The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 3, Issue 1 January, 1997

 
 
 

January Meeting.

Vampires in New England.

Mercy Brown died in 19th century Massachusetts of consumption (now called tuberculosis). Soon after other members of her family died of consumption until one night her father, on the suggestion of neighbors, exhumed the body to remove the heart. This is just one case of New England ``vampirism'' investigated in the film Vampires in New England. Learn about the vampire of folklore and the evidence that some New Englanders believed, and practiced, these folk remedies for disease as late as the 1860s.

Please note that this months meeting is January 8th, 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. Meetings are free and open to the public. In the event of bad weather, we will hold the meeting if the Guilderland Public Library is open.

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 (518) 374-8460.

The Capital District Humanist Society meets the second Sunday of each month at the Sage Colleges Albany Campus on New Scotland Avenue. The meetings begin at 1:15 pm. For more information contact Paul DeFrancisco at (518) 272-4772.

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 have renewed, and the date is incorrect please bring the error to our attention.

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 emailed 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 deadline for articles in the February, 1997 issue is January 25th, 1997.

The Unexplained on A&E.

January 2nd the Arts and Entertainment network begins a new weekly series The Unexplained. It will debut at 10:00 pm Eastern Time. The first show is about ``Psychic Detectives'' Noreen Renier and the Williston, FL case. Reliable sources say this series will feature both skeptical and non-skeptical investigators.

ISUNY Lending Library.

The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York maintains a library of books, newsletters, magazines, video and audio tapes addressing various paranormal topics. ISUNY members may borrow material from this library on a month-by-month basis. Our collection has grown over the years from the kind donations by our members, and includes many back issues of the Skeptical Inquirer (including volume 1, issue 1) donated by Richard Lange M.D, audio tapes made and donated by Dorothy and Ralph Hoyt, UFO magazines by ``Lewis's friend'', and many newsletters from skeptic groups around the world sent by Barry Karr of CSICOP.

In addition, ISUNY thanks the many members have dug deep into the dusty shelves of used bookstores and contributed to our growing collection. If you would like to borrow a book, newsletter or tape see our librarian Lewis Treadway before or after any ISUNY meeting. All material is lent free to members except for tapes for which we ask a $1.00 donation that will be used to purchase further library material.

A Candle Goes Out.

Carl Sagan, Astronomer, Author, Skeptic and Teacher died December 20th of pneumonia. He was 62 years old. In his life Carl Sagan has published research on the atmosphere of Venus, the dust storms of Mars, nuclear winter and extraterrestrial intelligence. He has also written a dozen popular books and countless articles on science which have been read by millions.

I had the great pleasure of hearing Carl Sagan speak in 1994 at the State University of New York at Albany. This was just before the publication of Pale Blue Dot, and Dr. Sagan's talk included a short reading from that book. The passage was about the only voyager photograph of Earth. In this photograph, taken at Sagan's insistence, the earth was a single pixel---a pale blue dot.

On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ``superstar,'' every ``supreme leader,'' every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there---on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Carl Sagan saw the big picture.

More importantly, Carl Sagan was passionate about bringing the big picture to others. He was above all else a teacher, and I think an extraordinary one. After his talk, he sat down and took questions from the audience for nearly an hour. People lined up at the microphone to ask him about life on other planets, UFOs, the nature of science, and his views on religion. I sat there in awe.

Carl Sagan looked perfectly at ease, in his natural environment, while answering those questions. And what questions they were! Many of them would have left me, and I suspect most skeptics, exasperated. Just after an insightful question about the future of planetary exploration, would be a question about the government cover up of UFOs. After one concerned questioner asked what she can do about the environment, another asked about the growing synergy of science and religion. If one questioner wanted to know if there was life on mars, another wanted to know why scientists were so close minded.

In The Demon Haunted World, his last book, Carl Sagan said there is no such thing as a dumb question. He really believed this. Never did he show a lack of patience. Never once did he answer in a way that would make the questioner feel silly. He used each question to teach something. He might say that he didn't know the answer, ``but, let me tell you a related story'' and proceed to use the question as a jumping point for something better. The questioner never seemed unsatisfied.

My favorite story that night started with ``When I was talking with the Dali Lama, I asked the same question I ask all great religious leaders.'' He then discussed the nature of religious beliefs that might conflict with science, and the nature of those that do not. (This story is in The Demon Haunted World.) When I'm 62, I only hope I could have have lived the kind of life were I could, with a strait face, begin a story ``When I was talking with the Dali Lama....''

We skeptics lost a friend when Carl Sagan died. But more, we lost a teacher.

-Mike Sofka

Ask The Skeptic.

Question: I am a member of a strange and eclectic religious sect known as the United Methodist Church. I have recently learned that within my church there exists a ``Satanic Ritual Abuse Task Force.'' Yet I know of no evidence that Satanic Ritual Abuse exists. What do you know about this group?

Answer: The Methodist church, as everyone should know, is a large mainstream Protestant sect. I was raised within this religion, but I left for a variety of reasons. Chief among these was my belief that the church is so large and so varied that it stands for nothing at all. Why join a group like that when you can stand alone just as well? In any event, I've done some very basic research on the task force. I am trying to learn more.

The Methodist church is basically a collection of people. Their doctrines are determined Democratically by voting. Churches are expected to follow these doctrines more or less. If they don't wish to though, then this is all right up to a point, and they can still remain Methodists. Any church can form a task force for any purpose, although it is assumed that task forces shall be formed to combat problems which exist. Nevertheless, this is not a requirement, and individual churches may, if they'd like, form task forces to combat imaginary problems like Satanic Ritual Abuse or Defamation of Trolls and Goblins. So far, I have not found anyone who has ever heard of the Methodist Ritual Abuse Task force outside of FMS Foundation circles. These people are opposed to it, stating that Satanic Ritual Abuse does not exist. As the Methodist church is also a large bureaucracy, it is difficult to determine who exactly initiated, controls, or funds this group.

Some background is in order. First of all, it is proven that many people believe in Satanic cults. However, ``Satanism'' is an emotionally charged term and is difficult to define. If we define Satanism as the worship of Satan, the Christian devil, then of course it exists. Such Satanism consists, however, of angry rebellious people, generally teenagers, who engage in immature and unimportant behaviors of various sorts. It cannot be denied that their primary inspiration is probably overbearing instruction in Christianity. As the famous philosopher, Marc ``Animal'' MacYoung, once said, ``Christians and Satanists are playing the same game. They're just on different sides.''

Ritual abuse claims started with a book called Michelle Remembers. Michelle was a poor woman who chose a quack for a psychotherapist. The therapist began to ``recover'' memories. These consisted of a variety of horror stories about how she had been abused, tortured and imprisoned for months at a time by her own family, who were part of a large Satanic cult. The book sold well and inspired other therapists to create Satanic Ritual Abuse patients of their own.

Michelle's therapist eventually chose a course of treatment for Michelle which included conversion to Catholicism, his religion, and his abandoning his wife and marrying her instead. Michelle's family denies being part of a Satanic cult and it has been shown that during the time she states she was locked in a basement cage for months on end, she had perfect attendance in school.

Since this time, Satanic abuse claims have been investigated by the FBI, which found none, and anthropologists, who can find no evidence of them either. Jeffrey Victor, a Sociologist, wrote an excellent book on the whole thing called Satanic Panic. For a brief overview of the subject of Satanic cult hysteria in America, see Ofshe's Making Monsters, Nathan and Sneddeker's Satan's Silence, Victor's Satanic Panic, and Hick's In Search of Satan. If you call, 1-800-634-4097 then the FBI should give you instructions on how to obtain their booklet, Investigators Guide to Allegations of ``Ritual'' Child Abuse, which states quite clearly that they have found no evidence that such a problem exists.

As bizarre as this claim sounds, it is really quite serious. In America today, there are many people imprisoned due to fanciful and impossible allegations of Satanic ritual abuse. Some are slowly being released but others are still within our prison walls suffering needlessly at the expense of us, the tax-payers. Countless families have been broken up by quack therapists who have produced bizarre and provably false allegations. Locally, the Planned Parenthood Rape Crisis Service have put on a program the last two years in a row. This program was open to the public but also involved training of government employees, particularly in law enforcement, many of which were undoubtedly paid (by you!) to go. Both years the programs featured speakers who publicly claimed the reality of Satanic ritual abuse.

I hope people will contact these organizations and ask them to provide evidence of their claim that ritual abuse exists. Do not settle for confabulated memories induced under misguided attempts at therapy. Ask for real evidence. My suggestion is that if they do not provide any, then get them and everyone you know to stop sending money to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Methodist Church who support this sort of malicious, harmful nonsense. Satanic ritual abuse claims are a modern day witch-hunt.

-Peter Huston

Peter Huston's work appears regularly in the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. He is the author of two books most recently Scams from the Great Beyond: How to Make Easy Money Hoaxing New Age, Psychic, and UFO Phenomena by Paladin Press, Boulder, CO.

Science and Education in a Demon-Haunted World.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Carl Sagan, Random House, 1995, ISBN 0-394-53512-X, $25.95.

The David Duncan Professor of Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell, Dr. Carl Sagan, has constructed an outstanding published work, exceptionally useful for those useful for those of us that have to face the media to debunk charlatans---the encompassing term Sagan uses to describe those who practice the pseudo-sciences from astrology to witchcraft (Zoroastrianism is never mentioned).

Sagan begins his latest book with a six page preface dedicated to his teachers, notably his parents who introduced him to skepticism and wonder, thought processes he describes as ``Two cohabiting modes of thought that are central to scientific method.''

In its first chapter, ``The Most Precious Thing,'' Sagan begins by sharing with us a personal experience. He encounters a taxi driver who has an exuberant passion for science but has only been confused by the popular media into thinking that science is crystals, lost cities, and secretly hidden extraterrestrials. Sagan describes his glum experience of reluctantly dismissing each of these ideas to the driver. He goes on to lament that somehow the real scientific establishment has let this gentleman down.

During the next chapter Sagan starts to echo the thoughts of Thomas Jefferson, as he does throughout the book, that the existence of a democratic society relies on the critical thinking ability of its citizenry to understand, debate and resolve issues. For today's society, those issues include, the greenhouse effect, ozone depletion, and nuclear winter, but are not just limited to scientific topics.

In fact critical thinking skills are the theme of this book. Abundant examples are given throughout. Sagan will state a premiss (such as alien abductions), go through an analysis of its purported evidence, and challenge each affirmation with a logical solution. He also raises the intriguing notion that alien abductions have more to teach us about our lack of understanding of the human psyche than about visitors from space.

There is also a chapter which deals quite thoroughly with critical thinking skills applied to psychoanalysis, particularly to alien abduction ``victims'' and how some alien abduction analysts have been intentionally misled by their patients.

By far, the most humorous example to which critical thinking skills are applied is given in the chapter titled ``The Dragon in My Garage.'' Here Sagan has done better than his best and provides us with a memorable depiction that the general pubic will enjoy and understand. He establishes that specialized ex post facto ``explanations'' that explain away each counter statement, in fact, explain nothing.

There is also a commentary on the state of science education in the United States. This chapter contains remarks written by high school students in response to one of Sagan's Parade articles on the same subject, remarks that would be hilarious if one didn't consider that these students are the future of our country.

Additionally, a sampling of the opinions of parents are included with regard to how they feel about science teaching, teachers, and the school system in general.

Along the way, Sagan gives us his assessment of the popular television program The X-Files, remarks on the Star Trek phenomenon, and delivers a sobering opinion of Dr. Edward Teller.

Likewise, Sagan reminisces on the ``don't touch'' museums of his youth and admires today's ``hands-on'' museums. He praises the IMAX/OMNIMAX films To Fly and Blue Planet but castigates science museums for their aversion to the ``e''-word (evolution). Instead, he says, biology exhibits say beings ``develop'' or ``emerge.''

He has a pointed remark for the planetarium community that might offend a few planetarians as well as a statement about the intrusion of the planetarium projector into the audience view. He also chronicles the saga of two community volunteers who made the Sciencenter in Ithaca, New York, a reality.

The book concludes with ``Real Patriots Ask Questions,'' written with Ann Druyan. Referring again to Thomas Jefferson, who ``believed that the habit of skepticism is an essential prerequisite for the responsible citizenship,'' Sagan elaborates that ``without skepticism our liberties can be eroded and our rights subverted. All that might stand between us and the enveloping darkness of the demon-haunted world we inhabit is the scientific method.''

Sagan's latest writing captures the essence of scientific thinking. It is a must-read, especially for anyone serious about scientific research and particularly science education. It is a book to be thoroughly absorbed and retained as a treasured reference. Planetarians should consider it required reading. It will be at our facility.

-Richard Monda

Richard Monda is Planetarium Director, The Schenectady Museum & Planetarium. This review has been submitted to the Planetarian, the quarterly journal of the International Planetarium Society.

Ask the Psychic.

Greetings and a happy new year to all psychics and skeptics. It is time, once again, for me to place my paranormal abilities at your disposal predict the major events of the coming year. My predictions from 1996 were nearly 100% accurate, so you ignore my perspicacious prognostications at your own risk.

Predictions for 1997.

-David Quinne

David Quinne is ISUNY's official psychic. He is a graduate of Maharishi International University where he studied quantum metaphysics with a minor in political science. Questions to the Psychic can be sent to this newsletter care of the editor.

ISUNY Meetings.

Vampires in New England.

Mercy Brown died in 19th century Massachusetts of consumption. Soon after, other members of her family also died until one night her father exhumed the body to remove the heart. This is just one case of New England ``vampirism'' investigated in the film Vampires in New England. Learn about the vampire of folklore, and the evidence that some New Englanders believed, and practiced these folk remedies as late as the 1880s.

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 or email sofkam@rpi.edu.

Thank You.

Thank you to Peter Huston, Mike Sofka 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. This newsletter was typeset on the first day of the first year of the new millennium (give or take 4 years).

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, Alan & Susan French, Chris 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. Macros for this newsletter are available at http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/tex.html. The Why-Files are available 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.