NTS LogoSkeptical News for 13 June 2003

Archive of previous NTS Skeptical News listings

Friday, June 13, 2003

Comparing Stories of Extraterrestrials with Stories of Fairies


by David Hinson
Copyright 2003


In this thesis, I present examples of reports of encounters with fairies and encounters with extraterrestrials and discuss possible explanations for each. Since many accounts of UFOs and aliens are from the United States and Europe, I limit the discussion of fairies to those societies. There are similarities between accounts of encounters with fairies and those of encounters with extraterrestrials. Both types of accounts often involve procreation and children. People often report that something seems odd about the environment during the encounter experience, and both fairies and aliens often exhibit magical abilities; alien "technology" is so far beyond our understanding that we might as well consider it magic.

It is likely that both types of account reflect fears involving children and procreation and, by extension, worries about the future. Interestingly, there are some differences between fairies and aliens. Aliens are far stranger than fairies and often show an odd ignorance of basic facts; the latter has never been reported in any account of fairies. It is likely that these differences are partly due to our greater knowledge giving us the power to imagine stranger things. Perhaps more importantly, we may look at the future in a way different from past cultures, a possibility explored by Robert Heilbroner. He suggests that people living before the Industrial Revolution believed that the future would be much like the past. Later, there was a period of optimism where the general belief was that science and technology would make the future better than the past. More recently, we have come to see science and technology as enabling evil as well as good things, so we are more pessimistic. This change could be behind the more recent reports of terrifying alien abductions as opposed to earlier reports of benevolent aliens concerned for our welfare.


In this thesis, I present examples of alien and fairy reports and discuss possible explanations for each. For the most part, I am limiting myself to reports from the United States and Europe since most UFO and alien encounter reports come from these regions. However, many other societies have traditions of fairies.

I group the reports by how they are similar in the following ways: I begin by presenting reports that involve procreation and children. Both aliens and fairies often seem interested in human reproduction. Second, I present reports that exhibit what the UFO writer Jenny Randles calls the "Oz Factor." Here, the witness finds that not only is he seeing strange beings, but the exterior environment and his own actions are also odd. For example, suppose a witness has a UFO encounter while driving. He might later realize that there was no traffic on a usually busy highway. Later, he might find himself visited by a strange person dressed entirely in black who wants to talk to him about his experience. The witness might meekly follow orders given by this "Man in Black" and afterward wonder why he did so. Finally, I present reports that emphasize the "magical" qualities of fairies and aliens. While alien abilities are usually considered products of some advanced technology, they are magical in the sense that we cannot explain them. For example, some reports have aliens passing through solid walls. We have no way to explain this, so we might as well call it magic.

Following the above, I try to explain why people have had these experiences, and why the fairy traditions are what they are. Before proceeding, however, I offer a few introductory notes to set the context of this thesis.

Many people have reported experiences that most of us would find hard to believe. Some claim to have seen ghosts, some have reported out-of-body experiences, some say that they have heard strange humming sounds. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say whether such experiences have any real substance outside the mind of the person who has experienced them. Even eyewitness accounts of the same crime can differ, our memories of events change with time, and in most instances there are no others who can testify to the individual's report.

Nevertheless, some remarkable experiences seem to have a genuine physical basis. For example, ball lightning seems to be real enough, though there is no generally accepted theory of its cause. On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that many reports of strange happenings describe events that are at least partially subjective. In such cases, a physical stimulus may trigger the experience, though the exact form of the experience or perhaps the report is determined by the mind of the individual. Perhaps the best reason for this assumption is the sheer variety of such reports. For example, it is easy to imagine a world exactly like our own except that the Loch Ness monster actually exists in it. With somewhat more difficulty, one can imagine a world just like our own save that ghosts exist. However, it is substantially more difficult to imagine a world like our own but where the Loch Ness monster and ghosts and invisible assailants and so on all exist. On the other hand, sometimes reports that are thought to be of very different phenomena show odd similarities. Consider the following examples:

Read No Evil: A Textbook Case of Censorship

'The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn' by Diane Ravitch


By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardley@twp.com
Thursday, June 12, 2003; Page C01

How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn
By Diane Ravitch
Knopf. 255 pp. $24

It's difficult to exaggerate the importance of this book. Whether "The Language Police" will turn out to be one of those rare books that actually influence the way we live -- Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle," John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed" -- remains to be seen, but surely one must pray that it does. Meticulously researched and forcefully argued, it makes appallingly plain that the textbooks American schoolchildren read and the tests that measure their academic progress have been corrupted by a bizarre de facto alliance of the far left and the far right.

Diane Ravitch got the first hint of this several years ago when she "stumbled upon an elaborate, well-established protocol of beneficent censorship, quietly endorsed and broadly implemented by textbook publishers, testing agencies, professional associations, states, and the federal government." Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1998 to a board investigating the possibilities and pitfalls of voluntary national testing, Ravitch soon learned "that it was standard operating procedure in the educational testing industry to submit all passages and test questions to a bias and sensitivity review," and that this was not at all what she had expected it to be.

Ravitch had assumed that any such review would implement "the sensible principle of removing racist and sexist language" from the tests, but in fact that had long since been accomplished. Now, she learned to her horror, "bias" has metamorphosed into "anything in a test item that might cause any student to be distracted or upset." Some of the examples she came across can only be described as absurd: A story about peanuts was eliminated from one test, because "the reviewers apparently assumed that a fourth-grade student who was allergic to peanuts might get distracted if he or she encountered a test question that did not acknowledge the dangers of peanuts," and an "inspiring" story about a blind mountain climber was rejected because, "in the new meaning of bias, it is considered biased to acknowledge that lack of sight is a disability."

The discovery that the most important tests at the elementary and high school levels had degenerated into feel-good exercises in boosting self-esteem by "denying reality" led Ravitch from the tests to the texts, where she learned that activists on the left and the right are "agreed on one point: Children's minds would be shaped, perhaps forever, by the content and images in their textbooks." Preposterous though this notion is, it has achieved the status of gospel among those who write bias and sensitivity guidelines.

Textbook publishers' thirst for the vast amounts of money to be earned when their publications are adopted by California, Texas and a few other disproportionately influential states obviously is far greater than their interest in educating schoolchildren, so they have merrily capitulated to the pressure groups. They give the right-wingers control of topics and content -- nothing about abortion, evolution, divorce, crime -- and the left-wingers control of language, i.e., the weasel words of political correctness. Ravitch writes: "The pressure groups of left and right have important points of convergence. Both right-wingers and left-wingers demand that publishers shield children from words and ideas that contain what they deem the 'wrong' models for living. Both assume that by limiting what children read, they can change society to reflect their worldview."

New entry for SKEPTIC Bibliography (Mencken)

From: Taner Edis edis1@llnl.gov

H. L. Mencken On Religion
S. T. Joshi, ed.
2002, Prometheus; 330p.
creationism:history, psi, psi:history, religion, skepticism

Though he was not on a campaign against religion, H.L. Mencken found much to write upon the subject. Fundamentalist Christians especially will find much offensive here, for they are Mencken's particular game, although Catholics, Methodists, Christian Scientists, spiritualists, and other more moderate sects come into scorn in their turn. If Mencken were alive today, how he would spring into attacks upon the Raelians, the TV spiritualists, the New Agers, and of course the fundamentalist Christians who are still thriving. To read these essays is to be reminded of how relatively mild such criticism has now become. Of particular interest to skeptics is his writings on the Scopes trial and on spiritualism. The wit and erudition displayed in these essays is a real treasure, and ought to be for believers and infidels alike.

[ Reviewed by Rob Hardy, robhardy@earthlink.net ]

Visit the full bibliography at http://www.csicop.org/bibliography/
Please consider submitting an entry yourself.

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC bibliographer

Some see the Madonna in a window


by Jennifer Rosinski Thursday, June 12, 2003

Whether it's a vision sent down from God or condensation collected between two window panes, an image of what believers call the Virgin Mary holding Baby Jesus has drawn droves to Milton Hospital since Tuesday.

The picture on a medical building second-floor window first drew attention from workers and patients Tuesday morning, said a hospital official who claims condensation has discolored the glass for years. Others are not so scientific.

``It's bizarre. We're not crazy; we're nurses,'' cardiac nurse Sarah Johnson told The Patriot Ledger. ``I said a Hail Mary when I saw it. I was like, `Oh, My God!' ''

Yesterday, a parking lot next to the medical building filled with a group of nuns and parents who brought their children, all of them snapping pictures. And motorists circled the lot while craning their necks.

Parishioners and staff at St. Elizabeth's Church have been buzzing about the image for the past two days, said the Rev. Gilbert Phinn, who stopped by yesterday to check it out himself.

``It's a rather remarkable thing. I don't know how it happened,'' he said. ``All I can say is anything that inspires devotion is a good thing and that's certainly what this is doing.''

Thursday, June 12, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.shtml which mirrors the daily e-mail update.

In the News

Today's Headlines - June 12, 2003

from The San Francisco Chronicle

An international team of fossil hunters is reporting today the discovery of the world's earliest known "near-modern" humans -- a thickly muscled subspecies of Homo sapiens who used stone tools to butcher hippopotamus and buffalo by the shores of an ancient African lake.

UC Berkeley's Tim D. White and colleagues found the well-preserved, 160,000- year-old fossilized skulls of two adults and a child, along with skull fragments and teeth of seven other individuals, in 1997 while combing a fossil- rich area of Ethiopia about 140 miles northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa.

The discovery, reported today in the journal Nature, fills an important gap in the evolutionary sequence between earlier pre-human ancestors, known as Homo erectus, and our own species. The latest find is about 60,000 years older than the oldest known specimen of Homo sapiens.

from Newsday

In a bold response to the monkeypox outbreak, federal health officials yesterday recommended smallpox vaccinations for anyone exposed to the monkeypox virus, imposed an embargo on the sale of prairie dogs and banned the importation of six species of rodents from West Africa.

The government's action comes in the wake of 54 possible cases of human monkeypox in four states in recent days. No one has died of the disease. The outbreak was triggered by infected prairie dogs captured in a burgeoning trade of exotic pets. Infected rodents were shipped to more than a dozen states since April 15, federal health officials said yesterday.

"We cannot confirm there has been any movement of infected prairie dogs into New York at this time. That's something we're still trying to get our arms around," said Llelwyn Grant, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

from The Los Angeles Times

The first postwar survey of archeological sites in Iraq shows that tens of thousands of artifacts have been dug up and smuggled out of the country or cast aside to disintegrate in the desert.

The situation in the countryside is in sharp contrast to that at Baghdad's National Museum, where curators were able to hide the bulk of their collection. Losses there were actually much smaller than had first been reported.

But away from urban areas, the looting and damage is still continuing, a team of archeologists sent to the region by the National Geographic Society reported Wednesday.

from The New York Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- THERE'S the derring-do version of underwater exploration - the sea dog with the power saw, cutting through the hull of a ship to find hidden gold. And then there are the deep-sea archaeologists, who want to explore submerged sites while causing minimal damage, making detailed maps that mark each minute change as artifacts are painstakingly removed.

David Mindell, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is on the side of the archaeologists. Leaning over his workbench in the basement of his condominium a few blocks from Harvard Square, he is fine-tuning his latest invention to help them do their work more precisely: a wireless sonar system that can map the seafloor thousands of feet below the surface, where divers and global positioning system equipment cannot go.

Part of the device is plugged into a laptop in the electronics workshop that Dr. Mindell has set up at his home to accommodate computing marathons.

from The New York Times

JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES called them "fascinating" and read them in taxis. Albert Einstein called them "unique treasures.'' But for roughly 300 years, just a handful of people had ever seen Isaac Newton's voluminous writings on alchemy and theology. Now that is changing, thanks to a group of scholars who are making them available on the Internet.

The Newton Project, a joint effort based at the University of London, aims gradually to post all of the scientist's previously unpublished work at a Web site (www.newtonproject.ic.ac.uk), including thousands of pages of alchemical and theological writings and, eventually, some of his optical studies. The material, which may take 15 to 20 years to finish transcribing, will be accompanied by high-resolution images of the manuscripts.

The enterprise was founded in 1998 by a small group of Newton scholars who had grown tired of seeing the complete writings of other important thinkers published only as expensive multivolume editions that would invariably languish in a few academic libraries.

from The Hartford Courant

The horror movie in miniature unfolds like this:

Perched on a tall blade of grass, the deer tick waves its legs, testing the air for the carbon dioxide in your breath as you approach. It senses your body heat, the vibrations of your steps. As you brush by, the parasite latches on, then crawls upward, sometimes scouting for several hours before finding a spot to dig in.

A pair of mouth pincers slice into your skin, anchoring the tick. A needle-like sucker draws up your blood and injects a chemical stew that numbs the bite, suppresses your immune system's response and keeps your blood from clotting.

Inquiry reveals archaeologist faked top finds



JAPAN is having to hastily rewrite its entire pre-history after an archeologist known as "The Hands of God" was revealed to have systematically faked his fantastic discoveries.

For nearly 30 years, Shinichi Fujimura happened to be in exactly the right place at just the right time. He unearthed stone tools that offered a vast new treasure trove of data about Japan's middle Palaeolithic age. Other finds were dated to 100,000 years ago.

But a full-scale investigation by the Japanese Archeological Association has confirmed the worst - that Mr Fujimura , 53, was committing fraud on a vast scale.

He entirely fabricated his astonishing finds at 159 of the 178 sites he worked on, it concluded.

Mr Fujimura's career began to unravel after he was photographed by a Japanese newspaper journalist removing stone implements from a plastic bag and burying them at one set of ruins.

Admitting only that he was "tempted", he entered a hospital for treatment for stress, then subsequently admitted faking discoveries at 42 digs.

Even now the extent of the deception is unclear.

"Anything is possible," said Takashi Tateno, chief researcher at the Tokyo Metropolitan Archaeological Institute, and a longtime acquaintance of Mr Fujimura. "There is nothing to prove that he did not just fish a stone out of his pocket right before 'finding' it."

Publishers of school textbooks have had to delete passages that covered the discoveries of what were claimed to be ancient ruins that dated back to the Palaeolithic era.

Mr Fujimura's discoveries at Zazaragi, in Miyagi prefecture, had supposedly opened up whole new avenues of research and increased knowledge of life in Japan more than 30,000 years ago. Mr Fujimura's finds at the site were hailed as "stunning".

Zazaragi is now listed as having "no academic value", and has been removed from the archeological association's list of historical sites.

New research showed that the layer from which Mr Fujimura's finds were allegedly excavated was an accumulation of pyroclastic flow from a volcano, which would have made the area uninhabitable for humans.

Stone artefacts found at the disgraced archeologist's home, meanwhile, were said to bear "unnatural cuts" that were not consistent with tools from the Palaeolithic period.

The scandal has caused controversy in Japan's archeological circles.

"Young archaeologists do not challenge revered senior scholars," said Hisao Baba, an anthropologist at the National Science Museum. "It is extremely difficult to directly deny others' work because it is taken as a grave personal and professional insult."



GOLDFINGER, Chris1, LEGG, Mark R.2, MILSTEIN, Randall L.1, NICHOLSON, Craig3, and KAMERLING, Marc,
(1) College of Oceanic & Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State Univ, 104 Ocean Administration Building, Corvallis, OR 97331, gold@coas.oregonstate.edu, (2) 5952 Brassie Cir, Huntington Beach, CA 92649-2748, (3) Institute for Crustal Studies, Univ of California, Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-1100

Recently compiled bathymetric data including dense grids of conventional echo-soundings (NOS, 1999) and underway multi-beam bathymetry swaths (Goldfinger and others, 2000) have revealed a large sub-circular structure of about 29 km in diameter in the California Continental Borderland. This feature is centered about 70 km west of the San Diego County coastline just east of San Clemente Island, and so we refer to it as the San Clemente Structure. A domal uplift with a diameter of 7 km rising 530 m above the ocean floor occurs in the center of the structure. An annular depression, ranging in width from 5 km to just over 10 km, surrounds the central dome, and an anticlinal rim, roughly 5 km wide with an average height above the ocean floor of 300 m, encircles the depression. The average depth from the rim to depression floor is 110 m. Seismic data show the San Clemente Structure to deform the regional Catalina Schist basement (Bohannon and Geist, 1998). Deformation appears to wane with depth and distance from the structure. Seismic reflection profiles also suggest the structural elevations of these uplifts are greater than their topographic expression, and that the annular depression contains more than 400 meters of sedimentary fill (Vedder and others, 1974; Moore and Beyer, 1975; Bohannon and Geist, 1998). Our evaluation of the fill suggests it may exceed one kilometer (Fig. 1). Such large-scale circular features associated with intense deformation in a circular pattern can arise from endogenetic processes, in which some igneous, metamorphic, or tectonic activity may be involved; or exogenetic processes, involving meteoritic or cometary impact. This sub-circular structure may be a caldera, a schist diapir, or an impact structure. Present data does not allow discrimination between these hypotheses with any certainty, though gravity and magnetics data are inconsistent with a caldera. The dimensions of the structure are consistent with average values for impact structures, while the overall structure is broadly consistent with both the impact and diapir hypotheses.

Cordilleran Section - 98th Annual Meeting (May 13-15, 2002)

Session No. 23
Impact Structures
CH2M Hill Alumni Center: Elle
4:00 PM-5:30 PM, Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Witch hopes to lure Nessie out


A white witch is planning an attempt to lure the Loch Ness monster out into the open.

Kevin Carlyon, high priest of the British Coven of White Witches, will cast a spell during a ritual on the shores of Loch Ness on Friday.

He wants to invoke Nessie to appear again, claiming there have been few sightings since he cast a spell to protect the mythical monster two years ago.

Mr Carlyon, from Hastings, East Sussex, hit the headlines in April 2001 when he arrived in Scotland for a showdown with Swedish scientist Jan Sundberg.

The white witch cast a blocking spell in a bid to scupper Mr Sundberg's controversial plans to trap the elusive creature.

Mr Carlyon, a 44-year-old former wrestler, blessed nature's elements to ward off evil spirits and dropped a talisman into the murky loch to protect the water and all the creatures within it.

Now Mr Carlyon, who actually believes Nessie died many years ago and that her spirit lives on in the loch, is worried the spell is too strong and is stopping Nessie - or her ghost - appearing at all.

He said: "I left the protection spell running and now I want to undo it slightly so Nessie can make an appearance.

"The protection will still be there for Nessie so no one can cause her any harm but she will be able to come back again and thrill the public.

"Nessie is a legend and I've had lots of requests from people who want her to appear again."

Story filed: 11:31 Wednesday 11th June 2003

Evidence and the paranormal


The Skeptic: Issue 23

Wendy Grossman

A strange blipping noise came over the PA system. "No," I said. "I'm going to be hard-nosed about this. I said the harmonica."

Here's the situation: a group called Inform runs quarterly seminars at the LSE on a variety of religious-type topics. In early May, the topic was life after death. The other speakers were folks representing a variety of what Inform likes to call delicately "new religious movements" and what Ian Haworth of the Cult Information Centre prefers to call "dangerous cults". (Not all of them, of course: it's difficult to see how anyone could regard the woolly post-modern shaman-studying anthropologist as anything but harmless.) There was someone from the Nation of Islam, a Moonie, and so on. So I had to explain: skepticism is not a religion. We just want evidence. And so on.

So, the speaker thing. Some years back, Maggie MacDonald and her son, Jack, gave me a tiny harmonica on a chain. For events like Inform's, I wear it around my neck, and begin by challenging any attendee present who happens to be dead to make a sound through it while it's in situ. After all, 19th century physical mediums claimed that spirits could sound much larger harmonicas, to say nothing of rapping, drumming, tapping, and blowing horns. Surely a tiny harmonica which works, see? should be no problem. I'm assuming that just as today's live humans are stronger, fitter, and faster, so too today's ghosts.

The blipping noise came over the speaker about 8 minutes into the 15-minute talk. And you could see it go over the audience like a wave, the thought, half joke, half serious: See? The spirits are talking to you and arguing back.

There you have the perfect example of the human concept of "close". You went to the medium hoping for a message from your recently deceased father, and instead she had a message from someone whose name begins with F, and you work out jointly that it has to be your uncle who died when you were two and whose name was Phileas. "He always wished he'd been alive long enough to know you better, dear," the medium says. Does your heart leap?

Or: the astrologer predicts you will only marry later in life to someone much younger than yourself. You marry at 27 someone who's nine years older than you are. That marriage doesn't last, and when you're 38 you meet someone who's 37. Was the astrologer right? Well, that first marriage was only a short one, and 38 isn't so late, but it's later than most people, and he's a year younger, which isn't much, but it's there.

The skeptic who carps that these apparently fine differences actually do matter is a spoilsport, too finicky, and Just Making Trouble. It's clear that it's close. Me, I think it's kind of like being a little bit pregnant.

But when you're on stage giving a talk, it's not about scientific research, it's about hanging onto the audience, and for that purpose my hard-nosed comment worked.

There was, however, another much more interesting example at the same conference. Dr Peter Fenwick gave a presentation on research his cardiac unit had done concerning near-death and out-of-body experiences. The research looked only at patients who had suffered cardiac arrest, and involved placing cards on the monitors for them to read during the period when they were out of their bodies. I was with him right up until he said that during the research period only three patients fit the criteria (had cardiac arrest, had and remembered an NDE or OBE), and one had been pulled out of the room immediately, one had been too interested in the medical team's efforts to look at anything else, and the third came back too quickly. None had noticed the cards. "So it hasn't been tested yet," concluded Fenwick. My first thought: it's been tested and it's failed three times.

There is, of course, a third way to look at this, and I put it to Fenwick during the break, after asking a guy at the conference who'd actually had an NDE whether he'd have bothered to read cards on the sides of the tunnel he'd gone through. "No," he said. "I don't know if I'd have noticed them." So my suggestion to Fenwick: they're not interested in cards. "No," he agreed, "They're interested in themselves." So a better test might be using a different color of drapes that the patients would be bound to notice as they looked back at themselves on the table. Of course, there are problems with this, too: you're in an emergency situation, and you can't really take time out to fuss with drapes. But that's not the problem Fenwick mentioned first. He said, "The problem would be ruling out telepathy."

Now, you see how different we all are? This had never occurred to me. I suggested perhaps the first step was to establish that the patients could actually see something, and then one could worry about ruling out telepathy. (There is also the small point that even the experiment they had didn't wholly rule out telepathy, because apparently the nurses got up on stepladders at night to find out what they said even though they'd been asked not to.)

Now, if one of the patients had said he'd seen some white blobs while he was out of his body but was too caught up in the moment to investigate, that would have been close.

Oh, yeah: the harmonica never sounded.

Wendy M Grossman (www.pelicancrossing.net) is founder and former editor of The Skeptic (www.skeptic.org.uk) and author of: From Anarchy to Power: the Net Comes of Age (NYU Press). The Skeptic magazine is available by subscription only from The Skeptic, PO Box 475, Manchester M60 2TH. A year's subscription (four issues) costs 10 (UK), 12 (Europe, airmail and Rest of the World, surface), or 20 (Rest of the World, airmail). Cheques/Postal Orders in sterling only should be payable to The Skeptic. Alternatively, quote your credit card number and expiry date. Visit the magazine's website at www.skeptic.org.uk.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

If you experience any problems with the URLs (page not found, page expired, etc.), we suggest you proceed to the home page of "Science In the News" http://www.mediaresource.org/news.shtml which mirrors the daily e-mail update.

In the News

Today's Headlines - June 11, 2003

from Orlando Sentinel

CAPE CANAVERAL -- A 5-foot-tall robotic geologist is hurtling toward Mars today on a mission to explore the planet's surface after a successful launch Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Called Spirit, the first of two NASA rovers set for liftoff this month was carried into space by a Boeing Delta 2 rocket. The flight had been delayed two days by storms, and jubilant scientists cheered as the rocket thundered off its launchpad into a blue sky.

"It's incredible," said Jim Rice from Arizona State University, a member of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration science team. "It's hard to put it into words, really. You work for years to see this happen. The space program needs a positive shot in the arm right now, and hopefully, these two probes are going to do that."

from The Associated Press

WUSHAN, China (AP) - The first stage of filling the vast reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam in central China has been completed five days ahead of schedule, state media said Wednesday.

The reservoir on the Yangtze River, which started to fill June 1, has flooded dozens of towns and small cities. The communist government is moving some 1.3 million people out of the densely populated area that is to be inundated.

The reservoir's water level reached its first target depth of 445 feet on Tuesday evening, newspapers and the Xinhua News Agency said. They said that is the minimum required for river freighters and passenger ferries to sail on the reservoir and for the dam's turbines to begin generating power.

The $22 billion dam is the world's biggest hydroelectric project - and one of its most controversial.

from The San Francisco Chronicle

WASHINGTON (AP) -- In kindergarten, Nicole Costa was too short to reach even the classroom water fountain. At age 6, doctors predicted her adult height would be just 4 feet 8 inches.

Then she was prescribed almost daily injections of growth hormone for the next seven years -- a controversial practice in children, like Nicole, whose shortness isn't caused by any known disease. But it worked -- at 17, Nicole is now a more average 5 feet 2 inches.

She urged government scientists on Tuesday to let other children have the same chance with that drug. "It will make their world a different place."

Advisers to the Food and Drug Administration grudgingly agreed, backing Eli Lilly & Co.'s bid to become the first growth hormone maker allowed to market the drug for abnormally short but otherwise healthy children.

from The Associated Press

Scientists have unearthed three 160,000-year-old human skulls in Ethiopia that are the oldest known and best-preserved fossils of modern humans' immediate predecessors.

The nearly complete skulls of an adult male and a child and the partial skull of a second adult appear to represent a crucial stage of human evolution when the facial features of modern humans arose.

Discovered in Ethiopia's fossil-rich Afar region, the skulls have clearly modern features -- a prominent forehead, flattened face and reduced brow -- that contrast with older humans' projecting, heavy-browed skulls.

The devil is in the details -- or at least a defamation lawsuit

'Satan' remark goes before Iowa Supreme Court

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) --The Iowa Supreme Court on Wednesday revived a defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who was offended when a church official wrote a letter warning that "the spirit of Satan" was at work in her congregation.
The seven-member court unanimously said that it was extremely reluctant to intervene in internal church disputes, but that in this case the letter had been circulated outside the congregation, and a trial is needed to resolve the matter.

A lower court had thrown out the case.

The case involves a Methodist church in Shell Rock and an internal dispute that drew the attention of church officials. The Rev. Jerrold Swinton, then a district supervisor for the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church, attended services at the church and heard comments about the dispute, which centered on differing views about the church pastor.

Court records said that Jane Kliebenstein, a church member, made comments to him during the visit that prompted a letter he sent to the congregation.

"Folks, when is enough, enough?" he wrote. "When will you stop the blaming, negative and unhappy persons among you from tearing down the spirit of Jesus Christ among you?"

His letter also called on members of the congregation to acknowledge that "the spirit of Satan" was at work in the church.

The letter did not specifically mention Ms. Kliebenstein, but she and her husband sued the church and the Iowa Conference, seeking unspecified damages.

The high court said that judges clearly cannot interfere in matters of faith and internal church discipline. But in this case, the court said, "The fact that Swinton's communication about Jane was published outside the congregation weakens the shield."

The church had also argued that issues of faith such as the existence of Satan are beyond the purview of the courts.

But the high court said: "Perusing a standard dictionary convinces us that the term used by church officials to describe Jane Kliebenstein has religious roots but also carries a common and largely unflattering secular meaning. We conclude from these definitions that the phrase 'spirit of Satan' has meaning in a secular as well as sectarian context."

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Find this article at: http://www.cnn.com/2003/LAW/06/11/satan.lawsuit.ap/index.html

Three valued supporters of NCSE recently were honored.

Brian J. Alters, the director of the Evolution Education Research Centre at McGill University, received the Faculty of Education Award for Distinguished Teaching from McGill University at its spring convocation on June 3.

Francisco Ayala, the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine, was named a University Professor by the Regents of the University of California, a rank that only 33 other faculty members in the University of California system have ever attained.

Michael Ruse, the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy at the Florida State University, received an honorary D.Litt. degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, at its convocation on June 3.

Congratulations to all three.


Glenn Branch
Deputy Director
National Center for Science Education, Inc.
420 40th Street, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609-2509
510-601-7203 x 305
fax: 510-601-7204

When humans faced extinction


By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor
Humans may have come close to extinction about 70,000 years ago, according to the latest genetic research.

The study suggests that at one point there may have been only 2,000 individuals alive as our species teetered on the brink.

This means that, for a while, humanity was in a perilous state, vulnerable to disease, environmental disasters and conflict. If any of these factors had turned against us, we would not be here.

The research also suggests that humans ( Homo sapiens sapiens ) made their first journey out of Africa as recently as 70,000 years ago.

Little diversity

Unlike our close genetic relatives - chimps - all humans have virtually identical DNA. In fact, one group of chimps can have more genetic diversity than all of the six billion humans alive today.

It is thought we spilt from a common ancestor with chimps 5-6 million years ago, more than enough time for substantial genetic differences to develop.

The absence of those differences suggests to some researchers that the human gene pool was reduced to a small size in the recent past, thereby wiping out genetic variation between current populations.

Evidence for that view is published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Oldest members

Because all humans have virtually identical DNA, geneticists look for subtle differences between populations.

One method involves looking at so-called microsatellites - short, repetitive segments of DNA that differ between populations.

These microsatellites have a high mutation, or error, rate as they are passed from generation to generation, making them a useful tool to study when two populations diverged.

Researchers from Stanford University, US, and the Russian Academy of Sciences compared 377 microsatellite markers in DNA collected from 52 regions around the world.

Analysis revealed a close genetic kinship between two hunter-gatherer populations in sub-Saharan Africa - the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo Basin and the Khosian bushmen of Botswana.

First migration

The researchers believe that they are "the oldest branch of modern humans studied here".

The data also reveals that the separation between the hunter-gatherer populations and farmers in Africa occurred between 70,000 and 140,000 years ago. Modern man's migration out of Africa would have occurred after this.

An earlier genetic study - involving the Y chromosomes of more than 1,000 men from 21 populations - concluded that the first human migration from Africa may have occurred about 66,000 years ago.

The small genetic diversity of modern humans indicates that at some stage during the last 100,000 years, the human population dwindled to a very low level.

It was out of this small population, with its consequent limited genetic diversity, that today's humans descended.

Small pool

Estimates of how small the human population became vary but 2,000 is the figure suggested in the latest research.

"This estimate does not preclude the presence of other populations of Homo sapiens sapiens (modern man) in Africa, although it suggests that they were probably isolated from each other genetically," they say.

The authors of the study believe that contemporary worldwide populations descended from one or very few of these populations.

If this is the case, humanity came very close to extinction.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2003/06/09 17:35:30 GMT


Tuesday, June 10, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

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In the News

Today's Headlines - June 10, 2003

from The Los Angeles Times

Nine new cases of suspected monkeypox were reported in the Midwest by state and federal health authorities Monday, bringing the total number of suspected victims to at least 37.

Only four of the cases have been confirmed by genetic tests to be monkeypox, but the disease is so distinct that it is likely most of the suspected victims actually have the virus, said Dr. Stephen M. Ostroff of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials are trying to track down people who may have purchased diseased pet prairie dogs, which are believed to be the source of the outbreak.

from Newsday

Federal officials are urging pet lovers not to panic and not to release their prairie dogs into the wild, where they could expose other mammals and set up an endless chain of infection. Other animals that may be susceptible include nonhuman primates, rabbits, and squirrels. Pet owners who visit a veterinarian should call ahead so the office staff can take steps to protect themselves and segregate ill pets.

"It's very important that we keep our guard up," said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, deputy director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases, which is tracing the sales of infected animals.

Although all of the people infected had handled affected animals, he said, "Whenever you hear about a new virus being introduced into an ecosystem where it was not present before, you have to be very concerned about the public health threat."

from The Boston Globe

It's the script for a ballet on a celestial scale: two million-ton space shuttles traveling 18,000 miles per hour around the earth have to dance within 50 feet of each other for more than two hours. And there are 11 lives at risk.

In this imagined rescue seven men and women aboard the space shuttle Columbia have been in space almost a month. The shuttle has been operating at one-third power for weeks. The astronauts are sleeping 12 hours a day to conserve energy. Carbon dioxide levels are critical.

Meanwhile, the four veteran astronauts aboard the second shuttle, Atlantis, are fresh, focused, determined. They are on the mission of their lives attempting to rescue the astronauts on the doomed Columbia.

That is what NASA officials now say they would have done if they had realized that the Columbia was in mortal danger as it orbited the earth in late January. Instead, the shuttle broke up during reentry on Feb. 1, killing everyone aboard, scattering debris across eastern Texas, and shaking public confidence in the safety of manned spaceflight at a time when the number of missions is increasing.

from The Hartford Courant

How does a molecule of myosin V move? Step by tiny step, scientists say.

Researchers say extremely sensitive imaging technology has helped them discover that myosin V - a sort of molecular motor transport involved in converting energy into mechanical action - acts by "walking" up strands of actin, a protein that forms filament-like structures in muscle and other types of cells.

The imaging technique allowed researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Pennsylvania to detect movement of just 1.5 nanometers of myosin V, which was marked with a fluorescent dye.

from The New York Times

In the early 1870's, Eadweard Muybridge produced the first stop-action images of trotting horses, proving that at one point in the gait of a fast trotting horse all four feet were off the ground.

Now, scientists who study biomechanics are using high speed digital video to track more fleeting movements like the stutter-step flight of butterflies and the frenetic skitter of cockroaches.

In one of the most recent experiments, Dr. Michael Dickinson at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena used high-speed digital videotape, computer analysis and a crow-size robo-fly immersed in mineral oil to show what happens when fruit flies make right-angle turns in midflight.

Television review from The Boston Globe

A court rules that a newborn child has no legal parent even though five people are involved in its birth. A scientist files a patent for an embryo that's half human and half chimpanzee. A company secretly performs genetic tests on its employees.

It's not science fiction. These disturbing stories, among others, are featured in "Bloodlines: Technology Hits Home," a documentary airing tonight on PBS, which examines the thorny legal, social, and ethical issues that arise as cutting-edge reproductive and genetic technologies enter everyday life.

The program offers no easy answers, simply because there are none. Most decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and unfortunately, as Dr. Leslee Subak says in the documentary, "a lot of the policy is being made in the offices of the fertility specialists."

Horse sense

Posted on Sun, Jun. 01, 2003

Pioneer Press

Mari Harris can't tell you a lot about horses.

But that isn't stopping her from leading a horse named Luca around a Stillwater barnyard with hopes the horse will tell her something about herself.

Harris' barnyard adventure moves along smoothly until the horse decides to take charge. He stops. He munches on grass. He doesn't seem to want to budge.

"I think he's walking me," Harris says.


"What do you want the horse to do?" asks Harris' life coach Lynn Baskfield. "You can decide what you want and don't want."

Equine-assisted coaching sessions of this sort reflect a trend in the self-growth arena. The trend is built on the burgeoning recognition of a horse's ability to reflect people's behaviors and emotions - some they're not aware of themselves.

With self-interpretation and a trained coach or counselor's guidance, the result can lend insights into what works for individuals and what doesn't - in business, relationships or anyplace they want to hit their stride. Equine therapy is being used in leadership trainings, psychotherapy, chemical-dependency treatment and other settings, some even designed for children. Some participants sign up in pairs - a mother and her adolescent son wanting to improve communication, for example. Others, such as workplace teams, work in groups.

"It's so much less difficult to accept feedback from a horse than a human," says Ann Romberg, Baskfield's coaching partner for Harris' equine-assisted session. "You know the horse doesn't have an agenda."


Not everyone instantly jumps on the idea of a horse leading humans to brilliance.

But many skeptics become believers as they observe horses' natural ability to mirror how people show up for a challenge. Sometimes, the lesson emerges as metaphor for a real-life situation.

Peter Vollmer admits to some skepticism at first. That was before he participated in a leadership-training seminar in the Twin Cities last month led by Ariana Strozzi, founder of California-based Leadership and Horses. Strozzi takes equine-assisted learning into corporate America.

Vollmer attached a lead rope and got his horse to walk nicely beside him at first. Then, the animal sped up and took over. "It was pulling me along and almost wiped out all the chairs and people sitting in them," he says. "It was running roughshod over people."

Strozzi asked him this question: Did the horse's antics represent Vollmer or his business?

"It got me thinking," he says. "What came to light was I let the business lead me."

The insight led him to commit to better balance between his work and family life. "That was what I needed to ground me," he says.

The next time he led the horse, it walked calmly alongside him. "The change was the oddest thing to see," says Vollmer, who runs a vehicle dent-repair business based in Savage.

He now subscribes to the equine-assisted phenomenon. "I think the FBI is using the wrong lie detector," he says.

Larry Freeborg's metaphor came in an earlier leadership training with Strozzi in California. As he was leading a horse, a coach asked how he was doing. Freeborg took the question as an indication he wasn't making the grade.

"I froze, and the horse froze," says Freeborg, of Hastings, a life and business coach. It was the first time he identified his tendency to clutch under pressure. The experience led to a solution to help him keep going in times of stress. "I have an exercise now," he says. "It helps let the energy flow."


Back at the Stillwater barnyard, Mari Harris is still trying to figure out what she can learn today. She came here because she wants insight into how she can attain her goal of becoming a world-class singer.

But Luca the horse is still stuck. What will Harris do now?

Her coach steps in to help.

"What are you feeling?" the coach asks.

"I want to do well with the horse," Harris says.

Seeming to get it, Luca nuzzles her neck and nibbles at her colorful beaded earrings. "That's a kiss," Baskfield explains.

It also means Luca has quit munching grass and is focusing his attention on Harris.

She thinks for a moment, then coaxes the horse. "C'mon, honey," she says, tugging on the lead rope and making a clicking noise with her mouth. "Cmon, you're walkin'," she persists. "I decided where I want to go. And I'm doin' it."

Luca starts to walk beside her. She picks up the pace, and he does, too. Then, Harris' rich alto voice bursts into song.

"We all are aflicker from the same flame," she sings, from a song her brother wrote. Next comes a song for the horse. "Camptown ladies sing their song. Doo-dah, doo-dah."

"Do you like horse songs?" she asks Luca.

Harris successfully leads Luca back to the barn, calling her session "a big accomplishment."

What did she learn? "I'm being intentional about being intentional," she says. "There's a clarity that comes with being intentional."

Next steps for the 49-year-old singer of jazz, pop, gospel and R&B are a move to Los Angeles and then a performance on Broadway, she says.

"When I get my Grammy," she adds, "I'll need to thank the horses, too."

Beyond the barn

These books, Web sites and other resources can provide information about equine-assisted learning:

"The Tao of Equus" by Linda Kohanov (New World Library, 2001); Kohanov's workshops posted at www.taoofequus.com.

"It's Not the Horse - It's About Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt" by Wyatt Webb and Cindy Pearlman (Hay House, 2003)

Wanted: Remote investigators into the Tunguska Event of 1908


WANTED: Remote investigators into the Tunguska Event of 1908 Most who sign onto this website are aware that the Tunguska explosion of June 30, 1908 was the most devastating know explosion of a cosmic object colliding with Earth in recorded history. Current thinking is that the object was either a comet or a stony asteroid. But investigators have yet to come up with convincing evidence for either possibility, and field investigations to the site continue each summer.

As the first American to be invited by the Russian Academy of Sciences to join a Russian expedition to the Tunguska site in Siberia's far north, I have been asked by Academician Nickolai Vasiliev, chief scientific investigator of the ongoing Tunguska expeditions, to post this notice in hopes of engaging you as a "remote investigator."

Apocalypse soon


Evangelicals in the US believe there is a biblical basis for opposing the Middle East road map

Giles Fraser
Monday June 9, 2003
The Guardian

Just as new life is being breathed into the peace process, religious groups throughout the US are whipping up hostility to the road map. The aim of the Christian-Jewish "interfaith Zionist leadership summit" held in Washington last month was "to oppose rewarding murderous Palestinian terrorism with statehood". Attending the conference were some of the most influential figures of the Christian right; behind them a whole infrastructure of churches, radio stations and bible college courses teaching "middle-east history".

Since the late 19th century, an increasing number of fundamentalists have come to believe that the second coming of Christ is bound up with the political geography of Israel. Forget about the pre-1967 boundaries; for them the boundaries that count are the ones shown on maps at the back of the Bible.

The acceptance of the state of Israel by the UN in 1949 brought much excitement to those who believed the second coming was being prepared for. A similar reaction greeted the Six Day war in 1967. The displacement of Palestinians mattered little compared with the fulfilment of biblical prophecy. Writing in Christianity Today immediately after the Six Day war, Billy Graham's father-in-law, Nelson Bell, claimed the fact that "for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in its accuracy and validity."

So as the international community withdrew its embassies after the war, and the UN passed resolution 242 condemning Israel's occupation of the West Bank, the International Christian Embassy was set up to show support for Israel. Since then the Christian right has staunchly opposed trading land for peace or any attempt to broker a settlement by power-sharing arrangements. The destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque continues to be sought after by both Christian and Jewish fundamentalists. US churches are encouraged to form links with Jewish settlers via email and to support them through fundraising.

Happy to have any friend it can get, the Israeli government has long since exploited its connections with far-right US Christian groups. While moderate Christians, such as the Palestinian Bishop of Jerusalem, cannot get to see Ariel Sharon despite repeated requests, the door is always open to southern Baptists and TV evangelists.

What is astonishing about this marriage of convenience is that their version of evangelical Christianity believes that biblical prophecy leads to Armageddon and finally to the conversion of the Jews to Christ. According to the most influential of the Christian Zionists, Hal Lindsey, the valley from Galilee to Eilat will flow with blood and "144,000 Jews would bow down before Jesus and be saved, but the rest of Jewry would perish in the mother of all holocausts". These lunatic ravings would matter little were they not so influential. Lindsey's book, The Late Great Planet Earth, has sold nearly 20m copies in English and another 30m-plus worldwide.

Against this crazy theological background, an ideological battle is now being waged. Despite the fact that apocalyptic prophecy as read by the Christian right ends with another holocaust, some Israeli politicians and journalists are encouraging fundamentalists to stick by the implications of their narrative. In a recent column in the Jerusalem Post, Michael Freund called upon evangelical Christians to lobby against the pressure being put on George Bush by Tony Blair and Colin Powell. "If Jesus were alive today," he wrote, "the US state department would likely criticise him for being a Jewish settler and an obstacle for peace."

There are 45 million evangelicals in the US and they represent a crucial block vote for born-again Bush. It is therefore to his credit that he has resisted their pressure and managed to persuade Sharon to accept the peace plan. Perhaps Bush is able to take the evangelical vote for granted in much the same way as Blair is able to take the left's vote for granted: both have nowhere else to go.

Yet Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal of Jerusalem doesn't trust Bush. He thinks the combination of European impotence and the US's refusal to pressure Israelis into stopping building settlements means the plan is already dead in the water. "It took them six days to occupy the Palestinian territories; they could get out in three," he says. Bishop Riah has persuaded the World Council of Churches to call for sanctions on all products from the occupied territories.

The diocese of Jerusalem runs hospitals in Gaza and Nablus. It's in places like these that the real work of Christian ministry is conducted. By contrast, US evangelicals oppose the peace process and swarm into Iraq to convert its people to Jesus.

The Rev Dr Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney and lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford

Monday, June 09, 2003

Science In the News

The following roundup of science stories appearing each day in the general media is compiled by the Media Resource Service, Sigma Xi's referral service for journalists in need of sources of scientific expertise.

For accurate instructions on how to subscribe or unsubscribe to the listserv, follow this link: http://www.mediaresource.org/instruct.htm

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In the News

Today's Headlines - June 9, 2003

from The Baltimore Sun

Dr. Robert Edelman has long had to field questions - from his own parents - about why he's not a "real" doctor, seeing patients, prescribing medicines and curing their ills.

His response: "I'm a real doc, except you don't see what I do every day."

Edelman's lifework is vaccine research - long one of medicine's most undervalued pursuits, even though vaccines have helped conquer some of the world's worst diseases.

But now, with bioterror a household word and infectious diseases such as SARS scaring millions around the globe, the discipline is getting more respect - from the scientific community, the federal government and even Edelman's parents, who keep seeing their son quoted on television.

from The Associated Press

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) -- NASA will try again on Monday to launch the first of two Mars rovers. Poor weather postponed by a day the launch of a rocket holding the first of a pair of golf-cart-sized rovers destined to examine the surface of Mars for evidence of water.

Storms and high wind Sunday forced NASA to reschedule the flight for Monday afternoon, although storms also were forecast over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The weather was expected to improve by Tuesday.

The second rover is scheduled for launch later this month, and both vehicles are to arrive at Mars in January.

from The San Francisco Chronicle

Some of the most provocative new findings about the origins and worldwide spread of the human species are coming from studies of the history books packed inside nearly every cell of our bodies.

Genes speak volumes about our beginnings in Africa an estimated 130,000 to 200,000 years ago, our divergence into distinct populations of hunter-gatherers and farmers, our migration into Europe and Asia, and finally our settling in the Americas, perhaps 30,000 years ago.

Such studies even offer an evolutionary reason for why some of us can't tolerate milk.

Commentary from The Dallas Morning News

NASHVILLE, Tenn. If you're really concerned about the condition of the cosmos, you wake up every day and wonder whether the universe is still expanding.

Or maybe you'd rather worry about what happens when galaxies collide, creating nurseries of numerous stars that grow fat fast and then die explosively and young. Or perhaps you're curious about flashes of high-energy radiation signaling the demise of a massive star in a galaxy far, far away.

Astronomers, of course, are interested in all these things, for they all involve stars. And in these cases, the stars of most interest are those that explode. Such exploding stars, or supernovae, were the hottest topics of conversation in Nashville last month at the national gathering of the American Astronomical Society.

Home page of Society for the Academic Study of Magic


Aims of the Society

Established at Bristol, England in 2002 by two postgraduates, Alison Butler and Dave Evans, the Society for the Academic Study of Magic (SASM) was created to further communication and exchange among scholars interested in the study of magic throughout the world and encompassing all eras.

Its range of concerns includes, but is by no means limited to, the history, sociology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology of magic, magical practices and theories of magic, as well as magical objects, artifacts and texts. We are avowedly cross-disciplinary and thus would be interested to hear from anyone in ANY academic discipline, and freelance researchers involved in studies of such subjects. In furtherance of its ends, the Society aims to:

* Provide a network for scholars interested in the study of magic
* Inform members of upcoming conferences and events concerning the study of magic
* Provide listings of recent publications and employment opportunities in the subject area, and
* Publish a printed Journal yearly, containing news, book reviews and articles of interest.

Village plagued by killer ghosts


June 4, 2003

A VILLAGE in Thailand's northeast has hired a ghostbuster to exorcise a gang of ghosts believed responsible for the deaths of more than 10 people in the past month, a report here said.

Residents of Kudkwang village in Khon Kaen province have spent 30,000 baht ($1,088) on hiring the ghostbuster to rid themselves of 15 ghosts, the Nation newspaper reported.

Village headman Bunchoo Khamthun told the English-language daily that over the past month alone more than 10 villagers had died, with autopsies revealing most had died following internal bleeding from unknown causes.

Three ritual ceremonies have already successfully exorcised nine of the ghosts, the report said, adding that the villagers believed one of the remaining ghosts has possessed a 48-year-old woman.

"I told my daughter not to be afraid of the ritual ceremony," the woman's mother was quoted as saying. "But if any other residents try to physically assault her, I'll immediately file a complaint with police.

"We live not so far from the city. People are educated, but still obsessed about black magic."


Sunday, June 08, 2003

Texas legislation update

From: Skip Evans evans@ncseweb.org

Dear NCSE members and supporters,

The Texas Legislature adjourned on June 2, 2003. Two proposed bills with potential relevance for evolution education, HB 1172 and HB 1447, died at adjournment. Both bills were related to textbook adoption procedures and the state Board of Education. Either could have made it easier for pressure groups opposing evolution to have more influence in Texas, one of the largest textbook markets in the country.

HB 1172 would have required that "each controversial issue addressed in the public school curriculum is presented in a balanced manner that reflects multiple viewpoints regarding the issue", a requirement that could have been used by creationists to introduce "alternatives to evolution." The bill would also have returned greater control over textbook content to the state Board of Education; until 1995, when the legislature limited its authority, the Board of Education was frequently a base for attacks on evolution education during the textbook adoption process. For the text, history, and status of HB 1172, go to http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlo/legislation/bill_status.htm, select 78th Regular Session, and search for "HB1172".

HB 1447 would have returned control of textbook content to the State Board of Education. Additionally, it would required that textbooks " be free from factual errors, including errors of commission or omission related to viewpoint discrimination or special interest advocacy on major issues, as determined by the State Board of Education" and empower the Board to "reject any textbook that contains factual or other errors"; the language about "viewpoint discrimination" and "factual or other errors" is reminiscent of anti-evolutionary rhetoric. Among the witnesses speaking in favor of the bill were representatives of the Texas Eagle Forum and the Texas Justice Foundation; speaking against it were representatives of the Texas State Teachers Association, the Texas Federation of Teachers, and the Texas Freedom Network. For the text, history, and status of HB 1447, go to http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlo/legislation/bill_status.htm, select 78th Regular Session, and search for "HB1447".

Skip Evans
Network Project Director
National Center for Science Education
420 40th St, Suite 2
Oakland, CA 94609
510-601-7203 Ext. 308
510-601-7204 (fax)

NCSE now has a one way broadcast news list. Please note that this is NOT a discussion list. You cannot post messages for members to receive. We use this list to broadcast news about the creationism/evolution issue to interested parties.

To sign up send:
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'Scientific' herbal nutrition takes a bath

From: Jim Kutz

Not long ago, and in a universe not that far away, sci-fi writer Alfred Bester wrote a stinging satire of "The Scientific People" [1], a generational ship of fools who imagined themselves scientific, because they could still pronounce a few words from an old ship's manifest. They'd sit around chanting "Quant Suff", meaning "Quantities Of", though they had no idea what the quantities were, or what they referred to.

Many of today's 'scientific nutrition' consumers are in much the same boat. They can't pronounce most of the ingredients, and the herbal quantities aren't listed.

General Nutrition Centers will soon be auctioned off by its parent corporation, Numico, according to reports by the New York Post and several financial channels. Numico did not confirm the story, and said they are "expecting informal bids" for GNC, the largest US food-supplement chain.

The FDA announced on March 3 that they'd be requiring warning labels that the supplements can cause heart attacks, seizures or death [2] , in order to "lay the legal groundwork needed for further regulatory restrictions." Last August, the Justice Dept. announced a criminal investigation into Metabolife International [3] -- the biggest seller of ephedra -- over alleged concealment of "adverse event reports". Metabolife products had been center stage in GNC ads.

Just three months later in November,, Numico "put GNC "on probation" following a strategic review, giving GNC 18 months to boost sales and profits and threatening to sell the unit if it failed, according to Reuters. [4]

Sports nutrition and weight loss nutrition are big sellers at General Nutrition Centers -- so I was surprised, a couple of months ago, to find two of the more knowledgeable sports nutrition jocks standing idle behind the counter, not a customer in the store during prime time. I was also surprised to find many of the diet products missing from the shelves,. including Twinlab's Diet Fuel and several of the muscle-builders' products.

"So", I asked, "Has Twinlab come out with an ephedra-free Diet Fuel yet?


"OK, do you have ANY diet nutrition products that don't have herbal speed in them ?"

"No." (in unison)

For the first time in my experience, both salesmen just stood there, empty-handed and pitch-less.

Note that while GNC began offering "ephedra free" diet products in February, their salesmen still had nothing free of herbal speed to offer a skeptic ( whom they know always checks ).

Most consumers don't know diddly about scientific nutrition -- it just has to SOUND scientific and make them feel more energetic -- which herbal speed does. Take that away, and they might as well auction off the company -- which is precisely what's happening. Numico, which makes many of the supplements GNC sells, is planning a strategic retreat into clinical food supplements (ibid.) now that US regulation is looming and huge damages in the offing for ephedra-related deaths. Matabolife, Twinlab and Rexall have already been sued. [5]

Ephedra as an ingredient also goes under the names Ma huang and epitonin. When asking a salesman whether there's herbal speed in a product, also be sure to ask about herbal steroids and "anabolic release agents".

Consumers who know anything about science ought to be suspicious when a product claims to provide "energy" without calories -- or weight loss without burning calories. Herbal steroids ("anabolic releasers" ) supposedly increase muscle mass and muscle metabolism to burn calories at rest. Now men too can have all the health risks of hormone manipulation, with none of the medical supervision.

[1] The Stars My Destination_ by Alfred Bester, 1956.

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2003/HEALTH/diet.fitness/02/28/ephedra.fda/index.html

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2002/HEALTH/diet.fitness/08/15/ephedra.investigatio/index.html

[4] http://reuters.com/financeNewsArticle.jhtml?type=hotStocksNews&storyID=2883215

[5] http://news.google.com/news?hl=en&edition=usa&q=%2BTwinlab+%2BMetabolife&btnG=Search+News

Where ghost 'forces' ghastly treatment


From Prasanta Paul
DH News Service BASHIRHAT(West Bengal) June 7

He is a normal individual though there is some kind of incongruity when he speaks mutteringly; at 25, Tarun Sardar has not betrayed any abnormality which could justify his present plight.

Chained in both hands and tied with the window grill for the last four months by his parents and shunted out in a corner of the little house, Tarun, by now, must have lost count of days, if not months, thanks to their obsession that he has been possessed by a pair of spirits - male and female combine - and the cure lies in exorcising the twin spirits, come what may.

At least, that's what the umpteen number of sorcerers who had meanwhile visited the Tarun's, has prescribed, with the last one doling out the theory of possession by twin spirits of both sexes! While it may be music to many, it has become absolutely miserable for the young lad who has to regularly go through the rigours of exorcism as per the directive of the enthusiastic sorcerer, alias Ojha.

Tucked away from the bustle of the busy city in Merudandi village under Bashirhat subdivision of North 24 Parganas district, about 90 kms north close to Indo-Bangladesh border, Tarun is being 'treated' with exotic medicine - excreta of pig and a mixture of incense powder and the deep scars scattered around his face are nothing but burns applied on him to scare away the spirits that have, so far, refused to leave him as has been alleged by the Ojha.

That Tarun still responds to queries, leave alone newsmen some of whom visited him recently, is a miracle as the place where he is being kept confined for all these days, emits an odour enough to turn a man sick immediately. For, he has to complete his nature's calls there itself.

What is ailing Tarun? "I don't know" he muttered failingly; eyes scanned the neighbourhood before falling down. In came Tarun's father to his rescue. "Four years ago, he had gone to Delhi to start a floriculture business alongwith a few friends, but returned after six months as he was not feeling well," says Ajit Sardar.

After Tarun failed to recover, his uncles took him to Krishnanagar in Nadia district where he was 'examined' by a local Gunin (sorcerer) who ruled that he had been 'possessed' and required exorcism.

"Since then, we have taken him to more than a dozen Gunins, but none could cure him even though we followed their advice religiously," rues Ajit Sardar. "Finally, four months back, I was introduced to a new Ojha, staying three villages away, who has diagnosed that the twin male-female spirits have possessed my son." Thereafter, the Sardar family has meticulously followed the Ojha's prescription without a break.

Poor Tarun, instead of recovering, has thinned further though his parents are far from worried over it and confident that he will be cured of all ills as the 'exotic medicine' will very soon start yielding result. For neighbours too, who are equally steeped in superstition, the youth's plight is no concern. Tarun would have met his end had not the local police intervened on Friday and freed him from the shackles and issued a stern warning to his parents.

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Investigative Files
Benny Hinn: Healer or Hypnotist?


Joe Nickel

Benny Hinn tours the world with his "Miracle Crusade," drawing thousands to each service, with many hoping for a healing of body, mind, or spirit. A significant number seem rewarded and are brought onstage to pour out tearful testimonials. Then, seemingly by the Holy Spirit, they are knocked down at a mere touch or gesture from the charismatic evangelist. Although I had seen clips of Hinn's services on television, I decided to attend and witness his performance live when his crusade came to Buffalo, New York, last June 28-29. Donning a suitable garb and sporting a cane (left over from a 1997 accident in Spain), I limped into my seat at the HSBC Arena, downtown.

Learning the Ropes

Benny Hinn was born in 1953, the son of an Armenian mother and Greek father. He grew up in Jaffa, Israel, "in a Greek Orthodox home" but was "taught by nuns at a Catholic school" (Hinn 1999, 8). Following the Six-Day War in 1967, he emigrated to Canada with his family. When he was nineteen he became a born-again Christian. Nearly two years later, in December 1973, he traveled by charter bus from Toronto to Pittsburgh to attend a "miracle service" by Pentecostal faith-healing evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman (1907-1976). At that service he had a profound religious experience, and that very night he was pulled from bed and "began to shake and vibrate all over" with the Holy Spirit (Hinn 1999, 8-14).

Before long Hinn began to conduct services sponsored by the Kathryn Kuhlman Foundation. Kuhlman died before Hinn could meet her personally but her influence on him was profound, as he acknowledged in a book, Kathryn Kuhlman: Her Spiritual Legacy and Its Impact on My Life (Hinn 1999). Eventually he began preaching elsewhere, including the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Orchard Park, New York (near Buffalo) and later at a church in Orlando, Florida. By 1990 he was receiving national prominence from his book Good Morning, Holy Spirit, and in 1999 he moved his ministry headquarters to Dallas.

Lacking any biblical or other theological training, Hinn was soon criticized by other Christian ministries. One, Personal Freedom Outreach, labeled his teachings a "theological quagmire emanating from biblical misinterpretation and extra-biblical 'revelation knowledge.'" He admitted to Christianity Today magazine that he had erred theologically and vowed to make changes (Frame 1991), but he has continued to remain controversial. Nevertheless, according to a minister friend, "Outside of the Billy Graham crusade, he probably draws the largest crowd of any evangelist in America today" (Condren 2001).

Hinn's mentor, Kathryn Kuhlman, who performed in flowing white garments trimmed with gold (Spraggett 1971, 16), was apparently the inspiration for Hinn's trademark white suits and gold jewelry. From her he obviously learned the clever "shotgun" technique of faith-healing (also practiced by Pat Robertson and others). This involves announcing to an audience that certain healings are taking place, without specifying just who is being favored (Randi 1987, 228-229).


Baker, Robert A. 1990. They Call It Hypnosis. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Benny Hinn: Pros & cons. 2002. Internet posting: www.rapidnet.com/~jbeard/bdm/exposes/hinn/general.htm.
Condren, Dave. 2001. Evangelist Benny Hinn packs arena. The Buffalo News, June 29.
Frame, Randy. 1991. Best-selling author admits mistakes, vows changes. Christianity Today, October 28, 44-45.
Hinn, Benny. 1990. Good Morning, Holy Spirit. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
---. 1999. Kathryn Kuhlman: Her Spiritual Legacy and Its Impact on My Life. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
Nickell, Joe. 1993. Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions & Healing Cures. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Nolen, William A. 1974. Healing: A Doctor in Search of a Miracle. New York: Random House.
Randi, James. 1987. The Faith Healers. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books 228-229.
Spraggett, Allen. 1971. Kathryn Kuhlman: The Woman Who Believed in Miracles. New York: Signet.
Thomas, Antony. 2001. A Question of Miracles. HBO special, April 15.
Underdown, James. 2001. Personal communication, October 23.

About the Author

Joe Nickell is CSICOP's Senior Research Fellow and author of numerous investigative

Science In the News

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Today's Headlines June 6, 2003

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from The Los Angeles Times

When astronomer Percival Lowell gazed through his mountainside telescope at Mars a century ago, he saw cities, patches of vegetation and an intricate network of canals features that seemed to indicate vast quantities of water.

Lowell, of course, was wrong. But the search for water continues today, driven by the belief that where there is water, there is the possibility of life. It is a quest that has thrilled and disappointed a vast constituency of sci-fi junkies, scientists and ordinary people who have gazed at the Red Planet.

"I would characterize Mars as being a bipolar place," said Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at the University of Arizona. "It creates great excitement and great depression."

from The New York Times

Scientists behind a proposal to turn a former gold mine in South Dakota into a vast underground laboratory said yesterday that they would abandon their proposal if the mine was allowed to flood.

That would effectively derail the project, which South Dakota leaders have hoped would spur an economic and scientific renaissance for the state. The 300 miles of tunnels at the Homestake Mine in Lead would be ideal for experiments studying geology, deep-earth microbes and subatomic particles known as neutrinos.

The owner of Homestake, the Barrick Gold Corporation of Toronto, says that next week it will turn off the pumps that remove 500 gallons a minute of water from the 8,000-foot-deep mine.

In a statement released yesterday, scientists led by Dr. Wick C. Haxton, a professor of physics at the University of Washington, said that allowing the mine to flood would delay the laboratory project by several years, potentially damage the structural integrity of the tunnels and contaminate any possible microbe studies.

from The New York Times

The nation's most powerful supercomputer for weather forecasting is scheduled to go online today, I.B.M. said yesterday, a machine that may eventually rival the Japanese Earth Simulator as the world's fastest supercomputer.

The new computer, with a theoretical peak computing power of 7.3 trillion operations a second, is expected to be enhanced over the next few years, and it may reach speeds up to 100 trillion operations a second by 2009, I.B.M. said.

It ranks third in the United States in speed, behind two Hewlett-Packard machines at Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico.

from The Christian Science Monitor

If your dogwoods and peony patches are looking a bit more robust than they did 20 years ago, you may have climate change to thank for much of their growth.

Using two decades' worth of data on climate and vegetation, a team of scientists has taken what may be the first planet-wide look at plant activity during a time when Earth's environment underwent significant change.

The researchers found that globally, shifts in rainfall patterns, cloud cover, and warming temperatures triggered a 6 percent increase in the amount of carbon stored in trees, grass, shrubs, and flowers.

from The Chicago Tribune

Soaring global rates of adult-onset diabetes will shorten the lives of hundreds of millions of people unless humanity starts to grapple with a deadly genetic legacy from its stone-age past, a prominent evolutionary biologist suggested Wednesday in the British journal Nature.

Looking at diabetes rates among nine different populations in 24 regions, along with their food history--including farming techniques, westernization and urbanization--Jared Diamond found that diabetes rates have risen in lockstep with living standards for the populations most prone to the disease.

"Diabetes is a disease of increasing affluence. People eat three meals a day and risk developing diabetic symptoms when they have more money," said Diamond, a professor of geography and environmental health sciences at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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New Bibliography Entry (Young: No Sense of Obligation)

From: Taner Edis edis@truman.edu


No Sense Of Obligation: Science and Religion in an Impersonal Universe
Matt Young
2001, 1stBooks Library; xvi+349p.
anti-science, creationism, psi, religion, religion:history, religion:philosophy, science:philosophy, skepticism

An engaging, well written book on science, religion, and pseudoscience. Young, a physicist, explains why he thinks the universe is an impersonal place, not presided over by any God or other spiritual force, and puts all of this in the context of skepticism and the paranormal. There are similar books out there, but _No Sense of Obligation_ distinguishes itself in two ways particularly. One is that it is amazingly easy to read, given the complexity of some of the topics he addresses. Young is totally lacking in academic pomposity, and knows how use personal anecdotes as well as scientific references to keep his narrative flowing. Second, Young is careful to explain how even without theological beliefs, he considers himself Jewish and strongly religious in a profound sense. Overall, this is a thought-provoking book which will appeal to every skeptic.

Please visit the rest of the bibliography at


Consider contributing an entry or two yourself...

Taner Edis, SKEPTIC Bibliographer

Test Applied to DNA Isn't Always A-OK


A UC Irvine expert is a formidable foe of any claim that the growing practice is foolproof.

By Mike Anton
Times Staff Writer

June 6, 2003

It's the stuff of TV dramas: A horrible crime is committed. Police scour the scene, collecting microscopic bits of genetic material from blood, strands of hair, droplets of saliva. A DNA profile is generated. It's compared with the suspect's profile. They match, and the suspect goes to prison.

Case closed. Go to commercial.

DNA evidence has been acclaimed as the magic bullet of crime fighters for nearly two decades. Along the way, William Thompson has become one of its principle skeptics, questioning its infallibility by studying the poor marksmanship that can result when forensic technicians pull the trigger.

"I wouldn't call myself a critic of DNA evidence," said Thompson, a UC Irvine professor of criminology, law and society who is one of the nation's leading experts in the field. "I think DNA evidence is great. I'm a critic of bad DNA evidence."

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