The WHY-Files

The Official Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 2, Issue 5
 
 
 

May Meeting.

Gross & Levitt's book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science debunks what they and others consider ill-informed and miss-reasoned criticisms of science by the humanities and social sciences. The book has been condemned by those they criticize, and praised by some as a long overdue un-masking of academic charlatans. But, this is only the latest chapter in the old debate over the nature and morality of science and its claim to objective knowledge.

Our May 1st speaker, Meera Nanda, has been following this debate. Meera has a Ph.D. in biology and is working on a second Ph.D. in Science and Technology in Society at RPI. She will talk about postmodern critics of science, and how their prior-conceptions of science affects their arguments. Many (if not most) of science's critics do not know math or science, but many scientists know little philosophy. Meera will discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments in Higher Superstition.

Coincidentally, Norman Levitt, co-author of Higher Superstition spoke at SUNY Albany on April 15th. Both Meera and I attended, along with some other ISUNY members. This was the first time I met Dr. Levitt, but he was familiar with Meera Nanda, and I gather he approves of her as a speaker to represent his case. More about this talk and conversations with Dr. Levitt can be found in this newsletter.

-The Editor

Membership Renewals.

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on the upper right-hand corner of your mailing label. Dues can be mailed to the treasurer at the address on the back page of this newsletter, or paid at our monthly meeting. (Make checks out to ISUNY.) Your dues cover newsletter and speaker expenses. If the date on the mailing label is circled it means you are late and may be dropped from the mailing list. If you enjoy The Why-Files and speakers, please renew now. If you have renewed, and the date is incorrect my apologies, we are sometimes a little out of date on the mailing list. Please bring the error to our attention.

Elections.

The April election of club officers was delayed until the May meeting due to the large number of guests attending Joe Nickell's talk. The election of new officers will be held at the May meeting. The officer slate suggested by the board of directors was published in the April newsletter. Those positions are now being filled by the suggested people.

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 may have seen at our April 3rd ISUNY meeting), Stephen Jay Gould, Carol Tavris author of The Missmeasure of Woman,1 Paul Kurtz co-founder of CSICOP, UFO critic 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 you attend local meetings, view programs of interest to ISUNY members, or have a skeptical topic you wish to discuss, consider writing an article for The Why-Files. Articles and letters can be e-mailed to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or by U.S. mail to Michael Sofka, 8 providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Disks and hardcopy will be returned at the next ISUNY meeting.

-The Editor

Higher Superstition in Albany.

On April 15th Norman Levitt, co-author with Paul Gross of Higher Superstition: The academic left and its quarrels with science2 spoke at SUNY Albany. The talk was sponsored jointly by the Departments of Atmospheric Science, Biological Science, Chemistry, Mathematics and Statistics, Philosophy, and Physics. This mixture of departments is not surprising given that Gross & Levitt's thesis is that the sciences, expecially the physical sciences, are under attack from our college's humanities and social science departments.

Higher Superstition is a debunking of some of the claims made by postmodern critics of science. This includes the claims of deconstructionist schools of criticism, relativistic philosophers, radical environmentalist and feminists. I read six reviews of the book before finishing the first six chapters. (I wasn't looking for reviews, they just kept appearing in the magazines I read.) I am aware of more reviews (both positive and negative) that I did not read, including one in Analog Science Fiction. This is a sure sign that the book is getting around, and as Norman Levitt commented, the controversy sells.

Most of the reviews can be placed into one of two categories: vicious condemnation and slavish praise. While reading these I kept wondering ``are we talking about the same book?'' Further, it was not always possible tell by the name of the magazine which review would fall into which category. Obviously, the colleagues and supporters of those Gross & Levitt attack were not supportive. Less predictable was the amount of criticism published in science, technical, and skeptical journals. Why is this?

My own opinion is that while I agree with about 95 per-cent of what the authors say, I disagree with about 90 per-cent of they way they say it. Gross & Levitt have a habit of lumping the good and the bad together under one label (such as feminism) and dismissing it all. Very frequently they take the worst examples and present it as representative an entire domain.3 In their efforts to root out the nonsense, they threw out a lot of good work.

I've got to admit that with some of their opponents Gross & Levitt are doing the intellectual equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. The simple fact is that there are a quite a few Postmodern criticisms of science written by academics who are ignorant of science and math, and proud of it. This has spilled over into the general undergraduate population, and from there to the world of Hollywood and the book of the month club selection. I have on occasion encountered people (in fact, have been very good and close friends with some) who believe that science is a complete social construction. That it was built by white men and, as a result, is oppressive to women and minorities. That science would somehow be different, better, if women had constructed it instead. I find this view to be most exasperating.

What about criticisms of gender-difference studies such as those by, for example, Fausto-Sterling?4 Gross & Levitt dismiss these out of hand as being irrelevant to the underlying model of biology. They are partially correct. Gender, race, cultural background, and so on, should be irrelevant to the underlying science. Unfortunately, they very frequently intrude upon what should be objective study. Myths of Gender is one of the better written debunkings of what can only be described as bad science. When I asked Norman Levitt about Fausto-Sterling he responded that she has become more radical lately. Maybe, but why does that matter? For my own part, and despite what Gross & Levitt say, I would not hesitate suggesting Myths of Gender to anybody wondering what all the fuss about SAT scores is.

Gross & Levitt are also critical of the mathematical and science metaphors that have become popular in literary circles. They include quotes from writers using ``linear'' and ``non-linear'' to express thinking patterns, or ``quantum'' to express a sudden change. They are not the only critics. There was a long debate (to use the term loosely) about this in sci.skeptic some months back. Frankly, I don't usually see what all the fuss is about. I know what ``linear'' and ``non-linear'' mean in both mathematical and metaphorical senses. If somebody wants to express narrow-minded thinking as linear and more broad-minded thinking as ``non-linear'' I don't find the terms any more objectionable then the metric-based metaphors of ``narrow'' and ``broad'' (or the oceanography metaphors of ``shallow'' and ``deep'' for that matter).

The people using these metaphors, however, are not doing science, and that is where Gross & Levitt take issue with them. When they target those so ignorant of math and science that then cannot tell the difference between using mathematical or scientific metaphors and actually doing math and science, Gross & Levitt are exposing what can best be described as fraud. But, it is equally wrong to criticize those who are just using mathematical or scientific metaphors to do literature and social commentary. Quite the contrary, this choice of metaphor is an indication of the extent to which science has influenced our culture.

Science is practiced by people, and as people we bring to the task all the strengths and weaknesses of our psychological, social, cultural, religious and political heritage. We cannot ignore this as scientists, or as skeptics. What science does is provide procedures that attempt to overcome these limitations, and it succeeds most of the time. But, sometimes it fails. The recent publication of The Bell Curve, a conservative polemic wrapped in the trappings of objective science, should stand as a warning that we are not perfect at this game. Science makes some of the strongest claims to knowledge, and as such is not immune to good criticism of those claims.

-Mike Sofka

Ask The Skeptic.

Question: What is ``Ask the Skeptic'' and who are you?

Answer: An appropriate question considering the number of new people out there who are reading this for the first time.

Ask the skeptic is regular column here in The Why-Files. Each month I answer a question regarding a strange claim or related issue. Often I make up these questions, but folks out there are welcome to contact me if they wish. I am Peter Huston. My number is 393-3478. Please be advised, however, I tend to write these questions in batches so sometimes it seems like it takes me a while to answer. Also I don't know everything, and my time for research is limited. Sometimes, I'll just have to say, ``I don't know.'' Other times, I may go and point the questioner in a certain direction and tell them to do the research themself.

Now as for who I am, my name is Peter Huston. I live in Schenectady. I have a strange hermit-like lifestyle where I read too much and write too much. I am unhappily married, underemployed, overstressed and on the dodge from bill collectors at the current time. These circumstances, combined with exposure to foreign cultures and long periods of isolation, explain my occasional neurotic behavior, eccentricities and surly temperament. Now, in addition to all this, I am a published author with a long and strange resume including several bizarre accomplishments, peculiar credentials and incredible feats. At times, I live a strange double life. People I don't know occasionally call me long distance, considering me to be an expert on some strange subject or another, and, as often as not, they're probably right or, at least I can point them in the proper direction. I have speaking engagements where I am asked to lecture groups of people on various subjects. They write strange things about me in the Gazette and tell people I'm a local cultural icon. Then I go out and wander around in downtown Schenectady, where, although I frequently look unkempt, disheveled and possibly even unbalanced or dangerous, I do fit in just fine. Being a published author and a relatively prominent skeptic and 25 cents will not buy you a cup of coffee at Denny's. (At least I don't think so. I'll try soon, and see what happens.) As for my publishing accomplishments, I am the author of two books, Tongs, Gangs, and Triads -Chinese Crime Groups in North America (Paladin Press, 1996) and the upcoming work, tentatively entitled, Scams from the Great Beyond -Hoaxing New Age, UFO, and Psychic Phenomena, which will also be out soon from Paladin press, probably this summer. It has been accepted for publication, but no date is yet set. I am currently peddling an outline for a history of Chinese secret societies to various publishers and am awaiting replies. I am writing a science fiction novel.

In the field of skepticism, I have written three major pieces for the Skeptical Inquirer as well as one minor article, and five book reviews. There will be more in the future. The major pieces were on sleep paralysis (which was translated into German), Chinese medicine, and Satanic cult hysteria. The minor piece was also on Chinese medicine.

For the Skeptic I have written a minor piece on Elvis impersonator and astrology, as well as a pair of book reviews. There will also be more there in the future.

For the Skeptical Briefs, the in-house CSICOP newsletter, I have written a pair of pieces, one on ISUNY (our group) and the other on Chinese medicine.

I have also been published outside of skepticism. In fact, at the current time, I am seeking to expand the writing out into new publications, particularly paying publications, and see if I can pay off some of these outstanding debts.

Locally, you can usually see my stuff once a month in The Sunday Gazette on the Op-Ed page and in The Source, an ``alternative weekly'' paper where I work for free stuff like concert tickets and such. I've been on the radio three times, twice talking about skepticism. My hobbies include studying Arnis, a Filipino martial art; cooking; exploring new and exciting creative things (like strange music) and, of course, all this weird paranormal-claims stuff. I relax in front of the typewriter. I read two or three books a week, the bulk of them non-fiction, many of them somehow related to this stuff although most are not.

My next skeptical project is to attempt to track down the truth about some of these strange cattle mutilation reports.

If you have any suggestions for topics for future columns the number and address are as listed. I do not have e-mail nor do I plan to get it anytime soon, I'm afraid. I am currently listening to a Pam Tillis CD, although this is quite unusual for me.

-Peter Huston

The UFO Skeptic.

Not too long ago Sue and I were regular visitors to the Astronomy Forum on a small on-line service. I do a little lunar viewing, so when someone posted ``Is anywhere here a lunar observer?'' I responded. It turned out that the gentleman who posted the query was not a typical amateur astronomer. He firmly believed that the Moon was covered by alien machinery and artifacts, and that anyone with a telescope was capable of seeing hundreds of these objects. He had seen them with his small beginner's refractor, and then improved his view by buying an 8-inch Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain.

These were not small objects at the threshold of visibility. Their sizes were typically measured in tens of miles, and some were even larger. He claimed that on the northeastern rim of the crater Plato is a pole that is normally about 20 miles high, but varies from around 15 to as much as 25 miles. At one point in his observations he was alarmed to find this pole seemed to have vanished, and then surprised to find the top five miles hinged over two weeks later. There is another object on the southwest rim of Plato that has ``defied solution for years!''

We corresponded with this gentleman, both on-line and by regular mail, for some time. An attempt to explain how relatively low relief features could produce extremely long shadows near sunrise and sunset went nowhere. A discussion of the mathematics needed to determine the actual height of lunar features was likewise useless. It quickly became clear that his belief was very firmly entrenched and there was no way we could change his perception of the Moon.

Where did this lunar observer get these unusual ideas? He had read letters describing similar observations in the Report from the Readers section of Fate magazine. These letters were written by Jack Swaney. According to Mr. Swaney, in the November 1984, issue of Fate, a formation that stretches for 200 miles across the surface of the Moon is ``a mass of twisted metal plates, broken-up constructions, and bizarre bits of machinery.'' To most amateurs this area is known as the Caucasus Mountains. The Carpathian Mountains are composed of similar artifacts. I do not know how Mr. Swaney decided the Moon was so unlike our conventional view, but a 1976 book by George Leonard, ``Somebody Else is On the Moon,'' echoes the theme.

Sue and I actually did observe some of the areas suggested by Swaney and our correspondent. We saw only light and shadow where they saw alien structures or the remains of such structures. At best we could only get a vague idea of how they had transformed the interplay of sunlight and lunar relief into these most unusual structures.

Our inability to see these objects was blamed on years of brain washing. We could not see the truth for ourselves because we could not overcome the years of having experts tell us what we should see on the Moon and of being shown doctored photographs of the lunar surface. We were stuck on the ``treadmill of orthodoxy.'' There was a worldwide conspiracy to hide the truth about the Moon from us and our fellow amateur astronomers.

For a while I thought this was a rather extreme example of a fringe belief, but now I wonder if the more mundane and well-known ones are really much different.

If you have any questions or comments, please phone me at 374-8460 or send e-mail to 72724.2270@compuserve.com.

-Alan French

Ask The Psychic.

Question: Mr Psychic, In honor of Shakespeare's birthday (April 23rd), did ``The Bard'' really write the plays attributed to him? Or, were they written by Bacon or the 17th Earl of Oxford as some have claimed? -Undecided in Utica

Answer: Wrong on all counts. True Shakespeare did not write any of the plays, sonnets or poems attributed to him, but neither did Bacon or the 17th Earl of Oxford. These works were actually written between the years 1937 and 1945 by Nathan Fitzroy for the British Secret Service. This was part of a counter propaganda campaign meant to ballance the Teutonic claim that Wagner wrote all those operas.

Interestingly enough, after the war Fitzroy worked under Ian Fleming for a time. Ian Fleming is, of course, the second most famous author in the English language. It is believed that Fitzroy suggested the James Bond character to Fleming, and may be the true author of Diamonds Are Forever (coining still one more phrase in the English language).

The Shakespeare legend was picked up after the war by the Chamber of Commerce of the town of Stratford. (Stratford was the birthplace of the fictitious Shakespeare according to Fitzroy.) This was a move to boost tourist revenue, and the choice proved so popular that the true origin of the plays was covered up by the crown and parliament under the ``official secrets act.'' Fitzroy himself died in 1969 without ever receiving recognition for his great works.

-David Quinne

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

ISUNY Meetings.

Higher Superstition and the Science Debate in Academia.

Gross & Levitt's book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science debunks, lampoons and attacks what they and others consider silly criticisms of science by the humanities and social sciences. This is only the latest chapter in a long and growing debate in academia over the nature of science and objective knowledge.

Our May 1st speaker, Meera Nanda, has been following this debate, and will discuss Higher Superstition in the context of what she has observed in academia. Meera has a Ph.D. in biology, and is working on a second Ph.D. in Science and Technology in Society (STS).

Debunking Myths of Skepticism:

Cautionary Tales From the Postmodern Age.

Do extraordinary claims always require extraordinary evidence? Can theories be disproved though experimentation? Is Science a self correction system, and does the evidence ever speak for itself? These are claims often made in the skeptical literature, but the truth, as always, is more complex then allowed for by simple slogans.

Michael Sofka, our June 5th speaker, will discuss specific misconceptions of science and belief which are frequently held by skeptics. The goal is to to provide a deeper understanding of how science does and doesn't work, and in the process better prepare the skeptic for debates with informed believers.

All meetings are held at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY, at 7:00 pm. Meetings are free and open to the public. For more information call Mike Sofka at 437-1750. These will be the last meetings until September 4th.

For next season, we are working on (and with luck will get) speakers for the following topics: Satanic Panic, Global Warming, Health effects of electromagnetic fields, Cold fusion, and bigfoot in the Adirondacks . If you know of a speaker, would like to speak, or have a suggested meeting topic let us know.

Thank You.

Thank you to Alan French, Peter Huston and David ``the Mighty'' Quinne for their contributions to this newsletter. Thank you also to Alan French for publicizing the meetings, and to Carla Sofka for loaning 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, Hugh D A. McGlinchey, Duncan Tuininga, Andre Weltman, Guier Scott Wright and our Patron members: Jordan Coleman, Charles Davies, Daniel Forrest, Alan & Susan French, Christopher Masto, Bob & Dee Mulford, Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells.

About the Newsletter.

The WHY-Files is 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 Simon & Schuster, 1992

2 John Hopkins University Press, 1994

3 My favorite ``worst example'' is an article entitled: ``Gender Encoding in Fluid Mechanics---Masculine Channels and Feminine Flows'' (Hayles, N. Katherine, Differences---A journal of feminist cultural studies 4, no. 2, 1992), which attempts to show how the mathematics of Fluid Mechanics is a masculine construction and oppressive to women or something like that. It would be very difficult to defend such an article as good science, or even good literary criticism.

4 Fausto-Sterling, A., Myths of Gender: Biological Theories about Women and Men, Basic Books, 1985