Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Shadow of a Doubt - December 2015

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • Dec 12 Lecture - Forensic Follies: The Dark Side of CSI by Prof. Walter Rowe
  • Torn From Today's Headlines by Scott Snell
    CBS News Gratuitously Highlights "Bermuda Triangle" after Freighter is Sunk by a Hurricane
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically in MD and  VA!
  • Time to Renew?

NCAS Public Lecture Series

Forensic Follies: The Dark Side of CSI

Walter F. Rowe, PhD
Professor, Department of Forensic Sciences
The George Washington University

Saturday, December 12, 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

Forensic science enjoys an excellent reputation on television. TV shows such as Forensic FilesCSI andBones 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.

Walter F. Rowe is currently full professor in the Department of Forensic Sciences at The George Washington University. He has been a member of the faculty of this department since 1975.  Prof. Rowe received his bachelors of science degree in chemistry from Emory University and his masters and doctorate in chemistry from Harvard University.  He received his forensic training in the US Army where he served in the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory (then located at Ft. Gordon, Georgia) and in the US Army Europe Crime Laboratory in Frankfurt-am-Main.  Prof. Rowe was a forensic drug chemist and a forensic serologist. He also graduated with honors from the US Army Military Police School’s criminal investigator course and was a credentialed Army CID agent. Prof. Rowe is a Fellow of the Criminalistics Section of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and a member of ASTM subcommittee 30.01. He is the president of the Council of Forensic Science Educators. Dr. Rowe participated in the recent OSAC meeting as a guest of the trace subcommittee. He has published extensively in the Journal of Forensic Sciences and Forensic Science International.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.


Torn From Today's Headlines by Scott Snell
CBS News Gratuitously Highlights "Bermuda Triangle" after Freighter is Sunk by a Hurricane
The cargo vessel El Faro departed Jacksonville, Florida, for San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 30with a crew of 33, despite the presence of Tropical Storm Joaquin near the ship's charted course.  By the next day, Joaquin had strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane, and El Faro, having lost propulsion system power, drifted near the eye of the storm. The final message from the crew reported that the ship had a 15-degree list and had taken on water, but that all flooding had been contained.  Subsequent efforts to contact El Faro were unsuccessful.

News media coverage of the incident and the search and rescue operations was generally conducted responsibly, with the notable exception of CBS News, which inexplicably injected "the Bermuda Triangle" (described by the US Coast Guard as "a mythical geographic area...noted for an apparent high incidence of unexplained losses of ship, small boats, and aircraft") into its reports.  There was nothing "unexplained" about the strength of the hurricane and the ship's proximity to it, so mentioning the Bermuda Triangle was peculiar and unwarranted.

CBS This Morning mentioned the Bermuda Triangle in each of its few days of search and rescue coverage, but worst of all was its October 5th report, entitled "Coast Guard: Missing cargo ship sank in Bermuda Triangle," misleading viewers into believing that the Coast Guard had issued such a statement.  In fact, the Coast Guard spokesman (Captain Mark Fedor) made no such reference, nor did any Coast Guard news release.

Some tabloid news sites also made use of the Bermuda Triangle aspect to attract readers, but CBS News was alone among hard-news sources in featuring it.

The final report on the incident is pending, but the ship has been found under about 15,000 feet of water in the vicinity of its last known position near Crooked Island, Bahamas.

As of early December, someone has edited the Wikipedia article "List of Bermuda Triangle incidents" to include El Faro, the first incident since the 1960s.  Aficionados of the Bermuda Triangle myth will be unsurprised to learn that the date listed for the ship's sinking is incorrect (September 20) and that Hurricane Joaquin is not mentioned.

Author's Comments:
The November/December 2015 issue of Skeptical Inquirer has a cover story commemorating the 40th anniversary of the classic book by Larry Kusche, The Bermuda Triangle Mystery –– Solved.  By coincidence this issue appeared right around the same time as the Triangle was unjustifiably mentioned in the same breath as El Faro

Kusche's book has a special place in my heart....it was my "skeptical eye-opener" when I received it as a gift soon after its paperback release.  Up to that point, I'd believed the pro-mystery Triangle (and UFO, ESP, etc) books, assuming in my youthful naivete that the "non-fiction" label on their spines meant that their contents were trustworthy.

Notably, no revisions to that classic book have been necessary in the intervening decades, either to correct mistakes in it, or, more significantly, to include subsequent cases.  As one might expect from improved communication and navigation systems, search and rescue techniques, weather forecasting, etc, there aren't mysterious disappearances of ships or planes in the Triangle anymore.  The best that the mystery mongers could do was the feeble attempt to add El Faro to the list.

CBS: "Coast Guard: Missing cargo ship sank in Bermuda Triangle"

US Coast Guard FAQs: "Does the Bermuda Triangle really exist?"

Fedor's press conference:

"NTSB Completes Documentation of Sunken Cargo Ship EL FARO"

AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
When holiday shopping at smile.amazon.com, you'll find the same low prices, vast selection, and convenient shopping experience as Amazon.com, 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 monthlyShadow 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 reducesShadow 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 in MD and  VA!

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 ncas@ncas.org.  Use the online membership form to renew.