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Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 89

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 09/06/2017 - 9:28am

Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!

The Top Stories

A Trusted Source in an Age of Misinformation 

In the era of social media, where we are drowning in news and rumor at all times of the day, information and opinion have been commoditized. When misinformation and uninformed assertions are as easy (or, more likely, easier) to spread as the truth, there is genuine value in being known for reason and honesty. Since its very beginnings four decades ago, the Center for Inquiry has built a firm reputation as a reliable source of information and commentary from all who seek it, and that particularly includes journalists.

Three thoughtful articles in recent weeks serve as excellent examples of how journalists who wish to cut through the noise of false news and “hot takes” know to turn to the people of the Center for Inquiry for trustworthy insight, analysis, and plain old facts—including CFI’s own advocacy and good works.

Last month, religion reporter Kelsey Dallas of the Deseret News took note of two issues affecting the secular community: political representation and religious freedom. CFI is well known as an advocate of true religious freedom, for believers and nonbelievers alike, and have worked passionately to defend those rights in the U.S. and around the world. But like many freethought organizations, we have lost the seat at the table we once had in the previous administration. CFI Legal Director Nicholas Little explains that the experiences and perspectives of nontheists must be a part of the wider struggle for religious freedom.

At The Daily Beast this weekend, reporter and religion scholar Brandon Withrow sought to explore the secular perspective on morality without God. Given the alarming results of a recent study on the ongoing bias against atheists, Withrow asked several key figures in freethought about their moral foundations. Among them were our own Richard Dawkins and, quoted at considerable length, Monette Richards, executive director of CFI Northeast Ohio. (Withrow also spoke to recent Point of Inquiry guest James Croft.)

Finally, this weekend in the Sunday Herald of Scotland, Russell Leadbetter published an important profile of CFI’s Secular Rescue program, our initiative to offer assistance to secular writers and activists whose lives are threatened by violent extremists in countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, and bring them to safety in other countries. Leadbetter looks at the origins of Secular Rescue and highlights some of the lives that the program has helped to save.

 

CFI Receives Grant for New Projects from James Hervey Johnson Foundation 

The Center for Inquiry is honored to be the recipient of a significant grant from the James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust of San Diego, California. Totaling $112,456, the grant will support CFI’s work on four major projects in publishing, historical preservation and appreciation, and community building, all to further CFI’s mission to foster a secular society based on reason, science, and humanist values.

“This generous grant will help us give new life to deeply meaningful freethought institutions under our care,” said Robyn Blumner, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “Each of these four projects will serve to educate, enrich, and enlighten both longtime freethinkers and those who are just discovering our ideas and our community.”

The grant will be distributed between the following four initiatives:

  • $45,000 will support the publication of The Truth Seeker, America’s oldest continuously published freethought periodical. Since 2014 The Truth Seeker has been owned and operated by the Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry magazine and a program of the Center for Inquiry. Under its current editor, Roderick Bradford, The Truth Seeker has emerged as the leading publication exploring the history of the freethought and atheist movements.
  • $32,456 will help fund a complete redesign of the Freethought Trail, a series of 112 historical sites in west-central New York State significant to the history of freethought, abolition, women’s suffrage, and other radical reform movements. This will include a full updating and redesign of the Freethought Trail website, adding enhanced searchability, mobile-friendliness, and new interactive features. 
  • $20,000 will underwrite a conference celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, to be held in Syracuse, New York, on August 18–19, 2018. 
  • $15,000 will fund necessary improvements to the new physical location for CFI’s active Los Angeles branch. CFI Los Angeles plans to relocate to its new facility in the fall of 2017.


The James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust was funded from the estate of James Hervey Johnson. Mr. Johnson was the fourth editor of The Truth Seeker, founded by D. M. Bennett in 1873. The Trust has supported the Center for Inquiry and its program the Council for Secular Humanism through multiple grants during the past two decades, this latest being among the largest yet bestowed.

 

News from the CFI Community

CFI Austin Providing Relief for Houston

The dedicated community of CFI Austin is stepping up to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Last weekend, they delivered relief supplies to fellow Texans in Houston, bringing food, clothing, pillows, sheets, blankets, and toiletries. This week they’re calling upon the greater CFI community to show their support with monetary donations. So far, CFI Austin has raised $700!

You can make donations through PayPal using membership@cfi-austin.org.

They’ll make use of anything they get this week for a food bank in Houston or for flood refugees in Austin. The deadline to donate is Friday, September 8, at midnight.

 

The Tireless Teaching of TIES

The Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES), our program for training middle school science teachers to improve their understanding and teaching of evolution, has had a very productive summer. For example, TIES Director Bertha Vazquez gave several training workshops for teachers at the Opening of Schools Science Teacher Professional Development Day in West Palm Beach, Florida. Plus, two new upcoming workshops have been added to the calendar, bringing TIES’s total up to seventy-three.

September 8, Alan Wasmoen will present at the Nebraska Academy of Sciences/Nebraska Association of Teachers of Science Fall Conference in Kearney, Nebraska. On November 18, Christopher Moran will give a workshop at the Virginia Association of Science Teachers Conference in Roanoke.

This vital and growing program is just getting started, and there’s always something new in the works. To keep up with Bertha’s TIES updates, see her column at CSICOP.org.

 

Countdown to CSICon 2017: October Cometh!

The leaves are just beginning to change color. Parents across the country are breathing deep sighs of relief as school begins again. Retail stores are (already) hawking Halloween costumes, decorations, and candy. You know what that means…it’s almost time for CSICon 2017!

How “almost” is it? Really almost. CSICon 2017 kicks off October 26 in Las Vegas at the fantastical Excalibur Hotel, going through the weekend to October 29. This year’s conference will feature brilliant and compelling speakers such as James Randi, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Cara Santa Maria, Michael Mann, Maria Konnikova, Richard Saunders (interviewed here by Susan Gerbic), Eugenie Scott, and so many more.

For a taste of what’s in store, check out the latest season of CFI’s Reasonable Talk video series, which is totally devoted to talks from CSICon 2016. But, trust us: a web video is no substitute for being there in person. After all, you want to be there to experience all of the amazing speakers, all the entertainment events, and all the fun and silliness at the Halloween disco party.

So get registered right now, before all the leaves fall and the kids go berserk from all that Halloween candy. See you in Vegas at CSICon 2017!

 

CFI Highlights on the Web
  • On the latest episode of CFI’s flagship podcast Point of Inquiry, host Paul Fidalgo talks to Ethical Culture leader James Croft, grappling with the difficult questions and realizations sparked by the Charlottesville white supremacist violence, and discussing how humanists are called to lead the way in healing our national wounds.
  • Despite being exposed as a peddler of pseudoscience by everyone from The New Yorker to the U.S. Senate, Dr. Oz carries on. At CSICOP.org, “SkepDoc” Harriet Hall takes aim at one more of Oz’s absurd regimens, the “grapefruit detox diet.” Harriet warns us, “Stay away from the land of Oz.”
  • Benjamin Radford considers what it seems many so-called “mediums” do not: ethics. As these conduits to the afterlife claim to be able to channel the words of the dead (often dead celebrities), they can never be verified and give little consideration to the impact they have on those still living.
  • As CFI’s resident expert on evil clowns, Ben also uses the release of the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s It to take the opportunity to look back on the history of Pennywise the clown.
  • The popular obsession over the concept of “wellness” may be making some us feel rather, um, unwell. Kylie Sturgess interviews journalist Brigid Delaney about her experiments (on herself) with all manner of “wellness” products from around the world.
  • In Skeptical Inquirer, Kyle Polich looks into the claims of mysterious disappearances from national parks in the “Missing411” series of books.
  • What’s the big deal if academic and scientific journals move a decimal point? Stuart Vyse writes about the debate over whether these journals should change their standard for statistical significance from .05 to .005.
  • Joe Nickell pays tribute to H. David Sox, who died last month. Sox was a researcher who began promoting the veracity of the Shroud of Turin but came to realize it was a forgery. Writes Joe of his work, “I learned with what intelligence, integrity, and verve [Sox] approached that subject—and so many things that mattered.”
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.


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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net. 



 

Categories: , Skeptic

eSkeptic for September 6, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 09/06/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

2018 | IRELAND | JULY 15–AUGUST 2 Join us for a 19-day tour of the Emerald Isle

Ireland’s famed scenic landscape owes its breathtaking terrain to a dramatic 1.75 billion year history of continental collisions, volcanoes, and glacial assault. Join the Skeptics Society for a 19-day immersive tour of the deep history of the Emerald Isle, while experiencing the music, hospitality, and verdant beauty that make Ireland one of the world’s top travel destinations.

DAY 1 Sunday July 15: Dublin — A Geological City Arrival & Welcome Reception Day

Please Note: An optional tour will be available this day provided there are a sufficient number of members who check-in in time.

The rich geological heritage of Ireland is literally present in every street and building in Dublin. A geological walking tour of the city culminates with a behind the scenes visit to the Geological Museum at Trinity College, which is housed in the majestic, 19th century, Byzantine-inspired Museum Building, incorporating many of the rocks we’ll see over the coming days.

The Temple Bar district is promoted as Dublin’s cultural quarter and has a lively nightlife. Many Irish cultural institutions are located here including galleries and studios, and Centres for film, art and acting.

DAY 2 Monday, July 16: Beer & Gardens

Ahem. Drink up the history of Ireland’s renowned beverage at the Guinness Storehouse. An interactive tour of the facilities concludes with a frothy pint in the Gravity Bar: a seven-story, glass-walled facility, offering panoramic views of the city.

Explore the National Botanic Gardens. Over 20,000 plants, housed in 19th century iron and glass greenhouses. The Gardens played a crucial role in the identification of the pathogen behind the Irish Potato Famine and continue to be the site of important botanical research.

View from Gravity Bar at the top of Guinness Storehouse, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by psyberartist [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

DAY 3 Tuesday, July 17: Mountains & Monasteries

The day begins in Wicklow Mountains National Park: rolling granite peaks wrenched upwards 420 million years ago as ancient Ireland collided with North America. Later smoothed by glaciers, the mountains host a unique heath and bog ecosystem, home to rare orchids and carnivorous plants.

Then it’s a visit to Glendalough monastic city. An ancient institute of higher learning, the 10th century complex of churches and monuments is situated in an idyllic glaciated valley (Glendalough means ‘Valley of the Two Lakes’).

For those with a little more energy, a gentle walk past the upper lake takes you to the Glendalough Miner’s Village, the ruins of 18th century silver and lead mine, where you can search for the rare mineral pyromorphite.

DAY 4 Wednesday, July 18: Ancient Organisms, Lighthouses & Crystal

Most of the enigmatic Ediacaran Biota died out before the Cambrian Explosion. A few species held out, however. At Booley Bay, you’ll get to touch the remains of Ediacaria, one of the final representatives of Life’s first animal experiment.

From there, it’s off to the Hook Head Lighthouse. Perched on fossil-rich Carboniferous limestones, the Hook Head Lighthouse has guided mariners for almost 800 years, making it the world’s second oldest operational lighthouse.

Then then take some free time in the afternoon to explore the charming city of Waterford. Home to the famous Waterford Crystal, this small port city is the oldest in the Ireland.

Landscape of County Clare, Ireland. Green fields in foreground and Galway Bay in the background. Beginings of the Burren can also be seen.

DAY 5 Thursday, July 19: Copper & Fire

Spend the day visiting the tops sites of the UNESCO Copper Coast Geopark, including rare columnar rhyolites, spectacular copper minerals, mine audits, pillow basalts, and hyaloclastites—mixtures of volcanic glass and lava formed during the explosive interaction of lavas and ocean water.

For a break from the geologic, we’ll take lunch in the picturesque village of Dungarven, followed by a chance to browse local artisans, visit the quaint and lovely Waterford County Museum, and explore Dungarven Castle.

DAY 6 Friday, July 20: Countryside Carved by Water

Cirques are nature’s amphitheatres. Steep-sided open valley’s gouged by glaciers, they often possess a central lake, called a tarn. We’ll begin the day at Coumshingaun Lough, widely considered one of the finest and most beautiful examples both features in Great Britain.

From there we head underground to witness the erosional power of streams on a guided tour of the Michelstown Cave, one of Europe’s most spectacular show caves. Massive limestone caverns filled with stalactites and other structures will take your breath away.

Mizen Head is located at the extremity of the Kilmore Peninsula and was one of the last points seen by those traveling to the Americas. The harsh beauty of the cliffs, primarily composed of deep seated Devonian slates, provides nesting sites for numerous seabirds, including Kittiwakes, Cormorants, and Gannets.

DAY 7 Saturday, July 21: Bridge to the South

Today we head south—as far south as you can go in Ireland—to visit Mizen Head, ranked as one of the 100 Great Geosites. Devonian metamorphic rocks create dramatic cliff vistas, accessible by the brave via a 180’ tall pedestrian bridge. A tour of the lighthouse, signal station, and visitor center to learn about the site’s importance in the history of transatlantic radio communication add a human dimension to the stop.

From there we head through the scenic Killarney National Park with a short stop in Killarney on our way to our next hotel where we rest up for the next exciting day ahead.

Ladies View — a scenic point along the Ring of Kerry. The name stems from the admiration of the view given by Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting during their 1861 visit.

DAY 8 Sunday, July 22: The Force Awakens

The day begins with a tour of the iconic Ring of Kerry. One of the world’s most beautiful scenic drives, this 110 mile loop passes through picturesque villages, rugged coastline, and lush green countryside.

From there we’ll head to Valentia Island to see one of the oldest and longest tetrapod trackways on Earth. 50 feet long, these 380 million year old footprints represent some of the first steps ever taken on land by our deep ancestors.

Finally, we’ll take a boat 8 miles to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael. You’ll recognize the islands as Luke Skywalker’s otherworldly refuge in the finale of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ecologists, geologists, and archaeologists have long recognized them as one of the most important seabird colonies in Ireland, a classic example of fault-mediated geomorphology, and the site of a 7th century monastery.

The Burren is a karst-landscape region in northwest County Clare, in Ireland. The limestone is up to 800 meters thick and formed as sediments in a tropical sea approximately 325 million years ago.

DAY 9 Monday, July 23: Volcanoes of Sand

Today is all about sediments and structures. A series of stops take us to textbook examples of weird and wild geology: sand volcanoes, slumps, sea arches, folds, and cyclothem boundaries. We’ll visit the scenic Bridges of Ross and the Loop Head Lighthouse, stop at the Pollock Holes (a local secret: huge, ecologically-rich tide pools and swimming holes), and see an example of astronomically-forced climate change recorded in the rock record.

Skellig Michael (Irish: Sceilig Mhichíl), is the larger of the two Skellig Islands, in County Kerry. Most of the island, including the remains of the 7th century Gaelic Christian monastery became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Photo by Jerzy Strzelecki (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

DAY 10 Tuesday, July 24: The Barren Burren

The dramatic Carboniferous Cliffs of Moher and the brilliantly white karst landscape of the Burren National Park are today’s destinations. Recipients of both UNESCO Geopark status and a 100 Great Geosites ranking, these two stunning sites exemplify the interaction of bedrock and glacial and coastal erosional processes responsible for Ireland’s diverse and majestic terrain.

The Cliffs of Moher located at the southwestern edge of the Burren region in County Clare, Ireland. They rise 390 ft above the Atlantic Ocean at Hag’s Head, and, eight kilometres to the north, reach their maximum height of 702 ft just north of O’Brien’s Tower.

DAY 11 Wednesday, July 25: Search for your Galway shawl

After a behind the scenes tour of the 19th century James Mitchell Geology Museum, you’re free to explore the brightly painted, bohemian city of Galway. Hailed by the New York Times as Ireland’s “most Irish city”, relax in the pubs, soak up the city’s vibrant arts culture, or shop for handcrafted goods as you take a much needed break.

DAY 12 Thursday, July 26: Marble & Fjords

We travel through the “savage beauty” of the Connemara region to visit Connemara National Park, stopping at the Connemara Marble Visitor’s Centre to see the diversity of marbles produced by the tectonic cooking of Cryogenian limestones, and Killary Harbour, Ireland’s only fjord.

Clew Bay contains Ireland’s best example of sunken drumlins. Drumlin is from the Irish word droimnín “littlest ridge”—an elongated hill formed by the movement of glacial ice.

DAY 13 Friday, July 27: The Western Coast

A loop takes us through County Mayo. The first stop is Clew Bay, whose hundreds of tiny islands are actually a field of submerged drumlins, enigmatic structures left behind by retreating glaciers.

Then it’s on to Ballycroy National Park for a walking tour of the pristine blanket bog habitat preserved in the region.

At the next stop, Annagh Head, you’ll interact with the oldest rocks in Ireland: at 1.75 Ga years old they predate the oldest fossils of cells with nuclei.

We’ll end the day at Céide Fields, the world’s best example of a Neolithic farmed landscape, capturing the transition from hunter gather to agricultural society.

DAY 14 Saturday, July 28: The Land of Yeats

The day is spent exploring the ancestral home of William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s most famous poet. A romantic countryside of lakes, rivers, forest, overseen by limestone ridges and the iconic table mountain of Benbulbin.

Slieve League (Irish: Sliabh Liag), is a mountain on the Atlantic coast of County Donegal, Ireland. At 1,972 ft, it has some of the highest sea cliffs on the island. Although less famous than the Cliffs of Moher, Slieve League’s cliffs reach almost three times higher. Photo by Brholden (own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

DAY 15 Sunday, July 29: The Edge of the World

The cliffs at Slieve League, some of the highest in the world, tower a staggering 2,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. You’ll experience them from above and below. Starting at the Slieve League viewing platform for a safe, but exhilarating view from the top. After that, we’ll descend to the harbour below for a personal boat tour of the base of cliffs, keeping an eye out for basking sharks and dolphins.

After the wild morning, we’ll calm down in Glenveagh National Park: 40,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness that surround the lush gardens and buildings of Glenveagh Castle.

Glenveagh Castle (Irish: Caisleán Ghleann Bheatha) is a large castellated Mansion house built in County Donegal, Ireland, built between 1870 and 1873 by Captain John George Adair. It stands within the boundaries of Glenveagh National Park.

DAY 16 Monday, July 30: Giants & Thrones

The day begins at Potrush Nature Reserve, ground zero for an epic intellectual battle in the early history of geology, where fossils appear to be preserved in volcanic rocks.

Then we move onto the Giant’s Causeway, perhaps the most iconic geological site in the world, where 40,000 columns of basalt create an unearthly sight that begs for a supernatural explanation.

And we’ll finish up the day Ballintoy Harbour, a starkly beautiful landscape of basalt and chalk that you might recognize as the setting of the Iron Islands on Games of Thrones.

The Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.

DAY 17 Tuesday, July 31: Maritime Mega Disasters

We head to Belfast to take in the international award-winning Titanic Belfast, where the history and tragedy of the ill-fated voyage are brought to life in nine massive, interactive galleries. We then head to Harland & Wolff for a behind the scenes tour.

Before heading to the city, however, we’ll stop at the site of a far larger maritime disaster. At Waterloo Bay, deposits formed by ancient mega tsunamis herald the coming of the one of the greatest mass extinctions in Earth history.

If time allows, the day will wrap up with a group tour of the Ulster Museum, home to Northern Ireland’s preeminent collection of fossils, rocks, and minerals.

The Titanic Experience—explore the shipyard, walk the decks, travel to the depths of the ocean and uncover the true legend of Titanic in the city of Belfast where it all began.

DAY 18 Wednesday, August 1: Coming Full Circle

The final leg of our tour takes us back to Dublin, but not before we stop at another famous circle: the Ring of Guillion. Officially designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the ring is a massive circle of volcanic rock formed by the collapse of volcano 58 million year ago.

Enroute to the Ring of Guillion, we’ll visit the Mourne Mountains, North Ireland’s highest peaks, towering blocks of granite emplaced at during the same volcanic events that produced the Ring and the Giant’s Causeway.

Farewell dinner

View from Slieve Croob of the Mourne Mountains, a granite mountain range in County Down, that includes the highest mountains in Northern Ireland, the highest of which is Slieve Donard at 2,790 ft.

DAY 19 Thursday, August 2: Homewards

All details above are subject to change.

OUR TOUR LEADER Dr. Jason Loxton

Geologist/palaeontologist and science communicator, Dr. Jason Loxton, received his Ph.D. from Dalhousie University and teaches at Cape Breton University. He received his Ph.D. from Dalhousie University. He studies the taxonomy and distribution of Ordovician/Silurian graptolites—or “really boring-looking smudges,” he says cheerfully. This eye-straining endeavor may be “unglamorous and decidedly not ‘trendy,’” as he describes it, but it is just the type of ongoing fossil detective work which has allowed generations of geologists to painstakingly piece together the history of our planet. This project, biostratigraphy, “uses fossils to divide the rock record into relative units of time.” And for that, modest fossils like Jason’s smudges are just the thing.

Dr. Loxton is renowned for his talent and wit as a lecturer and his public science outreach in schools, museums, and science fairs. He has written several articles for Skeptic magazine, as well as peer-reviewed papers on paleontology and climate change education, including mostly recently in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, and is the brother of Skeptic magazine author and illustrator Daniel Loxton.

Questions & Registration

Please contact The Skeptics Society office at geotours@skeptic.com or call 1-626-794-3119 with questions or with a credit card to secure your spot.

Download registration form

OUR NEXT SCIENCE SALON: SEPTEMBER 17 Dr. Nancy Segal — Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts about Twins

Dr. Nancy Segal, the world’s leading expert on twins, has a new book that sheds light on over 70 commonly held ideas and beliefs about the origins and development of identical and fraternal twins. Using the latest scientific findings from psychology, psychiatry, biology, and education, Dr. Segal separates fact from fiction. Each idea about twins is described, followed by both a short answer about the truth, and then a longer, more detailed explanation…

Reserve your seat(s) online or by calling 1-626-794-3119. Online reservation closes Sunday September 17, 2017 at 11am PDT.

Reserve seat(s) online

IN CELEBRATION OF 25 YEARS OF SKEPTIC Get 25% off the film: Reasons To Believe

It is no secret we live in some challenging times. In the world of fake news, alternative facts, and irrational belief systems, it is often difficult to know how we find the truth.

For the past 25 years Skeptic magazine has been at the forefront of helping people use skepticism to become better critical thinkers and question irrational belief systems. In keeping with the skeptic movement, the new documentary Reasons to Believe featuring Michael Shermer, asks the questions of why do we believe and why is it so hard for us to change our minds? How can we use science and reason to combat ideology?

In celebration of the release of the documentary on September 11th, 2017 and the 25th anniversary of Skeptic magazine, we want to say thank you to all current and new subscribers of Skeptic magazine by giving a limited time offer of 25% off the rental or purchase of the documentary on Vimeo.

Enter promo code skeptic25 to get the discount. Stream the film online at: http://vimeo.reasonstobelievefilm.com/. The promo code is limited to the first 2000 people and it expires: 09/25/2017

We hope to continue to give you the best content possible and appreciate you supporting us with a tax-deductible donation to The Skeptics Society.

More information about the film

Rent the film using promo code skeptic25 to save 25%

DEBATE: SEPTEMBER 17 Is God a Figment of Our Imagination?

Full details & tickets

DEBATE: OCTOBER 19 How Do We Know What’s Right?

Full details

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

Sustainably Using Space

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 09/05/2017 - 4:50am

It does seem that human civilization has grown to such a point that sustainability is becoming a significant issue in many domains. Prior to the last century or so the world was relatively large compared to human population. For most of human history it seemed as if resources were limitless – we could pull fish out of the sea without worrying that they would run out. Resources and disposal locations were treated like bottomless pits.

It is becoming increasingly clear that our population, our industry, and our appetites are now large enough that infinite sustainability is no longer something we can blithely assume.

It is also true that over the last couple of centuries there have been many premature warnings about “peak whatever”, or some way in which our civilization would not be sustainable. So far technology has advanced to fill in any gaps. This has given any new warnings about sustainability a reputation for screaming that the sky is falling, and makes it easy to dismiss. They were wrong before, so why should we worry now? Technology will eventually change the game and everything will be fine.

The classic errors that lead to these premature warnings were simplistically extrapolating from current trends, and not considering the development of new technology. The phrase “if current trends continue” should always be looked at with a skeptical eye. Historically, current trends rarely continue. You have to consider what is driving those trends, and if there are any feedback loops that will tend to moderate them. Also, we have proven a very clever species and I would not underestimate our ability to find innovative solutions.

At the same time those who too easily dismiss warnings about sustainability are making logical errors. First, we can’t assume that because some scientists were wrong before that means that scientists are wrong now. We can actually learn from the past and correct prior error. The second error is to fail to consider the fact that we are living on a world with finite resources. We may be getting better and making more with less, but there are ultimate limits. At some point the warnings are going to be correct, and we need to figure out when that is.

Finally – it is misguided to take the position that someone will find a solution. In the past prior warnings have not materialized because we did find solutions. But we have to look for solutions – we can’t just assume they will magically appear.

In the end we need to approach all questions about sustainability on a case-by-case basis. We can’t make assumptions either way.

Sustainability is also not just about resources. Antibiotic resistance, and pesticide resistance are potentially huge problems that are not about finite resources. In these cases we simply need to use our technology efficiently and optimally to minimize unintended consequences that have the potential to render the technology less effective.

Space as a Finite Resource

One of those finite resources that does not get a lot of attention in popular discussion is space. Perhaps this is because space, more than any other resource, does truly seem limitless. Space is really big and it is difficult to imagine how it can be limited.

However, in this context we are talking about Earth orbit. There is still a great deal of real estate between low Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit, but that usable space is finite and we need to maintain it. It is part of a critical infrastructure for satellites used for communication, GPS, and monitoring weather.

We have been and continue to use orbital space as a bottomless pit. We put up satellites with no worry about what happens to them at the end of their lifespan. In other words – we have not been using space sustainably. Now our sloppiness is likely to bite us in the backside.

NASA estimates there is currently more than 500,000 marble-sized or larger pieces of space debris. They report:

“There are more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to damage a satellite or a spacecraft. There are 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger. There are many millions of pieces of debris that are so small they can’t be tracked.”

That is a lot of junk. Because these pieces are moving at high speeds relative to other things in orbit, like satellites, collisions are likely and have the potential to do catastrophic damage. Some scientists fear a worst-case-scenario of a chain reaction of collisions – a piece of space junk hits a satellite and shatters it into more space junk, that then collides with other satellites, until orbital space is so full of junk it is essentially unusable.

Even if we never get to this worst-case, orbital debris is a hazard, to any astronauts or assets in space.

So now we have to figure out how to deal with the tons of junk we have been dumping into space over the last 60 years. There is no easy way to deal with it. In order to grab something in orbit you essentially have to match its orbit, which takes fuel. You then need to deorbit the space debris and move onto the next bit of debris. We simply don’t have the technology to do this right now. We also need to do this without interfering with functioning satellites.

There are many ideas on the table, however. A recent report, focusing on a new proposed technology called the Brane Craft, reports:

Super-thin ships like Brane Craft aren’t the only tech under construction to wrangle space debris. The European Space Agency is also considering robotic arm grippers, nets, harpoons, and tethers. Another European team is planning to launch its RemoveDebris mission in late 2017 or early 2018, which will practice capturing CubeSats with a net and harpoon. Aeroscale, a satellite services company based in Singapore, is planning to capture debris using magnets. And researchers at Stanford University and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California have designed a gripper inspired by gecko feet that could latch onto satellites and other large debris.

Researchers have even considered zapping debris with a ground-based laser. “You can slow things down just as they come over the horizon by pointing these very high-powered lasers at them,” Derleth says. This would gobble up much less energy than launching a spaceship and sending it after individual chunks of debris. However, such a laser could potentially be turned into an anti-satellite weapon.

The Brane Craft itself is a thin sheet that can envelop small debris and change its orbit, even to deorbit it. Small debris will just burn up in the atmosphere and pose no danger to the ground.

I like the ground-based laser idea. This could be an international effort with agreements to use it only to deal with orbital debris, and not as a weapon.

In addition space agencies are working on standards so that anything new that gets put into orbit has a plan for what happens at the end of its life. This will likely include some technique to self-deorbit. Essentially we need to properly dispose of our satellites when we are done with them.

We could also essentially tax any company that wishes to put something in space, with the money used for efforts to clean up space junk. So, if you want access to the limited resource of orbital space, you need to pay for that access with a little clean up.

We need to do whatever is necessary so that over time the amount of space junk decreases rather than increases, until it reaches a sustainable equilibrium.

 

 

 

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #587: What Makes a Good Podcast Episode?

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 09/04/2017 - 5:00pm
Stories about urban legends are at their best when there are real people at their center.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #634 - Sep 2 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Thu, 08/31/2017 - 9:00am
What's the Word: Liminal; News Items: 40 Years of Voyager, Ichthyosaur, Strongest Resistive Magnet, GMO and Dunning Kruger, Banning Mention of Global Warming; Who's That Noisy; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 08/30/2017 - 12:00am

A friend of mine, a lifelong Democrat, lives in a retirement home in one of the most liberal cities in California. One day at lunch he decided to sit at a table of residents he didn’t know. He soon realized that they were all Trump voters, enthusiastically expressing their pleasure with the election. “Finally, we won’t have to look at that nigger in the White House any more,” said one woman. My friend was stunned. “Look,” he said, “it’s OK for us to have political disagreements, but I’m deeply uncomfortable with your using that ugly word.” “Too bad,” she said. “We can say whatever we really feel now. To hell with your political correctness.”

I’ve long been annoyed by, and written critically about, the language police on many college campuses, where well-intentioned efforts to ban “offensive” words and deeds frequently lurches into preposterous and sometimes funny extremes. In the prologue to the latest edition of his best-selling sex-information book, The Guide to Getting It On, Paul Joannides writes:

I’ve given up trying to please people who insist that every word of every sentence must not offend a single person on the entire planet. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say “a woman’s clitoris” because it might offend people who are transgender. So instead of using words like “woman” or “man,” I’m supposed to say “a person with a clitoris and vagina” or “a person with a penis.”1

So let’s stipulate that none of us likes being told we can’t say what we think, and that we shouldn’t think what we feel. But the kind of political correctness that Joannides laments at least has the benefit of trying to make people aware of the uses and consequences of language, as adding “or she” did to the former norm of using the generic universal male to encompass women. It pales next to what the Trump voter meant by the phrase. For her, and others like her, being “politically correct” means that somehow they have been forced to suppress their racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic feelings. (Suppressed? Have they never been online?)

As studies from social, cognitive, and evolutionary psychology demonstrate, prejudice is a Hydra: cut off one of its nine heads, and another emerges.

Across the country, those feelings are erupting like mushrooms after rain. African-American freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania were spammed with threats about lynching black people. Vandals in upstate New York painted swastikas on a building with the scrawl “Make America White Again.” The lid is off the cauldron, revealing how much rage and prejudice had been bubbling below. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given the racism that Barack Obama’s presidency released, starting with the birther movement that questioned his very legitimacy. Marilyn Davenport, a member of the Orange County Republican Party Central Committee, sent out an email depicting Obama and his parents as chimpanzees, and was surprised by the outcry. “Oh, come on! Everybody who knows me knows that I am not a racist,” she said by way of apology. “It was a joke. I have friends who are black.” (Or did.) I guess her having to apologize is the kind of political correctness her supporters object to.

This election vividly reminded me of a classic study in social psychology, conducted in the early 1980s when many Americans were optimistic about the gains of the civil-rights movement. In a study that student subjects were led to believe was about biofeedback, Ronald Rogers and Steven Prentice-Dunn asked white students to administer an electric shock to either African-American or white confederates of the experimenter. (They weren’t actually shocked.) In the experimental condition, participants overheard the biofeedback “victim” saying derogatory things about them. In the control condition, participants overheard no such nasty remarks. Then all the participants had another opportunity to shock the victims; their degree of aggression was defined as the amount of shock they administered. At the beginning, white students showed less aggression toward blacks than toward whites. But as soon as the white students were angered by overhearing derogatory remarks about themselves, they showed more aggression toward blacks than toward whites.2 The findings were subsequently replicated in studies of how English-speaking Canadians behave toward French-speaking Canadians, straights toward gays, non-Jewish students toward Jews, and men toward women. In all of these conditions, members of the majority were willing to control their negative feelings toward the minority at first. But as soon as they became angry or got a jolt to their self-esteem, their unexpressed prejudice revealed itself—aggressively.

An equally powerful predictor of the eruption of prejudice is economic: competition, real or perceived, for jobs and security. When two groups are worried about their livelihoods, prejudice between them increases—and prejudice in turn justifies anything each side says or does to diminish or dehumanize the other. My friend and colleague Elliot Aronson tells this story in his classic social- psychology text, The Social Animal, describing how white attitudes toward Chinese immigrants in the United States fluctuated during the 19th century. When the Chinese were working in the gold mines and potentially taking jobs from white laborers, the white-run newspapers described them as depraved, vicious, and bloodthirsty. Just a decade later, when the Chinese began working on the transcontinental railroad, doing difficult and dangerous jobs that few white men wanted, prejudice against them declined. Whites described them as hardworking, industrious, and lawabiding. Then, after the railroad was finished and the Chinese had to compete with Civil War veterans for scarce jobs, white attitudes changed again. Whites now thought the Chinese were “criminal,” “crafty,” “conniving,” and “stupid.”3

Notice any relevance to the 2016 election? Today’s Chinese are Mexican, particularly the migrant workers whose labor is needed but who are perceived as costing Americans their jobs. Starting in the late 2000s, as the American economy worsened, violence against Latinos rose more than 40 percent, and Mexicans became the main focus of white anger about illegal immigration.

Censoring prejudiced language doesn’t touch the prejudice, any more than cutting the tops off weeds causes them to die.

As studies from social, cognitive, and evolutionary psychology demonstrate, prejudice is a Hydra: cut off one of its nine heads, and another emerges. Prejudice subsides in good times; in bad times it reemerges, with new targets. It survives because it accomplishes so many things for the people who embrace it. It wards off feelings of doubt, fear, and insecurity. It allows people to create scapegoats on whom they can displace anger and cope with feelings of powerlessness. It binds people to their own cultural, ethnic, or national group and its ways; by disliking “them,” we feel closer to “us.” It justifies a group’s dominance, status, or greater wealth: across the globe, wherever a majority group systematically discriminates against a minority to preserve its power—whether the majority is white, black, Muslim, Hindu, Japanese, Chinese, Hutu, Christian, or Jewish—they will claim that their actions are legitimate because the minority is so obviously inferior, stupid, and dangerous. Finally, prejudice is the ultimate tonic for low self-esteem: No matter how bad off I am, those people are inferior. As the historian Ian Buruma recently observed, the election of Obama was a shock to those “white Americans, [who,] however impoverished and undereducated, had the comforting sense that there was always a group beneath them, who did not share their entitlement, or claim to greatness, a class of people with a darker skin. With a Harvard-educated black president, this fiction became increasingly difficult to sustain.”4

Anyone who wants to understand prejudice, therefore, has a daunting task. Not only do we have to peel apart the functions a prejudice has for any given individual or group; we also have to distinguish explicit attitudes (such as the unapologetic racism and anti-Semitism of white supremacists) from unconscious ones (the “implicit bias” that many people hold in associating a group with various negative traits); active hostility toward another group from simple unfamiliarity and thus discomfort with that group; what people say from what they feel; and what people feel from how they behave. Did the woman at the lunch table insult Obama in order to momentarily feel superior? To let her friends know she’s one of them? Or to ventilate anger that her white middle-aged husband is out of work, drinking too much, and suicidal, and how come the country is paying more attention to “them” than to him?

This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 22.1 (2017).
Buy this issue

I don’t care about her reasons on a personal level, which is why I commend what my friend did at that lunch. He didn’t shout, or call the woman a racist, or storm away from the table; he raised a clear but civil objection, knowing that otherwise his silence would convey approval. But I do care about her reasons on a societal level, for that affects our thinking about what it will take to find true antidotes for the prejudices that are revealed in ugly language. Censoring that language doesn’t touch the prejudice, any more than cutting the tops off weeds causes them to die. One powerful antidote is, simply, making connections. We all feel better in “safe spaces,” hanging out with others who think as we do and share our experiences, but one of the factors most strongly related to the reduction of prejudice is contact with those who are different from us. Remarkably, contact actually works best for the most intolerant and rigid people, apparently because it reduces their feelings of threat and anxiety and increases feelings of empathy and trust.5

As we go forward into the known and unknown brambles of Trumpland, we will face many personal decisions: speak up or shut up? Shout down the opposition or try to hear them? Retreat to safe spaces or seek common ground?

About the Author

Dr. Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and coauthor, with Elliot Aronson, of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). She writes “The Gadfly” column quarterly in Skeptic magazine.

References
  1. Paul Joannides. 2017. The Guide to Getting It On, 9th edition. Goofy Foot Press.
  2. Rogers, Ronald W., & Prentice-Dunn, Steven. 1981. “Deindividuation and Anger-mediated Interracial Aggression: Unmasking regressive racism.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 41, 63–73.
  3. Aronson, Elliot. 2012. The Social Animal, 11th ed. New York: Worth.
  4. Buruma, Ian. 2016 (November 29). “The End of the Anglo-American Order.” New York Times Magazine.
  5. Hodson, Gordon. 2011. “Do Ideologically Intolerant People Benefit from Intergroup Contact?” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 20, 154–159.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for August 30, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 08/30/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

OUR NEXT SCIENCE SALON: SEPTEMBER 17 Dr. Nancy Segal — Twin Mythconceptions: False Beliefs, Fables, and Facts about Twins

Dr. Nancy Segal, the world’s leading expert on twins, has a new book that sheds light on over 70 commonly held ideas and beliefs about the origins and development of identical and fraternal twins. Using the latest scientific findings from psychology, psychiatry, biology, and education, Dr. Segal separates fact from fiction. Each idea about twins is described, followed by both a short answer about the truth, and then a longer, more detailed explanation. Coverage includes embryology of twins, twin types, intellectual growth, personality traits, sexual orientation of twins, marital relationships, epigenetic analyses, the frequency of different twin types and the varieties of polar body twin pairs. This book, and Salon with Dr. Segal, will inform and entertain behavioral and life science researchers, health professionals, twins, parents of twins, and anyone interested in the fascinating topic of twins and what they can teach us about human nature.

Dr. Segal earned her Ph.D. in the Social Sciences and Behavioral Sciences from the University of Chicago. From 1982-1991 she was a post-doctoral fellow and research associate at the University of Minnesota, affiliated with the well-known Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. She is currently Professor of Psychology at CSU Fullerton and Director of the Twin Studies Center, which she founded in 1991. Dr. Segal has authored over 200 scientific articles and book chapters, as well as several books on twins. Her previous book, Born Together-Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (2012, Harvard University Press) won the 2013 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association. Her other books include Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth (2011), Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins (2007) and Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (2000). She is the 2016 recipient of the Wang Family Excellence Award from the California State University administrators and trustees for “exemplary contributions and achievement.” She was recognized as CSUF’s Outstanding Professor of the Year in 2005 and as the Distinguished Faculty Member in Humanities and Social Sciences in 2007 and 2014. She has been a frequent guest on national and international television and radio programs, including the Martha Stewart Show, Good Morning America, the Oprah Winfrey Show and The Forum (BBC). Dr. Segal has variously served as a consultant and expert witness for the media, the law and the arts.

Order Twin Mythconceptions from Amazon.

Reserve your seat(s) online or by calling 1-626-794-3119. Online reservation closes Sunday September 17, 2017 at 11am PDT.

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The Science Behind Monsters
MONSTERTALK EPISODE #134

In this episode of MonsterTalk, we take a look at the convergence of science and monsters, as Blake Smith prepares to talk at 2017’s CryptidCon in Frankfort, Kentucky. What does science have to tell us about monsters?

Listen to episode 134

Read the episode notes

Subscribe on iTunes

Get the MonsterTalk Podcast App and enjoy the science show about monsters on your handheld devices! Available for iOS, Android, and Windows. Subscribe to MonsterTalk for free on iTunes.

In this week’s eSkeptic, social psychologist (and regular columnist for Skeptic magazine, Carol Tavris, discusses the hydra of prejudice and the psychological predictors that lead to it rearing its ugly heads.

The Multi-headed Hydra of Prejudice

by Carol Tavris

A friend of mine, a lifelong Democrat, lives in a retirement home in one of the most liberal cities in California. One day at lunch he decided to sit at a table of residents he didn’t know. He soon realized that they were all Trump voters, enthusiastically expressing their pleasure with the election. “Finally, we won’t have to look at that nigger in the White House any more,” said one woman. My friend was stunned. “Look,” he said, “it’s OK for us to have political disagreements, but I’m deeply uncomfortable with your using that ugly word.” “Too bad,” she said. “We can say whatever we really feel now. To hell with your political correctness.”

As studies from social, cognitive, and evolutionary psychology demonstrate, prejudice is a Hydra: cut off one of its nine heads, and another emerges.

I’ve long been annoyed by, and written critically about, the language police on many college campuses, where well-intentioned efforts to ban “offensive” words and deeds frequently lurches into preposterous and sometimes funny extremes. In the prologue to the latest edition of his best-selling sex-information book, The Guide to Getting It On, Paul Joannides writes:

I’ve given up trying to please people who insist that every word of every sentence must not offend a single person on the entire planet. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say “a woman’s clitoris” because it might offend people who are transgender. So instead of using words like “woman” or “man,” I’m supposed to say “a person with a clitoris and vagina” or “a person with a penis.”1

So let’s stipulate that none of us likes being told we can’t say what we think, and that we shouldn’t think what we feel. But the kind of political correctness that Joannides laments at least has the benefit of trying to make people aware of the uses and consequences of language, as adding “or she” did to the former norm of using the generic universal male to encompass women. It pales next to what the Trump voter meant by the phrase. For her, and others like her, being “politically correct” means that somehow they have been forced to suppress their racist, misogynist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic feelings. (Suppressed? Have they never been online?) […]

Continue reading

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

40 Years of Voyager

neurologicablog Feed - Tue, 08/29/2017 - 5:02am

On August 20th 1977 Voyager 2 was launched. On September 5th Voyager 1 followed. The reason 2 launched before 1 is because V1 was on a faster trajectory and would arrive at Jupiter several months before V2, and NASA felt it would be easier no to have to explain endlessly to the media why V2 was arriving before V1. At present V1 is 12,959,246,289 miles from Earth, and V2 is 10,657,559,202 miles.

Voyager 1 is the farthest human made object from the Earth. If our civilization collapses tomorrow, the Voyager probes would be the longest surviving artifacts of our existence.

If you do not remember the Voyager missions, then think of what it was like for Horizon to fly by Pluto. Pluto went from a fuzzy blob to a detailed alien world. The Voyager missions were the same, except times four. This was our first closeup look at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. It was our first closeup look at the large moons of Jupiter – Io, Ganymede, Europa and Callisto. We discovered even more smaller moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We discovered volcanic activity on Io, and that Jupiter had rings of its own.

Our knowledge of the outer solar system exploded, and we were rewarded with seemingly endless gorgeous pictures of these giant worlds and their companions.

The Voyager missions partly took advantage of a rare astronomical event – the syzygy. Every 176 years all of the planets of our solar system will happen to be on one side of the sun. The last such occurrence peaked on March 10th 1982. While the media was obsessed with rumors of the end of the world from the massive earthquakes that would allegedly occur from the combined gravitation tug of all the planets (which is absurd, in case you are wondering), NASA scientists saw an opportunity. The outer gas giants were all within 73 degrees of each other. This meant that they could launch probes that could more easily swing past all four gas giants.

Voyagers 1 and 2 took advantage of this window, which happened to occur right at the time when our technology was capable of taking advantage of it. The probes used gravity assist to increase their velocity, but also to change trajectory so that they could fly by Jupiter then Saturn then Uranus and finally Neptune.

The Voyager missions were perhaps the greatest success for NASA space exploration. Not to diminish any other successes, but the Voyager missions were also perhaps the best PR NASA space exploration has ever had. Voyager was to NASA space exploration what the moon landings were for NASA peopled missions. The missions were a stunning success, and talk focussed around how amazing a feat it was. For only eight cents per US citizen at the time, we sent two probes to the outer planets with stunning precision. According to JPL:

The Voyager delivery accuracy at Neptune of 100 km (62 mi), divided by the trip distance or arc length traveled of 7,128,603,456 km (4,429,508,700 mi), is equivalent to the feat of sinking a 3630 km (2260 mi) golf putt, assuming that the golfer can make a few illegal fine adjustments while the ball is rolling across this incredibly long green.

Part of the public attention the Voyager missions garnered was due to the gold records each contained. These were actual record, plated in gold and shielded so that they would last an estimated 3 billion years. They contained two hours of music and other sounds of Earth, and an included stylus and instructions for how to play them. The gold records, a project headed by Carl Sagan, was our “hey there” to the universe, and people got that.

Having lived through these missions as a young science enthusiast I can tell you this was an amazing experience. I was already interested in science and astronomy specifically, but the Voyager missions increased my interest even further. They were like crack to a science nerd. They captured my attention and represented everything that was awesome about science – the discovery of the unknown, the awe-inspiring view of the universe, and the dedication of skilled experts. It filled me with optimism for the future. If we could accomplish this, what else could we do when we put our collective minds and resources to it?

And now the Voyager probes are leaving the edges of our solar system. Incredibly we are still getting signals from the probes – they are still doing science, giving us information about the cosmic rays at the edge of the heliopause (Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause in 2012). NASA scientists estimate we will be able to communicate with Voyager 1 for another 8 years or so, but they are not sure.

If you want to learn more about the Voyager missions, PBS has a two hour special you can watch online. For me it is also a reminder of how the Voyager missions shaped my view of science, exploration, and science communication.

 

Categories: Skeptic

Skeptoid #586: Volkswagen Dieselgate Reexamined

Skeptoid Feed - Mon, 08/28/2017 - 5:00pm
In the wake of VW Dieselgate, the government took the wrong steps to solve the wrong problem.
Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

GMO and Dunning Kruger

neurologicablog Feed - Mon, 08/28/2017 - 5:10am

Increasingly in modern society, with perpetual access to the internet, lack of information is far less of a problem than misleading or incorrect information. As Dunning (of Dunning-Kruger fame) noted:

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

I would add to that list – deliberate propaganda. People can feel as if they are well-informed because their heads are full of nothing but propaganda. Just have a conversation with an anti-vaxer, creationist, or flat-earther and you will see. Lack of information is not their primary problem.

Attitudes toward GMOs are also largely a function of information vs misinformation. After two decades of a dedicated anti-GMO campaign by the organic food lobby and Greenpeace, the public is largely misinformed about GMOs and organic food. This has lead to a 51 point gap (the largest of any topic covered) between what scientists believe about GMOs and what the public believes.

Michigan State University has recently published their Food Literacy and Engagement Poll which sheds further light on this issue. For example, 20% of respondents believe they rarely or never consume food with GMOs and another 26% did not know. Meanwhile, 75-80% of packaged food contains GMO ingredients. Most corn and sugar derives from GMO crops. There are also “hidden” GMOs. For example, just about all cheese is produced with enzymes (rennet) derived from GMO yeast. Laws requiring GMO labeling or outright ban GMOs, however, always carve out an exception for cheese, because the cheese industry would essentially not exist without it.

None of this matters, of course, because sugar (for example) from a genetically modified sugar beet and a non-GMO sugar beet are identical. The source has no impact on the purified form.

But here is the most interesting nugget from the survey – a total of 37% of respondents thought the following statement was true: “Genetically modified foods have genes and non-genetically modified foods do not.” That figure was 43% in those less than 30 years old (compared to 26% in those 55 years and older). Meanwhile, in the same survey 46% of those less than 30 said they purchase organic food whenever possible, while only 15% of those 55 and older said they did. There seems to be a pretty good correlation there between being misinformed about genes in GMOs and preferring organic food.

This is not a simple misunderstanding about genes. First, not knowing that all food contains genes is a profound level of scientific illiteracy. But this is not simple lack of knowledge – it also reflects direct misinformation. Other surveys (reviewed here) show, for example, that:

10-40% of those surveyed believe that insertion of a fish gene into a tomato would make the tomato taste fishy

41% believe that eating a GM tomato would change a person’s genes

68% believe that GM food genes can become incorporated into a person’s genes permanently and be passed down to future generations.

These numbers vary by country, but the trends are all similar. More than half of US consumers surveyed mistakingly believe that GMO tomatoes, wheat, and chickens are available on the market.

These surveys only sometimes hit upon another feature of public attitudes that is critical – trust in scientists. In the MSU survey only 59% said they trust academic scientists, while 49% trusted government scientists. This is a common theme whenever I discuss this issue with the public, similar to many controversial scientific topics.

Here is a typical response I just receive from someone who is anti-GMO:

“I appreciate your view but please post a peer reviewed scientific study that was not financed by Monsanto or any of the other manufacturers. And if you think they are safe because it was approved by the FDA you are deceiving yourself. The industry is largely self regulated.”

This is tricky because you cannot trust all scientific studies or all scientists. Most studies are preliminary, flawed, and ultimately wrong. On just about any topic you can find a scientist who backs most any opinion. It is very easy to dismiss any scientific studies you don’t like – just assume they are biased. Notice also how it is easy to shift the burden of proof away from oneself. This is not always wrong – if someone else is making a specific claim it is reasonable to ask them to defend it. But the statement above is different. It is essentially dismissing any studies with conclusions the person does not like with the automatic default assumption that it is a biased industry study.

Meanwhile, the truth is very different. There are thousands of independent studies on GMOs. Europe in particular has funded a great many studies into the safety of GMOs from a very anti-GMO bias, and yet the result of their hundreds of millions of dollars worth of research is:

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

You have to look at the big picture of any research program – what do the best, most independent studies say? What is the consensus of academic scientific opinion? What are the results of systematic reviews?  However, you can cherry pick individual studies that support one position, deny the rest as de facto biased, and feel as if you have a well-informed opinion. In fact, all this work is done for you, and packaged in propaganda that will push your ideological buttons.

The result is that those people who feel they are the most informed are likely to be the most misinformed, and to have opinions which run contrary to the evidence and the consensus of scientific opinion. This is exactly what Dunning was referring to.

 

Categories: Skeptic

15 Credibility Street #23: The sound and the fury

The Doubtful News Feed - Sun, 08/27/2017 - 9:32am
This episode, Sharon and Torkel discuss several recent news events and how they reflect on social views of science and credible sources. First, an eclipse recap: Nothing bad happened and we were not overwhelmed by alien or occult forces. The Hopkinsville aliens did not reappear. New Age spiritualism at a Mt. Shasta festival The media…
Categories: Skeptic

The Skeptics Guide #633 - Aug 26 2017

Skeptics Guide to the Universe Feed - Sat, 08/26/2017 - 9:00am
Special Guest: Eran Segev; Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Mary Baltz; News Items: Vitamins and Cancer, Panera Marketing Fear, Radio Dish Noise, Outcomes and Gay Marriage, Cyborg Bacteria; Who's That Noisy; What's the Word: Syzygy; Your Questions and E-mails: Farts; Science or Fiction
Categories: Skeptic

John Oliver and the Nuclear Waste Hubbub

neurologicablog Feed - Fri, 08/25/2017 - 5:08am

The most recent episode of John Oliver’s, Last Week Tonight, featured a discussion of how we handle (or don’t handle) nuclear waste in the US. This has spawned an interesting discussion among skeptics and scientists, including this response from a nuclear scientist on Forbes.

My overall impression is that there are legitimate points on both sides, and which points one emphasizes probably depends on whether they are pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear.

My reaction to Oliver’s piece was that it was reasonable, made a lot of good points I had made myself, and that it was not anti-nuclear. I don’t know if Oliver is pro or anti-nuclear based on this piece. The theme of his show is highlighting crazy things in our society that should be fixed, if only we had the political will to do so. The main point of his piece is that we currently store commercial nuclear waste on site where it is produced. We don’t have any central long term repository for this waste, despite the fact that we obviously should.

The main point of the discussion was Yucca Mountain, a nuclear waste storage facility in Nevada that took years and billions of dollars to research and build, that is a completely safe location to store commercial nuclear waste, but which sits empty for political reasons. Oliver correctly puts the blame mostly on Senator Harry Reid from Nevada who killed Yucca Mountain for purely NIMBY reasons (not in my back yard). It is a legit scandal and Oliver was correct to call Reid out on it and mock him.

Most of the criticism of Oliver’s piece focuses on what he did not say, which is always tricky criticism. Oliver has 20 minutes to tell a complex story, and he has to focus on one main point. He was not discussing the risks and benefits of nuclear power. He was not comparing it to other methods of energy production. He was only pointing out that in the last 50 years we have not been able to summon the political will to put our nuclear waste in a proper long term facility.

However, in many similar episodes Oliver is fond of saying, “To be fair,” followed by caveats that put his main point into perspective. He didn’t do that in this episode, and if he did I think it would have gone a long way to counter some of the criticism.

He could have said, to be fair overall nuclear power is very safe. Forbes also published an article in which they list deaths per trillion kWhr for various energy sources:

Energy Source Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average 100,000 (41% global electricity)

Coal – China 170,000 (75% China’s electricity)

Coal – U.S. 10,000 (32% U.S. electricity)

Oil 36,000 (33% of energy, 8% of electricity)

Natural Gas 4,000 (22% global electricity)

Biofuel/Biomass 24,000 (21% global energy)

Solar (rooftop) 440 (< 1% global electricity)

Wind 150 (2% global electricity)

Hydro – global average 1,400 (16% global electricity)

Hydro – U.S. 5 (6% U.S. electricity)

Nuclear – global average 90 (11% global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)

Nuclear – U.S. 0.1 (19% U.S. electricity)

Other sources give similar numbers – this one claims that coal deaths are 4,000:1 over nuclear deaths (if you take the global averages above you get a ratio of 1,111:1. In fact coal ash (waste from coal burning) is also radioactive and poses a greater health hazard to nearby communities than nuclear waste.

Then again, Oliver wasn’t comparing different forms of energy production, only that we stupidly won’t activate Yucca mountain and put our nuclear waste there, when we obviously should. Still, critics have a point. The piece does not exist in a vacuum, and Oliver and his team should have anticipated that it would be viewed as an anti-nuclear piece and given at least one reassuring caveat (unless, of course, he is ultimately anti-nuclear).

Perhaps Oliver overemphasized how dangerous nuclear waste is in order to make the decision not to store it in Yucca Mountain seem all the dumber. But this is a judgment call. There is no question nuclear waste is hazardous and should be properly stored. There is no question that leaving it is pools near nuclear power plants is not a good method for long term storage – no scientist or regulator thinks it is. Quibbling about how hazardous a waste it is, and how it compares to other wastes, was not really the point of the piece.

What About Nuclear Power?

Going beyond the Oliver piece – what about nuclear power as an option? Like all energy sources, it is not perfect, and it has strengths and weaknesses. Fans can emphasize the advantages and critics can emphasize the downsides. I think we have to recognize all legitimate points on both sides.

Overall, as I said, I am pro nuclear in that I think we will probably need nuclear power this century to meet our energy needs while minimizing green house gas production. Nuclear, all things considered, is superior to all forms of fossil fuel for base energy production. You can make an argument for natural gas, which is also a relatively good short term option (far better than coal). Coal should be phased out.

The advantage of nuclear are that it can produce a massive amount of energy continuously, so it is great for base load production. It is relatively safe. It does not release greenhouse gases (the production of the facilities does, but that is one-time, not operational). We can deal with the waste if we decide we want to.

There are two big downsides to nuclear. The first is that it is expensive, and it getting relatively more cost ineffective as the cost of renewables steadily decreases. However – if we consider the full cost of pollution and global warming, I think nuclear becomes cost effective again. It’s worth the investment.

The other major downside is that it takes decades to build a nuclear power facility, including doing the site research, getting the permits, and doing the construction. Many people argue that 50 years is simply too long to have any significant impact on global warming. By the time new plants come online our energy technology will be very different.

However, if we really wanted to we could build nuclear plants safely much more quickly. By some estimates we would need to build about 50 reactors worldwide a year over the next 60 years to have a significant impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is not much higher than historic rates, if we extrapolate from countries like France who were building their nuclear infrastructure.

This does not even consider next generation nuclear designs. We are currently using generation II power plants. Generation III plants with improved safety features are already being built (not in the US), and we are developing generation IV designs that could be build this century.

With regard to the expense argument, worldwide the fossil fuels industry is subsidized to the tune of $775 million to $1 trillion dollars. Investing this money instead in nuclear energy would be a good investment.

The major alternative to more nuclear energy proposed by opponents is renewable energy. I am also a big fan of renewable energy and think we should maximize its contribution to our energy infrastructure. Distributed renewable sources of energy like wind and solar are the way to go. Solar specifically, I think, is our future. So why not just invest massively in renewables?

These are not mutually exclusive options. I think we should do both. But renewables have a major limitation that is often glossed over by some proponents, especially those saying we don’t need nuclear. Renewables are intermittent. In order to displace base load production like nuclear or fossil fuel we need massive grid storage. We don’t currently have massive grid storage. Proponents say – well, we are developing massive grid storage, so it will all be fine.

But that is a huge gamble. That is like saying, well, we don’t have a way to safely store hydrogen in a usable form, but I’m sure we’ll find a way and hydrogen power will be the wave of the future. At least so far, things did not turn out that way. Some technical hurdles prove more difficult than we initially hoped.

We simply don’t know how long it will take to develop a form of grid storage that is scalable to what we need. We cannot rely on overly optimistic projections. Sure, we need to develop grid storage options. I just don’t think we can put all our eggs in that basket. Grid storage is a non-trivial problem and will likely delay reliance on intermittent sources for decades, if not a century.

Meanwhile, fire up those generation IV nuclear power plants.

Conclusion

Actually, I really don’t have hard opinions on the topic of an optimal energy infrastructure. I have no ideology at stake. What I want is whatever science says is the best option or combination of options. I will happily revise any opinions based upon evidence and expert opinion.

At present I think we should be rapidly shifting to an infrastructure that causes minimal pollution, minimal greenhouse gases, that is safe and reliable. What I think is the current best interpretation of all the evidence is this:

  • We should rapidly phase out coal
  • We should continue to use natural gas for now but phase it out when other options are available
  • We need to upgrade our energy grid
  • We need to develop massive grid storage
  • We should continue to develop wind and solar infrastructure and technology
  • We should develop next generation nuclear power plants as quickly as we can
  • We should activate Yucca Mountain to store our waste, and Harry Reid should be given a lollipop.

Categories: Skeptic

Cause &amp; Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 88

Center for Inquiry News - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 8:16am

Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible. Become a member today!

The Top Story

Confronting Hate with a Humanist Heart 

The violence, hatred, and vile bigotry that erupted in Charlottesville earlier this month served as both a shock to the American conscience and as a moment of national moral clarity. White supremacists, including members of the Ku Klux Klan and avowed neo-Nazis, many heavily armed, vented their racist grievances and protested their imaginary persecution by the light of torches while engaging in senseless violence that resulted in the shocking and brutal murder of peaceful counter-protester Heather Heyer.

It was upsetting, to say the least, to discover that even when given several opportunities, our president was unable or unwilling to place full responsibility for the mayhem on the white supremacists, insisting on the fiction that “many sides” or “both sides” were to blame and that many among the neo-Nazis and Klansmen were “very fine people.” It echoed the hollow and infuriating calls to “teach the controversy” about creationism and climate change that secularists are so familiar with, but it was more stunning in its defense of the indefensible. It revealed something dark and dangerous about our country’s current leadership.

Also revealing were the torrent of declarations and condemnations from public figures. Officeholders across the political spectrum were forthright in their denunciations of the white supremacists, with no less than Attorney General Jeff Sessions declaring the violence to be an act of domestic terrorism and promising a significant response from his agency. Business leaders and other high-profile figures walked away from the president’s advisory boards in protest of his false equivalencies, forcing their shuttering.

Among the few remaining at the president’s side continuing to defend his “both sides” fiction about the so-called “alt-left” was President Trump’s cadre of evangelical advisors, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr. The religious right’s unwillingness to fully distance itself from this series of moral outrages is telling, and it serves as a powerful contrast to the responses from the vast majority of faith communities, as well as, of course, our community of nonbelievers.

Attempting to calm a panicked Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the well-meaning Friar Laurence promises to “give thee armor” to defend himself from his distress: “Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy—To comfort thee….” After the tragedies in Charlottesville, the Center for Inquiry released not just a condemnation of the white supremacists but also some secular humanist “armor,” the “sweet milk” of secular humanist thought on the evils on display.

We provided a crucial reminder to our community that modern secular humanist thinking, particularly from CFI founder Paul Kurtz, arose as a direct response to Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. “Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable,” Kurtz and collaborator Edwin H. Wilson wrote in Humanist Manifesto II in 1973. Throughout the document they make clear, “We [secular humanists] deplore racial, religious, ethnic, or class antagonisms,” envisioning a world in which all human beings are “a citizen of a world community.”

Modern secular humanism, then, is an affirmative lifestance that in its very foundational documents seeks to ennoble all members of the human species, rejecting racism and discrimination outright. It is the opposite of what was espoused by the bigots in Charlottesville, and an unmistakable line in the sand against hate, whereas our current president has swept the line into a formless blur.

In 2015, Eddie Tabash, a veteran champion of civil rights and church-state separation and chair of the board for the Center for Inquiry, wrote a deeply moving piece for Free Inquiry magazine on his experiences as the son of a survivor of Auschwitz. His mother suffered unimaginably at the hands of the Nazis, and the horrors she witnessed are almost unthinkable. Eddie tells her story and how her trauma informed his own moral thinking, contributing to his conclusion that what his mother endured “is inconsistent with what we can justifiably expect from an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent deity.”

There is no room on Planet Earth for that kind of evil, and there can be no tolerance for its latter-day resurgence. It is a moral stance we take as secular humanists and as citizens of the world. And we are reminded of the words of Carl Sagan, who, gazing in awe at the tiny speck that is our home planet engulfed in a sea of blackness, said, “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

 

News from the CFI Community

Public School Board Meetings Are No Place for Prayer

In 2014, much to our disappointment, the Supreme Court ruled in broad favor of prayers at public legislative meetings at all levels of government in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, a decision the Center for Inquiry vehemently protested as a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause. With this as precedent, the battle over government-endorsed religion moves to a venue fraught with even more tension: the public education system.

This week, in a brief filed on behalf of a coalition of secularist organizations, the Center for Inquiry petitioned the Supreme Court to take up the case of American Humanist Association v. Birdville Independent School District, in which the point of contention is whether school board meetings fall under the same rubric as city councils and legislatures when it comes to public prayer, or does a school board’s place in the educational system make prayer untenable.

As you might imagine, our position is that prayer clearly has no place in any government setting, but it is particularly problematic for school board meetings, because the participants in these sessions are not just members of the board but teachers, parents, and even students, all of whom have a crucial role in the shaping of educational policy. Sectarian prayer at such a meeting is plainly coercive and marginalizing to all those who do not subscribe to the particular faith being represented.

“The United States is becoming more religiously diverse with each passing year, and America’s young people even more so,” said CFI’s Nicholas Little, who authored the brief along with CFI Chair Eddie Tabash. “School boards should be concerned with enriching the minds of those students and encouraging them to learn from each other’s differences. The prayers can wait until the business of education is done.”

 

Skeptical Inquirer: The Slanting of Science and the Fallacy of Fallacies

In the cover feature of the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Jeanne Goldberg explores the roots of anti-science attitudes in American politics and the consequences we face as science and facts become malleable according to partisan interests.

Goldberg explains how the average American can feel intimidated and overwhelmed by science, alienated by the fact that some of our most hot-button issues can be fully understood by distant “elites.” This makes it all the easier for complicated scientific topics of global importance to be twisted into political and tribal signifiers. Writes Goldberg, chillingly, “This constitutes a form of authoritarianism that can be used to impede scientific progress and, in the long run, cause a government to fail.” But it can’t happen here…right?

Also of particular interest, this issue includes a powerful critique of one of skeptics’ most common sets of tools: logical fallacies. Philosopher Maarten Boudry is wary of skeptics’ over-reliance on the “gotcha” tactic of pointing out a logical fallacy in someone’s argument, so he thoroughly unpacks the assertions and implications within many of our community’s favorite go-to fallacies. Boudry reveals many holes in arguments that skeptics often perceive as impermeable, warning, “By carelessly throwing around labels and crying foul at every turn, defenders of science and reason may actually harm their own cause.”

What’s to be done about this overplaying of the fallacy card? Says Boudry, “I’ve now come to believe that this whole idea should be thrown overboard.”

The September/October 2017 issue of Skeptical Inquirer is available now in print and on your favorite mobile platform.

 

Countdown to CSICon 2017: James Randi’s Amazing Life and Times

As summer begins to wind down, the excitement for CSICon 2017 starts to build exponentially. Taking place October 26–29 in Las Vegas, truly a city of illusions, CSICon is the biggest skeptics event anywhere. This year’s conference will feature speakers such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Cara Santa Maria, Joe Nickell, Eugenie Scott, and so many more.

Joining them for the second year running will of course be James “The Amazing” Randi. Last year at CSICon 2016, Randi took the stage with Skeptical Inquirer Editor Kendrick Frazier for a live and lively conversation about Randi’s truly remarkable life and times, his adventures in magic, skepticism, and activism, and his hopes for the future of the movement.

You can see the whole conversation right here, as the “season finale” of CFI’s Reasonable Talk video series.

(You can also read Randi’s recent column for Skeptical Inquirer on the extremely dubious practice of “facilitated communication” with severely autistic patients.)

Of course, a web video is no substitute for the real thing. So make your plans to get to Vegas right now and register for CSICon 2017. You’ll see Randi in person, the huge roster of great speakers, fun entertainment events, and even a Halloween disco party. Not kidding.

See you in Las Vegas for CSICon 2017!

 

CFI Highlights on the Web
  • Richard Dawkins is the special guest on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, where he and Bill discuss KPFA’s cancellation of their event with him, CFI’s Secular Rescue program, and his foundation’s Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES).
  • Did you get a chance to see the eclipse? In a web exclusive for Free Inquiry, Gregory J. Paul looks at how this celestial spectacle, despite the claims of some believers, has no bearing on the question of God’s existence.
  • The JonBenet Ramsey murder was never officially solved, even though alleged psychics claimed to put their best paranormal efforts toward it. In Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell shows not only how the psychics blew it but what probably actually happened to JonBenet.
  • Daniel Dennett opens the discussion in the most recent Free Inquiry’s symposium-in-print on the importance of naturalism in secular humanism, describing philosophy as an intellectual Las Vegas. “What happens in philosophy stays in philosophy, by and large, and a good thing it does, too.”
  • The Center for Inquiry’s president and CEO, Robyn Blumner, heralds the increase in academic scholarship and scientific research to explain the roots of religious belief. “By understanding the cognitive components that make religion so intractable,” she writes, “we may develop social and psychological tools to loosen its grip.”
  • Also in Free Inquiry, Sarah Haider critiques what she describes as the “noble lies” told by progressives who seek to shield Muslims from abuse but wind up excusing or obscuring the harmful and violent aspects of extreme versions of Islam.
  • In Skeptical Inquirer, Gary Posner takes to task “Psychic Detective” Noreen Renier and her responsibility for the false hopes of a grieving family that placed its trust in her alleged abilities to find the missing Kimberly McAndrew.
  • Stuart Vyse and his Skeptical Inquirer article on unintended consequences is central to an op-ed by Rich Elfers of the Courier-Herald in Washington state.
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.


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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. Visit CFI on the web at www.centerforinquiry.net. 



 

Categories: , Skeptic

Ultraterrestrials

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 12:00am

David Clarke has written an insightful, informative and thought-provoking book on UFOs and the UFO culture. This is not a debunking book, although it fulfills that function admirably. Rather, it describes Clarke’s long search for what is really going on with UFO reports. Along the way Clarke goes through various stages of what he calls the “UFO Syndrome”.

Clarke is both British and a reporter. In the latter role, he interviewed many of the major players in the British UFO community. These interviews and his own investigations provide much information that, as far as I know, has never been published before. For readers familiar with the American literature on UFOs, this book provides a very welcome broadening of horizons. I had no idea that there was a British equivalent of Project Blue Book, for example. The honesty with which Clarke describes his own changing beliefs is most refreshing. He is never harsh or demeaning of beliefs he does not hold. He treats those who hold even very bizarre beliefs regarding UFOs with interest and respect.

Careful investigation of many supposedly conclusive UFO reports showed that witnesses had constantly misperceived mundane objects as flying saucers. This message was not well received by the UFO community.

Like this reviewer, Clarke’s interest in UFOs sprang from reading science fiction stories and seeing science fiction films and TV shows during adolescence. We both read various UFO books and joined a UFO group (NICAP in my case) and came to really believe that UFOs were of extraterrestrial origin, the start of the “UFO Syndrome”. In the introduction Clarke describes in detail his captivation with the syndrome. In the following ten chapters, he writes about his pursuit of the “truth” about UFOs. It is a fascinating journey.

The first two chapters cover topics that will be familiar to the skeptical reader. After describing the Arnold sightings and several 1950’s “flaps” and the huge interest they generated in the United States during the later 1940s into the 1950s, he notes that “the [UFO] syndrome took hold in no less dramatic fashion” (p. 38) in the United Kingdom. It is here that Clarke also describes the important connection between the UFO syndrome and the fantasy and science fiction pulp magazines of the 1930s through the 1950s. This connection has been discussed at length in Andrew May’s excellent Pseudoscience and Science Fiction (Springer, 2017).

Like many, I suspect what most convinced me that UFOs were real were the number of reliable, sane, often professional and well-trained people who reported them. Certainly not all of these people could have been fooled. After all, “seeing is believing.” The young Clarke also felt this way. In the second chapter, titled “I Know What I Saw,” he elaborates on this theme and introduces Ockham’s Razor and the work showing that human memory and perception is highly unreliable, especially under conditions where there may not be much information available to really determine what is really being perceived. This may be old-hat to the skeptical community, but it certainly is not to the public at large. In fact, it was only in graduate school when I learned about the constructive nature of memory and perception that I came to the conclusion that UFOs (and other such phenomena) were products of the inner world of the normal brain rather than in the outer world of actual objects. This insight leads Clarke to an explanation for even Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting that led to the modern flying saucer myth. Arnold most probably saw white pelicans flying at altitude.

Clarke credits Allan Hendry, an investigator with J. Allen Hyneck’s Center for UFO Studies, with starting to punch holes in the idea that eyewitness reports were useful sources of proof that UFOs were extraterrestrial. In 1979 Hendry published his famous UFO Handbook (Doubleday) in which he reported that careful investigation of many supposedly conclusive UFO reports showed that witnesses had constantly misperceived mundane objects as flying saucers. This message was not well received by the UFO community.

In 1970 the most extensive and well-planned hoaxes in the history of UFOlogy were carried out in Warminster, England. Only the first of these has apparently been previously reported, in an article by one of the hoaxers, David Simpson, in the fall, 1980 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer (pp. 32–39). The hoaxers took advantage of the fact that dedicated UFO watchers would be out on the night of the hoax. On a hill across from the watchers, the hoaxers lit a red-purple light, left it on for 5 seconds, turned it off for 5 seconds and then back on for 25 seconds. Infiltrators in the watchers supposedly took photos of the “UFO” and one of them had what was billed as an electromagnetic field detector that sounded the instant the UFO appeared and quieted when it vanished. The eyewitness reports got every aspect of the event wrong, and dramatically so, except for the shape and color of the UFO. They overestimated by about a factor of four the length of the event. While the light was stationery, they perceived it as moving. And while the light was on the hillside opposite, they perceived it as being in the air, where any self-respecting UFO would be.

The photographs, which were double exposures, showed an object of a very different shape than that seen that night in Warminster. The photos were given to the Flying Saucer Review, the leading British UFO magazine at the time, for analysis. They were breathlessly discussed in the July–August and November–December 1970 issues, even landing on the front cover of the July–August issue. No less a serious scientist than Dr. Pierre Guerin, Director of Research at the Astrophysical Institute of the French National Center for Scientific Research, stated that the photographs could not possibly have been hoaxed. He also generated some scientific sounding gibberish to explain why the photos showed a shape different from that reported by the witnesses. Specifically:

The object photographed was emitting ultraviolet light, which the eye does not see. Around the object, however, a ruby-red halo, probably of a monochromatic colour and doubtless due to some phenomenon of air ionization, was visible only to the eye and in actual fact made no impression on the film. (P. Guerin, F. Flying Saucer Review, 1970, vol. 16, # 6, p. 8).

The Warminster sightings remained a touchstone of the extraterrestrial hypothesis until Simpson’s 1980 Skeptical Inquirer paper. However, as far as I know, it has been unknown until Clarke’s book that there was a second Warminster hoax pulled off some time later. Clarke interviewed Simpson and describes this second hoax. It was a pretty simple hoax which consisted of releasing two balloons at night from a location close to where UFO watchers had gathered. Attached to the balloons were small light bulbs powered by a small battery. The bulbs were “partly covered with opaque paint so that when dangled from the balloon on the end of a piece of cotton it would turn in the wind, making it appear to wink irregularly” (p. 87). To make the event even more exciting, two flashbulbs (remember those?) were included and timed such that they would go off two minutes after the balloons were released. The results were spectacular. UFO watchers were thrilled and began waving their flashlights to communicate with the supposed alien visitors. The whole thing was captured by a BBC film crew and was reported as a real UFO encounter on the BBC news program Nationwide. Later the fact that it was a hoax and the details of how it was done were revealed to the watchers. Is anyone reading this surprised that the watchers refused to believe that they’d been hoaxed?

Probably not. But Clarke seems to have been, and it was these demonstrations of the failure of UFOs as extraterrestrial that led him to start questioning even more the usefulness of eyewitness reports and the “investigations” by UFO proponents.

Chapter 4, “The James Bond Department” covers the British equivalent of the U.S. Air Force’s Project Blue Book, which was tasked with recording and, sometimes, investigating UFO reports. After years of trying, and often succeeding, to get information from the “UFO Desk,” Clarke comments that “the contrast between the popular idea of a lavishly funded secret government agency tasked with suppressing the facts about alien visitations and the mundane daily reality faced by those who ran…the actual UFO desk” (pp. 99–100) reminded him more of the early 1980s satirical British television program Yes Minister than the X-Files.

Chapter 5, “Demand the Truth”, covers the continued call by UFO believers for release of “secret” government files even after the British government closed down the UFO desk in 2010. Here he makes the point that no matter what documents are released by any government, conspiracy theories that the released documents are just cover-ups for the real truth are non-falsifiable. This idea is well known to skeptics. But here Clarke makes a point I’ve not heard made before. Julian Assange and Edward Snowden both accessed highly classified documents and released tens of thousands of them. Documents proving that governments knew of the reality of UFOs would have been among the most spectacular revelation that these leakers could have made. And yet, there is not a single reference to UFOs, or UFO related topics, in any of these documents. But, of course, to the true believer this only shows that Assange and Snowden were in on the cover-up.

Chapter 6, “Crashed Saucer Syndrome” covers the Roswell event in some detail. The chapter also recounts the story of another hoax, this one designed to test whether the British government really had a secret plan in place to deal with landings by actual flying saucers. Six carefully constructed saucer-like objects, 4.5 by 2.5 feet in size, had internal speakers that gave off an “unearthly bleeping sound when disturbed.” The objects were also “filled…with a foul-smelling concoction of flour and water that was boiled to make it resemble an alien substance” (p. 166). They were scattered around the south of England in September 1967. The result was chaos “crowned by a bureaucratic dispute over which department was responsible for the requisition of a staff car” (p. 167).

Some people really believe that they are in contact with aliens through some form of telepathic communication. Chapter 7, “Cosmic Voices,” presents a sympathetic view of such people. It focuses on a man named George King, who had such a belief. King said he communicated with beings from Mars and Venus, and in 1959 he appeared on the BBC television program Lifeline. King was not the only guest on the show. Also present were a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and an astronomer. From Clarke’s description of the program one understands that there was no attempt to make fun of King, but to engage him in conversation and delve into his beliefs. This stands in sharp contrast to the more modern sensationalistic approaches to such claims. That said, it’s difficult, at least for me, not to chuckle when I read that King would suddenly have super human strength, “unwelcome levitation” and “On one occasion [King] experienced a bout of invisibility and disappeared for six hours” (p. 187). Damn inconvenient, that!

Alien abductions are covered in chapter 8, “They are Coming to Take Me Away.” This is familiar territory that Clarke covers well. He discusses the role of science fiction stereotypes of aliens in helping to create the form of the alien abductors: “Visual media presented us with an image of what aliens should look like from 1978 and before long they started abducting us” (p. 220). The delusion-inducing role of hypnosis is also reviewed.

Chapter 9, “Angels or Demons,” is the most thought-provoking chapter. The extraterrestrial hypothesis is certainly not the only paranormal explanation for UFOs, although it is the most common one. Some believe that UFOs are demons—literally the work of the devil. Clarke describes his long interview with Father Paul, “Britain’s longest serving Christian ufologist” (p. 222) who exemplifies this view. The late Father Paul’s beliefs were clearly heart-felt. This leads Clarke to compare traditional organized religion and belief in UFOs. He then asks an important question: “On what logical or scientific grounds should established faiths be worthy of respect but ufology be regarded as a laughing matter?” (p. 230).

Order the book from Amazon

The religious/demonic approach to UFOs is not the only non-extraterrestrial hypothesis. There are the “Third Realm” (a term I’d not heard before) ideas. These hold that UFOs are from different universes or different dimensions and have been proposed by Jacques Vallee and John Keel. It was Keel who, in his 1975 book The Mothman Prophecies, came up with the idea of “ultraterrestrials”—beings who “inhabited parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that were imperceptible to the human eye” (p. 239). The mothman was, in all probability, a misidentified barn owl, as Joe Nickell (Skeptical Inquirer, 2002, vol. 26, # 2, pp. 20–21) has suggested. When Clarke interviewed Keel, he backed off from his earlier claims. He is quoted as saying “the idea of ‘ultraterrestrials’ is a literary device. It wasn’t a theory as such” (p. 242).

In the penultimate chapter, “Take Me to Your Leading Scholars,” Clarke takes on the broader question of whether sentient alien life exists elsewhere in the universe and whether such beings would be likely, or motivated, to contact us, and briefly describes modern human attempts to detect alien signals such as SETI. Like many before him, he concludes that extraterrestrial life is certainly possible but that in no way means such life forms have dropped by for a visit. In this chapter Clarke makes a clear statement of where his search has led him:

After spending three decades immersed in a syndrome where the scientific method is nearly always sacrificed to wish-fulfilment I had reached a point where I had to reject the extraterrestrial hypothesis as an explanation for UFOs simply because it can never, ever be refuted. (p. 254).

The final chapter “Conclusion: In the Eye of the Beholder” summarizes the insights Clarke has come to during his investigations of the UFO phenomenon. It is a useful summary of the state of belief in UFOs and why people come to believe in them. Much here will be familiar to skeptical readers.

For my own part, I thought that the most insightful comment in the book came from, of all people, John Keel, quoted on page 243. After allowing that he didn’t really believe the ultraterrestrial hypotheses, he admitted that “we are the intelligence which controls the UFO phenomenon.” It’s not clear what Keel meant by this. However, I would take it to mean that it is the inherent nature of human memory, perception, and cognitive processing that causes UFOs to be seen and the sometimes-dramatic interactions with them and their occupants to be so vividly remembered. I can’t think of a better book to give to a friend who is curious about what the UFOs are all about.

About the Author

Dr. Terence Hines is a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the Psychology Department, Pace University, Pleasantville, NY and adjunct professor of neurology at New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY. His research focuses on paranormal belief, the cognitive representation of numbers and, when he has time, the nature of bilingual memory. He is the author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal. He received his undergraduate education at Duke University and his Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. When not cogitating about brain stuff, he transforms into a student of how data from local postal activity of the 19th century in the US can illuminate the economic history of that time period.

Categories: Critical Thinking, Skeptic

eSkeptic for August 23, 2017

Skeptic.com feed - Wed, 08/23/2017 - 12:00am

In this week’s eSkeptic:

DEBATE Solving Moral Dilemmas: How Do We Know What’s Right?

Abortion, euthanasia, organ donation… Can science tell us what we ought to do? The panel will debate claims in recent books that science has discovered objective (absolute) moral principles purely within a naturalist framework–without the guidance of any religious ideology or philosophy.

Dr. Michael Shermer, the author of one of those books (The Moral Arc) will present his case. Dr. Douglas Navarick, Professor of Psychology and Dr. Ryan Nichols, Associate Professor of Philosophy, will present alternative views, and members of the audience will also have an opportunity to comment and ask questions.

Moderating the discussion will be Jesse Dollemore and Brittany Page, co-hosts of the popular podcast I Doubt It with Dollemore.

Following the panel discussion, free refreshments will be served and Dr. Shermer will be available to sign copies of his book. (If you don’t already have a copy, they’ll be available for sale at the event and at the bookstore).

This entire event will be recorded on audio and made available on a podcast. This event is hosted by Psi Chi, the psychology department’s chapter of the International Honor Society in Psychology.

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How useful are eyewitness reports and “investigations” by UFO proponents? In this week’s eSkeptic, psychology professor Dr. Terence Hines reviews How UFOs Conquered the World: The History of a Modern Myth, by David Clarke.

Ultraterrestrials

by Terence Hines

David Clarke has written an insightful, informative and thought-provoking book on UFOs and the UFO culture. This is not a debunking book, although it fulfills that function admirably. Rather, it describes Clarke’s long search for what is really going on with UFO reports. Along the way Clarke goes through various stages of what he calls the “UFO Syndrome”.

Clarke is both British and a reporter. In the latter role, he interviewed many of the major players in the British UFO community. These interviews and his own investigations provide much information that, as far as I know, has never been published before. For readers familiar with the American literature on UFOs, this book provides a very welcome broadening of horizons. I had no idea that there was a British equivalent of Project Blue Book, for example. The honesty with which Clarke describes his own changing beliefs is most refreshing. He is never harsh or demeaning of beliefs he does not hold. He treats those who hold even very bizarre beliefs regarding UFOs with interest and respect.

Careful investigation of many supposedly conclusive UFO reports showed that witnesses had constantly misperceived mundane objects as flying saucers. This message was not well received by the UFO community.

Like this reviewer, Clarke’s interest in UFOs sprang from reading science fiction stories and seeing science fiction films and TV shows during adolescence. We both read various UFO books and joined a UFO group (NICAP in my case) and came to really believe that UFOs were of extraterrestrial origin, the start of the “UFO Syndrome”. In the introduction Clarke describes in detail his captivation with the syndrome. In the following ten chapters, he writes about his pursuit of the “truth” about UFOs. It is a fascinating journey.

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The first two chapters cover topics that will be familiar to the skeptical reader. After describing the Arnold sightings and several 1950’s “flaps” and the huge interest they generated in the United States during the later 1940s into the 1950s, he notes that “the [UFO] syndrome took hold in no less dramatic fashion” (p. 38) in the United Kingdom. It is here that Clarke also describes the important connection between the UFO syndrome and the fantasy and science fiction pulp magazines of the 1930s through the 1950s. This connection has been discussed at length in Andrew May’s excellent Pseudoscience and Science Fiction (Springer, 2017). […]

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