The WHY-Files

The Official Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York

Volume 2, Issue 7

September Meeting.

Is There Life On Mars?

The August 6th NASA press release and the article in Science has raised public and scientific interest in the possibility of past life on Mars. However, as one friend put it, ``If I was watching Dr. Who and the plot was `they are in Antarctica and found a meteor from Mars with signs of life on it' I would think they got the science wrong.''

How do we know that ALH84001 is a meteor and what is the evidence that it came from Mars? How good or bad is the evidence of life in ALH84001? And, since we are a skeptics group, what if anything does this say about Hogland's claims of pyramids and cities on Mars, or the claims of extraterrestrial life made by proponents of UFOs?

Join us on September 4th, 1996 when our panel will discuss these and other questions raised by the NASA findings.

The presentations will be followed by a Question and Answer period.

Sixth First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony.

The sixth first annual Ig Noble Prize ceremony is being held Thursday evening, October 3, 1996 in Sanders Theater, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. For those not familiar with the Ig Nobels, they are offered each year by the editors of the Archives of Improbable Research in honor of Ig, Alfred's lesser known brother. Tickets are $10 and go on sale in mid-August.

If there are from 4-12 members of ISUNY going to the Ig Nobels, we can apply to be an Official Delegation. Official Delegation tickets are selected from a separate lottery that ``almost always gets them tickets.'' As an official delegation we would be introduced at the parade of delegates at the start of the ceremony (delegations are responsible for their own costumes, masks, candelabra, placards, etc.). Applications for official delegation status must be received by September 20th. If you are interested in attending contact Mike Sofka at 437-1547 or Information about the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony will be posted at and available automatically from

-The Editor

Local Meetings.

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers meet the third Tuesday of each month at the Schenectady Museum. The September 17th speaker is Elizabeth Waterhouse, recipient of the Dudley Observatory's Hessberg award. She will talk about astronomy opportunities for young people. Meetings begin at 7:30 pm. For more information contact Alan French at 374-8460.

The local chapter of MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) meets the third Thursday of each month at the Albany Public library, Washington Avenue. Meetings begin at 7:00 pm. For more information contact Ray Cecot at 785-6725.

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. Articles and letters can be emailed to the editor at, 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, 1996 issue is September 21st, 1996.

Membership Renewals.

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on the upper right-hand corner of 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 you are late and may be dropped from the mailing list. If you enjoy The Why-Files and speakers, please renew now. If you have renewed, and the date is incorrect my apologies, we are sometimes a little out of date on the mailing list. Please bring the error to our attention.

Center for Inquiry's Library.

CSICOP has been trying to have available, both to its staff and to anyone else who wishes to use it, the finest library of skeptical materials on the paranormal in the world. We have been gathering material for this collection as a part of the Center for Inquiry's library, under the direction of Dr. Gordon Stein. He has been combing the used bookstores of the country for appropriate material. We would also like to appeal to you. We need your generous help in filling the runs of journals and books that we have been unable to find. Anything (either pro or con, including paperbacks, but no science fiction or other types of fiction) would be welcomed as a donation. We would be glad to give you a valuation for income tax purposes. CSICOP is a 501 (C)-3 charitable organization. If you have material that you would like to donate, please write Dr. Stein at the Center for Inquiry, 3965 Rensch Road, Amherst, NY 14228, briefly describing what you would like to donate. Thanks for your help.

False Memory On-Line.

The Victims of Memory Home Page is up and running, though I'm not sure I have managed to get it indexed very successfully in search engines such as Yahoo and Altavista. At any rate, it is at

Please check it out and give me your feedback. It contains the first few pages of each chapter, review excerpts, and hot buttons to sites on both sides of the recovered memory debate.

-Mark Pendergrast

Visit From Joe Nickell, Reply and Followup.

As you may recall our April speaker was Joe Nickell, author and senior research fellow with the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Dr. Nickell is a popular speaker, and ISUNY went to great lengths to publicize him via the local media, and with a mass-mailing to Skeptical Inquirer subscribers in the greater capital region. Judging by the turn out, our efforts were successful. About 50 people came to hear Joe speak. About 1/3 of these were new people, most of whom came in response to a newspaper article about Joe Nickell which appeared in the Schenectady Gazette.

Joe Nickell's talk was entertaining, and informative. He worked hard both to come to Albany for the talk, and while at Albany where he appeared on WRPI radio and attended two book signings. In addition, he came during the week gratis CSICOP, who allowed him to take time off from work. For this, to Joe Nickell and to CSICOP, we at ISUNY are very grateful.

Several members of ISUNY, however, expressed concern about the impression of ISUNY and skepticism Joe Nickell may have left with the audience---especially the newcomers. In the June Why-Files Bob Mulford, our treasure and a founding member of ISUNY, wrote a review of Joe Nickell's talk. After first discussing Dr. Nickell's credentials, and describing the talk and the range of topics covered, Bob said:

It is this last aspect of Dr. Nickell's presentation that made me uncomfortable. Much of the humor came at the expense of those who reported the phenomena he investigated and explained. Perhaps he felt he was speaking with people who agreed with his basic approach that one should look for the simple (rational) explanation before invoking paranormal forces. Never-the-less, it is certainly a mistake to assume that all clever people necessarily agree with one's own personal beliefs. Furthermore, at one time or another I'm sure we have all listened uncritically to stories that we wished might be true. I doubt that this is at all related to our true thinking and reasoning abilities. Unfortunately, a few ill-directed barbs of humor can easily inhibit debate and stifle claims of openness.

This criticism was not well received by Joe Nickell as the following letter to the editor makes clear:

To the Editor:

I drove a long way and worked my heart out to give my best performance to ISUNY.

Being a skeptical investigator is at best a thankless job, and Robert Mulford's letter is an example of just how thankless it is.

I hope others who were in attendance will let me know whether or not he speaks for them.


-Joe Nickell

For this issue I've honorred Joe's request and asked members of ISUNY to send their own comments. I've also asked members of the Internet community who read The Why-Files online to write about the motives, methods and beliefs of skeptics. The resulting articles are printed in this issue. Finally, I'm extending an invitation to any of The Why-Files readership to respond to this or any other issue raised in its pages. It is my own view that quality of the debate matters as much or more then the views expressed. As a popular TV program reminds us, The truth is out there. Where we may disagree is in how best to find it.

-The Editor

In Praise Of Bias

For the last few years, I've been running a skeptics' group on the Internet---about 400 subscribers to my SKEPTIC electronic mailing list. One thing stands out: we are an opinionated lot. We don't, usually, just treat UFO abduction scenarios as unproven. Most of us actively disbelieve this is happening. Indeed, we believe we have good reasons to think all of this is nonsense, and we actively behave as if it were nonsense. If we were to leave our armchairs and investigate a claim of fairies, we would begin with a bias. It's a preposterous idea, just like the Cottingley fairies were, and we expect to find some hoax or cognitive mistake at the bottom of the case.

Our rhetoric is different. We proclaim ourselves dispassionate, objective, desiring only to let the evidence speak for itself. Never do we approach fairies with prior judgments; we merely demand to be shown sufficient evidence to believe in an extraordinary claim. Some of us glorify the suspended judgment, sitting on logical fences and preaching about proving negatives. Some so believe we become tainted by opinions as to indulge in sanctimonious Popperian drivel about only disproving claims.

I don't know why skeptics' philosophy of science seems stuck in 50-year-old mistakes. Perhaps armchair skepticism is easier if we can pretend the gods hath decreed the burden of proof is on the other person. But when prodded to move, we show our opinions. If creationists are taking over the local school board, we demand the evidence for evolution be taught. We don't sit back and lob ``unprovens'' at creationist claims. When a relative is taken in by a quack therapy, we look for ways to effectively demonstrate it to be crap; we don't make a big show of suspended judgment and intone ``not shown to work'' in an official voice.

The myth of the inquirer with no prior opinions is powerful, so it may seem I say something terrible about skeptics when I suggest we are biased. We are touched by cognitive sin, even just (gasp!) another interest group in a world of relative truths. On the contrary: I believe our opinionated actions are wiser than our fence-sitting words. We have learned a good deal about our world, and ghosts, auras, UFO abductions etc. don't fit the picture we have built up. Of course we expect such claims to be false. This does not mean we are closed-minded or inflexible (though sometimes we are); just that we believe we have good reasons behind our opinions. We haven't made an exhaustive survey of pigs, but we are justified in saying pigs don't fly.

Prior opinions need not be ``bias'' in the sense of distorting our investigations. Joe Nickell's mind is not a blank slate when he sets out to investigate the latest ghost story. Phil Klass has seen many UFO hoaxes and mistakes; he's just being reasonable to expect yet more of the same when looking into the next flap. They are also damn good investigators, as far as I can tell---perhaps even because of their biases.

So I think we should admit that we are an opinionated lot, often out to get paranormal claims. Opinions and prior theories are crucial in learning about the world---we cannot just sit and soak up suspended judgments. Perhaps sometimes we go too far and be personally nasty towards paranormal believers, perhaps we sometimes are biased in the sense of blindness to new phenomena. But we do not guard against these dangers by preaching a cult of impartiality. The skeptics I know best, aside from a distrust of paranormal ideas, have a passion for argument in common. We are biased against creationism, UFOlogy, psychical research and so forth, but we do our damnedest to learn about the arguments floating out there about the issue, so we make sure we have good reasons for our judgments. We even change our minds, since our prior opinions are starting points, not articles of faith. I think we skeptics are basically OK. Not perfect, but OK. We'd be even better if we would admit our prior opinions, and see that we need not apologize for them.

-Taner Edis (

Taner is moderator of the Internet skeptic discussion list ( His home page is

What Attracted Us To ISUNY.

To begin with, we knew nothing about a local skeptics group; although we had read articles from the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic magazines. Two years ago we had a phone call from Peter Huston, VP of ISUNY. who was doing research and writing articles on False Memory Syndrome, along with other social issues.

We shared information with him and Mike Sofka, Pres. Then had Mike come to speak at the local FMSF (False Memory Syndrome Foundation) group. Later Peter spoke to the FMSF group on two occasions, reporting on conferences he had attended such as VOCAL in Buffalo, and a professional program for continuing education for psychologists in Philadelphia ``Appropriate Standards of Care in Working with Client Memory.'' We, in turn, assisted Peter and Mike in getting our friend, Mark Pendergrast, author of Victims of Memory to speak at the December meeting of ISUNY.

Once we started attending the ISUNY meetings, we were ``hooked'' on this intergenerational group. We have enjoyed our connection with ISUNY not only for the stimulating programs offered, but the fellowship and opportunities to discuss amicably the many different points of view. The after-meeting gathering at Denny's is a real ``plus,'' when we can further discuss the evening program and let our hair down.

Most impressive of the varied programs offered have been the slide presentation of the universe by astronomers, Alan and Susan French and Bob Mulford, as we contemplated ``Big Bang Theory,'' as well as the origins of astrology.

Intriguing studies in addition to cosmology, astronomy, included anthropology, sociology, psychology, physics, medicine. Dr. Richard Lange's program on pseudoscience and medicine made us more aware of health frauds. Dr. Carla Sofka's program on ``Cultural Reincarnation'' (a phenomenon whereby celebrities such as Elvis are kept alive) was a humorous sideline to her otherwise serious work on death, dying, and bereavement. Other topics on the paranormal and fringe science covered UFOs, haunted houses and crop circles.

We have met several authors at the programs such as David Hess and Joe Nickell. Joe has dedicated his life to exposing New Age (his expression ``Newage'' rhymes with sewage.) fallacies, and overcoming superstitions. Joe did not appear as charitable to those who had been duped by various scams, or harbored eccentricities, as did Patrick Kurp, a reporter from the Schenectady Gazette. When Patrick spoke to our group about interviewing local people in a ``haunted house,'' he was respectful of their beliefs and understood their discomfort, because the experience was very ``real'' to them. Yet Patrick Kurp still managed to explain that the house was not really haunted.

It was most interesting to escort our speakers Mark Pendergrast and Joe Nickell to book signings, when they lectured here. It not only sold books, but brought public awareness to the issues, and attracted some new members to the group. It was also fun to hear Peter Huston interview Joe Nickell on the RPI radio call in talk show---for two hours! This audio is available from the ISUNY lending library. Call Lewis Treadway at 456-3629 is you wish to borrow it, or some other audio, video and reading materials.

We look forward to the monthly newsletters, which we share with our acquaintances. The write-ups at the meetings are very helpful especially if we missed a program. A special thank you to editor Mike Sofka, Peter Huston, Alan French, and others who put the paper together. The paper is also an opportunity for others to write and share their opinion. Newsletters are not only informative, but humorous and thought-provoking.

Many friendships have developed beyond the group, as members share information and assist one another in their various projects. whether it be writing, research, or coping with events in their lives. It has been gratifying to Ralph and me, as retirees, to be so well accepted by the younger generation that participate in the group. We have met so many people we might never have had a chance to get acquainted with. It has been a pleasure to be involved in these programs as well as search for the truth and meaning in life.

-Elaine and Ralph

The Elaine and Ralph are local contact and coordinators for upstate New York families and professionals affiliated with the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

The UFO Skeptic.

I have been interested in UFOs since I was young and started reading about them in the later part of elementary school. Although many people seem to find adequate evidence to support the view that UFOs are alien spacecraft I increasingly wondered why people would believe this. Sometime in college I pretty much lost interest. Years later I developed a renewed but very skeptical interest in the various fringe beliefs that people have. This led me to join CSICOP and to read Skeptical Inquirer. In April, 1994, Susan and I accompanied Carla and Mike Sofka to Flying Saucers are Real, a talk by Stanton Friedman at RPI.

I was really looking forward to hearing Stanton Friedman, and expected that one of the most prominent proponents of the idea that UFOs are alien spacecraft would provide a good argument to support his position. I was very disappointed in this regard, but there was another aspect of his talk that disturbed me. He engaged in a great deal of name calling, continually referring to skeptics as noisy negativists, negative nay-sayers, or debunkers. He also made fun of Carl Sagan, astronomers, engineers, and scientists in general. To make matters worse he said that since skeptics did not have any facts, they frequently resorted to name calling. The name calling made me feel very unwelcome and less inclined to take his talk seriously.

I very much enjoyed Joe Nickell's talk at the May meeting. He is a skilled and interesting speaker, and I especially enjoyed the material about spontaneous human combustion. Several times during his talk Joe Nickell poked fun at people who believe the things we are so skeptical of, and although I found some of his comments amusing, they did make me think of my experience in listening to Stanton Friedman. I wondered how these comments would be perceived by anyone lacking my skeptical viewpoint. Personally, I find the idea that we should be ``politically correct'' and that we must always avoid saying something that might offend someone annoying. However, selling the skeptical view to people who believe in strange claims seems to be very difficult, and anything that makes the sale harder should be avoided.

-Alan French

Alan is our UFO correspondent and an active amateur astronomer. Questions to the UFO skeptic can be sent to, or care of the editor.

Why A Skeptics Group?

ISUNY has sponsored many talks, on a variety of topics we hope are interesting to our members. Once we invite speakers, they have the floor and a polite forum in which to express their view. This is no guarantee, however, that the audience will agree with everything, or even anything, the speaker says. Indeed, there are some regular members who disagree with almost everything a skeptical speaker may say. They come regardless, to learn and debate, to be informed, and because they like the company.

It is in this spirit of inquiry that Bob Mulford wrote his criticism of Joe Nickell's talk. I expected Dr. Nickell might respond. The issue of how to treat believers had come up in the question and answer section of his talk, and in discussions before and during the WRPI interview. I admit, however, I am somewhat taken back by the letter he did send.

To be fair to Dr. Nickell, being a skeptical investigator often is a thankless task. Anyone who receives phone calls or email from UFO observers knows that they usually do not want to hear a prosaic explanation. They want confirmation they saw a UFO, and can be very rude when you disagree.

No doubt, being criticized by a skeptic stings a bit more. Still, I find myself agreeing with Bob. Keeping a skeptics group going is no easy task, and the view of skeptics as closed minded nay-sayers is reenforced each time a prominent skeptic refers to the ``newage, rhymes with sewage'' or says of believers that they are uneducated or stupid.

The simple fact is that ``believers'' are frequently intelligent and well educated, and have often thought through their beliefs more carefully then the average skeptic. In addition, not all of the claims investigated by skeptics are easily dismissed. Frequently the difference is in the kinds of evidence a skeptic or believer are willing to accept. If we are to promote science, it is part of our job as skeptics to convey a better understanding of why we accept some methods of inquiry over others.

From the beginning ISUNY decided that there would be little point in ``preaching to the choir,'' and we take some effort to bring in members who are not quite so sure there's nothing to the paranormal.1 It is our hope that by presenting the evidence in the spirit of open debate we can promote science as a useful tool for evaluating claims.

How successful are we in this goal? By show of hands, about eight or ten people who attended Joe Nickell's talk came after reading a local news article about him. These are people who are curious about the paranormal. They read an article about a talk by a skeptic, a person who says `I don't believe there is anything to these claims.' They came to hear what he has to say, with, one would presume, something of an open mind. Not one of them left their name on our mailing list, and those few who asked questions were clearly hesitant to do so. I think we skeptics have to work a little harder at selling our message to a wider audience.

-Mike Sofka

Mike Sofka is a systems programmer at RPI, and president of ISUNY. He can be reached at

Ask The Skeptic.

In order to be a ``skeptic'' you must believe that the truth has a value in itself that makes it worth seeking, and that science, with all its faults, is a quest to separate such truth from falsehood. As a published skeptic, my goal is to enable the general public to see the world more clearly and equip themselves with the mental tools to better assess reality for themselves. Like any large scale goal, this may not always be the best thing in all cases, but overall, I feel its beneficial.

In fact, to me, in many ways, skepticism is a personal charity, a cause which I devote time to with the hopes that I can improve the world. I'll admit, it may not be the most important cause in the world, but on the other hand, it seems to be one where I may make a contribution on the national level without too much effort. One of the things that keeps me going is the knowledge that by writing for the Skeptical Inquirer, I get to see my name in print next to that of Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and other prominent and well respected people. And, if I were to deny that that's a thrill, I'd be lying.

As a writer, a public communicator of sorts, there are guidelines that should be followed. (Unlike academics, free-lance writers don't get a captive audience. We must beg and fawn for attention.) If people are polite enough to listen to you or spend money to read your books, you should leave them with a positive experience whenever possible. There are several ways to do this. In my upcoming book, Scams from the Great Beyond (Paladin Press, January 1997), my first skeptics-book, what I attempt to do is use humor and strange and little known facts in order to produce this positive feeling. My belief in writing the book is that the sort of people who like to know about unusual claims will probably like to know how such things can be hoaxed. Furthermore, it is my hope that through this approach, the book will appeal to those anti- establishment, curious people who would otherwise be most attracted to fringe claims. Although I've described it as ``the meanest, nastiest skeptic-book ever written,'' it is also one of the few skeptics books, aimed at non-skeptics.

I want to show readers just what an entertaining, bizarre, illogical, frightening and dangerous thing fringe beliefs can be. Although the book uses shock value for effect, my belief is that through this means, it can reach an audience who find mainstream skeptics works to be dull and uninteresting. Although its an extreme tone, its a consistent tone, and readers can see through it. Furthermore, the people it attacks are not the intended audience for the work. (an important point!) I look forward to seeing the reaction to the work by mainstream skeptics. Its a blunt, in-your-face book, and should provide a welcome change of pace from the usual snide and cranky tone normally seen in this field.

But why does it have to be negative to be a skeptic? The history of occult and paranormal beliefs is fascinating in itself. As I know of no conclusive evidence that such beliefs are true, its essentially the history of just how far removed from reality people can become either as a society or as individuals. To simply dismiss Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, the group which introduced most New Age ideas to the west, as a ``fantasy prone personality'' is simply dismissive and shallow minded. Worse, it discourages further interest in the subject. Instead, its much more interesting to present her as one of the most fascinating charlatans in the history of the modern world. The moral lessons of the dangers of such beliefs can be best illustrated by the examples of how she mistreated her friends and followers.

By dismissing claims what one often says is, ``I know all about this and have studied it for years. Its not very interesting and anyone who studies it is wasting their time.'' Which of course, begs the question why one should spend time listening to someone talk about it. Such skeptics frequently justify themselves with endless harangues about the moral dangers of unproven or disproven beliefs. Yet most people tune out such diatribes almost automatically, unless they're already converted to the point of view.

In writing, there's a rule of thumb. Don't say it, show it. Skeptics would do well to learn this when they claim their views have an importance. In society, there's also a rule of thumb. Don't speak unless people are listening. Similarly, Don't preach, entertain or educate instead. The message will follow.

To my mind, a major flaw in skeptical publications is their overuse of terms such as ``just'' or ``merely.'' To say something is ``merely the placebo effect'' or ``just a fantasy prone personality'' is to miss the opportunity to share the wonders of science with people who may not have been exposed to them. We should teach about the placebo effect and psychosomatic medicine, about the variety and benefits of different sorts of personalities and we should be sharing what we know about dreams and sleep disorders. These are fascinating subjects in themselves. We should strive not just to dismiss things as unscientific, but to share and teach about the scientific theories that we feel explain the claims more easily.

Encourage learning. Don't discourage curiosity.

-Peter Huston

Peter Huston is (your) ISUNY Vice-President. His work appears regularly in the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. He is the author of two books Tongs, Gangs, and Triads: Chinese Crime Groups in North America and the upcoming Scams from the Great Beyond: How to Make Easy Money Hoaxing New Age, Psychic, and UFO Phenomena. Both are from Paladin Press in Boulder, CO.

Independence Day, a different skeptical perspective.

I finally saw Independence Day. My first attempt to view this blockbuster was blocked by Hurricane Bertha. Not from the water, but from the number of people who went to Crossgates Mall because of the rain. (The last ticket to the 4:00 show sold to the couple in front of me, oh well.)

Independence Day (or ID4) is about a race of Bug-eyed Monsters (BEMs) that invade the earth in gigantic (15 miles in diameter) ships. On the first day they destroy NY, Washington, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Moscow, and so on. Then they get serious. A fighter pilot played by Will Smith and a Computer geek (go geeks!) played by Jeff Goldblum, however, find a defeat them. In the end the United States leads what remains of the world's armed forces in a counter attack, and save the earth.

In short, ID4 is your basic alien invasion film, a genre that was popular in the 1950's, and has been making a comeback both on screen (Robert Heinlein's Puppet Masters) and in print (Niven and Pournelle's Footfall). The main difference between this movie, and say Invasion of the Flying Saucers is better acting, better special effects, better dialog, and a larger price tag. However, the larger price-tag seems to be paying off, since ID4 has grossed over 200 million.

Independence day is a movie that has been commented on within skeptic circles. Specifically, its been called to task for making reference to the Roswell crashed UFO myth, to alien abductions, for having aliens that use telepathy, and for playing fast and loose with computers. I have also heard it claimed that in ID4 Hollywood has invented a new nemesis as a replacement for the evil empire of the Soviet Union. The theory is that, now that the communists are no longer a threat, we need a new enemy or ``other.'' Of course an earlier generation of arm-chair analysts claimed the aliens of the 1950's were a substitute for the communists. So much for consistency.

So what did I think of the movie and all of its paranormal mumble jumble? It was Fantastic! 3.5 stars! Great special effects, good casting and lots of action that kept the audience (myself included) on the edge of our seats and cheering when the good guys scored. Not since Apollo 13 have I seen an audience so engrossed and hanging on every moment of a movie. And, If you like bug-eyed monster movies, ID4 has some of the buggiest.

What about all the non-skeptical treatment of Roswell and telepathy. What can I say, that's just good writing. Look, if you are going to produce a movie where a highly advanced and militarily superior race destroys all our major cities in a single day, you need some way for the humans to win. Ok, you don't need some way, but producers like to make money, and history shows that having the good guys win makes more money. And, this is the good part, the crashed saucer (its been pointed out to me that it could not be Roswell, since it crashed in the 1950's) provides the hook which allows us to win.

Before you proceed I should warn you that some serious spoilers follow. If you are planing to see this movie, watch first then read. You have been notified.

In ID4, there is a crashed saucer. We do have one of the BEMs crafts and do understand something (but not much) about it and them. Without that knowledge, and without an unmarked and very secret U.S. Air Force base in which to hide out for a day, the BEMs would have won. It was that craft, combined with hacker Goldblum's skill (8 years at MIT didn't go to waste after all) that are used to defeat the invaders. Better yet, the method used is a ``computer virus,'' in homage to the germs which killed the Martians in H.G. Well's War of the Worlds. (This is not the only parallel to War of the Worlds in ID4. There is a wonderful scene involving B2's attempting to destroy a craft using nuclear weapons. If you've seen the 1953 George Pal film, you know what I mean.)

What about telepathy? All good skeptics know telepathy doesn't exist, you say. So what about telepathy? Aliens have used telepathy in scifi movies and novels for decades without (so far) bringing about the end of western civilization. After all we are talking about fiction. Well, if the BEMs have telepathy, why did they need our satellites to coordinate? Perhaps, if you really need to make up an explanation, because the telepathy is limited by distance? Perhaps it worked via an organic radio which was genetically engineered into the race, if you really must have an explaination.

Ok, so what about the computer stuff? Wouldn't our protocols be different from theirs? Well, we did have the craft for 40 years. You could assume we learned something about the interface protocol. All in all I would call the hacking Goldblum's character does difficult, especially under the circumstances, but not impossible. (I did, however, catch one very glaring computer error in the structured code displayed on one of his screens. Did anybody else notice?)

The above rationalization is all part of suspending disbelief. To enjoy the movie you have to turn down your critical facilities just a bit. Not all the way off, just let a few points slide. This is a common requirement for enjoying a wide range of fiction. A good book or movie, however, provides some return for the effort. In the case of ID4 that return is lots of action, adventure and Xeno-centric cheering. Besides, if your going to nit-pick movies for not being accurate, how about starting with historical dramas such as Braveheart (hate to spoil it for you, but Isabel's lover was not William Wallace), or Apollo 13 (the writers made up the crew conflict issue to build a better story).

Of course ID4 did include my all time annoyance with Hollywood science fiction---noise and explosions in space. (It was especially egregious with the latter.) But, this is almost par for the course these days. Maybe someday a brave producer will do it right in a block-buster and maybe the trend will change. I doubt it will happen any time soon. Even Apollo 13, which filmed portions in free fall, lost nerve when it came to silence in a vacuum.

Overall, I recommend the movie for any science fiction or adventure fan skeptical or otherwise. The film does have technical errors. (The opening scene with the mother ship passing the moon contains several historical errors. Did you catch them?) But these are pretty well compensated by a good movie. The Roswell reference is not gratuitous, it is necessary for resolving the plot, and the computer solution pays homage to the all-time classic alien invasion movie. Besides, if you need a sample saucer with which to defeat the BEMs, what better then one which is part of the popular culture.

-Mike Sofka

This review was distributed on the Skeptic list from which many helpful comments and criticism were received. I am grateful especially to Howard Scrimgeour for pointing out more similarities between ID4 and War of the Worlds. Full text of the original review and comments can be found at For a humorous commentary on computer security and ID4 see

ISUNY Meetings.

Is There Life On Mars?

The August 6th NASA press release and the August 16th Science article by McKay, has raised public and scientific interest in the possibility of past life on Mars. How do we know the meteor came from Mars? How good is the evidence for life it contained? And, since we are a Skeptics group, what, if anything, does this have to do with claims for pyramids and cities on Mars?

At our September 4th meeting our panel of experts will discuss the NASA press release, the origin of the meteor, evidence for life and the popular public reaction.

Climate Change: What Evidence is there?

Many types of natural materials have preserved a detailed memory of past climate changes. Geochemical data show that climate has been highly unstable, even before the onset of global industrial pollution in the mid-1800's. It is this natural instability that makes claims for human-induced, global warming unconvincing to many scientists at present. October 2nd, John Delano, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at The University at Albany will discuss the evidence for global warming.

All meetings are held at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY, at 7:00 pm. Meetings are free and open to the public. For more information call Mike Sofka at 437-1750 or email

Thank You.

Thank you to Alan French, Peter Huston, Taner Edis, and Elaine and Ralph for their contributions to this newsletter. Thank you also to Alan French for publicizing the meetings, and to Carla Sofka for loaning the mailing labels, and David ``the mighty'' Quinne for numerological services.

Thank you also to all of our members for their kind support of ISUNY. We would especially like to thank our Supporting members: Sylvia Chessin, Hugh D A. McGlinchey, Duncan Tuininga, Andre Weltman, Guier Scott Wright and our Patron members: Jordan Coleman, Charles Davies, Daniel Forrest, Alan & Susan French, Christopher Masto, Bob & Dee Mulford, Harish Sethu Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells.

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, or to 8 providence street, Albany, NY 12203. Hard copy and disks will only be returned 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. The macros used for this newsletter are available at The Why-Files are available at:

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 Actually, our regular membership includes several people who are certain there is something to the paranormal, as well as those such as myself who are just as sure there isn't.