|Volume 4, Issue 4||April, 1998|
The millennium is nigh! Or, is it? It is nearly the year 2000 on the Gregorian Calendar, but the 21st century doesn't begin until January 1, 2001, and the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Christ was in 1997. Meanwhile, on January 1, 2000 it will be Tevet 23, 5760 on the Hebrew Calendar, Ramadan 24, 1420 on the Islamic calendar and on the Traditional Chinese calendar it will be the 17th year of the 78th cycle. What makes the year 2000 on the Gregorian calendar so special? Is there any truth that the apocalypse begins January 1st, 2000?
Unfortunately, the answer may be yes. In the year 2000 many computer systems may stop working correctly with largely unknown result. By some estimates, the United States will have to spend between 70 and 600 billion fixing existing computer systems, and by most people's reckoning there is not enough time to complete the work. Are concerns about the year 2000 computer problem being hyped as part of millennial fever? Or is there a real concern, and if so, what can the average person do?
Join us this April 1st when Michael Sofka and R. Lindsay Todd, Sr. Systems Programmers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will present a two-part program on the year 2000 from an historical, technical and humorous viewpoint. Part one will discuss our calendar, how it came to be and how it relates to other calendars. Part two will discuss the likely effect of computers that cannot distinguish the year 1900 from the year 2000, and what this means for the average person who, at the very least, will be paying programmers to fix long-standing computer errors.
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.
In addition, Herb Jones will stay continue as room coordinator, and Louis Treadway will remain librarian.
At the business meeting, we can also re-visit the topic of a new statement of purpose which was originally proposed in our September 1997 Why-Files. That issue also asked for suggestions for a new name for the group. That issue can be put to rest on April 1st as well. The revised statement of purpose from the September '97 issue follows:
ISUNY is a non-profit, unaffiliated, educational organization run by its members. Our purpose is to promote science, science education, the objective discussion of fringe science and related claims, and related social and scientific issues of interest to members. To this end we:
The business meeting will be held from 7:00 until 7:30 pm, Wednesday April 1st before the regular April Meeting.
How Many People Can the Earth Support? was the topic of the evening. Panel members were John Gowdy, chair of the Economics Department at RPI; Alison Heaphy, Habitat and Population Organizer for the National Audubon Society in New York State; and George R. Robinson, Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at The University at Albany.
Alison Heaphy initiated the presentation with a series of very informative slides showing population statistics in various countries throughout the world. Current world population is estimated at 5.8 billion; some predictions are that world population will level off at 9 billion. Although western countries are at low population growth, developing countries still have expanding populations despite efforts by government and non-governmental organizations. An audience member expressed extreme skepticism regarding the statistic that the Russian population was currently decreasing.
George Robinson described his research into island environmental systems and his interest in how populations (of various species) grow and shrink. Although carrying capacity of environments can be calculated for wild species, this is difficult to figure when it comes to humans because of our ability to alter our environment. Our species has been able to experience exponential growth in the past two hundred years because of the technological changes we have effected. Environmental studies of other species have identified what resource limitations retard/put a brake on population growth. But what resource will put limits on human population? In large part, Earth's carrying capacity for humans will depend on what kind of culture and/or society people want. The predictions vary: if western life styles are preferred and available worldwide, Earth's carrying capacity would be about two and a half billion; others have predicted Earth has physical ``room'' for 400 million billion (that's 400 with 15 zeroes) and means people would be standing elbow to elbow.
John Gowdy spoke as an environmental economist and based his discussion on Robinson's description of island environments. He used the Easter Island experience to explain the interrelationship between population size and environment and economy. Anthropologists believe there was a burgeoning economy based on fishing. As the culture developed the erection of the huge statues of heads, all the trees on the island were cut down to move the statues. This resulted in erosion, affecting agriculture and reduced the wood available to build fishing boats. The population collapsed, leaving only a few hundred residents to populate the island. He contrasted the experiences of Japan and Brazil which each had the same GNP 30 years ago. However, within those 30 years, Japan's economic growth took off and their population stabilized; whereas, Brazil's economic growth has been static, but the population grew ``fast.''
Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
The few of us gathered at Guilderland Public Library on March 13th just barely outnumbered the members of the TV media who came in response to Vice President Peter Huston's notices regarding our superstition spoof. The Channel 13 WNYT cameraman arrived as we were setting up our displays of various superstitious practices in the large meeting room, and media folks from Fox 23, Channel 10 WTEN and Channel 6 WRGB arrived at 7 pm fast on the heels of Peter and Grace Huston, and Mike Sofka.
Grace had graciously made some delicious treats (which we shared with the camera people). Carl Sager's well-used ladder enjoyed a great deal of attention, being featured on most of the subsequent coverage. Other popular attractions were the spilled salt, the wood block to knock on, horseshoe (that's open end down for bad luck), feng shui artifacts (for planning a harmonious environment), and, of course, the encounter between a large hammer and quite a small mirror courtesy of fearless Dot Sager. Mike Sofka had brought a display of rational, skeptical books (for example, Carl Sagan's The Demon-haunted World; the media did not seem to use any videotape over that table. But a good time was had by all!
At some future ISUNY meeting, there will be a viewing of our 15 to 30 seconds of fame on local TV as videotaped later that evening. Hope all the rest of you will be with us then.
Hoping that an earlier start will mean an even more successful gathering, ISUNY members and assorted friends are invited to the Sager's lawn on Old Stage Road ``just up the hill'' from Altamont. The details of the picnic, including the date, will be discussed at our April first meeting. The Sagers prefer scheduling a Sunday afternoon in July or early August. So please come ready to discuss plans. We'll make sure that decisions are made soon enough to be published in the June newsletter, maybe we'll even make May's Why-Files.
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 March, 1998 issue is February 15th, 1998.
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.
Answer: Feng Shui, pronounced as ``Fung Shway'' to rhyme with ``tongue play,'' means wind and rain. It is the ancient Chinese art of placing things to ensure good fortune. 1 It involves landscaping, architecture and interior design, and its teachings are often cloaked in mystical language and terminology. The art is taken very seriously in much of Asia, and is currently becoming more and more popular on this side of the Pacific as well.2
Curiously, enough parts of feng shui do work, although other parts are obviously pseudo-scientific or just plain ``magical thinking.''
Some background is in order. Chinese culture is very old. Like any culture, the Chinese have assembled a great body of wisdom based on experience. Yet for some reason, the Chinese did not ever develop the scientific method as we in the West did. Nevertheless, they did show a great deal of ``proto-scientific'' thinking.
For instance, some time around two thousand years ago, the Chinese developed many ideas such as the theory of chi, Yin and Yang and the theories surrounding the five phases (or five elements) of matter and the cycles of their change and interaction. These ideas were and are widely respected, and there has been a continuous effort among the Chinese to apply their teaching to practical matters such as medicine or fortune telling. Generally speaking, this application has meant attempting to use these ideas as a framework within which to place ideas which were known to be true.
Feng Shui is a case in point. Many of the ideas in feng shui do work as taught. Often they are taught using terminology from ideas which sound mystical to Western ears. Nevertheless, many of the ideas in feng shui were then extrapolated from the ideas developed out of this grafted on framework of yin/yang and the five phases and chi and so on, and many of these new ideas, (the ones based on theory---not experience) do not work as taught. So it's a mish-mash of true ideas and false ideas.
There are two more factors that need to be considered. The first is the phrasing of many of the ideas. The Chinese often used the word ``lucky'' or the phrase ``brings good fortune'' to mean something that is beneficial. This is especially true of ancient ideas when a correlation was observed without understanding the exact cause of the correlation. For instance, in feng shui it is taught that it is not ``lucky'' to have a straight fast running body of water running through your crops' fields. In fact, it is not lucky---the presence of such a stream removes much of the valuable top soil.3 Similarly, feng shui teaches it is not lucky to have a stagnant, swampy body of water near one's fields---such a spot provides a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes, among other things. Nevertheless, to a Western skeptic, the term ``lucky'' sets off warning bells almost immediately, and they might be quick to dismiss such an idea out of hand. It is quite likely that much of the interior decoration aspects of feng shui are simply Chinese notions of good interior decorating techniques.
Finally, much of the teachings of feng shui are undoubtedly silly and based on magical thinking. For instance, one teaching is that in some cases a red door on a seafood restaurant is less lucky than a green one, as the former resembles dead seafood while the latter resembles live seafood. Or there's the teaching that much of bad luck can be deflected by hanging mirrors about, especially in certain places. Other teachings are based on the sounds of Chinese words or names of objects or their numerological significances. Other ideas of magical thinking, such as like attracts like, are often present. For instance, many Chinese restaurants have money hung on the wall. (Including strangely enough, a large number of two dollar bills.) If you talk to the workers about this they will often tell you that they put up that money to encourage other money to come in. This magical idea (like attracts like) is part of feng shui.
In Chinese society, feng shui serves several purposes. First, much of it works. Secondly, particularly in the placement of graves, feng shui and the care given to it, offer a visible reminder of the status and care of the person who is funding the grave. The same is true of idols and temples. Thirdly, in Chinese society there are a thousand and one ways to ``remove bad luck'' and thereby offer people a morale boost when they are feeling down. Feng shui is one of these. If business is bad, consult a feng shui expert. He'll hang a mirror or two or recommend a new paint job or, in really serious cases, the installation of a fish tank. With the bad luck put behind you, you can now get back to the business at hand---running your business and ensuring the survival of you and your family.4 All admit that parts of feng shui sound silly, although at times it's taken quite seriously. In fact, in Chinese, to call someone a ``feng shui expert,'' (feng shui hsien-sheng) has the same meaning as the English expression, flim-flam artist. Nevertheless, it is an important part of Chinese culture and has been developing a widespread following in the west.
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.
Question: Mr. Quinne. In your columns, it says you studied quantum metaphysics with a minor in political science. Please, what is ``Quantum metaphysics?''
Answer: Metaphysics is the philosophical attempt to understand how our models of physical reality map to the natural world. At its most basic it is the debate between the Platonist, who believe in a perfect world of ideas which we discover by rational inquiry, and the positivist, who believe our models are human inventions that at best approximate nature.
Quantum Metaphysics is simply the metaphysics of Quantum Mechanics. The most famous QMP problem is Schrodiger's half-alive-half-dead cat, a problem that comes not from the laws of QM, but from our attempt to understand what those laws mean. The various proposals to resolve this problem (multi-world interpretation, Bohm's interpretation, etc.) are almost a part of the common lexicon.
Regardless, it has been some years since my college days. Like many Philosophy majors I soon found myself doing something completely different. Much has changed since those days, esp. with regard to Bell's Theorem. I suggest the book The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology by Victor Stenger (Prometheus, 1995) for a contemporary introduction. Victor is a physicist of some sort, and I think he wrote some articles for Skeptical Inquirer Magazine.5
Q: Does this mean that ISUNY endorses David Quinne as a genuine psychic? If so, he's the only one endorsed by any skeptical group. Has ISUNY tested Mr. Quinne? What can Mr. Quinne demonstrate under controlled conditions? And when will he be richer by [more than] $1M?6
A: If I claim Randi's prize I might be $1 million richer (assuming I can collect it all, that would likely become my full time occupation). Given the natural limits of psychic ability, however, I have my doubts about being able to conclusively pass a test acceptable to Randi. Could a protocol that separated the natural from supernatural influences be worked out? I've given this some thought, and may write Randi one day. Please note that I am in no way blaming Randi, he must run the challenge under the strictest of pre-approved protocols producing unambiguous results, and I simply lack good ideas of what those should be.
More importantly, however, winning would deprive the skeptical world of its single greatest challenge and search for the unknown. I applaud Randi in his attempt to find conclusive proof. To take that away would put an end to his search. I want to see what others can do. The challenge, as it stands now, is the single best filter to eliminate crud. I closely watch Randi and his results before incorporating new methods into my own researches. Replacing that service would cost me the million dollars I might gain.
-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.
Reference is often made in skeptic literature to the scientific method. Frequently this is said to involve a series of steps such as:
usually additional steps or clarifications are inserted. For example, step 4 might be ``write up results for peer review,'' or step 2 might specify that the test should attempt to falsify the theory. Falsification was the subject of last month's column, and I'll have more to say about peer review in a later column. This month, I want to concentrate on the scientific method, as outlined above.
The scientific method is often spoken of as though it were a single set of rules---a series of procedures by which science is performed, or an algorithm of discovery. Whenever I read outlines such as the above---no matter how well annotated or elaborated---I am reminded of the scene in the movie Dead Poets Society, in which Robin Williams asks a student to read chapter one of Pritchard. The student reads in a solemn tone about how a good poem balances meter and rhyme, and about how good and bad poems can be distinguished by plotting these two elements. The other students all take notes as Robin Williams draws Pritchard's diagram on the board. When the passage is finished, he turns around and tells the students it is all ``nonsense, rip out that chapter!''
Science is not an algorithm. It is not a series of steps which the scientist must follow in order to arrive at correctly ordained knowledge. The scientist does not arrive at work, open her notebook and say ``Ah, yes, today I need to formulate a theory. Let's see, next Monday I'll be attempting to refute this theory, if I'm not successful I'll publish.'' To a working scientist, such a quote could be part of a stand-up comedy routine---I think Bob Newhart would do it well.
Science is as much about inspiration, discovery, trial and error, retrial with more error, serendipity, and even making good guesses as any other creative act. When textbook writers present a series of steps, they are (or should be) attempting to convey a sense of how science is different from writing a poem, or making a political speech, or building a bridge, or any other human activity that requires training, concentration and forming a chain of inferences. But in so doing, they usually fail and instead create the impression that a machine can do science.
Maybe a machine can do science, but we have no idea how to build such a machine. The truth is, we do not have a good description of what scientist actually do, and we are not even close to universal prescriptions for what they should be doing. Scientists do formulate theories to explain observations, but scientists also collect data without a well-formulated theory---especially in a new area of inquiry. Scientist do conduct experiments, often with the goal of distinguishing one theory from another, but these tests are rarely definitive by themselves7
Instead of a universal method of discovery we have a collection of suggestions and techniques, rules of thumb, and guesses on what constitutes a good theory. These include:8
In other words, if they don't predict what we see, consider rejecting the theory, but only if we have an alternative, and we are sure of our results, and the theory is otherwise lacking good qualities. Otherwise, look for possible limiting conditions, auxiliary hypotheses and mistakes in observations.
We have a preference for theories whose predictions are unexpected, and which, after testing, turn out to be right. But there is a conceptual problem with this rule: what constitutes a surprising prediction? That depends on what you already know. Does this mean the acceptability of theories depend on the order in which they are discovered?
If a theory explains a broad range of different kinds of phenomena compared to another theory, than all things being equal prefer the first theory.
If the theory offers more ways to solve more problems, or if it generates new ideas, or new ways of observing, then it may be a good theory.
Too many special assumptions makes a theory look bad relative to other theories.
If you have a theory with special assumptions, it should be possible, at least in principle, to test those assumptions. Otherwise, your theory is wanting.
As an example of this last rule, Newtonian physics had by the end of the 19th century accumulated special cases and auxiliary assumptions that, so far, had failed testing. This was acceptable, however, because at the time there was no alternative theory. It was only after the publication of General Relativity that, for example, the perihelion of Mercury looked like a problem for Newtonian physics.9
How are these rules to be applied? When do we prefer the simplest theory and when the theory with greater scope? If few people accept and work on a new theory, how do we know its potential? In short, these rules do not define an algorithm guaranteed to provide success. Do they count as ``The Scientific Method?'' No, they are part of the rules scientists use to evaluate theories, but there is more to doing good science then applying these rules.
The most glaring omission from both outlines is that science, above all else, places a high priority on finding naturalistic explanations for observed phenomena. To that end, a variety of rational methods are applied by the various fields, but not all methods are useful in all fields. Astronomy doesn't run experiments the same way particle physics does, but astronomers do collect observations and compare them to what is expected by theory. Does this mean science is limited to the study of natural phenomena, with the supernatural forever placed beyond the bounds of consideration? That is the topic of a future column.
Mike is systems programmer at RPI and co-editor of The Why-Files. This article was extracted and expanded 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.
Pamela Freyd, psychologist and co-author of Smiling Through Tears will present a scientific view of false-memory.
Panel discussion on education and science.
The program committee is working on topics for meetings this fall. 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.
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.
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.
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 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 are due to poorly aligned furniture.
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 email@example.com, 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 Sometimes feng shui is described as ``Chinese Geomancy.'' Although this is common, it is falling out of fashion, as it is not quite correct. Geomancy, more properly means using earth or dirt to tell fortunes. This is common practice in several places, including many African cultures.
2 The bulk of these Asian cultures use Chinese feng shui teachings, although I believe there are several variations of the Chinese teachings. The Hmong tribes of southeast Asia have their own style of feng shui, documented by anthropologists. One ``New Age'' American author of feng shui books likes to tell tales of her Tibetan feng shui instructors. I do not know if she can be believed. She may be telling the truth. I have not had time to check and most certainly am not calling her a liar. Nevertheless, those interested might remember that in my book Scams From The Great Beyond I encourage New Age hoaxers to always invent a teacher who is either Tibetan or American Indian. I do not know if there are Tibetan styles of feng shui and if someone out there does, please let me know.
3 The Chinese teach it removes ``chi.''
4 Has anybody checked the feng shui on the house on Fox TV's Party of Five? I mean, really, this evening soap opera concerns the traumatic misadventures of a family of folks who have got to be the most unlucky people on the globe! I have this idea for a new drinking game where every time someone on that series says, ``Oh no! This is awful! What will we do?!'' players must drink. Problem is it would be hangover city for all concerned.
5 Ed. Note: Yes, he did, most recently ``Quantum Quackery'' SI, Vol. 21, No. 1
6 Ed. Note: ISUNY endorses nothing, including our friend D.Q.'s psychic abilities.
7 See: Can Scientific Theories Be Disproved?, The Why-Files, vol 4(3).
8 These rules are collected from Kitcher, P. Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, The MIT Press, 1986.; Lauden, L. Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science, University of Chicago Press, 1990; Schick, T. Jr., Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence? A reappraisal of of a Classic Skeptic Axiom, Skeptic, 3(2), 1995, p. 30--33.
9 I am thankful to Taner Edis for bringing this example to my attention.