Monday, January 14, 2013

Shadow of a Doubt - January 2013

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • NCAS Public Lecture Series: The Decline (and Probable Fall) of the Scientology Empire - Jim Lippard
  • Prez Sez
  • Torn From Today's Headlines By Scott Snell: Coincidences and the Search for Meaning
  • Eugene Ossa at Library of Congress on January 29

NCAS Public Lecture Series
The Decline (and Probable Fall) of the Scientology Empire
Jim Lippard

Saturday, January 19, 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

Jim Lippard looks at the Church of Scientology's history, how the Church has collided with the Internet and lost control of its secrets and its membership, and is now seeing an accelerating decline as its top members leave for new alternatives.

Jim Lippard founded the Phoenix Skeptics in 1985, and co-founded the Phoenix Area Skeptics Society in 2011. He's written articles and book chapters on skeptical topics, including two articles in Skeptic magazine on Scientology, "Scientology vs. the Internet" in 1995 (co-authored with Jeff Jacobsen) and "The Decline (and Probable Fall) of the Scientology Empire" in 2012. He also contributed to Gordon Stein's Encyclopedia of the Paranormal and Joe Nickell's Psychic Sleuths.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

Prez Sez
Members and Friends of NCAS,

On December 22 we once again survived a bogus doomsday scenario – this one the so-called Mayan prophecy. Perhaps the place least concerned about this was Mexico, since no one elsewhere had bothered to ask present-day Mayans what they thought about their prophecy. Their response was more like "What prophecy?" The Mayan calendar had no such "end date" and the next day was just the start of another cycle, just like on January 1, when many of us have to throw out old calendars and get a new one.

I'd like to thank all of you who renewed your membership or donated to NCAS during our year-end campaign. Now if you would like to see us spend some of that money wisely, please let me know what new ideas you have of where NCAS should be going this year. You can contact the NCAS Executive Committee at NCAS@NCAS.ORG.

We have an intriguing line-up of speakers set for the next several months. I hope you will take the time to come to some of our lectures. We are either at the NSF building in Arlington or the Bethesda Library. Go to NCAS.ORG to check out our schedule. And don't forget about our Drinking Skeptically, the second Wednesday of each month, for a purely social gathering with like-minded skeptics. No agenda, just fun. If you do come to a lecture, please stop by and say hello.

Marv Zelkowitz, NCAS President

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
Coincidences and the Search for Meaning
The November 28, 2012 Powerball drawing resulted in two winning tickets.  One was purchased in Dearborn, Missouri, and the other in Fountain Hills, Arizona.

The next day, before the identities of the winners were known, a news story developed that the winning numbers corresponded to the uniform numbers of exceptional former Kansas City Royals baseball players.  (Kansas City is only about 35 miles away from Dearborn.)  What may have started as Twitter speculation by Jeff Passan, a columnist for Yahoo! Sports, soon transformed into a "confirmed" (again, through Twitter) story.

That evening, NBC Nightly News covered the story.  First stating that all of the numbers corresponded to members of the KC Royals Hall of Fame (not to be confused with the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York), correspondent Kerry Sanders then described one as an "outlier" (i.e., one of them was actually not in the KC Royals Hall of Fame after all).  Sanders then noted that Fountain Hills, where the other winning ticket was purchased, is in Arizona, site of the Royals' spring training.  (He didn't mention that 14 other major league teams also train in Arizona.)  Clearly the story was being pushed beyond the facts at hand.

Pete Grathoff of the Kansas City Star provided a lighthearted counterpoint, noting in his November 29 article that there were a total of 22 uniform numbers in the KC Royals Hall of Fame, ranging from 1 to 40, making a coincidence with the Powerball picks (five balls out of 59, and one ball out of 35) "...not all that unusual."

Clarity came on November 30, when the Dearborn winners were announced as Mark and Cindy Hill.  "...Cindy said she picked her numbers at random, though the Hills are big Royals fans."  (A reader, posting a comment at the Kansas City Star site, wondered if "...maybe the computer is a Royals fan.")

Author's Comment:
This story combines a couple of elements familiar to skeptics: the search for a meaningful pattern in ambiguous data and hyperbolic (and downright incorrect) news coverage.  Fortunately it also provides definitive evidence that mundane coincidences occur.  (If Cindy Hill had picked the winning numbers based on KC Royals players' uniform numbers, the mystically-minded might've posited some mysterious connection.)

I recently experienced a coincidence of my own.  On the evening of January 5, I arrived at my parking space soon after my neighbor parked. She got out of her car and said that a friend told her that an easy way to restore fogged headlights [picking up where we'd left off in an earlier conversation] is to rub them with Crest toothpaste.

At that moment, I had two items in hand, one of which was Crest toothpaste.

My neighbor and I enjoyed the coincidence for what it was, but I wondered whether a superstitious mind could easily have "run wild" with it.  Recall that Crest is a product of Procter and Gamble, which uses (or used) a logo that is suspicious-looking in the eyes of some, who believe it's connected to the Church of Satan.  It's an absurd claim (see, but a simple coincidence could be the trigger for all sorts of irrational thinking.

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.

An interesting analysis of the probability of a particular kind of coincidence was published in a letter ("A Pseudo Experience in Parapsychology," by physicist Luis W. Alvarez) to the journal Science in its June 18, 1965 issue.  (See an excerpt at and as described by Joe Nickell in the September 2002 issue of Skeptical Inquirer:  Alvarez's conclusion about such coincidences (of thinking of someone and then learning within the next five minutes that the person has died) is that roughly 10 per day should occur in the US alone.

Twitter, Jeff Passan.  Possibly the first recognition that the winning numbers matched uniform numbers of some KC Royals star players:

Twitter, Andrew DeWitt.  A "caller," allegedly friends with the winner, confirms (falsely) that the numbers were played because of the uniform numbers.

NBC Nightly News coverage:

A Kansas City Star reporter writes that it's not much of a coincidence:

The winning numbers:

The winners are announced; they randomly selected the numbers:

Eugene Ossa at Library of Congress on January 29
The Library of Congress Professional Association "What If...Science Fiction & Fantasy Forum" welcomes longtime NCAS board member Eugene Ossa on Tuesday, January 29, 2013 at noon.  He will present "Miracle at Mons: World War I Fantasy or Reality?"  Did medieval bowmen or angels save the British army in Belgium during WWI, or is there another explanation?  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

Shadow Light
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Drinking Skeptically, now in MD and VA!
On Wednesday, January 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

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.

New Postal Address
As of June 2012, NCAS has switched post office boxes, from 8428 to 8461:
National Capital Area Skeptics
P.O. Box 8461
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8461

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.