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“The truth is out there.” That was the catchphrase for the X-Files, the popular sci-fi series that debuted in 1993. The program certainly caught my attention because at that time I had already been focusing on the public’s understanding of science, pushing the importance of critical thinking and the need for basing conclusions on observation. In presentations to students and the public I often used the example of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, to illustrate how easily one can arrive at a wrong conclusion based on an observation. Many observers have concluded that they have seen something unworldly, perhaps even a proverbial flying saucer, when what they actually saw were unusual cloud formations, missile launches, camera artifacts, aircraft, light reflections, balloons, satellites, birds or planets, Venus in particular. Some have even been the victim of clever hoaxers.

I was particularly attracted to the X-Files because it featured a pair of FBI agents who were assigned to investigate cases that seemed to be outside the realm of science. Mulder believed in assorted paranormal phenomena as well as in alien visitations, while Scully was a skeptic, a scientifically trained doctor, who usually came up with alternate rational conclusions to Mulder’s mystical ones. That was right up my alley.

My interest in the “observation-conclusion” process can be traced to my taking up magic as a hobby. After all, the goal of a magic performance is to steer the audience to the wrong conclusion about what they are observing. When you show an empty hat from which you proceed to pull a rabbit, you expect the audience to conclude that the rabbit magically materialized out of nothing, totally contrary to the laws of nature. And yes, I used to perform this effect with a live rabbit, until Ether outgrew the hat. Now I use as synthetic rabbit. Needless to say, it is all done by scientifically explicable means.

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