get a few right just by chance. Readers remember when a prediction comes true – that’s not surprising, of course, because it’s quite dramatic: it seems the astrologer “knew” what would happen! They also tend to forget about the predictions that don’t come true – again, that’s not surprising as nothing happens later on to remind them about the prediction. So you see, by focusing only the “hits” and forgetting about the “misses”, gullible people like you can convince yourselves that The Great Magica has some sort of magical insight into the future!
Let’s do an astrology experiment
Perhaps you aren’t convinced by Aisha’s explanation of how astrology columns work. Perhaps you still think there’s something to it.
If you do, then try this simple test. Cut out the predictions for the twelve different star signs from last week’s newspaper. Make a note of which prediction is for which star sign, and then remove the star signs so that only the predictions are left, like this:
14.ILLUSTRATE: CHOPPING OFF “SAGITTARIUS” FROM TOP OF CLIPPING WITH PREDICTION ON IT.
Then show your friends just the predictions and ask them which prediction is for their star sign.
If the astrologer has any sort of insight into the future, then your friends should have a better than one-in-twelve chance of picking out the prediction that’s for their sign.
But actually, your friends won’t be able to figure out which predictions are theirs. In fact, because the predictions are so vague, they will probably find that most of the predictions have “come true” for them.
Try it and see.
Tom still thinks that Aisha is being far too quick to rubbish everything in Mysterious World.
TOM: Okay. So you don’t believe in astrology. But surely you’re wrong to be sceptical about all the things discussed in this book. What about flying saucers and alien abductions, for example? Just two years ago, an accountant was taken up into a flying saucer.
15.ILLUSTRATE: ACCOUNTANT BEING SUCKED UP BY FLYING SAUCER.
He reports having been subjected to strange internal examinations.
16.ILLUSTRATE: NERVOUS NAKED ACCOUNTANT ON BOARD CRAFT (STRAPPED FACE DOWN?), BEING SHOWN HUGE ANAL PROBE BY TWO ALIENS.
Then the aliens dropped him off in some woods in the middle of the night.
17.ILLUSTRATE: SAME ACCOUNTANT EMERGING FROM WOODS, BLINKING IN BEAM OF SEARCHLIGHT FROM US-STYLE PATROL CAR, DISHEVELLED AND NAKED, WITH HANDS UP. COPS POINTING SEARCHLIGHT AND GUNS AT HIM. UNNOTICED FLYING SAUCER IN FAR DISTANCE.
TOM: Thousands of people have witnessed such things. Thousands have seen flying saucers in the sky. They can’t all be deluded, can they?
Tom thinks it’s totally unreasonable to dismiss all this evidence. Yet Aisha is still sceptical.
AISHA: I don’t think there’s enough evidence to make it sensible to believe that people are abducted by flying saucers.
TOM: But there’s lots of hard evidence too. What about the films and pictures of flying saucers?
AISHA: Many have been exposed as fakes. One of the most famous turned out to be a car hubcap.
18.ILLUSTRATION: GUY WITH CAMERA POINTED AT SKY SAYING TO HIS SON HOLDING HUBCAP: “THAT’S RIGHT SON, JUST FLING IT UP THERE”. CAR IN BACKGROUND WITH MISSING HUBCAP.
And why is it that the pictures are always fuzzy and difficult to make out? Out of all the thousands and thousands of photographs that have been taken of UFOs, why isn’t there even one nice, clear picture of a flying saucer?
TOM: Well, it’s often dark. People are excited. It’s not suprising if the camera shakes a bit. But look, even if the pictures aren’t that great, the people who took them know what they saw.
AISHA: Do they? Let me tell you about the very first flying saucer.
The very first flying saucer
Aisha tells Tom about Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting of the first “saucers”.
AISHA: It was way back in 1947. Kenneth Arnold, an American pilot, was flying his plane in broad daylight. It was a routine flight. Visibility was good. There was nothing out of the ordinary. Then, suddenly, Arnold spotted nine strange flying objects.
19.ILLUSTRATION: PILOT LOOKING OUT COCKPIT WINDOW, SAYING “GEE! WHAT ARE THEY?!” (DON’T SHOW WHAT HE’S LOOKING AT)
On returning to the airfield, Arnold described what he had seen. It wasn’t long before his report of “flying saucers” had been transmitted across the country. The press went wild!
20: ILLUSTRATE: SEVERAL NEWSPAPERS WITH HEADLINES “FLYING SAUCERS” “SAUCERS – ALIENS FROM ANOTHER WORLD?” “THE SAUCERS ARE COMING!”
Soon, others started to see saucers, and of course the rest is history. We’ve been seeing these strange, saucer-shaped craft in the sky ever since. Flying saucers have since been immortalized in countless stories and films, including Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Men in Black and The Day the Earth Stood Still.
21.THE SAUCER IN “THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL” ON CENTRAL PARK, WITH GIRL SHOUTING AT THE ROBOT “"GORT! KLAATU BARADA NICTO!".” FOR ROBOT SEE: HTTP://WWW.MOVIEDIVA.COM/MD_ROOT/REVIEWPAGES/MDDAYEARTHSTOODSTILL.HTM
TOM: But if there have been many thousands of reports of flying saucers, many from highly qualified pilots, why don’t you believe they exist?
Aisha smiles wryly.
AISHA: Because I know that Arnold didn’t see flying saucers.
TOM: He didn’t?
AISHA: No. He never say he saw saucers. Arnold said that the craft he saw looked like boomerangs.
22.ILLUSTRATION: NINE FLYING BOOMERANG-SHAPED CRAFT.
AISHA: That’s right. He merely said that they flew like saucers would if skipped across a lake. They sort of bounced along.
23.ILLUSTRATION: BOY SKIPPING SAUCER ACROSS LAKE.
AISHA: But in the excitement that followed the sighting, that particular detail was lost. Arnold was reported as having seen saucers. Now think about it: why have there been thousands of reports of flying saucers since 1947, if what Arnold saw were not saucers but boomerangs?
TOM: Hmm. That’s a good question.
AISHA: What’s more likely? That most of the reports of saucers made since 1947 have been reliable, it’s just that back in 1947 the aliens coincidentally happened to change the shape of the spacecraft from boomerang to saucer?
24. “AL’S SPACECRAFT WAREHOUSE” ALIEN SALESMAN TO ALIEN CUSTOMER (WHO IS LOOKING AT BOOMERANG SHAPED CRAFT) “FORGET THOSE. SAUCERS ARE THE LATEST THING!” POINTING TO FLYING SAUCER WITH “NEW!” STICKER.
Or that all the reports of saucers since 1947 are actually a result of the power of suggestion.
TOM: Power of suggestion?
AISHA: Yes. People saw a distant plane or a cloud or a meteor or a bright star or some other vague light in the sky or merely hallucinated, and, because they expected an alien craft to be saucer shaped, they subconsciously turned what they saw into a saucer.
TOM: Well, I guess that is the more likely explanation.
Tom is right. Our tendency to “see” whatever we strongly want or expect to see has been studied extensively by scientists. The only even half-plausible explanation for the thousands of flying saucer reports made since 1947 is that they are down to the power of suggestion.
Of course, the fact that the accountant who claimed to have been abducted by aliens said he was kidnapped by a flying saucer also tends to undermine his credibility. What is more likely, that the accountant really was taken up by a flying saucer, or that he had a vivid dream, hallucinated or is simply lying?
Surely it’s much more plausible that he is either deluded or else is deliberately deceiving us.
Of course, you will already be familiar with the power of the mind to “see” things that aren’t there.
Have you ever laid on your back and watched the clouds scud by? It’s possible to “see” all sorts of things in them: faces, animals, cars, countries…
25.ILLUSTRATE: KID LYING DOWN WATCHING CLOUDS IN SHAPE OF MAN, RABBIT, TRUCK AND GREAT BRITAIN.
…or perhaps you have sat in bed and watched as your dressing gown transformed itself into a hideous creature.
26.ILLUSTRATE: SITTING IN BED IN DARK WITH HIDEOUS HOODED DWARF AT END OF BED.
The more you stare, the more real the creature seems, until you can almost convince yourself it is real.
27.ILLUSTRATE: AS ABOVE, BUT HAVE NOW SWITCHED BEDSIDE LAMP ON AND IT’S A DRESSING GOWN DRAPED OVER A CHAIR.
I have “heard” feint voices in the hiss of my TV set.
28.ILLUSTRATE: COUPLE ON SOFA STARING BLANKLY AT DE-TUNED TV SET THAT’S GOING “SSSSHHHHHEATMORETOASTSSSHHHHEAT
MORETOASTSSSHHHEATMORE TOASTSSSHHH”. “ONE SAYS “IT’S A MESSAGE FROM BEYOND!” THE OTHER SAYS: “EAT MORE TOAST?”
I have also become absolutely convinced I could smell a gas leak, when in fact there wasn’t any gas at all.
The Mars face
In fact, our ability to “see” things that aren’t there partly explains one recent mystery: the Mars face.
29.ILLUSTRATE: FANTASTIC QUALITY PICTURE: HTTP://WWW.MSSS.COM/EDUCATION/FACEPAGE/035A72.MAP.GIF
In 1976, the space probe Viking Orbiter 1 was taking pictures of the Cydonia region of Mars. On the 25th of July it photographed what appeared to be a huge alien face carved into the surface of the planet.
Many people believe that the face is a sculpture created by an alien race in their own image.
30.ILLUSTRATE: ALIEN RULER WITH THE SAME FACE, LOOKING OUT OF SPACE SHIP WINDOW AT MARS, “I WANT A BIG PICTURE OF ME, JUST THERE.” ALIEN MINIONS: “YES, OH MIGHTY ONE! IT SHALL BE DONE!”
Certainly, the face does look a bit reptilian.
But the truth is that the face is actually a rather lumpy hill that, when lit from a certain angle, happens to cast shadows that resemble a face.
There are many thousands of hills, craters and other features on the surface of Mars. You would expect to find, just by chance, one or two that resemble familiar things. And because it is particularly easy for us to “see” randomly arranged blobs and shadows as faces (faces are one of the easiest things to “see” in clouds, for example) it isn’t terribly surprising that a “face” was discovered on the surface of Mars.
So the Mars face is a really result of two things: our ability to “see” things as faces combined with the probability that a face-like combination of blobs and shadows would show up somewhere or other on the surface of a nearby planet.
I’m afraid the Mars face provides little evidence of an alien race.
We can similarly explain why, every now and then, someone cuts open a piece of fruit that appears to contain a piece of writing or an image of someone.
31.ILLUSTRATE: MAN WITH MELON WITH PICTURE OF SADDAM HUSSEIN IN IT, POINTING, SAYING TO WIFE “HEY, THIS MELON CONTAINS A PICTURE OF SADDAM HUSSEIN.” WIFE: “IT’S A MIRCALE!”
Cut open enough pieces of fruit and eventually you are going to find a face-like combination of pips just by chance.
Let’s get back to Tom and Aisha. Tom has moved on to the chapter of Mysterious World that focuses on miracles.
TOM: Okay. What about miracles?
TOM: Yes. It says here that everyday, fantastic things happen. Statues start to weep. People are suddenly cured of fatal diseases.
Tom pointed to the page in front of him
TOM: Here’s a particularly good example. A couple of years ago, in South America, a train went out of control. It was just about to crash into a station full of people, killing hundreds.
32.ILLUSTRATION: SCARED PASSENGERS ON PLATFORM LOOKING AT TRAIN HURTLING TOWARDS THEM.
But at the last moment the points in front of the train failed, sending it harmlessly off onto another track.
33.ILLUSTRATE: TRAIN PASSES BY PASSENGERS SAFELY. ONE SAYS “PHEW!” ANOTHER “ IT’S A MIRACLE!”
Now how do you explain that?! The points failed at the precise moment the runaway train came along! Obviously, that wasn’t just a coincidence. Clearly, someone or something must have acted from “beyond” to divert the train. There was a miracle!
AISHA: You mean, God, or some other sort of supernatural being, lent a helping hand?
The power of coincidence
In fact, Aisha is happy to admit that a sort of “miracle” happened.
AISHA: I agree. There was a “miracle”. But only in the sense that there was a very happy coincidence. I don’t see that there’s much reason to suppose that some sort of supernatural being intervened.
TOM: Why not? You can’t seriously maintain this was just a coincidence, can you?
AISHA: Yes I can. It almost certainly was just a coincidence. Look, there are billions of people all over the Earth, each one of which has many thousands of experiences each day.
AISHA: Now with that many people around experiencing that many things, some are bound to experience some pretty fantastic and happy coincidences. Millions of people will be very, very lucky during their lifetime. Thousands will be stupendously lucky. Hundreds will be so lucky as to be almost beyond belief. One or two will have good luck of such mind-wrenchingly, gob-smackingly awesome proportions that most of us simply won’t be able to believe or comprehend just how lucky they have been.
Tom: Hmm. I guess that’s true.
AISHA: Yet now you point to one case of fantastic good luck and say “See, that shows there must be some sort of supernatural intervention involved!” Well you’re wrong. It doesn’t. I’m afraid you have simply underestimated just how much amazing good fortune we should expect to find in the world.
I think Aisha is right. In fact, what would be truly peculiar was if some people didn’t get stupendously lucky every now and then. That really would be evidence for some sort of supernatural intervention.
Tom flips forward a few pages and comes to the chapter on psychics.
TOM: Ah. Then what about psychics? There’s a great deal of evidence that they really do have some sort of weird, paranormal power. Even my Auntie is convinced.
AISHA: She is?
TOM: Yes. A few weeks ago, her psychic told her that she had an uncle called “Harold” who had a slipped disk and died of a heart attack. Yet my Auntie had never even mentioned Harold before. How could Auntie’s psychic have known these details if she didn’t have the gift of extra-sensory perception?
Tom is right that this sort of testimony about the powers of psychics is very common. Doesn’t it provide us with pretty good evidence that extra-sensory perception really exists?
Perhaps. But before we make up our minds, let’s look a little more closely at what really happened when Tom’s Auntie visited her psychic.
Auntie’s visit to the psychic
Auntie enters a dimly lit room. The psychic is sat at a table with a crystal ball.
34.ILLUSTRATE: AUNTIE CLUTCHING HANDBAG ENTERS THE PSYCHIC’S ROOM
PSYCHIC: Hello Dearie. Do sit down.
AUNTIE: Thank you.
PSYCHIC: Now I’m getting a name.
The room goes deathly quiet.
PSYCHIC: Henry…or Harold…?
AUNTIE: Uncle Harold?
PSYCHIC: Yes, that’s right! …Hmm…. I’m sensing some back trouble.
AUNTIE: Amazing! He slipped a disc just before he died.
The psychic waves towards the middle of her chest.
PSYCHIC: Am I right in thinking it was trouble here that killed him?
AUNTIE: How did you know? It was a heart attack!
PSYCHIC: Yes, yes. That’s right. He just told me it was his ticker that got him in the end.
Auntie thinks that her psychic knew she had an uncle called “Harold” who had a slipped disc and died of a heart attack.
Certainly, you can see why Auntie believes her psychic has genuine psychic powers. But let’s look a little more closely at what the psychic actually says.
How the psychic fooled Auntie
The psychic begins with a name: Henry. Then she leaves a pause. She gets no response from Auntie, so she tries another name: Harold. This time it’s a name Auntie recognises.
But notice that most people of Auntie’s age are likely to know people with one or other of these two names (try asking ask anyone over the age of 60 whether they know, or knew, anyone with either name – I bet they do). So the fact that Auntie recognises one of the two names is hardly surprising.
Also notice that the psychic doesn’t say that Auntie’s uncle was called “Harold”. Actually, it is Auntie who gives the psychic that piece of information. The psychic merely asks if either name means anything to Auntie.
So far, the psychic hasn’t told Auntie anything at all.
What happens next? The psychic says she senses “back trouble”. But notice how very vague this statement is. The psychic doesn’t say whom this back trouble is supposed to afflict. It could be Auntie’s back that she’s talking about. Or Harold’s. Or some other person known to Auntie. Or it could be a prediction of back trouble to come.
As almost everyone suffers from back pain at some point or another, it’s not particularly surprising that Uncle Harold had back trouble himself.
Also notice that the psychic doesn’t say what sort of back trouble she has in mind. Again, it is Auntie who tells the psychic about Harold’s slipped disc, not the other way round.
So the psychic still hasn’t given Auntie any information. In fact it is Auntie that’s providing all the information.
35.ILLUSTRATE; AUNTIE WITH HANDBAG LOOKING AT US AND SAYING “I AM?”
Then the psychic asks if Harold died from trouble somewhere in the chest area. Notice that she doesn’t claim that he did. She merely asks if he did. And remember that Auntie has already told the psychic that Harold is dead.
Notice that, if Harold didn’t die from trouble in the chest area, the psychic can still stress that she was merely asking, and hasn’t yet made a mistake.
But as almost everyone does die from trouble in the chest area in the end (even diseases of the head and limbs usually kill by travelling to organs in the torso), it was hardly surprising that poor old Harold went the same way.
Notice that when Auntie tells the psychic that Harold died of a heart attack, the psychic claims this was something she knew already. But what evidence is there that she did?
So far, none at all.
36.ILLUSTRATE: AUNTIE IS GETTING UP AND OPENING HER BAG. PSYCHIC IS SAYING “THAT WILL BE TWENTY POUNDS DEARIE. SEE YOU NEXT WEEK.”
I have based Auntie’s conversation with her psychic on some real conversations with psychics. This example illustrates just one or two of the very many techniques that psychics can use to convince people that they have genuinely psychic powers.
Though Auntie believes her psychic knew various details about her uncle Harold, it turns out that it was Auntie who supplied all the information. By making vague claims, asking questions and fishing for information the psychic cleverly managed the conversation to make it seem as if she was actually communicating with Auntie’s dead uncle.
Of course, I am not suggesting that all psychics deliberately trick their customers. Most psychics really believe they have psychic powers. They don’t just manage to convince other people of the paranormal gifts. They end up convincing themselves too.
Perhaps some psychics really do have genuinely psychic powers. But the fact that thousands of people are taken in by this sort of conversation on a regular basis doesn’t really provide much evidence that they do.
The strange case of Clever Hans
Psychics may not just be using trickery to create the illusion that they have paranormal powers. They may also be reading very subtle clues in their customers’ behaviour.
Let me tell you the true story of the horse Clever Hans.
Back in 1888, Hans’s owner decided that he would try to teach Hans maths. After a great deal of careful training, Hans was eventually able to tap out with his hoof the answer to mathematical questions. For example, ask Hans “What is twelve divided by four?” and Hans would tap his hoof three times.
37.ILLUSTRATE: TRAINER “WHAT IS TWELVE DIVIDED BY FOUR” HORSE TAPS HOOF: TAP, TAP TAP.
Hans could perform even without his trainer present. There was no deliberate trickery involved: Hans’s owner believed his horse really could do maths.
Clever Hans soon become world-famous, his abilities baffling both scientists and public audiences alike.
38.ILLUSTRATE: HANS AND TRAINER ON STAGE BEFORE AUDIENCE IN VICTORIAN MUSIC HALL.
So could Hans really do maths?
No. He couldn’t. Eventually, a young psychologist tested whether Hans could still perform if asked the questions by someone who didn’t know the answers. It turned out he couldn’t.
Somehow, Hans was reading tiny changes in the behaviour of his questioners, tapping his foot until some unconscious cue – such as a slight tensing of the questioner’s body – told him when to stop. Someone who didn’t know the answers was unable to supply Hans with these cues, which is why Hans then lost his mathematical powers.
What moral should we draw from this tale? Well, if a horse can learn to read such subtle, unconsciously-given signals, then no doubt a psychic can too. It may be that many psychics have learnt – perhaps without realizing that this is what they are doing – to read the same sorts of cues in their customers’ behaviour.
While impressive, there would be nothing spooky and supernatural about such an ability.
So it turns out that there all sorts of perfectly normal ways in which psychics might convince their customers that they have supernatural powers.
Tom puts Mysterious World down on the coffee table. It lands with a thump.
Tom is feeling rather frustrated. Despite coming up with what seem to him to be perfectly good reasons for believing in astrology, flying saucers and ESP, Aisha remains entirely unconvinced.
TOM: Look, you can’t prove that there are no flying saucers. You can’t prove that there’s nothing to astrology.
AISHA: Well, if you mean there’s some room for doubt, then, yes, I admit I can’t prove we aren’t visited by flying saucers. My point is that there just isn’t anything like the evidence needed to make it reasonable to believe in such things.
TOM: But shouldn’t you be open-minded?
AISHA: I am open-minded in the sense that I am perfectly willing to look at any new evidence that might come along. But the fact remains that there’s very little reason to suppose that we are visited by flying saucers, and so on. The evidence for saucers is extremely suspect. Mostly it takes the form of testimony: people tell about seeing saucers, meeting aliens, being abducted. But there’s plenty of reason to distrust this testimony, isn’t there? In fact, given our fascination with flying saucers, the ease with which we can be fooled, the power of suggestion, the way in which tales can become embellished, and the money to be made from peddling such tales, we really should expect a great deal of testimony anyway, whether or not there’s anything to it.
TOM: But you admit there might be something to it?
AISHA: Yes. It might be true that we are visited by flying saucers. It might be true that some people have psychic powers. But then it might be true that the moon is made of concrete,
39.THE LUNAR MODULE WITH TWO ASTRONAUTS IN FOREGROUND LOOKING DOWN: “GEE, IT SEEMS TO BE MADE…OF CONCRETE!” “SSHH! DON’T TELL ANYONE! THEY’LL NEVER BELIEVE US.”
that French people are really from Pluto
40.ILLUSTRATE: FRENCHMAN IN BERET. SPEAKING TO ANOTHER WHILE POINTING UP TO EIFFEL TOWER: “THEY THINK IT’S JUST A TOWER, BUT ACTUALLY IT’S FOR SENDING OUR SECRET MESSAGES BACK TO PLUTO!”
and that George Bush is Elvis Presley with plastic surgery.
41.GEORGE BUSH IN ELVIS POSE SINGING: “I AIN’T NOTHING BUT A HOUND DOG!” CIA DUDES (SUNGLASSES) IN BACKGROUND SAYING “GEE. WHAT’S GOT INTO GEORGE TODAY?”
It might be true. That’s not to deny that the evidence really doesn’t support any of these claims. So it’s downright irrational of you to believe them. All of them.
Is Aisha being fair?
In this chapter I have given you plenty of reasons for being careful about accepting evidence of weird, supernatural things happening. But it’s up to you to figure out whether there is, after all, enough good evidence to make it reasonable to believe such things happen. Perhaps there is.
What do you think?