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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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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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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.

Book Club: “Bright-sided” by Barbara Ehrenreich

Posted on : 06-05-2015 | By : John | In : Book Club

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book cover

Our next book

Our book for May is Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich.

The first chapter describes Ehrenreich’s experience with breast cancer and all the useless, belittling advice she received from well-meaning (and not so well-meaning) people about how she could overcome it with a positive attitude and strength of character. Implicit in this advice is an enormous dose of victim-blaming. It’s her fault if she has cancer because she wasn’t positive enough, and if she doesn’t get on the program (of magical thinking with no, zero, nada, zip evidence of efficacy), it will be her fault if she doesn’t recover. This sounds to me like a perfect Republican health care plan: blame the victims and quickly get rid of all those annoying, expensive sick people. But that’s just me…

The second chapter describes her visit to a national convention of motivational speakers. Reminiscent of a Jon Ronson exploration, she finds the ultimate goal of becoming a motivational speaker is to motivate our people to become motivational speakers in some gigantic multilevel marketing scheme. Ever since the dawn of the self-help and positive thinking movements (which are deeply intertwined) in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), other people “are there only to nourish, praise and affirm”. (Sounds like a recipe for sociopathy, or at very least, libertarianism.) The whole edifice is built on a foundation of pseudoscientific principles, such as “The Law of Attraction”, pre-scientific understandings of magnets and gravity, and profound misunderstanding of simple oscillators (“vibrations”), and quantum. Its crowning achievements are The Secret and other forms of magical thinking.

If the rest of the book is as interesting (if disheartening) and as readable as the first two chapters, it will be well worth reading and discussing.

Please join us to discuss this book on Saturday, May 16 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 (May 17) 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 here!)

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!)

Book Club: “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum

Posted on : 11-03-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our March book is The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

The book tells the story of how corruption and incompetence in the New York City coroner’s office lead, during a brief period of reformist state and city government, to appointment of a qualified, scientifically trained chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles Norris, head of pathology at Bellevue Hospital. Tammany Hall soon regained control of the city government, but not before Norris hired a competent staff, including forensic chemist Alexander Gettler. Norris and Gettler had very different backgrounds, Norris being a descendent of wealth and privilege, Gettler the child of poor Hungarian immigrants who worked his way through college, but they worked together to establish criminal forensics as a scientific discipline.

They fought constant battles with criminals (mostly poisoners), corrupt politicians (who tried to regain control and starved the Medical Examiner’s Office of resources), overzealous and ignorant police and prosecutors (who sometimes ignored the evidence to go with their hunches and charged innocent people while ignoring real crimes), corrupt industries (which added lead to gasoline and poisoned their customers and employees with leaky gas pipes, radium and worse), and the biggest public health crisis of the 1920s, Prohibition.

The Poisoner’s Handbook tells the story of Norris and Gettler, organized around the various poisons they detected and dealt with. The popularity of poisons seemed to come in waves, as detection methods became more sensitive and reliable, poisoners would move on to other, less detectable poisons. (Or maybe this perception is just an artifact of the way the book is organized.)

The work of Norris and Gettler ultimately led to the vast array of forensic techniques used by the technicians on the various CSI programs, NCIS‘s Abby Sciuto, Law and Order‘s Drs. Rogers and Warner (both New York City Assistant Chief Medical Examiners), and the staff of the Jeffersonian Forensic Anthropology unit on Bones. Important as prime time entertainment is, their work also lead to modern real-world forensics.

Several prominent reviews of the book on Amazon downgrade it due to very poor chemistry. Two of the first 3 reviews (as Amazon listed them for me, YMMV) gave it one star and the reviewers claim to be chemists. Each gives a long bullet list of errors. Several commenters say those errors do not appear in their versions of the book; I checked my recent Kindle edition and most do not appear in my book either. Some of the rest appear to be quibbles about style rather than substance, or willful misreading of slightly ambiguous statements. Can you find any substantive errors in the science or history?

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, March 22 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 (March 23) 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!)

I apologize for being very late with this post, but you still have time to read it before the meeting. It’s fairly quick paced, and should only take 3 or 4 hours to read. It’s well worth it if you enjoyed The Killer of Little Shepherds”, or like science history or the Borgia family or murder mysteries!

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.

Upcoming Events: Music (Mostly)

Posted on : 01-10-2012 | By : John | In : Event, local

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Marian Call will be appearing at the Granite State Skeptics in the Pub in Manchester, NH on Monday, Oct 8 at 7 PM

Shelley Segal will be appearing at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square on Tuesday, Oct 9 at 9:30 PM.

Marian Call will be appearing again at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square on Sunday, Oct 14 at 9:30 PM.

Molly Lewis and the Doubleclicks will be at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square on Tuesday, Oct 16 at 9:30 PM.

And finally, a token non-musical event, the 2nd Skepticamp New Hampshire will be held on Saturday, Oct 27 from 11:30 AM to 4:30 PM. I went last year and it was great fun and very informative. Our own Mary Brock is among the speakers this year.

P.S. I missed another appearance by Marian Call, this time in Salem NH on Friday, Oct 12 at 7 PM. And it will be broadcast Live on TV! Way to go, Marian!

Book Club: “The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards” by Jim Steinmeyer

Posted on : 01-07-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club

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7/6: See UPDATE below.

Our month of midsummer magic continues with the book with the longest title in Book Club history: “The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards” by Jim Steinmeyer.

Thurston poster holding Yorrick's skull, surrounded by Cotswald fairies

Proof that A. Conan Doyle was right!

Howard Thurston was the most prominent stage magician of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much more popular than Houdini. He ran away to the circus as a child and soon started up a close-up magic act doing card tricks. At the peak of his career, he required an 8-car railroad train to move his show from city to city. He must have invented feature creep.

Jim Steinmeyer is a magician, a designer of magical tricks, a former imagineer for Walt Disney (possibly the best.job.ever) and the author of many books on magical practice and history. A real life Professor Cuthbert Binns, except he’s not a ghost and not at all boring. I’ve only read the 1st couple of chapters so far, but the book seems highly readable and Steinmeyer does a good job of transporting us to a time and place beyond our personal experiences. This book promises to be interesting and enjoyable.

We will be meeting at our usual time and place, on July 28 at 3 PM in the Northwest Science Building at Harvard. (We might move outside if the weather is nice, but our usual spot between the Science Center and Memorial Hall, in the shade of the huge green pepper, is currently a construction site. Stay tuned for updates.)

You can RSVP on Facebook if you are a member of the Boston Skeptics Facebook group (or maybe even if you are not, I’m not sure how this works, and they keep changing it, so there is no point in learning</end rant>.)

UPDATE:

Just a reminder that if you can’t make it to Book Club, you can still read the book and discuss it the next day on Skepchick, where Mary’s always wonderful summary and notes and recipe will appear.