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They Came From Outer Space!

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Blake Smith: Since ancient times, man has speculated about creatures in the sky. Modern culture is full of extraterrestrials in fiction and in folklore. If the testimony of witnesses is true, we are being visited by a variety of strange creatures: Tall blonde Scandinavians, perhaps coming in peace? Dangerous and cold-hearted reptilians, who might be working to take over our Earth governments, and elfishly tiny gray skinned creatures who can kidnap people right out of their beds, and who like to probe their victims in very uncomfortable places and kill our livestock in quite bizarre fashion. If you believe the testimony. But what kind of evidence would it take to convince a skeptic? Just how likely is it that we are being visited by creatures from another world? Aliens from outer space, today on MonsterTalk.


Blake: Hi, welcome to MonsterTalk, presented by Skeptic magazine. MonsterTalk is the show that examines monsters under the bright light we call Science. I’m Blake Smith, and together with my co-hosts, Benjamin Radford, Managing Editor Skeptical Inquirer and Dr. Karen Stollznow, skeptical blogger, linguist and mystery investigator, we talk about monsters with experts who can help us determine what claims are plausible, which are implausible and which are virtually impossible. Today our guest is astronomer and author, Dr. Phil Plait. But first we want to chat about aliens from outer space. A variety of people are reporting aliens of various types today, as a skeptic it’s hard for me to believe anything without evidence, I mean hard evidence to support the idea that creatures are traveling across space and coming here, but what I find most surprising about the claims (besides the fact that the aliens can bend the laws of physics) is the way that even though they come from other planets, according to the stories, why did they appear to be humanoid? I mean, evolution shows us that body types could be just about anything, but for some reason, almost all of these aliens appear humanoid. Now, one reason might be that the aliens are in a feedback loop from Hollywood, and that we base our cultural aliens on the kinds that we see in movies. But, even so it’s possible that movies could be providing us with other types.

Ben Radford: Well, yeah, but it’s easier for special-effects creators in films to make a humanoid creature. I remember someone was talking about the original, it was either Doctor Who or Star Trek, and someone was complaining about the early series, why is it that all the aliens look more or less like people? And of course, the answer was, that’s what’s cheap to do with the makeup. But, it is interesting, just looking at the history of aliens because I would argue that the history of aliens in popular mythology shows that the original aliens were much more monstrous, if you will, than the ones we have these days. You look back at, for example, War of the Worlds and other stories of aliens around that time, there are aliens that are coming to Earth to threaten us, to destroy us, and this and that, whereas of course over the last, say thirty, forty, fifty years there’s been this change sort of, as you talked about, where we go from a monstrous evil, threatening alien to sort of a good guy, you know, warm, fuzzy, we bring peace and messages, if you don’t do better about the Earth, and Peace and love, and all that… So, I would say that in my opinion, aliens certainly began as monsters, they’ve since then become more cuddly and friendly.

Blake: You make a good point. Of course H. P. Lovecraft was writing way back in the 30s and 40s, and his stories dealt with aliens that were nothing like human, in fact, humans were less than significant and it really kind of demonstrated a level of Cosmic Horror, that was…

Ben: …did you say the Cosmic Whore?

Blake: [Laughter] No, I said Cosmic Horror that was not known before then.

Ben: Oh, I’m sorry. [Laughter]

Blake: That’s OK.

Ben: I just want to make sure we’re on the same topic, here.

Blake: Anyway, I love Lovecraft and his Aliens were not humanoid at all.

Dr. Karen Stollznow: So where do you think stories of alien abduction came from? Do you think they were born of Whitley Strieber’s Communion book?

Blake: No, no, I think the earliest ones, that are really important culturally, were Betty and Barney Hill’s abduction. Their abduction was the one that really set the stage for what we think of as modern alien abduction, including memory loss and lost time, that kind of thing.

Ben: Well, they sort of introduced it into the popular consciousness.

Blake: Of course, there’s a lot of evidence that the story that they had was influenced, or at least Barney’s story was influenced quite heavily by the Outer Limits television show, back to the idea of aliens on television influencing the way the aliens look in the cultural mythos. Her story also included a lot of medical examination and subsequent alien exams and alien abduction stories began to include things like implants of devices, and experiments with flesh being taken, eggs being stolen, sperm being stole, sexual components, probing, and I don’t know why the aliens anal probe came in to be part of the story but, I think it may be Travis Walton’s story about his abduction that was the first one to have the anal probe and the sort of horrible violations that I’m familiar with. That doesn’t mean that’s the first one, but… I really don’t know why the aliens would have this sort of need, because it seems like whatever their medical skills are, the rectum is not the best place to get biological info about a species, but they seem to want cow butts and to probe humans. It’s very odd, and as a skeptic, I would say it’s very implausible.

Ben: I think that from what I’ve read, typically the way they rationalize that is by suggesting that the aliens are in fact trying to do some sort of hybridization. That they’re trying to better understand human physiology, perhaps in preparation for injecting their own superior alien sperm into our culture, so… Again it’s the same thing to my mind it’s the same issue with crop circles. If aliens are creating these, why would they come all the way across the universe and the galaxy, just to make circles in wheat? I mean, they really got nothing better to do?

Blake: Oh, it really annoys me, I mean why would they come all the way here just to make circles…?

Ben: They’re pretty!

Blake: OK, yeah, they’re pretty, but I mean it’s really obvious that this is something that human technology can easily reproduce with boards.

Ben: [Laughter]

Karen: [Laughter]

Blake: I know, people walking in a field at night can make crop circles. It’s really been well explained, well documented. It’s a human hoax that’s turned into something of an art form and there’s just people out there who don’t understand how simple this is. But it doesn’t make any sense, and that ties in to one of the other problems I have with aliens and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis, which actually I find insulting, which is the idea that aliens had to come to Earth and teach people how to do things. And in Erich von D‰niken’s stories they come to Earth and they visit us and they give us their technology, and then, essentially what they’re teaching us is… how to stack rocks? What?! That doesn’t make any sense, if they could come teach us anything, why stacking rocks? It’s ridiculous. Yeah, the rocks they were stacking were very large, but it’s possible to do with human equipment, ingenuity and strength and working together, and it’s insulting to us to suggest that we needed space aliens to come down here to help show us how to stack rocks, ridiculous!

Ben: The whole notion that people and humans aren’t smart enough to pull these things off without extraterrestrial intelligences is just, frankly insulting. I think in Karen’s recent piece on the Coral Castle, I think that it touches on that as well.

Karen: Yes, it does. That’s one of the theories that Coral Castle was created by aliens, or Ed Leedskalnin was somehow assisted by aliens, but I don’t know if it’s an insult so much as just a way of explaining things that people can’t understand, something they resort to.

Blake: Yeah, it’s that classic component, or the thing we keep running into: the Argument from Ignorance. It just keeps coming up again and again, it’s, you know, in this case, aliens helped build Coral Castle, or aliens are responsible for building crop circles, or aliens are responsible for the pyramids, or aliens are responsible for our rise from primitive man to our current intelligence, or lack thereof, but, whatever. I think if you’re gonna claim aliens you need to have proof and there just isn’t any. One of the things that keeps coming up, that I see in television, and especially Linda Moulton Howe’s Earth Files, is aliens being responsible for cattle mutilations, and animal mutilations, and in these stories, they talk about animals who have their soft parts removed, you know, their rectums are cored out, as they say, their lips removed, their tongues removed, just their eyes with laser precision, but, I happened to run into a neighbor who just came back from a deer hunt and he had a very strange experience to report. But, he’s not a guy who knows anything about aliens, or that sort of mythology or phenomena, if it is a phenomena, but what he reported to me was really, really interesting. He had shot a small deer and wanted to stick around to see if he could get something larger, so he hung up the deer and field dressed it and put it under a tree and was gonna come back within a couple hours to take it back up to the hunting lodge, and get it set up so it could be processed. So they left it hanging, and went hunting and when they came back (he and his friend) found the deer complete surrounded by Turkey Vultures. And the Turkey Vultures, as he put it, had totally messed up the deer. They had eaten its rectum, that’s one of the first things he pointed out. They had eaten out it’s eyes, they had eaten out the deer’s tongue,they had eaten the deer’s lips. Everything that was soft and available they had torn it away with there sharp mouths and left just a cored out hole. They got to the bucket of offal and ate that too, but the important thing is, he was there and saw it. He didn’t just leave the deer and come back and all the parts were missing when he got back, which would’ve been weird. But it seems to me that was a pretty good explanation for what happens with cattle mutilation. Birds come in and they take these parts, or predators or coyotes or whatever other animals or creatures, come in. Mundane things, things from Earth, not aliens with lasers. It’s just animals here on Earth who normally eat these things come along and take these parts.

Karen: You can certainly understand, though, people living in cities, you know, from the big smoke, who haven’t encountered these sorts of events before, not being able to understand how they come about. I don’t think it’s a very good alternative explanation, but for people who haven’t seen that at work, it could be a mysterious thing.

Blake: Yes, mysterious and disgusting. A lot of the aspects of alien stories have elements that are disturbing and disgusting, but, the real question is where’s the evidence? I mean, they make great stories, they’re very interesting, creepy and mysterious, but where’s the evidence?

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Joining us to talk about aliens, and the plausibility of such creatures visiting Earth, is astronomer Dr. Phil Plait. Phil is a noted skeptic, the President of the James Randi Education Foundation, a noted science writer through his Bad Astronomy website, and also the author of the book: Death from the Skies! now available in paperback. Thanks for joining us Dr. Phil. Phil, in your book you have an entire chapter about aliens coming to Earth, and you talk about a meteorite with the memorable name ALH 84001. Can you tell our listeners about that meteorite, and what it means?

Dr. Phil Plait: Yeah, this is a meteorite that was found in Allan Hills (that’s where the ALH comes from, in the name), in Antarctica. And Antarctica’s a really good place to look for meteorites, because if they’re sitting there on the ice, you know, they’re easy to spot, this rock sitting out in the middle of a field of ice, so, they find a lot of them there, and when they got this one back, they realized it was from Mars. Now, when this news came out, a lot of people were saying, ‘Well, how do we know it’s from Mars?’. Well, we know it’s from Mars because we have samples of Mars from earlier probes, and we know what the chemistry of Mars is like and when you look at this meteorite, there are little tiny bubbles in it, and when you check the bubbles themselves, what’s in it, there’s gas, like atmosphere, inside of these little tiny bubbles. It matches the chemical ratios that we see on Mars. So, were pretty sure these things come from Mars. And the way this works is… there’s an asteroid impact, it smacks into the planet, this rock goes flying out into space. It drifts out in space for a while, and then lands into Antarctica or wherever, and gets picked up. And when they examined this thing under a microscope, they found all sorts of interesting stuff. This was like 1996, I think it was, when the news came out, and they had basically 4 or 5 reasons that they thought that there was evidence that possibly Mars once had life on it, in this rock. And it depended on, again, chemical ratios, there was magnetite, which is this magnetic ore, and magnetite can be created abiologically, I suppose you could say, without life, just chemically, but it also can be excreted, to be discreet, from bacteria. And then the last thing they found was this little wormy dude, this little segmented thing that looks like a bacterium, but it was really, really small, much smaller even than bacteria on Earth. It was a big uproar, and a hubbub, and a fuss, and a foofarah, and whatever other sort of 200 year-old phrase you can think of, and it sort of died away because the evidence wasn’t that strong. Now, NASA has released some new stuff, saying, ‘Hey, maybe we were right all along. It looks like this magnetite may have been indicating that there was life on Mars.’ I’ll be honest, I have not read the papers yet. I’m a little bit behind, I’ve got them sitting on my computer. I don’t want to comment too much on the new stuff until I actually read the science. But a lot of people are going ballistic about this, thinking it’s pretty cool.

Karen: Well, what kind of lifeforms are we talking about?

Phil: Giant, lumbering, tripod, bug-eyed monsters. Well, it’s a little rock, so you know, they’re not riding a magic carpet from Mars to here. We’re talking fairly primitive bacteria, but again, there’s no smoking gun. From what I’ve read of the papers, they’re saying, ‘Yeah, we can’t exclude life.’ It’s not like, there it is in a petri dish, but it’s interesting.

Ben: Well, given the climate of Mars, what would we expect to see in its inhabitants?

Phil: Well, nowadays I expect, basically nothing. The atmosphere is only 1% the pressure of Earth’s, it’s almost entirely carbon dioxide, which is a relatively inert gas, although trees can breathe it and we don’t see large-scale vegetation on Mars. On the other hand, Mars has a lot of water. It’s in the form of ice, it’s frozen… but it’s got a lot of it. They keep finding it farther, well, closer to the equator then they expected. There are, basically, meteorite impacts that, when they hit the surface, they dig down a little bit when the crater’s excavated and the orbiting probe there (Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) with a super high resolution camera. And these pictures of these craters, some of these craters are fresh, they’re only a few years old. And there’s ice all around them, it’s water ice, we can tell. So there’s plenty of ice on Mars, or water in the form of ice, the question is, is there any liquid water. Because we don’t think that bacteria can do to well evolving in ice but in water they do pretty well. The question, as you know, ‘Is it still there?’ That question is hard to answer without going there with a pickaxe and finding out.

Karen: From what I’ve heard, there are studies taking place at places like Yellowstone, and we can tell a lot from the Geo-thermal activity there, and potentially, if life existed on other planets, we’d be talking thermophiles or something like that.

Phil: Yeah, that’s an interesting direction that this thing has gone, these so called extremophiles, bacteria or critters that live in super-high temperatures, super-cold temperatures, things that would poison us instantly, these black smokers, these vents at the bottom of the ocean that have these tube-worms around them. And there’s a tremendous amount of sulfur and the water is basically well above the boiling point although there’s so much pressure down there that the water doesn’t actually boil and life is there, and it makes me wonder did the life evolve first in places that were more habitable and then adapted to those extreme conditions or did they evolve in those extreme conditions? And there are bacteria that they found in a South African mine 2 miles underground, that live off of rocks that have radioactive decay and the radio active decay creates chemicals that these bacteria live off of. So these things never see sunlight, but they have an energy source, so you never know. And what you said, Karen, about Yellowstone there are weird bacteria that eat the sulfury minerals that are bubbling up in… what is it, the Devils Pothole? The Devil’s Teapot? The really crazy colored pond at Yellowstone.

Karen: Yeah…

Phil: And there are bacteria that live off this stuff so it’s not crazy to think that on Mars, on Europa (a moon of Jupiter), or Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) there could be life, even under those extreme conditions.

Ben: Phil do you have any reason to assume that, that life, that you might find on Mars or Jupiter would come to Earth to him to anally probe hillbillies, or anybody else?

Phil: Yeah, I don’t… I get this question a lot when I give lectures, especially when I’m talking to kids, they always ask me if I believe in UFOs and aliens. And there’s a long answer to it, but I usually say no and yes. I think that, given what we know about astronomy, how many stars are in the galaxy, how many stars are like the sun and were starting to detect enough planets orbiting other stars to get statistics. And it’s looking like, at a minimum, 10% of the stars in the galaxy have planets. So, you’re talking about tens of billions of planets. Some of them are bound to be Earth-like, some of them are bound to be able to support life. So, yeah, sure I think statistically it’s a near certainty that there’s life out in space. The question is are they coming here to anally probe hillbillies or cut the butts out of cows, which I think is silly, because honestly, you just have to come to Earth once, you cut one butt out of a cow, you take it home, and you clone it. It’s a lot cheaper. So I’m not seeing it, I’m not seeing the evidence for flying saucers and I get every time I write about this, I get a million UFO people commenting, saying, ‘What about this? What about this?’ And I say look, I’m really clear about this, you cannot show me a fuzzy video, you cannot show me a fuzzy picture. Even a picture is no longer trustworthy with that whole photoshop thing that the kids are using on the intertubes and the tweeter, today. So you gotta have more than that. Show me a piece of metal with a non- terrestrial isotope ratio on it. Show me, freaking Klaatu and Gort, walking out of a flying saucer on the White House lawn. (It wasn’t really the White House lawn in the movie, but give me this…) That’s what I want. If you’re gonna make a claim that there are aliens coming here and visiting us and want us to be good to each other and all that stuff, I’m gonna need more than a fuzzy picture of a streetlight.

Blake: Phil, how does isotopic evidence actually demonstrate what planet a metal comes from?

Phil: Well it’s not concrete, it’s not 100%, but basically where the earth formed in the solar system and the processes it’s gone through over time, you get a certain ratio of elements if you look at, for example, oh, I don’t know, uranium, let’s just say. There are different forms of uranium, it’s not just all one thing. It depends on how many neutrons are in the nucleus of the uranium atom. They all have the same number of protons in them, I think it’s 92, but they have different numbers of neutrons and that gives you isotopes. So there’s Uranium-235, and there’s Uranium-238, and all these different things and so the ratio of these isotopes sort of depends on where something formed. So, for example, on this martian meteorite, in the atmosphere of Mars there are different ratios of elements, different ratios of these isotopes than there are on Earth. In a way it’s like a fingerprint and you can tell that something came from a certain place so if you came from Alpha Centauri and you have your spaceship and you leave a piece of metal that has some bizarre ratio of iron in it, or molybdenum, or nickel, or whatever; that would be a pretty clear-cut case. Now that doesn’t mean it can’t be faked but at a bare minimum I’d like to see something like that. Really what I want is Klaatu on the White House lawn.

Ben: Phil, how would you fake that? I mean, I wouldn’t be able to fake something like that, so how would it be done?

Phil: Well, it would be expensive. You’d have to go to a metallurgical lab and say, ‘I need this much of this isotope, and this much of that isotope.’, and then you would have to melt them and mix them together. When I worked on Hubble, for example, we had a special lamp that we used to calibrate our camera and it had platinum in it, platinum happened to be good for what we needed. The problem is, platinum has different isotopes and it smeared out the data that we got from this lamp, so we had to actually get mono-isotopic platinum, it had to be platinum of all one flavor and I was told that that single lamp (which was the size of an overhead projector lamp) cost a million dollars, so. But that’s platinum and it’s expensive to start with, but there you go. It would be very expensive to do this, but not, you know, if you were a wealthy billionaire and had a wicked sense of humor and plenty of time it wouldn’t be impossible.

Karen: The claims are certainly never that complex, they’re always very superficial.

Phil: Oh, yes it’s, you know, crushed corn stalks, ‘No human could’ve walked on these…

Ben: ‘That’s ridiculous!’

Phil: …Clearly, this was trans-dimensional humans. That’s my favorite line from Ghostbusters, ‘No human would stack books this way!’. It should be the skeptic mantra.

Blake: You probably get asked this all the time, but what’s the way that you like to describe this big astronomical issue that we often overlook, which is how big is our solar system? Can you talk about that?

Phil: I think that one of the problems with the whole UFO thing, is that we all have a lousy sense of scale and people just don’t understand how far away the stars are. You really honestly either have to have aliens who can live practically forever, or they have to have faster than light drives and as far as we know, faster than light drives are impossible. And look, the Pluto probe, the New Horizons probe (which is like halfway to Pluto) is the fastest, as far as I know, the fastest probe that has ever been launched and it’s going to take, what was it, 9 years to get to Pluto, 9 years and so that kinda gives you a sense. I actually filmed a documentary recently where we built a scale model solar system on a football field. I actually went to the Colts stadium here in Denver and put the Sun on the goal line, and put Pluto on the other goal line, and the Earth, I’d have to look at the numbers, but I think the Earth was like 2 yards away, or something crazy like that and it would’ve been smaller than a grain of sand at that scale. The solar system is huge. It would take you 70 years to drive to the Sun… wait a minute, do I have that right? It might be 70 years to fly an airplane to the Sun, but it takes decades to get there in any sort of terrestrial conveyance and even our rockets took 3 days to get to the Moon with Apollo, so these objects, even the nearest objects are tremendously far away. You better pack a lunch if you’re going.

Blake: I have looked at some of the experiments available online to do something similar with peas and grains of sand, and yeah the universe is really big. Douglas Adams really got that right, but I mean it’s really, really big.

Phil: I always say I would call that it’s defining characteristic.

Ben: It’s bigness.

Phil: That’s why we call it space, folks.

Blake: I went to see 2012, and…

Phil: …Ohhhh, so sorry.

Blake: The beginning of that film, [is] yet another example of Hollywood getting it wrong with the big graphic showing the planets close together for the syzygy.

Phil: Yeah, and the planets never actually line up like that, they did that in Tomb Raider and a bunch of other movies. If there’s any way they can screw up astronomy in Hollywood that’s pretty much on the chopping block right away.

Ben: Let me ask you about that, because one of my favorite films and perhaps one of yours as well, is Contact, and at the very beginning of that, there’s a really beautiful sequence showing the radio signals that were going out, I think it was the television signals. Do you remember that?

Phil: Of course, that’s one of the best opening sequences ever filmed.

Ben: OK. I was just going to ask how realistic and how well thought out…

Phil: …Well it was wrong.

Ben: [Laughter] They still botched it, huh?

Phil: You gotta say to yourself, ‘Carl Sagan wrote this!’, so chances are it’s probably going to be better than anything else done. And basically the 1 or 2 mistakes that were in there, there’s one mistake that’s just a special effects thing, you actually fly through the Eagle Nebula and this is a famous nebula it has the Pillars of Creation in it. If you look up Pillars of Creation on Google you’ll find the very famous Hubble picture of these 3 towering dust clouds where stars are forming and they go through the nebula and you’re sort of backing away from the Earth, and so you go through the nebula and you’re seeing it from the other side but it looks just like it does from this side. So they got left to right backwards. Oh, no! You have to be kind of an anal-retentive jerk like me to even see something like that. The big error in that sequence, if you want to call it that, is that before they even leave the solar system you’re hearing radio signals from like 30 years ago and of course the outer solar system isn’t 30 light-years away. It wouldn’t work that way, but, I’m chalking that up to artistic license. They didn’t match up the radio signals to the distance, because it just didn’t work on screen, and I’m always willing to give a movie the benefit of the doubt to tell a better story, if the sacrifice is the science as long as they’re not sacrificing it to the point of it becomes a Michael Bay movie or something like that. I like the new Godzilla movie so…

Blake: Actually, I enjoyed the new Godzilla movie, it was just different from the original.

Phil: We’re the only 2.

Blake: Well, my son likes it. Have you seen Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla: Final Wars?

Phil: No!?

Blake: Just like virtually every monster appears in that film, it was astonishing.

Phil: Wow! I’ll have to see that. I’ve always been a Ghidorah fan, myself.

Blake: Yeah, my son likes him, too.

Phil: 3 heads, c’mon!

Blake: OK, alien question: I’ve heard you talk about UFOs and how astronomers should be seeing more of them.

Phil: Yeah, this is something I came up with a few years ago. Basically, it’s not [professional] astronomers, it’s mostly amateur astronomers. There aren’t that many professional astronomers, only a few thousand, and in fact they’re usually sitting at home, or in an observatory computer room, with digital computers hooked up to the telescopes and they’re not actually out there looking at the sky. But there are amateur astronomers who are out every clear night and it’s not really well known how many there are we know there are at least several tens of thousands of amateur astronomers just in the US alone. So you’ve got a huge number of people who are out observing the skies and this is dedicated observing, it’s not just like walking out to their car and glancing up and yet most of these UFO reports are coming from people in just those circumstances. They’re people who aren’t used to seeing the night sky, they go out they’re walking the dog, they’re doing whatever, and they see something and yet if you do this by man-hours, there’s no way that this ratio is tilted toward people who are not astronomers. In other words, there are more people looking for longer at the sky who understand the sky and know what they’re looking at (those guys being astronomers, men and women) so it seems to me that for every thousand UFO’s reported, some fraction, some large fraction, half or more, should be coming from amateur astronomers, and the fact is there aren’t. Now I wrote about this in my first book, and I got a guy complaining. He wrote an article on the web, saying, ‘Why here’s a report, two reports from amateur astronomers!’ And I thought, really, two reports, out of the bazillion that come out every year, he found two from amateur astronomers, c’mon! The point is, people look up in the sky and when they see a halo around the Sun, or Sun Dogs (which are reflections near the sun caused by ice crystals) or any number of things in the sky that they’re not used to, they report flying saucers. That’s my argument. Stan Friedman, the UFO guy Stan Friedman, took offense at this, basically saying that astronomers are too busy looking through their telescopes to see it, and I thought that was pretty funny, because I am guessing he must either not know very many amateur astronomers or the ones he knows must be very odd because most of the ones I know are constantly looking up with binoculars or just their eyes in between looking through the eyepiece and so my argument, I think, still stands most of these reports should be from amateur astronomers, they’re not, ergo, most of the reported UFO’s are not real flying saucers, they’re mistaken identity.

Blake: This hits on a common problem in cryptozoology and almost every aspect of paranormal investigations I look into, that people argue from ignorance. It’s the, ‘I don’t know what it is, so it’s an extraterrestrial vehicle! I don’t know what that animal is, so it’s a Bigfoot!’ This just keeps happening all through out where people admit they’re ignorant but fill in the blank with the thing they’re most comfortable with putting there.

Phil: Yeah, it’s aliens of the gaps, I guess, like God of the gaps, where religious people always say, ‘God did it!’ when there’s some gap in our scientific knowledge, it’s the same sort of thing with flying saucers. ‘I didn’t understand that, therefore, it must be trans-dimensional aliens from the future who have come back to anally probe me.’, and, it’s funny, because, a lot of these really classic UFO examples, like the Phoenix Lights, are completely explained with military maneuvers and different things like that. We know, we know, that the Stealth Bomber and the SR-71, well, the SR-71 is a better example, the old Blackbird, is 1970’s technology it was completely secret until relatively recently and the top speed of that machine is still top secret, so we’re talking about stuff that’s been around for 30 or 40 years and is still being held secret. What the heck does the military have now that they’re not telling us about? So, that’s not a conspiracy theory, that’s just plain and simple logic. They’ve had 30 years to improve on the SR-71, who knows what’s up there and could be mistaken for a flying saucer? And we know that people mistake ordinary stuff for a flying saucer. It happens all the time.

Blake: Yeah, the hypothesized Aurora craft and even the blimp craft, people say that it may be accounting for some and, you know what else, the unmanned vehicles, those things can do g-force maneuvers that a piloted craft can’t do.

Phil: Right, and we’ve seen a lot of those, as well. What are they, UAV’s? Unmanned automatic vehicles? Aeronautic? I don’t remember what it stands for [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] but you get these things and that’s where they got a lot of the telemetry over Iraq during the first and second Iraq wars and all that kind of stuff. And again, yeah, you’re right. Those things are designed not to be seen, but there are other craft up there. Whenever I see a report that says, ‘I saw several lights flying in formation, did right angle turns…’ my first thought is wedding candles. You take a garbage bag and you tie a candle underneath and the candle heats the air up and it basically turns into a hot air balloon. It happens all the time in the summer, that’s when a lot of people get married, and they can fool people. There was a pilot, (I’ve got this on my blog someplace) a pilot from New Jersey, who actually was interviewed by the news. Of course they love talking to pilots ‘cause people assume A) pilot’s are authority figures; and B) pilots know the sky

And that’s not really true, or not necessarily true, I should say. And this guy was saying, ‘I saw this thing and it did a right angle turn in the sky and shot off at high speed.’ and it was shown conclusively that this was basically a collection of balloons, that this guy was fooled by. So, you can’t trust any of these reports, eyewitness reports are the worst things to trust, even from somebody you might think is an authority.

Blake: Yeah, there’s so many times I’ve seen things that, positions where I’ve watched aircraft and it appeared that they were standing still in the sky, and I would change position and it would appear that suddenly the aircraft had started moving really fast, which was odd.

Phil: Ahh heck, if you’re driving and the moon is rising through the trees, it look like the moon is following you.

Blake: You know that never worked for me, it works for my daughters, but not me.

Phil: It doesn’t look that way to you?

Blake: I’ve never been able to see it.

Phil: Well, you’re inhuman else

Karen: Phil, speaking of claims, UFO and alien claims, it’s ironic that you live in Colorado and a lot of these claims seem to be coming out of there at the moment, and in fact today I was writing about the ET commission in Denver, the proposal for that. Could you tell us a bit about that? Have you been following that?

Phil: [Laughter] Yeah, actually I heard about it and then started writing up a blog post and then saw yours, so mine will go up pretty soon too, linking to yours. Yeah, there’s this guy, Peckman, [Jeff Peckman] he actually had made a bit of a name for himself before the alien thing because he was trying to get the Denver City Council, or the Denver Government to establish an Alien Affairs Commission. Then this alien video came out recently where he said, ‘Look it’s an alien in the window and there’s no way this could be faked!’ and then the guys from the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society faked it basically in an hour and made their video look better than his, which I thought was great. And he’s back, he evidently collected enough signatures that he’s forced a ballot initiative in Denver to create this Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission, so that people have to investigate UFOs and he’s claiming that he’s got private investors that this won’t cost the government any money, but that’s ridiculous, because it’s going to take up the time of the government, which costs money so there’s no way this isn’t going to cost money and oh by the way, it’s a freaking waste of time. At some point you have to wonder what people are thinking when they look at fuzzy pictures and stuff and say yes this is clear evidence of aliens and this is a colossal waste of time. Happily there’s some government official in Denver saying, ‘I have real things to worry about, I don’t need to worry about this made up stuff.’ so I was pretty happy about that.

Karen: Well, I hear that he had falsified a lot of those signatures that he had collected as well.

Phil: Yeah, I saw that on your blog post, but I didn’t have time to look that up. Where did you hear that?

Karen: I’ve been told by a number of sources, the guys from the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Society, and also there was an article in the Denver Post, claiming that, I think he had collected about 10,000 signatures, and only 4,000 of them were valid, but that was sufficient for this to be put onto the ballot.

Phil: Oh, I see, OK. And I guess some of them were A.L.F., E.T., Klaatu.

Karen: I guess, yeah, 6000 of them, some of them, yeah.

Phil: [Laughter]

Karen: Do you think that this will get passed?

Phil: And the thing is, it very well might. That’s the part that kills me. You know, there might be a real thing here, Carl Sagan used to say that, I think, whether these are mass hallucinations, or really aliens coming, either way it’s interesting. Why are people reporting so many UFO’s? I think it’s actually a lot mundane. Of course, we crave this sort of excitement, that’s why we go to movies about aliens and why we read science fiction, but when you come down to the reality of it, honestly, when you look at these things skeptically, these photographs, these videos, these stories, there’s just nothing to them and the UFO people get so upset with me when I say that. But how can you claim this is an alien when it’s so easy to fake a picture better than this? And so, I just don’t see it, and I think spending a lot of money on it is just not worth the time.

Ben: Well, there’s an interesting parallel with the monsters, as well, I mean, there are people who have tried to get actual US Government sponsored expeditions to locate Bigfoot and yeti and things like that, so there’s always somebody out there who’s complaining that the reason we haven’t found these monsters is because no one’s throwing money at it, so.

Phil: Except every yahoo out in the middle of nowhere sees them and there’s tons of video of them completely faked and honestly I don’t think this is something the government should be investigating. It’s a little like SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence that was a NASA project and they got basically booted out by congress, in my opinion I think that’s probably the right decision. I don’t think NASA should be doing something like that I think that’s something that should be privately funded they are privately funded by Paul Allen from Microsoft, for example, they get funding from other people as well and it frees them up to be able to do things the way they want and in fact SETI is advancing, leaps and bounds. They’ve got the Paul Allen Array on California and Seth Shostak, one of the lead astronomers there, is fairly convinced, that statistically speaking, if there are alien civilizations broadcasting in our galaxy, we should be able to detect them within about 20 years.

Karen: I was going to say, there’s the SETI at Home project too, through UC Berkeley, if people want to get involved in this.

Phil: Right, that’s been out a long time. That’s a screen-saver you can download for your computer and it runs when your computer is not running and basically, you get sent packets of SETI data that they collect using radio telescopes and you get that and your computer is used to process little pieces of it that then get sent back to the central computer, which puts them all together. Because basically the amount of data they get is just impossible to analyze it all. And this has been running for years and it’s pretty cool and you never know, the person who actually finds that one packet that shows that E.T.’s calling us might be somebody who happens not to have been playing World of Warcraft at that particular moment. And it was actually the first of these background processing devices, and there’s a bunch of them out now, because it’s just too hard to build a computer fast enough to do all of this but if you get a 100,000 people with the screen-saver on their computers, that’s a lot of computing power. It’s certainly a lot more than even a single supercomputer 20 years ago was. It’s a pretty cool idea.

Blake: Phil have you ever worked at Arecibo, or been to Arecibo?

Phil: No.

Blake: Chupacabra lore suggests that the astronomers there may also be doing genetic research, and that’s what caused the chupacabra to come into existence.

Phil: Really? Because there’s a radio telescope there, they’re doing biological engineering for things to suck on goats.

Blake: See, now it sounds silly when you say it.

Ben: Right…

Phil: Well, we do have genes and I actually have used my genes to reproduce once, so I guess that makes me something of an expert.

Ben: And you’re wearing jeans, right?

Phil: Flannel, actually, but… no fleece, woo! Fleece, which comes from

Ben: Ooohh!

Phil: [Duh Duh Duh!] [Laughter]

Ben: We’ve come full circle.

Blake: Phil, how does the James Randi Educational Foundation’s charter deal with matters like UFO claims and claims of extraterrestrials visiting the Earth? Is that something you have to deal with, or foresee having to deal with in the future?

Phil: That’s actually a tougher question than you might think. For example, in my opinion, if aliens are coming to visit the Earth, they are natural, right, they evolved on another planet, they developed the technology to create wormholes or some sort of very fast travel to get here and so if they come here, it’s not paranormal at all, it’s totally natural. So at what level… how do you define paranormal? And we could argue about that for a long time, but if you’re talking about maybe fairies or something that just is completely not supported by modern science, fairies, gnomes I don’t know maybe even Bigfoot might count because there’s no sort of biological antecedent for Bigfoot so maybe, maybe that would count. The charter for JREF, I don’t know if you could really call it that, but, just our sort of mission is to educate people about science and to be skeptical of claims to demand evidence of people’s claims. So, if somebody comes up and says, ‘Look, here’s Bigfoot!’ And it’s Harry and the Hendersons, and then we take him to a biology lab and they say, ‘Yeah, look this is a genetically clear example of a hominid that is not human and matches the description of Bigfoot, then yeah, you know, we’ll be talking about it, but until then, these are just claims without evidence or at least very sketchy evidence. And so in that sense it falls under everything else that the JREF does, and that is show us the evidence and let’s use good science and logic to determine what we’re looking at here.

Karen: The JREF is as interested in claims of pseudoscience as it is in claims of the paranormal, isn’t it?

Phil: Well, sure, and it’s one of these things where, again, what’s the dividing line if you have guys running around misinterpreting thermal camera readings and claiming everything that bumps in the night is a ghost, is that a pseudoscience or is it paranormal? And I would say it’s both it just depends on, I suppose, what it is your talking about. Anti-vaxxer’s, all the alternative medicines we know don’t work, like chiropractic, homeopathy and acupuncture; those might be more pseudoscience than paranormal, unless, you can show me that homeopathy which, in the end, is just distilled water, if that does work, that goes against every law of science we know, so it would kind of have to be paranormal if it worked. Happily we know it doesn’t anymore than the placebo effect so it’s not even a pseudoscience it’s just garbage.

Blake: OK, here’s a question for you, and this may not be very scientific, but it might be something we do with future guests as well. What’s your favorite monster?

Phil: Oh, my gosh! I don’t know, when I was a kid I was always partial to Godzilla. I liked Gamera, too, I had a thing about turtles, I liked turtles a lot when I was a kid, really interested in them, but I don’t know… I kind of like…

Blake: ‘Gamera is very neat, He’s filled with Turtle Meat’

Phil: Huh, thank you. [Laughter] Actually I in fact liked Cloverfield a lot. The monster itself was interesting, but I liked the movie.

Blake: Yeah, I thought his parasites were as frightening as he was, or she was, or it was.

Phil: Scared the crap out of me. I watched it again recently and I thought, ‘Yeah, still pretty good, I don’t see what everyone was complaining about.’ Yeah, I was kind of sickened by the hand-held camera but I liked the movie, and I like, if I have to say what’s my favorite monster movie… for a sufficiently broad definition of monster movie, I would go with Five Million Years to Earth, what was released in England as Quatermass and the Pit.

Blake: Yeah, I have that movie on DVD, watch it every couple years with friends.

Phil: That movie freaked the hell out of me when I was a kid and then I saw it again, I don’t know, ten years ago, maybe, and sat back and thought, ‘This movie freaking rocks!’ It’s got everything in it! It’s got ghosts and goblins and martians in flying saucers and caveman and telekinesis and the Devil. Yes the Devil, with a capital D! It came out in like the 1960’s, it’s one of the Hammer horror movies. And it’s very slow to start, and then it builds. It’s a ridiculous movie, it just builds on ridiculous premise on ridiculous premise. And then ends with London being destroyed, oh just fantastic. Not a very happy, feel-good ending. That’s one of the reasons I love it.

Blake: Yeah, I love this movie. I watch it like, I say, I watch it every few years. That one, and I like to watch John Carpenter’s The Thing, both of those movies just really work well, even after all these years.

Phil: That’s my favorite horror movie, there will never… I can’t even imagine a better horror movie being made. There’s actually a scene in the movie where you see a guy… the premise of the movie is they unearth this alien in Antarctica and it can change it’s shape, it actually becomes a person, it takes you over and there’s a scene in the movie where you see it approaching a doorway, and you see a guy’s shadow on the door, and you never find out who that guy is and there’s literally no way to know you can narrow down to two people, but you never know which one it is. And they did that on purpose, to keep the suspense going you really just don’t know who’s alien and who isn’t. It’s a fantastic movie.

Blake: Yeah, The Thing has a rather bleak ending, too.

Phil: Another happy, feel-good ending, yeah. Man it’s depressing!

Blake: Yeah, a lot of these alien visitation scenarios aren’t very happy.

Ben: Is it a better ending than the ending of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the ’77 versions with Donald Sutherland?

Phil: Yeah, it’s the same sort of feeling at the end, you’re like, ‘Ohh, ahhh!’.

Blake: [Laughter]

Ben: [Laughter]

Karen: [Laughter]

Phil: Yeah, not a happy ending. And I’ll say that two of my favorite movies of all time, both directed by John Carpenter, both star Kurt Russell, the other one being Big Trouble in Little China, also for a broad enough definition of monster movie, there are monsters in it.

Blake: Since we’re talking about infrequently filmed scary movies what do you think about the British film, Curse the Demon, have you seen that?

Phil: [Laughter] Of course!

Blake: Yeah, I like that one because the hero of the movies a skeptic.

Phil: Yeah, but he’s wrong. But in the end he figures it out.

Blake: Well, he’s wrong, but when presented with incontrovertible evidence of the supernatural, he uses his knowledge of the paranormal to thwart evil.

Phil: That’s another movie that honestly when I was a kid it freaked the hell out of me. It’s a giant bat demon which you know, picks you up and shakes to death and throws you down and you only see it twice, in the very beginning and the very end of the movie but the tension of the movie… when the hero is running through the woods and this thing is chasing him, that’s honestly very tense and in fact there’s a Kate Bush song that actually samples that scene.

Blake: Yeah, for Hounds of Love, but she couldn’t actually get the rights, they had to re-record it.

Phil: ‘It’s coming!’ Yeah!

Blake: Yeah, ‘It’s in the trees, it’s coming’

Phil: You gotta be a complete monster dork to know this stuff.

Blake: Hey! Okay, a lot of the information we talked about as far as aliens comes from your extensive familiarity with science fiction and science and you’ve written about this in your new book: Death from the Skies! which is out in paperback now, right?

Phil: The paperback came out a couple months ago. The paperback cover’s a lot cooler, it’s like this comic book… Nathan Fox is a famous comic book artist who did it, but it’s a really terrific cover and it’s a great book and it may just save your life.

Blake: Extraordinary claims, Phil. [Laughter] Thanks for joining us today.

[Voiceover: MonsterTalk!]

Blake: Today you heard from Dr. Phil Plait, author of the book: Death from the Skies!, talking with us about the plausibility of aliens from another planet visiting the Earth. While the existence of aliens within the confines of the universe seems plausible from a statistical perspective no evidence of such creatures has been verified by science. As scientists go on searching the skies for signs of intelligence, we’ll continue to do our part to try and promote it down here. I’m Blake Smith, and on behalf of Ben Radford and Karen Stollznow thanks for listening to another episode of MonsterTalk. You can join other skeptics and believers in discussing these and other topics at the MonsterTalk section of the official Skeptic forum. You can read more from Ben Radford at Skeptical Inquirer magazine and on his life-science column. And you can hear more from Dr. Karen Stollznow, and at her CFI blog at the Naked Skeptic, or even on twitter. You can get links to my articles and some ridiculously bad puns by following me on twitter @ These links, of course will be available in the show notes. We appreciate your patronage and hope you’ll leave us reviews on iTunes (it’s a free way to let us know how we’re doing) The shows theme music is by Peach Stealing Monkeys, the introductory music is by Man Manly, and all music is obtained with permission via


Phil: Can you pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time? Alright, well, Alright, just making note. Alright.

The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine.

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