The WHY-Files

The Official Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 2, Issue 6
 
 
 

June Meeting.

Join us June 5th at the Guilderland Public Library for our monthly meeting, when our speaker will be Michael Sofka. Mike is a founding member of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. His talk, Debunking Myths of Skepticism: Cautionary Tales From the Postmodern Age, deals with common (miss)-conceptions of science and belief often expressed by skeptics.

-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 If you have renewed, and the date is incorrect my apologies, we are sometimes a little out of date on the mailing list.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 election slate suggested by the Board of Directors and published in the April, 1996 Why-Files was unanimously approved at the May meeting. The position of secretary remains unfilled and volunteers or nominations are being sought.

Local Meetings.

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.

Tim Madigan Speaking in Guilderland.

The Capital District Humanist Society is sponsoring a talk by Tim Madigan, president of the Council for Secular Humanism and executive director of Free Inquiry magazine, entitled Better Living Through Secular Humanism. The talk is Saturday, June 8th, 1--3:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. For more information call Paul DeFrancisco at 272-4772. CDHS's regular meetings are held at 1:15 pm the second Sunday of each month at the Ramada inn on Western Avenue.

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. The cost is $149 per person (food and lodging not included). For more information call 716-636-1425.

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

Skeptics, Skepticism, and a Visit From Joe Nickell.

In April, ISUNY sponsored a visit from Joe Nickell, who spoke at our meeting, appeared on a radio talk show, and did some book signings at local bookstores. Dr. Nickell is a senior research fellow at CSICOP (the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal). CSICOP is probably better known to most readers as the publisher of the Skeptical Inquirer. Dr. Nickell's background includes work as a professional magician and as a teacher at the University of Kentucky. His position at CSICOP is as an investigator of ``myths and mysteries, frauds, forgeries, and hoaxes.''

Needless to say, hosting an out of town visitor is a big event for ISUNY. We were looking forward to a well attended talk and hoped to attract some new members from the publicity. Dr. Nickell did deliver an informative, polished talk, and we did get some new members. Never-the-less, I have to admit that his speaking style left me with an uneasy feeling.

Dr. Nickell started out his talk by stating that he approached every case with and open mind, and was still hoping to find evidence of the extraordinary. He then proceeded to detail a number of the mysterious phenomena he has investigated and provided solutions to all of these cases which were decidedly non-paranormal, and often rather simple. For example, reports of mysterious noises from ghostly printing presses in a haunted house in Canada turned out to be real printing presses in the building next door. Mysterious noises in the attic of another haunted house turned out to be due to rodents living in the unoccupied attic space. Like many of the mysteries he presented, Dr. Nickell noted that these could have been solved by anyone who asked a few questions, and took the opportunity to poke fun at ``true believers.''

It is this last aspect of Dr. Nickell's presentation that made me uncomfortable. Much of the humor came at the expense of those who reported the phenomena he investigated and explained. Perhaps he felt he was speaking with people who agreed with his basic approach that one should look for the simple (rational) explanation before invoking paranormal forces. Never-the-less, it is certainly a mistake to assume that all clever people necessarily agree with one's own personal beliefs. Furthermore, at one time or another I'm sure we have all listened uncritically to stories that we wished might be true. I doubt that this is at all related to our true thinking and reasoning abilities. Unfortunately, a few ill-directed barbs of humor can easily inhibit debate and stifle claims of openness.

ISUNY's members have generally tried to keep a light atmosphere about our activities. This hopefully takes the form of not taking ourselves too seriously (hence the pun in our newsletter's name) but always listening carefully. I for one hope our organization stays that way.

-Bob Mulford

The UFO Skeptic.

In last month's column I wrote about people who believe the Moon is covered with alien artifacts and debris that can be seen from Earth in virtually any amateur telescope. Somehow a few people can turn the beautiful and changing interplay of light and shadow on the lunar surface into something strange and unusual. Most of us are unable to see these structures because we have been strongly conditioned to accept the traditional view of the Moon. This belief in huge lunar alien artifacts is not very widespread, and is probably unfamiliar to many. Recently, however, Richard Hoagland had been championing a variation on this theme.

On March 21 Richard Hoagland and others held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. At the press conference they claimed that NASA had discovered alien structures or the ruins of an ancient alien civilization on the Moon during the Apollo program and was hiding this discovery from the public. That night Richard Hoagland and Ken Johnston spent two hours on a weeknight radio show, ``Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell'' expressing their disappointment in the lack of media coverage in this country and talking about their discovery.

Richard Hoagland's discussion about NASA's use of transparency film was most interesting and seems to nicely summarize his beliefs:

But the transparencies---it's my bet that we would have amazing detail in the sky that you could look at, by simply looking at a bright light; that those photographs were exposed to record the glittering glass domes, structures and ruins that are sticking up above the horizon.

That in fact, that was why NASA went with the transparency film; that they had a special film built, which had an ultraviolet-sensitive layer that would record that information even better than conventional Ektachrome-X film.

And that in the laboratory, by putting a filter in the optical enlarger when you made your inter-negative, they could remove almost all trace of that offending detail.

So, in essence, they had an almost fool-proof scheme, for taking pictures of real data on the moon, and giving to the American people and the press---and the world---a false, distorted version of the Moon that really is.

Ken Johnston was NASA's data and photo-documentation supervisor. He has had a collection of thousands of Apollo photographs in an album for about two decades, and has looked at them frequently and shown them to many people. He showed them to Richard Hoagland, who pointed out things he had never noticed---evidence of alien structures or artifacts. Why did Ken Johnston fail to notice these things before? Richard Hoagland comments that ``We tend to see in life, what we expect to see.'' Indeed!

Next month I'll have more details about alien artifacts on the Moon! If you have any questions or comments, please phone me at 374-8460 or address e-mail to 72724.2270@compuserve.com.

-Alan French

Ask The Skeptic.

Question: What did you think of the ideas in David Hess's talks and in his book, Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders, and American Culture?1

Answer: David Hess is an anthropology professor at RPI in Troy, New York. In this book and related works, he uses his anthropological expertise to discuss ``skeptics and skepticism.'' I confess, I have not read much of the book, although I intend to, Nevertheless, I did find his two talks quite interesting.

The first thing, that I must say is that David Hess is looking at things from a peculiar angle. Rather than studying the phenomena or claimed phenomena, he is, instead, concentrating on the way in which the personalities and groups involved interact. This means that he, by definition, is not involved in the same debates that we are. We wish to know whether claims are real or not. At his first talk, I asked him, as tactfully as possible, if he thought that psychic phenomena existed and might be able to point me in the right direction to obtain intelligently done materials that claimed they were if he felt such materials existed. I felt that he did not directly answer the question, but instead argued that the arguments for psi were much stronger than we believed without at the time offering me evidence of such. In other words, I felt he sought a middle path or a compromise when one is not necessarily appropriate. Compromises are for social situations. Physical phenomena either exist or they don't.

Similarly, in his talk on Brazilian spirit mediumship he did not address the issue of whether spirits exist or not. Anthropologists are trained not to do this. Instead, they look at the institution of spirit mediumship as a piece of a culture. I have half a dozen or so books on my shelf relating to Asian spirit-mediumship of various sorts and virtually none of them address whether or not spirits are involved. Instead they focus on the social context of the actions.

People who attended my slide show on Taiwanese mediums will note that it was distinctly different in conclusion from his. I attempted to explain how what was happening occurred and brought in possible explanations such as altered states of consciousness and the way in which the mediums swung their clubs, as well as the design of the clubs. (To explain why they didn't hurt themselves too much when they hit themselves.) He focused on the role of the mediums in Brazilian culture, rather than the phenomena of mediumship.

I guess what it boils down to, in my opinion, is that although David Hess is an intelligent man and an acknowledged anthropologists who has been quite generous with his time for our group, we need to understand that what he is doing is not really related to what we are doing. We are trying to understand reality. He is trying to understand the interactions of people and these are, surprisingly often, distinctly independent from the reality of the conditions in which people live.

In my opinion, misunderstandings of Hess's work occur when skeptics and others automatically try to determine where he stands on the issues which concern us. (i.e. do ghost exist?) This leads to misunderstanding, because, from the little I've seen, he purposely tries not to answer this question. It is irrelevant to an anthropologist.

Early on in his book he begins discussing the way in which ``skeptics, para-psychologists, and New Agers'' interact with something he calls ``the Paranormal Other.'' I think that this was an unfortunate use of words and should have been explained more clearly so that non-anthropologists would understand the term.

Upon my initial reading, I felt that the term, ``the Paranormal Other'' referred to ``Paranormal Phenomena'' with the implication being that such things do exist. It was at this point that I put the book down.2 Later, when I began reading a recent anthropological work on Chinese culture, Mayfair Mei-Hui Yang's Gifts, Favors, & Banquets: The Art of Social Relationships in China,3 I came across the term ``the other'' once again.

In this context the anthropological meaning of the term, ``the other,'' as I understand it, seemed to become more clear. Anthropologists understand that people cannot understand people without showing a bias of some sort. To emphasize this fact, (I think) they do not refer to themselves as studying a culture or a part of a culture. Instead, they refer to themselves as studying ``the other.'' At least that's what I think he is talking about.

To clarify, my views, I am not an anthropologist although I do, to some extent consider myself to have an above average amateur's understanding of this fascinating field. Still, I do not act like an anthropologist at frequent times.

For example, I spent over three years in Taiwan. During this time, I was forced by circumstances to question much of my underlying moral beliefs, as I was living in a culture where the structure of society uses a different standard of what is good and proper. In such cases, there are, I believe, three ways of responding to this moral difference. (1) You can decide that morality is relative. Neither the Chinese or myself were right or wrong, as right and wrong do not exist except in our minds. (2) You can decide that the Chinese are right and you are wrong and change your beliefs and moral structure to conform to your new belief. (3) You can decide the Chinese are wrong and you are right and try to change them.

Anthropologists are trained to take the first path as they study the culture. I am not an anthropologist and have, at various times, and in various ways used all three paths to accommodate my personal beliefs with this intense contact with a foreign society (and, what a long, strange trip its been!). For instance, people who know me well may note that I have a stronger respect for old people than most Americans and tend to base my moral decisions more heavily on relationships than legalistic principles than is typical for a White American.4 (If this strikes people as strange, tell them to go to Taiwan for two and a half years straight and come back unaffected! This is longer, I might add, than most anthropologist spend among the ``other.'') Such people will also note that there are several aspects of Chinese culture which I consider to be immoral such as their record on human rights and environmental issues (These people actually serve endangered species in restaurants and charge extra for them since they are endangered!!). Furthermore, anthropologists might be shocked to learn that I, a former EMT, talked my way onto the Taiwan English language radio to publicize the fact that their island's ambulances were simply awful in comparison to what they could or should be. Yes, I interfered in their culture, but then again people were dying and suffering needlessly. Anthropologists don't do this.5 (Besides two points, (1) Chinese culture is tough. Its lasted well over two thousand years and I'm quite certain it can take anything I can dish out. (2) We are entering into a global culture as anyone involved in business or technology knows. Within this context, I've got as much right to use Taiwan as a playground for my activities as I do the United States. If I thought I could break Taiwan, I would not play with it the way I did.)

This has gone on longer than I expected, yet the issue is complicated. I think that what we need to understand is that David Hess's book is not a skeptical or a paranormal book. It is an anthropological book. In a strange metaphorical way, we are inside the book looking out and have difficulty seeing the big picture that is needed to understand what he is talking about. We are trying to figure out if he is for us or against us. He's not. He's just watching us and taking careful notes. Or at least that's what he's claiming to do. I suspect that like everyone else, at times he would like to see us become more like himself, and hence less judgmental. (Yet, if we weren't judgmental, we wouldn't be skeptics. We'd be undecided.)

Let me conclude, by stating that the attention is flattering in a peculiar way, although being the object of anthropological study I am beginning to understand why the Chinese Communists banned anthropologists from studying Chinese in China. Its disconcerting! Let me hope that Hess will take these comments on his work in the respectful attitude with which they are intended. Perhaps, he, too, will appreciate the attention. I think I speak for all on the ISUNY steering committee when I state that he has an open invitation to speak at our group or contribute a piece or two in our newsletter.

-Peter Huston

David Hess Responds.

Peter Huston accurately describes my position on claims of paranormal phenomena in Science in the New Age. Because that book is an analysis of the cultural meaning and politics of claims of the paranormal, and claims against it, in American culture, I do not analyze the validity of those claims. As I put it somewhere in the book, I'm less interested in whether claims of paranormal phenomena are right or wrong than in whether they are right or left. There are different ways of assessing claims.

Where Peter misunderstands me, anthropology, and my book is his confusion of cultural relativism and moral relativism. In my book Science and Technology in a Multicultural World,6 I distinguish the different types of relativism and explain why cultural relativism does not necessarily imply moral relavitism; in fact, for many anthropologists it implies the opposite. Cultural relativism is a social science method that begins an analysis with the point of view of the native(s) or experiencers. This starting point is valuable in order to avoid projecting one's own assumptions and categories onto those of the other. (The term ``other'' is widespread in interpretive social science; see Johannes Fabian's Time and the Other.) However, anthropology does not end with the native, local, or experiencer's point of view. Instead, it moves on to an analysis of the cultural meaning or a psychological, social, and/or cultural explanation of the views and categories expressed.

In general, anthropologists have promoted cultural relativism as a social science method in order to struggle against racist and colonialist assumptions about the irrationality of non-Western peoples and the justification of colonialism that is built into those assumptions. Thus, for most anthropologists cultural relativism is linked to a position against moral relativism in favor of the protection of basic human rights. In cases such as female circumcision there have been debates over the two goods of moral principles: antiracism/anticolonialism and basic human rights. I side with the human rights end of the spectrum of positions.

On the question of paranormal phenomena, they are generally regarded as fairly harmless parts of people's religious/magical belief systems. When they interact with medicine, as in choices to go to psychic healers over biomedicine, then one begins to find the similar sort of dilemma described in the previous paragraph. Here, I favor education rather than repression of psychic healers and other non-orthodox medical practitioners. To the extent that skepticism favors repression, I find it morally repugnant. To the extent that skepticism favors education of the public regarding their medical/healing options and the scientific value of the different options, then I am in agreement with this position.

-David Hess

Ask The Psychic.

Question: Dear Mr. Psychic, An old friend from college called me last week. This friend is really smart, and has invented a truly wonderful engine that runs on ordinary tonic water (or extra-ordinary tonic water if that's all you have). She has offered me an exclusive chance to get in on the ground floor of the new GNTNC engine manufacturing company for only $10,000. Not that I'm skeptical or anything (she's faxed a pile of testimonials about the engine's performance and effervesce), but $10,000 is a lot of money. What do you see in my future? Should I invest. -Tonic'ed in Tuscola

Answer: Dear TnT, By all means invest! I see a great future for you in alternatively fueled automobiles and other non-orthodox transportation systems. To help get you started in this new and exciting future, I am faxing you my portfolio of over-unity engines and solid roadway extensions (designed to connect two cities on opposite sides of a river) for your consideration.

Q: Mr Quinne, I can't help about the shape I'm in, I can't sing, I ain't pretty and my legs are thin.

A: Don't ask me what I think of you I might not give the answer that you want me to. Oh well,...

-David Quinne

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

ISUNY Meetings.

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.

This is 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, David Hess, Bob Mulford 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, Harish Sethu 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 University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

2 Having misunderstood the context of the term. I misunderstood the underlying sentiment. I assert that various paranormal phenomena either exist or they don't. I also assert that it is important to determine whether they do or not if the claims are important. Having taken these positions, the ``lets compromise'' idea seems to be a cop-out. Of course, I've always found myself easily sympathizing with extremist.

3 Cornell, 1994

4 Am I the only one out there who finds it unsettling and possibly immoral that this guy turned in his very own brother to the FBI when he discovered him to be the Unabomber? Does anybody else think that prior to involving the government he should have at least approached his brother on the issue of whether or not he should mail bombs to strangers? Is this betrayal indicative of a dysfunctional family structure or am I being weird again?

5 Taiwan's poor ambulance service has, by the way, probably produced more random deaths and cripplings than the Unabomber. It is not necessarily true for anthropologists to say that it is immoral to interfere in another culture. Nevertheless, it is a position they take for a variety of reasons, including the difficulty of making proper moral choices as to behaviors at all times.

6 Columbian University Press, 1995