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Sagan Versus the Flying Saucers (an Excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50)

by Daniel Loxton, Mar 09 2014


With the world of popular science nerdery (my world!) on fire with excitement for tonight’s premiere of the new television miniseries Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, I thought I might share a small excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50—our special celebratory look back at the life and legacy of Carl Sagan. You can find this short, kid-friendly biography of one of skeptical history’s most inspiring figures bound inside Skeptic Vol. 19, No. 1, which ships shortly. Subscribe to Skeptic today in digital or print formats!

For age-appropriate simplicity, the format of Junior Skeptic does not include endnotes (though I often call out important sources in sidebars or in the text of the story itself). Here, for your interest, I’ve included some relevant citation endnotes from my research:

Sagan Versus the Flying Saucers

At least two massive biographies have been written about Carl Sagan.1 These explore two major passions of his life in detail: searching for aliens, and sharing the wonder of science. But Sagan’s biographers barely mention the third major theme of his intellectual career—scientific skepticism.

His decades of involvement in skepticism started when he read those two “stunning” skeptical books by Martin Gardner and Charles Mackay.2 Sagan was shocked to realize just “how many passionately argued and defended claims to knowledge had amounted to nothing. It slowly dawned on me that, human fallibility being what it is, there might be other explanations for flying saucers.”3

Over time he wrote about many paranormal and “pseudoscientific” (sciencey-sounding but bogus) ideas. There are, he said, “bamboozles galore in contemporary society.”4 He took time in most of his books to dig critically into some such far out topics, from astral projection to dreams that seem to predict the future. But he gave special attention to UFO claims and stories of supposed encounters with aliens. “Sentimental journeys, all,” said one biographer about Sagan’s skeptical work on UFOs, saying he “continued to hang around the subject, as if missing its exhilarating air of mystery.”5

Sagan’s career as a UFO skeptic spanned the entire modern history of the idea. Here are some brief highlights.

Kearney Incident

The phrase “flying saucer” was coined when Sagan was about to enter his teens.6 At first these were just objects in the sky, but soon people began to claim personal encounters with beings from inside the saucers. These folks did not say they were “abducted” by creepy little gray-skinned aliens with big black eyes, for those ideas had not yet been invented. Instead, the first reported UFO occupants were kindly beings who looked like ordinary humans. Often they were said to come from a nearby planet, such as Venus.

One “contactee” was Reinhold Schmidt. In 1957 he claimed to have found a flying saucer parked on a dry riverbed in Kearney, Nebraska. He said he met a crew of men and women from Saturn. Over the next few years, they allegedly took him on several joyrides in their spacecraft—up into space, to the pyramids of Egypt, and even deep into the ocean beneath the ice of the North Pole.7

Within months of his first encounter claim, Schmidt was a UFO celebrity, telling his story at conventions for flying saucer enthusiasts.8 “Schmidt hasn’t worked since,” said one newspaper story.9 It turned out he did more than tell stories: he also tricked wealthy widows into giving him many thousands of dollars to invest in gold mines and mines of “pre-energizing crystals” that the space-people had supposedly shown him.

Eventually this trickery got him arrested. At his 1961 trial, a young astronomer named Carl Sagan was called in to testify as an expert witness. At age 27, Sagan was already getting attention in the newspapers for his interest in extraterrestrial life. Sagan explained to the court that because Saturn is a gas giant, Schmidt’s claims of Saturnian spacemen were not realistic. Schmidt was sentenced to 10 years in state prison. Sagan wrote about this case in a 1966 book and an article (“The Saucerian Cult”).10

Subscribe to Skeptic magazine and read Junior Skeptic 50 to learn more about Sagan’s life of skepticism—from his 1966 role in Project Blue Book, to his 1968 testimony about UFOs before Congress, to his principled refusal to participate in the first organized activist project of modern scientific skepticism in 1975, to his decades of support for skeptical organizations!

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  1. See William Poundstone. Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999.) and Keay Davidson. Carl Sagan: A Life. (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1999.)
  2. See Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World. (New York: Random House, 1996.) pp. 66–69 for Sagan’s description of the impact that Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science had upon his view of the world.
  3. Sagan. (1996.) p. 69
  4. Carl Sagan. “Night Walkers and Mystery Mongers: Sense and Nonsense At the Edge of Science.” Skeptical Inquirer. Vol. 10., No. 3. Spring, 1986. p. 220 [Excerpted from Broca’s Brain. (Ballantine, 1979) pp. 54–55]
  5. Davidson (1999.) pp. 224–225
  6. Sagan was born on November 9, 1934; the phrase “flying saucer” or “flying disk” was coined in the summer of 1947.
  7. See for example, Jerome Clark. The UFO Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition: The Phenomenon from the Beginning. Volume 2: L–Z. (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1998). pp. 822–823; Jay Hicks. “Egg-Like Saucer Reports Leave Air Force Confused.” The Lowell Sun (Massachusetts), November 6, 1957. p. 30; Bob Davenport. “H-Bombs Worry Saucer People.” Star news (Pasadena), May 20, 1958. p. 18; “He Has Friends on Saturn—Reports Space Ship Trip.” Van Nuys News (California), July 9, 1959. p. 1B; Norris Leap. “Mr. Schmidt Will Hunt for Spaceship Under Pyramid.” Los Angeles Times, February 5, 1960. p. A1
  8. Davenport (1958)
  9. “Flying Saucer ‘Passenger’ Held in $5,000 Bunco Ride.” Oakland Tribune (California), April 13, 1961. p. E5.
  10. I. S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan. Intelligent Life in the Universe. (New York: Delta, 1966.) pp. 13–18; Carl Sagan. “The Saucerian Cult: An Astronomer’s Interpretation.” Saturday Review, August 6, 1966. pp. 50–52

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2 Responses to “Sagan Versus the Flying Saucers (an Excerpt from Junior Skeptic 50)”

  1. Trimegistus says:

    Sagan occupied a unique position in the UFO debate: as far as I’m aware he was the first flyin’-saucer skeptic who nevertheless thought there was a high probability that intelligence did exist elsewhere in the universe. This meant he was the first skeptic to point out that the saucerians’ claims weren’t too fantastic, but not fantastic enough!

  2. Loren Petrich says:

    Carl Sagan wrote about a certain “Helmut Winckler” in his 1966 book Intelligent Life in the Universe, co-written by Iosif Shklovskii. His description closely matches Reinhold Schmidt and events associated with him.

    He was asked to testify about whether Saturn was habitable. He explained how we can learn about conditions on Saturn from here on Earth, and a defense lawyer asked whether we can really tell whether or not the laws of nature are the same on Saturn as on the Earth. I’m doing this from memory; I can’t find my copy of that book at the moment.

    This might be worth a chuckle: the claimed ufocontacts of Reinhold Schmidt