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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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Book Club: “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker

Posted on : 10-11-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Update: We’ve decided to postpone due to very dicey weather. New date is Saturday, January 11, same time and place.

Steven Pinker caricature

Our Author

Our next book is Steven Pinker’s recent The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. It is a fairly long, immensely detailed look at violence in human history. It is longer than our usual book but fortunately (at least for me!) we have extra time to read it due to the holidays.

Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard, a skeptic, and a Humanist. Anyone who attended the presentation of the Harvard Humanist Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award to Book Club Favorite Author Mary Roach will remember him as the host of that event.

This book seems an excellent subject for skeptical analysis. Are the trends toward declining violence real, or is there some subtle or not so subtle selection effect? Many people have noted the horrific violence of the 20th century with two world wars, innumerable smaller conflicts, the invention of genocide and weapons of mass destruction. Is violence really declining despite these events? Is World War II just an outlier, like 1998 in climate change?

Are motivated reasoning and confirmation bias involved? Do humanists simply want to believe in our own better (human) angels and that the long-term consequences of the Enlightenment, democracy, modern medicine, the industrial and green revolutions, widely available public secular education, the removal of barriers to the advancement of poor people, oppressed minorities, and especially women, and other historical trends are a metaphorical rising tide that raises all boats? Are these the factors to which Pinker attributes the decline of violence, or are other things involved?

Are the trends Pinker describes confined to Western or the more developed countries or do they occur world-wide?

I spent most of my life, like everyone over the age of thirty or so, living under the nuclear sword of Damocles of the Cold War. It seems we were all one Big Red Button away from the utter demolition of Pinker’s conclusion. Was it really not as unlikely as it seems that we would survive?

I’m really looking forward to reading this book and seeing which of these questions he answers, and discussing it all with you.

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, December 14 January 11 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, non-violent, phaser blast.

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (December 15 January 12) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live to far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)

P.S. Our next book will be astronaut Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.

Book Club: “Sybil Exposed” by Debbie Nathan

Posted on : 10-10-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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Our October book is “Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case” by Debbie Nathan

Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber was a huge best seller in the 1970s which brought public attention to an extraordinary case of Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) or colloquially as “split personalities”.) It was made into a very popular, Emmy award winning, made-for-TV movie starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward. It told the story of Sybil (real name Shirley Ardell Mason), a young woman suffering from blackouts. She went to a therapist who discovered had multiple personalities (as many as 16) and was repressing memories of horrific abuse as a child.

Someone once said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”.* Debbie Nathan has examined these claims and found them profoundly lacking. In fact, it appears that Mason, Schreiber and the psychiatrist, Dr Cornelia Wilbur may have invented the whole thing. Quite possibly, it was a case of mutually reinforced self-deception on the part of Mason (Sybil) and Dr. Wilbur, but many of the incidents in the book appear to have been fabricated by Dr. Wilbur and Schreiber. (Having not read the details yet, I suspect this could be a case of pious fraud.)

Read the book, get the full story and join us to discuss it on Saturday, October 26 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Remember to bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

As always, Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (October 27) at the Skepchick Book Club.

[*] Actually, lots of someones, including (most famously) Carl Sagan, who stole it from Marcello Truzzi, Théodore Flournoy, Pierre-Simon LaPlace, David Hume, and probably many others.

Book Club: “The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan

Posted on : 05-09-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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Our book for September is “The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II” by Denise Kiernan.

This book is recently published and received mostly 5 star reviews on Amazon. A few of the 4-star reviews that I skimmed complained that it was too technical, but I think for most of us, that would be a plus!

I expect the subjects of this book will be similar in many ways to the “computers” of the Harvard Observatory in The Madame Curie Complex and other books we’ve read, people who are long overdue recognition for their achievements.

Mostly off-topic, but one of my favorite current TV series is The Bletchley Circle, which I think is about to begin its second season on PBS (Channel 44, WGBH in Boston.) It is the (fictional) story of 4 women who worked at Bletchley Park under Alan Turing, doing sophisticated analysis of German military codes, predicting troop movements and deriving other important intelligence. (Even after you’ve cracked the enemy’s codes, understanding the messages is far from trivial given their lack of context.) After the war, the women go their separate ways, until one of them, now a bored housewife with a fantastic ability at puzzle-solving (my hero), starts tracking a serial killer. She joins up with her friends, who all have important complementary skills, to discover his pattern, a killing the police missed, predict the location of his next victim and that he has actually killed over a dozen times (and framed other people, some of whom were executed), not just the 4 victims the police are aware of.

I don’t know if this book will discuss amazing but unheralded achievements by these women after the war, or if most of them are just ordinary people who go back to ordinary lives, but I’m sure I’ll enjoy the recreation of a time not so long ago when things were very different yet surprisingly similar to today.

We’ll be meeting at our usual time and place, at 3:00 PM in Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge, on Saturday, September 28. Remember to bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack (I’m considering a Steak Bomb from the pizza shop on the corner.) Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

As always, Mary will be leading the discussion of the book the next day (September 29) at the Skepchick Book Club.

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.

Book Club: “Gulp” by Mary Roach

Posted on : 29-04-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club

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The cover of the book

Our port of departure

This month’s book is the latest by Book Club’s favorite author Mary Roach, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.

So far, I’m about half way through the journey and it is every bit as disgusting (and informative) as I’ve expected. And, except for a brief side-trip into the realm of prison contraband smuggling, we haven’t even gotten to the worst bits yet.

Charlie and Rosie had their leach-infested river. I hope we get to intestinal parasites soon.

I don’t even want to think about what people will regard as appropriate snacks for the meeting. (Well, yes, I do.) If you are curious, come and find out. You don’t have to bring a snack (though more are always welcome), just your appetite (or what’s left of it.)

Notice that I didn’t make any fart jokes; Mary would be proud disappointed.

We will be meeting at the usual time and place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building at 3:00 PM on Saturday, May 18. You can RSVP on our Facebook event page if you wish.

As always, Mary will be leading the discussion of the book the next day (May 19) on Skepchick.

Book Club: “Going Clear” by Lawrence Wright

Posted on : 05-03-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Everyone knows a little about Scientology, and has heard the horror stories: snakes* in mailboxes and people locked in rooms to starve, and we all know a smattering of their strange sci-fi and conspiracy-laden belief system, but how much of what we “know” is accurate? Especially since they keep many of their beliefs secret even from their adherents, what’s the straight dope? Is it even a religion (an attempt to make sense of an indifferent or hostile universe based on magical thinking), or is it just a scam?

Lawrence Wright has written Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief which promises to uncover the inner workings of Scientology. Wright is a Pulitzer winning writer for the New Yorker, who wrote the definitive history of Al Qaeda and the events leading up to 9/11.

I’ve read about 1 1/2 chapters of Going Clear so far. It is long, but engaging and well-written. The first chapter is the story of a typical recruit, Paul Haggis (later an Oscar-winning screen writer) who eventually became Scientology’s most famous recent apostate. (But I haven’t got to that part yet.) The second chapter tells the story of the hack writer L. Ron Hubbard, who failed up to become Scientology’s founder and principle prophet. Maybe if he knew about hypnagogic dreams and oxygen deprivation, it all never would have happened.

We will be meeting at our usual time and place, on Saturday March 30th at 3:00 PM at Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Ave, Cambridge. Be sure to bring a snack!

If you RSVP on Facebook, we can notify you of any late changes.

If you can’t make it to the meeting, or even if you can, Mary will be discussing the book the next day in the Skepchick Book Club, as always.

[*] That was Synanon, a different cult, but lots of people seem to make that mistake.

Book Club: “Because I Said So” by Ken Jennings

Posted on : 09-02-2013 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

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Our next book is Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids, by former all time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings.

It is a skeptical examination of all the things our parents told us. Hundreds of tiny chapters examine such things as swimming 59 minutes after a meal (a complete myth) and running with scissors (generally a bad idea) and a lollipop in your mouth (injuries are extremely rare. Running with a pair of scissors in your mouth, straight into crocodile-infested waters, right after a heavy meal, well you work it out! The book seems to be fun, well written, well researched, and quite a quick read (I read about a third of it at one sitting.)

We will be meeting at our usual location in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard at 3 PM on Saturday, February 23. RSVP on Facebook, if that’s your thing.

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.

Book Club: “Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow

Posted on : 12-10-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our next book is Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow.

Mlodinow is a physicist and coauthor with Steven Hawking of The Grand Design and A Briefer History of Time.

This book is not Physics nor (snacks) is it Sci-Fi. Rather, it is “a startling and eye-opening examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world” (to quote the Amazon publisher’s blurb.) In a guest review on Amazon, Prof. V.S Ramachandran says:

“This delightfully accessible yet intellectually rigorous book transcends traditional (snacks) boundaries between neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, to tackle the riddle of the unconscious mind.”

This aligns closely with what one of our members said at the SitP yesterday. He described it as more rigorous (snacks) and data-driven than Carol Tavris’s Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, which covers similar topics. He said Subliminal is more readable despite being less anecdotal. I think we will all enjoy this one.

We’ll be meeting at our usual location at 3PM on Saturday, Nov 3. You can RSVP at our event page on Facebook, if it is working this month.

As usual, Mary will be hosting a discussion of Subliminal on Skepchick the day after our meeting.

[Subliminal hints about snacks courtesy of me. Remember to bring a snack or at least your appetite!]

Book Club: “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov

Posted on : 07-09-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our next book is Isaac Asimov’s SF classic I, Robot. This book is famous for introducing the Three Laws of Robotics, and most of the plots of the stories it comprises are about what happens when the laws break down.

Bender from Futurama

Typical evil robot


The book consists of a series of connected short stories about robots, mostly published separately in the 1940s. They are tied together as a series of historical anecdotes told to a reporter by the brilliant roboticist and robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin.

Most of us at the last book club meeting had read it, but not recently. (Except for the first two chapters, I last read it in college, way too long ago. By sheer coincidence, my Kindle died while I was visiting my sister two weeks ago, and I picked it up off her book shelf as bed time reading, and read the first two stories, about Robbie the Robot, a lumbering companion of the child of a techno-geek, and a story about the mining colony on Mercury, set in the distant, barely imaginable future of the of about 5 years ago.)

Asimov was one of the most prolific writers, ever, and was one of the founders of the skeptical and humanist movements. In addition to his clever and imaginative robot stories, he wrote literally hundreds of books and essays explicating science, history and reasoning.

We will be meeting at our usual location, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford St in Cambridge, on Saturday, October 6, 2012 from 3:00 to 5:00 PM. Bring a snack to share, or just your appetite.

You can RSVP on our Facebook event page.

Mary will be hosting a discussion of the book the next day (Sunday, October 7) on-line at the Skepchick Book Club, in case you want to share your thoughts about the book with the world. And remember, as always, there will be a special, relevant recipe for a super duper yummy snack to munch on while discussing the book.