Friday, November 20, 2015

Shadow of a Doubt - November 2015

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • Nov 21 NCAS Lecture:
    The American Civil War: Obsolete Myths and Real Questions" by Andrew Zimmerman, PhD
    Department of History, George Washington University
  • December NCAS Lecture:
    "Forensic Follies: The Dark Side of CSI." by Professor Walter F. Rowe, Department of Forensic Sciences at The George Washington University
  • Torn From Today's Headlines by Scott Snell:
    Capital Gazette Misleads Readers About Alleged "Spirit Voices" Recorded at Glen Burnie Library
  • When Strange Coincidences Happen to Normal Skeptics, or How NCAS Board Members Can Meet Without Really Trying
  • AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
  • Shadow Light 
  • Drinking Skeptically in MD and  VA (New Time)!
  • Time to Renew?

NCAS Public Lecture Series

The American Civil War:
Obsolete Myths and Real Questions

Andrew Zimmerman, PhD
Department of History
The George Washington University

Saturday, November 21, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
2nd Floor Meeting Room
Rockville Memorial Library
21 Maryland Avenue
Rockville, MD [map]
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members

This lecture will introduce some of the most interesting and important questions historians of the American Civil War are asking today.   These include: what role did slaves themselves play in the end of slavery? How did the Union Army defeat the Confederacy and win the war? It will also debunk some persistent myths that sometimes overshadow these real questions, including the claim that the Confederacy fought for states' rights rather than for the perpetuation of slavery. Even if you have never given a thought to the Civil War, you will come away from this lecture able to discuss and debate this defining moment in US history.

Andrew Zimmerman is Professor of History and International Affairs in the Department of History at The George Washington University. Professor Zimmerman received his BA in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, his M.Phil. in history and the philosophy of science from Darwin College, Cambridge University, and his PhD in history from the University of California, San Diego. He has also studied at Humboldt- Universität in Berlin and at Universität Wien in Vienna. Professor Zimmerman's research focuses on modern Germany, the United States, and West Africa. He is working on a project tentatively titled "Slaves and Soldiers in the Red and Black Atlantic: A Transnational and Revolutionary History of the American Civil War."

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

About Rockville Memorial Library Parking:
Library customers can get 2 hours of free parking when they park in one of the Rockville Town Square garages, which are clearly labeled Garage A (letter A in green - accessible from Maryland Avenue entrance near Beall Avenue and from Hungerford Drive), Garage B (letter B in blue - accessible from the driveway between Gold's Gym and American Tap Room), and Garage C.

Please note that there are two garages accessible from the driveway between Gold's Gym and American Tap Room.  The first garage to the left after driving between the buildings does not have validated parking.  Please continue past the first parking entrance on the left and down the hill under the blue sign that says Garage B to access the garage for which parking can be validated.

To validate your parking when visiting the Rockville Memorial Library building, use the machine to the left as you enter the first floor internal doors of the Library. The validation machine is next to the Internet Sign In Station.

The first two hours with validated parking are free.  Thereafter, the rates are:
2-3 Hours: $2
3-6 Hours $3

December NCAS Lecture
Professor Walter F. Rowe (Department of Forensic Sciences at The George Washington University) will present "Forensic Follies: The Dark Side of CSI."  Forensic science enjoys an excellent reputation on television. TV shows such as Forensic Files, CSI and Bones laud the science and the scientists. However, in the real world, forensic science is facing an existential crisis. Cases continue to come to light in which convictions were obtained by pseudo-science, by faked science or by science incorrectly applied. The victims of these miscarriages of justice have often languished in prison for decades. In one case an innocent man was executed because a fire investigator erroneously concluded an accidental fire was the result of arson. This presentation will explore examples of bad forensic science in order to identify the causes of these miscarriages of justice. It will also examine current efforts at the federal level to improve forensic science..  Saturday, December 12 at 1:30 pm at National Science Foundation.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell:

Capital Gazette Misleads Readers About Alleged "Spirit Voices" Recorded at Glen Burnie Library
The Capital Gazette of Annapolis sent reporter Brandi Bottalico to interview the "Maryland Ghost Trackers" at Glen Burnie Regional Library for her October 27 article on  alleged hauntings at that Anne Arundel County facility:

During their two-hour presentation to an audience of about 30 (half of which were youngsters, probably of average age 8 or 9), the Trackers described their use of "Ghost Boxes" when attempting to record "spirit voices," and explained what the boxes are.

Ghost Boxes are typically AM/FM radios that have had their frequency scanning feature modified to perpetuate the scan instead of stopping at a well-received station.  Apparently these devices are popular in the "ghost-hunting" community because, as might be expected, most haunted places are sonically boring.  Recording for hours will only capture floors creaking and climate control systems circulating air, so ghost hunters rely on Ghost Boxes to inject sounds into the boring environment.

The resulting gibberish is fodder for pareidolia, which the Maryland Ghost Trackers are familiar with, but apparently don't sufficiently appreciate.  And for haunted sites that don't get good radio reception, the Trackers use "EchoVox...a real time amplified recording system used to create a bed of random chaotic noise using random phonetics, microphone input and a natural loop recording echo."

Reporter Bottalico omitted any mention of the Ghost Box, misleading her readers into believing that the source of the sounds that the Trackers recorded was a mystery.

Baltimore's WMAR-TV news team broadcasted and posted an equally credulous story:

Author's Comments:
For their part, the Maryland Ghost Trackers refuse payment for their services and appear to be sincere investigators.  They're wary of accepting photographic "orbs" as paranormal evidence (correctly categorizing them as camera flash illuminated airborne dust, flying insects, lens surface droplets, and so forth) but succumb to confirmation bias when interpreting the Ghost Box gibberish.  They can guard against that by having each of their team members independently try to decipher the recorded sounds and, more importantly, listen to the gibberish in isolation from every preceding question posed to the "spirits" by the Trackers.  This could be worthwhile for minimizing interpretive preconceptions produced by the question.

During the Q&A after their talk, the Trackers took a question from a bright youngster who noticed that all of the video recordings included subtitles for the words "spoken" by the alleged spirits.  The Trackers responded that the sound system for the presentation wasn't good enough to get the spirit voices clearly audible, so subtitles had to be added.  But, they assured him, the words were much clearer when listening carefully with their headphones.  (This reminded me of a presentation I attended in 1985, put on by a church group that warned against the dangers of rock music.  Playing the music backwards was supposedly revealing Satanic lyrics.  The group "helpfully" showed the alleged lyrics as the backwards music was played, biasing everyone in the room towards hearing that interpretation as well.  Weeks later, I tried an experiment where I played some of that same music backwards to friends of mine and simply asked, "What, if anything, do you think you're hearing?"  Generally the response was, "I think I'm hearing words, but I can't quite tell what they are.")

Also of interest is what percentage of the recordings are hopeless gibberish.  I asked this during Q&A, explaining that there's a natural tendency to highlight the interpreted recordings and ignore the nonsensical ones.  Are there many more nonsensical ones?  The Trackers couldn't be sure.  One guessed that about 50% of the recordings are "coherent."

I was disappointed to see that the talk was promoted as suitable for age 8 and up, because it included claims that are probably terrifying for impressionable young people.  For example:
(Photo by Scott Snell.)

Based on that concern, and seeing an opportunity for enthusiastic (if misguided) youngsters and their parents to get a more scientific view of these interesting questions, I prepared a handout with useful resources (a Ben Radford critique of ghost hunting, a James Randi Educational Foundation test of electromagnetic field meters as used by ghost hunters, and a Richard Wiseman piece on hauntings) for anyone who might be interested.  About half of the adults took one, as did the Trackers, who graciously allowed me to announce its availability.

The Capital Gazette reporter also took one, and talked with me for a while.  I made the mistake of not interviewing her...asking what she thought of the presentation and then reflecting on her comments.  Perhaps that would've led her to include the Ghost Box in her article.  (That aspect was a little confusing during the talk and she may have failed to realize what it was.)

Other references:
The EchoVox iOS application:

When Strange Coincidences Happen to Normal Skeptics, or
How NCAS Board Members Can Meet Without Really Trying
At about 11:30 AM on Friday, October 2, 2015, NCAS board member Scott Snell of Greenbelt, Maryland unexpectedly encountered fellow board members Chip and Grace Denman of Silver Spring, Maryland on a trail in Taughannock Falls State Park, New York!  It was an entertaining and intriguing experience for all, especially when first seeing the other(s) in the distance, wondering if it was actually who it seemed to be, and then becoming certain of it.  We "compared notes" of how we got to the same place at the same time and found no mutual factors (except for seeing the spectacular falls, of course).  The Denmans visit the area every few years or so, not far from Chip's alma mater.  They scheduled this trip around their work schedules and hotel availability, months in advance.  I (Scott) was there for the first time, for my nephew's outdoor wedding the following day.  He and his fiancée had started dating in a previous early October, so they wanted their wedding to occur then too.  As it turned out, their reception venue wasn't available for the preferred weekend, and the earlier date would probably offer warmer weather, so they shifted to the first October weekend.  I'd arrived very early Friday morning, slept in late, grabbed a quick bite, and made the short stroll from my nearby inn to have a look at the Falls before driving to Ithaca for the rest of the day.  The weather that day (cool, overcast) wasn't especially welcoming, making the outdoor encounter a little less likely than it would've been for a warm sunny day, I suppose.  And the leaves hadn't even turned to autumn colors yet.  As I wrote in another entry about coincidences (the January 2013 Shadow of a Doubt), "We're surrounded by an incredible number of occurrences and details, only some of which we even notice, so we should expect some random 'alignments' of two to happen now and then. We never notice the many misalignments, so when an alignment occurs, it seems remarkable, and could be quite affecting."  Indeed it was!

AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
When holiday shopping at, you'll find the same low prices, vast selection, and convenient shopping experience as, with the added bonus that a portion of the purchase price (0.5%) goes to NCAS! It's simple and automatic, and it doesn't cost you anything!

AmazonSmile's disbursements to NCAS in the first half of 2015 came to $15.40, meaning that over $3000 of purchases were designated in support of NCAS.  (As an example of how NCAS can put that money to good use, it's almost enough to cover one hour of the Bethesda Library lecture room rental: $20).

Thanks again to our members who have chosen to support NCAS!

For more information:

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 in MD and  VA (New Start Time)!
On Wednesday, November 11 at 6:30 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 Washingtonian magazine list of the best 75 DC-area bars (2013) includes Jackie's Sidebar: "Insider tip: Sop up the spirits with some of the best bar snacks around. We love the Chicago-style dog and grilled-seaweed-sprinkled popcorn."

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  Use the online membership form to renew.