Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Shadow of a Doubt - December 2016

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics
  • Jan 9 Lecture - A Brief History of Creation by Bill Mesler
  • Torn From Today's Headlines by Scott Snell
    The National Geographic Society Publishes Strange But True Collectors Edition
  • AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
  • Shadow Light
  • Drinking Skeptically in MD and  VA!
  • Time to Renew?

NCAS Public Lecture Series

 A Brief History of Creation
Science and the Search for the Origin of Life

Bill Mesler
Author and Journalist

Saturday, January 9, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
National Science Foundation, Room 110 Atrium: through the double doors near the lobby elevators
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

Bill Mesler will be discussing his new book, A Brief History of Creation.  Described as a “rich, masterfully woven tale of our still-evolving ideas about life and how it came to be” by author and scientist Sean Carroll, A Brief History of Creation is the epic tale of the often quixotic search to understand perhaps the most important question science has ever faced.  It is a story that encompasses many of the seminal moments in the history of science, and is filled with some of its most colorful and iconoclastic thinkers – Darwin, Pasteur, Crick and Woese, to name just a few.

Mesler will examine how the scientific search has been shaped by religion, philosophy and even politics.  He will discuss how the march of scientific progress is not nearly as straightforward as we often assume.

Bill Mesler is a veteran journalist who has worked for the daily Santa Cruz Sentinel, the weekly San Francisco Bay Guardian and The Nation magazine.

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.


Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
The National Geographic Society Publishes Strange But True Collectors Edition
The National Geographic Society, founded more than 125 years ago for "the increase and diffusion of geographic knowledge," has recently published Strange But True: Secrets of the Supernatural Revealed. Though part of a newsstand "collectors editions" series that also covers topics generally associated with the Society (The Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire, Guide to the Night Sky, etc), this installment is likely to harm the reputation of the venerable scientific/educational organization.


Trouble starts as soon as the cover is opened.  The half title features a stock photo of someone wearing a Bigfoot costume, described as "Bigfoot lurches through a forest."  (The Getty Image is available here: http://tinyurl.com/hg7ztex.)  But the first section ("Animals, Myths, & Monsters," including an entry about Bigfoot) is surprisingly unsensational, though it suffers from the same superficiality as the other two sections. (Most topics are only covered in a page or two, which includes a large photo or illustration.  Inclusion of reading lists or online resource links would've easily compensated for the superficial treatments.)

Nonsense creeps into a couple of articles in the next section, "Sci-Fi, Folklore, & Ghost Stories."  For example, the "crop circles" article presents good information on the topic, describing how the circles and other designs are the work of human artists, yet it closes with "But...crop circles remain an enigma..."  Another article closes with "Fans of the supernatural have nothing to fear though–there are still plenty of mysterious phenomena out there to get your spine tingling."

Many of the articles are edited versions of originals from the National Geographic News site.  In one case that may reveal the editors' intentions, the version used in Strange But True omits the final sentence (italicized below) of the original, a change likely to leave readers with a different impression of the quoted investigator's viewpoint:

"The main alternative is that near-death experiences are 'evidence of consciousness becoming separated from the physical substrate of the brain, possibly even a glimpse of an afterlife,' the University of London's [psychologist] French noted. But for him, at least, 'the latest results argue strongly against such a hypothesis.'"


By far, the worst article is in the final section, "Ancient Legends & Sacred Places," discussing the "Bermuda Triangle" (which probably should be in the "Folklore" section instead).  It's a poorly-edited fusion of two National Geographic News stories, one of which (on Siberian sinkholes) doesn't belong.  The other source article is actually about the Triangle and has factual shortcomings of its own, but in any case has had all of its original skeptical content removed.  Readers will probably come away with an impression that the Bermuda Triangle is a genuine mystery.  National Geographic has left readers to fend for themselves...they'll find better information at Wikipedia.

The original 2002 (revised in 2003) article:

(This includes a sidebar to the article that was deleted sometime in 2007)

Author's Comment:
Overall, National Geographic has produced (in conjunction with Time Inc. Books, which printed and distributed it) an issue with useful information on topics of interest to the public. But its sensational aspects, its unnecessary superficiality, and the poor quality of its Bermuda Triangle article make it unworthy of such an important and respected organization.  Worse, mostly it's a compilation of freely-available material from years ago, edited down and presented without updates.

AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
When shopping at smile.amazon.com, you'll find the same low prices, vast selection, and convenient shopping experience as Amazon.com, with the added bonus that a portion of the purchase price (0.5%) goes to NCAS! It's simple and automatic, and it doesn't cost you anything!

AmazonSmile's disbursements to NCAS in the first half of 2015 came to $15.40, meaning that over $3000 of purchases were designated in support of NCAS.  (As an example of how NCAS can put that money to good use, it's almost enough to cover one hour of the Bethesda Library lecture room rental: $20).

Thanks again to our members who have chosen to support NCAS!

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Time to Renew?
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