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Skeptical about skepticism

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The only UFO I ever saw was when I was standing under the stars with Maddy about 10 years ago. Maddy was mad for UFOs. To her, it just made sense that out in the depths of space would be intelligent life. No less a luminary than Carl Sagan – and before him Frank Drake and lately Stephen Hawking – have employed the same reasoning.

If you do the math (Dr. Sagan was famous for marveling at the “bill-yuns and bill-yuns” of galaxies), it is difficult to believe that there aren’t other forms of intelligence in the universe. In 1961, Dr. Drake, the father of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project, came up with an equation to show how probable intelligent life is.

Maddy was no cosmologist. She was an amateur UFO watcher like thousands of others around the globe. She loved sitting in a chair overlooking the North Atlantic and peering into the glorious night sky. What do I think of UFOs? I am a skeptic.

Journalists are professional doubters. Unveiling a government budget? You forgot to carry the 1. Want to win hearts and minds in a far-away country? You might want to get the language right. Skeptics can be excessively negative, all arched eyebrows and begging to differ. But sometimes skeptics stop everyone from going off the deep end.

When someone says Big Foot or space visitors, I think misperception or hoax. But the skeptic in me has to note that strange new species are discovered every year. It was only in 2006 that Japanese scientists got the first images of a giant squid (Architeuthis) in the wild.

As for crop circles, I’m sure most are done by midnight pranksters, though I once interviewed William Levengood, a retired professor of physics at the University of Michigan. He had carefully studied samples of grain and soil from crop circles and thought something else – perhaps an ionospheric anomaly – was going on. We’ve had only a century of experience with weather balloons and rocketry. Do we know everything there is to know about the ionosphere?

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