Journal of

The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York



Volume 1, Issue 3

Nearly one year ago, on April 9th, 1994 Alan & Sue French, Chris Masto, Mathew Ryan, My wife Carla and I attended a talk by Stanton Friedman entitled: ``Flying Saucers are for Real.'' You can read about the talk, and our reactions to it, in Alan French's column in last month's newsletter. Something Alan did not mention, is that Dr. Friedman's talk represented the first meeting of what would eventually be called ``Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York.'' Our first official meeting as a (still unnamed) skeptics group took place one month later at Smith's Tavern in Vorheesville, but it was our experiences at that talk which formed the kernel of a notion to start a local skeptics group.

Now, as our first year anniversary approaches, ISUNY will be holding its first election for officers. According to our by-laws, we must elect four officers: a president, vice president, treasury and secretary. In addition there is room for up to six other board members who act as advisors and volunteers during the year. At this time the acting board of directors are soliciting nominations for officer and board positions for the coming year. They will be announced in the April newsletter, along with the acting board's recommended slate. That issue will also contain instructions for absentee ballots for those members who cannot make the April Meeting.

If you are interested in nominating yourself or others to the board then please talk with any of the existing board members (they are introduced at each meeting), or contact me at the number given on the back page.

-Michael Sofka

The UFO Skeptic.

Hard Copy did a short piece on UFOs recently. It was very typical of how the media covers UFOs, and was more annoying than informative. After watching it several times, I realized it nicely illustrated a general formula found in many UFO stories---and it was actually pretty humorous.

UFO stories must be very easy to produce. First, of course, you need some unusual appearing pictures. Throw in a witness or two, some comments from a couple of experts, and, for good measure, a back-lit former government worker---preferably one who worked on a secret project---and you are ready to go. The Hard Copy piece, which ran a bit over 4 minutes, featured ``Pictures of strange objects captured by none other than the U.S. Air Force.'' The videos were introduced as ``the secret images captured by a state of the art military radar tracking system.'' They were recorded near Nellis Air Force Base, ``Home of the infamous UFO hot spot known as Area 51.'' As I mentioned in a previous column, Nellis is where ``top secret aircraft are designed and tested.'' The commentator continued, ``Even though the Pentagon denies it, some say it is where the Air Force secretly investigates UFOs.''

There were two videos shown. They both showed what looked like black and white video, and a trace showing what seemed to be the strength of a radar return from the object in the video. It appeared to be an imaging system aimed by radar, but the system was not explained in any detail. Audio of the system operators was recorded with the video.

The first video showed a ``tiny dot over the horizon.'' The radar showed it was about six and a half miles away. The operators sounded puzzled about its identity, but did describe it as an ``aircraft of some type'' at one point. Little detail was visible, but it looked a bit like a miniature blimp to me (I am not saying it was a small blimp---I am just giving my impression of its appearance).

The second video showed a bit more detail in another object. The object's appearance changed as it moved, and at one point it looked like four or so balloons tied together. Again, the operators expressed puzzlement as to the object's identity.

The first person interviewed in the piece was ``Steve,'' a back-lit profile described as someone who worked on Top Secret projects at Nellis. In his first appearance, he claimed that UFO sightings were common at Nellis.

The first expert was Chuck De Caro, who was described as an expert on military aircraft. He said of the videos, ``There are many possibilities there. If you eliminate all the possibilities then you come up with some technology that is unknown. That would be a very big story.'' He also said, ``The Government has more information than it is generally willing to reveal to the public.''

They also talked with Rich Terrile, an ``astronomer and expert in optics.'' He simply said that changes in lighting can change the appearance of an object, and that changes in appearance do not necessarily mean that the shape has changed.

The commentator then went on, ``Steve insists there is more to this video than meets the eye.'' ``He says the radar operators who recorded these images know what they say, they just can't explain what they are.'' Then Steve says, ``There is no doubt these alien systems exist.''

The piece ended with the commentator saying, ``No surprise, when we tried to contact authorities for an official response, both Nellis Air Force Base and the Pentagon declined to comment.''

There was very little substance to the piece. The people interviewed certainly contributed nothing substantial. They did have another expert analyze one of the pictures, but the only conclusions were that it did not appear to have wings or a propeller. The important questions were not answered. Where were the pictures taken, and by whom? Sure, Hard Copy said they were taken by a state of the art Air Force system near Nellis, but was it at Nellis, where folks might know about activities there, or was it outside Nellis? What work is the system involved in, and how does it work?

Oh, and UFO pieces are usually heavily hyped---this one sure was---and never live up to the hype.

Your comments, thoughts, and questions are most welcome. If you have any, send e-mail to 72724.2270@compuserve.com, or give me a call at 374-8460.

-Alan French

Who was Charles Fort?

Much to my surprise, from time to time, in the last pair of issues of the ISUNY rag,[We are not a rag.---The Editors] I have mentioned the names Charles Fort and the magazine Fortean Times. A word of explanation is probably in order.

Charles Fort was an unusual man who devoted himself to an unusual pursuit. Born in Albany, NY in 1874 (that's right Albany, New York right here down the road from where you sit now!!!), he began his life working in journalism, as well as writing one not particularly successful novel. He was only mildly successful at journalism, but managed to eke out a living in this way while supporting his wife. After twenty years of this, his father died. The man left Charles with a great deal of money to the extent that he never had to work again. Instead of working he devoted himself to collecting reports of anomalous events out of newspapers. He would copy these by hand, store them in shoe boxes around his house, and periodically collect them into books where he would publish the reports, frequently arranged by category, along with his comments and explanations.

He published four volumes of such works in the period from 1919 to 1932. Today, these works are still in print assembled into one massive 1125 page volume produced by Dover books. (A company which, by the way, has a fine selection and excellent prices on their many interesting books.)

The works are marked by an underlying tone of extreme anti-authoritarianism, satirical (and often hostile) attacks on scientists, and a sense of humor which often combines the bizarre reports into absurd combinations followed by outrageous ``theories'' invented by Fort as to how these events could possibly have happened. These strange reports often, but not always, seem to focus on bizarre weather and strange things falling from the sky, such as large numbers of live frogs, strange piles of goo, and summertime snow storms.

Most skeptics do not like Charles Fort's work as he repeatedly attacks science and scientists, but for those who wish to be familiar with reports of strange things and curious happenings some familiarity with Fort's works is a necessity. Although Charles Fort spent much of his life in England, he soon realized that the Capital District was far, far superior to that washed up has been of an island and returned once again to Albany, NY, pearl of the North Eastern United States just down the river from beautiful Schenectady and far, far east of icy, dreary Buffalo, but north of the crime, grime, and chaos of Manhattan, while still being south of cold, Franco phonic cacophony that constitutes Montreal with its addled hallucinogenic, fashion sense, and West of the sea gull infested wastes of salty smelling Boston with all its freckle faced inhabitants with their quaint speech impediments and yummy gaseous baked bean products.[All the author's opinion.---The Editors] He passed away in 1932 and is currently buried in Albany Rural Cemetery, a graveyard which also houses the remains of former U.S. president Chester Arthur. Those interested can visit his grave, although they are advised to call the cemetery first as few of the workers there know who Charles Fort was. This means, that naturally, they would have to look up where his grave is in advance in order to give directions.

During Charles Fort's life some of his close friends organized ``the Fortean Society.'' This was an organization devoted to carrying on Fort's work of collecting strange reports and using them to ridicule the scientific establishment. Fort himself, not being a joiner, did not approve of the move, and at one point commented, sarcastically, that he ``would just as soon join the Elks.'' Today, the Fortean society is still in existence in the United States, England, and elsewhere. The Fortean society publishes The Journal of the Fortean Times, an internationally distributed magazine occasionally sold at large newstands which covers and reports on strange events.[The ``Fortean Times'' maintains a home page. For those with Internet access the URL (Universal Resource Locator) is http://alpha.mic.dundee.ac.uk/ft/.---The Editors] Speaking for myself, and absolutely no skeptics organization anywhere, I enjoy the Fortean times. The bimonthly magazine usually contains a variety of news clippings and stories on strange events and reports of bizarre happenings. Naturally, having developed a skeptical attitude, I don't agree with all of the stories, but there are enough stories where they debunk hoaxes to keep me satisfied that many of the contributors are competent investigators interested in the truth. At other times, they simply report on a claim, as it develops, but usually without coming to a firm opinion. And the newspaper clippings of bizarre and humorous events are usually really good at giving me a lift whenever I pick up a new issue. (Although it must be said that at times their humor is not funny, but borders on disturbingly cruel, particularly when they describe `human oddities.') Its fun to try and figure out if the reports are really true or not. Besides, my cousin, the New Age enthusiast, tells me that you just aren't gonna grow as a person unless you challenge your beliefs periodically. Not only do I agree with her, but as this is one of the few ``pro-paranormal'' publications that is intelligent enough to have any chance of challenging my beliefs, I try and read it regularly.

Charles Fort is also known today for having invented the word ``teleportation'' in one of his books, and in circles where paranormal reports are described the adjective ``Fortean'' is often used to describe weird, quirky, anomalous events that seem to somehow defy the laws of science as we know them.

-Peter Huston

Ask the Psychic.

Question: No, really, are you ``The Mighty Quine?''

Answer: No.

Q: I like the Fox program ``The X-Files.'' Will it be renewed next year?

A: No, the widely popular program ``The X-Files'' will be cancelled when actor David Duchovny, who plays agent Fox Mulder, is abducted by the aliens. Actress Gillian Anderson (a.k.a special agent Dana Scully) will become a semi-regular on ``Seinfeld.''

Send your questions to: Ask The Psychic, P.O. Box 14203, Albany, New York, 12212-4203.

-David Quinne

Evaluating The Experts.

The following article appeared in the Skeptic list (SKEPTIC@JHUVM.HCF.JHU.EDU ) in response to a debate about the relative merit of information sources. It is reprinted here with the author's permission. -The Editors.

Believing what ``they'' say isn't always bad, and in fact is often necessary. There is so much stuff out there, none of us has time to do the fundamental research needed to back up every opinion we hold. But there are obvious differences in the validity of these statements:

The thing I'm interested in is what processes we use to weigh the authority behind these statements. Credibility of source is an obvious one. An article in the New York Times is going to carry more weight than one in the National Enquirer. But, the Enquirer (on rare occasions) has broken legitimate news stories, and the NY Times did proclaim that canals had been discovered on Mars.

Given that we all have to defer to authorities in other fields just to get by, who qualifies as an authority? Back in the distant IBM past, I put together a little course on critical thinking. In it, I gave some clues for validating authority that I picked up from two books, The Art of Deception and Fallacy: The Counterfeit of Argument. They are:

  1. The authority should be personally reliable because:

    1. There is no evidence of habitual lying or misleading. Past evidence of lying undermines authority even if the person has great knowledge of the topic.

    2. There is no reason to suspect bias or vested interest in the answer (like a study on the effects of cigarette smoking sponsored by R.J. Reynolds).

    3. The person has been conscientious in investigating the topic. There should be no evidence of casual remarks or sloppy technique. Pay attention to how many qualifications are contained in the claim. Accurate claims are usually well-bounded by painstaking qualifications.

  2. The authority should be qualified as an expert because:
    1. The person is clearly identified in the report. ``A leading expert says...'' sends up all kinds of red flags for me. In Lexmark, we hear ``Marketing says...'' or ``Engineering won't let us...''. Who? Departments and occupations are abstract concepts. They can't do anything. Only people can do things.

    2. The authority has professional standing as judged by his or her peers. Think about the recent flap here in town about the hypnotist who claimed to be able to increase breast size through hypnosis. Would your opinion be different if the same conclusion had been published in the U.S. Surgeon General's report?

    3. The authority is current. This is especially important in science. Citing current research to back your theory carries much more weight than citing 50-year-old research. The one exception to this is politics and law, which often operate on historical precedent. There, citing historical authorities might be more helpful.

    4. The opinion being expressed is within the person's field of competence. William Shockley won a Nobel prize for his work in developing the transistor, but he had some real crackpot racist ideas about eugenics. Authority is not a transitive property.

    5. The authority's views should be representative of the general expertise in the field. There is a difference between an open mind and a gaping one, and the farther an expert's view is from the mainstream, the more skeptical we should be of it until we get more data. For example:

      • Carl Sagan, Pulitzer prize winning Cornell astronomer, says that there is a good chance that there is life on other planets and that we might be able to detect it by scanning the skies for signals.

      • John Mack, Pulitzer prize winning Harvard psychologist, concludes from studies of his patients that over 4 million Americans have been abducted by aliens.

    Both have equally valid credentials and are making statements that can be viewed as within their fields, but most people would agree that Sagan's is more believable, because its distance from ``the norm'' of what most scientists believe is less than Mack's.

  3. Finally, an argument's weight is enhanced by having authorities who are as numerous and diverse as possible. If ten experts who typically disagree on everything agree on this one position. its legitimacy is enhanced.

These are tips I got out of books, but I'd like to find out what clues others use to evaluate authority. Too often, ideas win out solely by virtue of smoothness of talk, loudness of voice, or rank in the organization.

-Dennis Pearce

ISUNY Listed in Skeptical Inquirer.

Starting with the March/April issue, Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York is listed in the back of the Skeptical Inquirer. This has already resulted in one query from Kingston, NY where I am assured there are several skeptics.

Magic and Mayhem at Media Play.

Our psychic in residence, David ``The Mighty'' Quinne, will be appearing at Mediaplay on March 11th. He will be demonstrating a series of magic and con-artist tricks, and is looking for volunteers to help him with the performance. If you are interested he can be contacted at the address given above.

-The Editors

March Meeting.

Our next meeting will be held at the Guilderland Public Library on Wednesday March 1st at 7:00 pm. Our speaker will be Daniel Nardini. Mr. Nardini is a charter member of the Taiwanese Skeptics, and has a Master's in History from Western Illinois University. He is the author of Last Tourist out of China, which is about his experiences in Tiananmem Square. His talk is entitled: ``History, Propaganda and Fringe Politics'' and will deal with the claims of Holocaust deniers.

Since April is the ISUNY business meeting there will be no speaker scheduled. Instead, elections for officers will be held, followed by an informal socialization meeting. For those of you new to ISUNY this will be a chance to meet the members. As always, meetings will be followed by an informal post-meeting at a local restaurant.

Thank You.

Thank you to Alan French, Daniel Forrest, Peter Huston and David Quinne for helping to prepare this newsletter. Thank you also to Bob and Dee Mulford for publicising the meetings.

Thank you also to all of our members for their kind support of ISUNY. We would especially like to thank our Supporting members: Sylvia Chessin Arthur R. Petrick Duncan Tuininga, and our Patron members: Jordon Coleman, Charles Davies, Alan & Susan French, Christopher Masto, Bob & Dee Mulford, Matthew Schnee, Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells.

About the Newsletter.

The Journal of Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York is the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. The manuscript was typeset using the TeX document preparation system written by Donald Knuth of Stanford University, and made freely available over the Internet. Public domain copies of TeX and the macros used for this newsletter are available to authors from the editor.

Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in the Journal of Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York represent the views and work of individual authors. Their publication does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York or its members unless so stated.