Who’s Pranking Sam Harris & Eric Weinstein about UFOs?


Let me take you back in time to, oh, 2008 or so. I was enjoying my life as a noted atheist and “skeptic,” traveling the world giving talks alongside luminaries like Michael Shermer (editor in chief of Skeptic Magazine) and Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. We would all hang out and talk about the things we were skeptical about: gods, psychics, little green men, Bigfeet. You know, standard 2008 skeptic stuff. It was a lot of fun!

In the years that followed, I realized that the men I was spending time with at these conferences tended to hold their own intelligence in a slightly higher regard than I felt was accurate (to put it as nicely as possible) and despite their claims to open mindedness and their supposed commitment to challenging their own biases and beliefs, it was actually very, very difficult to get them to think critically about “hot button” issues like the existence of climate change, or sexism in the Western world.

So we all had a mutual parting of ways, and a lot of women, people of color, and progressives in general did the same, leaving those previously diverse and well-attended skeptic events floundering.

But the once-again-mostly-white-male skeptic community got a bit of a boost in 2018 when Bari Weiss wrote an article for the New York Times profiling several of those prominent skeptics, now rebranded as “the renegades of the intellectual dark web.” These renegades included Harris, Shermer, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and far-right eugenicist Douglas Murray (who I talked about in depth last year).

The delightfully cringey title “intellectual dark web” was coined by Eric Weinstein, a mathematician who decided that he and his brother were a part of this very cool gang because his brother, Bret Weinstein, resigned from his position as a biology professor at Evergreen State College in 2017 because black students suggested white students stay home from school one day to make a point about racism, and he thought THAT was racism, and other students then said HE was racist, and then he and his wife sued the college for not quelling the protestors, and they got a sweet half-million-dollar settlement. This horrific oppression led them to connecting with other “intellectuals” with ideas outside of the mainstream who have been denied their rightful audience, like, uh, Joe Rogan.

Reading that New York Times piece, I found it interesting that immediately after I and many other progressives split from the skeptic community, the remaining thought leaders of that community basically said “Okay, let’s just join the bigots.” 

And I’ve found it even more interesting to see where, exactly, that has led them. Over the years, I’ve seen this group slide back the progress we previously made convincing big name skeptics that global warming is real, and then embrace Donald Trump, and then anti-vaccine fearmongering, and encouraging ivermectin to treat COVID, and then suggesting the 2020 election was rigged against Donald Trump, which is what finally made Sam Harris stand up and say “I turn in my imaginary membership card to this imaginary organization,” which is very funny that it took that long, but okay.

Besides the COVID misinformation, I didn’t really pay much attention to the IDW members and so I have to give a big shout-out here to u/aceofspades25 over on the r/skeptic subreddit for capturing my attention with one of the funniest posts I’ve ever read: “Is somebody pulling an elaborate hoax on Eric Weinstein and Sam Harris?”

And aceofspades25 makes a very good case in the affirmative, here: they noticed that for the past SEVERAL YEARS, Sam Harris has repeatedly mentioned publicly that he has been contacted by someone claiming to have proof that aliens are visiting Earth regularly and are the cause of UFO sightings. Yes, really. On a podcast with Ricky Gervais he said “This is probably premature to even talk about this, but I’ve had someone reach out to me and has assured me that I’m going to be on a Zoom call with, you know, former heads of the CIA and Office of Naval Research and people whose bona fide are very easy to track, and they’re concerned about the messaging around all of this to the public, and dampening down panic and conspiracy theories. But the … what is being promised here is a disclosure that is frankly, either the most alarming or the most interesting thing in the world, depending on how you take it, but it’s not a representation of the facts that will give scientific skeptics any comfort, and that’s just … we’re faced with the prospect of having to apologize to the people we’ve been laughing at for the last fifty years who have been alleging that they’ve been abducted or that cattle have been anally probed, pick your punch line.”

And on the Lex Fridman podcast he said “I’ve received some private outreach, and perhaps you have, I know other people in our orbit have, people who are claiming that the government has known much more about UFOs than they have let on until now, and this conversation is actually about to become more prominent, and … whoever is left standing when the music stops, it’s not going to be a comfortable position to be in as a super rigorous scientific skeptic who’s been saying there’s no “there” there for the last 75 years.”

“It sounds like the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Pentagon are very likely to say to Congress at some point in the not-too-distant future that we have evidence that there is technology flying around here that seems like it can’t possibly be of human origin, all right? Now, I don’t know what I’m going to do with that kind of disclosure … [t]hat is such a powerfully strange circumstance to be in, right? What are we going to do with that, if in fact that’s what happens? If, in fact, the considered opinions — despite the embarrassment it causes them — of the U.S. government … and all the relevant intelligence services is that this isn’t a hoax, there’s too much data to suggest it’s a hoax, there’s too much radar imagery, there’s too much satellite data, whatever data they actually have, there’s too much of it, all we can say now is something is going on and there is no way it’s the Chinese or the Russians or anyone else’s technology. That should arrest our attention collectively to a degree that nothing in our lifetime has, and one worries that we’re so jaded and confused and distracted that it’ll get much less coverage than, you know, Obama’s tan suit did a bunch of years ago. Who knows how we’ll respond to it?”

When Harris says he knows “other people in our orbit” have also heard from this little green man whistleblower, it looks like he was talking about Eric Weinstein, originator of the IDW himself. As AceofSpades25 points out, Weinstein went on Joe Rogan this month and absolutely WENT OFF on all the conspiracy theories he believes, like “the Zelinsky stuff” and the vaccines and, yes, aliens.

So apparently, Weinstein has been in constant contact for the past three years with someone claiming that at any moment, Weinstein is going to be flown to Colorado Springs to be shown, presumably, actual evidence of extraterrestrials. Any moment now. Any time. His bag remains packed and ready to go by his bedside.

This is all absolutely hilarious to me, because if someone called ME claiming to be a current or former government agent with incontrovertible evidence of an alien encounter that they need communicated to a large audience, I would reasonably reply “Why are you contacting me and not, say, the mainstream press?” But the members of the Intellectual Dark Web do not say that, and I can only imagine that this question doesn’t occur to them because they honestly believe they are ALWAYS the right men for the job. Why WOULDN’T they be the best choice to release this absolutely life changing information to the world? They’re the Intellectual Dark Web! Or, well, one of them still is I guess.

As someone who has made a study of con artists and their cons over the years, I know that one of the best traits a con artist can identify in a possible victim is “hubris.” The other is “greed.” So if this IS someone pranking or trying to con people into believing in aliens, I gotta say: great choice of marks. Pristine. No notes.

I’ll end by pointing out the irony of what has happened to these “skeptics” over the years: when I joined, everyone agreed that there was no credible evidence for UFOs being alien spacecrafts. We all agreed with James Randi, who wrote in 1982 that “the Flying Saucer Delusion” is “another example of wishful thinking, poor research, and outright fraud.” 1982! And so by 2008 or so, many of us were suggesting we skeptics turn our focus to new types of pseudoscience, especially those that might seriously screw up future generations like anti-vaccine misinformation and far-right white supremacy.

Now, things have slid right on back: the “skeptics” have embraced the far-right white supremacy touted by their IDW fellows like Ben Shapiro and Douglas Murray, the anti-vaccine misinformation spread by Joe Rogan and Brett Weinstein, and now we see that the slippery slope is carrying them straight back down to the bottom with credulously believing an obvious hoax about aliens. I eagerly await the next Intellectual Dark Web pronouncement on how astrologers might be onto something and, I don’t know, Mary Toft actually did give birth to a litter of bunnies. Eric Weinstein knows because he talked to someone once who was really sure about it.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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