I'm LinkedIn and Google-Plussed.

Mail and packages, use maildrop:
Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com


SkeptiCal's Coming May 29th

For Northern Californians who are skeptical of pseudoscience, the SkeptiCal conference returns bigger and better. It will be held at the Berkeley Marina Doubletree Hotel on May 29, 2011. Last year's conference sold out past capacity, so please buy your tickets as soon as possible to ensure a seat!

You can register, and find much more information, at www.skepticalcon.org.

Speakers this year:
* Dr. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education, who leads the struggle to teach Evolution, despite so-called "Creationists"
* Dr. Bob Carroll, creator of the Skeptic’s Dictionary
* Skeptologists Yau-Man Chan (a Survivor) and Mark Edward
* UC Santa Cruz Professor of Psychology Dr. Anthony Pratkanis
* Pacific Institute President Dr. Peter Gleick
and many more. Other activities include an on-site lunch and a Skeptics-in-the-Pub event.

Options this year include a T-shirt and an on-site lunch at the Doubletree. If you don't choose the on-site lunch, there are many great restaurants within a short drive.

For more information, and to purchase tickets and a SkeptiCal '11 T-shirt, please visit www.skepticalcon.org.

Ways to follow the SkeptiCal Conference online:


Skeptics Around the Bay
© Norman Sperling, May 1, 2011

SkeptiCal is a joint effort of the Sacramento and Bay Area Skeptics. I joined the Bay Area Skeptics about 1983, shortly after moving to California. I've served on the Board since 1988, and have been vice chair for about 20 years, except for a year and a half as chair in the early '90s.

BAS has used several modes to share and spread our views. We've done newsletters and a website (baskeptics.org). We've had lots of local meetings with speakers. Our people are active in TAM and CSI, and especially in online media like blogs and podcasts. We've joined some larger efforts, like the recent one pointing out the absence of medicine in the virtually pure water sold as homeopathic "medicine".

Trends over the last 3 decades:
* Harsh voices have left and the group is now very nice.
* Good meeting rooms are harder and harder to find, and attendance is irregular.
* Print media have declined, and online media have risen, at least as much in skepticism as elsewhere.
* Endless gobs of bunk keep befouling and fleecing the public, so there's always too much to address.

Our most successful recent enterprise came a year ago, when we teamed up with Sacramento's skeptics to run a daylong regional convention. It sold out, so we set up an overflow room with live video. We had great speakers and discussion leaders. Lots of folks met kindred spirits. Almost everybody had a wonderful time and said we should do it again. Hence this year's gathering, in a nicer venue with twice the capacity.

I'll be retailing from a table in the main event room. In addition to JIR and its newest anthologies, I'll also sell off part of my personal library on skeptical topics. Some are bunk and some debunk. Pretty soon I won't have much shelf space, so those books have to find new homes.

Now is the Time to Expand the Budget ... of Paradoxes

© Norman Sperling, February 19, 2011

While the Skeptics' movement, as official organizations of people, only dates from the 1970s, there have been skeptics of pseudoscience for hundreds of years. One of the most interesting was a prickly Victorian named Augustus De Morgan.

De Morgan responded tartly in the Athenaeum magazine to assorted balderdash he read in a wide variety of books, and to letters which people sent him. His writings for the Athenaeum were rather like those of some bloggers today. He had a short fuse. Politeness was not a priority.

After he died, his widow published De Morgan's ripostes as one of the first Skeptics' books, A Budget of Paradoxes. I treasure my copy of the second edition, published in 2 volumes in 1915.

I got them from the estate of Joe Ashbrook, editor of Sky & Telescope magazine. Joe's signature inside the front cover says he bought it on June 24, 1935, when the book was 20 years old, and Joe was 17. Over the rest of his career he wrote a great many interesting notes in it. Joe especially used the book's many short biographies; back then, we didn't have the research resources we have now.

But the Budget only publishes De Morgan's retorts. The first half of each dialog isn't there, and can only partly be inferred from what is. Back when De Morgan wrote, and when the Budget was published, there was a perfect reason for that: the copyrights to the other side of the dialog didn't belong to De Morgan, and the writers were usually hostile to him.

Now those copyrights have long expired. And now a huge amount of Victorian text is on-line and otherwise more accessible.

So now that it is possible, somebody should put together the complete version: the claims as well as the disproofs, the bunk as well as the debunk.

It could be published in electronic formats. It could also be printed-on-demand so no publisher has to bet how many others will want to buy a copy, after I buy the first one.

What similar worthy projects, never done before, are now doable?

Homeopathy: There's Nothing In It

Relayed from Jay Diamond, slightly enriched by Norman Sperling, January 27, 2011

Homeopathy is a popular but widely misunderstood form of alternative "medicine" based on pseudo-scientific principles. Homeopathic "remedies" are allegedly made by diluting questionable remedies with extraordinary amounts of water - often until there is only a slight chance of one molecule of active ingredient in the final treatment.

Extraordinary claims are causing consumers to forego traditional medical treatment, with estimates of Americans spending >$3B per year on this pseudoscience.

Stand up for rational thinking and scientific evidence. For more on the 10:23 campaign or homeopathy see http://1023.org.uk .

Why 10:23? Think Avogadro's Number. After the event, go to Trader Joe's and enjoy their delicious "Avocado's Number Guacamole".

San Francisco, February 5

You are invited to join like-minded skeptics in San Francisco on Saturday morning, February 5, to take part in the worldwide 10:23 campaign to raise awareness on this issue. Demonstrate, supply information, and perform a mass "overdose" to garner attention for this cause.

For more information on participation in the San Francisco event, send e-mail to: 1023@reason4reason.org . You MUST RSVP to participate in the "overdosing". See http://reason4reason.org

Why Mass Media Keep Running Horoscopes, and How That Shows You Who Not to Heed

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 21, no. 4, October-December 2004, p6.

For many years – decades, now – I've criticized mass media for continuing to publish horoscopes. Scientists and skeptics have demonstrated repeatedly, scientifically, logically, persuasively, that those published horoscopes are junk. They're not valid. They mislead readers. They even influence some readers to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn't, and to that degree they harm their audience.

I've worked in several mass-communications media, including a daily newspaper in a big chain, a web-based general news outlet, an authoritative independent scientific magazine, and now an independent science humor magazine. Colleagues in other radio, television, and assorted media tell me what those are like. Outside of specifically-scientific media, neither scientific literacy nor scientific mindset prevail. The vast majority of media owners and employees don't know science, and don't care much about it. Neither science literacy, nor gullibility for pseudoscience, seems relevant for hiring or promotion. Anywhere that science is concerned, they literally don't know what they are doing.

Profit-Driven Corporate Media

Corporate owners are notorious for being driven by the near-term bottom line. They aren't far-sighted enough for the long run (by contrast, some family-owned newspapers count by generations, not quarters).

Some owners make it clear that their principal purpose is to make money. Rupert Murdoch obviously puts profit foremost throughout his empire, so his Fox outlets, for example, may place journalistic standards second (or lower), and scientific validity third (or lower), along their way to lowering cultural standards generally. When Murdoch retires, I hope his successors will prioritize for greater public responsibility.

It's almost as bad outside Murdoch's empire. Most local newspapers are parts of large chains, which achieve economies of scale by operating non-local factors by corporate dictum. The corporation picks the cartoons and non-news features to run, including the horoscope column. The local news staff gets to fill the "news hole" on each page, but has zero influence on anything else. They funnel their attention to what they can do something about. Most newspapers don't have a science writer, and simply copy Associated Press reports, though AP is depressingly careless. I know a science writer who professed to not know whether her newspaper even ran a horoscope because she never looked at the non-news pages ... in which their horoscope runs every day. Most readers don't distinguish the different sources of what that newspaper prints on different parts of different pages.

Editing from Ignorance

I don't know any science writers or science editors who favor running horoscopes. But none rise high enough to make grand corporate decisions. Most stay within their subject. They report to general-journalism veterans, who are usually knowledgeable about public affairs, but emphatically ignorant about nature. The general-news media I worked for published horoscopes, and I carped about that, but gently enough not to threaten my employment.

Those senior editors impose templates of ignorance on the science coverage. I once had to put all my science coverage through a senior editor who was utterly ignorant, who kept failing to understand anything significant, and kept directing me to irrelevancies.

Another senior editor declared that "all stories are people stories", thus crippling coverage of, for example, a comet hitting a planet. That's how reporting about that comet and that planet gets shunted aside for personality-pieces about whoever happened to discover things.

Science coverage is likely to remain poor in corporate mass media. The bean counters don't understand science. The moguls don't understand science. The journalists in general don't understand science. They'll probably remain disgustingly ignorant for disgusting decades to come. So the presence of a horoscope will keep indicating a medium's scientific invalidity: media that publish horoscopes pander and profiteer; they don't understand science, and don't respect the reader enough to report reality.

Less-Filtered Voices

Now, however, little voices have a far better opportunity to be heard. I run an independent magazine, and I can print anything that won't alienate my subscribers. My contributors are often delighted to find an outlet where science, validity, and humor dominate decision-making. Horoscope-free specialty newsletters and magazines abound – seek them at your newsstand and library.

But the biggest influence by far is the World Wide Web. Small media have a far louder voice when you read what they say. For a horoscope-free, non-corporate take, follow links from these among your explorations: disinfo.com; projectcensored.org; transparency.org; eurekalert.org; quackwatch.org; debunker.com; csicop.org; utne.com. I don't agree with all their views, but I don't think any of them features a horoscope.

Because media like those – and of course your own favorite alternate viewpoints – can no longer be stifled, corporate influence is actually limited. If corporate media don't serve your needs, stop buying them, and find your own horoscope-free inputs instead.

The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading

by Ian Rowland. 3rd edition, 2002. 237 pages. Published by the author exclusively through his website, www.ianrowland.com. The new 4th edition: £28 plus postage from England.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 50, no. 3, 2007, p30.

Ian Rowland knows what you're thinking. Now that I've read his book, so do I.
Ian Rowland is a British magician who has perfected the art of "Cold Reading" to tell clients amazing things.
Cold readings are also used in tarot, astrology, palmistry, graphology, clairvoyance, mediumship, psychometry, crystal balls, and auras. The clients are usually surprised at how accurate the readings are. Readings work largely because most people share the same kinds of experiences, including the same problems. If you bring up a characteristic that almost everybody has to some degree, and scrupulously don't say how much the subject has of it, the claim rings true.
Rowland has learned the common thoughts of common people. I noticed that many of my own thoughts are so conventional that I must be pretty "normal", despite what some people say.
I got tuned in to this situation by fighting astrology. Horoscope writers spin lots of statements that are true for most people most of the time. Therefore, readers think their horoscopes are "right!", and credit astrology, rather than psychology, with the "hits".
Till recently, however, the only compilation of cold readings that I could find was the article, "Cold Reading": How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them, by Ray Hyman in The Zetetic (which later became Skeptical Inquirer), vol. I, no. 2, Spring/Summer 1977, pp 18-37. The paragraphs there descended from astrological horoscopes. I wanted better, more complete information. I knew there had to be more, but I couldn't find it.
Looking up "cold reading" sent me down some wrong alleys. For example, the term is also used for the quite different skill of narrators and actors who read a script for the first time – "cold".
Then, I heard about the first edition of this book, which was published in 1998. But it's not available in stores, and no library I use – including some major academic research libraries – has a copy. The price tag gave me second thoughts, so I put it off.
Finally I decided to buy it. It was already in its third edition, after only 5 years! The exclusive source is the author's website. This keeps control – and profits, and customer contact – away from distributors who don't care enough about the book. Rowland uses a clever security method to take credit cards, so I committed to the full retail price, plus intercontinental postage, totaling $64.61. Before I could even start worrying about the book getting lost in the mail, it arrived in perfect condition.
What a gem! This book is a joy to read, a splendid blend of human insight and practical showmanship. It includes everything I was thinking of, tons more that hadn't occurred to me, provides huge resources, and stays interesting the whole time. I read it cover-to-cover.
The most common themes of readings are love and money. Other popular topics include career, health, travel, education, and ambitions. A person not concerned with those would be rare indeed.
The heart of the book is the 119-page unit explaining how cold reading works. It covers the setup, principal themes, elements of the reading, the win-win game, and presentation points. Laced with revealing examples and entertaining anecdotes, it explains the theory and practice behind each point.
One of the book's many delights is the titling of the subsections. Here is a sampler:
Fine Flattery
Sugar Lumps
Barnum Statements
The Fuzzy Fact
The Opposites Game
The Jargon Blitz
The Vanishing Negative
Pollyanna Pearls
The Neverwas Prediction
I am wrong now, but I will be right soon
Reprising with gold paint
New in this edition are applications of cold reading to sales, romance, and interrogating criminals. Rowland comments on the ethics and legality involved, but may not always be heeded.
The author has some quirks that are excusable, and arguably good. He puts into print the time-honored speaker's maxim of "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." Each segment's introduction clarifies what it is about and where it fits into the larger scheme. Each segment ends by saying some version of "this ends the segment on such-and-such, the fourth of seven elements of thus-and-so." The phrasing is stilted, but it's brief and keeps the logical structure obvious.
The book is so meticulously proofread that I found only 2 typos, both trivial, on pages 123 and 125.
Though the contents are witty and wonderful, the physical production of the book shows some choices that I wouldn't have made. I eMailed Rowland about them, and got his reasoning, but I still don't agree.
Throughout the book, most places that need a long "dash" use a short "hyphen" instead. That is just plain wrong.
The paperback format and binding are conventional and appropriate. The paper is certainly opaque, a helpful characteristic which Rowland wanted. But the paper is much heavier than it needs to be. It's also very glossy, which gives awkward, annoying reflections from lighting in some rooms. Lighter, matte-finish book paper would feel more appropriate, be easier to read, and probably cost the publisher less.
The author likes the look of the "Souvenir" type font he used. But it is not the most readable. When I publish a book, I really want people to read it, so I use the most-readable fonts – typically "book" types like Bookman and Century Schoolbook. They aren't as condensed as Times, nor as artsy as Souvenir – but they read better, and that's what I want most. I often felt this book's lower readability slowed me down, when the actual wording would have let me go faster.
OK, if you have to read slower, consider it "savoring". This is certainly a delicious book!

Unlearning, Degrees of Belief, and Feng Shui

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 17, no. 6, March 1999, p3-4.

Most people know the detailed "ifs, ands, and buts" of their own specialties. To learn them often requires un-learning the simplifications of "common knowledge" and "conventional wisdom". Outside their specialties, however, most people don't know any better than to accept oversimplifications. So do most leaders, confronted by problems they are not expert in, and so do most mass media. And so do skeptics, though we often feel worse when we learn better.

The oversimplifications we learn abound with boundaries, but reality turns out to be much more muddled. This is true for countries, for languages, and for "mystical beliefs".

National Boundaries

Maps often portray national boundaries as a sharp change from one solid color to a contrasting one. That gives the false impression that the area all in one solid color is all one uniform place, changing abruptly at the boundary to a contrasting uniform place. Before the Soviet Union broke up, most Westerners considered "Russian" and "Soviet" to be synonyms, and many were surprised when the flow of events featured the national identities of Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and others.

I learned another dimension from Dr. A. Florsch, who gave me a grand tour of Strasbourg Observatory. As we gazed toward the nearby Rhine River, he told me "I am a Frenchman. My father was a German. His father was a Frenchman, and his father was a German. And we have never moved!"

Languages and Dialects

Language, too, is much more varied than generally appreciated. I was taught that "in Germany, they speak German". That gave me the false impressions that "Germany" is one uniform place and "German" is one uniform language. I later learned that there are not only different accents and regional preferences, but also local dialects which are unintelligible to speakers of the nationwide version. In Newsweek I read a linguist's comment that "a language is a dialect with an army." Most often, the dialect of the capital becomes the "national language", especially through radio and television.

The same certainly applies in China. My ex grew up speaking Yantai dialect. It's a version of Mandarin which is not intelligible to people who only know Beijing dialect. Cantonese, in 2 southern provinces where many Chinese in America originated, is also not intelligible to Beijing or Yantai or dozens of other Chinese dialects. Most Mainland Chinese can now understand Beijing Mandarin, though they continue to speak their local tongue.

Feng Shui

Before I married a Chinese woman, visited plain people in China (in contrast to just tourist sites), and talked so often with Chinese people in America, I would have bought the tone of some skeptics' rants against "feng shui" (pronounced "fung shway"). That is reported as the mystical belief that buildings and their furnishings must be arranged in certain ways for good luck, and certain other arrangements must be avoided to fend off bad luck. This gives the false impression that "feng shui" is a uniform belief, and that all Chinese swallow it whole. Reality is much more varied.

Yes, there are highly-respected people "proficient" in feng shui. And, yes, there are some users who "believe" their dictates. But the vast majority of practitioners and users operate much more casually. Hardly anyone concentrates on feng shui. For most, it is little more than "that chair will look good over there".

It's hardly different from the interior design practice of one of our neighbors. When she says "that chair will look good over there", clients take her advice. They don't call her mystical, but they can't explain her skill, either.

It is the varying degrees that most media, politicians, and skeptics miss. From my visits and conversations I have learned that China is a country with enormous variety in food, language, and scenery, and also enormous variety in beliefs, intensities of beliefs, and local leadership. I've learned that, since the central government relaxed its grip, when you hear "China cracked down on X", it really means that "One Chinese politician cracked down on X, but outside his influence, people generally went about their business as usual." And when you hear some skeptics say that "Chinese believe Y", interpret that as "Some Chinese believe Y, and many less so, and others not at all, and some contrariwise."

How Much Pull?

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 21, no. 4, October-December 2004, p10.

Every few years, somebody makes up a claim that the arrangement of celestial bodies caused, or will cause, something big to happen. This stirs the ignorant among the public and the media, sells tons of books and tabloids, and fills airwaves with blather, all without benefit of actual factual content.

Half a century ago, the Austrian psychiatrist Immanuel Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision. This book said Venus erupted out of Jupiter, flew close to Earth, and then settled into its present orbit.
This demonstrates utter ignorance of the physical nature of Jupiter – which is so massive that the power needed for such an eruption would demand causes and effects unlike anything witnessed in nature.
It contradicts what we understand about chemistry – how could the oxidizing atmosphere of Venus arise from the reducing atmosphere of Jupiter?
It demonstrates utter ignorance of gravitational interaction – how could a close approach of Venus part the Red Sea without causing many other massive tidal disruptions?
It demonstrates utter ignorance of celestial mechanics – changing to Venus's present orbit requires transferring huge amounts of energy to a very nearby object which, however, does not exist.
It claims Venus and Mars collided a few thousand years ago, which is absolutely contradicted by spacecraft observations of their surfaces, which show every sign that those surfaces are hundreds of millions of years old.

Worlds in Collision went through many printings, making a lot of money for its author. It inspired supporters who still claim that it is merely scientists, not Nature itself, who are against Velikovsky. Velikovsky's tale could only appeal to people who have very little knowledge of how those aspects of Nature really work, especially of the amounts of energy involved.

In 1974, John Gribbin and Stephen Plagemann published The Jupiter Effect, claiming that an alignment of planets in 1982 would cause gravitational havoc, triggering, among other things, massive earthquakes in California. Though Gribbin earned a PhD in astronomy, he showed greater interest in earning money from a public who knew less than he did. Again, the amounts don't work out. The alignment was weak. The gravitational difference was trivial. Such alignments have occurred repeatedly in the past, and didn't trigger massive earthquakes or any other noticeable effect.

Real scientists debunked the claims immediately. Planetaria produced shows explaining why the book was bunk. Amateur astronomers held star parties around alignment time to show the planets to the public. As scientists predicted, contrary to Gribbin and Plagemann, none of the Jupiter Effects actually occurred. However, Gribbin and Plagemann earned quite a lot of money from book sales, media appearances, and so on.

Richard Noone pulled a similar stunt in his 1982 book 5/5/2000. Yet again, he claimed that planet alignments would gang up to pull on Earth, this time triggering rampant glaciation. Yet again, book buyers were fleeced (by the poor writing quality as well as the contents). Yet again, the public was deceived by gullible media, especially websites. Yet again, the date came and went and nothing they predicted happened.

In 1987, Jose Arguelles concocted a tale of "Harmonic Convergence" and published it as The Mayan Factor. Arguelles made up a "Mayan" calendar cycle that doesn't come from any archaeological record. He claimed that in 2012 a "galactic wave" would culminate in a new age, allowing Earth to join the Galactic Federation and its Council. This was a total fabrication from science fiction and New Age themes, not anything real.

Adherents claim earth's resonant frequency is changing from "8 Hertz per second" (a garbled term) to 13; I know of no geophysical measurement supporting this. They claim that this energy boost (is it?) accompanies the decrease of Earth's magnetic field to zero. That's also a mixture of garble and garbage.

The "Harmonic Convergence" played on the same ignorance of the same public – who don't know the Earth's structure, let alone the Galaxy's. It, too, enjoyed big, profitable sales. It, too, resulted in no geophysical effects. The public was deceived again, fleeced of its money and attention. Again, the media – ignorant of the realities of nature, and more eager to share circulation gains from spreading claims than to verify them with experts – fostered the public ignorance, thereby compounding it.

It's been a few years. Someone is going to concoct another fiction, and sell it.

But there's also another trend at work. The earlier books made much more stir than the later ones. They went through more printings, and probably made more money, than the later ones. While the media certainly still aren't science-literate, they've shown progressively less gullibility in this sequence; the 5/5/2000 event created only a minor stir, largely in the uncontrolled claims rampant on the WWW.

One contributing factor is the rising percentage of the public that has passed college science survey courses. A quarter of a million US college students take intro-astro courses every year. Throughout the developed world, education is providing the public with a better basis to judge claims with. Science hasn't won yet, but we're blunting the bunk a bit.
Astronomy Pseudoscience Public Policy Human Behavior

Was the Loch Ness Monster an Aurora?

© Norm Sperling 1994. Originally published in The Planetarian, vol. 23, no. 4, December 1994, 5, 53.

Astronomical effects influence a lot of fields. But specialists in those studies don't always know enough astronomy to recognize what's really happening. Here's an example on a famous topic that no one would expect to have an astronomical dimension.

The highly-publicized hunt for "Nessie", the Loch Ness Monster, interests scientists and skeptics as well as the "crypto-zoologists" who hope that, in addition to the millions of small species that (naturalists assure us) remain to be cataloged, there may also be some unusually big ones. Discovering big new animals wouldn't violate anything scientific, and it would definitely be cool.

Nessie's setting is well known. In Scotland there lies a long, narrow, deep lake, Loch Ness, famous for its opaque waters. Sporadic reports from locals and tourists suggest that a large aquatic animal lives there, only rarely surfacing. A few ambiguous photographs and a lot of folklore support Nessie. The local hotels hope the hype continues to draw even more tourists than the pleasant landscapes and local culture earn on their own. Similar phenomena include "Champ" in Lake Champlain, Vermont, and "Ogopogo" in Okanagan Lake, British Columbia.

Just what the creatures might be, if real, remains to be demonstrated. I often heard plesiosaurs suggested, though these large marine reptiles are thought to have met extinction at the same time as dinosaurs, the end of the Cretaceous period, 65 million years ago. No plesiosaur fossils have been found in any later rocks.

"Remember the coelacanth!", the advocates remind us. These large primitive fish were also thought to be extinct, and now we have specimens of 2 species caught live - one species near the Comoro Islands and South Africa in the Indian Ocean, and the other in Indonesia. But the main reason to suspect a plesiosaur was its similarity to the "surgeon's photo", now admitted to have been a 1930s hoax.

A number of expeditions have sought Nessie, using more or less technological devices, and techniques of varying sophistication and likelihood of success. The one that produced the strangest result - often cited as the best scientific evidence for Nessie - was conducted in the summer of 1972. A sonar transducer (which converts sounds into electrical signals) was submerged 35 feet in the dark waters, connected by a long wire to analytical equipment aboard a boat. The transducer's signal traveled along that wire to amplifying electronics aboard the ship. If Nessie swam by the sonar detector, it would say so, even if Nessie stayed out of sight of the nearby submerged cameras. That is objective and neutral: no large signals means no large object, no Nessie; large signals can mean Nessie is there.

An hour after midnight on August 9, 1972, the sonar produced the peculiar strip-chart recording which is most often cited as showing the Loch Ness Monster. Though published1, this strip-chart is so different from conventional sonar output that even pro-Nessie studies quote the opinions of authorities, and several of those hedge2. Items by Rikki Razdan and Alan Kielar in the Skeptical Inquirer have disputed the positioning of the transducer (free-swinging or stationary), the stimulus for looking there and then (a dowser's signal), and the interpretation of the strip-chart. The matter remains controversial.

Despite the decades since then, I remember vividly where I was and what I was doing that week. I was in Springfield, Vermont, at the most famous astronomical convention in America. "Stellafane" is intended for people who make telescopes, but every year thousands who don't grind their own flock there too. I was attending my first Stellafane that very weekend. The sky was clear and dark. The Milky Way shone prominently. But everybody's attention was on something else. Brilliant green aurora - "Northern Lights" - flitted all around the sky. This was the finest display I have ever seen - the longest, the brightest, the most detailed and the fastest flickering, covering the most sky, right down to the south horizon.

In fact, this was one of the strongest auroras in decades, occasioned by one of the strongest solar flare outbursts recorded to that time. The Sun had just spat out a lot of charged particles, and they whipped Earth's magnetic field around, causing quite a lot of havoc. The storm induced electric currents in long wires, with many reports of damaging voltage and amperage variations. There were surges in the Canadian electric power grid; a big transformer exploded; short-wave radio communications were gravely disrupted; and sensitive electronic equipment was subjected to surges and flutters and spikes of current. Sky & Telescope magazine covered the event with no less than 5 articles, and J. A. McKinnon compiled a whole monograph on the event.

Much of Europe reported aurora and other electromagnetic phenomena from this solar storm. Loch Ness lies closer to the zone of greatest auroral intensity, the "auroral oval", than most of Europe.

The peculiar sonar reading occurred at just the time of the second-greatest peak of magnetic intensity. But the Loch Ness investigators didn't report the aurora. Most likely it was cloudy there, as it is about 90% of the time. Even had it been clear, their attention would have been focused down toward the waters, and it would be entirely understandable if they didn't notice diffuse phenomena occurring behind them and apparently unrelated to their interests. They did, however, note that "the hair went up on the backs of their necks" - an effect well-known in electrical demonstrations - though they interpreted that as "primitive instincts" that "there was something ominous in the loch that night"3.

One sensitive electronic instrument, using a long wire, did give a peculiar reading just when an exceptionally strong gust of solar wind swept by Earth, just when hair rose on their necks. The least-strange interpretation is that this sonar recorded the magnetic storm, rather than the Loch Ness Monster. This might explain why the reading from the Loch Ness equipment is so strange that it requires expert interpretations, and why those say different things.

If so, the Loch Ness investigators may deserve a more charitable treatment than some skeptics have given them. They reported what their instrument told them, and that instrument gave a reading that is possible to interpret as data confirming an unusually large object or creature. The hair-raising clue alone was too little to pick up on. The aurora was probably hidden by clouds, and even if visible would not likely attract their attention, let alone their suspicion. And while atmospheric scientists and astronomers would connect the aurora to the strangeness of signals riding long wires, few other scientists would suspect their instruments of telling them anything beside what they're designed to tell.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so you can still root for Nessie. But the scientific evidence (with the sonar reading resulting from aurora, and the "surgeon's photo" an admitted hoax) is very meager.

Everything people deal with is embedded in a cosmic setting. The better people understand the cosmos, the better they can deal with it.

1. Scott and Rines, 1975, p 466; Rines et al., 1976, p 31.
2. Rines et al., 1976, pp 36-7.
3. Rines et al., 1976, p 30.

* Klein, M., and C. Finkelstein, Technology Review, vol. 79, no. 2, 1976, p. 3.
* McKinnon, J[ohn] A[ngus], August 1972 Solar Activity and Related Geophysical Effects, Technical Memorandum ERL SEL-22, Space Environment Laboratory, Environmental Research Laboratories, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Boulder, Colorado, December 1972.
* Razdan, Rikki, and Alan Kielar, "Sonar and Photographic Searches for the Loch Ness Monster: A Reassessment", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 2, Winter 1984-5, pp. 147-158.
* -, "Loch Ness Reanalysis: Authors Reply", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 4, Summer 1985, pp. 387-9.
* Rines, Robert H., Harold E. Edgerton, Charles W. Wickoff, and Martin Klein, "Search for the Loch Ness Monster", Technology Review, vol. 78, no. 5, March-April 1976, pp. 25-40.
* Rines, Robert, et al., "Loch Ness Reanalysis: Rines Responds", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 9, no. 4, Summer 1985, pp. 382-6.
* Scott, Sir Peter, and Robert Rines, "Naming the Loch Ness monster", Nature, vol. 258, 11 December 1975, pp. 466-8.
Sky & Telescope magazine articles on this magnetic storm appear in October 1972, pp. 214, 226, and 237; November 1972, p. 333; and February 1973, p. 130.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

Your Cart

View your shopping cart.