Don’t bother watching the skies

Could it be that visitations from flying saucers, which have been so frequent over the last 60 years, are now on the wane? Or is something more sinister going on? British UFO-watching clubs, it seems, may have to close because of a lack of sightings, and dwindling interest (The Guardian, 11 August).

Chris Parr, coordinator of the Cumbrian branch of the British UFO Hunters, has announced his group may be forced to wind up. There don’t seem to be any UFOs in Cumbria any more. “In Cumbria we have gone from 60 UFO sightings in 2003 to 40 in 2004 and none at all this year,” said Parr. “It means that the number of people keeping their eyes on the skies is greatly diminished. We are a dying breed in this part of the country. I put it down to the end of The X Files, a lack of military exercises in the area that would produce UFO sightings, and a lack of strange phenomena.” A lack of strange phenomena or a shortage of strange people? Guardian journalist Stephen Moss suggested we take our pick.

It has not been a happy couple of years for ufology. The closure last year of UFO magazine, following the sudden death of its editor Graham Birdsall, was a disaster for the close-knit UFO-spotting community. UFO groups in Indiana and New Jersey are also struggling.

“The whole UFO thing is a kind of meme,” says Susan Blackmore, a psychologist who studies paranormal activity. “It’s a craze, a bit like sudoku. UFOs were just a rather long-lived version. But crazes thrive on novelty, and eventually that dies out. It’s taken a long time, but it’s good that the UFO era is over. My prediction is it will go away for a long time, then come back.”

She says belief in UFOs and the existence of extraterrestrials, while mostly harmless, can in some cases be very damaging. “For most people, belief in them is neither here nor there, but some people can become very frightened and obsessed. It can also lead to an anti-science attitude and the belief that everything is being hushed up.”

But all is not lost. Researcher Russ Kellett has documented 80 reports from North Yorkshire in the past eight months. Kellett is one of those who believes there is an official cover-up of the number of UFO incidents. “You can’t have panic,” he says. “All we can hope is that someone will bring the truth out about this.”

Veteran ufologist Denis Plunkett, founder chairman of the British Flying Saucer Bureau, insists that ufology should not be written off. “Belief in UFOs and extraterrestrial life has gone up from 10% of the population to 80% over the 50-plus years the BFSB has existed.”

Nick Pope, author of Open Skies, Closed Minds, used to run the Ministry of Defence’s UFO project. “I became more open when I was there,” he says. “Now I won’t rule out an extraterrestrial explanation. During my three-year tour of duty from 1991 to 94, I had to investigate 200 to 300 sightings a year … with about 5% there was evidence of something more intriguing.”

It was 1978, he says, that was “the peak in UFO sightings (it helped that Close Encounters of the Third Kind had been released the previous year), when there were 750 reports. We have seen these UFO waves many times.”

David Clarke, a historian at Sheffield University and the Fortean Times’ UFO correspondent, says people haven’t stopped believing, but they do seem to be seeing far less than they did and it’s not clear why. “There’s been a massive drop in sightings since 1996, which is when The X Files was on TV. It may also be that since 9/11 people have had other things to worry about. There is not just less interest in UFOs, but in all supernatural phenomena. The MoD also lost interest in UFOs when the cold war ended: what they had really been looking for was Russian intruder aircraft. They only collate sightings now because MPs keep asking questions about UFOs.”

Clarke thinks the rise and fall of ufology is a rich subject for study and is currently trying to attract funds for just such an undertaking. “I see it as part of modern folklore,” he says. “UFOs are like modern-day angels, and descriptions of meeting aliens are just like descriptions of people meeting angels in the Middle Ages.”

Psychic fails to predict crystal ball blaze

A French amateur psychic’s powers were under sharp scrutiny after his crystal ball started an inferno that burnt out his flat (The Times, London, 12 August).

The fortune-telling device caused a fire that destroyed two other flats and rendered several more uninhabitable.

Herve Vandrot, 24, who studies botany at Edinburgh University, left the ball on a windowsill while he sauntered off to the city’s Royal Botanical Garden.

He returned surprised to find his top floor flat ablaze and suffered blistering to a hand after dashing in to rescue some coursework. He was dragged out of the building by some of the 35 firefighters who rushed to tackle the inferno.

Vandrot had only been in the flat for two weeks. After a night in hospital, he insisted the crystal ball was not to blame. “I don’t think it is capable of doing that. I think it was an electrical fault; the plug of my computer was melted.”

However, the firefighters said they could see it coming. “Strong sunlight through glass, particularly if the glass is filled with liquid like a goldfish bowl, concentrates the sun’s rays and acts like a magnifying glass,” a spokesman said. “The fire had been started by the ball concentrating sunshine on a pile of washing.”

Homeopathy flunks again

It should be no surprise to our regular readers, but The Lancet has published a study showing homeopathy to be no better than placebo (NZ Herald, 27 August).

Researchers from the University of Berne, Switzerland, studied the results of 110 trials involving homeopathy and placebo treatments for problems ranging from respiratory infections to post-surgical pain relief. They also looked at 110 trials that used conventional medicine against placebo treatments. While small trials that were considered low quality showed some benefit for homeopathy over placebo, there was no difference between the two in higher-quality, larger trials. But the benefits of conventional medicine were seen over all the studies.

The study concluded: “When the analysis was restricted to large trials of high quality there was no convincing evidence that homeopathy was superior to placebo, whereas for conventional medicine an important effect remained.”

This suggests that homeopathy works if you believe in it, according to Professor Matthias Egger. “Our study powerfully illustrates the interplay and cumulative effect of different sources of bias.”

Feet a shaky basis for health?

The Dominion Post (5 September) devoted half a page to reflexology which, according to practitioner Tessa Therkleson, is the key to unravelling problems of the body and mind.

It is, she says, based on the principle that areas on the feet and hands correspond to the glands, organs and other parts of the body. Reflexologists believe the technique can be used to treat diabetes, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease and many other conditions, including aches and indigestion.

Mrs Therkelson says she is aware many think reflexology is nonsense for the gullible. “I thought it was pretty incredible too, till I began doing it in 2000. I was shocked at how effective it was.”

Wellington podiatrist and skeptic Leo Brown was less enthusiastic, though declared himself tolerant of different approaches. While he acknowledged many patients reported benefits he said it was worrying that maps showing the location of different parts of the body on points of the foot varied between different schools of reflexology.

He also had reservations about a lack of a disciplinary body for reflexologists, who complete a one-year diploma, and the fact that registration is voluntary, not mandatory “I want to be generous but I can’t allow myself.”

He admitted it was difficult to provide scientific evidence for intangible benefits, but added, “It’s not unreasonable to assume that if someone is feeling a great sense of wellbeing, then they’ll improve.”

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