The WHY-Files

The Official Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 2, Issue 1
 
 
 

January's Meeting.

Our next meeting is January 3rd, when we will be showing the video tape An Evening Of Magic & Awards: The First Annual Skeptics Society Awards Ceremony. This is a recording of the March 18, 1994 Skeptic Awards presentation, featuring Magic by the team of Penn & Teller, and by James Randi. In the event of bad weather call the Guilderland Library. If they're open, we'll be showing the tape.

The January meeting will start a little earlier to give people time to socialize and purview the club library. Thanks to the kind donation of Dr. Lange the library now includes many back issues of Skeptical Inquirer including volume 1, issue 1.

Local Meetings.

The Capital District Humanist Society will hold its next meeting on January 14th. The speaker will be Michael Sofka, President of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. He will present a talk entitled Just Show Me the Data and I'll Believe it: Debunking Myths of Skepticism. CDHS meets the second Sunday of each month at the Ramada inn on Western Avenue. The meetings begin at 1:15 pm. For more information contact Paul DeFrancisco at 272-4772.

The local chapter of MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) meets the third Thursday of each month at the Albany Public library, Washington Avenue. On January 18th the topic will be Animal Mutilations. For those not familiar with recent UFO trends, Animal Mutilations refers to the claim that cattle are being mutilated throughout this country's range lands. Some people believe that Aliens may be responsible for these mutilations. Veterinarians typically claim that the cattle died of natural causes, and the mutilations are the result of scavengers. The meetings begin at 7:00 pm. For more information contact Ray Cecot at 785-6725.

CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, will be holding its 20th annual meeting in Buffalo, NY from June 20--23rd, 1996. The meeting is titled Science in The Age of (Mis)Information, and will be held on the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York. Speakers include John Paulos, Paul R. Gross, Norman Levitt, Philip J. Klass and Stephen Jay Gould.

-The Editor

Ask The Psychic.

Greetings psychics and skeptics of all persuasions. It is time once again for me to apply my paranormal abilities and provide some predictions about events in the coming year. My predictions from last year were remarkably accurate, so ignore these perspicacious prognostications at your own risk.

-David Quinne

Questions to the Psychic can be sent to this newsletter care of the editor.

Ask The Skeptic.

December 6 and 7 were marked by a series of special events sponsored by the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. False memory syndrome is a tragic condition that sometimes occurs through improper psychotherapeutic techniques. Briefly, to create false memory syndrome a patient is told that the cause of their suffering is most likely long forgotten trauma (i.e. ``repressed memories''). In an attempt to alleviate this suffering by finding the alleged source of the trauma, some psychotherapists will encourage the patient to ``remember'' events that are said to have happened long, long ago. Unfortunately for all concerned, what normally happens in such cases is that the patient, for a variety of reasons, will create (``confabulate'') a series of events that seem to fulfill the requirements for the alleged source of trauma.

In other words, if the therapist believes that the patient is a survivor of incest, they will often create an incest ``memory.'' If the therapist believes the cause of the suffering to be Satanic ritual abuse or abduction by a UFO (as some do) then it is not uncommon for the patient to create these sorts of memories, as well.

``False memory syndrome'' is of interest to skeptics for a variety of reasons. First of all, the pseudoscientific nature of ``recovered memory'' therapy and the untold suffering that it is causing to large numbers of families makes it exactly the sort of important issue that skeptics should be concerned about. Secondly, while we all agree that incest and child sexual abuse are terrible problems, many skeptics have a strong interest in other issues related to ``recovered memories.'' For instance, if memories of such questionable things as Satanic ritual abuse and UFO abductions are being uncovered then it is important that those interested in these issues familiarize themselves with the means by which such memories can be falsely created.

To promote awareness of this issue, our organization arranged for Mark Pendergrast, author of the much praised work, Victims of Memory: Incest Allegations and Shattered Lives (Upper Access, 1995, $24.95), to speak at our meeting and then at a series of follow up events. To publicize the event, we worked closely with the local False Memory Syndrome Family Support Group. This organization is a self help group intended to aid families who have been struck by false memory syndrome. Due to the sensitive nature of this problem, (i.e. the bulk of the members of this group have been falsely accused of molesting their own children due to the machinations of various incompetent therapists.) and the numbing effect of suffering such an accusation, the members of this organization generally did not wish to be publicly identified, although they did contribute a great deal of energy, time, and behind the scenes work to publicize the event and the problem. (Those wishing to contact this organization should contact myself or another ISUNY officer. Alternatively, call 1-800-568-8882 to reach the international headquarters of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.) All felt that the partnership for this event worked quite well.

Pendergrast spoke at our meeting to an audience of forty eight people. This is approximately three times our normal attendance. I have been told that approximately 18 of those present were from FMS groups, another third were our own members, while apparently the remainder were representatives from the general public and other interested groups. Speaking for myself, it was quite pleasing to see ISUNY fulfilling the educational purpose for which it was created.

Due to the emotional and tragic nature of both incest and incest allegations, the event was slightly marred by at least one audience member who found the nature of the talk to be disturbing. This came to be a repeating pattern at events. Incest, child sex abuse, or any other sex abuse, for that matter, leave a victim highly scarred and this is why these acts are so terrible. Many survivors of such abuse consider the topic of false allegations of abuse to be offensive and demeaning to actual survivors of such abuse. Speaking for myself, although I feel a great deal of sympathy for such people, having known more than one, I believe that both false allegations and actual abuse are terrible problems which destroy people's lives and both tragedies need to be addressed through public forums and education. Again and again, Pendergrast dealt with these delicate and emotionally draining confrontations, with great tact, skill, and sensitivity.

Thursday morning, three of our members, Ralph and Dorothy, and myself, went to the WGY studios with Mark Pendergrast where he appeared on the Myrna Lamb radio call-in show. This show went quite well. Myrna Lamb was quite sympathetic to the problem of false memory syndrome and callers seemed to be evenly split among those who came from families that had been struck by this tragedy and those upset by the topic of false memories and false allegations.

Next, we went to lunch at the SUNY Albany school of social work. Through this means, the four of us looked forward to the opportunity to educate future and current psychotherapists and share our views, experiences and concerns about this problem. Disappointingly, the event did not go as planned and there was little opportunity for dialogue between the students and Pendergrast. Instead, there was much discussion between non-students and Pendergrast. Among the most fascinating of these discussions was a long dialogue between Pendergrast and Robert Rockwell, a CDPC psychiatrist who is a strong proponent of Satanic ritual abuse. Speaking for myself, and not ISUNY, I found the psychiatrists opinions to be both unconvincing and highly disturbing in their implications. For those interested, curiously enough, one of his cases is quoted on p. 193 of Pendergrast's book as an example of bad therapy. In this instance, the patient sought psychiatric help following the emotionally trauma of being raped by three college students.[Dr. Rockwell's report of this case can be found in ``One Psychiatrists View of Satanic Ritual Abuse,'' Journal of Psychohistory, Spring 1994, Vol 21(4). pp. 443--460.] Through extensive therapy over a period of time, she became convinced that in actual fact she had not been raped by college students but instead been tortured, raped and buried alive by a Satanic cult.

After a quick break at the New York State museum, we next went to a pair of book signings at the Albany Border's and Media Play book stores. Through these signings, Pendergrast obtained more publicity for his book, as well as the opportunity to meet with some people who had heard his talk on the radio. At least one of these people was involved in a situation where his family was being devastated by false memory syndrome and had not previously known where help was available.

All in all, despite some problems, this visit and series of events went quite well. Audio tapes of many of Pendergrast's talks are available through the ISUNY library.

-Peter Huston

The UFO Skeptic.

We are all fairly comfortable with distances measured in inches, feet, or miles. Through our travels we also have a fair idea of distances involving tens, hundreds, or even, perhaps, thousands of miles. As distances get even larger, our comprehension of them diminishes rapidly. In terms of our experience one million miles is such a large distance that it is very hard to comprehend, yet on the scale of our universe it is a very small distance. It is almost impossible to understand the vastness of space and the extreme relative smallness of the microcosm with which we are personally familiar. If people had a better idea of the distances involved in travel among the stars, the concept that we are being visited on a regular basis by alien spacecraft might seem farfetched.

Some astronomy books, both of a popular nature and those used as college texts, include diagrams showing the planets and their respective orbits around the Sun. Such diagrams are very misleading and relatively useless, since it is virtually impossible to portray the size of the planets and the distances between them on the same scale within the confines of a printed page. The only way to get an accurate idea of the vast distances involved in our solar system is to construct a scale model. If the sizes of the planets and the distances between them are to be on the same scale, the model must be fairly large.

Guy Ottewell, in his book The Thousand Yard Model (The Earth as a Peppercorn) describes just such a model. His model is constructed during a walk of just over one half mile. In Ottewell's model one inch represents one million miles! On this scale, the Sun is reduced to the size of a bowling ball, and the Earth, as you may have guessed, is the size of a Peppercorn. How far apart would the two be on this scale? The peppercorn Earth would be found, on average, 26 yards from the bowling ball Sun. Our nearest planetary neighbor, Venus, would be another Peppercorn 19 yards from the Sun, and Mars would be a pinhead averaging 40 yards from the Sun. Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, would be represented by a Chestnut a full 134 yards from the Sun. On average, tiny Pluto, represented by a small pinhead, would be found 1022 yards from the Sun---more than half a mile. In relation to the size of our solar system, the Earth is but a speck of dust. In the model, our Moon would be two and a half inches from the Earth---and that is as far across space as mankind has traveled!

You may now have some idea of the scale of our solar system, but what about the stars? How would they fit into the model? Our nearest stellar neighbor is Proxima Centauri, in the Alpha Centauri multiple star system. We could not place the nearest star on the model at all. Proxima Centauri would have to be placed almost four thousand miles from our bowling ball Sun! The nearest star similar to our Sun and not in a multiple star system, Tau Ceti, would be eleven thousand miles from the model Sun.

You can get a copy of The Earth as a Peppercorn from Universal Workshop, Furman University, Greenville, SC 29613 (phone 864-294-2208, fax 864-294-3523, e-mail guyvernon@aol.com ). The cost is $5.00. They also have a nice and comprehensive guide to astronomical events for 1996, Astronomical Calendar 1996, for $19.95. Shipping and handling is $3, or $4 if the order is $30 or more.

Would you like to see a UFO yourself? This is the perfect time to see one. On the next clear evening, look toward the southwestern sky just after dark. That brilliant star you'll see there is actually the planet Venus, and it is probably responsible for more UFO reports than any other celestial object. Watch it for a while on some clear, cold evening. What direction is it moving in? Try watching it when it is just above the horizon, too. What interesting effects do you notice? If you own binoculars, try viewing Venus with them. What do you see now? Finally, if you are driving some evening, keep an eye on Venus during your travels. Do you notice anything odd? Next month, I'll talk about some of the things you might have seen. In the meantime, your reports on your experiences are most welcome. Please address e-mail to 72724.2270@compuserve.com or phone me at 374-8460.

-Alan French

The proper role of skeptical organizations.

It seems to me that CSICOP and other skeptical groups have set for themselves two tasks regarding paranormal and fringe science claims. The name of CSICOP's journal, the Skeptical Inquirer, itself suggests this division: being skeptical about paranormal claims, and inquiring into their validity. (Paul Kurtz's introductory address to the 1992 CSICOP conference in Dallas made the point that perhaps in the past too much emphasis has been placed on the skeptical part without enough on the inquiring part. He also stated that his new book, The New Skepticism, argues for a constructive rather than merely negative skepticism.)

It also appears to me that in addition to these two tasks, there is a natural division of subject matter. Paranormal and fringe science claims are either crazy and absurd or more serious. I'm not going to suggest a criterion for distinguishing these two broad categories, because they are to some degree subjective and relative to one's background beliefs. In general, though, more serious claims have (at least apparently) good evidence offered in support of them. I would suggest that for the purposes of organized skeptical groups, the line be drawn so that borderline cases fall onto the serious claims side.

Failure to make these (and other) distinctions can lead to some serious problems. If the spokespersons for organized skeptical groups make statements without giving thought to these distinctions, they are likely to say things which will result in harsh (and deserved) criticism. As I see them, the two roles of organized skepticism---being skeptical and inquiring---can be elaborated as follows:

  1. Being Skeptical: Traditionally, being skeptical means to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence. To members of organized skeptical groups, however, it usually means to reject claims in the absence of evidence. This distinction between withholding judgment and rejection---between non-belief and disbelief---might seem to be of little practical significance. Whether I lack a belief in the efficacy of paranormal abilities or disbelieve in paranormal abilities, I am going to act as if they don't exist. With both non-belief and disbelief, there is some threshold of evidence that has to be overcome in order to generate belief. Perhaps in the case of disbelief the threshold is higher. But I believe the distinction does make a difference with respect to more serious paranormal claims.

    That organized skeptical groups emphasize disbelief can be seen from the fact that they emphasize disproof of paranormal and fringe science claims. There are three types of responses which skeptics make to claims: (a) asking for evidence (any, when none has been offered; more, when some has been offered); (b) offering a refutation of the evidence offered; and (c) offering a reasonable alternative explanation which does not appeal to the paranormal or supernatural. Response (a) is the most clearly compatible with both non-belief and disbelief. ``Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof'' suggests that one should not assent to claims without the appropriate degree of evidence, but it doesn't say whether one should withhold judgment or disbelieve in the meantime. Response (b) is also compatible with both non-belief and disbelief, but is usually taken as an argument for disbelief. Response (c), by explicitly offering an alternative, is an argument for disbelief.

    Frequently overlooked is that both responses (b) and (c) themselves involve the making of claims, and thus require evidential support in order to be reasonably believed. Further, more evidence is required to support a case for disbelief than a case for non-belief, and more evidence is required to support a case against a more serious paranormal claim than a crazy and absurd one. (It can be reasonably argued that the degree of evidential support required for a non-paranormal explanation is less than that required for a paranormal explanation, but it is difficult to see how an objective assessment of the requisite balance could be made. What should not be in question, though, is that at least some evidence is required, contrary to the view espoused by CSICOP Fellow C.E.M. Hansel. Hansel has argued that simply coming up with a possible (no matter how implausible) non- paranormal explanation for positive results in a parapsychology experiment is sufficient to show that the paranormal explanation is incorrect (or should not be believed). I don't believe Hansel's view carries much weight in CSICOP. CSICOP Executive Council member Ray Hyman has explicitly argued against this aspect of Hansel's parapsychology critiques in the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer.)

  2. Inquiring: This involves the serious investigation (and promotion of serious investigation) of anomalies, and is a necessary precondition for responses (b) and (c) to more serious paranormal claims. CSICOP got off to a bad start with respect to this task with the Gauquelin ``Mars effect'' claims, and has since declared that it no longer officially sponsors any research. Instead, research is simply done by others and published in the Skeptical Inquirer. This is probably the right way to run things, though perhaps CSICOP should consider funding some research. (That's assuming that its financial and legal situation improves.)

    CSICOP should assume, I think, that Skeptical Inquirer readers have some interest in the substance of paranormal claims and seeing them carefully examined. It should not assume that readers only want to hear about the claims that have been or can be debunked. It seems to me that the claims that no one has been able to successfully debunk are the most interesting and are potentially of the greatest consequence. While the book reviews, ``Articles of Note'' column, and ``News and Comment'' columns in the Skeptical Inquirer do occasionally present information on as-yet-undebunked claims, the emphasis is strongly on the more absurd claims. I suggest that this emphasis may be misplaced. The publication of Suitbert Ertel's ``Update on the `Mars Effect' '' in the Winter 1992 Skeptical Inquirer is, in my opinion, a step in the right direction.

Given these distinctions between skepticism and inquiring and between absurd and serious claims, there are four categories of actions which can be evaluated. I here offer my evaluation of CSICOP: Being Skeptical: Absurd claims. This is an effort which is both much-needed (since there is so much popular nonsense) and which CSICOP does quite well, in my opinion. CSICOP spokespersons are frequently quoted in newspapers, and the circulation of the Skeptical Inquirer has been built up from about a thousand to over thirty thousand. Local skeptical groups have been started in most states and many countries, and a large part of what they do is combat credulous portrayals of paranormal and fringe science claims in the media. Being Skeptical: Serious claims. Here CSICOP does less well, simply because it gives more serious claims less coverage. It is not clear that CSICOP is even very interested in more serious claims, but perhaps would rather leave them to the scientific community to evaluate. While I would agree that the scientific community should perform the ultimate evaluation of serious claims, I would like to see CSICOP give a forum to such claims and criticisms of them---which would either help the claims be recognized as something worthy of investigation by the scientific community or as something not worthy of such investigation. (This pictures CSICOP as a sort of a way-station on the road to recognition by the scientific community. The critic of CSICOP would call this making CSICOP a ``gate-keeper'' of scientific orthodoxy, but that supposes that going through CSICOP is the *only* road to scientific respectability. It isn't---the Society of Scientific Exploration plays this role, and at present does so better than CSICOP. The SSE's disadvantage is that it plays to a much smaller audience.) Inquiring: Absurd claims. Because of their absurdity, absurd claims don't require much in the way of investigation. CSICOP does a fairly good job here, except on those occasions where it lets ridicule or sarcasm play the role of evidence. (I don't think that there is no place for ridicule or sarcasm, but it is no substitute for argument. I disagree with H.L. Mencken and Martin Gardner that a horselaugh is worth a thousand syllogisms. That may be true with respect to persuasive power, but it is not true with respect to evidential weight.) Inquiring: Serious claims. The articles published in the Skeptical Inquirer are generally pretty good, I think, but on occasion they are somewhat superficial or do not adequately support the claims they make regarding alternative explanations. I would suggest raising the standards for publication, improving the refereeing process, and encouraging more internal criticism of published alternative explanations of paranormal claims. An argument could be made that CSICOP should dispense with serious claims completely, and leave them to other groups such as the SSE. If it were to do this, I would hope that it would make it clear that that is what it is doing. Failure to do so could wrongly lead readers to conclude that it *is* addressing the strongest pro-paranormal claims that exist. I don't think that it should ignore serious claims, however. The Skeptical Inquirer should not be turned into a more academic journal, but I think serious paranormal claims deserve more popular coverage like the Skeptical Inquirer can offer. (The Skeptical Inquirer is presently more-or-less the skeptical counterpart of Fate magazine; I'd like to see it also be sort of a Discover for more serious paranormal claims which are discussed in a more technical manner elsewhere.) I said at the very beginning that the failure to draw these distinctions can lead to problems. The failure to distinguish absurd from serious claims leads to the equation of para-psychologists and fortune tellers, e.g., to make statements which imply that the claims made for ESP in the Journal of Parapsychology are no better than those made in the Weekly World News. Failure to distinguish being skeptical from inquiry (ignoring the inquiry part) leads to an emphasis on debunking and to ignoring what evidence proponents of paranormal claims have actually put forth. (Such evidence may be rejected out of hand for being too weak to establish some strong claim, even though it may establish that something anomalous is occurring for which some explanation needs to be provided.) Failure to distinguish non-belief from disbelief leads to erroneous statements about burden of proof in cases where the skeptic has put forth an alternative explanation without sufficient evidence. Other erroneous or implausible positions skeptics can be led into by failure to draw these distinctions are that there are no genuine anomalies, that all genuine anomalies that do exist can be explained in terms of conventional science (i.e., without the development of any new theories), or that CSICOP is the ultimate arbiter of what is true and false in the realm of paranormal and fringe science claims. That is a role that I think no organization or group of individuals can legitimately take. Comments are welcomed.

-James Lippard

James Lippard is a member of the Arizona Skeptics and maintains an excellent skeptical home page at http://www.primenet.com/~lippard/.

Membership Dues.

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on the upper right-hand corner of the mailing label. Dues can be paid to the treasurer during a meeting, or mailed to the address on the back page of this issue. Dues are used to cover newsletter costs, and speaker expenses.

Correction.

In the December, 1995 issue, the author of Ask The Skeptic: The strange case of Richard Barrons, AKA Robbin Boston Barrons was accidentally omitted. The author is, as always, our own Peter Huston.

ISUNY Meetings.

In January and February we will be showing selections from video tapes of speakers from the Skeptic Society, publishers of Skeptic magazine. The tapes will be ``Penn & Teller and Randi---Skeptical Magic and Awards Night'' and ``Evolution and Creationism: How to Debate a Creationist'' by Michael Shermer. These tapes were selected by membership votes.

In April we will host Joe Nickell, Senior Research Scholar at CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). Joe is the author or co-author of about 14 books about the paranormal, and has appeared on Unsolved Mysteries and Arthur C. Clark's Mysterious World.

Thank You.

Thank you to Alan French, Peter Huston and David ``the Mighty'' Quinne and James Lippard for their contributions to this newsletter. Thank you also to Bob and Dee Mulford, Dorothy Hoyt and Peter Huston for publicizing the meetings, and to Carla Sofka for donating the mailing labels.

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, Daniel Forrest, Alan & Susan French, Christopher Masto, Bob & Dee Mulford, Matthew Schnee, Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells.

About the Newsletter.

The WHY-Files are the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. Articles, reviews and letters can be sent to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or to 8 providence street, Albany, NY 12203. Hard copy and disks will only be returned if accompanied by a self addressed and stamped envelope, or at regular club meetings.

The newsletter was typeset using the document preparation system written, and placed in the public domain, by Donald Knuth of Stanford University. Copies of and the macros used for this newsletter are available from the editor. The Journal of Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York is available on the World Wide Web at: http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/ISUNY/.

Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in The WHY-Files 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.