The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 4, Issue 10 December, 1998

 
 
 

December Meeting

Lightning and power lines

How modern research methods using rockets and other tools are allowing us to reduce power outages and lightning surge damage.

Lightning is a commonly observed, but still incompletely understood, phenomenon. Phillip Barker does research for utility companies testing how well equipment survives lightning strikes. He and his work have appeared on the PBS series Nova. Join us December 2nd when Phillip will be talking about lightning, and related meteorological phenomena, and showing us how you too can control lightning with model rockets and a Fluke 78 multimeter.

This month's meeting is being held from 7:00 pm until 9:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. Meetings are free and open to the public. We always attempt to schedule our meetings at the Guilderland Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month, but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will be available. Please check this web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict.

Notes from November Meeting

An amazingly adept switch of topics took place as the originally planned discussion on feminism had to be postponed when panel members were uncommitted just a week before the meeting. Since the meeting occurred just a few days after Halloween, a panel was quickly gathered to discuss various aspects of that holiday and related topics. Vice President Anne Reuter related many interesting insights on the history of Halloween which comes from the Celtic tradition. Linda LaTendre brought a number of interesting artifacts from 19th century mourning rituals which were much more stylized and socially important than our modern-day, more casual and probably less comforting rituals related to death. Peter Huston told us facts about Chinese mourning customs, a culture where family and ancestors are of prime importance; survivors leave food in abundance at the gravesite and burn paper ``money'' to provide the deceased with the means to ``survive'' in the afterworld. Carla Sofka spoke about attempts at communication with the dead, such as the use of mediums and visitations by ghosts or other manifestations of the deceased. All in all, an interesting program for the audience, and we thank the participants for an excellent job with minimum time for preparation.

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 January, 1999 issue is December 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.

Skepticism as a Technique of Intellectual Self Defense

This is part 1 of a four part series based on Peter Huston's talk to the Boston branch of the New England Skeptics Society.

-The Editors

Why define skepticism?

Or, This Crazy, Little Thing Called Skepticism!

What is ``skepticism?'' Having been involved in skepticism for some time, this is more than an abstract question to me. In fact, as I spend a great deal of time and effort on ``skepticism,'' and have been doing so for years, the question is quite an immediate and important one to me. Since skepticism is a loosely defined entity, at times it is difficult to explain to others what I am involved in or why I spend valuable time and effort on it! Some days I genuinely don't know myself. What is it that I hope to accomplish through this vague endeavor called skepticism?

Defining the scope and content of the ``ism'' called ``skepticism,'' will only become more important as self-identified skeptics become more and more self aware. Skepticism as an organized entity exists on a local, national, and international level and seems to be growing. Many colleges have ``skeptics groups.'' And on the internet there are not just skeptics Web sites, but also several skeptics post lists, a skeptics' sites webring and several skeptics chat rooms that meet at regular times.1 Yet despite all this, there is really very little consensus on what the terms ``skeptic'' and ``skepticism'' mean. This is true even of many people within the movement. I recently heard someone described in a national skeptic publication as ``an up and coming skeptic.'' Although she was quite pleased with this label, I had to wonder what exactly the phrase meant. A folklorist I know describes skeptics as ``an emerging community struggling to define itself.'' If we accept the definition of ``a skeptic'' as someone who practices or is involved in skepticism, we are still left with the curious need to define and think about what skepticism is. I recently was involved in an internet discussion on whether skepticism should go mainstream. Before we can effectively go mainstream, I think it would help if we could explain define skepticism to the mainstream.

In short, what does it mean now that ``being skeptical'' has become an ``ism?'' An adjective, ``skeptical,'' has now become a noun, ``skepticism.'' When people unite under the banner of skepticism what do they hope to accomplish? What is ``skepticism?''

To some people skepticism is a way of looking at paranormal claims. (But, why just paranormal claims?) To others, it is a movement. (If this is so, is it a sociological movement, political movement, or exactly what kind of movement is it?)

Others view ``skepticism'' is a way of defending society, academia, Western civilization, democracy itself or any one of a number of other good things. (Thank goodness at least someone is trying to defend these things! But then, is skepticism really defending them and if so how and from what?)

To some, skepticism is CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, or perhaps CSICOP and various local groups or other political or formally organized entities. (Well they did start it all. I'll give them credit for that! But, do they represent the only form of skepticism?)

To some critics, skepticism is a means by which the establishment seeks to suppress new ideas and neutralize threats to its hierarchical domination of knowledge through self selected arbitrary paradigms. (Gee! I'd hate to be responsible for all that! Some of my best friends are kooks, after all.)

There is some truth, and some falseness, to all of these notions. But I think, based on my experiences, all of these definitions are less than perfect. In my opinion, (and admittedly this paper is nothing more than one man's extended opinion) many of these ideas are just too big and broad in their scope. They attempt to make skepticism into something much bigger than it is or set goals that seem quite unrealistic. (Are we, for instance, really saving democracy by debunking UFO sightings?) Others, by contrast, are too small. (Although the organization is influential, most skeptics have no formal affiliation with CSICOP, for instance.) Others condemn all skeptics for the actions of a few. (I never worked for the CIA and I never interfered with the inter-state commerce in Orgone energy boxes either!) With some exceptions, however, generally the term skepticism, as well as the goals of skepticism, are left undefined by skeptics. Inevitably this will have to be corrected.

Well, then, what is Skepticism?

Or, Maybe Now I Don't Have to be So Grouchy When that Special Time of the Month Comes! (Our Skeptics Meeting! What Else?)

We, as skeptics, are left with our key focus undefined. What I'm going to suggest in this paper is that skepticism is (1) a technique, (2) a way of evaluating ideas, and (3) an intellectual tool. In short, skepticism is a technique of intellectual self defense. In other words, skepticism is a way by which people can screen and defend themselves from bad, false or potentially harmful ideas. I choose this definition carefully. Although I do not consider this definition the be-all and end-all of definitions of skepticism, it is useful in many ways.

Why do we need a ``technique of intellectual self defense?'' The answer is simple. We live in the information age. As most of us realize (especially those of us with access to the internet) this could easily be called the ``misinformation age.'' We live in an era where both science, the media and intercultural exchange are increasing at an incredible rate. There has simply been no other era in the history of mankind where individuals have been exposed to such a steady and continuous flow of new ideas on a regular basis. We need a means of filtering this information so that we don't waste time and energy on ineffective, incorrect, inaccurate, misreported or even harmful ideas. Skepticism, as it's commonly described, is such a means of filtering out this ``bad information.''

At this point it might not be a bad idea to briefly review, in a crude simplified form, the basic ideas of skepticism. Skepticism, as a technique, basically involves the following system of evaluating ideas. Assume something is false unless proven to be true. Use Occam's razor, the doctrine that if two explanations are possible, usually the simpler one is true. Assume extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. And, assume the burden of proof lies on the person advocating the idea.

As can be seen there is a clear cut emphasis on disproving ideas or not accepting ideas. This is one of the reasons I chose my statement that ``skepticism is a method of intellectual self defense'' quite carefully instead of something more neutral, such as perhaps claiming that skepticism is a means of weighing ideas. The emphasis is on the negative, and, in a self-defense system, perhaps it should be.

Do these ideas work 100% of the time? Arguably no, some ideas do not lend themselves to such a clear cut method of evaluation. Furthermore, many people could point out isolated cases where some of these assumptions were not true, where perhaps Occam's razor did not stand up in a given case. But then again no self defense system is perfect either, nor should it be expected to be. By and large, though, skepticism is still a useful technique to evaluate ideas and filter out the harmful ones.

I would also argue that many aspects of life, including aesthetics, emotions, athleticism, spirituality, ethics, and relationship issues, do not lend themselves to skeptical analysis very well. Skepticism and rational analysis can help with these issues, but its uses within these fields are somewhat limited. (I.e., rational analysis can assist a trained artist with many aspects of creating a painting. These might include choice of materials, composition or design, and similar things, but the need to express oneself is rarely based entirely in rationality.)

-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

Question: My brother recently started swing dancing. He leaves the home three nights a week, is spending money on a dance lessons, and now he is planning a trip to New York City to attend a big swing dance convergence of some sort. I'm afraid that swing dancing is a cult, and he needs help. Should I hire a swing dance deprogrammer?

-Swung-out in Scotia

Answer: Ms. Scotia, I'm afraid it is too late for your brother. Swing dancing is indeed a cult, and a very powerful and insidious cult at that. Swing dancers have been invading college campuses across the nation, recruiting new members from the ranks of the young and disillusioned. Swing dancing is just the latest of a number of dance cults spreading across the nation, having started when some ballroom dancers splintered from the main group, and merged with the ``jazz'' dancers.

If you want to learn more about dance cults, I suggest the book by M.S. Zorsky, Dance Macabre: The history of dance cults in America2 But, I would give up hope of saving your brother. If he is to leave dancing, he will need to do it on his own. The authorities won't help, since many of them are also in dance cults, particularly the ``line'' dancing cult.

Q: I watch the television drama ER, and saw a recent episode where a man drills a hole in his head to relieve pressure on the brain. It is called trepanning, and sure enough I found hundreds of Web pages about it. The technique sounds interesting. Should I get a trepanning?

-L.A. Bottomei

A: Trepanning is indeed an ancient technique for reaching a higher consciousness, that has recently risen in popularity. The technique is easy; get a power drill, some sterile gauze and a head---preferably somebody else's, but your own will do in a pinch. Once the hole is finished, the in-rush of air and resulting loss of pressure on the brain will increase IQ, awareness, vocal pitch, and the scar is very sexy---especially on those with receding hairlines.

Many new trepanning practitioners have opened shop in the last five years, so the prices and availability have never been better for putting a hole in your head. Go for it!

-David Quinne, CPP

David Quinne, ISUNY's psychic in residence, is an internationally published author whose work has been translated into at least two languages, one of which is most likely Hungarian. He lives in Loweville, NY with his long-time paramour Amber Sapphire. They have two dogs, a llama named Dolly, and raise prize sheep.

The 1998 Ig Nobel Prize Winners

The 1998 Ig Nobel Prize Winners were awarded at the Eighth 1st Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony on Thursday evening, October 8, 1998 at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University. Nobel Laureates Richard Roberts, William Lipscomb, Dudley Herschbach and Sheldon Glashow handed the prizes to the winners. A bevy of other laureates participated via slides and audiotape. More than half of the winners either attended the ceremony or sent representatives in their stead.

A full account will appear in the Jan/Feb 1999 issue of Annals of Improbable Research. In the meantime, you can see a number of lurid and lively press accounts (and some photos!) by going to the AIR home page (http:///www.improbable.com) and clicking on ``What the rest of the press is saying about us.''

A number of scientific celebrities also participated in the ceremony, among them James (the Amazing) Randi, Journal of the American Medical Association deputy editor Richard Glass, 11-year-old science hero Emily Rosa (who accepted the Science Education Prize on behalf of the winner), Listening to Prozac author Peter Kramer, grizzly bear researcher Colin Gillen, Materials Scientist Robert Rose, eminence grise Jerome Lettvin, Duck(tm) Tape manufacturer Manco, duct tape researcher Max Sherman, physicist-sweeper Roy Glauber, Woodman's restaurant (inventors of fried clams), and Randall Seed, son of cloning pioneer Richard.

Here are this year's winners.

Safety Engineering: Troy Hurtubise, of North Bay, Ontario, for developing, and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears. (Reference: The Canadian Film Board Documentary Project Grizzly. The film is available in Canada from the NFB, and in the US from First Run Features: 800-488-6652.)

Biology: Peter Fong of Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, for contributing to the happiness of clams by giving them Prozac. (Reference: ``Induction and Potentiation of Parturition in Fingernail Clams (Sphaerium striatinum) by Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs),'' Peter F. Fong, Peter T. Huminski, and Lynette M. D'urso, Journal of Experimental Zoology, vol. 280, 1998, pp. 260--264.)

Peace: Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan for their aggressively peaceful explosions of atomic bombs.

Chemistry: Jacques Benveniste of France for his homeopathic discovery that not only does water have memory, but that the information can be transmitted over telephone lines and the Internet.3 (Reference: ``Transatlantic Transfer of Digitized Antigen Signal by Telephone Link,'' J. Benveniste, P. Jurgens, W. Hsueh and J. Aissa, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: Program and abstracts of papers were presented during scientific sessions AAAAI/AAI.CIS Joint Meeting February 21--26, 1997.)

Science Education: Dolores Krieger, Professor Emerita, New York University, ``for demonstrating the merits of therapeutic touch, a method by which nurses manipulate the energy fields of ailing patients by carefully avoiding physical contact with those patients.''

Statistics: Jerald Bain of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Kerry Siminoski of the University of Alberta for their carefully measured report, ``The Relationship Among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size.'' (Reference: The paper was published in Annals of Sex Research, vol. 6(3), 1993, pp. 231--235.)

Physics: Deepak Chopra of The Chopra Center for Well Being, La Jolla, California, for his unique interpretation of quantum physics as it applies to life, liberty, and the pursuit of economic happiness. (Reference: Deepak Chopra's books Quantum Healing, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, etc. and http://www.chopra.com)

Economics: Richard Seed of Chicago for his efforts to stoke up the world economy by cloning himself and other human beings. (Contact: Richard Seed, 708-442-0500, fax 708-442-1500 ljseed@pol.net)

Medicine: To Patient Y and to his doctors, Caroline Mills, Meirion Llewelyn, David Kelly, and Peter Holt, of Royal Gwent Hospital, in Newport, Wales, for the cautionary medical report, ``A Man Who Pricked His Finger and Smelled Putrid for 5 Years.'' (Reference: The paper was published in ``The Lancet,'' vol. 348, November 9, 1996, p. 1282.)

Literature: Dr. Mara Sidoli of Washington, DC, for her illuminating report, ``Farting as a Defense Against Unspeakable Dread.'' (Reference: ``Farting as a Defense Against Unspeakable Dread,'' Mara Sidoli, Journal of Analytical Psychology, vol. 41(2), 1996, pp. 165--78.)

-Marc Abrahams (marca@wilson.harvard.edu)

Marc is editor of the Archives of Improbable Research (AIR), hosts of the Ig Nobel prizes. The prize report is excerpted from Mini-AIR, an electronic newsletter available for free by sending ``subscribe mini-air <your name>'' to listproc@air.harvard.edu. More information can be found on the AIR web site, http://www.rpi.edu/, where you can download a free nifty Ig '98 poster from the AIR web site (see the ``Ig Nobel'' section).

Future ISUNY Meetings

Video Tape.

January 6, 1999: We typically show video tapes in January, in case of snow. The tape topic is still to be announced.

The UFOs of October: Optical illusions, multiple witnesses,

and group dynamics in UFO observations.

February 3, 1999: Michael Sofka, past president of ISUNY.

When one person sees lights in the sky it can sometimes be explained as an optical illusion or other mistake of perception. But what if two, or three or four people observe the thing? Surprisingly, multiple witness can agree on what they saw, even while they are all mistaken, and multiple witnesses can be less reliable than a single witness.

Darwinian Medicine:

How Evolution affects the Disease process

March 3, 1999: Dr. Lois Hooverman of Schenectady County Community College.

Skeptic's Jeopardy

April 7, 1999. So you think you know your Yeti from your Champ, or your telekinesis from your clairvoyance. Or you have a secret passion in 19th century spiritualist. Then come to our April Skeptic's Jeopardy meeting. Audience members will compete with each other to show who is the most skeptical.

Any Suggestions?

May 5, 1999: no topic yet. Here's your chance to provide input.

I'm not a Feminist But,... : Has Feminism hurt the women's movement?

June 2, 1998. Has the feminist movement come to an end? Is ``academic'' feminism out of touch with the concerns of women? Is feminism anti-science? In the 150th year since the Seneca convention, these and other claims are regularly made on the talk-show circuit and even by some skeptics and other critics of ``postmodernism.'' Join our panel as they discuss the past and present role of feminism in American life.

The program committee is working on topics for meetings next year. 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.

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 Quinne and Dorothy Sager for their contributions to this newsletter. Thanks also go to Peter Huston, Robert Mulford, Anne Royter, and Dorothy and Ralph Hoyt and especially Dot Sager for their help planning and publicizing ISUNY meetings, and to Herb Jones for publicity and room arrangements with the Guilderland Library. A additional special thank you to Dorothy Sager for copy-editing. Dot does an excellent job removing typos and errors from our newsletter. Any remaining errors were missed due to an emergency trepanning.

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.


1 A post list is an electronic mailing list in which all email is distributed to all members of the list. A webring, is a link of Web pages on a given topic. Each ring member, contains a link to the next member, and so on. Chat rooms are real-time, interactive discussion areas, in which participants can send typed messages to other participants.

2 University of Missoula Press, 1994.

3 Benveniste also won the 1991 Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize.