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SitP: Heina Dadabhoy from Islam to Atheism. [caption id="attachment_2139" align="alignright" width="239"] A ninja warrior welcomes guests to Convergence/Skepchickcon[/caption]Boston Skeptics welcomes our January guest speaker, atheist feminist secular...

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Book Club: The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha... [caption id="attachment_2131" align="alignright" width="197"] The Emperor of All Maladies[/caption]This month's book is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist...

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SitP: David Ropeik and the Risk Perception Gap Update! Thanks to Andrea and Francois, we now have a video of David Ropeik's talk available on our

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SitP: Larry Gilbertson on GMOs and Biotech [caption id="attachment_2117" align="alignright" width="300"] Feeding the world[/caption]The population of the earth will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Arable land is decreasing, dietary preferences...

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SitP: David Ropeik and the Risk Perception Gap

Posted on : 20-05-2015 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Update! Thanks to Andrea and Francois, we now have a video of David Ropeik’s talk available on our Vimeo channel.

This month's speaker, Davic Ropeik

David Ropeik will be speaking on the gap between risk and risk perception

Our guest this month is David Ropeik, a writer, teacher, investigative journalist and consultant. Formerly a reporter for WCVB-TV, Channel 5 in Boston, he has taught journalism and the psychology of risk perception, communication and management for many years.

Mr. Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard University, author, and consultant on the psychology of risk perception, risk communication, and risk management. He is author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match The Facts and co-author of RISK: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Safe and What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You.

He is a widely cited expert on risk perception in the general press and he blogs for BigThink.com, Psychology Today, Nature, Scientific American, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, and The Huffington Post.

Mr. Ropeik was a television reporter in Boston from 1978 – 2000, where he twice won the DuPont Columbia Award, often referred to as the Pulitzer Prize of broadcast journalism, along many other awards. He wrote a science column for The Boston Globe 1998-2000. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT 1994-95.

He is creator and director of the program “Improving Media Coverage of Risk”, a training program for journalists.

He has taught journalism at Boston University, Tufts University, MIT, and Northwestern University.

Risk perception is a topic close to many skeptics, as we see our friends, neighbors, families and, despite our best intentions, ourselves, make poor self-destructive choices about vaccinations, health care, the environment, diet, consumer purchases, politics and many other avenues of life. David Ropeik has written and talked extensively on how to communicate an accurate assessment of risk to people, helping them better understand why their instincts and fears and doubts might be doing them more harm than good.

THE RISK PERCEPTION GAP

Why we worry too much about some things, not enough about others, the danger that poses, and what we can do about it.

As scientifically as many risks have been studied, so have the cognitive processes of risk perception. Research has revealed that risk perception is a fascinating, complex, and ultimately subjective system influenced more by instinct and feeling than intellect and fact. As a result it produces perceptions that sometimes fly in the face of the evidence and lead to judgments and behaviors that may feel right, but actually create risks all by themselves.

This presentation will summarize how subjective risk perception works and why the Risk Perception Gap occurs, which is the first step toward minimizing the risks our risk MISperceptions can cause.

New Location: We will be meeting at 7PM on Monday, May 25, 2015 in the third floor of The Hong Kong Restaurant, 1238 Mass Ave in Harvard Square, Cambridge. RSVP on our Facebook event page. This is our first meeting at the Hong Kong, so it is important that people register in advance so the restaurant will know what to expect and will have adequate staffing. Also, it would be good to arrive a little early if you possibly can to allow time for ordering dinner and/or drinks before the talk begins.

Note: links to Amazon are for informational purposes only. Please feel free to patronize your local library or bricks-and-mortar book store!

SitP: Vitamin K Refusal with Clay Jones

Posted on : 26-02-2015 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Newborn receiving a vitamin K shot

Newborn receiving a vitamin K shot


The Boston Skeptics are lucky to have members like Clay Jones, pediatrician and Science Based Medicine blogger. Clay will be joining us on Monday, March 2 for our next Skeptics in the Pub, to discuss yet another case of people ignoring the best scientific evidence for a medical treatment, to the detriment of their children. Tragically, several children have recently died and many more have suffered serious brain injury from internal bleeding that can easily be prevented by a vitamin K injection shortly after birth.

As Clay ably explains in a post on SBM, most or all newborns suffer from vitamin K deficiency. This is due to a variety of causes, ranging from an immature digestive system that can’t readily absorb vitamin K, an immature liver that doesn’t process vitamin K efficiently, lack of gut bacteria that help digest foods and release the vitamin K in them, and the low levels of vitamin K in human breast milk. (Infant formula is fortified with vitamin K, so deficiency is less a problem but not eliminated in formula-fed babies.) The first three causes are significantly worse in premature babies.

Vitamin K is essential to several processes involved in forming blood clots, and people with vitamin K deficiency are much more likely to suffer from bruising and bleeding, both external and internal. Early vitamin K-deficient bleeding (VKDB) occurs in the first week after birth. It is fairly common, about 1.7% of all babies experience it (or would if vitamin K injections weren’t SOP since 1961), usually in the form of bleeding under the skin or (more scarily) under the membrane that covers bones. The latter can result in disturbing lumps on the skull and terrified parents, but usually resolves itself fairly quickly. Much more serious, but much rarer, is late VKDB, which occurs between 2 and 12 weeks. This can result in serious internal bleeding into the gut and the brain. Brain bleeds can cause serious brain injuries or even death. Babies not given vitamin K suffer late VKDB at the rate of about 4.4 to 7.2 per 100,000 children, 20% of them die and half the remainder suffer long term problems. Before vitamin K treatment became routine, VKDB was an important cause of infant mortality.

Fortunately, both forms of VKDB can be virtually completely eliminated by a simple, single intramuscular vitamin K injection

Vitamin K being administered to a newborn

Vitamin K being administered to a newborn

within a few hours of birth. Vitamin K is a fat-soluble vitamin, and is retained in the babies muscle and slowly released for several months, long enough for the baby’s digestive system and internal organs to mature sufficiently to process vitamin K from food on their own. Oral vitamin K also works, but not quite as well, and requires daily or weekly doses of liquid vitamin K over several weeks or months, and it is difficult for harried parents to stick to the schedule. Oral vitamin K is standard treatment in some countries, but many of them are switching to (or switching back to) injections.

Increasingly, and frighteningly, more parents are refusing consent for their babies to receive the injection. This seems to be correlated with the anti-vax movement, though their objections are much more tenuous. Similar to the bogus autism-vaccine link espoused by Andrew Wakefield and others, there was a tiny, poorly done study (since thoroughly refuted) that claimed to link vitamin K to childhood leukemia. The anti-K movement lacks the prominent purveyors of nonsense that keeps the anti-vax movement alive. (Even Dr. Joeseph Mercola doesn’t believe vitamin K shots cause leukemia, but he does prefer oral doses, of course.) Clay will tell us, we hope, about other motivations parents have for refusing the vitamin K jab.

The problem of vitamin K rejection is receiving increased media attention. Chris Mooney wrote about it last summer in his Mother Jones blog, and Mooney and Indre Viskontas interviewed Clay about it on the Inquiring Minds podcast. (Interview starts about 6 minutes in.)

We will be meeting at 7PM on Monday, March 2, 2015 in the back room at The Burren, 247 Elm St. in Davis Square, Somerville. Please RSVP* on our Facebook event page. If enough people say they will attend in advance, the Burren will provide us with our own wait staff and/or bartender, which will avoid a crush of people trying to get food or drinks. Also, it might be a good idea to arrive a little early if you possibly can.

Hopefully, we won’t have yet another blizzard!

[*] Yes, I know “Please RSVP” is redundant.

Getting Invited!

Posted on : 29-01-2015 | By : John | In : Blog Post

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Chuck

Our Friend Charles Beagleson with a Tortoise and Finches


Facebook no longer automatically invites all members of a group to group events, if the group has more than 250 members. The Boston Skeptics group currently has 557 members, so most of you aren’t getting notified of events unless you check the page (or here) frequently.

But Facebook members can invite their friends! Go to the event page, click on Invite, pick Choose Friends on the menu, and then an Invite window will pop up with a list of suggestions on the left side. Pick Boston Skeptics under MY GROUPS (you might have to scroll down) and a list of your friends who are members of the Boston Skeptics will appear in the middle column. Click on Select All at the top and all your Skeptical Friends will get selected (except those who have already been invited by someone else, so they won’t get spammed.) Of course, you can also invite people who aren’t members, since all (AFIAK) our events are public!

There’s more! We’ve invented a Facebook user, Charles Beagleson, who is a friend to everyone. (At least, to everyone who has accepted a friend request from him.) Charlie will probably be sending you a friend request soon, or you can send him one. Chuck will be sending invites to all his friends for all future events. (If you don’t want to be inundated by the average of 2 events per month, just don’t accept his friendship, or unfriend him if you’ve already accepted. He won’t be insulted. ;-(

SitP: Let’s Find a New Pub

Posted on : 09-08-2014 | By : John | In : Blog Post, local

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Since Tommy Doyle’s closed we’ve been meeting very sporadically (except the Book Club). We need a new regular meeting place. I’ve put up a post on Facebook* where people can make suggestions.

For people who don’t do Facebook, here’s a copy of the post. (You can email me suggestions or comments, or leave a comment here.)


Hey, everybody! Let’s crowd-source a new meeting place.

Since Tommy Doyle’s closed, we haven’t had a good meeting place. We had a couple of get-togethers at Meadhall in Kendall Sq, but it isn’t really set up for speakers, music or movies. Good beer, okay food, comfy chairs, but still lacking

I think what we need is a place with:

  • room for about 60-80 people (with standing room for 20-30 more)
  • near a T station
  • accessible (I think this was a problem at Tommy Doyle’s)
  • a stage or other easily visible area for speakers and musicians
  • comfortable environment
  • good but not fancy food
  • decent bar
  • inexpensive enough that we don’t frighten away students and people on a limited income.
  • friendly and accepting staff
  • management that is amenable to reserving us a space on the expectation that there would be good business on an otherwise quiet evening
  • ability to record the talks (audio and video) if our guest wants us to (I think we can supply our own recording equipment and cameras if needed.)

Any other requirements I missed? Did I get the size right?

Does anyone know the perfect place or have any suggestions?

Should we form an exploratory committee to perform a skeptical investigation (i.e. a pub crawl?)


[*] I think that’s a link to the group rather than the specific post, but it should be easy to find since we don’t get a lot of posts…

Book Club: “Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why” by Scott Weems

Posted on : 23-04-2014 | By : John | In : audio, Blog Post

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Isaac Asimov famously wrote:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”

Ha! isn’t really about that, though. Scott Weems has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from U.C.L.A. In keeping with our tradition of books featuring horrible things happening to small children, he once made a little girl cry by telling her that some people go to school until the 26th grade. In this book, he shows us what our brains look like and what our brains look like on jokes.

Actually, the first chapter starts out describing the death of the joke. It passed away during a bitter New York blizzard in the winter of 1961, when Lenny Bruce in a seminal performance perfected a stand-up comedy routine containing no jokes at all, just pure comic genius.

The chapter continues, touching on why some jokes are not funny to some people while being particularly hilarious to others. It’s not that some people have no sense of humor. Rather, a good joke has an edginess: the closer it brings the listener to discomfort, the funnier, unless it goes over the edge, when it fails catastrophically. Since everyone’s edge of discomfort is in a different place, good jokes to some people will always be horribly unfunny* to others. For example, shortly after 9/11, Gilbert Gottfried told a hijacking joke at a comedy roast in New York. It was disastrous. However, as a pro, he recovered by pushing the audience’s boundary in an entirely different direction, telling what is generally regarded as the filthiest joke ever thought up. (Weems doesn’t tell us the joke, just the punchline which is “We are the Aristocrats.” Apparently, you can find the joke online, but given the setup, I don’t really want to…)

The chapter also provides a brief introduction to the brain structures and biochemistry involved in recognizing and responding to humor (dopamine release is key), humor in animals (rats giggle at 50KHz and their brains release dopamine when their bellies are tickled, but not when they are held nor when their backs are stroked), and the funniest joke in the world, courtesy of old friend of the Book Club Richard Wiseman. (He does tell this joke, but we were spoiled last month by someone** telling it.)

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book.

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, May 3 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary, set to stun, phaser blast.

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (May 4) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live too far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)

[*] Personal opinion, I don’t know if Weems discusses this subject later in the book. This has nothing to do with a joke not being funny because it attacks a less powerful or privileged person (punches down.) Actually, those jokes can (sometimes) be funny, but they are also cruel and malignant, and only a cruel and malignant person would revel in them.

[**] I think it was Mary but it might have been Kevin? Short-term memory is the 2nd thing to go. I don’t remember what was the first thing to go.

SitP: Pub Hangout

Posted on : 06-07-2013 | By : John | In : Blog Post, local, Skeptics in the Pub

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This month we don’t have a formal program or speaker, so we can get down to the serious business of being skeptical about drinking. Is beer a drink or a food? If (for fans of Mary Roach), you run your shepherd’s pie through a blender, fletcherizing it, does it become a drink? Should you chew Guinness?

Answers to all these questions, or anything else you care to discuss, can be had at the July Boston Skeptics in the Pub, Monday, July 15 at 7:00 PM in Tommy Doyle’s Pub, 65 Winthrop St (Harvard Square) in Cambridge. You can RSVP or comment on Facebook if you wish.

Book Club: “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson

Posted on : 26-05-2013 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Book Club, local

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Our next book is the story of a horrible Cholera outbreak in London, England in the late summer of 1854, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson. It tells the story of a deadly outbreak of cholera in the late summer of 1854, and how careful gathering of information and analysis of the data led to an understanding of its mode of transmission and effective public health measures to prevent it. The result was the creation of the science of epidemiology.

The book focuses on two men. Dr. John Snow, who help found the Epidemiological Society of London 4 years previously, and was a pioneer in anesthesiology. Snow lived about 5 blocks from the epicenter of the epidemic. Rev. Henry Whitehead was the 28 year old assistant curate of the local C of E church. They both spent every available minute, independently, visiting the victims and gathering information about their circumstances, until the epidemic had run its course. Later, they were both appointed by the local health board to a committee to investigate the epidemic. Initially, they supported rival theories of the spread of cholera, but Whitehead was a nascent skeptic and eventually came to support Snow’s evidence and reasoning, which fit perfectly with his own disproving of the conventional theories of the day, principally the miasma theory of disease.

Both Snow and Whitehead showed great courage and concern for the victims during the outbreak, although we now know they were actually in little real danger. Whitehead did drink some of the water, which many people thought was actually a cure for cholera, and drank in large quantities. Most likely by that time, the cholera in the well had all died since the well contained little of the plankton cholera normally thrives on in the wild, but no one knew that at the time. (The germ theory of disease lay about a decade in the future.)

Snow had been gathering evidence to support his hypothesis that cholera was waterborne to explain earlier outbreaks when the 1854 Soho epidemic occurred. Snow’s map of the location of victims and his investigations, especially of the outlying cases, convinced him his theory was correct. The local council wasn’t convinced, rightly pointing out that it didn’t account for people who drank the suspect water but didn’t get sick. However, in a spirit of caution, they had the handle removed from the pump of the suspect Broad Street well, which while probably too late to stop the current outbreak, did prevent a second outbreak when the father of the first victim, patient zero, became one of the last people to die and almost certainly recontaminated the well. (The cesspool in the cellar of his house was only a few feet from the well.)

Whitehead had been gathering evidence to disprove all the various versions of the conventional miasma theory, and rightly pointed out some logical gaps in Snow’s theory. Together, Snow and Whitehead gathered the needed data and, much to Whitehead’s surprise, made further maps that showed beyond any doubt that cholera was waterborne and the Broad Street well was the culprit. For example, they measured the actual walking distance between the homes or workplaces of the victims and all the nearby public wells, and showed that in almost every case, the Broad Street well was the closest. They also showed the distribution of the cases did not support other hypotheses, such as that the air near the ground or the social class of the victims or the newly built sewer system or the recently disturbed pit containing the remains of many of the 100,000 victims of the London Plague of 1665.

The Kindle version of the book only contains one of the maps, in a very small, almost unreadable format. I don’t know if the print version is better. Anyway, a much bigger version of his original map is here.

Steven Johnson has written 8 books on the history of science, technology and innovation.

We will be meeting at our usual time and location, at 3:00 PM in Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, on Saturday, June 22. Remember to bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack, preferably one made with boiled water. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

As always, Mary will be leading the discussion of the book the next day (June 23) at tbe Skepchick Book Club.

SitP: Julia Wilson

Posted on : 09-02-2013 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Skeptics in the Pub

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In April of 1775, William Dawes rode through Harvard Square on his way to warn John Hancock, Samuel Adams and the Concord Militia that the Redcoats were coming. They’re BACK!!

On Saturday afternoon, Feb 16, 2013, we will be holding a special Skeptics in the Pub with Julia Wilson of the UK science education organization Sense About Science. She is here in Cambridge to help organize a new campaign, Ask For Evidence USA. The goals of the campaign, along the lines of a similar campaign in the UK, are to encourage people* to ask for the evidence behind scientific claims made by scientists, politicians, public officials, the press and random people on the Internet, to teach the basics, such as critical thinking and how the peer review process works, so that they (i.e. we) can ask intelligent questions, and to teach scientists how to communicate with non-specialists and the general public. One of her first events is a Boot Camp** for PhD students, post-docs, and other young scientists, to be held this week at MIT, to teach communications skills. She may well inspire the next Carl Sagan or Eugenie Scott.

This promises to be an important and fascinating talk.

We will be meeting at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, our usual spot, at 2PM on Saturday, Feb 16, 2013. You can RSVP on our Facebook event page if you want, so we can get an idea of how many people will be attending.

[*] Including the general public as well as scientists, politicians, public officials, the press and random people on the Internet.

[**] Sorry, it’s too late to register for the Boot Camp. :-(

SitP: Seth Mnookin

Posted on : 01-12-2012 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Our speaker at the December Skeptics in the Pub is science writer Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus:A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear as well as books about the Red Sox and journalistic ethics. He teaches science writing right down the river at MIT. Seth has been embedded in the front lines of the Vaxx Wars, and will share his experiences with us on Monday, Dec 10 at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, upstairs at 7 PM as usual.

If, like me, you believe one of the most important things skeptics can do is combat pseudoscience in medicine, don’t miss this event. In The Panic Virus (see a review by our own Todd W.), Mnookin has thoroughly researched the modern vaccine/autism controversy and its history from Wakefield’s 1998 paper through his eventual disgrace and loss of his medical license. He has looked at the issue from all sides and reaches the conclusion that, like many manufactured scientific controversies, there aren’t two equally valid sides to every issue, as conventional journalist wisdom would hold, but one side with evidence, logic and science and another side with a mix of economic interests (the cynical purveyors of alternative, untested or disproven medical theories and practices) and wishful or magical thinking (the desperate people who turn to them for help and the enablers who truly believe they are fighting for the little guys against powerful vested interests.)

In the end, the problems tackled by the book, like so much skeptical literature, also leads to a deeper understanding of why people believe false and ultimate harmful ideas:

In The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? The fascinating answer helps explain everything from the persistence of conspiracy theories about 9/11 to the appeal of talk-show hosts who demand that President Obama “prove” he was born in America.

This promises to be a fascinating and important discussion.

See our Facebook event page for more information.

Book Club: “Bonk” by Mary Roach

Posted on : 19-11-2012 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Book Club

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Book coverWhen my nephew was 5, his favorite board game was Trouble. (If you aren’t familiar with the game, each player has several peg-like markers that they move around the holes on the edge of the board. The winner is the first player to move all their markers completely around the board. If a player’s marker lands on a hole occupied by another player’s marker, the second marker is sent back to the start. In my family, traditionally when this happens, the player says “Bonky Bonk Bonk” and chortles maniacally.) My nephew loved getting bonked, and always played to lose. In contrast, his sister, then six, was ferociously competitive and always won, mostly due to the obscure rules she would make up on the spur of the moment that would guarantee her victory.

Mary Roach has written a book on Trouble, getting into it, staying out of it, game strategies, the history of the game, famous matches and so forth. At least, that’s what I assume is the topic of her book, Bonk, which is our next Book Club selection.

Oh, wait, never mind…

The actual subject of Bonk is “The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.” So, I was almost right.

In this book, Roach tackles yet another staid and boring scientific subject with “her outrageous curiosity and infectious wit” (according to the back cover.) I’m sure it will live up her three previous books we’ve read, Spook, Stiff and Packing For Mars.

We will be meeting at our usual location in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard at 3 PM on Saturday, December 8. RSVP on Facebook, if that’s your thing.