Saturday, September 12, 2020

Shadow of a Doubt - September 2020

 September 2020

NCAS Public Lecture Series

Investigating the Ghosts of New Mexico

YouTube Live Event with Q and A 

Presented by Benjamin Radford
Research Fellow, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Saturday, September 12, 1:30pm US/Eastern (UTC-04:00)

NCASVideo YouTube Channel:

For more information, call the NCAS Skeptic Line at 240-670-NCAS (6227).

Join folklorist and researcher Benjamin Radford as he describes his first-hand investigations into some of New Mexico's most famous and bizarre ghosts, from Albuquerque's famous KiMo Theater to a Santa Fe courthouse spirit to the legend of La Llorona. How much of these stories is fact, and how much is fiction? Join us online on the NCAS YouTube channel and find out!  After the talk, Benjamin will answer questions from the audience posted to our YouTube chat.

Benjamin Radford is longtime deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine, and a Research Fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a non-profit educational organization. Over the past twenty years he has investigated dozens of mysterious and unexplained phenomena including crop circles, ghosts, lake monsters, exorcisms, and psychics. He is author of a dozen books and thousands of articles on media and science literacy and co-host of the Squaring the Strange podcast.

There will be an online question-and-answer segment after the presentation.




How to Watch and Participate in this Online Event:

1) Use a supported browser...

2) Use the link .  If typing the link, use "1" (one) and capital "O".

3) The live stream begins shortly before 1:30pm US/Eastern (UTC-04:00) on Saturday, September 12, 2020.

4) To post questions, you must be signed in to a Google account.

5) Post your questions in the chat window to the right of the video player when the live stream is active.

6) Click into where it says "Say something..." and begin typing (up to 200 characters).


Along with your question, please post what city or town you're in.


Board of Directors Election

Results of June's NCAS member vote on candidates for the board of directors have been tabulated. Re-elected and incumbent members are: Tom Bridgman, Nelson Davis Jr, Chip Denman, Grace Denman, Bing Garthright, Brian Gregory, Curtis Haymore, Beth Kingsley, J. D. Mack, Melissa Pollak, Walter F. Rowe, Scott Snell, and Marv Zelkowitz.

At its July 1 meeting, the NCAS board of directors selected its officers, who are: Scott Snell, president; J. D. Mack, vice president; Walter F. Rowe, secretary; and Marv Zelkowitz, treasurer.


Message to Current and Prospective NCAS Members

In response to the economic hardship and other uncertainties that our members may be facing, NCAS has automatically extended by one year all memberships that expire in 2020 or later.  Payment will be accepted for new memberships as well as renewals for 2019 and before: new and renewed will have a bonus year added.  Each life member may sponsor a new one-year membership at no charge.  (Double life memberships may sponsor two.)  Send your sponsored member's name and contact information to This offer will continue until further notice.

Prez Sez

By Scott Snell

I hope all of you are as well as can be, given the current circumstances.

Back in early January, at the first NCAS event of the year, I made a few remarks before introducing our speaker.  I wished everyone a happy new year, and said, "2020 brings to mind the acuity of 20/20 vision.  Perhaps it can bring to mind the acuity of thought as well."  I suggested that 2020 could be "Year of the Skeptic."

Normally I appreciate irony, but 2020 is too tragic for that.  Whatever else this year has been and may still become, it is not the year of the skeptic.

But there is good news on the science front, at least.  During a September 2 interview with NBC's Today, Dr. Fauci stated his belief that "a safe and effective vaccine" will be available by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, this month, and each month for the (non-psychically) forseeable future, NCAS will offer its lectures as YouTube live events.  We're prepared to continue this at least until it's permitted to gather indoors at our usual meeting locations, perhaps even longer.

As we try to make the best of things, there are some positives to consider.  The first NCAS online event (Anastasia Bodnar's talk on April 18) went well, and our participants joined us from such far-flung places as Oregon, Canada, and Scotland.  Over the summer, NCAS members have participated in PhACT (Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking) online events, such as Michael Shermer's August 15 lecture.  Our October lecturer will be speaking to us from Philadelphia.  So in this time of separation and isolation, we skeptics are finding ways to gather as we never did before.

October NCAS Lecture

Paul Halpern, a professor of physics at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, will discuss his new book, Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect.  The unlikely friendship of Nobel physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychologist Carl Jung led to their exploration of a concept called "synchronicity," a weird phenomenon they thought could link events without causes.  Saturday, October 10 at 1:30 PM ET, live on the NCASVideo YouTube channel.

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
Identified...Jimmy Carter's UFO

Some or many of you will be surprised to learn that the UFO Jimmy Carter sighted in 1969, about two years before he became governor of Georgia, was recently identified.  Wasn't it Venus, as Robert Sheaffer stated in the July-August, 1977 issue of The Humanist magazine?  As of August 30, Sheaffer wrote on his Bad UFOs blog, "In a 2017 posting, I noted how it was suggested that Jimmy Carter's famous UFO sighting from back in 1969 might have actually been a rocket-launched Barium cloud, and not Venus as I (and many others) had earlier supposed. It now appears that this is correct."  Atmospheric physicist C. G. "Jere" Justus, a former professor at Georgia Tech and part of a 1960s/70s Air Force sponsored study of the upper atmosphere using releases of glowing chemical clouds, recognized that Carter's description fit very well with the characteristics of a high altitude, rocket-released barium cloud.  The timing and elevation of Carter's sighting, along with newspaper reports of witnesses seeing the clouds from South Carolina, indicate that Carter saw the same clouds produced by a launch from Eglin Air Force Base at 6:41 PM ET on January 6, 1969.

C. G. Justus' investigation:

James Oberg's final draft report (August 29, 2020):

Sometime before May 4, 2019, Justus' conclusions were shared with President Carter, who replied, "You [Steven H. Hochman, Assistant to President Carter] can tell him [Justus] this could be accurate. About 25 Lions [Lions Club International] in Leary[, Georgia] saw it."

I left the following comment at Sheaffer's blog post: "Is there a realistic prospect for showing Jimmy Carter a photo or video of a similar incident and asking him if it reminds him of his sighting?  (Perhaps including a few other different phenomena videos and asking him which, if any, reminded him of his sighting. That way, Carter would have the opportunity to select one, or none, rather than yes/no on one.)"

My First Ghost Hunting Tour

by W.T. Bridgman

I was taking a short vacation down in the Norfolk and Williamsburg Virginia area, visiting relatives and otherwise relaxing while my wife played bridge at a regional tournament being held in the area.  During our stay in Williamsburg, we found an interesting entry in the activities flyer for learning "ghost hunting techniques."  While I had attended ghost tours, this one promoted showing ghost-hunting techniques which I had not actually seen before but for various television shows, and for just a $10 fee, what could I lose?

While I've been on regular ghost tours, hearing the stories associated with various sites, I'd not seen any of the "ghost hunting" activities beyond some content on video.  I wasn't really sure what to expect.  My own interests in astronomy-related pseudo-science claims and involvement with NCAS had given me some exposure to the claims and techniques of ghost hunters.  I found myself carefully examining any window I saw, noting positions of lighting and any reflections visible, wondering if this might be done more like a "haunted house" visit.  The guests in attendance for the tour totaled ten, including myself, one other man, a group of three maybe twenty-something women, a male-female couple, and a father, mother and teenager. 

Our guide explained that he would take us on a tour of the house, describing the various ghosts that had been reported over the years, and show us various tools used by ghost-hunters.   At the end of the tour, we would even be allowed to borrow some of those tools to explore through the house.

The tour started out in rooms well-lit on the ground floor but as we moved around the house, a number of the rooms were dark, sometimes lit by only the guide's flashlight or indirect lighting from neighboring rooms.  It helped add to a "spooky" feeling for the tour.

Along the way, our guide described the various ghost stories reported around the house.  Most memorable was Gus, apparently an old slave notorious for touching visitors, particularly female visitors.  There were a number of other ghosts whose names I can't remember - a woman seen walking the grounds at night and a Confederate soldier at a gazebo outside the house.   The guide also described some unusual incidents associated with some of their tours, such as an upper floor chandelier that appeared to start swinging on its own.  However, this chandelier was next to a stairway that led to a higher level in the house.  How easy would it be to start the chandelier swinging by someone on that higher level?

Our guide did emphasize to be safe when ghost-hunting, as you will often be prowling around unfamiliar buildings in poor lighting conditions, so always ghost hunt with a partner.  Good advice.  He also stressed the importance of bringing a camera on your ghost-hunting expeditions, and gave a warning about watching out for reflections.  He cautioned that if you see a glowing ball in the camera, but not with your eyes, then it's probably some type of reflection.  He noted that most orbs reported are reflections, but 3-4% are of undetermined origin.  He did note that this small fraction does not prove the source must be paranormal, but pointed out that was the sample size you start with for possible legitimate encounters.

Now for some of the ghost-hunting tools the guide presented as the group moved from room to room:  I'm including links to what appears to be equivalent devices - the devices at the tour seem to match these for the look and described function but this author is unsure if the devices were these specific makes and models of the devices.  I am including them for informational purposes only and this inclusion does not represent an endorsement.

•    One device was a meter that scans for EM (electromagnetic) waves in the AM & FM bands (I think some might call it a portable radio scanner).  The guide recommended to always have an audio recorder to record sounds from it.  The guide did note that some sounds from the device came from distant radio stations, so you should only consider it a ghost if you hear full or multiple words.  However, even these criteria do not really rule out distant stations, a point which the guide did not mention. 
- GhostStop:

•    Another device he presented he called a K2 EMF meter, which lights up multiple LEDs when near an electrical signal.  He demonstrated this instrument's sensitivity by holding a cell phone near it, illustrating how all the indicator lights light up.  He did recommend keeping cell phones away from it while ghost hunting. 
- GhostStop:

•    Our guide demonstrated yet another device with several colored lights and a telescoping rod antenna that responded to changes in the local electromagnetic field.  It appeared to be some variant of 
- GhostStop:

The most severe problem with any device that picks up radio waves is background, both natural and man-made.  Various types of radio signals can propagate extremely long distances by bouncing off the ionosphere.  This was the way long-distance radio communication was done in the days before communication satellites.  This happens in the 3-30 MHz band of the radio spectrum - allocated to a lot of amateur radio communication. 

- Wikipedia: Frequency Allocation.

The solar environment, interacting with Earth's magnetic field and plasma are also sources of interesting radio noise. 

- NASA: Tour of the Electromagnetic Spectrum.
- NASA: The Electromagnetic Spectrum.
- Wikipedia: Schumann resonances,
- Wikipedia: Whistler (radio):
- Wikipedia: Skywave:
- NASA: NASA Listens in as Electrons Whistle while they Work

•    Another device appeared to be a simple multiple green laser-beam projector, similar to some devices people use to provide simple light decorations outside their homes near holidays.   For this, the goal was apparently to identify distortions in how the light projected against the walls indicated the possible presence of a ghost.  However I recall no mention of how air currents from local temperature irregularities (due to people or other heat sources) could create a similar distortion.  It is a variant on a technique which has been around over 150 years for examining air flows, known as Schlieren photography. 

- Wikipedia: Schlieren photography.

I don't know the power rating of the lasers on this particular device, but I recall no safety issues being mentioned.

•    The guide also demonstrated a pair of small dowsing rods, about the length of one's hands.

- NCAS: The Science of Divination.

•    Probably the most elaborate piece of equipment the guide displayed was apparently part of an Xbox Kinect configuration which would identify moving figures in a room, and construct stick figures of them on a screen.  The guide reported that it sometimes reports a figure when there is visibly nothing there.  It consisted of what looked like a Surface tablet and some kind of sensor box.  The screen seemed to be displaying an infrared image of those in the room with stick figures constructed - most likely identified by motion.   Apparently this has become a thing for paranormal investigators:

- Dark Shadow Ghost Tours:

The interpretation of the stick figures generated by this technique is fraught with possible errors.  The algorithm used is designed to look for a human-like configuration, so like the old adage, "when your only tool is a hammer everything starts to look like a nail," it will lock on to anything even remotely fitting the pattern.  The article below has more information on how these devices work and interpreting their output.

- Skeptical Inquirer Special Report: The Xbox Kinect and Paranormal Investigation by Kenny Biddle.

With the official part of the tour complete, our guide allowed the visitors to borrow equipment and go off around the house.

Myself and another member of the tour chatted with the tour guide afterwards.  I described the issue of the amount of EMF noise surrounding us - radio stations (near and far), geomagnetic (whistlers, etc.), even cosmic.  I asked about sample audio recordings but he reported he lost them in a hard-drive crash.  For a time, the discussions diverged to reports of other noises, such as the earth rumblings from a few months prior and a discussion of the 2011 August 23 earthquake in Virginia and possible electromagnetic effects.

- Independent: Have you heard 'the Hum'?
- Wikipedia: 2011 Virginia Earthquake.
- Wikipedia: Seismo-electromagnetics.

The three women, who were part of the tour and apparently friends, had taken off around the house with dowsing rods and a scanner (which was making static and popping noises).  Our conversations were interrupted when they later returned, squealing, and one was claiming that Gus (the aforementioned ghost) had touched her hair.  Another of that party reported activity from dowsing rods at the time of their encounter. 

Watching them describe the incident, and the dynamic between them, I would need to rule out an accidental brush against each other, or some furniture in an unfamiliar part of the house, or even one of the party pulling a gag on the others, before I would consider it as a ghost encounter.  But it did add a good story to an otherwise interesting but uneventful tour.

Like horoscopes, I found the experience entertaining, certainly worth what I paid for the tour (you'd spend more going to an IMAX movie).  I don't mind enjoying the excitement of "things that go bump in the night."  I didn't reveal who I was, but I was wearing some clothing with my employer logo on it, which had "science" and "technology" in the name, so this could have cued the presenter to be more careful of claims.

NCAS board member Tom Bridgman has a Ph.D. in Physics & Astronomy from Clemson University and currently works in visualization of heliophysics satellite data.  He also operates two websites dealing with pseudo-science in astronomy:

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AmazonSmile's disbursements to NCAS in the second quarter of 2020 came to $32.84, meaning that over $6500 of purchases were designated in support of NCAS.  (As an example of how NCAS can put that money to good use, it's enough to cover 90 minutes of a Montgomery County lecture room rental.)

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

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