Thursday, January 10, 2019

Shadow of a Doubt - December 2018

The Monthly Calendar of the National Capital Area Skeptics

  • December 8 lecture - Genomic Medicine: Today and Tomorrow by Anastasia Wise, PhD
  • Special NCAS Meetup with Skeptics Guide podcasters
  • January 12 lecture on  Challenges of teaching evolution in public schools
  • A Report on CSICon 2018
  • Noted Critiques of Astrology Are Now Available at ResearchGate
  • Science Channel's New Houdini Docuseries
  • AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
  • Shadow Light
  • Member renewals

December 2018

NCAS Public Lecture Series

Genomic Medicine: Today and Tomorrow

Anastasia Wise, PhD
Division of Genomic Medicine
National Human Genome Research Institute

Saturday, December 8, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
Argosy University
1550 Wilson Blvd.
Suite 712
Arlington, VA [map] [directions]
(Near Rosslyn Metro stop)
Enter parking garage from N Pierce Street.
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members
Please arrive before 1:30 so we can provide passage through the building access control system.

Genomic medicine, utilizing genomic information in clinical care, aims to improve clinical management, prevent complications, and promote health.  With many names often used interchangeably, including genomic medicine, precision medicine, and personalized medicine, we'll discuss what genomic medicine is and the clinical testing that is available today to improve diagnosis and therapy. We'll explore common misconceptions as well as success stories regarding genomic medicine implementation, particularly disease diagnosis, and conclude with what may be possible in the future.

Anastasia Wise is a program director in the Division of Genomic Medicine at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI). She received her Ph.D. in genetics and genomics from Duke University and joined NHGRI in 2010. At NHGRI she serves as project officer for programs advancing the application of genomics to medical science and clinical care with a focus on perinatal sequencing, undiagnosed and rare disease genomic medicine, and sex chromosome analysis and association methods. Dr. Wise is also a project scientist for the Newborn Sequencing in Genomic Medicine and Public Health (NSIGHT) program, which aims to explore the potential implications, challenges and opportunities associated with the possible use of genomic sequence information in the newborn period. Her other research interests include gene environment interactions in complex disease, pharmaco/toxicogenomics, and ethical, legal, and social issues related to the use of genetic information.

Special NCAS Meetup with the Podcasters/Authors of "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe" on December 1
Neurologist Steven Novella and his "skeptical rogues" are in DC this week!  They're promoting their new book, The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake, at a November 30th evening program at the Smithsonian (alas, sold out, though a wait list is available at 202-633-3030).  As the rogues mentioned at the start of their November 10th podcast, NCAS members and guests are invited to a meetup with them from 6 to 8 PM on Saturday, December 1 at the Cambria Hotel lounge, located at 899 O St NW in DC. The hotel is a short walk from the Shaw-Howard University Metro station.  (Unfortunately, Yellow and Green Line Metro track work will prevent direct rides from stations south of Mt Vernon Sq Metro station; instead, ride a northbound shuttle bus from Gallery Place to Mt Vernon Sq Metro station.  Or park at 1415 9th St NW for $6 per hour, subject to increase during special events.)  The lounge has full dinner service as well as a bar.

Bring a copy of their book and they will be happy to sign it for you.

Their weekly podcast, started in May 2005, is one of the most popular science podcasts on iTunes.  "The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is a weekly, 80-minute podcast hosted by Steven Novella, MD, and a panel of 'skeptical rogues.' It is the official podcast of the New England Skeptical Society. The show features discussions of recent scientific developments in layman's terms, and interviews authors, people in the area of science and other famous skeptics. The show also includes discussions of myths, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, the paranormal, and many general forms of superstition, from the point of view of scientific skepticism." (Wikipedia)

Visit to listen to episodes, or subscribe on iTunes.

January NCAS LectureSean B. Carroll, Professor of Biology at the University of Maryland and Vice President for Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, will discuss the challenges of teaching evolution in public schools.  Saturday, January 12 at 1:30 PM at Tysons-Pimmit Regional Library.

A Report on CSICon 2018
by Chip Denman
CSICon 2018, the most recent conference hosted by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, brought 600+ enthusiastic skeptics to the same hotel in Las Vegas where Elvis sold out a 7-year run. (And no, neither Elvis nor his ghost made an appearance.) Speakers ranged from old friends to welcome new faces who covered ground such as the “logic” of conspiracy theories (colloquial usage of “theory,” not the scientific), how to challenge fake news, and a warning to respect the modest limits of science. Here I’ll touch on a few personal favorites and highlights:

Dr. Jen Gunter is an OB/GYN who has become a nemesis of Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop empire. When we started NCAS more than 30 years ago, actress Shirley MacLaine was selling repackaged “newage” (rhymes with…) like chakras and reincarnation. Today, actress Paltrow has repackaged the repackaging to offer vaginal jade eggs, “detox” treatments, and yes, chakras ( Gunter experienced a Goop wellness workshop firsthand and now uses her professional expertise to challenge the goopiness. Her talk at CSICon was both depressing (does nothing ever change?) and refreshing (great to see a new voice for reason willing to do the hard work of challenging the cranks). Check out her personal blog:

Troy Campbell is a former Disney Imagineer turned professor of social psychology and marketing. He offered insights into the biases that lead to science denial and ways to overcome them (slides available here: He vividly illustrated the key points by telling -- and acting out -- personal stories. There’s really no better way to make something stick than to frame it in a compelling and personal narrative.

Bertha Vazquez told of her struggle to effectively teach evolution in middle school and how it led to the creation of the Teacher Institute for Evolutionary Science (TIES) ( in partnership with the Richard Dawkins Foundation and the Center For Inquiry. Their approach has been to teach the teachers, making sure that those at the front of the classrooms have resources that accurately represent the current best understanding of science.

CSICon had its celebrities: Steven Pinker made a cautiously optimistic case for the long-term arc of the betterment of the human condition. The facts of the historical trend are compelling; what remains to be seen is whether the short-term setback of climate change will upset the balance. Stephen Fry brought his trademark charm and erudition to a conversation on stage with Richard Dawkins. Dawkins uncharacteristically took a backseat and seemed to truly enjoy Fry’s thoughts on skepticism, political correctness, and the critical need for civil and respectful discourse.

On the lighter side, evening entertainment took the form of a comedy show by Adam “Ruins Everything” Conover ( and a stunning mentalism show by Banachek. Both wove personal experiences into pro-science messages. Banachek, in particular, used his real-life turn as a phony “psychic” (in cohorts with Randi) to tell a story that would resonate with hardened skeptics as well as audiences who might otherwise be inclined to believe in special powers.

Of course, for me and many others, the Sunday morning panel with James Randi, Ray Hyman, Jim Alcock, and Ken Frazier was a nostalgic highlight. Randi recently suffered several strokes and was mostly in a wheelchair through the conference. But on stage, his voice was strong and all of us there clearly relished hearing him and the others talk about the early days of starting up the organization that ultimately led to this conference.

I first met Randi at a similar conference in 1987, hosted by the predecessor Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Nearly twice as many gathered in Pasadena then to hear Randi, Carl Sagan, and others speak to themes similar to those that echoed in Vegas. In the 31 years since, we’ve seen organizations rise and fall. We’ve seen schisms that factionalized the combined communities that had united at conferences like this. Some have questioned the value of such groups and even identifiers like “skeptic.” Like Pinker, I’m cautiously optimistic about the future. I’ve seen silliness come and go...and come back again in another form, usually more watered down. Although we will never be rid of sloppy thinking, I see no evidence of a trend of gullibility. Maybe we will eventually not need organizations or conferences or even “skeptical activism.”  But at CSICon I shared time with friends, and I left with some new insights and ideas. That’s reason enough.

Chip Denman is an NCAS co-founder and board member.

Noted Critiques of Astrology Are Now Available at ResearchGate
Ivan W. Kelly, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Saskatchewan and a longtime scientific consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, informs NCAS that some of his critiques of astrology have been uploaded to ResearchGate, with more to come.  Visit

Science Channel's New Houdini Docuseries
Science Channel will premiere Houdini's Last Secrets, a four-part series, on Sunday, January 6 at 10 PM ET.  "Each episode will be centered around one of Houdini's most daring stunts. The premiere looks at Houdini's famous water torture cell escape to unmask the potential methods he may have used, and what the dangers involved could have been. He performed this feat many times in Washington D.C..."

Note: an upcoming NCAS lecture (April 6 in Bethesda) will feature Ken Trombly discussing Houdini's crusade against fraudulent spiritualists.

AmazonSmile: Thanks to our members who are supporting NCAS!
When holiday 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 third quarter of 2018 came to $21.25, meaning that over $4200 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 lecture room rental.)

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

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