The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 4, Issue 9 November, 1998

 
 
 

November Meeting

Ghosts, Hauntings and Skeptics

Halloween is now the second largest holiday (as measured by money spent) in the United States. In addition, surveys show that about 20% of adult Americans report seeing, or being contacted by a ``ghost.'' This is all taking place in a society in which people are living longer, and in which death is a less familiar event than it was a short 80--100 years ago.

Join our (post) Halloween panel of ghouls as they discuss and answer your questions about: communication with the dead, Chinese ghosts, changing death customs and the history of Halloween.

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.

Meeting of October 7, 1998

Our program for this meeting was a talk by Ken Feder, titled Claims of Pre-Columbian contact with the Americas. Ken is an archeologist teaching at Western Connecticut University; his book, Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries, is just out in a new edition. He began his presentation with a discussion of ``Mystery Hill'' in North Salem, New Hampshire. This is a site which has been a tourist attraction since the 1940's and is now being called ``America's Stonehenge.'' Supposedly ancient Celts occupied this site during a Bronze Age occupation of the area now called New England. The speaker visited the area when he was a college student and was very familiar with the artifacts displayed on one side of the museum at the site, identifying the ceramics and tools as coming from early colonial settlements of the 17th and 18th centuries. Turning to the other side of the museum, he had no trouble identifying the artifacts shown there, these being the pottery, etc. of Native Americans who lived in the region before the European settlers arrived. Upon asking the woman curator, ``where are the bronze artifacts?'' (since this is supposed to have been a bronze age settlement), she replied, ``Oh, they took all those back with them when they returned to the British Isles. The bronze tools were much too valuable to leave behind!''

This concept runs totally counter to what even first year archeology students learn: wherever humans have been, they leave trash. Inevitably something falls out of a pouch or pocket, buttons or clasps pop off, tools may break and are abandoned, and items may be forgotten or intentionally left behind. So if nothing is found of human habitation indicative of a known era, this means that people from that era were never there. Ken said the essence of archeology is ``recognizing the differences in people's trash.''

Among the pre-Columbian (i.e. before Columbus arrived in America) visitations that are variously espoused are Egyptians in Iowa, Africans in Mexico 1, as well as Celts in New England. However, evidence of these is definitely lacking. In contrast, Ken was able to describe the support found for DeSoto's travels through the southeastern areas of the U.S. in the early sixteenth century. There is also ample evidence for the early Viking settlement in Newfoundland.

Good News for June's Speakers

Guilderland Central School District Newsletter of October 1998 reported news about two of our speakers on the topic of How children become interested in science and why they lose interest later in life. From the Newsletter: ``Math, Science and Technology Supervisor Dale Westcott recently received a $4000 grant from the Toshiba America Foundation which will enable teachers and students in general science and biology classes to begin work on the Black Creek Water Quality Project. Black Creek, a tributary of a local reservoir that supplies the bulk of Guilderland's water, runs adjacent to the high school. Students will be gathering and analyzing data relating to the quality of water in the creek and will be presenting their findings to the Town Board.

``Farnsworth Middle School seventh grade science teacher Al Fiero was recently awarded a Christa McAuliffe Fellowship. The fellowship is named after the late teacher/astronaut Crista McAuliffe and awarded to teachers who display her creativity and enthusiasm for teaching. The award will be used in part to help teachers create a curriculum on butterflies and their habitats as part of the on-going middle school study of the Pine Bush. A portion of the money will also be used to continue preparations for the butterfly habitat located in the middle school courtyard. Fiero is anticipating that the butterfly habitat will be established and ready to open to the public in the spring.''

-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.

ISUNY at Albacon SF convention

The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York recently assisted Albacon, the local science fiction book convention held on Sept. 11 in Schenectady NY.

Albacon means ``ALBAny CONvention'' despite the fact that the convention had actually been held in nearby Schenectady for two years in a row (convention space in Schenectady being in less demand and thus cheaper). Also, there is a major split in fandom between SF media fans and SF book fans, with the latter being definitely much more scientifically oriented and literate. This convention was aimed at the book fans, and it was felt that there would be a good overlap of interests between ISUNY members and Albacon attendees.

ISUNY had agreed to run the ``Con-suite.'' The con-suite is a hospitality suite for people who attend the convention and wish a place to hang out and discuss politics. Snacks were offered free of charge as were non-alcoholic beverages. Things ran smoothly, in fact the suite basically ran itself, although someone needed to be there most of the time simply to monitor things. Herb Jones and Lewis Treadway were there to help monitor, and Lewis Treadway went above and beyond the call of duty opening and closing the con-suite both nights and mornings. In other duties, Mike Sofka participated and moderated a panel on ``Science: Is Progress a Myth?'' Peter Huston appeared on a populous panel on ``The Lonely Life of a Writer.''

Biggest problems were a cantankerous soda machine that like to dispense extra foam, and the usual repeat conversations one would expect. Among lessons learned, Canadian politics are at least as boring as US politics (about a fifth of the convention attendees were Canadian, I estimate).

The budget and food and drink matters were handled by the convention committee (which I was on in a low-key manner). ISUNY provided labor, relying heavily on our librarian and our site-facilitator. Albacon volunteer-staff were a big help as well.

Our motivations were to have fun, obtain publicity and to recruit new members. About half of The Why Files newsletters offered were taken.

A decision will be made in December as to whether ISUNY will wish to help with Albacon '99. It is hoped that if another organization can be found to assist in the duties of running the con-suite, this could be a possible goal.

-Peter Huston

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 December, 1998 issue is November 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.

Investigating Paranormal Claims, Some Problems

Many people believe in the existence of the paranormal, the otherworldly or the supernatural. Often people, in fact, believe they have had a supernatural or out-of-the-ordinary experience themselves and indicate they want an explanation. And this does not necessarily make them insane, mentally ill, delusional, ``fantasy prone'' or anything of the sort. What it often means is simply that they have accepted an explanation which we, as skeptics, feel needs another level of analysis before it can be accepted as confirmed fact. Usually people who believe they have had a paranormal experience are simply ordinary people who often take great joy in the thought that they once saw a ghost, a UFO, a miracle or whatever, but otherwise lead ordinary, sensible lives while conducting their day to day business in a rational, well adjusted manner. But there are exceptions.

To me the entire realm of the ``paranormal'' is something of a misnomer. I consider myself a confirmed skeptic not because I refuse to believe in so-called paranormal and fringe claims, but because I believe that the subjects of such claims, if they are proven to exist, should be studied scientifically, and, and here's the clincher, in most cases have been studied scientifically and the subjects as perceived are found wanting or lacking in evidence.

In movies and TV shows ``paranormal claim'' investigators are often shown behaving in a scientific manner. Generally, the paranormal subjects of the fictional program show a certain consistency and one soon grasps how they work. For instance, in the ``Ghostbusters'' movies, a viewer can begin to understand that the ghosts are made of ectoplasm and come from another otherworldly place. The characters of Ackroyd, Murray and the other investigators, know fully well that if they hear of ghostly phenomena all they have to do is look in their extensive library and see how past reports correlate with the current one. The investigators know and understand enough about the subject to have actually built devices which can catch and imprison the ectoplasmic ghosts. City officials and others who refuse to listen to the ghostbuster's claims of ghosts are pictured as ignorant and closed minded and, in the ``Ghostbusters'' films, they are, because the ghosts are real and the evidence is right in front of them. In other words, in the ``Ghostbusters'' movies, a ghost investigator is shown behaving in a manner similar to Jane Goodall or some other famous wildlife zoologist/behaviorist type of scientist.

Other examples are obvious. In the Friday the Thirteenth TV show long-lost, evil Uncle Lewis has scattered ``cursed objects'' throughout some low-budget region of the United States where everyone speaks with a Canadian accent. Each week, the cousins Micki and Ryan would go try to recover the objects, only to discover that they had to be really careful or else someone was gonna get 'em with the ``dog collar of doom'' (which strangles people), ``the diabolical toaster oven'' (which burns people to a crisp), the jack in the box (which drowns people), the Ventriloquist dummy (which turns into Hitler and stabs people) and the truly terrible ``Chipper-shredder from Hell'' which chips and shreds, of course, but then spits out all these 1936 dollar bills when fed human beings instead of scrap wood.

When Micki and Ryan get stuck as to what to do next, they know that they can go to the wise old Jack Marshak, and he will know exactly what to do since he has ``studied the supernatural and has an extensive library on such things.'' Well, it doesn't take more than about two episodes to learn that cursed objects always feed on the human life force and give the owner his heart's desire just long as he keeps the toasters, and such well fed with missing neighbors. There's a system here, and you're not exactly gonna get the Nobel prize in physics if you figure it out.

One could argue that these movie paranormal investigator characters shows how pervasive a belief in the efficiency of the scientific method is in our society. When skeptics are called upon to investigate or explain a strange claim, they are generally faced with a different situation. In real life things aren't as cut and dried as in the movies. The evidence for these paranormal claims isn't just lying around waiting to be found. Sometimes a chipper-shredder is just a chipper-shredder, no matter how loudly cute women with Canadian accents and too much make-up scream otherwise.

-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.

Seven Deadly Films?

Controversy over Purdue Survey of Scariest Flicks

West Lafayette, Indiana---If you want to scare yourself silly this Halloween, a Purdue University researcher has seven surefire suggestions on how to do it. But Nick Cooper, former private detective, rodeo clown and Feng Shui expert reminds citizens everywhere, ``Just say No to scary movies! You'll sleep better that way.''

Glenn Sharps, professor of communications, teamed up with national celebrity and cultural analyst Dr. Will Millner to find out what people regard as the scariest movies they've ever seen. The research was part of a larger project to understand how media messages affect people. In a random sample telephone survey of 200 residents of a small Midwestern city, Sharps and Millner found 44 movies that people deemed particularly scary.

By contrast, Nick Cooper, a professional paranormal investigator, found 47. ``I am a professional after all,'' said Cooper. ``It's only natural I would find more.'' When presented with Cooper's list, Sharps commented ``I'm are not quite sure why Nick Cooper insists that The Wizard of Oz, Boys Town and The Life of Brian are horror flicks.''

Sharps and Millner's survey, taken last December, found that seven movies accounted for 58% of all nominations. In order of most frequent the ``Seven Deadly Films'' are: Scream, Friday the 13th, The Shining, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Exorcist, and Poltergeist. Of particular interest to the researchers is the fact most of these films feature a strong depiction of paranormal or supernatural content.

``See! I told you! I told you!'' says Cooper. ``As a professional paranormal investigator, I know spooky monsters are scary! They really are!'' He goes on saying, ``People shouldn't watch these things. I saw a couple of these films, and I couldn't sleep for a week.''

Sharps suggests that fear of the unknown makes these films the eeriest. ``The world of the paranormal represents a hazy category between pure fantasy and reality,'' he says. ``The uncertainty viewers might have about the possibility of such dark and powerful forces may be one of the main reasons that these films evoke such terror.''

Nick Cooper disagrees, ``No! It's the monsters that make these movies scary!'' When asked to elaborate his position, Cooper says ``Sometimes they hide under the bed or in the closet and then they jump out. Now that's what's really scary.''

Cooper, who sees this as a large problem in society urges people to boycott scary programs. ``I'm starting a letter writing campaign urging Warner Network to withdrawal Buffy the Vampire Slayer and replace it with my own creation, Boopsie, the Logical-Positivist.'' Cooper assures viewers ``there will be no scary monsters in this one.''

Sharps' research shows that children ages 9 to 11 are the most susceptible to having a regretful, frightening, experience with some mass media offering. ``At this age range, kids recognize that some things depicted could happen in the real world. But they don't have a good grasp of how likely certain things are to actually happen to them,'' Sharps says.

``I am much smarter than children ages 9 to 11,'' states Cooper. ``After all, I have a Ph.D., and I tell you `It's the Monsters!' '' Cooper adds, ``Children of America! There are no monsters under the bed! I know, I have looked under many, many beds in my career as a paranormal investigator.''

-David Quinne, CPP

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

Haunted by the Unknown?

I am a folklorist interested in the study of organized skepticism. A feature of skepticism that intrigues me is the ways that skeptics deal with the unknown.

One of the reasons sociologist Marcello Truzzi gives for leaving CSICOP two years after helping to found the organization was the issue of appropriate ways to deal with the unknown. Truzzi explains that ``The true skeptic takes an agnostic position, one that says that the claim is not proved rather than disproved.''2 Members of skeptical organizations, Truzzi observes, often have problems with this ``truly skeptical'' agnostic position. An example may be found in Michael Shermer's discussion of ghosts in Why People Believe Weird Things.23 Rather than discuss parapsychological, psychological, or ethnographic research on ghosts, he presents an example of a philosophical discussion about reality and the unseen from Robert Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and knocks it down as insufficient evidence for the existence of ghosts. When it comes to the actual data on ghost experience, Shermer dismisses it: ``Ghosts never exist apart from their description by believers.'' In discussions of many other issues in the book, Shermer does consider the research and evidence. So why did Shermer choose not to consider the data on ghosts? I think this comes back to Truzzi's observation that skeptics often have difficulty in dealing with the unknown.

Science does not say ``there are no ghosts,'' nor does science say ``people's ghost experiences are caused by X.'' About 20% of the adult U.S. population feels they have had contact with a ghost. 4 Ethnographic evidence suggests that ghost-experiences are widely cross-cultural. Although in different cultures ghost-phenomena are explained in different traditional ways, some varieties of ghost experience in different cultures seem to be the same. For those of us who study human behavior this is data. It cannot be simply dismissed unconsidered.5

Those of us who expect scientific explainations for such things may say that we think that psychology and neurology will explain these experiences eventually. But a paranormalist may equally well say that an extra-normal explanation will be found eventually. In science something is unknown until it is known. We can't say with certainty what something isn't until we can say what something is.

It is interesting that while many skeptics do not have trouble understanding ``currently unknown'' as a scientific answer when it comes to issues in natural science such as unified field theory, they may feel uncomfortable with ``currently unknown'' when it comes to extraordinary human experience such as ghosts. A common explanation given for this attitude is a popular over-enthusiasm for science that affects all of us who live in highly technological cultures to some degree. There are things that those of us who like science often feel we ``ought'' to disbelieve in if we are to be scientific, and these popular beliefs may be mistaken for a part of science. But it seems to me that there also may be something common to the past experiences of skeptics that makes them especially uncomfortable with ``unknown'' as an answer. Skeptic groups often assert that they have the answers, and that quest for authoritative answers may attract people to skepticism in the first place.

Today organized skepticism is undergoing changes. Skeptics in local organizations seem increasingly willing to ask questions about what skeptics as a group believe or disbelieve and why (some evidence for this is that Mike Sofka asked me to write this essay for The Why-Files). Apparently many of the people today who have the same concerns about skepticism that caused Truzzi and others to leave the movement in the 1980s are now staying and trying to make their organization better. In addition, more accepting attitudes in local groups seem to be making it possible for what Truzzi would call ``truly skeptical'' skeptics to stay. These developing changes in the skeptical community are part of what I wish to understand more fully through ethnographic work among local skeptic groups.

-Stephanie Hall

Stephanie A. Hall, Ph.D. is a folklorist interested in the ethnographic study of organized skepticism. Comments to the author may be addressed to shall@capaccess.org.

Future ISUNY Meetings

Lightning and Power lines.

December 2, 1998: 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. Barker and his work has appeared on the PBS series Nova.

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. But what if two, or three or four people observe the thing? Surprisingly, multiple witness can agree on what they saw, even while they are all mistaken, and multiple witnesses can be less reliable than a single witness.

Darwinian Medicine:

How Evolution affects the Disease process

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

Skeptic's Jeopardy

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

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.

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

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 Said to have brought civilization to the Mayans

2 Truzzi, Marcello, ``On Pseudo-Skepticism,'' Zetetic Scholar, #12--13, 1987. Available online from The Anomolist at http://www.users.cloud9.net/~patrick/anomolist/pseudo.html.

3 Shermer, Michael, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, W.H. Freeman, NY, 1997, pp. 28--33. Note that in his discussion of alien abduction Shermer does consider the experiential data (pp. 94--98).

4 The exact figure can vary depending on how the question is asked in surveys. See George Gallup, Jr. and Frank Newport, ``Belief in Paranormal Phenomena Among Adult Americans,'' Skeptical Inquirer, 15(2) (Winter 1991), pp. 137--146; and Andrew M. Greeley, The Sociology of the Paranormal: A Reconnaissance, Sage Publications, London, 1975.

5 For an extensive discussion of the issues related to the scientific study of the belief in spirits, see David Hufford's ``Beings Without Bodies: An Experience-Centered Theory of the Belief in Spirits,'' in Barbara Walker, ed. Out of the Ordinary: Folklore and the Supernatural, Utah State University Press, Logan, 1995, pp 11--45. For a discussion of academic attitudes related to the study of supernatural experience, see Hufford, ``The Supernatural and the Sociology of Knowledge: Explaining Academic Belief,'' New York Folklore Quarterly 9(3-4) (Summer 1983), pp. 21--29.