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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: Continue reading…

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Is Debating Pseudoscience a Good Idea? Carl Sagan Weighs In

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 03 2014

Tomorrow, as many of you know, Bill Nye “the Science Guy” will take the stage with Answers in Genesis frontman Ken Ham to debate the topic of evolution. For those of you interested, the event may be watched streaming for free, live at 7 PM Eastern on February 4, 2014.

Are such debates a good idea? As you might gather from the many divergent opinions on Nye’s choice, the answer is far from clear. Too much depends upon the circumstances, format, and participants of the “debate.” Also, it is often argued—and I tend to agree with this argument—that there are figures too cynical to be fruitfully engaged in any format. (My initial gut feeling was that Ham may not be a fair-minded opponent, and that this particular debate may not have been a wise decision for Nye for that reason—though Randy Olson has almost brought me around with this thoughtful post.)

But the wider meta-question is not a new one. I thought it might be interesting to share a decades-old argument in favor of public engagement with fringe ideas and their proponents by a pioneering voice for modern scientific skepticism: Carl Sagan. It reminds me that “debating pseudoscience” is, when you get down to it, what skeptics do.

In December of 1969, a symposium on the topic of UFOs was hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Organized by Sagan and Thornton Page, it almost didn’t happen at all. For over a year, the symposium faced passionate opposition from scientists who believed that hosting such an exchange would lend inappropriate legitimacy and stage time to the fringe, and all at the expense of the science. “A distinguished scientist once threatened to sic then Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew on me,” Sagan later recalled, “if I persisted in organizing a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which both proponents and opponents of the extraterrestrial-spacecraft hypothesis of UFO origins would be permitted to speak.”1

Continue reading…

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Area 51: Myth and Reality

by Donald Prothero, Jan 08 2014
The U-2 spy plane, secretly built by Lockheed and the CIA and tested at Area 51

The U-2 spy plane, secretly built by Lockheed and the CIA and tested at Area 51

Come join the Skeptic Society for our trip to Area 51 and other alien landscapes, Martin Luther King weekend (January 18-20), 2014. We will spend 3 days exploring the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (with lunch at the Little A’Le’inn), collecting trilobites, and visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum and their UFO exhibit, as well as the alien landscape of Valley of Fire State Park and Calico Ghost Town. Both nights will be spent at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. For further details, see this link. Hurry! We’re down to our last few seats!

In the past few decades, this perfectly ordinary military base in the middle of the desert in southern Nevada has taken on mythic status. Most military bases have tight security, and only authorized military personnel and their contractors are allowed on base. This particular base is top secret, with much tighter security than most military land. Not only is it surrounded by a secured perimeter and motion detectors in the ground, but the guards travel the perimeter regularly, and have video security cameras monitoring everything that comes near the fence. It is also located in one of the most remote areas of sparsely populated Nevada, more than two hours of driving north out of Las Vegas. Because there is no way to see the base from the paved road, even from the highest peaks outside the base except Tikaboo Peak (a long hard desert hike), it can only be viewed from the air or from space. Naturally, that high level of secrecy has led to all sorts of speculation about what happens there, and an entire industry of books and movies and TV shows which need only mention the phrase “Area 51” and immediately their audience assumes that there are aliens or some kinds of weird government experiments going on there. Continue reading…

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Approaching Area 51

by Donald Prothero, Dec 25 2013


Come join the Skeptic Society for our trip to Area 51 and other alien landscapes, Martin Luther King weekend (January 18-20), 2014. We will spend 3 days exploring the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (with lunch at the Little A’Le’inn), collecting trilobites, and visiting the National Atomic Testing Museum and their UFO exhibit, as well as the alien landscape of Valley of Fire State Park and Calico Ghost Town. Both nights will be spent at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. For further details, see this link. Hurry! We’re down to our last few seats!

We are driving west in a black GMC Yukon Denali SUV across the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (Nevada State Highway 375), about three hours north from Las Vegas. The road itself is unremarkable—miles and miles of a ribbon of asphalt cutting across barren desert of mesquite and Joshua tree yuccas, with no signs of life anywhere. Occasionally the road rises up from the low flats to cross a small mountain range, with jagged rocks exposed on all sides, completely devoid of vegetation. During the summer, the temperatures here stay above 100°F for weeks on end, and almost no one comes through here. In the winter, the daytime temperatures are more comfortable, but at night it gets bitterly cold, especially if the desert winds are howling through the area. It’s also over 4400 feet in elevation here, so some winters are cold enough that snow will accumulate on the high desert surface, and may persist on the peaks well into the spring.

After you pass through the tiny towns of Alamo and Ash Springs (last gas station for 150 miles or more) on U.S. Highway 93, and turn west on to Highway 375, you drive about 15 miles until you reach Hancock Summit, a mountain pass over barren rock that is the highest place in the region.  You can get out of your car and look to the southwest, but all you will see is the Groom Range to your west. The military base is down in the valley beyond, and there is no other spot in any direction where you could see the base from the paved road.  You can make the strenuous hike to Tikaboo Peak to the south, and see parts of the base on the other side of the range without incurring the wrath of base security, but this isn’t much more informative. Continue reading…

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The Paranormal is Normal

by Donald Prothero, Nov 27 2013

For our new book on cryptozoology, Daniel Loxton and I delved deeply into the psychology of those who believe in Bigfoot and Nessie and the rest. What about these people who believe in cryptids? What can we say beyond the anecdotal descriptions of the Bigfoot subculture that I discussed in my August 28 post? There are actually large-scale rigorous studies that have been done to see what the population as a whole, and what kinds of people in particular, think about paranormal topics. The most famous is the Baylor Religious Survey, a huge data set of multiple choice questions collected almost each year since 2005, which looks not only at beliefs, but also at the demographic data behind them. If you look for the questions that mention cryptids like Nessie and Bigfoot, you can get a sense of how widely these ideas are held in the sample of hundreds of people included in the survey. For example, about 17% of the people in the sample agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science,” while about 56% disagreed or strongly disagreed (27% were undecided). About 20% said “yes” to the question: Have you ever read a book, consulted a Web site, or researched the following topics: Mysterious animals, such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster? The highest percentage of those people who agreed with cryptozoological ideas were young (18-30) single white males with only a high-school education or less, lower incomes, but who do not tend to be very religious, either.

In their book Paranormal America, Bader et al. (2011) point out that belief in the paranormal is held by about two-thirds of Americans, and the average American holds at least two paranormal ideas to be true. In other words, most Americans believe in the paranormal, making it the norm in our culture. The skeptics and non-believers are the minority, the “abnormal ones”.

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A Token Skeptic vs. the HuffPo UFO Machine

by Brian Dunning, Sep 27 2012

Today I went on HuffPost Live for a conversation about UFOs: whether they’re alien spaceships, whether the government is covering them up, etc.; more or less, the usual stuff. Here is the video (and here’s a direct link if the embedded video isn’t working for you):

Continue reading…

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Mystery UFO Photo

by Michael Shermer, Aug 28 2012

I thought I would share with you an email and photographs submitted to me by a gentleman named Marc Richard. Instead of telling you what I think it is, I’d like to hear from you what you think is the best explanation. Submit your best guess in the comments section below.

Hello, I’m not sure where to send these, or if your even looking for this kind of thing, couldn’t find a submissions page on the site. I have eight photos, I’ll send you two, if your interested I’d be happy to send the rest. Here’s what I wrote about the photos at the time I took them:

“On Oct, 19, 2009 at around 6:30pm, I was working on the 18th floor of my apartment building in downtown Detroit, when I noticed something floating around the two smoke stacks on the power plant near my place. It seemed to be hovering directly through the smoke of the stacks, and then around the two stacks, in between the two stacks, and then it would float a few blocks away and then back to the stacks. At this point I had been watching this thing for about 8 minutes or so when I ran to grab my camera and returned with my girlfriend and my brother in law. So I snapped off these pics which I can’t explain. It seems to be pretty small (about the size of one of those little smart cars?) I sent these photos to UFOs Northwest shortly after taking them. They’re still up on that site, nobody seems to have an explanation for them. If you have any questions I’d be happy to try and answer them.” Continue reading…

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Bigfoot on the brain

by Donald Prothero, Jul 04 2012

Daniel Loxton’s new painting of Bigfoot, one of his many new illustrations for our upcoming cryptozoology book

As Daniel Loxton and I completed our upcoming book on cryptozoology, we tried to analyze and dissect  the psychology of cryptozoology, and the followers of cryptids like Bigfoot. What motivates these people? Why do they think this way?

Writer Joshua Blu Buhs provided an interesting portrait of the Bigfoot community as typical of the amateur cryptozoologists. Studying the Bigfoot fans in the Pacific Northwest, Buhs documents a group of mostly white working-class men who are Bigfoot’s biggest boosters. To them, Bigfoot is an icon of untamed masculinity, a populist rebel against scientific elites, the last champion of authenticity against a plastic, image-conscious, effeminate consumer society. (Yet as a supreme irony, Bigfoot has a career as advertising mascot and tabloid fodder, making him a major purveyor of consumerism.) Buhs shows that many Bigfoot stalkers follow the subculture because it has the same attractions as other types of hunting: getting back to nature, tramping through the woods in search of elusive prey, testing their manhood against the wilderness, and play at being “real men”. He quotes Thom Powell, who says, “I think I became interested in the Bigfoot thing because it gave me an excuse to get out and use my wilderness skills. My live-long love of the wilderness exploration has a purpose beyond just getting there and back.” Contractor Tom Morris said, “Maybe I’m only trying to justify all my trips to the mountains by calling them research. I like wildlife, I like to see anything I can. The more I go, the more I’m amazed at how elusive wildlife can be. I’m happy just to be up there, watching the animals move around. I want to come back with the best pictures I can. The ultimate would be a shot of Bigfoot.”

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“I saw it with my own eyes”

by Donald Prothero, Jun 13 2012

Humans are storytelling animals, and they are easily persuaded by the testimony of other individuals. The telemarketers and advertisers all know that if they get a popular celebrity to endorse their product, it will sell well, even if there are no careful scientific studies or FDA approvals to back up their claims. The endorsement of your next-door neighbor may be good enough to make simple decisions, but in science, anecdotal evidence counts for very little. Yet as Daniel Loxton and I found out during our research for our new book on cryptozoology due out soon, nearly all evidence of Bigfoot, Nessie, Yeti, and other cryptids is no more than anecdotal, “eyewitness” accounts. As Frank Sulloway put it, “Anecdotes do not make a science. Ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten.”

Most scientific studies require dozens to hundreds of experiments or cases, and detailed statistical analysis, before we can accept the conclusion that event A probably caused event B. In the case of medicine and drug testing, there is typically a “control” group that doesn’t receive a given treatment, or receives a placebo instead, so that we can rule out the possible effects of the power of suggestion, and also rule out random effects. Only after such rigorous testing which can rule out the biases of the subjects and the observers, random noise, and all other uncontrolled variables, can scientists make the statement that event A probably caused event B. Even then, scientists do not speak in finalistic terms of “cause and effect” but only in probabilistic terms that “event A has a 95% probability to have caused event B.”

The same goes for eyewitness testimony, which may have some value in a court of law, but is regarded as highly suspect in most scientific studies. Thousands of studies have shown that eyewitnesses are easily fooled by distractions such as a weapon, or confused by stress, or otherwise misled into confidently “remembering” things that did not happen. This is vividly demonstrated by a startling video where the viewer is told to count the number of times players dressed in white pass the basketball. If you do it and focus on the counting, you will completely miss a man in a gorilla suit who walks right through the shot, because your attention is focused elsewhere. Continue reading…

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Science TV “network decay”

by Donald Prothero, Jan 25 2012

It happens with disgusting regularity. You will flip through the various basic cable channels which are nominally “science oriented” (often grouped together on the dial if they feature scientific topics) and come up with nothing but junk, pseudoscience, and worse. “Reality shows” about subjects with little or no science content, tons of paranormal and pseudoscientific shows promoting ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and creationism—all fill the airwaves for channels like Discovery, The  Learning Channel, History Channel, and even the Science Channel and National Geographic Channel. We watch a few minutes of these with complaints to anyone within earshot, then (usually) move on—or occasionally we get sucked in to watch the whole thing, like gawkers at a car crash. The cartoon at the top (from the great website PhdComics) says it all: four channels that used to be largely documentaries on science and history are now dominated  by guns, explosions, dangerous occupations and other “reality” TV. Their shows have  buzz words in the titles like “biggest”, “wildest”, “monsters” or “killers”, and plain old junk fill up most of their air time.

I’ve seen it from both sides. I’ve appeared in prehistoric animal documentaries that have aired on all four channels (and keep re-appearing years after I made them, so I feel like Dorian Gray, with my younger self perpetually preserved in documentary limbo). Almost all these documentaries are made by small independent film outfits that are searching for any sexy topic that they can sell to the major cable networks, so they are under great pressure to come up with something flashy, noisy, scary, and/or mysterious. If I  have any chance to review the script, I try my best to tone down the excessive hyperbole, but they usually ignore me. As I film segments with them, I try to be as dynamic and entertaining as a “talking head” can be, but they are always pushing me to oversimplify and exaggerate to make the spiel more colorful (but less scientifically accurate). And then when I see the final product, most of what I did ends up on the cutting room floor, with only a few seconds left of many hours of filming. Even worse, I’ve put in many  hours on projects that never got picked up at all. Documentary filmmaking is a high-risk, low-reward proposition—you have better odds of making big money in Vegas.

Continue reading…

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