Thursday, March 01, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt - March 2012

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • March 10 - Ann Merchant -  The Science & Entertainment Exchange
  • Happy 25th Birthday, NCAS!
  • NCAS to Participate in The Washington Academy of Sciences' Capital Science 2012
  • Walter Rowe at Library of Congress on March 13
  • Lawrence Krauss at UMD on March 26
  • NCAS Board Elections
  • Torn From Today's Headlines by Scott Snell - For the Birds: Is a "Flockalypse" a Sign of the Apocalypse?
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically - March 14th

NCAS Public Lecture Series
Ann Merchant
The Science & Entertainment Exchange

Saturday, March 10, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
National Science Foundation, Room 110
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, VA [map] [directions]
(Ballston-Marymount University Metro station)
Enter NSF from the corner of 9th N & N Stuart Streets.
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members

Ann Merchant (Deputy Executive Director for Communications for The National Academies) will discuss The Science & Entertainment Exchange ("The Exchange"), a program she oversees for the National Academy of Sciences that connects entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging story lines in both film and TV programming.  From a quick fact check to a special briefing, The Exchange provides quick and easy access to experts from all the scientific disciplines. The goal of The Exchange is to use the vehicle of popular entertainment media to deliver sometimes subtle, but nevertheless powerful, messages about science.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

Happy 25th Birthday, NCAS!
On the very pleasant Sunday afternoon of March 29, 1987, at the outdoor amphitheater of the Edmund Burke School in northwest Washington, DC, more than a hundred enthusiastic people attended the inaugural meeting to found the National Capital Area Skeptics.  Among them were meeting organizers (and current board members) Chip and Grace Denman, and Jamy Ian Swiss.  Current board members Nelson Davis Jr, Walter Rowe, Scott Snell, and Garold Stone were also in attendance.  Chip, Jamy, Stan Bigman (who became the first NCAS president), and Philip J. Klass, the noted aerospace journalist, skeptical UFO investigator, and executive committee member of CSICOP (now called CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) spoke to the audience about the purpose and aims of the fledgling organization, and the way forward.

(The story of the founding of NCAS is told in Volume 20, Number 1 of The Skeptical Eye.)

NCAS will be commemorating this anniversary soon.  Stay tuned for details.

NCAS to Participate in The Washington Academy of Sciences' Capital Science 2012
On Saturday and Sunday, March 31-April 1, 2012, The Washington Academy of Sciences (WAS) and its Affiliates (including NCAS) will hold the fifth in the series of its biennial pan-Affiliate Conferences, Capital Science 2012.

This will be the first CapSci to be hosted by a consortium of the three universities that line the University Corridor on Glebe Road in Arlington, Virginia -- Virginia Tech, George Washington, and Marymount (near the Ballston-Marymount University Metro station). Registration and plenaries will be held at the new Virginia Tech facility at 900 North Glebe Road in Arlington. Additional classrooms will be next door at GWU and at Marymount, just across Fairfax Drive.

Scientific presentations, seminars, tutorials, and talks will be featured, including contributions by two NCAS board members.  NCAS president Marvin Zelkowitz (Professor, Department of Computer Science, University of Maryland) will speak on "Vaccines and Autism" and "Top Scams of 2012."  Walter F. Rowe (Professor, Department of Forensic Sciences, George Washington University) will speak on "CSI Skeptic": How much of the forensic science shown on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and similar entertainment TV shows is accurate?

The NCAS talks are scheduled for Sunday, April 1, 2-5 PM.

Registration fee is $50 for NCAS (and other WAS affiliate) members, $100 otherwise.

Walter Rowe at Library of Congress on March 13
The Library of Congress Professional Association "What If...Science Fiction & Fantasy Forum" and "Mystery Writers at Noon Series" will present Walter F. Rowe (Professor, Department of Forensic Sciences, George Washington University) on Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at noon.  His talk, "CSI Television: Science or Science Fiction?" will be followed by Q&A.  Free; no reservations required.  At the Library of Congress Mary Pickford Theater (third floor, James Madison Memorial Building), 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington, DC.  From Capitol South Metro station, use entrance at 1st and C Streets, SE.  For more information, contact

Lawrence Krauss at UMD on March 26
Astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss, author of A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, drew over 150 attendees to his January NCAS lecture.  If you missed it, be sure to catch his talk at 7:30 PM on Monday, March 26, in Room 1101 of the Bioscience Research Building (located between the Stamp Student Union and Hornbake Library) at the University of Maryland in College Park.

NCAS Board Elections
Are you an NCAS member who wants to take a leadership role in the skeptics movement?  The NCAS annual board of directors election is fast approaching.  Send an email to by March 15 so you can be placed on the ballot.  If you'd like a sneak peek at what life on the NCAS board is like, you are encouraged to attend the next board meeting.  (Board meetings are open to all members, though only board members may vote on motions.)

Next Board Meeting
The next NCAS board meeting will be held on Tuesday, March 13 at 7 PM.  NCAS members (especially prospective board candidates) are welcome.  Please send an e-mail by March 12 to so our hosts will have a head count.  Directions will be provided.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
For the Birds: Is a "Flockalypse" a Sign of the Apocalypse? 
On the sunny, mild, and breezy afternoon of February 15, traffic on northbound I-95 in Laurel, Maryland slowed to a crawl, creating a backup that lasted for hours.  The problem wasn't caused by a stalled vehicle, a fender bender, or inclement weather.  Instead, it was starlings--hundreds of them lying in the highway--dead or dying.

Local news media outlets covered the story, but not all of them did so in an accurate or responsible way.  WJLA-TV's coverage in particular showed questionable judgment.  Instead of interviewing an expert (as WUSA-TV did by talking with biologist Peter Bendel of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources), a few sensational "person in the street" comments were televised.  "Some here suspect something sinister," reporter Stephen Tschida said, prefacing interviewee comments such as, "Environmental hazards, toxins in the air and in the environment maybe...We're next, they're the canaries."  Only in a brief closing remark did Tschida quote Bendel's assessment that the flock probably flew into traffic and died on impact with a large truck.  (Not surprisingly, the WJLA segment has been posted in several places on YouTube by would-be prophets of doom, presented as evidence that the world is about to end.)

WTOP-FM's coverage included a comment from inspectors with the Maryland Highway State Administration, who implausibly opined that "the birds were killed after flying into huge power lines that cross the highway and are secured by large towers on either side."  (In fairness to WTOP, this was posted on their site only an hour or two after the incident, although they can be faulted for posting no follow-up information.)  WJLA's Tschida may have picked up this comment as well, but garbled it into ambiguity: "One possible culprit is nearby power lines...The birds could have encountered something deadly simultaneously."

Some of the stories made reference to other mass-mortality incidents involving birds and other wildlife.  Notably an incident in Beebe, Arkansas on New Year's Eve, 2011 involved the deaths of a few thousand red-winged blackbirds.  A year later, also on New Year's Eve, a couple of hundred more perished in Beebe.  In both cases, firework explosions were blamed for frightening the birds into disoriented night flight and causing fatal collisions with the ground and other obstacles.

This explanation was unsatisfactory for the doomsayers and other irrationalists.  Wildest of all was an apparently straight-faced interview on RT (a Russian government-owned television network) with "Colleen Thomas of Roseville, California...a home health administrator turned physicist who specializes in the science of creation.  She's also part of a race of good aliens who reside right here on Earth, called the Pleiadeans."  The first Beebe incident was transformed into a "chemtrail" narrative by Thomas.  She dismissed the apocalypse angle, instead claiming that CIA aircraft are spraying dangerous chemicals onto the American people.

In fact, mass-mortality incidents of birds are nothing new.  For example, a 2007 article in the journal IBIS contains a table listing such incidents, using data extending back to the late 19th century.  Many cases involve tens of thousands of birds, some hundreds of thousands, and, in a few cases, more than a million.  (The article focuses on birds killed by weather while migrating, which isn't pertinent to the Beebe or Laurel incidents, but it does establish that mass-mortality incidents aren't rare or unprecedented.)

For follow-up I contacted Peter Bendel, Southern Maryland Wildlife Response Manager of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, and his colleague Patricia Allen, both of whom were consulted in media reports about the Laurel incident.  In Bendel's e-mail response, he and Allen "agree that this was nothing more than an accident.  Approximately 30 intact birds were collected at the scene and sent in for necropsy.  The results of the examination showed that all the birds died from Blunt Force Trauma.  There were no signs of electrocution or poisoning.  Starling[s] form large flocks and move in mass, when one bird makes a turn others follow.  A portion of the flock apparently got to[o] close to traffic and hit a vehicle, probably a tractor trailer.  This explains why all the birds were found in one small area on the roadway and nowhere else.  In Maryland there have been similar occurrences in the past, however they were infrequent and smaller in magnitude."

As far as I can tell from web searches, this follow-up information is an exclusive for NCAS.

NEWTON, I. (2007), Weather-related mass-mortality events in migrants. Ibis, 149: 453–467.

Local coverage:
Accurate and responsible coverage by WUSA-TV:
"Birds Apparently Flew Into Side Of Truck"

WTOP-FM: "About a Hundred Dead Birds Block I-95 Traffic"

WJLA-TV: "Hundreds of Dead Birds on I-95 in Laurel"

WJLA story, posted by doomsayers:
"MASSIVE BIRD KILL - Hundreds Of Starlings Drop Dead From The Sky, Are We Next?"

"MASS BIRD DIE-OFF: Hundreds of Dead Birds Mysteriously Fall on I-95 in Laurel?!"

"Hundreds Of Starlings Drop Dead From The Sky, Are We Next? 2012"

Bizarre RT analysis of first Beebe incident:
"Alien Contact: Bird Deaths Due to CIA, UN Targeting Human Life"

Torn From Today's Headlines
Worth savoring from an otherwise forgettable Washington Post Magazine cover story about "out of body experiences" is this quote by "psychic" Joe McMoneagle: "Going to work every day was [tough]. You never knew who your friends were."  (To the Post's discredit, readers had to find the irony for themselves.)
("An Out-of-Body Experience Could Just Be a Beat Away in Virginia," February 26)

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, now in MD and  VA!
On Wednesday, March 14 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

New Location: 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  Use the online membership form to renew.