The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark - Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan (1997)

Chapter 4. Aliens

Truly, that which makes me believe there is no inhabitant on this sphere, is that it seems to me that no sensible being would be willing to live here.’

‘Well, then!’ said Micromegas, ‘perhaps the beings that inhabit it do not possess good sense.’

One alien to another,

on approaching the Earth,

in Voltaire’s Micromegas:

A Philosophical History (1752)

It’s still dark out. You’re lying in bed, fully awake. You discover you’re utterly paralysed. You sense someone in the room. You try to cry out. You cannot. Several small grey beings, less than four feet tall, are standing at the foot of the bed. Their heads are pear-shaped, bald, and large for their bodies. Their eyes are enormous, their faces expressionless and identical. They wear tunics and boots. You hope this is only a dream. But as nearly as you can tell it’s really happening. They lift you up and, eerily, they and you slip through the wall of your bedroom. You float out into the air. You rise high toward a metallic saucer-shaped spacecraft. Once inside, you are escorted into a medical examining room. A larger but similar being, evidently some kind of physician, takes over. What follows is even more terrifying. Your body is probed with instruments and machines, especially your sexual parts. If you’re a man, they may take sperm samples; if you’re a woman, they may remove ova or foetuses, or implant semen. They may force you to have sex. Afterwards you may be ushered into a different room where hybrid babies or foetuses, partly human and partly like these creatures, stare back at you. You may be given an admonition about human misbehaviour, especially in despoiling the environment or in allowing the AIDS pandemic; tableaux of future devastation are offered. Finally, these cheerless grey emissaries escort you out of the spacecraft and ooze you back through the walls into your bed. By the time you’re able to move and talk... they’re gone.

You may not remember the incident right away. Instead you might simply find some period of time unaccountably missing, and puzzle over it. Because all this seems so weird, you’re a little concerned about your sanity. Naturally you’re reluctant to talk about it. At the same time the experience is so disturbing that it’s hard to keep it bottled up. It all pours out when you hear of similar accounts, or when you’re under hypnosis with a sympathetic therapist, or even when you see a picture of an ‘alien’ in one of the many popular magazines, books, and TV ‘specials’ on UFOs. Some people say they can recall such experiences from early childhood. Their own children, they think, are now being abducted by aliens. It runs in families. It’s a eugenics programme, they say, to improve the human breeding stock. Maybe aliens have always done this. Maybe, some say, that’s where humans came from in the first place.

As revealed by repeated polls over the years, most Americans believe that we’re being visited by extraterrestrial beings in UFOs. In a 1992 Roper opinion poll of nearly 6,000 American adults -especially commissioned by those who accept the alien abduction story at face value - 18 per cent reported sometimes waking up paralysed, aware of one or more strange beings in the room. About 13 per cent reported odd episodes of missing time, and 10 per cent claimed to have flown through the air without mechanical assistance. From nothing more than these results, the poll’s sponsors conclude that two per cent of all Americans have been abducted, many repeatedly, by beings from other worlds. The question of whether respondents had been abducted by aliens was never actually put to them.

If we believed the conclusion drawn by those who bankrolled and interpreted the results of this poll, and if aliens are not partial to Americans, then the number for the whole planet would be more than a hundred million people. This means an abduction every few seconds over the past few decades. It’s surprising more of the neighbours haven’t noticed.

What’s going on here? When you talk with self-described abductees, most seem very sincere, although caught in the grip of powerful emotions. Some psychiatrists who’ve examined them say they find no more evidence of psychopathology in them than in the rest of us. Why should anyone claim to have been abducted by alien creatures if it never happened? Could all these people be mistaken, or lying, or hallucinating the same (or a similar) story? Or is it arrogant and contemptuous even to question the good sense of so many?

On the other hand, could there really be a massive alien invasion; repugnant medical procedures performed on millions of innocent men, women and children; humans apparently used as breeding stock over many decades – and all this not generally known and dealt with by responsible media, physicians, scientists and the governments sworn to protect the lives and well-being of their citizens? Or, as many have suggested, is there a massive government conspiracy to keep the citizens from the truth?

Why should beings so advanced in physics and engineering –crossing vast interstellar distances, walking like ghosts through walls – be so backward when it comes to biology? Why, if the aliens are trying to do their business in secret, wouldn’t they perfectly expunge all memories of the abductions? Too hard for them to do? Why are the examining instruments macroscopic and so reminiscent of what can be found at the neighbourhood medical clinic? Why go to all the trouble of repeated sexual encounters between aliens and humans? Why not steal a few egg and sperm cells, read the full genetic code, and then manufacture as many copies as you like with whatever genetic variations happen to suit your fancy? Even we humans, who as yet cannot quickly cross interstellar space or slither through walls, are able to clone cells.

How could humans be the result of an alien breeding programme if we share 99.6 per cent of our active genes with the chimpanzees? We’re more closely related to chimps than rats are to mice. The preoccupation with reproduction in these accounts raises a warning flag, especially considering the uneasy balance between sexual impulse and societal repression that has always characterized the human condition, and the fact that we live in a time fraught with numerous ghastly accounts, both true and false, of childhood sexual abuse.

Contrary to many media reports,* the Roper pollsters and those who wrote the ‘official’ report never asked whether their subjects had been abducted by aliens. They deduced it: those who’ve ever awakened with strange presences around them, who’ve ever unaccountably seemed to fly through the air, and so on, have therefore been abducted. The pollsters didn’t even check to see if sensing presences, flying etc. were part of the same or separate incidents. Their conclusion – that millions of Americans have been so abducted – is spurious, based on careless experimental design.

[* For example, the 4 September 1994 Publisher’s Weekly: ‘According to a Gallup [sic] poll, more than three million Americans believe they have been abducted by aliens.’]

Still, at least hundreds of people, perhaps thousands, claiming they have been abducted, have sought out sympathetic therapists or joined abductee support groups. Others may have similar complaints but, fearing ridicule or the stigma of mental illness, have refrained from speaking up or getting help.

Some abductees are also said to be reluctant to talk for fear of hostility and rejection by hardline sceptics (although many willingly appear on radio and TV talk shows). Their diffidence supposedly extends even to audiences that already believe in alien abductions. But maybe there’s another reason: might the subjects themselves be unsure – at least at first, at least before many retellings of their story – whether it was an external event they are remembering or a state of mind?

‘One unerring mark of the love of truth,’ wrote John Locke in 1690, ‘is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant.’ On the matter of UFOs, how strong are the proofs?

The phrase ‘flying saucer’ was coined when I was entering high school. The newspapers were full of stories about ships from beyond in the skies of Earth. It seemed pretty believable to me. There were lots of other stars, at least some of which probably had planetary systems like ours. Many stars were as old or older than the Sun, so there was plenty of time for intelligent life to evolve. Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had just flown a two-stage rocket high above the Earth. Clearly we were on our way to the Moon and the planets. Why shouldn’t other, older, wiser beings be able to travel from their star to ours? Why not?

This was only a few years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe the UFO occupants were worried about us, and sought to help us. Or maybe they wanted to make sure that we and our nuclear weapons didn’t come and bother them. Many people seemed to see flying saucers - sober pillars of the community, police officers, commercial airplane pilots, military personnel. And apart from some harumphs and giggles, I couldn’t find any counterarguments. 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 the southwest.

The prevailing climate was summarized in Life magazine a few years later, in these words: ‘These objects cannot be explained by present science as natural phenomena - but solely as artificial devices, created and operated by a high intelligence.’ Nothing ‘known or projected on Earth could account for the performance of these devices.’

And yet not a single adult I knew was preoccupied with UFOs. I couldn’t figure out why not. Instead they were worried about Communist China, nuclear weapons, McCarthyism and the rent. I wondered if they had their priorities straight.

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 colour our interpretation of the evidence, and how often belief systems widely held and supported by the political, religious and academic hierarchies turn out to be not just slightly in error, but grotesquely wrong.

I came upon a book called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds written by Charles Mackay in 1841 and still in print. In it could be found the histories of boom-and-bust economic crazes, including the Mississippi and South Sea ‘Bubbles’ and the extravagant run on Dutch tulips, scams that bamboozled the wealthy and titled of many nations; a legion of alchemists, including the poignant tale of Mr Kelly and Dr Dee (and Dee’s 8-year-old son Arthur, impressed by his desperate father into communicating with the spirit world by peering into a crystal); dolorous accounts of unfulfilled prophecy, divination and fortune-telling; the persecution of witches; haunted houses; ‘popular admiration of great thieves’; and much else. Entertainingly portrayed was the Count of St Germain, who dined out on the cheerful pretension that he was centuries old if not actually immortal. (When, at dinner, incredulity was expressed at his recounting of his conversations with Richard the Lion-Heart, he turned to his man-servant for confirmation. ‘You forget, sir,’ was the reply, ‘I have been only five hundred years in your service.’ ‘Ah, true,’ said St Germain, ‘it was a little before your time.’)

A riveting chapter on the Crusades began

Every age has its peculiar folly; some scheme, project, or phantasy into which it plunges, spurred on either by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the mere force of imitation. Failing in these, it has some madness, to which it is goaded by political or religious causes, or both combined.

The edition I first read was adorned by a quote from the financier and adviser of Presidents, Bernard M. Baruch, attesting that reading Mackay had saved him millions.

There had been a long history of spurious claims that magnetism could cure disease. Paracelsus, for example, used a magnet to suck diseases out of the human body and dispose of them into the Earth. But the key figure was Franz Mesmer. I had vaguely understood the word ‘mesmerize’ to mean something like hypnotize. But my first real knowledge of Mesmer came from Mackay. The Viennese physician had thought that the positions of the planets influenced human health, and was caught up in the wonders of electricity and magnetism. He catered to the declining French nobility on the eve of the Revolution. They crowded into a darkened room. Dressed in a gold-flowered silk robe and waving an ivory wand, Mesmer seated his marks around a vat of dilute sulphuric acid. The Magnetizer and his young male assistants peered deeply into the eyes of their patients, and rubbed their bodies. They grasped iron bars protruding into the solution or held each other’s hands. In contagious frenzy, aristocrats -especially young women - were cured left and right.

Mesmer became a sensation. He called it ‘animal magnetism’. For the more conventional medical practitioner, though, this was bad for business, so French physicians pressured King Louis XVI to crack down. Mesmer, they said, was a menace to public health. A commission was appointed by the French Academy of Sciences that included the pioneering chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and the American diplomat and expert on electricity, Benjamin Franklin. They performed the obvious control experiment: when the. magnetizing effects were performed without the patient’s knowledge, no cures were effected. The cures, if any, the commission concluded, were all in the mind of the beholder. Mesmer and his followers were undeterred. One of them later urged the following attitude of mind for best results:

Forget for a while all of your knowledge of physics... Remove from your mind all objections that may occur... Never reason for six weeks ... Be very credulous; be very persevering; reject all past experience, and do not listen to reason.

Oh, yes, a final piece of advice: ‘Never magnetize before inquisitive persons.’ Another eye-opener was Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Here was Wilhelm Reich uncovering the key to the structure of galaxies in the energy of the human orgasm; Andrew Crosse creating microscopic insects electrically from salts; Hans Horbiger under Nazi aegis announcing that the Milky Way was made not of stars, but of snowballs; Charles Piazzi Smyth discovering in the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Gizeh a world chronology from the Creation to the Second Coming; L. Ron Hubbard writing a manuscript able to drive its readers insane (was it ever proofed? I wondered); the Bridey Murphy case, which led millions into concluding that at last there was serious evidence of reincarnation; Joseph Rhine’s ‘demonstrations’ of ESP; appendicitis cured by cold water enemas, bacterial diseases by brass cylinders, and gonorrhoea by green light - and amid all these accounts of self-deception and charlatanry, to my surprise a chapter on UFOs.

Of course, merely by writing books cataloguing spurious beliefs, Mackay and Gardner came across, at least a little, as grumpy and superior. Was there nothing they accepted? Still, it was stunning how many passionately argued and defended claims to knowledge had amounted to nothing. It slowly dawned on me that, human fallibility being what it is, there might be other explanations for flying saucers.

I had been interested in the possibility of extraterrestrial life from childhood, from long before I ever heard of flying saucers. I’ve remained fascinated long after my early enthusiasm for UFOs waned - as I understood more about that remorseless taskmaster called the scientific method: everything hinges on the matter of evidence. On so important a question, 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 or 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. UFOs were described variously as rapidly moving or hovering; disc-shaped, cigar-shaped, or ball-shaped; moving silently or noisily; with a fiery exhaust, or with no exhaust at all; accompanied by flashing lights, or uniformly glowing with a silvery cast, or self-luminous. The diversity of the observations hinted that they had no common origin, and that the use of such terms as UFOs or ‘flying saucers’ served only to confuse the issue by grouping generically a set of unrelated phenomena.

There was something odd about the very invention of the phrase ‘flying saucer’. As I write this chapter, I have before me a transcript of a 7 April 1950 interview between Edward R. Murrow, the celebrated CBS newsman, and Kenneth Arnold, a civilian pilot who saw something peculiar near Mount Rainier in the state of Washington on 24 June 1947 and who in a way coined the phrase. Arnold claims that the newspapers

did not quote me properly... When I told the press they misquoted me, and in the excitement of it all, one newspaper and another one got it so ensnarled up that nobody knew just exactly what they were talking about... These objects more or less fluttered like they were, oh, I’d say, boats on very rough water... And when I described how they flew, I said that they flew like they take a saucer and throw it across the water. Most of the newspapers misunderstood and misquoted that, too. They said that I said that they were saucer-like; I said that they flew in a saucer-like fashion.

Arnold thought he saw a train of nine objects, one of which produced a ‘terrific blue flash’. He concluded they were a new kind of winged aircraft. Murrow summed up: ‘That was an historic misquote. While Mr Arnold’s original explanation has been forgotten, the term “flying saucer” has become a household word.’ Kenneth Arnold’s flying saucers looked and behaved quite differently from what in only a few years would be rigidly particularized in the public understanding of the term: something like a very large and highly manoeuverable frisbee.

Most people honestly reported what they saw, but what they saw were 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 looming, lenticular clouds, ball lightning, sun-dogs, meteors including green fireballs, and satellites, nosecones, and rocket boosters spectacularly re-entering the atmosphere.* Just conceivably, a few might be small comets dissipating in the upper air. At least some radar reports were due to ‘anomalous propagation’ – radio waves travelling curved paths due to atmospheric temperature inversions. Traditionally, they were also called radar ‘angels’ – something that seems to be there but isn’t. You could have simultaneous visual and radar sightings without there being any ‘there’ there.

[* 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.]

When we notice something strange in the sky, some of us become excitable and uncritical, bad witnesses. 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.

The original crashed saucer account (with the little alien men and their perfect teeth) turned out to be a straight hoax. Frank Scully, columnist for Variety, passed on a story told by an oilman friend; it played a central dramatic role in Scully’s best-selling 1950 book, Behind the Flying Saucers. Sixteen dead aliens from Venus, each three feet high, had been found in one of three crashed saucers. Booklets with alien pictograms had been recovered. The military was covering up. The implications were profound.

The hoaxers were Silas Newton, who said he used radio waves to prospect for gold and oil, and a mysterious ‘Dr Gee’ who turned out to be a Mr GeBauer. Newton produced a gear from the UFO machinery and flashed close-up saucer photos. But he did not allow close inspection. When a prepared sceptic, through sleight of hand, switched gears and sent the alien artefact away for analysis, it turned out to be made of kitchen-pot aluminium.

The crashed saucer scam was a small interlude in a quarter-century of frauds by Newton and GeBauer, chiefly selling worthless oil leases and prospecting machines. In 1952 they were arrested by the FBI, and the following year found guilty of conducting a confidence game. Their exploits, chronicled by the historian Curtis Peebles, ought to have made UFO enthusiasts cautious forever about crashed saucer stories from the American Southwest around 1950. No such luck.

On 4 October 1957, Sputnik 7, the first Earth-orbiting artificial satellite, was launched. Of 1,178 recorded UFO sightings in America that year, 701 or 60 per cent - rather than the 25 per cent you’d expect - occurred between October and December. The clear implication is that Sputnik and its attendant publicity somehow generated UFO reports. Perhaps people were looking at the night sky more and saw more natural phenomena they didn’t understand. Or could it be they looked up more and saw more of the alien spacecraft that are there all the time?

The idea of flying saucers had dubious antecedents, tracing back to a conscious hoax entitled / Remember Lemuria!, written by Richard Shaver, and published in the March 1945 number of the pulp fiction periodical Amazing Stories. It was exactly the sort of stuff I devoured as a child. Lost continents were settled by space aliens 150,000 years ago, I was informed, leading to the creation of a race of demonic underground beings responsible for human tribulations and the existence of evil. The editor of the magazine, Ray Palmer - who was, like the subterranean beings he warned about, roughly four feet high -promoted the notion, well before Arnold’s sighting, that the Earth is being visited by disc-shaped alien spacecraft and that the government is covering up its knowledge and complicity. Merely from the newsstand covers of such magazines, millions of Americans were exposed to the idea of flying saucers well before the term was coined.

All in all, the alleged evidence seemed thin, most often devolving into gullibility, hoax, hallucination, misunderstanding of the natural world, hopes and fears disguised as evidence, and a craving for attention, fame and fortune. Too bad, I remember thinking.

Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in sending spacecraft to other planets to look for life, and in listening for possible radio signals from alien civilizations, if any, on planets of distant stars. We’ve had a few tantalizing moments. But if the suspected signal isn’t available for every grumpy sceptic to pick over, we cannot call it evidence of extraterrestrial life - no matter how appealing we find the notion. We’ll just have to wait until, if such a time ever comes, better data are available. We’ve not yet found compelling evidence for life beyond the Earth. We’re only at the very beginning of the search, though. New and better information might emerge, for all we know, tomorrow.

I don’t think anyone could be more interested than I am in whether we’re being visited. It would save me so much time and effort to be able to study extraterrestrial life directly and nearby, rather than at best indirectly and at great distance. Even if the aliens are short, dour and sexually obsessed - if they’re here, I want to know about them.

How modest our expectations are about ‘aliens’, and how shoddy the standards of evidence that many of us are willing to accept, can be found in the saga of the crop circles. Originating in Britain and spreading throughout the world was something surpassing strange.

Farmers or passers-by would discover circles (and, in later years, much more complex pictograms) impressed upon fields of wheat, oats, barley, and rapeseed. Beginning with simple circles in the middle 1970s, the phenomenon progressed year by year, until by the late 1980s and early 1990s the countryside, especially in southern England, was 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 axes, 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 towards or away from the pictograms could be found. And besides, what possible motive could there be for a hoax?

Many less conventional conjectures were offered. 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? Japanese investigators tried to simulate, in the laboratory and on a small scale, the plasma physics they thought was working its way on far-off Wiltshire.

But especially as the crop figures became more complex, meteorological or electrical explanations became more strained. Plainly it was due to 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 channellers made contact with the entities responsible. ‘Orgone energy’ was detected within the circles.

Questions were asked in 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. Satanists were implicated. The Defence Ministry was covering the matter up. A few inept and inelegant circles were judged 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 tabloid, the Daily Express, into reporting the story. The Express was, in this case at least, 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 picto-grams - especially the more complex of them - began to be quoted 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 is 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 they had been making crop figures for fifteen years. They dreamed it up over stout one evening in their regular pub, The Percy Hobbes. 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.

Suddenly crop circles caught on. UFOlogists fell for it hook, line and sinker. Bower and Chorley were delighted - especially when scientists and others began to announce their considered judgement that no merely human intelligence could be responsible.

Carefully they planned each nocturnal excursion, sometimes following meticulous diagrams they had prepared in watercolours. 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 hoaxsters had appeared. Bower and Chorley carved out a responsive message in wheat: ‘WEARENO-TALONE’. Even this some took to be a genuine extraterrestrial message (although it would have been better had it read ‘YOUARENOTALONE’). Doug and Dave began signing their artworks 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 accompanying Dave and Doug one night, and then joining the credulous in admiring their handiwork next day - was she convinced that his absences were, in this sense, innocent.

Eventually Bower and Chorley tired of the increasingly elaborate prank. While in excellent physical condition, they were both in their sixties now and a little old for nocturnal commando operations in the fields 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 to 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, but mostly in a more desultory and less inspired manner. 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 draw a blank when the names of Bower and Chorley or the very idea that the whole business may be a hoax are raised. An informative expose by the journalist Jim Schnabel (Round in Circles, 1994), from which much of my account is taken, is in print. Schnabel joined the cerealogists early and in the end made a few successful pictograms himself. (He prefers a garden roller to a wooden plank, and 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. Demons sell; hoaxers are boring and in bad taste.

The tenets of scepticism do not require an advanced degree to master, as most successful used car buyers demonstrate. The whole idea of a democratic application of scepticism 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 scepticism we use in buying a used car or in judging the quality of analgesics or beer from their television commercials.

But the tools of scepticism 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 scepticism 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 sceptic might suggest, have a vested interest in discouraging scepticism.