The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 4, Issue 2 Febuary, 1998

 
 
 

February Meeting

Consider Commander Data: Artificial Intelligence and the Philosophy of Star Trek

Join us February 4th, 1998 when Ron McClamrock will discuss artificial intelligence and cognitive psychology as illustrated by Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ron is a professor of philosophy, University at Albany, and the author of Existential Cognition: Computational Minds in the World, published by University of Chicago Press, 1995. This talk, based on The Philosophy of Star Trek, a course he taught at SUNY, Albany, will consider present and future outlooks on the possibility of artificial minds.

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.

January 7th ISUNY Meeting

The first ISUNY meeting of 1998 was scheduled with two short videos for the program, the traditional practice to deal with the possibility of poor weather. Officers of the club were pleased by the turn-out of 17 attendees. The group chose to view Three Card Monte, a documentary on New York City street games filmed by an NYU film student, first. Framed much in the style of a 60 Minutes expose, complete with a ``hidden camera'' in a box, Three Card Monte showed how the ancient shell-game scam is still being used on tourists and naive natives on the streets of New York---''fast game, fast money.'' Although it may seem that only the guy behind the table is running the game, the film revealed the ``shills'' who were allowed to win and were part of the scam and served to encourage the mark to play, and keep playing. The scam also required look-outs to ensure a quick get-away when something went wrong, like cops showing up. Three card monte is a gambling game like the shell game, but uses playing cards to fool the public instead of nutshells and a pea.

The second video was a presentation of Chi Gong, the ``energy which flows through everything.'' The film covered the activities of an unlicensed practitioner of chi gong named David (not our Psychic David) who would make house calls to rearrange clients' chi and ``cure'' their varied and numerous ills. Also filmed were skeptical comments by Dr. Robert Baker, a physician in NYC who pointed out that no one had ever been able to measure chi; also included was a discussion between our very own Peter Huston and Dr. Richard Lang, a retired oncologist from our area which was also on the skeptical side. A good discussion of the topic followed the showing of the film.

-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 March, 1998 issue is February 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.

Ask the Skeptic---Editorial

A question I'm often asked is: ``Why doesn't this skeptic group do more to battle the Christian Coalition?'' To which I respond: ``If you are looking for an anti-Christian Coalition group, why don't you consider joining any of the many active Liberal and non-fundamentalist churches in this area.'' Many of these churches, by the way, resent the so-called Christian Coalition's attempts to monopolize the word ``Christian.''

More to the point, why should we devote ourselves to being ``anti-Christian Coalition,'' when we can simply be ``pro-science,'' ``pro-thinking'' and ``pro-respect for others'' and let the chips fall where they may? Anti-Christianity, like anti-Communism, may provide a focus to some people's lives, but it is not what ISUNY is about.

Besides, the biggest threat from the so-called Christian Coalition, in my opinion, comes from their periodic attempt to put creationism into the school curriculum. This is an on-again/off-again issue that will probably be with us for as long as we live. There are probably two reasons why a person would believe in Biblical Creationism1 The first is that they have an emotional or spiritual need, either permanent or temporary, to believe in some sort of heavy-duty, fundamentalist, all-guiding religion with everything crystal clear, black and white, and simple to understand. Many people go through this sort of thing. Some outgrow it, some don't, but arguing with such people is almost always a waste of time. (When is the last time you heard a creationist say ``Oh my! Your arguments are brilliant. I'm wrong and you're right.?'') The best thing to do with such people is simply to stay in contact, try to remain on good terms, and let them do their own thing for a while.

The second group are people who simply don't understand the issue, and may be open to a rational discussion of the hows and why of evolution, and why it is a fundamental and universally accepted piece of biological science. To reach these people, however, we must first strive for an atmosphere in which they feel welcome to attend our meetings.

The best thing to do with creationists is ignore them until they get on a school board. If this happens, we should join the efforts of the many groups who would be against it. If our group were to foster an environment in which those with religious beliefs did not feel welcome, however, we would have a difficult time getting people to listen to our group and its members. People tune out fanatics.

Therefore, the best thing we can do, as a group, is strive for an atmosphere in which all people feel welcome to attend a series of talks and meetings, in which rational analysis, and discussion of specific issues, is encouraged. If a real threat to our values should arise, then we will be better prepared to meet it.

Liberal Christians are not the only believers opposed to creationism in the schools. There are many people with New Age and other esoteric beliefs who are opposed to creationism and the Christian Coalition. If the issue of creationism becomes an issue in our area, it would be nice to have them as allies. For this reason as well as on general principles, it is best that we let all know that we are not against people with New Age beliefs. Instead, we promote the rational analysis of individual claims, including occasional New Age claims, using objective standards. If they have a specific testable claim, we'd like to look into it (if we can find the time). Otherwise, we'll let them go and do their thing.

Finally, combating a group can sometimes legitimize it. For some time, I've been on the mailing list of a creationist group called Answers in Genesis, and receive fund-raising letters from them on almost a weekly basis. One of these said, ``Give us money. We need to expand our efforts to combat the skeptics groups.'' Why should we pander to them? We'll do our thing, let them do theirs, and if they bother us and our society, I honestly feel we can best be ready by not preparing too much.

-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: Why don't you just anticipate---uh, predict---the questions people ask and answer them all at once?

-Chancey Craig

This is an old chestnut that every psychic has heard. I should write up a description and keep mimeographed sheets around, ready to hand out to every new customer.

The answer is memetic competition, as described by Susan Blackmore in an excellent Skeptic article (although she did not apply it to psychic predictions). There are only so many hours in a day, and I sleep between six and eight of them. I also eat, and I try to run my research company. This all takes time.

Most people are under the impression that visions come to psychics unbidden and without effort, and that the vision unambiguously answer all of their questions. Hokum, pure and simple. Psychic abilities are subtle and difficult to control. Ideas, advertisement jingles, popular songs, worrying about teenage sons, fattening food, and so on, are all distractions that intrude themselves into our thoughts. Predictions must compete with all of this, and they are distorted by it all. Good psychics, successful psychics (not the TV Psychic variety), must do their research. They must understand and study all there is to know about a problem. They must bring all the tools of science, psychology and even spying and trickery to understand and learn all there is to know. This information must then be brought to mind, along with any hints the paranormal may offer to draw a valid conclusion.

When I make a prediction, I don't know if I'm seeing the future, making good guesses, or even if the future is communicating with me by weak quantum interactions that do not introduce paradoxes (a possibility discussed by Philosopher Hillary Putnam, and left open by modern Physics). I'm not even sure how to tell. Sure, I could put all this effort into predicting questions. I may even get them right. There is a zeitgeist that pervades our society creating chance matches and sychronicities between events. I may pick up on these and pre-know questions that I will be asked. But, why should I put in this effort when, if I only wait a couple days, they will be handed to me on little pieces of paper? Life is short, we cut corners where we can.

-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.

Do Extraordinary Claims Always Require Extraordinary Evidence

``Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence!'' The phrase rolls off the skeptical tongue like a well-rehearsed mantra. Pick up a book on skepticism, and you are almost sure to find it. But, is this always the case? Do extraordinary claims always require extraordinary evidence? To answer this question, we need to examine how science works, and the role of theories in guiding scientific investigation.

Theodore Schick wrote an good article about this very topic for Skeptic magazine.2 I will review his ideas and toss in one or two of my own. All things being equal, a more extraordinary claim, or a claim that makes predictions which contradict those of well established scientific theories, does require better evidence. But, all things are usually not equal.

For brevity, I will call this the principle ``extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'' the ``establishment principle'' because it provides grounds for establishing a new claim. The establishment principle favors conservatism, or retaining the established theory.

Conservatism has its good and bad points. We should retain that which works until something better comes along. If we don't occasionally abandon theories, however, science would make no progress. Alas, for a well established theory, gathering sufficient evidence to contradict it may be expensive and time consuming. Some other rules are needed to clarify when a competing theory is promising enough to warrant further research. Some guidance is needed for when we should expend money to find extraordinary evidence.

The establishment principle also does not take into account the scope of the theory. That is, how much data, relative to another theory, does the new theory account for? General relativity, to use Schick's example, has greater scope then Newton's theory of gravity. This helped offset its then extraordinary claim that time and distance were not constant. Paranormal claims, on the other hand, usually offer little or nothing over more established theory.

The establishment principle does not consider the potential fruitfulness of a new theory. Will the new theory open new avenues of research? Does it generate new ideas, or bring together disparate observations? General relativity opened many new avenues of research. Fringe claims are often dead ends explaining only their own unique data set.

How many assumptions does the new theory have compared to the old? The establishment principle says nothing of this. General relativity has fewer assumptions than Newton's theory of gravity, and this was one of its strong selling points. Fringe claims often multiply assumptions to counter prosaic explanations.

The establishment principle ignores æsthetic elements, or how beautiful the theory is. This is fuzzier then the other criticisms. Some have argued that it is a mistake for scientists to engage in questions of the æsthetics of a theory. Others counter that because we don't know where the next good idea will come from, a theory with strong æsthetic appeal will attract more research. This can be both good and bad.

The definitions of extraordinary varies based on prior knowledge. This is a big problem for the establishment principle. Prior to general relativity, that time slowed in a strong gravity field constituted an extraordinary claim. Now, it is accepted physics. Prior to Newton the claim of an new planet was extraordinary. After Newton is is a tested and proven fact. To some, the claim of extra-terrestrial visitors is extraordinary because of the vast distances between stars. UFOlogists disagree. The best solution, in my opinion, is for everybody to put their cards on the table by honestly specifying their prior beliefs. This is not a bad practice in general.

Finally, the establishment principle does not consider the cost of being wrong. If you give up a well established theory based on less then extraordinary evidence, what harm will come? What potentially negative consequences are there if global warming is wrong? What are the potential negative consequences if global warming is happening, but we wait for more evidence?3 To get back to Schick's example, given the avenues of research General Relativity has opened, the predictions made, and its greater explanatory power, it is a good theory---even if it is later found to be incorrect. Similar talent and resources spent on fringe claims would likely be wasted.

In summary, the establishment principle does not tell us what constitutes sufficient evidence, and when more extraordinary evidence is needed. In practice, it is usually better to avoid saying ``Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'' in specific arguments---it is not a fait accompli. Instead, ask what evidence the claimant has, or suggest what is lacking in the evidence presented and suggest what would be more convincing evidence. Take the time to explain what well established theories are being contradicted. This doesn't always help, but it usually doesn't hurt.

-Mike Sofka

Mike is ISUNY's lame duck president and co-editor of The Why-Files. This article was extracted from his ``Myths of Skepticism,'' presented to the Capital District Humanist Society on January 14, 1996. The talk is available in full on ISUNY's web page.

Strange things (might) really have happened!

From Flying magazine: ``The crew of a trawler which sank in the Sea of Japan claimed the ship went down after being struck by a cow which fell out of the clear blue sky and went straight through the hull. No one believed their tale until, a few weeks later, confirmation came from Russia that the crew of one of its military cargo jets had stolen a cow they found wandering on a Siberian airfield and loaded it aboard.... At 30,000 feet, the terrified, unrestrained beast ran amok, so the crew lowered the cargo ramp and it jumped out.''

Bigfoot Film Hoax

According to an article in Electronic Telegraph, Issue 878, Sunday, October 19, 1997, the famous Bigfoot film is a hoax. John Chambers, the makeup artist responsible for the costumes in Planet of the Apes staged the Big Foot encounter for the ``benefit'' of Bigfoot hunters Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin, the former died in 1972 convinced he had filmed the real Bigfoot. According to Mike McCracken Jr., a makeup artist who worked with Chambers, it was common knowledge in Hollywood that Chambers was responsible for the film. Chambers, who won an Academy Award for his work on Planet of the Apes, constructed a costume similar to the Bigfoot costume for the television program Lost in Space. Another giveaway that Chambers was involved, is the use of a water bag in the stomach area, so the suit moved like real flesh.

Future ISUNY Meetings

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 and especially Dot Sager for their help planning and publicizing ISUNY meetings, and to Herb Jones for making 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 mistakes are @*%^(!#@)% segmentation fault: core dumped, error 601 STOP

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 I'm using the term ``Biblical Creationism'' to distinguish it from the belief that God guided evolution. Biblical Creationists believe in a literal 6 days to create a world only 6,000 years old.

2 Schick, T. Jr., Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? A reappraisal of of a Classic Skeptic Axiom, Skeptic, 3(2), 1995, p. 30--33.

3 Carl Sagan, who is often credited with coining the phrase ``extraordinary claims require extraordinary hypothesis'' asked just this question in Billions and Billions, a collection of essays published by Random House, 1997.