Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt - May 2011

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capitol Area Skeptics
  • NCAS Public Lecture Series: "Surviving the Age of Bad Information: A Skeptic's Reflections"
  • Gazette Feature Story on NCAS
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education Aims Low
  • Balticon 45
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically

NCAS Public Lecture Series
"Surviving the Age of Bad Information: A Skeptic's Reflections"
Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer

What do you call someone who believes that from the simplest molecules of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen there arose by pure random chance, four billion years ago, a replicating entity that could be plausibly defined as alive? What do you call a person who believes that this creature or creatures like it eventually evolved into the amazing diversity of organisms that we see on our planet today? What do you call a person who marvels that this process of biological change has allowed the emergence of a creature that is sentient, that can study the universe in stunning detail, that can create models of the distant past and distant future, that can inject into the world images and sounds and ideas of surpassing beauty? You call such a person a skeptic. A skeptic, in today's society, is someone who accepts the scientific theory of our origins and of nature—even though there are innumerable competing ideas involving spirits, demons, UFO aliens, exploded planets, the Face on Mars, untapped psychic powers, shadow governments, time travelers and various kinds of "new physics."

Joel Achenbach has been a staff writer for The Washington Post since 1990, started the newsroom’s first online column (Rough Draft) in 1999 and the paper’s first blog, Achenblog, in 2005. Now assigned to the Post'snational desk, he writes on science and politics, and helped lead the coverage of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Achenbach is also the author of seven books, including Captured by Aliens: The Search for Life and Truth in a Very Large Universe, three volumes of Why Things Are (compilations of his 1988-1996 syndicated column that appeared in fifty newspapers), and his just-released A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea: The Race to Kill the BP Oil Gusher.

NCAS will be honoring Achenbach with the 2011 Philip J. Klass Award for outstanding contributions in promoting critical thinking and scientific understanding.

For more information, visit

Saturday, May 7, 1:30 p.m. - 3:00 p.m., followed by refreshments
National Science Foundation, Room 110
4201 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA
(Near Ballston–Marymount University Metro)
Enter NSF from the corner of N Stuart St & 9th St N.(map) (directions)

Torn From Today's Headlines, Item 1
By Scott Snell
Gazette Feature Story on NCAS
The Bethesda Gazette edition of April 13, 2011 included a feature story on NCAS. The article is available at

Torn From Today's Headlines, Item 2
The Chronicle of Higher Education Aims Low
The publishers of The Chronicle of Higher Education describe it as "the No. 1 source of news, information, and jobs for college and university faculty members and administrators." It was for that distinguished readership that the Chronicle Review magazine of February 20, 2011 carried a remarkably uncritical review of an exhibition of the purported "thoughtographs" of Ted Serios. (The exhibit, Psychic Projections/Photographic Impressions: Paranormal Photographs from the Jule Eisenbud Collection on Ted Serios, ran from January 26 through March 27 at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in Catonsville.)

Reviewer Mikita Brottman, a psychoanalyst with a PhD in English Language and Literature from Oxford, accepted at face value the claims of the exhibit's sponsor, Stephen E. Braude, professor (soon to be emeritus) and chair of the UMBC Department of Philosophy. Braude believes Serios actually produced photographs of his thoughts through a mysterious psychic process.

Meanwhile, Emily Hauver, interim curator of exhibitions at the UMBC Library Gallery, made the media rounds on behalf of the exhibit. "To this day, Ted Serios' psychic abilities are hotly debated," Hauver told The Baltimore Sun. "They have never been disproven, but they also have never been explained." In the Sun article, and in an interview with WYPR-FM's "Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast," the facts surrounding Serios' use of a "gizmo" were briefly and dismissively discussed. "Serios' critics tended to latch onto the 'gizmo' that Ted used," Hauver said. "It raised the darkest of suspicions." (Understandably, because Serios would hold the "gizmo," a hollow cylinder of plastic tubing or rolled paper, up to the Polaroid camera lens while an exposure was taken.)

Sun writer Mary Carole McCauley continued, "Detractors suggested that Serios would insert a small photographic transparency into the gizmo by sleight of hand, trigger the shutter and slip the transparency out before the device could be inspected. It's harder to explain, though, how Serios produced thoughtographs when the gizmo wasn't in use." Surely this is important information for exhibit visitors to know, but they would be disappointed to find no information presented for almost all of the nearly 60 displayed "thoughtographs" as to whether the gizmo was used, or many other relevant circumstances of each exposure. Were any "interesting" thoughtographs formed when the gizmo wasn't used? If so, which ones?

Author's Comment:
I toured the exhibit on its closing day. Although the exhibit was financially supported by an arts program grant from the Maryland State Arts Council, the exhibit was assuredly not presented solely or even primarily as art. Instead, each "thoughtograph" was presented as a fact claim, with background and supportive commentary text panels provided. To Braude's credit, the exhibit devoted some content to the objections of skeptics. As to whether their full views were faithfully presented, I am uncertain.

I recognized a significant error in the interpretation of one thoughtograph. "Manned Orbiting Lab" (July 6, 1965) was identified several weeks after exposure as a good match to an artist's conception of the (planned but never completed) US Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). When this thoughtograph was produced, Serios had been asked to think about a French chateau, but instead was preoccupied with the Mariner IV probe, soon to reach Mars and return the first images of the planet's surface. In this context, Serios' mentor (psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud) is described as interpreting the image as matching "an artist's conception of the Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory that had been sent to Mars." In fact, the MOL was never intended to travel to Mars, and the artist's conception clearly shows the MOL in Earth orbit, with Florida recognizable. Thus Eisenbud's attempt to link the thoughtograph to Mars was stretched past the breaking point. (Readers are invited to compare the MOL thoughtograph, available here, with the artist's MOL conception here.)

Braude's public lecture about the exhibit is available at Those already familiar with Braude's view that anecdotes should constitute scientific evidence for psychic phenomena will not be surprised. Of the thoughtographs, the one of most interest to me was from January 30, 1965, purportedly showing Eisenbud's ranch house and barn "in a state [the barn] had actually never been in" (discussed at the video's 46-minute mark). The comparison photograph used in the lecture would seem to support this claim. But the comparison photo shown in the exhibit, dated only a day after the thoughtograph, does seem to present a close match with the thoughtograph. Braude never provided the date of the comparison photo used in his lecture, but in any case it seems strange that he would use a less-than-appropriate comparison photo when he plainly had a comparison photo on the exhibit wall that essentially matched the (blurry) thoughtograph. There seems to be no mystery about the barn in the thoughtograph after all. Its source image appears to be a 1965-era photo used by Serios.

Chronicle Review article
Letter to the Chronicle's editor
James Randi's comments
Baltimore Sun article
WYPR-FM's "Maryland Morning" audio clip (WYPR is Baltimore's National Public Radio station)
Thoughtograph gallery
Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers (1985) segment featuring Serios and Eisenbud, and David Eisendrath and Charles Reynolds demonstrating Serios' methods

Balticon 45
The Baltimore Science Fiction Society presents Balticon 45, the Maryland Regional Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, on Memorial Day weekend (May 27-30, 2011) at the Baltimore Marriott Hunt Valley Inn (245 Shawan Rd, Hunt Valley, MD). As always, Balticon will include science programs, at least four of which will feature skeptic-related topics. NCAS president Marv Zelkowitz will discuss the alleged link between vaccines and autism. NCAS board member Bing Garthright will talk about dowsing. Geologist and "Doubtful" blogger Sharon Hill will present "Being Sciencey," and musician/podcaster George Hrab is scheduled as well. For more information, visit

NCAS Volunteers for Balticon 45
The NCAS table at Balticon will need the services of volunteers to answer questions, distribute freebies, and provide extraordinary evidence that skeptics are cool. Can you help? If so, send us an e-mail at, or phone (301) 587-3827.

Shadow Light
Some members and contacts of NCAS receive a postal notification of this and every new monthly Shadow of a Doubt. The Shadow Light postcard announces the monthly lecture and highlights of the electronic Shadow of a Doubt, which is available online at NCAS thereby reduces Shadow production and postage costs. To further reduce costs, members and contacts can opt out of postal notification altogether, while continuing to receive Shadow of a Doubt via e-mail. To opt out, send us an e-mail at

Drinking Skeptically, now in MD and VA!
On Wednesday, May 11 at 7:00 p.m., please join fellow NCASers at either of our simultaneous DC-area Drinking Skeptically events:
Jackie's Sidebar
8081 Georgia Avenue (entrance on Sligo Avenue) in Silver Spring, MD

Chevys Fresh Mex
4238 Wilson Blvd (Ballston Common Mall) in Arlington, VA

The February issue of Washingtonian magazine features the Sidebar on its cover, for a story on the best bars in the DC area.

Drinking Skeptically is an informal social event designed to promote fellowship and networking among skeptics, critical-thinkers, and like-minded individuals. There's no cover charge and all are welcome. Don't drink? Don't let that stop you from joining us! Some of the world's most famous skeptics are teetotalers, and we are happy to have you! Remember that drinking skeptically means drinking responsibly. If there's one thing science has taught us, it's the effects of alcohol on the human body.

Time to Renew?
Be sure to check your renewal date above your postal address on the Shadow Light postcard. Send any queries to