Monday, March 06, 2017

Shadow of a Doubt - March 2017

 The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics

  • March 11 - Earth in human hands - David Grinspoon
  • April 1 lecture - Charles Wurster will talk on the DDT wars
  • Happy 30th Birthday NCAS!
  • Torn from today's headlines
  •  NCAS Board Elections
  • AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
  •  Shadow Light
  •  Drinking Skeptically on hiatus
  • Member renewals

March 2017

NCAS Public Lecture Series

Earth In Human Hands:
Shaping Our Planet's Future

David Grinspoon, PhD
Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute

Saturday, March 11, 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

David Grinspoon will be talking about his new book, Earth In Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future.   Among the topics to be discussed is the merits and demerits of "activating" the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) by transitioning from passive listening to deliberate sending of messages to targeted star systems.  This has become something of a hot topic again with the publication of the end-note in a recent Communications of the ACM by Seth Shostak, wherein SETI's senior astronomer takes an uncharacteristically pessimistic view of the possible consequences of reaching out to our interstellar neighbors. Can science fiction serve as a Gedankenexperiment for possible outcomes in advance of the actuality?

Copies of Dr. Grinspoon's book will be available.

David Grinspoon is an astrobiologist, award-winning science communicator, and prize-winning author. He is a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and adjunct professor of astrophysical and planetary science at the University of Colorado. His research focuses on climate evolution on Earth-like planets and potential conditions for life elsewhere in the universe. In 2013 he was appointed as the inaugural chair of astrobiology at the U.S. Library of Congress where he studied the human impact on Earth systems and organized a public symposium on the Longevity of Human Civilization.  Dr. Grinspoon has been recipient of the Carl Sagan Medal for Public Communication of Planetary Science by the American Astronomical Society and has been honored with the title "Alpha Geek" by "Wired Magazine."

Refreshments and socializing after the talk.

April NCAS Lecture

Charles F. Wurster, PhD, founding member of the Environmental Defense Fund and a Professor Emeritus of Environmental Sciences at the Marine Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, will discuss his book, DDT Wars, describing "the widespread misinformation, disinformation and mythology of the DDT issue."  Saturday, April 1 at 1:30 PM at Bethesda Library.

Happy 30th 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 Jamy Ian Swiss and current board members Chip and Grace Denman.  Current board members Nelson Davis Jr, Walter Rowe, and Scott Snell 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.)

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
Nothing torn this month.  Just a quick look back over 30 years.  Recall (or ask someone old enough to recall) how difficult information dissemination was back then.  Books, magazines, newspapers, radio, and television were everywhere, but the opportunities for skeptics to use them to share information and a skeptical philosophy with the public were few and far between.  Any layperson wanting to find reliable information about various subjects (paranormal or not, in some cases) had to work hard, and probably be lucky too.  The turning point towards improving the situation for skepticism had occurred a decade earlier, when the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) was founded, but progress was still generally slow in 1987.

A decade later came the next turning point: the explosive growth of the Internet into everyday life, and the advent of online search engines.  At last, skeptics could provide perspectives and findings to the public, unfiltered by editors, publishers, or producers motivated by other agendas.

Obviously skeptics share the Internet with mystics and fake-mystery promoters, but at least our words can be seen or heard now.  A visit to a newsstand or bookstore 30 years ago would rarely turn up even a single skeptical book or magazine.  (For example, CSICOP's Skeptical Inquirer wasn't available at any newsstands until 1992.)

(The ongoing battle to keep skeptical lines of communication to the public open is a vast topic of its own, to be discussed on May 20 at Montgomery County's Chevy Chase Library by Susan Gerbic, founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project.)

Substantial progress has been made over 30 years, and can probably be maintained, in promoting critical thinking and scientific understanding, and providing information resources regarding extraordinary claims.  Possible areas of improvement might leverage the findings of cognitive sciences.  How best to present skeptical perspectives and findings in ways that audiences are more likely to learn, remember, and perhaps innovate?  Are there ways to reach more people, including those who may not find the usual skeptical topics to be of interest?

Meanwhile, the role of local skeptics groups is clearly changing.  Groups based on shared values and interests are forming online, making their members' location almost irrelevant.  As online technology improves, this trend is likely to accelerate, and will probably offer excellent opportunities for previously unavailable eminent speakers to be virtually (and inexpensively, without travel or lodging costs) brought into communities, both online and in traditional meeting spaces.  Local skeptics groups could host and promote events offering two-way communication with remote speakers.  The technology isn't quite good enough (quality- and price-wise) yet to be equivalent to in-person interaction, but it may be soon.

Looking back, I took some time to appreciate a small sample of what NCAS has contributed over the past 30 years.  For example, here's an incomplete list of NCAS public lectures:

And here's the NCAS YouTube channel, where dozens of those events are available to review:

Looking ahead, the business model for higher education can (or probably should) be changing soon, given the technological communication capabilities at hand or almost within grasp.  NCAS and other skeptical groups will probably be able to fulfill their missions using those tools.  Once the details get worked out and people get accustomed to using them, these will be very exciting times for education in general and skeptical outreach in particular.

Also in the News...
Be sure to check out Sharon Hill's skeptically-themed news site, Doubtful News (, as well as the blog ( for her book reviews and other writings.

NCAS Board Elections: Call for Candidates
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 31 for more information.

AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
When shopping at, you'll find the same low prices, vast selection, and convenient shopping experience as, 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 fourth quarter of 2016 came to $21.24, meaning that over $4000 of purchases were designated in support of NCAS.  (As an example of how NCAS can put that money to good use, it's more than enough to cover an hour of a Montgomery County library lecture room rental.)

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

For more information:

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

NCAS Drinking Skeptically is on indefinite hiatus at our Maryland and Virginia locations.

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.