Thursday, August 25, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt - September 2011

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • SkeptiCamp DC 2011
  • ABC News - "Beyond Belief: Psychic Power"
  • October NCAS Lecture: Humans to Mars: How and Why.
  • New Board Member Elected, Officers Chosen
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically

SkeptiCamp DC 2011
Skeptics are invited to Greater Washington, D.C., area’s 2nd annual SkeptiCamp. SkeptiCamp DC 2011 -- an informal conference focusing on skepticism, science, and critical thinking -- will be held Sunday, October 16, 2011, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the Charles Carroll Room of the Stamp Student Union at the University of Maryland, College Park. This grassroots event consists of a series of short talks on various topics (chosen by the presenters), with opportunities for questions after each talk to encourage the circulation of ideas among participants. Those interested in attending or presenting a talk at SkeptiCamp DC must visit to register.

The first SkeptiCamp took place in Denver, Colorado, in 2007. The SkeptiCamp concept developed as a method for local communities of skeptics to gather and discuss issues of importance, without the investments of time and money required of involvement in many formal skeptical conferences. Organizers of local SkeptiCamps encourage openness, participation, and collaboration, in an attempt to foster the skeptical movement and to take its ideas to a wider audience. Since 2007, locally organized SkeptiCamps have been held across North America and, recently, in the United Kingdom. SkeptiCamp DC 2010 was the 18th event in this growing phenomenon. SkeptiCamp DC is being sponsored locally by UMD Society of Inquiry, National Capital Area Skeptics, and the Center for Inquiry DC.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
"Beyond Belief: Psychic Power"
The ABC News summer series Primetime Nightline devoted its entire August 17, 2011 edition to another installment of "Beyond Belief," this one entitled "Psychic Power."  (Previous shows focused on alleged paranormality of twins, near-death experiences, Satanic possession, and religious miracles.)  Two segments of the program featured the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF, at, including Randi himself, along with fellow magicians Banachek of JREF and Jamy Ian Swiss of NCAS.

Chip Denman (of NCAS and JREF) comments: "Jamy and I worked behind the scenes to design ways to test standard psychic claims on camera, with JREF's [One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge] on the line.  It was taped the week before [The Amaz!ng Meeting 2011], when we had entirely too little time and resources.  I'm mostly happy with the two JREF segments.  The opening segment was also fine.  The closer, however, was disappointingly pointless.  [In the JREF segments,] I do wish the camera had made it clear that each person tested had, just prior to the test, agreed that they thought they could perform well under these conditions.  If they had not agreed, we were not going to push them into it."

The closing segment featured correspondent David Wright receiving separate "psychic readings" from Allison DuBois and Rebecca Rosen.  Wright was clearly impressed and moved by what they told him about himself and his family, informing viewers that "these are details that don't pop up on Google."  At one point, Rosen said Wright's deceased mother was telling her, "...picture me at my best, I literally see rainbows."  Hours later, Wright, his cameraman, and Rosen's family emerged from her Denver home to behold a double rainbow.

The psychic readings seemed extraordinary, but by the day after the broadcast, important facts emerged.  In a JREF posting that directed the Million Dollar Challenge to DuBois, Rosen, and James Van Praagh (who appeared in the program's first segment), Randi informed readers that Wright was mistaken in thinking his life details were not easily available.  Online searches had revealed wedding and birth announcements that contained much of the same information provided during the readings.  (For example, Rosen said, "I'm supposed [i.e., Wright's mother wants me] to talk about a four-leaf I don't know if somebody is Irish or somebody loves four-leaf clovers."  Wright responded that his wife is Irish.  This fact is contained in the Wright wedding announcement at

Curiously, both DuBois and Rosen spoke of roses in association with Wright's mother.  The program's editor cut to what appeared to be a school graduation photo of her, holding roses.  Whatever caused both women to mention roses is not obvious from online searches.

Finally, what about the rainbow?  An online search of "Denver rainbow" shows that the phenomenon isn't rare.  A clever psychic could check the weather forecast for rain, and then include a reference to rainbows in any readings for that day.  If sighted by the client later, any rainbow would give considerable validation (and new and repeat business) to the psychic.  If no rainbow is seen that day, or within a week or two (or however long it would take for the client to reject a connection), there's no harm done to the apparent validity of the reading.  It's an easy risk for the psychic to take.

Primetime Nightline "Psychic Powers"
Randi's response

October NCAS Lecture
On Saturday, October 15 at 1:30 pm at the Bethesda Regional Library, Douglas W. Gage, Ph.D. will present "Humans to Mars: How and Why."  Now that the space shuttle program has ended, what should be the next step for human space flight?  There appears to be broad agreement that Mars should be our ultimate goal, but some say that first we should go back to the Moon or to an asteroid, and many question whether we should be spending our scarce resources to send humans anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit any time soon.  Meanwhile, real challenges lie in developing the technologies, systems, and operational processes that will keep explorers safe, secure, productive, and happy on the surface of Mars.  We need to provide shelter, energy, air, water, food, health care, communications, IT support, ground transportation, and much more.  The initial development of these technologies is much less expensive than designing and building rockets, and most can be used or adapted for use on Earth.  So, regardless of when we decide to actually go to Mars, we should be preparing now to live on Mars.  It's not rocket science!

Douglas Gage is an independent technology consultant based in Arlington, Virginia.  In the early 2000s, he served as a Program Manager at Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), managing programs in robotic software.  He served as a reviewer for the NASA's Mars Technology Program for several years, and in 2005 he served as External Cochair for NASA's Capabilities Roadmapping Team for Autonomous Systems and Robotics.

New Board Member Elected, Officers Chosen
A new board member was elected in the recent voting: Beth Kingsley. Re-elected and incumbent members are: Tom Bridgman, Nelson Davis Jr, Chip Denman, Grace Denman, Bing Garthright, Brian Gregory, Melissa Pollak, Eugene W. Ossa, Scott Snell, Gary Stone, and Jamy Ian Swiss. Officers are: Marv Zelkowitz, president; J. D. Mack, vice president; Walter F. Rowe, secretary; and Curtis Haymore, treasurer.

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, September 14 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