Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt - December 2012

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics

  • NCAS Public Lecture Series - It Came From the Genetics Lab: DNA, the Monster That Ate Forensic Science - Walter F. Rowe, PhD
  • Paul Kurtz (1925-2012)
  • January NCAS Lecture
  • Torn From Today's Headlines by Scott Snell - The End is Near...
  • ...and a Year-End Roundup
  • "World Won't End in 2012" Lifetime Membership!
  • Artpocalypse 2012

NCAS Public Lecture Series
It Came From the Genetics Lab: DNA, the Monster That Ate Forensic Science
Walter F. Rowe, PhD 
Professor, Department of Forensic Sciences, The George Washington University

Saturday, December 8, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
National Science Foundation, Room 110
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA [map] [directions]
(Ballston-Marymount University Metro stop)
Enter NSF from the corner of 9th N & N Stuart Streets.
FREE admission €“ Everyone welcome, members and non-members

In the 1980s all was serene in the field of forensic science. Fingerprinting and dental records were the accepted methods of personal identification. Forensic serologists could identify a number of genetic markers in dried blood and body fluids. The identification sciences (questioned documents, firearm and tool mark identification, shoe and tire track identification) were readily accepted by courts. Few scientists envisioned that it would be possible to isolate human DNA from dried stains that were months or years old. However, within less than a quarter of a century, forensic DNA profiling had become the gold standard against which all other forensic disciplines are measured (and not always to their benefit).

This talk will examine the current state of forensic DNA profiling and ongoing research in this area. It will also explore the profound impact of DNA profiling on the criminal justice system, crime scene processing, the criminal investigative process and other branches of forensic science. The talk will also address some myths about DNA profiling and the personal information that it supposedly discloses.

Professor Walter Rowe has a PhD in chemistry from Harvard University. He has been a member of the faculty of the Department of Forensic Sciences at The George Washington University since 1975. He was introduced to forensic science when he spent two years as a forensic chemistry specialist in the United States Criminal Investigation Laboratory system. Professor Rowe is a Fellow of the Criminalistics Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.  He was a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Forensic Sciences for twenty years, and has authored over fifty research articles and book chapters in the field of forensic science.

Professor Rowe is a founding member of NCAS and serves on its board of directors as secretary. He has published skeptical articles in Skeptical Inquirer and NCAS's Skeptical Eye.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

Paul Kurtz (1925-2012)
NCAS mourns the death of Paul Kurtz, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.  Kurtz, who died in Amherst, New York, on October 20, is widely considered the person most responsible for the modern organized scientific skeptical movement that coalesced in the mid-1970s.  In 1976 he formed the "Committee to Scientifically Investigate Claims of Paranormal and Other Phenomena" (later called CSICOP and now CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which publishes Skeptical Inquirer).  In addition to being the longtime leader of CSI, Kurtz was founder and chairman of Prometheus Books, publisher of many of the leading authors of skeptical and freethinker works.  He was also chairman of the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH), and editor-in-chief of its Free Inquiry magazine.  Kurtz was also founder and chairman of the Center for Inquiry, Transnational, comprising CSI, CSH, and other affiliates.

CFI's obituary for Kurtz:

One of Kurtz's legacies is the formation of independent local skeptics groups like NCAS.  Under his leadership, CSICOP published a call for forming such groups, and provided them with invaluable guidance and material support to connect with other skeptics in their community and organize.

In April 2009, at the 12th World Congress of the Center for Inquiry, held in Bethesda, Maryland, NCAS presented its Philip J. Klass Award to Paul Kurtz for outstanding contributions in promoting critical thinking and scientific understanding.  Video and photos of the presentation, along with the award citation, are available here:

Shortly after Kurtz's death, CFI Executive Director Barry Karr posted a remembrance of him on his (Karr's) Facebook page, including a photo of Kurtz's office.  With much appreciation, NCAS board members noted that the Klass Award had been displayed prominently on Kurtz's desk.

January NCAS Lecture
Jim Lippard will be speaking on "The Decline (and Probable Fall) of the Scientology Empire," which looks at the history of the Church of Scientology, how it has collided with the Internet and lost control of its secrets and its membership, and is now seeing an accelerating decline as its top members leave for new alternatives.  Saturday, January 19 at 1:30 pm at the Bethesda Regional Library.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
The End is Near...
Yes, the end is near for authors, publishers, and television producers to cash in on the December 21, 2012 apocalypse memetic phenomenon.

Meanwhile, John B. Carlson, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Archaeoastronomy and Senior Lecturer at University Honors College, University of Maryland, College Park, presented the facts about "2012 Apocalypse and the Maya Calendar" at the October 13 NCAS lecture at Bethesda Library.

Carlson covered a lot of ground (and, unfortunately for those unable to attend, declined to have his presentation videotaped for the NCAS YouTube channel), but highlights are worth passing along to anyone (especially impressionable youngsters) who may be concerned about the world coming to an end this month.

It's true that the Mayan calendar will be completing a 5,125-year cycle on December 21 (or perhaps 23), 2012.  But this is not the end of Mayan time, it's just the end of that cycle.  Consistent with that view is the fact that Mayans inscribed a date corresponding to 4772 CE at a site in Palenque.

Some scholars of the Maya (notably Michael Coe, in his 1966 book, The Maya) interpret the final page of the Dresden Codex (see http://www.mayacodices.org/images/D74.jpg ) as not just a flood, but as a world-ending catastrophe.  But this perspective is controversial.  Even more controversial is Coe's claim that the timing of the catastrophe corresponds to the cycle that ends in December 2012.  This is based on the presence of "God L" (visible at the bottom of the final page), who was also depicted elsewhere as presiding over the creation event at the start of the cycle (in 3114 BCE).  Coe contends that the flood image shows God L's return at the end of the cycle.  But in any case, the flood shown may be nothing more than a flood.

Taking Mayan mythology literally is a dubious prospect, but worse is mixing astrology and bad astronomy with it.  There is no "alignment" of the Galactic center and the Sun on December 21, 2012.  The ecliptic (the 360-degree path that the Sun traces over the course of each year with respect to the background stars) crosses the Galactic equator (the 360-degree Milky Way "ring" around the sky) in June and December, every year.  As seen from Earth, the Sun doesn't pass directly in front of the Galactic center.  It is true that it's a near miss, and it occurs around the time of the Winter Solstice.  But it happens every year.

Volume XXIV of Archaeoastronomy, a journal edited by Dr. Carlson, contains additional information about the Maya calendar and the 2012 memetic phenomenon.  Apparently Coe's 1966 book was the source of the meme that the Maya believed that the world would end at the end of the 5,125-year cycle (incorrectly dated as December 24, 2011).

Another early step, and perhaps the one that got the approaching date into the public psyche, was a 1975 film by Alan and Sally Landsburg (later famous for their In Search of... TV series) called The Outer Space Connection. The wild speculations about this being the date of aliens returning to their Earth colony (of which we are the unwitting descendants) are solely from Landsburg:

From there, many other authors and producers embellished and expanded on the meme in their own ways.

Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández
2011  The Maya Codices Database, Version 4.0. A website and database available at http://www.mayacodices.org/ .

From Archaeoastronomy, Volume XXIV:
Carlson, John B.
Anticipating the Maya Apocalypse: What Might the Ancient Day-Keepers Have Envisioned for December 21, 2012?

Whitesides, Kevin A.
2,012 by 2012? The “Impending Apparent End” of the “2012” Publishing Phenomenon

Hoopes, John W.
New Age Sympathies and Scholarly Complicities: The History and Promotion of 2012 Mythology

...and a Year-End Roundup
From November:
It's just a coincidence, and no one is claiming otherwise, but the "Redskins Rule" held true for 17 (or 18) of the first 18 US presidential elections since the Redskins moved to DC from Boston in 1937.

The "rule," as originally developed, states that "if the Washington Redskins win their last home game before the election, the political party that won the previous presidential election wins the next election and that if the Redskins lose, the challenging party's candidate wins."

"Redskins Rule 2.0," accommodating the unusual outcome of the 2000 election, for which Al Gore won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, is: "If the Washington Redskins win their last home game before the election, the political party that won the popular vote in the previous presidential election wins the next election and that if the Redskins lose, the challenging party's candidate wins."

The 2012 election results violated both forms of the "Redskins Rule."

Steve Hirdt, the man who "discovered" the rule, said, "This might be a good way to pour dirt over it for good."

Also from November:
NCAS board member and past president Chip Denman was interviewed by WJLA-TV's Horace Holmes for a News 7 segment broadcast on Monday, November 12.  The topic was "ghost hunters."

Sadly, News 7 produced a credulous and superficial segment, edited out most of Chip's comments, and gave the ghost hunters more time and the final word.

This wasn't the first time that News 7 aired a misleading story about a purported mystery.  An incident involving a mass killing of birds received similar treatment back in March:

From September:

Dinosaur fossil hunter / trance channeler / UFO investigator Ray Stanford gave a talk ("DINOSAUR TRACKS IN GODDARD'S BACK YARD! The Finder's Report") at Goddard Space Flight Center on September 13.

The talk was generally well-received, although some audience members described his presentation as excessively self-promoting.

Those of us who missed the talk are looking forward to February 1, 2013:

From April:

The US General Services Administration (GSA) became mired in scandal after a GSA Inspector General report detailed "excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible" GSA spending for an October 2010 conference held outside Las Vegas.

Among the expenses were hiring Bob Garner, a self-proclaimed "recognized expert on the intriguing and mysterious topics of ESP and psychic phenomenon [sic]."

On April 16, the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing ("Addressing GSA's Culture Of Wasteful Spending") about the scandal.

GSA Inspector General Brian Miller's testimony included the following: "And when it comes down to mind readers, or I think he billed himself as a motivational speaker, in terms of the report, we stayed away from the quality of—any quality judgments on the type of training because we are not the experts in Public Buildings Service, but the rules do allow a motivational speaker. Now, if he was mind reading or entertainment, that would not be permitted."

Judging from Garner's web site, http://www.bobgarner.com (as well as archived versions of his site that pre-date the scandal), conceivably he was in fact hired as a motivational speaker.


"World Won't End in 2012" Lifetime Membership!
Proudly demonstrate your skepticism of the 2012 doomsayers' claims...buy a lifetime membership in NCAS before December 21, 2012, when the cost will increase by $100.

When December 22 comes around without even a tiny apocalypse, the long list of failed prophecies over the course of human history will get a little longer.  But, verily, our prophecy of membership fee increase will indeed come to pass after many years of keeping costs down.

Use the online membership form to upgrade your membership.

Artpocalypse 2012
The Maya 5125-year 13 Bak'tun Long Count cycle happens to end on a Friday.  The timing couldn't be better for a party:
"Beginning at 7pm on the 21st of December, the general public is invited to come to The Dunes gallery in Columbia Heights (1402 Meridian Place NW) to help celebrate and party away our final moments on Earth.  Come sample the unique paintings and sculpture while enjoying inspired music and drink as we all wait for 'the end' together.  Because, if the end of the world is coming, we might as well enjoy it and be with friends."

"Artpocalypse" is the brain-child of Washington, DC professional visual artist Dana Ellyn, who wants to "create something special to celebrate the end of humanity."


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, December 12 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.

New Postal Address
As of June 2012, NCAS has switched post office boxes, from 8428 to 8461:
National Capital Area Skeptics
P.O. Box 8461
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8461

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.