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Gods of the Gaps

Arguments of divine intervention—alien or otherwise—start with ignorance
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According to the popular series Ancient Aliens, on H2 (a spinoff of the History channel), extraterrestrial intelligences visited Earth in the distant past, as evidenced by numerous archaeological artifacts whose scientific explanations prove unsatisfactory for alien enthusiasts. The series is the latest in a genre launched in 1968 by Erich von Däniken, whose book Chariots of the Gods? became an international best seller. It spawned several sequels, including Gods from Outer Space, The Gods Were Astronauts and, just in time for the December 21, 2012, doomsday palooza, Twilight of the Gods: The Mayan Calendar and the Return of the Extraterrestrials (the ones who failed to materialize).

Ancient aliens theory is grounded in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam, or “argument from ignorance.” The illogical reasoning goes like this: if there is no satisfactory terrestrial explanation for, say, the Nazca lines of Peru, the Easter Island statues or the Egyptian pyramids, then the theory that they were built by aliens from outer space must be true. (continue reading…)

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Houdini’s Skeptical Advice

Before you say something is out of this world, first make sure that it is not in this world
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SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE was the brilliant author of the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes detective stories, which celebrated the triumph of reason and logic over superstition and magical thinking. Unfortunately, the Scottish physician-turned-writer did not apply his creation’s cognitive skills when it came to the blossoming spiritualism movement of the early 1900s: he fell blindly for the crude hoax of the Cottingley Fairies (read about it in Junior Skeptic issue 36) photographs and regularly attended séances to make contact with family members who had died in the First World War, especially his son Kingsley. Perhaps fittingly, Conan Doyle’s fame brought him into company with the greatest magician of his age, Harry Houdini, who did not su!er fakes gladly.

In the spring of 1922 Conan Doyle visited Houdini in his New York City home, whereupon the magician set out to demonstrate that slate writing — a favorite method among mediums for receiving messages from the dead, who allegedly moved a piece of chalk across a slate — could be done by perfectly prosaic means. Houdini had Conan Doyle hang a slate from anywhere in the room so that it was free to swing in space. He presented the author with four cork balls, asking him to pick one and cut it open to prove that it had not been altered. He then had Conan Doyle pick another ball and dip it into a well of white ink. While it was soaking, Houdini asked his visitor to go down the street in any direction, take out a piece of paper and pencil, write a question or a sentence, put it back in his pocket and return to the house. Conan Doyle complied, scribbling, “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin,” a riddle from the Bible’s Book of Daniel, meaning, “It has been counted and counted, weighed and divided.” (continue reading…)

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