Debunking the Pentagon UFO Videos and other Weird Things | Dr Michael Shermer

Michael Shermer is a science writer, historian of science, founder of The Skeptics Society, and Editor in Chief of its magazine Skeptic. In this podcast we discuss the Pentagon UFO videos, the documentary “Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation”, the UFO entertainment business, “Mirage Man”, ancient civilizations, the scientific method, water memory and homeopathy, the paranormal, cold fusion, and quantum quackery and mysticism. His new book “Giving the Devil His Due: Reflections of a Scientific Humanist” is available now

Production Highlights

    Remote podcast (3 cameras host, 1 camera guest)
  • Location:
    Cambridge (UK), Los Angeles (USA)
  • Cameras:
    2 x Canon C200, 1 x BMPCC4K, 1 x webcam
  • Sound:
    SoundDevices MixPre 3 II, 2 x Sennheiser MKH-416 (XLR)
  • Monitor/Rec:
    Atomos Sumo 19'', Aputure Monitor,, OBS
  • Editing:
    Davinci Resolve, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition
  • Crew:
    Samuele Lilliu, 1 freelancer

UFOs: Where is the Evidence?

Samuele Lilliu (SL). The first thing I wanted to discuss with you is the topic of UFOs and aliens. Can we just dismiss the topic by saying: where is the evidence?

Michael Shermer (MS).We could technically. But there’s two different questions on the table with aliens and UFOs. The first is: are they out there somewhere? The second: had they come here?

So to the first question of course this is what SETI scientists, professional astronomers, and physicists are working on. They’re trying to detect signals from space using radio telescopes or they’re looking for traces of past advanced civilizations, such as a Dyson-type sphere or massive solar panels around a star that could be used to capture more energy from the sun of that particular civilization. Now, so far, it’s come up negative but, as they like to say in this case, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. [This is] because we’ve hardly looked anywhere. There’s on the order of several hundred billion stars in our galaxy. There’s probably upwards of a trillion stars in the known universe. So we just have to remain agnostic and keep searching.

The second question [is] the one that interests UFO people, [which] is a completely separate community of people. The UFO community is largely not consisting of scientists, physicists, astronomers and so on. It’s mostly just kind of amateur, curious people that call themselves researchers or investigative journalists or whatever, but they most of them have no training in science, how it works. It’s clear from reading their literature and watching their documentaries [that] they’re starting with the assumption that aliens have come here: “We know they’ve come here, now let’s just try to find evidence of it”.

They’ll say something like “Oh I don’t know, I’m just asking some curious questions here about this mysterious lights in the sky or this this little blob thing that was captured on camera and so on”.

But, you know, when you get to know them and you read the literature, it’s clear they already believe. In science you’re not supposed to start with the conclusion. Even though a lot of scientists do because they’re human but, at least, how it’s conducted, you have to remain open to the possibility that you’re wrong. Science begins with the null hypothesis that your hypothesis is wrong until you prove otherwise and the burden of proof is on the claimant, not on the skeptics or the scientific community to disprove the claim.

If you ask: “Can you prove that aliens have never come here to Earth?”

Of course I can’t. How would you? How would you do that? But that the burden of proof isn’t on me to do, that it’s on you, the claimant, to show me the evidence you have. So far the evidence is just crummy, it’s just so thin that by the principle of ECREE (Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence) made famous by Carl Sagan, although said by originally by Marcelo Truzzi,[1] which is really just an expression of Hume’s Principle of Proportionality that we should proportion our confidence and our beliefs to the evidence.

The idea that aliens have come here is an extraordinary claim. How extraordinary is the evidence? It’s not even ordinary, it’s really crappy: blurry photographs, grainy videos, and lots and lots of stories about things that go bump in the night, when people are out camping or wandering around in the desert, etc.

It’s really simple. I would believe everybody, all scientists and skeptics would believe if there was concrete evidence.

We already have a model of how this works in biology. If you want to name a new species you have to have a type specimen, an actual physical example of the species and you can bring it to the conference and photograph it, put it in a museum, it can be dissected, it’s photographed and published in peer-reviewed journals, and everybody can see it. If the UFO people had something like that an actual spacecraft…

Now, of course, the rebuttal to that is: “They’re being hidden away by the government”. This hidden evidence argument is not an argument.

If you took that to a biology conference and said “I found a bipedal primate living in the hinterlands of Canada, call them Bigfoot or Yeti”.

They’d say “That’s nice, let’s see it”.

“Oh well it’s being hidden by the Canadian government, It’s in this warehouse, where they’re keeping the, you know, the aliens”.

Okay, whatever, that you’d just be laughed off the stage. That’s not evidence. Of course, it’s possible that aliens have come here sometime in the past, but the evidence for it is pretty thin.

New York Times UFO articles

SL. When I sent you my notes about these topics I wanted to discuss, my starting point was those three articles from the New York Times[2-4] and when I read them at the beginning I just read the headlines, as most people do when they read tweets and so on, which is probably a problem. Then I read the full articles and I said “Well that looks like someone is confirming there are UFOs and these UFOs are actually alien spacecraft”. But then I started doing some fact check and the first thing I noticed that the author of these articles is a ufologist…

MS. Leslie Kean, yeah. I read her book, it’s a fine book, it’s interesting, but it really it’s just a series of anecdotes and the fact that the anecdotes are coming from military leaders, generals, police captains, and government officials, whatever, is irrelevant because they’re not any better at observing than anybody else. Their word is no more trustworthy than anybody else’s. So why believe them?

It’s amazing that she got that published in the New York Times because to the average reader that that’s a New York Times fact-checked article conducted by a journalist. But that’s not what it is. It’s written by somebody who already believes in aliens having come here. That’s a little deceptive.

As for the claims themselves, I think the best analysis comes from… well we’ve published a couple pieces in Skeptic on this, but the actual camera analysis is conducted by Mick West. So if you look up his Twitter feed (, that takes you to his articles. On his website he shows that the little the Tic-Tac UFO is obviously a balloon hurtling along. It looks like it’s hauling at, you know, like a thousand miles an hour or more, when in fact it’s not that. It’s an artifact of how the camera is rotating. He shows through clever analysis that what looks like this so-called UFO accelerating at incredible speed is just the camera being zoomed in or zoomed out at high speed. The camera itself is causing the visual effects in the film, not the object itself. He shows that when the camera zooms or rotates the entire environment around the UFO is rotating the exact same way that the UFO is. So it’s an artifact of the video, not the object that’s being chased.

So it doesn’t matter if the jet pilot says “Oh my god, oh look at that, oh dude unbelievable”, it’s irrelevant, or [if] they give an interview later saying “I’m an expert on detecting other craft in my space and I’ve never seen anything like that”. Okay, so what? You’re not looking, you’re not seeing what you think you’re seeing.

The headlines read as if the government is confirming that aliens are here, when all they did was confirm that they had a program, poorly funded by government standards anyway, that concluded nothing.

By the way, that footage is not new. They keep saying it’s “brand new”, “just released”. This is from 15 years ago.

Okay, come on, give it to us! Quit saying “we’re about to release this huge discovery”. Okay, what is it? Because skeptics want to know.

Luis Elizondo and To The Stars

SL. Those footages, one of them is from 2004, and I think Commander D. Fravor was part of it in the sense that he was in the fighter jet. The other ones were from 2014-2015. Now these footages were released by Louis Elizondo in 2017. Louis Elizondo is the main protagonist of these articles and he says that he resigned from some government office in 2017 because he wasn’t happy with the way that the UFO business was dealt with within the government. So what Leslie Kean’s article doesn’t say is that in 2017 Elizondo joins a company, which is called To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science,[5] which was founded by…

MS. Tom Delonge, yeah a rock star. I mean nothing wrong with that. Outsiders could make contributions to science, but come on…

SL. The weird thing is that how come a government official can apparently freely release information from the government and he doesn’t get prosecuted? We know what happened to Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning…

MS. Yeah that’s a really good point. Yes that’s a very good point. If they were releasing something that was real or that was important, they’d get the same treatment that Julian Assange have gotten. They haven’t. So I’m sure the people in government are like “Oh god that again, yeah let them run with it because we’re busy with other things over here”.

SL. So this guy (Luis Elizondo) apparently lied when he said that he was leading the program you mentioned which is the AATIP (Advanced Aerial Threat Identification Program), which was actually funded by senator Harry Reid for $22 million. He (Elizondo) said he was the director, but the pentagon spokesperson said that he wasn’t directing this program, so in that case he lied about that.[6] So, they go ahead with this To the Stars Academy whatever, which was founded by Tom Delong but also by a physicist (Harold E. Puthoff), who also worked as a parapsychologist and expert of paranormal activities in the 70s…

MS. Yeah, so there was a project made famous in the in the film “The Men Who Stare at Goats”, based on the book by John Ronson that tracks that whole history, where they were testing remote viewing. You have these, you know, psychics that are in a basement somewhere, in a quiet room, sound proof, and they have these ping-pong balls over their eyes so that they can’t see anything and then they have to try to envision where the missile silos are in Siberia or whatever. This went on for decades and they spent you know tens of millions of dollars. Now to the average listener like you and I that sounds like a lot of money, but by government standards that’s the cost overrun on a single stretch of highway, paving a highway. It’s nothing. Particularly over many years. It’s okay that governments try this or that.

That program Stargate was inspired by the so-called “psychic gap”. Remember the missile gap. Well then there was an alleged “psychic gap”, when we found out that the Russians were testing ESP to try to make these kind of psychic soldiers.[7] It wasn’t clear back in the 50s and 60s that this was impossible. Scientists had yet to really run a lot of controlled experiments to show that there’s nothing to this. So why not? Okay spend a little money just in case, but after negative results for 10 years, then you dump it.

And the same thing with the Aerial Threat Phenomenon Program. So if enough reports come in, there’s spooky things in our airspace, well that’s the military’s job to investigate those things. Okay, fine, go investigate it, but why drag it out for years and years with these little teasing articles in the New York Times like “This is going to be huge, it’s going to be big”. Just give it to us. Come on if it’s Russian or Chinese or North Korean or extra-terrestrial, skeptics want to know, everybody wants to know. And this idea that the stock market would crash and the economy would collapse and people would lose their minds, this is this is wrong, this is not true. People do not lose their minds and go crazy and when there’s incidences like that.

So we want to know!

SL. To the Stars Academy and Tom Delong produced a documentary called Unidentified that was released on the History Channel is also available on Amazon Prime, where Elizondo is the star, he appears as an investigator that goes and interviews people and all the evidence is anecdotal, he doesn’t show any actual thing. So my question, after seeing all these things, the documentary and so on, do you think these articles were a sort of PR campaign for whatever entertainment is going on with the To the Stars Academy?

MS. Well not just entertainment. They also have some investments you can make in their private company and they advertise that on their web page. That’s always made me a little suspicious. Why are you asking people for money? That’s starting to sound kind of cultish. Even though apparently they’re not doing anything illegal, but why mix them? If you want to start a private company, go ahead but don’t mix up this kind of general scientific question of the possibility of extra-terrestrial visitation or whatever, with that. So to me that taints it. It’s like the old tobacco companies funding research on cigarette smoking and lung cancer that it’s obvious there’s a potential conflict of interest.

SL. I was trying to understand what could be other explanations of what was shown in the (pentagon) videos. You said maybe it’s a balloon, it could be an artifact, an illusion, or could it be that it’s some Russians or Chinese drones or something or is that too much?

MS. Well I think it’s probably not even that, although that would be important to know. So okay give it to us.

SL. Another option that we can discuss later it could be that this is a cover-up to hide some US military technology.

MS. Yeah, but again that’s always a hand waving explanation for people who don’t have evidence. That we know it’s there and the reason we know it’s there is because they’re hiding the evidence. This very much reminds me of George Bush’s response to when the search teams went into Iraq to find the weapons of mass destruction and they couldn’t find any.

The initial response by the Bush administration was: “Well they moved them, that’s how we know. They had them because we have no evidence for it.”

It’s like, wait a minute, that’s not an argument. In fact that’s what the UFO people say.

“Where’s the Roswell bodies in the spacecraft?”

“Oh, they moved them, that’s how we know. They’re there.”


Bob Lazar and Element 115

SL. Maybe we can discuss about the US technology later. But now I wanted to discuss about Bob Lazar. Have you seen the podcaster with Joe Rogan?[8] Do you think that guy is lying or do you think he’s telling the truth? What do you think?

MS. I don’t think he’s telling the truth. Maybe it’s his truth, at this point. You have to remember the power of self-deception. Now I can’t get inside somebody’s heart or head or whatever and to any cult leader or whatever do they really believe the stuff they’re saying. Maybe they believe it, but that doesn’t make it true. So whether Bob Lazar is totally deluded or he’s just making stuff up I don’t know, but for sure [there are] people that have fact checked his claims. Don’t take my word for it as a skeptic, take Stan Friedman’s word for it. Stan Friedman is (he just died last year) a really good guy, even though he and I collided on TV many times over UFOs. He’s a total UFO believer: “Absolutely, they’ve come here”.

Now, to his credit, he’s never had any personal experiences, never been abducted, never seen a UFO. He just thinks that the evidence is sufficient to draw that conclusion. So when he heard the Bob Lazar story, he fact-checked it.

So, Lazar said he went to MIT and to Caltech. No he didn’t and in fact he I think he had the equivalent of like a couple physics classes at a community college and that’s it. Stan was able to track that down. But the records at Caltech and MIT show no Bob Lazar. So Lazar’s explanation for that is, well, because it’s top secret and what I was doing was so important and what I found out was so revelatory that they erased the records at those universities. Okay I’m sorry that’s not how it works. No government can go into MIT or Caltech and then tell them “we’d like you to scrape clean the records of this particular student”. Here they’re not going to do it. It’s totally illegal and universities really protect student records. But again, even the argument itself is another one of these hand-waving arguments.

SL. But he said that he worked at Los Alamos…

MS. Well than that… Okay, so but Friedman said “Okay if he’s if he’s gonna lie about something so easy to check as a student record and so readily falsifiable…”. There’s no record at Los Alamos, other than this one little thing that he worked as a contract labourer for some little department that did nothing. But this idea that he worked in this top secret department that worked on alien spacecraft, he’s just making that up or he’s deluded. So again the idea is that there’s a line of demarcation between science and pseudoscience that normally scientists are trying to find, when they’re investigating a particular claim, some alternative medicine claim, or whatever, and this is how science works. You want to just test it. That line of demarcation is when you hit it to the point where there’s no way to test it, there’s no way to find out, if it’s just an assertion. As Christopher Hitchens likes to say “that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”, full stop.

When it’s not just skeptics drawing the line of demarcation saying that’s just pseudoscience, that’s just nonsense, it’s bullshit, but your own people, ufologists, who are believers say “No that guy is full of crap, he did not do what he said he did”, that tells you how far out, when even your own team says you’re full of shit.

You saw this with the 9/11 truthers. There’s different grades of 9/11 [truthers]. There’s those who say “there were no planes, they were all like 3D holograms”. The normal 9/11 truthers they go “Wait a minute, that’s a bunch of bullshit, of course there were planes, but the planes were remotely controlled”. Then other 9/11 truthers go “No that’s a bullshit story here’s what really happened…”. So when they’re debunking themselves that shows you how far out on the fringe they are.

SL. It’s not all bullshit about the 9/11 truthers, because there are people suing actually the Saudi government, for example, for a conspiracy.

MS. Well so here’s a good example of what we mean by scepticism. Are you skeptical of global warming or are you skeptical of the global warming skeptics? Okay so it’s not just a thing that you are as a skeptic all the time, not believing anything. We all believe lots of things. So I am skeptical of the conspiracy theory that 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration, but I’m not skeptical that it was a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy. You know 19 members of Al Qaeda plotting to fly planes into buildings without telling us: that’s a conspiracy. We know it was orchestrated by Osama Bin Laden and so on and apparently funded by Saudi Arabia, or at least you know that some of the hijackers themselves were backed by the Saudi government. Anyway the point is you know there are real conspiracies that of which conspiracy theories are true and other conspiracies are false. That is, the conspiracy is not real that they claim, so it depends on each one.

SL. So going back to Bob Lazar, you mentioned that of course he didn’t go to Caltech and MIT but apparently he worked at Los Alamos. So if we assume that he worked at Los Alamos, there is no way you can get there without a degree, so maybe he made up that he had a degree in order to get there…

MS. Yes okay so but again we’re going further down the rabbit hole of hand waving to kind of distract from the fact that that there’s no evidence for these claims. Yes, it’s possible he faked his degree in order to get a job. There something like that and that they were hoodwinked about that. Now that seems unlikely, given how careful government agencies are, but we know from history that they have been duped by imposters. Corporations have, government agencies have, individuals have. That happens. Yes, but that doesn’t make it true.

SL. The other thing that these Bob Lazar believers bring as a proof that he was right, is element 115 (Moscovium). They says he predicted the element…

MS. He says he says he predicted it…

SL. Yeah, I mean there were papers before he mentioned it, talking about the potential properties of this element 115,[9] which was after discover in 2004.[10] So that thing doesn’t mean anything.

MS. Again it’s just an assertion. Where’s the spacecraft? Come on dude! That is the most extraordinary claim in this area that anyone’s ever made: “I saw the spacecraft myself”. All right, where is it? Well, “They’ve hidden it or they’ve erased it”.

I used to make this argument with Stan Friedman too. We were on Larry King live together and he’s holding up these government documents with big blacked out paragraphs.

He goes “See here’s the evidence”.

“What’s the evidence? I just see a blacked out paragraph, I don’t know what I am looking at”.

“You’re looking at the evidence that I’m claiming is in there”.

“But I can’t see it and you can’t see it, you don’t know that you know”.

So in science again to test the claim, there has to be some way to get at it, to falsify it, that that you can do it and I can do it and we can all look at it and see it and see the results and replicate it.

That’s one of the problems of the replication crisis we’re going through now, is that some of those standards were lowered or hacked a little bit under the “publish or perish” pressures and so on. So, yes, that does happen but it’s always the scientists themselves that catch the errors, the fraud, the mistakes and so on. Now almost never outsiders, it’s almost always an insider, graduate student that sees some shenanigans going on with the principal investigator and then blows the whistle. That’s why we have whistle-blower laws. But the fact that that has happened doesn’t mean that it happens all the time and it happened in your particular case that you want to claim.

SL. Another thing about Bob Lazar, he claims that this layer, the triangle of moscovium is able to generate gravity and thanks to this thing then the spacecraft can fly and all these things. He said that this this material can exist naturally, but so far the moscovium that was synthesized can only last 0.6 seconds, a fraction of a second. So far we haven’t found any of this moscovium existing in nature. That doesn’t mean that it has the properties that he talks about. Another thing that they say “okay Bob Lazar was right, if you look at the gimbal video… let’s assume it’s a spacecraft, that spacecraft flies in the same way that Bob Lazar described it”. Is that a coincidence?

MS. Yeah, I forgot about the gimbal thing in Bob Lazar. Again this is kind of after the fact reasoning, where someone like him will say, well look I said something like that “You know years ago or whatever that you know”. Again that’s that that’s a sort of post-hoc reasoning, that’s not really acceptable. It’s not a reliable avenue to knowledge. In any case, because of all the other reasons, again just go right back to he lied about his credentials. In academia if you lie about your credentials, you’re out, your career is over. That’s it.

You make up your data and you get caught, you’re out. You’re not going to be forgiven. You can’t come back. It’s just because so much of the system depends on the kind of internal trust within labs, within scientific communities that we’re playing by the rules that we’ve set up with fairly high standards of reasoning and evidence. It’s one thing to make a mistake, everybody makes mistakes, but when all the mistakes go in one particular direction, that’s an indication of fraud and then if something comes forward like a graduate student or a whistle-blower says “I saw him make up the data” or you get caught. In some cases they’ve actually found the lab notes, where they kind of just wrote in the data and then made mistakes, screwed up, and then they got caught the way they had made up the data. That’s it. It’s over game over. You can’t come back, you can go find something else to do.

SL. It depends where you are, it depends on the institution.

MS. Yeah, well, maybe in Russia…

SL. Sometimes they take revenge with the whistle-blowers.

MS. Oh well that again, I mean, in the battle days whistle-blowers were not trusted, but this is why we now have whistle-blower laws, because enough of what whistle-blowers have said turned out to be true and that they were persecuted for coming forward that now we have protections for them.

I think, I don’t know about Julian Assange, but Edward Snowden to me comes off with his super high integrity. Like I really believe what he is saying. He doesn’t seem to be doing it for any financial gain. He doesn’t seem to want political power. It doesn’t seem to be buying for anything. I read his book. It’s pretty damning for what he’s exposing. He doesn’t seem to have any reason to do this other alternate ulterior motive. So why not treat him like a whistle-blower? This is a democracy, we’re supposed to know about a lot of these things. I understand there’s national secrets and so on, but a lot of the stuff he exposed we should have known about this. Warrantless searches for example. What? I mean the whole purpose of having to get a warrant is to protect citizens’ privacies.

Anyway, I think he should be brought back and not prosecuted. Actually if anything I think he’s something of a hero.

SL. Someone said that Trump might pardon him.

MS. Well we’ll see. I don’t know if Ed Snowden could get himself to say something like “Trump is the greatest president in the history of the world, maybe the universe”. He probably would get a pardon.

SL. Okay so the other thing I wanted to discuss is the documentary Mirage Men by Mark Pilkington, where they talk about Richard Doty. Richard Doty was a government official that was tasked to feed false information, deceptive information, to UFO researchers. One of them was Paul Bennewitz. This Bennewitz guy was fed with fake information about UFOs and aliens that went crazy and he was hospitalized actually. So Richard Doty says that this is part of the government strategy to cover up military devices. So let’s say that there is some curious guy taking pictures in a restricted area and then what we do is that we tell him “Okay look these are UFOs and this is the story, we’re gonna give you information”. So the information spreads virally to the UFO community.

MS. Right, so sort of a false flag operation.

SL. Yeah, kind of.

MS. I haven’t seen this film. I don’t know the detail. I don’t know this case at all.

SL. That’s why I was thinking, is it possible that maybe Bob Lazar was brought to a facility, where they staged an alien spacecraft and they told him…

MS. I don’t know. Ask Bob Lazar, he may inculcate that into his memories.

Linda Howe’s Alien Metal

SL. There is another person called the Linda M. Howe that said that she provided evidence of a part of an alien spacecraft, a piece of metal, a layered metal with bismuth magnesium zinc silver. She said this is the evidence of an alien spacecraft and they said “Oh we can’t make this layered structure here on this planet, so it must be an alien spacecraft”.

MS. Yeah okay, where is this?

SL. She sold the piece of metal to Tom Delonge…

MS. Yeah, that’s right, yeah, yeah, that’s right…

SL. …for $30 000.

MS. There we go… Jacques Vallée… yeah… it’s always the same people that are kind of in the loop here.

SL. Yeah. Same people.

MS. You know, again extra external validation like… how about some independent lab that doesn’t even know what it’s supposed to be testing, doesn’t know what the agenda is on the table here? How about having them test it? Also before you say something that is out of this world let’s first make sure that it’s not in this world. The fact that a particular lab or individual can’t identify it doesn’t make it extraterrestrial. Again maybe some Russian/Chinese lab somewhere made something that we don’t know how to make so what? That’s still terrestrial.

SL. Yeah, so other scientists said that maybe it’s the residual of some industrial process, they spoke about the Betterton-Kroll process, which is something used to remove bismuth from lead or you can think about the fordite, which is the that sort of mineral that you get where they spray paint cars, the paint keeps accumulating and then you get this mineral.

MS. Yes, I have a paint job like that on my bicycle, it’s called “refliptive” paint, where different angles that you look at the bike, it’s different completely, different colours, it’s green from one angle, purple from another angle, because of those little particles in there. You know they’re kind of sprayed on. Depending on the angle, it reflects different colours. That’s brand new. It was just invented like three four years ago. If you showed that to somebody 10 years ago they’d go “I don’t know how that could possibly be made, therefore extraterrestrial”.

How about just I don’t know, here’s another principle of science it’s okay to say I don’t know. This larger principle: before you say something is out of this world first make sure it’s not in this world. You know the little tailings or scrapings from machine shops, these are notorious UFO artifacts that turn out to be just the slag left over from a machine shop. We have some in our office here that people brought us that we took to a machine and he goes “oh I can make that for you” and he did. He’s like oh all right. Even though the person holding goes “I have no idea”.

So what reminds me of what we call the pyramidiots, the people that say “I can’t figure out how the pyramids were made therefore extraterrestrial”. In a way it’s just an argument from personal incredulity, because I can’t think of how it was done, therefore it couldn’t have been done by natural means. Maybe you just don’t know enough, maybe and it’s possible nobody knows.

Ancient Civilizations (and Aliens)

MS. You wanted to talk about Graham Hancock a little bit and ancient archaeology, also called alternative archaeology and the site of Gobekli Tepe. We did a whole article on Skeptic on this, very interesting.[11] It’s interesting for mainstream scientific reasons because allegedly monumental architecture has to be built by so-called advanced civilizations with large populations that have a division of labour, agriculture, metallurgy or advanced stone tool use, and have a large enough population to make something that massive. So here at Gobekli Tepe you have a pretty impressive structure of tens of these stones that weigh tens of tons that a couple a couple dozen people couldn’t do seemingly. But this was 11 000 years ago. So this is many thousands of years before agriculture really took off to the point where there was a division of labour and large populations living in cities that would give you the labour to construct something monumental like that.

So how did they do it?

Of course now the ancient alien people are all excited about this. Graham is not one of those, he just thinks that there was an advanced terrestrial civilization, not extraterrestrial, they lived many tens of thousands of years before our current understanding of when the first civilizations were and that they’re the ones that taught the hunter gatherers how to do this. So the point is that the structures at Gobekli Tepe, were made by hunter-gatherers, who, we know, lived in small communities of a couple dozen to a couple hundred people, not enough to move around those massive stone tools. So we think… my response, when I read about it was “Well maybe we’re just wrong about what hunter-gatherers can do, maybe they’re smarter and more sophisticated than we thought they were”. So why not start with that rather than again going to the extraterrestrial or super advanced ancient civilization, because once you go down that route if that’s true what else has to be true? That’s another skeptic principle.

If there was an advanced civilization that lived say 30 000 years ago, which is what Graham thinks, where is their trash? Where are the homes? Where are their stone tools or metal tools? Where’s their writing? Now Graham’s response to that is “They didn’t have any of that because that’s not what I mean by advanced, I mean, you know, mentally advanced or psychically advanced or wisdom advanced”. Okay but that’s not how archaeologists use that word advanced, they mean something else, having an alphabet and a calendar and metal tools, things like that.

I think the real story of Gobekli Tepe and the mystery there is that we underestimated the power and intelligence and skills of ancient peoples. That principle right there goes a long ways to answering all those ancient alien questions that began with Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods and that launched an industry, a publishing industry, and then a kind of search the world for anything spooky and weird and mysterious that you can’t explain.

Again just because you can’t explain it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some archaeologist or art historian or something like… I really want to like the Ancient Aliens TV series on the History Channel but it’s just painful to watch. They never have a skeptic on. Occasionally they’ll have on like a real archaeologist or art historian or somebody that actually knows something, but they don’t ask them to address the particular thing that they’re addressing in the show. How did that thing there in South America 10 000 feet elevation of Cusco, Machu Picchu, how did that get made? Then that person… “Here’s what archaeologists think that that is how it was made”. They never do that, they always have the expert just kind of repeat what the problem is or “This was a magnificent site and here’s where it’s located” and then they go to… what’s his name with the goofy hair… the guy says “I’m not saying it’s aliens but it’s aliens”.

Give us what the mainstream scientists think it is and then go ahead and give us your ancient alien thing. The reason they don’t do that I think is because they can see that the mainstream explanation is always better than the extraterrestrial explanation and they never have any positive evidence. Again it’s always the argument from ignorance or the argument from personal incredulity “I can’t imagine how they move those stones so big they could not have done it through natural means”. How do you know?

SL. One of the things that you discussed during that podcast[12]… in particular Hancock and Carlson brought up several papers, published papers, supporting two things: (1) that there was an asteroid or comet impact 13 000 years ago[13-15] and there are several publications in Science and other top journals and the other one was (2) the pre-Clovis occupation of America.[16-19]

MS. So, the impact hypothesis, you know the impact hypothesis has gathered some more support since then that since that podcast. The one you’re referring to by the way is that the Joe Rogan podcast with Graham Hancock and Carlson and myself, then we each had our own phone a friend expert. Yeah the impact hypothesis at that time was sort of a hit and miss. Since then there’s been a few other papers in support, although there are some skeptics.

Also that that find in San Diego that that week it was made that week that Graham Hancock brought up about the mammoth burial, mammoth site in San Diego that it was dated 130 000 years ago.[20] Now the paper claimed that that the bones were broken in such a way and there were some rocks around there that might have been stone tools would imply that humans or some kind of hominid broke the bones in a way to get to the marrow and therefore people lived in North America 130 000 years ago.

If that were true that would completely overturn Clovis. Well that is not what the pre-Clovis archaeologists think at all. They think instead of 11 to 13 000 years roughly 13, it’s more like maybe 18 or 20-22. You sort of push the boundaries depending on the site plus or minus the error bars on the dates. That’s the real challenge to Clovis.

Since that podcast there’s again more evidence for pre-Clovis. So Clovis is probably gone now. Fine. But I got hammered for being kind of the defender of the orthodoxy as it were. The reason that orthodoxy was there it was because almost a century’s worth of research to support it. Now that doesn’t make the orthodoxy permanently right. As Einstein famously said in response to a book called 100 Scientists Against Einstein, he said “Why do we need a hundred, one would do if I’m wrong”. So again, the falsification is key and finding older sites consistently particularly as they spread down North America, such that the native initial Americans coming over didn’t have to fly down to South America. In other words there’s kind of a tracing record down the coast or whatever to see how they got to South America with those older older dates.

Now the impact hypothesis is still… part of what’s still under dispute is the mass extinction of the all the native mammals. There’s still some scientists claiming that the impact itself is not enough to explain that because not all species went extinct and other species went extinct that were not affected by the impact. So at the very least it’s probably over hunting hypothesis and maybe the weakening of the populations because of the decimation due to the impact. Something like that.

There has been a paper published challenging the San Diego paper in Nature.[21] So people can read it and decide if… For me I’m just gonna say you know, I doubt it, that’s the extraordinary claim. Therefore we need a lot of evidence to overturn it. Where were the people a hundred thousand years ago then there should be sites that are 120 000 years old, 115 000 years old, 110 000 years old? In other words there should be a record between here and there, but to jump from these kind of pre-Clovis claims of maybe 20-25 000 years old to 130 000 years old with nothing in between, that makes me sceptical.

Also it’s good to remember that the site was discovered because there was a construction with heavy equipment driving over the bones that are in the dirt not far below. So another hypothesis is that the bones were broken because of the heavy equipment. The stone tools, these are not like these beautifully crafted Clovis stones that are obviously artificially produced. They’re just kind of broken in a way that if you squint and use your imagination maybe it was made by a person, but maybe not. Also 130 000 years ago, who would that be? Neanderthals or Denisovans?

So now we’re off the page of science and we’re just kind of speculating. It’s fun, super interesting.

I like Graham. By the way he’s a really good writer. I like his books. I’ve read most of his books and I like that he’s there doing that because science does need its outsiders. It needs people to challenge the orthodoxy as long as you’re willing to say usually the outsiders and the challengers even inside challengers to the orthodoxy are wrong, they’re usually wrong. The reason science is so conservative and careful and cautious is because most ideas that scientists come up with are wrong. You know they’re in the lab they’re just spitballing ideas and let’s just see what we can come up with and then test it and see what happens.

Again back to Einstein, he wasn’t world famous until after 1919 when Eddington tested his general theory of relativity with the bending of starlight around the sun during the solar eclipse. Before that no one knew who Einstein was outside of physics. In physics he was he was pretty famous but outside of that he was nobody. He was mostly famous because of those five papers he wrote in 1905 that proved the existence of molecules and the Brownian motion paper and a few other things. That caught the attention of the professional community and it got him a real job. But that isn’t what made him famous. What made him famous was here’s an actual experiment that confirmed it. It zagged almost to the perfect exact point that he said it would. Okay that’s what it takes.

SL. Which is something that those string theory guys would need now probably…

MS. I get these letters here. Here’s one. I just got today. There’s a big package full of stuff and all these little clippings and notes and folded papers “It’s the theory of physics… Einstein was wrong and newton was wrong and hawking was wrong and I’ve been working on it in my garage my whole life and I got it all figured out”. Okay I really don’t have to read it. The chances that this guy overturning all that is pretty much nil.

SL. I got some of those guys on LinkedIn… it happened to me as well…

MS. That’s right you’re a physicist right yeah you probably get you probably get those letters too…

SL. So another thing I forgot to mention before was, going back to the UFOs, this is very important, David Hambling, who is a journalist based in the UK, here, wrote an interesting article about US Navy Laser Creates Plasma UFO.[22] There was a patent in 2018,[23] where they (US Navy) describe a decoy system for fighter jets that basically works with a laser. So the laser ionizes the air and then it raster scans in that region and then it creates an image, a hologram basically, and this hologram can be in different frequencies, it can be in the visible, in the infrared, and the UV. So this thing can be picked up by other missiles, people can see it. So this guy was saying, and I think this is a good explanation, that maybe what these people are seeing is just a hologram. This is nothing weird. But if that’s the case the government is not going to tell you that this is a hologram, because this is the decoy system. So they wouldn’t want you to know. This is not something fancy, is not weird, it’s something that it’s within physics. But go and prove it.

Steven Greer: Aliens & Transcendental Meditation

SL. Another thing I wanted to ask you is about the connection between UFOs and transcendental meditation. Why there seems to be a connection between these two things? There is another guy (Steven Greer) that talks about summoning aliens. He’s got this protocol that he can use to call aliens…

MS. Right again to me it’s just more hand waving for why they don’t have physical evidence for their claims. Well “they’re interdimensional beings, they’re not they’re spiritual beings, not physical beings”. In science fiction there’s kind of this trend, it’s sort of an evolutionary model that humans evolve eventually to having large and larger brains, thinner bodies that are kind of weak, which is why aliens always look like these bulbous head with thin little arms and so on. But if you project it out, eventually, and this is kind of science fiction really, is that we’re just pure spirit. You upload your mind into the cloud and there you are. This is an actual scenario that some people think we can achieve immortality by uploading your connectome, the map of all your neural connections into the equivalent of the cloud, whatever that would be. There you are, you’re up there. No! You wouldn’t be up there, you’re still there, it would just be a copy, it’s not you. In any case, it’s not even a person. But the idea is that far advanced, far future advanced extraterrestrials, or far future humans will just be spiritual in nature, will shed our bodies because even if you’re chronically frozen and brought back your body is still just protein, it’s going to break down or even if you uploaded your mind into the cloud, but there still has to be some servers or something that holds the memory, it’s a giant file that has to be stored somewhere. You still need some medium that could be destroyed.

So the next logical step in the fantasy, if we want to call it that, is that you’re just pure spirit like soul. This gets to the idea of insoulment, the ghost in the machine. There’s just something about us that’s non-material. This is that kind of platonic idea, Descartes dualism, where there’s the physical stuff then there’s the mental stuff, whatever that is, but it’s not physical.

The connection you’re looking for there it’s not just transcendental meditation people, but anybody that believes in a kind of a dualistic nature that has kind of a sci-fi fantasy-prone personality can dream up a scenario like that.

The Fascination of the West with Eastern Religions

SL. Yeah and why do you think these eastern cults or religions are so attractive to people in the West? Is it because we killed the god and that’s why we look for this kind of things in the East?

MS. Particularly in the West Coast of the United States, particularly in California where I’m at. There we are seeing a kind of resurgence again of alternative spiritualties and religions with the decline of mainstream religions. We saw this in the 60s, when Catholicism started to lose its muster and then we saw a kind of resurgence of Presbyterianism and Baptist and Evangelical Christianity. But that that’s been waning the last 15-20 years now. Now we’ve seen the rise of the nuns.

So there’s one idea in atheist humanist circles that we need to replace religion with something. Now I don’t personally think we do. I think humanism is just fine the way it is. I don’t think we need to bolt on any kind of eastern mysticism to make it palatable. But the idea is that people need whatever religion offered. Spiritual or community. Now first of all the community thing I get. We’re a social species, we like to be with other people of our kind, whatever that is, politically or you know bowling league or whatever. In my case, my cycling buddies, we like to be with people that we enjoy the similar ideas or activities. Religion does offer something like that. A place to go once a week, to kind of recharge your batteries spiritually, whatever that means, to people individually. And you’re with people you like because they’re similar to you, religiously and, now, politically, because politics and religion are so intertwined. Plus they offer free parking. So in California that’s big. The church has free parking and free babysitting too.

There is a movement afoot in humanist circles, humanist atheist circles, to build the equivalent of churches, a building to go to every week with your fellow humanist or atheists and affirm your beliefs and civil rights, civil liberties, pro-choice, women’s rights, gay rights whatever it is. That’s fine. I don’t have any problems with that, but that’s not really religion. I mean religion is a big word but it has to mean something and if everything is religion then nothing is a religion and it loses meaning as a word.

In terms of what humans need. Religion is too broad an explanation. There’s psychologists who study the need for transcendence. Now this could be anything. You could go on a hike by yourself or just with one other person out in the woods for a couple of days and that’s a transcendent experience. Maybe you get it through dance or meditation. I know a lot of people that are really into meditation now. There’s kind of the Deepak Chopra type, kind of western Buddhism, or you could go to Sam Harris, you know, pure secular meditation. A lot of people do that kind of meditation. Deepak has huge following, millions of people do that kind of meditation and we would not call them religious. I don’t think anybody would go “Boy those are religious nuts!” or anything like that. Not at all. So maybe that’s what will happen something along those lines. Weekly walks on the beach. A little bit like Jews have their Shabbat every week, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Really what is it, it’s a time to just like get off the internet, don’t check Twitter for 24 hours. It’s the equivalent of that.

There are people like my friend Dave Rubin. He takes he takes all of August off. He goes offline. He doesn’t answer emails. Nothing. It’s kind of the same thing as that you know we might see the evolution of something like that.

Water memory and homeopathy

SL. The other thing I wanted to discuss was water memory and homeopathy. What do you think when this sort of… well that’s considered a pseudoscience now because many countries have recognized that homeopathy is basically a fraud, kind of, it’s a multi-billion industry and there have been some papers in the past even in Nature[24,25] and but then the problem is that in this case this pseudoscience involves medicine.

MS. But it’s not medicine, this is why it’s not regulated. In the United States anyway it’s considered a food product. So in terms of like what the FDA regulates, as long as you’re not poisoning people and homeopathy doesn’t do anything. It’s by definition an inert substance that’s come in contact with the allegedly curative substance and it has the memory of it in its molecule, whatever that means. So as far as the government regulatory agencies are concerned it’s harmless, it’s like taking mega vitamins or whatever, as long as you don’t hurt anybody, who cares. It’s not right so it’s not a medicine that has to meet the higher standards and this is how they get around that. There’s thousands, I don’t know, millions of products in that category that are not medicines and they even say usually on the box “this is not a medicine, doesn’t treat you, see your doctor and so on”. They have those warnings on there because they’ve probably been sued or warned that they’re making claims beyond what they can make as a food product or supplement.

SL. Yeah, I remember James Randy doing the show, where he ingested I don’t know many, he overdosed with (homeopathic) sleeping pills.

MS. Yeah, well, it’s because it doesn’t do anything. And again with anecdotal thinking if you’re sick and all of a sudden you get better, whatever you did just before you got better that’s what gets the credit. So it doesn’t have to be homeopathy, it could be acupuncture, acupressure, or some Chinese medicine, or meditation. Anything really.

SL. I think the problem comes when you go for this remedy is instead of taking real medicines.

MS. Yeah so when it’s alternative to a medicine you actually need that’s when it’s dangerous.

The paranormal

SL. In your book Skeptic[26] you mentioned that 40% of Americans believe in ESP[27] and that in 2002 there was a study revealing that apparently there is no correlation between science knowledge and paranormal belief, how is that?

MS. This is held up recently with postmodern beliefs and the idea that we’re living in a post-truth world. There’s climate denial and anti-vaccinations and so on. Turns out that having scientific knowledge or having had courses in science does next to nothing to sort of protect your beliefs from these alternative and wrong, usually wrong, beliefs. It’s not having scientific facts themselves that’s going to do it. It’s really teaching people how to think about claims and this is why I teach my course Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist, this I teach at Chapman University and you can get the course on the Great Courses teaching companies. Great courses. Most of my books are oriented toward this. What I’m trying to do is not tell you what to think about UFOs or psychics or astrology or conspiracy theories, it’s how to think about them, because I don’t know what’s going to come down the pike that’s going to be popular in a decade from now. I have no idea. But I want you to be equipped with certain tools like we’ve been talking about. Again:

  • Before you say something’s out of this world first make sure that it’s not in this world
  • The burden of proof is not on you to disprove it’s on the claimant to prove
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

My books there, in which I present those principles. I think the solution to this post-truth world we’re supposedly living in, we are not, is to teach people how to think, when you hear some particular claim. It could be a politician or an economist or some pundit on a on a radio talk show. How do we know that’s true? Just ask some basic questions. Where does that claim come from? Did anybody fact check it? I’ve been impressed with since the 2016 election the rise in importance of sites like Politifact and Snopes and our own Skeptic. These are fact-checking sites and in some cases whenever Trump gives a speech, they have a team of fact-checkers right there, in real time, posting whether what he just said is true or not, and you know then they rate it on a scale of one to five. I think the biggest lies are, you know, the Pinocchio pants on fire or whatever the long the long nose, rating. The different sites have different methods of this. That’s that tells us there’s a market for that, that people actually want to know, they care about the truth and that’s the solution to the problem.

So when someone denies climate or they accept climate science probably neither one of them knows much about climate science. It’s a technical field, I don’t know much about it. It’s not my area. What you’re doing is signalling to your tribe that you acknowledge the value of science and that it’s a hard-earned, supported consensus science, or you’re signalling to your tribe that you doubt it because it’s so politicized. Since Al Gore’s film Inconvenient Truth kind of popularized climate science and he was the democratic vice-president so that made climate science a liberal connection a claim. Therefore conservatives sort of feel like they have to be against it, even though they don’t know anything about it. But neither does these the person on the other side. So we’re signalling for other reasons. Call it virtue signalling.

SL. Basically the question was Why People Believe Weird Things?[28] that’s an old book that you wrote in 1995…

MS. That was my first book. There’s a cover right there. That’s my latest book Giving the Devil His Due.[12] Yeah so why people believe weird things. I’m a psychologist by training and historian of science, I’m interested in why people believe the claims they do as well as whether the claims are true or not so I have kind of a dual role as the publisher of Skeptic. In both cases I think they’re both important. Whether the claim is true or not and then why people believe it, particularly, when it’s apparent that it’s not true. So that’s what I focus on. Again it’s social, it’s virtue signalling, it’s signalling to your social tribe. Now there’s a lot of these extra evidentiary factors at work and why people believe.

SL. You go a lot into politics in your latest book and maybe we can talk about politics another time if you have time. This time I wanted to focus mainly on pseudoscience.

MS. We’ll do that do that for my next book I want to do on what’s truth how do you know it’s true. Well that applies to politics, economics, ideology, morality. I’m a realist. I want to live in the world of facts and I think scientific facts can inform at least even moral questions.


SL. But apparently there are people that think that truth is subjective, there is a problem with the relativism…

MS. They tend to be on the left and that’s worrisome to me because that kind of first of all reinforces the Christian conservative right, that there are these supernatural given divine command morals. But that’s wrong, they’re wrong about that. But that doesn’t mean therefore everything is relative and there are no real moral values, there’s just opinions people have and cultural shifts and changes that happen. “Slavery was popular and now it’s condemned but maybe it’ll be accepted again someday, who knows. It’s all just relative”. No, I disagree with that anyway. I argue that, I have a couple of essays in that book, you just held up Giving the Devil his Due, arguing against that particular claim, that relativist claim.

Cold Fusion, E-Cat

SL. So cold fusion is… well first of all let’s say what proper fusion is. Fusion is what happens in the sun. You have atoms that merge together and then they release extreme amounts of energy and that’s how the sun burns basically. We can reproduce this on Earth with hydrogen bombs but also with the nuclear reactors, TOKAMAKS for example, but there are people that claim that these things can be done at room temperature. There was a paper in 1989 and now there is this guy called Andrea Rossi who is trying to sell a device called E-Cat.[29] The interesting thing about this device is that the Australian skeptics basically asked the guy if they could inspect the device but the guy said “No I’m not going to allow you to inspect it” and they offered him one million dollars for that and the guy said “No”.

MS. That’s a red flag. You claim to have a device that gives you energy too cheap to meter it’s going to save the world and so on. That was a claim made about coal fusion. But at least to their credit Pons and Fleischmann, said “go ahead and test it, here’s how we did it” and then no one could replicate it. They realized it was just a chemical reaction, not a nuclear reaction. But their mistake was to hold the press conference first and make promises that “we’re going to change the world” before the replication. Now most of the perpetual motion machine people they don’t even want to be tested because they know their game is up then.

Quantum Mysticism

SL. Quantum quackery and mysticism. Why do you think people again want to merge mysticism with quantum mechanics?

MS. Quantum physics is spooky and weird and consciousness is spooky and weird so they must be connected. How about there’s just a lot of spooky and weird things out there, doesn’t mean they’re necessarily connected. We will have an explanation for consciousness that neuroscientists are working on. There’s some interesting ideas there or maybe it’s conceptually the wrong question to ask. It may just be a brute fact of nature that consciousness exists full stop, whatever it is, who knows. But that has nothing to do with quantum physics. Quantum physics as far as I know is very very very well supported. But it’s in the realm of the subatomic, it’s not at the macro level, although there are some claims that you can get some quantum effects at the macro level. Okay then what does quantum mean, if it’s at the macro level? Anyway that’s a different story. But in terms of what you’re asking, is again as soon as there’s something super interesting and weird in the physical sciences isn’t long before people in psychology or social psychology or whatever glom onto it or particularly in ESP research looking for some causal explanation. Now the part of the problem is there’s nothing to explain, people cannot read other people’s minds, people cannot read the backs of playing cards, they cannot do any of those ESP paranormal PSI-type phenomenon that therefore needs an explanation like quantum physics, there’s nothing to explain because they can’t do it.

SL. Do you remember the documentary What the Bleep?

MS. Yeah, What the Bleep Do We Know!? Yeah, of course, I saw it, we reviewed that and I wrote about it. Yeah it’s the same thing. There’s nothing to explain beyond statistical chance and randomness and coincidence and so on that are alleged to be mysteries that need some kind of spooky explanation, no explanation is needed because there’s nothing that needs explaining.

Funding Research on Weird Things

SL. Funding research on weird things. Let’s say that you are having a panel of peer reviewers and someone comes to you and it tells you “Okay we’re looking for funding for this specific project”, but that project is a bit weird so how would you judge? How do you balance between being too much skeptic and being too much on the other side? Where is the balance?

MS. First of all… funding… private funding agencies can do whatever they want. Bill Gates can fund whatever he wants or the Templeton Foundation fund whatever they want. So if they want to fund paranormal research okay fine. I’m not going to object to that. Although I will say that that particular area has been researched now for well over a century and there’s still nothing to sink your teeth into. There was the last big one was Bem’s research from what was that 2010-2011, of the you know backward causality, about extra sensory perception of anticipating what’s going to appear on the screen, this computer screen, that was hidden and that the people could do it slightly more better than chance. Well turns out there was some methodological problems. He ran nine experiments, but only reported two of them. Why didn’t you report the other seven? Because they didn’t come out as significant. So it’s called the file drawer problem, which is emblematic of another larger problem in the replication crisis, is that you know experimenters start off in one direction and then change their mind and do something else and they report it is if that something else was what they plan to do all along, but they went down that route the first place because the original one wasn’t going anywhere. But again file drawer problem, we don’t get to read about that.

Stuart Ritchie has a great book about this that just came out, it’s called Science Fictions and it’s really great. The last chapter outlines what has to be done. There’s these common websites now where you post the research you’re going to conduct. “This is what I’m going to do, I’m going to run these six experiments and here’s how I’m going to do it and I will report the results of all of them, so none of this cherry picking your data, you know or throwing out the high and low scores to make it come out statistically significant, and so on and that’s a good corrective for that problem. But it really began with the Bem the ESP experiment. That’s the last one anyone’s come up with. That’s kind of made a public notice that ESP might be real. So you’re talking since the you know the 1880s or so, when the two psychical societies one in England and one in the United States started conducting experiments. These were real scientists trying to do really good research. That’s where the Zener cards were invented for example. So here we are. We got a 130-140 years of experiments and still we got nothing. So why would you spend any more money on that? Spend money on how to improve batteries for electric cars or something that’s going to be a little more useful and have some results. In other words I’m not against it. Go look for Bigfoot if you want. But the fact that people have been searching for Bigfoot for over for centuries now and we still don’t have a body, probably means it is not out there.

SL. Thank you very much.

MS. Well thanks for having me on the show.


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