Sunday, April 01, 2012

Shadow of a Doubt - April 2012

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics

  • NCAS Public Lecture Series: Frederick L. Joutz - Forecasting vs. Fortune Telling - April 14
  • NCAS 25th Anniversary - Save the Date! Sunday, June 10
  • NCAS Board Elections - Return ballots by April 30
  • Next Board Meeting Monday, April 16
  • Torn From Today's Headlines by Scott Snell - The GSA Scandal's "Mind Reader"
  • Torn From Today's Headlines - An Open Letter to Channel 7 and 9
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically - April 11th

NCAS Public Lecture Series
Frederick L. Joutz
Forecasting vs. Fortune Telling

Saturday, April 14, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
Bethesda Regional Library
7400 Arlington Road
Bethesda, MD [map] [directions]
(Bethesda Metro station)
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members

How is scientific forecasting different from reading tea leaves?  How well do economic forecasts perform, and why should we feel more confident in them than in psychic predictions?  Frederick L. Joutz will describe the scope of modern forecasting, and the tools and assumptions economists use in making forecasts in the federal government.  Dr. Joutz will discuss how well these forecasts perform and how much confidence we should place in them.

Dr. Joutz's primary research is in economic modeling and forecasting.  He contributes quarterly forecasts of nearly 25 U.S. macroeconomic variables to the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and the Survey of Professional Forecasters (formerly the National Bureau of Economic Research / American Statistical Association Quarterly Outlook) and the Economic Survey International, ESI by the Center for Economic Studies and the Ifo Institute (CESifo Group).  In addition, he has been an associate editor of Energy Economics and the International Journal of Forecasting.  He has served as an economic consultant and technical expert to the U.S. Energy Information Administration and several federal government agencies, the International Monetary Fund, and private corporations.  Dr. Joutz is also a Senior Fellow of the U.S. Energy Economics Association.  He is a professor in the Department of Economics at The George Washington University.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

Save the Date!  Sunday, June 10
NCAS will celebrate its 25th Anniversary with an afternoon program of speakers that includes...

Glenn Kessler - Washington Post's "The Fact Checker," on presidential election fact-checking...
Gerry Sneeringer - Information Technology Security Officer, University of Maryland, on "human nature" vs cybersecurity...

Plus some cool surprises.

At the Silver Spring Civic Building, followed by a celebration dinner.  Seating will be limited to 60, so be sure to sign up early.  Check the May Shadow of a Doubt ( for details.

NCAS Board Elections
NCAS members have received (or should soon receive) a ballot for voting for candidates for the board of directors, and to vote on ratification of the first bylaws changes since 1988.  Voter participation is greatly appreciated.  Please return ballots by April 30.

Next Board Meeting
The next NCAS board meeting will be held on Monday, April 16 at 7 PM.  NCAS members (especially prospective board candidates) are welcome.  Please send an e-mail by April 15 to so our hosts will have a head count.  Directions will be provided.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
The GSA Scandal's "Mind Reader"
On April 2, 2012, Martha N. Johnson, Administrator of the US General Services Administration (GSA), submitted her resignation to President Obama in the wake of a GSA Inspector General report detailing "excessive, wasteful, and in some cases impermissible" GSA spending for an October 2010 conference held outside Las Vegas.

The Washington Post's coverage of the report revealed that, among other wasteful spending, the conference "featured a clown, a mind reader and a $31,208 reception."

Skeptics may be interested to learn that the mind reader was identified in a momentary image from an ABC World News segment on the scandal, aired on April 5th.  He is Bob Garner, a self-proclaimed "recognized expert on the intriguing and mysterious topics of ESP and psychic phenomenon [sic].  He was recently accepted as a member of the American Society of Psychical Research - the oldest psychical research organization in the United States..."  Garner doesn't mention that ASPR accepts anyone who pays membership dues.

Garner's site describes him as "creator of numerous inspirational and motivational audio CDs, which have helped thousands of people achieve their dreams....  A gifted spiritual teacher and New Thought speaker, Garner is a favorite guest speaker at various services of the Church of Religious Science, Unity Church, and other New Thought organizations."

He's also the author of several books, including ESP - Untap [sic] Your Psychic Potential.

As of press time, there is no information about who at GSA authorized Garner as a performer for the conference, and whether Garner presented his performance as purely a magic act or instead as demonstrating genuine psychic phenomena, although his FAQ page asserts "I state in every one of my programs that I am not a psychic nor do I have supernatural powers."

Breaking News:
The April 8 edition of the Washington Post contains the newspaper's first story on Garner, including a passage that seems to contradict his FAQ page: "[Garner] asked someone else to recall a person close to them who had passed away. Then he shared some of the messages the deceased sent from the other side."

Washington Post, "GSA Chief Resigns Amid Reports of Excessive Spending"

ABC World News "Washington Watchdog" segment (at the 4-minute mark).

Bob Garner's web site:

American Society of Psychical Research:

Torn From Today's Headlines
An Open Letter to Channel 7 and 9
NCAS President Marv Zelkowitz sent the following message to the news departments of WJLA-TV and WUSA-TV on March 13, 2012.  Both were addressed in the same message so each could see that the other received it.  To date, NCAS has received no response.

Subject: News coverage of February 15 incident with birds
To the News Directors of WUSA-TV and WJLA-TV,

The National Capital Area Skeptics (, a DC-area educational and scientific membership organization that has promoted critical thinking and scientific understanding for 25 years) recently gave public kudos to WUSA-TV's "9 News Now" and criticism to WJLA-TV's "ABC 7 News" for their news coverage of a February 15, 2012 traffic backup on I-95 in Laurel, Maryland caused by the bodies of hundreds of birds strewn across the highway.  The focus of coverage was on the question of what caused the deaths of so many birds.

In the March 2012 edition of the NCAS monthly publication, Shadow of a Doubt, NCAS board member Scott Snell noted that "9 News Now" provided responsible coverage of the incident by interviewing an expert (biologist Peter Bendel) who explained that the birds were killed by colliding with a truck or other large vehicle.

In contrast, the "ABC 7 News" reporter provided this information only in a brief closing remark.  The report featured "person on the street" interviews, consisting of alarmist speculation ("...toxins in the air...") from non-experts.  The reporter's lead-in ("Some here suspect something sinister...") accurately but irresponsibly framed the segment.

Not surprisingly, the "ABC 7 News" report has been posted in its entirety on multiple YouTube pages by promoters of apocalyptic prophecies, apparently as evidence for their claims.

The NCAS board of directors hopes this will give the "ABC 7 News" news director pause when considering how to responsibly cover news stories for which expert commentary is available, and for which non-expert commentary is grossly inaccurate and alarmist.

The entire article is available in the March 2012 Shadow of a Doubt:

On behalf of the NCAS Board of Directors,
Marvin Zelkowitz, NCAS President

Shadow Light
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Drinking Skeptically, now in MD and  VA!
On Wednesday, April 11 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.