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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: Heina Dadabhoy from Islam to Atheism.

Posted on : 14-01-2016 | By : John | In : Event, local, Skeptics in the Pub

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Heina Dadabhoy

A ninja warrior welcomes guests to Convergence/Skepchickcon

Boston Skeptics welcomes our January guest speaker, atheist feminist secular humanist (and many other positive adjectives) blogger Heina Dadabhoy.

Heina will be speaking about her path from Islam to atheism. She is currently writing a book called A Skeptic’s Guide to Islam, which will be published in March and is available for preorder on Amazon.

Book Cover

A Skeptic’s Guide to Islam



Location: We will be meeting at 7PM on Monday, January 25, 2016 on the third floor of The Hong Kong Restaurant, 1238 Mass Ave in Harvard Square, Cambridge. Please come a little early if possible to order dinner, a snack or drinks and chat with your fellow Skeptics.

RSVP if that’s your thing on our Facebook event page. (It’s not required, but does give us some idea how many people are planning to attend.)

Photo courtesy Jamie Bernstein.

Book Club: “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee

Posted on : 17-07-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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The Emperor of All Maladies

The Emperor of All Maladies

This month’s book is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, an oncologist at the CU/NYU Presbytarian Hospital and a wonderful writer. He is also assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University A former Rhodes scholar, he graduated from Stanford University, University of Oxford (where he received a PhD studying cancer-causing viruses) and from Harvard Medical School.[*]

This is quite a long and deep book, as it must be for such a vast subject. Cancer is not one disease, but hundreds of related diseases, with disparate causes, and the story of how it afflicts humanity and the long search for prevention, treatment and cures requires in depth discussion. Fortunately, we’ve had two months to read it, but if you’re just starting it now, you’re really going to have to cram for the examdiscussion! Still more fortunately, Dr. Mukherjee is a wonderful writer, able to explain complicated scientific concepts with great facility, explore history without getting bogged down in tedious lists of names and dates, and always keeping his deep sympathy for the doctors and researchers struggling to treat a disease that was once invariably fatal, and most especially their and his patients and their families.

SitP: Larry Gilbertson on GMOs and Biotech

Posted on : 04-06-2015 | By : John | In : Skeptics in the Pub

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a field of growing grain

Feeding the world

The population of the earth will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Arable land is decreasing, dietary preferences are shifting in the emerging economies of the world, and climate change will present further challenges to food production. Meeting the needs of the growing, changing planet will require new approaches and technologies. Biotechnology is an important approach to improve agricultural productivity that, combined with other practices, has the potential to solve some of these challenges. The commercialization of genetically modified plants began in the mid-1990s with launch of herbicide tolerant and insect protected crops, which were widely adopted by farmers in the US and other countries. More varieties with new and improved traits have been released since then, with a robust pipeline for the future.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Not so fast, say some. There is currently an ongoing, robust debate involving many sectors of society, include skeptics, over how agriculture and food production should work, the role of new and emerging technologies, including the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the role of multi-national corporations in agriculture.

Dr. Gilbertson in his lab

Dr. Larry Gilbertson

At this meeting of the Boston Skeptics, Dr. Larry Gilbertson will talk about the science of GMOs and the research at Monsanto Company. He will also answer questions collected from skeptics via social media, facilitated by Mary Mangan, a member of Boston Skeptics, as well as from the audience in the room.

Dr. Gilbertson is a Monsanto scientist in the company’s Biotechnology organization. He fell in love with basic research while taking biology courses as a pre-med major, and quickly changed plans to attend graduate school instead. He became so infatuated with lab work that he courted his girlfriend (now wife) with heart shaped pink and white Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast) designs in petri plates.

Dr. Gilbertson joined Monsanto in 1995 as a post-doctoral researcher out of curiosity (and a bit of skepticism) about industrial career paths, and was won over within a week by the shared passion for science that he saw among his colleagues. He has worked on and led a variety of teams performing original research in plant transformation, gene expression, vector technology, and insect control, leading to 26 patents and breakthroughs that have enabled the advancement of the Biotechnology pipeline. He currently leads a Monsanto protein engineering team in Cambridge MA.

Dr. Gilbertson has been a Monsanto Science Fellow since 2004, and was recently recognized with the 2014 Monsanto Science and Technology Career Award.

Dr. Gilbertson is from the heart of the corn belt, Iowa, but rarely came close to corn plants until he joined Monsanto. He received a B.S degree in Biology from the University of Iowa and a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Oregon. He has taught graduate courses plant biology and genomics at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and at Washington University in St. Louis.

Location: We will be meeting at 7PM on Monday, June 22, 2015 in the third floor of The Hong Kong Restaurant, 1238 Mass Ave in Harvard Square, Cambridge.

RSVP or leave questions for Dr. Gilbertson on our Facebook event page. You can also leave questions for Dr. Gilbertson on our Meetup page, at reddit/r/skeptic, or on the SGU forums, or tweet them to Mary (@mem_somerville).

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!

Darwin Day Brunch

Posted on : 09-02-2015 | By : John | In : Event, local

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WEATHER UPDATE: Due to the impending 4th Blizzard, Darwin Day has been postponed one week, to Feb. 22.

Thursday, Feb 12 is Charles Darwin’s 206th birthday. The Birthday Boy

We’re celebrating with Oodles of Noodlesnoodles and Modern Dinosaurs dinosaurs.

Join us at 11 AM Sunday, Feb 15 Feb 22 at Santouka Ramen in Harvard Square for brunch, followed by a The Voyage of HMS Beaglevoyage† to the Hominids at the Museum of Natural History Harvard Museum of Natural History.

RSVP on our Facebook event page.

Date: Sunday, Feb 15 Feb 22, 2015
Brunch Time: 11 AM
Place: Santouka Ramen
1 Bow Street
Cambridge MA

Museum Time: 1 PM
Place: Harvard Museum of Natural History
26 Oxford Street
Cambridge MA

[†] Boat not provided‡.
[‡] Boat not needed, since it’s just a 10 minute walk, not a 5 year circumnavigation. Spaceship not needed either.

Book Club: “1491” by Charles C. Mann

Posted on : 20-01-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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IMPORTANT UPDATE: We have postponed until Feb 7 due to bad weather.

Political Map of Pre-invasion America

America in 1491

People have lived in the Americas for at least 13,000 years, more likely 20 or even 30,000 years according to the latest archeological evidence. Only the last 500 years, the last 2%, of this history is well known to modern Americans. There are many reasons for this. The native cultures, artifacts and written records were systematically destroyed by the people Kurt Vonnegut calls the Sea Pirates, who arrived here in force starting in 1492. In addition to cultural imperialism and instigating total war (in the 20th Century sense), in places like New England, they brought diseases, plagues of measles, smallpox, hepatitis and other diseases you’ve probably never heard of. The population was decimated, not literally, but figuratively, which is much worse. For example, in central Mexico, the population declined from 25.2 million to 700,000 (97%) between 1518 (when Cortes arrived) and 1623.

Despite the destruction, some historical sources survived. Many of the Indian societies were literate, and even in places where most of the books were destroyed, stone monuments and buildings still exist. There are oral traditions of the survivors, early European records and written accounts by the children and grandchildren of the the survivors, and archeology, linguistic evidence, DNA evidence (both human and of domesticated plants and animals), epidemiology, patterns of trade and the spread of agriculture, and more. This book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by by Charles C. Mann, explores all this evidence to fill a huge gap in the knowledge of most Americans of their own history, and dispels many myths.

For example, the Americas were not sparsely populated before the Europeans arrived and some of the largest cities, road and trade networks in the world in the 15th century were in Central and South America, rivaling the largest in Europe and China at the time. There were vast engineering projects, ranging from mound building in the Midwest to water and irrigation projects in Central America and the Andes. Some of the projects were not so beneficial, but exhibit highly sophisticated organization, such as the when the Inkas forced migrations of thousands of people to achieve political ends.

Charles C. Mann is not a former defensive lineman for (ironically) the Washington Redskins. He is a science writer and contributing editor for Science, The Atlantic Monthly and Wired.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, February 7 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 phaser blast. (Warning: I did remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (January 25) 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!)

SitP: Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of Other Pubs

Posted on : 15-10-2014 | By : John | In : Event, local, Skeptics in the Pub

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Join us once again in our search for a new home. This month we are checking out Cambridge Common, on Mass Ave just north of Harvard Square.

No special topic this month. But since it’s Halloween week, maybe we should bring ghost-hunting equipment and see if it’s haunted, like the pub in New York where NECSS has held their Drinking Skeptically on occasion. (There were very mysterious noises coming from the bathroom there, but surprisingly no one seemed keen to investigate.)

We’ll be meeting at 7PM on Monday October 27, 2014. The address is 1667 Mass Ave, Cambridge. It’s about 4 blocks north of Harvard Sq, between Wendell and Sacramento Streets. (On the map, it looks just as close to Porter Square, and it might be easier to walk from there.) You can sign up on our Facebook event page to help us get an idea how many people might show up, though this does tend to tip off the fraudsters ghosts.

P.S. If you have other pub suggestions, please post them on Facebook.

Book Club: “What If?” by Randall Munroe

Posted on : 15-10-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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XKCD cartoon depicting odds of surviving a lightning strike

Scientific analysis of real-life problems

Our next book is “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by xkcd cartoonist Randall Munroe.

Munroe supplies scientific, in many cases, mathematical answers to the deepest, darkest questions one can ask. Some are very unpleasant, such as what would happen if the Earth suddenly stopped rotating? (Scientists at the South Pole and people in coal mines would probably survive, for a while.) What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball thrown at .9 c? (Not good for either the batter or the pitcher, not to mention the catcher, umpire, ball park and the city.) What would happen if you gathered a mole of moles? (Not good for moles in the middle, since they would form a sphere larger than the Moon.) Some answers are surprisingly benign, such as could you survive swimming in a spent nuclear fuel pool? (You’d be fine, as long as you didn’t dive too deep or pick up any random objects lying at the bottom.) Or what would happen if everyone stood near each other and jumped at the same time? (Basically, nothing, because the Earth out-masses us by 12 orders of magnitude. Except we would take up an area the size of Rhode Island, and T F Green Airport would be overwhelmed for thousands of years as everyone tried to return home afterwards, and we’d mostly starve to death as the world plunged into chaos and anarchy.)

Then there are the scary questions. They all seem to have the proviso that the person asking the question really, really needs to know the answer by Friday.

The book is fun and quick to read, and is copiously illustrated with Munroe’s surprisingly evocative stick-figure drawings. I got the Kindle version, which seems to freak out my Kindle occasionally. (It’s rebooted at least 3 times, and has a few formatting problems, mostly connected with the footnotes. Paging forward and back seems to fix most of the issues.) I wish had purchased a hard-copy version, as it would make an ideal bathroom book.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, October 25 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 phaser blast. (Set to stun unless I remember to put new batteries in my phaser.)

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (October 26) 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!)

Book Club: “Life Ascending” by Nick Lane

Posted on : 13-08-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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This month we are reading Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane.

Nick Lane is a Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London. He has written books about oxygen, mitochondria and cryobiology. Our current book is organized into 10 chapters, each covering an important advance (“inventions”) in the history of life. It is one of the most “sciency” books we’ve read recently, with occasional vivid descriptions of, for example, the view of the Earth from the Moon first seen by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968, the early Earth before the first life emerged and both kinds of hydrothermal vents (I didn’t know there was more than one.) There is little in the way of personal anecdotes or historical discussions. For the most part, the book dives right into the science, and there is a lot of it!

I’m finding it dense going but thoroughly worthwhile. A lot of it, especially the first chapter on the origins of life, is new to me. It also clears up a lot of common misconceptions, such as where the oxygen (O2) released by photosynthesis comes from. (It comes from splitting water molecules, not from reducing CO2. But it does convert atmospheric CO2 into solid carbohydrates, which is why plants are the ultimate solution to global warming.)

Book Club: “The Martian” by Andy Wier

Posted on : 01-06-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our June book is The Martian: A Novel by Andy Weir.

It’s a science fiction story of Mark Watney, an astronaut abandoned on Mars by the rest of the crew (they were certain, for many good reasons, that he was dead, and if they had delayed their launch by even a few seconds, all the rest of the crew would have been marooned or killed as well.) Mark, who is also a botanist and engineer, takes stock of his situation, and discovers his most critical problem is he only has enough food to last about a year, but rescue isn’t possible for well over two years. That is, assuming he can somehow restore communications with Earth and tell NASA he is still alive.

He has other problems as well, but at least a vague idea how to solve them: not enough water; cold; not enough pressurized area to attempt to grow food (the potatoes intended for their Thanksgiving dinner are still viable); broken airlocks; cold; bad luck; and his own, almost fatal, mistakes.

As he struggles to survive, he (and we) learn a number of important lessons, principally:

  1. Duct tape can fix anything.
  2. Duct tape is magic
  3. Duct tape can fix anything.

I realize, technically, this is only one lesson, but it is such and important lesson I think it bears repeating.  (Bonus points for recognizing the reference.)

Also:

  1. Just when you think everything is going well, the worst might happen.
  2. Martian coffee is aweful.
  3. Rust never sleeps.

The book is written as a series of log entries that were obviously recovered later, so I’m not certain at this point if Mark survives, or what happens to the crew attempting to rescue him.  Interspersed are short chapters describing events and people on Earth, including the NASA administrator (whose initial CYA attempts are thwarted by Venkat Kapoor, the director of the Mars program), Venkat, who needs to know what really happened at the landing site (a dust storm far more intense than any they planned for precipitated the events) thus involving Mindy Park, the young rocket scientist who discovers Mark is still alive. The crew of Mark’s ship, the Hermes, volunteer to participate in a daring rescue attempt, delaying their own safe return to Earth by almost two years. Also there is the obsessive mathematician who invents a radical new scheme for rescuing Mark and the Chinese scientists who abandon their most ambitious scientific space mission to date in order to launch desperately needed supplies to the Hermes after NASA’s original attempt goes horribly pear-shaped.  (There’s a reason why space missions take so long to design, construct and test.)

We’ll be meeting in a week, but if you haven’t started it yet, it is a fairly quick read (unless you read it as an Orbital Mechanics text book and treat the various mission plans and rescue attempts as exercises left for the reader.) I started 3 days ago and I am about 3/4’s of the way through it.

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, June 7 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 phaser blast. (Set to stun if you’re lucky.) I’ll be bringing a supply of duct tape and a special surprise: something better than duct tape!

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (June 8) 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!)