The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 4, Issue 1 January, 1998

 
 
 

January Meeting

``Chi Gong'' and ``Three Card Monte''

Join us January 7th, 1998 when we will show two half-hour video documentaries. The first is a CUNY film project on Chi Gong, and it features ISUNY members Peter Huston and Dr. Frank Lange. The second is about the popular street game three card monte, how it is played, and why the dealer always wins. It is our habit to show videos in January (and sometimes February) in case of a snow storm.

All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. This month's meeting is being held 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings at the Guilderland Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.

December 3rd ISUNY Meeting

Vice President Peter Huston presided over the meeting as President Mike, although present, had a bad cold and couldn't speak loudly. Peter mentioned there was a possibility of ISUNY being able to appear on WRPI again during the month (more about this elsewhere in The Why-files). Peter introduced the guest speaker for the evening, Dr. Dean Falk, paleoanthropologist from SUNY Alabany's Department of Anthropology. Dr. Falk's specialty is human brain evolution, and she is author of Braindance.

Dr. Falk had a series of interesting slides that contributed much to her talk which covered the means of researching brain evolution and provided information on the current state of research and some insight on the intra-specialty controversies over various theories. The seventeen attendees were an appreciative audience, and at least half were new, attracted by our notices in local newspapers and a posting at The Bookhouse.

-Dorothy Sager

Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at CarlSager@worldnet.att.net.

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 February, 1998 issue is January 15th, 1998.

Membership Renewals

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on your mailing label. Dues can be mailed to the treasurer at the address on the back page of this newsletter, or paid at our monthly meeting (make checks out to ISUNY). Your dues cover newsletter and speaker expenses. If the date on the mailing label is circled, it means our records show your membership has expired, and 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.

Wherefore? WRPI!

Mid-semester break at RPI afforded ISUNY another opportunity to appear on WRPI. Vice President Peter Huston, Secretary Dorothy Sager, Librarian Lewis Treadway, and Site Facilitator Herb Jones were raring to go the evening of December 17th. ISUNY had been offered airtime on 95.1 FM from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. that evening for a call-in show. A few days earlier, Peter had called James Randi about being on air with us. Amazingly (well, he is known as The Amazing Randi), he agreed to accept a call from us at 9 p.m. and talk to us for half an hour. Our first half-hour was spent introducing ourselves describing our group and discussing some of the topics covered in recent monthly meetings, and introducing the conversation with James Randi.

When that phone contact was made, Peter began by mentioning a number of books Randi had authored and asking him questions about them. Dorothy mentioned that, as part of the June 1996 First World Skeptics Congress in Amherst, NY, she and her husband had attended a seminar presented by Randi and a Dutch doctor on the subject of homeopathy. Randi briefly reviewed the tests in a French scientist's laboratory and how the extensive dilution of homeopathic medicines was equivalent to dropping an aspirin in the world's oceans. Mr. Randi also described an experiment used on a group of psychology students: Several days before his appearance in their class, they were asked to supply their birthdate and time, if known, and birthplace, ostensibly to then receive detailed personal descriptions of attributes and future events. Several days later, Randi gave each student a sheet with this ``personalized'' report, asking after they had a chance to review the material whether they would consider it a good match on a scale of 1 (a poor match) to 5 (a perfect match). Of the class of about 25 students, 4 or 5 thought their description was a 4; all the rest considered their description a 5. Then Randi asked each person to pass their sheet to the person behind them. A hubbub arose as the group realized that everyone had exactly the same description. As in horoscopes and the 1-900-psychic calls, the information provided was such statements as: ``you enjoy being with others, you are friendly, but shy, you may take a long trip in the near future.'' In other words, these were generalities that anyone could identify with and find some commonality with.

We had expected that James Randi's call would provide us with topics to fill our last half-hour. We did receive calls, including one from ``Laura'' who wanted to know who that woman was who dared to doubt the efficacy of homeopathy which had helped ``some of the people some of the time for some kinds of conditions;'' after all, shouldn't people be alowed to try things when standard medicine is ineffective. It was an interesting call, and became one for which Peter served as moderator/referee. Laura insisted that Dorothy (who identified herself as ``that woman'') had not answered her first question, which she had to repeat because by that point, no one in the studio could remember it. As Dorothy started to respond, Laura interrupted yet again. Again Peter had to step in. When Dorothy asked for evidence in support of homeopathy, Laura said there was a lot of supportive research, including a book by Larry Dossey, head of the Alternative Medicine section of NIH (?). She started looking for the references when another call came in. Although she had agreed to stay on the line to provide this evidence after we took that call, Laura was gone when we returned to that line. Dorothy commented that her objection to homeopathy was that, since the dilutions were such that it was doubtful that even a single molecule of the ``effective'' substance was present, any positive results were likely a placebo effect and it was really a waste of money and might divert people from pursuing really effective treatment.

Our last caller was primed to give us a monologue on dowsing, his philosopy, etc. This was all so much fun that the ISUNY members had not noticed that we had transgressed beyond our 10 p.m. limit. We finally gave up the microphones at 10:20 p.m. A good time was had by all---we hope!

-Dorothy Sager

Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at CarlSager@worldnet.att.net.

Ask the Skeptic

What Really Happened In Roswell, New Mexico?

To get to the bottom of what really happened in Roswell in 1947, we sent Peter Huston, author of the book Scams from the Great Beyond to interview David Quinne, official psychic of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. Quinne, holds a degree in quantum metaphysics from Maharishi University and is a master of retro-cognition, the psi-based ability to sense the course of past events after they happen. His powers are rated as well above fifty hertz by Professor Chico Torinaka-Mierda of the Russell Polytechnic Institute Non-Cognitive Thought Laboratory.

Why-Files: Mr.Quinne, where exactly is Roswell, New Mexico?

David Quinne: Roswell is not a place. It's a state of mind, typified by vast empty stretches and an emotional proximity to West Texas rednecks.

WF: I see....

DQ: We all see all things... if we have enough time and know where to look.

WF: Uh... I guess so. Now let's get down to the facts of the matter.

DQ: Facts have no meaning for those who have no need of them.

WF: Many claim that an extraterrestrial spaceship crashed in the New Mexico desert in 1947. Related claims are that following the crash, the government found and autopsied several alien bodies and used alien technology to improve military aircraft. These same people argue that the government has engaged in a massive cover-up suppressing the truth. Tell us your opinion.

DQ: I know all things... really. I do.

WF: First, the alleged spaceship crash.

DQ: Ah yes, the spaceship crash... spaceships crash all the time. It's because they are flying faster than light.

WF: Excuse me?

DQ: UFOlogists have determined that at faster than light speeds, you cannot see where you are going. That's why the advanced extraterrestrial technology doesn't prevent crashes. Our puny human air force only dares to travel at speeds faster than sound because jet engines are very loud, and the pilots can't hear where they are going anyway, so it's little loss. In fact, it's for this very reason that they let Geordi LaForge, the blind engineer, fly the Enterprise on Star Trek.

WF: Mr. Quinne, aren't you skipping ahead? It's never been proven that a spaceship crashed at all.

DQ: Really? (mumbling) But I read all about it in a book. In fact, it's been in several books and quite a few magazine articles. There's even a UFO crash museum in Roswell, New Mexico.

WF: And you call this a cover-up?

DQ: Well, what happened then?

WF: There was in fact a crash in the New Mexican desert in Roswell in 1947. The government investigators did try to keep people from talking about it. In fact, one air force officer did state that the item was a ``flying disc.''

DQ: See! I told you.

WF: Wait. There was a crash and the identity of the crashed object was concealed from the public. But it's a long jump from a crash to a crashed spaceship. Nevertheless, for years, the air force did conceal several facts about the incident. In 1994, the air force decided to come clean, issuing a report stating that in 1947, they were testing a top-secret listening device designed to be hung from a balloon to monitor foreign nuclear tests. This was called Project Mogul, and one such balloon crashed. In fact, all reliable descriptions of debris from the incident are consistent with a description of a crashed balloon, including the famous ones about metallic-colored flexible debris glued together onto sticks and string.

DQ: Yet why did they wait years to come clean, if they weren't covering up something important?

WF: First of all, monitoring foreign nuclear tests is important. Secondly, the fact is that UFO enthusiasts weren't interested in the 1947 Roswell incident until the 1970s and 1980s. Even the UFO fanatics of the late 40s and 50s dismissed the saucer crash story as too fantastic to be believed. It's only today that it's become big news.

DQ: But what about using the alien technology to improve our bombers?

WF: Are you serious? Our primary bomber today is the B-52, same as in Vietnam, twenty-five years ago. The stealth bomber is impressive, but it's nothing more than a logical improvement on pre-existing technology.

DQ: And the alien autopsy shown on Fox TV?

WF: Several special effects artists have pointed out that they could do a better job of producing a more realistic alien autopsy than that one. And they, at least, would insist on keeping the camera in focus during the interesting parts! Few people anywhere, including most prominent UFO believers, find the film believable. Besides, why am I talking anyway? You're the one who is supposed to be the master of psychic retro-cognition, aren't you?

DQ: Uhhhh ... well... I seem to have accidentally tapped into a parallel time line. You'd be amazed at how difficult it is to control awesome powers like mine.

WF: (tired) Gee, I guess so. Thank you for your time.

DQ: I knew you'd say that. I'm psychic after all.

-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 by Paladin Press, Boulder, CO. Peter's current writing projects includes a sequel to Scams.

Ask the Psychic

1998 Predictions.

Once again it is time for me to pre-prognosticate another year's worth of worthy wonders for your winter weather enjoyment. I must warn you that my 1997 predictions have all come true, so you ignore me at your own risk.

-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.

Book Review

Why People Believe in Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition and other Confusions of Our Time, by Michael Shermer. 1997. W.H. Freeman and Company, New York. Hardback. 306 pp.

For years, intelligent skeptics have been struggling with how to get their message out to the public. In Why People Believe in Weird Things, Michael Shermer, prominent West Coast skeptic, has taken a new, highly effective approach to this age-old problem.

Commonly skeptics have been accused of being overly focused, using overkill against claims. Mountains of facts are brought to bear on an issue like a sledgehammer used to squash a fly. The irony is that applying overkill to destroy a claim rarely works. The facts either don't sink in, or don't even reach the proper people, the believers, at all. The claim continues, as un-killable as Superman. Skeptics become cranky and crankier, turning more and more people off in the process. They react by assembling even more facts for the next claim they analyze and the process repeats itself, a never ending Quixotic quest to bring reason to the unwashed masses.

But aren't these efforts appreciated by scientists and other critical thinkers? Well, sometimes. As one friend of mine, an engineer, once commented to me, ``Why should I read The Skeptical Inquirer? It explains to me exactly why things I don't believe in aren't true.'' And yet it's often these same people who fail to see through the many important social and public health issues which are dealt with in these pages. Simultaneously, prominent skeptics spend time in name-calling spats with misguided and emotionally disturbed people on Oprah, hoping that by so doing, bored housewives will somehow be converted and lead a societal revolution, bringing rigid logic to bear on all societal issues everywhere. Realistically, we must sit back and ask how do we get people to listen, and, more importantly, begin to think on their own?

Shermer's approach is obvious, yet innovative. Write an interesting book aimed at people who already think, already question these issues, and, through this book, gently cause them to learn to think a little more critically, and a little more deeply. Keep them interested by supplying them with interesting material about the nature of science, including its strengths, its weaknesses and its historical development. And then do the same for several fringe groups who strive for mainstream acceptability. Don't just attack their arguments. Put the arguments and the movement in a societal context. Analyze who these people are and what their possible motivations are for holding and promoting these beliefs. Examine these groups both individually and comparatively to one another as well. See if there are parallels in motivations and arguments and if so, what they could be. Discuss why these issues are important or why they are not. If an issue does not seem important, share your motivations for examining it. If you don't, others will surely wonder about your motivation, instead of the claim itself. Your personality will become a distraction from your own cause.

And this, in short, is what Shermer does in this well-organized, well-documented, well-written book. Subjects covered include: the nature of science, twenty-five common fallacies in reasoning, Edgar Cayce, alien abductions, cryonics and near-death experiences, Ayn Rand, racial issues and the work of Frank Tipler (a physicist whose theories have a strong religion-istic feel); each gets a chapter. There's a well-done, three-chapter section on Creationism including its arguments, its politics, and the flaws in Creationists' arguments. The growing problem of Second World War Holocaust denial receives the same competent and informative three-chapter coverage.

All in all, Why People Believe in Weird Things is an important book which skeptics everywhere should examine. Although we can learn a great deal from the book itself, the approach this work takes could also be valuable to established skeptics next time they ask, ``Why isn't anybody listening to me?''

-Peter Huston

Future ISUNY Meetings

February 4th, Skepticism and the Internet (tentative)

The Internet is both a vast information source and a hotbed of rumor and myths. What resources are there for Internet skeptics, and what do they need to look out for?

March 4th, How Many People Can the Earth Support?

The current world population is 5.6 billion, give or take. Recent estimates calculate that by the middle of the 21st century the population will ``stabilize'' at between 9 and 12 billion. How reliable is this estimate, how accurate have past estimates been, what do we value most when calculating how many people the Earth can support?

April 1st, Pathological Science (tentative)

Polywater, Cold Fusion, Zero Point Energy and other pathological sciences.

May 6th, How Children Become Interested in Science,

and Why Many Lose Interest Later in Life.

We live in the age of science and reason yet polls show a lack of fundamental science literacy among adults. What can we do to spark interest in science among children, and more importantly, how can that interest be maintained?

June 3rd, Phrenology (tentative)

Lumps and lines and things that go bump on the head.

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

All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. We usually meet 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will always be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.

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 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.

Thank You

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 my fault, I did it, I admit it, it was all my fault, oh can you forgive me...?

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

About the Newsletter

The WHY-Files is the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. Articles, reviews and letters can be sent to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or to 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Hard copy and disks will be returned only if accompanied by a self-addressed and stamped envelope, or at regular club meetings.

The newsletter was typeset using the document preparation system written and placed in the public domain by Donald Knuth of Stanford University. Macros for this newsletter are available at http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/tex.html. The Why-Files are available at: http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny/.

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

Articles, reports, reviews, and letters published in The WHY-Files represent the views and work of individual authors. Their publication does not necessarily constitute an endorsement by Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York or its members unless so stated.