The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 4, Issue 8 October, 1998

 
 
 

October Meeting

Claims of pre-Columbian contact with the Americas.

Did the Romans, Vikings, Saint Brandon, African or Chinese sailors reached the Americas before Columbus? If they did, then what kind of evidence would we expect to find? On October 7th, Professor Kenneth Feder of Central Connecticut University will take us through the claims and counter claims. In the process we will learn how archaeology is done, and what constitutes evidence of discovery and exploration.

Kenneth Fedder is the author of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology1. In its second edition, this book examines many claims of what is often called ``Fantastic Archeology.'' This wide ranging survey includes chapters on The Cardiff Giant of upstate New York, The Piltdown Man, Atlantis, Ancient Astronauts. While Dr. Feder's talk is about claims of exploration to the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus, we will allow plenty of time for questions and socializing after the meeting.

This month's meeting is being held from 7:00 pm until 9:30 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.

September 2nd Meeting

We had a great turn-out for our first meeting of the fall. President Peter Huston described our organization to those assembled, mentioned our next few programs, and introduced our speaker.

The evening's topic was ``Impact at 65 Million BC; A Bad Afternoon!'' presented by Dr. John Delano, Chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at SUNY Albany. The Earth of 65 Million BCE was a very different planet from the one we know today---the global climate was very warm, with a high sea level and no polar ice. The temperature gradient between the poles and the equator was small, dramatically different from today's situation. Carbon dioxide and water vapor levels were markedly higher and the continents were closer. Scientists have been aware of the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event for a long while, and a variety of theories have been proposed to explain it. Evidence showed that during that period there were already fewer dinosaur species than previously and most species extant were ocean-dwelling creatures.

Current assumptions regarding the K-T extinctions: They happened ``rapidly'' occurring over a period of 10,000 to 100,000 years. There was 50% extinction of existing species, including dinosaurs, plesiosaurs, ammonites. The most severe reductions of species were among the calcareous nanoplankton and planktonic forminifera. Relatively unaffected were freshwater communities.

The meteorite theory for extinctions developed from discovery of a world-wide iridium layer. An estimated 100,000 tons of iridium indicates a meteorite 5 kilometers diameter and an impact crater of 100 kilometers. The suspect crater off the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is 200 km. across and would indicate a 10 km. diameter asteroid (the size of Mt. Everest). A 5 to 10 km. asteroid would create an explosion equivalent to 10^8, or 100 million megatons of TNT. The dirt thrown up would block sunlight for 4--6 months; there would be continental scale firestorms; the fall-out of dust would contain cosmic proportions of platinum group elements. The killing mechanism: darkness that suppresses photosynthesis for months; thermal stress---could be enhanced greenhouse effect or cooling due to prolonged darkness. The debris in suborbital flight would light up the whole sky; 30 to 50 min. from impact, radiant energy would cause world-wide firestorms. Another event occurring 200 million years ago is postulated to have wiped out 90% of the extant species at that time.

The search for near earth objects currently goes on as a low priority activity. About 10% of the estimated near earth objects have been identified. Scientists expect future impacts of a scale adequate to repeat the events of 65 million years ago. More frequent impacts with smaller, but still global, impact are expected every 100,000 to one million years. The last occurrence was 730,000 years ago in Southeast Asia. A smaller ``impact'' occurred in 1908 in Tonguska, Siberia. This ``impact,'' actually an aerial explosion, leveled a vast forest area and lit the skies around the world. Native reports from this sparsely populated region include tales of flaming reindeer falling from the sky.

-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.

Albacon '98

The Albany area science fiction convention, know conventionally as ``Albacon'' will be holding their 1998 meeting the weekend of October 9--11 at the Ramada Inn, Schenectady. ISUNY has volunteered to help person some tables, in return for promotional consideration. If you are interested in helping, please see Peter Huston for details. We have it on good authority that this year's meeting will include a panel on the role Science Fiction has had in promoting pseudoscience. More about Albacon can be found on their web page, http://www.sff.net/people/rothman/albacon.htp.

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 Novermber, 1998 issue is October 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

Question: What is the Center For Inquiry?

Answer: The Center For Inquiry is the Buffalo, NY home of the Center for the Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, or CSICOP for short. Several years ago I took a side-trip there with my cousin Robin Huston when we attended a V.O.C.A.L, (Victims of Child Abuse Legislation) conference. I'll write about V.O.C.A.L. in a future column.

After many hours of travel, we arrived in Buffalo and followed our well prepared directions to reach the Center for Inquiry. The Center for Inquiry is home to two different organizations, both founded by Paul Kurtz. One is CSICOP and the other is CSH, the Council on Secular Humanism, a group for humanists and those who support and promote an ethical and rational form of atheism and humanistic values.

From the outside, particularly when approached from the rear, (the result of my cousin's driving after 27 cups of coffee and 59 cigarettes) the Center is a small and funny looking building but once inside it is surprisingly large and modern.

Robin and I quickly entered. Joe Nickell met us soon after and we recognized each other at once, particularly since I made a point of introducing myself to him immediately. He seemed quite pleased to see me, particularly since I was carrying a large stack of books that he'd written and had paid full price for every single one except for the one that I'd reviewed favorably in Skeptic.

He gave us a tour and introduced us to a variety of people who I've only dealt with impersonally before. These included the ``hairball'' editors who insist on mangling my eloquent prose when I submit pieces to the Skeptical Inquirer. Although they seemed quite cheerful and nice in person, I could still detect traces of the evil and jealous malevolence that drives them to impishly rearrange my precious words. Nevertheless, I suppressed my bilious rage in my most civilized manner and shook their hands. If only the federal government were to repeal the anti-dueling statutes, then and only then, will free lance writers have their proper means of redressing editorial malfeasance.

Unfortunately, upon hearing of my intended trip, Barry Karr, CSICOP executive director, had fled to California. It seems that he took some of the things that I said a bit too seriously when he announced that although CSICOP was planning an official delegation to China, there was no way that I could be part of it since, among other things, I have no official connection with CSICOP. I showed him though. I thanked him in the introduction to my book,2 and now he, and other fine notables, including my wife and Lewis Treadway, are now on a Triad hit list somewhere in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, my cousin wandered outside to smoke a cigarette and hunt down a coffee machine that would take slugs. Unable to find such a machine, she soon returned and began questioning Joe Nickell about what exactly it is that he does for a living anyway.

Mr. Nickell, it seems, is the world's greatest I-Doubter. Whenever anybody anywhere has a TV show about something peculiar, they contact CSICOP. Joe Nickell is immediately dispatched by airplane to wherever the emergency might be and placed clearly within camera focus. Then suddenly, Oprah Windbag or Philled Innatube or whoever will pop a microphone in his face and shriek, ``But isn't it possible that thousands of lesbian, bulimic nuns could be being abducted by crop circle making, chaos gnomes under the control of malevolent forces from the great beyond?'' Joe will then give them, his coolest, iciest skeptical stare, a stare that's clearly been shaken, not stirred, and calmly reply, ``I doubt it.''

He's quite good at this, having been recruited from a pool of thousands or more by Paul Kurtz, a man with a PhD who's listed in several editions of ``Who's Who in America'' and once worked in Schenectady.

My cousin was quite impressed, finding being an I-Doubter quite a superior profession to her own job as a hairdresser. She immediately began asking him a wide variety of questions concerning various paranormal claims, while clearly avoiding reflexology and astrology. Joe dealt with these questions quite well, doubting them all, and ultimately the conversation drifted on to one of my cousin's favorite astrologers, a recently deceased woman whose name I snidely refused to learn and can't quite recall. It seems that Joe had been researching the star crossed babe's life, and getting all the dirt on her that she'd refused to put in her own autobiographical writings. My cousin found this fascinating, and in between coffee and cigarettes, they got along quite well.

CSICOP keeps large files of clippings on things; mysterious things, things known and unknown, explained and unexplained, dark shadowy things that not even the Vatican keeps files on and H.P. Lovecraft could only begin to imagine. Unfortunately, these were locked up carefully by Barry Karr when he absconded to California for fear that they would drive a mortal man such as myself insane. Nevertheless, he'd arranged to leave out a few of these, at my request, and I found them fascinating to leaf through. For the record, these were the Satanic cult claims file, the polygraph file, and the false memories file. I was allowed to photocopy choice bits of these clippings and take them with me.3

Joe also showed us the upcoming, unreleased issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (a fund raising letter dated 1996 and a magazine from the future?! Could this be part of an emerging pattern? The answer lies, no doubt, somewhere in Barry Karr's heavily locked files and nowhere else!)4

Next he took us to the library, and showed us some very interesting display case full of cool looking supernatural type stuff including a cast of a Sasquatch footprint, a phrenologist's chart, and a couple of fortune cookies among other things.

The upper floor of the library consists of a lecture hall with great big windows overlooking the University at Buffalo. There's a rare book room that was heavily locked and full of unusual works on inter-library loan, some clearly stamped with bright letters saying ``Property of Miskatonic U. -Eyes Only.''

As we'd seen all the offices and ridden in the elevator and heard Joe Nickell say, ``I doubt it'' in his masterful way to several brilliant questions, it seemed that there was little left to do. We were given a couple of copies of Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer and then allowed to go on our way. We refused to leave however, demanding that they give us directions to a place with good wings as we were, in fact, in Buffalo. Anchor's downtown is where wings were invented, but the CSICOP staff suggested that we go to a place called Duff's as it was much closer and downtown traffic was supposed to be insane due to a hockey game.

So off we went to Duff's. It was a nice, bar-like place, except that it allowed children just so long as they did not drink, or start knife fights, or misbehave in other ways. We got the special with the small pitcher of beer and a heap of wings. Robin refuses to drink alcohol, stating that it is an addictive drug and unhealthy, so she just ordered a bottle of near-beer and had three cups of coffee and about six cigarettes to wash it down. This was fine with me, as it meant I got to drink her beer, but she insisted on eating her own share of the wings, which was only fair.

Next time, on to Niagara Falls!

-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.

What is Peer Review?

Imagine you are following a heated debate on alt.alien.visitors (a popular Usenet forum dedicated to UFOs, alien abductions and other related claims). The discussion goes back and forth, with claimants on the one hand putting forth evidence, and skeptics, on the other, refuting or otherwise disputing those claims. If the discussion continues long enough, inevitably somebody will say ``that was not published in a peer reviewed journal!'' From this point on the discussion will be shifted from whatever it was about to why something is or is not peer reviewed, and what that means anyway. Nearly everybody gets it wrong from this point on.

So, what is peer review? In the not so hypothetical situation given above, peer review refers to the editorial practice of mainstream scientific journals. These journals, such as Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine and thousands of others have served as the major outlet of scientific discovery for nearly 200 years. They are typically founded by societies of professional scientists, for the benefit of the societies' members and for the dissemination of reliable scientific findings. To assure a high quality of published works, these journals practice a formal review process in which copies of articles are sent to fellow scientists before being accepted for publication. The fellow scientists, or peers, are asked to critique the paper, and send a recommendation to the editor to publish, revise, or reject the article---hence ``peer review.''

Scrutiny by a critical community is an important part of science, and formal peer review is an important part of that process. To be sure, in academia, tenure and hiring decisions are often largely based on the candidates' record of publishing articles in peer reviewed journals. Likewise, when scientists are reviewing prior research, or are trying to evaluate the quality of evidence for a theory the journal in which it is published will help them weight the published findings. That is, is the journal peer reviewed? Is it a first tier journal which only accepts high quality research, or a second tier journal that accepts articles the first tier journals have rejected? And, so on. That is, peer reviewed journals are a vetting service, separating the wheat from the chaff.

It is a wise precaution, however, to not place blind faith in formal peer review. Consider this study conducted by Michael Mahoney.5 As editor of a journal, he prepared two articles that were identical in experimental methodology, but differed in which theory the claimed experimental results supported. He sent these papers out for review to reviewers who had earlier expressed support for either the theory supported by the experimental results, or the theory refuted by the experimental results.

Mahoney found two things: First, reviewers were more likely to reject papers that did not support the theory they favored. This is a disappointing, if not unexpected, result. Second, he found that reviewers were more critical of the methodology in the papers that did not support their views---even though the methodologies were identical. The reviewers in Mahoney's study held conflicting theories to a higher standard than conforming theories.

This is not necessarily bad. It is often said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the reviewers presumably had good reasons for favoring one theory over the other (hence, placing the other in the ``extraordinary'' set). Still, one would hope reviewers would be at least as critical of the methodology used to test accepted theories.

Peer review also has a built in conflict of interest. That is, the reviewer may know the author of a paper, and visa-versa. They may even be competitors, attend the same conference, or even have had the same advisor in graduate school. As such, the editor's job in selecting reviewers is one which must be exercised with care. Usually direct colleagues---researchers in the same department---are not selected. But it is difficult, in a world of increasingly specialized science, to find complete strangers who are also knowledgeable enough to do a fair and competent review.6 People in a given scientific field tend to know others doing similar work. Consider a second more recent study on peer review. This study was conducted by Christine Wennarôs and Agnes Wold of Göteborg University, Sweden.7 They examined the peer review records of Sweden's Medical Research Council (MRC). The MRC requires reviewers to score fellowship applicants on a productivity scale, and these records are kept for fellowships that are granted. (A fellowship is a grant of money to pursue a line of research.) They found that female researchers had to be 2.5 times as productive as male researchers, as measured by papers published in peer reviewed journals, to receive the same productivity score.

This study is not without criticism. The method that Wennarôs and Wold used to score published articles included more than a simple article count. They also measure article length, citations (how many other researchers cited the articles in their own research), integrative nature (that is, did the published article report a single experiment, or integrate other findings in the field). Still, the results show that men and women were being evaluated differently, and that this difference likely influenced the fellowships awarded. It also shows the difficulty in measuring ``productivity'' in science.

Peer review also begs the question of who are peers. Should a journal of UFO studies be reviewed by fellow UFOlogists? A parapsychology journal by para-psychologists? One could argue, based on Mahoney's results, that for the best criticism reviewers should be strong critics, since they will find more errors. Imagine the difficulty, however, of getting tenure should this method be widely employed in the sciences. It would be tantamount to not publishing until consensus is reached---a stifling practice if there ever was one.

Finally, journal editors, by their power to select reviewers, exercise considerable control over what articles are accepted or rejected. Editors have their own views about what constitutes good research, and what they see as the role of the journal. Scientists are aware of this, and usually there are enough journals with enough different editors that they can send their work where it will have the most favorable reception.

More important than the actual formal review process, however, is the open community of research that science supports. Practicing scientists know that at some time they will be expected to share their work with their peers, and that some of those peers will be critical of the work, questioning its quality and methodology. This keeps the scientist honest and hard working. First, because they want to share their discoveries and second, because they would like for their peers to accept the work as high quality science.

If the process of peer review seems restrictive, this is because it is meant to be. Peer review is a minimal quality-control system, not a silver bullet argument for validating a position. At the least, you must also consider how much you trust the community of reviewers. But, it does keep the quality of accepted science high, and keep the more speculative science off to the side, where it can be seen but not always heard.

Besides, there are other ways for scientists to share their work. In addition to the first-tier journals, research findings are reported at scientific gatherings, by fax and photocopy, and increasingly by the Internet and directly with the press. These alternative outlets have the disadvantage that the findings may be speculative, are probably incorrect, and even if correct, would likely not be as well presented as if peer reviewed. But, they do guarantee that almost any idea will be disseminated to interested parties. And, once a professor is tenured, they can research just about any topic as some recent, notorious, examples have demonstrated.

-Mike Sofka

Mike is ISUNY's past president 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.

Future ISUNY Meetings

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

November 4, 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 Falls first women's rights 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.

Lightning and Power lines: How Modern Methods Using Rockets and Other Tools are allowing us to Reduce Power Outages and Lightning Surge Damage.

December 2, 1998: Dr. Phil Barker, as seen on Nova! Lightning is a commonly observed, but still incompletely understood, phenomenon. Phil Barker does research for utility companies testing how well equipment survives lightning strikes. He'll be talking about lightning, and related meteorological phenomena.

Video Tape.

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

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. Common perceptual illusions include the autokinetic and autostatic effects, which cause stationary lights to appear to move, or moving lights to appear steady. But what if two, or three or four people observe the light's movement? What if they agree on what they saw---the speed direction and distance of movement, is that proof of a UFO? Surprisingly, multiple witness can agree on what they saw, even while they are all mistaken. Experiments demonstrating this go back to the early 1930's, long before the rise of UFO reports, and continues to this day as social scientists learn more about group dynamics. Surprisingly, multiple witnesses can be less reliable than a single witness.

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

% for which we ask a $1.00 donation that will be used to purchase further

Thank You

Thank you to Peter Huston, Mike Sofka, 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 overlooked in peer-review.

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 Mayfield Publishing Company, Mountain View CA, 1996

2 Scams From the Great Beyond, Paladin Press, 1997. This wonderful tome also mentions ISUNY, and many of its fine members.

3 Among the things CSICOP and the Center For Inquiry do is maintain a large and rapidly growing library on the paranormal. This library is open to researchers who make prior arrangements, but it is big and organizing it has become a full time occupation.

4 The editor long ago misplaced the reference, but apparently at one time CSICOP sent out a misdated fund raising letter.

5 Mahoney, M.J., Publication Prejudices: An experimental study of confirmatory bias in the peer review system. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1, 1977, pp. 161--175.

6 Even with ``blind review'' that is, the author's name and affiliation are removed from the manuscript before review, it is possible to guess who the authors might be.

7 Nature, May 22, 1997.