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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Occam’s Razor and Little Green Men

Warning: this will be a long post.

We’ve all heard the stories. They tend to go something like this:
I left late that night; the drive was very dark and lonely. Suddenly, I saw a strange light in the sky through my rearview mirror that kept following me.

Or this:
I was camping out in the desert when I saw some strange things flying in a V formation in the distance. They were heading south, toward that military base. The creepy thing is, they were silent, unlike a jet or a plane.

Or this:
I woke from sleep unable to move. I felt a weight pressing against my chest, yet weightless at the same time. My room lights were off, yet everything was illuminated. I couldn’t breathe or call out for help. I don’t know how long that lasted, but everything became normal again after a while.

Now, I will probably piss a lot of people off with my opinion, but here it goes: There is no reasonable, scientific proof (so far) to suggest that we have been visited by intelligent beings from space. Shocking, I know. The issue here is reasonable, scientific, proof. Exceptional claims require exceptional proof, and the burden of proof is on the shoulders of the one who makes the claim. Before we go any further, let me say that I am not completely against the idea of life “out there,” I just don’t think the green creature that supposedly kidnapped the meth-head down the street counts.  

Most UFO/Alien stories are based on eyewitness accounts. Unfortunately, first-hand accounts do not count for much in science. Memories can be manipulated, distorted, misunderstood, etc. Plus, some people just make crap up. Even when a person honestly believes their own story, they are probably interpreting the situation incorrectly. As astrophysicist Dr. Philip Plait says in his book, Bad Astronomy, “A need for wonder, and an all-too-easy ability to be fooled account for the vast majority of UFO sightings.”  It is human nature to try to find an explanation for things we see. Many of these explanations are simply wrong. Plait goes on to say, “A lot of people claim to see strange things in the sky – moving lights, changing colors, objects that follow them. But…how many people are really familiar with the sky? I have found that there are things that happen in the sky about which people are completely unaware. Many have no idea you can see planets and satellites with the naked eye…If someone is not familiar with things that are in the sky all the time, how can they be sure they are seeing something unusual?” The sky appears to do strange things, that doesn’t mean those things are beyond the realm of rational explanation. It is also interesting to note that no (to my knowledge) astronomers ever mention alien spacecraft sightings. I mean, these people are always looking at the sky, logically they should be the ones reporting flying saucers, but they don’t. They must not be looking hard enough.

It is now time to bring up that pesky little rule called Occam’s Razor. According to Merriam-Webster, Occam’s Razor is: a scientific and philosophic rule that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities.

So how does Occam’s shaving device work in the context of supposed alien spacecraft? Exceedingly well! Let’s take the story of the person being followed by a light in the sky. Seems creepy, right? I mean, I don’t like anything trying to follow me around at night, let alone an illuminated thing. But consider this: the planet Venus is visible at night and often appears to be “following” the viewer. Venus is the third brightest thing in the sky after the sun and the moon, so it makes an impact. If is often low on the horizon and seems to change color due to earth’s atmosphere. What is a more reasonable explanation; aliens traversed the vacuum of space with super-duper cool technology and are now slowly following your car just to mess with you, or you are mistaking the planet Venus for a spacecraft? Aliens aren’t stalking you, Venus is...and so am I.

What about those things in a V formation flying silently toward a military base? Is it alien technology that the government is hiding from us? Maybe, or it could be a flock of birds seen at a strange angle. Birds usually don’t make too much noise when they fly, at least not when they are far away. And they are going towards the military base because it is south. Birds often fly in that direction, especially before winter.  A funny yet familiar story happened to the abovementioned astrophysicist while watching a shuttle launch. He saw a strange flying V formation coming towards him and couldn’t tell that it was birds until they were very close. If birds can confuse an astrophysicist, they can confuse you.

A special note on Roswell: I really don’t understand the big hoopla over the Roswell cover-up. I mean, an experimental military balloon project mishap is going to be covered up. Duh. Things get classified for good reasons, like keeping important information about advances from the enemy. It has nothing to do with aliens. In fact, the military would probably rather people focused on aliens – that way the real, important information gets overlooked. You know, when I was interning in Port Townsend, WA, I went to the walk-in clinic about some random (most likely hippie-bourn) illness. The nurse there proceeded to tell me about how she saw strange lights in the sky above the local state park. Now, Port Townsend is close to an active military base (it is also full of crazy people who don’t believe the moon landing was real). Could it be that those lights had something to do with that? Or could they have been related to the active shipping lines of the Strait of Juan de Fuca? No. It MUST have been aliens…and this woman has been trained in the sciences. We are all doomed.

Moving on, let’s tackle that abduction case. I know we have all heard that supposed cases of abduction are probably due to sleep paralysis, that’s probably because nearly all of those abduction cases are due to sleep paralysis. Either that, or drugs, alcohol, active dreams, or some combination of the four. Sleep paralysis isn’t really that rare. It isn’t even new. And, it’s completely natural! Hooray. It usually happens just before or just after sleep. It causes temporary paralysis (duh), often making it hard to breathe (almost like something pressing on your chest!), and can cause hallucinations. This happens to perfectly sane people who don’t normally hallucinate. I even have a friend who suffers from this from time to time. He knows what it is, but it is still very terrifying because calling for help is very difficult.

Another strange thing about abductions is the people that the supposed aliens take. I mean, they never take the President or the Pope or some other logical figure. Heck, they don’t even take Vice President Biden, even though nobody would mind (Democrats and Republicans both agree on this).

So, eyewitness testimony to UFO sightings is not scientific or reliable. What else do people use to “prove” the visits of aliens? Photos, videos, crop circles, implants, etc.

Let’s start with photos and videos. An amateur photographer or videographer tends to get things wrong. Things like shaking the camera (which makes objects appear to move) or mistaking a piece of flint exaggerated by a nearby light source as a spacecraft. Many photos and videos can also be doctored. I don’t know of a single piece of photo or taped footage that has been scientifically evaluated by credentialed, unbiased, professionals that has been determined to be an alien spacecraft. Things may be unidentified, but there is no proof that they are extraterrestrial in origin. If something is unidentified in a photo, its origin is probably mundane. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. A weird smudge in a photo is not extraordinary.

Crop circles are easily made. No joke, I could do some with you if you know of a suitable field that doesn’t belong to a farmer with a gun. Or, if you want to make it a surprise, this site should help you out: http://www.circlemakers.org/guide.html. The point is; there is nothing supernatural about crop circles. Occam’s Razor would favor the human-made explanation rather than the “aliens did it to communicate with us” one. Why don’t they just send a message to the President about their arrival on earth? Or even a senator? If I can send my senator hate mail, so can aliens.

Implants are tricky, because I don’t really care that much about them. I don’t know what it is. I mean…somebody finds some random crap jammed up their nose. So? It happens to toddlers all the time. Maybe it’s a tumor, or that piece of pencil led you never removed as a kid. It isn’t either of those? Then why don’t you go to a doctor, have it removed, and then give it to a (credible and unbiased) scientist to examine? Oh wait, that would ruin the whole UFO story. Anyone know of any credible scientist or doctor who has come forth publically claiming to have found an alien implant? Neither have I. Have any major (again, reputable) science or medical publications presented articles about finding an alien tracking device? No. I will acknowledge that doctors probably find strange and maybe even unidentifiable things in people’s bodies all the time. That does not give credit to the theory of alien implantation. The human body can be full of foreign objects (more so if the person is especially kinky); bullets, knife tips, toys, parts of pencils or pens, shrapnel, other people’s body parts, plastic, bags of cocaine, marble, strange metals, etc. None of these things are unexplainable; they are just weird (and possibly illegal).

So let’s calm down, shall we?  Maybe we will find aliens some day! When/if that happens, cool (or uncool, depending on the aliens)! Until then, let’s not kick our brains out the door. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Occupy the Lungs

If you have been following the news or the paper or your neighbor’s T.V. lately, then you are probably aware of the Occupy [fill in location] phenomenon. It consists of groups of people who have legitimate concerns about where the economy is headed, homeless people, and hippies. These people camp out in front of government buildings, holding signs and educating the public. So, with all of this going on in the news I thought I would blog about Tuberculosis (the artist formerly known as Consumption). It’s a horrible, horrible disease that has been popping up amid the Occupy Atlanta protests.  You see, Tuberculosis, or TB, loves a good group. Especially a group that is cold, wet, and tired (immune systems may be on overload). And because TB is airborne, it can fly out of a hippie’s nose and be inhaled by anyone in the general vicinity (depending on what the wind is up to). Fortunately, TB is treatable in the modern world. A latent (think dormant) infection can be kept at bay with drugs. An active infection can be fought off with lots more drugs. Unfortunately, there are drug-resistant strains. These strains REALLY, REALLY suck. Without proper treatment, TB is deadly.
            Historically, a TB or “consumption” infection meant a slow and agonizing death. The patient is weak, feverish, and coughs up blood. And, because it could take them years to die, sufferers were often considered burdens to their families. TB was very common, and was frequently alluded to in Victorian novels. Remember that beautiful yet weakly lady on the couch with the cough and chills? TB. Remember that random side character who had to take care of her dearly ill mother? TB. Remember that lover writing home to his sweetheart from treatment in a warm climate? TB. For soldiers, death on the battlefield could be considered lucky compared to catching TB in camp. Prior to the 20th century, far more soldiers died of illness than of enemy attack.
            Modern drugs and frequent use of the TB test have helped developed societies keep TB in check. In the US and Europe, it is considered a thing of the past. However, as we have learned from Atlanta, it raises its ugly head every so often. So, don’t hang out with coughing people, wash your hands, and try not to congregate in disease-prone environs.

Below are some famous people who suffered from Tuberculosis:  

Alexander Graham Bell 
John Keats                               
Paul Gauguin
Eleanor Roosevelt
Louis Braille
"Doc" Holliday
Vivien Leigh
Ho Chi Minh

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Sky Is Falling!

No, it isn't, but crap from outer space tends to fall into our atmosphere. We call this crap a meteor. Don't worry, it isn't composed of literal crap. Meteors are mostly composed of iron and stones (sometimes they have BOTH). But let's complicate things. Technically, that clump of space stuff is called a meteoroid while it is wandering through space. It doesn't become a meteor until it enters our atmosphere. Once it lands, it's called a meteorite. So, let's try to remember these terms.


This is a clump of space rock hurling through the galaxy. It leads a cold and lonely existence and can sometimes be seen with the help of a telescope. We can remember this term by thinking that the oid part of meteoroid sounds alien to us...and aliens are from space...just like a meteoroid.


The space clump has entered the atmosphere and is starting to get hot. It may just burn up and die. This is the easiest term to remember because a bunch of falling meteors is called a meteor shower. That's a term we are used to. Meteors are also sometimes called falling stars but this is an inaccurate portrayal and is considered offensive to most meteors.


These are the clumps that actually make contact with the earth. They hang out, cleverly disguised as rocks (one could argue that they are rocks, but again, that is offensive to meteorites), until they are found by someone. If that someone is a child, that meteorite may fly once again and then crash into the neighbors window. If a scientist finds it, the meteorite might just get named and put on display somewhere. Or it might get sold. Whatever.

Meteoroid meteor meteorite

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Unloved Miocene

When you think about the Miocene epoch (roughly 23 – 5 million years ago, snuggled between the Oligocene and the Pliocene), what comes to mind? Probably nothing and that makes me sad. We’ve all heard about the Cretaceous, the Jurassic, and the Pleistocene (at least we better have) but not necessarily the Miocene. This has to change, because the Miocene has lots of very nice things to share with the world. Things like the formation of mountains, the spread of grasslands, and kelp forests. The Miocene also had really cool animals running around; the grazing variety of horses, early dogs, and giant birds. And humans weren’t really around yet, which appeals to me. Clearly, the Miocene was a pretty neat time to be around. Not like the stupid Ordovician period. Nobody cares about the Ordovician period.
            Now, the Miocene wasn’t just fun and games, some treetop browsers, such as early camels and giraffes, had a hard time due to the spread of grasslands. But they persisted and eventually flourished again in later times.
            Other animals had a better time of it. Horses really got to stretch their legs during the Miocene. Originally confined to forests during the Eocene, horses were able to evolve into much larger, faster animals during the grassy Miocene. A large variety of horses began to evolve, many of which ditched those out-of-date extra toes in favor of the sleek, minimalist-hooved look.

            Another cool Miocene inhabitant was Deinotherium, a rather silly-looking elephant relative with downward-pointing tusks. But don’t tell them that, because they could mess you up. Standing at 14.5ft at the shoulder, Deinotherium was the second largest land mammal ever (second to Paraceratherium, a rhino-relative). Other elephant-like beasts that lived during the Miocene include Gomphotherium, a four-tusked primitive mastodon, and Platybelodon, an early mastodon with shovel-like tusks.

 With all these super-duper cool animals walking around, doesn't the Miocene deserve our praise? I think so.