Podcast #153: Michael Shermer on Our Enduring Fascination with UFOs

Podcast #153: Michael Shermer on Our Enduring Fascination with UFOs

24 min read

Quillette’s Jonathan Kay talks to UFO expert Michael Shermer about why we keep searching the skies for signs of alien visitors (and why we always come away disappointed).


Jonathan Kay: Welcome to the Quillette podcast. I’m Jonathan Kay, speaking to you from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, planet earth. What you just heard was actor Rainn Wilson, voicing the evil Gallaxhar, scourge of our planet in the 2009 animated film Monsters vs. Aliens, which is of course, a work of fiction… or is it? Later this month, the US government will be releasing a report on years of unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAP.

That’s what we’re supposed to be calling UFO’s now. And there are plenty of people eagerly waiting to see what that report will contain. And we’re not just talking about those who believe in alien encounters, but also those who think that UFO’s or UAPs actually represents super advanced Russian or Chinese military assets, assets that could give our global adversaries the powers of Gallaxhar himself.

With me to discuss this is Michael Shermer, our prolific author, including here at Quillette, and an expert on both conspiracy theories and UFO sightings. I spoke to him last week over Skype about his recent Quillette article on UFO sightings called Understanding the Unidentified.

Oh, and one thing I should mention. One of the things we spoke about was the first known interstellar object detected passing through our solar system back in 2017 in the interview. You’re about to hear, I botched the pronunciation of this thing pretty badly, the real pronunciation of the term given to describe that interstellar body is oh-muah-muah. Sorry ʻOumuamua.

So the reason we’re having this discussion is last month 60 Minutes reported something which sounded like it was new information. I think the word real, as in real UFO’s, that sort of terminology was thrown around. Was there any new information in that CBS report?

Michael Shermer: No, no. The CBS report was largely a rehash of the previous year’s disclosure by the Pentagon, which was itself a rehash of the 2017 New York Times article, which itself was a rehash of a previous Popular Mechanics article, which itself was kind of rehashing uploads of videos that were shot in 2004, then 2007.

So, when you follow the ownership of the videos, and the tracking of it, it’s amazing. The only thing that’s new is the public interest in it. And the fact that it was 60 Minutes that covered it. And the New York Times—the paper of record. So that word “real” is doing a lot of work at those headlines. It looks like they’re real. The New York Times says they’re real. The Pentagon says they’re real or 60 minutes says they’re real. No, that’s not at all what anybody is saying. They’re saying the videos are real. That is to say, it’s not some kid with his laptop in his basement cranking out CGI fake videos of UFOs, which have been done. I myself have done those. No, these are actual video shot by Navy jets with jet-mounted cameras and so on. That’s the only thing they mean by real.

Jonathan Kay: So real in the sense that it’s not a deliberately manufactured artifact. So it’s a good faith representation of something that was seen in the sky. And one of the things I learned from your article is there’s a surprisingly large amount of crap that’s in the sky.

Michael Shermer: Yes. And flocks of birds, flocks of satellites. You know what I mean? The day after he launched, Elon’s train of satellites came right over Santa Barbara. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I got out to check the mail and there it was like—holy crap!—if I didn’t know Space X just launched these satellites I’d be thinking holy moly there’s something in the sky, and I don’t know what it is. It’s unidentified. So unidentified five flying saucers or, more commonly used now, unidentified aerial phenomena.

The, “U” just means unidentified. And usually it means the person looking at it doesn’t know what it is. Well, so what? Probably half the stuff I see I don’t know what it is, and I read all about this stuff all the time. And I’ve seen flocks of geese. I saw a flock of geese in the desert one time. It was the middle of the desert in a bike race, and it was a relay race. It wasn’t my pole so I’m just standing around and waiting for the other guys to come by. And it was dusk, and there was this incredible triangular-shaped UFO going overhead. And then I waited a little bit and, because it was dusk, anything high up in the atmosphere the sun is still shining on it, whereas it was kind of dark where we were standing on the road.

So that would be a good example of something unidentified. And in that list I included in the article for you guys that doesn’t come from scientists, it comes from Leslie Kean, who’s a pro UFOlogist who totally believes we’re being visited. She wrote a book called UFOs, and the subtitle is something like “generals and pilots go on the record.” This was 2010. So we’re talking 11 years ago, and it was all these same kinds of things we’re talking about now that were on 60 Minutes and so on. So she admitted 90 to 95 percent of everything anyone’s ever reported as unidentified is totally identifiable once you look into it.

So UFOlogists and skeptics like me, we are in complete agreement on 90 to 95 percent of everything we’re talking about as having natural, prosaic explanations. So this entire discussion is centered on just a handful, 5 to 10 percent of anomalies. We just don’t know what they are. And so then the question is what do scientists do with anomalies? And my answer is nothing. You don’t have to do anything with them. We can keep looking and try to figure it out. Assign some grad students to try to figure it out. Wait for the Pentagon to make an announcement or something. But in the meantime, you don’t have to construct a whole new worldview about alien visitation or super-advanced Russian or Chinese technology, that we’re centuries behind them and now it’s panic time—like the missile gap in the ’50s. No, we just have to be comfortable with uncertainty. That’s perfectly normal in science.

Jonathan Kay: Your article goes back to the 19th century, I think, and shows how these UFO crazes have been part of history for a long time. But things have changed technologically. All of us have smartphones in our pocket that we could whip out and take pictures of alien spacecraft if we see them. Doesn’t this have some impact on our analysis of whether these UFOs are actually space visitors?

Michael Shermer: Right. Exactly. And that makes my case even stronger, and weaker for the OFOlogist. These pilots on 60 minutes, the most revealing part of that whole segment was the comment by the Navy pilot—these were the Florida sightings—and he offhandedly says to Bill Whitaker, “Oh, you know, we see these things every day” and Whitaker goes, “What? What do you mean every day?” He goes, “Oh yeah, all the time.” It’s like, okay, all right, so we’re not talking about just some quirky anomaly, some experimental thing that the government tried once.

If they’re seeing something every day, shouldn’t we have just tons of videos and photographs? And not just by Navy pilots, but there’s almost 200 million smartphones in America alone, and pretty much all of them now have high definition, high resolution cameras. And there should be thousands of these high-res, clear, unmistakable photographs and videos, but there’s not. In fact, all of the videos we’re talking about now, they’re all of the kind of vintage, grainy, blurry—just not really any better than what we’ve seen in decades past. And that would count against the idea that we’re being visited because there should be just tons more evidence because there’s so much better equipment.

Jonathan Kay: Everyone’s heard about Area 51, and there’s a rich load of quasi-ironic lore that surrounds UFO mythology in the American midwest and the American west. If you’re going to get abducted and probed, that’s kind of the place to do it. But you tell a story from Belgium. That’s a place I see as very much off the beaten path in terms of the UFO heartland.

Michael Shermer: There are a handful of sightings in the UK and in Europe that you occasionally hear about, but not many. It does seem to be more of an American phenomenon. So that’s why I opened the story with that wave of unidentified aerial phenomenon, although they didn’t call it that in the 1890s. So we’re talking well over a century ago that turned out to just be dirigibles and hot air balloons and experimental gliders and things like that. The one in Belgium I highlighted because it was so prominently featured in Leslie Kean’s book on UFOs as this triangular-shaped spacecraft that seemed to hover and then zoom off quickly, and apparently could just float in mid-air without making any noise and so on.

But if you actually look at the narrative, the account that the military leader gives the general is quite different than the one Leslie Kean recounts in her own words: “it seemed to slow down,” becomes “it hovered without moving,” or “it accelerated away” rapidly becomes “it instantly shut off” in her words, and that kind of language makes it more difficult for people like me to explain it. So what I’ll hear is “Come on Shermer, how could something come to a complete standstill and not make any noise and then zoom off instantly?” But that’s not what the eyewitness said he saw. So you have to go to the original sources.

And by the way, I didn’t include this because that article I wrote for you was getting rather long, but there is one photograph you can see online if you Google “Belgium, UFO,” you’ll see this triangular shaped thing. And it doesn’t look like an illusion where, at night, if there’s three lights the brain fills in a triangle and it looks like a solid shape. No, you can actually see the body of the aircraft.

Well, that turned out to be fake. Some kid, after the UFO wave got a lot of popularity in the 90s, then this kid faked this and made a styrofoam structure in a triangular shape and put lights on it and just blurred the camera lens and photographed it like that. And so that turned out to be fake, which unfortunately for UFOlogists, there’s a lot of that in this business. There’s a lot of fakes.

So that brings us to the next thing. Leslie Kean’s subtitle, his “generals, pilots,” and so on, “go on the record.” What difference does it make if it’s a general? Or in the past you’ll often hear the police chief saw the thing, or the mayor saw the thing, or the fireman, or the local professor, you know, it’s like giving a title to an observer somehow makes them less vulnerable to optical illusions. But of course they’re not.

Jonathan Kay: No, but I get that. They’re saying it’s not the local drunk.

Michael Shermer: Well, yes, of course. All right. That’s fair enough. Right. Fair enough. But if it is not a fake and it’s not an actual alien spacecraft, but it’s some kind of optical illusion, like you just see something off in the distance, or you can’t quite make it out and it turns out it’s not going fast—it’s going slow—but you’re the one that’s moving. That kind of thing. Their brains are not wired any differently than ours. They’re going to see the same illusion, just like anyone looking at an optical illusion in any psych textbook, they’re going to see the same thing everybody else sees. So there’s nothing special about that.

There’s kind of an appeal to authority as if that makes a difference in this case, it doesn’t. Where it would make a difference, if this report we’re supposed to get by the end of June is an official military Pentagon document and they said, “Yeah, here is exactly what we did,” of course, that kind of authority would matter. And we’re hoping that something interesting comes out of this, but I’m predicting nothing interesting will come out of it.

Jonathan Kay: Tell me about those reports.

Michel Shermer: Oh, well, so the Pentagon in 2019 or late 2019 said, “All right, these videos everybody’s talking about—they’re real. In other words, they’re part of our military—the videos—and we’re looking into it.” And so this momentum has been building for the last year and a half. Okay, well what is it? So then a couple of days ago the New York Times said, “Well, we have a couple of sources that said they saw this report and there’s nothing particularly revealing about it.” Believers in UFO’s will still believe and skeptics of UFO’s will still be skeptical. And it’s like, thanks, that clears it up! And that’s typically what happens.

So let’s go back in time, the most famous UFO story before this one is Roswell. So Roswell happened in July 1947. Something crashed in Mac Brazels ranch, outside of Roswell, New Mexico. And okay, well what was it? And you can see the photographs online, you just type in “Roswell incident” and you’ll see this photograph of this guy sitting there with a bunch of debris on his living room floor. It looks like balsa wood and tape and cellophane or whatever. And that in fact is what it was.

But the government then said, “Well, yes, okay. We’re going to tell you what it is. It’s a weather balloon.” And that was their story for decades. All right. Fast forward. There was a big survey done of the top UFO sightings of the 1940 and ‘50s. Roswell was 1947. This was published in the ‘60s. Roswell wasn’t even on the list of the top 500 most important UFO sightings. It didn’t become the “Roswell incident” until 1979, when there was a made-for-television movie about it based on a book, and then there were more books. And then all-of-a-sudden eye-witness accounts start coming forward. That is, eye-witnesses start remembering what they saw, decades before. And we know how reliable that is…

And then finally in 1994, the Pentagon said, “Okay, we’re going to tell you what it really was. It wasn’t a weather balloon. It was a high-altitude surveillance balloon listening for the acoustic traces of upper atmosphere and nuclear tests by the Soviet Union. And we lied because it was the Cold War and these are national security details that the public doesn’t need to know. And we didn’t want the Russians to know we were doing this. So we made up the story about the weather balloon.”

Of course, the UFOlogists just went crazy and said, “You see the government, it lies to its citizens” as if that was a big revelation. So this does complicate things, but even in that report that was totally believable.

But then they went on to try to explain the sightings of the alien bodies, which is an additional story that came out in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, about Roswell. And they said, “Well, we think there were a crash test dummies that we were heaving out of these high-altitude balloons to see how well the parachutes work” and so on and so forth.

And it’s like, I don’t know, it’s a bit of a stretch. So again, I think if they say anything it’s going to be pretty nebulous. Because let let’s say the Pentagon or DARPA really is working on some super hot drone technology, you know, stealth technology or whatever. They’re not going to tell us that. And of course, if it’s some super-advanced Russian or Chinese asset, they’re not going to say “Yeah. And by the way, we really screwed up and we’re centuries behind or decades behind the Russians and Soviets in technology.” They’re not going to admit that. And it’s so unlikely to be aliens, but it’s very unlikely they’re going to say “Yes. And by the way, we found out they’re aliens and we have the spacecraft hidden that Area 51 and we’re having an open house next weekend if anybody wants to come see it.”

Jonathan Kay: Let’s say you could take modern aviation technology and go back in time 200 years, or 300 years, or whatever. That would be analogous to an extra-terrestrial with advanced interstellar technology who’s visiting us. If we were visiting that hypothetical world, we would either reveal ourselves to terrestrial inhabitants or we wouldn’t. But if we didn’t want to reveal ourselves, is there any kind of metatheory about this species from another planet that is sophisticated enough to get here, but then once it gets here, it’s like, “oops, the Belgians figured out who I am,” or “my plane crashed over some guy’s house in New Mexico.” It seems like if they have that technology and sophistication, they’re not just going to go kind of stumbling around the atmosphere exposing themselves randomly to people.

Michael Shermer: Right, exactly. Yes. There is a whole body of literature about that. It’s actually a fairly more serious one, not quite so fringy, trying to answer Fermi’s Paradox. And Rico Fermi’s back-on-the-envelope calculation speculated that aliens really should be here based on the Copernican principle that we’re not special.

So if you have life teaming in the universe, we’re not the only one, and the chances that we’re the very first is also very unlikely. According to the Copernican principle we’re in the middle of the bell curve. There should be plenty of lifeforms behind us, plenty ahead of us, much smarter, and they wouldn’t be just like five or 10 years ahead of us. One theory is that what crashed at Roswell was this advanced technology from which we back engineered Silicon chips and that launched the computer revolution. As if the aliens somehow figured out how to traverse the vastness of interstellar space in these incredibly fast, super tech spacecraft, and yet their computer technology is like five years ahead of ours, you know, impossible.

Jonathan Kay: This a pet peeve I have, but in Independence Day, when Will Smith uses 20th century technology to jack into the computer system of the command ship of the aliens, like as if there’s going to be a USB port or something.

Michael Shermer: Right, right, right, right. And this gets to why I’m quite confident it’s not Chinese or Russian assets that are decades or centuries ahead of us. It can’t be because that’s not how the history of technology works. Every single invention ever, and scientific discovery ever, was made cumulatively based on previous people’s works or other people currently working in the field, other colleagues or people in other nations and so on. Every invention ever made can be traced very carefully, incrementally, inch by inch all the way back. Just check Matt Ridley’s new book, How Innovation Works, or George Basalla’s previous work on the evolution of technology.

Everything has a predecessor, very close design, the telephone, radar, rockets, planes. So this claim that they’re Chinese/Russian assets would be as if we had biplanes and they had stealth bombers and F-18 fighters, or we had dial up phones and they had smartphones, or we had fax machines and they had the internet. It’s just impossible. We would know!

And the other point I like to make is that the Manhattan project, the most secret project ever in the history of our country to make the atomic bomb, the Russians had it four years later. How did they get it? They stole it from us. They had a spy, Klaus Fuchs at Los Alamos. Just think about Apple and Google. These companies have just super tight security. Every door is locked. Every employee has key passes and their secret codes and all this stuff. And they sue the crap out of everybody who inches close to their patented and copyrighted inventions and so on. And still, they all rip each other off and copy each other, back-engineer and so on. Such that pretty much every smartphone today, they’re all the same computers. They’re pretty close to being the same. Russian, Chinese, American jets—they’re all pretty much the same

Jonathan Kay: This is a conversation about UFO’s. So just so I’m clear, there is this, it sounds like, a subclass of UFO theorizing whereby they don’t care so much about the idea of extraterrestrials, but to them it’s about terrestrial civilizations here who are showing off their super advanced tech.

Michael Shermer: Correct. So the UAP community, and they they’ve used that term rather than UFO’s to get away from the fringy kind of nutty conspiracy alien genre, when they say, “Well, I’m not saying it’s aliens!” Well, then what do you think it is? “Well, I think it could be Russian or Chinese assets.” So that’s the other hypothesis on the table. So there’s three hypothesis on the table. What are these things in this guy? They either have prosaic, boring, technological, illusion, balloons, whatever explanations or, two, they’re, Chinese, Russian assets or, three, they’re alien.

So most of the people you talk to that said, “Well, I don’t really think they’re aliens. I think it’s more something like a Chinese or Russian asset.” So the reason I went into that whole diversion about the history of technology is because that can’t be what it is. So that leaves us with aliens, or it just is some mundane explanation having to do with cameras and lenses and so on.

Could it be aliens? No, probably not. And here you just have to play a few skeptical principles and a few astronomical facts. First, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And everybody agrees, SETI scientists, UFOlogists, and so on, that if we really made contact with aliens it would be the most extraordinary and spectacular discovery in the history of humanity.

Okay. So how good is the evidence for this extraordinary claim? It’s crummy. It’s blurry videos and grainy photographs. It’s what we’ve always been given. I mean, come on. If you want to tip the belief scale over into acceptance, you’ve got to do better than that. Crashed spaceship, or 500 different passenger videos of some passenger jet taking off then there’s this thing. And half the passengers in the plane take pictures of it and upload it to social media and we can all see it. But there’s nothing like that. Not one! So this is why it’d be like if our sun was an size of an orange in LA, the closest star to it would be an orange in Chicago, 2000 miles away. It’s mostly empty space.

Now UFOlogists at this point, jump in and go, “Oh, well, they don’t have to travel using rocketry. They have this super-advanced warp drive-like machines and anti-gravity devices” and so on. Well, that’s just science fiction. We don’t know that that’s even possible. Maybe the super-advanced aliens that are 5,000 years ahead of us or 500,000 years ahead of us, yes of course they might do that. But that doesn’t mean that they did.

Jonathan Kay: You said before that the United States has always been particularly vulnerable to UFO cults or UFO fixations. Do you have any theory about why that is?

Michael Shermer: Some social theorists think the fact that we have so much freedom and freedom of press and freedom of speech and autonomy, individuality, that there’s a kind of a sense that I can create my own reality or I can be suspicious or conspiratorial in any way I want. And also Americans are a bit more conspiratorial than people in other European nations say by comparison, in part because of our history that goes all the way back to conspiracy theories about what the British were really doing.

Jonathan Kay: When I did my conspiracy research I was fascinated not so much with what they believed, but why they believed it. Like what psychological function was the conspiracy theory performing for them? Do you have any theory about the psychological benefit or perceived benefit? How does it help them get through the day to believe in UFOs?

Michael Shermer: Well, for individuals, there could be more personal fulfillment of, “I have secret knowledge of something that you don’t.” So that’s kind of titillating. Also, conspiracy theories serve a role of explaining, well, where’s the evidence for this thing you think is happening? “Well, they’re covering it up, of course.” Well, where’s the alien bodies? Where’s the spacecraft? “They’re at Area 51.” Will the government show them to us? “No, of course not!”

Even for that interview that Clinton gave, I think it was with Jimmy Kimmel, where Kimmel was pressing him on Roswell and Area 51; Did you check into it? “Yes. When I became president, I looked into it.” What’d you find? “Nothing.” And then Kimmel says, “if you actually found something, would you tell us?” And [Clinton] kind of laughed and said, “Well, yes, I would.” And then UFOlogists, I actually had one of them tell me, “Did you see that he paused for just a second there?” I’m like, oh, okay. As we said, governments do lie to their citizens and that does happen, but let’s take it out of the UFO realm.

I remember when, after we invaded Iraq and we didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration issued a statement, something like “we know they have them because we can’t find them. We know they moved them, that’s why we can’t find them.” It’s like, wait a minute, this is what the UFO people tell me, you know, where are the bodies? “Well, they’re hidden, and that’s why we can’t find them. That’s how we know the alien bodies are real.” No, that’s negative evidence.

Jonathan Kay: I’m sure you will remember two years ago, there was this ʻOumuamua, it was this giant, genuinely weird looking thing. Although the image of it that we see on our computer screens, or that we did see in 2019 was actually I think an artist’s rendition, there was at least one pretty heavy hitter in the Ivy league who, who thought that that was an alien spacecraft.

Michael Shermer: So that’s Avi Loeb. He’s the head of the astronomy department at Harvard. So yeah, he’s got the creds for sure. And he is not claiming UFOs have visited us on earth, anything like that. He rather distances himself from that. He’s claiming it’s something like an object that flew through our solar system, but had certain characteristics to the light signal that it gave off when we turned our telescopes to it, that it moved in a way that is not typically how comets or meteors or whatever would move. It seemed to accelerate, and so on. He says an alternative hypothesis to just another meteor from another solar system passing through ours is that it’s an artifact of alien intelligence. It’s like a probe or a piece of a spaceship. Space junk. And to his credit, the subtitle of his book is something like “first contact has now been made with alien civilizations.” And when I pushed him on that, he was on my podcast and he said, “Well, that was the publisher’s idea to make it sound like this is a done deal.”

Jonathan Kay: I like the idea that the decision about whether we’ve been visited from other planets is made by some 25 year old marketing dude at a publishing company.

Michael Shermer: Exactly. Right. Who was an English major by the way. Yeah. But it’s an interesting story about how science works because it is a social enterprise, and all astronomers know the story about ʻOumuamua and its weird light signal. Again, there’s no photographs of this thing. The cigar shaped object that everyone has heard of, that’s just an artist’s rendition. All they have is a blip in the light signal from different telescopes and it does this weird thing. So a real object is really out there. It’s really giving off light signals that we can see how it’s moving and so on, and it’s moving in an anomalous way.

Okay, so now we’re back to my anomalies. What do you do with them? Well, again, you don’t have to do anything with it. Why write a whole book saying we finally at long last made contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence technology that passed through our solar system? Why go there? Because we don’t know what it is. It’s really weird.

And now, right after the ink on his book dried, there was a new paper by some other astronomers going, “No, we actually think it’s something ejected from another solar system because it came too close to a large planet and gave it a perturbation of its orbit.” It’s some version of giant rock. And they claim that their mathematical models explain its quirky anomalous movements, just as well as the Avi Loeb’s mathematical models.

Okay, so what do we do? All right. Well, to me, I’m like, look, I’m not an astronomer, I’m a social scientist. What do I know? I’m going to let these guys hash it out in the professional journals. And we’ll see in a few years how it turns out instead of “Oh, okay, now we’ve been visited. This is incredible. What are the aliens like?” And so on.

There was a similar story like this about five years ago from this object called Tabby’s Star. Tabitha is the name of the astronomer who discovered this. Again, it’s another light blip in the signal looking at distant stars where the light from it dips a little bit because the planet passes between it and us, so it makes a little shadow across there, but all we see is the light dips a little bit. So this object, this star is 1500 light years away. And the light dip in the signal was way more than it would be if it was a comet or even a giant Jupiter-sized planet, it’s way bigger than that. So what is it? And it didn’t look like a swarm of comments or planets or anything like that. So there was some speculation. Maybe it’s a giant Dyson sphere. Freeman Dyson speculated that far future intelligences would be able to construct these gigantic solar panels in orbit around their planet or their star to capture the solar energy from the star and get basically free energy.

Well, this would be great. And this is totally technologically doable. So this got a huge amount of press and I was doing radio shows and I was on this funny radio show, the John and Jillian talk radio here in LA. And so John’s asked me about this and Jillian just blurts out, “So what are they like?” And I said, what is who like? “The aliens!” Like, no, no, no. We don’t know there’s aliens. All we have is a blip in the light. That’s all we have. There’s no aliens. First of all, it’s 1500 light years away. So even if we discovered it and sent a signal, it’d be 1500 years to get there, 1500 years to get back, 3000 year “Hi, how are you?” “Fine. Thank you,” conversation.

Jonathan Kay: I want to ask you this one final question. This isn’t about UFO’s at all, but it does go to some of the themes about conspiracies we’ve been talking about, because this has been a really weird news cycle for someone like you, who is an expert in conspiracy theories, where the defining story of our time, the COVID pandemic, the root of that pandemic we were told for months and months was that this is a zoonotic virus that probably came from a bat—originally they said maybe a pangolin—but trust us, zoonotic virus crossed the species barrier and probably happened at the wet market or whatnot in Wuhan.

And the theory that this was an actual engineered virus deliberately or by accident that came out of a virology lab in China was a heavily stigmatized idea. And the media, to the extent that they reported on it at all, was in the spirit of “This as a conspiracy theory. This is crazy stuff.” Now it looks like it might very well be true. You got Joe Biden ordering an investigation. Wall Street Journal has done some good reporting on it. There was a letter signed by 18 prominent scientists in Science.

Is it weird to see something dismissed as a conspiracy theory? The example I gave on Twitter. If some guy in the Mossad just popped up in the media and said, “Hey, yeah, you know what? Dodie Fayed and princess Di 1997, Paris. That was us. Sorry” It feels a little bit like that.

Michael Shermer: Initially the hypothesis that it came out of the lab in Wuhan was a competing hypothesis before Trump started going crazy on social media with the China virus and all that. Trump is just so hated by the Left and to their credit he’s so far out there on social media it’s hard to know what to take seriously. But initially that was floated as a legitimate hypothesis. And then there was a genomic analysis published in either Science or Nature, I think it was Nature, say “No, no. The genome sequence shows that it was not intentionally manipulated.” So I thought, okay, well then that, that’s probably the case.

Not that it couldn’t happen. I mean, it’s not a completely crazy conspiracy theory at all. There are viral labs in China and Russia and the United States and there are leaks and so it could be a conspiracy and it may still turn out like that. The problem is so politicized now you could go to Fox News and they just pound on Fauci. Tucker Carlson spent 20 minutes pounding on Fauci’s lies. Lies, okay. That’s a pretty strong statement. If you watch 60 Minutes, they talked to the guy who was with the WHO team that went in there a year ago, February. And she’s asking him, what did your team discover in their investigation? And he says, what investigation? Basically, the Chinese just gave us like a tourist review of their lab and we didn’t get to see hardly anything. And she’s like, what? I thought it was a big investigation. He goes, nah, it was totally controlled by the Chinese. They showed us what they wanted us to see. And it’s like, oh, okay. So it’s entirely possible that they did this.

Jonathan Kay: Author and writer Michael Shermer. His latest article in Quillette is called Understanding the Unidentified. Thanks so much for being on the Quillette podcast.

Michael Shermer: You’re welcome, thanks for having me.




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