The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘aliens’

The Pentagon Acknowledges UFO Program

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 30, 2017

There was some interesting news a few weeks ago regarding a secret government program run by the Pentagon which was, apparently, researching UFOs. According to the New York Times…

… The Defense Department has never before acknowledged the existence of the program, which it says it shut down in 2012. But its backers say that, while the Pentagon ended funding for the effort at that time, the program remains in existence. For the past five years, they say, officials with the program have continued to investigate episodes brought to them by service members, while also carrying out their other Defense Department duties.

The shadowy program — parts of it remain classified — began in 2007, and initially it was largely funded at the request of Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who was the Senate majority leader at the time and who has long had an interest in space phenomena. Most of the money went to an aerospace research company run by a billionaire entrepreneur and longtime friend of Mr. Reid’s, Robert Bigelow, who is currently working with NASA to produce expandable craft for humans to use in space.

On CBS’s “60 Minutes” in May, Mr. Bigelow said he was “absolutely convinced” that aliens exist and that U.F.O.s have visited Earth. [emphasis added]…

I both agree and disagree with the last, bolded statement. I disagree that this is evidence of aliens existing; to me, the bar for accepting the existence of extra-terrestrial life is much higher than simply seeing things in the sky that are of unknown origin, which leads me to question leading into my second point.

Why is it that so many people are all-too-willing to, on the basis of incomplete or scant evidence, draw the conclusion that such things are, by default, extra-terrestrial visitors from another planet?

To explore the flaws in such thinking, we must first revisit the definition of the term “UFO”.  A UFO is, by definition, an unidentified flying object.  This means that, quite simply, we do not know what it is – it doesn’t mean that it’s a bird, weather balloon, alien spacecraft, or even Santa Claus (but I highly doubt it is Santa Claus, for reasons outlined here).  It means that we lack enough information to state that we know what it is.

But this area of uncertainty is where the alien spacecraft advocates insert their questionable logic.  Usually, the argument goes something like this: “Well, it couldn’t be anything else but an alien ship!”  Right? Wrong. To claim that a UFO is an alien spacecraft is to identify it, which is a direct contradiction; you cannot claim that something is both unidentified yet identified simultaneously.

Such an erroneous argument is sometimes called the argument from ignorance or the god-of-the-gaps, and it is a very common mistake in reasoning. In the past, strange and unexplained phenomena were often explained in explicitly religious terms via the god-of-the-gaps.  In humanity’s ignorance, lightning was attributed to the moods of powerful deities such as Thor or Zeus, and other seemingly “miraculous” events were said to be the work of angels, demons, or God. But now we know better… or do we?

In modern times, what seems to have changed is not so much our reasoning, but the boogeymen we tap in an attempt to explain our ignorance.  Rather than explain what we don’t know by making appeals to the blatantly supernatural (deities, angels, or leprechauns), more and more of us are using a new pseudo-religion of UFOology to explain the unknown as aliens in their ships with advanced technology.  Perhaps when discussing UFOs, we should speak not of the god-of-the-gaps argument but “alien-of-the-gaps” instead.

Therefore, in the end, all this Pentagon program illustrates is something that really shouldn’t be that surprising: sometimes fighter pilots see things in the sky that are of unknown origin. That’s it.

So what’s the best response when confronted with something that we don’t understand, such as a funny object in the night sky?  In the absence of any definitive evidence, the best answer is simply to state the most obvious truth: “We don’t know.”

For some reason, those three words are very unsettling to many, but the acknowledgement of what we do not know is often the first step to attaining new knowledge.

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The Unexplained: A Skeptical Perspective

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 29, 2016

Recently I was interviewed via Skype by Dan Schneider, author of the long-standing Cosmoetica Blog. I joined Dan and my skeptical colleague James Underdown of the Center For Inquiry and the Independent Investigations Group to discuss the question of the unexplained and how both skeptics and believers approach unexplained phenomena. It was a very fun and wide-ranging interview, and below is the link to the Youtube video that Dan uploaded. Check it out, and feel free to leave any feedback in the comments section below this post 🙂

Posted in aliens & UFOs, conspiracy theories, cryptozoology, ghosts & paranormal, internet, psychics, scientific method, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

XKCD: Evidence (or Lack Thereof) Wins Out

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 14, 2014

In a way that only that most famous of Internet comics can say it…

settled

‘Nuff said 🙂

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The Denver UFO: Yup, It’s Unidentified… So What Does That Mean?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 18, 2012

Over the last few days there has been a media sensation built up around a UFO in the Denver, Colorado area.  Here’s a closeup of the object in question:

Image source

The story has garned a great deal of attention, as evidenced by this video clip from a local news station…

Indeed, the news team does a so-so job of investigating this UFO, though there is a lot of sensationalizing in the report (surprise, surprise!), but there is one point I would like to emphasize in greater detail which this report totally glossed over.  That is the fact that this thing, whatever it is, is unidentified… as in Unidentified Flying Object.  Repeat after me three times: unidentified flying object… Unidentified flying object… UNIDENTIFIED flying object!!!

I want to be very clear on this point because, as I expected, the Internet is already abuzz with talk of alien spacecraft, government cover ups, and conspiracies galore.  And those leaping to this dubious conclusion (that the thing is “obviously not of this world”) are committing what is known as an argument from ignorance – that is, in one breath they will admit that we don’t have enough information to conclude what it is, but then in the next breath they will say, quite emphatically, that it HAS to be an alien spacecraft.

And such thinking contains a direct contradiction: the argument basically says that because we don’t know, then we know.  With reasoning as loose as this, one can “justify” the existence of leprechauns, Flying Spaghetti Monsters, or Invisible Pink Unicorns!  What the heck is wrong with saying “We don’t know” and just leaving it at that?

Incidentally, while the possibility of a plane or helicopter has been ruled out, it is likely that the object in question is a bug of some kind.  There is a very good article on this point over at the Illuminutti blog…

… OK – everybody now… it’s bugs.  This bug-UFO is especially bad because on some of the shots the insect actually hovers and moves around like an obvious insect. The videographer did not notice them because they were small fast-flying insects. Or perhaps they did notice the insects, but did not connect them to the unfocused black dots buzzing about on the video. It is also possible they know exactly what they are, but is just pranking  the local news station (hence the anonymity).

One or two shots in there are probably birds. You can see an apparent wing flap. Birds and bugs are common sources of UFO artifacts in the video age. They are small objects close to the camera that will appear as out-of-focus dots and streaks that can be mistaken (by the willful or truly incurious) for objects that are large and farther away. The fact that no one saw them live and there was no radar tracking should be a clue, but for the believer can just add to the mystery.

The lameness of this video being presented in breathless terms as a compelling UFO might have something to do with the declining interest in UFOs. Anyone with a genuine interest – enough to join a UFO group and try to find real evidence that UFOs are visiting ETs, would probably get tired of all the bugs and lanterns after a while. …

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

EVP Patrol Squad: When Parody is Indistinguishable from Woo

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 3, 2012

I just ran across this parody of the “History” Channel by some folks calling themselves the EVP Patrol Squad.  They are spoofing the various pseudoscientific “experts” that are regularly paraded out on that channel in favor of various ancient alien, paranormal, and ghostly claims.  The funny thing is that if you actually watch some of the stuff on the History Channel, it is so goofy that it almost seems that this is straight from one of their shows – so this is good evidence of Poe’s Law.  Enjoy! 🙂

I don’t know about you all, but I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to look a sporks the same again.  The horror… THE HORROR!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, ghosts & paranormal, humor, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Halloween: The Perfect Opportunity to Promote Skepticism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 27, 2011

My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: Halloween! 😀

I love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the decorations (when else can you be a complete freak and it be socially acceptable?) but also because of the wonderful potential for promoting skepticism and critical thinking about various paranormal claims.  Let’s face it: at this time of the year, ghosts, witchcraft, psychics, and various other kinds of woo are on everyone’s minds, so why not take advantage of that fact and use it to inject the skeptical viewpoint on things?  I have found this to be a very effective teaching technique over the years, so that’s why I pass it along to you.

So in the spirit of the season (pardon the pun), allow me to share with you some links to various Halloween-ish skeptical resources that you can use, including a few of my earlier blog posts on the subject…

A Skeptic’s Halloween

Snopes: Halloween Legends

South Park Spoofs “Ghost Hunters”

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, education, ghosts & paranormal, humor, magic tricks, physics denial/woo, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Secret Mars Base Discovered? Hmmm, No…

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 7, 2011

According to this story over at Space.com, there is an amateur astronomer claiming that he has discovered what he calls a “Base on Mars” in the following image that he downloaded from Google Mars…

All I can say is… are you kidding me?!  A grainy, fuzzy, and heavily pixelated image from Google Mars shows… what exactly?  Why couldn’t this be some kind of geological feature on Mars, or couldn’t some of the features be artifacts of the imaging process?  Why the rush to jump to “alien base on Mars” without any supporting evidence?  This sort of thing is on par with people using similar crappy-quality images to claim they’re looking at Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or seeing Jesus in the clouds.  Folks, it all boils down to that well documented phenomenon called pareidolia, because if there were decent high-resolution images available then it would be harder for people to see what they (consciously or not) want to see in the pictures.

Some more reasonable possibilities are suggested by some experts in the Space.com article:

“It looks like a linear streak artifact produced by a cosmic ray,” said Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Lab at the University of Arizona and the director of the Planetary Imaging Research Laboratory. McEwen is the principal investigator of the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a powerful telescope currently orbiting Mars.

Cosmic rays are extremely energetic particles emitted by the sun and other stars. For the most part, the Earth’s protective magnetosphere blocks them from hitting the planet’s surface, McEwen explained. “But with space images that are taken outside our magnetosphere, such as those taken by orbiting telescopes, it’s very common to see these cosmic ray hits. You see them on optical images and a lot of the infrared images too,” he told Life’s Little Mysteries. …

… The digital compression software that converts the image into a JPEG file then “sort of smears out the image, giving it that pixelated look,” McEwen said. What started as a clear streak in high-resolution turns into a streak that, in the armchair astronaut’s words, looks like it is “made up of cylinders.”

That, or this guy actually did discover an alien base on Mars.  I think you’d have to have a particularly dull Occam’s Razor to accept that conclusion, however.

 

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“The Skeptical Teacher” Makes List of Top Paranormal Skeptic Blogs

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 31, 2011

Time for me to toot my own horn a bit 🙂

Recently, my blog was listed atop the list of Top 25 Paranormal Skeptic Blogs from the PharmacyDegree.net website.  Actually, another reason why I wanted to share this information with you is because the list contains a large number of very useful links to other skeptical blogs.  Here it is…

Top 25 Paranormal Skeptic Blogs

Do you believe? Whether you’ve had a firsthand experience with the paranormal or seldom believe the ghost stories you heard as a kid, these are the blogs to turn to when you want a major myth or paranormal experience debunked. Some paranormal historians have made a career out of this and now blog on the topic to prevent folks from being spooked by events and reports that can be explained with pure logic…

Click here to access the entire list of blogs

Posted in aliens & UFOs, ghosts & paranormal, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 31, 2010

Every Halloween, when I’m not having fun at a party or handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, I like to take some time to listen to the 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” by Orson Welles. I do this for two reasons: 1) it’s a great story – full of suspense & the appropriate amount of spookiness for the season, and 2) it’s a wonderful lesson in skepticism.  In fact, it is perhaps the first, best example of a widespread media hoax (however intentional or unintentional it may have been) with ensuing mass hysteria that we have in the United States, because so many people tuned in and took the story of the Martian invasion of Earth literally.  Invaders from Mars?  It was no wonder there was a panic!

Having said that, I’d like to share with you two things:  the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast, and an excellent article by Joe Nickell on the various truths & myths concerning this event. Enjoy! 🙂

War of the Worlds by Orson Welles

Posted in aliens & UFOs | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

My Challenge to the Discovery Institute’s “Design Inference” Model

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 7, 2010

In an earlier blog post, I gave a detailed rebuttal to a lecture by the Discovery Institute’s Casey Luskin titled “Intelligent Design: Dead Science or the Future of Biology?” – however, it wasn’t until recently that I came up with what I consider to be the real killer criticism of a basic intelligent design argument: their so-called “design inference” model. During his talk, Casey Luskin showed a picture of Mount Rushmore, which he stated the design inference model shows is clearly a product of ID, not the result of natural processes.  The implication is, of course, that much of evolutionary science is false because ID’s design inference model can prove that ID is a better explanation; but there’s a fatal flaw here.

The basic argument is simply a variation of the classic watchmaker argument, which is essentially an argument from ignorance. Not to mention, Luskin has stacked the deck in favor of the ID design inference model because every time an ID-advocate trots out their model it is in the context of a post-hoc analysis: they already know ahead of time that the object/situation they’re analyzing is the product of intelligent (human) processes.  Hell, of course Mount Rushmore is the result of (human) ID, because we have records & photos of humans chipping away at the damn rock!  So they can’t lose – in this sense, the ID folks are proposing a non-falsifiable model, which makes it NON-science.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in aliens & UFOs, creationism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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