The WHY-Files

The Official Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 2, Issue 4
 
 
 

April's Meeting.

Our next meeting is Wednesday April 3rd at 7:00 pm when the speaker will be Joe Nickell, senior research fellow at CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) in Buffalo, NY. Joe is a professional paranormal investigator, author and ``ghostbuster.'' He has written about the Shroud of Turin, instances of ``Spontaneous Human Combustion,'' and the ghostly occurrences at Mackenzie House. His talk is entitled ``Investigating Paranormal Claims.''

Joe Nickell will be signing books at Borders Bookstore on Thursday from 3:00--5:30 pm, and at P.T. Barnum's Magic shop (time and location to be announced). He will also be interviewed by ISUNY's own Peter Huston on WRPI radio station (91.5 FM) Thursday night from 7:00--9:00 pm.

Elections.

April is also our annual business meeting when we elect officers. The board of directors has proposed the following positions:

Nominations (and volunteers) will be taken from the floor during the business portion of the meeting.

Therapy and False Memory.

Dr. Lloyd Thomas, local psychologist and Gazette Columnist will be speaking at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, 52 Sacandaga Road, Scotia on April 11th. The title of his talk is ``Therapy and the False Memory Dilemma.'' Social time and a book display begin at 12:30 pm, and the talk is from 1:00--2:00 pm. The talk is open to the public. If you plan to attend call Dorothy Hoyt at 399-5749 so she can give you directions, and keep a head count in case a larger room is needed.

Other Local Meetings.

The Capital District Humanist Society 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. 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. Meetings begin at 7:00 pm. For more information contact Ray Cecot at 785-6725.

All of the above meetings are free and open to the public.

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 preparing a quite a meeting meeting. Speakers include Joe Nickell (who you can see April 3rd at the ISUNY meeting), 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 Why-Files.

In Peter Huston's April ``Ask The Skeptic'' column he expressed displeasure with the movie ``Powder,'' in which a mutant psychic albino goes on a rampage against the society that rejected him. I agree with Peter that, for some reason only known to Hollywood writers, albinos are often portrayed in movies as murderers. (This trend probably started started with the Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase movie ``Foul Play,'' and is just another example of the lame stereotypes writers resort to when they run out of ideas.)

I do, however, question his implied message that movies which portray paranormal events are somehow ``bad'' movies. Such a view would eliminate from proper skeptical viewing most of the movies I have watched and enjoyed for the past 30 years (I don't remember much before the age of three). Movies like ``Poltergeist,'' ``Star Wars,'' ``The Haunting of Hill House,'' and even ``Apollo 13'' have all had less then scientifically accurate elements. Granted, I am annoyed by noise in a Vacuum, explosions in space and all the other not-so-realistic special effect, but not usually so annoyed I won't watch the movie. In fact, I go out of my way to watch 1950's era science fiction movies where (by today's standards) special effects are particularly bad.

When it comes to paranormal films (such as ``The Dead Zone,'' in which the mutant psychic albino was really a nice guy who just accidentally killed people) or ``Poltergeist'' the effects don't bother me at all. Why? Because they are (non-science) fiction so I don't even attempt to take them seriously. Sometimes the fiction is very good and borrows from folklore and common conceptions of the paranormal and fringe science. Probably the best contemporary show in this regard is the ``X-Files'' whose writers and producers do a good job of staying on top of the latest paranoid fantasies of the Internet. (David Duchovny's wooden acting is another matter entirely.)

Other skeptics have expressed concern about the way science and scientists are portrayed in movies. I confess that this has often bothered me. But remember, we're talking about the same Hollywood writers who cannot find anything better for an albino to do in a movie except kill people, and who cannot conceive of a more original antagonist then a terrorist of middle-east extraction. In short, the problem is not the way albinos or scientists are portrayed, it is the way formulaic movies pander to popular expectations at the expense of a portion of the populace. -Mike Sofka

Ask The Skeptic.

Question: Hey Pete, did you see the movie ``Powder?'' Do you wish to?

Answer: No to both questions.

The movie ``Powder'' is a very bad thing. Quite frankly, I have no idea how it is as a story or a piece of cinema as I have not seen it. Yet, it is important to realize that as an entity, as a piece of cultural protoplasm, as a commercial product intended for mass consumption, this movie is quite an evil thing indeed.

``Powder'', as many know, is a creepy movie about this white skinned, super-powered mutant school kid. The movie not only promotes a great deal of pseudo-scientific misinformation, but it advocates discrimination against the handicapped. Furthermore, it was produced by a child molester. To elaborate on the key objections....

So, that's my view on the movie ``Powder''.... I haven't seen it, doubt if I ever will somehow, but I give it two thumbs down! This movie, on several levels, harms society and hurts and misinforms individuals. Garbage like this should not take up space in theaters.

-Peter Huston

Ask The Psychic.

Question: Mr Psychic, I have been repeatedly visited by Pollsters during the past year. They keep asking me who I would vote for the office of president. Since I don't even know who the parties will nominate for the spots of president and vice-president how can I tell them who I'll vote for? Perhaps you can help me out by telling us who do will be running for president this this year. Will Ross Perot run again? Will Collin Powel run for vice-president (which party)? While you're at it, who will win? -Polled Out in Poughkeepsie

Answer: Funny you should ask about Ross Perot. I happen to be investigating one of the greatest mysteries of our time and Ross Perot is at its nexus.

If you recall, in the 1992 election Ross Perot, the independent candidate, won 19% of the votes. This despite his own efforts to derail the campaign by acting paranoid, and selecting a running-mate who was a couple cans short of a six-pack. (Granted, that strategy did work for George Bush in 1988, but by 1992 the pollical cartoonist lobby was complacent and unlikely to back a candidate simply because the VP choice made their job easier.) One year after the 1992 election a Roper poll showed that 15% of the voting electorate voted for Ross Perot. A year later a Harris Poll showed that 12% of those who voted in 1992 voted for Ross Perot. Now, another Roper Poll has found that 9% of the electorate who voted, voted for Ross Perot.

What has happened to the roughly 4.5 million missing Ross Perot supporters? Is this a Republican (or Democratic) plot to prevent Ross from disrupting the election (or re-election) chances of Bob Dole (or Bill Clinton)? Or, have they been abducted by Aliens? Poles show that upwards of 20 million Americans have been abducted by extra-terrestial aliens---and don't even know it. What's 4.5 million out of 20 million? Who would miss them? Stay tuned to this column as details unfold.

Regarding who will win the presidential race. Well, if you step outside tonight you can still see Comet Hyakutake. This is just the first of two naked-eye comets this year, the other being Hale-Bopp. As you may know, comets portend the fall of kings. With two comets, we should see some big kings fall this year. No doubt, the appearance of Hyakutake means that Clinton is in for a tough election. But, will Bob Dole be able to oust him? Or, is Bob the new king, and the the second comet mean that he to will take a fall? Or, will Ross Perot find his missing supporters are take the election by storm?

Regardless, Elvis will not come out or retirement this year. But, in 1998 (when Hale-Bopp is gone) he will do a live pay-per-view spectacular from Vegas. Between sets Mike Tyson will knock out Joe Foreman and regain the heavyweight title. The entire event will be promoted and staged by Don King and David Wolper.

Some of you long-time fans of ``Ask the Psychic'' may recall that I received my degree in quantum-metaphysics from Maharishi International University in Fairfield Iowa.1 Well the old ``Mahah-U'' has gone electronic and joined the information super-infobaun. Their Web page located at http://www.miu.edu/ contains information about the college, courses, academic degrees and the unique philosophy of education at this esteemed and august2 institution. Truly, I have never seen a finer home page, and it brought a tear to my eye looking over scenes of the campus while reading about consciousness-based learning. I give this one ``two thumbs up.''

-David Quinne

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

The Expectation and Desire for the Unusual.

This is a reprint of an early ``UFO Skeptic'' column which many new members may have missed. -The Editor

Sue and I sometimes travel to West Texas for the Texas Star Party, an observing convention of amateur astronomers. In 1987 we decided to take a longer vacation, and included visits to Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns. On our way to Big Bend we stayed in Alpine, which is just east of Marfa, home of the ``Marfa Lights.'' An excursion to view the Marfa Lights has always been a cloudy night activity at the Texas Star Party, but we had never made the trip. We decided this would be the perfect chance.

Marfa is a West Texas town of about 3,000 people. The brochure provided by the Chamber of Commerce is headed: ``Marfa, Texas, Home of the Mysterious Marfa Ghost Lights.'' About 9 miles west of Marfa, toward Alpine on Route 90, the Texas Highway Department has provided a viewing sight for watching the Marfa lights. A brochure obtained from the Museum of the Big Bend, Sul Ross State University, in Alpine says, ``A favorite pastime in the Big Bend is parking near the entrance to the abandoned airport on Mitchell Flat, nine miles east of Marfa on Highway 90, to watch the Marfa Lights flicker and move against the Chinati Mountains about 60 miles to the southwest. They look like faraway flashlights, they turn on and go out, sometimes one or maybe five or six.''

We arrived at the viewing sight well before sunset, and set up a pair of 14x70 Fujinon binoculars, a 60mm. Bushnell Spacemaster with a 22 power wide field eyepiece, and Sue's custom 4.3 in. APO refractor. A careful inspection of the view toward the southwest showed that parts of distant Highway 67, which runs between Marfa and Presidio could clearly be seen through the telescopes. Cars traveling along the road would be visible for seconds to minutes, and then vanish around a curve or in a dip in the road. As the Texas landscape darkened the cars vanished and were replaced by moving lights, red or white, flickering in and out of view. With the naked eye, they did look rather strange, but the telescopes revealed the paired headlights and taillights of cars.

While we were there, people arrived to look for the lights. Most quickly spotted the car lights along Route 67, exclaiming, ``There they are!'' Those who looked through the telescopes quickly realized they were nothing unusual. At one point a school bus pulled up, and a group of people got out. The driver launched into a pitch about the Marfa lights, while pointing out the lights along Route 67. They group soon jumped back on the bus, heading home with the knowledge that they had seen the strange and unexplained Marfa lights.

Two years later we spent a night in Marfa itself, at a motel sporting a ``Home of the Marfa Lights'' banner. We again visited the official viewing sight, although this time we left the telescope behind. We were not surprised to find people were still pointing to the distant car lights on Route 67 as Marfa Lights. We got to talking with one gentleman, and explained our experiences two years earlier. He admitted some of the lights certainly could be from cars on Route 67, but claimed that the colors were wrong on many of them and that they must be something unusual. At one point he even pointed down Route 90 toward Marfa, claiming the approaching headlights were something else entirely! It would have been nice to have the telescope along, but I doubt he would not have been convinced even then.

Some people have a strong desire to believe they have seen something exceptional, and people have a strong tendency to see what they expect. This combination can easily turn the mundane into the unusual. It can also turn the unusual into the bizarre.

In southern Nevada, northwest of Las Vegas, is the Nellis Air Force Range. It has been used for nuclear testing, weapons testing, and testing new aircraft. It is not open to the public. In recent years there has been much publicity about ``Area 51.'' It seems there are strange things going on there, and the Air Force does not like people trying to look in on them. To me, this doesn't seem surprising, and the explanation that new aircraft and weapons are being tested seems quite adequate. Some people have decided, however, that the strange lights and strict security indicate that either recovered UFOs are being flight tested there, or that the Air Force is testing craft developed using knowledge obtained from crashed saucers or cooperative aliens.

Additional Notes:

During our first visit to Marfa, we met two very nice local couples who were home on vacation from college. They were quite interested in astronomy and enjoyed some views through the big binoculars and the telescopes. Naturally, we got talking with them about the Marfa lights. They claimed that the true Marfa lights were something entirely different. They are quite rare, and when they are seen they appear as lights moving and bouncing around on the desert, and not against the distant mountains. I can certainly say that many people who think they have seen the Marfa lights, simply saw the lights of distant cars, but I can't say there isn't something else going on here.

Over the years, I have seen the Marfa Lights featured on segments of several shows about unusual phenomena. At least one of these shows featured a video of what was obviously the same lights from distant cars that people have been mistaking for unusual lights.

Anyone with information or thoughts about the above, or UFOs in general is invited to e-mail me at 72724.2270@compuserve.com or phone (518) 374-8460.

-Alan French

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 April 3rd when 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 Duncan Tuininga, Andre Weltman and our Patron members: Jordan 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 Requests for information about degress and programs to (515) 472-7000 or infor@mum.edu

2 Serving degrees since 1971.