At the University of Worcester, a full conference room is studying a large screen displaying images which will subsequently be revealed as Venus, floating binbags, fireballs, lighthouse beams, Chinese lanterns and blurred birds. The link, as the speaker, Ian Ridpath, explains, PowerPoint by point, is that all had been thought to be Unidentified Flying Objects.
Ridpath, a science writer and UFO sceptic, was opening a conference organised by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP), an agnostic body which has reported a sharp drop in sightings of UFOs, together with a significant fall in the popularity of groups dedicated to studying the proposition that we are regularly being visited by inquisitive aliens. Could it be, we are asked to suppose, that the truth isn’t actually, after all, Out There?
Ridpath gave an assured performance, received with applause. He stressed that there had been no classic UFO sightings since the advent of the new generation of technology, and, especially, the mobile-phone camera, whose ubiquity, it might have been thought, should almost have guaranteed convincing photographic evidence of the inquisitive green men and their conveyances. This leads to a further, hopeful, thought: could it be that the advance of technology and information-sharing is finally, after several thousand years, making us less gullible and credulous?
Support for such inspiring progress is provided by another reason for the UFO crisis, advanced by the chairman of ASSAP, Dave Wood: the rise of the modern Skeptical movement, led by thinkers in various disciplines such as Richard Dawkins, evolutionist and atheist, James Randi, magician and paranormal debunker, and the late, contrarily inclined polemicist Christopher Hitchens. Their robust challenging has been taken up by the twin propellers of online social networks and Skeptic meetings. These take different forms around the world, including Skeptics in the Pub (lectures, discussions, beer), started by an Australian academic in London in 1999, and now taking place in pubs in around 40 towns and cities in Britain and more in the United States under the slogan, "Drinking Skeptically".
The modern Skeptic is, with some truth, classified as mostly male and obsessed with technology, part of the Geek movement widely advertised as taking over the world from cyberspace (Gates, Zuckerberg et al). An earlier generation was up for stimulation from almost any source, and quite likely to cite the theories of Erich von Däniken (Was God an astronaut?) or Carlos Casteneda allegedly channelling the life coaching of an old Yaqui Indian with the aid of root-based hallucinogens. But today the emphasis is on wryness and rigour rather than wow and chill.
Further evidence that we might be faced by a major movement comes in Britain’s 2011 national census, which shows a 12% drop in the numbers professing Christianity since 2001, and a 10% increase in those declaring they had no religion. You might have noticed, too, that, despite much discussion, the world did not end last December. Thus, then, the Tottering of Belief, the Fading of Credulity and the Twilight of the Gullible, defeated by the evolving power of our modern inventions to confer universal knowledge. Perhaps Chesterton’s much-repeated saw, that when people stop believing in God they will believe in anything, is wrong, after all; perhaps, when people stop believing in God, they start accepting only the verifiable.
But on the evidence at Worcester, not quite yet. Ridpath’s audience might have applauded, but it was from politeness rather than persuasion. The evidence for the decline was disputed, but other forces were also at work. Nick, an animal behaviourist and dog trainer, acknowledged the force of the sceptical argument but was reluctant to accept it, advancing the theory that aliens were here, just not permitting us to identify them: what might be termed The Men In Black theory, and as difficult to counter as the explanation of another participant I met as to why he was unconvinced by Ridpath: "I’m a believer." At the end of the conference, a question of mine was put to the audience: had they heard anything that had made them change their minds about UFOs? No one had. But, perhaps just as significantly, no one was under 40.
It was time to check on various other leading belief, gullibility and credulity indicators (BGCIS). Religious apparitions, particularly of Mary, the mother of God, show no signs of slackening, although you may judge on YouTube how convincing they are. Beatification and sainthood in the Roman Catholic church now require one and two miracles respectively, except in the case of a martyr: miracles by non-martyrs born in the last 150 years appear to show little sign of slackening. Pope John Paul II, who recognised a record number of miracles, was himself beatified in 2011; another "three or four" miracles attributed to him are reportedly being examined by the Vatican to allow his canonisation. But here it is noticeable that more scepticism is being openly expressed. In the case of the beatification in 2010 of the 19th-century English cardinal John Henry Newman, it was noted that the miraculously speedy recovery of a patient after spinal surgery was not noticeably quicker than that of patients who had not requested the cardinal’s intercession.
Elsewhere, though, there isn’t much sign in the secular, venal world that widely disseminated information is empowering individuals to defeat the forces of the unscrupulous. Take one area of fraud against the individual, phishing. You, a properly cautious user, might think it a bad idea to respond to it, let alone provide your financial details; but Financial Fraud Action, the British financial services anti-fraud body, reported a 28% increase in online-banking fraud losses in January to June 2012 over the same period in 2011, mostly caused by a jump in phishing websites.
I asked Stephen Greenspan, an American psychologist and author of "The Annals of Gullibility", which points out that Isaac Newton lost out in the South Sea Bubble, if the public is becoming wiser. "Maybe about a particular scam, but scammers send out thousands of their letters every day and it only takes one unusually credulous victim to make them a lot of money...Even if a particular scam becomes well known, another equally believable one will surface and there will always be impulsive naifs who do not have the knowledge or initiative to check it out." Dr Greenspan should know: he invested with Bernie Madoff.
ASSAP also reports an increasing interest in secular apparitions and incidents in Britain, pointing to the popularity of television shows and films about the supernatural (against a decline in UFO as subject). But here I have some encouragements for evolution. While researching an article on one such telly ghost-hunting psychic a few years ago, I discovered an important truth about his audience: hardly anyone took it seriously. It was just entertainment. Sceptics have fun, too.
Robin Tudge, author of the "Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories", says that cyberspace is still a rich area for fertilising and reinforcing collective paranoias, but he argues that "exactly the same process is contributing to growing scepticism about the motives of our rulers, fostered in particular by the imbroglio that was the invasion of Iraq." This might not be the Age of Wisdom; but it is surely the Era of Sardonic Disillusionment.