Our next meeting is Wednesday February 7th. January's meeting was cancelled due to snow, so we will be showing the video tape:
The First Annual Skeptics Society Awards Ceremony
Penn & Teller
James ``The Amazing'' Randi
This is a recording of the March 18th, 1994 Skeptic Awards presentation. If you want to learn how file-eating is done, this is the tape to watch. Other speakers scheduled for 1996 are listed near the end of this newsletter.
The Capital District Humanist Society will hold its next meeting on February 11th. The speaker will be biologist Harold Brown on the topic of The Evolution of Creationist. 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 Albany Area Amateur Astronomers meet the third Tuesday of each month at the Schenectady Museum. The February 20th meeting will feature RPI astronomer Mike Kelly, who will speak on his observations of asteroids. Meetings begin at 7:30 pm. For more information contact Alan French at 374-8460.
The local chapter of MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) meets the third Thursday of each month at the Albany Public library, Washington Avenue. On February 22nd the topic will be UFOs and the government. The meetings begin at 7:00 pm. For more information contact Ray Cecot at 785-6725.
If any members attend local meetings or view programs of interest to ISUNY members, please consider writing an article for The Why-Files. Articles and letters can be sent to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org, or to the address on the last page of this newsletter.
Question: Do you make up these questions or are there really other people who ask them? We've noticed that when people do ask you a question you seem to ignore them.
-Ms. Diana Rhea, Honolulu, Hawaii.
Answer: My what an astute question. Truly, Ms. Rhea, your astuteness is a mystery-a! Ha, ha, tee hee....
Actually the answer is a bit complex. Long ago, when the ISUNY RAG1 (Now The Why-Files) was started, Mike Sofka asked me to write a regular column. Now, I didn't want to write a column, considering it to be a distraction from my other writing, but I felt socially obligated to say yes. Therefore, I cleverly told him that I would write a question and answer column knowing fully well that nobody would ask me questions, at least not at the rate of one a month.
Unfortunately for me, my clever plan went awry the first month I tried to use the ``Sorry, no questions'' excuse and Michael Sofka brow beat, shamed and taunted me into inventing one while asking me a long string of half witted questions that I know fully well he already knew the answer to. Therefore, I now make up most of the questions to save Mike the trouble. Now the fact remains that I do hate interrupting all my other writing once a month to do this column. Therefore, once every few months I sit down and write out four or five columns at a time. When people ask me an interesting question, I save it until the time comes to write out a batch of columns. So questions are not ignored. Merely postponed. Anyway, here goes, .... a real question. Ignored, it seemed, for months, but now fully answered, I hope.
Q: I am interested in the issue of false memories and to a lesser extent in the issue of Satanic Ritual Abuse and whether it really happens. Do Satanic cults really exist or not? If so, are they dangerous?
A: This is actually a very interesting question and depends to a surprising extent on the definition of ``Satanic cult'' that one wishes to use.
We, of course, live in a society where the primary religion is Christianity. In most, but not all, forms of Christianity, Satan is the prime adversary for the forces of goodness as manifested in the church. (whichever church we happen to be referring to.) As Satan is a supernatural being, it has always seemed to a large number of people in our society that there should logically be a number of evil people who worship this evil being. An image of a Satanic cult was formed and became part of the popular culture, this image shifting throughout the centuries. Therefore we have a highly detailed image of a Satanic cult that exists in the minds of the people and, in effect, has its basis in folklore. It was, in effect, an imaginary creation, but has been used by the media in stories. The image and description of a Satanic cult existed initially as a wholely imaginary creation, devoid of real life basis.
Now, here's where things get complicated. In any society, a certain number of people, for whatever psychological/sociological reason, find themselves attracted by the idea of doing something that they shouldn't do, simply because its taboo and rebellious. Dozens of examples of such behavior could easily be cited. Logically, it stands to follow that a certain number of rebellious or anti-social individuals have, over the centuries, formed Satanic cults for the simple reason that they had always been told that it was a very bad thing to do. (No doubt the appeal of alleged deals with the devil and alleged gains of occult powers was a factor, too.) Naturally, such people have based their version of a Satanic cult on the popular image of such things as their society had depicted such cults.
As stands to reason, modern Satanism is a very fragmented thing. There are a wide variety of such groups with widely varying degrees of sophistication and formality in their teachings. Probably the largest is Anton LaVey's Church of Satan which was founded by LaVey in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco in the late 1960s. Its teachings have been published in a number of books, the most popular being entitled The Satanic Bible. Easily available in paperback form, the work essentially advocates a kind of Nietzchian/Libertarian/Anti-authoritarian/ do-your-own-kind of thing philosophy, but it also contains strict and clear statements telling readers that Satanism does not advocate such things as human sacrifice, child abuse or molestation, or mistreatment of animals. I have corresponded with members of the Church of Satan who tell me that it is a brilliant work. Personally, though, I find it dull and simplistic, its primary claim to fame being in the title, and never quite managed to finish reading my copy. (Maybe it picks up in the second half, I don't know. Someday, if I do much more work on the subject then I promise that I'll finish. There just hasn't seemed to be a strong need to do so, as of yet. I suspect that I might appreciate the work more if I'd been forced to attend years of Catholic school or something.)
Its difficult to say, just how seriously the Church of Satan takes itself. Some critics state that the whole thing was started by LaVey as a satire on organized religion, and the late singer Sammy Davis, Junior, among others, was a member at one time citing this as his reason. Perhaps the best description of LaVey comes from Trott and Hertenstein's work, Selling Satan, (which I reviewed in the Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 19, No. 1). They interviewed LaVey and described him as a man who had been playing a role of Satanic high priest for too long and didn't quite know when to stop. Anton LaVey has often seemed to enjoy the media attention that he receives as leader and founder of the Church of Satan. In one peculiar and telling incident, a member of the Church of Satan in the U.S. Navy died while on active duty. According to Naval regulations he had to be buried according to his religious beliefs and LaVey was contacted. He agreed to perform the funeral services for the navy, being sure to bring a cameraman of his own, and the Navy, per regulations, had to insert a description of the Church of Satan in their Chaplains manual of non-Western and non-traditional religions.
The Satanic Bible naturally, has found its ways into the hands of Satanic- wannabees everywhere. It is almost never found second hand or in libraries, due to frequent theft or vandalism of copies by its many avid fans and enemies. The Schenectady Public library has been forced to keep their copy behind the reference desk where the librarians put especially useful or sensitive books and they still have trouble holding onto it due to abuse of the work by library patrons. (By the way, despite being the professionals that they are, at least some of the librarians will look at you funny if you ask them for it.)
As the work, or at least the title, has an endless appeal among a certain sort of people, it has turned up in some very strange places, particularly among the sorts of people who wish to start their own version of Satanism. A good friend of mine from high school once acquired a copy and had great fun with it scaring a Born-again Christian girl who he used to date, until she ripped the book to shreds one day when his back was turned. More seriously, though, copies of the work have turned up in the hands of some no doubt off balance or demented people and some like to exaggerate the connection.
There are, of course, a wide variety of other Satanic and Satanic-like groups besides the Church of Satan, although members of the group frequently obfuscate the issue further by claiming that they are the only ``real'' Satanists and all others are simply bumbling imposters. (Which is a little bit like certain bible thumping groups claiming to be the only ``real'' Christians.) Many of these other groups do not publicly reveal their teachings, and some, although formalized and fairly sophisticated, shun media attention preferring to keep a low profile. Of these above ground groups, none, to the best of my knowledge, has been convicted of being involved in the commission of actual crimes such as human sacrifice. It appears that the majority of the members of these groups are law abiding citizens looking for something out of the ordinary and rebellious to spice up their lives. It does not appear that they are dangerous, and although many people dispute this fact, there do not seem to be many facts to support their point of view.
However, at times, unbalanced, anti-social or violent people do declare themselves to be Satanists and it becomes part of their lifestyle and a factor that is looked at if and when they commit crimes or, in some cases, suicide. Still, what we are looking at here is a chicken or the egg situation. Did they become violent, unhappy and possibly suicidal because of their interest in Satanism or did they become interested in Satanism because they were violent, unhappy, and possibly suicidal? As many of these people are also involved with drugs and alcohol abuse the picture becomes more and more muddled as one anti- social, negative factor feeds into the next. Furthermore, in almost all cases of this sort of thing, the ``Satanists'' had a very unsophisticated simplistic theology based on a mix and match approach to a variety of ``Satanic influences'' clearly based on contemporary images. For example, some possessed the Satanic bible or similar works, while others practiced a version of Satanism in which they had clearly mixed together with media and motion picture images of reality. Few, if any, practiced anything that resembled a traditional sort of Satanism, making it difficult to back up claims that such practices were taught to them by hidden long standing, malevolent cults dating from ancient times. For example, there was one double suicide of two teenage girls who proclaimed themselves Satanists and killed themselves because they ``wished to go to Hell.'' They said, among other things, that they wished to meet ``Damien, the Devil's son'' when they got there. As fans of the laughably bad Omen movie series can testify, Damien is the Devil's son, the Anti-Christ, the offspring of a female Jackal, and has 666 tattooed on the back of his head. The character is, in a nutshell, theologically moronic and lacks any connection to the Book of Revelation or other biblical sources. (And for a real giggle I recommend, the Omen 4 where the Devil's niece shows up and goes to a New Age psychic fair causing patrons to scream in terror such things as ``My God!! Her aura is... ack... RED AND BLACK!!!!'')
This muddled up situation has become even more confused as the sorts of people who become excited by even the very mention of the name ``Satan,'' are often the first to proclaim themselves experts on the subject of Satanism today. As such they have a tendency to simplify and exaggerate the situation, mixing in much folklore with what has actually been proven to exist. Nevertheless, these methodological errors do not stop them from running seminars, often for parents and law enforcement personnel, and writing books. The situation, it often seems, just becomes more and more confused, as more is said on it.
Anyway, enough is enough. Perhaps one of the most insightful comments on the situation came from noted author and philosopher, Marc ``Animal'' MacYoung, who once wrote, ``Satanists and Christians are playing the same game. They're just on different sides.'' As I said, the issue is complex, with both the Satanists and many Christians exaggerating the seriousness and sophistication of the Satanic groups. As the rock group U2 once sang in a different context, we are dealing with a situation where ``fact is fiction and TV reality.''
Hertenstein, Mike and Trott, Jon, 1993., Selling Satan: The Tragic History of Mike Warnke, Cornerstone Press, Chicago.
Hicks, Robert D., 1991., In Pursuit of Satan: The Police and the Occult, Prometheus Books. Buffalo.
Victor, Jeffrey S., 1993., Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend, Open Court, La Salle, IL.
More available upon request. -Peter Huston
Last month I talked about the scale of our Solar System. There is one member of the Solar System that has been in the news quite a bit recently, yet was not mentioned in my discussion. That is Comet Hale-Bopp, which was independently discovered by Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp on July 22, 1995. Comet Hale-Bopp was unusually far from the Sun when it was discovered---about seven times as far out as our Earth---and was unusually bright for its distance. This comet may be a spectacular sight in the spring sky in 1997, but for some reason, this comet has been associated by some with the new millennium, and it has also been said that it will pass close enough to Earth to affect our planet. Putting Comet Hale-Bopp into the ``Earth as a Peppercorn'' model will provide a good perspective on this.
Where would Comet Hale-Bopp be on our model? Right now, it would be about 150 yards from the Sun, which we represented by a bowling ball. In our model, the comet itself would be so tiny that it would be completely invisible. It would be a tiny speck of dust around one-thousandth of an inch in diameter. The cloud of dust and gas surrounding the comet would be quite large---about twice the diameter of our bowling ball Sun. This cloud, however, is very tenuous, and most of it is better than the best vacuum we can create on Earth.
How close will Comet Hale-Bopp come to Earth? At its closest, on March 23, 1997, it will be 123 million miles from Earth, which translates into 34 yards on our model (you may recall that the peppercorn Earth was 26 yards from the bowling ball Sun). It may be a fantastic sight, and it will certainly generate much interest in amateur astronomy and comets, but it will not affect the Earth itself in the least.
Last month I asked you to watch brilliant Venus in the southwestern sky just after dark. I have not heard reports from anyone, but I trust some of you have been watching. We've had some clear nights recently, and Venus has been pretty impressive.
If you watch Venus for a few minutes, you will probably convince yourself that it is moving. Perhaps it will appear to be moving back and forth, or swinging in small arcs. This is known as the auto-kinetic effect. It is caused by small involuntary movements of the eye, and it becomes very obvious when looking at isolated points of light in the night sky. The small movements of the eye give the impression that the point of light itself is in motion. If you outside on a clear night with a group of people, see how easily you can convince them that some bright star is moving around.
The most impressive feature of Venus is its brilliance. It commands attention and often attracts the interest of people who normally ignore the night sky. The extreme brilliance brings out defects in the eye that normally go unnoticed, so most people see Venus as being surrounded by bright spikes of light. People with uncorrected vision may also see it as a very large and strangely shaped blob of light. If you wear glasses, try looking at Venus without them.
When a planet is low in the sky, as Venus usually is, our atmosphere acts like a prism and breaks the white light up into its component colors. The bottom of the planet will appear reddish while the top will be bluish. When you add the effects of the ``twinkling'' of the planet's light caused by the thick blanket of air through which it travels, Venus can appear different colors and change slowly or rapidly from one to another.
All of these effects are greatly enhanced if you look at Venus with binoculars. The effects of atmospheric refraction are increased, and Venus may well look like it is rotating and flashing colored lights. The extreme brightness of Venus also brings out the worst in any binocular, even expensive ones. Reflections, ghosts, and imperfections that would normally be unseen become obvious. If you own binoculars, turn them toward Venus.
Try watching Venus as you are traveling by car sometime. Notice that it appears to precede you, pace you, or follow you, depending on where it is in relation to the car. If you stop, Venus will also stop. To people who are already convinced they are seeing something unusual, these things take on a very eerie quality. This is, of course, simply because Venus is much farther away than the other landmarks.
People who are fairly familiar with the night sky sometimes find it difficult to believe that people often find the sight of Venus very unusual. Over the years I have gotten many calls from people who are puzzled about something they see in the night sky. Most of the time it is fairly obvious they have been looking at a bright star, such as Sirius or Venus. The description usually includes the proper direction, height, times of appearance and disappearance, and many of the phenomena described above. Many of the callers are happy to learn what they have seen, but some simply refuse to accept that they saw something ordinary and continue insisting that they saw something extraordinary.
Philip J. Klass describes several cases where Venus was mistaken for something unusual in UFOs: The Public Deceived. One case started on March 19, 1975, near Yakima, Washington. Three men spotted a strange UFO in the western sky and watched for about 45 minutes. It vanished about 10:00 pm. The sighting was front page news of the local Herald-Republic. A witness said, ``I never saw anything like it before.'' It was described as ``cone shaped'' and it had a ``greenish-bluish light at the top and sort of pale flame light at the bottom.''
The next night the UFO was seen again and witnessed by more people. It was said to be ``a great big, huge light... like a bright round ball...with sort of streaks in it.'' Most of the time it ``hovered,'' but sometimes it moved sideways. On the 22nd the Herald-Republic reported being ``swamped by calls of people mystified and convinced they were seeing an alien craft from outer space.'' One of the callers, Norman Steuart, was an amateur astronomer, and he correctly identified the mysterious UFO as the planet Venus. It was nice to read that this too was front page news in the Herald-Republic!
Address e-mail to email@example.com or phone me at 374-8460.
Question: Mr. Psychic, This is one of the coldest and snowiest winters ever recorded, and yet you didn't predict it. How can this be if you are a real psychic.
-Frost-Bitten in Bethlehem
Answer: I did, in fact, predict the cold winter. You just didn't ask. I made my prediction using the unique non-relativistic physical theories of Seabury Doane Brewer, who engaged in an extensive correspondence with Albert Einstein on this subject in the 1920s. Excerpts of this theory can be found in Mr. Brewer's treatise 124 Discoveries Made between 1892 and 1930 by Seabury Doane Brewer, of Lake George, New York and Montclair, New Jersey. His observation that ``temperature, with its variations, is one of the most wonderful things, and is always present everywhere'' is most useful for weather predictions.
My senior thesis at MIU was a demonstration of how Mr. Brewer's 52nd discovery that ``phonetic spelling should not be allowed'' is a direct consequence of Quantum-metaphysical fluctuations in sub-space.
Q: In last month's column you claimed that all of your 1995 predictions came true. I checked the 1995 predictions published in the Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, and found many that were questionable. While you were right, for example, about the destruction in Hayward, CA, you also predicted that Michael and Lisa Marie Jackson would give birth to a child. The couple, however, is childless and getting divorced. How can you reconcile this with your claim of `remarkable' accuracy?
-The Schenectady Skneptic
A: Why do you think the couple are getting a divorce? Lisa Marie did give birth to a child, and, as I predicted, there is some ``question'' about the father. This has been kept quiet because of the nature of those questions. In short, anatomical abnormalities indicate that the father might be a Gray.
The ``Grays'' are one of the several races of extra-terrestrials visiting this planet, and they are believed to be responsible for the epidemic of abductions and cattle mutilations that has swept the world. It is well known in government and military circles that the Grays are involved in genetic experiments on unsuspecting humans. By using their advanced knowledge of the brain, the Grays suppress memory of these abductions. But, surveys of ``abduction symptoms'' such as missing time and disturbing dream patterns lead me to the conclusion that millions of Americans have been abducted by aliens and don't even know it!
What the Gray's motives are, and to what extent the government is in collusion are not known. Some reports indicate that the government is allowing these experiments in exchange for technology. Others believe the government didn't understand the Faustian deal they had made, and are now powerless to stop the abductions. Whichever it is, there is no doubt that the very genetic makeup of the human species is being altered by these activities.
On the other hand, the father could be Michael Jackson. It's hard to tell, and the blood test was inconclusive.
Questions to the Psychic can be sent to this newsletter care of the editor.
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.
Our next meeting is February 7th, 1996 when we will be showing the video tape An Evening of Magic & Awards: The First Annual Skeptics Society Awards Ceremony. This tape features magic by Penn & Teller, and a lecture with magic by James Randi.
The March 6 meeting will discuss Hoaxing Martial Art Effects by Peter Huston. Peter is an author and long-time practitioner of martial arts. Over the years, he has collected examples of impressive looking effects that anybody with a little practice and no apparent fear of death can do. He will discuss these effects, and provide whatever demonstrations the insurance agents will let us get away with.
On April 3rd 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 14 books about the Paranormal, and has appeared on Unsolved Mysteries and Arthur C. Clark's Mysterious Universe.
The May 1st speaker will be Meera Nanda on the topic of Higher Superstition and the Science Debate in Academia. Gross & Levitt's book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science is only the latest chapter in a long and growing debate in academia over the nature of science and objective knowledge. Meera Nanda has been following this debate, and will discuss Higher Superstition in the larger context of academia. She has a Ph.D. in biology, and is working on a second Ph.D. in Science and Technology in Society (STS).
June 5th is tentatively scheduled as Michael Sofka, Debunking Myths of Skepticism: Cautionary Tales From the Postmodern Age. How do we evaluate claims to knowledge, assign to them some level of credibility, and incorporate them into our belief structure? These are questions of central concern to skeptics, and yet they are questions for which skeptics often provide inadequate answers. This talk will address specific misperceptions about science and belief which are frequently held by skeptics.
Thank you to Alan French, Peter Huston and David ``the Mighty'' Quinne 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
1 We are not a ``rag.'' ---The Editor.