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New! Boston Skeptics Slack Chat Room We're taking Boston Skeptics to the next level by introducing a Slack chat room for Boston Skeptics to keep and touch, share ideas, and be skeptical in near-real time with each other! Don't have...

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New! Boston Skeptics Slack Chat Room We're taking Boston Skeptics to the next level by introducing a Slack chat room for Boston Skeptics to keep and touch, share ideas, and be skeptical in near-real time with each other! Don't have...

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Boston Skeptics in the Theater & Pub | Bill Nye: Science... Come join the Boston Skeptics at the Brattle Theatre on December 3, where we’ll be attending a screening of a new film about Bill Nye, aptly named “Bill Nye: Science Guy.” We’ll go somewhere nearby...

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October 2017 Organizational Meeting Updates Thanks again to everyone who attended our October 2017 organizational meeting. There were a few items we had drafted and captured more ideas around that we would love to open up for comment and feedback...

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Skeptics in the Pub with Dezrah the Strange

Posted on : 27-06-2012 | By : John | In : Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Traditionally, midsummer (which was almost a week ago now) is a time of magic. Of course, fall, winter and spring were also times of magic. But since none of it is real, we as skeptics can celebrate magic whenever we want. So July’s theme is Magic.

First up is our old friend and fellow Boston Skeptic (he joined the Facebook group last week, which is as official as it gets) Dezrah the Strange. Dezrah last astounded us in April 2011, when he walked on glass, slept on a bed of nails (while a block of concrete was broken on his chest by a large sledge hammer), told the mandatory “No, it’s not” joke, and took almost an hour to find the Queen of Hearts I had cleverly enlarged several times and hidden in an envelope high above the stage. (You can see how he did it here.

Dezrah demonstrating psychic surgery, perhaps

Dezrah demonstrating psychic surgery, perhaps

We will be meeting at our usual place, Tommy Doyle’s Pub in Harvard Square at 7:00 PM on Monday July 2, 2012. RSVP to receive any last minute updates.

Stay tuned for our next Magical Event…

Book Club: “The Man Who Knew Too Much” by David Leavitt

Posted on : 20-05-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club

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June 23 marks the 100th birthday of one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th century, a man who if not singlehandedly winning World War II, shortened it by at least a year and saved millions of lives, and was repaid by being persecuted, prosecuted and hounded to death. Alan Turing was the founder of computer science who formalized the fundamental concepts of computability, computational complexity, and the algorithm[1]. He was also a brilliant logician and cryptanalyst and invented the Turing Machine and the Turing Test.

Our next book will be The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer by David Leavitt. The Amazon reviews on this book are mixed, but I think we’ll enjoy it. Most of the negative reviews focus on it being too mathematical, but if I recall correctly, most of us found our previous math oriented book, The Calculus Diaries, lacking in actual math. (What can I say, we’re hardcore nerds.) We might end up agreeing with a couple of other negative reviewers who found it not rigorous enough or who focus on a small number of mistakes or misunderstandings, but most of the reviews found Leavitt’s explanations very cogent, and the book itself a good mix of the biography, history, math and the tragic consequences of the extreme homophobia that ruled much of the last century.

Update: If you are unfamiliar with Turing’s life or his work, Courtney has posted an excellent biographical essay on Queereka (which Will has cross-posted to Skepchick.)

The Pilot ACE was a prototype of the ACE, which was the actual computer designed by Turing, but I couldn't, in a lazy Google search, find any pictures of the ACE.

A Computer

We will be meeting at the usual time and place, Saturday June 16, 2012 at 3 PM in either the conference room in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard or outdoors under the Giant Green Pepper if the weather is nice.

Please sign up at our Facebook event page (unless you’d rather not, but it does give us some idea of how many people to expect.) It seems to be working again; I guess last month’s rant was effective.

[1] No, Al Gore never claimed to have invented the Algorithm, any more than he claimed to invent the Internet.

Movie Club: The Revisionaries

Posted on : 26-04-2012 | By : John | In : Event, local, movie

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In keeping with this month’s theme of religion in the classroom, The Revisionaries, a documentary about the Texas State Board of Education’s textbook selection process, is showing at the Somerville Theater as part of the Boston Independent Film Festival on Monday, April 30 at 6:45 PM.

For a sample of what to expect, see former Texas SBOE Chairman Don McLeroy on the Colbert Report a few days ago.

The Texas Monthly published a summary of the rave reviews for the film, which premiered last Saturday at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

We should try to meet up in front of the theater at about 6:30.

Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office. RSVP on Facebook.

P.S. If you still feel some of those pesky brain cells clogging up your cranium, there is still time to see American Juggalo tonight at the same theater.

Upcoming Events for April and May 2012

Posted on : 23-04-2012 | By : John | In : Event, local

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The Cambridge Science Festival is happening right now! Tomorrow (Tuesday April 24) The Story Collider, a sort of oral history meets particle physics project, will be doing a presentation at MIT. They sponsored a fantastic show at NECCS last Friday with 6 prominent skeptics telling brief personal stories of they journey to skepticism. Tuesday’s edition will feature 7 local scientists and science journalists. Free.

Don’t forget Mary Roach on Wednesday.

On Saturday May 5th, our own Todd W will be running for his life, pursued by ravenous Zombies, all to promote vaccine research. Help support this worthy cause.

Skeptics in The Pub with Katherine Stewart

Posted on : 13-04-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Meet this month’s Book Club (and inaugural Skepchick Book Club) author Katherine Stewart. She will be discussing her new book (and signing Kindles?), “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children” at our usual time and place (7 PM Monday evening at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square.) We’ll be a week late this time, on May 7, 2012, but it’s worth the wait!

At last month’s SitP, we had an author as our guest and we asked a lot of fantastic questions. Let’s do it even better this time! Check out her web site and read this sample (from a NY Times op-ed), or better yet read the whole book. It is interesting and important even if it is scary enough to be a Halloween selection.

See the previous post for more about the book.

RSVP on our Facebook event page.

Book Club: Next Book and Good News

Posted on : 10-04-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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    Update: Katherine Stewart will be joining us for our first ever author visit to a BSBC meeting. Don’t miss it!

    P.S. I got Mary Roach’s autograph (times 2) last night. She would have signed my Kindle as well, but we couldn’t find a Sharpie. Someone remember to bring a Sharpie to Book Club!

Our next book will be The Good News Club by Katherine Stewart. It is the story of how the Christian Right is attempting to use America’s public school system to proselytize our children and (as intended collateral damage) destroy the education system itself.

Always look on the bright side of life

Ironic results of religious extremism

Stewart was not much concerned when a “nondenominational Bible study program” showed up as an after-school activity at her daughter’s public elementary school, but as she learned more, she became deeply worried. She discovered it was “just one small part of a much larger story that should be of concern to anyone who cares about the future of public education – or indeed the future of secular democracy – in the United States.”

In a strategy very reminiscent of the Discovery Institute’s promotion of Intelligent Design as a wedge issue to subvert the teaching of evolution in the public schools and insert religious doctrine into our science classes, an organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship has been organizing “Good News Clubs” in elementary schools across the nation and around the world, to indoctrinate children (as young as possible; they start in kindergarten) in fundamentalist Christian ideology.

Thanks to a duplicitous Supreme Court decision (Good News Club v Milford Central School, 2001) based on the dubious proposition that 5-year-olds could clearly distinguish events and programs sponsored by their schools from those carried on in the schools (after hours, at the same time and often in the same rooms as legitimate after-school programs)and conducted often by teachers or teacher’s aides, sectarian religious groups must be granted the same access to public school property as any other outside community groups such as art and music programs, boy and girl scouts, community service organizations, and so forth.

While the adult club organizers aren’t allowed to proselytize on school grounds (except to children whose parents have given explicit written permission), nothing prevents the children from doing so, as they are encouraged to do by the clubs. The conflicts engendered between the children, the bullying and the shaming and the destruction of friendships, and subsequently the conflicts between their parents and within their community, can rapidly destroy the public spirit that supports the schools, causing people to cease to volunteer for school events, stop attending PTO meetings and stop supporting school fundraisers, and generally promote hatred and intolerance, as happened in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle in 2008. But this is all well and good to the religious right.

In 1979, Jerry Falwell made the agenda transparent: “I hope to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we don’t have public schools,” he said. “The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them.”

The first chapter of the book tells the story of the events in Seattle then and after. In the second chapter, Stewart attends a national convention of the CEF. Apart from drawing parallels to a multilevel marketing scheme, this chapter lacks the diverting whimsy of Jon Ronson’s attendance at Bohemian Grove and Bilderberg Group gatherings. It is all deeply disturbing. Their goal is to establish Good News clubs at all 65,000 public elementary schools in the US within the next 24 years. They are already in 3500 schools, about 6% penetration. They have a very detailed strategy for extending their reach. The casual bigotry, racism and homophobia exhibited at the convention is also horrifying.

I’ve only read the first two chapters so far, but skipped ahead to find out if there were any local connections to the book. I found two. The CEF’s target city in the fall of 2010 was Boston. Did anyone here notice? Did you have any run-ins with them? They do try to stay under the radar, at least until it’s too late. The second local connection is that Katherine Stewart attended the John D. Runkle School in Brookline, where our own Liz teaches!

We will be meeting at our usual place, the Harvard Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford St, Cambridge (unless the weather is nice, in which case we’ll be meeting under the Giant Green Pepper, just north of Harvard Yard, between Memorial Hall and the Science Center) from 3 to 5 PM on Saturday, May 19th.

Please sign up at our Facebook event page (unless you’d rather not, but it does give us some idea of how many people to expect.) If you sign up to the Boston Skeptics Facebook group and then register for the event, you will get notified of any changes of schedule and of future events (maybe, it seems to be acting strangely at the moment.) So far as I know, we’ve never denied anyone membership who requested it, but who knows, you might be the first! I also (sometimes) attempt to Tweet reminders shortly before the event, though I have been remiss at this recently.

UPDATE: don’t bother with Facebook. They’ve broken it in such a way as to make it completely useless for group events like the Book Club and Skeptics in the Pub meetings.

The Good News is that we’ve joined the 21st Century, when everything changes. The Boston Skeptics Book Club has formed the nucleus of the Skepchick Book Club. Read Mary’s post to see how it all will work. Basically, there will be an on-line gathering to discuss the same book the day after our meeting. Everyone (local or distant) is invited to attend and discuss! Virtual snacks and drinks provided.

Upcoming Events

Posted on : 26-03-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event, local

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Announcing two free local skeptical events!

Mary Roach will be receiving the “Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism” from the Harvard Secular Society and the American Humanist Association on Wednesday, April 25 at the Harvard Science Center.

Mary is the reigning record-holder as 3-time Boston Skeptics Book Club author (Spook, Packing for Mars and Stiff.) Maybe I can get her to autograph my Kindle?

Tickets (free) and details are available from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy.

On Saturday, May 12, the Cape Ann Skeptics will be sponsoring Skepticamp Cape Ann in Gloucester. This one day, free event will be from 9:30 until 4:00 in LaTrattoria, a downtown Gloucester restaurant. See their web site for full details.

A few of us ventured into the wilds of New Hampshire for the Granite State Skepticamp last October, and had a great time. Gloucester is closer and has many fewer bears, so I highly recommend it.

4th Annual Boston Skeptics Pi Day

Posted on : 06-03-2012 | By : John | In : Event, local

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Wednesday, March 14 is Pi Approximation Day.

Mathematics is a dirty business, but somebody has to do, preferably while covered with a sticky mass of Pie Filling! (The volume of a pie is 4⁄3×π×((Rt+Rb)⁄2)²×h, where Rt is the radius of the top of the pie, and Rb is the radius of the bottom of the pie and h is the thickness of the pie.)

Lots of pies, preparing for the onslaught

Armed and dangerous

Join us for our annual pie fight on Cambridge Common (one block north of Harvard Square) on Wednesday, March 14 at 7 PM. Bring a pie and scuzzy clothes.

A map, maybe.

The weather forecast is for clear with a high of 56, so be prepared for freezing drizzle or heat and humidity.


Update: Bad Geometry! I forgot to multiply by the depth of the pie. Also, the Greek letter lowercase pi looks really awful in the default font. Sort of like a poorly drawn lowercase “n”. I said math is a dirty business; there’s your proof.

Skeptics in the Pub with Maggie Koerth-Baker

Posted on : 01-03-2012 | By : John | In : Skeptics in the Pub

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Maggie Koerth-Baker recently wrote “The trouble with making these kind of decisions, though, is that there’s lots of room for reasonable people to disagree.” She sounds like a reasonable person, so let’s all gang up on her!

Her talk will tell the story of our electric infrastructure–where it came from, how it works today, and how it will have to change to meet the needs of a new generation.

Cover of Maggie Koerth-Baker's new book Ms Koerth-Baker has written a new book called “Before the Lights Go Out” about

“some of the big-picture nuance that gets left out of the day-to-day chatter about energy. What are the big trends that will shape what we can and can’t do over the next 40 years? How does our electricity infrastructure work, and why is that infrastructure a lot more interesting (and a lot more complicated) than most laypeople realize? There’s a lot of storytelling, and some fun and funny history of how our current infrastructure came to be. There’s critical analysis explaining both why we have to solve our energy problem, and why solving it is going to be harder than many climate hawks want to believe. In general, the book is meant to make a confusing subject accessible and offer a more nuanced perspective on a topic that tends to be very ideology driven.”

The book will be published April 10. (Update: Some advanced copies will be available.)

Several of the back-cover reviews are by people who should be very familiar to members of the Boston Skeptics Book Club. Mary Roach (Stiff, Spook and Packing for Mars) called it, “a fine, cracking read.” Carl Zimmer (Parasite Rex) says, “Maggie Koerth-Baker is one of the most innovative science writers at work today. Rather than settling for cheap flash, she burrows deep into many of the biggest mysteries in science and technology and comes out with wonderfully clear explanations”.

Many of the subjects that skeptics deal with, like ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot and ESP, are amusing examples of fallacious reasoning and illuminate interesting flaws in perception and the human brain, but, except in the cases of rare individuals, have no important effect on most people’s lives. But a few subjects, such as energy generation, storage and distribution, are areas where science and technology meet society in profound and important ways. I would class it with alternative medicine and religious fundamentalism and their interference with science (particularly in their denial of biology and evolution) and AGW denialism as important topics for applying critical thinking.

When discussing these topics, it is essential to start with a firm factual basis, which is what Ms Koerth-Baker’s book promises to provide.

Please come hear this important talk.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is both a freelancer and the science editor at BoingBoing.net, one of the most widely read blogs in the U.S. Her work has appeared in print publications like Discover, Popular Science, and New Scientist, and online at websites like Scientific American and National Geographic News.

We will be meeting a week later than usual, on April 2, at 7 PM at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square. RSVP on our Facebook event page.

Tiny chameleons from Madagascar
Meanwhile, if this subject is too depressing (it shouldn’t be, since we can and will eventually solve it, the only questions being at what cost and who pays), look at the lizards!

Skeptics in the Pub: Trivia

Posted on : 21-02-2012 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Skeptics in the Pub

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Everyone knows Skeptics are a bunch of overeducated know-it-alls. Here’s your chance to prove it with objective data. Join us for a fun evening of discussion, dinner, drinking and knowing more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing. All answers are final, and remember, this will count on your final grade.

The Seventh Doctor

Who is this person?

This month, we’ll be meeting in the luxurious main level at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square at 7:00 PM on Monday, Feb 27th. RSVP on our Facebook event page.