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How to Talk to a UFOlogist (if you must)

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: “Physical evidence — a taillight or knob from an alien craft — is in short supply.”

UFOlogists claim that they have tens of thousands of UFO sightings, as if this is a good thing, but Shostak notes that this actually argues against UFOs being ET, because to date not one of these tens of thousands of sightings has materialized into concrete evidence that UFOs = ETIs. It’s counterintuitive, but more sightings equals less certainty because with so many saucers zipping around we would have captured one by now, and we haven’t.

Communion - A True Story (cover)

Shostak notes that crop circles are a very poor means of communication because they represent only a few hundred bits of information, 1,679 bits in the most complex crop circle to date, which is less than a paragraph of text! If ETIs are advanced enough for interstellar space travel, why resort to using wheat fields, which are only ripe a couple of months a year, and then the crop-circle communication is quickly mowed down by angry farmers!

As for alien abductees, Shostak points out that Whitley Strieber’s book, Communion, launched the modern alien abduction movement. And guess what Strieber does for a living? He is a SciFi/fantasy/horror writer! Actually, I knew this already because I met Strieber in the green room at Bill Maher’s ABC show, Politically Incorrect, and Whitley and I were chatting it up over coffee and granola bars in the green room before the show when I asked him what he did when he wasn’t writing about being abducted by aliens. He told me that he writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. The show was over right there in the green room! What else is there to say to a guy who writes this stuff as fiction, then slaps a “nonfiction” label on the book jacket?

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Does Belief Help Us to Survive?

I don’t think religious beliefs are different from any other kind of beliefs: political attitudes, commitments to political parties, or economic ideologies, for example. These are all forms of belief. I think at the base of it is this whole idea that we’re pattern-seeking primates. We connect the dots — A connects to B connects to C — and often, they really are connected, and that’s called associative learning. All animals do it. It’s a biological imperative; we grow new synaptic connections when we learn something.

The problem is that there’s no baloney detection module in the brain that says, “That’s a true pattern; that’s a false pattern” with some consistent algorithm that helps us discriminate those. We tend to assume all patterns are real and that they’re infused with intentional agency. And that’s where I think the belief in spirits and ghosts and souls and gods and God and conspiracy theories and so forth comes in. (continue reading…)

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Shermer on Larry King Live with the UFOlogists

A couple of times a year, in between his celebfest of stars, Larry King hosts the UFOlogists who regale the talk show king with an endless parade of blurry photographs, grainy videos, and breathless tales of government coverups and conspiracies. This night Larry included a couple of skeptics: Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine and Buzz Aldrin, of Apollo 11 fame, who described his own UFO experience during his trip to the moon (it turned out to be one of the rocket panels carried out with them). (continue reading…)

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Beyond Science

Michael Shermer discusses what it means to be a skeptic today. Topics range from UFOs and alternative medicine to legalized marijuana.

download 29MB MP3

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Abducted!

Imaginary traumas are as terrifying as the real thing
magazine cover

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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