The WHY-Files

The Journal of the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York

Volume 5, Issue 4 April, 1999


April Meeting

Skeptic's Jeopardy

Do you know who Champ is? Do you know the difference between telekinesis and clairvoyance? Have you been to Charles Forts' grave? Is your secret passion 19th century spiritualism? Come to our April 7th Skeptic's Jeopardy meeting. Audience teams will compete with each other to show who is the most knowledgeable about science, skepticism, spirits, cults, pseudoscience, and other fringe claims.

April is also our annual business meeting, where we select officers for the following year. The board recommended slate of officers appears below. If you have any business or questions about ISUNY, or just want to meet the other members, this is a good meeting to attend. We have the room beyond our usual closing time of 9:00, and after a challenging game of Jeopardy you might just know who shares that secret passion.

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

April Business Meeting

The ISUNY bylaws state that the club will hold a business meeting every April, at which new officers will be elected. This is one of the very few business provisions in the bylaws. The bylaws also state that the current board should recommend a slate of officers, to be published in the newsletter prior to the April meeting. This year, the proposed officers are:

This slate may be approved or disapproved by the members attending the April meeting. In addition floor nominations will be requested.

March Meeting

Club President Peter Huston reminded members of next month's election of officers. He also announced the first scheduled ``Chat `n' Chew''---an informal get-together for members to talk about issues of interest and enjoy a good meal at the same time. The first Chat n' Chew was held at the Ocean Palace Chinese restaurant on Central Ave. on Tuesday, March 16, 1999. The second will be held April 20, 1999 at the same place (see announcement in this newsletter).

The program for the evening was a talk by Dr. Lois Hooverman from Schenectady Community College on Darwinian Medicine: How Evolution Affects the Disease Process. Most of her talk was based on the work of Dr. Paul Ewald. Dr. Hooverman noted that evolution is the most unifying foundation in biology---``Nothing in biology makes sense except through evolution.'' Favorable traits tend to get passed on while unfavorable ones do not. Despite this the human body has many features which are less than ideal. Humans are prone to detached retina because of our eye's design. Squids do not have detached retinas; their eyes evolved in a different path. In humans, our airway and esophagus cross which creates the risk of choking---not an advantage.

Pathogens reproduce much faster that humans. This results in faster evolution than humans and increases the likelihood that they will respond to our attempts through medicine and other means to control them. It is not always in a pathogen's best interest to make us severely sick. Severely ill people tend to isolate themselves, thus reducing the spread of the pathogens. Rhino virus that causes the common cold makes us cough and sneeze which spreads the virus. Because we do not feel that sick with a cold, we interact with other people, and the virus finds new hosts. The virus can live only a short time out of the host and is dependent on an efficient means of spreading. Tuberculosis bacteria are hardy outside of the host and can afford to make people sick enough to stay in bed. Their waxy cell wall keeps the pathogen viable until a new host comes along.

Pathogens transmitted by vectors, such as mosquitoes, tend to make us very ill. By immobilizing the host, they facilitate contact by the pathogen (mosquito bites) and aid further spread of the disease. Through transmission by the vector, these pathogens become much more virulent than those spread by direct contact.

Human behavior also affects virulence. Typhoid fever, cholera, dysentery are all transmitted through water. The host can be very ill with diarrhea: clothing becomes contaminated, and the disease will spread if the contaminated clothing come into contact with drinking water. There is increased virulence if the transmission is by water. India and Bangladesh both historically had cholera epidemics. In India, there has been a concentrated effort to purify water supplies, now only the milder form of cholera is present; however, Bangladesh has not been able to improve purity of water supplies and still has the more severe cholera ravaging its population. In every country, as water supplies were purified, only the milder cholera is around.

Mankind has brought on itself the following health risks: overweight through easy access to fat, sugar, and salt; drug, alcohol, and tobacco abuse; psycho-active substances in concentrated form. But most common killer diseases are caused by pathogens. Recent discoveries have linked bacterial infection with ulcers (Helicobacter pylori) and coronary artery and heart disease (Chlamydia pneumoniae). From Ewald: In 1901, most deaths resulted from infectious diseases. In 1990, most deaths were from cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease. These are now connected with infections. So within the century, deaths are still resulting from infections, just different kinds of infections now than at the beginning of this century.

-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 May, 1999 issue is April 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.

Second ISUNY ``Chat N' Chew''

The second ISUNY Chat n' chew will be held 7:00 pm, Tuesday, April 20 at the Ocean Palace Restaurant, 855 Central Ave, Albany, across from the Hannaford Plaza, The first Chat n' Chew went well. Five members attended Herb Jones, Lewis Treadway, Tom Benton, Ken Meyer and Peter Huston.

The Chat n' Chews are an attempt to see if purely social events, with no formal program, are of interest to our members. If you enjoy the after meeting get togethers, this is an attempt to hold the same type of informal gathering, but at an earlier hour and a different location. A non-Wednesday was chosen, since many people have wanted non-Wednesday events as well. This is an experiment, and its success or failure will determine the likelihood of other events of this sort. If you are interested, please make an effort to be there. For more details call Peter Huston at 393-3478 or e-mail

What ISUNY Can Do For You

A Note From The Outgoing President

Remember the Inquiring Skeptics of Upper New York? Every year we hold eight meetings with invited speakers or other presentations. We are very proud of both the speakers we have had in the past as well as our planned future presentations. These speakers have included CSICOP technical consultants and fellows, a PBS-NOVA personality, and even a Nobel prize winning physicist. All meetings are free and open to the public.

Eight times a year we publish The Why Files, our local newsletter. Through The Why Files, we hope to provide an entertaining and informative publication where our members can share facts and opinions (as well as humor) with both one another and the public at large. The Why Files is distributed to all members, past speakers, local newspapers and national skeptic organizations. Through this medium we've gotten our voice heard in many circles where it might otherwise not be noticed.

Through CSICOP's generous newsletter exchange program, we network with other local skeptics organizations, not just across the country, but around the world. In the future, if funds allow, we hope to make copies of our newsletter available to the public free of charge at selected bookstores and other venues around the Capital District.

ISUNY maintains an active web-site on the World Wide Web at This site contains an online collection of all past newsletters, important essays by members and past speakers and a collection of links to other sites. We're proud to say that this year the ISUNY web-site has joined the new ``skeptics web ring'' increasing ease of access to interested parties surfing the Net.

ISUNY maintains a well stocked library of skeptic books, videos and magazines which are available for loan to members. This library includes hard to find early issues of Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic magazine.

ISUNY has hosted a call in radio show each year for four years in a row on WRPI radio (91.5 FM), and we hope to continue.

ISUNY has been featured in both the Daily Gazette and the Times Union, as well as on all four local television news stations. Through this means we hope to make our presence known and get the message out that there is a local group of people who strive to advance appreciation for science, skepticism and critical thinking.

ISUNY has actively assisted the local False Memory Syndrome support group in their efforts to increase awareness of this tragic and avoidable problem in today's psychotherapy. With their active assistance, we have co-hosted speakers and held forums on this issue to future and present professionals at the University of Albany, the Saratoga Mental Health Clinic and Union College, as well as the powerful WGY-AM 810 and WRPI-FM 91.5 radio stations.

On three occasions, ISUNY has brought in out of town authors for book signings at the local Borders and Barnes & Nobel bookstores.

At Albacon 98, the local book-oriented science fiction convention held in Schenectady, ISUNY hosted the con-suite hospitality room where conference attendees from the USA and Canada could socialize, drink soft drinks and eat snacks. We are proud to say that we helped in a small way to make this event a success and thereby increase our presence in the community and assist an event which promotes both reading and an interest in science.

ISUNY has provided speakers to interested local and national groups including the Capital District Secular Humanist group, the local False Memory Syndrome Support Group, the Burnt Hills Rotary Club and the Boston branch of the New England Skeptics Society (NESS). We have also provided commentary on current events for the Times Union and the Daily Gazette.

What You Can Do For ISUNY.

Join! ISUNY needs members. Without members ISUNY cannot and will not exist. We need you.

Contribute to the newsletter or become involved in another fashion. We are always on the lookout for new voices for our newsletter. We love articles explaining old or present theories of science, social perspectives on science or paranormal claims and articles explaining strange claims within an accepted scientific framework. If something seems to be missing from our newsletter, it could be because you have not contributed it. If you are uncertain of the appropriateness of a possible contribution, please contact a member of the board to see what we think; we are open to new ideas.

Consider becoming involved in another fashion. There's always work to be done. Speakers are needed. Publicity is needed.

Consider upgrading your membership. ISUNY has two levels of membership---the $15.00 basic and the $25.00 patron membership. We are a not-for-profit, and we operate on a slim margin. With a bigger budget we could increase distribution of our newsletter, invite more out of town speakers, hold longer meetings, offer refreshments and increase our publicity and through it our membership and services.

-Peter Huston

Peter Huston's work appears regularly in the Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic. He is the author of two books, most recently Scams from the Great Beyond by Paladin Press, Boulder, CO. Peter's current project is his web page, which includes many articles and links about skepticism, self defense and bobsled and skeleton sledding.

The UFOs of October

Part II: Group Dynamics,Memory,
Perception and Recall

Last month I wrote about the autokinetic effect, and other illusions of motion, that contribute to reports of UFOs. Most UFO reports are reports of ``lights in the sky.'' These lights appear unusual either because they are very bright (as a planet would be), or because they are seen to move. The autokinetic effect is just one of many ways a stationary object may appear to move.

This month I will review some surprising findings about group dynamics and the autokinetic effect. If multiple people view the same stationary object, they may all mis-perceive it as moving and agree on what motions it is making. Likewise, if people thought they were looking at an interstellar craft, their recall will be influenced by that belief. These effects of expectation on perception and recall are well documented under controlled laboratory conditions.

Muzafer Sherif's study

The autokinetic effect is a robust optical illusion in which a stationary light source, for example a bright star, is perceived to be moving. It is caused by small eye movements. Our eyes are always in motion, and under normal circumstances the brain adjusts for that motion. It does this using knowledge of what is and what is not moving. If the background is impoverished, for example if the light is viewed against a solid background, the brain gets confused and interprets eye movement as object movement.

The autokinetic effect is also subject to suggestion. That is, you can suggest to people what ``motion'' the light is making. Multiple people can also make suggestions to each other about what they see without realizing what they are doing. When this happens, the autokinetic effect becomes an unintentional Ouija board.

In 1931, Muzafer Sherif, a social psychologist, used the autokinetic effect to study the formation of group norms.1 Group norms are accepted beliefs or behaviors in a group of people. For example, how close should two people stand during a face-to-face conversation.2 Norms are generally arbitrary. It is not so important what the exact value of the norm is, only that there is a norm and members of society learn it.

In Sherif's study subjects were individually placed in a darkened room with a single light source on the opposite wall. They were asked to record how far the light moved. Note, the light did not move, it was solidly fastened to the wall! So, what the subjects were really recording is how far they perceived the light be moving due to the autokinetic effect.

By themselves, the subjects soon settled on individual estimations of movement, ranging from a couple of inches to about 8 inches. The subjects were then put in a room together, and encouraged to report their estimates out-loud. Sherif found that the estimates at first differed, reflecting the previous individual estimates, but soon converged on an common value. Note, this common value was not necessarily the arithmetic mean. A single subject's value often dominated or exerted disproportional influence.

After a group value was established, the subjects were again separated and asked to judge the perceived movement of a stationary light. Note, all of these people had previously decided on a distance, then re-decided on a distance as part of a group. Now they were on their own again, and the question was: ``which value, individual or group, would dominate?'' After separation, the group estimate for light movement remained. The subjects had formed a group norm for perceived light movement.

By running this experiment, I contend, Muzafer Sherif inadvertently ran the first controlled experimental study of UFO observation 16 years before the first UFO was spotted by pilot Kenneth Arnold.3

Sherif's results are also robust. They have been replicated in hundreds of subsequent studies of group dynamics. It turns out to be trivially easy to influence what movement the light is reported to take, and groups of subjects always come to some agreement on what they are seeing. For example:

Memory and Recall

Memory of a UFO observation are also influenced by recall effects. What a person recalls seeing is influenced by what they believe they have seen---especially in an ambiguous and emotionally charged event such as a crime, or observing a UFO. Dramatic evidence for this can be seen in drawings of IFO (Identified Flying Objects), which will often be saucer shaped, have port holes or rocket exhaust---even though the object seen has none of these.5

Elizabeth Loftus and her students ran a series of experiments on eyewitness memory in the early 1970s.6 The most famous of these experiments were the ``auto accident'' studies. Loftus and Palmer, for example, showed people a ``movie'' (actually a slide show) of an auto accident. After viewing the pictures, the ``eyewitnesses'' to the accident were asked a series of questions about what they saw. Among the questions asked were variations of ``how fast was the car was going when it ran the stop sign.'' But, there was no stop sign in the slides, instead there was a yield sign.

Despite this discrepancy between what was seen and what was asked, most subjects later recalled a stop sign they didn't see. The eyewitnesses were also asked their estimates of how fast the car was traveling when it ran the non-existent stop sign. The answers given varied with how the question was asked. So, if the question implied a high speed, such as asking ``how fast was the car going when it smashed into the other car'', the estimates were higher.

Loftus calls this type of question, a question which assumes some knowledge that was not available to the witness, a ``leading question.'' Leading questions can be very subtle. When questioning a witness if the questioner suspects or knows something the witness doesn't, and is looking for confirmation, a leading question can create the later appearance of agreement, when in fact there was only one source for the knowledge---the questioner. Leading questions are often implicated in cases of UFO abduction. Why are all the abduction experiences similar? Maybe because the questions are being asked by the same person.

Integrating Expectation, Perception and Recall

Most UFO observations are not due to a single effect, and the investigator is not going to find a single cause. Even when the object viewed is later discovered to be, for example, an advertising plane or the planet Jupiter seen near the horizon, the actual UFO---the collection of events and effects taking place---is more complex.

Instead of a single cause, UFO observations involve a collection of perceptual illusions and witness expectations which our brains tie together into a consistent narrative. When we are later asked to recall what we saw, expectations and leading questions can further enhance the narrative to be consistent with what UFOs should be.

A sighting may start by looking at a very bright ``star,'' but through a combination of perceptual illusions and leading questions (from other group members or from investigators) ends with reports of flying saucers the ``size of dimes held at arm's length.'' It is important to remember that both perception and recall are active events influenced by what we believe we are/were looking at.

This is the end of part II. Part III will examine some cases of the autokinetic effect in practice, including the Stillwater UFO sighting.

-Mike Sofka

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

The Puzzler

Questions for the fun of it.

  1. What invention is Thomas Crapper famous for?

  2. If one travels due west from downtown Albany 130 miles, what is the nearest city?

  3. The Roman Goddess Cloacina was Goddess of what?

  4. How long is one minute of arc on a ``great circle'' on the earth?


(1) The Flush toilet, but Thomas Crapper apparently is not the real inventor and he may be a fictional character. Wallace Reyburn's book ``Flushed With Pride: the Story of Thomas Crapper'' is the apparent source of the misinformation. (2) You would be slightly north of Cortland. If you took a magnetic bearing instead of a true bearing you would have ended up a little past Binghamton near the village of Endicott. (3) She was goddess of the sewer! (4) One nautical mile (about 6080 feet). This is how a nautical mile was originally defined (i.e. one minute of arc) and as such it was variable because of the unevenness of the Earth. Now in the US we define a nautical mile as 1852 meters (6076.115 feet).

-Carl Sager

Future ISUNY Meetings

May 5, 1999: no topic yet. Here's your chance to provide input.

June 2, 1999: Dr. Donald Whisenhunt, Jr. of General Electric, `` `Creation Science' Fact or Fiction?''

Local Meetings

As part of its 175th anniversary observance, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is inviting the entire community to Space Week---a gigantic celebration observing the 30th anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing, the 40th anniversary of NASA, and the Institute's own strong connections to the space program.

From April 5 to 11, Rensselaer students, faculty, staff, and alumni as well as residents from throughout the region are invited to learn more about space exploration. Invited speakers include Dan Goldin, NASA administrator; Carolyn Shoemaker, co-discoverer of comet Shoemaker-Levi; Harrison Schmitt, the only scientist to walk on the moon; and Lawrence Krauss author of The Physics of Star Trek.

For more information contact Sheila Nason (518) 276-6098, or visit the RPI web site

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 for more information.

Science Fiction writer Samuel R. Delany will speak at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on April 29th at 8:00 pm in Room 3303 of the Sage Laboratory Building. This event is free and Open to the Public. For further information, call 276-6468.

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, president of the Skeptics Society, and author of Why People Believe Weird Things, will be the Science Guest of Honor at I-Con, a science fiction convention held at SUNY Stony Brook, April 9--11. Dr. Shermer's appearances will be on Saturday, April 10. For more information see, email Carl Fink at or call (516) 656-3079.

The New York Center for the Studies of The Origin of Life hosts a public lecture program. On April 20, 1999, 7:30 pm Dr. J. W. Schopf, Dept. of Earth and Space Sciences, Center for the Study of Evolution and the Origin of Life University of California, will present ``The Discovery of Earth's Earliest Fossils: Solution to Darwin's Dilemma'' The talk will be in the Center for Industrial Innovation, room 4050, on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Campus. For more information see

Thank You

Thank you to Peter Huston, Michael Sofka, Dorothy Sager and Carl Sager for their contributions to this newsletter. Thanks also go to Peter Huston, Robert Mulford, and Dorothy and Ralph Hoyt and especially Dot Sager for their help planning and publicizing ISUNY meetings, and to Herb Jones for publicity and room arrangements with the Guilderland Library. A additional special thank you to Dorothy Sager for copy-editing. Dot does an excellent job removing typos and errors from our newsletter. You've probably already forgotten about the remaining errors.

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

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 (Sherif, M., A study of some social factors in perception, Archives of Psychology, 27, pp. 311--328, 1935). Sherif, M., An experimental approach to the study of attitudes, Sociometry, 1, 1937, pp. 90-98.

2 Sherif was Turkish, and he noticed people kept moving away from him as he talked.

3 There were many sightings of objects in the sky prior to Kenneth Arnold's 1947 sighting over Mt. Rainier. These were usually attributed by the observer to airships or rockets. For a review of these pre-UFO sightings see Robert E. Bartholomew and George S. Howard, UFOs & Alien Contact: Two Centuries of Mystery, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1998.

4 A thorough summary of the autokinetic literature in social psychology can be found in Carolyn Wood Sherif, Orientation in Social Psychology, Harper & Row, New York, 1976. George, Alternate Realities, contains entries for autokinetic effect, and for group dynamics of unusual experiences.

5 See Terence Hines, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal: A critical examination of the evidence, Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 1988 for an example of such drawings. Bartholomew and Howard reprint many drawings from ``air ship'' sightings.

6 Elizabeth Loftus' early work on memory and recall is summarized in: Loftus, E.F., Eyewitness Testimony, Harvard University Press, 1979. Information about reconstructive recall in a variety of natural settings is in Neisser, U., Memory Observed: Remembering in Natural Context, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1892.