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 na
San Francisco-based skeptic group Reason4Reason (www.Reason4Reason.org) hosted a talk on August 13th by Dr. Christopher DiCarlo, promoted with the not-so-subtle moniker "How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass," the title of DiCarlo's latest book. The talk was attended by several dozen eager skeptic-minded folks. Looking around the room, I couldn't help but ask myself, "Are these people all here because they want to be a pain in the ass?" Although I doubt that was the case, it wouldn't have mattered. The content of Dr. DiCarlo's talk was better described by his book's subtitle, "A Critical Thinker's Guide to Asking the Right Questions." In both the talk and the book, DiCarlo covered such topics as how to formulate strong, logical arguments (and how to recognize when they are flawed), a brief history of Socrates and his brilliant method of examining reality, as well as the definitions and importance of answering "The Big Five" questions (What can I know? Why
by Tucker Hiatt UC Berkeley astronomer Dan Werthimer delivered a seductive break-out session at SkeptiCal 2011 entitled "XXX Astronomy: Exoplanets, Exobiology, and Extraterrestrials." On that May 29th date at Berkeley's Double Tree Hotel, some 50 eager space cadets heard Werthimer talk about all aspects of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Werthimer is the chief scientist of the SETI@home project, Earth's most popular search for ET. SETI@home gathers data from the planet's most sensitive radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and then shares those data with some five million participants worldwide. The participants' personal computers analyze the data for any trace of unnatural radio signals. Collectively, SETI@home computers constitute the most powerful parallel processor ever created. Werthimer's presentation covered the past, present, and future of SETI: from the Giordano Bruno's heretical -- and fatal -- 16th-century assertion that other inhabited worlds exist, to the latest high-tech search for optical laser beacons between the stars.
One of the most interesting and scientifically-important people I ever met was the independent scientist William R. Corliss. Since the 1970s, he was by far the world's finest collector, categorizer, and ranker of scientific anomalies. He made himself the world's greatest authority on things that don't fit the paradigms of the times. I had a long meeting with him in 1988, and corresponded several times with him afterward. He was always a scrupulous scientist and a quiet, reserved, proper gentleman. Bill died of a heart attack on July 8th, age 84. Bill experienced organized Skeptics as debunkers, enforcers for mainstream-paradigm-as-law, and thus enemies of anomalies. He definitely recognized that some claims are indeed bunk, deserving and needing debunking. Science always notices a lot of things, and it takes time to fit these pieces into the puzzle - sometimes months, sometimes centuries. Until they fit, the odder pieces are anomalies. Narrow-minded swallowers of paradigms-they-are-taught ignore them whenever possible, and pooh-pooh them when th
3 articles in 3 days have exposed hoaxes and scams. A bizarre story claiming that users of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser are a lot dumber than users of Firefox, Chrome, and Opera, was unmasked in a day or 2. Wired's Epicenter reveals the hoax and sparks its perpetrator to claim it was a joke. The horrifying "collar bomb" in Sydney, Australia, was a hoax. Who concocted it? For 140 years, Scots have been proud of their unbelievably-loyal dog, Greyfriars Bobby. Reuters reports that it was a "scam to lure tourists". Do the media you read tell you the initial claim, but not that it was a hoax? Time to smarten your news sources.
From time to time, Bay Area Skeptics board members are asked about BAS's position on religion. We have a brief mission statement that explains our policy of religious neutrality, but like all such statements, from time to time one must consider whether it is communicating fully the organization's perspective. You can read it at http://www.baskeptics.org/about/policies In recent correspondence with a friend about the topic of skepticism and atheism, I wrote the following, which, although not an official BAS statement, reflects what most (though not all) of the BAS officers have thought over the years. For what it's worth -- here are some additional thoughts on the matter: Dear _____, People on my side of the issue want skepticism to be about appreciation and enjoyment of science, and critical thinking, which of course is not philosophy-specific. After all, if your concern is showing people scientifically why homeopathy is quackery, religion isn't an issue. And skeptics are more concerned with things like homeopathy than with the meaning of life. This doesn't prohibit us from evaluating/criticizing fact claims made in the name of religion if such claims are shown to be wrong through science. We can show through science why the catastrophic cut
On July 24th, Wikipedia's "Did You Know" section (front page, lower left) included "... that Karen Stollznow writes for two skeptical magazines (Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer) and hosts two skeptical podcasts (Point of Inquiry and Monster Talk)?". Stollznow has been an active member of the Bay Area Skeptics board for several years, helping the organization use online media more effectively, among other things. Wikipedia's front-page notice helped her new article jump from 20-ish hits a day to 1,100! To read more about her, check out her Wikipedia page.
Sometimes we know in advance that someone of interest to skeptics will be coming to the Bay Area, and sometimes we have to take advantage of a last-minute opportunity. One such opportunity came up on Saturday, July 23, 2011, when YouTube video producer-extraordinaire Thunderf00t was our guest at Skeptics in the Pub. About 25 people were able to attend on short notice at Jupiter, in downtown Berkeley, for conversation, food, and drink. Thunderf00t has produced a series of YouTube videos which have been viewed by hundreds of thousands. His series, "Why people laugh at creationists", is widely considered a useful (and entertaining) compendium of refutations to creationist arguments. It alone has received millions of hits. We had a good time talking about the varieties of science topics Thunderf00t's site considers. BAS hopes to take advantage of other visitors; please let us know if you know of any person of skeptical interest coming to town. -- Genie Scott
The Textbook League fought pseudoscience and other idiocy in pre-college textbooks for the last few decades. The human part of the League is disbanding, but stalwart ichthyologist Bill Bennetta is personally keeping their website online: http://www.textbookleague.org . Their reference material remains available even though they no longer send experts galloping to assorted rescues.
Although we try at the BAS website to blog about Bay Area issues, sometimes national issues are so important they swamp our local focus. The issue of cell phone radiation and cancer is one of them. Of course, as members of society, Bay Area residents are tuned into this controversy as well, so perhaps it is not inappropriate to comment on it. Do cell phones cause brain cancer? There is no epidemiological evidence to suggest the link, only anecdote (and two anecdotes, despite the common practice in the press, do not constitute "data"). Is there a reason to suspect that cell phone radiation -- close to the brain, and in the case of many heavy cell phone users, as much as several hours/day -- might be dangerous? Well, no. Not according to basic physics. Few people have been as clear on this issue as beloved skeptic Bob Park (though the irascible Park would probably grump about being termed "beloved", but it's true!) Author of "Voodoo Science" and