“Branch Floridians” (DeSantis deaths)

Florida governor and national embarrassment Ron DeSantis hosted a parade of lies and misinformation masquerading as a COVID roundtable. Only doctors selected by DeSantis were allowed to attend. While “roundtable” connotes an open exchange of views, this panel featured doublespeak and allowed no deviation from the script.

The farce was dubbed “Closing the Curtain COVID Theater.” Theater is a rather innocuous term to describe the spread of an airborne virus that has killed 5 million people – a number that would be markedly lower if everyone had taken known preventive measures.

Skeptic leader Dr. David Gorski reviewed the heavily-orchestrated spectacle, which was led by DeSantis and his henchman, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo. Though an appointed position, surgeon general is one government role that should always be apolitical and should certainly not promote the anti-health, anti-science positions favored by the head of state government.

But that’s what Ladapo has done, even going so far as using the forum to announce that Florida advises against vaccinating minors against COVID-19, a virus that has killed more than 1,000 American children. Some of you Kindergartners may die but that’s a risk Ladapo is willing to take. DeSantis chimed in with, “We are not just going to follow the CDC in the state of Florida. … We’re going to do our own stuff.” Ain’t no science gonna tell him what to do. And while he has sometimes advertised himself as a champion for choice, his actions bely that claim. Witness his childish berating of mask-wearing high schoolers as an example.

One phrase heard throughout the roundtable was “Urgency of Normal,” a euphemism for abandoning all coronavirus mitigation measures. No masks, no vaccines, no social distancing, no remote learning. Makes you wonder what their stance on hand-washing is. Orwellian claims that lockdowns are more dangerous than the virus were trumpeted and panelists insisted the nation should let COVID spread unchecked in order to pave the way for herd immunity. As to the immunocompromised and elderly, screw them, DeSantis needs to get a haircut.

Gorski noted this mindset’s similarity to a Brady Bunch episode favored by anti-vaxxers since it treats measles as no big deal – an annoying but harmless rite of passage. Yet Gorksi noted that before the vaccine, 48,000 people a year were hospitalized for the measles, 4,000 of those developed encephalitis, and about 450 patients died. Gorsksi argued that treating pre-vaccine measles or COVID as minor issues – since most who contract them survive – is akin to eugenics.

Gorski wrote, “Our response to COVID-19 uses the familiar blueprint of eugenics, with predictable consequences for the captive and vulnerable, who are pushed to the side, ignored, or sacrificed for the ‘greater good.’ This devalues the lives of those who are less than perfect, less than healthy, by in essence telling everyone who is healthy that they don’t have to worry and shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice anything to protect who are less than healthy and at high risk.” To be sure, the “pro-life” crowd has been anything but on this one.

“TikTok Sheeple” (Attorneys Generals social media investigation)

More than a half dozen state attorneys general are investigating TikTok to try and determine if the social media giant is violating consumer protection laws. Their main concern is whether app is harming them there young’uns, and what the company’s executives know about this. Expressing concern for the entire throng, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey lamented that TikTok “may harm their physical health and mental wellbeing.”

But as Reason’s Elizabeth Nolan Brown pointed out, if use of TikTok or another social media product is leaving kids to careening out of control and undergoing psychological torment, it is likely the result of negative interactions with other users. It is probably a correlation/causation error or post hoc reasoning to necessarily blame the site. People can be cruel in person, on the phone, or in a text. It is hardly confined to social media. A user, especially a tween or teen, may feel left out, scorned, or jealous after an hour on TikTok, but they might be in the same situation after experiencing negativity elsewhere.

“These are issues of human nature, not technological issues,” Brown wrote. “You could feel it looking through magazines, attending school, or walking down the street, seeing an ad that makes one self-conscious, or a video game you keep losing.”

Detractors will tie TikTok use to subsequent negative behavior, but Brown noted that it is probable that “self-doubt, sadness, or social isolation may drive young people to partake in more” of the regrettable behavior. Youth who are balanced, centered, extroverted, and active are more likely to demonstrate positive traits, but their being so after using TikTok would never be used to site the app as the reason for their emotional wellbeing. It is likewise just as erroneous to blame TikTok for undesirable traits and negative behavior.

So when politicians or others talk of mandating changes to algorithms or restricting certain types of advertisements, they are putting a Band-Aid on a decapitation. Such actions are failing to address the cause of the issue and these measures would do little if anything to fix it. If an anorexic young girl feels overweight no matter what the scales say, a ban of diet food advertising won’t change this. The same precept applies to trying to social media usage.

“Drip pan” (Nutrient infusions)

Drip therapy is the latest alt-med craze. It is akin to an IV, though with far less tangible benefits. During a session, customers receive a liquid injection into their forearm. As to what that liquid consists of, “nutrients” is the vague, standby answer. Of course, one can get nutrients via eating and drinking, but drip therapy carries the promise of delivering those benefits straight to the body, thus bypassing the gut.

According to Nick Tiller in the Skeptical Inquirer, practitioners wear stereotypical white coats, carry clipboards, and have their customers recline in chairs resembling those at the dentist. This presents a veneer of medical respectability and practitioners likewise dress themselves with language which sounds scientific, but which are in fact pseudoscience buzzwords, such as immunity booster, detox, energy, healing, and fitness.

So it’s not surprising that they commit an error than a genuine nutritionist would not. As Tiller noted, “Millions of years of evolution gave us a gastrointestinal tract fully able to digest and absorb all the nutrients we need for normal metabolic function.” So nature – which the likes of drip therapists often wrongly tout as always desirable – in this case gets it right. Bypassing the gut is unnecessary and even without value. Moreover, if one truly has poor nutrition habits, those should be tackled by eating better, not by jumping onto the latest gimmick. Nutrient drips are an unnecessary, not terribly effective means of getting vitamins and minerals without committing to long-term diet change.

And users may not even be breaking even on the deal. Tiller wrote that excessive levels of some nutrients can be harmful to health, perhaps even increasing the chance of contracting a non-communicable disease. And NFL teams have reported complications from intravenous treatments, including blood clots, air bubbles, fluid accumulation on the lungs, and even one case of a punctured lung.

None of the companies hawking these products make testable statements and they use shrewd phrasing which suggests benefits without promising anything specific. As Tiller noted, claiming to improve maximal oxygen uptake is precise and falsifiable, while asserting that the products helps one achieve fitness goals is not.

Unless the customer has a nutrient deficiency, there will be no benefit to the drips. And diagnosing a nutrient deficiency usually requires a blood test, after which a physician might prescribe supplements.

There is one other potentially valid use. Extremely physical undertakings such as an ultramarathon can lead to dehydration and malnutrition, and these can be treated with an injection of saline and electrolytes.

But both of these are instances of medical professionals dealing with diagnosed issues by a means based on understood science. That’s much different than a putative treatment being administered to a random someone who happens by a kiosk on their way to Bed Bath and Beyond.

“Conspiracy weary” (Errors in conspiracy theory thought)

Traditionally, conspiracy theories have centered on defining events like Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and the Kennedy assassination. With the latter, there are a multitude of theories choose from. This is not because of evidence, but due to the emotional impact of a president in the prime of his life and his political career being gunned down in public beside his glamorous wife.

By contrast, the unsuccessful Reagan assassination attempt is seldom thought to have involved anyone other than John Hinckley, though a few isolated theorists have tried to make a hay of the fact that the shooter’s brother, Scott, was scheduled to have dinner with Neil Bush the following day. And if there are any conspiracy theories about the Ford assassination attempts, in which the target wasn’t even hit, I’ve never heard them.

Similarly, one could spend 10 hours a day watching 9/11 conspiracy theory videos and a year later still not run out of viewing material. But one might need just a day to check out all the conspiracy theory videos centering on the 1993 WTC bombing that killed .002 percent as many people.

The Sept. 11 attacks, by the way, did require a conspiracy, though not the type that Truthers have in mind. More than one person was involved in doing something nefarious, so it qualifies as a conspiracy. After the tragedy, 90 percent of the country came together, at least for a few days. Meanwhile, the other 10 percent wondered, “How can I make this massive loss of human life about me?” Thus began the Truther Movement.

One member of the movement responded to my blog post about conspiracy theories by asserting that Al-Qaeda was not involved. I asked him who he thought flew the airplanes and he replied that they were controlled remotely. As you might imagine, he supported this with zero evidence, besides failing to even answer my question, since remote control requires a controller. He also had to ignore or dismiss accounts from passengers describing Middle Eastern men with knives, the voice of one of the hijackers from the cockpit, security footage of the perpetrators boarding the planes, and the totality of the 9/11 report.

He is a typical conspiracy theorist, meaning he is more interested in painting himself as brave warrior battling brainwashed sheep and the establishment than he is in getting to the truth. As this Vice article showed, conspiracy theorists are mostly driven by a need to feel elite, not by a love of the facts. The article outlines how a bogus conspiracy theory was presented to those who considered themselves conspiracy theorists. Half of the group were told that 81 percent of the population believed in the conspiracy, the other half were told that 19 percent believed in it. Overwhelmingly, the theorists embraced the theory if they thought it was a minority opinion and rejected it if was said to be believed by the majority.

While I wrote earlier that conspiracy theories have traditionally sprouted from signature moments, the Internet has changed that somewhat and, depending on the believer, theories these days can center on almost anything.

So you may encounter them at any point and, if you choose to engage the remote control aircraft aficionado or other theorists, here are some points that will likely bolster your case. These were outlined in an essay by skeptic leader Emil Karlsson.

First, realize that in most alleged conspiracy theories, the number of people that would need to be involved is way more than could quiet about it, especially for decades. Every one of them would need to harbor this secret and never reveal it by accident, misspeak, guilt, drunkenness, blackmail, braggadocio, deathbed confession, or in order to sign a lucrative book deal. Thousands of persons would had to have been in on a phony moon landing, yet none of them have come forward.

Genuine conspiracies, such as Watergate, the NSA scandal, and what Bill Clinton’s definition of is is, were exposed by investigative journalists or insiders, not by WAKETHESHEEPLE’S YouTube channel.

On a related note, consider the overwhelming evidence for the genuine theories compared to the scant tidbits that point to hidden cancer cures, advance knowledge of the Pearl Harbor bombing, and the Las Vegas hotel shooting.

Let’s look at two conspiracy theories involving presidential assassinations. Abraham Lincoln was one of multiple targets that night and the killing involved multiple agents who were identified, tried, and executed. This was done in the open, with evidence presented in court. Meanwhile, despite the smorgasbord of options centering on who killed JFK – the KGB, CIA, LBJ, the mafia, labor leaders, hell, maybe even Martians – there has yet to be, nearly 60 years and countless investigations later, one piece of incontrovertible evidence pointing to these ideas.

As to the scandal that took down another president a decade later, Karlsson wrote that the Watergate affair “had burglars being arrested, a money trail that could be followed and mapped, confessions and several rounds of incriminating audio tapes.” Likewise, there is overwhelming evidence and mounds of documentation regarding the NSA scandal, the IB affair, and the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

By contrast, the idea of mass shootings being hoaxes is built on evidence so miniscule it would be comical were the assertions not so offensive. For example, during a press conference about a California shooting, a detective talked about the importance of training for such events. Instead of saying “which played out here today,” he misspoke and said, “which we played out here today.” A couple of seconds later, his cohort rubbed his palm on his forehead. This was presented in conspiracy theory circles as the spokesman inadvertently admitting it was faked and his co-worker burying his head in mortified disbelief that the secret was out. This “evidence” pales mightily compared to the thousands of Snowden documents.

As Karlsson noted, “Most conspiracy theories have little to no actual evidence. They are often based on quoting scientists out of context, misunderstanding basic physics of building constructions, jumping on obvious cases of interview miscommunication or similar. It is really based on alleged ‘evidence’ that is not worth much at all.”

We move now to the issue of inconsistent capabilities. This is when theorists paint perpetrators as extraordinarily skilled, organized, powerful, and able to seamlessly pull off highly-complex operations – yet incapable of getting a YouTube video or Facebook post removed. The evil men behind these plots are said to silence their victims through murder, yet someone is able to share this knowledge without repercussion.

Then there is what Karlsson calls the “method-goal mismatch problem.” While flat Earthers may present a scientifically-shaky observation or hypothesis to argue for their position, they are unable to explain the goal of those trying to keep the message secret. Who really cares what the shape is? Why would mortal enemies such as North and South Korea come together to defend a lie? Where would the millions of guards necessary to prevent the ice wall from being accessed come from?

Going back to the 9/11 Truthers, if the attacks were meant to justify an invasion, why go to the sizable trouble of recruiting kamikaze pilots and coordinating such a complexity? Just bomb a building. Or make up a story about WMDs, which was done anyway.

As Karlsson noted, “If you or the conspiracy theorists can easily invent a better plan to attain the goal of the perpetrators than the plan used in the conspiracy theory, something is terribly wrong with it.”

Finally, consider the tell-tale sign that a theorist is interested in defending the theory at all costs, rather than aiming for the truth. And that is when any discomfiting evidence is paradoxically considered part of the conspiracy. Those doubting Obama’s citizenship concocted a preposterous myth whereby his newspaper birth announcement, a 1990 New York Times article describing him as Hawaiian-born, his Certificate of Live Birth, and his long form birth certificate, were all touted as evidence FOR the theory instead of refutations of it! Anyone this far down the rabbit hole has no interest in finding out what really happened.

“The quick and the undead” (Quicksand)

A regular, if not hackneyed, feature of adventure and action movies, TV shows, and comic books is quicksand. It is unusually found by some foolhardy or overzealous traveler deep in a jungle, swamp, desert, or other forlorn location. Once the sinking begins, it is irreversible and trying to get out only aggravates the predicament. The unfortunate victim slowly succumbs to death by suffocation. Sometimes a hand or hat remains for dramatic effect once the soon-to-be-deceased goes under.

These portrayals represent a mythological version of quicksand, but the phenomenon is real and in certain instances and situations, can be hazardous.

Geologically speaking, quicksand comprises sand, clay, and saltwater, and it appears and acts as a solid. But when weight is applied, the mixture begins to collapse. It most frequently is present where there is upward-flowing water, often near rivers or beaches where liquid is right under the surface. When disturbed, the mixture transforms from a loose packing of sand on top of water into a more dense liquid. Its high viscosity creates resistance and suction, and the more stress that is applied, the more liquid it becomes. So thrashing about will indeed cause a trapped person to further sink and become more engulfed. But this will only make the situation temporarily worse. On an average-sized person, quicksand will be, at the most, about waist-deep.

The key is to stay calm and eventually float to safety. Experts advice stretching out on your back to increase your surface area and waiting until your legs break free. It is also suggested to move one’s legs around at this point, to stir in water, which will help you float.

While that works for people, quicksand can pose a threat to horses, who upon encountering it, may panic and exhaust themselves while trying to break free. It requires specialized equipment and sedation to rescue them. And it can still be hazardous for humans, especially if one is hiking alone and being unaware of these extraction techniques.

So if starting to go under a la an Indiana Jones flick, get rid of anything you are carrying. Next, distribute your weight by lying backward since staying motionless may increase the material’s viscosity. Trying to extract a leg by pulling it means working against a vacuum left behind. A better tact is to rock back and forth, thereby creating a space for water to move into. This will loosen the material around your limbs. Instead of being sucked all the way in, quicksand victims will float once they get about waist deep. That’s how it works, though it would make for a boring movie scene.

“Face the truth” (Lie detection)

Polygraphs are able to detect physiological changes in someone but they cannot determine if that person is lying. The notion that they can is based on junk science and selective memory, which are among the reasons the results are inadmissible in court.

A more disturbing use of aggressive policing based on bad data is the tiny number of law enforcement agencies that have adopted a Minority Report approach to fighting crime. They take a person’s criminal history and a secretive profiling method, then combine this with constant surveillance and harassment in the form of trumped-up charges like “grass too high,” until the supposed criminal, who is really the victim, moves to another jurisdiction.

Today we will look at a third dubious notion when it comes to crime fighting: That there exists a way to tell if someone is lying through their facial cues. BBC reported that Israeli researchers claim to have discovered a way to use electromyography to measure facial muscles to determine prevarication.

The technique employs electrodes that measure contraction in certain facial muscles of the subject. Researchers ran two trials with subjects, who heard one of two phrases, at which point the subject then told another person which phrase he or she had heard, either telling the truth or lying.

Researchers then took their data and used it to develop an Artificial Intelligence algorithm that clustered facial movements that they deduced correlated with lying. Next, they used that to develop a predictive model to detect lies based on cheek and eyebrow movements. Human receivers managed to do no better than chance, while the algorithm did 7.5 percent better than that. That’s a decent performance but insufficient to show demonstrable superiority, and certainly of no value to law enforcement, as it still results in a more than 40 percent error rate.

The problem with the entire approach is that there are no universal indicators to determine if someone is fibbing. The algorithm can determine facial movements but not necessarily deception. Another issue is that a research subject could act and feel much different than a suspect being grilled for a double murder. The concept of a genuine lie detector is attractive. Imagine being able to hook up O.J. Simpson or Donald Trump to one. Alas, it remains firmly in the realm of science fiction.

“Emotional recuse” (EFT)

The Emotional Freedom Technique refers to a putative therapeutic process meant to heal the mind and cure a host of psychological and physical maladies. The method through which this is allegedly achieved is akin to acupuncture but without needles. During sessions, the practitioner attempts to manipulate the client’s undefined energy field by tapping on make-believe meridians while the client focuses on a specific bad memory.

According to the primary EFT website, the practitioner will tap on “end points of the body’s energy meridians,” a vacuous term and an undefined concept. The purported aim is to stimulate acupressure points by pressuring, tapping, or rubbing these points while focusing on situations that represent personal fear or trauma. This is unsupported by any evidence, in addition to being unfalsifiable. Stopping a random person at the street, pressing on a random place on their body, and seeing what post hoc reasoning one could arrive at would produce the same results.

Gary Craig created the technique, which he considers to be energy healing. There is no way to define, license, or regulate such a healer, and there are no standards or uniform training methods. Put another way, if you say you’re an energy healer, you are.

Craig’s website claims EFT “applies to just about every emotional and physical issue you can name and often works where nothing else will.” Such a wide-ranging claim is a pseudoscientific giveaway. Genuine medicine will treat a specific condition through a means or product that is the result of research and double blind studies. For example, Tylenol can help with a backache because of the healing properties of acetaminophen, which has been shown in repeated double blind studies. It will not help with a wide array of physical and emotional issues, nor will any other actual medicine.

Though not quite as telling, the claim that it can work when nothing else will is also a alternative medicine red flag. Because of the cyclical nature of some illnesses and conditions, a person may have already tried three techniques or medicines when they get around to giving EFT or other alt-med idea a shot. It might seem to work, but perhaps only because the condition has run its course. Without multiple double blind studies suggesting efficiency, there is no way to know if a medicine or technique is working.

When my middle child was a Kindergartner, there was an evening where he was experiencing body aches and a fever. It was midnight so all the stores were closed and we were out of medicine, so we gave him absolutely nothing. In the morning, the pain and fever were gone. Had he used EFT or a similar unproven idea, we could well have credited the technique, raved about it to our friends, and made our anecdote one of many on an EFT-promoting website. This highlights one of the reasons double blind studies are crucial and, as James Randi put it, why the plural of anecdote is not data.

Proponents claim EFT works by balancing, blocking, and rerouting energy. They do not explain what type of energy, how this energy is accessed, how it would be balanced, blocked, or rerouted, or why this would be beneficial.

Elsewhere on the site, there is this appeal to antiquity: “Gary’s discovered what traditional healers have known for millennia.” To balance this out, there is an appeal to novelty highlighting quantum physics, again without explaining how it would be used to help. Craig also tries to piggyback on one of the all-time greats by including an Einsteinian reference to energy. Completing this logical fallacy romp, Craig employs the Galileo Gambit, chastising doctors, especially those in the West, for ignoring energy healing.

The website also gloats about EFT’s the lack of side effects. That’s because there are no effects of any kind since it is not medicine. Any genuine medicine by definition is going to be impacting the body in some way. If someone claims a medicine could never have side effects they are either lying or misinformed or it is not medicine.

EFT might have value as relaxation technique but one could get that for free by lying on a couch at home, burning incense, and listening to flute music.

“Let them eat fakes” (Vegan bashing)

Atheists and vegans have a commonality. Both are reviled minorities who are despised for what they do not do: Believe in any gods or consume animal products. While this would seem to be an avenue for atheists to feel rapport with vegans, or at least be neutral toward them, this is not always the case. The Facebook page Atheists Against Pseudoscientific Nonsense (AAPN) makes vegan-bashing at least a monthly occurrence.

This seems strange to me, for in the same way that someone not believing in a god has no impact on anyone else, a person favoring fake butter to the authentic version is harming no one. Of course, the maintainers of AAPN are far from alone in their vegan-loathing, which permeates those of all religious stripes. Why does 0.3 percent of the population, doing something that doesn’t affect anyone else, engender such venom?

BBC reporter Zaria Gorvett tried to get the root of this disdain. She wrote that one volley lobbed at vegans is an accusation of hypocrisy. For example, bugs or mice will be unintentionally killed when a farmer harvests corn or plants soybeans. But, first, as vegan law professor Gary Francioine noted, by being vegan, one is taking the most proactive stance and the one that will cause the least cumulative harm to animals. By contrast, if one eats meat or drink milks, the fatal impact on animals is unquestioned. (Male offspring of dairy cattle are often killed at birth, the same fate that awaits male chicks).

Moreover, appealing to hypocrisy is a logical fallacy and in this case, not a genuine reason for the loathing. Further, the hypocrisy charge is similar to the one lobbed at proponents of church/state separation for using money emblazoned with “In God We Trust.” But there is no inconsistency since those proponents would prefer the motto come off. Similarly, vegans would prefer that no living creatures be killed or harmed when their food is produced. AAPN could surely see the logic behind the former, so why not the latter?

A second accusation is that vegans are militant and adopt an in-your-face approach. Consider the lame joke, “How do you know if someone is vegan? They will tell you.” This is an instance of survivor bias, as people meet vegans all the time without knowing it since the person doesn’t mention it. To think that all vegans spout off about it because some of them do is like finishing a hearing test and, before being told the results, thinking you aced it because you heard all the beeps.

The militant accusation is also comical when considering such an approach is more frequent among meat eaters. Think about the Heart Attack Grill or the promotions which bestow a free dinner on the diner who finishes an outrageously-sized cheeseburger or T-bone in a certain timeframe. I have seen animal welfare videos given a retort video consisting entirely of the creator eating chicken nuggets. I have ever seen the equivalent, whereby a hunting video is answered by a vegan recording themselves chomping on a salad. Social media ads for veggie burgers yield derisive comments in the threads; those for hamburgers do not.

Again, this should be a case for common ground between the atheist and vegan. The punchline “They will tell you” has been directed at atheists, even though it is Christians who wear a religious symbol around their necks, who dress in unmistakable nun and priest garments, and who have multiple church options in any square mile nationwide. It is de rigueur for GOP presidential candidates to announce that the Christian god told them to run. By contrast, no Democratic candidate has cited atheism as their impetus.

So with hypocrisy or aggressiveness not the answer, Gorvett deduced that disgust of vegans has its roots in psychological discomfort. She writes, “If you bring your cod and chips home to eat in front of your beloved goldfish, or tuck into a rabbit stew mere moments after cooing over various #rabbitsofinstagram, you’re likely to encounter cognitive dissonance, which occurs when a person holds two incompatible views, and acts on one of them. In this case, your affection for animals might just start to clash with the idea that it’s OK to eat them. The tension that results can make us feel stressed, irritated, and unhappy. But instead of resolving it by changing our beliefs or behavior, it’s quite normal to blame these feelings on something else entirely.”

Encountering a vegan triggers this cognitive dissonance by serving as a reminder of one’s inconsistency so vegan-bashing often follows. As Gorvett explained, “Motivated reasoning might lead people to find explanations for why eating animals is the correct decision. And one of these is that vegans are bad.”

Once more, this should be where an atheist finds common ground with a vegan. After all, some religious types who detest nonbelievers do so as a way of trying to compensate for their faith’s abuses and to keep their lingering doubts repressed.

About the only justification I can find for AAPN’s spite is the vegan-friendly nature of the communion offerings of bread and wine.

“Lie in the sky” (UFOs)

Over the millenniums, humans have made various guesses to try and account for unexplained aerial phenomena. Ancient Roman historian Livy speculated they were phantom ships. Some First Century Jews interpreted them as armed angels riding chariots. In Shakespeare’s day, they were assumed to be fairies, incubus, or witches taking flight on brooms.

Consistent with an evolving hypotheses, the prevailing suspicion over the last three-quarters of a century is that unidentified flying objects are of alien origin. More terrestrial conjectures have included top-secret projects, adversarial aircraft, or developmental civilian products. Objects mistaken for alien transport vehicles have included weather balloons, flares, sky lanterns, sun reflection, artificial light distortion, planets, meteors, satellites, swamp gas, and ball lightning.

While the great majority of strange sightings are explicable as being one of the previously-listed phenomenon, a tiny percentage remain a mystery. The problem arises when UFO enthusiasts plug their default ET explanation into any gap that does not fit these categories. These are unidentified objects, which means we don’t know what they are. Penciling in the alien answer is to commit a secular version of the god of the gaps fallacy. For while there have been countless reports of alien visitors and the crafts which transport them, none of these accounts have included a verified living creature, nor have we been able to examine their means of conveyance. No known extraterrestrials live among us, nor are any flying saucers housed in the Smithsonian. Believers have yet to produce a confirmed alien artifact, souvenir, implant, or DNA sample.

That is among the reasons that defaulting to extraterrestrials is a mistake. Metabunk founder Mick West serves as the skeptic community’s foremost UFO expert, each week scouring photos and videos of putative alien craft and offering conjecture based on math and science. His level-headed, in-depth analysis makes West a pariah among UFO enthusiasts. These detractors bypass reason and observation in order to launch ad hominem attacks, such as, “This threatens your world view,” “Your mind is so closed you can’t see what is obvious,” and, “You are going to look like such an idiot when aliens choose to make contact with us.”

If such contact is ever made, it is unlikely to be done by an amateur enthusiast or serendipitous video-camera operator. Conspicuously absent among UFO sightings are any made by those whose job it is to keep track of the goings-on in the sky: Astronomers and military radar operators. Almost all of putative encounters with UFOS are reported by those without training in astronomy, atmospherics, aeronautics, physics, or optometry.

On a related note, if alien life is ever confirmed, it is unlikely to be in the form of a flying saucer landing and requesting an audience with our leader. Astrophysicist Katie Mack explained that the discovery would more likely be made by those in her field watching exoplanets orbit their stars. She wrote, “If we can directly image an exoplanet, or see it pass in front of its star, we can search the spectrum of its light for signatures of chemical balances that only biological organisms can produce.” Another possibility is detecting an electromagnetic signal from life elsewhere or encountering an alien civilization’s equivalent of Voyager. So if we reach each other, it will probably be this type of first contact.

And that may be the only type ever made. A species leaving from the nearest exoplanet and averaging 250,000 miles per hour – fast enough to reach the moon in an hour – would take 11,400 years go get here. This hypothetical journey also assumes managing the logistics of repair, refueling, medicine, and food, all while avoiding the perils of deep space. So aliens would need to travel at amazing speeds while keeping a sustainable population housed, fed, clothed, medicated, entertained, cooperative, and sustained, probably for millenniums.

Sure, they could have managed near-warp travel, may have found a way to utilize wormholes, or have perhaps achieved immortality. But those are all baseless conjectures supported by zero evidence and it requires the most desperate desire to believe to take one of those unproven notions, tie it to flashes in Earth’s sky, and deduce they are coming from interplanetary travelers.

“TikdOff” (School shooting rumor)

Last month, TikTok was awash in rumors of an imminent school shooting set for Dec. 17. Skeptical Inquirer Deputy Editor Benjamin Radford investigated the phenomenon and learned that no law enforcement agencies found any of the threats credible. Rather, they were ambiguous and not tied to a specific person, place, or intent to act. And indeed, the day came and went without a school shooting.

Radford found that nearly every mention of the potential shootings had come in the form of warnings, shares, or with the user expressing their fear and worry. In other words, persons were communicating about the threats, not making them. Like earlier social media scares and their ancestors, the urban legend, the focus was on persons reacting to it, not on persons perpetrating it. We have seen this act before, in Internet warnings about T-shirts and zip ties being part of a human trafficking ploy, and in decades past with chilling tales of kidney thieves and drunk-driving victims embedded in car grills.

Radford wrote that the common folkloric themes between many urban legends and today’s social media hoaxes are that they mirror social anxieties, highlight threats to vulnerable populations, and reflect concern about technology gone bad.

Verge journalist Mia Sato interviewed University of Ontario Institute of Technology associate professor James Walsh, who told her, “Adult society has always been concerned about how new media content or new media technologies are going to corrupt young, impressionable minds.” Walsh points out that panic around a particular medium predates TikTok, previously occurring with comic books, board games, and music.

The difference now is that the misinformation gets out much faster and can me much harder to corral. Access to correct information is likewise readily available, but persons all too often to go with an untruth that fits their preconceived notions instead of accepting what to them is a less-familiar reality.