The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 5, Issue 5 May, 1999

 
 
 

May Meeting

Science Fiction, Science and Pseudo-Science:

Has science fiction helped to spread bad science?

When it comes to the literature and entertainment known as Science Fiction, organized skepticism has had a love-hate relationship. Many members of skeptic groups have read and continue to read science fiction, to watch scifi movies and attend conventions. At the same time, however, many articles and press releases from skeptic groups criticize some science fiction, particularly movies and television programs, for promoting nonsense---even while active members of those very organizations patronize the programs!

When it comes to the actual science in science fiction, the genre has a mixed history. On the one hand, science fiction stories are often cited as an inspiration by many working scientists. On the other hand it was in science fiction that such pseudo-sciences as Dianetics and flying saucers were first widely publicized.

In May, ISUNY will host a panel of skeptics, academics and science fiction fans as they discuss the science is science fiction. The panel includes (to date):

This month's meeting is being held from 7:00 pm until 10:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. Meetings are free and open to the public. We schedule our meetings at the Guilderland Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month. Check our web site for information about future and past presentations.

April Meeting

A short business meeting began the program and those present, members all, voted in the proposed slate of officers: Mike Sofka, President; Bob Mulford, Vice President; Tom Benton, Treasurer; and Dot Sager, Secretary. Then the small, but feisty, group participated in ISUNY's first ever Skeptic's Jeopardy. Mike Sofka took the moderator's role (don't worry, Alex, your job is safe), and Bob Mulford recorded responses (Vanna has a flashier wardrobe---oops, wrong program). The answers Mike read in the various categories were challenging; sometimes lucky guesses resulted in correct questions. And a question that amused the moderator produced an air-borne chocolate treat, sometimes caught, but always retrieved and eaten. The answers and questions will remain confidential (for possible re-use). However, the categories were: for Jeopardy---Haunted Houses, Science, UFOs, Monster Mayhem, and Pseudoscience; and for Double Jeopardy---Famous Skeptics, Hoaxes, Archeological Pseudoscience, Extraterrestrials, and Cults. It was fun and very competitive.

-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 June, 1999 issue is May 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 best efforts to keep the mailing list up-to-date, we do make mistakes.

ISUNY ``Chat N' Chew''

The ISUNY Chat n' chew will be held 7:00 pm, Tuesday, May 18 at the Ocean Palace Restaurant, 855 Central Ave, Albany, across from the Hannaford Plaza. Chat n' Chews are an attempt to see if purely social events, with no formal program, are of interest to our members. If you enjoy the after meeting get togethers, this is an attempt to hold the same type of informal gathering, but at an earlier hour and a different location. A non-Wednesday was chosen, since many people have wanted non-Wednesday events as well. This is an experiment, and its success or failure will determine the likelihood of other events of this sort. If you are interested, please make an effort to be there. For more details call Peter Huston at 393-3478 or e-mail phuston@capital.net.

The UFOs of October

Part III: The Autokinetic Effect in Practice

Last month I wrote about Muzafer Sherif's experiments on group dynamics and the autokinetic effect. Sherif found that the perceived movement of a stationary light is influenced by the reports of other group members. Eventually each observer accepts the group norm as a standard. In addition, I briefly reviewed Elizabeth Loftus's studies of leading questions and recall. Our memory of an event is influenced not only by what we believe we saw, but by what investigators believe we saw.

This month I will discuss several UFO cases that are most likely due to the autokinetic effect, influenced by group dynamics and recall. Each of these cases has the common theme that multiple people reported lights in the sky---lights that can reasonable be attributed to an astronomical body. The witnesses all reported motion, and even intelligent action to what was nothing more than a stationary bright spot in the sky.

The Exeter New Hampshire UFOs

In the fall of 1965 in Exeter, New Hampshire, multiple people reported UFOs that followed their car from the beach or were visible from their back porch. The UFOs were reported to move, rotate, and so on. These reports continued for five months, and were widely covered in local newspapers. The newspaper coverage, not surprisingly, prompted more people to look for, and to report, strange ``lights in the sky.''

The definitive report of this wave of UFO sightings is the book Incident at Exeter, by John G. Fuller.1 For many, the Exeter UFOs remain one of the best cases of UFOs on record.

In his book The UFO Verdict, Robert Sheaffer plotted 7 observations of Exeter UFOs that were recorded with sufficient detail to know the direction in the sky in which the UFO appeared, and day of year of the observation. He compared this plot to the setting time for Jupiter over the course of the five month period. While not a large enough sample to be statistically significant, these 7 observations were a good fit.2

If these UFOs were not Jupiter, then we might expect at least some of the Exeter UFO witnesses to give the location of the UFO in relation to Jupiter. That is, Jupiter was bright and visible. So, where was Jupiter in relation to other bright and visible objects?

The Mexico City UFOs

On July 11th, 1991, Mexico City, a total eclipse of the sun was visible at noon with the sun near zenith. Thousands of people watched as the eclipse approaches totality. Hundreds? Thousands? More, depending on who you ask, saw a UFO zipping around as the sun is obscured. The UFO was captured on hand held camcorders, and formed the basis for a later documentary.3

If you wanted to know what people saw, however, instead of watching the documentary I would suggest reading the July 1991 Sky&Telescope. On page 89 is a map of the major celestial object visible during the eclipse. This includes; the planets Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Mercury, and the stars Regulus, Sirius, Betelgeuse and Rigel---all except for Mars brighter than magnitude 1 objects---that is, objects brighter than the brightest stars typically visible.

Quoting John Bortal of the Brooks Observatory, Sky & Telescope, page 91 ``Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter site well above the horizon during totality.... At magnitude -5 [about 25 times brighter than Sirius], Venus should be evident to the naked eye long before the onset of totality.''

If a UFO was recorded in Mexico City during the July 1991 eclipse, I would like to know its position relative to these stars and planets, and particularly in relation to Venus.4 The Mexico City event has sparked a long-lasting wave of UFO reports from Mexico, which seems to have borrowed most of its major elements from U.S. UFOlogists.

The 1993 Perseid Meteor Shower, Bartlett, New Hampshire

In 1993, I was vacationing in Bartlett, NH with my wife, father, step mother and their family. This was in August, so I had the entire crew out, just before sunset, to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower. As is usual with the Perseids, speculations that ``this could be a big year'' were widely circulated, so many people were out and primed to see a big show.

As we were lying on our backs, watching the sky, my father pointed to a bright object and said: ``That star is moving!'' I, of course, said: ``No, it's not; that's Vega. You're just experiencing the autokinetic effect.''

There is a silent pause after which my father says: ``Dammit, that star is moving; I can see it.''

There was a fair sized crowd observing at that time, many were looking at us, and at Vega. They looked back and forth---I looked at them, and my father, and they looked back. The temptation was very strong to say: ``You're right; it's moving to the left---look at it!'' (all in the interest of Science, you understand). Never before was I so tempted to start a UFO panic.

The autokinetic illusion, once it starts, is very strong. Knowing the object isn't moving, doesn't make it go away. I explained all this to my father, but he remained skeptical.

The UFOs of October

In Part I of this article I quoted from an Albany Times Union article about UFOs seen over Stillwater NY. I hope by now you have a better understanding of the kinds of effects that may have lead to those reports. The autokinetic effect is a common, and powerful illusion of motion. Seeing a star ``move'' is not a paranormal phenomena.

But what other evidence is there that the Stillwater UFO was a bright planet or star? At that time both Arcturus and Capella (the second and third brightest stars visible from Albany), were in the northwest and northeast, and the planets Venus and Jupiter were both visible, and very bright in the southeast. So, the sky was primed for a sighting.

The first I heard about the UFOs was on the local news station, WRGB Channel 6. The people being interviewed said the lights were moving around the sky, an observation concurred with by the reporter and camera man. The report, however, also included video footage of the object witnesses said was the moving UFO. It showed a bright image of a star or planet---rock steady in the tripod-mounted camera image. That is, the stationary camera showed a stationary object, while the people running the camera saw it moving.

The weather came on immediately afterwards, and the meteorologist (who is also an amateur astronomer) instantly said ``That was Venus you showed.'' It was a gem of TV news debunking moments.

However, if WTEN Channel 10 meteorologist had a theory about his station's own rock-steady video image, he was quiet about it. This is not surprisingly, since their anchor had just finished saying ``while driving home I saw something very bright---brighter than a star---in the east.'' Well, I saw it too, every night. It was Venus.

In later follow-up, not printed in the news or covered on TV, Ray Cecot, then the local Mutual UFO Network investigator, found that in the weeks following the first report many people were mistaking stars for something unusual!5

Stillwater Followup

A year later, I saw Ray Cecot give a presentation at a local MUFON gathering, at which he provided further information about the Stillwater sighting. He said, that when he got to Stillwater at 11 pm that first night (remember, the original report was at 8 pm) the people gathered pointed at stars when asked where the UFO was. Ray, however, said he could not explain what they saw earlier and thinks it may have been something unusual.

Call me skeptical, even cynical, but at 11 pm the eyewitnesses to the Stillwater UFOs demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they could not tell the difference between an interstellar spacecraft and a bright star. Why should I believe they had that ability at 8 pm?

If you recall, the newspaper account of the Stillwater sighting said witnesses saw about a dozen ``dime-sized objects?'' How do we go from stars to a dozen dimes?

First, It is important to note that people are very poor at judging size and distance without good visual cues. If we know the size of an object, we can judge (or calculate) the distance. If we know the distance (for example, if it is in front of a hill, not above it, but in front) we can judge its size or calculate its maximum size. If we know neither of these two values, however, we cannot judge either of them. It could be a small and close object, or a large and distant object. And, in the absence of more information, a brighter object will be perceived and remembered as being bigger than a dimmer object.

Let's take a quick test to see how good you are at judging the size of a common object. I asked in Part I of this article how large you thought a dime would be compared to the full moon. If you held a dime at arm's length (say 22 inches), how big would it appear if held up against the moon? Think about this before reading further.

Would the moon be twice as large as the dime? Ten times larger than the dime? Would it be 100 times larger then the dime? 100 times larger is the largest estimate I've heard so far. In actuality, the dime would be four times the area of the full moon! Larger if your arms are shorter. A typical frozen pea, held at arm's length, is about the size of the full moon.6

I ask you now, what would a dozen objects---each appearing 4 times the size of the full moon---look like? I would expect 911 lines to be ringing off the hook. I suspect what happened (this is a guess, I of course cannot know---I wasn't there and enough data has not been offered) is that in the excitement a plane or two were confused with the original object. Or, over the course of observation, the witnesses lost sight of the original object, and picked up on others, perhaps a fireball or a satellite.

I suspect that not one of the witnesses actually took a dime out of his or her pocket and held it out at arm's length. When asked about the object's size, they answer what they believe to be the honest truth, that it was bigger than a star---perhaps the size of a dime---without realizing just how big that is.

What we do know is that according to the local MUFON director at that time, by 11 o'clock that night they were looking at stars. And, we do know that by the following evening, the same people were looking at a bright celestial object, as shown by the steady image in the tripod-mounted television news cameras, and calling them UFOs.

Summary and Conclusions

I started this paper with a disclaimer, and I will end with a disclaimer. The truth be told, neither I nor anybody else knows what the unnamed woman, her daughter and seven neighbors saw at 8 pm from Stillwater NY. It could have been a distant jet, a bright star seen through clear, cooling skies (the observing conditions at the time). The star or planet could have been augmented by the autokinetic effect (as seemed evident from the network news report), or some combination of these and other factors.

And who knows, it could have been an interstellar craft. The evidence, however, hardly supports such an extraordinary hypothesis---especially when simple, alternative explanations, employing known and well-understood phenomena, are available.

The Stillwater event, however, when combined with the media coverage, spun off its own mini-wave of UFO reports. It was not as big or dramatic as the current Mexican wave, to be sure. But like the Mexican wave, the stories have became more elaborate with time. Attendance at student sponsored UFO symposium at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was high. (Although, it is interesting to note, very few of the attendees were students.) And, this included the usual collection of drawings of UFOs, pictures of crop circles, support groups for abduction victims, etc.

Most of these people, no doubt, were already believers and all the local flap did was give them a booster shot. However, many people within the WRGB and WTEN listening areas now know that something, maybe an alien spacecraft, was seen in Stillwater. Since no additional followup was offered in newspapers or on TV, they are left with this likely incorrect conclusion. The evidence simply doesn't support this claim.

Instead, the evidence is consistent with misperception of celestial objects, augmented by the autokinetic effect and possibly other illusions of motion and recall. It is possible for ordinary people to see something unfamiliar, and even exciting and extraordinary, in the night sky. That doesn't mean what they saw is inexplicable, or even unusual. On the contrary, it may be the familiar night sky, viewed by people not so familiar with it, people who are, however, familiar with the popular images of flying saucers and aliens.

-Mike Sofka

This is the text of a talk presented at ISUNY's February 1999 meeting, and to be presented at the May, 1999 Syracuse Technology Club.

Ask The Psychic

Question: Mr. Psychic, I have persistent dreams where I'm lying on a table while somebody examines me. I remember a burning sensation, and itching while some huge-headed beings looks down on me, and talks in an unfamiliar language. The lights are bright, and I'm scared. Was I abducted by an alien? Did they probe me? I saw something about this on Jerry Springer, or was it South Park?

-Probed in Poughkeepsie

Answer: Dear PiP, no you were not abducted. As I have pointed out here many times before, Zeta Reticulans rarely abduct humans and then only for food. Most aliens are hard working members of their adopted planet, and have never been involved in genetic experiments on humans, or anything else.

Many people, however, report experiences and dreams similar to yours. Often these are attributed to alien abductions, or satanic ritual abuse, but this is a recent phenomena. In days past, these very same events were attributed to Elves, ``little people,'' or dæmons of some variety. A review of these stories can be found in Robert Bartholomew and George Howard's UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery,7 These stories were a great mystery until this past year when pioneering proctologist Dr. L. Jammer Amberson made his startling discovery that these dreams were caused by repressed memories of diaper rash.

In western culture, and especially in post-colonial Euro-descent countries, nearly everybody gets diaper rash. We have fortunately evolved mechanisms to allow us to forget the pain and humiliation of those early years. Some cases of diaper rash are so bad, however, that the repressed memories resurface later in life. By that time, however, we can no longer place them in context. Instead of our parents as we now know them, we see large-headed strangers. Instead of English, we hear gibberish we could not then understand.

Dr. Amberson has used his discoveries to develop Recovered Memory of Diaper Rash Therapy, a new brand of psychodynamic therapy designed to uncover the infant within all of us. His patients are encouraged through hypnosis and long bus rides to remember what it was like when they were first potty trained. The goal is to renew the joy of no more diapers, and to let the adult-child learn that with the diapers went the diaper-rash. Long-term trials are under way at the Los Angeles Center for Hypnosis in New Therapies.

-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. After eating asparagus, many people (about 40%) notice a pungent odor in their urine. What causes this?
  2. Why are prunes helpful for constipation?

  3. When I was in school in the fifties, we used slide rules because hand-held calculators were not available. How do the slide rules work?

  4. NYS Route 5 (Central Ave./State St.) runs in a straight line from downtown Albany to Downtown Schenectady. What direction does it run?

Answers

(1) This odor results when the body metabolizes sulfur compounds in the asparagus and is reportably harmless. Gout sufferers should note that purines in asparagus can bring on gout attacks. (2) Prunes have high fiber content and a natural laxative isatin. (3) Slide rules make use of the mathematical fact that adding the logarithm of two numbers gives a sum which is the logarithm of the product of the two numbers. Slide rules, at their simplest, have a slide with a logarithmic scale for the numbers 10.0 to 100 and a fixed part with the same scale. To multiply, you first align the multiplicand on the slide with the 10 or 100 on the fixed scale, next locate the multiplier on the fixed scale, opposite the multiplier, on the slider, is the product. For a number like 111 you use 11.1 and you need to figure out where the decimal goes in the product. Normally added to general use slide rules are trigonometric function scales, scales to look up logarithms, and folded scales to use when it eases the operation. (4) North west to Schenectady and south east to Albany. It is very easy to assume west and east because the signs say Route 5 west and Route 5 east.

-Carl Sager

Future ISUNY Meetings

`` `Creation Science' Fact or Fiction?''

On June 2, 1999, Dr. Donald Whisenhunt, Jr., a biochemist with General Electric, will discuss the claims of creationists, and evaluate them in the light of modern science.

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 Bill Batt at (518) 462-5068.

Albacon '99---The premier Science Fiction Convention for the Northeast is returning September 17--19, 199. It will feature discussion panels, an art show, a dealer's room, gaming, artists, authors, and fans from around the world. See http://www.albacon.org/ for more information.

The Syracuse Technology Club, Syracuse, NY will host ISUNY president Michael Sofka on May 25th. Mike will be presenting his talk The UFOs of October: Optical Illusions and Group Dynamics in UFO Observation. For more information email Bill Busher at bbusher@inficon.com.

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, Michael Sofka, Dorothy Sager and Carl Sager for their contributions to this newsletter. Thanks also go to Peter Huston, Robert Mulford, 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. You've probably already forgotten about the remaining errors.

ISUNY thanks all of its members for their support. We would especially like to thank our Patron members: Tom Benton, 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, 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 Fuller, J.G., Incident at Exeter, Putnam, 1966; paperback, Berkeley, 1974.

2 Sheaffer, R.. The UFO Verdict: Examining The Evidence, Prometheus, 1986, pp. 111--119. Sheaffer discusses other evidence that the Exeter UFOs were celestial bodies, such as a correlation with cloud cover, regular nightly appearances that shift according to sidereal time, and descriptions of the object consistent with celestial bodies known to be visible at that time.

It is interesting to note that in the definitive work supporting one of the best documented UFO cases, only 7 observations out of nearly 100 occurring over 5 months were written up with enough accuracy to tell both approximate direction and date of observation.

3 Elders, Lee., and Jaime Maussan, Messengers of Destiny, Genesis III Productions, narrated by Brit and Lee Elders.

4 I am told that Messengers of Destiny claims the object is not Venus. However, the description given also sounds like possible video artifacts, such as lines through the light, and so on. If somebody knows of a critical review of this movie, please bring it to my attention.

5 French, A. The Why-Files, December 1994.

6 Many (most?) people don't believe me when I tell them a dime at arm's length is four times larger than the full moon. Try it yourself---the moon is not that large, as viewed from the earth. Note, it also doesn't make any difference where in the sky the moon is. It appears larger when closer to the ground, but you can prove to yourself it is the same size by holding up your dime (or pea) and taking a measurement.

7 Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1998.