The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York


Volume 5, Issue 9 October, 1999

 
 
 

November Meeting

Claims of UFO Abductions and Recovered Memory

Is it possible for people to believe in something they only imagined? What are we to make of those who claim to have been abducted by aliens, to have multiple personalities, or to have recovered long-lost memories of childhood abuse?

Join us November 3rd when professor Joe deRivera of Clark University will discuss the role of memory and imagination in constructing reality. Professor deRivera is co-editor with Theodore Sarbin of Believing in Imaginings: The Narrative Construction of Reality (APA, 1998), a collection of articles about the development of beliefs and imagination.

This month's meeting is being held November 3rd 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.

Remember, there will be no ISUNY meetings in December or January. Our next regularly scheduled meeting is February 2, 2000 when the program will be a video about the Cardiff Giant.

October Meeting

Our October meeting was Skidmore College professor of economics Tim Koechlin. Professor Koechlin discussion was entitled ``The Dismal Science, and the Problems of Social Science Research.'' He started with a review of E.O. Wilson's book Concilience, which presents the case for more cross-discipline collaboration in science, and particularly a more scientific attitude among social scientists.

Wilson characterized social scientists as a set of disjointed fiefdoms in which personal opinion and politics were more important than science. Professor Koechlin admits that value-based arguments take place in economics---his own discipline, but he did not share Wilson's belief that adopting the model of physics and biology would solve the problems.

Among the unique problems of social science research is a paucity of good data. Data can be collected about a lot of things, but how applicable is that data for making predictions. In economics, data about international trade, Professor Koechlin's specialty, is often self-reported by countries and multinationals who have good reasons to cook the numbers. In addition, even if data collected in, say, the 1960s is trustworthy, we have to ask how applicable it is to the 1990s when international rules of trade, and national economic policies have changed so much.

The problems do not end with the data, however, and many social theories are intrinsically value-laden. Professor Koechlin doesn't think this is necessarily bad, but it must be considered when listening to, for example, the recommendations of economists. He used the example of Karl Marx and Milton Friedman visiting a sweatshop. They would likely agree on the wages being paid, the profitability of the company, the future market for the goods, the long-term prospects for the workers, and so on. But, where Marx would see exploitation of the working class, Friedman would see a free exchange of goods for services and economic opportunity.

Much of the questioning centered around issues of the free market, proposed increases in minimal wage, the effects of regulations on economic growth, and forgiving third-world debt. When talking about trade and third-world debt, Professor Koechlin noted that many of the arguments we hear are couched in value terms such as ``countries must learn they cannot borrow money that they cannot pay back.'' Professor Koechlin agrees that that sounds good in principal, but wonders just what it means for a ``country'' to ``learn,'' and how the average citizen of, for example, Mexico could have in any way affected the growth of Mexico's debt.

In all the twenty attendees enjoyed themselves, and engaged, as always, in a lively discussion. Professor Koechlin expressed support for ``rationality'' (whatever that means) and we hope to see him at future meetings.

-Michael Sofka

Farewell to The Whyfiles---At least for a while

With this issue The Why-Files ends a little over five years of nearly continuous publications. At the October ISUNY board meeting, the board voted to suspend publication temporarily until the treasury could support the publication, and a new volunteer production staff can be found. Why-Files photocopy and mailing are ISUNY's biggest expense, and the funds have barely been adequate to cover costs. In addition, the newsletter staff has expressed a desire to step down and concentrate on other work. Over the years many people have contributed to The Why-Files, and we thank each and every one of them. Back issues will remain available on the ISUNY web site.

Program Notification for Members

As a member, you can still receive personal notice of the meetings. Programs are also publicized in local newspapers. We will now begin sending email notices of our meetings to those for whom we have email addresses; all others will get postcard notices. If you would like to opt in or out of email notice please send a posting with your preference to ISUNY@worldnet.att.net. Of course, it will help the treasury for as many members as possible to be notified by email.

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 meeting announcements 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 Tuesday, November 16th. Chat n' Chews are purely social events, with no formal program. If you used to 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. If you would like 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. (The Chat-n-Chews are very informal so, paradoxically, signing up or other notification is necessary in case, for some reason, a Chat N' Chew is cancelled or moved.)

The 1999 Ig Nobel Prize Recipients

The 1999 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded at a gala ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theatre on the night of September 30. Here are the new winners:

For more details, see the Archives of Improbable Research's web site http://www.improbable.com/.

-Editors, mini-AIR

The Ig Nobel summary is reprinted with permission from mini-AIR---a tiny electronic supplement to the magazine, AIR. To subscribe to mini-AIR, send a brief email message to: listproc@air.harvard.edu. The body of your message should contain only the words subscribe mini-air Marie Curie (You may substitute your own name for that of Madame Curie).

Ask The Psychic

Dear psychic guy,

I have been working on a corporate capabilities statement for my company. It seems that the statement looks great and has no typos until I take it to Kinkos to have it printed and bound (Velo binding with a clear cover) Even then I look through the proof and can spot no mistakes, but as soon as the project is complete, printed, bound and paid for I find typos like mad....

I have hired three different editors to work on this project with me. Each has said that they believe the errors occured between the time I paid the bill (several hundred dollars each time) and the moment I get into my office and review the report with a coworker. So what do you think? Am I going nuts? or is there some malicious Kinkos psychic force at work here?

P.S. I have heard rumors that there is a photograph of a guy levitating to very high altitudes. (5000 feet plus) I even wrote a Freedom Of Information Act request to the CIA reqquesting information (you need to spell requesting with two qs like that or they won't respond) on this project. (I'm told that the guy works for a CIA contractor) The CIA returned a letter to me saying that there were no records found, which confirmed what my source said, which was that this project is so top secret that no one within the CIA is actually aware of what is going on so they will deny the existence of the program. Ha! More evidence! the signs are so clear around us I don't understand why more people can't accept the obvious influences all powerful psychics like you have in our lives.

Ever notice the Braille writing on the drive through ATM machines? Why would they have Braille on the drive through if there weren't blind people driving? It's because so many blind people are psychic that they forget that they are blind and nobody else notices either. Because they're psychic so they use their psychic ability to ``see'' just like a normal person... except you know they can't read the menus in ATM machines because the EMF interferes with their PMF as you have so astutely pointed out... and then they read the Braille with their finger tips but even that is such a reflex that neither they nor us notice it. I am conducting a very scientific study into this phenomenon and have determined that as much as 89% of the film critics are not only blind but possibly deaf as well, and that they are ``sensing'' the movies that they see instead of actually watching them like the rest of us. This, I believe would account for the massive differences in film reviews.... Oh, the nurse is coming with my medication. I have to go now....

-Erni Popolofski, Walla Walla, Washington

Mr. Popolofski, it is always nice to hear from a fan, and I'm glad the new medication is working.

-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.

Fantasy for Skeptics

Fantasy and Skepticism are not the sorts of concepts we would naturally associate with each other, though it could be argued that all of us exercise our ability to fantasize in order to inject a little colour into the monochrome tones of the quotidian round. It might even be suggested that, while we all have fantasies, it is the ability to discriminate between fantasy and reality that ultimately distinguishes the Skeptic from the True Believer.

Even the editors of Skeptical magazines are not immune to the temptations of fantasy, although mine tend along the lines of coming in at the fall of the seventh wicket and saving the test match with an unbeaten double century, with the subsequent adulation of tall, willowy, English women. That may be evidence of the persistence of juvenility well into the age of senility, nonetheless I have always managed to resist the increasing popularity of literary fantasy. While I enjoy a good science fiction yarn, the science must be plausible. Not for me the interminable works based on Celtic or Norse mythology, incapable of being contained in less than a trilogy (and often in trilogies of five or more volumes) that infest the SF shelves of modern bookshops. I may, in fact, be the only person alive who has never got past the first fifty pages of Lord of the Rings, finding it to be an insufferably boring work.

But recently my life has changed, and, I think, for the better. On a web discussion list to which I subscribe, one of the other Australian subscribers usually ended his postings with a witty and apposite signature. Tracking him down I found him to be one, Glenn Brady, hailing from the environs of Geelong. Glenn and I struck up a cyber-correspondence, and after we marvelled at the astonishing coincidence that the character Greg Brady in the 70s high-culture TV series, The Brady Bunch , was played by an actor named Barry Williams, I convinced Glenn to become a subscriber to The Skeptic, while he insisted that I should at least sample the literary works that gave rise to his sigs. I resisted, persisting in my opinion that fantasy novels falls somewhere between creation 'science' and ufology as the sort of drivel the world would be better off without.

I am now confessing, Dear Reader, that I was wrong. What Glenn has succeeded in doing is to introduce me to the books of British author Terry Pratchett, and his amazing invention, the Discworld. And what an invention it is. Discworld, as the name implies, is a disc shaped world resting on the backs of four enormous elephants, standing, in their turn, on the back of a giant turtle, slowly swimming through the reaches of space. As is de rigueur in fantasies, Discworld is a place where magic holds sway, but this is a very special sort of magic. It is magic that has close counterparts in the science of our own world (Globeworld?) and the denizens of Discworld are prey to all the fallibilities of modern Earthian folk.

The novels have a varying cast of intermingling, and instantly recognisable, characters. Academe is represented by the faculty of wizards at Unseen University, whose main preoccupation seems to be bickering, when they are not indulging in banquets. The exceptions are the group of younger, nerdish wizards in the School of High Energy Magic, who have developed a computer-like device run by ants. They are also working on a scheme for controlling electricity, based on a large number of cats being strapped to a very big wheel and rotated past amber rods.

There is the coven of witches, as pragmatic a bunch of hard-nosed old biddies as is ever likely to be found in fiction of any kind. Rather than spells, they look at human responses to situations, which they refer to as ``headology.'' They are particularly hard on one of their number who seems to want to become involved in herbs and new agey notions about the world.

Then there is the City Watch of the great city of Ankh-Morpork, whose motto inscribed above the door reads Fabricatti Diem Pvnc. Death, the old Grim Reaper himself, stars in several of the books. Appropriately skeletal, and scythe equipped, Death seems to be undergoing a permanent identity crisis, and frequently takes time off to ``find himself.'' He always speaks in Small Capitals, and rides a great white stallion with the appropriate name of Binky. Trolls and dwarves abound, as do zombies, werewolves, vampires and other characters of fantasy, and all with very human foibles. Among the wizards is Rincewind, who failed all his exams, but is the one who is fated to save the world, albeit inadvertently, many times, and usually while running away from something. And Cohen the Barbarian, another staple of heroic fantasy, far advanced in senility and a martyr to crippling arthritis, but still winning through.

Pratchett satirises popular and high culture (the film and music industries), organised religion, nationalism, academia, politics, and everything else that presents a tempting target, and he does it with unfailing good humour and an immaculately sceptical common sense.

Perhaps the latest in the series will have a special resonance for readers of The Skeptic. Titled The Last Continent, Pratchett says in the introduction, ``[This] is not a book about Australia. It's just vaguely australian.'' Indeed it is, as Rincewind, lost in a vast red desert (it never rains), wonders how to cook his few remaining vegetables---he has no water, but he does have a few cans of beer (the local town is named Didjabringabeeralong). He reckons that as beer contains yeast, which is food, he can boil up his veggies in the beer, add salt for taste and have nourishing soup. He falls asleep and awakes to find his tinny contains a dark brown, sticky concoction, which, though unpalatable, is strangely addictive. He makes this discovery shortly before stumbling across a billabong, under the shade of an unnamed tree, where he is apprehended by a land owner and three law enforcement minions, while he is releasing a stolen sheep from a tucker bag. No worries.

In the same book, the senior wizards are transported back into the far past, where they make the acquaintance of the creator god, busily at work inventing evolution. That he hasn't got it quite right yet becomes apparent when they are charged by a large Tyrannosaur, which manages to evolve into a chicken before it reaches them. They have it for dinner.

Perhaps it would be useful to finish with a quote from Terry Pratchett's introduction to The Discworld Companion, a handy reference to all the characters and locations of the eponymous world:

``But reality is a bit untrustworthy at the best of times. There are plenty of people who believe that Elvis is alive, or that aliens occasionally land here to do highly personal things to people, or that the whole idea of evolution is a conspiracy of godless scientists. Almost all of these people can vote and some of them have got guns. When you look at it like that, the Discworld seems positively harmless.''

It could be a creed for Australian Skeptics. Wonderful stuff, very enjoyable reading for Skeptics (or anyone else who appreciates excellent comic writing). There are 22 books in the series and I am delighted to say that my daughter owns the lot.

-Barry Williams

Barry is editor of The Skeptic, the newsletter of the Australian Skeptics. This article was reprinted from The Skeptic with the permission of the author.

Sorry Sam

If you get the HISTORY channel you may have heard Sam Waterston pose a question like the following: Who was our country's first President? His answer: John Hansen of Maryland, or was it Henry Laurens of South Carolina? I have forgotten. In any case, I don't accept either.

John Hansen was the first President of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. His status is promoted on the web at www.marshallhall.org/hanson.html. Well, what about Payton Randolf of Virginia, the first President of the First Continental Congress, who was elected September 5, 1774. Arguably this doesn't count since it preceded the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), which established the United States. They call it our country's birthday, don't they? Then, what about John Hancock of Massachusetts, President of the Continental Congress at the time the Declaration of Independence was signed? His signature is the most prominent at the bottom of the Declaration. Or do,we need to consider Henry Laurens, the first President of the Continental Congress elected after the Declaration of Independence?

Well consider this, the Articles of Confederation provide for a Presiding Officer a.k.a. a President. Does that make him the President of our country? I think not! Presiding over the Constitutional Convention was a lot different from being the chief executive of our country, which is the role we have for our President under the Constitution. The Constitution, of course, is the replacement for the Articles of Confederation. The Constitution of The United States provides for a President of the United States AND for a President of the Senate, (who is also the Vice President). Does that mean Al Gore is also a President of the United States? I bet President Gore (i.e. President of the Senate) does not think so.

George Washington is the First President of The United States just like you learned in school. Any other choice is a word game.

-Carl Sager

Future ISUNY Meetings

The Cardiff Giant

February 2nd, 2000. One of the 19th Centuries greatest Hoaxes, the Cardiff Giant is a upstate NY icon, now housed at the Farmer's Museum, Cooperstown, NY.

Reminder: There will be no meetings in December or January because of concerns about bad weather and potential conflicts.

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 Product liability laws. 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 (exceptions: December, January, July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will always be available. Please check our web site 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. The November 16th meeting will be ISUNY President Michael Sofka's talk ``Watch the Skies: Perceptual Illusion in UFO Observations.'' 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.

The NY Center for Studies on the Origins of Life is hosting a series of seminars featuring local and out of town researchers. More information can be found on their web page at http://www.rpi.edu/dept/phys/Astro/origin.html. All seminars are free and open to the public.

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. A book list will be available to members at meetings or by sending an SASE to the Secretary. If you would like to borrow a book, newsletter or tape, see our librarian 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 David Quinne, Dorothy Sager, Carl Sager, Barry Williams, and Michael Sofka 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. All remaining errors will be covered up and denied.

ISUNY thanks all of its members for their support. We would especially like to thank our Patron members: Tom Benton, 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. 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.