THE other day I was doing a spot of painting with the help of a friend. She was telling me about a fancy dress party she’d gone to, and how some friends had dressed up all in green, as aliens.

“They got the idea from that comet — and this is a fact, that UFO that is following it is sending off signals.”

I responded with a swift swipe of my wet paintbrush and explained that the only thing that followed Comet Hale-Bopp was its tail — and then only when it was heading towards the sun.

Of a recent autumn evening, the family have stood out on the back porch and, using binoculars, done a bit of comet watching. Not much of a spectacle (we saw Halley’s Comet while 6,000 feet up a mountain in Nelson Lakes National Park — that was much more impressive), but it was a sobering thought, looking at the hazy spot, that other folk on this planet have seen it as a symbol of apocalypse and as a result, ended their own lives (see the lead article).

Heaven’s Gate didn’t exist in a vacuum — a scan of the Internet shows there are plenty of other groups and individuals feeding off and reinforcing each other’s beliefs on this matter. Whitley Strieber, of Communion fame, has had a lot to say (, but is now backpedalling somewhat in the aftermath of this debacle. Radio talkshow host Art Bell ( was another who was convinced the aliens were coming. Then there is the Farsight Institute ( who claim to have sent a team of astral travellers to the spaceship following Hale-Bopp.

These guys got in touch with the aliens, and have reported “seeing” “subspace and physical beings who were watching something big and vast in a contented and pleased way.” They were keen to get on with their mission, which will “provide radical information to help ease humans through the coming transition.” The target object will accomplish its mission — “this time it will not be stopped”.

And so it goes. Actually, for proof of alien beings observing Earth, all they had to do was pick up this copy of the Skeptic and read the latest paper by Botulin Saxx, who has finally written up his extended field study on abducted human subjects. The solution to another mystery is provided in this issue as well — the Head in a Basket case. When a proud Christchurch grandma developed photos of her grandson, she got more than she bargained for — a maniacial, disembodied head, visible in many of the shots. Local scientists were baffled. Naturally, there is a sound, logical explanation, but it’s worrying that people are so keen to ascribe a supernatural explanation before anything else. It comes down to that old skeptical adage, when you hear the sound of hoofbeats in the night…think first of horses, not of zebras. Skeptics look for the simplest explanations first.

When my painting friend had got all the paint off her face, we chatted on a bit about skepticism and what it meant. Oddly enough, she called me a partial skeptic — a sub-category I’m not familiar with. Maybe she thinks I’m serious when I touch wood.

One of the themes at this year’s conference, to be held in Christchurch, is “The Body Skeptic”. Just what is a skeptic, what should we be doing and how should we be going about it? There’ll be plenty of discussion, and a bit of fun as well, not to mention an auction of wonderful and useless items specially crafted for the modern skeptic.

Hope to see you there.

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