Saturday, January 27, 2024

Shadow of a Doubt - January 2024


January 2024

NCAS Public Lecture Series

Am I a "Competent Witness?" —
Would You Believe Me?

 YouTube Live Event with Q and A 

Steve Lundquist
Retired US Air Force Pilot

Saturday, January 27, 1:30pm US/Eastern (UTC-05:00)

"Reliable Witnesses" are a favorite source for credulous reports of just about anything. Because these people have such impressive credentials, the thought of them being incorrect is just hard to wrap your mind around. But even someone who should know better is still subject to all the foibles of being human.

Steve Lundquist
is in the Aerospace Defense industry working as a leader in the Program Management Office. He is a retired Air Force pilot, and still flies today. He is actively involved in the skeptical community as an advocate for critical thinking and scientific skepticism. He has been active with the Granite State Skeptics, New York City Skeptics, and the Northeast Conference for Science and Skepticism. He practices everyday skepticism by infusing it into his work and other organizations such as Toastmasters.

How to Watch and Participate in this Online Discussion Event:

1) Use a supported browser...
2) Use the link
3) The live stream begins shortly before 1:30pm US/Eastern (UTC-05:00) on Saturday, January 27, 2024.
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). Then click the send icon .

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

December Shadow? Was there a December 2023 Shadow of a Doubt?  No, arrangements fell through for our prospective event that month.

Eldritch Investigations and a Discount for NCAS
"Cults and cryptids collide when a curious Washingtonian investigates local unexplained phenomena.  Explore the lure of the unknown and its entanglement with DC history in this multi-chapter adventure across the city."

At the start of the pandemic, the local Rorschach Theatre company created a unique theatrical experience that extended over the course of 9-10 months. It was originally a way for the show to go on when the pandemic shut down stage performances, but it has been so successful that they've continued into their 4th year with an all-new story that began last month (December 2023).

Rorschach often incorporates elements of fantasy, horror, and/or supernatural. This coming season the Eldritch Investigations project involves themes particularly close to NCAS. The company has extended a 20% discount to NCAS members.

Subscribers receive a monthly box or envelope with maps, directions to locales around DC, and other artifacts such as postcards, telegrams, and various trinkets that help unfold a story over the course of 9-10 months. You investigate these locations at your own pace, on your own time. They also provide online videos for those who can't visit in person.

The adventure has already begun, so new subscribers will receive all previous chapters in the first shipment.

For the discount, use code NCAS when subscribing here:

Sounds a bit like an expanded version of our NCAS Skeptours!

February NCAS Lecture
Peter Grinspoon, M.D., primary care physician and a cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School, will present "Uses and Potential Harms of Psychedelics in Medicine."  What is the exciting new research about psychedelics as treatment for depression, addiction, pain, and obsessive-compulsive disorder?  What are the barriers (cost, legality, access) and harms?  Saturday, February 10 at 1:30 PM ET, live on the NCASVideo YouTube channel.

February PhACT Lecture
Our skeptical neighbors to the north, the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT), will host their next online event on Saturday, February 17 at 2 PM ET.  Historian Robert Hicks, PhD will present "19th-Century Astronomy."  Visitors to Philadelphia’s Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion might discover a curious object in the children’s room, a large 1871 cardboard planisphere that speaks to the widespread interest in astronomy during the mid to late 1800s. This presentation surveys what discoveries were made in astronomy during the era and how it was promoted and taught. What did people then think about intelligent life elsewhere? The size and nature of the universe?  The presentation concludes with a virtual 1870s public observing night with a telescope!  Event details at

February Bay Area Skeptics Lecture
The [San Francisco] Bay Area Skeptics will host their next online event on Thursday, February 8 at 10:30 PM ET.  Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, will present "A Child's Garden of Climate Change Denial."  Climate change denial propaganda campaigns aimed at American teachers and students are not new, but in 2023, no fewer than four — from the Heartland Institute, the CO2 Coalition, EverBright Media, and PragerU Kids — were in the headlines.  In his talk, he will assess these campaigns and their likely effects in the context of the advances of climate change education in the United States over the last decade.  This will be livestreamed on YouTube:

Torn From Today's Headlines
By Scott Snell
The Washington Post "Notable Works" of 2023 Includes Poorly-Researched UFO Book
On November 15, the Washington Post published its list of "The year's best memoirs, biographies, history and more."  Among the "50 notable works" was UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government's Search for Alien Life Here — and Out There by Garrett Graff.  The book was also lauded by the Wall Street Journal ("One of the rare books on the topic that manages to be both entertaining and factually grounded") and the Associated Press ("The perfect guide for readers interested in learning how that discussion has evolved").

A few days later, Graff was interviewed by David Ignatius of the Post at a public event held in the Politics and Prose NW DC bookstore.  I attended the event and was surprised at what Graaf was getting wrong.  Perhaps he misunderstood or garbled information from experts, didn't research enough, or outright omitted information and perspectives that would present the UFO topic in a more accurate and less sensational way.  (The event video: )

I first noticed a problem when he spoke (more than once) of the interstellar object ╩╗Oumuamua as coming from another "galaxy" instead of "solar system."  (At other points, he did speak of our solar system correctly, so hopefully he's more of a writer than a speaker.  Presumably publisher Simon & Schuster ensured that the book is well-edited.)

Some of his facts were correct, but misapplied.  "In 1947, we didn't understand that there could be daytime meteor showers," he said with regard to the first "modern" and famous UFO report, by pilot Kenneth Arnold in June 1947.  Sort of true (better to say, "we hadn't been able to discover daytime meteor showers until the invention of radar"), but whether a visible daytime meteor is part of a shower or not isn't relevant.  Some of the public certainly knew about daytime meteors: astronomers.  Daytime meteors have been seen all through history, and there was no question that some meteors should be visible in daylight, based on the brightness of the brightest nighttime meteors.  (And Earth's daytime side is getting roughly the same amount and sizes of incoming matter as the nighttime side.  See  Astronomers, including J. Allen Hynek, who later became consultant for the US Air Force's UFO study, "Project Blue Book," would've considered such a possibility and rated it essentially impossible due to the sighting lasting a couple of minutes rather than a matter of seconds.  (Some investigators have suggested that Arnold didn't correctly read his plane's sweep second hand clock, but this seems unlikely.)

Graff omitted an interesting aspect of the first modern UFO reports: the public was seeing something different than what Arnold had seen.  They saw saucers.  Arnold saw nine objects that "looked something like a pie plate that was cut in half, with sort of a convex triangle in the rear."  The earliest news stories told the public, "'saucer-like' objects" (Associated Press, dateline June 25, 1947) and "flying disks" (AP, June 27, 1947).  Perhaps the power of suggestion caused the public to interpret their genuine sightings as circular disks instead of the true shape, as Arnold saw?  Or Arnold was the flawed eyewitness, misconstruing circular disks?  Or, much more likely, the power of suggestion caused the public to misconstrue all sorts of mundane aerial phenomena as "flying disks."

When I asked for Graff's thoughts about this during the Q/A portion of the program, he got the relevant facts wrong.  He stated that Arnold's "description of what he saw evolved pretty significantly from telling to telling to telling.  The first interviews he gave, he used the word 'saucers.'"  I checked Graff's assertion by comparing Arnold's "pie plate" description (excerpted from a recording of a radio interview about 48 hours after the sighting*: with what he sketched for authorities in July 1947.  One of his sketches is in the FBI's files related to UFOs in 1947: (page 67).  That matches well enough to contradict Graff's claim that Arnold's description was evolving significantly, at least during the early weeks of the public's saucer sightings.  And whether or not Arnold used the word "saucers" (he didn't during the radio interview), the point is that the public was seeing the shape as reported in the news, not as what Arnold described.

One of the insights Graff was offering his audience seemed poorly considered: "The second half of this book is about the collapse of truth and trust in government and institutions.  And that, you have — in the wake of Watergate, Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, the Church Committee, the Pike Committee — the rise of these conspiracy theories like the Bermuda Triangle, which comes out in the '70s..."  Was the Bermuda Triangle a conspiracy theory?  In the early and mid '70s, I was a voracious consumer of books, articles, and shows on the topic (including/until Larry Kuche's The Bermuda Triangle Mystery - Solved in late 1975, which was my first skeptical "mind opener").  The focus of the story then was on the mysteries of the missing planes and ships.  In any case, the Bermuda Triangle books/shows were already popular with the public before anything in Graff's list of government malfeasance except Vietnam.  (For example, the "documentary" film, The Devil's Triangle, narrated by Vincent Price, is from 1970.)  There's no reasonable way to connect the public's brief embrace of the Bermuda Triangle myth with their suspicions of the US government.

My impression of Graff's careless/superficial research and analysis seems to be borne out by at least one skeptic who read the book, Brian Dunning (host of Skeptoid, the award-winning weekly science podcast, and producer/writer/director of the recent documentary film, The UFO Movie THEY Don't Want You to See).  Dunning's review:

On the other hand, Michael Shermer called it "the best book I've read on the whole subject," after mentioning his bookcase full of UFO books.  "A perfect blend of history, cultural/mythological narratives that run through a lot of these stories.  You don't really pass judgment on whether these things represent aliens or whatever they represent, which I like.  It's a pure journalistic, objective look at the story."  Shermer's interview with Graff:

After watching the Shermer interview, I think I understand how his praise can coexist with the critiques of other skeptics.  He simply doesn't have the detailed information at hand to formulate deeper questions for Graff, such as "You're impressed with the Zamora UFO sighting in 1964, but what are your thoughts on the claim that it was a prank by New Mexico Tech students?"  Then Graff could perhaps demonstrate out loud how he weighs differing claims to reach his conclusions.

Shermer did respond skeptically to Graff's suggestion that a tech expert in the defense/intelligence community may have "seen a piece of wreckage that they've collected, who says, 'that doesn't look like anything that's been built on Earth.'"  Shermer: "It's easy to say 'Well, I don't know what it was, gosh, I've never seen anything on Earth like it!'  Well, that's entirely possible, you probably haven't seen everything there is on Earth, before you say something's out of this world, first make sure it's not in this world."

I see that's editors also selected the book among the best nonfiction for November.  As of today (January 26), it ranks #11,881 in Amazon book sales, #32 in Communication & Media Studies, #44 in Political Science, and #202 in American History.  I don't know what its earlier performance was.  Perhaps it's already run its course in the public's attention.

(*The radio interview is plausibly authentic, probably from June 26, 1947, based on the conversation.  Most likely the interviewer is Ted Smith at KWRC-AM in Pendleton, Oregon.  See )

NCAS Membership
At its September 20, 2023 meeting, the NCAS Board of Directors approved a change in membership classifications, effective October 1.  Formerly in two classifications, Single and Double, membership now comprises one or two individuals at the same home address.  In addition to simplifying transactions for the NCAS treasurer, this represents a per-person reduction in membership costs.  The former Single membership cost now covers up to two people.  Consider adding a 2nd person in your household to your NCAS membership at no extra cost!  Both will be able to vote separately in the annual NCAS board of directors election.  Send an email to to add a 2nd person to your membership.  We hope to add members, and of course a student or other young person is always welcome for the future of skepticism.  Also see

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