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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: “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 : 23-04-2014 | By : John | In : Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Please join us for another Skeptics in the Pub beer tasting and skeptical inquiry into the science of fermentation on Monday, April 28 at 7:00 PM as we conduct a Phase 2 study of Meadhall in Kendall Square, Cambridge. According to our spies, various online reviews and our Phase 1 trial, it has a vast selection of very good beers and is a good candidate for future events, but I’m still skeptical, so we need as many independent assessments as possible. Please join us!

Location: Meadhall, 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge
3 minute walk from Kendall T stop
Date: Monday, Apr 28, 2014, 7:00 PM

RSVP on Facebook.

SitP: Beer Tasting in the Pub

Posted on : 20-01-2014 | By : John | In : Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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As many of you may know, our usual location for Skeptics in the Pub, Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, has closed.  :-[

Join us on Tuesday, January 28 at 7:00 PM as we check out a potential new location, Meadhall in Kendall Square, Cambridge. According to our spies and various online reviews, it has a vast selection of very good beers and is a good candidate for future events, but I’m skeptical. I think we need as many independent assessments as possible, so please join us!

Location: Meadhall, 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge
3 minute walk from Kendall T stop
Date: Tuesday, Jan 28, 2014, 7:00 PM

Please RSVP on Facebook.

SitP: Dan Hart

Posted on : 14-11-2013 | By : John | In : Skeptics in the Pub

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Update: We’ve had to reschedule Dan Hart’s appearance to the following Monday, December 16, 2013. Same time, same place

Dan Hart playing his guitar and grimacing at a microphoneWe’re having an early* Skeptics in the Pub in December with old friend, hilarious singer/songwriter Dan Hart. We had a great time last time he visited us.

Dan will entertain us with such holiday classics as Santa God, Misanthrope Christmas, Christmas in the Nude, and Lobotomy for Christmas.

We’ll also have the traditional Boston Skeptics Yankee Swap!** Bring a small, geeky, nerdy, scientific, blasphemous, cheap (under $10), wrapped*** gift and join in the fun!

Monday evening, December 16 at 7:30 PM at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square, Cambridge.

RSVP on our Facebook event page.

[*] Early in the month, that is… Unless it’s really, really late November:-)

[**] I’ll trade you two Derek Jeters, an A-Rod and a Phil Hughes for a bag of dead skunks. Oh, no, that’s not how it works.

[***] All attributes optional except the wrapping (to make it hard to guess what’s inside.) For those of us suffering from Holiday Procrastination Panic Anxiety, a brown paper bag suffices for the wrapping.

P.S. Francois has posted the video of the video of Dan’s performance. Enjoy!

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.

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: “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.

SitP: Shelley Segal

Posted on : 29-04-2013 | By : John | In : Event, Skeptics in the Pub

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Australian atheist singer/songwriter Shelley Segal will be appearing at Tommy Doyles’s On Monday, May 6th at 7PM. Come listen to her music, the samples I’ve heard and and the reviews I’ve read sound fantastic!

There are lyrics and short snippets of several of her songs on her web site and a few videos of complete songs. They are clever and imaginative, with some great metaphors (House With No Walls, for example.) Musically, she has a diversity of styles ranging from straight-up folk to jazzy New Wave (Saved reminds me of Joe Jackson’s first album.) I Don’t Believe in Fairies would make a great Halloween song, especially if played on a carnival-style calliope!

As Apocalyptic Love Song says,

“And yes I understand that my whole life is just a blink of an eye
in the history of the earth”

so don’t miss this rare opportunity to see Shelley perform!

And her logo has a lizard…Logo with lizard What’s not to love?

Shelley will be performing at our next Skeptics in the Pub at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square on Monday May 6 (note the date, not our usual last Monday), at 7 PM. You can RSVP on our Facebook event page if you wish.

P.S. I must confess I haven’t actually heard her perform in person, but did get to meet her last time she was in town, when she attended a previous SitP, and she was a great person to hang out and drink skeptically with.