The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 3, Issue 10 November, 1997

 
 
 

November Meeting

Science in the Courts.

From DNA tests in the O.J. trial to expert testimony on the health effects of chemicals, scientific evidence has an increasing role in our nation's courts. But is our 200 year old court system ready for this evidence? Is it being used and interpreted correctly? Do experts honestly representing their professions, or are they simply hired guns? Are juries able to fairly and correctly evaluate and weigh statistical and scientific claims? Join our panel of legal experts as they debate the changing role of Science in the Courts.

All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. We meet at 7:00 pm, the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August) at the Guilderland Pubic Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. The formal meeting is followed by an informal gathering.

New Name for ISUNY

At the September ISUNY meeting a motion passed to select a new name for our organization at the December meeting. The new name should reflect an emphasis on promoting science and rational thinking, and attempt to be self-explanatory. Brevity has also been suggested as a desirable quality.

Some skeptic groups avoid the word ``skeptic'' opting instead for ``rational examiners'' or ``critical thinking.'' But, there are strong arguments for keeping the word ``skeptic'' in the title. Skeptic, after all, does make the meaning clear for those who read {Skeptical Inquirer, and it can be explained---turned into a good word---for those who do not.

Regardless, the December meeting is approaching fast and a new name must be selected, or we must vote to keep the old name. If you have comments or suggestions please send them to the editors of this newsletter, or talk with a club officer at any ISUNY meeting.

-The Editors

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 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 our records show your membership has expired, and may be dropped from the mailing list. If your renewal date is incorrect, please bring the error to our attention. Despite our efforts to keep the mailing list up-to-date, we do make mistakes.

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. Membership articles contribute greatly to the quality of 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 December, 1997 issue is November 15th, 1997.

Membership and Publicity

Peter Huston is chairing the membership and publicity committee charged with publicizing meetings and proposals for finding new members. If you would like to help with this and related tasks, see Peter at any ISUNY meeting.

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. 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.

Ask the Skeptic

About a month ago, I got talking to a gas station attendant of about 60 years of age or so. He asked me what I did, and I said I was a physicist. This got him interested; he asked me whether I believed the universe was 12-dimensional, whether there were wormholes---could aliens travel through them and visit our world from other dimensions?

I started explaining that wormholes were OK at much-smaller-than-subatomic scales, but that large wormholes through which you could send an object without destroying it are a different story. He didn't pay much attention, and launched into tales of his UFO-abduction experiences instead.

He started with Mount Rainier in Washington state. Apparently he watched UFOs fly over it, and one day he decided he knew where they might land. So he went up into this high mountain meadow. But he saw nothing; in fact, he fell asleep in a ditch. He was awakened by a search party who told him he was missing for three days, though he thought it was only a couple of hours. Years later, he would learn that missing time was a sign of a UFO abduction.

There was another case where he had missing time, but he had recovered some memories with the aid of a hypnotist. This was during a cross-country drive. Around 1991, he mentioned to his wife that he'd like to see a UFO up close, but he discovered that he had already done so. During that long-ago cross-country drive, he was driving a convertible at night, when he had this feeling that something was following him. Sure enough, a UFO. He drove up to this farm structure in the middle of nowhere, and went inside. But the UFO was still there---he heard a steady humming sound. He went outside to look, and found that a stream of light was flowing down from the hovering UFO. It was a peculiar sort of light, with strange streaks of color, and it sort of waved and flowed---more like a luminous liquid than light. He was lifted up off the ground, about 75 feet and rising. He didn't feel any fear of falling, though he was afraid of being dissected. He didn't go into what might have happened aboard---he was distracted by my asking for the name of his hypnotist (Olind, a local M.D.), and mumbled something about yes, hypnotism can introduce false memories, but he had other, more solid evidence for his stuff as well---but mentioned that soon afterwards, in his original memory of stopping by the structure for the night, he came across a farmer who asked him if the parked car was his. Apparently the car had been abandoned in that spot for three days.

He also went into a childhood UFO experience, which supposedly left him a scar and was witnessed by other family members as well. I didn't catch much of this story; anyway, he seamlessly passed into another cross-country drive story which involved two hitchhikers he picked up in Texas, when going to L.A.---just before the Kennedy assassination. One of them looked too posh for a hitchhiker; indeed, the hitchhiker said he had gone to Harvard, was a stockbroker, and a governor's son. They noticed, from the jacket and paraphernalia that that he was wearing, that he was in some sort of special unit in the army. They started questioning him about what he thought about JFK, apparently looking to recruit him as a rifleman for the assassination. However, he told them that Kennedy was OK, and that while he was a crack shot with a pistol, he wasn't that good with a rifle. After the assassination, he told the police about the incident, but nothing came of it. Years later, he saw his Harvard guy in the paper, confirming that he was all of what he said, including the governor's son part. He finds it highly significant that some governor (Connally's name came up, but I'm not too straight on my JFK conspiracy lore) arranged for JFK's travel plans to be altered so he could be in Dallas.

He then jumped into a story about his experience working at a space center (Johnson?). One day he stumbled into an area kept under heavy lock and key, and peeked behind a curtain. Soon afterwards, a man who looked like Jewish movie director came up to him and asked what he saw. I didn't catch all of what followed---I was trying to make excuses to go back to the car---but apparently what he had stumbled upon was a movie set made up to look exactly like the moon surface as seen on TV. In fact, he checked some of the alleged moon photos later, and found they had features exactly like what he remembered from the movie set. The moon landing was a fake.

As I broke off, he remarked how strange life was.

-Taner Edis edis@iastate.edu

Taner Edis is a phyicist, moderator of the skeptic list, and he swears this is a true story. To join skeptic send email to skeptic-request@listproc.hcf.jhu.edu with the word ``help'' in the message body.

Ask the Psychic

Investigating the ``Haunted'' house of Lowville, NY.

The last week of October, this psychic was called for his opinion about a haunted house located outside of the village of Lowville in upper New York. Thinking it strange that I did not detect the psychomagnetic fields generated by haunting spirits, I determined to investigate. Calling my good friend, investigator Nick Cooper (private detective, former New York City police officer, and feng shui instructor), we set out for Lowville. This is his report of our encounter.

-David Quinne

Near the end of October, news outlets in Lowville, New York were abuzz with reports of a haunted house. Witnesses reported spirit lights, unusual sounds, creaking noises, and demonic apparitions. Several visitors to the house saw a headless ghost, and neighborhood children were reported running from the scene. The owners of the house, Mark and Linda Oblatski, were interviewed on TV the evening of October 26th. This publicity brought scores of visitors, whose cars blocked traffic, making life difficult for the Oblatski's neighbors.

I was called in to investigate this house by my good friend, psychic David Quinne. David and I had worked together on many murder cases, and I knew him as a reliable and steady clairvoyant. I remember that his prediction that Carl Lansky, a sailor missing from his watch, would be found drowned was uncanny in its accuracy. I will never forget how this vital clue helped break the case.

The two of us left Albany, New York by late afternoon Friday (the 31st) and arrived in Lowville at 7:30 pm. We had called ahead so the Oblatski's were expecting us. The house is located on the edge of town, and the night was so dark (David said it was a ``new'' moon) that we almost missed our turn. Once there, however, it was clear we had found the place.

No fewer than 20 cars were parked near or in front of the Oblatski's residence. People were all over the place, many dressed for what looked like Wicca or pagan rituals. There were young children running around dressed as skeletons, ghosts and goblins. One woman had on traditional witch's garb straight from The Wizard of Oz, and another wore wings and halo like an angel. It was clear this house had become a local New Age hangout.

The house itself was an older Victorian with a large front porch and four gables. The yard was liberally strewn with pumpkins and straw. Many of the pumpkins had been carved with faces. An old oak tree in the front yard was hung with a dozen such pumpkins, each with a candle seen glowing through its squat (and squash) eyes.

Entry to the house was blocked by a young girl, maybe 14 or 15 years of age (although it was hard to tell because she too was dressed in pagan garb). Through expert questioning, we determined that she was Melinda Oblatski, Mark and Linda's oldest. Melinda was collecting $3 from each person entering the house. David and I looked at each other and knew what the other was thinking: ``What kind of scam are they running?''

We started to protest the fee, when Linda Oblatski showed up. ``Are you the reporters from Albany?'' she asked. We nodded our heads. ``Well, come on in!'' she invited, and we followed Linda into the depths of her ``haunted'' house.

Dressed in ragged clothing, stuffed with straw, and with a simple rope holding up her faded and torn blue jeans, Linda Oblatski showed us around the house. In my long career as a Long Island detective, I had seen some sordid affairs, but this was the worst. Nothing about the place was legitimate. The house was covered with black and orange paper decorations, cotton was strewn about like so many cobwebs, and rooms were left intentionally darkened to conceal the practice of trickery.

This didn't stop the locals from coming, and being duped by simple parlor tricks. At one point Linda showed us a box labeled ``human eyes'' and invited us to ``reach in and feel them.'' The box turned out to contain wet grapes; a trick you can read about in almost any children's magic book. Another room was said to contain a ghost, which turned out to be Peter---the Oblatski's youngest---running around in the dark dragging a glowing sheet over his head. The basement was said to be an old burial ground, but any member of the Association for Gravestone Studies could see the ``tombstones'' were made of cardboard and the dirt was layered over a poured concrete floor.

We could barely stand it and left after only a half hour. People were turning their hard-earned money over to these charlatans faster than we could count it. In return, all they got were cheap thrills and phony ghosts. Sure, they may have been enjoying being fooled. ``What's the harm?'' Linda Oblatski asked as we left. Well I've seen it before. These people may be having fun now, but some day they may need the services of a psychic such as my friend David. Their own house may be built on a real burial ground and become infested with the unsettled spirits therein. This little bit of fun may cause them to delay seeking professional help until it is too late.

Too many times I've seen the result of putting off good psychic counseling. My files are filled with the sad tales of those who attempted their own exorcism, or went on a spirit quest without guides, or delayed contacting a medium when poltergeists struck. The spirit world is too serious to be taken in jest, even if, as the Oblatskis claim, it is just for fun.

-Nick Cooper

Nicholas Cooper is ISUNY's psychic investigator. He has experience investigating claimed paranormal phenomena, and has written 3 books on the paranormal for Paladrome Press. His most recent book is In Search of the Year 2000.

Letter to the Editor

The X-Files Promotes Rationalism.

I just received the latest issue of The Why-Files, and since the discussion was about one of my favorite topics, The X-Files, I thought I'd weigh in on a couple of things.

First, I'm a little uneasy with your distinction between traditional and postmodern science fiction. Personally, I prefer the ``traditional'' science fiction of Asimov and Niven to the newer sci-fi of Neuromancer; yet, I am a rabid X-phile. Maybe it's the fact that my former marriage to a graduate student in Rhetoric exposed me to too much jargon, but whenever I hear something described as ``postmodern'' the hairs on my neck stand on end (although I will say your definition was clearer than any my ex or her colleagues offered). The discussion reminded me of the argument I used to hear that basically any bad (i.e., scientifically indefensible) science fiction was fantasy.

I think both parties in the debate missed the essential point about The X-Files. My defense of the show is based on the fact that, while embracing ideas for which there is no empirical evidence in the real world, it also embraces the scientific method and reasoned inquiry. Mulder does not ask Scully to believe his theories based on faith; he asks her to interpret the available evidence. (There was one episode where the roles were reversed, where Scully believed in the paranormal phenomenon because they correlated to her upbringing as a Catholic while agnostic Mulder argued that nothing out of the ordinary was going on.) And, Scully is probably the best poster girl for rationality in the history of TV (I guess Mr. Spock would be the poster boy). Mulder does not blindly accept all paranormal claims; he is quick to de-bunk frauds and charlatans.

What bothers me are shows that attack reason itself. On a recent Hercules the rulers of Atlantis were so obsessively driven by ``rationality'' that they ignored the warnings of Cassandra that their land was going to be destroyed, and they actively persecuted her for claiming to have psychic powers from the gods. This show took the position that it is morally wrong to believe in reasoned inquiry and that all claims of paranormal ability should be accepted without empirical evidence. This was yet another manifestation of the Mad Scientist that diminishes respect for education and reason (this isn't solely a problem in ``fantasy'' shows like Hercules; Star Trek: Voyager had an episode last season where descendants of dinosaurs had evolved into a scientocracy where free inquiry was forbidden and only ``official doctrine'' could be investigated. Even though such a system was viewed as wrong, it created the misperception that that was how science really worked.).

The attack on the show seemed to center on the question of whether the show should run a disclaimer that the paranormal events depicted don't actually happen in reality. But any rational person would know that already, and any irrational one would ignore the disclaimer. This reminded me of attacks on the Oliver Stone film JFK, which was so well made that some idiots thought Stone actually used footage that showed Oswald being framed. Anyone whose grasp on reality is so tenuous that they think fiction is reality would probably assume that it was the disclaimer that was fictitious. Mulder does not end every episode ``muttering something mystical or arcane'' as Dorothy Sager said; in fact Mulder has demonstrated contempt for those who deal in mysticism.

Recently there was a show (I believe on FOX) that recreated four paranormal ``stories'' each week and then asked the audience to guess which were based on ``true stories'' and which were made up. What was interesting to me was the idea that if you couldn't tell the difference, then you should be skeptical of all such stories. Of course believers of irrationality would simply accept the true stories as true without thinking about it any further.

Where would disclaimers stop? Should Seinfeld run a disclaimer that people without steady employment in New York City really can't afford apartments that nice? Should Nothing Sacred run a disclaimer that there is no empirical evidence that Catholicism is the one true religion? Should Frasier point out that local radio personalities couldn't possibly make enough to afford the apartment HE lives in? (I recall someone who had worked in radio who criticized WKRP because the DJs didn't wear headphones). If I was entering the disclaimer contest, my disclaimer would be ``Warning: the following program is fictional. Also, water is wet, there is no Santa Clause, Elvis is dead, and Oswald acted alone. Get a grip, people!''

To me, it all comes back to process over content. The content of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer is contrary to reasonable beliefs, but the show is smartly written and has characters who act intelligently under the admittedly silly circumstances. I will accept Star Trek's babble about mind-reading extra-terrestrials as long as it is incorporated in an intelligent plot line. I will watch the exploits of Mulder and Scully while their debate over the existence of paranormal phenomenon is based on evidence and not on faith.

-Dave Dumble Dwdumble@aol.com

David Dumble was a lawyer with the New York State Consumer Protection Board until he moved back to his native California seeking warmer weather. He admits that, for a self-professed skeptic, he has an inordinate fondness for TV shows that feature pseudo-science.

Responses.

I would like to respond to the commments about disclaimers for other shows, which, especially for sit-coms, are a little beyond the point---actually a lot beyond the point. Besides, ``reality-based'' shows such as Law & Order (one of my personal favorites), do have disclaimers that they are fictional and do not represent any persons living or dead. Admittedly Law & Order's premises for most shows are based on yesterday's headlines, but they use those only as a place from which to construct a fictional program. So why can't The X-Files, make a similar statement?

Also, I try to avoid calling people ``idiots'' because they may be misled; it makes it more difficult to try to mend their distorted thinking.

-Dot Sager

I don't mean to leave the impression that cynicism is all there is to postmodernism. The rubric ``postmodern'' is used to describe an eclectic mix of philosophical, literary and social trends. The postmodern age, however, is marked by a distinct mistrust of authority which has leaked into popular literature, including some science fiction.

The mad scientist and lone genius, however, are staples of science fiction going back to its very beginnings. Witness Jules Verne's Captain Nemo. Likewise, in science fiction mainstream, scientists are sometimes the antagonist, doubting the new idea around which the story is cast, and even refusing to look at evidence. This perplexes me about the skeptical relationship to science fiction. Much is made of The X-Files incorporating conspiracy and the paranormal in the context of, as you point out, an evidential search for the truth. Little is said, however, of portrayal of scientist-as-foil in the early (and sometimes later) works of Heinlein, Asimov or even Clark.

-Mike Sofka

October First ISUNY Meeting

President Mike Sofka opened the meeting with his usual description of our purpose for being and information about the newsletter, website, and lending library.1 The topics for upcoming meetings are ``Science in the Courts'' for November with a panel discussion, and for December, a talk by Dr. Dean Falk, University at Albany anthropologist, on early hominid brain evolution.

The topic for the instant meeting was ``Why the Book of Revelation is Often Misunderstood and Misused.'' Our speaker was the Rev. Dr. James Farrell, the retired minister of First United Methodist Church of Schenectady. Dr. Farrell was a very vibrant and engaging speaker. He demonstrated throughout his talk that he had a thorough and well-founded grasp of his subject. Audience members were very attentive, and some were able to show their own knowledge of the subject, while others were delighted to learn more about an area not often thought of. The text of Dr. Farrell's notes for his talk appear on the ISUNY Web page at http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny/revelation.html.

Future ISUNY Meetings

December 3, 1997,
The Fossil Record of Human Brain Evolution

Dr. Dean Falk of SUNY Albany Department of Anthropology will talk about the evolution of the human brain and cognition. Dr. Falk earned her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1976. She has done research on cranial blood flow in australopithecine, from which she developed the `radiator theory' of brain evolution [Brain Evolution in Homo: The ``Radiator'' Theory, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13:333-344, 1990]. She is the author of Braindance, published by Henry Holt and Company (1992).

If you have a topic idea, please bring it to the attention of an officer at any ISUNY meeting.

All meetings are held at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY, at 7:00 pm, on the first Wednesday of each month. 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, David ``the Mighty'' Quinne, Nick Cooper, David Dumble, and Dorothy Sager for their contributions to this newsletter. Thanks also go to Peter Huston, Robert Mulford, and Dorothy and Ralph Hoyt for their help planning and publicizing ISUNY meetings, and to Herb Jones for making room arrangements with the Guilderland Library. A special thank you to Dorothy Sager for copy-editing. Dot does an excellent job removing removing typos and errors and things that go bump in the type from our newsletter. Any remaining mistakes must be a Halloween prank.

ISUNY thanks all of its members for their support. We would especially like to thank our Patron members: Jordan Coleman, Charles Davies, Larry Jones & Barbara Eisenstadt, Alan & Susan French, Dr. Richard H. Lange, Christopher Masto, Hugh A. McGlinchey, Bob & Dee Mulford, Dorothy and Carl Sager, Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells, William White, Guier Scott Wright.

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 be returned only 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/.

Unless otherwise stated, permission is granted to other skeptical organizations to reprint articles from The Why-Files as long as proper credit is given. The Why-Files also requests that you send copies of your newsletters that reprint our articles. All articles printed in The Why-Files remain the copyrighted property of their author.

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 Word has gotten back to me that some people would prefer a shorter buisiness meeting. This has been placed on the November meeting agenda.

-Mike