Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt - November 2011

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics

  • Fighting Junk Science in the Courts: Deterring Dangerous Therapies
  • Prez Sez
  • Torn From Today's Headlines: Gaddafi's 2011 Death Foretold...by a Sitcom?
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically

NCAS Public Lecture Series
Fighting Junk Science in the Courts: Deterring Dangerous Therapies
Brian J. Gorman, M.Sc., J.D.

Saturday, November 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

An alleged miracle cure for autism known as Facilitated Communication (FC) swept the country with great promise and hope in the early 1990’s. Proponents of FC claimed that there was a special technique whereby non-communicative individuals known to have profound mental disabilities could suddenly communicate at surprisingly sophisticated levels. FC spread like wildfire until empirically sound studies repeatedly found that FC was no better than well-meaning self-deception on the part of the facilitators. The FC fad appeared to vanish as the evidence against it piled up, but not before alleged communications from FC led to criminal court proceedings for abuse across the country. Court proceedings based on FC-generated allegations had grave consequences for a number of families and individuals.

Despite the tragic history of FC, the technique has been reborn through a defiant and determined social movement. A recent survey found that FC and other scientifically rejected techniques are still widely used in some school districts. With the resurgence of FC and continued use of other dangerous techniques like Holding Therapy, will the courts accept a long disregarded legal claim for educational malpractice against those educators who continue to use dangerous therapies despite the known risks?

Brian J. Gorman, M.Sc., J.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice at Towson University and the Director of the Biosecurity Commons information project. His research focuses on issues at the intersection of law, science, and policy from junk science to homeland security. Professor Gorman brought to bear his early career experience as a clinician and his expertise in law to address the misuse of junk science in classrooms and courtrooms in articles for Skeptic, Behavioral Science & the Law, and most recently, Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal due to the resurgence of Facilitated Communication in the courts.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

Prez Sez
Members and friends of NCAS,

Many of you may know NCAS from our two regular monthly events: our free public monthly lecture series or our Drinking Skeptically gatherings in Maryland and Virginia. At Drinking Skeptically, conversational topics are whatever the attendees choose to discuss. But our members also have a say in what topics and speakers our monthly lecture series presents. If you have suggestions, please send them to ncas@ncas.org, or phone (301) 587-3827.

Spring 2012 will be a momentous time for NCAS as we begin our 2nd quarter-century. We are planning an exciting set of programs to celebrate this. Every two years, the Washington Academy of Science organizes its Capital Science weekend, and NCAS, as a new affiliate of the Academy, will participate in CapSci 2012 (March 31 - April 1). We are also exploring participation in the USA Science & Engineering Festival (April 27 - 29). In May, we are continuing our outreach into other communities by hosting a mini-track of skepticism talks at Balticon, the Maryland regional science fiction convention sponsored by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (May 25 - 28). This will be our 2nd year at Balticon. Details for all of these will be announced over the next few months.

Despite difficult economic circumstances, NCAS continues to promote critical thinking and scientific understanding, serve as an information resource regarding extraordinary claims, and provide extraordinary evidence that skeptics are cool. For example, we’ve reduced expenses by downsizing our monthly Shadow mailings to postcards that point to our online (ncas.org) content. (See below for how to help us further reduce expenses by “going green.”) This has helped offset an increase in room rental costs for our Bethesda Library lectures.

As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, NCAS may receive tax-deductible donations. Please consider donating to NCAS’s cause of promoting critical thinking in the DC region (which as we know is often in short supply here). Also please check your membership renewal date (above the address on your Shadow postcard, or available by request from ncas@ncas.org if you’ve “gone green”). Renewals can be sent with the membership forms available at http://ncas.org/NCAS_Membership_Form.pdf.

For those who have renewed, donated (time or money), or supported us in many ways through our first 25 years, thank you.

Marv Zelkowitz, NCAS President

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
Gaddafi's 2011 Death Foretold...by a Sitcom?
The pilot episode of a Fox television comedy series, Second Chance, shows Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi as having died on July 29, 2011, instead of the actual date of October 20. The show's producers got it wrong by a few months, but should we blame them for such a small mistake, given that the episode (entitled "The End") first aired on September 26, 1987?

This strange fact came to public attention when a user of the social news website "reddit" posted a short entry entitled "Cheesy 1980's sitcom predicts the year of Gaddafi's death!" (See http://redd.it/liox6. The user, "Hypersapien," appears to be skeptically inclined and makes no serious claim of precognition.)

"Hypersapien" writes, "In 1987, there was a sitcom called Second Chance about a man who dies in 2011, finds himself in St Peter's office and is judged to not be good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell, so is returned to the 1980s to guide his younger self (Matthew Perry's first regular role) to be a better person. In the first episode, one of the two people that shows up in St Peter's office before the protagonist does is Gaddafi..."

The opening scene of "The End" is linked below.

As of this writing, it seems that no one has taken this as anything more than a coincidence. But that atypically rational perspective may not hold up for long. For example, precognition claims have long been made on behalf of Morgan Robertson, author of the short novel Futility, published in 1898. Futility features a giant and "unsinkable" British passenger liner named Titan which hits an iceberg during a North Atlantic journey in April and sinks with an enormous loss of life because it had an insufficient number of lifeboats, eerily similar to the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912.

Martin Gardner wrote a book about Futility (Wreck of the Titanic Foretold?), but his work also serves as a general guide for assessing anything that appears to be either an amazingly improbable coincidence or a case of precognition. (The book's introduction is reprinted in Gardner's When You Were a Tadpole and I Was a Fish, available online at Google Books: http://tinyurl.com/dyrllkp )

Gardner warns that "The single most important thing to understand is that in most cases of startling coincidences it is impossible to make even a rough estimate of their probability."

Despite this obstacle, a qualitative assessment of the Gaddafi death prediction could be worthwhile (and fun!).

On one hand, we have a situation comedy based on the premise of a middle-aged man given a second chance to change the course of his life during his adolescence, by coexisting with his youthful self in the contemporary year of 1987. Why the show's producers picked 24 years as the time difference between the co-protagonists is unknown. For all we know, July 29, 2011 was chosen because it would be, say, the 50th birthday of a child of one of the producers. But roughly a quarter-century would be a plausible time difference for a teen and his middle-aged self. So a future setting of 2011 or thereabouts seems natural for the concept.

Demonstrating St Peter's pathways to heaven and hell seems an obvious comic choice for establishing the show's premise. For an American audience in 1987, Muammar Gaddafi would be an obvious choice as the epitome of an evil political figure. (The year before, Libyan agents had bombed a discotheque in West Berlin, killing American servicemen. Libya was also recognized as a leading sponsor of other worldwide terrorist attacks.) Choosing a famous domestic criminal or a less notoriously evil political figure as destined for hell would probably have been harder for the producers than choosing Gaddafi at that time.

His death by violence (Gaddafi is shown arriving before St Peter with bullet holes in his shirt) seems like an obvious ending for a dictator as well.

In short, the sitcom's use of Gaddafi in the early 2010s is rather unremarkable.

On the other hand, in the real-life Gaddafi we have a dictator who survived far longer than most, having seized power in Libya in 1969. In 1987 it might have been risky for a prognosticator to suggest that Gaddafi would still be alive, or even be in power, in 2011. (Yugoslavia's Tito and Spain's Franco are examples of other long-lived dictators, but they are exceptions to the typical course of events.) Another possibility is that Gaddafi would still be alive, but in exile (as was, for example, Idi Amin of Uganda after his ouster).

On the face of this admittedly superficial analysis, the longevity of Gaddafi seems the more improbable (but hardly unprecedented) element of the Second Chance coincidence.

Finally, before anyone attributes psychic powers to the show's producers/creators David W. Duclon and Gary Menteer, I should note that Gaddafi's appearance in the program is characteristic of the middle-aged man he was in 1987, not the 69-year-old who perished in 2011. And the Miss America contestant who precedes him into St Peter's office was apparently competing in July of 2011 instead of January, the real-life month of the contest. (Although some whimsical credit can be given for "predicting" that the contest would no longer be held in September, as it was from its inception in 1921 through 2004.)

In closing, I refer the interested reader to Gardner's discussion of coincidences, available at the Google Books link above.

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, November 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

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