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Skeptical Inquirer Newsletter: January 2013

January 11, 2013

In this edition of SIN:

Belief in the Apocalypse That Wasn’t Examined in Skeptical Inquirer

SI jan-feb coverIt was no surprise to skeptics that the so-called Mayan doomsday prophecy was wrong, but why did so many people think it was true? In the latest Skeptical Inquirer, Matthew J. Sharps, professor of psychology at California State University, and colleagues Schuyler W. Liao and Megan R. Herrera, discover that any one of us may exhibit the “dissociative tendencies” that can distort one’s perception of reality.

“We found that not only are the dissociated likely to believe in ghosts, aliens, and ‘cryptids’ such as Bigfoot,” write the authors, “but they are actually more likely to see these things, to interpret ambiguous stimuli as paranormal in nature.” It is this predisposition that may leave the dissociated vulnerable to belief in the ability of the Maya to predict the end times, even while not believing that the end is actually nigh.

Also in this issue: Massimo Polidoro follows the trail to what many believed was Hitler’s South Pole hideout after reports of his death were doubted—even by the likes Dwight Eisenhower; in the wake of riots around the world over blasphemy, Gary Longsine and Peter Boghossian warn against giving credence to claims of righteous indignation; John Franch reveals that “converted” UFO believer, astronomer J. Allen Hynek, was not the skeptic he portrayed himself to be; and much more.

This edition of Skeptical Inquirer also collects tributes and reminiscences of this magazine’s founder, the late Paul Kurtz, from a stellar lineup of thinkers and luminaries who have been influenced by this monumental figure of the skeptic movement. The January/February issue of Skeptical Inquirer is on newsstands now, with special introductory subscription prices available here.

2012: Year of the Nickell

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If you know about the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and read Skeptical Inquirer, you already know world-famous investigator and CSI Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell. Apart from his prolific work in-house, Joe is often sought out to lend his insights and expertise in all manner of media outlets. We’d thought we’d take this chance to round up some of Joe’s activities in 2012. See if you can keep up!

In 2012 he published two new books: The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead (Prometheus Books) which Michael Shermer termed “the definitive book on ghosts from a scientific perspective,” and CSI Paranormal: Investigating Strange Mysteries (the first title published by CSI’s new Inquiry Press). These bring the total of Nickell’s books to over forty, and represent his more than four decades of investigative work, involving paranormal, forensic, and historical mysteries. He’s also completed the manuscript for yet another comprehensive book, The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible.

Joe appeared on numerous television shows, including National Geographic’s The Paranatural series, episodes of Canadian television’s The Conspiracy Show, and a documentary forthcoming on NBC. He appeared on Anderson Cooper’s syndicated afternoon TV show, Anderson, where, according to the Los Angeles Times, he “did a fine job offering a coherent, yet sympathetic, response” to several UFO witnesses. In addition, he appeared on radio shows and was interviewed for many newspaper articles and online sources, consulted on such new subjects as the predicted Mayan apocalypse (he correctly said not to worry), and old standbys like the Shroud of Turin.

Perhaps most interestingly, Joe was the subject of several media profiles as well. The summer 2012 issue of & magazine interviewed him about his work in a piece titled “Curiously Inclined,” with each letter of the heading being composed of fine-print lines of text listing many of his numerous “personas” of which there are over a thousand now: stage magician, undercover operative, historical document consultant, fingerprint recorder. . . .

Alan Boyle, writing for NBCNews.com, interviewed Joe for a special pre-Halloween profile, “Sleuth Finds the Truth in Ghost Stories.” Boyle called him “the world’s longest-running full-time professional paranormal investigator.”

A more expansive profile appeared as a front-cover story in Buffalo’s alternative paper, Artvoice, titled “Hunting Monsters, Chasing Ghosts: The Marvelous Life of Detective Joe Nickell.” Wrote Charlotte Hsu regarding CSI’s “staff detective”: “You are mesmerized. You see that he has lived the lives of many men. He has hunted for lake monsters on two continents, sought out graves of vampires, unmasked phony psychics, and read the flattened wheat of crop circles for signs of hoaxers.” 

Importantly, Joe has also conducted a number of new investigations on various fronts: in Scotland, the Loch Ness Monster and the spectral Green Lady of Stirling Castle; and in England, the Lake Windermere Monster. He looked into UFO and ghost cases, some newly surfaced Davenport Brothers spiritualist records, and much, much more, including the notorious Tennessee “Bell Witch” (in progress). He and Major James McGaha co-authored another large, encompassing piece, “Treatise on Invisible Beings.”

In his spare time (kidding), Joe took “orb” photos in a “haunted” cave; performed chemical and microscopic analyses of “miracle dirt” from Chimayo, New Mexico; monitored sonar scans aboard a boat on Loch Ness; interviewed two alien abductees; conducted (in St. Louis) an examination and textual analysis of archived “Patience Worth” automatic writings; participated in a “psychokinetic” spoon-bending workshop; analyzed the speech patterns of allegedly channeled extraterrestrial beings; did folkloristic studies of several legends (one of which, in verse form, he translated from the German and reversified in English); visited and photographed a traveling “miracle” statue; and so on.

For many folks, a year like this is a lifetime of work. We at CSI can’t wait to see what Joe does next in 2013. Perhaps a vacation?

Special Articles at CSICOP.org

Highlights from the original writing at the CSI website.

Kylie Sturgess: Talking Nerdy with Cara Santa Maria 

Kylie interviews one of skepticism’s hippest proponents, known for her work as senior science correspondent at The Huffington Post, as well her series The Point on The Young Turks. Says Santa Maria, “One thing that I always try to do, is follow in the footsteps of my personal hero, Carl Sagan. Because I think that he managed to communicate science in a way that showed how incredibly human, how incredibly emotional, and how incredibly poetic science really is.

Ben Radford: Bashing the BMI: A Closer Look at the Skeptics

The Body-Mass Index has become fraught with controversy, and its utility doubted by those who see it as a means to discriminate against the overweight. Ben takes a closer look at the reality behind the skepticism to better understand what is and isn’t wrong with the BMI

Kylie Sturgess: The (Christmas) Season For Reason With Young Critical Thinkers

A discussion with science teacher Laurie Tarr, organizer of Louisville Science Café, a monthly science outreach program for the public, and Born to Do Science Kentuckiana, a monthly science outreach program for children in the Kentucky and Southern Indiana area

Robert Sheaffer: Robert A. Steiner (1934-2013)

Marks the recent passing of Robert Steiner, a CSI Fellow and prominent magician and skeptic who “always explained to audiences afterward that he had fooled them with a trick.”

Eyes on the Balles Prize

wisemanWhat work of 2013 will represent the best of skepticism in the face of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims? In 2012, the Robert P. Balles prize was presented to Richard Wiseman for his book Paranormality: Why We See What Isn’t There, in which he shows us how easy it is to be deceived and how easily we can be fooled and fool others. Past winners have included Steven Novella, Michael Specter, Leonard Mlodinow, Natalie Angier, Ben Goldacre, and a shared prize among Andrew Skolnick, Ray Hyman, and Joe Nickell. This is obviously a high bar.

This prize has been established through the generosity of Robert P. Balles, an associate member of CSI, and the Robert P. Balles Endowed Memorial Fund, a permanent endowment fund for the benefit of CSI. CSI’s established criteria for the prize include use of the most parsimonious theory to fit data or to explain apparently preternatural phenomena.

So who will meet this high standard in 2013? Keep your eye out for the cream of the skeptic crop for works published in 2013 as the year goes on, and submit your suggestions to Barry Karr at bkarr@centerforinquiry.net. The deadline will be the end of this year. 

Save the Date for the Skeptic’s Toolbox

Every year, a merry meeting of skeptics convenes in Eugene, Oregon for a weekend of intensive training in skeptical investigation: The Skeptic’s Toolbox. 

The dates have now officially been set for the 2013 Skeptic’s Toolbox: August 8-11. So save that weekend in your busy schedules now, and stay tuned for more details on registration and this year’s theme. 

skeptics toolbox 2012

It’s Time to Get Empirical . . . Shirts

csicon shirt smallWere you one of the lucky ones to enjoy the intellectual and social extravaganza that was 2012’s CSICon in Nashville, but wish you had one last memento to remember it by? Perhaps you didn’t go to CSICon, but still think the idea of CSICon is really cool. Or maybe you just like clothes with pictures of guitars on them.

You, my friend, are in luck.

For a limited time, CSI is giving away, free of charge, the last remaining official CSICon 2012 T-shirts.

If you feel naked without CSICon emblazoned on your person, now’s your chance. Contact Barry Karr at bkarr@centerforinquiry.net, and tell him your address and shirt size (M, L, XL, or 2XL). First come, first serve, until they’re gone! 

Stalk Us on the Interwebs!

Skepticism is better when it’s shared. So make sure you’re keeping track of CSI and Skeptical Inquirer on the social networks: 

Skeptical Inquirer on Facebook and Twitter (@skeptinquiry).

Committee for Skeptical Inquiry on Facebook.

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