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Merry Newtonmass and Happy Winter Solstice

This December 25th marks the 361st birthday of our scientific savior, Sir Isaac Newton, and as is the tradition at birthdays, gifts are in order. Since the birthday boy is no longer with us, it is recommended that you exchange gifts with friends and family members.

And while you are in the festive mood, another cause for celebration is the winter solstice, the shortest day (longest night, depending on your diurnal/nocturnal preferences) of the year, which happens at 11pm Saturday night, PST (2am Sunday morning, EST; 0700 UT). Solstice (Latin for “sun stands still”), marks either of the two points on the ecliptic (the plane around the sun that the planets circle) that lie midway between the equinoxes (spring, about March 21, and autumnal, about September 21) and that mark the point when the sun appears at its highest and lowest points (about June 21 and December 21) in the Northern Hemisphere. (For several days before and after each solstice it looks like the sun is standing still in the sky—its noontime elevation does not appear to change—and thus the name.)

The winter solstice marks the point at which the days begin growing longer again and for millennia was marked as a point of celebration. When monotheism won out over polytheism in the 4th century C.E. (see Jonathan Kirsch’s forthcoming book, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism (Viking, 2004) on which he will be lecturing for the Skeptics Society at Caltech on April 18), the popular pagan holiday was adopted as a Christian celebration, the “son” of God instead of the “sun” of the Cosmos, as it were.

So here we are in the 21st century, living in the most religious and most scientific nation on earth and in history, so whatever your beliefs, it’s a splendid time for a party.

Wild About Mars

Saturday, January 3rd, 2004, 6:30 pm—11:00 pm
Sunday, January 4th, 2004, 3:00 pm—6:30 pm
Pasadena Convention Center, Pasadena, California

From our friends at the Planetary Society:

We’ve got another event coming up, “Wild About Mars,” at the Pasadena Center on January 3 and 4. You can check it out at http://www.planetary.org/wam

On January 3, 2004 (Pacific Standard Time) NASA’s Spirit will bounce to a landing on Mars – just a day after Stardust flies through comet Wild 2. The Planetary Society is offering you a chance to witness all of this and more LIVE on our Giant Screen.

Join Buzz Aldrin, Ray Bradbury, Bill Nye the Science Guy, scientists, engineers, and space enthusiasts from around the world in a celebration of space exploration and discovery—let’s go Wild About Mars!

So, we’d like to offer your members the opportunity to come at the same price we’re offering Planetary Society members, which is about a 20% discount. On the ticket form, there is a place for “coupon code.” There your members can type in “skeptic” to get the discount. And if they order before Dec. 22, there’s an extra advance purchase discount.

Charlene M. Anderson,
Associate Director
The Planetary Society
charlene.anderson@planetary.org
http://planetary.org
626-793-5100 (office)
626-793-5528 (fax)

Skeptic Trip to Peru And Bolivia

Our friend, colleague, and Skeptic Editorial Advisory Board member Dr. William McComas (mccomas@usc.edu), is planning another one of his adventure eco-evo natural history tours, this time in Peru and Boliva. Check it out at: http://www.mythsandmountains.com/UltimateAndes


In this week’s eSkeptic contains three short articles on: psychics, dolphins, and dogs.

  1. Leon Jaroff on Larry King and the paranormal
  2. Dan Henry (henry3@srv.net) on Swimming With Dolphins, and
  3. Michael Shermer on rescuing dogs.

The first article, “Leon Jaroff on Larry King and the Paranormal” was published in Time.com (Friday, Nov. 7th, 2003), the online edition of Time magazine, by Time columnist and investigative journalist Leon Jaroff, who has been a champion of skepticism and the skeptical movement for over three decades. Leon pulls no punches in this piece on Larry King’s pandering to the psychics.

Larry King and the Paranormal The CNN host covers a variety of important, news-y topics. So why is he wasting time with pseudo-science? By Leon Jaroff

Larry King and the Paranormal

by Leon Jaroff

“The CNN host covers a variety of important, news-y topics.
So why is he wasting time with pseudo-science?”
Cable News Network calls itself “The Most Trusted Name In News.”

One of CNN’s best rated shows, the award-winning “Larry King Live,” has contributed to that trust with candid interviews of such prominent guests as Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin, Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher, as well as by hosting the memorable 1993 debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot.

But host Larry King has undermined the impact of those interviews by also repeatedly inviting a motley collection of UFO enthusiasts, paranormalists, seers and mediums to his show. Writing in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer, columnist Chris Mooney pulls no punches. “CNN may be a respected news network,” he says, “but in its irresponsible presentation of paranormal topics and themes, “Larry King Live compromises that reputation.”

What apparently set Mooney off was a show this summer that King claimed would explore “the incredible events of fifty-six years ago at Roswell, New Mexico .” His guests included the same group of eccentrics, publicity seekers and losers who for decades have been living off the legend that an spacecraft crashed near Roswell, that bodies of little aliens were found and spirited away by sinister Federal agents and that the that Feds ever since have been guilty of a monumental cover-up.

The show also included video clips from a TV production entitled “The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence,” aired earlier on The Sci-Fi Channel, which is best known for programs containing little Sci and an abundance of Fi. Notably absent from “Larry King Live” were any officials or scientists who could have presented evidence that the wreckage at Roswell was that of a secret (at the time) Project Mogul balloon designed to gather evidence of Soviet nuclear tests. Indeed, none of King’s guests took issue with the “little aliens” theme.

King has devoted other uncritical programs to UFOs and little aliens. But his greatest transgressions have involved literally dozens of shows devoted entirely to “psychics” and spiritualists like Sylvia Browne, who claims the gifts of psychically locating the bodies of missing people, predicting the future, and seeing angel wings on some people. (She told King that he had four such wings). Another frequent guest is John Edward, who uses magicians’ “cold reading” and other trick techniques to buffalo audiences into believing that he is a gobetween for people wishing to contact deceased loved ones who have “crossed over.” Wendy Whitworth, senior executive producer of “Larry King Live,” downplays the appearance of off-the-wall guests. “Over the course of 2003,” she says, “fewer than two percent of our original shows have been devoted to the paranormal. That represents a very small slice of a very large and diverse programming palette.”

True, King occasionally, but rarely, includes skeptics to counter the claims of his wafty guests. (In fact, I was invited to appear on one show featuring the trio of Browne, Edward and another well-known psychic, James Van Praagh, and I characterized what they do as “baloney.”). But invariably, the featured guests, spinning their fantasies, are given more air time than afforded to the skeptics.

Does Larry King really believe the nonsense spewed by his far-out guests? When asked that question by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, King replied, “For the most part, I’m a skeptic, like you.” Then why does King seem so credulous and approving when his guests utter sheer nonsense?

I have a suggestion for CNN. Why not launch a show, along the lines of “Crossfire,” that would pit skeptics against paranormalists, giving each side equal time for rebuttals? The friction would be monumental, the rational case could be made, and the network could restore some of the credibility—and trust—lost by Larry King’s occasional forays into the supernatural.


Swimming with Dolphins:
A Skeptical Spiritual Experience

by Dan Henry

My wife and I visited Kaikoura, New Zealand last April, and took a “Dive with Dolphins” cruise. It was absolutely amazing—one of those vacation-making events that separate the outstanding and memorable trips from the merely good.

During the orientation, we were shown a video that covered several issues, including safety, biology, environmental concerns, and self-promotion. At one point, the narrator explained that many people find their dolphin encounter to be a profoundly spiritual experience. I remember snickering to myself at that.

We dressed in wetsuits, snorkels, and fins, and headed out on a small cruiser. There were about fifteen divers, and three crew members and it took about 30 minutes to get out to a fairly large pod of Dusky dolphins. The general procedure was to maneuver the boat out ahead of the pod, and drop us in front where we would fan out and encounter the pod as it passed by. Then we’d pile back into the boat and race around to the front of the pod again. This went on for five separate dives. I experienced dolphins on three of the first four dives (that is, I could see many of them as they shot past and around me). They were so beautiful and graceful, yet moving so fast that a camera would have been fairly useless.

It was on the fifth dive that I found a successful technique. Basically, I decided to mimic the dolphins as much as possible. The video had suggested that we not try to reach out to the dolphins, so I took that one step further and kept my arms glued to my sides, even when diving down from the surface. I dove as deeply as possible (not easy with a wetsuit and no weight belt), and spent as much time as possible underwater. And, most important, I used a dolphin kick, instead of a scissors kick. Using this technique, I was able to keep a small group of the dolphins interested in me. They stayed for what seemed like ten minutes, and I eventually found myself quite far away from the boat. Several of the dolphins seemed to find me interesting, and would swim directly in front of me, turned sideways so that they could get a good look at me. I’ve heard about dolphins occasionally rescuing stricken swimmers—I imagine they may have been sizing me up as perhaps an especially clumsy or injured Dusky.

This went on for quite a long time, when I noticed one individual dolphin who seemed especially curious about me, and I began to notice him swimming right in front of me each time I dove down from the surface. Among other unique markings, he had a distinct horseshoe-shaped bite mark on his back, just behind the dorsal fin, and a raised, white bumpy patch just behind his left eye. I began looking for him after each breath.

All too soon, the recall horn sounded, and I had to swim back and board the boat for the last time. I’m sure that the crew was laughing at me behind my back, but I was so energized and excited by my last dive that I babbled uncontrollably. The enthusiasm just spilled out of me. I told anyone who would listen about my discovery of the best diving technique and about my new dolphin buddy. It’s quite embarrassing now that I reflect on it.

We all stripped off our wetsuits, dried off, and had some cookies and warm drinks. During that time, the boat spent about half an hour following the pod, so we could get pictures of the dolphins as they played in the wake of the bow, and leapt and flipped above the surface. Then we turned back towards Kaikoura for the half-hour ride back to the dock. Almost everyone sat in the covered portion of the main deck, out of the wind, but I found myself on the upper deck, behind the pilot, and across from a guy that looked to be focusing his entire concentration on his effort not to throw up.

It was then that I experienced an incredible emotional response, unlike anything I’ve ever felt. Tears began streaming down, and it was all I could do to choke back some racking sobs. I was actually having that spiritual experience that I had snickered about during the orientation! It was not a feeling of sadness, but rather a positive reaction to the powerful connection that had been formed in a very short time. I actually felt a strong desire to let loose and blubber for all I was worth (and I might have done it, too, but I didn’t want to distract my green-tinged neighbor). I think that the delayed reaction was due to the combination of the subsidence of my initial, goofy enthusiasm and the fact that I was basically alone on the upper deck. I doubt it would have happened if I’d been sitting with my wife on the main deck.

I’ve related this story to several friends, as an example of an experience that might be interpreted two different ways. Were I a non-skeptical person, I might have come away from this experience with some evidence of a spiritual bond between all living creatures, or some proof of a universal consciousness, or some reason to quit my job and go live with dolphins.

As a skeptic, I accept that an unusual, ineffable, emotional reaction actually happened, and do my best to understand why it occurred under the circumstances. I have explained to my friends that as the human species has advanced according to the theory of evolution, the human consciousness has evolved the trait of empathy. This is a useful trait when dealing with others of our own species, and has aided in the survival of the human species. I argue that empathy with other species is also useful in an evolutionary sense. That’s not too much of a stretch, given the attachments that we develop towards our pets (and it’s far less of a stretch than arguing for a universal consciousness, for example). Of course, the trick, when talking to non-skeptics, is to explain that without taking away any of the magic.


The Dog Whisperer

by Michael Shermer

This story has absolutely nothing to do with science or skepticism, but it was a fun little adventure I thought I would share with you. Wednesday morning (12/17) I was sitting out on the back patio of my home reading the paper about 6:30 am. I kept hearing this howling, which I assumed was the coyotes out hunting for cats. (We live right on the edge of the San Gabriel mountains and the coyotes come down looking for furry snacks.) Around 7:00 am one of our neighbors phoned to say that during her early-morning walk she saw a dog stuck on the side of our cliff. (Our home sits on a hillside with radically steep slopes down each side.) I could not see anything from the top, and the cliffs below the slopes are 90 degrees straight down to the pavement below—as far as I could tell it was impossible for a dog to be “on the cliff.”

So I drove down and around and up a back street that parallels the cliff below and sure enough, there was this big chocolate brown lab sitting on a tiny little ledge on the cliff, about 75 feet straight up. The ledge was about two feet deep and about four feet wide. I couldn’t believe it! I didn’t even know that ledge was there, or why it is there, how it got to be there. In fact, I didn’t know about it because there was always a huge Sumac tree covering it, which the fire department made us cut down during the recent fires (along with everything else on our property, to the tune of several thousand dollars).

There was no way to get the dog down from the bottom, so I went back home, changed into my grubby hiking clothes and running shoes, and climbed down the hill and looked over the cliff and there he was, staring up at me, hair on end, growling. Yikes! Having had dogs all my life, and seen far too many episodes of The Crocodile Hunter, I just talked to him for awhile (“you’re all right, mate,” “you’re a beauty aren’t you,” and so forth). Then I tied a rope around what was left of the Sumac branch stubs and lowered myself down to the ledge, letting the dog smell my hands first, so he wouldn’t bite me. He was fine. In fact, when he realized I was there to rescue him (to the extent a dog can realize anything in any self-aware sense), he was licking me and being very cooperative. I then tied the rope around his collar, which I noticed had a tag on it. His name is Coco. So now I could call him by his name, which made him even friendlier (and slobbier). However, the problem is that Coco weighs about a hundred pounds and it is about ten feet up to the cliff top, too heavy and too far for me to lift him by myself.

By now a small crowd of neighbors had gathered on the street below, so I instructed them to call the police, who showed up about 20 minutes later. I told the cop how to get to my house, and then how to navigate down the hill (although it is treacherously steep, the dirt was soft from the recent rains so one can negotiate up and down okay). So the cop comes down the hill, I throw him the rope, and then I lifted Coco as high as I could while the cop pulled him as hard as he could, and presto! Coco made it to safety. And boy was he one happy dog, running around and jumping up and down. From what the neighbors said it appears he was there all night. (I have this vision that, like Sampson and the lion, now that I pulled the metaphorical thorn out of Coco ‘s foot I’ll be out mountain biking one day when a mountain lion will jump me, and just then Coco will come to my rescue.)

When we got back to the top of the cliff I called the owner (the phone number was also on the tag) who, unbelievably, was still asleep and didn’t even know his dog was missing! So he was like “what’s that now? my dog did what? uh?” I then gave Coco a big bucket of water, which he drank like there was no tomorrow, which there almost wasn’t. Had he fallen off the cliff at any point along a 200-foot stretch of cliff other than the point where the four foot ledge was, he would have cratered (as rock climbers call it) on the ground below. If I were superstitious I might call this a miracle. Instead, I just call it plain old good luck for Coco and a really fun adventure for me.

1 Comment »

One Comment

  1. Dianne Cadranel says:

    Hi Michael,

    I really enjoyed your rescue story and the your detail description which made me feel I was right next to you the whole time. Was good for a nice smile, thanks.

    Also, wanted to say hello again, I met you in Seattle in 2002 or maybe it was 2001, I sat next to you at the Foundation for the Future seminar the year Richard Dawkins won the Kistler prize.

    Glad to know all is still well with you.

    Dianne Cadranel

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