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Deities for Atheists

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A review of George Basalla’s Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials.

On February 8, 2000, the New York Times science section featured a newly published book, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe1 by the paleontologist Peter Ward and astronomer Donald Brownlee, (continue reading…)

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Abducted!

Imaginary traumas are as terrifying as the real thing
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In the wee hours of the morning on August 8, 1983, while I was traveling along a lonely rural highway approaching Haigler, Neb., a large craft with bright lights overtook me and forced me to the side of the road. Alien beings exited the craft and abducted me for 90 minutes, after which time I found myself back on the road with no memory of what transpired inside the ship. I can prove that this happened because I recounted it to a film crew shortly afterward.

When alien abductees recount to me their stories, I do not deny that they had a real experience. But thanks to recent research by Harvard University psychologists Richard J. McNally and Susan A. Clancy, we now know that some fantasies are indistinguishable from reality, and they can be just as traumatic. In a 2004 paper in Psychological Science entitled “Psychophysiological Responding during Script-Driven Imagery in People Reporting Abduction by Space Aliens,” McNally, Clancy and their colleagues report the results of a study of claimed abductees. The researchers measured heart rate, skin conductance and electromyographic responses in a muscle that lifted the eyebrow—called the left lateral (outer) frontalis — of the study participants as they relived their experiences through script-driven imagery. “Relative to control participants,” the authors concluded, “abductees exhibited greater psychophysiological reactivity to abduction and stressful scripts than to positive and neutral scripts.” In fact, the abductees’ responses were comparable to those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients who had listened to scripts of their actual traumatic experiences. (continue reading…)

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Show Me the Body

Purported sightings of Bigfoot, Nessie and Ogopogo fire our imaginations. But anecdotes alone do not make a science
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The world lost the creators of two of its most celebrated biohoaxes recently: Douglas Herrick, father of the risibly ridiculous jackalope (half jackrabbit, half antelope), and Ray L. Wallace, paternal guardian of the less absurd Bigfoot.

The jackalope enjoins laughter in response to such peripheral hokum as hunting licenses sold only to those whose IQs range between 50 and 72, bottles of the rare but rich jackalope milk, and additional evolutionary hybrids such as the jackapanda. Bigfoot, on the other hand, while occasionally eliciting an acerbic snicker, enjoys greater plausibility for a simple evolutionary reason: large hirsute apes currently roam the forests of Africa, and at least one species of a giant ape — Gigantopithecus — flourished some hundreds of thousands of years ago alongside our ancestors.

Is it possible that a real Bigfoot lives despite the posthumous confession by the Wallace family that it was just a practical joke? Certainly. After all, although Bigfoot proponents do not dispute the Wallace hoax, they correctly note that tales of the giant Yeti living in the Himalayas and Native American lore about Sasquatch wandering around the Pacific Northwest emerged long before Wallace pulled his prank in 1958. (continue reading…)

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Shermer’s Last Law

Any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence is indistinguishable from God
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As scientist extraordinaire and author of an empire of science-fiction books, Arthur C. Clarke is one of the farthest-seeing visionaries of our time. His pithy quotations tug harder than those of most futurists on our collective psyches for their insights into humanity and our unique place in the cosmos.
And none do so more than his famous Third Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

This observation stimulated me to think about the impact the discovery of an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) would have on science and religion. To that end, I would like to immodestly propose Shermer’s Last Law (I don’t believe in naming laws after oneself, so as the good book says, the last shall be first and the first shall be last): “Any sufficiently advanced ETI is indistinguishable from God.” (continue reading…)

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How to Fake UFO Photographs

The best evidence that UFOs represent spacecraft from other worlds consists of grainy photographs, blurry videos, and anecdotes about things that go bump in the night. In this episode Michael Shermer shows how easy it is to fake UFO photographs, enlisting the help of children and disposable cameras to create convincing photographic evidence that even fooled experts!

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