Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Previous SkepTalks

Mr. Tucker Phelps

Tucker Phelps

WHAT: Successful Skepticism: Creating Lasting Community
We often look at youth as a source of hope for the future: we want them to be less prejudiced, more equitable, able to tell right from wrong and better equipped to build a better world. As Skeptics, we often tell ourselves that critical thinking and analytical reasoning are key tools for building this better future. Yet surveys show that while the newest generation of young adults supports science and scientific literacy, they are increasingly disconnected from the broader skeptical inquiry. Surveys find that US Adults 18-33 are the most likely to identify Astrology as “sort of scientific,” the most likely to fall prey to pyramid schemes and twice as likely to express skepticism in a round-earth than their older peers.

One element which may explain this trend is that social pressure to engage the world rationally is lacking. Research has shown that on its own, analytical reasoning is insufficient to prevent belief in unfounded ideas. The true test is whether or not the individual personally values critical thinking as a means of engaging with their world.

At Camp Quest, we provide children 8-17 the tools necessary to be critical thinkers and engaged members of their community. Between your traditional summer camp activities, campers are taught to engage with everyday science and given the freedom to put to practice what they learn among their peers. Campers are encouraged to ask questions and rewarded for inquiry. In this way they learn more than the bare facts of some scientific experiment, but rather how to value that process and bring it into their everyday worlds at home, school or elsewhere.

What they learn at their sleep-away summer camp they take home for the rest of the year and return again smarter and wiser. Come learn how a volunteer organization is teaching children to think critically while building a supportive community.

WHO: Tucker Phelps
For 7 years Tucker Phelps has been serving as Leadership Track Director, board member, and curriculum developer for Camp Quest West, a volunteer-run 501(c)(3) educational non-profit who envisions a world in which children grow up exploring, thinking for themselves, connecting with their communities, and acting to make the most of life for themselves and others. In his spare time, he works as an analyst in the financial sector.

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 12 September

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Brad Hoge, Ph.D.

WHAT: The Bitter M&Ms of Climate Change: Misconceptions and Misinformation
NCSE’s teacher ambassador program has operated under the catch phrase “turning misinformation into educational opportunities” or TMEO. But the M in TMEO can also refer to misconceptions. The program uses misconception-based pedagogy to inoculate students against the misinformation about climate change they encounter from sources such as the Heartland Institute and some fairly high-profile politicians, so either word actually works. And it’s not simply that I can’t decide which word I like best. There is a method to my madness and it has to do with the power the chimeric M provides when explaining the impact of our approach. Join me at the next Skeptics meeting and I’ll let you in on the secret.

WHO: Brad Hoge, Ph.D.
Brad Hoge has a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology, and has taught at the University of Houston as well as working at the Children’s Museum of Houston. He is Director of Teacher Support at the National Center for Science Education, in Oakland, CA. Dr. Hoge has taught all age groups from preschoolers to college graduate students, and he has developed and delivered professional development programs for elementary and secondary teachers. He has also worked on numerous STEM projects and programs including museum exhibits, smart games, and major public events. A published poet, he was editor of Dark Matter Literary Journal from 2013 – 2017.

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 9 May 2019

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Glen Branch

Glenn Branch

WHAT: The year in anti-science-education legislation
From the first bill to ban the teaching of evolution — introduced in Kentucky in 1921 — to the present, legislation aimed at impeding science education has been a regular feature in statehouses around the country. In 2019 alone, no fewer than eighteen such bills have been introduced to date. In his talk, Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education, who routinely monitors such legislation, will discuss the varieties, sources, histories, intentions, and fates of these bills — and will do his best to promote the idea that South Dakota’s “Act to protect the teaching of certain scientific information” is cursed.

WHO: Glenn Branch
Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education. He is the co-editor, with Eugenie C. Scott, of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools (2006), and the author or coauthor of numerous articles on creationism, evolution education, and climate change education in such publications as Scientific American, The American Biology Teacher, and Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics. He is a long-time student of pseudoscience of many types.

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 11 April 2019

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Richard Saunders

WHAT: Australia’s Psychic Detectives and Psychic “Predictions”
Just how many crimes have so-called Psychic Detectives solved in Australia? How do their claims stack up against the results? Do Police really call upon the paranormal to find missing people? Join Australian Skeptic Richard Saunders as he examines some famous crimes and the alleged supernatural connection. Also, Richard will give an overview of the world’s most comprehensive study into psychic predictions.

WHO: Richard Saunders
Richard Saunders starred as the “Skeptical Judge” on two seasons of the Australian TV show “The One: The Search for Australia’s Most Gifted Psychic”. He is also the host of the weekly podcast “The Skeptic Zone”, now in its 12th year. Richard is a frequent visitor to the Bay Area, a favorite guest at American skeptical conferences, an origami expert and children’s author, CSI Fellow and life member of Australian Skeptics.

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 14 March 2019

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Eugenie Scott, Ph.D.

WHAT: What Would Darwin Say to Today’s Creationists ?

Many elements of the modern American creationist movement would be familiar to Darwin, especially the argument from design, which of course was very well known (and well-regarded) by educated people of his time. Young-Earth creationism, on the other hand, would be puzzling to him; Bishop Ussher’s 4004 BC age of the Earth was not considered mainstream Christian theology in the late 19th century, though certainly the view had its adherents among some clergy. Darwin might have heard of the “scriptural geologists” who promoted a young-Earth view during the 19th century, but like other scientists of his time, he would have ignored them. The current creationist strategy of disclaiming evolution as weak science would have seemed more familiar to him, given the criticisms of evolution – and personal attacks – he encountered during his own time.

WHO: Eugenie Scott, Ph.D. Founding Executive Director, National Center for Science Education, Inc.

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 14 February 2019

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Kevin Doxzen, Ph.D.

WHAT: Common Misconceptions About CRISPR Genome Editing

Researchers have shown that an assortment of special proteins — called CRISPR — can be programmed to cut any sequence of DNA. The ability to precisely edit the genome of nearly any organism has revolutionized biology, medicine, and agriculture. From curing deadly genetic disorders to engineering drought-resistant plants, CRISPR genome editing technology will reshape modern medicine and equip us with tools to cope with a changing planet. But what about claims that human embryos have already been manipulated with this technology? What is likely and what is unlikely? And what does it mean for the future of this important technology? UC Berkeley biophysicist Kevin Doxzen will unravel this groundbreaking technology and outline pressing questions that now confront society.

WHO: Kevin Doxzen, Ph.D. Science Communications Officer, Innovative Genomics Institute, UC Berkeley

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 10 January 2019

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

WHAT:  BAH Fest: A competitive onslaught of Bad ad hoc Hypotheses.
Multiple presentations of well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect scientific theories.

  • The Morphology of Steve: Eugenie C Scott, Ph.D.
  • Life ain’t hard for a rock named Sue: William Patterson
  • Gigantism in Space: Professor Italya Its-Soh
  • A Spirited Hypothesis for Neanderthal Behavior: Kate Carter, Ph.D

Dr. Carter was won the prize of a signed book

WHO: You! Put on your warped thinking cap and help reverse the advance of science. For inspiration, check out these terrible BAHs.

WHEN:   7:30PM Thursday 13 December 2018

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

WHAT:  A Skeptic’s Guide to Planet Hunting
Thousands of planets have been found circling stars other than our own in the last few decades! Come and learn about some of the underlying physics of planet hunting, as well as learn to focus your skeptical lenses to cut through to the truth for a variety of different planetary claims made from popular science articles.

WHO: Josh Lofy has a bachelor in physics and is the author of “Joshing with Physics“, a website that demystifies physics for the rest of us. He works at the ExplOratorium and is a board member of the Bay Area Skeptics.

WHEN:   7:30PM Thursday 8 November 2018

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Mick West

WHAT:   Beyond a Candle in the Dark – Respectfully Debunking Conspiracy Theories. How do you get through to conspiracy theorists, especially those who are close to you like friends and family? Often the first step someone takes on their journey out of the rabbit hole is the realization that they and their sources were wrong about something. To get this realization to sink in requires more than a candle illuminating their mistake, it requires a spotlight — a brightly focused blast of detailed debunking. Mick West discusses how shining a light on seemingly obscure minutia like “iron microspheres” or “ballast barrels” helps break the spell of conspiracy theory thinking.

WHO: Mick West is the author of Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories using Facts, Logic, and Respect. He has been debunking extraordinary claims, alternative beliefs, and conspiracy theories for over a decade on his Metabunk.org forum and draws upon this experience in his book. Before he was a debunker he was a video game programmer and thinks debunking claims has much in common with debugging code.

WHEN:   7:30PM Thursday 11 October 2018

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

WHAT:   When a Biology Meets a Biology (Coming through the Sky)
When we humans get around to colonizing a planet or moon in another star system, it will likely happen where a biology already exists, i.e. an ‘exobiology’. Protecting each of those from the other will be the challenge this SkepTalk tackles in some depth.

WHO:   David Almandsmith is a board member of the Bay Area Skeptics and a long-time nerd. He graduated in biology from U.C. Berkeley and studied physiology at Cal State Eastbay. A version of this talk was presented at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Houston.

WHEN:   7:30PM Thursday 13 September 2018

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Julie HuiJulie Hui

WHAT:   Common Misconceptions in Anthropology

Anthropology, the study of human societies and cultures, is fertile ground for controversies and popular misconceptions. If you are curious about why an anthropologist might cringe when thinking of children playing on monkey bars, and why anthropologists care about hamster cannibalism, then this is the talk for you.

WHO: Julie Hui is a PhD Candidate in (Biological) Anthropology at UC Berkeley. She loves to talk about all aspects of science and nature, but cooperation and brain evolution are near and dear to her heart. Soon-to-be Dr. Hui spends most of her time teaching Introductory Anthropology courses at Bay Area Community Colleges and is currently a Wonderfest Science Envoy.

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 10 May 2018

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Bill PattersonBill Patterson

WHAT:   SKEPARDY!
All Bay Area Skeptics love Jeopardy! C’mon, yes you do! This admitted, you’ll really love “Skepardy!” Come one, come all to the next SkepTalk and test your skeptical mettle as Alex Skeptek, aka Bill Patterson, channels (yes, literally) the real Jeopardy! interlocutor for some fast-paced fun. Bill has been quizzing clever people for years, and loves to challenge new blood. Sorry, no prize money will be awarded. The goal is simply good, informative fun.

WHO: Bill Patterson was a high school physics teacher for ten years, a Peace Corps volunteer, and youth agency executive. He currently is a radiation therapist living in Sonoma County. He loves all things rational, and is a regular attendee at SkeptiCal.

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 12 April 2018

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Miriam Diamond, PhDMiriam Diamond, PhD

What: A Quirky Colloquium Quashing Quantum Quackery
It’s fashionable for the names of products and services to include the word “quantum”, but does that have any validity in the realm of quantum physics? Is it just a nonsense buzzword? From “quantum computing” to “quantum biology” to “quantum jumping”, this colloquium will put you in a super-position to tell the difference.

WHO: Dr. Miriam Diamond is a high-energy particle physicist, currently employed as an Experimental Research Associate at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Born in Canada, she earned her PhD from the University of Toronto. She worked at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, the Institute for Quantum Computing, and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. She was also a member of the ATLAS Collaboration at the CERN Large Hadron Collider in Geneva. Assisted by her guinea pig Quark, she enjoys participating in science outreach to students and the general public.

WHEN: 7PM Thursday 8 March 2018

WHERE: Kells Irish Pub, Jackson Street, San Francisco

Tania Lombrozo, PhDTania Lombrozo, PhD

What: The Human Drive to Explain
Stephen J. Gould described humans as “the primates who tell stories.” Psychologist Robyn Dawes took it one step further, arguing that we’re “the primates whose cognitive capacity shuts down in the absence of a story.” Why are we so motivated to find a good story or explanation? Is this tendency beneficial? Cognitive psychologist Tania Lombrozo will suggest that our “drive to explain” itself explains some of the most remarkable human achievements, but also some of our failings.

WHO: Dr. Tania Lombrozo is Associate Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, where she directs the Concepts and Cognition Lab. She is also an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

WHEN: 6PM Thursday 8 February 2018

WHERE:   Aduro Biotech, 740 Heinz Avenue, Berkeley [Map]

Ransom Stephens, Ph.D.

What: Neuroscience and the Great Questions

This SkepTalk combined science, mirth, and intellectual acumen; a genuine treat. Dr. Stephens brought the audience up to date with fruits of neuroscience research and melded them with an evolutionary perspective.

Dr. Stephens began by pointing out that neuroscience in some sense is self-referential – a case of the brain trying to understand itself.

He then warned against over-simplified ideas such as strict roles for the left brain versus roles for the right brain. There are indeed some differences in roles but…

there is some overlap in duties, especially since the brain evinces considerable plasticity. In the most general case, when you walk into a bar (!) the right brain checks for the unexpected – an acquaintance, a hungry leopard, etc. – without ‘you’ necessarily aware of the search. Any significant results of the search are passed off to the left brain and into your consciousness. Sort of. Neuroscience is still in its infancy.

And how does something bubble up into your consciousness? Dr. Stephens likes the metaphor of the coffee percolator: activity heats up down in our unconscious until a ‘boiling point’ when activity percolates up into our conscious. Not a perfect metaphor but somewhat useful at this date.

The normal functioning of the human brain leads to “idea prejudice.” Here is how that works:

  1. our brain obsessively searches for patterns it might recognize; faces, predators, events
  2. we frequently perceive patterns when the perception is incorrect; i.e. pareidolia or the misinterpretation of random sequences (person appears in your dream and they have a car accident the next day); we categorize fast and think/analyse slowly
  3. our brain suppresses things it fails to categorize whether philosophical, cultural, or even visual (I showed a picture of a blimp to a co-worker and she said she had never seen one. I explained
  4. what blimps were and a month later she ‘saw’ one in the sky for the first time.)

  5. when the brain encounters previously ‘accepted’ patterns, those patterns are reinforced; this phenomenon, called confirmation bias, applies to visual patterns (face on the moon) as well as to other patterns such cause and effect (my cold went away after drinking rosehip tea) accepted modes of behavior, and value judgments (the mayor is a crook); information suggesting the mayor is decent is suppressed while criticisms of the mayor reinforces the bias

Dr. Stephens shared the discovery that infants have two or three times as many neuronal connections as older children. It may be that infants experience mental chaos and synesthesia that lessens as ‘inappropriate’ connections are pruned away leaving functionally ‘valuable’ neural systems.

The question as to which is more important, Nature or Nurture, is so simplistic as to be wrong. Both collaborate to shape the brain. Everything the brain processes originated from the senses.

All ‘normal’ human brains allow the person to develop exceptional talent. A person who devotes intense practice for two hours a day to some complex skill will, in time, be viewed as exceptionally talented, be it in music, mathematics, juggling, video games, etc.

Dr. Stephens offered theories of “consciousness” and “sentience.” He proffered a system where there are levels of sentience. Most of the history of live on our planet consisted of single-celled organisms which amazingly appear to have situational awareness and the ability to respond appropriately to changes around them. Multicellular creatures such as nematodes, anemones, snails, and even plants have somewhat more ability to respond appropriately. Animals with larger brains such as some non-human mammals and dinosaurs (birds) show the additional abilities of abstraction and strategizing. These abilities are rather modest compared to the levels capable of the human brain. It may be that a brain with a hundred billion neurons each with ten thousand axonal connections to other neurons reaches a level where a threshhold effect reaches a critical level that confers a higher level of self-awareness. ¿Or is it still a continuum? The jury is out.

He left us with homework: he suggested we Google Christof Koch. I did that and learned that he is “an American neuroscientist best known for his work on the neural bases of consciousness.” Furthermore he “introduced the concept that consciousness is a fundamental property of networked entities.” Cool.

Books by Dr. Ransom Stephens:
* The God Patent, 2009, a novel
* Your Pursuit of Greatness, 2011
* The Sensory Deception, 2013, a novel
* The Left Brain Speaks, the Right Brain Laughs, 2016

(David Almandsmith)

WHO: Dr. Ransom Stephens. As a particle physicist, he worked on experiments at SLAC, Fermilab, CERN, and Cornell, discovered a new type of matter, and worked on the team that discovered the Top quark. During the tech boom that ended in 2001, he directed patent development for a wireless web startup, and later became an expert on timing noise. His specialty at this time was the analysis of electrodynamics in high-rate digital systems. [Wikipedia]

WHEN: 6PM Thursday 14 January 2018

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA


Carrie Ellen Sager, J.D.


WHAT: Top Ten Myths of Homelessness
The problem of homelessness in the Bay Area may border on intractability and underscores the failures of United States’ political economics. The top ten myths of homelessness are:
1. Most of these people aren’t from here, they just come for the services (and the weather).
2. Some people just want to be (carefree and) homeless.
3. People are really happy once they get housed.
4. If we start housing the homeless, more will come here.
5. You can’t just put a junkie in a house.
6. We can’t solve homelessness because there’s not enough housing.
7. Let’s do what they do in Utah, I heard that’s really good.
8. With ‘Housing First’, people will get sober, get a job, and go on to live independently.
9. Tiny homes sound like a great way to house people.
10. (Expect the unexpected during the SkepTalk)

WHO: Carrie Sager is the Executive Coördinator of the Homelessness Program of the County of Marin.

WHEN: 7:30pm, Thursday December 14 2017

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA


Kevin Padian, Ph.D.


WHAT: Myths of Mass Extinctions
Everyone talks about mass extinctions. But what are they, really? Can anyone even define them? Let’s see.

WHO: Kevin Padian, Ph.D. is a professor of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley and a curator in the Museum of Paleontology. An expert on dinosaurs and the origin of flight, he has authored or edited several books on the evolution of dinosaurs. He is a former president of the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education.

WHEN: 7:30pm, Thursday November 9 2017

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA


Brad Hoge, Ph.D.


WHAT: Hurricanes and Heat Waves: Is This Climate Change?
This talk will focus on two questions. 1) Are Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the recent heat waves and extreme weather events in California the product of climate change? 2) If they are, how should they influence public discussions and teaching of climate change? To answer the first question, we must know what the predictions of extreme weather events from climate models are, and how these predictions are generated. Is there a consensus among climate scientists that extreme events are more likely? How much more likely are they? And how extreme are Harvey, Irma, and the California heat wave? Ultimately, how do we connect the dots? If a connection is made, how useful is this information for public discussion? Will the conclusions of climate scientists be more convincing due to the dramatic impacts of these events on people’s lives, or are we being “insensitive”? Is it a good idea to use these events as examples of the impact of climate change in classrooms, or is it misleading and inappropriate pedagogically? This talk will answer these questions, and will present some perspectives from teachers in Houston and Florida who are on the front lines.

WHO: Brad Hoge, Ph.D. is Director of Teacher Support at the National Center for Science Education.

WHEN: 7:30pm, Thursday 12 October 2017

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA


WHAT:   Beyond the Choir – Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
As the largest and most popular reference work on the Internet, Wikipedia MIGHT be the source of much pseudoscientific misinformation. It isn’t, however, due in large part to the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. Since 2010, GSoW has reviewed and corrected — or wholly created — Wikipedia pages concerning scientific skepticism. Come learn how the wired world’s source of information (40 million articles in more than 250 languages) remains largely free of pseudoscience.

WHO:   Susan Gerbic
Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the founder of GSoW. She is a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer (CSICOP) and Skepticality Podcast. She is the winner of the CSI In the Trenches Award from 2012, James Randi Award for Skepticism in the Public Interest 2013, and a Scientific and Technical Consultant for CSI.

WHEN:   7:30PM Thursday May 11 2017

WHERE:   La Peña, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley


Lauren Popov, Ph.D.


WHAT: An Invisible Plague: the Growing Threat of Tuberculosis
You might think of tuberculosis as an antiquated disease: an infection largely conquered, and isolated to the most impoverished nations; and you would be dead wrong. In this talk, we will explore the history and science of Tuberculosis to understand why this ancient bacterial foe is arguably today’s greatest infectious threat to global public health.

WHO: Lauren Popov, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Scholar, Molecular & Cell Biology, UC Berkeley

WHEN: 7:30pm, Thursday 13 April 2017

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA

WHAT: Are Saturated Fats Bad for You? Separating Fat from Fiction
In the fall of 2014 Kent McDonald became interested in the science behind federal nutritional guidelines and has since learned that there isn’t much that can be trusted. His presentation will look at why this is so and consider some healthier nutritional strategies based on more reliable information.

WHO: Kent McDonald received his Ph.D. in Botany from the University of California, Berkeley in 1972. He is currently at UCB as the Director of the Electron Microscope Laboratory.

WHEN: 7:30pm, Thursday 9 February 2017

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Mark Tarses

WHAT: Harry Houdini vs. Psychics & Mediums
After World War I, as grieving widows and mothers wanted to contact their dead husbands and sons, the number of professional psychics and occult mediums exploded. Harry Houdini traveled across American exposing these people as the frauds they were. Being the world’s most famous magician, he knew all their tricks.

WHO: Mark Tarses, President of Oakland Magic Circle.

WHEN: 7:30pm, Thursday 12 January 2017

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Richard Saunders

WHAT:   Too Good to be True?
From rubber wrist bands said to improve your balance, plastic cards that claim to improve the taste of wine, devices with no moving parts and needing no power input to rid your house of rising damp, to computers that claim to scan your body just like on Star Trek, to you name it! In many years of investigations Richard Saunders has seen his fair share of strange devices. Find out the story behind some of the machines that are ‘Too Good to be True.’

WHO:   Richard Saunders is an Australian skeptic and podcaster. He is a life member of Australian Skeptics, CSI Fellow, founded Sydney Skeptics in the Pub, has represented the Australian Skeptics on television and radio shows, and is the co-host of the Skeptic Zone podcast.

WHEN:   7:30PM Thursday December 29 2016 (Special Occasion; not the usual 2nd Thursday!)

WHERE:   La Peña, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Thomas Targett, Ph.D.

WHAT: Myths of Astronomy
Much of what we think we know about space comes from film and television. However, Hollywood’s job is more often to entertain than to educate. In this presentation, Prof. Targett will sort fact from fiction, taking a tour through the worlds of Star Trek, Star Wars, and much more.

WHO: Thomas Targett, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Astronomy & Physics, Sonoma State University. Thomas Targett obtained his undergraduate and masters degrees from Cardiff University, in Wales U.K., with a research focus on 21-cm emission from neutral hydrogen. He obtained his PhD from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in the fields of sub-millimeter galaxy evolution and the coupled growth of galaxies and black holes. In 2007, Dr. Targett began a research postdoc at Caltech, followed by similar appointments at the University of Birmingham (UK), the University of British Colombia, and the University of Edinburgh.

WHEN: 7:30pm, Thursday 10 November 2016

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Dr. Patrick O’Reilly

WHAT:   The Manson Family, Cults, and the Psychology of Commitment
The history and creation of the Manson Family, the family’s crimes, and the psychological commitment mechanisms that cause people to join (and stay in) cults.

WHO:   Dr. Patrick O’Reilly, Asst. Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCSF
Dr. Patrick O’Reilly is a clinical psychologist at Napa State Hospital and an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He is co-author of the book Undue Influence: Cons, Scams, and Mind Control, and is particularly well versed in the inner workings of cults, having joined one to study it for his doctoral dissertation. Dr. O’Reilly is former Chair of Bay Area Skeptics and Past President of the San Francisco Psychological Association.

WHEN:   7:30PM Thursday 8 January 2015

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley


Russel Wilcox


WHAT: Quantum Pseudoscience and the Nature of Mind
Popular misconceptions about the significance of quantum physics are often used to sell questionable products. Key among these misconceptions is the claim that matter is mind-dependent. Rather than simply debunk this and similar claims, Russell Wilcox will explore the serious philosophical basis for an interpretation of quantum physics that addresses them. This will lead to other questions, including “what is the mind and where is it located?”

WHO: Russell Wilcox is a laser engineer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He holds ten optics-related patents, including one for an optics education device. He has developed educational displays and teaching materials at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and at Burning Man, where he has lectured for several years on philosophy and quantum physics.

WHEN: 7:30pm, Thursday, February 12, 2015

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA

WHAT:   Herding Cats and Teaching Science: What I Learned About the Reluctance to Embrace Life, the Universe, and Everything

When Secular Students Alliance regional organizer Dan Pemberton began his work with secular student groups, he expected to see a battle for science literacy with clean lines of science advocates vs. religious fundamentalists. He quickly learned that in almost every secular campus community exists a recognizable population of students who reject science and the scientific community but espouse other secular values. What’s more, he learned that the reasons for this rejection of science are largely ignored by advocates of scientific literacy.

WHO:   Dan Pemberton is the Secular Students Alliance Regional Campus Organizer for the Southwest region. He was President of the Secular Student Alliance at Sacramento State University. In his spare time, Dan enjoys all things tech, LEGOS, and Doctor Who. Dan’s passion is for everyone to become a better critical thinker, no matter their religion.

WHEN: 7:30PM Thursday 9 April 2015

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley


Minda Berbeco, Ph.D.


WHAT:   Climate Change from the Biotic to the Exotic

November’s SkepTalk provided the perfect opportunity to introduce to the Bay Area Skeptics the newest member of the NCSE family, Dr. Minda Berbeco.

As their new Programs and Policy Director, Dr. Berbeco works to defend science education in the United States using experience she has culled from a career investigating the effects of climate change on terrestrial systems. Her investigation of the unexpected and unusual effects of climate change on biological organisms was the focus of her talk this month for the BAS.

Dr. Berbeco began her presentation by surveying the audience about their knowledge of the effects of global climate change. Answers included such things as extreme weather, the endangerment of wildlife, a rise in global sea levels, etc. After pointing out how the audience’s feedback suggested a good working knowledge of the effects of global warming, as well as the disparate areas of concern, Dr. Berbeco announced that she would concentrate her talk on a few specific examples through which she hoped to reveal some of the key concerns scientists are attempting to investigate.

One of the most impressive aspects of Dr. Berbeco’s talk was her ability to tie difficult scientific ideas to everyday issues that people might be better able to relate to than mathematical formulas or large charts with temperature readings. Chief among these was her discussion of the effects of global climate change on wine. She began by asking for a volunteer from the audience to taste a glass of red wine and report the flavors she or he experienced. Never one to pass up a free glass of vino, our own David Almandsmith jumped into action. After taking a generous sip, David described the wine in impressively specific ways, including “tartness of persimmons, cinnamon,” and “relatively dry.”

Dr. Berbeco used David’s description to illustrate that many of the aspects of our food that we enjoy the most, wine included, is the result of the climates in which they are grown. Even slight alterations in weather can change these climates in ways that dramatically affect our food’s taste, smell, appearance, and even nutritional value. For vineyard owners, this part of the “terroir” (aspects of where the grapes are grown, such as geology, geography, and climate) can mean the difference between an award-winning crop, and bankruptcy.

As an example, Dr. Berbeco discussed tannins, a diverse group of chemical compounds in wine that can affect color, aging ability, and texture. They cannot be tasted or smelled, but can be “felt” as the tactile experience wine connoisseurs refer to as “dryness.” These decrease significantly in hotter temperatures, and can dramatically affect the consumers’ experience of many wine varieties. Also of concern is the fact that sugars increase as temperatures rise, making formerly mild wines taste sweeter. Perhaps even more alarmingly, some climate changes negate plants’ natural ability to ward off insets, putting entire crops at risk, and increasing the need for chemical pesticides.

Dr. Berbeco went on to explain that the impact of global climate change isn’t limited to flora. Animals are also affected in some pretty dramatic ways, particularly those who live in the ocean. In a short video, she explained that over 30% of the carbon pumped into the atmosphere is absorbed by our oceans, creating a cascade effect that leads to an increase in ocean acidification. Even slight changes in Ph balance can lead to some pretty nasty disadvantages. Sea snails, for instance, use their sense of smell to tell them when predators are in the area, at which point they harden their shells in defense. In a more acidic environment, they can lose this ability, leading to a very happy population of crabs, but a severe increase in the things that sea snails normally eat, including algae, dead fish, etc.

Another example Dr. Berbeco provided was clownfish (yes, the Nemo variety). Scientists have found that they are particularly sensitive to elevated levels of carbon dioxide while in the “settlement-stage larvae” phase of their development . As they float around, deciding on which sea anemone to inhabit, they use odors in the water to decide which real estate to claim. These odors do two things for them. First, it helps them choose an area with fewer predators. And perhaps equally important, it assists them in avoiding any area that is near their parents, thus decreasing the likelihood of incest. In a higher CO2 environment, they lose this ability and actually become attracted to their parents’ scent instead. Aside from the emotional reaction most people have to that little factoid, anyone with a high school level understanding of biology knows what sort of havoc such a change would wreak upon the clownfish gene pool.

In the end, those of us who do our part to increase awareness of global climate change, and who try our best to cut back on activities that contribute to polluting the environment, can also proudly boast that we are helping to secure a future full of good wine, well protected sea snails, and incest-free clownfish. I’ll leave it to the rest of you to dream up the bumper sticker for that one.

WHO:   Minda Berbeco, Ph.D. Programs and Policy Director, National Center for Science Education

WHEN: 7:30PM Wednesday 14 November 2011

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley


Liza Gross


WHAT:   Writing About Vaccines When Evidence Doesn’t Matter

On Wednesday, October 10th, the Bay Area Skeptics hosted an entertaining and informative one-hour talk by Liza Gross.

Her talk, entitled “Writing about Vaccines When Evidence Doesn’t Matter,” examined not only the claims made by people who speak out against the use of vaccines, but also the media’s role in providing them a platform for their sometimes dangerous fringe views.

Ms. Gross’ talk began with a somewhat humorous clip from “When Worlds Collide,” a 1951 science fiction film in which a planet and a star are discovered to be hurtling through space, on a collision path toward Earth. In the clip, numerous characters argue about what to do, and whether the threat is even real. Denialism abounds, leading one frustrated man to exclaim, “I think all you scientists are crackpots! Nothing is going to happen,” just as the room in which he is seated begins to shake violently, causing tables to overturn, glass to shatter, etc. The analogy was quite apt. In a very real sense, each of the components in the clip (a worldwide threat, scientists working hard to save lives, and an emotional debate about whether the threat is real) is alive today in the anti-vaccine debate. Rather than a gigantic, intergalactic menace, however, the threat created by the anti-vaccine movement is microscopic and homegrown: viruses.

Viral infections are among the largest threats to humanity, and have wrought havoc upon entire populations throughout human history. The smallpox virus alone was responsible for up to 20% of the deaths each year in Europe up to, and including, the 18th century. The advent of vaccination changed this completely. Although immunization of various kinds has been recorded as early as 1000 BCE, the modern practice of vaccination is largely a product of breakthroughs in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In that time, medical research produced vaccines for diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella (a.k.a, German measles), smallpox, and perhaps most famously, polio. Given the seemingly miraculous improvements in life expectancy and quality of life brought by these scientific breakthroughs, one might expect nearly one-hundred percent support for their use. That assumption would be wrong.

Gone are the days when people like Jonas Salk, developer of the first polio vaccine, were universally hailed as heroes. Thanks to a few misguided celebrities, a handful of highly publicized but poorly designed studies, and an increasingly credulous public (most of whom have never experienced a world devastated by viral infection), vaccination rates are plummeting, putting millions at risk, particularly children. As David Ropeik reported in Contemporary Pediatrics in August of 2011, rates of immunization are declining rapidly across the country and around the world, causing not only increases in disease outbreaks (156 cases of measles in the first half of 2011, for instance, versus just 56 cases over the seven-year period between 2001 and 2008), but also a decrease in the effectiveness of current vaccines, partly due to the rise in disease incidence.

Ms. Gross spoke at length about periods in the history of vaccination resistance. Although various groups have expressed opposition to vaccination on religious grounds, xenophobia, or claims of the ineffectiveness of vaccines, today’s anti-vaccine fears, Ms. Gross said, are largely fueled by a 1998 paper by former surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield. In the paper, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, Wakefield and his associates claimed to have identified a new syndrome, autistic enterocolitis, claiming a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. As the scientific community rallied to question the claim, the 12 co-authors of the article quickly began jumping ship, distancing themselves from both Wakefield and the study. In the end, The Lancet reluctantly published a retraction, but the damage was already done. Wakefield’s subsequent troubles with the General Medical Council, who found him guilty of “dishonesty and irresponsibility,” only endeared him more to the anti-vaccine proponents as a victim of a callous and cruel medical system that refused to listen to his conclusions because they stood to lose money if vaccinations became less common.

After years of reading and writing about the anti-vaccination crowd, Ms. Gross has summarized their mis-education movement into a list of six basic tactics:

1. Conspiracy (e.g., “The government and/or scientists are working against the public interest, and engage in activities that harm us for their own financial or political gain.”)
2. Fake experts (e.g., disgraced scientist Andrew Wakefield, Generation Rescue founder J. B. Handley, former model Jenny McCarthy, actor Rob Schneider, etc.)
3. Cherry picking (i.e., choosing outdated or discredited publications as “proof” that vaccines are harmful)
4. Impossible expectations (e.g., challenging researchers to carry out a study in which vaccinated children are compared to unvaccinated children, allowing the latter to be put at risk of deadly diseases.)
5. Misrepresentation (distortions, half-truths, and lies about scientists’ positions on vaccine effectiveness and safety)
6. Seeding doubt (e.g., “I’m not saying to stop vaccinating. I’m simply raising questions, and the scientists seem to be hiding the answers.”)

To aid them in their campaign, as Ms. Gross pointed out, anti-vaccine proponents have some powerful allies. Jenny McCarty, for instance, has been an almost constant presence on shows such as Oprah, Larry King Live, and will soon have her own talk show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) which will give her daily access to millions of viewers.

The sad truth is that anti-vax tactics have already been extremely successful in convincing people to stop vaccinating their children. If parents in the state of California are any indication, the U.S. has a long, painful road ahead of it. Parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children in record numbers. This, despite last year’s record-setting whooping cough outbreak. According to a recent article by Jocelyn Wiener, of the CHCF Center for Health Reporting, pediatricians and state health officials are sounding the alarm over the tripling in “personal belief exemptions” (PBE) which allow unvaccinated children to enter public school. In some parts of Santa Cruz County in California, PBE rates have risen to 17 percent or more, among the highest in the nation. This not only puts these children at risk, but also risks the health and well-being of the children with whom they come into contact.

The bright spot is that there are things we skeptics can do to help. When you see an online article with incorrect information, take the time to write a comment expressing your views and guiding people toward scientific information. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper warning people about the dangers of not vaccinating their children. Join skeptical organizations like the Hug Me I’m Vaccinated campaign, and consider making a donation to the cause if you can. And perhaps most importantly, get yourselves and your children vaccinated, and talk about it with your friends. If you are a scientist or someone involved with communicating scientific ideas to the media, you might also consider checking out Compass, an organization that supports scientists in developing the communication skills needed to engage journalists, policymakers and other non-scientist audiences.

WHO:   Liza Gross is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes for numerous organizations, including the open-access biomedical journal PLoS Biology where she is a senior editor, KQED’s QUEST (for which she recently interviewed our own Eugenie Scott), and several other publications. She writes about wildlife, ecology and evolution, conservation, environmental health, science policy, and many other topics.

WHEN: 7:30PM Wednesday 10 October 2012

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

Prof. Sheldon Helms


WHAT:   Gay Conversion Therapy: You Make Me Sick

Sheldon’s presentation was particularly timely because on September 29th, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 1172, which protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) minors from “reparative” therapies administered by mental health professionals aimed at altering sexual orientation or gender identities and expressions.

Governor Brown was quoted as stating that such misguided an unscientific psychotherapy “will now be relegated to the dustbin of quackery…This bill bans non-scientific ‘therapies’ that have driven young people to depression and suicide.” As overdue as this new law was, it will sadly and tragically not prevent amateur therapists with a religiously rigid orientation on what constitutes “acceptable” sexual expression and sexual identity from inflicting their views on young people who are confused, guilty and frightened by being told that their self- identities are sinful.

In his presentation Sheldon clearly, and in a remarkably entertaining manner, demonstrated just how persistently a bad idea can flourish, particularly when it is solely faith-based and devoid of even a modicum of empirical evidence. In presenting a history of this topic, he pointed out that it was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association, arbiters of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Even this action was met with protest and a petition was immediately circulated among psychiatrists protesting its removal. A compromise of sorts was reached when a new diagnosis, ego-dystonic homosexuality, was included in the DSM’s third edition in 1980. Ego-dystonic homosexuality was defined as “(1) a persistent lack of heterosexual arousal, which the patient experienced as interfering with initiation or maintenance of wanted heterosexual relationships, and (2) persistent distress from a sustained pattern of unwanted homosexual arousal.” This diagnosis, however, was also removed completely from the DSM in 1986 because a consensus of psychiatrists concluded that the emotional difficulties related to ego-dystonic homosexuality could be better understood and treated by diagnoses already in the DSM and it because inclusion of this diagnosis in the manual reinforced antigay bias.

Sheldon pointed out that the origins of the idea that homosexuality is a mental illness can be found in the work of psychiatrist von Krafft-Ebing, who, in his book Psychophathia Sexualis, maintained that the purpose of the sexual act is procreation and in which he condemned homosexuality, comparing it to pedophilia. Freud, a protégé of sorts of Krafft-Ebing, was less strident. Freud did not consider homosexuality harmful. Although in certain circumstances he incorrectly believed it could be pathological, he saw no value in psychoanalyzing someone as a means of “curing” homosexuality.

The breakthrough on “de-pathologizing” homosexuality really occurred due to the research of Dr. Evelyn Hooker, author of the 1957 research paper “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual”. This research paper conclusively demonstrated that there is no difference in the levels of neurosis between heterosexuals and homosexuals. When her research was subjected to double blind testing, her peers could also detect no difference. To quote Sheldon, “In terms of psychological adjustment, there were no differences between the members of each group.” Although one might assume, based on the changing attitudes of the American Psychiatric Association and the overwhelmingly conclusiveness of Dr. Hooker’s research, that the mental health profession would have recognized that sexual orientation is not a matter of choice and in itself not emotionally harmful. One might think that but one would be wrong; bad ideas die a slow death.

Dr. Robert Spitzer, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, was Chair of the DSM task force in 1973 and was instrumental in removing homosexuality from the manual’s list of mental illnesses. It’s unfortunate that Dr. Spitzer did not stop there. He had withstood the criticism of a sizeable number of his peers and had done a brave and scientifically credible act. Unfortunately, a later study published by Dr. Spitzer did lasting harm. In 2003 a research article he wrote, published in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, maintained that homosexuals can change their sexual orientation. In other words, sexual orientation was a matter of choice. To quote from Dr. Spitzer’s journal article’s abstract:

The participants were 200 self-selected individuals (143 males, 57 females) who reported at least some minimal change from homosexual to heterosexual orientation that lasted at least 5 years. They were interviewed by telephone, using a structured interview that assessed same sex attraction, fantasy, yearning, and overt homosexual behavior. On all measures, the year prior to the therapy was compared to the year before the interview. The majority of participants gave reports of change from a predominantly or exclusively homosexual orientation before therapy to a predominantly or exclusively heterosexual orientation in the past year. Reports of complete change were uncommon. Female participants reported significantly more change than did male participants.

It was a terribly flawed study and even Dr. Spitzer acknowledged its weaknesses in the paper’s abstract. Why he went and ahead and published it anyway is a mystery to me and why the journal accepted it for publication is an even greater mystery. Succinctly: Dr. Spitzer relied only on self-reports. The difficulty with self-reports is that there is no way to determine if the person is lying – and clearly an awful lot of Dr. Spitzer’s subjects lied to him. Dr. Spitzer later publicly acknowledged the study’s serious flaws, although he did not recant its conclusions. But the acknowledgement was much too little and far too late; the damage had been done. Dr. Spitzer’s high status (psychiatrist, Columbia University professor) gave credence to an outlandish and scientifically unsupported belief system that opened the flood gates to a wide assortment of strange and religiously zealous characters, many of whom had little or no mental health training, but all of whom fervently believe that homosexuality is an abomination that can be “cured” by their assortment of odd and untested therapies, and of course by prayer. In his talk, Sheldon clearly described the behaviors of these fine and upright citizens who “love the sinner but not the sin.”

Sheldon then introduced his audience to the main players in the gay conversion movement. One of these is the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), an organization that purports to be scientifically based, and which states on its web site, “We are focused on the right of persons to deal with unwanted sexual attractions as well as the right of therapists to offer psychological care to those who wish to deal with these attractions by diminishing or eliminating them rather than just identifying with and acting upon them. We acknowledge and respect the right of individuals to claim a gay identity.” One of its founders, Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D., claims on his personal website that “You Don’t Have to Be Gay: Diminish your unwanted homosexuality, Develop Your Heterosexual Potential.”

Although NARTH denies all religious affiliation, one of NARTH’s past presidents, Judith Hamilton, Ph.D., states on her web site that she “…conducts seminars for pastors and Christian leaders on the origins of homosexuality and how to minister to homosexuals. She has produced a video entitled ‘Homosexuality 101: Where Does it Come From, Is Change Possible, and How Should Christians Respond?’ ” The current president of NARTH, Christopher Rosik, Ph.D., published an article entitled “Change in Homoerotic Behavior and Feelings is Possible: Genetics Play Only a Weak and Indirect Role,” which is listed in Resources for Pastoral Ministry Concerning Sexuality in the Presbyterian Coalition. A former NARTH President, Jerry Harris, Ed.D. states on his web page that he “was a manager for LDS Family Services for many years.” Incidentally, the name of NARTH founder Dr. Nicolosi’s therapy clinic is Thomas Aquinas Therapy Clinic.

The efforts of Exodus International were also covered by Sheldon. Exodus was found in 1976 and is a “non-profit, interdenominational ex-gay Christian organization that seeks to limit homosexual desires.” The former Chairman of the Board of Directors of Exodus International, John Paulk, along with his wife, toured the United States, speaking at conferences and to the media about his successful heterosexual and religious conversions. The Paulks even appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Alas, for Mr. Paulk’s credibility, he was spotted (and photographed) in a Washington D.C. gay bar. His excuses (that he didn’t know it was a gay bar, later that he was using the bathroom, and later still that he was doing undercover research at the gay bar) fell on deaf ears, and he was soon fired by the Exodus board.

Sheldon also addressed the therapy work done by the International Healing Foundation, founded by Richard Cohen, M.A. Mr. Cohen believes that he was “healed” of his homosexuality through therapy and his new found religious faith. The International Healing Foundation maintains on its website that “No one is born homosexual, No one chooses to have same-sex attractions, Anyone can choose to change, What was learned can be unlearned, and It’s not gay, nor bad, it’s SSAD (Same Sex Attachment Disorder).” SSAD, incidentally, is a diagnosis exclusive to the International Healing Foundation. Mr. Cohen, by the way, is not a licensed psychotherapist.

Mr. Cohen advocates a therapeutic technique he calls “holding therapy,” which involves physical touch, with the client often being held in a sitting or reclining position –and sometimes in the lap, by the male therapist, who repeats kind, affirming phrases to the client, which Mr. Cohen believes will instill the healthy, non-sexual same sex bonding that was absent during the client’s childhood. Mr. Cohen is also a strong believer in aversion therapy, a therapeutic model that is defined as “associating a negative, often traumatic, experience with an unwanted behavior with the goal of decreasing the behavior’s frequency.” Aversion therapy is particularly odious because it can and does cause genuine emotional damage and there is absolutely no credible evidence at all that the healing claims made by such organizations as International Healing Foundation, NARTH and Exodus International are true. In fact, there is substantial empirical research proving that they are not. In an in-depth report, the American Psychological Association concluded that the “limited published literature on these programs suggests that many do not present accurate scientific information regarding same-sex sexual orientations to youth and families, are excessively fear-based and have the potential to increase sexual stigma.” The APA report also noted that there is “no evidence that sexual orientation change efforts work.”

Alas, science has done nothing to sway the members of these organizations whose convictions rely totally and solely on a higher authority. That higher authority is their belief in the inerrant and infallible words of the Bible. Professor Helms cited three quotes from the Old Testament that serve as the guiding principle of Gay Conversion aficionados, one being “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Leviticus 20:13)

As all good skeptics should be, Sheldon is an optimist with a belief that reason and truth ultimately win out. This is not always easy given the reactionary views on homosexuality (and science) among many reactionary politicians. In particular, Sheldon cited the efforts of teenagers to eradicate the bullying and stigmatizing that so often occurs in high schools against gay and lesbian students. On its webpage the Gay-Straight Alliance defines its mission as “a student-run club in a high school or middle school that brings together LGBTQ and straight students to support each other, provide a safe place to socialize, and create a platform for activism to fight homophobia and transphobia.” As of 2007, there were 3,577 clubs in the United States, representing Washington D.C. and every state in the country –and the number continues to grow.

Sheldon also spoke about PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) as an organization that has done truly remarkable work in educating the public about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues. In its mission statement, PFLAG’S states that it “promotes the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, their families and friends through: support, to cope with an adverse society; education, to enlighten an ill-informed public; and advocacy, to end discrimination and to secure equal civil rights. Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays provides opportunity for dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity, and acts to create a society that is healthy and respectful of human diversity.”

Sheldon urged the audience to pay attention to pronouncements by politicians more focused on their elections and faith-based beliefs than they are to reason and tolerance and to support worthy organizations that seek to promote tolerance and knowledge over ignorance and divisiveness. His talk was education and remarkable entertaining and a good time was had by all.

Patrick O’Reilly, Ph.D. is a past Chair of Bay Area Skeptics.

WHO:   Sheldon Helms is a Professor of Psychology at Ohlone College and a member of the Bay Area Skeptics Board of Directors.

WHEN: 7:30PM Wednesday 12 September 2012

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley


WHAT:   “In God We Teach” Viewing with Skype Q&A…
A one-hour documentary movie followed by the Skype presence of the movie’s principal character, Matthew LaClair

The story begins when Matt LaClair, a student at a suburban New Jersey public high school, hears his history teacher insert Christian proselytizing into his lessons. LaClair believed the teacher was doing this in the other classes he taught and probably had been for years. LaClair also believed that if he voiced an objection [on the basis of respecting the separation of church and state] the teacher would still continue proselytizing in other classes. Matt decided to bring a tape recorder to class and recorded what the teacher had to say about Jesus.

[Teacher on tape] “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he’s saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”

LaClair and his parents released the tape to the media but only after being repeatedly stone-walled by school administrators including the school board. The incident quickly became a national media event and spokespeople stepped forward on both sides of the issue.

The Skype session with Matt LaClair after the movie was enlightening,Matt LaClairMatt LaClair entertaining, and thought-provoking. One of his comments stunned me; the film-maker created the movie to be unbiased in its content. The reason that seemed incredible was that the many people supporting religious proselytizing in public schools made such fools of themselves in the movie that our SkepTalk audience frequently broke into laughter at their ridiculous statements. It was only in retrospect that I came to suspect that the pro-proselytizing side likely felt the same way about the people in the movie who supported Matt LaClair. Moments like that underscore the width and depth of a disturbing gulf in our society.

In answering our many questions, Matt impressed us with his basic concern: freedom. There can be no freedom of religion when government institutions align with religious views. For example, a scene in the movie showed Matt objecting to a planned trip to the Creation Museum by the Alpha-Omega high school club. When asked after the movie whether that trip ever took place, Matt responded that yes it did and he was pleased they exercised their freedom in going. His initial concern was whether school funds or school time would be used in any way for the trip but they were not; the club raised the money on their own. Matt did, however, disparage the trip as an homage to ignorance.

WHEN:   7:30PM Wednesday 8 August 2012

WHERE:   La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley


Mark McCaffrey

WHAT:  A Skeptical View of Climate Change Skeptics: Confronting the doubt, delay and denial that have prevented us from having an adult conversation about climate and energy
Mark McCaffrey contended we need to respect the science of climate science so we can “have an adult conversation” about the issue of global warming and other climate change issues.
A Youtube video is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMV6MCv3JXY&feature=em-uploademail

WHO: Mark McCaffrey, Director, National Center for Science Education Climate Initiative

WHEN: 7:30pm, Wednesday 11 April 2012

WHERE: Café Valparaiso, Albany, CA


Yau-Man Chan


WHAT: A Unicorn in Your Tank: Magic Tablets That Won’t Improve Gas Mileage
Most of us have seen ads for questionable pills, liquids, and powders that promise to give our bodies an extra advantage. Whether it be weight loss, immune system boost, fuller, thicker hair, or younger looking skin, there’s a quick fix being sold for it. In today’s economy, youthfulness and good health are joined at the top of our panic list with a new concern: better gas mileage. But don’t worry! There’s a quick fix for that, too! Or is there?

This topic was addressed at the October 12th, 2011 SkepTalk by our own Yau-Man Chan, scientific instrument engineer, Skeptiblog author, and star of “Survivor Fiji” in a discussion of the bad economics (and even worse chemistry) of automotive snake oil.

Yau-Man began his talk by introducing us to a product called EnviroTabs®, sold as “an organometallic metal conditioner that acts as a burn-rate modifier that catalyzes fuel.” In short, its makers claim that EnviroTabs® improves fuel economy, saving you money. Using it is simple; just drop a tablet into your tank on each fill-up, and you’ll average 10%-20% better gas mileage. That’s the claim made on their web site, anyway, and the sort of thing that deserves some scientific investigation. Luckily, Yau-Man provided it.

First, as Yau-Man pointed out, it’s telling that EnviroTabs® is sold via multilevel marketing (MLM), a marketing strategy in which salespeople are compensated for selling the product and also for creating a downline of other distributors by recruiting new salespeople into the sales hierarchy. Why, Yau-Man asked, use this sort of strategy? Since gas prices are so high in the U.S., and are even higher in other countries, why would the makers not simply sell their product on the open market? Although their marketing strategy says nothing about the efficacy of the product, it does raise suspicions.

The engineering of modern automobile engines is as competitive as it is complex. As Yau-Man pointed out numerous agencies, from the California Air Resources Board to the Environmental Protection Agency, put pressure on car manufacturers to lower emissions and to improve gas mileage as much as possible. Numerous gasoline additives, the addition of microcomputer Engine Control Units, and various other technological achievements have improved the internal combustion engine greatly over the past several decades, and have been hailed as wondrous scientific achievements. Any additive that improves gas mileage as much as EnviroTabs® claims to would be a multi-billion dollar industry, and one highly sought after. Multilevel marketing would simply slow down the distribution process to a snail’s pace, not to mention being completely unnecessary.

As for the actual science behind EnviroTabs®, the picture is rather bleak. A number of professional organizations and industry insiders, including the AAA, Consumer Reports, Popular Mechanics, the EPA, the Federal Trade Commission, and even Click and Clack (of NPR’s “Car Talk”) say that gasoline additives do NOT work. The EnviroTabs® website offers little useful scientific information, and a great many confusing statements. For instance, they claim that their product “changes the surface heat absorption characteristics of metal,” but then also state that it “works with all types of fuels,” including diesel, even though a diesel engine is compression-based only, and produces very little heat.

Yau-Man ended his talk with the following 2006 statement by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott about a product making similar claims called BioPerformance®: “BioPerformance claims its top-secret gas pills can save consumers big bucks at the gas pump. These claims are bogus; the pill does absolutely nothing to improve gas mileage. The company is merely a smokescreen to trigger the recruitment of more and more paying members into what appears to be an illegal pyramid scheme.” One year after being shut down by Attorney General Abbott, BioPerformance® returned, and began its multi-million dollar company after paying the state of Texas several million dollars in fines, and agreeing to stop making claims that were unsupported by science.

The future of EnviroTabs® is uncertain, but one thing is clear. The only good defense against being taken in by snake oil salesmen is to rely upon critical thinking and the scientific method to evaluate such claims.

WHO: Yau-Man Chan, Member of the Bay Area Skeptics Board

WHEN: 7:30pm, Wednesday 12 October 2011

WHERE: La Peña Lounge, 3105 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Don Prothero, Ph.D.

WHAT: Catastrophes!
As our family story goes, when my parents left eastern Oklahoma for California (the first in their families to move that far away in generations), many of their relatives bid them farewell with a sense of foreboding, quite certain that they would someday soon perish in a terrible earthquake. This may seem odd coming from people who dealt regularly with tornadoes, but it’s an opinion that persists to this day in many parts of the country, and demonstrates a sentiment which is returned with alacrity by people who can’t imagine living with the seemingly constant threat of deadly twisters known all too well by Oklahomans.

Last night’s talk by Dr. Don Prothero, professor of Physical and Historical Geology, Sedimentary Geology, and Paleontology at Occidental College, brought this family lore back to me. His talk, entitled “Catastrophes” and given at Café Valparaiso in Berkeley, assured me that my relatives were not alone in their tendency to oversimplify their threat evaluation of natural disasters. Prothero provided many detailed examples of death and destruction caused by a wide variety of nature’s hazards, and pointed out some facts that challenged my own thoughts about them. For instance, many of us are aware that The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake resulted in approximately 3,000 deaths with its subsequent fires leveling much of the city, but fewer know that the largest quake in North America was actually the 1812 New Madrid Earthquake, whose epicenter was in an area that is now part of Missouri. It was felt over an area of approximately 6,000 square miles, ringing bells and toppling steeples from Canada to Mexico, and as far east as Boston.

Earthquakes are not the only natural disasters, of course, and they’re not even the most deadly. As Prothero pointed out, the worst natural disaster in American history was actually the 1900 Galveston Hurricane in Texas which killed over 12,000 people (by contrast, the more recent Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,800 lives). Even more threatening to human life was a volcanic event known as the Toba Supereruption which took place in what is now Indonesia over 70,000 years ago. It claimed all but a few thousand breeding pairs of humans, creating a bottleneck in human evolution that almost spelled the end of humanity; the dramatic effect of that event can even be found in the genetic code of human parasites! Now that, my friends, is what you call “a close one.”

Volcanoes have done their fair share of damage in more recent times, as well. Prothero told, for instance, of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, which sent so much ash into the planet’s atmosphere that it lowered global temperatures between 0.4 and 0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F), resulting in major food shortages, as well as what has become known as The Year Without a Summer. (On a more positive note, the resulting bad weather confined British novelist Mary Shelley indoors at Lord Byron’s summer residence on Lake Geneva so long that, out of sheer boredom, she would sit down and write a short story that would eventually become Frankenstein.)

Today, much of the world has worked to become far more prepared than earlier civilizations to handle the aftermath of large scale natural disasters, but Prothero cautions us to keep things in perspective. In the grand scheme, famine, infectious diseases, and even such mundane events as lightening strikes are a much bigger threat to us than natural disasters. In fact, you have a greater chance of dying from a snake bite this year than dying in an earthquake. And surprisingly, nearly 40% of the deaths from natural disasters will be due to severe weather (e.g., snowstorms) and extreme heat/drought, two natural event categories most people never even consider.

In the end, the message Dr. Prothero left us with last night was this: Stay educated about how to respond to natural disasters, and support efforts to keep ourselves as safe as possible in such events, but be aware that most of us will die from heart disease, cancer, stroke, infections, and car accidents. So rather than spending another sleepless night worrying that Mother Nature may throw you a curve ball, a better use of your efforts might be to cut down on the hamburgers, monitor your physical health, and wear your seat belt.

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Sheldon W. Helms, associate professor of psychology at Ohlone College in Fremont, CA, is a dues-paying member of the Bay Area Skeptics, and serves on its Board of Directors.

WHO: Don Prothero, Ph.D. Professor of Physical and Historical Geology, Sedimentary Geology, and Paleontology at Occidental College

WHEN: 7:30PM Wednesday 14 September 2011

WHERE:   Café Valparaiso, Albany, California


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