Beliefs, Delusions and Fraud

With the continued success of the scientific method in explaining the world around us, there is a tendency for people with questionable beliefs to claim scientific authenticity for their statements. Instances are readily found in the environmental realm, when the issue is managing water, forests or fisheries, or when discussing the impact of chemicals within the environment on the health of people. Global warming is another such topic where the ignorant feel called upon to comment, displaying a scientific demeanor. And the same occurs, occasionally, when the origin of Earth and Life's history is at issue.

So, how does one tell science from "junk science"?

Basically, one can separate the two by examining statements to see whether they express personal beliefs and desires (which are irrelevant in the search for scientific truth). Also, one can look for non-scientific motivations in advancing a certain point of view, such as personal or institutional gain (money, respect, fame). [See also our section on trustworthy references.]

We present a number of popular items which we suspect belong in the rubbish category. But we will let you decide for yourself. We offer for your consideration:
Mars: A few years ago, photos taken by Mars-orbiting cameras have revealed features on our planetary neighbor that are smaller than a house. Many of the pictures were displayed in the newspapers - they are, after all, spectacular. A few hills were taken to be pyramids and one even resembled a human face (of the simple smiley kind, to be sure). To get an idea about how good photos are in "proving" things, view a transition from the early image to a recent one (courtesy of Malin Space Science Systems).

This is not the first time people have seen things on Mars that aren't there. Early philosopers and writers surmised that Mars (and even the Moon!) surely must be inhabited, once it was realized that these bodies are worlds much like ours, with mountains, plains and valleys. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) described "canali" on the surface of Mars (meaning grooves or rifts or channels). He did not claim that they look artificial, but the English translation came out as "canals", implying intelligent design. (Hmmm. Maybe the place is pretty dry and the people up there built an irrigation system?) The American astronomer Percival Lowell (1855-1916), son of a wealthy Bostonian family, built himself a top-notch observatory in Arizona and spent 15 years observing Mars with a powerful telescope. He saw the canals, plus oases and seasonal changes in greenery, and produced books describing Life on Mars. His ideas proved to be entirely unfounded. (Yes, even a professor at MIT can be wrong.) But people wanted to believe. In 1938, this belief generated panic when Orson Welles put on a wicked radio dramatization of the "War of the Worlds", a novel by H.G. Wells published in 1898.

UFOs: Let's just admit it, some of you are taking this course just to get the straight dope on UFOs. After all, we see them on TV all the time, almost as often as Chairman Greenspan or Spielberg's dinosaurs. So there must be something going on here. Actually, "unidentified flying objects" have been with us for some time. The prophet Ezekiel described "wheels within wheels" in the sky. People have reported on flying horsemen, dragons, angels, glowing fast-moving objects, even celestial battles between entire armies for centuries. Before Tycho Brahe (in 1577) realized the great distance of comets from Earth, they were thought to be atmospheric phenomena, that is, things flying through the air. Likewise, meteors were long considered of meteoric (that is, atmospheric) origin (hence the name). Only in the nineteenth century was it realized that they are stones falling from the sky. Brightly glowing meteors of some considerable size, traveling at high speed and associated with thunderous noise, very understandably can cause widespread alarm.

So, are the UFO reports about natural events such as ball lightning, auroras and large glowing meteorites? Some yes, probably. Others may pertain to reflections from car interiors (mistaken for distant bright objects showing jerky movements), weather- and other research balloons (like the ones launched from Roswell, N.M.), and even good old Venus, which can be surprisingly bright in the sky and may seem to be moving when in fact thin clouds are moving in front of it. Many descriptions are too vague to be useful, especially when made on the way home after a few drinks at a friend's house. There is, of course, the unexplained residual - the one in a hundred reports that keeps hope alive that at least some of the sightings are of extraterrestrial machinery or beings.

For a while (a very short while), professional astronomers entertained the "little green men" (or LGM) hypothesis, during initial study of the incredibly precise and rapid pulsed signal from a new type of radio source (the pulsars). The LGM hypothesis was soon abandoned. There is, however, an ongoing search for signals from space that might be attributed to intelligent beings: SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. So far, no appropriate signals have been identified. Perhaps all those UFO characters do not wish to be detected, as yet. Perhaps, like good scientists, they wish to study us without interfering in our affairs. On the other hand, perhaps there isn't actually anybody out there.

Crop circles. After the first intricate and artistic crop circle patterns were seen in the middle of cereal fields, in 1978, many more suddenly sprang up across England and around the world. Had the extra-terrestrials finally decided to give us humans a sign that they are willing to communicate? Strange chemical, structural and magnetic disturbances have been reported from within the designs (on the web, where else). An attempt by the ET’s to get our attention? Hmmm. There is a fellow by the name of Doug Bower, who claims that he and his drinking buddy Dave are responsible for at least some of the crop circles. He and others have shown exactly how they made the circles, in some cases filming themselves “in the act” and releasing the evidence after the circles were accepted by self-proclaimed “experts”. He was interested (he says) in how the public would respond. Well, a lot of people don't like these explanations. Perhaps the skeptics are just trying to get credit for the things the extra-terrestrials did. Spoil sports? Doubly fake "false hoaxers"? See The Skeptic's Dictionary. What do YOU think is the most likely explanation here?

Velikovsky and von Daniken. It may not be fair to Velikovsky to name him in the same breath with von Daniken, but we are running out of space for fun and games here. Velikovsky, although innocent of any scientific understanding of celestial mechanics, did some interesting research on human history and pointed out strange events that look like catastrophe struck and left an indelible mark. This is not in itself a new idea: Plato, a well-respected author if anything, had the flourishing city-state Atlantis wiped out over night, through what looks like volcanic catastrophe. Also, Genesis, and the Babylonian Gilgamesh story written 1500 years earlier, refer to an all-destroying flood. The problem is, Velikovsky did not think that volcanism and flooding are anywhere close to sufficiently violent to provide for proper catastrophe. Well, one might suggest, how about an impact of an asteroid or a comet? OK, but this is not what Velikovsky came up with. He had Venus ejected from Jupiter - based on the Greek legend telling how Aphrodite came out of Zeus' head. Then he had her come close to Earth a number of times shaking things up around here before settling down in her present orbit. Major celestial disorder, just to explain a few strange events in human history. And he actually claimed he was doing science and spoke of a "theory." People who push beliefs and think they are doing science are called "cranks", perhaps in allusion to someone trying to start an engine the old-fashioned way, but without spark plugs. Our diagnosis: crank science. See The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

Von Daniken grabs interesting tourist attractions here and there and spins a fabulous story of visitors from outer space, visitors who left their marks in pyramids, Mayan hieroglyphics and in super-sized drawings on the desert floor. The best one can say about these invented fables is that he usually gets the geography right (that is, we learn where the pyramids are). The rest is undeclared fiction - some would say it is dishonest. Those who push ideas they know are wrong are called “frauds”. In any case, apparently the books sell well. Our diagnosis: null science at best. See The Skeptic’s Dictionary.