The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 5, Issue 1 January, 1999

 
 
 

January Meeting

The Power of Friday The 13th.

ISUNY shows video tapes in January because of low post-holiday attendance, and the high likelihood of bad weather. This year we will be showing segments from ISUNY member appearances on local television on Friday, March 13th, 1998, and John Stossel's NBC special ``The Power of Belief.''

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

December Meeting Struck by Lightning!

Phil Barker, a local engineer who is a lightning expert, didn't bring us any actual lightning strikes, but the small audience still felt energized by his presentation. [Oh, stop!] Phil accompanied his talk with an extensive series of slides of both photos and schematics based on his work done at a Florida research facility. Lightning results when the potential between a negative charge in the storm clouds and the positive charge of the ground becomes so great that energy is released in a step-wise manner, initiated in the cloud but concluding with a discharge up from the ground as well. The frequency of lightning strikes varies over the country. In New York State, the frequency averages 2 strikes per square kilometer per year; Florida is in the lead in the USA with 18 strikes per square kilometer per year.

The Florida research was directed toward testing the effect of lightning strikes on structures and transmission lines. Phil also brought real artifacts from this research to give us a ``hands-on'' feel for the project. The three-foot blue rocket with the yellow nose cone and fins was like the ones used to send a conductive wire up toward the clouds to a potential lightning source. The wire vaporizes when struck leaving a glowing white-hot path for the lightning to follow to the ground. Natural lightning strikes generate anywhere from 30,000 amps up to 200,000 amps. Asked if the lightning strike damages the rocket, Phil said the rocket was much more likely to be damaged from the engine or from impact with the ground. One of the hazards of this type of research was the potential for being hit by the falling rocket; Phil had one episode of being in a rental car that the rocket missed by only 2 feet.

The research facility was designed by Power Systems Technology, where Phil works, and contained a trailer filled with technical equipment including many oscilloscopes with sensors all over the area synchronized by fiber optics, a tower made of wood (good insulator, got it?) for launching rockets, a structure to simulate a house (just a little house), and transmission lines both buried and aerial. Particularly interesting was their finding with regard to underground cables. Although buried at least 2 feet deep and inside an insulated pipe, lightning strikes even 450 meters away had about 10 to 25 percent of their energy conducted to the cable.

In response to a question about the safety of an aircraft in lightning, Phil noted that a metal airplane was the equivalent of a ``Faraday cage,'' a metal box in which everything inside is at the same potential and therefore not subject to a discharge across different charge fields. Now that composite and polymer materials are increasingly used in plane construction, handling lightning strikes becomes of greater importance for aircraft design and lightning research.

Phil also discussed step potential---the vulnerability of ground-based objects to lightning strikes. Cows with four widely spaced legs form a design which can mean ``burgers on the hoof'' in a thunderstorm. Strike avoidance advice to humans is to not go under trees and to avoid being in an open field where you might be the tallest object; however, if unavoidable, you should crouch down with your feet close together and nothing else, including the hands, in contact with the ground.

Another hand-around was an arrestor, a surge protection device made of metal oxide designed to allow temporary current flow and prevent arcing over into short circuit shutting down the power lines. The research provided information that can then be used in computer modeling to test higher voltages with greater numbers of arrestors.

A current (no pun intended) project financed by Niagara Mohawk is monitoring strikes on actual power lines throughout New York State, using solar-powered cameras activated by lightning. On extremely high voltage transmission lines there are shield wires attached at the very top of the towers, going from tower to tower. They are meant to prevent arcing over at the insulators by diverting the lightning energy. Phil's research has led to improved use of arrestors and improved grounding which significantly reduces the number of power outages.

-Dorothy Sager

Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at carlsager@worldnet.att.net.

Newsletter Articles

If you attend local meetings, view programs of interest to ISUNY members, or have a skeptical topic you wish to discuss, consider writing an article for The Why-Files. Membership articles contribute greatly to the quality of The Why-Files. Articles and letters can be emailed to the editor at sofkam@rpi.edu, or by U.S. mail to Michael Sofka, 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Disks and hardcopy will be returned at the next ISUNY meeting. The deadline for articles in the January, 1999 issue is January 15th, 1999.

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.

A Spirited Board Meeting

No, we were not visited by ghosts or goblins, although some of us seemed possessed at the meeting of most of the ISUNY board at Denny's after the Dec. 2nd meeting. The topic generating this much intensity was how to keep this group alive and kicking. Although we've had great topics for our meetings and pretty good attendance for most, the paying customers (a.k.a. the members) have been shrinking---in numbers, not physically, that is. The board is planning on sending out a letter to lapsed members, encouraging them to come back to the fold. We're reporting this to you current members who have paid your dues and continue to get The Why-Files to elicit your help in preserving ISUNY.

Although the programs have been at a consistently high level through the years, recently membership has decreased. The costs of running the organization are not great, but not inconsequential either, mostly related to printing and mailing the newsletter. We hope that most of you believe that you are getting your money's worth in getting the 10 issues of The Why-Files that are printed and mailed during the year. Our shortage of funds also means that we cannot offer even a modest honorarium to our speakers, but have been fortunate in getting great presenters for free.

As with many organizations, it has been a very few people doing virtually all of the work, and, frankly, they're getting a little tired. This means that they are really hoping some others will be willing to come forward and offer to help. One change the board is considering is reducing the number of meetings held per year, perhaps having a program with speakers every other month and a bi-monthly newsletter. Possibly the alternate month, those who wish could gather for some other activity like a field trip or bull session.

We realize that our meeting times at the library are rather constrained in terms of time limits. Library rules require that we clear the room by 9 pm. which really hasn't allowed time to conduct business meetings. We are considering some other steps to take to improve the situation. The board would like to get feedback from members. Please contact one of the officers with your ideas about any of the above. Election of officers is held in April (right! April Fool to you, too) and suggestions for a slate of officers would be welcome as well.

Thanks for listening.

-Dorothy Sager

Skepticism as a Technique of Intellectual Self Defense

This is part 2 of a four part series based on Peter Huston's talk to the Boston branch of the New England Skeptics Society.

-The Editors

If Skepticism is a technique and little more, then what is it not?

Or, Need a Life? Well, You're not gonna get one here so don't even try!

If we accept the positive premise that Skepticism is a technique of intellectual self defense then we must also give some thought as to what skepticism is not. It is a technique, and little else. I would argue the following: Skepticism is not a complete philosophy, skepticism is not a religion, skepticism does not teach that people need to be 100% rational, skepticism is not a lifestyle.

I repeat that skepticism, in my opinion, is nothing more than a method of intellectual self defense, and skeptics are the people who have studied the techniques that make up this method and value them. When I presented an early version of this paper to the Massachusetts branch of the New England Skeptics Society, they seemed to be quite familiar with what I meant by the above statements and laughed in agreement at them. Nevertheless, let me elaborate on these statements some more.

Skepticism is neither a complete philosophy nor a complete religion. Although it deals with many important philosophical questions, such as matters of belief and determining the nature of reality, it is not a complete philosophy. Due to its inherent emphasis on disproving things, and its inherent negativity, it is my belief that people who are looking for something to believe in or motivate them in their lives should look outside of skepticism and the skeptical movement. I would argue that they should not abandon their skepticism when they do this, but bring it with them. Skepticism is an important part of pursuing any spiritual quest in a safe manner. Nevertheless, skepticism is about disbelief and focuses on disproving ideas. To find positive ideas, we must go elsewhere.

Skepticism does not teach that people should be 100% rational. I do not claim to be 100% rational. I don't even claim to be 99% rational. (In fact, I suspect few of my friends or acquaintances would judge my rationality to reach even the 80% level tops.) If I were 100% rational I would have to give up beer and fatty foods and avoid sex in the absence of reproductive intent if I could instead be reading a good book or exercising. I would pay my bills on time and only purchase CDs and toys when I could afford it. I would be an accountant instead of a writer. Yet, as a human, I long ago set my goals for a much lower level of rationality than 100% and have never once regretted it.

Similarly, skepticism is not a lifestyle and should not be pursued as such. There are people who delight in knocking down the beliefs of others. Sadly, many of these are attracted to skepticism and some achieve levels of prominence. Nevertheless, if you focus your interactions with strangers on probing their beliefs for weaknesses, approaching each new interpersonal encounter as an intellectual search and destroy mission, miss manners would not approve, to say the least. After many years within the skeptical movement, it is my belief that each skeptic should seek a balance between skepticism and their outside interests. Skepticism can supplement these outside needs but it cannot and should not substitute for them. Skepticism can be a valuable adjunct to any life, but it cannot, in isolation, be a full life. Elaborating further, from time to time, I sit down and try to evaluate myself. To do this I divide myself into a few realms. These tend to be: mind, body, emotions or spirit, and societal or interpersonal issues.

Rational analysis, and its sub-branch, skepticism, can be useful within any of these realms. The connection between ``mind'' or intellectual pursuits and rational analysis is obvious. For the ``body'' realm, a simple look at any copy of Muscles and Fitness magazine, a publication which focuses on body-building and fitness, will reveal a surprisingly strong respect for scientific study among the editorial staff and readers. Goal oriented people value results and skepticism and rational analysis help one achieve results.

In the realm of the emotional and spiritual, there is still a usefulness for skepticism. Skepticism can assist a person to avoid traps including many of the various New Age hoaxes, or make a person more aware of some common cult recruiting ploys.

In the societal or interpersonal realm there is a use for skepticism and rational analysis. You can catch people in lies more easily, for instance, if you are skeptical. And clearly skepticism can help one evaluate some social issues and interpersonal matters but these must be determined on a case by case basis. As skeptics should start trying to see how skepticism interacts with other ideas, rather than see it as a separate endeavor.

If skepticism is so much and yet so little what should

skeptics groups be publicly skeptical of?

Or Which is worse? Genocide in the Balkans or the X-Files?

If we accept the premise that skepticism is a technique of intellectual self defense, and the fact that people are forming local groups to practice these techniques, apply ``skeptical activism'' and spread the word that ``skepticism'' is useful and good, then we must give some thought as to where and how we, the members of such groups, should publicly apply these techniques. (Although individuals who attempt to speak out on ``skeptical'' causes might also find these ideas useful.) Since skepticism is inherently a negative series of techniques designed to disprove ideas, this question can be summarized as which ideas then, do we choose to attack?

Traditionally, skeptics have focused their criticisms on the vaguely defined realms of paranormal, supernatural, and pseudo-scientific claims. Although I will return to these realms later, for the moment I prefer to begin with a clean slate. If we accept the idea that skepticism is a technique of intellectual self defense then there is no need to focus on these sorts of ideas any more than any other sort of idea. However, for several reasons, I do believe that these ideas have a special place in skepticism, something I will elaborate on later. But a skeptics group, I feel, should have some concern for societal issues and some consideration of activism. Such activism should be targeted carefully and causes carefully selected.

Let me present two examples of well targeted skeptical activism.

In Colorado, organized skeptics have made a special cause of targeting therapeutic touch claims among ``mainstream'' health care practitioners. Many mainstream health care practitioners are currently receiving continuing education credits for therapeutic touch, an alternative health care system that claims to work by manipulating the energy fields in the human body. The existence of both these ``energy fields'' and the utility of therapeutic touch is seriously disputed by modern science and medicine. If a person seeks treatment from a health care practitioner, and receives therapeutic touch as treatment, they have a right to ask if the treatment works.

What the skeptics in Colorado are asking is, ``Does this work as claimed and can you prove it?'' and ``If not, why are you teaching it?'' By doing so, many interesting issues are being touched upon, and the techniques of skepticism are being well illustrated and publicized.1

The issue of therapeutic touch impinges on several important causes. Among these are the way in which non-scientifically proven techniques have been casually accepted by some health care practitioners. Some people to assume that therapeutic touch and other ``alternative'' health care techniques have validity simply because they are accepted by many health care practitioners.

Eric Krieg, of PhACT, the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking, has targeted perpetual motion machine scams (so-called ``Free Energy'' Claims) many of which are aimed at farmers. Such claims, obviously, defy our knowledge of physics as currently understood and deserve to be looked at. Socially, many farmers live close to the edge of the profit margin. When a financially desperate farmer sinks a substantial sum of money into a ``free energy'' machine, and if the machine does not work as claimed, the problem is self evident. This is clearly a valid cause for a skeptic to look into.

On the other hand, not everyone can speak on this subject knowledgeably. Krieg is well suited for understanding this claim as he is an Electrical Engineer who grew up in a rural area. In other words, he understands both the machines and the problems they can cause.2

A proper cause should:

If a selected cause meets these standards then the goal of skeptical activism can be achieved---making a difference while getting the message out!

At times skeptics choose causes where they do not meet these goals. In such cases they wind up looking foolish and their efforts may actually be counterproductive. To give a negative example, recently CSICOP, a prominent skeptics group, decided to issue a press release stating that The X-Files action adventure sci-fi movie undermined people's belief in science and was harmful to society. Using the above standards this press release: Did not appear to be justified in the eyes of the general public. Few lay people outside skepticism saw The X-Files movie as harmful to science and science education. Many lay people found the notion humorous or foolish and, in their eyes, the credibility of CSICOP immediately declined. It was not something that CSICOP seemed likely to be knowledgeable about as the press release was clearly written prior to the release of the movie. It is unlikely if any of the release writers had seen the movie in question. Finally, this press release did not accomplish much anyway, because despite mediocre reviews, the film made enough money for the producer to soon announce plans for a sequel. It is uncertain to me what CSICOP hoped to achieve by writing the release.

Even among skeptics' web sites and post lists few people expressed agreement or support for the release, and many voiced criticism. Many skeptics, in fact, are X-Files fans. I conclude, for the reasons stated above, that the CSICOP release condemning the X-Files movie is exactly the sort of action we as skeptics wish to avoid.

Some better targets for skeptical activism could have been: Business Frauds: These could include examples such as Ponzi or Pyramid schemes where simple mathematics indicates the scheme is ultimately doomed to failure.

Quack cancer cures: We live in an age where so-called ``alternative medicine'' is becoming widely accepted. The distinction between the alternative therapies and quackery is often lost and many members of the public left vulnerable.

Child Protective/False Accusation issues: Although very draining emotionally, the amount of pseudoscience and illogic in these fields, is hard for people to imagine until they begin exploring the state of the current child protective system and the mind set of the folks who work in it.

There is probably nothing more counter-productive to a good public image of skeptics than to see some self appointed skeptic shoot his mouth off inaccurately on some subject he or she knows little about and few people care about anyway.

-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

1999 Predictions.

It is that time of year again when a psychic must engage in pre-prognostication. Here are this year's projections. As always, my 1998 predictions were so accurate, that you ignore the 1999 predictions at your own risk.

-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.

Future ISUNY Meetings

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.

Any Suggestions?

May 5, 1999: no topic yet. Here's your chance to provide input.

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

June 2, 1999. 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 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.

The program committee is working on topics for meetings next year. 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 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. All remaining errors were predicted by David Quinne.

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 For details on this see, Therapeutic Touch---Skeptics in Hand to Hand Combat over the Latest New Age Health Fad. In Skeptic 3(1), pp. 40-49.

2 For more details on Krieg and this issue, http://www.voicenet.com/~eric/dennis.html, http://www.voicenet.com/~eric/dennis4.html, and http://www.csicop.org/si/9707/krieg.html. The last site is an article on the subject which appeared in the July/August issue of the Skeptical Inquirer.