The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 5, Issue 2 Febuary, 1999

 
 
 

February Meeting

The UFOs of October: Optical illusion and group dynamics in UFO observations.

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. Join us February 3 when Michael Sofka, past president of ISUNY, discusses the illusions of motion that contribute to UFO observations.

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.

January Meeting

The January program is always planned as a video since weather conditions in the Great Northeast the first week of January are uncertain at best and really lousy and impassable at worst. Well, we didn't have the worst weather and we didn't have the best. But the video arrived and the TV/VCR arrived and then they got together. The video was ``The Power of Belief'' an ABC special report by John Stoessel, graciously supplied by Ken Myer, who was unable to attend (but then, he'd already seen it). The program covered various topics familiar to skeptics, and even non-skeptics, several of whom were in attendance. The topics included such things as astrology and horoscope readings, different types of voodoo, etc. Unfortunately, your secretary did not take her usual excellent notes, so that's all, folks.

-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 March, 1999 issue is February 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.

Board Meeting

The ISUNY board plus one met at Mike Sofka's house on Wednesday, January 13th. Besides Mike, attending were Peter Huston, Bob Mulford, Dot Sager, Herb Jones, Lewis Treadway. The plus one was new member, John Tyo, who had not been able to get to the January meeting, but introduced himself to Peter at Denny's and seeming a willing soul, was roped into; whoops! I mean invited to; the meeting. Our agenda items were discussed and dealt with as follows:

  1. The please renew letter: Revisions were suggested to a letter which will be sent to lapsed members telling them of our recent and future activities and encouraging them to return to the fold. Dot Sager will send out when supplied with the list of names.

  2. Instituting a formal greeter for meetings who will make an effort to meet new attendees to help them feel welcome. February's greeter will be Dot Sager and Mike Sofka has volunteered to ``say hi'' for March.

  3. Discussion about reducing number of meetings to maximize attendance while reducing the effort required while still maintaining continuity for members. Since the lowest attendance figures have always been for the winter months, it was decided to omit meetings, and newsletters, for December and January. Programs will be planned for meetings in September, October, November, February (maybe a video), March, April, May, and June. To publicize these meetings, there would also be eight newsletters published---one for each of these months.

  4. ``Chat and chew'' meetings. Some members had expressed a desire for additional social activities. The third Tuesday of each month was designated as a time for anyone knowing about it to gather at a pre-designated restaurant for chow and chatter. The first gathering was January 19,1999.

  5. Facilitating the newsletter printing. Bob Mulford has offered to handle the printing as he has access to a printer, and he and Dee will fold, label and mail. Thanks, Bob.

  6. Schenectady Public Access and airing the meetings. This proposal was tabled.

  7. Planning for the April meeting and ``Skeptic's Jeopardy.'' Topics for questions were brainstormed and volunteers assigned specific areas.

  8. Incorporation. Mike Sofka will research the steps in this process. Anyone with helpful hints should contact Mike.

  9. Finding new site for meetings. Our first step is to investigate extending our meeting time at the Guilderland Library. The board believes that having more time to socialize would improve attendance and member participation.

  10. Topics for May and June meetings. More about this in future Why-files. Suggestions are welcome.

-Dorothy Sager

Skepticism as a Technique of Intellectual Self Defense

This is part 3 of a four part series based on Peter Huston's talk to the Boston branch of the New England Skeptics Society.

-The Editors

What About Paranormal Claims?

Or, Who ya gonna call? Skeptics have traditionally spent a great deal of time and energy focusing on paranormal claims. In fact, an interest in paranormal claims was one of the things that first led me to become interested in skepticism. For many reasons, I believe that skeptics, should, in a limited and carefully thought out way, continue with this tradition of studying paranormal and fringe claims. Since only a few paranormal claims are immediately harmful, and my theme in this paper is that skepticism is a method of intellectual self defense, I feel that the primary use of investigating paranormal claims by skeptics is to promote awareness and knowledge of the techniques of skepticism. A good paranormal claim is wonderfully suited for this.

A good claim is a real attention grabber. The public is very interested in paranormal claims. This interest can, and should, be utilized to teach critical thinking skills.

A good claim is a good teaching tool. When used as a teaching tool, a good paranormal claim can be a valuable aid in getting skeptical ideas and critical thinking skills before many people who would not otherwise show an interest.

A good claim is a dramatic example of skepticism in action. There are reasons as to why the experts in a field do not generally accept the reality of paranormal phenomena. When looked at carefully there usually is a rational explanation waiting to be found.

Nevertheless we do need to keep paranormal claims in perspective. It is not a realistic goal to assume that through frequent skeptical analysis of paranormal claims, skepticism will cause all people everywhere to become 100% rational. In fact, it is unlikely that any single field of paranormal claims has yet met extinction through over hunting by skeptics who take aim at its individual cases. We can, at best, cull the herd.

For example, skeptic Joe Nickell has written a book (and some shorter essays) giving very convincing arguments that the so-called Shroud of Turin is a hoax. It is difficult to understand how anyone who has been exposed to these arguments can continue to believe the Shroud is an actual burial shroud for Christ transformed through miraculous means. Yet it is clear to anyone who has perused a Barnes and Noble bookstore lately, these arguments, convincing as they are, have made no dent in the publication of books arguing that the shroud is, in fact, real. It seems quite clear that a convincing argument, in this case, made only a small impact, at best, on the spread of a claim.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, `You can convince all the people some of the time. And you can convince some of the people all of the time. But you cannot convince all the people all the time.' And skeptics need to learn this and accept it. If we cannot possibly destroy all paranormal claims everywhere, then this should not be our stated or assumed goal.

Sometime ago, the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York, our local skeptics group, was visited by a folklorist who studies skeptics groups in an academic manner. ``Why aren't you folks as dogmatic as the people in Buffalo?'' she asked. We thought for a while and then many people mentioned a single name. The named individual believes in most paranormal phenomena, including UFOs as spaceships. He attends meetings of ISUNY on a regular basis and has done so since the beginning of our organization; however, he's never actually paid dues, that is joined ISUNY. We weren't quite sure how to deal with him. (One CSICOP fellow actually recommended that we drive him out, but we knew this was not what we wanted to do.) Well, it's been several years, and despite the brilliance of our arguments and the incredible size of our library, he still remains unconvinced. In turn, I think we, the officers of ISUNY, slowly realized that if we could not convince this one individual, we were not going to convince the world. We had to find a new purpose.

One cannot expect to accomplish wonders through providing rational alternative explanations for common paranormal claims. Life, and humanity, for better or worse, don't work that way. Nevertheless, for the reasons stated above, their use as teaching tools, researching and investigating paranormal claims should hold a place within skepticism.

Bad Paranormal Claims

Or Er... What do we do now? In the previous section I made frequent references to ``a good paranormal claim.'' This was intentional. There are good paranormal claims and there are bad paranormal claims. As a skeptic, avoid the bad paranormal claims at all costs. Don't get near them. You will only get hurt.

Let me offer a couple examples of a ``bad paranormal claim.''

The Lonely Woman

Sometime ago, I was contacted, individually, by mail by a woman in another state. She wished information from me, a moderately known skeptic, on coincidences and ``psychic parallelism.'' She stated she was trying to explain a paranormal claim she'd had. Naturally I was intrigued and asked for details.

To make a long story short, due to health problems, this woman in her 50s, had not been in a romantic relationship for virtually twenty years. She, apparently, lived alone. She had developed the belief that she and another individual were ``soul mates'' and had known one another in a past life. Everywhere she went she was reminded of this man and she saw these reminders as significant incidents. She described them as ``psychic parallelisms and much more than mere coincidences.'' She'd had dreams of him and believed these dreams may have reflected incidents that had occurred together in a past life. There were other incidents as well. The obvious explanation, clearly, is obsession caused by loneliness due to her tragic circumstances. When I, as tactfully as possible, suggested that it was coincidence and perhaps she would be better off if she stopped referring or thinking of him as a ``soulmate,'' she replied that there were just too many things that reminded her of this man so it could not be coincidence and he must be her ``soulmate.'' She concluded that science and reasons could not offer her an explanation, and she would just have to look elsewhere. (For the record, she had made no effort to meet the individual, refused to identify him, but stated that he was quite distant geographically from her. I suspect that he may have been some sort of celebrity.)

Clearly, there would be nothing to be gained from pursuing this poignant claim further, or in attacking this woman's belief system through exchanging letters.

The mental health patient

For sometime now I have been receiving mail from a mental health patient who believes he can shape time and space with ``the awesome powers of his mind.'' He wishes these powers tested. He cannot, however, specify what exactly he can do and refuses to answer questions about this in a specific manner which would enable the alleged powers to be scientifically tested. I have been told that this is a common problem among mental health patients who take great comfort in a delusional system involving great, but hidden, powers. Rather than see it threatened, they often keep the delusions spawned ``powers'' vague and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals such as myself.

Why did I give him attention in the first place? I made the mistake of suggesting that he might stand a better chance of getting his ``powers'' tested if he were to provide proof of a clean bill of mental health with his letters. My intention with this suggestion was to get an obviously ill man in treatment. Instead, I got a new pen pal and he did, as requested, include a ``clean'' bill of mental health from his psychiatrist and therapist stating that they he had been in their care for several years and they felt it was acceptable for him ``to pursue his interest in the paranormal.''

I have heard similar tales from other skeptics groups, notably the Australian skeptics. Avoid mental health patients as subjects of paranormal claims! You have little to gain except for embarrassment!

Both of these ``bad claims'' involve people with obvious problems. It is relatively common for people with problems to develop delusional thought patterns and seek out skeptics. If this happens to you, take the mature route---hide or flee town!

When dealing with people with problems and delusional beliefs there are several very real risks you can take. You can overreach your knowledge. It is very tempting to offer possible diagnoses of psychiatric problems or claims of ``fantasy proneness.'' Rarely, if ever, do skeptics have access to the sorts of information or education to do this knowledgeably.

You can get sued. If you call a nut, a nut, or a kook, a kook, or even a schizophrenic, a schizophrenic, then lawyers might come after you, unless you can back the statement up!

You can easily look like a bully. Why call a kook, a kook if he's obviously acting like a kook? Besides, generally speaking, it's not your problem if somebody else is acting kooky. Picking on people with problems is rarely admired, even if skeptics do it to prove the man in question is not really a being from Jupiter (or wherever!)

Many paranormal claims directly involve individuals with very real problems. Don't pick on them. It's bad Karma. Just smile and remember that (a) life's tough for all of us sometimes and (b) in some cultures the mentally ill are cherished as blessings from the Gods. Imagine yourself as a member of one of these cultures. Nevertheless, the mentally ill and the emotionally troubled are not blessings for skeptics and skeptics' groups. Instead, they are a no-win situation. Avoid no-win situations. Try to keep your distance from confused or ill people who believe they have powers beyond your comprehension. You'll be glad you did. (They might, after all, think you into a cornfield.) Smile. It's a good life.

And remember, since I argued in the above section that you cannot and should not attempt to explain all paranormal claims, it's okay to be selective. But if you are pressed and forced to offer an explanation on a person with problems and their wacky claims, remember this line from Carl Sagan. Memorize it and repeat it when needed. ``Clearly something is going on. And it is fascinating. But the question we need to ask, is it going on in outer space (or the outer world) or is it going on in inner space (or the inner world)?'' Then smile knowingly. Do not continue your explanation. Just smile and nod your head as if showing a ponderous, all knowing wisdom. Do not mention any specific mental illnesses. Do not pull out your Fantasy Prone Personality Assessment Scale Decoder ring. Smile, nod, look wise and compassionate. Go home and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Be kind to these people. Even Sagan, after all, heard voices of the dead. We all get weird sometimes.

-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: I've always been a bit reluctant to join an organized group of any kind. Since you, David Quinne, Certified Public Psychic joined a skeptic group, I was hoping you could detail the benefits they offer? One large benefit I see is the work that can be done in educating the public or at least providing a louder voice for the alternative choices people have but may not be aware of.

Answer: As you can well imagine, being a CPP, I get asked that question a lot. ``What do you get out of that bunch of nay-sayers?'' is a typical example. Well, the reasons are many.

First, the health and retirement plans are pretty good, and the dental benefits were listed in last year's member survey as the prime reason for joining. Only 25% of the members have taken advantage of the group health insurance. Oh, and MasterCard offers a low interest rate card. You get a choice of three designs. Mine says ``Just say know,'' but ``Yeah, right, show me'' is the most popular choice.

Don't forget the monthly mixers---great place to meet members of the opposite sex with an interest in science. Our annual trip to a Broadway play and the NY City library is also well attended, as are the pool parties; boy, do they get wild. And of course the line dancing is popular with the older members.

Personally, I like the uniforms best. They're jet-black with red insignia and berets. Only the officers wear them to most meetings, but we always dress up for investigations. When you show up at a haunted house in uniform, with night sticks and jackboots, people take notice! The ID is also handy when there is a long line at the store. I like flashing it and saying ``Step aside, step aside, official skeptic business here,'' and they buy a loaf of bread, or a stick of gum or something. You can feel the eyes burning holes in your back, but it don't bother me. We're skeptics, and you can see the jealousy.

One of the reasons I retired as a private investigator was so I would have time to take the Special Skeptic Methods and Tactics courses. I want to be on the Rapid Response Team. So far, we can only cover the immediate Capital Region (Albany, Schenectady and Troy), but we would like to be able to have a Rapid Response Team van on site for any claimed paranormal activity within the upper eastern NY area. (The Long Island group handles down state at least as far as Poughkeepsie, and CSICOP of course takes care of the western part of the state). Eventually, I would like an RRT stationed in my home town of Loweville.

For officers and investigators, there is the added fringe benefit of junkets to China, Europe and South America. Sure, they are a lot of work, and you are away from home, but that green ``skeptic'' passport opens doors, and gets you the best hospitality. I'll never forget that night with Nick Cooper and the French ambassador in Bangkok, well, ah, this is a family newsletter....

Yep, joining a skeptic group has been great for the social life.

-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.

The Puzzler

Questions for the fun of it.

  1. When, during the year, does the Full Moon pass the highest in the sky?

  2. Why would someone be willing to trade a pound of gold for 14 ounces of gold?

  3. How long is a chain as used in measurement and why is this unit of measure still important?

  4. How many hands are there in a foot?

  5. What is the Aclinic line?

Answers

(1) Around the winter solstice when the suns route is the lowest. Remember the Full Moon is opposite the sun. (2) Gold is measured in troy ounces. There are 12 troy ounces in a troy pound! (3) The chain is 100 links or 4 rods long. Or if you insist, the chain is 66 feet long. Old land records are frequently in chains, rods and links. The basic unit of measure for land in the US is traditionally the acre. An acre is 10 square chains. (Is the chain at 66 feet 6 tenths of a foot short of ``The Beast?'') (4) Three. The hand is used to measure the height of Horses, it is 4 inches. (5) The magnetic equator. This is the line where there is no magnetic dip i.e. the magnetic field lines parallel the earth.

-Carl Sager

Future ISUNY Meetings

Darwinian Medicine:

How Evolution affects the Disease process

March 3, 1999: Dr. Lois Hooverman of Schenectady County Community College. How the treatment of disease affects the course of a pathogen's evolution.

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 knowledgeable about skepticism, fringe science, and general science.

Any Suggestions?

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

June 2, 1999: no topic decided, ``A panel on anti-science'' suggested.

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 apparent remaining errors are in reality optical illusions.

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.