Featured Posts

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...

Read more

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...

Read more

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

Read more

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...

Read more

  • Prev
  • Next

SitP: David Ropeik and the Risk Perception Gap

Posted on : 20-05-2015 | By : John | In : Blog Post, Event, Skeptics in the Pub

Tags: , , , ,


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.


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!

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

Tags: , , ,


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.

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

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

Tags: , , ,


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

Tags: , , ,


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: “Subliminal” by Leonard Mlodinow

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

Tags: , , ,


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: “That’s Disgusting” by Rachel Herz

Posted on : 11-02-2012 | By : John | In : Book Club, Event

Tags: , ,


UPDATE: Due to scheduling conflicts, we’ve decided to postpone the next book club meeting until April 7.

Actually, this picture is not disgusting, but disgusted

How we'll look while enjoying our next meeting

In honor of Evacuation Day, March 17, our next book will be That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion by Rachel Herz. Since Evacuation Day is better known as St Patrick’s Day, we will be celebrating by including a fine selection of disgustingly green colored, but delicious snacks.

I usually forget to promote the snacks in my Book Club announcements, possibly due to the fact that books usually involve parasites, corpses, zombies, medical experimentation or nasty chemicals, but they are a highlight of the meetings. Today, Mary brought delicious, low-fat, low-calorie chocolate chip muffins. (I ate four.) Please bring a snack or your appetite or both. We always have left-overs, so don’t feel shy if you just come and eat (and discuss the book, of course. Or just sit in the corner and be amused by the obscure Star Trek references that always sneak in.)

Back to the book… I haven’t started to read it yet[*], but according to the Amazon description, it “tackl[es] such colorful topics as cannibalism, humor, and pornography.” How could it go wrong? The few reviews so far are all very positive. It was just published in January (“That book is so two weeks ago”), so unfortunately there’s no paperback edition yet, so if you are poor, think of it as an opportunity to get up close and personal with your local library.

Date: April 7, 2012
Time: 3:00 to 6:00 (ish) PM
Location: Unless it is spectacularly nice out, the first floor conference room at the north end of the Northwest Science Building at Harvard. (52 Oxford St, Cambridge MA.)

Please feel free to RSVP on our Facebook event page if you’re not socialmediaphobic.

[*] Actually, I have, thanks to Kindle’s instant gratification mode. The 2nd paragraph of the Preface contains a description of the National Rotten Sneakers Contest. I think we have a winner!