The WHY-Files

The Official Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 2, Issue 3
 
 
 

March's Meeting.

Our next meeting is Wednesday March 6th. The speaker will be Peter Huston who will show us how to ``fake'' martial arts effects. That is, how to put your hand in boiling oil without getting french-fried, how to break a pointed spear with your neck, the secret to crushing coal into diamonds, and other Marvel(TM)-ous effects. Peter's been working hard at mastering these mysteries of the east, so this should be an entertaining meeting.

Also, be sure to write down our April 3rd meeting in your calender. On that date, ISUNY will be hosting Joe Nickell of CSICOP. Besides the regular monthly meeting, Joe will be signing his books at local book stores, making radio appearances, and possibly speaking to other organizations. If you know of an organization that might like Joe as a speaker, contact Peter Huston at 393-3478.

As always, our meetings are held at the Guilderland Public Library on Western Avenue. The meetings begin at 7:00 pm. This month and in April we have the meeting room until 10:00! This means we don't have to rush to finish the question and answer session, and there will be time to talk with the speakers informally afterwards.

Local Meetings.

The Capital District Humanist Society will hold its next meeting on March 10th 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. 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. The topic of the March 21st meeting is ``Myths, Fable and Folklore.'' Meetings begin at 7:00 pm. For more information contact Ray Cecot at 785-6725.

First World Skeptics Congress

From June 20--23, 1996 CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) will be hosting The First World Skeptics Congress in Buffalo, New York. This is the 20th anniversary of CSICOP, and they are planning what sounds like a nice meeting. Speakers include Joe Nickell, Stephen Jay Gould, Carol Tavris, Paul Kurtz, Philip Klass and many others. The cost is $149 per person (food and lodging not included). For more information call 716-636-1425. ISUNY has been asked to send a ``delegation.'' If you're interested in attending contact one of the officers. If there are more then one person going, we can put you in touch with each other.

Newsletter Articles

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 sofkam@rpi.edu, or to the address on the last page of this newsletter.

-The Editor

Letters to the Editor

Dear Editor,

Peter Huston's article on satanic cults was very informative and interesting, but he never definitively answered the first part of the question: ``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.'' Huston implied the answer but never actually stated it. There is absolutely no evidence that organized satanic ritual abuse cults exist. These cults purportedly kill and eat babies, drink blood and urine, gang rape children, and commit other atrocities. There is no evidence that such abuse occurs or that such cults exist. The FBI agent, Kenneth Lanning, spent years trying to find such evidence. He failed. The U.S. government funded a long-term study of 12,000 such reports. None were validated. Similarly, a British commission failed to find any evidence.

Then where do such myths arise? Primarily from two sources: very young children who are coercively and repeatedly interviewed by adults who inadvertently encourage such tales, and adults in therapy who ``recover'' such memories through hypnosis, guided imagery, or other such pseudoscientific techniques.

As I wrote in my book, Victims of Memory, p. 187: There are three types of ``satanic'' or ritual activities that actually do exist: (1) Harmless organized religions led by flamboyant characters such as Anton La Vey, who heads the Church of Satan. (2) Teenagers who, as part of societal rebellion, dabble in the occult, draw pentagrams, and perhaps sacrifice a stray cat. (3) Aberrant psychopaths who act out the myths they read about or see in movies, such as the 1989 Matamoros murders.

As for the question of ``false memories,'' I concluded that ``massive repression'' in which YEARS of traumatic abuse was completely forgotten and then recalled, probably does not occur. See my book.

-Mark Pendergrast

Ask The Skeptic.

Today we have two questions from Mr. Lewis Treadway of Guilderland, New York, Librarian of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York.

Question: I am thinking of taking a road trip to Toronto to attend the March Forever Knight vampires convention. What is the best music to listen to on a road trip?

Answer: Didn't you see Rainman? Early in the movie, Tom Cruise1 pops a cassette into his tape deck. Soon he and Dustin Hoffman are cruising down the highway being entertained by none other than Johnny Clegg and Savuka, a South African band. Now, as I've stated several times, I am ultra-hip and everything that I think is cool either is now, or someday will be. This is a case in point. The peculiar truth is that I was into Johnny Clegg way back when he was with Jaluka, his first band, and one of South Africa's most successful racially integrated pop groups. In fact, just today, I purchased this Johnny Clegg EP on CD and it is really good. Nevertheless, Pete's pick for the future is Angelique Kidjo, for the absolute coolest in highly danceable African pop music. Remember this. There will be a test.

Q: Wow, that's great news! Now, what do you really think about Vampires? Is there a scientific basis for them?

A: First of all, Forever Knight, the USA network cable series about an 800 year old vampire turned Toronto police detective is one of my favorite shows, although I must say that the series was better when it had his old, donut-eating, balding partner, Skanky, instead of this new one, the cute blond with no discernable personality, Tracy. Nevertheless, I suspect that vampires are make believe, although I cannot prove it and may be wrong.

Although books such as Vampires Among Us by Rosemary Ellen Guilley, make a big deal about modern day, Gothic/Punk Rock, vampire fans, based on my cursory experiences, I tend to dismiss them as a bunch of confused neurotics who dress in black.

Instead, what I find much more interesting are claims such as that in Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber. In this long, detailed, but somewhat gory book, the author describes his theory that renaissance era vampire fears were based in misunderstood observations of how disease was spread. For further elaboration you can see my review of the book in The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 17, No. 1, or, better yet, simply read the book itself.

Another fascinating fact about vampires is how they were involved in American historical beliefs. For example, in 18th and 19th century New England, villagers would occasionally dig up the graves of those they believed to be vampires and then mutilate the corpses or engage in other, less grotesque activities that were designed to prevent the spread of vampirism. Note that we have the peculiar fact that the corpses designated as vampires suffered from signs of tuberculosis. Once again, we may be dealing with superstitious people who were afraid of a disease and blamed the suffering and frightening way in which it caused death at random on vampire attacks. This phenomenon is documented in the book, American Vampires: Fans, Victims, Practitioners as well as in ``Evidence Proves Attacks on Undead,'' an associated press piece which ran in the October 30, 1995 of the Albany Times Union.

Note on historical perspective: know how scary and frightening AIDS is? Now imagine if every single disease out there were just as incurable and just as deadly, but much easier to catch. Also imagine that you had never heard of the theory of diseases being transmitted by microorganisms.2 It might seem like a supernatural vampiric cause.

Then there's the ``Congenital Porphyria'' theory. According to this theory, beliefs in vampires, and werewolves, were caused by a rare genetic condition called ``congenital porphyria.'' Persons with this condition suffer from numerous problems among them being an aversion to sunlight, a deformed nose, lips, and skin, and a tendency to develop a bloody colored film about their teeth. For full details of this theory, you can see A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture edited by Charlotte F. Otten. In here you will find a fascinating essay entitled, ``On Porphyria and the AEtiology of Werewolves'' by L. Illis.3 It should be noted, however, that interesting as this theory may be, there are several problems with it, as Barber notes in his book.

Finally, there's the vampires are real argument. This has a long and glorious history, but I'm only going to mention two works of this sort. Vampires or Gods: The True Stories of the Ancient Immortals, which is non-fiction, and The Last Days of Christ the Vampire, which is fictional. Both are from III Publishing, a small, basement, radical, anarchist publishing house in San Francisco. Both argue that the Christian religion is a scam which was created by this blood sucking vampire who somehow convinced people that he was the son of God and should be worshiped. (Note to the easily offended.: Don't blame us here at ISUNY. We are only reporting someone else's ideas. Not making them up.) I highly recommend the fictional paperback. Its cool. the non-fiction book drags in many places and the fictional work is much cleverer and more interesting. And, if you'd like, they'll also sell you a t-shirt which has a picture of a vampire being crucified, and the logo, ``Jesus Lives, Vampires never die.'' I, of course, find this stuff highly shocking and do not approve, but will show readers my bright red t-shirt if they ask real nicely.

By the way, in the October 28--30, 1994, edition of USA Weekend, the Sunday Paper magazine, Paul Kurtz, number one head honcho of CSICOP states, and I quote, ``There are no vampires.'' But who cares? We're not affiliated with them anyway. And besides, I hate authority figures and philosophers and he's both. To heck with him, and this stuffy pronouncement.

-Peter Huston

Ask The Psychic.

Question: We just purchased a home computer and are looking forward to surfing the information superhighway. Are there any psychics on the Internet?

Answer: Seems everybody is cruising the ocean of information available on-line. Just recently I purchased a new Psi-bernetics 1200XLi UTB (Universal Telepathy Bus) interface card for the office PC, and regularly exchange causality-challenging information with other ``hooked-up'' psychics.

If you can't afford an 1200XLi, there are a couple of professional psychics who offer ``home-pages.'' The most famous psychic on-line is the great Uri Geller. His Psychic City page at http://www.urigeller.com/ is filled with information about him, and includes a $1,000,000 prize offer for a controlled psychokinesis demonstration. The best place, however, to get started is Yahoo, which maintains a catalog of Web pages by category. Look at http://www.yahoo.com/Entertainment/Paranormal_Phenomena/ for several evenings worth of links.

-David Quinne

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

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.

ISUNY Meetings.

The next meeting is March 6th when Peter Huston will demonstrate Hoaxing Martial Art Effects. 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.

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.

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.



1 For those of you who can't tell me apart from Tom Cruise, I offer the following advice. Although we are both married to foreign women with blond hair and drive red cars (at least he did in Rainman, he has never written a book.

2 Equal time doctrine!! Please note, disease transmission by microorganism, like evolution, is just a theory. Therefore, I fully encourage all those who believe in ``creation science'' to also believe in vampires.

3 This essay has also been reprinted elsewhere.