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Missed March 25th’s Caltech Events?
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On March 25, the Skeptics Society hosted two sold out events, back to back: The Great Debate: “Has Science Refuted Religion?” in which Sean Carroll & Michael Shermer debated Dinesh D’Souza & Ian Hutchinson, followed by Sam Harris lecturing on “Free Will.” If you missed these events, you can now watch them for free right here!

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Watch Harris’ lecture on Free Will

Climbing Mount Immortality

In Michael Shermer’s April “Skeptic” column for Scientific American, he discusses what philosopher Stephen Cave calls the “Mortality Paradox” and “Terror Management Theory” and how awareness of our own mortality may be a major driver of civilization.



The Hunter (movie poster)

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Nocturnal Submissions

Join the hosts of MonsterTalk for an interview with Daniel Nettheim, director of a new film about a man hunting for thylacines. The Hunter stars Willem Dafoe as the eponymous character tasked with seeking out the last living thylacine in the wild. Also, Scott Sigler calls in to discuss his newest monster book, Nocturnal.

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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Robert Sheaffer’s rebuttal to George Michael’s review of UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record that we published in last week’s eSkeptic. This rebuttal, republished here with permission, originally appeared on April 2, 2012 in Sheaffer’s blog Bad UFOs: Skepticism, UFOs, and The Universe.

Robert Sheaffer is a writer with a lifelong interest in astronomy and the question of life on other worlds. He is one of the leading skeptical investigators of UFOs, a founding member of the UFO Subcommittee of the well-known Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI, formerly CSICOP). He is also a founding director and past Chairman of the Bay Area Skeptics, a local skeptics’ group in the San Francisco Bay area. Sheaffer is the author of UFO Sightings: The Evidence (Prometheus Books, 1998), and has appeared on many radio and TV programs. He is a regular columnist for The Skeptical Inquirer and his writing has appeared in OMNI, Scientific American, Spaceflight, Astronomy, The Humanist, Free Inquiry, and Reason.

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The Day the Skeptics Society
Wasn’t Skeptical

by Robert Sheaffer

Normally the Skeptics Society is a pretty reliable source of information concerning paranormal and pseudo-scientific claims. So imagine my surprise (and dismay) to read in the weekly eSkeptic of March 28, 2012 a totally uncritical review of Leslie Kean’s book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record. Titled “Best Evidence for UFOs” by George Michael, it praises Kean’s “numerous credible eyewitnesses to UFO encounters and authoritative sources.” He thinks she makes an “ impressive case,” and praises her “academic rigor.” Plainly, either Michael did not read the same book I did, or he was entirely hornswoggled by the way that the crafty Kean disguises her hard-core UFO belief as respectable agnosticism.

Michael is totally uncritical of the claims and statements in Kean’s book. Given that the title of the magazine is “Skeptic,” why did it never occur to him to question any of the assertions made by Kean, instead of just accepting each and every one as Gospel truth? Did it not occur to him that, in a book written by a hard-core UFO believer (Kean’s mentor in UFOlogy was the late Budd Hopkins), one needs to verify the accuracy of the picture the author is trying to paint? Are all these UFO cases really unexplained? What have we skeptics been doing, sitting on our hands, or scratching our heads, during the decades since these Oldie-But-Moldy UFO claims were made?

The author is obviously totally clueless about the history of the UFO controversy. Otherwise, he would realize that many of Kean’s “unexplained” cases have been explained in detail by Philip J. Klass and others, years ago. Kean simply ignores all explanations and commentaries that she doesn’t like. To me that does not constitute “academic rigor,” as Mr. Michael seems to think. But he apparently has never read any of Klass’ UFO books, and I suspect doesn’t even know who Klass was (or else he would have asked himself, “What did Klass write about this case during the 70s or 80s?”). I have already written a review of Kean’s book, “‘Unexplained’ Cases—Only If You Ignore All Explanations,” that was published in the Skeptical Inquirer, March/April, 2011. I have now placed a copy of that review on my website, for those who would like to see what a critical analysis of Kean’s dubious pro-UFO claims might look like.

The British UFO skeptic Ian Ridpath wrote:

In his review of Leslie Kean’s book, George Michael too readily takes the author’s word for various UFO cases that have turned out, on investigation, not to be quite as the author describes them. A case in point is the Rendlesham Forest incident of 1980, which he calls “Perhaps the most notable reported military case involving a UFO”. A little research (even a glance at Wikipedia, for example) would have shown that explanations for all major aspects of that case have been in print for over 25 years. To address the points he raises: No unusual radiation was detected at the site, the supposed landing marks were made by forest animals, and the story of examining a landed craft for 45 minutes is something that was made up many years after the event by one of the witnesses, apparently bent on becoming a UFO celebrity. I would not expect to learn that from a book by an uncritical UFO proponent such as Leslie Kean, but I would have expected to hear it in a review on these pages… There are quite a few other cases he needs to learn about, too.

Peter Brookesmith, longtime paranormal researcher and regular contributor to Fortean Times, says

This review contains what must surely be the most distorted version of the Rendlesham Incident to see the light…where was the wary & informed editorial control? It’s not even as if this worthless tract has never been kicked in the fundament (and not only in hard-line skeptical journals) by other reviewers: it’s been out & about for a while. So the real question is, how come the review was published by eSkeptic at all?

As far back as August, 2010 skeptic James Oberg wrote for MSNBC that Kean’s book was based on a “questionable foundation.” He quickly glanced at a list of supposed “unexplained” cases given by Kean, and immediately pulled out ten that he knew to be caused by Russian space launches.

eSkeptic is probably unaware that Kean’s book was also made into an equally bad one-sided pro-UFO documentary on the History Channel. I have also written a critique of the misrepresentations made on this show.

Apparently Mr. Michael is also unaware that the big controversy underway in UFOlogy at the moment involves Kean promoting a video of a fly buzzing around as being possibly “the case UFO skeptics have been dreading.” Even many of the UFO proponents are choking on that one, as her position is so obviously illogical. Had Michael known that Kean was vigorously defending such an obvious absurdity, I cannot imagine how he possibly could have written such a fawning review.

Unfortunately, now Leslie Kean will be able to boast to reporters that her book has been given the ‘seal of approval’ of Skeptic magazine for its “academic rigor.” As Ian Ridpath noted, if Michael had even bothered to check Wikipedia, he would have seen the problems in Kean’s version of the Rendlesham case. Let us hope that in future articles concerning UFOs, the Skeptics Society will utilize the services of authors and reviewers whose understanding of the UFO controversy is better than paper-thin, and who will check out the validity of pro-UFO claims before credulously swallowing them.

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Skeptic Volume 10 Number 1 (cover)

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Skeptic Volume 10 Number 1 (cover)

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Skeptic Volume 10 Number 1 (cover)


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Our Next Lecture at Caltech

Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief (book cover)
Born Believers: The Science of Children’s Religious Belief

with Dr. Justin Barrett
Sunday, April 15, 2012 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

FROM A NOTED DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGIST and anthropologist at Oxford University, this fascinating theory about the value of religious faith posits that we are all predisposed to believe in God from birth. We are all Born Believers, explains Professor Justin L. Barrett. It begins in the brain. Infants, under the sway of powerful internal and external forces, make sense of their environments by imagining a creative and intelligent agent, a grand controller who makes the sun shine and the night fall. In the chaos of childhood, where so much is out of the child’s control, this belief in a morally good creator can bring tremendous comfort and calm. A child’s world is then filled with beings who intentionally act upon the environment, maintaining order. Summarizing scientific experiments conducted with children across the globe, Professor Barrett illustrates the ways human beings have come to develop complex belief systems about God’s omniscience, the afterlife, and the immortality of deities. He shows how the science of childhood religiosity reveals, across humanity, a “Natural Religion.”

TICKETS are first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $8 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $10 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

Followed by…

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior
with Dr. Leonard Mlodinow
Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 2 pm



Announcing The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012
Southpoint Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, NV
July 12–15, 2012

The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012: July 14-17, Las Vegas, Southpoint Hotel and Casino

THE AMAZ!NG MEETING (TAM) is an annual celebration of science, skepticism and critical thinking. People from all over the world come to TAM each year to share learning, laughs and the skeptical perspective with their fellow skeptics and a host of distinguished guest speakers and panelists.

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has hosted its annual Amaz!ng Meeting since 2003 as a way to promote science, skepticism and critical thinking about paranormal and supernatural claims to the broader public. TAM has been held in Las Vegas, NV since 2004 and has become the world’s largest gathering of like-minded science-advocates and skeptics.

With yet another incredible lineup of speakers, hands-on workshops, and entertainment, this is sure to be an Amaz!ng Meeting you won’t want to miss! Check out the entire program, and follow @jref on Twitter for the latest #TAM2012 news and announcements.


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