Monday, December 09, 2013

Shadow of a Doubt - December 2013

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics

  • Dec 14 NCAS Lecture: Martin Gardner: Skeptic SupremeColm Mulcahy, PhD Department of Mathematics Spelman College
  • Torn From Today's Headlines: Sylvia Browne (1936-2013)
  • Jan 11 NCAS Lecture: Tracing Human Migration using Genetic Markers, Dr. Moses S. Schanfield, professor of forensic science at The George Washington University
  • Dec 11 Drinking Skeptically in MD & VA
  • Shadow Light
  • New Skeptic Line Number
NCAS Public Lecture Series:

Martin Gardner: Skeptic Supreme
Speaker: Colm Mulcahy, Ph.D.,
Department of Mathematics, Spelman College

Saturday, December 14, 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.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

Join us for personal reminiscences and survey of the legacy of puzzle expert and rationality champion Martin Gardner (1914-2010), who wrote the book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science over sixty years ago and later played a major role in the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP, now CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) and Skeptical Inquirer.
Colm Mulcahy is professor of mathematics at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. He is on leave for the academic year 2013-14, visiting The American University. He's blogged for the Mathematical Association of America,
Aperiodical, Huffington Post and Scientific American. He recently published Mathematical Card Magic (A K Peters/CRC Press). He was fortunate to know Martin Gardner for the last decade of his life. His
website is and he tweets at @CardColm. Gardner fans should follow @WWMGT (

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
Sylvia Browne (1936-2013)
The death of self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne on November 20 was followed by obituaries of varying quality (as judged from a skeptical perspective), ranging from a generous one written for the Associated Press (appearing in many US newspapers, and used in radio and TV news broadcasts) to a more critical one in the New York Times.

Here's a different perspective on Browne, focusing on a single evening in her career, and how some skeptics spent that same evening.

On May 30 of this year, Browne gave her final public performance in the DC area, appearing at The Birchmere in Alexandria to present "An Evening of Insights and Live Readings."  Admission was $55 ($99 to also ask her a question).

Meanwhile, a few miles away, at Busboys and Poets in Shirlington, Independent Investigations Group – DC, NCAS, and Center for Inquiry – DC presented a free and interactive two-hour show: "How to be a Psychic!"  The more than 60 participants included skeptics and their guests, many of whom had never heard of "cold reading" or other techniques used by psychics.  After a brief period of instruction, each attendee had a chance to try out their new-found talents on others at the event.  They watched video clips of Browne in action, to see her put those same techniques to work.  Every attendee also received a cold-reading "psychic bingo card," for use during a psychic reading, as a fun way of seeing how many tricks could be noticed and then marked off on the card.

In this way, the fame of a psychic performer was used to good benefit, channeled (pardon the pun) into a entertaining and educational event for all.

Perhaps this can be a positive legacy of Browne and other well-known psychics.  They present an excellent opportunity for skeptics to educate the public about psychological effects that are not only intriguing, but also consequential for consumers of psychic entertainment.


January NCAS Lecture
Dr. Moses S. Schanfield, professor of forensic science at The George Washington University, will speak on "Tracing Human Migration using Genetic Markers." Dr. Schanfield will discuss the realities and unrealities of ancestry testing, as done by commercial laboratories such as, as well as the overall patterns of human migration and conclusions that can be made about modern humans in the last 100,000 years.  Saturday, January 11 at 1:30 pm at National Science Foundation.

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, Dec 11 at 7:00 p.m. please join fellow NCASers at either of our simultaneous DC-area events:
                                    Skeptically Bottle Cap LogoJackie'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.  (And you'll find the area's best hot dogs there, according to the June 2012 issue.)

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 Skeptic Line Number
As of March 2013, NCAS has switched telephone numbers, from 301-587-3827 to 240-670-NCAS (6227).

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.