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Given the latest wave of apparent UFO/UAP sightings Michael Shermer reminds us that the residue problem in UFOlogy is instructive because it enables skeptics to find common ground with believers and allows us to live comfortably with the fact that we can’t explain everything. This piece was originally published at Quillette.com on June 3, 2021.

Understanding the Unidentified

An advantage of having worked in the skeptical business for 30 years is institutional memory that enables me to place current claims and controversies into historical context. So, when the New York Times published their article on “The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program” in December 2017, and CBS’s 60 Minutes reported that “UFOs Regularly Spotted in Restricted U.S. Airspace” in May 2021—the reports bracketing the latest wave of apparent sightings—I immediately recalled similar waves dating back to the 1890s groundswell of “mystery airships” (later identified as dirigibles). Historian Mike Dash’s description of the 1896–1897 reports in his book Borderlands: The Ultimate Exploration of the Unknown will sound familiar to those energized by the latest round of UFO videos:

Not only were [the mystery airships] bigger, faster and more robust than anything then produced by the aviators of the world; they seemed to be able to fly enormous distances, and some were equipped with giant wings … The files of almost 1,500 newspapers from across the United States have been combed for reports, an astonishing feat of research. The general conclusion of investigators was that a considerable number of the simpler sightings were misidentification of planets and stars, and a large number of the more complex the result of hoaxes and practical jokes. A small residuum remains perplexing.

Residues & Distortions

The final “small residuum” qualification hints at a reality in all skeptical and scientific investigations. No hypothesis or theory in any field accounts for 100 percent of the phenomena under investigation. The “residue problem” means that no matter how comprehensive a theory is, there will always be a residue of anomalies for which it cannot account. The most famous case in the history of science is that Newton’s gravitational theory could not account for the precession of the planet Mercury’s orbit, subsequently explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity. Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection could not account for anomalies like the Peacock’s large and colorful tail (which would be a bullseye for predators), but his theory of sexual selection did, demonstrating how females select for mates based on certain traits males develop to stand out from other males and to attract females.

The residue problem in UFOlogy is instructive because it enables skeptics to find common ground with believers and allows us to live comfortably with the fact that we can’t explain everything. For example, in her bestselling 2010 book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go on the Record, UFOlogist Leslie Kean notes that “roughly 90 to 95 percent of UFO sightings can be explained” as:

… weather balloons, flares, sky lanterns, planes flying in formation, secret military aircraft, birds reflecting the sun, planes reflecting the sun, blimps, helicopters, the planets Venus or Mars, meteors or meteorites, space junk, satellites, swamp gas, spinning eddies, sundogs, ball lightning, ice crystals, reflected light off clouds, lights on the ground or lights reflected on a cockpit window, temperature inversions, hole-punch clouds, and the list goes on!

So, the entire extraterrestrial hypothesis for explaining Unidentified Flying Objects and Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UFOs and UAPs, respectively) is based on a residue of data left over after the above list has been exhausted. What’s left? Not much, I’m afraid. […]

Continue reading at Quillette

SKEPTIC 26.2: DRUG TRIPS & REALITY

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Here’s what you’ll find in issue of Skeptic Magazine 26.2 (2021): DMT and the Nature of Reality: Are the Entities and Experiences of a DMT Drug Trip Real or Imagined? • Johannes Kepler, Giordano Bruno, and Scientific Martyrdom • Lizard People, 5G and the Nashville Bomber • Why Weird Beliefs Are a Normal, Central, Almost Universal Aspect of Human Affairs • Astrology as a Spiritual Belief System • How Science Can Explain Ghosts and Haunted Houses • Trial, Error, and Success: How People Learn and Think • Twenty-five Fallacies in the Case for Christianity • Junior Skeptic: Cognitive Dissonance

The print edition will begin shipping mid-June. Pre-order the print edition, or download the digital edition today.

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Retrospective

Skeptic cover art by Pat Linse

Art of the Skeptic

In celebration of Skeptic magazine’s 100th issue, we present sage graphic art advice for skeptical groups and a gallery of art reflecting more than 47 years of skeptical activism from Skeptic’s long time Art Director, Pat Linse

Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

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Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

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The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

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Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

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The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

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Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

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Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

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The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

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