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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.

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Not for skeptics, indeed! The MUFON meeting

by Donald Prothero, Aug 03 2011

Last week I commented on conventions of pseudoscientists, from the creationists to Flat Earthers and neo-geocentrists, and, most recently, the contemporary “natural philosophers” who deny most of modern physics, from Einsteinian relativity to quantum mechanics to the rejection of ether. As that post was running, just an hour drive from my home there was a meeting of the “Mutual UFO Network” (MUFON), which held their annual convention at a the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Irvine, California. The theme of the meeting was “ET Contact: Implications for Science and Society”, and the program featured a keynote address by astronaut Story Musgrave. Ironically, Musgrave believes in intelligent aliens, but he is convinced that they have never visited the earth—a big disappointment for most of the crowd. There was a full Saturday program that included talks like, “Will ET Contact Put an End to our World’s Religions?” “Secrets of Antigravity Propulsion” and “Time Travel is a Fact”, along with the expected presentations on government cover-ups of UFO evidence, and how these people expect contact with aliens will change science and society. One or two presenters had Ph.D. or M.A. degrees (which they flaunted conspicuously, even though there is no information as to whether their Ph.D. has any relevance to the field), but the rest are pure amateurs. There was even a talk on “Mars, the Living Planet”, apparently ignoring all the recent evidence that Mars is now completely frozen, and that if it has (or had) life, it was only tiny microbes.

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Gambling on ET

by Michael Shermer, Jul 19 2011

How to compute the odds that claims of extraterrestrial life discovery are real and reliable

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has to be the most interesting field of science that lacks a subject to study. Yet. Keep searching. In the meantime, is there some metric we can apply to calculating the probability and impact of claims of such a discovery? There is.

In January, 2011 the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society published 17 articles addressing the matter of “The Detection of Extra-Terrestial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society,” including one by Iván Almár from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Margaret S. Race from the SETI Institute, introducing a metric “to provide a scalar assessment of the scientific importance, validity and potential risks associated with putative evidence of ET life discovered on Earth, on nearby bodies in the Solar System or in our Galaxy.” Such scaling is common in science—the Celsius scale for temperature, the Beaufort scale for wind speed, the Saffir-Simpson scale for hurricane strength, and the Richter scale for earthquake magnitude. But these scales, Almár and Race argue, fail to take into account “the relative position of the observer or recipient of information.” The effects of a 7.1 earthquake, for example, depends on the proximity of its epicenter to human habitations. Continue reading…

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Guy Hottel Document – UFO Proof?

by Steven Novella, Apr 11 2011

Proponents of theories and ideologies are always looking for that knockout punch – the smoking-gun evidence that proves their beliefs in a single stroke. Most theories are too complex to be established by a single piece of evidence, and require multiple independent lines of evidence to establish them. But there are often cases in which a single solid piece of evidence can push a theory over the line to general acceptance.

For many pseudosciences the lack of such smoking-gun evidence calls the claims into serious question. There are no artifacts from Atlantis. There is no bigfoot corpse or live specimen. And there are no crashed alien spaceships or, you know – aliens. Incidentally this is not the case for truly paranormal claims, like ghosts, because by being “paranormal” they would require a large set of rigorous evidence to establish a new phenomenon. But one actual bigfoot would do it.

So it is no surprise that from time to time we hear claims that “final proof” has finally come to light of one pseudoscientific claim or another. Just such a claim is now circulating regarding an FBI document from 1950 – a report regarding the recovery of three “flying saucers” in New Mexico. Here is the full text of the document, dated March 22, 1950:
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Men in Black at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History

by Michael Shermer, Mar 01 2011

click to enlarge

On Saturday, February 5, 2011, my audio book producer John Wagner and I took a break from endless hours of my reading aloud (with John editing out my countless mistakes) my next book, The Believing Brain, which ironically includes chapters on UFOs, aliens, and conspiracy theories. Ironic because for this break John and I took what we thought would be an uneventful tour of the beautiful new National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This is definitely a museum well worth visiting for a comprehensive tour of all things atomic. It was originally opened in 1969 as the Sandia Atomic Museum, but then changed in 1973 to the National Atomic Museum to include a broader history of the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and finally morphed into the new building that now houses the collection, which includes replicas of the Fat Man and Little Boy bombs (see photograph), along with a B-29, a B-52, an F-105, an A-7, an Atomic Cannon, a Titan II Rocket, a Minuteman Missile, a Jupiter Missile, a Thor Missile, and hundreds more smaller items inside the museum building itself, including these two amusing early uses of atomic energy for “health” purposes: Continue reading…

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How do you know it’s a ghost?

by Brian Dunning, May 06 2010

As a guest on a recent radio program, I took calls from people who’d had some ghostly experience. It’s not true that such callers are always trying to challenge the evil skeptic: “I saw my grandfather’s ghost at the foot of my bed, explain that, Mr. Skeptic!” In this case, most of the callers (I think) were genuinely hoping for some insight. Although I certainly couldn’t speculate about what their experiences might have been, I was at least able to avoid making some common mistakes that often cost skeptics their credibility.

First, you’re not going to convince a ghost believer by saying “We have no evidence that ghosts exist, nor is there any plausible hypothesis by which they might exist.” No ghost believer in history has ever heard that, said “Aaahh,” smacked themselves in the forehead, turned over a new leaf, and gone forth with a new perspective on reality. Logically, you have just as much evidence that ghosts don’t exist as they have that ghosts do exist. So it’s a weak argument. Thus, no good can come from starting off by contradicting their belief. The only thing it accomplishes is to establish an antagonistic tone. Continue reading…

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Erie UFO not so eerie

by Phil Plait, Mar 17 2010

A wave of reports is coming in from the town of Euclid, Ohio, from folks there who are seeing a mysterious light hovering over Lake Erie and Cleveland. The light, they say, is very bright, lasts for a couple of hours, stays near the horizon, changes colors, and keeps coming back to the same spot night after night.

Here’s an MSNBC report about it:

Could it be an alien visitor from another world?
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Do astronomers see UFOs?

by Phil Plait, Dec 30 2009

denver_ufoI have been saying for years that a) most UFOs are simply misidentified mundane phenomena (satellites, meteors, balloons, Venus, weird clouds, even the Moon) and that 2) if they were real, astronomers — who spend a lot more time looking at the sky than your average person — should be reporting most of them.

My musings on this have been twisted and distorted by UFO folks — shocker! — even though I’ve been pretty clear about what I would count as evidence. But now we may have a way to cut through the garbage. A new website has been started for professional and amateur astronomers to report Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. I rather like this new UAP acronym, since it avoids the UFO/flying saucer baggage. Anyway, it was set up as part of IYA 2009 to help astronomers report things in the sky they may not immediately understand. Better yet, it has links to handy guides that will help people who might otherwise misidentify normal things like sundogs and other weather phenomena.
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How to Talk to a UFOlogist (if you must)

by Michael Shermer, Aug 25 2009

Confessions of an Alien Hunter (cover)

I’m a big fan of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intellience) and I think their search program constitutes the best chance we have of making contact. In fact, on a recent Saturday I was rained out of my normal 4-hour bike ride, so I read SETI scientist Seth Shostak’s new book, Confessions of An Alien Hunter (published by National Geographic), a brilliant and fun read. Seth has a fantastic sense of humor and in his book he presents some of great one-liners to use when dealing with UFOlogists, alien abductees, and the saucerites. For example:

Regarding the time it would take to traverse the vast distances between the stars, which would be millions of years (it will take Voyager II 300,000 years to reach a nearby star), Shostak notes: “That’s a long time to be squirming in a coach seat.”

As for the lack of tangible evidence for UFOs Continue reading…

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Can you solve this UFO mystery?

by Brian Dunning, Apr 16 2009

I was visiting my friend Jim (name changed to protect the embarrassed) when he happened to mention that for a few weeks now, his neighborhood had been receiving regular UFO visits.

At first I wasn’t sure if he was pulling my leg or what. I knew Jim to be a reasonable guy, not given over to the supernatural. Moreover, he was the UFOlogists’ favorite type of witness: A pilot. (Because, as we all know, pilots cannot be mistaken about anything seen in the sky.) But I also knew that Jim could be pretty darn stubborn once an idea got into his head. I realized he was quite serious, and from what he said, a lot of people in the neighborhood were equally serious about it. Well, quite obviously, I had to see it.

So he took me outside into the dark, and what a surreal experience that was. He simply said “Let’s go,” and had the mannerism of every expectation that we’d see the UFO. Like it’s always right there for the taking. Continue reading…

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