Sunday, July 08, 2007

The burning ufological question of our age: why is there controversy over the UFO phenomenon when Michael Shermer is here to set everybody straight?

'Out of the Blue': Do Aliens Exist?

But when it comes to UFOs, there are plenty of skeptics. One man who makes his living as a professional skeptic is, well, skeptical.

Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic Magazine, says, "The parade of astronauts or police officers or politicians like Jimmy Carter -- it's irrelevant. Because they're human and they're brains and nervous systems and sensory apparatus are structured just like the average Joes."

Most people will concede that humans are fallible. We're certainly capable of misinterpreting stimuli, not to mention falling victim to the under-estimated "will to believe." But does that make witness testimony "irrelevant," as Shermer would have us believe? Hardly. Especially when he selectively ignores the vast body of UFO evidence in which the phenomenon (ET or otherwise) leaves an objective imprint on its surroundings (or is tracked and recorded by instruments).

The article continues:

Shermer spends a lot of time with reports of UFOs and space aliens, and has this to say about the documentary: "Um, the facts are true. The, uh, the story is well told and well produced. But that's not how science works. In science we have to have some way of testing to get an answer. It's this or this. And we have to have some way of weighing the evidence. And short of an actual experiment to run you have to have debate."

The irony, of course, is that we should be having a serious scientific debate over the meaning of the UFO evidence -- many of them, in fact. But Shermer's facile assumption that "UFO" is synonymous with "extraterrestrial spacecraft," coupled with his fanatical insistence that even high-caliber sightings (presumably even those confirmed by subsequent investigation) should be categorically dismissed, conveniently precludes the need for sober discussion.

In Shermer's world, the universe abides by the proclamation of a self-appointed "skeptical" elite, inconvenient facts summarily brushed aside with the help of a few condescending remarks and semantic misrepresentations. Fortunately for the rest of us, the universe doesn't seem to care what Shermer thinks. Instead, we're confronted with phenomena that challenge our assumptions and force us to expand our epistemological frontiers, all the while utterly indifferent to the preconceptions of committed believers and debunkers alike.


Paul Kimball said...

There are a lot of reasonable, rational skeptics out there. Indeed, I like to think of myself as one. Given the nature of the world, I think a healthy skepticism is essential.

Shermer is nothing of the sort, however. He is a disbeliever, which is just as bad as being a believer.


Greg Bishop said...

Shermer seems to be a rabid fundamentalist in a "civilized" mask. Less people will listen to him as time goes on, except the ones that remain in the fundamentalist mold. Rational beings will remain curious.

Chris said...

By Shermer's definition, eyewitness testimony would be irrelevant in criminal court cases.

Mac said...


Exactly. But the fashionable pseudoskeptical elite probably won't even notice in their eagerness to dispel an unwanted mystery.

Robin_Shadowes said...

Michael Shermer seriously needs his butt probed by ET. Not that it would change anything for either us but just for the fun of it. I'll be damned if he at least wouldn't be a little befuzzled by the experience.

Anonymous said...

My beef with the Shermer school of "skeptics" is that it's not truly sceptical. (British spelling here...)

Instead it punishes anyone who dares to deviate from its declared opinions. Scepticism? Authoritarianism more like.

Back in the Middle Ages, Oxford University was able to fine any academics who deviated from Aristotle's philosophies in their debates. Let's hope the pseudo-skeptics don't inveigle themselves into that sort of power!

Alan Cabal said...

I've always found it funny that Shermer leaves his "skepticism" behind when approaching the subject of the "Holocaust."

Mac said...


I'm not sure where you're going with your comment. If you're implying that the Holocaust is some sort of fabrication, I'm afraid I disagree (an understatement).

Shermer's an historian and tackles historical "revisionism" with muster and intelligence. He rightly exposes Holocaust deniers and does a decent enough job dispensing with television psychics (although one could always argue this is a bit like drowing kittens).

But he's dreadfully uninformed about UFOs. It's that simple. You can't smugly "debunk" something you haven't taken the time to understand.

Ray said...


I’m not a “fan” of Michael Shermer. One time he was pushing for a euphemism to replace the word “atheist” as if another term would disarm all the strict fundie believers out here. Also, he can be just as “fallible” as any human UFO witness when he doesn’t check out a source ( -
Saturday, May 19, 2007: "A Skeptic Stumbles: Preaching, But Not Always Practicing").

At the same time, he doesn’t come across as a complete skepwoo in the ABC news article. He does state: “So unfortunately we can't just, we can't always count [on] eyewitness accounts being reliable." (My emphasis.)

I do agree with that statement: you can’t always count on eyewitness accounts. (But you can never discount such accounts all the time. Accounts have to be judged on a case-by-case basis.)

And here are the last three paragraphs from that article that indicate that Shermer isn’t as close-minded as one would think.

* * *

Shermer says the problem comes in a kind of leap of faith — with UFOs it's a leap of explanation.

"In science it's OK to just say, 'Let's just withhold judgment for now and do more research. We don't have to commit to some big, grand theory of aliens visiting us. Let's just say we don't know what it is.' … But we have to follow the standards of evidence in science that we apply everywhere else. In no other science would anybody accept just a few random anecdotal stories and grainy videos and blurry photographs."

"The question itself I think is legitimate," he said. "It's interesting, it's fascinating. It's mythic in scale … one of the grand questions. It's like the God question or, you know, the meaning-of-life question. It's one of those, on that scale. So you'd have to be made of wood not to be interested and, you know, have they come here? Are they up there?"

* * *

So he does think the question is “legitimate.” What he states that more research should be done before any leaps of faith are made. I don’t argue with that. Until unquestionable evidence is found, we can speculate about the UFO mystery, but no one can truly say what ultimate answer lies behind the phenomena.

Apparently Shermer’s not a wooden dummy when considering the issue. Also, he’s right when he says that science is limited in trying to find answers in certain areas such as the reality behind God or UFOs. And that is indeed a limitation of traditional science when it comes to “mythic” subjects.


Ray said...


FYI: I just used my previous comment as the basis for a post at my blog with additional remarks.

Of course, if you think I'm off-base, you'll let me know.



Mac said...

Sorry, Ray. I read the article and, if anything, the bits you quoted make him sound even more condescending. Instead of a vague reference to "blurry photographs," for example, why not a summary of a well-investigated case such as RB47?

X. Dell said...

If the article were written by Shermer, then we would have a better way of contextualizing the remarks bade to ABC News. The problem is that his qualifying statemeents at the end are out of context, and perhaps even contrary to context. After all, it's one thing to say that eyewitness accounts are irrelevant, and another to say that we have to be more patient in our assessment of validity. One thing the article doesn't make clear is the weight or emphasis that Shermer put on each point.

PArt of mainstream coverage of UFOs seems almost bent to raise the issue without saying hardly anything. Or to leave it up to the reader/viewer's perception what was actually said. This piece seems to fit into that groove.

Ray said...


X. Dell beat me to the punch with a point I was going to make. Shermer is quoted and we don’t know in what context his quotes were made. Also, due to the limitations of space, maybe he did go into detail with a case like RB47 but his observation was cut.

One fault I find with the format of the ABC News article – and I’m seen this with too many MSM pieces – is the assumption that each issue only has two sides, pro and con. Obviously Shermer was set up as the “con” POV. But he doesn’t come across as rabidly anti-UFO, saying that the subject is silly and that no one should bother talking about it. When someone makes that statement, they do belong to the skeptical elite.

Maybe part of the problem is that Shermer is supposed to represent the con and his quotes are filtered through that perspective. Thus certain readers expect him to be completely anti-UFO and interpret his statements that way. Articles can force interviewees to play certain roles. Stereotypes are easy fits for a piece; they facilitate the reader’s “understanding” of a topic. That’s lazy writing, bad writing, a disservice to readers.

I debated about going over Shermer’s statements point by point, but I don’t think parsing will make that much difference.


the amazing grandi said...

Uh, so if Shermer is the obverse of a "believer", or some kind of fundamentalist skeptic, should one coin a new term for such:


Mac said...


I prefer "pseudoskeptic."

Mac said...


You're absolutely right about the either/or journalistic bias. But Shermer's dismissal is totally in keeping with his own writings. (Take a gander at his treatment of UFOs in "Why People Believe Weird Things.")

Tony said...

Shermer is a pseudo-skeptic. Pseudoskepticism is one of the worst types of pseudoscience. More detailed critical info on pseudoskeptics:

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