The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 5, Issue 7 September, 1999

 
 
 

September Meeting

Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Cancer

Surveys published in medical journals over the past year have shown that a large proportion of a doctor's patients are also trying so-called alternative therapies. Some of these therapies have been evaluated by standard scientific procedures, but most have not. This lack of evidence for efficacy, however, has had little, if any, effect on people's medical choices.

David Hess, Ph.D., will discuss his research on the controversies surrounding complementary and alternative cancer therapies. He is the author or editor of three books on the topic: Can Bacteria Cause Cancer?: Alternative Medicine Confronts Big Science(New York University Press, 1997) Women Confront Cancer: Making Medical History by Choosing Alternative and Complementary Therapies (M.J. Wooddell and D. Hess, New York University Press, 1998) , and Evaluating Alternative Cancer Therapies: A Guide to the Science and Politics of an Emerging Medical Field (Rutgers University Press, 1999). He will outline some of the basic concepts in the complementary and alternative medicine world, then focus on some of the issues surrounding dietary treatments for cancer.

David is a professor in the department of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. This is his third presentation to ISUNY. His first two presentations were about his field work with faith healers and mediums in Brazil, and the culture of skeptics, parapsychologists and New Age practitioners.

This month's meeting is being held September 8 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. (Note: This month the meeting is the second Wednesday.) Check our web site for information about future and past presentations.

ISUNY Summer Picnic

ISUNY's third summer picnic was held at president Mike Sofka's house. Eight adults, one toddler and a Siberian Huskador were in attendance. Those who arrived early took part in what we hope will become a tradition---consuming all the guacamole before stragglers turn up, while discussing the latest movies, local college politics and folk music. For those who came later, we had a consolation prize of avoiding the afternoon heat while waiting for the grill to heat up.

After consuming great quantities, the real reason for the annual picnic began---the horseshoe game. This years winners were team blue consisting of Dot and Carl Sager. Team red, consisting of Herb Jones and Mike Sofka, took an early lead, but soon fell to the Sagers' relentless and mathematically precise throws. The game had an element of added adventure, as Daisy (the Siberian Huskador) attempted to catch the horseshoe on more than one occasion. Luckily, Daisy failed at those attempts. The annual croquet match was replaced by a badminton free for all. As far as this observer could tell there was no official score keeping; it would have been too painful to do so. But, it was clear that Gwyn, the toddler, won on style.

ISUNY Mailing List

If you have an email address, you can receive announcements of ISUNY meetings, and other events by subscribing to the ISUNY Announce List. Postings average one a month, prior to meetings when The Why-Files appears online. However, other events of interest to skeptics may be announced via the list. To subscribe, send email with SUBSCRIBE ISUNY-ANNOUNCE in the body of the message to isuny-announce-request@rigel.sss.rpi.edu.

June Meeting

Our June program was a presentation on creationism by Dr. Donald Whisenhunt, Jr., a biochemist with General Electric. Dr. Whisenhunt did an excellent job of discussing the claims of creationists. The meeting was very well attended and supporters of creation ``science'' were out in force. Our speaker had a thorough grasp of the topic and commented that, since his background was in chemistry rather than biology, he believed that he knew more about creation science than about evolution. However, he was still well qualified to give an evaluation of the claims of creationists in the light of modern science.1

Dr. Whisenhunt spoke of the ``Young Earth'' concept which at its most extreme accepts a strict acceptance of the story of Genesis in the Bible. A more common, but less vociferous, interpretation is not so literal, but accepts that ``man was created in God's image'' rather than evolved from common ancestors shared with the apes. In contrast, he stated ``evolution is a fact, just as gravity is a fact.'' Evolution applies to populations, not to individuals. It is found in both micro forms (changes within species, for example, English moths evolving to be darker as the environment grew sooty from industrialization) and macro forms (the latter refers to the evolution of new species). Creationists refer to ``kinds'' of animals (rather than species), but don't really define the term; how is one ``kind'' distinguished from another ``kind?''

The ``Young Earth'' creationists speak of a 6000-year-old Earth, having all species (kinds?) of animals created at the same time. These creationists say God is not ``deceptive'' and, if science looks at it correctly, the evidence will support creation. Among the strategies of creationists are to redefine evolution to include the origin of the universe; they also attack the fossil record by saying there is a lack of intermediary forms. Of course, as soon as science is able to supply an intermediary form, they want to know where the two intermediary forms are that would show the transition between the three known forms.

Scientists who try to debate creationists have a difficult time. Scientists are used to dealing with facts and agreement on definitions, and are not used to reacting to appeals to emotions. Creationists prefer supplying their own terms and emotions are at the basis of their appeals to audiences that are often stacked in their favor.

It became clear by the content of the questions from the audience to which group, skeptic or creationist, the questioner belonged. All in all, it was a stimulating discussion. The meeting time had been extended to 10 pm. and still some of us were engaged in conversation and had to be chased out so the library could close. 2

-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 October, 1999 issue is September 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 next Chat N' Chew will be held on Thursday, September 23rd at the Ocean Palace Restaurant, 855 Central Ave, Albany, across from the Hannaford Plaza. Note the new night: Thursday, instead of Tuesday. The day has been moved to not conflict with the Albany Area Amature Astronomers meetings. Future Chat N' Chews will be held the third Thursday of each month.

Chat n' Chews are purely social events, with no formal program. If you enjoy the after meeting get together, 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. If you would like to to attend, please contact Peter Huston at 393-3478 or e-mail phuston@capital.net, or sign the Chat N' Chew sign-up sheet at any regular ISUNY meeting. (Signing up or notification is not necessary, but it does let the organizers contact you if, for some reason, a Chat N' Chew is cancelled or moved.)

Rebecca ``vs.'' The UFO Forum

My primary interest as a skeptic has always been alternative medicine, but when I first discovered the Skeptic movement I was much more interested in addressing other paranormal claims such as UFOs than I am now.

Atlanta has a group known as UFO Forum which a few years ago was holding monthly presentations by very big names on the UFO circuit, e.g. Stanton Friedman, Richard Hoagland, Bill Cooper, Ed Walters, Whitley Streiber, Stephen Greer, and the like. These talks were quite professionally done and would attract hundreds, and often even thousands, of audience members. The charge for admission was typically $15.00 per head, and they often had weekend- long seminars with these UFO luminaries for a charge of several hundred dollars. In short, the UFO Forum was doing quite well and unfortunately had much credibility with the Atlanta community. A key part of their success was a very clever, talented and charismatic individual named Mark who worked for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution.

As president of Georgia Skeptics, I began attending these talks regularly and also going to weekly informal meetings of the inner circle of the UFO Forum, called the ``Crazed Hedgehogs'' (named after one humorous explanation proposed for Crop Circles). I was totally open about who I was and what organization I headed, but I kept my opinions totally to myself. Truth is, I found I genuinely liked many of the people involved, and considered them creative, intelligent and caring although I felt they were misguided with respect to UFOs and associated conspiracies. Some of the participants were almost certainly seriously mentally disturbed, but most were actually reasonable individuals. Given what they had been told as true by others whom they trusted, I didn't consider these people to be stupid or ridiculous to believe there are extraterrestrials everywhere.

As time went by, the UFO believers became progressively more comfortable with me and I began to lose the stereotype of a rabid skeptic out to suppress ``the truth.'' I continued to keep my mouth shut on all things relevant to UFOs, and eventually various members of the UFO Forum began to approach me privately and ask me what I thought about various things. I'd tell them I didn't think they really wanted to know, and practically make them beg me for my thoughts. Then I'd tell them. They would always ask me not to tell their colleagues they had talked to me.

The major turning point came when Dr.Stephen Greer, who teaches believers how to use a choreographed waving of flashlights to lure alien spaceships, took a bunch of the UFO believers up on a mountain to lure UFOs. He would not allow me to go along, because he said that ``Aliens will not come if skeptics are present because they know skeptics carry shotguns.'' Because by this time many of the UFO believers liked me personally, this offended them. Also, it caused them to wonder what Greer had to hide by forbidding a skeptic to attend. So a couple of the UFO Forum members secretly told me where the ``secret rendezvous point'' was from which they would proceed to the ``UFO Staging Area.'' That way I could follow them in my car and watch the proceedings from a distance.

Greer took the group up to Black Rock Mountain (at $300.00 a head) and just before dusk had them go through their little light show to lure UFOs. Then he had them watch the sky for their results. Pretty soon they saw little specks of light moving north to south or east to west. Some of the dots occasionally appeared to zig zag in their course. Greer told the attendees they were UFOs. After it got dark, people saw no more ``spaceships.''

At the next meeting of the Crazed Hedgehogs, everyone was excited about the little lights they saw which were UFOs. At the meeting after that, the accounts of some of them had evolved into a closeup view of a spaceship. They could even see aliens moving around inside through the spaceship windows. By the third meeting, the spaceship had landed and there had been a Close Encounters style pow wow with a bunch of aliens. Not much later, there were claims that some UFO Forum members had left with the aliens never to be seen again.

This was too much for the saner members of the UFO Forum. This time they had been there themselves, and did not have to rely solely on the accounts of others. So they began having some serious cognitive dissonance. Beginning just after the Greer field trip, a few, including Mark, privately approached me and asked if perhaps the moving dots could have been satellites. I explained why one sees satellites right around dusk, what they look like, and gave him a copy of TracSat program so he wouldn't have to take my word for how many there are. With a flashlight dot on the wall, I demonstrated to him the phenomenon of autokinesis (small scanning movements of the eyeball)3, which causes dots like a star to appear to move when stared at. Soon a few others, unknown to each other, also approached me privately to ask the same thing.

Next thing I knew, UFO Forum members were showing up at Georgia Skeptics meetings. Our group is a very nice bunch, who totally welcomed these people even though they were still ``true believers.'' A few meetings later we had a talk on UFOs and were showing a UFO video put out by Billy Meier which was obviously a little model on a string. This same video had been shown at a Crazed Hedgehog meeting, but there everybody found it convincing. But away from those social pressures, the UFO Forum members easily saw it for what it was.

I remember Mark looking physically sick. He said he had been not only been ``had'' but also betrayed by the UFO community. Not only had he invested enormous time and money promoting belief in UFOs, he had made a huge emotional investment. He immediately dropped out of UFO Forum. Without his leadership, the Forum's talks quickly degenerated from big name UFO speakers to talks like ``I Saw a 150-foot Tall Invisible Bigfoot'' and ``Aliens have been stealing my embryos once a month since I was nine.'' (I kid you not!) The group joined the marginalized fringe, and eventually faded away.

Several former UFO Forum members have remained with the Georgia Skeptics to this day, and one of them is one of our best and most active investigators.

If you've read this far, I hope I didn't bore you. Bottom line, even true believers can sometimes be changed, and using honey's a fine alternative to vinegar.

-Rebecca Long

Rebecca Long is president of the Georgia Skeptics and the Georgia Council Against Health Fraud, Inc. She has long been active in critiques of Alternative Medicine, most recently in her soon to be published refinement of the JAMA Therapeutic Touch study, in which she demonstrated the effects of subtle cues including body heat on detection of the so called ``Human Energy Field.'' (Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, in Press.)

Editors Note

The following press release was forwarded to The Why-Files by special correspondent P. ``Gunner'' Bloo, who closely watches for unlicensed paranormal activity from his home base in a large midwestern state that begins with an ``I.'' It was clearly inspired by a recent opinion piece available at: http://www.csicop.org/articles/19990527-starwars/. Needless to say, this has caused some discussion, and at least one prominate skeptic determined from internal evidence that the original article is a hoax (see urlhttp://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny/star-wars.html).

However, there is a serious issue here. Many programs do cater to the paranormal; often in false documentary style. The popularity of these programs says something about the prevailing attitudes and beliefs of viewers, although what it says is a matter of debate even among social scientists. The editors invite the readers to send their opinions on the media, the paranormal and the goals of skepticism for the October Why-Files;

Muppets Teach Children Irrational Belief

Animal speech,

ticklish red monsters, and frog/pig mating habits spur formation of new skeptic group

From the office of the Committee for Scientific Investigations of Entertainment from Hollywood.

This is an essay about the late Puppet-Master Jim Henson and his minions, and the way he has pulled the strings of the public from behind the scenes. The modern mythology he created in films like ``The Muppet Movie,'' ``Muppet Treasure Island,'' and Muppets TV shows has been celebrated in the world media, but there is another side to the stories woven by America's foremost muppeteer. In short, the late Jim Henson created a legacy of entertainment that attacks reason and undermines appreciation for science and progress.

The case against Henson has its origins in the beginning of time, when man knew that animals could not talk. Nor could they walk around on two legs and interact as if human. When Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution, it became obvious that not only was it impossible for animals such as frogs and pigs to talk, but they could never, ever mate successfully.

But in the Romantic period, the idea that animals of vastly different species could mate took on a poetic validity that still rings true in the minds of many.

One of history's great ironies then is that although science created the medium, the dominant storytellers in film and television today champion the romantic, the animalistic, and the anti-scientific. Even today, we are plagued by twelfth century superstition and belief. According to polls, more than half of Americans think that frogs can talk if properly trained, a quarter believe in ticklish red monsters, half are convinced that frogs and pigs can procreate, and nearly a third believe that ``Pigs in Space'' was a Nova documentary feature.

Enter the late Jim Henson. He captivated a generation of Americans with the release of ``The Muppet Movie'' and he dominated the airwaves with Muppet TV shows aimed at our children. This summer, hordes will journey to view ``Muppets from Space,'' the production about which Joel Siegel said, ``My favorite space movie this summer!'' It is a sad, sad day when a rational space movie like, ``A Documentary of Solar Radiation'' is overshadowed by irrational pieces of cloth with hands up their backs.

Henson and his minions have grossed billions worldwide with billions more in merchandising sales. They have inspired nearly three decades of blockbuster extravaganza films that play on anti-Darwinian themes, along with television series, fan clubs, web sites, and plush toys that often speak as if possessed. Perhaps the worst example can be seen in the children's show, ``Sesame Street,'' which uses Muppets (including some from the movies) to poison the minds of impressionable youngsters who do not yet understand evolution.

Furthermore, ``Sesame Street'' features numerous ``monsters,'' such as Elmo, Grover, and Cookie, that act as a pre-modern pantheon offering a confusing look at good and evil. If a monster is good, is it really a monster? These creatures seem to pop into existence as if by magic, for the viewer is never shown from where they originate. Who are Elmo's parents? Why is he perpetually three years old? Why doesn't Cookie Monster become ill from eating so much junk food (some of which isn't even food)? Why is Oscar a grouch?

While Henson has passed away, his creations allow him to reach beyond the grave and promote irrational thoughts to adults and children alike. ``Muppets From Space,'' only shows how far his minions are willing to go. The plot is based upon the idea that Gonzo is a space alien. Where have we heard this before? In horrible movies like ``E.T.,'' for one. Now children will be force-fed belief in Gonzo the alien and they will be certain prey for the likes of John Mack, who will undoubtedly change his favored alien description from the standard ``Grey'' to a newer ``Gonzo'' form. We will soon have a society full of people who believe that Gonzo is a real being, not just a bunch of cloth being manipulated from behind the scenes. Who are the co-stars? A talking pig and frog who have an ongoing love affair and a drum-pounding creature just named ``Animal,'' whose evolutionary origins are shrouded in mystery. There are others who lurk in the background, almost subliminally affecting the way we think about animals and monsters. This is certainly a reference to animalistic shamanism and may encourage children to participate in primitive hunting rituals involving the throwing of darts at cave paintings.

In an era of unprecedented technological sophistication, younger generations risk growing up the most technologically proficient generation in history, but also the most scientifically illiterate. How many children will spend countless hours trying to mate a pig and a frog, only to be stymied by the realities of biology? Fed a steady diet of fantasy, false animal husbandry, and monster worship, it appears only a matter of time before science turns into magic for a population characterized by fundamental misunderstandings of reality.

-Brad Biscuit

Brad Biscuit is Public Relations Director for Entertainment Inquirer, The Magazine for Criticizing Fun. Entertainment Inquirer is published by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Entertainment from Hollywood, an international, non-profit educational organization of stereotypical boring cynics who wish Nova was the only show on TV.

Counterpoint to the Biscuit Man

Ha, ha, ha! That was a real cute takeoff on CSICOP's Council for Media Integrity (CMI). Sure, pick on poor, talented, deceased Jim Henson and the wonderful Muppets. Just keep in mind, folks, that there's a reason for trying to get people to reason. I like a good laugh as much as the next skeptic (yes, I do!), BUT as a Nova fan and Discovery channel viewer, I feel the need to defend the CMI. Too few are watching these and too many are unquestioning about the garbage that dominates the airwaves, print media, etc. So let's make sure we keep this in mind as we're chucking away at silly satire.

-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.

Future ISUNY Meetings

Economics: The Dismal Science

October 6, 1999. Professor Tim Koechlin of Skidmore College will discuss ``Economics: The Dismal Science.'' The social sciences have unique data problems not found in the physical sciences. This has not stopped those trained in the physical sciences from trying their hand at social science. The results, predictably, are mixed. Dr. Koechlin will discuss why science in economics is not like science in physics or biology.

Believed in Imaginings

November 3rd, 1999. Professor Joe DeRivera or Clark University, editor with Theodore Sarbin of Believing in Imaginings: The Narrative Construction of Reality (APA, 1998) will discuss the close association of tales of UFO abductions and recovered memory.

For next year the ISUNY board is organizing talks on: Chaos Theory, Dream interpretation and projective methods, How to lead and mislead with statistics, and Cultural anthropology. If you have an idea for a meeting topic, or a speaker suggestion, please share it with one of the ISUNY officers at any of our regular meetings.

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.

Peter Huston, past president of ISUNY, is seeking volunteers to help person the hospitality suite. This is good publicity for ISUNY among people interested in science fiction. Participants will receive a free, and complementary ISUNY ``Just say Know'' button. For more information on how you may help, contact Peter at (518) 393-3478, or email puston@capital.net.

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

Thank You

Thank you to Rebecca Long, Dorothy Sager, and P. ``Gunner'' Bloo 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. Any remaining errors result from my office not being Feng Shui 2k compliant.

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 Dr. Whisenhunt's notes are on-line at http://www.rpi.edu/~sofkam/isuny/creationism.html.

2 The recent action by the Kansas state school board removing evolution from the required curriculum shows how pertinent this topic was.

3 See the March, April and May Why-Files for more about the autokinetic effect.