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Monthly Archives: January 2011

The February MISkeptics Get Together


Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

Our next Get Together is Saturday Feb 12th at 4:00PM in Ginger.

We’re planning some big things for this month so you’re definitely going to want to come out!

As you probably know, the 12th is Darwin Day, so let’s have a bit of a celebration!

We’re going to have a movie presentation of Darwin’s Secret Notebook from National Geographic. (subject to change)

We’re also going to have some prizes to give away for a few lucky individuals!

We are also going to talk about the Thank Hitch Project which Michigan Skeptics has started recently. We’ll have a video camera at the Get Together for people that want to record their message while they are there.

So be sure to come out and help us celebrate Darwin’s Birthday, win yourself a prize and as always enjoy the conversation of some great people.

We’ll see you on the 12th!

Preserve Auschwitz, Prevent Future Holocausts

Sixty-six years ago today, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated. While it might have provided some catharsis to bulldoze the site, scholars and survivors alike are glad that it has been left mostly alone. Now called the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, it looks much as it did during the war years, where more than one million Jews were cycled through and murdered.

On this anniversary, World Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation is kicking off “Intervene Now!,” a campaign to unite the world in protecting and preserving Auschwitz to honor the memory of those who died there. As long as it stands, no Holocaust denier can convincingly claim it didn’t exist. As long as it stands, the world will remember where the limits of hatred will take us and, hopefully, take measures to prevent future atrocities.

To saefguard the site, which is in Poland, the foundation is hoping to raise money and awareness. Already, thousands of artifacts are deteriorating. “Intervene Now!” aims to save the barracks, the barbed wire, what is left of the gas chambers, 6,000 works of art created by captives and more.

auschwitz-ruins.jpg

“Auschwitz became the worldwide symbol [of the Holocaust],” says Jacek Kastelaniec, the Director General of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation. The remains of the camp, which is “more memorial than museum,” Kastelaniec says, “show the complexity of history of Nazis during the Second World War.”

Auschwitz faces the risk of deteriorating just as interest skyrockets. Ten years ago, about 400,000 people, mostly from Poland, the US and Israel, visited the site. Last year, a record 1.4 million people came from around the world.

To the delight of officials, most of them were young people and students. Kastelaniec explained that he often sees groups of young people as they begin their tours. Sometimes they’re making jokes. “But after three hours of visiting, many of them are very, very reflective,” he says. “It’s a very strong experience.”

As the numbers of Auschwitz survivors dwindle, there’s more need than ever to preserve the space that haunted them. “This generation is passing away,” Kastelaniec says. “How to deal with this reality? How to explain to the future generations without the witnesses?”

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A Skeptic Chat With…Michael Rosch of ‘Skepacabra’

This is a blog series where I interview writers, bloggers, podcasters, etc. about topics relevant to science, skepticism, and critical thinking.

Hello and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your blog, Skepacabra.  Can you please start off by introducing yourself to the readers of the Michigan Skeptics, about who you are, what got you interested into skepticism, and what led you to blog about it?

I’m 30 years old and I’ve recently become a certified paralegal. I received my BA from New York University , where I had a kind of interdisciplinary curriculum, and have an MA in Media Studies from New School University. In addition to Skepacabra, I am the co-founder of stopjenny.com, a website devoted to dispelling the myths and misconceptions about vaccines and autism perpetuated in the popular media.  I also was a writer for the Gotham Skeptic, the official blog of the NYC Skeptics, until we decided to end that blog last month. I also occasionally blog on Examiner.com as the NYC Atheist and Skepticism Examiner. That blog tends to be more deliberately provocative because it generates revenue based on the number of visitors.

I’ve been an atheist since I was about 14, but I didn’t really discover the broader skeptical movement until about three years ago. Before then, I believed in a lot of what James Randi would call “woo”, from psychics to UFOs and acupuncture, etc. I grew up watching shows like Sightings; In Search Of; and Mysteries, Magic, and Miracles, etc. And while I always figured the vast majority of paranormal reports were either hoaxes or delusion, I kept thinking these phenomena had to have some legitimate basis.

So I’d been an outspoken atheist for some time, but it was autumn, 2007 that I first discovered James Randi. Randi was being interviewed by an internet atheist radio show I listened to and on their website, they’d linked to some videos of Randi on YouTube. One of those videos was a lecture Randi gave to, I think, Yale University. It was the standard Randi lecture but it was the first time I’d seen it. Randi’s Yale lecture pushed me one step closer to renouncing my woo woo beliefs.

Around that same time I discovered YouTube videos of Michael Shermer and I found myself liking a lot of what he had to say. Around the same time I caught Shermer debating the evidence for alien visitation on The Larry King Show, and I realized I completely agreed with Shermer that the evidence just wasn’t there. Shermer’s opponent in that debate were Stanton Friedman, a long-time hero of mine. It was during that debate though that I realized my hero Stanton Friedman was a complete nut.

In November, 2007, I attended an atheist event in NYC where Michael Shermer was in attendance. I remember we briefly talked about a reality show on TV at the time featuring Criss Angel and Uri Geller. As I was leaving that night I took a flier for other upcoming lecture hosted by a group called the New York City Skeptics. The speaker was someone I’d never heard of by the name of Steven Novella. It sounded interesting enough, so I attended. And I was so impressed by Dr. Novella’s lecture that when he mentioned that he hosted a podcast, I decided to check it out. Since that lecture, Novella and the other skeptical rogues on the SGU have become my biggest skeptical influences and were the biggest reason I’m part of this movement today. So I’ve always been fairly obsessed with the supernatural and paranormal; only now I approach that interest from a different philosophical position.

The blog came about because I had a Myspace page originally devoted to promoting atheism that gradually shifted to broader skeptical issues. Because I became a regular reader of about a dozen skeptical blogs at that point, I started posting bulletins where I’d link my Myspace friends to several different interesting news items in one post, sort of a newsletter, which I began titling “News From Around The Blogosphere.” I posted lots of these bulletins and would occasionally use the Myspace blog feature. But I realized Myspace wasn’t going to be around, or at least popular, forever and wanted to spread skeptical news stories and my editorials as part of a more legitimate blog. That eventually brought me to WordPress.

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Statistics – Destroyer of Superstitious Pretension

From 3 Quarks Daily:

In Philip Ball’s Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another, he articulates something rather profound: statistics destroys superstition. The idea, once expressed, is simple but does not stem its profundity. Incidents in small numbers sometimes become ‘miraculous’ only because they appear unique, within a context that fuels such thinking. Ball’s own example is Uri Geller: in the 1970’s, the self-proclaimed psychic stated he would stop the watches of several viewers. He, perhaps, twisted his face and furrowed his brow and all over America watches stopped. America, no doubt, turned into an exclamation mark of incredulity. What takes the incident out of the sphere of the miraculous, however, is the consideration of statistics: With so many millions of people watching, what was the likelihood of at least some people’s watches stopping anyway? What about all those watches that did not stop?

Our psychological make-up seeks a chain in disparate events. Our mind is a bridge-builder across chasms of unrelated incidents; a credulity stone-hopper, crouching at each juncture awaiting the next link in a chain of causality. To paraphrase David Hume, we tend to see armies in the clouds, faces in trees, ghosts in shadows, and god in pizza-slices.

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How should one respond to the Tuscon shooting?

For the past several days I’ve been wondering if I should write an article about the shooting in Tuscon. If I do post something, what would I write about? I considered taking a look at the incorrect reporting and rumor that poured out of the news on that Saturday. I considered writing about the political environment and whether or not it had anything to do to motivate the shooter. I considered taking the role of a debunker and look at the claims one by one. Finally I considered writing about the reaction of local skeptics since our Get Together was going on while news was updating live on our phones.

I spent days trying to find the right thing to say and if I say anything at all. Then several several friends had tweeted an excerpt from the Daily Show that talked about the shooting. Many people had been calling him “the sanest person in America right now”. I watched the clip, and if he’s not the sanest, he’s definitely the most rational at the moment.

So instead of trying to find the right things to say and the right way to say it, I’m going to (probably take the easy way out and) let someone else do it.

This clip is from the January 10th episode.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Arizona Shootings Reaction
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

Five myths about why the South seceded

Poster for slaveryOne hundred and fifty years after the Civil War began, we’re still fighting it — or at least fighting over its history. I’ve polled thousands of high school history teachers and spoken about the war to audiences across the country, and there is little agreement even on why the South seceded. Was it over slavery? States’ rights? Tariffs and taxes?

As the nation begins to commemorate the anniversaries of the war’s various battles — from Fort Sumter to Appomattox — let’s first dispense with some of the more prevalent myths about why it all began.

1. The South seceded over states’ rights.

Confederate states did claim the right to secede, but no state claimed to be seceding for that right. In fact, Confederates opposed states’ rights — that is, the right of Northern states not to support slavery.

On Dec. 24, 1860, delegates at South Carolina’s secession convention adopted a “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union.” It noted “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery” and protested that Northern states had failed to “fulfill their constitutional obligations” by interfering with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. Slavery, not states’ rights, birthed the Civil War.

South Carolina was further upset that New York no longer allowed “slavery transit.” In the past, if Charleston gentry wanted to spend August in the Hamptons, they could bring their cook along. No longer — and South Carolina’s delegates were outraged. In addition, they objected that New England states let black men vote and tolerated abolitionist societies. According to South Carolina, states should not have the right to let their citizens assemble and speak freely when what they said threatened slavery.

Other seceding states echoed South Carolina. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world,” proclaimed Mississippi in its own secession declaration, passed Jan. 9, 1861. “Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of the commerce of the earth. . . . A blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

The South’s opposition to states’ rights is not surprising. Until the Civil War, Southern presidents and lawmakers had dominated the federal government. The people in power in Washington always oppose states’ rights. Doing so preserves their own.

2. Secession was about tariffs and taxes.

During the nadir of post-civil-war race relations – the terrible years after 1890 when town after town across the North became all-white “sundown towns” and state after state across the South prevented African Americans from voting – “anything but slavery” explanations of the Civil War gained traction. To this day Confederate sympathizers successfully float this false claim, along with their preferred name for the conflict: the War Between the States. At the infamous Secession Ball in South Carolina, hosted in December by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “the main reasons for secession were portrayed as high tariffs and Northern states using Southern tax money to build their own infrastructure,” The Washington Post reported.

These explanations are flatly wrong. High tariffs had prompted the Nullification Crisis in 1831-33, when, after South Carolina demanded the right to nullify federal laws or secede in protest, President Andrew Jackson threatened force. No state joined the movement, and South Carolina backed down. Tariffs were not an issue in 1860, and Southern states said nothing about them. Why would they? Southerners had written the tariff of 1857, under which the nation was functioning. Its rates were lower than at any point since 1816.

3. Most white Southerners didn’t own slaves, so they wouldn’t secede for slavery.

Indeed, most white Southern families had no slaves. Less than half of white Mississippi households owned one or more slaves, for example, and that proportion was smaller still in whiter states such as Virginia and Tennessee. It is also true that, in areas with few slaves, most white Southerners did not support secession. West Virginia seceded from Virginia to stay with the Union, and Confederate troops had to occupy parts of eastern Tennessee and northern Alabama to hold them in line.

However, two ideological factors caused most Southern whites, including those who were not slave-owners, to defend slavery. First, Americans are wondrous optimists, looking to the upper class and expecting to join it someday. In 1860, many subsistence farmers aspired to become large slave-owners. So poor white Southerners supported slavery then, just as many low-income people support the extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy now.

Second and more important, belief in white supremacy provided a rationale for slavery. As the French political theorist Montesquieu observed wryly in 1748: “It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures [enslaved Africans] to be men; because allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.” Given this belief, most white Southerners — and many Northerners, too — could not envision life in black-majority states such as South Carolina and Mississippi unless blacks were in chains. Georgia Supreme Court Justice Henry Benning, trying to persuade the Virginia Legislature to leave the Union, predicted race war if slavery was not protected. “The consequence will be that our men will be all exterminated or expelled to wander as vagabonds over a hostile earth, and as for our women, their fate will be too horrible to contemplate even in fancy.” Thus, secession would maintain not only slavery but the prevailing ideology of white supremacy as well.

4. Abraham Lincoln went to war to end slavery.

Since the Civil War did end slavery, many Americans think abolition was the Union’s goal. But the North initially went to war to hold the nation together. Abolition came later.

On Aug. 22, 1862, President Lincoln wrote a letter to the New York Tribune that included the following passage: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”

However, Lincoln’s own anti-slavery sentiment was widely known at the time. In the same letter, he went on: “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” A month later, Lincoln combined official duty and private wish in his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

White Northerners’ fear of freed slaves moving north then caused Republicans to lose the Midwest in the congressional elections of November 1862.

Gradually, as Union soldiers found help from black civilians in the South and black recruits impressed white units with their bravery, many soldiers — and those they wrote home to — became abolitionists. By 1864, when Maryland voted to end slavery, soldiers’ and sailors’ votes made the difference.

5. The South couldn’t have made it long as a slave society.

Slavery was hardly on its last legs in 1860. That year, the South produced almost 75 percent of all U.S. exports. Slaves were worth more than all the manufacturing companies and railroads in the nation. No elite class in history has ever given up such an immense interest voluntarily. Moreover, Confederates eyed territorial expansion into Mexico and Cuba. Short of war, who would have stopped them – or forced them to abandon slavery?

To claim that slavery would have ended of its own accord by the mid-20th century is impossible to disprove but difficult to accept. In 1860, slavery was growing more entrenched in the South. Unpaid labor makes for big profits, and the Southern elite was growing ever richer. Freeing slaves was becoming more and more difficult for their owners, as was the position of free blacks in the United States, North as well as South. For the foreseeable future, slavery looked secure. Perhaps a civil war was required to end it.

As we commemorate the sesquicentennial of that war, let us take pride this time – as we did not during the centennial – that secession on slavery’s behalf failed.

Walking in an Underwater Land: Episode 6 of the Drunken Skeptics

Peter Sinclair

The Green Man himself

Well episode 6 is finally here for you!

Sorry it took so long, we had a bit of a meltdown at the MISkeptics command center / living room. We lost two computers due to a brown out.

But never mind that, there’s a podcast to talk about! In this episode we have a recording of a presentation that was given at one of our Get Togethers. Our speaker that month was Peter Sinclair of Climate Crocks. His blog and Youtube channel are simply amazing! He gave a wonderful presentation that we saved just for you.

We also give a small review of our previous episodes and as always we have our Whiskey and Shenanigans.

After you’ve heard the podcast, head over to Climate Crocks and get better informed.

I’ll put up the show notes this weekend. It’ll be a hoot :)

* – If you get a glitchy download, you have to delete and re-download. Sorry for any inconvenience.

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