Cause & Effect: The CFI Newsletter - No. 43
October 30, 2015
Cause & Effect is the biweekly newsletter of the Center for Inquiry community, covering the wide range of work that you help make possible.
The Main Events
Leadership Change at CFI’s DC Branch: Ed Beck Is New Executive Director
A changing of the guard is underway at one of CFI’s most active and influential local branches. This week, CFI–DC Executive Director Melody Hensley announced that she would be stepping down from her leadership post, having led CFI’s Washington, DC, community for eight years. In her place, CFI Senior Policy Analyst Ed Beck will become the branch’s new executive director, splitting his time between his national policy work and his new duties leading CFI–DC.
Melody leaves CFI–DC with a strong foundation, having overseen groundbreaking events such as the Women in Secularism conferences, supporting important causes, and fostering a tight-knit community of freethinkers. In her parting announcement, Melody wrote, “I am deeply grateful for this family, for all those who have come to our events, for those who have supported us financially, and particularly those who have volunteered their time and efforts to make CFI–DC the oasis, the home, that it has become for so many.”
Ed Beck is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Iraq War, and since 2007 he has held innumerable positions with CFI (many, as now, at the same time). In 2012 he became the Senior Policy Analyst of the Office of Public Policy in Washington. In our announcement, Ed praised the work of Melody as well as the branch’s many volunteers, saying, “It will be a real pleasure to work with them to further cultivate a critical, curious, and positively engaged secular humanist presence here in the nation’s capital.”
CFI Investigators Bring the Skeptic View to Halloween Media
It happens every year: as Halloween approaches, the public appetite for stories and information about ghosts, monsters, and the paranormal reaches its annual peak. Luckily, CFI is well qualified (and well staffed) to offer a rational and skeptical perspective, particularly thanks to our investigators.
The New Yorker marks the spooky season by reposting a piece from its archives, a 2002 profile of CFI’s senior research fellow and world-renowned paranormal investigator, Joe Nickell. Author Burkhard Bilger revealed then what is true today: that Joe is invested in seeking out the truth, not “debunking” for its own sake, calling him “a spoilsport with only the best intentions.” Joe told Bilger in the article, “I’m not saying there’s a fifty-fifty chance that there is a ghost in that haunted house. I think the chances are closer to 99.9 per cent that there isn’t. But let’s go look. We might learn something interesting as hell.”
Benjamin Radford, Skeptical Inquirer’s deputy editor, has been sought out by several outlets lately looking for the skeptical take on various paranormal goings-on. Ben helped Yahoo News explain the origins of various superstitious beliefs and talked to Business Insider about the psychology behind the belief in ghosts. At the Huffington Post, Ben brings some rationality to a piece about an alleged ghost sighting at a British museum.
Joe Nickell also recounted his recent experience at an open-air séance for the CFI Free Thinking blog (where no “busload of dead soldiers” ever showed up). And the Las Vegas Review-Journal spoke to Joe about the weird appeal of prophecies about the apocalypse. Says Joe, “Hope springs eternal, but so does fear.”
News from HQ and the CFI Community
Trump and Carson + Taste and Cooking on Point of Inquiry
Point of Inquiry takes on two very different subjects that are too often clouded by magical thinking and in dire need of a good dose of skepticism: Cooking and the 2016 presidential primaries.
Lindsay Beyerstein has a delightful conversation with J. Kenji López-Alt, culinary director of the popular Serious Eats website. Kenji explains how good cooking can be hampered by misinformation and folklore, and with a little myth-busting, shows how we can have a much more satisfying culinary experience by relying on the science we learned in high school.
The dynamics and drama of the GOP presidential primaries are, of course, a far murkier subject. To better understand the impact of religion on the race, Josh Zepps welcomes journalist Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches. The two of them grapple with questions about Donald Trump’s appeal to Evangelical voters, the disconnect between Ben Carson’s pseudo-creationist views and his lofty scientific background as a neurosurgeon, the role of the Pope and his impact on the race, and much more.
“X-Phi” Conference Will Go to the Cutting Edge of Philosophy
In two weeks, the CFI Institute will host a truly unique conference, a weekend symposium on the topic of experimental philosophy, or “x-phi,” which is way more fun to say. In x-phi, data is gathered from surveys and questionnaires to inform philosophical inquiry into things such as free will, relativism, consciousness, morality, and other issues. Learn more about what it’s all about in this blog post by CFI Education Director David Koepsell.
On November 13 and 14, CFI–Transnational in Amherst, New York, will host “X-Phi: How Can We Use Science To Study Philosophical Questions?”—featuring lectures and workshops from some of today’s leaders in x-phi, exploring both the promise and shortcomings of this growing field. Speakers include Joshua Knobe of Yale University, James Beebe of the University at Buffalo, and Wesley Buckwalter of the University of Waterloo. More details and registration information are available here.
TV Writer Mesmerizes Audience with Houdini the Skeptic
Television writer and consultant John Cox came to CFI–Los Angeles to share known and little-known stories about the life and career of Harry Houdini. Best known as an illusionist and escape artist, Houdini was also a pioneer of skepticism who debunked the claims of fraudulent spirit mediums. Using photos, film clips, and rare documentation, Cox offered fresh insights into Houdini’s strained friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle—author of the Sherlock Holmes books and yet a believer in the supernatural—and “Margery the Medium,” among others. Cox writes a popular blog about Houdini and is a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood.
CFI in the Media and on the Web
● Florida news media begins to take notice of CFI’s lawsuit in the state, where we are trying to keep state funds from being used to finance explicitly religious prisoner rehabilitation services. Outlets included WFSU radio, the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, and The Blaze (Glenn Beck’s national news site).
● Stephen Law warns at Free Thinking that we must not be kept from pointing out the “causes and justifications of bigotry” found in certain religious ideologies, even if refraining because of a well-meaning spirit of tolerance.
● Susan Gerbic is your skeptic’s guide to all things Wikipedia: She teaches us how to edit articles like a pro, and do so to “educate beyond the choir,” and also dispels some myths about whether Wikipedia is a “conspiracy,” advising, “There is no ‘they’ on Wikipedia, only a ‘we.’”
● CFI Legal Director Nick Little is a guest on Science for the People, where the panel (which includes CSI Fellow Paul Offit) tackles the thorny issue of mandatory vaccinations.
● Carrie Poppy reviews a documentary about the alleged nonexistence of Shaken Baby Syndrome, The Syndrome, concluding that “an even-handed documentary examining the syndrome, its symptoms, its limitations, and its potential for misdiagnosis would be welcome. But this is not that movie.”
● Joe Nickell investigates the supposed miraculous powers attributed to the so-called Black Madonna of Czestochowa, a painting believed to have healing powers that “was unable to heal or protect itself.”
● Joe also warns readers of telephone scammers posing as the IRS, pointing to clues that can reveal whether or not such a call is legitimate.
● Benjamin Radford considers the case of a young boy in Virginia who believes (or has been led to believe) that he had a past life as a Marine.
And of course, you can keep up with news relevant to skeptics and seculars every weekday with The Morning Heresy.
Upcoming CFI Events
● CFI–Michigan takes part in an interfaith service project with the Fountain Street Church, Islamic Mosque and Religious Institute, Baha’i Faith Community, Islamic Center and Masjid of Grand Rapids, and the West Michigan Hindu Temple.
● Screening of the documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper, followed by Q&A with activists featured in the film at CFI–Los Angeles.
● Reba Boyd Wooden talks about CFI at the St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, Indiana.
● Apple pie, ice cream, and Cosmos: Carl Sagan is remembered at CFI–Indiana.
November 13 & 14:
● X-Phi conference at CFI-Western New York (see news item above).
● Freedom from Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker speaks at CFI–Indiana.
● SETI’s Jill Tarter (who was an inspiration for the main character in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact) visits CFI–Los Angeles and CFI–Orange County to discuss the potential for studying extraterrestrial biology.
Everything we do at CFI is made possible by you and your support. Let’s keep working together for science, reason, and secular values. Donate today!
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Cause & Effect: The Center for Inquiry Newsletter is edited by Paul Fidalgo, Center for Inquiry communications director.
The Center for Inquiry (CFI) is a nonprofit educational, advocacy, and research organization headquartered in Amherst, New York, with executive offices in Washington, D.C. It is also home to both the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and the Council for Secular Humanism. The mission of CFI is to foster a secular society based on science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values. CFI’s web address is www.centerforinquiry.net.