Thursday, November 17, 2022

Shadow of a Doubt - November 2022


NCAS Public Lecture Series

America the Fearful:
Media and the Marketing of National Panics

Benjamin Radford
Research Fellow, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

Saturday, November 12, 1:30pm - 4:00pm
Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center
2nd Floor (West Room)
4805 Edgemoor Lane
Bethesda, MD [map] [directions]
(Bethesda Metro station)
FREE admission – Everyone welcome, members and non-members

Benjamin Radford will be talking about his new book, America the Fearful: Media and the Marketing of National Panics.

National panics about crime, immigrants, police, and societal degradation have been pervasive in the United States of the 21st century. Many of these fears begin as mere phantom fears, but are systematically amplified by social media, news media, bad actors and even well-intentioned activists. There are numerous challenges facing the U.S., but Americans must sort through which fears are legitimate threats and which are amplified exaggerations. In America the Fearful, Benjamin Radford examines the role of fear in national panics and addresses why many Americans believe the country is in horrible shape and will continue to deteriorate (despite contradictory evidence). Political polarization, racism, sexism, economic inequality, and other social issues are examined. Combining media literacy, folklore, investigative journalism, psychology, neuroscience, and critical thinking approaches, this book reveals the powerful role that fear plays in clouding perceptions about the U.S. It not only records the repercussions of this toxic phenomenon, but also offers evidence-based solutions.

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. 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.

Mr. Radford will be joining us remotely via Zoom.  Unfortunately, due to technical limitations, this NCAS lecture will not be livestreamed.

If there is no way you can attend, feel free to email with your questions and comments...they'll be conveyed to our speaker during the event.

Skeptics Return to the Desert After 3 Plague Years
By Grace and Chip Denman

A flock of seagulls. A murder of crows. A flamboyance of flamingos.
But what do you call more than 600 skeptics at the Las Vegas Flamingo at the end of October? CSICon 2022!

Robyn Blumner, Center for Inquiry president and CEO, welcomed us to the first CSICon since 2019, pointing out that we were likely the most vaccinated and boosted conference attendees anywhere. The room was full of people happy to be in each other’s company. There were many familiar faces and a few forgotten names.

Neil deGrasse Tyson was the gravitational force in the room as he delivered the keynote Thursday evening, sharing thoughts and ideas from his new book Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization. No one in the audience minded at all that he ran overtime. A surprise bonus for attendees was that we each received an autographed copy of Neil’s book.

First thing Friday morning, psychologist and magician Richard Wiseman made sure we were awake as he shared his work “Investigating the Impossible.” Lee McIntyre’s presentation “How to Talk to a Science Denier” echoed many of the themes we presented in our pre-conference workshop “Asking Good Questions”—first and foremost, be a good listener. There were talks on the public understanding of science, the science of human improvement, and science and pseudoscience in health and wellness. The highlight of the day was the presentation of the Richard Dawkins Award by Richard Dawkins to Neil deGrasse Tyson. The respect, admiration, and affection between the two men were evident in their conversation.

Saturday morning Richard Wiseman hosted a panel of friends, colleagues, and loved ones associated with the documentary James Randi: An Honest Liar. Tyler Measom (filmmaker), Banachek (mentalist supreme and one of Randi’s Project Alpha kids), Massimo Polidoro (protégé and biographer), and Randi’s spouse, artist Deyvi Orangel Peña Arteaga (aka José Alvarez, aka “channeler” Carlos) shared memories and stories. It was heartening to have Randi remembered so fondly two years after his death.

Saturday evening, Penn Jillette was in conversation with Julia Sweeney, two very funny people discussing Penn’s latest novel, Random, as well as life, skepticism, and family.

George Hrab brought his guitar and sense of humor each day to keep us on time, introduce the speakers, and ensure the audience was aware of what was next up on the agenda. The Q&A after each speaker was eliminated this year. I was happy to have that time given to the speakers, but I did miss George’s oft repeated reminder to “Make sure your question is in the form of a question.”

Prez Sez
By Scott Snell

I want to thank everyone who contributed to the two membership meetings following the September and October NCAS lectures.  The resulting list of ideas for NCAS to re-activate itself following the pandemic is a good start and a work in progress.

I'll focus here on only one aspect: though ideally all of our monthly lectures would be livestreamed for maximum participation, we do have technical limitations.  We can livestream a speaker who is in our meeting room.  But if our speaker is joining us remotely, only the audience in the meeting room can participate or even watch.

That was the case for our October 8 talk about fake news (Professor Andie Tucher, who joined us from New York), and it will also be the case for our November 12 event with Ben Radford, joining us from New Mexico.

Almost all of our speakers allow their talks to be posted later on the NCAS YouTube channel.  But skepticism can be much more than a spectator sport.  I suppose if you think of a question or a missed point after watching a video, you might contact the speaker directly, or at least post below the video.  I think the best situation is to be able to pose your question to the speaker during the event, so the question and answer will be part of the posted video.  And your question may spark other interesting questions and remarks during the event.

The absence of some of our members and guests is keenly felt during our events now.  Before the pandemic, we would get 30 to 40 attendees, sometimes more.  Now we get about 20.

I realize it's an investment of time and energy, and involves some risk.  But in return, as always, we have refreshments and camaraderie awaiting you.  And we offer an opportunity to directly interact with authors and other speakers.  In comparison with the Smithsonian Resident Associates program or events at Politics and Prose, or "Profs and Pints," ours is a competitive service due to it being free of charge, and due to J. D. Mack's technical capabilities of bringing remote speakers into the room with us.

Do you have an idea for a speaker or topic?  Don't let geography limit your ideas...we'll try to get that speaker!

And we'll be generally accessible again when our lectures will be livestreamed online only (no meeting room) during the winter months to avoid inclement weather and a possible resurgence of COVID-19.

As an aside, I was disappointed and somewhat concerned to hear that CSICon 2022 had no Q and A.  Yes, that would allow more speakers to participate, but first and foremost, we skeptics are questioners.  The irony of the Center for Inquiry not allowing time for inquiry at its conference is amusing but unfortunate.

It's true that there are sometimes poor-quality questions, or the questioner may be nervous and having trouble forming a concise question.  Or that an interesting concept for the speaker to consider may be difficult to convey succinctly.  And there are the inevitable pontificators.  But damn it, are we really supposed to just watch people present and then applaud?  Even the better presentations may have interesting gaps, or an audience member has important information unavailable to the speaker.  Just on principle, I think it's the right thing to do to allow time for good and bad questions instead of stacking speakers to fill the time.  (Though of course, some speakers may decide not to take questions.)  Imitating scientific conferences, which almost always have Q and A segments unless the session runs long, is probably the best model for skeptical conferences.  On those occasions when a presentation is so thorough (or inert) that no questions emerge, the next speaker can begin early.

So yes...I hope we will see you on Saturday and we'll hear your questions!

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 second quarter of 2022 came to $41.83, meaning that over $8000 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 two hours of a Montgomery County lecture room rental.)

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

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