Posted by: Loren Coleman on April 24th, 2008
Ben Radford tells us how his “science works.”
“Lake Monsters I Have Known” sounds like the setup for a bad horror movie or an even worse children’s book. One thing it might not sound like is science. But without science, Ben Radford explained at a recent meeting of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, the stories of the Loch Ness monster and her kin spin out of control in a hurry.
Monthly meetings of NMSR, as the organization is known by its members and friends, are the sorts of places you can go to learn about the truly strange — UFOs and lake monsters, to take two examples — but also the scientifically serious. Curious about the latest scientific findings on the extinction of the dinosaurs? The dawn of rationalism in ancient Greece? The science behind vaccination? The evolution of political values? Or do you just like good magic tricks? You’ll get that at NMSR as well.
At one recent meeting, organization founder and current vice president John Geohegan wowed the crowd with a simple demonstration: A string of beads seemed to fly into the air before gravity tugged it back down to Earth. Audience members laughed and clapped in delight. The group’s members tend to like the label “skeptic” to describe their particular mind-set, and they have a reputation for enthusiastically debunking bizarre claims.
In the late 1990s, NMSR president Dave Thomas debunked author Michael Drosnin’s claims that hidden messages predicting the future were encoded in ancient biblical text. Thomas, a computer programmer, mathematician and physicist, is also one of the leading experts on the lack of UFOs at Roswell in 1947. The idea, explained Radford, a Corrales resident and NMSR regular, is not to set out with debunking in mind. It is simply to test claims made by others, applying the tools of science.
Radford has traveled to Loch Ness and other lakes around the world looking for genuine evidence of the storied lake monsters. “It’s not an issue of me trying to disprove it,” said Radford, who has yet to find a lake monster claim that holds up. “That’s how science works.” NMSR began in May 1990, the brainchild of Ken Frazier, an Albuquerque resident who is the editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. The national organization that publishes the magazine was trying to create local skeptic groups. Frazier sent invitations to all the magazine’s Albuquerque-area subscribers. New Mexico seemed fertile ground, Frazier recalled, with both a strong foundation in scientific research and a tradition of less firmly grounded ideas. “We have a lot of bizarre claims,” he said, “from UFOs in the south to New Age claims in Santa Fe.”
The organization’s goal, Frazier said, was “to encourage critical thinking.” Thomas explained the difference between science and the sort of pseudoscience frequently debunked by the group this way: Science, he said, looks at all of the available evidence and tries to come up with some sort of overarching explanation that explains it all.
Scientists call them “theories,” but when they use the word, they mean a well-established idea: the theory of relativity, the theory of quantum mechanics, the theory of continental drift, the theory of evolution. Pseudoscience does the opposite. “They start out with a belief and then they cherry-pick the data to find little nuggets that support that belief,” he said.
During the 1990s, the group formed the base for a battle against efforts to weaken the teaching of evolution in New Mexico public schools, said Marshall Berman, a retired Sandia National Laboratories physicist. Eventually, the political effort was spun off into a second organization, the Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education. While there remains an enormous overlap in the membership of the two organizations, the practical division of duties now seems to be that the coalition is the place for serious political action on education issues, while NMSR is where members go to play. And play they do.
Meetings open with some sort of extraordinary science display or a magic trick, usually engineered by either Thomas or vice president Geohegan. Magic tricks — card tricks, disappearing coins, ropes that you slice in two and then magically restore — are a skeptic favorite. When he gives presentations to school students, Thomas always makes clear before the trick that what they are seeing is really trickery, not genuine magic. “It’s to show,” Thomas said, “that things are not always as they seem.”
Sources: “Skeptics group tries out scientific theories,” by John Fleck, 21 April 2008, Albuquerque Journal, Albuquerque, N.M. (Thanks to Paul Cropper.)