The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 3, Issue 7 July, 1997

 
 
 

ISUNY Summer Picnic.

Come To The ISUNY Picnic.

When? Sunday July 27, 1997 from 2 p.m. to sunset.

Where? The Sager's lawn at 384 Old Stage Road, off Route 156, 2 miles from Altamont.

Who? All ISUNY members. (You can join at the picnic!)

Why? Because it's a long time from June fourth until September third. And even skeptics like to have fun, or at least some do.

What will be there? Food, drinks, volleyball, croquet, horseshoes, conversation, music, fun. Sagers will furnish frankfurters and wurst, and ice.

What should you bring? Lawn chairs, dish to pass, your own beverages, family or friends, good weather.

How do you get in on this? Give Carl or Dot Sager a call at 518-861-6383 by July 20 if you plan to attend. Be prepared to name your food/drink contribution and the number of people in your party.

How do you get there? Take Route 20 (Western Avenue) west to Route 146 south to Altamont. Stay on Main Street and continue up the hill (Route 146 turns off and the road becomes Route 156, which comes in from the left) turn left on Old Stage Road 2 miles out of Altamont. No. 384 is the first house of the left (2-story colonial with brick front). Look for balloons at Old Stage Road and at the house.

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 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 September 3rd, 1997 issue is August 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.

Letter to the Editor.

True meaning of ``satanic'' symbols.

Just a couple of odd facts on a couple of those ``satanic'' symbols [listed by Peter Huston in part III of his Satanic Ritual Abuse article].

The circle with the dot inside is an astrological symbol for the sun.

The peace symbol (known variously as the Peace Cross or the Appeasement Cross, depending on one's politics) is the combination of the semaphore signals ``N'' and ``D,'' for ``Nuclear Disarmament.'' Perhaps the best descriptive term for it is ``ND.'' It was originally designed for the Ban the Bomb movement, and was adopted by subsequent peace movements. Nowadays, it generally signifies disapproval with one's government's current military exercises.

Perhaps as interesting as its actual history, and certainly weirder, are some of the stories invented by those who disapprove of it. Some call it a ``broken cross,'' a term used for the swastika. Others claim that part of some unspeakable ritual is to break the horizontal arms of a ceramic cross into an ND (a modern version of the supposed requirement of spitting on the cross in the initiation of a Knight Templar?). Still others call it a ``witch cross'' or a ``cross of Nero'' and claim that it is millenia old.

-Lee Burwasser lburwasser@crs.loc.gov

Ask the Skeptic.

I thought I'd try writing about something a little different this time. I get tired of debunking reports of ghosts and goblins, and attacking other people's deeply held personal belief. I've been lifting weights lately, and although I'm not a bodybuilder, the gym I go to is full of them. So I thought I'd try to write about a controversial matter which is under constant debate---steroids and bodybuilding.

Are all professional bodybuilders on steroids? Can human beings naturally become that big and unnatural looking? This is an interesting question and difficult to answer. Determining the limits as to just how big and strong a person can become is a bit like asking just how tall people can grow. Although few will deny that the average is increasing all the time, with improved nutrition and other factors, it is still quite difficult to determine just what the limits are.

In bodybuilding, people use weights with the express goal of developing their musculature and build according to the aesthetics of the sport of bodybuilding. Actual physical performance is not an issue. In effect, bodybuilders, both male and female, are training for a peculiar sort of beauty contest in which size and shape of one's physique is the standard by which people are judged. It's an unusual activity, and I say that without judgment. For many people, a program of bodybuilding is just what they need to develop confidence and often this confidence extends into other activities as well. Therefore, it can be a part of an overall life improvement program.

Nevertheless, in a bodybuilding contest (often referred to as a show) people don't actually engage in contests. Instead, they just go out and pose and are then judged by a panel of judges. (At least, unlike the Miss America contest, one doesn't have to sit through lame speeches on how I'd help the world by teaching the poor the importance of good manners or those god-awful accordion and tap-dancing acts.) There are a lot of controversies as to what sort of physique people are actually striving for, particularly in the sport of women's bodybuilding. In this activity, there is a peculiar cultural conflict where the ultimate somewhat paradoxical goal is said to be highly muscular women who nevertheless retain their femininity. For a brief and fascinating introduction to all of this, see the movie, Pumping Iron II: The Women. Few people believe me, but this is a well done, intelligent film which got generally favorable reviews from mainstream, intellectually oriented reviewers, including local critic, Dan DiNicola.

As many of the bodybuilding contestants are simply huge and covered with bulging muscles, one has to ask how much of this is naturally possible? Especially since it is possible to increase muscle growth through taking steroids, hormones designed to increase muscle building, one has to wonder.

First, let's put this in some sort of context. Contest bodybuilders don't look like that all the time. They diet rigidly prior to a contest. When they walk out on stage, their muscles have been pumped up through exercises and are being flexed continuously. (One of the challenges of the sport is how to flex all the muscles in your body for the time required for the contest while still exhibiting natural looking poses.) The lights on stage are designed to enhance contrasts and thereby enhance the appearance of muscularity. As this lighting is done for all contestants, there is no benefit to any one individual. Most of these effects are recreated when photos of bodybuilders are taken for magazines like Muscles and Fitness. In other words, these people don't look like that every day, and this is especially true for the women.

Secondly, bodybuilders eat very strangely. They eliminate fat as much as possible and eat huge quantities of protein. Often the amount of protein consumed is far in excess of that possible with a normal, natural diet. Large quantities of powdered protein, available at health food stores, are often purchased to supplement one's diet and consumed in mass quantities as part of drinks, especially shakes, or other foods. Nevertheless, chicken skin and egg yolks are tossed in the trash and tuna fish is consumed by the can or two.

Finally, there are drugs. During contest and pre-contest time, it is desirable to lower one's amount of body fluids as much as possible and thereby emphasize the amount of musculature exhibited. Often diuretics, drugs which reduce one's retention of water, are taken. This can be extremely dangerous, and can really throw off one's body chemistry!

And then there are steroids. If one consumes steroids, there are several effects. First, and this is the desirable one, your body's ability to metabolize protein is enhanced. Under normal circumstances, your body can only utilize so much protein and the excess is excreted. So following exercise and other stress, your body can only build or rebuild muscle up to the limit which metabolizable protein will allow. A person on steroids can consume a dozen egg whites and then use most of this protein to build muscles. The rest of us can't. Nevertheless, they can only do this if they exercise a great deal. In some cases, doctors prescribe steroids for people who are rehabilitating from injuries and need to rebuild injured or atrophied muscles.

Now the down side, your body produces steroids already. Men generally have more than women so men are generally stronger than women overall. For some reason, steroids tend to encourage aggressive, ``masculine'' behavior. Taking steroids increases this sort of behavior. At times, combined with alcohol or other stupidity enhancing substances or situations, people on steroids engage in hyper-aggressive behavior (nicknamed `` 'roid rage''), losing control, physically attacking people and getting themselves in trouble while being a menace to society in general. (The strangest story I heard along these lines was of bodybuilders who decided it was amusing to go into bars and clip off the pony tails of randomly chosen strangers.) This is a bad thing.

Another bad thing: If you take unnatural steroids, then in some cases your body will cease producing its own, leading to long term health problems and in some cases, sterility.

Finally, there is a wide variety of the usual sorts of problems associated with people who take illegal, black market drugs. They don't really know what they're getting or putting into their body; sometimes they share needles, etc. The common combination of steroids, irregular steroids, and diuretics, can lead to some really heavy-duty health risks and throw off the body's biochemical balance. Nevertheless, it's a documented fact that many of the top level bodybuilders take steroids or have taken them in the past. It could be argued that to some extent, at this level the risk from steroids is reduced because doctors are often involved. In an interview with Mike Christian in FLEX magazine, he stated that he had taken steroids for years although he now regretted it. He went on to explain that his steroid regime was carefully selected and chosen by a physician who seemed to find the optimal tailoring of steroids for Christian's physique and training regime to be an interesting challenge. When FLEX asked Christian how he'd found the physician in question, Christian replied that the physician had approached him, offering such services. As Christian was already involved with the crude and clumsy use of black market steroids, he eagerly accepted.

Some magazines, particularly the popular Muscles and Fitness, have come under fire for holding an anti-steroid editorial stance while packing their pages with photos of bodybuilders who are sometimes documented as having taken steroids and, in other cases, are probably taking steroids. Charges are that they choose to use such people as, steroids or no steroids, they are the top bodybuilders in the world and exhibit the physique that bodybuilding fans like to see.

They defend themselves thusly. (1) The people in our magazine have outstanding genetics which most people don't have. (2) They work very hard. (3) They tailor their diet obsessively, with bodybuilding results in mind. and (4) Asking people if they use steroids is asking people if they commit illegal acts on a continuing basis. Its bad etiquette and wouldn't produce realistic answers.

-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 Off of ESP, Astrology, UFOs, Crop Circles, Cattle Mutilations, Alien Abductions, Atlantis, Channeling, and Other New Age Nonsense by Paladin Press, Boulder, CO.

Ask the Psychic.

Question: Will the weather be nice for the ISUNY picnic?

Answer: Alas, I suspect the weather will be bad for the ISUNY Picnic. July 27 is a poor choice of days for recreation in the sun. At night, Venus and Mercury will be near Regulus in the constellation Leo, and the moon will be in its last quarter. Meanwhile, Jupiter is in Capricornus shining brightly only a few degrees from Uranus, which is approaching opposition on the 29th. This un-fortuitous planetary alignment is sure to bring out amateur astronomers in great numbers, who, pointing their Dobsonian telescopes at the sky, will attract Orgone energy causing heavy rains.

Orgone energy, the élan vital of the Universe as described by the great psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, is attracted by the Dobsonian telescope design popular among today's amateur astronomers. This telescope, unfortunately, acts as a ``cloud buster'' attracting Orgone energy and releasing green-house gases. Worse, my studies have led to proof of the Orgonic Interferometry Effect (OIE). OIE allows two or more widely spaced Dobsonian telescopes to act as a single large Orgonic collector. Any two amateur astronomers looking at, for example, Venus near Regulus at the same time will create a huge cloud buster, the likes of which are rarely seen. The popularity of large (over 18 inch) Dobsonian telescopes, combined with the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levi with Jupiter, was directly responsible for the record breaking hurricane seasons of the past couple of years.

I urge you, please, to stop people from using Dobsonian telescopes! Fortunately, all hope is not lost. Catadioptric telescope such as a Schmidt-Cassigrain, or maybe a long focal length refractor do not attract Orgone energy. Also, Orgone energy is scattered by, you guessed it, flood lights! I suggest you buy astronomer friends a good set of flood lights for Christmas. The models labeled ``security lights'' are usually the best at Orgonic Scatter, as the effect is called. And as always, check for the orange ``Orgonic Energy Free'' label before purchasing.

-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.

Denying The Blight, Blaming The Victim.

The Irish potato famine of the nineteenth century is familiar to most of us. This article reviews the facts behind the event.

The potato which comes from the Andes was introduced into Europe in the sixteenth century. By the mid-eighteenth century it provided the staple diet of small farmers in Ireland during most of the year. Economic conditions were such that no other choice was really available.

Late blight is a fungal disease which originated in the central highlands of Mexico where it infected plants related to potatoes. Potatoes, however, did not grow there. Late blight infection of potatoes was first observed near Philadelphia about 1843. By 1845 it had spread throughout most of the northeast United States, and that summer it was ``exported'' to Belgium. A season of wet weather hastened its spread in Europe. The disease reached England in August and Ireland in September. In Belgium, Holland and, France the infestation caused acute crop loss in 1845. The late arrival in Ireland kept the loss that year at about 40% of what otherwise would have been a bumper crop.

In 1845 the Tory government in England responded with relief measure for Ireland, including the purchase of American corn. This effective relief plus the limited crop damage prevented loss of life that year. The year of 1846 was a different matter; the blight started in August and spread rapidly. The newly elected English Whig government favored the grain merchants and allowed the export of Irish grain while not supporting grain imports. (Other European countries affected by the blight banned grain exports.) The Whigs also cut relief support. An estimated half million Irish citizens died that winter. The famine lasted into 1852.

A three-man commission headed by botanist John Lindley concluded in 1845 that the pestilence affecting the potato was caused by unusual weather. Other theories suggested volcanic gases, industrial pollution, atmospheric electricity, guano fertilizer, even an aerial taint from outer space. (And we thought it started with Roswell!) A Belgium scientist had a simpler idea: that the disease was caused by the fungus that everyone had observed on the potatoes. Others agreed, but soon most were forced to recant or remain silent as the more influential scientists blamed the plant for its supposed inability to eliminate excess water under extreme conditions. Their conclusion was that the fungus was simply an opportunist on the weakened plants. The obvious presence of the fungus on all affected plants including related plants such as tomatoes was ignored. Given the accepted cause, the proposed solution was to use diseased potatoes to the extent possible and store healthy tubers. Diseased foliage left in the fields caught and spread fungal spores.

Blaming the victim is a time-honored approach. Scientists blamed the plant. English politicians largely blamed the Irish peasants, who were seen as lazy and having set the stage themselves for the worst of the famine. As a result, neither scientist or politician provided any real help.

Can history repeat? The details will change, but it will repeat. The potato is one of the four major world food crops, rice, wheat and corn being the others. New strains of late blight are spreading in various areas of the world. The potato is a staple once again for populations of limited means. More ominously, sex has arrived. Until recently, the entire problem was caused by the fungus spreading through asexual spores. A single lesion on a plant leaf can generate 300,000 such asexual spores every five days. Asexual reproduction is similar to cloning. The young are virtually identical to the parent. The late-season blight has two mating forms (sort of ``boys'' and ``girls''). Until recently only one mating form was present outside of the Mexican Highlands. The other form has now spread, and the fungus is reproducing sexually as well as asexually. Sexual reproduction provides adaptive opportunity and countermeasures are becoming less sure and more costly.

If a major crop failure occurs in the next decade or so, will we identify the cause correctly? Although scientific knowledge has grown significantly, human nature and human responses to crisis have not changed to any great degree.

-Carl Sager

Minutes Of June 4th ISUNY Meeting.

Vice President Peter Huston convened the meeting. His first order of business was to ask members to indicate their interest in having a mid-summer picnic (see Picnic Invitation elsewhere in this issue). Dorothy Hoyt shared handouts from a class on religion and science being given at their church.

The evening's program was a panel discussion on cults. Panelists were Lydia Treadway, psychologist and neuro-physiologist, who introduced herself has having investigated why people join cults and how cults use mind control to ensnare members; Bill Knapp, who performed as a de-programmer between 1977 and 1990, rescuing over 270 people from cults at their families' request; and Elizabeth Shaver, historian with the Shaker Heritage Society, who had done extensive research on the Shaker religious sect and spoke about how the Shakers' practices related to the other panelist's descriptions of cults. Lydia defined a cult as a small group of people with beliefs outside the mainstream; a group might be defined as a cult depending on the particular prejudice of the community. She believed that mind-control was not a necessary component since mind-control was practiced by a wide variety of elements in our society, for example, the military mind-set and persuasion by Madison Avenue. Bill took issue with this; in his opinion, mind-control was the measure of whether a group was or was not a cult and was their means of gathering members. He referred to Robert J. Lifton's identification of eight psychological themes existing in cults which allows them to ensnare members:

  1. milieu control-controlling the immediate environment
  2. loading language-twisting the meanings of words
  3. confession-an exercise in degradation
  4. emphasizing doctrine over person
  5. sacred science
  6. dispensation of existence -- pre-planning the individual's existence, no worries
  7. planned spontaneity-everything is pre-planned, although not obvious
  8. quest for purity

Most members become attracted to cults during transitions and during low periods in their lives.

A lively and interesting discussion ensued. Lydia Treadway explained that some groups described as cults might be free of some of Lifton's points, and some socially acceptable groups (e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous) include many of the factors in their functioning. She emphasized the importance of teaching people to think and make considered decisions. Bill Knapp said that if someone is ``deceived from the git-go'' they're unable to make an independent decision. He described his form of de-programming as encouraging critical thinking and getting cult members to examine contradictory information. He described how the FBI's failure to understand David Koresh's mind-set as the major factor in their failure to secure a less violent end at Waco. Elizabeth Shaver gave interesting details about the Shaker lifestyle which gave both historic and real-life examples that helped the audience relate to concepts discussed by the other panelists.

-Dorothy Sager, ISUNY Secretary

ISUNY Meetings.

Skeptics, Paranormalists, Science Fiction and ``The X-Files.''

When Chris Carter spoke at the First World Skeptic's Conference in Buffalo, NY, the audience was split between X-Files fans and X-Files detractors. How can a fictional television program evoke such a range of responses? Can one be a skeptic and enjoy science fiction? Join us September 3rd when our panel of science fiction fans, critics and skeptics (sometimes all in the same person) as we discuss skepticism, science and science fiction.

What the Book of Revelation Really Says.

The Book of Revelation is frequently used as a guide for the end of the world in our times. What does this last book of the Bible really say, and can it be understood historically? These are some of the questions Jim Farrell will attempt to answer at our October 1st meeting.

Science in the Court Room.

What role does science have in the courts? On November 5th, our panel of legal experts and scientists will discuss evidence in and out of the courts, and how science affects the judicial process.

Cold Fusion.

On December 3rd, Bill Walker of General Electric laboratories will review the current state of cold fusion research.

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, Carl Sager, 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 spelling and grammar errors, and offering clarifications. All remaining errors are due to steroid induced mental instabilities and caffeine jitters.

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, 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.