Monday, August 31, 2009

Doing The Paracast: Turnabout is Fair Play

by Karl Mamer

I put in a recent appearance on the August 30 episode of a podcast called The Paracast. The Paracast is a UFO-related podcast. Although we skeptics would classify it as a "woo" podcast, the hosts generally have their critical thinking ducks in a row. I reviewed the podcast for my brief Podcasting Without Pity feature here on The Amateur Scientist. In general, while the hosts (Gene Steinberg and David Biedny) tend to approach it from an angle we skeptics don't, they don't eat up everything shoveled at them. They know their guests are generally used to telling well-honed stories for the True Believers, and David and Gene ask some questions skeptics rarely get an opportunity to lob at the UFO "experiencers" ("So you say you were aboard a UFO for 10 hours? Why is it you never mention where went to the bathroom?").

The hosts Gene and David discovered my Podcasting Without Pity (PwP) review and asked me to be on their show. I readily agreed for many reasons. It's a podcast I enjoy, the hosts have good critical thinking skills, they're funny, and they coined one of my all-time favorite neologisms: "saucetard". In my PwP review I took a couple shots at them, and in private correspondence with the hosts I noted since I took a couple shots at them, I encouraged them to give me my lumps. I'm happy to dish it. And I'm happy to take it. The Amateur Scientist site is pretty ribald ("the dick jokes of skepticism") and my own Podcasting Without Pity feature picks up from there. What's important to remember, PwP is not meant to be taken as a voice of serious, sober skeptical debate. (This post, however, should be taken as such.)


Anyway, I had a lot of fun doing the podcast. When they mentioned we'd go about 1.5 hours I was thinking "what am I going to talk about for 1.5 hours?" I poke in a bit on the UFO debate but it's not my area of expertise. When the hosts mentioned "okay, that was it", I was thinking "so soon?"

Although David and Gene are great critical thinkers, we approach the subject of UFOs from two different angles.

Their position I think can be summed up thusly:

Sure there's a lot of smoke, but it seems reasonable that there is some fire.

Mine is:

We know you can make smoke without fire. So why can't it all be smoke?

I think David and Gene's position is probably best thought of as Fortean. Charles Fort was noted for being skeptical of both sides.

The Debate

The UFO debate basically boils down to two hypotheses. While some large percentage of UFO sightings can be explained, there exist some that can't be explained by known entities and, therefore, a new entity needs to be introduced to science, typically alien visitors. Some hesitate to put their dime down on "alien visitors" and maintain what I consider a wishy-washy position akin to the Intelligent Design crowd's position about who the intelligent designer is. Of course IDers believe it's the god of the Christian Bible but they don't want to say it. For the sake of this post, I'm going with the space alien hypothesis but understand it can well stand for any kind of unknown entity. (David and Gene are certainly not wishy-washy types, and when they claim they're not willing to put their dime down, I honestly believe they're not willing to put their dime down.)

The other hypothesis, the one I tried to articulate on the show, is the Occam's Razor line:

Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.

Before we invent a new entity (space aliens) to explain UFO sightings (even ones that seem to have no ready explanation), we need good evidence that there exists a sighting that can't be explained by the known entities:

1) Lying

2) Fallible human perception

3) Fallible human memory

4) Hoax

Many UFO proponents tend to misuse Occam's Razor by using in its popular (yet improper) definition: the simplest explanation is the best. They will argue that instead of trying to explain the UFO phenomenon with a patchwork of hoaxes, optical illusions, car headlights, and people spewing pure bullshit, a much simpler explanation is at hand: space aliens. Of course they will admit most sightings can be explained by the four known entities, but they think there are some sightings that need to be explained by a fifth unknown entity.

Science is littered with examples of people who rushed to invent a new entity like N Rays, a human energy field, severe autistics who actually have impressive IQ when their communication is facilitated, or psychic horses before more prosaic explanations were offered and then tested by critics.

Let's consider the known entities:


Many UFO proponents typically argue the straw man that skeptics are saying UFO witnesses are all liars (neither Gene nor David raised this point, I should note). There are, certainly, liars in UFOlogy. I dare say all those early UFO abductees from the 1950s and 1960s who claimed they were flown to Venus/Mars/the Moon and shown a planet inhabited by an advanced civilization might have been fibbing. Just a li'l. Their stories are, of course, preposterous now that we've sent probes to Venus, Mars, the moon, etc.

Many times it is pointed out by UFO proponents that certain witnesses would never lie. They have too much to lose. Hence, a police officer, a pilot, or even an astronaut would never lie. To that I have to point out crypto-zoologists had a lot of egg on their face following a recent Bigfoot hoax perpetrated by a cop. Some crypto-zoologists assumed a cop would never risk his career in a silly and transparent lie. I speak of the recent case of a Georgia police officer who, along with his friend, threw a Bigfoot costume in a chest of ice and claimed they had captured a sasquatch. Many people who invested with Bernie Madoff rejected claims by critics who thought Madoff was running a pyramid scheme. Madoff was the former head of NASDAQ. There was no way such an esteemed financier would be running an age-old and unsophisticated scam.

Lies may not necessarily start out to be lies. Who of us does not take a true story and make it better in the retelling? And more it gets retold, more embellished the story gets. A Skeptoid episode on the Rendlesham Forest UFO makes the case that some of the witnesses have embellished their stories over the years. The Roswell myth is full of embellished stories. As I noted on my Conspiracy Skeptic podcast with guest Brett Spurr, when your community's main industry is the Roswell legend and your neighbor's job depends on it, it behooves you to "recall" certain details that lend credibility to the whole myth.

In religious circles this is called pious fraud. It's not unknown for a priest to fake a crying statue of Mary in an attempt to bring people back to the fold. Or there was the case several years ago of Hindu holy men suddenly in possession of milk-drinking statues of Hindu gods.

Human Perception

I remember once in my school days I was working part time at a self-serve gas station near a busy intersection. I witnessed a car accident. A cop was on scene and asked me what I saw. I reported what I saw. The cop noted that the position of the cars made it impossible for my account to be correct. Was I lying? No. Your brain has a funny way, at times, of reconstructing events, preferring to overlay a familiar narrative. It's akin to how conquering nations tend to paint their history as having brought civilization, medicine, and art to their conquered neighbors. But the conquered people have a rather different interpretation of what they got out of the invasion.

The problem with perception is that before we perceive something, the raw stimulus on our eyes passes through a marvel of brain functions that have evolved over time, sometimes in a very klugey way. We can't possibly take in and process all the data coming into our brain via our eyes and ears (primarily) so our brain has evolved certain short cuts that favor our survival. The classic example is jumping at shadows. If you mistake a shadow for a tiger, you look foolish but live another day. If you mistake a tiger for a shadow, you don't live long.

Wiki has a great list of cognitive biases that come into regular play in the whole panoply of human endeavors and experience. Science recognizes these biases. Science is, in fact, a method to eliminate cognitive bias and achieve a result that is clear to all.

Magicians, of course, have long known and made use of these mental shortcuts to fool us. Scientific American has a great article about Teller (of Penn & Teller fame) working with neuroscientists to establish them in the lab.

UFO proponents also like to claim certain witnesses are more capable witnesses because they are trained observers. Pilots, we are told, are trained observers, and their perception of aerial phenomena can be considered gold plated testimony.

Now, no doubt people trained in some disciplines can see things the untrained can't. When I look at a painting, I see dogs playing poker. When my artist friend looks at a painting, he sees techniques, mistakes, short cuts the artist took, etc.

But outside of a person's specific discipline, are they generally better witnesses? That's an easily testable claim in a lab condition. Richard Wiseman has fooled many "trained observers" with this simple card trick.

James Oberg, an expert on the Soviet space program and a former NASA rocket scientist, has made the point that pilots are not very good UFO witnesses as they are trained to over interpret aerial phenomena to keep a plane safe from collisions. To rephrase, if you mistake Venus for a small plane and take evasive action, you look foolish. If you mistake a small plane for Venus, you're dead.

The Skeptical Inquirer magazine also makes the point that however well trained a pilot is, he'd have to be trained in about a half dozen fields to make him truly an expert observer of aerial phenomena. A pilot would need to have detailed knowledge of the following domains:


Atmospheric science



Physiology of Visual Illusions

Human Psychology

Visual Perception

Phil Plait, an astronomer who should know better, includes a story in his book Bad Astronomy of how he was fooled by a flock of ducks. Here is a story of how an astronomer was fooled by the moon. And here is another person thinking the moon was a UFO. If the moon and ducks can play tricks on even astronomers, why not pilots?

The trained observer claim is so central to UFOlogy (that pilots, say, are less likely to be fooled by things in the sky) I wonder why in all these decades no one in UFOlogy has ever tried to empirically demonstrate that claim. It seems common sense to some, but science has often demonstrated common sense is wrong. Relativity and quantum mechanics defy common sense. The Monty Hall Problem defies common sense as applied to probability. You don't, of course, have to write up the grant request like "we're trying to prove pilots can see space aliens!" This would be a study, I think, civil aviation would happy to fund. You want pilots to over interpret some threats, but you might not want them to over over interpret. A study that would help determine where to draw the line would be valuable.

Bottom line when anyone makes any claim about the supposed superior abilities of people in a given field, I say back it up empirically.


On the show we briefly touched on the idea of "flashbulb memory". Everyone knows where they were during 9/11. I showed my age, I think, by using the example of knowing where you were and what you were doing when John Lennon was shot. I was in my school's computer room, hunched over a Commodore PET computer. My flashbulb memory tells me I was playing a game called Nukewar. I will swear up n' down that I was playing Nukewar. But I could be wrong in that detail. An interesting study of flashbulb memory indicates our recall of details may not be as strong as we believe. As in all things involving human memory, our brain is selective about what it remembers, and we tend to fill in details that seem to comfortably complete the narrative. The researchers found that what distinguishes flashbulb memory from other memories isn't the accuracy but the level of certainty the person has in the accuracy. Of course, one can be certain about something, but wrong. I'm more certain of the details of what I did on 9/11 than two Saturdays ago, but research indicates this may not be the case.

Discover magazine has an excellent review of how, like perception bias, our memories are at times victims to the kludge nature of our brain. For example, there's evidence to indicate we alter our memories of events by recalling them. This would go a long way in explaining why key witnesses or secondary witnesses at Roswell seem to embellish the story over time.

It's easy to demonstrate that people can be made to remember things they never saw. For example, you give some people a list of random words and some a list of words of a similar theme like "bed night dream wake slumber yawn blanket clock rest calm tired". And then you test people if they remember seeing the word "breakfast" on their list. It's no surprise more people think they remember breakfast on the list of sleep related words than the random list. That's a very very simple example, of course. Researcher Elizabeth Loftus and others have done extensive research on how easy it is for humans to form false memories.

Many UFO stories, like Roswell, involve people trying to recollect events from several decades ago. Skeptoid does an excellent job of showing how the compelling testimony of Glenn Dennis about events that supposedly soon followed the alleged saucer crash were largely real events that happened over the space of several years. Dennis flattened out the time line and made real events that happened years after fit the established myth.


The final known entity to consider is the flat out hoax. Crop circles, for example, are done by tricksters all the time. Floating Chinese lanterns are another favorite way to fool the sky watchers. Recently some hoaxers pulled off one over the town of Morristown, NJ. Some UFO researchers quite firmly declared this could not be a hoax.

Some UFO proponents claim hoaxes like crop circles are far too elaborate to be pulled off by humans. However, as the Museum of Hoaxes shows us, people will go to great lengths to hoax others for no other reason than for shits n' giggles. To wit, never underestimate what 3 clever second-year engineering students stressed out by studying can pull off on a Saturday night.

So, lies, human fallibility inherent in memory and perception, and hoaxes are part of the human experience, and it's silly to think they are not part of the UFO phenomenon. As I said, David and Gene acknowledge that. However, I think they would contend there are some cases that have not been well documented as a hoax, a lie, or a trick of perception/memory. I think they're careful enough that they don't then shout "it's a dine-in invasion by flesh eating reptoids!" but from their POV, it's compelling evidence there's an undiscovered entity out there. Keep watching the skies n' all.

Now, I would argue just because we cannot definitively explain an encounter by one of my known entities doesn't mean that it is not a result of one of my known entities. It can be the case there is simply not enough evidence to make a definitive explanation. Life is like that. There are plenty of plane crashes that never have a definitive explanation. We cannot then go "ah, they crashed into a UFO." A gap in our knowledge is just that. A gap. A gap is usually a good start for a hypothesis, but one doesn't simply plug a gap with a great just-so story and then walk away from the table. That's when the hard work begins in science.

Of course, when I can invoke "maybe the person was fooled by a hoax" it might seem a bit like creationists who can always invoke God to explain any breaches in their logic. The principle difference is the creationist has to invoke an unknown entity. A skeptic is merely asking a person with a UFO claim to reasonably eliminate known entities.

Science Can Resolve This

While it might strike some as ludicrous that a critic can always say "hoax", "lie," "false memory," "misidentification," etc, when you're proposing a new entity, you really do need to eliminate all possible objections. The guys who won a Nobel prize for discovering cosmic background radiation with their radio telescope had to methodically eliminate all possible known causes of an omni-directional signal before they could present a new entity. Someone suggested it could be bird droppings on their telescope. Instead of laughing off this objection or calling them ridiculous, they simply rolled up their sleeves, got some mops, and scrubbed out the bird poop. Every radical idea in science was met by a plethora of objections and objections over the minutest details. Einstein railed against quantum mechanics for a good long time, trying every trick in the book to demonstrate QM was fundamentally flawed. QM won the day and no one accused Einstein of being unreasonable. Good scientists, of course, first try to anticipate all the objections and control for those, but good scientists realize being too close to their own work they might miss something. It's important to get their peers to review their work and suggest alternatives they might have missed.

So in the debate, it would seem like we're at the beginning. If Gene and David present 20 accounts from astronauts and pilots seeing something in the skies or in space that they cannot identify, I'm still not going to accept a new entity. I need them to eliminate hoaxes et al. In science, when you have two camps who look at the same evidence and come away with different conclusions, those camps eventually come up with a definitive experiment that will resolve the issue. And it's not really that complicated in UFOlogy. Zoology has had the definitive experiment for a long, long time.

What UFO proponents are ultimately doing is proposing a new animal. Consider someone proposes there is a dinosaur in the Congo or the ivory billed woodpecker has not gone extinct. The evidence consists of eye witness accounts by very reasonable biologist. In biology, however, eyewitness accounts are not good enough. The only evidence you can offer to get your hypothesized creature into the taxonomy is bringing in a body. Of course with space aliens, it doesn't have to be a body. It could as easily be a hunk of metal from a UFO. A hunk of metal from another planet would be easy to determine based on different isotopes. So, there is no animal in the Great Book of All Knowledge that has got an entry without a person first bringing in a body (living or dead). Some UFO believers don't want to play by the rules, because science is hard. Real hard. They want to be given a pass. Space aliens are too smart for our shotguns. UFOs never drop a nut or bolt. We do have bodies and space ships, but there's a powerful conspiracy that has managed to keep it all out of our hands for five decades. The excuses are never ending and seem to be about insulating a belief from falsification.

Are Skeptics Fundies?

At some point during the debate, David suggested I was being like a fundamental religious person (one of the lumps I asked them to whack me with). The analogy is poor because a skeptic and a fundamentalist Christian (or any other fundamentalist religious believer) approach a claim from two different positions. A Christian might reject evolution because if evolution were true (which it is), it means his religious belief in a literal Genesis account is false. Since everything he believes in morally flows from that, he cannot abide contrary evidence. More importantly, a Christian can never articulate what level of evidence it would take to falsify his belief.

On the other hand, most skeptics I know (including me), would welcome solid evidence of space aliens (like a body or saucer tech). Holy cats, that's an egg on my face I would happily wear. And skeptics can easily articulate our goal post. I would be bouncing off the walls ecstatic if someone published in Nature a paper calling a strange IC found in a person's abdomen of alien manufacture. I personally can't imagine a Christian being particularly happy if it was proven Jesus' mummified corpse was found in the basement of the Vatican.

A better example of a true "skeptic" who actually is a fundamentalist is an HIV "skeptic" I was arguing with. He claimed HIV had never been isolated. He suggested if this claim were true, someone should have won a Nobel prize for it. A few months later Luc Montagnier was awarded a Nobel prize for ... the discovery of HIV. When I pointed out his goal post had been met, he tried to argue the Nobel prize wasn't awarded for HIV isolation. Errr. No. The Nobel prize was. They were awarded the Nobel on the strength of their paper "Isolation of a T-Lymphotropic Retrovirus from a Patient at Risk for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome". You can't get much more goal post-y than that.

Anyway, in each of my podcasts I take care to lay out exactly what would falsify my belief that the conspiracy doesn't exist. Again, that's what any open minded scientist would do, not what a person holding tightly to a religious view would do.

The other lump, which I thought quite clever, was the suggestion that if I were alive in the 19th century, I would be the kind of person denying people are made of atoms. (I think this was posed after I quipped "I'll believe it when I see it.") I didn't quite get to answer, because I first had to back up and establish a point about how science is a long chain of answering the question "how do we know that?" The answer is, of course, yes. Because at that point there was no evidence of atoms. I would have been a person saying "Hmmm an interesting idea, and it would be cool, but you have no evidence that these atoms exist. Come back to me when you do. Until then I will not form a belief." I would also, of course, be the person who didn't believe in a succubus or witches. Skeptics do not reject anything, they simply want a good chain of evidence.

Three Best Cases

Over the course of the show Gene and David presented me with what they felt (or I think they felt) were their three best UFO cases:

1) Astronaut Gordon Cooper's sighting

2) Kelly "Skunkworks" Johnson's UFO sighting

3) The Skylab 3 sighting

I think they were disappointed I didn't have much technical knowledge of these cases and it would have made for a far more interesting show if they had mentioned they would grill me on these cases before we cracked open some mikes. I certainly would have prepared. The show probably took a pretty boring turn at that point when I had to repeat basically for each case name/rank/serial number. If I were investigating these cases, I'd first want to eliminate things like hoax and failures of perception. I did promise I would look into them and get back to them.

Hence after about 9 pages of introduction, that's what I'm doing now. Getting back to them about their three UFO cases.

Let's take them in order.

Cooper's Sighting

The late Gordon Cooper was one of the original Mercury astronauts. He was a pretty firm believer in UFOs and ETs. Let me quote Wiki on the Cooper sighting:

In 1957, when Cooper was 30 and a captain, he was assigned to Fighter Section of the Experimental Flight Test Engineering Division at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He acted as a test pilot and project manager. On May 3 of that year, he had a crew setting up an Askania-camera precision landing system on a dry lake bed. This camera system would take pictures at one frame per second as an aircraft landed. The crew consisted of James Bittick and Jack Gettys who began work at the site just before 0800, using both still and motion picture cameras. According to his accounts, later that morning they returned to report to Cooper that they saw a "strange-looking saucer" like aircraft that did not make a sound either on landing or take off.

According to his accounts, Cooper realized that these men, who on a regular basis have seen experimental aircraft flying and landing around them as part of their job of filming those aircraft, were clearly worked up and unnerved. They explained how the saucer hovered over them, landed 50 yards away from them using three extended landing gears and then took off as they approached for a closer look. Being photographers with cameras in hand, they of course shot images with 35mm and 4-by-5 still cameras as well as motion film.

The Wiki account seems to differ with the account presented to me on the podcast. The hosts claimed Cooper witnessed a craft land in front of him and his crew, extend landing pads, and then zip away. Oddly, the Wiki page makes no mention of Cooper having seen the vehicle, only Cooper reporting something second hand.

But let's assume Cooper did claim to have seen something. So, Cooper sees something unusual in the skies at an experimental flight test airbase? You don't say. On the podcast I suggested it might be a VTOL type craft. The hosts pointed out Cooper said the craft made no sound. A Harrier jump jet, of course, would make a lot of sound.

James Oberg (the former space historian noted previously) has researched the Cooper UFO sighting quite a bit. You'll find his extensive report here.

While Cooper claims to have seen the craft touch down, his co-witness Gettys has a different take:

"I am amazed that Gordon Cooper said the object landed -- as far as I know, he never even saw it.... His story sounds kind of funny to me."

Hmmm. Who to believe? Why should we believe Cooper's account anymore so than Gettys'?

There appear to be even more problems and inconsistencies with Cooper's account and Gettys'.

[Cooper's] claim to have been the boss of the cameramen (Bittick and Gettys) was disputed by Gettys and by the man who was Cooper's boss at the time, as well as by the young AF officer who documented the case for Blue Book. The UFO drifted slowly past the cameramen's position, never extended legs, never landed, never soared out of sight. A thoroughly documented prosaic explanation for the sighting (in May 1957, not '1955') was found and published soon after the event. The report (Case #4715) and all the film wound up in the Blue Book files where any competent and honest researcher could have accessed them.

In one interview (with Omni magazine) Cooper disavows seeing the thing in the first place:

"I'd just as soon not get into the Edwards incident. I didn't get to see anything personally, it was all second hand evidence really."

This page seems to indicate Cooper didn't witness the UFO itself but supposedly saw a film of it.

Well, who knows what he saw and how he was able to judge size, speed, etc. in potentially grainy footage filmed from who knows what perspective. Like, you know the actor who played Frodo wasn't actually 3' tall. He only appeared smaller than Gandalf by using forced perspective. And were movie cameras used to film landings rigged to record sound? I would imagine it would be an unnecessary expense to buy and process sound recording film. Assuming silent film footage, I have no clue why the claim that the vehicle made no sound is an extraordinary claim.

The sighting was filed with Project Blue book and investigated. It was thought to be a weather balloon known to be passing Cooper's position at the time. Weather balloons have fooled many experienced pilots and military men. And they're quite silent. Against a sky that doesn't let you judge scale, it can appear to be doing any kind of odd maneuver your brain sees fit to interpret.

So it would appear there is a known entity, there are two conflicting versions of events, and Cooper's account isn't backed up by a co-witness. His only role in being an eye witness is a claim to have seen film footage that's rather conveniently disappeared.

On the podcast, David wondered what Cooper's motivation would be. The implication is an astronaut has a lot to lose. However, it's quite reasonable that Cooper, a firm believer in UFOs, is years after the fact recalling a story told to him. As Oberg points out, he's embellished his story over the years and he seems to have a big motivation for telling tall UFO tails.

A couple select quotes from the two Oberg PDFs I've linked to above:

Quote 1:

A plausible hypothesis might be that he enjoyed visiting UFO conventions and talk shows, and liked the reception his stories got. He didn't have many other people who wanted to see him, by then -- he'd burned all his bridges to NASA and to the space community after naively campaigning on behalf of a number of aviation industry scams that cost people more than two million dollars. He lost his own money, too -- he wasn't one of the fakers, just their tool -- and victim, too.

Quote 2:

By some lucky breaks, I was able to locate the cameramen, the officer who did the interviews for Project Blue Book, and the base historian, who confirmed that the landing of the object was a wide rumor at the time. But the films -- which are still in the Blue Book files and can be found by any investigator -- only show the object drifting slowly, right along with the wind, and leading directly away from the site where it had been inflated and released by a weather station a few minutes earlier. And the cameramen, still believing it was unexplainable, were astonished to hear from me that Gordon Cooper had even been on the base at the time -- they hadn't known it, and they were sure he hadn't been their boss.

Sorry, given all that, the null hypothesis should not be thrown out quite yet on the Cooper case.

Kelly Johnson's UFO sighting

I've read quite a bit about Kelly Johnson. He's the legendary genius behind the Skunk Works, the U2 spy plane, and the SR-71 "Blackbird" spy plane. Again another "trained observer" who should have no reason to lie and with some supposed expertise in watching the skies. As David and Gene explained it on the podcast, Johnson and another group of witnesses some distance away saw a large object doing the typical amazing aerial maneuvers (hovering and then zipping away at what appears to be high speed). The two groups were able to triangulate the position of the UFO. I was told by the hosts that Kelly Johnson himself calculated the UFO zipped away at hundreds of Gs of acceleration.

Based on my research I can find no official claim from Johnson about the G calculation other than a UFO documentary that aired on Canada's Space channel. The documentary offers no expert witness who can vouch for that figure. Sounds cool but someone could have just as likely pulled it out of their ass for a nice TV sound bite.

Take a look at a cloud in the sky. Do you have any idea how far away that cloud is? How big it is? And think about how hard it is to judge speed. I used to work in an office across from a runway at Toronto's airport. Once one of those huge huge huge ass Russian cargo planes was taxiing to take off. The 737 before it just tore up that runway and blazed away into the sky. When the Russian cargo plane was cleared for take off, it looked like I could have outpaced it in a quick jog. You swore the thing was moving at 10 mph. At the last second it appeared to just leap into the air.

What was going on? Well, when you don't have good visual cues and you're comparing smaller objects moving to large objects moving, the smaller object always seems to be going faster. You might have seen this at an airshow. A little jet just zips through the air while a B52 seems to lumber. Both are likely flying at the same airspeed but your eye has only one clue to determine speed: how quickly does the object cover its own length in distance. An F16 going at the same speed as a B52 covers its own smaller length a lot quicker. Hence it appears to be going faster.

The sighting was filed with Project Bluebook and it was concluded the sighting was most likely a lenticular cloud. David suggest since they reported a black object and lenticular clouds cannot be black, the cloud hypothesis is incorrect. This lenticular cloud is identified as "black". So it would appear it's possible. Here are a couple more. Blue Book ruled thusly "First appeared as a black stationary cloud, then rapid movement in long shallow climb."

This site has a good write up although it claims the weather conditions for that day do not support the cloud hypothesis. Beyond merely stating this as true, the site provides no back up for that claim.

Sklyab 3

I believe Gene and David explained this one to me as Skylab 3's astronaut Owen Garriott (if that last name sounds familiar it's because he's the father of Lord British aka Richard Garriott) saw a massive UFO in orbit, which he calculated to be something like 1,000 feet long. No space agency puts up craft 1,000 feet long (at least not in one piece) so therefore what could it be? *wink* *wink*

I wondered at the time if Garriott had seen (and apparently photographed) such a huge object in orbit, as a scientist, why he didn't write it up and submit it to an appropriate scientific journal. Garriott is, after all, a legit scientist who specialized in the ionosphere. Finding something big in the ionosphere is kind right up his alley. He understands things like publishing and peer review. David and Gene suggested he didn't publish because he wanted to keep on being an astronaut. Well, as the two cases above show, Cooper was able to report a UFO and got to be one of America's first astronauts. Johnson reported a UFO and went on record early in his career as believing in UFOs and he got put in charge of some of America's most secret aircraft. Heck, Jimmy Carter reported a UFO and he got to be president. It doesn't strike me as being a career limiting move necessarily.

I noted too on the show that you don't have to go running around screaming the Mayan sky gods have returned. Scientists are extremely careful in what they claim. For example, Einstein published relativity (one of the most paradigm busting concepts ever) under the relatively (ha) staid title "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies".

A man who straps himself onto a Saturn rocket I can't believe is then so pussy as not to write up something he found rather amazing in space for an appropriate scientific journal.

Researching the Skylab 3 UFO, despite David's claim Garriott claimed to have seen/calculated an 800-1000' object I can find no claims by Garriott about the size of the object. When he photographed it he thought he was looking at a large reddish satellite. Others have, however, interpreted Garriott's photographic anomaly as being a giant object in space, notably UFO researcher Bruce Maccabee. He published his own analysis here. He publishes it along with co-author Brad Sparks.

Based on Maccabee's assumptions, he calculates the object to be over 336 feet ("or more"). That's not quite 1,000 feet mentioned to me in the podcast but still no one launches mere satellites of that size. (It could be I'm not reading his analysis correctly, however.) The only mention I can find about its size using the 1000' figure is by co-author Sparks who claims it to be 800-1000 feet for the Space channel "documentary".

James Oberg (that guy again) is not impressed by Maccabee's calculations. If one assumes the bulk of the image is camera fault, then it's well within a conventional satellite dimensions. If you examine the photos, the first three are a small point of light. The last is this weird Y-chromosome shaped thing. I don't know why the last can't be a point of light stretched by camera motion on the final photo. The NASA photo index (see link below) of the mission photos itself lists two blurred photos before the "UFO" photos and one blurred photo after. The Skylab crew basically shot with a hand held camera using a telephoto lens pointed at a porthole window. They were shooting in a low light situation. Garriott took several shots and might have been using a technique called "bracketing". You shoot at least one shot at a slower shutter speed than the camera might recommend in case the recommended shutter speed is incorrect. A slower shutter speed, of course, means it's more likely to be subject to motion blur. Note as well the Y-chromosome shot is brighter than the others, well in keeping with a shot using a longer exposure time.

Garriot's initial assessment of the object was it was a satellite. NASA as well identifies the images of being a satellite in its own index of photos from the mission (see page 41 images 2138-2141). This isn't even a UFO, as it's been identified by NASA as a satellite. Of course Maccabee's page argues it couldn't be a satellite. But then I've seen nothing that indicates Garriott has changed his mind or even believes it is now unidentified. I'm sure Garriott has been made aware of Maccabee's claims. I find it hard to believe an atmospheric scientist like Garriott, someone who should be able to understand when something very big and very out of place is zipping above the atmosphere he's dedicated his career to studying, would still stick to his satellite assessment if Maccabee's findings were so compelling.

Finally back in the time of Skylab 3, no one knew about "sprites" and "elves", which are not what they sound like. They describe large scale red-colored electrical discharges. These high atmosphere electrical blobs were not discovered until 1989. Check out the picture on Wiki. If you didn't know about sprites and elves you might think you had photographed a classic mothership. I don't think the Skylab 3 photo is an elf or sprite. I think the Skylab photographs represent several seconds of time and electrical discharges of this type appear to last less than a second. The point I'm making, however, is as lay people, you might be mighty impressed by a photo of a sprite and think you're looking at something solid, real, and unexplainable.

But, I dunno, maybe Maccabee's assumptions are correct. This is why peer review is so important. Instead of publishing his findings on a web site in an oddly unreadable font, why doesn't he submit it to a journal? Maccabee has a Ph.D. in physics. He must be familiar with how science is done. Maccabee makes no UFO claim or even a claim it's a solid object. Maybe he's discovered a new atmospheric phenomenon like a sprite or elf. If his assumptions are correct, he robs real science of scientific thought where they look for it the most: in the published literature.

As I've noted before in my Conspiracy Skeptic podcast on the "Big Science" conspiracy, science does provide scientists venues to present controversial research. Real scientists do this all the time. When a real scientist suddenly sidesteps the peer review process and takes his research straight to the public, to me that's a huge red flag. It's a bit like Steven E. Jones, a former legit physics professor who keeps taking his thermite claims about 9/11 to the public instead of submitting to a legit journal or presenting before a scientific conference of his peers. At scientific conferences, notably, anyone who is a member of the society is generally allowed to present any research without peer review. Scientific conferences are generally places where scientist present their ideas and get other scientists to pick them apart before they attempt to write up a formal paper for submission. Jones, however, has not even done that but instead either takes his thermite claims directly to 9/11 "truthers" or publishes in low grade "pay for play" vanity journals that claim "peer review" but will pretty much publish anything as long as you pay the fee. (The journal publisher who accepted Jones' thermite paper recently accepted a nonsense paper created by a computer script.)


We've got three "best cases" (or three "good cases") but even a cursory investigation shows plausible alternatives. Whatever is behind these cases, the onus is always on the person making the claim that there exists a new entity to provide compelling evidence the new entity exists and empirically eliminate other explanations. Simply not having a ready explanation does not allow one to logically invoke a new entity. I would welcome hard evidence of space aliens visiting earth. Until such time, space aliens are not on my list of things that exist. I don't believe in them but I don't disbelieve.

Dr. Steve Novella of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast once commented that parapsychologists and skeptical scientists both look at the same data for ESP but come away with very different conclusions. Parapsychologists find the results compelling evidence for ESP. Skeptical scientists don't. Parapsychologists rarely ask themselves why skeptics don't find the data compelling, preferring to believe skeptics are afraid of the implications, have a religious devotion to the ruling paradigm etc. (all the while ignoring skeptics saying quite openly they would LOVE compelling evidence for ESP). Skeptical scientists will say with complete honesty they just don't see particularly significant results: small effect sizes over thousands of trials, difficultly in replicating other's positive results, when you tighten up the controls the effect goes away or approaches chance. They're not being closed minded. They're just trying to keep people from wasting time on the equivalent of N Rays.

The same goes for the UFO debate. UFO believers see cases like Skylab or Cooper's "sighting" as compelling evidence for the existence of UFOs. Skeptics such as myself see anecdotal evidence. As the maxim goes, the plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data.

All in all, I'm grateful to Gene and David for a chance to express my views and have my views challenged by two podcasters with great critical thinking chops. I hope they'll have me on again so we can debate the merits of these cases further.

Karl Mamer is host of The Conspiracy Skeptic podcast, a 12 part look at conspiracies of today and the not too distant past. Karl is also the world's greatest living proponent of Franglais. He also likes to bait Nigerian Bank Scammers and hosted his own podcast about teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Karl lives in Toronto, Canada and works as a senior technical writer to pay the bills.

Here be Dragon*Con!

It's that time of year again. Later this week, thousands upon thousands of nerds, geeks, furries, and geeky nerd furries will be descending upon the great city of Atlanta, Georgia for Dragon*Con. Like last year, Skepticality's Derek Colanduno has masterminded a weekend's worth of skeptical programming for the second annual Skeptrack. This year's lineup includes appearances by The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe's Steve Novella and Rebecca Watson, Skeptoid's Brian Dunning, Point of Inquiry's D.J. Grothe, Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait, and Mythbusters' Adam Savage, among many, many more.

And on Sunday, Sept. 6th at 11pm, The Amateur Scientist Podcast will be recording live from the con with special guest co-host Christian Walters and special guest guest Jeff Wagg of the James Randi Educational Foundation. Fun! Excitement! Prizes! Orgies? Maybe!

Plus, starting this Thursday, you can check back here for daily video updates featuring special appearances by some of your favorite skeptics, furries, nerds, geeks, and skeptically geeky nerd furries.

You've been warned.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Five Easy Proofs

Former Amateur Scientist Podcast co-host and current AmateurScientist.org pal Richard Peacock runs an educational website all about evolution called Evolution FAQ. Bet you didn't know that, did you? Well you should, because it's a great resource for all the ammunition you need in your petty slap fights with creationists. To that end, Richard has just posted a list of five simple proofs of evolution, and I think you should take a look. Remember them. Carve them into stone tablets if you have to. And just for shits and giggles, smash those stone tablets to the ground whenever you see your brother worshiping a golden calf. Here's the link.

Boo! Broom

So, there's a broom standing straight up inside a yet-to-open Montgomery, Alabama consignment shop. The owner of the shop says the broom was leaning against some furniture, but when the furniture was moved, the broom stayed in place. Now, people from all around are coming to investigate the mysterious broom. There isn't any glue on the bristles, and no magnets or wires hold it in place. Push on its handle, and it just wobbles a bit. Unless you push it harder. In which case, it falls over. Try standing it up in other parts of the building, and you won't be able to. Well, it'll stand in some other parts of the building. But not many! A local paranormal investigation group spend a couple of hours investigating the broom, since it's obviously being held upright by disembodied spirits. They looked over the consignment shop as well as surrounding buildings. One of them went to the bathroom, and the lights went out. But their president, Jake Bell, has a more mundane explanation. "I just think it balances that way," he said. What a killjoy. More details here.

Space Babies May Not Work

Space. An awesome expanse of light and fury. A window into a world of infinite complexity and beauty. And, of course, a place where we'd like to fuck. But while the weightlessness of space may not be that big a hindrance to getting it on (as long as there are plenty of handles and/or Velcro around), it might not be so good for the product of unsafe sex. No, not gonorrhea. Worse. I'm talking about kids. Scientists have tried fertilizing various animals in space to a lot of success. But when it comes to embryonic development after fertilization, the bag becomes a little more mixed. To study the effects of weightlessness on mammalian embryos, scientists placed embryonic mice in a three-dimensional clinostat, a machine that mimics weightlessness by spinning around like a motherfucker. Turns out these embryos had a harder time developing that the non-spinning control group. This may be because animals are genetically adapted to cellular development in a gravity well, or the scientists could have just screwed something up when twirling around embryos and subsequently jamming them into an empty uterus. While the first possibility is probably more likely, the second is infinitely more hilarious. More details here.

Executing the Innocent

A new scientific investigation into the evidence used to convict and eventually execute Cameron Todd Willingham has shown that the Texas justice system may have killed an innocent man. The Texas Forensic Science Commission commissioned the investigation by Hughes Associates, Inc., which looked into the scientific evidence that Willingham actually set the fire that burned down his house and killed his children. Though Willingham was convicted of arson and murder, the new investigation found no reason to believe the fire was purposefully set. Not only that, but the fire marshal in charge of the original investigation didn't understand very much about the science of fires at all. In addition to being convicted based on no evidence, Willingham also suffered the testimony of a fellow prisoner who claimed Willingham confessed to the murders in private. Funnily enough, supposed prison snitches are often used to help convict accused murderers. The damage has already been done, of course, even if the state concludes Willingham should never have been executed or even convicted. But it would be the first time a state body has shown that an execution was carried out in error, which may finally put an end to the irrational, unscientific, and barbaric practice of capital punishment. Either that, or death penalty proponents will try to muddy the issue by pointing out that Willingham was probably a wife-beating douchebag. Unfortunately, they'd be right in that accusation. More details here and here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fat, Sad Gamers

Another day, another study about people who play video games. Hey, I'm one of those! (Xbox Live Gamertag/PSN ID: AmSci) In the past year or so, I've heard that I'm prone to violence, not prone to violence, in better shape than most people, and prone to sedentary habits. It's all very confusing. But a new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hopes to put all those previous studies to rest. Well, until there's another study. The CDC (and P!) looked at 552 adults from the Seattle area and found that about 49% of them were gamers. The average age worked out to around 35, and these people also tended to be overweight, introverted, and possibly depressed. Female gamers in particular demonstrated a tendency toward depression, leading researchers to believe that they play games for emotional escape more than men do. Frankly, I don't put a lot of trust into this study. Gamers run a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and a lot of that has to do with the kinds of games they play. People who play sports games, for instance, might not fall into the same categories as people who play party or puzzle games. For all we know, these fat, sad people are all playing World of Warcraft! I'd apologize for making such a sweepingly insulting statement about World of Warcraft players, but I'm under no delusion they pause from their guild runs to read this site. More details here.

Batty, Batty Bachmann

Republican representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is a bit of a loon. Sure, that sounds like a quick and easy insult, but I don't use the word lightly. There are plenty of people with idiotic political beliefs who are otherwise balanced, intelligent, rational human beings. But then there are those like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann. They seem to be both wrong and batshit insane. Worse, Bachmann apparently believes she's been placed in office directly by God to combat health-care reform, because there's nothing Jesus spoke against more than free trips to the hospital. On a virtual "town hall" conference call with fellow insane people like Rep. Virginia Foxx (who called Matthew Shepard's murder a hoax), Bachmann suggested that the Democrats might force all doctors to perform abortions and that the best way to defeat health-care reform is with prayer, fasting, and "actions". I find this particularly disturbing since President Obama seems to have misplaced his balls of late, and it's looking unlikely a massive health-care bill will even pass. Which means Bachmann and her mad, mad ilk will be able to claim this defeat for the power of whispering to imaginary people and not eating stuff. This is why I'm also going to predict the failure of health-care reform, only I'm going to claim it's because I switched to boxer briefs. There's plenty of bullshit to go around, so feel free to rope off your own little pile as well. More details here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Are Bibles Bigger in Texas?

A new Texas law requires that all public schools in the state offer some sort of Bible-as-literature elective in their curriculum this year. And while it would be nice if this was an attempt to educate children about the important of the Bible in the development of Western civilization and culture (try understanding all of Shakespeare's references without knowing at least something about biblical myths [or semen]), that's probably not going to be the case. In defending the law, one public school social studies teacher said, "The purpose of a course like this isn't even really to get kids to believe it, per se, it is just to appreciate the profound impact that it has had on our history and on our government." Seems fair until you consider the fact that anyone who believes the Bible had much of an impact on the creation of American government obviously doesn't know much about history. The fact is that these laws are end-runs around the constitution. These classes aren't designed to teach students what the Bible is so much as how great it is. And unless there are similar laws requiring the teaching of other important religious texts, it's fair to call bullshit on the Texas Board of Education, a body which has repeatedly proven itself to be as interested in promoting real knowledge as The Disney Channel is in promoting good music. More details here.

Women Still Second Class Afghanis

Earlier this year, Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai withdrew a bill that would have required Muslim women in the country to put out for their husbands at least once every four days or be legally raped. Karzai withdrew the bill because the world read it and shouted a collective WTF. But politics being politics, Karzai has to please the conservative Shia base. After all, there's an election coming up. But unlike American conservatives, who are only interested in keeping gays from marrying and making sure you can't afford to see someone about that weird looking mole, Afghani conservatives want to take away all the rights of dirty, dirty women. As such, Karzai has allowed an amended version of the bill to pass into law. Now, men in Afghanistan are allowed to starve their wives for withholding sex, women have to receive their husbands' permission to get a job, and fathers and grandfathers have sole custody of all children. Ain't that swell? And by "swell" I mean "devaluing the deaths of every soldier who was killed fighting the Taliban". More details here.

The Curse of the Deformed Baby

Here we go again. A baby in a remote Nepalese village was born with an attached parasitic twin. Because the twin has no head, it looks like the baby has four arms and four legs. And because critical thinking skills have yet to be taught the world over, thousands of people believe the baby may be an incarnation of the Hindu god Ganesh. That wouldn't necessarily be so bad. Well, except for the fact that the baby's family has to put up with a bunch of rabid rubbernecking pilgrims when they're just trying to work and take care of their kid. But some don't believe the baby is a god on Earth so much as a plague on society. One local Hindu priest has said he believes the baby is a punishment on its mother for sins she committed in a past life and is the reason the monsoon rains are late this year. This is just another helpful reminder that anyone who believes in karma has to also believe that cripples deserve it. In addition to the pain she felt from carrying such an unusually shaped baby to term, the mother, Januk Ghimire also had to suffer under the fear that she might be murdered as a witch for birthing a deformed child. Consistency in their nuttiness, apparently, isn't her neighbors' strong suit. Ghimire and her husband would like to just take their child for surgery to remove the excess limps, but they obviously can't afford it. And I'm sure their HMO has tried to pass off the god-devil-witch baby as a pre-existing condition. More details here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Shirt!

This is the final design for the Amateur Scientist Podcast shirt I will be handing out to a lucky few at this year's Dragon*Con (Sept. 4-7, Atlanta, GA). Yes, that is Charles Darwin fending off a giant squid with a lightsaber. Be jealous.

Thanks to Alan Barrett, who was kind enough to create this amazing design for us. If you have any graphic art needs, send them his way. He's already proven himself to you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Psychic on the Lam

A self-proclaimed psychic (is there any other kind?) going by the name Senora Monica claimed she could read your tarot cards or palms, interpret your dreams, reunite you with your lost love, cure your problems in the sack, cure your nervousness, help you find a job, and treat you for drug and alcohol addiction. All with the power of her MIND! And that's not all. She also claimed to perform spells, counter spells, and love spells. This woman's so useful, you might as well call her Slapchop. But some people who went to Senora Monica for tarot readings were also dupes into giving her their money so that she might "cleanse" it in exchange for a small fee. What they didn't realize that the small fee was actually all of their money. And she didn't so much "cleanse" it as "run off with it". Now police are on the hunt for her. If you have any information about Senora Monica's whereabouts, please call Lakewood police at 253-830-5000. And if you're ever tempted to hand over some cash so it can be psychically cleansed, please slap yourself in the mouth. More details here.

Hitting the Helpless

According to a new study by Human Rights Watch and the ACLU, of the 200,000 public school students in the U.S. who are swatted, spanked, or otherwise thrashed for being assholes, a disproportionate number are kids with developmental disabilities. While most states have outlawed smacking kids around, 20 states still allow principals to pack paddles in their pockets. Researchers analyzed Department of Education data and discovered that 19% of students who received corporal punishment in the '06-'07 school year were listed as having disabilities. Only 14% of all students are reported to be in any way disabled. Data on whether corporal punishment even works to improve childhood behavior is sketchy, but it looks to be negative. Though we all know excessive paddlers are less interested in straightening kids out than they are with swatting all those succulent young bottoms. More details here. Note especially the quote from a school principal in Bastrop, Louisiana, which is only a few miles from where I live. His argument, essentially, is that we're not sure whether corporal punishment works, but it's better than nothing. Well said.

Rock Watch

NASA is supposed to be keeping a lookout on the deadly asteroids hurtling toward Earth and threatening to destroy us all. And with both Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis aging by the day, we'll soon be left totally defenseless. But even though the government has tasked NASA with the job, they may not have been receiving the kinds of resources they need to get it done. According to a new National Academy of Sciences report, NASA is supposed to identify 90% of all the potentially catastrophic asteroids headed our way by 2020, but they haven't been given enough money to built the necessary telescopes for rock spotting. NASA estimates they need $800 million to accomplish the 90% goal, and it's not looking likely they'll get that kind of cash. After all, we've got some clunkers to buy. More details here.


Depending on whom you believe, President Obama's vision for health care reform is either going to lead the U.S. into a socialist nightmare of emergency room waiting lists and treatment rejection for people who need care the most, or THAT'S THE FUCKING SYSTEM WE ALREADY HAVE! Excuse me. Anyway, there's a fair amount of room for disagreement on the issues. Cost is of particular concern, since the country seems to be in almost as much debt as Willy Nelson circa 1992. But during the numerous town hall meetings held by various congresspeople these last several weeks, a very vocal group of critics has made it a point to stand up and shout apocalyptic warnings every chance they get. The leaders on the left seem to think this is a lunatic fringe riled by talk radio and anachronistically designed fake news websites. And the leaders on the right seem to think these people represent the voice of the majority who truly don't want to pay any less to see a doctor about that thing on their necks. Either explanation seems a little too easy. As always, I'm sure the truth is a little more complicated than that. So, what do you think? Who are these people, and what's their deal? While Obama's been busy not pushing for gay people to have anything like equal rights, has he inspired a new crop of nutcases to spring up? Or will public health care really be the first block on a yellow brick road to DOOM?! Discuss in the comments.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Smell of Fear

Ever wonder why ladies laugh at you, guy in the Farscape t-shirt? Maybe it's because they can smell your fear stink. According to a new study out of New York's Stony Brook University, humans can detect fear in each other's odor. They collected sweat from people in a fearful state of stress along with sweat from people who were totally chillaxed and wafted that sweat under the noses of volunteers hooked up to an fMRI scanner. The 'fraidy sweat produced a more emotional response than the laid back kind. The scary stuff also heightened the awareness of danger in the volunteers who smelled it. This kind of research contributes to the debate over whether humans are as guided by pheromones as animals. Previous research has shown we aren't, but studies like this have scientists rethinking that position. This isn't a definite study by any means, but it may be an important addition to the body of research on this topic. Also, it provides researchers with some much needed fun by allowing them to psychologically torture volunteers by putting them in bear cages and collecting their sweat. Or at least, I hope that's how they did it. More details here.

Can't Ungay the Gay

The American Psychological Association has surveyed several peer-reviewed studies on the subject and issued a report saying programs meant to turn gay people straight rarely if ever work and can even cause psychological harm. This comes as no surprise to people whose sexual urges are nothing like deciding on the chicken or fish at a country buffet. The report says that these programs only force people into suppressing their sexual activities and desires instead of changing the focus of those desires. They can also be a significant cause of depression and suicidal tendencies in participants who are told their genetic coding makes Jesus cry. However, it's unlikely this report will do anything to stop people from promoting ex-gay brainwashing, as it was never based on reasonable data in the first place. Which sort of makes the stated purpose of discouraging mental health professionals from recommending these programs pretty laughable. The people who promote this shit are neither professional nor mentally healthy. More details here.

Prayer Reversal

Back in 1678, Swiss villagers vowed to live virtuous lives in exchange for God granting their prayers to shrink a local glacier that caused a lake to flood into their homes. This is reasonable considering these people had absolutely no grasp on reason. God chose to ignore them for nearly 200 years, so in 1862 they began holding an annual prayer procession in honor of shrinking the glacier. But since you can't stop chunking up your perm with hairspray, the glacier is melting like crazy. So much so that the villagers want backsies. They're trying to meet with Pope Joey Ratzo to receive his permission to reverse their prayers and encourage God to build the glacier back up. Like many people who believe in the power of prayer to actually change anything in physical reality, these people seem to be in an abusive relationship with God. For centuries he ignores them, then he does what they say but to an outrageous extreme. And still they worship! It's just an endless cycle. But here's hoping God gets off his duff before the glacier completely melts and these people are all fending for their lives in a postapocalyptic waterworld. More details here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Sin Bin

Jesus fucking Christ, Great Britain. Really? It's bad enough that you can't flip off a bobby or urinate in a UK alleyway without having it captured on CCTV cameras. Now Children's Secretary (possibly the most emasculating title of all time) Ed Balls (possibly the most re-masculating name of all time) wants to spend four hundred million pounds of taxpayer money to peek in on families who aren't rearing their children properly in the eyes of the state. These families would be placed in a so-called "sin bin". Basically, it's a form of house arrest. CCTV cameras would be installed in their homes, and they would be monitored by authorities to make sure their children go to school, eat proper meals, and get a good night's sleep. Security guards would also be deployed to carry out random home checks. This horrible parody of free society has been going on at the local level already, but Balls wants to spread his taint all over Great Britain. Look, I'm all for the idea of child protective services. If parents are abusing their children, they should have those children taken away from them and put in protective custody. But micromanaging family life is incredibly fucking horrid. Sometimes my mom was too busy to cook a well balanced dinner, so she slapped a Big Mac in my face. I don't think this should have prompted a state-sponsored surveillance system to be installed in our house. Brits, you should demand Mr. Balls be removed from office. You hear me? No more Balls! More details here.

Tanned to Death

Thinking of cooking yourself to a golden brown while soaking in someone else's sweat and wearing tiny goggles? You might want to think again. A special committee of the World Health Organization's (WHO???) International Agency for Research on Cancer has concluded that UV radiation from tanning beds is as carcinogenic as asbestos, cigarettes, arsenic, and radium. The committee of twenty scientists reviewed over twenty human and animal studies and found that the risk of skin cancer increases 75% in people who use tanning beds. That includes beds that use both UV-B and UV-A light. I'm not sure whether this should be considered a definitive study survey or not, but better safe than sorry. And better soft and pale than brown and crispy. More details here.

Dinosaur Adventure Seizure

So, Christian fundamentalist minister Kent Hovind and his wife Jo are currently serving prison terms for tax evasion. Hovind argued that since he was employed by God, he didn't have to cough up payroll taxes for his employees. Turns out he was wrong. But he still owes the government $430,400, which they now plan on recouping by selling Hovind's creationist theme park, Dinosaur Adventure Land. The park was meant to show children how dinosaurs and people walked together 6,000 years ago, when the Earth was created. So if anyone wants to create an actual dinosaur-related theme park in Pensacola, Florida, you'd better get it while the getting's good. Just knock the saddles and riders off the triceratopses, and you're golden. One warning, though. If you don't have a log ride, I'm not interested. More details here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

U.F.Oh No

Gary McKinnon seems to be a bit of an idiot. But then again, so am I. He apparently believes without a flicker of doubt that not only are aliens visiting our world, but that their existence is being covered up by the United States government, among others. A lot of people share this belief despite the fact that there isn't any evidence to support it. Because I was once unhappy with the state of reality and wished to live in a science fiction universe of spaceships and holodecks, I used to believe the same thing. Hell, I'm still unhappy with the state of reality and want to live in a science fiction universe of spaceships and holodecks. I've just honed my critical thinking skills. But for those who haven't, the UFO conspiracy trap is an easy one in which to snag themselves. There are mountains of poorly photocopied documents and blurry photographs of nothing to back up the conspiracy. There are UFO websites with more text than the entire Wheel of Time series. It's a mythology, and there's nothing geeks love more than an obsessively detailed myth.

Gary McKinnon is one of those geeks. He's also been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism that tends to heighten obsessive and compulsive tendencies. Convinced the U.S. Government was withholding alien energy technology, McKinnon bought a book on hacking and decided to infiltrate American military computers looking for evidence of the coverup. Because he's not a very good hacker, McKinnon was caught. Now, he's being accused of perpetrating "the biggest military computer hack of all time" and faces extradition to the U.S. for trial, even though he's a British citizen.

Author, documentarian, and Amateur Scientist Podcast friend Jon Ronson has been following the McKinnon case and recently wrote an article for The Guardian detailing the circumstances of McKinnon's arrest and apparent failure to avoid extradition. There are several layers to this story, one of which being the draconian extradition treaty being used against McKinnon. But I'm not as concerned with the terms of the treaty as I am with the general tone coming from some corners of the skeptical community regarding this case.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy wrote a level-headed analysis of the facts at hand, but many others haven't shown any sympathy at all toward McKinnon. It's one thing to decry McKinnon for flaunting the law and committing electronic espionage. This is a serious crime deserving of some punishment. But it's quite another to ridicule him for simply being a UFO "nut".

Like I said, I've been there. I was also fiddling around online in the days before every home had a modem-enabled PC, much less access to the web. McKinnon started trying to hack military systems in 1995. It may not seem like that long ago, but those were the wild west days of the Internet. Network security was often completely overlooked, and it was relatively easy for computer hobbyists to exploit weaknesses to gain access they shouldn't have. If I had the motivation to get off my ass and read a book on hacking, I might have tried to poke around for UFO files myself. It's easy to forget things like legal consequence when you're alone in your basement with tools not many others have. I stole my high school's ISP password, used their account to download porn through a text browser, and didn't think twice about it. (Well, not guilty thoughts, at least. I thought about those grainy, pixelated booby pics many, many times.)

Granted, McKinnon broke the law. He admits as much. But he didn't do so with malicious intent. The U.S. government claims his invasions cost millions $700,000 in remediation and security fees. That's a lot of wasted taxpayer money, but so was the federal push of abstinence-only education programs. And no one's suggesting George W. Bush should go to jail for that.

In his article, Ronson writes that McKinnon offered to help the government beef up its security in exchange for leniency. He was refused, he says, because the military believed any idiot could have done what he did. If true, this doesn't speak very highly of the U.S. military. If any idiot could breach national security, shouldn't we have paid to plug those holes anyway? It seems like McKinnon may have done the country a favor.

Of course, any claims McKinnon makes for himself should be taken with a grain or two of salt. Writer Kevin Anderson has an article detailing some of the false accusations made by McKinnon's legal team in his own defense. But while it's not unreasonable to think someone in as desperate a situation as McKinnon's would resort to lying for sympathy, none of the disputed claims do a thing to change the circumstances of this case. The issue here isn't with whether or not McKinnon could be declared an enemy combatant (he could be, though this is very, very unlikely). It's with whether McKinnon should be sent to prison at all for an effectively harmless bit of idiotic obsessiveness. The same goes for doubts about the severity of the sentence the U.S. seeks to obtain against McKinnon.

In seeking to debunk claims that an embarrassed military wants to put McKinnon to death, the government says that McKinnon will likely receive something along the lines of a three year sentence, only six months to a year of which would be served in a U.S. prison. If true, this begs the question of why they want to extradite him at all. Yes, he committed a crime against America, but why go to the huge expense of trying him in a U.S. court and entering him into our prison system when he'll just be released to his home country after a few months? If wasted money was the extent of the damages caused by McKinnon, why waste even more trying to prosecute him?

Gary McKinnon did something monumentally stupid because he bought into a fallacious belief in a massive conspiracy theory. U.S. prosecutors should be asking themselves if this crime is worth ruining a man's life over. What's worth more: five or six figures in I.T. costs or a little bit of human compassion? And UFO conspiracy skeptics should be wondering whether their scorn is better directed at those who create phony documents and photographs or the dupes like McKinnon and myself who've fallen for them.