Note: This is a working, pre-publication draft copy. March 1991 +quot;BASIS+quot;, newslet
Note: This is a working, pre-publication draft copy.
March 1991 "BASIS", newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics
Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet
Vol. 10, No. 3
Editor: Yves Barbero
by Brian Siano
Every so often, a topic comes up which stands squarely in that grey
area between science and pseudoscience, between fringe speculation
and technological possibility. It can't really be ruled out, but
then again, it rests on such radical assumptions that the
temptation to label it as crackpottery is almost too strong to
resist. Such a topic is cryonics: too possible to be dismissed, but
also, too far-fetched for many to take it seriously.
In cell biology, cryopreservation is the technique for freezing
cell cultures for future use in experimentation. In this case,
however, the plan is to freeze an entire human body in hopes of
reviving it at some point in the future when a) the cause of that
person's death can be reversed, and b) when the technology exists
to revive a frozen human being. (Another variant is to freeze only
the head of the person in question, in hopes of also acquiring a
new body through this future technology.)
The arguments in favor of cryonic suspension are pretty direct. The
chance for a kind of immortality -- or even an extended or revived
life -- is pretty tempting, as well as the possibility of seeing
the future. The techniques for successful cryogenic preservation
are understood, at least in principle, and any problems we have
currently will probably be fixed in the future. (After all, look at
the technological advances made since 1900, many of which would
have seemed impossible then.) And, as many cryonics enthusiasts
say, a body that's been buried or cremated has no chance of being
revived, while a frozen body has at least a remote chance of living
again. More about this gamble later.
Those who object to cryonics mention that cell walls tend to
rupture when frozen, thus damaging the body far too extensively for
revivication. Similarly, there are those who see the promise of
cryonics as being too grandiose, that real technical problems are
blithely dismissed on the promise of future technological
developments. It's also important to point out that, as of this
writing, nobody has succeeded in freezing and reviving a dead
mammal. (Frogs, however, have been successfully revived.)
The cryonics supporters I've spoken to are quick to describe
theoretical technologies that may make cryonics a more feasible
prospect, nanotechnology and gene research the most prominent among
them. K. Eric Drexler's "Engines of Creation" describes
nanotechnology as the development of micromachines with
molecule-sized parts; some of the more extreme speculations on
their potential include micro-robots injected into humans as an
additional immune system, or micro-robots that could assemble
almost any structure out of almost anything, merely by rearranging
molecules. So, when asked about the cell-wall rupture problem, one
cryonicist told me that the problem would be solved with a "Plastic
Polymer" that would preserve the cell walls within a microthin
casing. When asked how the polymer would be removed, he chirped,
"Nanotechnology!" He then described micro-robots that would remove
the polymer and deliver it outside the body. I'd wanted to ask
about how the cadaver's brain might be revived, but I almost
expected the answer to be "The Hand of Jehovah" which would come
down and re-ensoul the corpse.
(There are other objections, resting on moral and ethical
considerations. Would it be ethical to preserve and revive people
in an overpopulated world? Wouldn't the process be so expensive
that only wealthy people would have this opportunity? We can't
really evaluate these questions objectively, and either way, an
individual may want to preserve his own interests over other
considerations even if particular ethical concerns had an
So, what we have here is an issue whose critics point up current
technological scientific limitations, but whose supporters can
invoke the deus ex machina of scientific development to almost
magically remove any technological limitations. After all, one
can't entirely rule out the possibility of micromachines that would
solve those nasty cell-wall problems, or even the possibility that
one's mind might be encoded into a computer storage system, to be
re-implanted into the revived corpse, or the possibility of gene
therapy that would arrest or reverse the aging process, or ...
well, you get the idea.
Is cryonics a pseudoscience? Well, there's a lot in its supporters'
claims that has that rich aroma of crackpottery, where
earth-shattering ideas lurk under every theory in existence, where
the prospect of time machines are just as probable as bone marrow
transplants or gene therapy. But unlike proponents of psychic
phenomena, cryonics supporters are not invoking new and unknown
forces, or asking science to revise its current models to
accommodate their wishful thinking. Cryonics is, at base, a gamble
on possible technological development, and there is no way of
ruling out the possibility of winning at this gamble.
Let's look at that death gamble again; the part about how a person
who's just buried has no chance at revival, while a frozen person
has a remote chance of being revived. Doesn't this sound a lot like
Pascal's Wager, which attempted to prove the need to believe in
Pascal's Wager, in a nutshell, was this: Suppose that a man who
believes in God dies. (Yes, this DOES happen.) If there is no God,
then he's just dead, he decomposes, and the worst he gets is
painless oblivion. But, if there is a God, and he lived a good,
religious life, he'd get the infinite rewards of eternity in
Heaven. On the other hand, if an atheist dies (this happens too),
and there is a God, he may be condemned to Hell's infinite tortures
for not believing; the best he can expect from death is the
decomposition and oblivion part. So, therefore, Pascal argued, it's
far better for a man to believe in God, because the gamble for
infinite pleasure makes better sense than risking infinite pain.
(The wager's flaw is that it doesn't specify just what kind of God
to believe in. You could spend your life worshipping Jehovah, and
spending Judgement Day facing off with the Mighty Sword of Allah.)
Cryonics rests on a kind of analogy to this. It's better to gamble
on being revived, because losing this gamble still leaves you no
worse off than anyone else; but if you don't gamble, you may lose
out if the Big Future Wake-Up Call happens.
However, one can also use the same argument against Cryonics that
one uses to disprove Pascal's Wager: by pointing out that the wager
itself says nothing about the particular religion one must follow.
Suppose that, in the future, someone finds out that the best
preservative for a human body isn't freezing in liquid nitrogen and
a plastic polymer, but something else? (Maybe a mixture of Cheez
Whiz and Worcestershire sauce? After all, considering the miracles
of science, there's no reason to say this might not ever be the
case, hm?) Isn't it worth your while to specify in your will to be
preserved in a tank full of the stuff? After all, if this turns out
not to be the case, that some other preservative works better, you
won't be any worse off than anyone else...
Come to think of it, one could also subvert the cryonicist's
argument completely. Suppose they find that they could re-grow you
from a DNA sample gathered from your decomposed bones. That way,
even if you didn't freeze yourself, you'd still have that remote
chance of being revived, in a way. After all, if you can't rule out
the possibility of reviving frozen people, you can't rule out
reviving decomposed people, either.
I should point out how cryonics _isn't_ like Pascal's Wager; it's
not demanding that you live your life according to certain
dictates. At most, it's asking that you make an investment, and ask
for certain procedures to be done to your body when you die.
Is cryonics a fraud or con game? The potential for it certainly
exists, and the fear of death is a powerful motivator to buy into
something as radical as this. The economics of the situation are
simple; The Alcor company in Riverside, California charges $100,000
for a full body preservation, about $35,000 for head freezing, and
a $200 per year maintenance fee. These are paid for, usually, by
the person taking out a life insurance policy for the above
amounts, with Alcor as the beneficiary. Premiums on such life
insurance policies can be relatively cheap, perhaps $150.00 a
month, and if you change your mind, you can always change the
beneficiary. (One company, Cryonics Internment Corporation, used a
one-time fee system and went bankrupt about twelve years ago, and
many customers thawed like so much spoiled beef.)
I wouldn't call this a scheme for fraud; most cryonics supporters
are aware that the company's main promise is that it will keep you
frozen. It's not exactly responsible for the nanotechnology or
biomedical research part of the bargain. The company also has
aresponsibility, to its shareholders and clients alike, to stay in
business and make a profit indefinitely, otherwise, its clients
would start dripping like Slurpees. A Cryonics plan would be
fraudulent only if the company did not freeze or preserve its
clients according to the protocol it promised.
Speaking personally, I can't make any great pronouncements as to
whether cryonics is a worthwhile investment or just another example
of technology-fed wishful thinking. There's a lot about the
promises made to promote cryonics that I think are a tad
suspicious, and resting results on the possibility of What The
Future Might Bring is relying too much on some ill-defined Great
Spirit that will make things well and whole someday. Scientific
basis aside, saying that nanotechnology will make things wonderful
when I awake is a lot like telling me that Jesus will cure my
diseases when I awake. Still, the most critical attitude I can take
is the time-honored Wait-and-See.
[Brian Siano, Delaware Valley Skeptics]
HISTORY AND DISTINCTIONS
by Rick Moen
The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things: Of
ships, and shoes, and sealing wax, of skeptics and humanists.
Some history is in order: The skeptics' movement, as an organized
affair, started abruptly, between the covers of "The Humanist", a
magazine published by the American Humanist Association to promote
that philosophy. The movement's genesis was an article (or perhaps
manifesto) in the 9/75 issue called "Objections to Astrology: A
Statement by 186 [later 192] Leading Scientists".
Reactions pro and con were _so strong_ that a number of the
article's backers, including James Randi, Martin Gardner, Paul
Kurtz, and Ray Hyman, decided in May 1976 to form a committee to
critically examine fringe-science claims. This was (and is) CSICOP,
the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Claims of the
Paranormal, run from Buffalo, NY, by its chairman, SUNY Buffalo
professor of philosophy Paul Kurtz, on a tight budget but with a
dedicated professional staff. CSICOP began to accumulate as fellows
and consultants an impressive array of magicians, scientists, and
academics, apparently quite diverse as to philosophical and
religious inclinations. It has published a quarterly journal, "The
Skeptical Inquirer", since 1976.
At nearly the same time, some sort of parting of the ways
transpired at the AHA. Kurtz, who was then "The Humanist's" editor,
left the AHA and founded a similar organization, CODESH, the
Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism. (Lest the jest be lost
on most people, "codesh" means "holy" in Hebrew.) It's the group
that puts out "Free Inquiry" magazine.
CODESH was and is run out of the _same_ small building on Bailey
Avenue as CSICOP, but its affairs were kept separate. (Note the
word "were" -- more on this later.) There are also a number of
related enterprises, such as the Academy of Humanism, Prometheus
Books, the Biblical Criticism Research Project, and the Committee
for the Scientific Examination of Religion (the group that exposed
"faith-healers" Peter Popoff, W.V. Grant, etc.)
The substantive difference between the AHA and CODESH is subtle.
Even having read both journals for many years, and supported both
groups, I find it difficult to nail down. Both seek to advance
systems of ethics not rooted in mysticism, but differ in emphasis
and tone. Neither group seems to ever refer to the other.
One difference can be seen in the names of their locally-based
offshoots. The AHA-inspired local groups all seem to be called
"Humanist Community of [location]", while CODESH-type groups are
called "Secular Humanists of [location]". CODESH also seem to be
associated (if I remember correctly) with the "Secular
Organizations for Sobriety", which run AA-type programs devoid of
AA's generic deity, the "Higher Power". Both outfits are
_effectively_ quite secular, but the CODESH-type groups make a
special point of it.
There is also the curious matter of the AHA's tax-exempt non-profit
status. It's registered as exempt under U.S. Internal Revenue Code
section 501(c)(3), as a _religious_ organization, which has caused
some dissension among AHA supporters. This is _particularly_ odd
since the same Code section also covers cultural, scientific, and
educational groups, any one of which categories might equally
Back to the skeptics: About a year ago, the folks in Buffalo
unveiled a venture called "The Voice of Inquiry", a series of radio
and television programmes mixing skeptics' and humanists' topics.
Thus, we get "African-Americans and Humanism" chockablock with
"Spontaneous Human Combustion". "Euthanasia" rubs shoulders with
"Out-of-Body Experiences", and "Can Reason Alone Make Us Moral?"
with "Why Astrology Won't Go Away", all on tapes available from
something called the "Center for Inquiry", which appears to be a
new umbrella group for CSICOP and CODESH.
More recently, we've heard that, according to glossy mailings and
appeals for donations in "Skeptical Inquirer" and "Free Inquiry",
a new, two-million-dollar "Center for Inquiry" _facility_ is being
built. CODESH and CSICOP are to be incorporated into this Center,
which will also house a "Center for Inquiry Institute" (to run
seminars, workshops, etc.).
Now, both the humanist and skeptics' movements strike me,
personally, as extremely valuable causes. I support both, strongly.
However, this blithe mixing of the two tends to create problems.
Part of the strength of the skeptics' movement lies in its broad
appeal: Critical examination of fringe-science claims requires no
creed, no investment in any ideology, just the curiosity to look
into extraordinary claims. Thus, my [Moen is Secretary -ED.] group,
Bay Area Skeptics, can include parapsychologists, Protestant
fundamentalists, Catholic nuns, Wiccans, and militant atheists, and
_all_ can feel equally welcome. For this reason (among others),
we've carefully stayed away from philosophical, ethical, and
religious-belief claims, to avoid alienating our natural allies for
no good reason.
If this point is unclear, consider an analogy: I'm also a feminist
and an environmentalist. Now, I'd _like_ to see my fellow NOW
members arrive at meetings by bicycle, and my fellow Greenpeace
supporters lobby for "comparable worth". However, I don't want to
_drive male chauvinists away_ from Greenpeace, or gas-guzzlers away
from NOW. The fact that both these causes aim to improve our
condition does not mean that _combining them_ is wise. The fact
that humanism and skepticism both involve "inquiry" and "critical
thinking" does not make their combination a good idea, either.
Further, one of the traditional ad hominem appeals against the
skeptics' movement has always been that its inquiry is (allegedly)
not objective, but has a hidden ideological agenda, variously
called "scientific realism", "fundamentalist materialism", and the
like. I've been at some pains, over the years, to refute this
mud-slinging charge, by pointing out the tremendous variety of
viewpoints in skeptics' journals, and their _lack_ of endorsement
of particular ideologies. I always invite our critics to submit
articles for our newsletter and to speak at our monthly public
meetings (which almost invariably disarms the criticism and makes
for us a friend). Now, when confronted with the "Center for
Inquiry" as contrary evidence, I find myself tempted to reply,
"CSICOP is _not_ the skeptics' movement". I would prefer not to
need this last-resort argument.
I shouldn't overlook the potential harm to the "humanist" movement.
I've met plenty of astral travelers, tarot readers, Bigfoot
groupies, and assorted cranks who make fine humanists. What's the
point of alienating them? (They no doubt say "Moen is an OK
humanist, just a bit nutty on fringe-science topics". We get along
Accordingly, I think both skeptics and humanists have a bit of a
problem, and this concern is broadly shared by skeptics I've spoken
with here in California. What I don't know -- yet -- is how
skeptics elsewhere feel. I'm quite curious.
STATEMENT OF PURPOSE: BAY AREA SKEPTICS
The purpose of Bay Area Skeptics is to promote scientific thinking
by the general public. This is accomplished by exposing the
failures of psuedosciences such as astrology, psychic predictions
and other non-scientific but widely held beliefs in dealing with
a complex world.
In addition, Bay Area Skeptics also exists to investigate
unsubstantiated claims such as psychic surgery and a variety of
"systems" designed, either by fraud or sincerely held beliefs, to
"fill-in" where "science fails." Bay Area Skeptics acts by itself
or in cooperation with like-minded groups and individuals to inform
the public about possible charlatans or sincere individuals
promoting unsafe and/or ineffective "cures" and may, from time to
time, assist law-enforcement agencies in exposing unsubstantiated
Bay Area Skeptics also exists to publish a periodical to accomplish
its various purposes and to hold public meetings and social
gatherings for the purpose of educating interested individuals.
Finally, Bay Area Skeptics exists to test claims of the paranormal
or unusual phenomena, either traditional or novel, where those
claims are made on a "scientific" basis.
Bay Area Skeptics does not make judgements on question of religion
or personal faith in divine events unless fraud or scientific
claims are involved.
TOP TEN ANSWERS TO:
"How many psychics does it take to change a light bulb?"*
by Art & Emily Freund
10. It all depends on what they're trying to change it into.
9. One is usually sufficient, assuming no disruptive negative
vibrations are present.
8. National Enquirer predicts four psychics will each accomplish
this feat in 1991.
7. There have been anecdotal reports on this being done by a single
psychic on several occasions, but this has never been verified by
6. One psychic should be sufficient, however, a spiritual donation
of $100,000 is requested.
5. Two: One psychokinetic to turn the bulb, and one telepath to
tell him which way to turn it. (Optional: a clairvoyant to verify
that the job was done properly.)
4. One can do it, if he also happens to be an electrician.
3. None -- if Uri Geller, since he will mentally refuse the broken
2. Psychics don't change light bulbs -- however, they predict Elvis
will be changing one in 1991.
1. Two: One to hold the bulb and one to turn the house.
*The question was slightly rephrased from "How many psychics does
it take to screw in a light bulb?." More answers next issue
(maybe). Please send in more answers. Contest ends with the
THE SOCRATIC APPROACH
by Bob Steiner
Questioner: How many psychics does it take to screw in a light
Q: Why 62,827,975.4881?
A: Because that is the square of the equatorial diameter of the
earth, expressed in square miles.
Q: What does the square of the equatorial diameter of the earth
have to do with psychics screwing in a light bulb? And besides, how
can there be 4,881 ten thousandths of a psychic?
A: You're too skeptical. Science can't explain everything. You've
got to keep an open mind. They didn't understand Galileo, either.
Get with the program. Manifest yourself. Enhance your energy. Live
a little. Believe.
Supporting data (just in case you are interested):
Equatorial diameter of the earth in miles, per The World Almanac:
Square of the above is 62,827,975.4881 square miles.
COME TO THE CSICOP CONFERENCE!
Make plans now to join us at the 1991 CSICOP Conference
Co-sponsored by the Bay Area Skeptics and the University of
California at Berkeley Physics Department
Claremont Resort Hotel
Berkeley / Oakland Hills, California
Friday, Saturday and Sunday
May 3, 4, 5, 1991
"In Search of Our Origins"
Donald C. Johanson
President, Institute of Human Origins, Berkeley
(See this issue's insert or the Winter 1991 issue of the "Skeptical
Inquirer" for details and registration information. Volunteers are
still needed. Write, care of this publication, or call Yves Barbero
Letter to the Editor
by Molleen Matsumura
Thomas Jukes's "Statement on Water Fluoridation" in the February
'91 "BASIS", clearly an effort to set the record straight on a
number of important facts, unfortunately contains an error of its
own -- the reference to "mongoloid births."
The correct term is "Down syndrome," in keeping with the common
practice of naming a disorder after a clinician who describes it
(e.g. "Parkinson's disease"), a major sign or symptom (e.g., "AIDS"
or "multiple sclerosis"), the infectious or other causative agent
(e.g., "herpes simplex"), or some combination of the above. Some
disorders have ordinary names taken from famous sufferers;
amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Huntington's chorea,
respectively, are often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's disease" and
"that disease Woody Guthrie had."
When it doesn't interfere with treatment, using the wrong name
often does no harm. My friend won't care if I ask, "Is that sniffle
a cold or hay fever?" I'm more likely to get a strange reaction if
I ask, "Is that viral or allergic rhinitis?" But the term
"mongolism" has racist connotations. It hails from the time when we
were told (inaccurately) that "there are three races -- Caucasoid,
Negroid, and Mongoloid", and a member of any one of these groups
often believed that members of the others "all looked alike." Now
that the Bay Area has large numbers of people who hail from Japan,
Southeast Asia, and all regions of China, any "BASIS" reader can
observe that these groups have different eye-shapes, and there is
only a superficial resemblance between any of them and the
eye-shape characteristic of Down syndrome. A person with Down
syndrome doesn't look much like a Mongolian, either (unless the
Mongolian also has Down syndrome).
It's also hard to understand why Jukes (or his source) picked on
Down syndrome in connection with mortality rates! It's a genetic
disorder. Giving birth to a Down child has no effect on the
mother's risk of complications; only some people with the syndrome
have heart defects which shorten their life span. However, if
Jukes has evidence that water fluoridation does or does not affect
the incidence of birth defects, "BASIS" readers should certainly
hear about it!
Reply From DR. JUKES
I used the term "mongoloid births" ("BASIS" page five, Feb. 1991)
because I was referring to anti-fluoridation publications in which
this word had been used (ie: Rapaport, as cited in "Health
Quackery", Consumers Union, Mount Vernon, NY 1980), although I
failed to point this out. The term was used erroneously for "Down
Syndrome", which results from a chromosomal defect, and has no
distinctive facial characteristics. The word "mongol" should refer
only to national and linguistic characteristics of Mongolian
people, and should include only speakers of the Mongol languages.
It is quite inappropriate for Down Syndrome, as Dr. Matsumura
correctly notes, and it is also misused when it is applied to Asian
[I failed in my editorial duties by letting this slip past me. I've
known since college what Down Syndrome was and what its historical
"nickname" was. I regret my sloppiness. -Ed]
Rick Moen in "BASIS", page three, Feb. 1991, says that Bob Steiner
told him that John R. Lee would be "interesting" -- "absolutely".
Had Bob Steiner heard Lee speak? Rick Moen then proceeds to
sermonize at great lengths about "closed-minded, ideological
cheerleaders of the science establishment", presumably including
me. He misses the point. Our objection to giving Lee a platform was
that he uses misrepresentations to oppose a procedure needed for
health in children. Ernest Newbrun explained this on page six.
by Bob Steiner
Wally Sampson has just returned home from the hospital, recovering
from a heart attack. It appears that he has weathered it well. I am
happy to report that we will have Wally around for a very long
Wallace I. Sampson, M.D., was a founding Board Member of Bay Area
Skeptics back in 1982. He served on the Board for many years, has
spoken at our meetings, has written articles for "BASIS", and has
served as an Advisor for the past several years. He has given
presentations at CSICOP conferences, at national medical
conventions, and teaches courses in critical thinking. He was
President of his medical society, serves on the Board of Directors
of The National Council against Health Fraud, has testified in
Sacramento on important legislative matters, and has been an expert
witness at trials.
Did I mention that Wally is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at
Stanford University Medical School? -- and that (in his spare
time?) he runs a medical practice?
The above does not even begin to scratch the surface. As a matter
of fact, it does not even scratch the surface of what I personally
know about Wally's enormous contribution to humanity, without even
asking him for any c.v. data.
There is so much more to the story of Wally Sampson. This
compassionate human being has been an excellent friend to Bay Area
Skeptics, as well as to scientific thinking in the health field. He
has debated mystics, "alternative treatment" purveyors, "psychics,"
Wally has a combination of courage, knowledge, compassion, and a
keen ability to think clearly under pressure. He is a definite
asset to Bay Area Skeptics, the skeptical movement, the medical
profession, and humanity as a whole.
Much good health to you, Wally.
THE SKEPTIC'S ELECTRONIC BULLETIN BOARD
2400 Baud, 415-648-8944
24 hours, 7 days a week
Rick Moen, Sysop
by Tom Woosnam
A recent episode of "Inside Edition" took a skeptical look at
claims made by Howard Blum in his book "Out There: The
Government's Secret Quest for Extraterrestrials" (Simon & Schuster,
New York, 1990, 288 pages, cloth $19.95). In an interview with the
author the program found Blum's research to be highly questionable
Blum claims in his book that an incident that occurred in December
1986 prompted the U.S. government to organize a $50 million covert
UFO investigation by the Defense Intelligent Agency in the
Pentagon. The incident in question was supposedly reported by Navy
Commander Sheila Mondran in the space surveillance center inside
Cheyenne Mountain near Colorado Springs, home of NORAD and the U.S.
Space Command. According to the Blum an electronic "fence" had been
tripped, and Mondran and the crew on duty had witnessed something
unexplained on their radar screens which looked like a UFO
joyriding in space.
Although Blum stated that he checked every name, date, incident and
conversation given in the book the TV reporter verifying the basic
facts uncovered a very different story and did a good job of
calling Blum on the discrepancies. In the sloppy reporting category
could go the fact that the elevator Mondran was supposed to have
taken to work every day does not exist -- the only one in the
mountain is for freight not passengers and it goes up from the
ground floor not down 2,500 ft. as Blum claims. More significant
however is that according to military and civilian experts the
screens in the surveillance center give numerical readouts rather
than real time displays. For Blum to claim that the crew watched a
UFO joyride through the atmosphere is therefore a technical
When the U.S. Space Command was asked about the event they said
that yes, there was an uncorrelated target report in December 1986,
but it was "space junk", a piece of debris from a rocket which had
exploded in the upper atmosphere. Even more damning was the Navy's
statement that they have no record of a Sheila Mondran ever having
been stationed at Cheyenne Mountain. In response Blum claims that
Mondran was the Navy Commander's unmarried name and not the one she
served under, hence the difficulty in tracing her but when asked if
he could put "Inside Edition" in contact with her and another major
military figure who was impossible to find Blum hedged and in the
week after the program was taped he refused to return the
reporter's phone calls.
Because these disclaimers come from the government itself and could
therefore be claimed to be suspect "Inside Edition" turned to
civilians for corroboration. Philip J. Klass, the aviation writer
and UFO investigator, states that in roughly five pages of the book
that Blum devotes to Klass's career, he counted 25 errors of fact.
Another civilian, Jonathan Thompson, is so angry at the lies he
says Blum published that he refers the reporter to his lawyer.
Stanton Friedman, a ufologist, says that Blum was lazy, that like
a lot of journalists he didn't realize how much he didn't know.
Does any of this faze Blum? Not much.
When asked why the witnesses that had spoken freely to Blum would
not be willing to speak to the TV reporter he claims that the whole
area of UFOs puts a blot on people's careers and not speaking out
is a way of dealing with reporters when the witnesses are too
embarrassed to tell the truth. He does say that it puts a "chilling
effect on the truth" but it really doesn't bother him that he
couldn't put the program in touch with one person or one document
that could verify his charges. Could part of the reason be that
this former New York Times reporter has already sold the rights to
his book to TV?
[Tom Woosnam holds the Science Department Chair at the Crystal
Springs Uplands School in Hillsborough]
Bay Area Skeptics has been around since 1982. Originally started by
six individuals, Robert Sheaffer, Bob Steiner, Terry Sandbek,
Lawrence Jerome, Andrew Fraknoi, and Wallace Sampson, M.D., who all
thought an organization of this nature was needed, it has grown in
scope and influence over the years.
Some of our activities are a great deal of fun. We truly enjoy
pointing out the annual errors of the various self-appointed
psychics by reviewing the predictions they make for a particular
year at the end of that same year. And some activities are deadly
serious, such as helping expose faith-healer Peter Popoff's conning
of the faithful into giving up real medicine for his expensive and
Over the years, we've had our successes and failures. One of our
biggest successes was in cultivating the press, so that we are
often consulted by the media. Now, many in the Fourth Estate no
longer routinely accept the claims of psychics. Our biggest
failure, in my view, is in educating ourselves. Too many of us have
turned skepticism into an ideology.
It is all too human for a group formed to promote a minority idea
to build barricades around itself and stop listening. Over the last
few years, those who have tried to keep thinking open have clashed
with those who want to protect the movement from outside enemies.
Personal empire building has also reared its ugly head. This has
led to splintering and a lot of energy wasted on in-fighting.
Is this a failure of leadership? Certainly. Honest disagreements
have often become ideological struggles, losing, along the way, the
real reason for the existence of the group. Since Bay Area Skeptics
is entirely voluntary, it is easy for an angry individual to
simply walk away. He or she loses nothing financially, but the
group loses a valued asset, so that often, perhaps unconsciously,
we've held back from being forceful.
This, too, is a failure.
Another problem we've encountered is habit. Because of the nature
of the media, which needs conflict to sustain it, we've often
become too comfortable with the opposition, holding back to prevent
withdrawal by the other side. Criticism is our strongest weapon,
but when cliche and predictable attacks predominate, nothing is
gained except more TV and radio appearances. This is not to say we
can't be polite and civilized to the opposition. It is to say,
however, that we've often been too tolerant in assuming the
equality of other views. We often forget that in the "marketplace
of ideas," bad ideas are supposed to be rejected, not just rehashed
on the next talk show.
Skepticism is not an ideology. It is a methodology with no fixed
parameters. It borrows from science in the way it approaches
understanding. Unlike science, however, it has little in the way of
peer review, so it's a simple matter for some of us to go off the
deep end or to enclose our minds in oddball cosmologies. It is
important that we don't forget the goals, some of which were stated
when we filed for non-profit status with the State of California
Skepticism is not democratic. Just as with science, the majority is
not always right. If that were the case, a lot of nonsense would be
universally true, and there would be no place for groups like Bay
Nor is skepticism equivalent to humanism, however virtuous that
movement. Humanism is an ethical system based on the premise that
man is responsible for himself and need not look to a deity.
Although I find the notion appealing, I don't particularly care to
spend time debating the existence of supernatural forces --
especially since I don't possess the intellectual tools to arrive
at a meaningful answer. (I suspect no one has them.) Earthly
concerns are more to my taste. I simply don't care how many angels
can dance on the head of a pin, nor do I have any interest in
converting anyone, except that I'd like to see people have the
intellectual equipment to arrive at a realistic view of life.
Since I'm not an ideologist, I don't expect any view of life to be
perfectly synchronized with mine. Human beings are simply not built
that way, nor should they be. On the individual level, we can only
hope to have notions subject to change based on new information.
Our world view should be flexible. As an organization, we can have
some pretty concrete goals, but even those must be modified and
configured by reality.
Bay Area Skeptics is beginning its tenth year as it began its
first, with individuals organized to promote and support a
first-rate system of looking at things. There were six then. Now,
there are over six hundred. And no two are the alike.
BAS BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Chair: Larry Loebig
Vice Chair: Yves Barbero
Secretary: Rick Moen
Treasurer: Kent Harker
Yves Barbero, editor; Sharon Crawford, assoc. editor;
Wilma Russell, distribution; Rick Moen, circulation
William J. Bennetta, Scientific Consultant
Dean Edell, M.D., ABC Medical Reporter
Donald Goldsmith, Ph.D., Astronomer and Attorney
Earl Hautala, Research Chemist
Alexander Jason, Investigative Consultant
Thomas H. Jukes, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
John E. McCosker, Ph.D., Director, Steinhart Aquarium
Diane Moser, Science writer
Richard J. Ofshe, Ph.D.,U. C. Berkeley
Bernard Oliver, Ph.D., NASA Ames Research Center
Kevin Padian, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
James Randi, Magician, Author, Lecturer
Francis Rigney, M.D., Pacific Presbyterian Med. Center
Wallace I. Sampson, M.D., Stanford University
Eugenie C. Scott, Ph.D., Anthropologist
Robert Sheaffer, Technical Writer, UFO expert
Robert A. Steiner, CPA, Magician, Lecturer, Writer
Ray Spangenburg, Science writer
Jill C. Tarter, Ph.D., U. C. Berkeley
Opinions expressed in "BASIS" are those of the authors and do not
necessarily reflect those of BAS, its board or its advisors.
The above are selected articles from the March 1991 issue of
"BASIS", the monthly publication of Bay Area Skeptics. You can
obtain a free sample copy by sending your name and address to BAY
AREA SKEPTICS, 4030 Moraga, San Francisco, CA 94122-3928 or by
leaving a message on "The Skeptic's Board" BBS (415-648-8944) or
on the 415-LA-TRUTH (voice) hotline.
Copyright (C) 1991 BAY AREA SKEPTICS. Reprints must credit "BASIS,
newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics, 4030 Moraga, San Francisco,
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank