The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 3, Issue 8 September, 1997

 
 
 

September Meeting.

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.

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.

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 October, 1997 issue is September 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.

New Directions for ISUNY.

Four years ago several of us formed a group devoted to spreading the word on the skeptical side of fringe and paranormal claims. Due to great dedication and devotion by our members, along with luck and assistance from several interested parties, this project has met with reasonable success: We've had four years of great speakers, monthly meetings (except in the summer), a successful newsletter and web site, accumulated a large library, arranged a few radio shows and book signings, publicized a couple of important causes, and, most importantly of all, we've had the opportunity to meet together, socialize and discuss things in an atmosphere of rational acceptance and respect. (There's even an unconfirmed report of a volleyball game, of all things.)

For all these reasons, the officers and dedicated members of ISUNY consider this group well worth keeping. There's just one problem---negativity. The original focus of ISUNY was to provide an alternative, skeptical, rational forum to present views on a variety of fringe, paranormal and scientific claims. It is the opinion of most of of our active membership that such ideas generally do not hold up to such scrutiny. This put us in a situation in which we were spending a great deal of time and effort providing a forum on subjects which we didn't believe in. We would then attend these meetings and listen to someone explain to us why something we didn't believe in wasn't true. Sometimes, these claims had sufficient consequences so that we felt it was worthwhile to put time into publicizing them. And, of course, there were always some people present who were actively trying to sort out these issues and found the talks and speakers useful.

After a few years, however, burn out begins to set in, and it becomes apparent just what a strange activity organizing to reinforce disbelief is. Roswell celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with much fanfair, and summer television featured many programs on alien abductions. We hardly watched---there were better things to do, so why devote time to these shows?

Is this closed mindedness? Maybe, but then again, we're quite sure that if strong evidence of alien visitation comes along it will be on the front page of every newspaper and the lead story on CNN and the network newscast. You won't have to search it out on a cable station, produced as a cheap pseudo-documentary. But more importantly, we can think of so many more interesting, more positive, more creative and beneficial things to do than studying ideas on subjects which we don't believe in, which haven't held up in the past, by watching bad television shows.

Early in ISUNY's history one of us spoke to a prominent skeptic involved in running a local skeptic group in his own part of the country, and expressed surprise at the number of believers and paranormal advocates attending ISUNY's early meetings. ``Oh, you should drive those people out,'' he said. At ISUNY we've never done this, and we're proud that we've taken that stance. When we started, it was our opinion that these were the people we needed to reach the most. After several years, some of these members are more sympathetic to our point of view. Most aren't. Exactly why they aren't is an interesting point of speculation, one that would be an interesting essay in itself. I think everyone involved will agree, however, that no matter what the reason, a few more years of hard work on our part won't sway them.

This is an issue of some debate among skeptics, with implications on how our message is presented. Last year ISUNY had the honor of hosting Joe Nickell, a nationally prominent skeptic and author who regularly appears on talk shows to confront believers and proponents of paranormal claims. As long time readers of this newsletter know, some of the membership was turned off by Joe's confrontational style. In addition, there were many new faces that night in the audience---most attracted by a local newspaper article publicizing the talk---who never came to a second meeting. This experience led to much soul searching on our part.

A different approach is found in skeptics such as the late Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, who each made a point of gently explaining fringe claims when they wrote or spoke on actual science. They did this because people would come to them wishing to learn the facts about things which they had heard and wondered about---including fringe claims such as UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, Ancient Astronauts and what have you. But, Asimov and Sagan always left their audience with the feeling they had gained more than they had lost. They left them with an appreciation for real science, with the realization that although science didn't have all the answers---science is a quest for discovery and enlightenment. It is a method for participating in a life long process of learning. This is the message we wish to send to the public, our members and all who attend our meetings.

Since then our group has branched out, holding several meetings which focused on subjects that were only marginally related to discussing and debunking paranormal claims. Among these were our very popular panel on the meteorite from Mars and the possibility that it showed signs of extraterrestrial life, and John Delano's wonderfully presented talk on global warming.

In the future, we wish to do more of this. We will still have talks on fringe claims when interest and speakers warrant, but we will also strive to obtain knowledgeable speakers who simply wish to offer us a talk on their field of interest, be it lightning, the history of science, environmentalism, human evolution, psychology, marine biology or astronomy. We have always invited such people to disprove fringe claims relating to their field of expertise. This was rarely successful, however, since most scientists do not consider themselves knowledgeable about fringe claims, and were reluctant to talk about them. With hindsight, this was an unnecessarily negative approach on our part. A biologist, after all, can offer a wonderful talk on evolution without mentioning creationism.

As part of our change in focus we are considering a new, more accurate, name. We look to our members to assist us with this task. We are also in the process of rewriting our statement of purpose which appears on the back of each issue of The Why-Files. A rough draft is included after this editorial. We actively welcome your comments on this, and seek your advice and assistance as we head off in new, and more interesting directions. If you have comments, both positive and negative, about the focus of our group, please see any of the officers at our meetings, or write The Why-Files. Our September meeting will start off with a brief business meeting to discuss this and other focus issues, and future meetings will also include time for feedback. If you have been considering getting involved, this may be the ideal time.

-Peter Huston and Mike Sofka

Proposed Statement of Purpose

ISUNY1 is a non-profit, unaffiliated, educational organization run by its members. Our purpose is to promote science, science education, the objective discussion of fringe science and related claims, and related social and scientific issues of interest to members. To this end we:

If you are interested and would like to learn more we encourage you to attend any of our monthly meetings or simply join. We strive for an atmosphere where rational thought is encouraged but all are welcome. Meetings are free and open to the public.

Ask the Skeptic.

How One Phone Call Changed Their Lives: Authentic Testimonies from Clients of The Skeptic Friends Network

Samizdat OnLine News Service

``I had a feeling I shouldn't go to work that day, so I called my friend at the Skeptic Friends Network---where they have real skeptics, not celebrity skeptics like they do at the other skeptic networks---and told him about it,'' said Hortense Grigsby of Salem, Massachusetts. ``And I can't begin to tell you how much he helped me.''

``The first thing he said,'' Grigsby continued, ``was that a feeling is not a testable hypothesis---although he suggested that if I'd kept a log of my feelings and premonitions over a significant period of time and could base my decision on an inductive analysis of how my hunches had worked out in the past, I might be able to predict how valid they were likely to be.''

``As it turns out,'' Grigsby told Samizdat OnLine News Service, ``I had in fact kept quite detailed records, study of which disclosed that none of my fears had ever come true! Not even one.''

``So, I went to work in spite of the fact that I felt like something bad would happen if I did, and wouldn't you just know it, I turned out to be right for once in my life. The Burger King where I work was robbed at gunpoint, and I was shot by the robber and now I'm a quadriplegic.''

``But even though things didn't turn out very well in that one instance,'' Grigsby acknowledged as her attendant adjusted her breathing tube, ``I know my skeptic friend was right about the importance of rigorous inductive analysis in making decisions, and I still call him whenever I can get someone to dial the phone for me.''

``My skeptic friend taught me how to win at the lottery,'' enthused another caller. ``He used a computer model he'd created to show me just how unlikely it was that I'd ever get one of those multi-million dollar payoffs and told me how I could save hundreds of dollars each and every month by buying food at the grocery store instead of all those losing lottery tickets. And because I'm eating again, I even feel better---all thanks to my skeptic friend!''

The Skeptic Friends Network was launched last month by sincerely questioning people who were concerned by the huge profits made by so-called psychics who offered little more than emotional card tricks to callers at $3.99 and more per minute. A group of these sincere questioners asked themselves the sincere question: How can I get in on this deal?, and the Skeptic Friends Network was born.

``We differ from those psychic networks in significant ways,'' said Credo Markwell of the Skeptic Friends Network. ``We don't make those disclaimers saying that our advice is for entertainment purposes only, as the psychic networks do while claiming to change lives. We promise to help people make good inductive choices in their lives based on testable hypotheses and verifiable evidence. And we charge about half of what they do---$2.00 a minute, and the first ten minutes are free.''

Markwell acknowledges that callers tend to spend most of those first ten minutes listening to their skeptic friend clarifying the fact that atheism is not, in fact a religious belief, but a belief about religion; and describing the technical shortcomings of the movie Contact. ``Still, it's a better deal than the psychic networks, overall,'' Markwell claims. ``Our callers have gotten better advice about their jobs, finances, and relationships from our skeptics than they have ever gotten anywhere else.''

``That's something we'd be proud of,'' Markwell told Samizdat OnLine News Service, ``if it weren't for the fact that pride isn't rational, so we don't feel it.''

``I was co-dependently involved with a drunken, methamphetamine-addicted, physically abusive motorcycle mechanic,'' said Ron Toggle of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, ``and my skeptic friend helped me look at our relationship realistically and decide not to see her anymore. After we broke up, she stopped drinking, went to rehab for her amphetamine dependency, got therapy for her abusive tendencies, began attending church, and now lives in a mansion and owns the four largest Harley-Davidson franchises in Pennsylvania.''

``At first, I was a little angry over the fact that I'd let her go, but I called my skeptic friend, who asked me if I really wanted to be involved with somebody who goes to church, and I realized he was right.''

``I called my skeptic friend to ask if the guy I was dating---a Ph.D. mathematician specializing in fractals---was the one for me, and he told me he was,'' testified Mildred Donahoe-Herbert of Modesto, California. ``So I married him, and we bought a huge house and had three kids. I was very happy until he ran off with that aerobics instructor. I haven't seen him since, and my children and I have my skeptic friend to thank for that!''

Credo Markwell suggests there is reason for skepticism about Ms. Donahoe-Herbert's account of her experience with the Skeptic Friends Network. ``I can't be sure,'' Markwell said carefully, "but it seems somewhat unlikely that this woman could have gotten married, bought a house, and given birth to three children in less than a month.''

More likely to be an accurate account of an experience with the Skeptic Friends Network is that of struggling actor Lance Hansom, who called from a pay phone in Hollywood to ask his skeptic friend what would happen if he stayed in L.A. trying to be an actor. ``When the skeptic told him that he would almost certainly---based on solid empirical and testable evidence---end up at age fifty cadging quarters to pay for his twenty-first face-lift so he could get his first real acting job, Lance went back to his father's hardware business in Pocatello, Idaho, where he is reportedly doing very well and is extremely happy. Now, that's the kind of good advice you can expect from the Skeptic Friends Network,'' Markwell suggested.

To speak to your very own personal skeptic---who is, Markwell assures us, waiting eagerly for you to call---just dial 1 (800) GET-REAL. ``Unlike those other skeptic networks, which use celebrity skeptics, we have real skeptics at the Skeptic Friends Network. Don't put it off, or it will be later when you finally get around to it,'' Markwell concluded logically. ``Call now.''

-Paul Somerville Brothrpaul@AOL.COM

Ask the Psychic.

It may or may not surprise you that this psychic spends a lot of time in Cemeteries, and is, in fact, a member of the ``Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery.'' No, this isn't so I can commune with the ghosts of long departed figures of historical note. Most historical figures of note move to Florida for the warmer post-mortem climate, and have their own Web pages now anyway. No, I joined FOARC because cemeteries are an often neglected component of our past. A component which should be cared for and preserved.

Imagine my surprise though, while reading the FOARC newsletter only to find an article of psychic relevance. It discussed a visit by two mysterious professors from Buffalo out to demystify the mysteries of Charles Forte, Albany Rural's most notable notables. Here then is the article in full, reprinted by the kind permission of the Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery. If you have information leading to the whereabouts of these Professors, this psychic would like to hear from you.

-David Quinne

Bigfoot visits Albany Rural Cemetery????

Recently, two researchers, who identified themselves as professors at a university in Buffalo, visited the cemetery office. They said that they were there to do investigation regarding a very famous individual who was buried in our cemetery; his name was Charles Forte.

They said that they were sure we know of Forte, and must get many requests from visitors to visit his gravesite. (We never heard of him, and no one can ever remember any requests for his gravesite location.)

They explained that Forte was a very famous author, who had lived in the British Museum for many years. They said that Forte had a large following of thousands of people, which had been developed through his books and a newspaper published in London, England which is named after him, called the Fortean Times. They told us that a recent series on one of the TV cable stations had reviewed Fortean Theories as they affected scientific phenomena.

Realizing that we were discovering a new, previously undiscovered celebrity in our cemetery, we were very interested in obtaining more information. We showed our visitors copies of other historical biographies done on Revolutionary War and Civil War dignitaries as well as a President of the U.S, many generals, senators, governors, and other dignitaries, and asked if they would author an article about Charles Forte for us. Whereupon, they produced a copy of the Fortean Times, and spread it on the counter in the office.

The front page of the newspaper identified it as the Fortean Times, published in London, England. A front page picture showed the headstone and gravesite of Charles Forte in section 28. The picture showed a shadow on the grave obviously caused by sun coming through the trees. The shadow vaguely resembled a large footprint with many toes. The headline read ``Bigfoot visits grave of Charles Forte at Albany Cemetery''(!!!!). (Not quite what we expected.)

Our professors went on to explain that Charles Forte had espoused anti-scientific theory. (For instance, if you said that the sun came up in the morning because the earth is round and revolved once every 24 hours, he would probably say ``No, it is caused by extraterrestrials.'') They said that they were members of, and paid by, a group of anti-Forteans who had taken on the responsibility of debunking all claims made by the Forteans. They had been engaged by this group to investigate and prepare a paper debunking the supposed fact that Bigfoot had visited Forte's grave. This paper was to be dispatched, post haste, to London. (Wonderful....)

We directed them to Forte's grave while we debated whether the Fortean Society's conviction that Bigfoot had visited Forte, or the anti-Fortean's actions of hiring two university professors to come to Albany to prove Bigfoot wasn't here, made less sense. (Let alone, the two professors actually undertaking this indomitable task.)

Further investigation shows that Charles Hoy Forte was born in Albany in 1874, and died in the Bronx in 1932. As a boy, he was an amateur naturalist and later a reporter, and wrote short stories for Broadway Magazine, when Theodore Dreiser was editor. In 1896 he married Anna Filian, they had no children. In about 1908, he began exhaustive research, which resulted in the publication of four books on bizarre anti-scientific theory.

For many years he supposedly lived in the British Museum, although his relationship with the museum is not clear; did he live there in some official capacity, or did he adopt some sort of ``Phantom of the Opera'' tenancy? His books were supposedly exhaustively researched, although after presenting very deep background on his hypothesis, his conclusions would suddenly veer radically awry.

Forte himself called it ``a kind of non-fictional fiction.... Maybe I am a pioneer in a new writing that instead of old fashioned heroes and villians will have floods and bugs and stars and earthquakes for its characters and motifs.'' The Fortean Society founded by Tiffany Thayer in 1931, included such men as Booth Tarkington, Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Alexander Woollcott and John Cowper Powys (none of them, it may be noted, a scientist).

Charles Hoy Forte is interred in Albany Rural Cemetery in Lot 8, Section 28. (We don't know where the Bigfoot family is interred, it it is not here).

-Peter Hess

Peter Hess is co-Vice-President of the Albany Rural Cemetery Board of Trustees. A benefit reception to raise money for Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery is being held at the University at Albany Art Museum on September 20, 1997. For information contact Friends of Albany Rural Cemetery, Cemetery Avenue, Albany, New York 12204.

ISUNY Meetings.

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, Paul Somerville and Peter Hess 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 a massive government conspiracy.

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.


1 Or, whatever new name we decide upon