|Volume 3, Issue 11||December, 1997|
Join us December 3rd, 1997 when Dr. Dean Falk of SUNY Albany Department of Anthropology will talk about the evolution of the human brain and cognition. Dr Falk's research is on cranial blood flow in australopithecine. She is the developer the `radiator theory' of brain evolution1, which suggests that our larger brains originally evolved as a cooling mechanism.
Dr. Falk is the author of Braindance2, which chronicles the history of the radiator theory, the evolution of brain development, and sex-linked brain differences and what they do and do not mean for cognitive development.
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.
At the September ISUNY meeting a motion passed to select a new name for our organization at the December meeting, or retain the old name and forever hold our peace. A 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.
If you have comments or suggestions, and will be unable to attend the December meeting, send them to the editors of this newsletter.
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.
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 you 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.
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 email@example.com, 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 Januar, 1998 issue is December 15th, 1997.
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.
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.
On Columbus Day weekend, CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) hosted a gathering of local skeptic groups east of the Mississippi. This was two days of meetings in which representatives from the local groups met with other groups, and with CSICOP staff.
A number of issues were raised by CSICOP, or by the local groups, which may affect ISUNY. Among the more important are:
That is a quick summary. Probably the meeting was most useful in that it brought local groups together that until recently were barely aware of each other's presence. It also showed a strong solidarity among local groups who want skepticism to be separate from secular humanism, although we are not sure what effect (if any) this solidarity has had. CSICOP is planning on meeting with the local groups west of the Mississippi, and having a convention of the local groups be an annual event.
In the November Why-Files, which was published the last week of October, appeared an article by Nick Cooper about his investigation of a haunted house in Lowville, NY.3 This article appeared under ``Ask The Psychic,'' a column capably edited by David Quinne for nearly three years.
For those of you new to ISUNY, David Quinne is the pseudonym of ISUNY's ``resident psychic.'' He is a real person who really is a member of ISUNY, and he does, on occasion, claim to have psychic powers. He began writing the column as a way to cover the lighter side of the paranormal and pseudoscience that frequent the desks of skeptics.
During the course of his editorship, David has written or edited columns on: psychomagnetic fields, orgone energy causing hurricanes, missing Ross Perot voters, Zeta Reticulan UFO lighting regulations, who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare, free-energy, and finding your own guardian angel (among others). The response has been positive, and several letters to the editor have asked David to explain, in his own unique style, some aspect of the New Age and psychic culture.
In November, David allowed his good friend, Nick Cooper, to poke light-hearted and seasonal fun at skeptics by relating their investigation of a Halloween ``haunted'' house. This is the first time ``Ask the Psychic'' targeted skeptics, and the result was, relatively speaking, as though all heck broke loose. When the article was posted to the Internet, apparently one or more skeptics took it seriously, and questioned David's credentials as a psychic, and his association with ISUNY (even asking if we have tested him, and when we might expect David to take up James Randi's challenge). One commentator suggested that while he knows it is a joke, he is concerned that others might be confused---a case of criticizing satire for being believable. Another assured us that from now on he would not take seriously anything printed in The Why-Files (leading one to wonder what he took seriously from David's previous columns).
If you have it available, I invite you to now re-read the November Why-Files and ask yourself: is this how skeptics behave? Would they really travel hours to debunk a Halloween fundraiser? The investigators portrayed in that article were wound so tight that if you put coal up their backside you would have diamonds within three months. That some non-skeptics `might be confused' is a sad testament to our public image as skeptics. That some skeptics were fooled into believing the article related true events can only be described as tragic.
The good news is that the bulk of the responses to Nick's article were positive. For every negative letter there were three expressing appreciation. One reader even got into the act, spinning tales in support of David's psychic powers. A few privately suggested that skeptics take themselves too seriously, and one confessed he was beginning to wonder if any skeptics had a sense of humor. I must confess that at one point I had similar thoughts.
David's own responses to his critics will appear in subsequent issues of The Why-Files (there were far too many questions to answer in a single issue). For now, I want to assure all of his fans that he will continue to write, and poke fun wherever his dousing rod may point. Meanwhile, The Why-Files will remain disclaimer free (except for our standard disclaimer) and rely on the intelligence and wit of our readership to sort the true from the satirical.
Our group was recently honored with an excellent talk by Dr. Rev. James Farrell, on the Book of Revelation, what is known about it and what it really means and what it meant to its author(s). Revelation is a piece of apocalyptic literature from the Christian tradition describing the end of current civilization and the coming of the messiah. It was an excellent talk and all present, I believe, found it enjoyable and educational.
Yet the Book of Revelation is just one piece of messianic apocalyptic literature. In many other religions, including even many UFO and saucer cults,4 this same theme appears. Many New Agers have been talking about an impending shift in the Earth's axis for some time. Soon, they say (if I understand correctly), we will have an East Pole and a West Pole. When I attended a channeling session a couple years ago at the Blue-White Rainbow, this notion was widespread or at least quickly understood by the bulk of those present.5
Which brings me to the theme of apocalyptic messianism in Chinese religious belief today and historically. Traditional Chinese religious beliefs are seen as non-exclusive, unlike Western ones. This does not, for a minute, mean that Chinese religious beliefs are more primitive than our own, but simply that they have evolved somewhat differently. I am quite confident that many Chinese could point to several places in their traditions where they appear more advanced to them than ours. (i.e. Confucianism's clear delineations of social obligations, as opposed to our somewhat confused inattention to this issue.) Most Chinese today simultaneously practice beliefs of several differing faiths. The exact number of faiths cited varies from scholar to scholar. It is agreed that the major three are Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.6 These are also mixed with various indigenous or minor beliefs.7
Now to non-religious people, this casual and complex arrangement is perfectly workable. If one needs divine assistance, most Chinese simply go where it's convenient (just like most Old Testament peoples). If they aren't satisfied with the response, they simply go someplace else. However, to those Chinese with a strong interest in religion or spirituality, things need to be clarified a little bit and a potential path, or choice of paths, needs to be delineated.
To those who wish to become devout or strongly spiritual in China, today and historically, there are three basic options, these are devotion to Buddhism or Taoism, or, instead, membership in a heterodox Chinese religious sect. Little is known in the West about heterodox Chinese religious sects, but in historical China they were quite important and still exist today. Such a sect is, typically, an organized body which has developed a unified theology based on the Chinese religious beliefs, but added certain other elements of indigenous origin.8 These elements, and the organized social structure, differentiate the sect from the beliefs and practices of most Chinese, strongly separating the believers (members) from the society around them.
Let's look at messianic apocalypticism in these three groups, Buddhism, Taoism and Heterodox Chinese religious sects, in order:
Buddhism is a globally important religion. It has many sects (there are four distinct theological divisions in Tibetan Buddhism alone!), so please understand that I am only referring to Chinese Buddhism (which is Mahayana in origin) in this article. Buddhist theology is complex and beautiful, too intricate for most of it to be described here in any sort of detail. Suffice it to say that it is believed that persons can become a Buddha by attaining enlightenment. In historical times this was first done by the man commonly known as ``The Buddha,'' or Sakyamuni Buddha, although Chinese believe there are and were several other Buddhas, with many divine powers, before Sakyamuni sat under the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. One of these is the Maitreya Buddha (Mi-lei-fo) or the happy Buddha. It is believed by most Chinese Buddhists that someday the Maitreya Buddha will return to Earth. Most Chinese Buddhists believe that this will happen someday, bringing changes and improving lives for good people, someday being far, far from now and thus relatively unimportant, but others believe that the time is imminent or relatively soon, and thus offer a messianic theme to the worship of the Maiteya Buddha.
As for Taoism, I know of no messianic tendencies in Taoism, but suspect they probably do exist. (As skeptics should probably say more often, ``Presence of ignorance does not necessarily indicate absence of evidence.'') Nevertheless, the bulk of advanced religious Taoist teachings tend to be both little known in the West, and hidden from outsiders in the East. I make no claim to be an expert of them.
It is with the heterodox religious sects that we see a lot of messianic apocalyptic tendencies. This is only natural. In the West, the messianic apocalyptic themes tend to be more vocally expressed among small, very devout groups which often separate themselves from mainstream society both socially and theologically. (For example, the Moonies, Jehovah Witnesses, and the Mormons all have strong themes of impending destruction which will punish the non-devout, but the true believers will survive and flourish.) Many of these groups are extremely cult-like in their behaviors, and recruit from the grass roots of Chinese society.
The White Lotus Sect, a group which overthrew the Yuan dynasty in 1358 C.E., and rebelled constantly under the Ming (1358--1644 C.E.) and early Ching (1644-1911 C.E.) dynasties, was extremely messianic and apocalyptic in its outlook. The group also believed in, and taught, sorcerous techniques to its members. It also served as the template for several other groups, including secret societies and trade guilds.9
Today, in Taiwan, China, and elsewhere there are a variety of these sects functioning. One has a house in Niskayuna and keeps a rotating stock of missionaries which come and go back and forth from Taiwan to Schenectady County. Through a long, strange, bizarre and somewhat humorous story involving at least some cultural misunderstanding, their desperation for converts, and my intense curiosity, they initiated me into the sect. This was a harmless experience, although I don't recommend it, and probably a more interesting way to spend a Wednesday afternoon than I otherwise would have had.
There are many other such sects in Chinese society and history. Like obscure sects and cults everywhere, they come and go, rising and fading in prominence.
In summary, the theme of apocalyptic messianism is not just an American thing, or a Western thing, or a Judeo-Christian thing. It is a human thing, an outlet for hope for some throughout the world, a cause of dangerous irrational behavior in others.
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 by Paladin Press, Boulder, CO. Peter's current writing projects includes a sequel to Scams.
Last October I challenged my readers to send in their favorite disclaimers in hopes of winning a token prize and a minimal amount of fame. The results are in, and I must say I was struck by the enthusiasm with which readers responded. Were it not for the mail sent in response to Nick Cooper's debunking of a haunted house, the October column would have been my most popular.
To refresh your memory, I asked readers to send their best skeptical disclaimer for a fictional, non-fictional or pseudo-documentary program. Twenty-four excellent entries were sentn and it was difficult to choose the winner. But, I said I would do it; so here are the results.10
The following program may promote gullibility, especially in young minds. The producers disclaim all responsibility for any harm which viewers may incur from the enhancement of their vulnerability to chicanery, charlatanry, and flim-flam. Parental discretion is strongly advised.
-Disclaimer for Ancient Mysteries, Jonathan Marin
The following show features re-enactments of claimed paranormal events. If, at any time during the research into these events, any rational explanation has been presented, it has been edited out to avoid accidentally solving a mystery and thus putting us out of a job.
-Disclaimer for Unsolved Mysteries, David Bloomberg
The following program is intended for entertainment purposes only. Any resemblance to people, living or dead, or actual police procedures is coincidental. The criminals depicted in this show would, in real life, be acquitted, due to the detective's reliance on circumstantial evidence and propensity for entrapment. Further, despite the fact that the criminal confesses, a good lawyer would have it thrown out of court.
-Disclaimer for Columbo, Nancy Craig
The preceeding was a fictional comedy program. In real life such behavior would result in visitations from the local child protective services, and may result in a prison term.
-Disclaimer for The Addams Family, Peter Huston
And the winning entry is:
The preceeding program made reference to Zeta Recticulans abducting human beings. The producers remind the viewers that most Zeta Recticulans are hard-working immigrants who only abduct humans for dietary needs, or when the herd needs culling. No humans were harmed during the filming of this program.
-Disclaimer for Alien Autopsy, Rusty Pipes, Watertown, NY.
-David Quinne, CPPI
David Quinne is ISUNY's psychic in residence. 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. David is working on a new book about his work as a police psychic.
A new crop of Ig Nobel Prizewinners was honored at the Seventh First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, held on October 9 before a paper-airplane-throwing standing-room-only crowd of 1200 in Harvard University's Sanders Theatre. The event was produced by the the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and the Harvard Computer Society and by the new book The Best of Annals of Improbable Research [ISBN 0-7167-3094-4].
The Prizes honor achievements that ``cannot or should not be reproduced.''
The Prizes were physically handed to the winners by several genuine Nobel Laureates, including Dudley Herschbach, William Lipscomb, Richard Roberts, and Robert Wilson. A worldwide audience watched via a live Internet telecast. (The event was also recorded, and will be broadcast on National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation/Science Friday program on November 28, the day after American Thanksgiving.)11
The Nobel Laureates were active throughout the evening, in many ways. Lipscomb was given away in a Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel- Laureate Contest. Plaster casts of the left feet of Lipscomb and Herschbach, and also that of fellow Nobel Laureate Walter Gilbert, were auctioned off for the benefit of the Cambridge public schools science programs. All the laureates joined soprano Margot Button and Baritone Benjamin Sears in the world premiere of a new mini- opera (Il Kaboom Grosso) about the big bang.
Foremost among the eight Heisenberg Certainty Lecturers was Boston University Chancellor John Silber. Dr. Silber's topic was ``A History of Free Speech from Early Times to the Present.'' Dr. Silber exceeded the 30-second Heisenberg time limit, and was ejected by the referee.
A full report on the ceremony will appear in the Jan/Feb 1998 issue of AIR. We will be posting other press clippings on our web site (http://www.improb.com/). If you see a press clipping in a print publication, we would appreciate your sending us a copy.
We are now accepting nominations for next year's Ig Nobel Prizes. Please send your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marc Abrahams is editor of The Archives of Improbable Research. This article was originally published in the October 1997 issue of mini-AIR, the on-line version of AIR, and was kindly reproduced here with Marc's un-coerced permission. For a subscription to mini-AIR send email to LISTPROC@AIR.HARVARD.EDU with the message ``SUBSCRIBE MINI-AIR MARIE CURIE '' (substituting your own name for that of Madame Curie), or visit HotAIR at http://www.improb.com/ where you can find links to actual Ig Nobel prize winning papers.
Mike Sofka began the meeting with his usual spiel about the organization, including a review of past and future topics. He called for volunteers from members willing to deal with calls from the press; the most frequent contacts are around Halloween and April first, asking for a skeptic's comments on the various spooky and kooky stuff related to those holidays and possibly hoping for some rational analysis of the aforementioned. President Mike, Veep Peter Huston, and Secretary Dot Sager will be the likely contacts.
This meeting's topic was ``Science in the Courts.'' Panel members were Attorney Steven Coffey, who represents plaintiffs in civil cases and acts as defense attorney in criminal cases; expert witness in child abuse cases, Dr. Robert Fay, retired pediatrician; and Assistant District Attorney from Rensselaer County, Nancy Lynn Ferrini. Mike Sofka introduced the topic by referring to the O.J. trial and the great interest it stirred including much discussion on the Web; he also commented on the view of scientific testimony expressed by Peter W. Huber in his book, Galileo's Revenge.
Steve Coffey led off the individual statements, saying that court procedures have been very much the same since the 1920s. He predicted that the Simpson trial (except for its length) sets the standard for the 21st century, and that juries will eventually be able to recall testimony by replaying videotape of same. He strongly supported the American jury system, saying if we went to the European system, justice would be left in the hands of lawyers---undoubtedly an unpopular idea.
Nancy Lynn Ferrini spoke from the viewpoint of a criminal prosecutor and felt that science in the courtroom was both challenging and exciting; according to NYS Law, evidence must meet a standard.12 Ms. Ferrini said that although scientific evidence such as DNA identification is now readily accepted; the downside is that juries begin to expect scientific evidence in all cases, which leads them to consider ``reasonable doubt'' when such evidence is not introduced.
Dr. Fay unfortunately had difficulty finding the meeting and arrived after we started. He spoke about his experiences in appearing in child abuse cases throughout the country, usually appearing as a defense witness. He referred to the case of the English au pair, currently in the news, saying the case seemed riddled with doubt. Ms. Ferrini pointed out that not every case goes to trial; the prosecutors must do justice, sometimes seeking plea bargains and sometimes not pursuing cases because of lack of evidence. With regard to the topic, Mr. Coffey felt science makes things more definable, leaving less to determine on the part of jurors.
Your secretary had found pertinent quotes, but had forgotten to bring them to the meeting (which perhaps is just as well). Anyway here they are: Lawyers use numbers like a drunk uses a lamppost---more for support than illumination. W.R. Grace; For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are. Machiavelli.
Ed.note: Although the meeting was publicized in newspapers (one attendee noted that's how he heard of the program), attendance was disappointing, especially since the effort to put the panel together was substantial. However, we'll continue to develop interesting topics and try to publicize meetings more widely and hope for larger audiences.
Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at CarlSager@worldnet.att.net.
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 email@example.com.
Thank you to Peter Huston, David ``the Mighty'' Quinne, 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 typos and errors from our newsletter. Any remaining mistakes are satire.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 Brain Evolution in Homo: The ``Radiator'' Theory, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13:333-344, 1990.
2 Braindance, Henry Holt and Company (1992).
3 Ask the Psychic: Investigating the ``Haunted'' house of Lowville, NY., The Why-Files, Vol. 3(10), November, 1997.
4 I am tired of skeptics who were quick to seize upon the Heaven's Gate tragedy as an example of the evils of UFO belief and non-skeptic thinking. If UFO beliefs caused Heaven's Gate, then the Bible caused the Jonestown, Guyana tragedy. People are strange. Sometimes they form cults. Sometimes their group-think misfires. Sometimes they kill themselves en masse. And, sometimes skeptics shoot themselves in the foot by spouting off opinions before careful thought.
5 My friend Linda tells me that last she heard, the shift in the global axis had been postponed as large numbers of people are becoming spiritual and enlightened, and this has healed the Earth sufficiently to postpone the shift. Does she believe it? Well, she smiles when she says it, so I don't think she really knows.
6 Some consider Confucianism to be a philosophy and not a faith.
7 Once again, origins and definitions vary. The common categories cited, and these vary as well from scholar to scholar, with many feeling that one or another do not warrant being named or distinguished are: ancestor worship, regional folk beliefs, Chinese folk beliefs, syncretic beliefs and folk beliefs adopted from absorbed non-Chinese peoples. In a polytheistic (with regional variatinos), yet politically unified country, the exact definitions or origins of beliefs are often fuzzy. The intellectuals of Chinese and non-Chinese origin often ignored the beliefs and practices of the common people, and this didn't help clarify matters any.
8 Typically, the theology of such groups state that the other religions (Buddhism, Taoism, etc.) are partially correct, but their sect has received the exact, 100% correct, truth from a divine source. Generally, they postulate a superior deity, often an Earth Mother, who supersedes other deities and is much more powerful than the standard run of the mill Chinese deities. Today's Yi Kuan Tao sect (see below) believes that their teachings supersede not just Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, but also Islam and Christianity. They pick and choose from different teachings (including portions of the Bible) to justify this. It is my opinion that the Bible verses they chose to demonstrate that Christianity was only partial truth were superficially chosen, misunderstood and grossly misused in a truly bizarre fashion.
9 In traditional China, a polytheistic society with temples here and there, the line between secret society, sworn brotherhoods, temples, sects and trade guilds was often fuzzy as members of one choose to worship the same deity as another, or disguise its group as another. For example, the 1920-1940 Shanghai Green Gang organized crime group had its origin in a merger of the boatman's guild and an obscure religious sect in the early 19th century.
10 For the clever skeptics out there who wonder why I didn't just predict the winning entry, I will answer this question in an upcoming column. For now I leave you to ponder why you read other people's investigations instead of just doing your own, and saving the purchase of a book or magazine?
11 Recordings of Talk of the Nation can be listened to on the internet at http://www.npr.org/.
12 In contacting retired Judge Clyne as a possible panel member, he spoke of the standards for inclusion of evidence: Is it relevant? Is it competent? Is it material?