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All the Science new and conversation that’s fit to print. And several pieces that probably aren’t.

The Token Skeptic Wishes Us a Happy Birthday

Kylie Sturgess is a friend of the group and the host of the Token Skeptic podcast. She works with the Perth Skeptics in Australia and also writes for CSICOP’s Curiouser and Curiouser online column. She took the time to send us a birthday message that I had to share. Check out her blog. She also posted a birthday message for us there.

So We Had This Birthday Party…

MISkeptics members enjoying the second birthday party
A table of revelers at the Michigan Skeptics Second Birthday Party. Also you can see Lauren, the awesome waitress that has taken care of us for so many months now.

There are some times where you just have to sit back and smile.

My week had not started off too well. There was an endless chain of waiting in line and bureaucratic red tape that I had to spend several days to wade through just to get back to the beginning. By the end of it, (it is no where near finished) I was tired and really just wanted to either crawl into my bed or the nearest bottle.

But no! I can’t do that. We’re having our birthday party. Two years ago, we started the Michigan Skeptics Association in the hopes of creating a resource for skepticism and humanism in Michigan. Today we have a vibrant and diverse membership throughout the state and satellite groups starting in areas that cannot come to our monthly Get Togethers and events.

So I managed to shower off the last of the red tape and made my way to the birthday party. After all, I had the cake.

It’s been two years of hard work that we all put in together to make us what we are. A strong group of Skeptics and Rationalists working toward a goal of a fact based state. And as a group we are going to be more active in our communities. We will be there when anti-vaccination nuts try to convince people of their paranoia.

We’re going to go to school board and local government meetings where they try to dilute science and facts with drivel and we’re going to fight.

When we started this group, we pledged that we are politically neutral, and we’ve been true to that. We have members on all sides of the political spectrum. We can all agree, though, that fighting back against creationism and conspiracies in our schools and governments is an important matter that goes beyond left or right.

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Michigan Skeptics is Celebrating Alan Turing’s 100th Birthday

Image of Alan Turing
Alan Turing was born on June 23rd 1912 and died on June 7th 1954.

This month is the 100th anniversary of Alan Turing’s Birth. It’s also the 58th anniversary of his tragic death. So this month at our monthly Get Together we’re going to celebrate the father of modern computing and the one of the key architects of the allied victory in World War II. We’re going to learn about his life and his accomplishments. We will also the events that lead up his death by suicide in 1954.

We’re meeting on June 9th at 4:00 PM. Come and join us for lively discussion, drinks, dinner and debate! This is a good event for Skeptics of Michigan to come together and discuss local, national, worldwide items affecting skeptics. All are welcome to listen and take part in the discussion.

Please be sure to RSVP at our meet-up page for the location and so I know how many are coming. That way I can modify the reservation if necessary.

I look forward to seeing you all there!

Paleontologists Re-debunk Aquatic Dinosaur Theory Shot Down Decades Ago

Dinosaurs courtesy of Wikimedia
A collection of skeletons mounted in museums of various dinosaurs. source: Wikimedia

Last week, Paleontologists were required to respond to claims that dinosaurs were actually semi-aquatic creatures and stayed in water to support their great size. A theory that was thoroughly and completely debunked in the 1960s. The Smithsonian Magazine reports:

Earlier this week, the rotting corpse of a discarded dinosaur idea rose from the depths. Brian J. Ford, a television personality and self-styled independent researcher, decided that Apatosaurus, Allosaurus and kin just looked wrong ambling about on land. Unfettered by the accumulation of scientific evidence about how dinosaurs moved and the environments they lived in, Ford decided to set scientists straight by floating an idea that had been sunk decades ago—that all large dinosaurs spent their lives in water. And, like the bad science it is, the idea strained to explain everything about dinosaur biology. Not only did the idea supposedly explain why non-avian dinosaurs went extinct—their watery homes dried up, of course—but the aquatic setting also explained the small arms of the tyrannosaurs. The great tyrants, Ford said, would catch fish and hold them close for visual inspection before downing the sashimi. Ford’s speculation is a buffet of nonsense. There is so much wrong with it, it’s hard to know where to start.

Brian J. Ford is a British Journalist and television personality. He doesn’t have a college degree but has been an advocate for science and education since he dropped out of college in 1961. His article, published in the April edition of Labratory News, (apparently with a video trailer) purports to not only provide evidence for, but actually concludes that dinosaurs were aquatic.

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Will Holding a Gun Make You Think Others Are Too? New Research Says Yes.


James Bond Holding a Gun
I'm pretty sure he's holding a gun. Wielding a gun increases a person's bias to see guns in the hands of others, new research from the University of Notre Dame shows.

Research from the University of Notre Dame that shows a person’s bias to see guns in the hands of others is increased when the subject is holding a gun. The research, which will be published in the soon-to-be released issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance showed that subjects holding a toy gun were more likely to perceive the image of a person they were looking at to be holding a gun as opposed to another type of object.  The research was performed by Notre Dame Associate Professor of Psychology James Brockmole along with an unnamed colleague from Purdue University.

In five experiments, subjects were shown multiple images of people on a computer screen and determined whether the person was holding a gun or a neutral object such as a soda can or cell phone. Subjects did this while holding either a toy gun or a neutral object such as a foam ball.

The researchers varied the situation in each experiment — such as having the people in the images sometimes wear ski masks, changing the race of the person in the image or changing the reaction subjects were to have when they perceived the person in the image to hold a gun. Regardless of the situation the observers found themselves in, the study showed that responding with a gun biased observers to report “gun present” more than did responding with a ball. Thus, by virtue of affording the subject the opportunity to use a gun, he or she was more likely to classify objects in a scene as a gun and, as a result, to engage in threat-induced behavior, such as raising a firearm to shoot.

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New Evidence Knocks Down Daryl Bems Claim of Psychic Proof


crystal ball
The results were clear. "We found nothing," Ritchie said.

LiveScience is reporting on experiments done by researchers at three universities trying to replicate Daryl Bem‘s 2010 claim that he had found scientific proof of psychic ability. The researchers Stuart Ritchie of the University of Edinburgh, University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman and University of London psychologist Christopher French all conducted the experiment separately at their respective universities with 50 participants each.

 The researchers chose the strongest of the eight positive findings that Bem originally published. In the experiment, Bem’s participants seemed to reverse the usual cause-effect sequence of time. They saw a list of 48 words flashed onto a computer screen and were then treated to a surprise memory test in which they were asked to type in as many of the words as they remembered.

Next, a random sample of 24 of the previous 48 words was presented again. The participants did some practice exercises with these words, and then the experiment ended. Analyzing the memory-test results, Bem and his colleagues found that the students were more likely to recall the words that they’d soon see again than the words that were not on the later exercise list, as if they could see the future.

“It’s almost as if you study for an exam, you do the exam and then you study for it afterwards and then you get a better mark,” Ritchie told LiveScience. “So you can see why we were kind of surprised by that.”

Bem encouraged replication of his results, and he put the computer program he used in his experiment online so other researchers could use it.

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Great Lakes Ice Coverage Down 71 Percent Since 1973

Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay
Coast Guard Cutter Katmai Bay breaks ice for freighters navigating through the St. Mary's River in the Great Lakes. During winter, paths must be made in the ice for freighters to continue shipping goods. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class William B. Mitchell.

The American Meteorological Society says that the amount of ice covering the Great Lakes has decreased over 71% in the past 40 years. A drop that the author of the report attributes to climate change, El Nino and La Nina. The report published last month said only about 5 percent of the Great Lakes surface froze over this year.

Researchers determined ice coverage by scanning U.S. Coast Guard reports and satellite images taken from 1973 to 2010. They found that ice coverage was down 88 percent on Lake Ontario and fell 79 percent on Lake Superior. However, the ice in Lake St. Clair, which is between Lakes Erie and Huron, diminished just 37 percent.

The study doesn’t include the current winter, but satellite photos show that only about 5 percent of the Great Lakes surface froze over this winter. That’s a steep drop from years such as 1979, when there was as much as 94 percent ice coverage. On average, about 40 percent of the surfaces freeze over.

The results are consistent with other studies that have found higher surface water temperatures on Lake Superior in recent years.

Jia Wang of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in Ann Arbor, Mi, the lead author of the publication states that  that diminished ice can accelerate wintertime evaporation, causing water levels to fall. The lack of ice could also lead to earlier and increased algae blooms that can damage water quality, and could speed up erosion by exposing more shoreline to waves.

Even Lake Superior’s protected Chequamegon Bay, just north of Ashland, Wis., has been remarkably free of ice. It usually freezes enough for trucks to drive on it, but the ice was never thick enough. That forced the local Madeline Island ferry to operate all season, which has only happened once before.


Are Computers Better Than People At Detecting When People Lie?

Lie to Me Logo
Lie to Me on FOX

Can computer software detect lies at a better rate than people? Scientific American reports that researchers at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York claim that their software, which analyzes eye movement can determine a lie with 82.5% accuracy. Their work, which is as of yet unpublished, consisted of 40 interviews with subjects that were given a punishment/reward scenario. If they were to successfully lie and get away with it, they would be given a cash reward plus a group they support will be given a donation. If they were caught lying, a group they oppose were given money.

Obviously, a 40 subject study is hardly a thorough  study but they have bigger plans for their research.

The researchers, who first presented their (still unpublished) results at the 2011 IEEE International Conference on Automatic Face and Gesture Recognition a year ago, believe they have laid the foundation for a more extensive study that will include a larger sample and take into account body language in addition to eye movement to determine whether new technologies can help interrogators in their search for the truth.

The study is based off of work of Paul Ekman, a Professor Emeritus psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. Ekman studied emotions and their relation to facial expressions. The study’s co-author, Mark Frank, worked for Ekman U.C. San Francisco’s psychiatry department previously.

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Is Thorium a Suitable Alternative Nuclear Fuel?

Map of Thorium Concentrations (most of USA and some of Canada) from USGS
Map of Thorium Concentrations (most of USA and some of Canada) from USGS

Our Get Together this Saturday, March 10th will feature Dr. Ron Fleming, Professor Emeritus of Nuclear Engineering & Radiological Sciences at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Fleming will be talking to us about Nuclear Science. The current technology involved in nuclear power generation along with new and different ideas. One of the ideas he will be speaking about is Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTR). Many of you probably have heard about them, there has been a small buzz on the Internet about them. We brought The good doctor in to educate us about LFTR technology and to counter the rumors going around.

What is a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR)?

A LFTR reactor is a type of a breeder reactor that uses Thorium as the fuel source. The fuel is in a fluoride-based molten salt mixture to power the reaction. Breeder reactors are much more efficient than the light-water reactors in use today, extracting as much as 100% of  a fuel’s energy versus 1%. Also since they operate at atmospheric pressures there is no chance of the reactor vessel exploding.

Wikipedia has a large list of advantages and disadvantages. Here are a few of the advantages:

  • LFTRs can be designed to be inherently safe: They can have passive nuclear safety, strong negative temperature coefficient of reactivity and operate at atmospheric pressures. (i.e., since the core is not pressurized, it cannot explode)
  • MSFRs can include a freeze plug at the bottom that has to be actively cooled, usually by a small electric fan. If the cooling fails, say because of a power failure, the fan stops, the plug melts, and the fuel drains to a subcritical easily cooled storage facility. This not only stops the reactor, also the storage tank can more easily shed the decay heat from the short-lived radioactive decay of irradiated nuclear fuels.
  • Since the LFTR fuel is liquid, relatively small, simple equipment can continuously remove transmutation products. This immensely simplifies the reactor’s behavior, i.e. it is more predictable, thus more easily controlled and safer than a conventional LWR (light-water reactor).

There have been several TED talks on the subject. Here is one:


Prepare your questions for Dr. Fleming. I expect this to be a very informative Get Together!

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