The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York

Volume 4, Issue 3 March, 1998


March Meeting

How Many People Can The Earth Support?

Join us March 4th, 1998 when we will host a panel discussion on population and resources. Our March 4th meeting will present a knowledgeable and diverse panel discussion on population and resources. At press time, the following people had agreed to participate:

All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. This month's meeting is being held 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings at the Guilderland Public Library on the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.

Triskaidekaphobic?1 See you on March 13th!

You may be seeing publicity in the wider media from CSICOP concerning a skeptical view of superstitions centering around Friday the Thirteenth. Having gotten through the February date without observation, celebration or mishap, our local group will be joining many other local skeptic's groups throughout the country by enjoying refreshments and fun while spoofing various superstitions. Join us at the Guilderland Public Library at 7 pm on Friday, March 13th. Ladders will be supplied; however, you may bring your own black cat, broken mirror, hat to throw on a bed, etc. We hope to see lots of our favorite skeptics there and enjoy discussions and/or demonstrations of their favorite superstitions. Come on down!!

Slate of Officers

Yes, members of ISUNY, soon it will be time to select your leaders for next year; elections will be held at our April first meeting (just a coincidence, folks). Mike Sofka, the only President that ISUNY has ever known, has announced his retirement from that esteemed position, although he has promised to continue his admirable duties as Editor-in-Chief of The Why-files. The Board has met and is proposing the following slate of officers: So there they are! There will be an opportunity for nominations from the floor; so any of you who wish to place your name or someone else's in nomination will have a chance to do so!

February 4th Meeting

A patient group, which grew to number 30, waited for an officer to arrive so the meeting could start. Fortunately, one by one, the leaders came so that the festivities could begin. Vice President Peter Huston described our group to new attendees and introduced our speaker, Ron McClamrock, philosophy professor at SUNY Albany. Ron announced that he planned to deviate from the published topic of ``The Philosophy of Star Trek'' to a talk on Artificial Intelligence (AI). Furthermore, he would focus on the possibility of building robots with consciousness. He described scenes from the Star Trek: Next Generation episode, ``The Measure of A Man,'' in which Commander Data (everyone's favorite robot) is on trial to determine if he can refuse to be disassembled. That decision turned on whether Data was a conscious being. Our speaker posed the two classes of arguments used by those who say true A I cannot be achieved: Poor Substitute---You'll never get that good, and Hollow Shell---No matter how good you get, you'll never have ``X'' with ``X'' being some unidentifiable human component (e.g. soul, spirit). As portrayed on STNG, Commander Data was portrayed as fitting the hollow shell model. At this point, scientists don't yet know what the logic of thought/consciousness is. Ron compared our current state of technical development of visual recognition and speech recognition systems with what is available in nature. For instance, cruise missiles can be programmed with current maps for terrain recognition; however, even pigeons have better ability to process visual cues for such purposes. With regard to speech recognition, available software requires a user to train his/her computer to the person's speech pattern; the software will not recognize the speech of a second user until the training is done all over again. Ron pointed out that an English speaker stranded on a desert island with someone without English could teach her/his companion to understand and speak English, and if after 2 or 3 years of isolation they were visited by another English speaker offering a boat, both island residents would be able to understand the new voice. In other words, we still have a long, long way to go before we can even begin to imagine how to create human-like robots. Ron discussed multiple realizability and context dependence---the tendency in initial research attempts to isolate elements of a complex process, and to work on reproducing them one baby step at a time. It's important to remember that as researchers or developers alter the domain and simplify the processes (e.g. voice recognition for one user at a time), these ``toy'' domains are not conducive to scaling up the process as more complex requirements are faced. By removing the complexity of the domain, you remove the ability to scale up. Around the turn of the century (ca. 1900), the idea of Vitalism held sway. This theory held that life could not depend wholly on chemical processes; there must be some life force that provides the vital ingredient to living things. In 1953 Watson and Crick described the double helix of DNA and how it replicated itself. This put an end to most support for the concept of Vitalism. Ron also spoke of something called Superveneance: a concept which says by duplicating all physical properties, you have already duplicated all the mental properties as well. In response to questions, Ron referred to books by Daniel Dennett ( Elbow Room2) and Lawrence Krause (The Physics of Star Trek3).

-Dorothy Sager

Dot Sager is ISUNY's Secretary and co-editor of The Why-Files She can be reached by email at

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, or by U.S. mail to Michael Sofka, 8 Providence Street, Albany, NY 12203. Disks and hardcopy will be returned at the next ISUNY meeting. The deadline for articles in the March, 1998 issue is February 15th, 1998.

Membership Renewals

The expiration date for your ISUNY membership is printed on your mailing label. Dues can be mailed to the treasurer at the address on the back page of this newsletter, or paid at our monthly meeting (make checks out to ISUNY). Your dues cover newsletter and speaker expenses. If the date on the mailing label is circled, it means our records show your membership has expired, and you may be dropped from the mailing list. If your renewal date is incorrect, please bring the error to our attention. Despite our efforts to keep the mailing list up-to-date, we do make mistakes.

Ask the Psychic

Question: Mr Quinne, What has happened to your good friend Dr. Tamerlane A. Edvardssonn? The last time we heard from him was almost a year ago when he was investigating the Hale-Bopp ``star jelly'' meteor which fell near Lowville, NY. How have his investigations gone? Did he confirm the signs of life on the meteor, and did we have formal diplomatic relations with the life form?

-Concerned in Concord Answer: Mr. Concord. I've been so busy this past year with project ``Star Gate'' I've hardly had a chance to talk with Tamerlane. I sent a query to the Institute of Higher Noetics, where Tamerlane works since being passed over for tenure at Miskatonic University, and received this response.

Dr. Edvardssonn has been on an extended research sabbatical, since he announced he was due to be abducted by aliens from the Pleiades. However, our remote viewing staff has recently obtained disturbing information to the effect that the craft which took Dr. Edvardssonn went towards the galactic center instead. The heavy neutrino flux has been impeding viewing efforts, but the Institute of Higher Noetics, following its tradition of quality you have come to expect, is treating this setback as a spur to develop improved techniques of astronomical-scale spying. At the current date, our unofficial suspicion is that those Lords of Time which reside in the galactic center are responsible for diverting Dr. Edvardssonn's conveyance, as part of their efforts to prevent Dr. Edvardssonn's exposure of their conspiracy. However, our staff, from the Director on down, is confident that Edvardssonn will return soon. Before he was abducted, he precognized a hilarious event in which he participated in his physical body, which is to take place during the turn-of-the-millennium celebrations. Therefore, it is certain that he will be back before the year 2000. We at IHN eagerly anticipate the new insights Dr. Edvardssonn will bring, and look forward to updating the scientific community in due course.

Timon Josephson-Erschaffrankle 
Press Secretary, IHN, 
on behalf of 
Tamerlane A. Edvardssonn 
vice-president for public outreach 
Institute of Higher Noetics 
4847 Valley Ridge Road 
Ames, Iowa 50010-5799 

-David Quinne, CPPI

David Quinne is ISUNY's psychic in residence. He is a graduate of Maharishi International University where he studied quantum metaphysics with a minor in political science. Questions to the Psychic can be sent to this newsletter care of the editor. David is working on a new book about his work as a police psychic.

Can Scientific Theories Be Disproved?

Hardly a day goes by in the halls of skeptic-dom without hearing the term ``falsifiable.'' As in,``that theory isn't scientific, because you cannot falsify or disprove it.'' The philosophical notion behind the sentiments is that a true scientific theory has the special property of being falsifiable. That is, it can be tested, and it might fail the test, thus proving to be wrong. A pseudo-scientific theory by contrast, or so the story goes, is non-falsifiable. Regardless of the evidence, pseudo-scientific theories somehow weasel their way to yet another round of argument. If you run a test of ESP, and it fails then ``the subject was nervous,'' or ``the presence of a skeptic had an anti-ESP effect.'' If a UFO turns out to be an advertising plane, there is always one more UFO around the corner that ``proves'' they are real. This is sometimes called ``special pleading.''

The claim of falsifiability is that if the data do not match the predictions made by a theory, the theory should be abandoned. We are, the claim continues, slowly but surely converging to a truer representation by disproving the incorrect theories. This is what I will call naïve falsification. It, along with its corollaries, is a common myth among skeptics and one that should be put to rest. Falsification is usually attributed to philosopher Karl Popper.4 Popper did indeed place a strong emphasis on falsification in his proscription for science, but he did not believe that this is the way scientists actually work. Instead, Popper proposed falsification as a way of eliminating mistakes. Some theories have little to say, and vulnerability to controlled testing and observation is a scientific virtue. The logical basis of falsification is that Theories predict Data. In philosophical jargon they are said to have observational consequences. If the theory T is true, and it makes the prediction D, then we should expect to see the data D. Otherwise T is false. This is expressed logically as:

(T-> D/ ~D) -> ~T,

or, in English, if T impiles D, and we have ``not D'', this impiles ``not T.'' Note that it is a logical fallacy to assume the theory T from the data D, because multiple theories could predict the same data. The long recognized problem with this view5 is that theories are never tested in isolation. Instead, they are tested in bundles that include the hypothesis of interest, mappings of theory to the real world, and auxiliary assumptions (other theories upon which the data depend). If the data D is not observed, any one of these three could be wrong. This is expressed as:

({H,M,A}-> D / ~D) -> ~H or ~M or ~A,

which is read, if H, M, and A together imply D, and we observe ``not D,'' then either H, or M, or A or all three, or any set of two may be wrong. For the working scientist, this means that if you don't find the data predicted by your hypothesis, you are logically justified in maintaining belief in the hypothesis and assuming the mapping or auxiliary assumptions were wrong. Not only is this logically valid, but it is often practiced. Rare indeed is the scientist who abandons a good theory simply because of problems with one experiment. In the real world of laboratory work many things can go wrong, of which the theory being tested is just one. An example may help clarify.6 Using Newtonian mechanics and the appropriate mapping assumptions (how ellipses, foci, and differential equations relate to planets and stars) you can derive predictions about the orbits of the planets. The problem in Newton's time was that it didn't work. Newtonian physics failed to account for the orbit of first Saturn, and later Uranus. Astronomers at first assumed that their orbital measurements were inaccurate (bad mapping assumption). And indeed, obtaining accurate measurements was a big problem. Later, as measurements improved, an auxiliary hypothesis in the form of a conjectured new planet was introduced. This auxiliary hypothesis was tested, and found to be correct in what still stands as one of the most spectacular predictions made by a scientific theory. Simply put, Newtonian mechanics failed an early prediction. It had clear unambiguous observational consequences, and they were not observed. If scientists used naïve falsification, it would have been abandoned. Obviously it wasn't, but not because it passed all tests or solved all outstanding problems. In fact, as Kuhn and others have pointed out,7 when it came to the formation of the solar system, Newtonian mechanics initially predicted less than competing theories. Newtonian mechanics succeeded, however, because it was very good at solving many problems, and it proposed a uniform way in which many more problems could be solved. In short, it was a good, general theory with wide potential application. The lesson is, we are never testing just one hypothesis, and assuming the simple view of falsification would disallow much of what is considered good science. A point is reached, however, when continued failure does contribute to rejecting theories. After all, a theory that makes few correct predictions will find little support in the long run.8

In addition to rejecting theories which we accept as science, naïve falsification would accept theories that are without a doubt bad science. A second example: A mystic gives as his theory: ``Quietness is the wholeness in the center of stillness.'' This is his central theory, it is core to his view of the world. ``But,'' you object, ``the theory has no observational consequences, and hence cannot be refuted. As such, it is not a scientific theory.'' ``Nonsense,'' replies the mystic. ``There are plenty of observational consequences of my theory. For example, If quietness is the wholeness in the center of stillness, then flowers bloom in the spring, bees gather pollen, and narrow-minded nay-sayers reject my theory. As you can see all of these observations are true, so my theory is not refuted. If, someday, flowers stop blooming in the spring, or you accept my theory it would fail this prediction.'' What happens now? The problem is that any statement can be tacked on as observational consequences to any other statement. There has to be more then ``testable observational consequences'' in a good theory, since the mystic's theory is so bad. Some have proposed that a theory must have strong observational consequences. That is, nothing in particular attaches the mystic's consequences to his central theory. The problem with a phrase like ``strong observational consequences'' is that it assumes an empirical, scientific view of physics and causation, and particularly how the seasons and evolution work. We are, in short, applying our own auxiliary hypothesis to the mystic's theory. Why is this more justifiable than him applying his auxiliary (some might say ad hoc) hypothesis to our theories. No, this just leaves us flailing our arms wanting to shout ``but, that's not a theory!'' Well, why isn't it?

Finally, there is a problem with the notion of converging closer to the correct theory via a process of elimination. We only ever have a finite number of observations supporting any given theory. Newtonian mechanics may have a potentially infinite number of observational consequences, but, at any given time, we have only tested a finite number. As a result, there are a great number (potentially an infinite number) of theories that can predict the same data set.9 We cannot possibly eliminate them all. Since infinity - N is still infinity we are not logically justified in claiming convergence.

Note, however, that Newtonian mechanics does have an infinite number of observational consequences. This makes it a very powerful theory. Further, the more observational consequences found, the greater our confidence in the theory. While it is a simple task to create theories which account for our present set of data supporting Newton, it would be a more difficult task to create an alternative theory that accounts for our current data set, and any future data. Newtonian mechanics is a good theory by other criterion, such as those discussed in last month's column10 and those I will discuss in future columns.

-Mike Sofka

Mike is ISUNY's lame duck president and co-editor of The Why-Files. This article was extracted from his ``Myths of Skepticism,'' presented to the Capital District Humanist Society on January 14, 1996. The talk is available in full on ISUNY's web page.

Future ISUNY Meetings

April 1st, Pathological Science (tentative)

Polywater, Cold Fusion, Zero Point Energy and other pathological sciences.

May 6th, A Scientific View of False-Memory.

Pamela Freyd, psychologist and co-author of Smiling Through Tears.

June 3rd, How Children Become Interested in Science, and Why They Lose Interest Later in Life.

Panel discussion.

If you have a topic idea, please bring it to the attention of an officer at any ISUNY meeting.

All ISUNY meetings are free and open to the public. We usually meet 7:00 pm at the Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Avenue, Guilderland, NY. We always attempt to schedule our meetings the first Wednesday of each month (except for July and August), but the Library cannot guarantee that a room will always be available. Please check our web site, or The Why-Files in case of a scheduling conflict, or other changes to the meeting schedule.

Local Meetings

The Albany Area Amateur Astronomers meet the third Tuesday of each month at the Schenectady Museum. Meetings begin at 7:30 pm. For more information, contact Alan French at (518) 374-8460.

The Capital District Humanist Society meets the second Sunday of each month at the Sage Colleges Albany Campus on New Scotland Avenue. The meetings begin at 1:15 pm. For more information, contact Paul DeFrancisco at (518) 272-4772.

Membership and Publicity

Peter Huston is chairing the membership and publicity committee charged with publicizing meetings and proposals for finding new members. If you would like to help with this and related tasks, see Peter at any ISUNY meeting.

ISUNY Lending Library

The Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York maintains a library of books, newsletters, magazines, video and audio tapes addressing various paranormal topics. ISUNY members may borrow material from this library on a month-by-month basis. If you would like to borrow a book, newsletter or tape, see our librarian, Lewis Treadway, before or after any ISUNY meeting. All material is lent free to members except for tapes for which we ask a $1.00 donation that will be used to purchase further library material.

Thank You

Thank you to Peter Huston, David ``the Mighty'' Quinne, and Dorothy 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. It is impossible to prove that there are no remaining mistakes. ISUNY thanks all of its members for their support. We would especially like to thank our Patron members: Jordan Coleman, Charles Davies, Larry Jones & Barbara Eisenstadt, Alan & Susan French, Dr. Richard H. Lange, Christopher Masto, Hugh A. McGlinchey, Bob & Dee Mulford, Dorothy and Carl Sager, Mike & Carla Sofka, Douglas Wells, William White, Guier Scott Wright.

About the Newsletter

The WHY-Files is the newsletter of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York. Articles, reviews and letters can be sent to the editor at, 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 The Why-Files are available at: 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 Triskaidekaphobia is fear of the number thirteen.

2 Dennett, Daniel C., Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, The MIT Press, 1985

3 Krauss, Lawrence M., The Physics of Star Trek, Basic Books, 1995

4 For example, Popper, K., The logic of scientific discovery, 1959.

5 See, for example, Lauden, L. Science and Relativism: Some Key Controversies in the Philosophy of Science, University of Chicago Press, 1990, page 77, and Kitcher, P., Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism, MIT Press, 1986, chapter 2.

6 This example, and the later example of the mystic are from Kitcher, P., 1986, pp. 42--50.

7 Kuhn, T. Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University of Chicago Press, 1976; Lauden, L., 1990.

8 While I cannot find the quote, one philosopher suggested that theories are not so much refuted as embarrassed to death.

9 I leave this as an exercise to the reader.

10 ``Do Extraordinary Claims Always Require Extraordinary Evidence?'', The Why-Files, vol 4(2), 1998