Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt - May 2012

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • NCAS Public Lecture Series: 2012 and the Faithless - Jamila Bey
  • NCAS Presents the 2012 Philip J. Klass Award and Celebrates 25 Years
  • Revised Bylaws Adopted, New Board Members Elected, Officers Chosen
  • Torn From Today's Headlines By Scott Snell - Venus Gets a Bum Rap (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Its Shadow)
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically - May 9

NCAS Public Lecture Series
2012 and the Faithless
Jamila Bey

Saturday, May 12, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
Bethesda Regional Library
7400 Arlington Road
Bethesda, MD [map] [directions]
(Bethesda Metro station)
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members

From doomsday predictions and reprimanded nuns to women's health and the faith of those in power, the year 2012 is shaping up to be one filled with myriad conflicts over religious faith. Jamila Bey will discuss why skepticism and reason need not be subject to the whims of warring beliefs, and what impact all of the discussion and arguments may have upon the presidential election this fall.

Jamila Bey is a journalist based in Washington, DC, where she hosts the weekly radio show, The Sex, Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR With Jamila, which airs on WZHF-AM 1390 in Washington and WNSW-AM 1430 in New York City. She also writes for the Washington Post blog, "She the People." Jamila served a decade-long stint as a producer and editor at National Public Radio working for shows including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Tell Me More with Michel Martin, and Talk of the Nation. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Humanist, Jazz Times, and WebMD as well as on NBC-TV's Today and radio stations around the country.

A sought-after speaker and writer, Jamila's areas of expertise include health and family policy, and all issues concerning the First Amendment. She particularly enjoys reporting on issues concerning religion and the separation of church and state.

A stand-up comedienne, Jamila says she enjoys the stage because it's a cheaper hobby than scrapbooking. Her first book about the role of religion in the lives of African-American women is to be completed in Fall 2012.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.


NCAS Presents the 2012 Philip J. Klass Award and Celebrates 25 Years
Sunday, June 10
1 to 5:30 PM
Fenton Room, Silver Spring Civic Building at Veterans Plaza

Featuring three skeptical talks...
"Fact-Checking Presidential Candidates"
by Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post's "The Fact Checker"

by Gerry Sneeringer, Information Technology Security Officer, University of Maryland

"In the Zone:  Mind, Body, and Fitness"
by Dr. Bradley Hatfield, Professor and Chair, Department of Kinesiology, University of Maryland

We're presenting the 2012 Philip J. Klass Award to Penn & Teller (pre-recorded).

Cool door prizes will be awarded.

A celebratory dinner (with cash bar) will follow at 6 PM at McGinty's Irish Public House and Restaurant, a short walk from the Silver Spring Civic Building.

After dessert, magician Brian Wendell Morton will demonstrate a few classic scams:  "Fast & Loose," "The Shell Game," and "Three Card Monte."

Please join us as we celebrate a quarter-century of cool skepticism.  We're going where we've never gone before.

Seating is limited to 65, so early registration is encouraged.

For registration, visit http://ncas.org/25th

Revised Bylaws Adopted, New Board Members Elected, Officers Chosen
Results of the recent NCAS member vote on the revised bylaws and candidates for the board of directors have been tabulated. Voters ratified the revised bylaws. Two new board members were elected: Kevin Jennings and Mya Riemer.  Re-elected and incumbent members include: Tom Bridgman, Nelson Davis Jr, Chip Denman, Grace Denman, Bing Garthright, Brian Gregory, Beth Kingsley, Melissa Pollak, Scott Snell, and Jamy Ian Swiss. The board selected its officers, who are: Marv Zelkowitz, president; J. D. Mack, vice president; Walter F. Rowe, secretary; and Curtis Haymore, treasurer.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
Venus Gets a Bum Rap (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Its Shadow)
An Air Canada Boeing 767 (Flight 878) was flying from Toronto to Zurich on the night of January 13-14, 2011 when suddenly it went into a brief dive before recovering to its normal cruising altitude.  Several passengers had to be hospitalized after arrival.  An Air Canada spokesman said that the incident was due to "unexpected turbulence."

On April 16, 2012, Canada's Transportation Safety Board (TSB) released its investigation report about the incident.  Some news media coverage correctly related the report's findings, but others garbled the facts, indicating that the first officer had put the plane into a dive to avoid a perceived collision with the planet Venus.

Some of the accurate news coverage overemphasized certain facts of the case and omitted others, which probably led other reporters astray when composing their own versions.  For example, the Toronto Sun carried a QMI Agency story headlined, "Napping Pilot Thought Venus was a Plane."  The story began, "An Air Canada pilot initially mistook the planet Venus for an aircraft when he awoke from a nap and then sent the plane into a nosedive to avoid what he thought was an oncoming plane, a report said."

True enough, although the seeds of misunderstanding were planted in those words.  The relevant excerpt from the TSB report follows (boldface is added for emphasis):

"At 0155, the captain made a mandatory position report with the Shanwick Oceanic control centre. This aroused the FO [First Officer]. The FO had rested for 75 minutes but reported not feeling altogether well. Coincidentally, an opposite–direction United States Air Force Boeing C–17 at 34 000 feet appeared as a traffic alert and collision avoidance system (TCAS) target on the navigational display (ND). The captain apprised the FO of this traffic.

Over the next minute or so, the captain adjusted the map scale on the ND in order to view the TCAS target 5 and occasionally looked out the forward windscreen to acquire the aircraft visually. The FO initially mistook the planet Venus for an aircraft but the captain advised again that the target was at the 12 o'clock position and 1000 feet below. The captain of ACA878 and the oncoming aircraft crew flashed their landing lights. The FO continued to scan visually for the aircraft. When the FO saw the oncoming aircraft, the FO interpreted its position as being above and descending towards them. The FO reacted to the perceived imminent collision by pushing forward on the control column."

Apparently many reporters failed to read the TSB report, or badly misinterpreted it.

Ric Ward's story for CNN was titled, "Pilot Sends Plane into Dive after Mistaking Venus for Oncoming Plane."  Ward writes, "But the first officer, still believing that the object in the sky above him was the cargo plane, initiated a dive to avoid the perceived imminent collision -- sending the jetliner toward the Air Force plane."  [Emphasis added.]

The ABC News report, cowritten by long-time correspondent Brian Ross, was entitled "Sleepy Pilot Mistakes Planet for Oncoming Plane, Sends Passenger Jet Into Dive."  The article states that "The 'confused and disoriented' first officer, however, believed that the planet Venus was the approaching plane, and was coming right at the Air Canada jet. He forced the plane into a dive."

Interested readers can use web search engines to follow the evolution of this story as it metamorphosizes from facts into fiction. Even the usually reliable Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, wrote incorrectly about it on the Discovery News site. (In his version, the first officer only sees Venus, never the other aircraft.)

Otherwise, Radford correctly notes that the planet, when misidentified by witnesses, is the source of many UFO reports.  But this incident isn't a good one from which to generalize.  The mistaken witness was groggy, suffering from "sleep inertia."  The captain, wide-awake, knew Venus wasn't an aircraft. Instead, cases involving alert aviators misidentifying the planet as a UFO (such as Case 37 of the Condon Report) are probably a better example of the problem that Venus can pose.

Media reports have accused the planet of causing the Air Canada 878 incident, but it's a false charge–Venus is actually "not guilty."  The ABC News headline should've been, "Sleepy Pilot Mistakes Planet for Oncoming Plane Until the Captain Corrects Him, Then Sees a Plane and Sends Passenger Jet into Dive."

By the way, Venus will be getting some legitimate news coverage soon.  Instead of its usual orbital passage somewhat north or south of the Sun's disk as seen from Earth, Venus will pass directly in front of the Sun on June 5.  It's the last time this event (a "transit of Venus") will occur until 2117. Previously this occurred in June 2004, and before that, in 1882.

Weather permitting, some of the transit will be visible in the DC area, starting at about 6:04 PM EDT.  (Unfortunately the Sun will set at 8:31 PM, before Venus is even halfway across the solar disk.)

To safely observe the transit, proper eye protection or solar image projection is required.  The best viewing opportunities are at events hosted by local university astronomy departments and amateur groups, some of which are listed below.

The TSB report:

An initial news report on the incident, which Air Canada blamed on turbulence.  Not until the release of the TSB report, over a year later, did the truth emerge.

The QMI Agency story, accurate but ambiguously worded:

CNN story:

ABC News story:

Benjamin Radford article:

Condon Report Case 37:

Transit of Venus links:

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.org/shadow.  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 ncas@ncas.org.

Drinking Skeptically, now in MD and  VA!
On Wednesday, May 9 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

The Front Page Arlington
Rear patio / National Science Foundation atrium
4201 Wilson Blvd (across from Ballston Common Mall) in Arlington, VA
(703) 248-9990    

The February 2011 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 ncas@ncas.org.  Use the online membership form to renew.