|Volume 3, Issue 9||October, 1997|
On October 1st, Dr. Reverend James Farrell will describe how many people have misused and misunderstood the New Testament book of Revelation, because they have failed to do two things: (1) Pay close attention to some undisputed facts about the book, and (2) Recognize that any method of interpretation rests upon assumptions that cannot be proven. For example, Revelation does not necessarily predict the imminent end of the World. If not, what does it mean? Dr. Farrell is a retired Methodist minister who uses a scholarly, historical, and analytical approach to understanding the Bible.
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.
In the September Why-Files, Peter Huston and I discussed some proposed changes for ISUNY. This was discussed and well received at the September meeting by those members present. Peter and I also suggested a name change to reflect our greater emphasis on promoting science and reason. Two resolutions were proposed and adopted at the September meeting: First, that the name The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York and the acronym ISUNY be retained until December. Second, that we would solicit name suggestions from members, with the proposed names voted on at the December meeting. Please submit suggestions by our November meeting so that they can be published in the November Why-Files.
Remember, the name should reflect a positive emphasis on promoting science, the scientific method and rational reasoning. There is more to a name than may appear at first. We constantly struggle as ``skeptics'' to explain our positions and convey a sense of what we are about. For example, on more than one occasion, we have been approached by people who thought we were for the paranormal or that we were skeptical of the moon landing. When inviting speakers to address ISUNY, more time is spent explaining what we are (and why we are not what they may think we are) than in discussing topics.
If past experience is a guide, however, a new name will not be easy. That is why we seek your help. The back of Skeptical Inquirer contains the names of dozens of ``skeptic'' groups around the world which could serve as a guide. While a clever acronym would be nice, a direct and self-explanatory name would be even better. Go for it.
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 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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 November, 1997 issue is October 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.
The irresponsibility of the media in the area of science and the paranormal is a worldwide problem.
-Dr. Paul Kurtz, CSICOP chair You don't find a general fluency in skepticism in the media.
As we have all witnessed, over the last half decade the size and scope of television, film and electronic media has grown into a giant leviathan. Unfortunately, the growth of the media combined with viewer and reader demand has resulted in an astounding increase in the number of films, TV programs and popular print articles that feature or tout fringe science, the paranormal or pseudoscience. Well-known examples are The X-Files, The Unexplained, Unsolved Mysteries and Independence Day.
The Council for Media Integrity does not seek to censor these programs, only that producers and writers exercise responsibility in presenting a balanced account that provides some appreciation of the scientific approach. The Council's purpose is to monitor such programs, and attempt to persuade producers, directors, writers, and the general public to leave room for the appreciation of scientific methods of inquiry.
In order to effectively monitor and respond, the Council is seeking dedicated and committed volunteers that can regularly apply their critical and skeptical eye to upcoming TV programs, films and articles. These activities might include:
In order to make monitoring easier, regular e-mail and postal update will alert Council activists to upcoming television shows, and recount what happened the previous week. Included would be sample letters-to-the-editor, sample letters to producers, opinion editorials, sample press releases and media events that Council activists can use with their local media.
As we've seen in the past, a well-organized network of committed skeptical activists can accomplish a great deal, and can even start to turn the heat up on the entertainment industry and media.
Please become a Council for Media Integrity Watchdog today by sending e-mail to: SINISBET@aol.com. Help take a bite out of the fringe.
Matthew Nisbet is with CSICOP Communications and Media Relations. His anoucement was distributed over the summer vis Skeptical Inquirer's email list.
How many of you out there have heard this claim? The Pink Floyd album, Dark Side of the Moon is synchronized so that key portions of the album coincide with key events from the movie The Wizard of Oz1. This claim has been bouncing around on the Internet, picked up by newspapers, and, lately, even been used in some stores, such as the Mohawk Mall Media Play, to promote sales of both the video and the album.
To try out this trick, you need a copy of The Wizard of Oz movie, easily found on home video, and the album itself, preferably on CD, so that it can play all the way through without stopping. The procedure is relatively simple. Begin the video first, when the movie's MGM lion appears wait for it roar three times, then, on the third roar, begin playing the Pink Floyd CD and turn down the sound on the video. Simply sit back, kick up your feet and wait.
As viewers remember, the movie begins in Kansas, a dreary land which appears in black and white. As the album plays, there are a few parts where one might see synchronization. For instance, in one scene Dorothy falls off a fence at about the same time the music shifts from cheerful to menacing. Nevertheless, my skeptical brain was telling me that there really wasn't much going on here. As critics have pointed out, often any old piece of music can synchronize somewhat with almost any sequence of pictures and your brain will put the two together. Ho hum, I thought.
And then, bango! Things got interesting. Just as Dorothy was picked up by the hurricane and sucked off to Oz, the music shifts. Just as she arrives, (and the movie shifts from color to black and white), the music shifts again. As she exits the battered farmhouse-turned-meteorite, the Pink Floyd alarm clocks (a frequent motif in portions of the album) begin ticking away. The effect is uncanny! As she explores OZ the music seems to explore OZ with her. Throughout the second half of the album, I sat, enraptured, thoroughly enjoying this absolutely bizarre turn of events. There were some very strange scenes where it was difficult to deny that lyrics coincided almost perfectly with events in the film. For example, when the wicked witch appears, the lyrics go, ``which is which, who is who;'' then as the Wicked witch of the West stands tall the lyrics sing about ``up, up, up;'' as she crouches down, focusing on her dead sister under the house, the band sings ``down, down, down.''
Is it coincidence or a dark and secret design? I don't know. It's important to remember that the movie was released in 1939 and the album in 1973. These dates were both before the days of both CDs and home video equipment. It would be extremely difficult to repeat this sequence with a home movie projector and a record player which required flipping over midway, although I suppose reel to reel tape equipment might do the trick. In any event, Pink Floyd would be unlikely to predict such advances and hope for a boost in sales 24 years later when people stumbled across this effect. The band denies any intentional synchronization effects. And it's a bit difficult to see what would be the point in such an elaborate scheme.
Nevertheless, this is one bizarre claim which is worth checking out. Even if it means nothing, and you're a hard core skeptic who refuses to consider the possibility that it might, claiming that such bizarre synchronization would be inevitable with thousands of albums and thousands of movies floating around, then you can easily see why others could come to believe that the strange sequences imply something other than simple coincidence.
As for those who believe, here's the truly unsolved mystery; Dark Side of the Moon only plays long enough to be a soundtrack for half of the film -where's the second half of the soundtrack? What could it be? Please tell us. Inquiring minds want to know.
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.
The September meeting of ISUNY was about skeptics, science fiction and The X-Files. As always, this psychic sat in the back and observed. The meeting was an interesting discussion of science fiction past and present, the changing nature of culture and the strange role television may play in promoting and extending some beliefs.
At one point, the question of a disclaimer on programs such as The X-Files was raised. Disclaimers? I thought. Why does a fictional program require a disclaimer? The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that there is a shortage of disclaimers on television, and many of the disclaimers one does see are hardly disclaiming anything. They seem designed more to claim, than to disclaim.
That is why I am proposing The First Why-Files, Ask the Psychic Contest:
Provide the best skeptical disclaimer for a fictional, non-fictional or pseudo-documentary program. All entries will be judged by yours truly, David Quinne, the Official Psychic of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. The winning disclaimer may be direct, indirect, ambiguous, factual, skeptical, credulous, believable, and/or humorous---although each of these attributes is optional. If necessary, the disclaimer should identify the program to which it belongs.
The winner will receive a one-year subscription to The Why-Files and a token (and inexpensive) award of my (David Quinne's) own choosing. My judgment is final, as is my choice of token award. All entries remain the property of the being who entered it, but entry is taken as implicit permission to reprint the disclaimer in The Why-Files, and to forward it to any Internet forum (both with full credit to the original author). Entries should be the original work of the person entering. Multiple entries are allowed, but will be judged separately.
All entries must be available by November 15th (the deadline for the December Why-Files). The contest is open to all, and not just ISUNY members. I have already made announcements in appropriate Internet forums. Some of the sample entries already received are:
The X-Files is a realistic fictional portrayal of how the FBI would investigate paranormal phenomena.
-Disclaimer for The X-Files.
And, another for NOVA.
While the preceding documentary is based on the scientific evidence available at the time of filming, the viewer is warned that science only makes tentative truth claims and its conclusions may change with new evidence. The producers encourage the viewer to check peer-reviewed journals for discoveries pertinent to this program and its claims. WGBH Boston and NOVA are not responsible for any loss or damages that result from accepting any scientific claim without first checking the quality of evidence or running your own controlled experiments.
-Disclaimer for NOVA.
The possibilities are not limited to just programs about science or the paranormal. Many situation comedies and prime-time dramas could also be improved with a disclaimer. I leave that to your active imaginations.
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.
Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files spoke to a standing room only crowd at the 20th meeting of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.2 Volume 21, numbers 2 and 3. He spoke about the creation of the X-Files, his own view of the paranormal and government conspiracy, and what he believes is a writer's responsibility. Not surprising, many skeptics in the audience disagreed with his claim that The X-Files is not anti-science and does not promote belief in the paranormal. (As an example, see the anouncement for CSICOP's Media Integrity Watchdog Network earlier in this newsletter.)
Whenever Skeptical Inquirer runs a story about The X-Files, some readers may be thinking: ``but, it's just fiction.'' Why is any skeptical organization, such as CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer, or even ISUNY, spending time on this topic? But, the issues do go deeper than just a fictional show. The X-Files is a reflection of society and as such conveys much that skeptics and CSICOP find objectionable about contemporary entertainment.
This is especially vexing because so many skeptics are science fiction fans---even fans of The X-Files. The skeptic discussion list on the Internet occasionally mentions The X-Files and the split between considering it just fiction and considering it pernicious programming is apparent there as well. And members of both camps will claim to be science fiction fans.
At the September meeting of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, a panel debated these issues. Here are a summary of the arguments presented by Dorothy Sager and Michael Sofka on that panel. A review of the arguments presented by our third panelist, Jan Finder of the local Science Fiction group, are given in the minutes to the September Meeting.
The X-Files does reflect contemporary society and entertainment, bearing, in my opinion, too close a resemblance to the really objectionable (to a skeptic) shows like Unsolved Mysteries and The Unexplained. We may be nostalgic for the good ole' shows like The Twilight Zone, which, by its very name, made it obvious to viewers that this was not anything likely to be encountered in ``real life.'' I admit my experience in viewing The X-Files is limited, but I was able to undergo an X-files marathon the week before the September meeting, thanks to Mike and his handy videotape machine. Despite this saturation, my opinion of the program did not change---it's not for me. Although Scully, the ``scientific'' one, seems to get an opportunity to give a reasonable explanation, usually early in the program, the ending has Mulder muttering something mystical and arcane, leaving the audience to feel mysterious forces are about.
During the Chris Carter luncheon at the World Skeptics Congress, Steve Allen (author, comedian, and chairman of CSICOP's Council for Media Integrity) asked about the possibility of using a disclaimer at the end of The X-Files saying that the events portrayed were not real. Carter said it was a valid question, but felt no responsibility other than to say ``This does not represent actual event and/or individuals.'' Personally, I believe such a disclaimer might help avoid some of the gullibility resulting from the show, and sure couldn't hurt. Also at the luncheon, Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist who often writes for Skeptical Inquirer, told Chris Carter that he occasionally gets a call from a friend asking if what the friend has just seen on The X-Files could really be true or if it could have really happened. Tyson said he thought that Carter is ``setting back the nation's attempts to combat science literacy.'' It's too bad that Carter believes basing a story on the rational, scientific view is not dramatically exciting, so that's why his show concentrates on the wacky side. Wouldn't it be neat if he'd give the rational a try once in a while?
Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files, and was one of three ISUNY members present at Chris Carter's talk. She can be reached by email at DDSAGER@aol.com.
There is nothing new under the sun. Thirty-eight years ago The Twilight Zone, a series created by Rod Serling, premiered. While quaint and primitive by today's standards, the program is now ``legendary'' in its impact on our society. The Twilight Zone was written by up-and-coming authors; it frequently switched between and merged horror and science fiction; and it incorporated cold war fears and urban legend in many of its episodes. In the process the intelligent writing and presentation helped to spread those legends. Jan Brunvauld's first book on Urban Legends didn't mention The Twilight Zone---it hardly mentioned any television. But as fans wrote in, his later books now have index entries for The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits and other fictional programming.
The X-Files, however, is different from The Twilight Zone in ways that go beyond plotting and setting. Like all science fiction, The X-Files is contemporary. It deals largely with issues familiar and important to the contemporary reader or viewer. The typical reader of fiction likes a story with characters that he or she can identify with, who have values close to their own engaging in activities the reader would like to engage in, and who respond in ways the reader can predict. Science fiction readers are no different. The typical reader also most enjoys escapist literature similar to what they first read at about the age of fifteen.
When I began reading science fiction, the contemporary world was very modernist. In the modernist novel the future will be better than today. Science and technology, despite setbacks, are basically good and they will help create this better future. The rational, scientific world outlook will triumph and humanity will be better for it. And, the government, or great and rational people, will lead us in this bright future. The modernist approach is typified in writers such as Heinlein, Asimov, and Clark, and in the original Star Trek. This is the science fiction I, and many skeptics, were first exposed to, and skepticism, especially the skepticism found in the pages of Skeptical Inquirer, is very modernist.
The X-Files, on the other hand, is not modern. It is dark and self-reflective with technology often the source of problems. In the world of The X-Files the authorities do not lead us, they deceive us. In short, The X-Files are postmodern.
What is the postmodern? The postmodern world is just like the modern world with its science, technology and labor-saving devices. Only in the postmodern world, we are more skeptical about it. We are skeptical of government, skeptical of humanity, and skeptical of the ability of technology to solve our problems. Star Trek: The Next Generation is postmodern, or at least more so than the original Star Trek series. In Star Trek: The Next Generation much time is spent, for example, commiserating about the effect of warp travel on the space-time continuum. Kirk would never have let a minor ecological disaster get in his way. More importantly, in a modernist program, ecological disasters would not occur---at least not one that technology could not fix, or that we were now somehow wise enough to avoid.
Science fiction has become more postmodern in recent years. Cyberpunk writers such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling are perhaps the best examples. Their novels tell dark stories of a dystopian future in which technology doesn't improve life, it just changes it. It is a future in which authority is looking out only for itself and cannot be trusted, and in which a hardworking protagonist can only hope to break even.3
The X-Files is very good at what it does. It fuses horror and science, bringing in a dark, conspiratorial post-Watergate view of government and authority, and it turns the tables on Hollywood's traditional gender roles in a way sure to appeal to Generation-X. Chris Carter has his finger on the pulse of his viewers. But, The X-Files is being criticized for successfully blurring the line between fact and fiction to make the show more believable for its audience. Think about it. This is a fictional television program being criticized because it is too believable.
Is this fair? If The X-Files did a poor job at being believable would it be ignored by skeptics? It would be ignored by its fans. Consider the many X-Files wannabes that failed last year. Most were hokie and poor imitations whose creators thought that a couple of aliens and a few government goons would make a hit program. They missed the dark feel, the underlying loss of control, the horror that comes with not being able to trust your senses or your fellow human beings. This is what The X-Files does well.
Even as an example of postmodern science fiction The X-Files fails in many regards. Its actual science is often bad or poorly presented; its writing is uneven with episodes not fitting together in a consistent way, and the challenges posed to Scully and Mulder frequently slip over from the puzzling and mysterious to the simplistic and humorous. In short, The X-Files doesn't go far enough. It doesn't realize the full potential of its emerging genre. Even if the problems are fixed, however, I suspect the show would still not be a hit among skeptics. Quite the contrary, the more realistically believable The X-Files became, the more criticism it would likely draw.
I end with a small concession. I admit to feeling some of the same sense of dread about The X-Files as my skeptical colleague. I admit, it is a little scary that The X-Files resonates with so many people. There is something unsettling about a dark, sinister, ``trust no one'' program being so popular. The fault, however, is with ourselves and not Chris Carter. The postmodern times came about because the modern failed us in many ways. We embraced the industrial revolution with such high hopes that when social problems proved intractable to technological means we lost hope. When technology created new social problems and environmental disaster we got scared. And when government betrayed our trust, we became disillusioned. It is our own naiveté in science and technology and government that now rebounds in our suspicious times
If we're going to fix society, however, and build a new age of hope and inspiration---one less naive than in the past but with more vision than the present---it is not going to be by writing letters to the editor about the dangers of The X-Files. The X-Files debate is a generational debate. Its fans are young and its critics are older. It divides the older skeptic for whom science fiction is Asimov, Heinlein and Clark from the younger for whom it is also Sterling, Gibson, and Carter. Changing this really is going to take a change to society, but not one that restores the modern world. The X-Files debate is much like the horror comics debate which took place in the 50's, and if pursued, I fear it will make Skeptics look just as silly 40 years hence.
Mike Sofka is president of ISUNY, a programmer at RPI, and a long time science fiction fan and critic.
President Mike Sofka opened the meeting with a description of ISUNY's ``Skepti-season'' from September through June, pointing out that the largest audiences seemed to result when meetings involved well-publicized speakers from out-of-town, and the next largest resulted from general science lectures. Mike explained the new direction proposed for our group, away from debunking the paranormal and toward promoting rational thinking. The discussion that followed was very positive over the change.
The meeting's program was a panel discussion on The X-Files, with Mike Sofka, Dot Sager and guest Jan Finder of the Science Fiction Club on the panel. Jan had vast knowledge of science fiction material and said that he did not think The X-Files really fit in that genre. His feeling was that science fiction was forward-looking; he placed The X-Files more in the field of fantasy with a strong element of paranoia against the government thrown in. More details on the positions of Mike and Dot can be found elsewhere in this newsletter.
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.
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).
Other topics proposed or being worked on include How Children Become Interested in Science, Ecological Pseudoscience, How Many People Can the Earth Support?, Cold Fusion, and Are There Brain Differences Between the Sexes?. 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 spelling and grammar errors, and offering clarifications. The contents of this newsletter may or may not represent opinions held by people. Any similarity between the contents of The Why-Files and actual events is purely coincidental. No skeptics were harmed in the typesetting of this newsletter.
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 Mike Sofka thinks this is a twisted movie where Judy Garland, a twenty-something alcoholic, played a little girl who can't tell reality from fantasy. As evidence he notes that Garland's breasts are full in some scenes yet strapped down in next (or later in the same) scene. Boo, Mike! Hiss, boo, hiss! What an evil man he is to have such thoughts! Stop checking out Judy Garland's breasts!
2 See Skeptical Inquirer
3 It is not uncommon for traditional science fiction fans to claim that cyberpunk or The X-Files are not really science fiction, because the science or technology is incidental to the story or not accurately represented, or because the story is negative, and so on. I contend that any definition of science fiction narrow enough to exclude cyberpunk or The X-Files would also exclude many works clearly recognized by fans as science fiction.