The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 4, Issue 5 May, 1998

 
 
 

May Meeting

False Memory Syndrome: Is The End in Sight?

Pamela Freyd and Eleanor Goldstein, authors of Smiling Through Tears,1 will talk about the controversial recovered memory movement and its effects on families. Dr. Freyd is a research associate at the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and founder and executive director of the False Memory Syndrome (FMS) Foundation. Eleanor Goldstein is publisher of Upton books and co-founder of the Social Issues Resources Series, Inc.

The authors will also be lecturing at area colleges, the Saratoga County Mental Health Clinic, and the New York Family meeting, Sunday in Clifton Park. Both have done extensive research and work to educate professionals with continuing education programs, and have been involved in reconciling families.

The authors will also be at a book signing Monday May 4th, from 6-8 pm at Barnes & Nobel, Wolf Road.

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.

April First ISUNY Meeting

Election of officers proceeded smoothly with the entire slate accepted as proposed: President Peter Huston, Vice President Anne Reuter, Secretary Dorothy Sager, and Treasurer Bob Mulford.

Mike Sofka and R. Lindsay Todd presented an interesting program in two-parts on ``The Year 2000, Should We Be Skeptical?'' Mike spoke about calendars in terms of development, variety and history and how this history reflected on the concept of the third millennium. Lindsay discussed the implications of the Year 2000 (Y2K) on computers which are found everywhere in our society. He warned that many systems (e.g. in elevators, utility plants) contained embedded programs that could react unpredictably as 1999 turns to 2000 with programs with two character fields for the year, so that ``00'' would be interpreted as ``1900.''

-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.

The Second Annual ISUNY Picnic

Save this date: Sunday July 19, 1998. The picnic will be held at the Sager's at 384 Old Stage Road, two miles up the hill from Altamont. Detailed directions will be available at the June meeting and included in the Summer Why-Files. In the spirit of encouraging fellowship and camaraderie, we will be inviting past speakers to join us. Members who plan to attend should expect to bring something to pass/share. If you plan to attend, you should contact Carl or Dot Sager at 861-6383 before July 10th to let them know what you will be bringing. Let's polish our crystals hoping for good weather. Activities will include horseshoes, badminton, eating and drinking... and talking.

Hoping for a super day and a great turnout.

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

Question: I'm tired of debating believers. When I do, they don't listen. When I don't, they think I'm closed minded. Why do they act this way?

Answer: Being a free lance and budding science fiction writer I recently had the opportunity to correspond with the editor of a small horror fiction magazine based in Texas wondering if he would like some of my fiction.2 The editor regularly runs features on ``real'' haunted houses and asked if I, as a skeptic, would be interested in writing about a skeptic's views on some claims. I replied, offering him the chance to see a piece I'd like to write on philosophies, beliefs and motivations of skeptics aimed at non-skeptics, included some clips, and, in due time, received a somewhat angry response. The editor's views were that I should not write about things such as standards of evidence and skeptics' views in general. He suggested that instead I should write about a skeptic's response to one or two ``unexplained claims,'' of which he cited the Loch Ness monster and hauntings as examples. I should also, he noted, ``be aware that he was a worthy opponent'' and would respond to my views in the publication.

As time goes on, however, I find myself less and less interested in debates of this sort and, as the payment was low, am still undecided as whether I should follow up or not. Am I closed minded? Clearly this gentleman thought so. I disagree, but simply have no real desire to debate the existence of the Loch Ness monster with a believer. As they say, ``I've been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt while I was at it.'' Let me defend myself, and ,while doing so, offer my views as to why perhaps he mistook my offer as a personal challenge. The term, ``unexplained claims'' is something of a misnomer when used by enthusiasts of paranormal phenomena. If we are truly looking for unexplained phenomena, the world is full of such. Sleep and dreaming is one. And I'm not referring to precognitive dreams. The simple fact is that scientists do not know why we sleep and why we dream. Nor do they understand gravity and why it works as it does. These, and other every day phenomena, are truly unexplained. Scientists work to explain them everyday, and they do so by basing their research on our knowledge of conventional neurophysiology and physics respectively. Yet understanding these fields is quite difficult. To a layman working part time, there's little chance of making a real contribution, and thereby receiving recognition and respect for one's intellectual achievements. Many people crave this recognition and truly wish to make a unique, personal contribution to our knowledge of the universe. They wish to engage in intellectual debates on various issues, issues in which they are well informed and their expertise recognized. It's my belief that society has set up a niche that serves such people well. This niche is the realm of ``paranormal claims.'' And, although most skeptics can offer alternative explanations for such claims, and most skeptics can explain why scientists and those who truly understand the claim find them to be of little interest, the allegedly ``unexplained'' having been sufficiently ``explained'' long ago, many skeptics simply do not realize or acknowledge the role such claims play in our society and the lives of many of our neighbors.

Recently, I spent some time examining some Internet discussions on Orgonomy, the applied use of the theories of Wilhelm Reich.3 I was quite surprised at the serious and humorless tone I found. Particularly, when, to an outsider, orgonomy seems basically silly. In hindsight, it's easy to see how this lack of outside acceptance could actually intensify the participants' desire to take one another seriously, rather than hinder it. After all, this is an important part of their lives.

Some years ago, Mike Sofka, Lewis Treadway and I attended the Star Trek Convention in Saratoga. Among the speakers were two gentlemen who had co-authored a work advocating the relatively harmless idea that Bigfoot lives in the Adirondacks and the woods of nearby Vermont. Their evidence, frankly, was not very convincing. Although the book has sold relatively well locally, few people find its proofs meaningful, and there are still relatively few people who believe that Bigfoot lives in the north country of our state. An outside discussion with one of the authors led me to believe that he does not really understand science, although he likes to think he knows a great deal. But at this convention, he was lecturing publicly on the existence of Bigfoot in the Adirondacks to an audience that must have included over a hundred people, all raptly attentive on his latest ``research'' into this claim. He even used the stereotypical arguments that scientists were ``ignoring'' his research out of closed mindedness. Mike Sofka and I, being the dutiful skeptics, did our best to shoot holes in his arguments, which was easy, but I think we misunderstood the issue on an important level. As a debating point, the issue of Bigfoot in the Adirondacks is hardly interesting, if not downright foolish on some level. Most serious biologists, zoologists, ecologists etc. would give the authors two minutes and then simply ask them to come back when they'd caught such a creature.4 What is more interesting, on some level, is why a hundred laypeople would treat the speaker with such respect. This, to me, is a much more interesting phenomenon than the original claim. Many skeptics would simply scream, ``we need more science education,'' but they too miss an important point. First, such strange tales have always held the public interest and, secondly, there have always been people quite willing to offer them. To many the realm of ``paranormal phenomena'' offers an alternative arena to mainstream science with much of the same sort of social interactions, debates, discussions, sharing of knowledge and opinions, and respect being offered to the speakers and authors. And not only is there much of the same sort of ``feel'' as science, there is also, in some social environments, the same sort of recognition offered to ``experts'' in the field.5

A friend of mine loves to listen to the Linda Lee radio show, a paranormal talk and call in show that I've never heard. He claims that it is a great place to learn about ``cutting edge research in archaeology.'' By this he means, fringe archaeology involving Atlantis and lost high-tech civilizations of prehistoric times. Have I argued with him? Yes, once when a particular claim of recently discovered pyramids in China hit a nerve.6 It did no good. He thought I really should look into the original claim more carefully before I began screaming. In his mind, he knows archaeology very well through these sources. And it really is a much more interesting version of archaeology than the real one. And, for the record, I greatly respect his opinions in his own field of work, which, thank goodness, is not related to archaeology. But, for better or worse, he's put a lot of time into this stuff and a simple, ``You're wrong! This is stupid!'' from me is not going to sway him. He expects an argument equivalent in tone to the time he's put in.

So what's the point and what can we do? Well, first of all, I think we just have to accept that a certain level of irrationality and pseudoscience is inevitable in society. It simply plays an important role in many people's lives. Secondly, I believe that this trend will not diminish anytime soon. As the frontiers of true scientific research become more difficult for laypeople to understand, the appeal of ``alternatives'' as a spectator sport, subject of casual study or discussion topic will increase. Thirdly, we must understand that by attacking these people's beliefs we are often attacking something they pin their self esteem on, and this will not make us many friends, and stands us little chance of making converts. This is why the in-your-face tactics of some skeptics are naive and make little real progress. We must understand that, on some level, unavoidably, our message to these people really and truly is that their deeply held beliefs are stupid and incorrect, and that, by believing and studying them, these people have been wasting their time by studying them, and this may easily lead to hostile perceptions of our intent when we interact with such people. We may not see the harm in what we say, but they soon will.

Is there an alternative way to approach such people? Can we as skeptics deal with them in a constructive way? After all, if we lead full lives we meet people with false beliefs every day of the week. I believe there is a positive, argument-free approach that can and should be followed and it's the one we at ISUNY are trying. Offer people quality talks aimed at a general audience on topics of interest, topics concerning science, scientific issues, or simply the sorts of topics intelligent people are interested in. Through exposure we hope our neighbors will eventually see the difference in quality between real science and the alternatives.

-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: Mr. Psychic, Our pet Pekinese recently disappeared. We have searched, offered rewards and have called in the New York State missing animal patrols, all to no avail. To help the investigation, we have decided to hire a psychic. However, reading The Why-Files, and especially your columns, we are a little concerned that we might hire a phony. How can I choose a good psychic? Do you have any advice?

Answer: What an excellent and timely question. I have just signed a major deal (the high three figures) with a publisher of self-help pamphlets. This publisher is responsible for over 40% of the pamphlets you find at the dentist, doctor and grocers. Pamphlets such as the popular ``So you want to lose 30 lbs in two weeks,'' ``A sane guide to sky diving,'' and the dental pamphlet ``Skeleton sliding and your gum lines.''

Our plan is a series of pamphlets on selecting psychics, exorcizing haunted houses, water proofing with Feng Shui, and building your own UFO. We at Integrates Psychic Services are very excited by this opportunity and expect to have the first pamphlets ready by the end of summer. Meanwhile, sit tight. Your Pekinese is safe and will return once the puppies are weaned.

-David Quinne, CPP

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.

The Power of H2O

On Saturday, March 28, three other members of Australian Skeptics and myself took part in a test of Infinity Ultima Thule ``empowered water'' at Channel 7 studios in Sydney. The results were shown on the ``Today Tonight'' program on April 1 (appropriately).

Briefly, this organization markets a product (water) at $40 (Australian) per 50 ml (about 6 oz) bottle, that is ``alchymycally [sic] empowered'' to improve one's physiological performance. The water used in the test was empowered via the Internet (stop laughing, this is serious).

Supporting this claim was Dr. Greg Wilson, an associate professor of sport science at Southern Cross University, a new university that offers courses in naturopathy, among others. He claimed to have conducted tests on athletes that showed improved performance after taking this water. He had also conducted tests that purported to show rapid and distinctive changes in people's skin temperature (as recorded on a thermographic imaging camera) while taking this water.

Supporting the contention was a karate expert, who claimed his performance had improved by 4--6% after taking the water. He told the audience, in all seriousness, that only the first bottle cost $40, and it could be refilled from the tap for free, because ``the empowerment is in the label and it stays there.''

In the test, the four Skeptics, plus Dr. Wilson, sat stripped to the waist (not a pretty sight) through three tests for each subject. In each test, we had a glass of unempowered water and a glass of water ``empowered'' by a different formula. In the first test for each of us, one glass of water was placed next to a computer, tuned in to the Infinity web site, and was empowered by clicking onto a screen that read ``Radical diagnosis'' and in the second test, the screen was entitled ``elan vital.'' In the third test, the empowered glass was placed on a piece of paper which had a ``special for this occasion'' spell written on it, entitled ``Is there a God?'' (I told you to stop laughing).

Neither the subjects nor watchers knew which glass in each test contained empowered or unempowered water, so other factors (if any) would not influence the test.

We used a very sophisticated and sensitive thermal imaging camera (Inframetrics ThermaCAM IR focal plane array radiometer) for the test (worth about US$70,000 according to the local rep who operated it throughout), which was calibrated to measure temperature variations of 0.1 C. Most of us showed temp fluctuations of +/- 0.2 C throughout the duration of a test, with occasional momentary peaks of 0.3 or 0.4 degrees Celsius, an artifact of lifting the glass, or in my case, a big jump when my watch came into the frame.

None of the fluctuations matched the video tape Dr. Wilson had shown us of tests he had done, which showed variations of +6 C to -4 C. The fluctuations were random throughout the tests, and could not be attributed to the drinking of the water.

Curiously, Dr. Wilson, the only believer tested, showed the lowest number and magnitude of fluctuations. Richard Lead, one of the Skeptics, showed the highest, and his skin temperature consistently went up throughout the test (but only by about 0.7 C) and not as a result of any particular ingestion of water, but he is prone to getting hot under the collar (or armpit, to be precise).

Channel 7 had also submitted Dr. Wilson's statistical analysis of his successful athlete results to another skilled statistician who pointed out very serious anomalies in his conclusions.

As the results were entirely negative (and as we expected), I cautioned the show's host that he could expect an excuse from Dr. Wilson within a day or two. My prediction proved to be deadly accurate, because on Tuesday March 31, Channel 7 received a fax saying that the TV lights had raised everyone's temperature, masking any results. He proposed to do another test the next morning in a sports clinic in Brisbane. We arranged for another Skeptic to be present. This test was conducted in much lower temperatures (our man said the subject looked quite blue), with exactly the same results as we had seen on Saturday.

When the test was shown, it included an interview with the man who operates the company, whose previous job had been managing a bakery. He went under the name of Jessa O'My Heart (I suspect this is a pseudonym), and others in the organization were Omni and Spartacus Unicorn. Mr Heart claimed that he first suspected that he had healing powers after he had ``several times picked up birds looking like they were dead and, after a few seconds in my hands, they flew away.''

I have spoken to several people with experience in the bush, and none of us can recall ever seeing a bird that ``looked like it was dead'' that wasn't very obviously dead, i.e. squashed all over the road, or half-eaten by a cat. If any of these birds had been capable of resurrection, it would have been miraculous indeed.

It was an interesting experiment, and I would be happy to do more like it. As a result of my very first TV appearance in a semi-nude state, I have received three calls from female members of Oz Skeptics, dripping with sniggering innuendo. I loved it.

-Barry Williams

Barry is the (empowered) Skeptic of Oz, and member of the Australian Skeptics. He can be reached at skeptics@spot.tt.sw.oz.au.

Cydonia Revisited

After over two decades of speculation, dozens of books and perhaps hundreds of appearances on talk radio, the famed face-on-Mars has been revisited by NASA.

A brief recap. In 1976 the Viking orbiter took a picture of what looked like a face in an area of Mars know as Cydonia. NASA showed this picture to the press, thinking it an interesting and humorous photo (they also showed images that looked like smile faces and Kermit the frog). There it sat until Richard Hoagland resuscitated the image and took it on the lecture circuit. The results are now a part of pseudo-science history. The face was everywhere, and it and Cydonia has been subjected to more amateur image processing than pinups of Eli McPherson.

Now, after 22 years, NASA had a second chance to image the Cydonia region, this time with the Mars Global Surveyor. The results of the processed and unprocessed images can be found at: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/cgi-bin/PIAGenCatalogPage.pl?PIA01236

The Global Surveyor images are taken at a much higher resolution than Viking was capable of. The Cydonia images were also taken at a different time of the Martian day, so that the shadows will be different. The results, nothing, no face, the image resolves into an ordinary looking hill. With the higher resolution, and without the shadows, the face disappears. hill, and with no shadows there are no facial features present at all.

Or has it? Unfortunately this skeptic could spot a faint face-like ghostly image in the unprocessed data. It will not be long before this data is loaded into Photoshop or Corel Draw and ``processed the right way'' revealing yet another image of the face on Mars. In fact, skeptics have already beaten the face supporters to the punch, so to speak. Members of the online skeptic list loaded the image into Corel Draw, and enhanced the shadows to bring out face-like features. Some examples of this, done for the purpose of demonstrating the features that initially looked like a face, can be found on the CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal) web page at: http://www.csicop.org/articles/face-on-mars/

Reaction from the Mars face supporters was predictable. Already charges of a cover-up by NASA are flying across the Internet at 1/3 the speed of light. Cydonia isn't dead, and the new Mars Global Surveyor images have just given it a new life.

-Mike Sofka

Future ISUNY Meetings

June 3rd, How Children

Become Interested in Science, and Why They Lose Interest Later in Life.

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.

Thank You

Thank you to Peter Huston, David ``the Mighty'' Quinne, Barry Williams 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. If you find any remaining errors, please consult pamphlet number 1-304A ``So you want to be a proofreader,'' published by the Pamphlets-R-Us publishing company, 1290 Publisher's Lane, Walla Walla, Washington.

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 Freyd, P. and Goldstein, E., Smiling Through Tears, Upton Books, 1998, ISBN 0-89777-125-7.

2 For those of you who are wondering, I write fiction, particularly science fiction. Unfortunately, although my non-fiction is regularly published, my fiction has not been. If anybody out there really wants to see some and offer some feedback, contact me and I'll send you some on disk email.

3 Briefly, Reich was a Freudian psychiatrist who made some important and widely accepted contributions to our knowledge early in this century. Unfortunately, later in his career, he drifted into stranger and stranger beliefs which are not accepted. Chief among these is the notion that mysterious orgone energy permeates the universe. Orgone can allegedly be collected in special boxes and channeled through giant cloud-busting machines and aimed at the sky to allegedly make it rain. Although declining in importance, there is still a hard core group of Reichians out there. Skeptics may know something of this group due to a series of ugly incidents when one of the group's critics used some strange tactics and managed to get his personal attacks on his enemies published in skeptical publications.

4 My latest theory on heckling believers is that it's more fun to argue with them on their own level. For instance, one proof of Bigfoot in the Adirondacks was a slide of human-like footprint shapes in the snow that suddenly stopped in the middle of a field. The author claimed that this was evidence that Bigfoot had returned to his home dimension using some effect only explainable by quantum physics. To a non-believer he'd say, ``Can you explain this?'' In hindsight, the answer should have been, ``Why you fool! It's not evidence of Bigfoot. It's clearly evidence of a manlike Were-pelican taking off! They live in the Adirondacks too!''

5 To do arm chair science through pseudoscience has a certain logic if the interest is placed on the activity, not the science. It's almost as if some sports fans began unconsciously following a really bad team so that they could be more prominent in the fan club. Returning again to the Star Trek convention and such fandom, it is a peculiar fact that virtually every character on popular shows like Dr. Who or Star Trek has a fan club somewhere. For instance, we met the head of the Sergeant Benton (an obscure Dr. Who character) fan club, and I recently read that the Rom's wife, the Dabo girl on Deep Space Nine, also has a fan club. I truly think that the appeal of forming such a fan club to such an obscure character is the perception of increased access.

Now lest I sound elitist and condescending, I should probably point out I, too, am guilty on some level of this desire to be a large fish in a small pond. My sister and I share several not necessarily good personality traits. One manifestation of this is that we both are nationally competing athletes in obscure sports that are performed in front of an audience. These are synchronized swimming for her and skeleton sledding for me (a sport related to bobsledding and luging.)

6 First, some of you may know I have a degree in Asian studies, lived in Taiwan for three years and traveled in China. So this came a little close to home. Second, what really irks me is that many paranormal claims, if believed, make the world more interesting. For the record, I wish Bigfoot did live in the Adirondacks. It'd be fun to see one. But China does not need pyramids to have interesting archaeology! It already has the terra cotta army, the Great Wall, and some really, really fascinating discoveries of mysterious mummies on the silk road in Xinjiang to the northwest. Third, I can only take so much illogic before I snap. There are over a billion people in China. It is a very crowded place. And these people are claiming that one billion Chinese people failed to notice the pyramids in their own rice fields until a German tourist with an instamatic came along and pointed them out to the world! I try, I really try, but at this point the Billy Jack syndrome kicks in and I snap.