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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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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.

Skeptics in the Pub: Eric Schwartz

Posted on : 09-11-2012 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Eric Schwartz is a biologist from Tufts with an obsession for Monica and Bill. Since we are a very sciency group, he will be singing funny, not exactly G-rated songs about practical aspects of biology, including (maybe) Cialis, Prozac, the aforesaid Bill and Monica, the influence of 2000 year old dead guys on the male reproductive organ, and other songs his mother hates.

Eric will be our special guest at our next Skeptics in the Pub on Monday, November 19, 7 PM upstairs at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square.

RSVP on our Facebook event page (or here if you aren’t a Boston Skeptics member.)

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.