Conspiracy Road Trip: UFOs

I haven’t had time to watch this yet, but I apparently appear very briefly in this program. It’s the usual thing — I spend a few hours talking, and it gets edited down to a few seconds.

I’m looking forward to it, because from my perspective I met those people and they were actually rather nice, but their beliefs about aliens ranged from mildly off the mainstream to rabidly weird and ignorant. I’ll be interested to see what emerged from all of the conversations — unfortunately, I’m still en route, sitting in an airport with a 2 hour flight and a 3 hour drive ahead of me, and then a pile of prep work before classes resume tomorrow.

Oh, yeah, and I’m feeling cranky. Probably just as well I’m going to be offline most of the day.


  1. Pyra says

    I’m not sure that people who don’t believe them and just confront them can really reach them. I think people who’ve worked with delusions and confabulations in a therapeutic environment are more prepared to really try to lead these people to better answers. I can say, confronting a delusion you have invested much of your time and energy into maintaining is difficult work. The more ridicule you suffer, the more you want to try to defend it. To have a counselor guide me out of it has been very beneficial.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    Smart aliens will use smart dust and stealthed vehicles.
    No need to actually land in person unless they like to hunt like the Predator.
    Which reminds me again of the latest Peter F. Hamilton SF book.
    — — — — — — — — — — —
    Any more news about statistical correlations between light phenomena and tectonically active regions? Plasma?

  3. Arkady says

    Yeah, it was a fairly brief clip, pretty much just PZ saying ‘real aliens probably aren’t going to look so humanoid’. Same treatment for all the experts though, an astronomer on before PZ got about the same amount of time.

  4. jasonlocklin says

    I watched the episode with creationists recently. It had a very nice test of the common intuition that “Atheist scientists can never reach these people, so we need ‘religious evolutionists’.” Guess what? Didn’t work. The conversation just devolved into who was the better/real christian rather than the merits of the science.

  5. kieran says

    He did one on creationism and had a member of creation ministries in the group, surprisingly he wasn’t so upbeat at the end of that one.

  6. bortedwards says

    Channel the cranky PZ!!
    Isn’t that what marking undergrad assignments was made to relieve..??

  7. prfesser says

    @bortedwards #9, either you’ve never had to mark undergrad assignments/exams, or you teach a subject with which I am totally unfamiliar. Grading exams causes a dramatic increase in the crankies. At least it does for me and for all of my colleagues.

    PS: I was at PZ’s presentation in Murray KY. Outstandexcellensuperb!

  8. prfesser says

    Oh, and for those who don’t know where Murray KY is, a friend who came to visit gave this (accurate) description:
    You fly out to the middle of Nowhere. Then drive for two hours…and you’re almost there.

  9. Don Quijote says

    @4: PZed Myers isn’t a mispronounciation, it is the way the letter Z is pronounced in British English.

  10. chigau (棒や石) says

    The Pffft article says the population of Murray is 17,741 and the population of Murray State University is 10,600.
    If I was a Townie, I’d be some scared ;)

  11. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    AND they mispronounce it PZed[sic] Myers.

    No, sorry: it’s Pee-Zed who’s been mispronouncing his own name as “Pee-Zee” all these years ;-)

  12. chigau (棒や石) says

    I wonder what PZ’s childhood nickname was.
    I can’t imagine anyone living through grade school with a name containing “pee”.

  13. bortedwards says

    @prfesser – biology/phylogenetics. It used to up my crannies until I realised that 1. It wasn’t doing anyone any good. 2. My health plan didn’t cover the result 3. That sort of self flagellation is above my pay grade. Now I use it as a cathartic exercise in red-ink distribution and basic ranting about critical thinking skills. Admittedly as a postgrad I am mostly not marking the results of my own teaching (or failings in doing so) so I have less invested. When faced with the apparent incomprehension of my own teaching I do feel less liberated ;)

  14. bortedwards says

    Hmmm… “Up my crannies.” An interesting visual metaphore curtesy of auto-correct…!

  15. says


    I’m not sure that people who don’t believe them and just confront them can really reach them.

    The girl who didn’t like Michael Shermer said at the end that he was actually quite cool and seemed pleasantly surprised at the conversation… I don’t think it will change what she believes but I would be glad to be proven wrong (didn’t watch it ’till the end yet)

  16. Pyra says

    tomfrog, after thinking some, I suspect that since this was coordinated by a comedian, it wasn’t really meant to change minds. It was just meant to make people giggle as absurd beliefs. I’m glad I never had to have mine admitted on camera before I came around. Magical thinking is hard to break.

  17. anthonyk says

    Liked the program, for fluff TV it was kind of informative and rather sweet. The UFOlogists are a pretty harmless bunch, after all. More unpleasant, in many ways, was last week’s creationist bus trip where serious ignorance and malice were on display from a Christian and a Muslim, nasty bullies both of them. And, surprise, surprise, they fell out.
    It is a shame that we didn’t see more of the experts. I’m sure that PZed and Jerry Coyne had good and interesting things to say on extraterrestrial biology and extrarealitorial boatbuilding respectively.
    Incicidentally, the 9/11 roadtrip, broadcast last year and available on youtube, was really frightening and dispiriting.Let’s hope they never try one on Auschwitz (though global warming might be entertaining).

  18. =8)-DX says

    @13 in British English
    Yes, but I always thought the correct pronunciation of a name was ultimately up to the person themselves. Self-labelling and all that.

  19. Muz says

    I want to like this series. It’s heart seems in the right place, but they seem to almost studiously avoid the verifiable facts.
    This one was the worst one yet. There’s quite well researched material on the Roswell crash and analysis of the UFO story and how it came about -it boils down to one or two cranks, from memory- (plus things like the development of the ‘grey alien’ image).
    These are the slam dunk against all this stuff. Did they even touch on it? Not a bit. Not that we saw anyway.

    The creationism one was nearly as bad, but somewhat more interesting because we got a better look at the creationists themselves.

  20. says


    This has been a very interesting series. I can’t believe how apparently rational people dig their heels in behind these absurd beliefs. Why don’t they investigate the government’s role in creating the UFO diversion? What’s it really about?

    You were great, PZed. You lasted more than a few seconds. Michael Shermer too. You’re handsome as well. The beard is very extinguished.

  21. azureblue says

    The most annoying part of the show was the lie detector test. Even if lie detector tests worked (and of course they’re very unreliable), they’re only meant to work out if the person is lying to others, not if they’re lying to themselves. I’m sure that the woman who claimed she’d had visions did actually have/believed sincerely she had those sensory experiences, and I’m sure she would pass a lie detector test with flying colours – but that’s not the issue. The issue is whether those experiences represent something in reality.

    Also, it was irritating that they stopped it because they didn’t want her to get hurt if she failed it… which made absolutely no sense. I think they just didn’t understand what a lie detector test was at all. If we could really just ascertain the truth about reality by doing these tests on people, then why not hook someone up and ask if God exists?

    PZ was very good, though.

  22. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    @Muz #30:

    It’s heart seems in the right place, but they seem to almost studiously avoid the verifiable facts.

    Some out of context quotes from the presenter…
    From the UFO episode:

    “I’m not here to put her through a test that’s gonna destroy her entire belief system and leave her all Christmas and no Santa.”

    * Aside: A lie detector stress detector while describing abduction!!? That’s both the most confrontational and implausable approach so far. What were they thinking?
    From the creationism episode:

    “I’m gonna introduce you to the scientists. You can meet them firsthand, and you can have a back and forward with them. I’m not here to rot your faith. I doubt very much if I could.”

    “The point isn’t to reinforce your views, it’s that we can have a debate. […] The point of the show is for you [the conspiracy theorists] to discuss things.”


    The creationism one was nearly as bad, but somewhat more interesting because we got a better look at the creationists themselves.

    I’m pretty sure that’s the primary goal.

  23. says

    I was pleasantly surprised. I thought it was going to be the usual unskeptical confirmation of beliefs. Good questions and explanations were provided. Of course, corroborated credible evidence can be easily rejected by self-sealed unfalsifiable believe systems.

  24. says

    @26: Haven’t watched the video, but I ate at a Roadkill Cafe in NH some years ago, and it seemed to be a chain. The name is a marketing gimmick which they play as a theme, eg: menu items with ironically disgusting names; whenever someone came in, the waitress would yell, “Close the door, you’re letting the flies out!!”

    It’s too long ago to recall whether the food was any good.

  25. says

    Comment 1,
    I know exactly what you mean, and I do agree, but this series takes a different approach. Although humour is used as ballast, the people are never ridiculed – the ideas are.

    The fact that the excellent presenter stepped in and stopped the polygraph test was most impressive, ethically, and shows that it’s not about proving someone ‘wrong’. PZed was very approachable and reasonable. It’s a really good series.

    I think the programme should take the ‘Road Trip’ and ‘Celebrity Road Trip’ analogy a bit further, and, each day, vote off the person with the nuttiest claims. Priests would go first.

    Comment 4 DX,
    How very dare you question British pronunciation?

  26. jaytheostrich says

    Darn it PZ, why don’t you hire a guy with a videocam to follow you and get unedited footage of these things? It would be way more entertaining than the few seconds they get edited down to by the other group.

  27. says

    Loved the ex-CIA guy. I mean, why not spin the most fantastic tale you can when unrestrained by evidence? I’m not saying he doesn’t believe it, either way he just runs with it.

    Putting the creationists on a par with these people is great, because it’s every bit as hare-brained, no matter how common it is in the US.

    I wonder what the creationists would balk at. As it is, the “sensible” IDiots don’t dare to criticize total loonies, due to their agenda and pocketbooks.

    Glen Davidson

  28. Muz says

    Sky Captain @33

    You’re right, but the problem is, as nice as he’s trying to be you are still left with only his sniffing skeptisism at their views. At least in the edit.
    I’m sure the guests get in a few good licks in their off camera sessions here and there. But the guests end up being cut down to mostly indirect objections and skeptical points. Then our host is offering fairly lame asides along the lines of “Oi think thas is all obsuord. But Oi dahnt think Oim makin a dent in ther viuws at aahl!”. (apologies to the Irish. Please mock Australian accents in retaliation)

    Well, of course not. As far as we’ve seen they’ve not been challenged in any substantial way (and in this case half the experts were bigger cranks than the tourists).

    It’s all well and good giving us a look at the average believer and being Mr nice guy. He (and the producer/director) have got to drop any of this vague pretense to better knowledge or reason along with it (and it becomes more or less a Louis Theroux type investigation). If they are going to hold the high ground and attempt to at least unsettle their convictions (which they do keep talking about doing), then grasp the nettle and damn well do it, I say. Otherwise it just comes off as wishy washy or smug at worst.

  29. alektorophile says

    PZed. Well, it is called “English” after all, not “American”. They must be right. So PZed it is from now on.

    But seriously. What a sad show. Tinfoil hats and all. Even more depressing than the creationists’ one.

  30. F says

    PZ feeling cranky? Not half as cranky as the UFO cranks, I’d wager.


    I don’t know how to test it without waiting for my dynamic IP address to change who knows when.

    Heh. There are a lot of decent-sized uni campuses in very small towns. I went to a school where we outnumbered townies at least 2:1, possibly 3:1. It was practically a ghost town in summer. (Consider also that a good chunk of the permanent population were educators who lived there for their jobs.)

    They weren’t always so much scared as occasionally annoyed, but their city services and economy depended almost entirely on the uni being there.

  31. F says

    Holy smoking weird, how was that still in the buffer? lol

    Should be:


    If I was a Townie, I’d be some scared ;)

  32. says

    Only thing I know about Murray KY is that when I worked at Fisher-Price we had a factory there.

    Ask your granddad what a “factory” was.

  33. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    As far as we’ve seen they’ve not been challenged in any substantial way (and in this case half the experts were bigger cranks than the tourists).

    They’ve been trying to challenge them in ways that won’t risk them shutting down, or melting down, part-way through the trip. Many involve emotionally influencing them out of beliefs they hadn’t reasoned themselves into, like taking 9/11 truthers to visit people who were directly affected. Though that episode had better factual objections too. Or hanging out with a chimp to dismiss some of the ‘kin to the monkey’ revulsion.
    The crank-overload in this ep was supposed to be another such challenge. The producers apparently didn’t anticipate crank magnetism.
    If they’re not going to listen to negative testemony from witnesses and experts literally pointing at tangible evidence, a 3rd-party historian, however well referenced, wouldn’t make a dent anyway; just competing with a less interesting narrative. The show selects people who are committed.

  34. says

    PZ thought it highly improbable that aliens would look anything like humans. Convergent evolution on different continents happened on Earth, and there could be similar selections and winning body types on other planets. Like a sensory and feeding end (head) winning out over mouths on appendages, bilateral winning out over less efficient shapes, directional visual and auditory sensors (eyes and ears) winning out, etc. Hmm.

  35. says

    Like a sensory and feeding end (head) winning out over mouths on appendages, bilateral winning out over less efficient shapes, directional visual and auditory sensors (eyes and ears) winning out, etc. Hmm.

    That settles it then. Turns out the aliens ARE lizards after all.

  36. lsamaknight says

    On a complete tangent… anyone else think that ‘time travelling chefs’ would make a great premise for a set of sci-fi stories, or maybe a sitcom ala Red Dwarf? Or was it just me?

    More seriously, I find it interesting that the one who they managed to shake loose was the one wearing an actual foil hat. Though I’m wondering if they might have had better luck with Ben (the young guy who looked to be balking when they went all the way down the rabbit hole) if Darren (the self-styled investigator) who’s dogmatism seemed to be propping the beliefs of the others up.

    Though it would be nice to see the unedited interviews with PZed, Seth Shostak and Michael Shermer.

  37. Khantron, the alien that only loves says

    “Unfortunately our idea that we’re rational beings that can correctly perceive the world around us turns out not to be the case. We are very irrational, emotional and we misperceive things all the time.”

    -Michael Shermer
    How can a libertarian type say something like this, and still be libertarian? Or has Michael Shermer changed his mind?

  38. Menyambal --- Sambal's Little Helper says

    I liked that PZ’s talk was given in front of some mounted deer/antelope heads. The similarities between them and us was obvious, and a bit of a knock to the convergent evolution argument—every animal on Earth evolved from the same base stock, so it was easy for us to converge. Space aliens would come from something totally else, and would look weird (interbreeding with us would be just impossible in any case). (Although, it may be that the aliens only like to visit planets where they and the locals look mostly alike …)

    I saw a UFO compilation vid once, something about “the best evidence for UFOs”. It was so hilariously bad/stupid that I haven’t given UFO believers a bit of credit since. (When I say UFO, I mean space alien craft—I’ve seen some unidentifiable stuff up in the sky, myself, but never a flying saucer.)

    Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomy guy, said it well when he pointed out that amateur astronomers never see flying saucers. They have the equipment, and they spend a lot of time looking up, and they are familiar with what there is in the the sky.

  39. lsamaknight says

    I just watched the creationism one and all I can say is… ugh. That Phil was a complete and utter ass with a burning case of projection.

    Abdul’s claim that ‘Islam got off completely clean’ would have been just as bad if not for a kernel of a point. He ignores Islam’s common roots with the other Abrahamic faiths and the similarity of their creation myths (which is just as disingenuous as he accused scientists of being) but there is a valid point hiding there.

    While I know that the creationism in the English speaking world is dominated by the Christian tradition (though Islam and Judaism are not innocent in that regard, merely less prominent) but it would have been interesting to see a wider sampling of creationists. They could have at least rustled up a Hindu creationist.

  40. says

    Bridget: “I can’t explain why they keep coming to me but I like the fact that they do.”

    I’m sure you do. I’m sure it makes you feel very special. I really liked believing I had the second sight, too.

    I think my favorite thing about this program was how each conspiracist seemed to subtly think the others were the nutty ones.

    Also, are you allowed to just bust out with the word “fucking” on the Beeb, then?

  41. chigau (棒や石) says

    #45 & #46
    Thank goo’ness you caught the mis-paste.
    I don’t have a clue what a “dynamic IP address” is, let alone why I would need to change it.

  42. Holms says


    That’s how I pronounce it >_>
    ‘Peezee’ sounds like ‘peasy’ which always meant ‘piss easy’ to me; probably a relic of my school years.

    PZ thought it highly improbable that aliens would look anything like humans. Convergent evolution on different continents happened on Earth, and there could be similar selections and winning body types on other planets. Like a sensory and feeding end (head) winning out over mouths on appendages, bilateral winning out over less efficient shapes, directional visual and auditory sensors (eyes and ears) winning out, etc. Hmm.

    You’re forgetting, I think, that these broad features were already well established in the genetic history of may many species well before the last continental break-up 200Ma ago.

  43. No Light says

    Also, are you allowed to just bust out with the word “fucking” on the Beeb, then?

    As long as it’s after the watershed, 9pm. I’m pretty sure you’re only allowed one gratuitous use of “c*nt” though.

    OK, back to ‘Road Trip’, I’m biased as a former psychologist in a forensic hospital, but Mr Tinfoil had the “schizophrenic stare*and some pretty fucking flat affect, and the thought of him stashing carbon-fibre swords and chopping axes, in a house with little bairns, frightened me.

    He’s one bad night away from attacking two little “intruding greys”. I wanted to say to his wife “Stop indulging his Bacofoil habit, and maybe ask around for some help?”

    The lady with the dark hair? “Tingly brain feeling then in another dimension, happens quite often”. Yeahhh… that’s how my seizures manifest too. The blonde one as well, who described being “sucked through the steering wheel”, just described the first part of each of my seizures.

    First the jamais vu, then a powerful sensation that’s like I’m being sucked quickly backward down a tunnel. I then see weird things, and then whoosh, being propelled back through the tunnel into reality, like something being fired out of a catapult. It only lasts about ten seconds but to me, it can seem like an hour. Then dead sleep.

    Did neither of these poor women consider neurological issues? I can’t imagine jumping straight to “Aliens dunnit!”

  44. wcorvi says

    Kristine (#56) makes a good point – each participant has had a very different experience with UFO’s. They band together because there is a common theme, but the details often totally contradict each other. It seems as if we are being visited by a MYRIAD of different civilizations (if all the participants are correct). Even ONE is at unbelievable odds – due to the distance they must travel. But they support each other, because if any one can be shown to be hallucinating, then it is only a tiny step to realize they ALL are hallucinating.

    This same phenomenon comes up in most ALL conspiracy theories – to me a way to identify them. Almost NO Christian sects agree on the details of what god wants, or how they should act, even though they thump the same bible. They take from it what they want, and what they’ve been indoctrinated into. They band together to get creationism taught in the schools, but WHOSE creationism??!? That, we will fight out after we defeat the secular humanists.

    I talked with two 9/11 theorists, who could not agree at ALL on whether the WTC buildings were loaded with explosives or not, but they completely agreed that it was a government action and coverup. One claimed UA 93 was shot down by the air force, and the other claimed the air force had no jets in the air that day. Both couldn’t be right, but both agreed that the air force was responsible, nonetheless.

    Each of these people in the video make a claim that sounds like hallucinations. And each has different hallucinations. They interpret them the same way – must be UFO’s – but the details are quite different. None of these people are trained observers, none think critically about their experiences, they have a lot in common, but it isn’t UFO’s.

  45. Barkeron says

    “Mr. Scientician, how sure are you there are aliens?!?!”

    “As sure as you can be in the total absence of evidence.”

  46. birgerjohansson says

    (cross-posted with The Lounge)

    “Earth-sized planet found (in Alpha Centauri) just outside solar system” (alas, too hot for life)
    Only stable orbits are at approx. 1 AU and less. Since this planet has migrated close to the star, this fate has probably befallen all other terrestrial planets born in this close zone.
    (But we could build bases on the dark, cold sides of those planets, since they will be tidally locked)
    —- —- —-
    I suppose we can rule out Alpha Centauri as being Kolob, then.
    — — — — — — — —
    Regarding feeling special: I had a recurring dream where I could zoom anywhere I wanted, not quite flying, more like levitation.
    Finally I realised there were other inconsistencies in this “reality” and realised “Damn, this is just a dream!”

  47. Ichthyic says

    I vote we use some of this thread to discuss the very REAL aliens that are right here, on my computer screen, terrorizing the populace with their chyrsalid-zombie insanity, their flying-floaters pew-pewing me from above, and their giant sectoids crushing everything in their path!

    what’s REALLY scary?

    I just learned how to mod this game…

    any requests?


  48. says

    I gather the CIA guy wasn’t in the photo-reconnaisance department at Langley, with his pointing at a photo of lunar craters and proclaiming that he could see a city with streets and houses and parks and trees and industrial zones. Or, more worrying, perhaps he was in photo-recon.

  49. says

    Well, the episode was entertaining. It’s fun to watch unlikely new friendships form.

    But IMO, the mission of the show should be to teach the viewer the principles of a skeptical epistemology. And it didn’t do that very well.

    More useful than challenging the particular beliefs of superstitious people would be educating them on critical thinking. Michael Shermer tried.

    There are really good reasons why people believe in aliens, ghosts, faeries, demons, and gods — reasons having nothing to do with the actual existence of these beings. Epilepsy. Sleep paralysis. Sleep deprivation. Optical illusions. The schizophrenia spectrum. OCD. The manic phase of bipolar disorder. Strokes. Pareidolia. Confirmation bias. Etc etc etc.

    We need a TV show that goes into depth on these kinds of topics.

  50. No Light says

    MDA –

    But IMO, the mission of the show should be to teach the viewer the principles of a skeptical epistemology.

    Road Trip’s a BBC Three programme. Three is an entertainment channel, with sitcoms, programmes like Don’t Tell the Bride, and occasional factual output about what it’s like to be a young trans* person, or to live with a facial disfigurement. The channel’s aimed at the under-30s.

    BBC Four is Three’s bookish older brother. It’s fucking marvellous. That’s where you’ll find Darwin, Hawking, Caesar, and the ladies and gents of the Renaissance.

    Chuck in some foreign dramas like The Killing, Spiral and Wallander, a pinch of Dusty Springfield, and a smattering of Storyville, and some chunks of volcano and fossils, and you get the channel that usually walks away with the ‘Digital Channel of the Year’ award.

    That’s where you’ll see real skeptic stuff. Oh, and professors like Mary Beard, talking about how raunchy the Roman Empire was.

    Can you tell I’m a fan?

  51. says

    The convergent evolution bit- you could get aliens with a lot of similarities, but there’s no reason to expect them to have a human fetus skull. Even if that other planet had dominant bilateral cranial tetrapods that went bipedal there are still so many different ways to organize a face.*

    PZ explained this simply with our favorite underwater example: squid are an apex predator so naturally they are shaped like a torpedo- yet unlike all the fish that converged on the same shape the eyes are out to the side and at the middle of the body rather than lined up facing forward in the direction they swim.

    *It’s a small assumption that you’re going to bring a lot of the directional sensory organs together in a ‘face’ but might as well go at it full on with all the other assumptions there.

    For a good while I’ve been wanting to get some people with minimal drawing skills together to do a little biosphere brainstorm kind of thing that actually has something like the mechanisms of evolution in it. Seems like it would produce significantly more interesting aliens than the usual Mr Potato Head approach to alien design while also not being the typical “well I had a dinosaur in mind so I drew a smooth gradient of worms to dinosaurs and stapled that branch onto the tree” kind of project you can find here and there on the net.

  52. says

    @Holms I do understand. But I wonder if there are particular super-colony shapes that are statistically favored during early evolution on most planets. It will be interesting to see if this can be determined from future super simulations of abiogenesis and evolution, or find more that just the single data point of our Earthy thingy.

  53. John Phillips, FCD says

    No light, BBC4, Radio 4, what is it about the beeb and the number 4 that leads to some of the best programmes on British TV and radio.