A Fitting Reward for a Skeptical Columnist

My wife and I flew to Seattle the weekend before last to attend the national convention of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

The committee's targets are UFOs and abduction by aliens, life after death, recovered memories of sexual abuse and other phenomena for which they say there is no proof.

I was there because CSICOP was giving me an award for Responsibility in Journalism and because it paid my way. I couldn't remember writing anything specifically about the phenomena they question, but it is true, I am a skeptic, and no doubt I have often suggested my disbelief.

The only other reason I could conjure up for my award was my writing that the reason for our recent series of disasters--fire, flood, earthquake and crime--was that God has the gout. This conclusion was not mentioned in the award, however.

Many prominent scientists and academics spoke at various sessions through the three days, the highlight being a talk by Carl Sagan, prominent astronomer, author and host of the TV series "Cosmos."

Sagan pointed out that the quality of science teaching in our schools is very poor. CSICOP says one in four Americans believes in ghosts and almost half believe in UFOs and extrasensory perception.

Sagan said 25% to 50% of Americans don't know the earth revolves around the sun. He said that by one measure, 94% of the population is scientifically illiterate.

Consequently, he said, American culture has no scientific heroes, science teaching is mediocre, and while most newspapers run a daily astrology column, only a handful have a weekly science page. "When is the last time you heard an intelligent comment on science by a President of the United States?" he asked.

While he believes in the existence of life elsewhere in the universe--he cited recent discoveries that suggest other stars have planets--he said there is a big difference between that and visiting spaceships.

Although, "It would be great," he said, "I'd love it, even if the aliens were indeed short, sullen, grumpy and sexually preoccupied."

Sagan said he became interested in astronomy as a small boy when he learned there were billions of stars, many larger than our sun. He said he went to a public library and asked the librarian for a book on stars. She brought him a book on movie stars.

Given equal time, Harvard psychiatrist John Mack said he believes that about 90% of his patients have been abducted and molested by aliens. I don't know about the rest of the CSICOPs, but I didn't buy it.

Donna Bassett, a North Carolina free-lance journalist, embarrassed Mack by saying, "I've never seen a UFO nor have I been abducted." She had been a subject in one of his books, posing as an abductee, and Mack had accepted her story. She said Mack was simply gullible.

Elizabeth Loftus, a University of Washington psychologist, told the skeptics that it is possible to create entirely false memories of things that never happened. She is the author of "The Myth of Repressed Memory," alleging therapists are planting false memories in sexual molestation cases. Loftus received the committee's In Praise of Reason award.

It seemed to me it would have been a good time for an alien spaceship to land in Seattle and confound the skeptics. The closest thing to a spaceship was a new Boeing 777 we saw from our car as the plane landed at Boeing field. It was big, streamlined and glossy white.

"That's the new Boeing 777," cried my wife's niece, Marilyn O'Neill, who was driving. We'd had lunch with her and her son Dan, both residents of Seattle, at a restaurant overlooking downtown and industrial Seattle. "You're watching history," she said.

The 777 was still in a testing stage, she said, so this was one of its first flights. It was a remarkable airplane, undoubtedly, but not likely to be landing on other planets.

Speakers at the conference said paranormal claimants aren't necessarily lying. But even the smartest person can be fooled by the mind into seeing things that aren't there.

An earlier incident had nothing to do with the paranormal--yet it showed a strange lapse in my wife's mind. She is usually very reliable, but when we got to my son's house, on the way to the airport for our flight to Seattle, we discovered that she had forgotten to pack my neckties. I borrowed two from my son. Later she discovered that she had forgotten to pack my dress pants.

It didn't matter, after all, because most of the skeptics were dressed like carwash employees.

Although no spaceships landed during the conference, the streets of downtown Seattle were thronged by 10,000 people on a March for Jesus, part of a worldwide event. None of the marchers were invited to address the convention.

But Sharon Filip, a Seattle hypnotherapist, spoke, describing her encounter with a UFO. According to the Seattle Times, she asked the CSICOP crowd how many believed in God. "Not one hand was raised."

If they're right, my theory about God having the gout must be wrong.

* Jack Smith's column is published Mondays.

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