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Dr. Daphne J. Fairbairn, on Demand
Odd Couples: Extraordinary Differences Between the Sexes in the Animal Kingdom

Daphne Fairbairn

While we joke that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, our gender differences can’t compare to those of other animals. For instance: the male garden spider spontaneously dies after mating with a female more than 50 times his size. Female cichlids must guard their eggs and larvae—even from the hungry appetites of their own partners. And male blanket octopuses employ a copulatory arm longer than their own bodies to mate with females that outweigh them by four orders of magnitude. Why do these gender gulfs exist? This lecture, based on her book, explores some of the most extraordinary sexual differences in the animal world. From the fields of Spain to the deep oceans, evolutionary biologist Daphne Fairbairn uncovers the unique and bizarre characteristics that exist in these remarkable species and the special strategies they use to maximize reproductive success. Fairbairn also considers humans and explains that although we are keenly aware of our own sexual differences, they are unexceptional within the vast animal world.

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Dr. Christopher French
MonsterTalk # 85
Alienable Rites

What causes a person to be possessed? Are there demons? Is it mental illness? Is it abnormal neurology? Does exorcism work? in this episode of MonsterTalk, paranormal researcher psychologist Dr. Chris French joins us to discuss the psychology of demonic possession and exorcisms.


About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer recounts the time he was abducted by aliens. This is a review of Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe, by Joel Achenbach. This review appeared in Skeptic magazine 7.4 (1999)

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ET Phone Me

by Michael Shermer

In the wee hours of the morning of August 8, 1983, I was abducted by aliens. I was traveling down a lonely rural highway just west of Haigler, NB, when a large craft with bright lights appeared and, despite my best efforts to resist, forced me into their vehicle. After regaining consciousness 90 minutes later, I was back on the road but with no memory of what transpired inside. These aliens, however, were not the stereotypical “grays” with bulbous heads and almond-shaped eyes. These looked just like humans, but I knew they were aliens because they had stiff little fingers.

Joel Achenbach would love this story because it fits the theme of his splendid new book so well—a fantastic yarn with a prosaic explanation that tells us far more about humans than aliens. In my case I had ridden a bicycle over 1250 miles nonstop from Santa Monica, CA, as part of the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle Race Across America, stretching my ad hoc sleep deprivation experiment to 83 hours. The alien craft? My brightly lit motorhome. The aliens? My support crew. The lost 90 minutes? A sleep break. The stiff little fingers? The memory of a 60’s TV series, The Invaders, in which aliens shapeshifted into human forms but, for some peculiar reason, could not bend their pinkies.

What Achenbach would like about this story is what it tells us about how culture determines the content of our apparitions. The demon-haunted world of the Middle Ages was filled with tales of people abducted by incubi and succubi; in the spirit-haunted world of 19th-century England and America people were harassed by ghosts and apparitions. We no longer experience demons and spirits because, Achenbach says in a clever title double-entendre, our culture has been captured by aliens. From Star Trek and Star Wars to ET and XFiles on the pop culture front, and from NASA’s Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program to the Mars’ rock microbes on the scientific front, Achenbach shows just how powerful this theme is in our collective imagination. We live in an alien-haunted world.

Yet evidence for alien existence is, well, nonexistent, and this is where Achenbach’s narrative gets interesting. Humans are, by nature, pattern-seeking, storytelling animals, and we are quite adept at creating patterns whether they exist or not. Aliens are the Rorshach of our age, an ET inkblot of our unconscious hopes and fears, where superior intelligences with wisdom far beyond our comprehension have made, are making, or will make contact with Earth, and from these contacts we have, are, or will glean the knowledge we need to save ourselves and our planet. As Achenbach takes us on his “travelogue” through our alien-haunted world, we encounter everything from the sublime (the leaders of NASA, SETI, the Planetary Society and the Mars Society) to the ridiculous (the followers of the Aetherius Society, the Unarius Academy of Science, and Heaven’s Gate).

This is science writing at its best—I could not put the book down and read it on planes, taxis, and even during interview breaks on a book tour—and it should be required reading for all scientists who want to explain what it is they do. After years of “doodling around in alien country,” for example, Achenbach thinks the UFO phenomenon “can be viewed as an astrosociopolitical issue of great complexity, or, more simply, as a question of human psychology. Why do some people construct their world-views around ideas that other people find ludicrous? Where’s the fault line? It’s not intelligence or social class. It’s not like poor, fat, Velveeta-eating people believe in aliens and rich, thin, brie-eating people don’t.” (He does, however, identify my neck of the woods as alien central: “Aliens seem to be more prevalent in the West, and in California they’re simply taken for granted, more strange guests at the cocktail party.”)

And when Achenbach meets with alien true believers, such as Roswell afficionado Philip Corso, he confronts an uncomfortable choice: “Either he saw an alien corpse, and later became engaged in a massive program to reverse-engineer UFO technology, which in turn helped win the Cold War and stave off the full-bore alien invasion—or his tale is a lie. There’s not much middle ground there. How do you decide? Lacking direct information, one must go on feel and smell and instinct. You have to ask yourself if there might be a narcissistic impulse behind his book. You have to linger a moment on the wonderful penultimate sentence: ‘Sometimes, once in a very long while, you get the chance to save your country, your planet, and even your species at the same time.’ (And write a best-seller.)” That’s good prose.

Achenbach is a journalist, not a social scientist (thus accounting for his inability to construct obfuscating paragraph-long sentences sprinkled with “therefores,” “furthermores,” and “moreovers”), so don’t look for hypothesis testing of the latest social psychological theory of mass hysteria or cognitive dissonance. His insights into human nature instead come from a more basic and in many ways deeper understanding through real world experiences with the participants themselves (outsiders would be amazed to learn just how many psychological theories were constructed around the thoughts and behaviors of students cajoled into participating in their professors’ experiments). At the core of this secular religion, as with its theistic counterparts, is faith, the ultimate prophylactic against skeptics. When I read the following passage, in fact, I was jolted back in my seat:

The UFO movement’s strength is not in its evidence but in its overall narrative, its theme. It has an elaborate eschatology, a host of apostles, and a recurring theme of doom versus salvation. It is not the evidence of extraterrestrial creatures but, rather the idea of the Alien that makes ufology such a powerful faith. The skeptics can dismiss the purported tales of aliens and show the logical flaws in the story, but it will never make any difference. If an idea is sufficiently wonderful, if it springs from deep yearnings, it can easily beat back the yappings of logicans and skeptics and disbelieving journalists.

Abducted! How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens, by Dr. Susan Clancy

Abducted!
How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens

Order the lecture on DVD

So are Achenbach and myself (a disbelieving journalist and skeptic respectively) wasting our time tilting at alien windmills? What should we do when we confront that fault line between fantasy and reality? What Would Carl Do?, we might ask, paraphrasing the popular catch phrase of another faith. If, as Achenbach says, Sagan was “the gatekeeper of any serious discussion of extraterrestrial life,” the “go-to guy for anyone with a new idea,” and the man who decided “if a creative idea should be allowed into the lecture hall or instead left outside,” then what would Carl do when facing the veracity question? “Someone has to propose ideas at the boundaries of the plausible,” Sagan once said, “in order to so annoy the experimentalists or observationalists that they’ll be motivated to disprove the idea.” Yet Carl was also fond of quoting the skeptics’ mantra “Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.”

Enough of the blurry photographs, grainy videos, and anecdotes about things that go bump in the night. Until ET phones me I will have to settle for being amazed and amused by the tales of alien dreamers so well recounted in this beautifully written book. END


Carbon Dating: A Comic Strip About Science, Pseudoscience, and Geeky Relationships

We all have irrational, ridiculous, and nonsensical ideas that we cling to. Maybe you’re deathly afraid of spiders, or GMOs, or gluten? That’s OK! If you aren’t, your friends probably are, and their Facebook posts will not let you forget it. That’s the driving theme behind Carbon Dating. If you can get people to laugh at their favorite pseudoscience, maybe they won’t take it so seriously.

Carbon Dating is a bi-weekly comic strip published free online and also in Skeptic magazine quarterly (as Carbon Comic).

Online currently, new comics are posted every Tuesday and Friday — but, with your support via KickStarter, it can become a daily comic strip! To learn more and to help support this project, see the KickStarter page for more details.

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6 Comments »

6 Comments

  1. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    The issue of alien visitors is a challenging one that Astronomy professors often encounter – what makes it most challenging, I find, is that its adherents are more passionate than those of Astrology, or a ‘Young Earth’. Many, many times I have had to halt conversations in class because they were taking up valuable lecture time and not getting anywhere – mandating them to the ‘sidewalk.’

    After one night class a passionate student kept the conversation going late and I started getting tired and received some worried texts from home (“You are late – are you OK?” “I hope this isn’t a _female_ student”). He kept making the same old arguments – it cannot be explained by natural phenomenon (since, apparently meteorologist finally finished their work) and no human technology could do it (because there is no such thing as ‘top secret’ programs) … so out of desperation I responded to one of his ‘challenges’ to explain it:

    It’s Space Nazis… from the Moon. We all know that the Germans had many top secret science programs – rocketry was just one. Well, they managed to send a cadre to the far side of the Moon and are regrouping and one day will attack Earth.(ever notice how few detailed images there are of that side – because you’d notice a sprawling space colony in the shape of a swastika!) Roswell happened shortly _after_ WWII -right? Well, the ‘alien bodies’ were Nazis in spacesuits. Cattle mutilations? They are gathering DNA for experiments. Also, the whole space race to the Moon was a hoax – the USA & USSR were launching a joint space invasion to finally get rid of the Nazis… we failed… that is why our governments will not admit to the reality. The whole cold war thing was a giant lie so both US & Russian governments could spend money on expensive weapons to fight the Space Nazis. JFK was killed because his “We choose to go to the Moon” was seen as a ploy to reveal the existence of Space Nazis. It all fits… if you look at it the right way.

    • Mike Sutton says:

      I would have gone for the tautological argument. Along these lines: “Scientific explanations are those that are capable of being dis proven and once dis proven are hard to vary. The un-evidenced claim that it is impossible to gather evidence of alien visitations to Earth because we have no technology capable of capturing such evidence is as tautological as claiming that the Bible proves the existence of God because it is the Word of God and God does not lie. In a science class religion has no place. I would point your student in the direction of the cult Raëlian UFO movement and ask him/her to come back with hard evidence of their human cloning.

    • Bob Pease says:

      All of the Space Nazi Stuff was a planned and acted scenario for the 20th
      Century.

      Although Cthulhu and BOB are the ultimate intellects in this part of the galaxy,
      their work has been nicely carried along for the last five centuries.

      the BAVARIAN ILLUMINATI are the REAL Colonels here, with lots fo assistence from the Jesuits and the Masons, who openly pretend to be enemies.

      Why do you think Mozart wrote elevator music to soothe the “Intelligensia”
      What was Solerari Really up to?

      Why are the portriats of George Washington painted before the Delaware
      of different people.?

      Why does the number 23 occur in significant places way more frequently than
      it should??

      Heavy questions!!!

      Pope Bobby II
      President of the
      69th Clench of the Stark Fist of Removal
      Revolving Church of the Supergenius

      p.s. 23×3 = 69

      Revolving Church of the Supergenius

  2. Bob Pease says:

    The question “Are we alone?” seems to be more in the spotlight recently.

    I am concerned about the growing amount of “Yahooism “

    Paul Tabori (“Natural Science of Stupidity”)
    Supports that goofy stuff has always been popular in Western History ( at least)_

    Ray and Jesus

    This is about belief in what you remember that ACTUALLY HAPPENED to yourself.

    The consensus seems to be that most people will
    believe that something that they remember happening to them was real even if others with such experiences are quickly regarded as delusional or lying.

    From people I have talked to, this seems indeed to be the case.

    The following illustrates my point.

    My brother was a high ranking Jesuit of strong faith in the regular Catholic worldview.

    I asked him the following;

    “Suppose Jesus would appear to you as a human
    Dressed in regular business clothes, but showing
    Special knowledge to convince you that he really was Jesus.

    Hi message was

    “Ray, You have been a good servant of My Father, and he has sent me to tell you that it is time for you to advance to the next step in His Plan.

    You MUST become a BAHA’I and
    Work towards spreading the WORD of His
    Latest Maifestation.

    Your faith and loyalty to me requires this “

    Ray’s reply to me was not surprising

    “I have my whole life invested in the Correctness of the Catholic Church, and I would certainly
    Check into a Mental Hospital for resolution of this obvious delusional experience.””

    Here is my major point.

    The majority of people I have discussed this with
    Say he SHOULD accept the experience as real rather than believe he’s nuts

    In a conversation with Mike Shermer on the Mike Rosen Show in Denver, he confirmed that Most people will indeed accept a Hallucination as real
    Rather than doubt their own sanity

    i.e. It is better to trust yourself than admit you’re nuts .

  3. P K Narayanan says:

    The Skeptic Mag. in an earlier edition had published an article which upholds the relevance of the so-called subconscious mind. I am a little hit confused why Skeptic took the subject which was thrown out of science long ago. I give below the scientific reason why sub-conscious mind should have to be thrown into dust-bin.

    Subconscious Mind – The Freudian Juggle.
    Human mind was one of the most discussed subjects at the hands of the ancient thinkers and philosophers. In those days, there was no clue about the working of nervous system and the role of the brain in the process of both the mental and physical activities of organism. Spiritualism was the order of the day. Spiritual leaders controlled every area of human existence. Their imaginations created several stories about human mind. These stories explained that mind is a paranormal experience; it dwells outside the human body. The mind is connected with psyche which means soul. Mind connection with soul ended in a new branch of study called psychology.
    By the dawn of the twentieth century, renowned psychologists started dictating that human mind is a storage tank containing different levels for controlling and executing thoughts and actions. In this context the most remembered name is that of the Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud (1838-1936). Freud’s subjective ideas were very complex. He divided human mind into different parts, each part under different names like id, ego etal which ultimately found their way through conscious, subconscious and super conscious routes. According to Freud, conscious mind is at the top of the level-ladder which is not capable of doing anything without the help of the subconscious mind. Subconscious mind controls and supervises the conscious mind. All thoughts, ideas and actions lie deep in the subconscious mind. All bad thoughts, sexual urges, disorderly ideas and feelings lie buried in the subconscious mind.
    Sigmund Freud devised a shrewd mechanism to treat mental aberrations and disorders. For this he swam deep into the depths of the subconscious mind. He started the treatments in the beginning with the help of animal magnetism. He explained that all the human behaviours have an element of sexuality. Freud treated hundreds of mentally sick patients by cleaning the subconscious mind with the help of his magnetic force. Despite the truth being whatever it be otherwise, the saddest thing about the whole story expounded by Freud is that even today, Psychologists the world over follow the Freudian theory of subconscious mind to clear the debris out and to cure mental disorders.
    During the thirties of the twentieth century, the physiological basis of mental activities leading to memory was exposed through exhaustive scientific experiments. The experimental works of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov and his colleagues, in this context, are well known to the world of science. Their research work scientifically proved that the phenomenon of mind is the working result of the central nervous system based on excitation and inhibition of the sensory centers in the brain. It was further proved that the excitation and the inhibition of the sense organs take place on account of the reach of stimuli from internal and external environs. The cognitive function of the central nervous system consists of sensations, perceptions, conceptions and judgment. Memory is recreated by and through the cognitive functions. The terminology of ‘Mind’ represents the resulting phenomena of cognitive functions carried out by the central nervous system.
    It is well established fact that most of the phenomena which are in the dark can be empirically identified and understood provided the person who looks at the phenomena has the calibre to find the truth. Mind does not have different beds to rest; Mind need not be divided into different levels to cure mental disorders: Things and events occurred long back in time are not dumped in a non-existent subconscious mind. Temporary nerve connections called conditioned reflexes are responsible for retaining the memory, for deflecting the memory, for creating fears, for building worries and depressions. Therapy for these maladies lies in formation of external conditioned inhibition through suggestion. No search for subconscious mind is needed for the purpose; Psychologists don’t have to swim into the depths of the subconscious mind to find cure for mental debilities.
    In sum and substance, embracing physiology of nervous activity relating to the formation of temporary nerve connections called conditioned reflexes is what is the proper approach to replace the imaginary subconscious mind and to find cures for mental disorders. It is high time that ‘subconscious’ mind disappeared for ever for the good of science and for the good of mental patients, all across.

  4. melissa pride says:

    I can’t find the price for your annual membership anywhere! Please leave it on my e-mail. Thank you! Melissa Pride

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