The Arizona Skeptic A Journal Promoting Critical Thinking Volume 5, Issue 5 March/April 19
The Arizona Skeptic
A Journal Promoting Critical Thinking
Volume 5, Issue 5 March/April 1992
About "The Vitality of Mythical Numbers" and "Truth Almost Extinct
in Tales of Imperiled Species"
I came across Max Singer's "The Vitality of Mythical Numbers" as
chapter 29 in _Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases_,
edited by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky (1982,
Cambridge University Press), a book which I recommend to anyone
interested in mistakes that are commonly made in human reasoning.
Although the article is now 21 years old and the statistics are
therefore out of date, the point it makes is still important
I expect Julian Simon's "Truth Almost Extinct in Tales of
Imperiled Species" to raise some controversy, due to its style and
content, if not because of its source of original publication
(_The Washington Times_). The purpose of printing it here is not
to minimize fears or incentives regarding the protection of
endangered species, but rather to exemplify again how statistics
can be misused or misleading--in this case, figures used by the
World Wildlife Fund. Similar examples may be found in the
literature of many activist groups, which sometimes put the goal
of persuading the public above the goal of education. (Another,
more recent example may be found in a mailing from the Drug Policy
Foundation, whose goals I tend to support. In "Test Your
Knowledge About Drugs," one of the true-or-false questions was
"AIDS, the disease of this century and perhaps the plague of the
next, is spread more by sex than by intravenous drug use," to
which the answer supplied was "false," which corresponds with the
DPF's emphasis on legalizing needle purchases and exchange
programs. In fact, the given statement is true.) I encourage
anyone who has more recent and more accurate statistics on the
subject of species extinction to send them to _The Arizona
Skeptic_. (A possible lead for discovering such evidence is given
in an editorial footnote to Simon's article.)
Some other useful sources on numeric errors are Douglas R.
Hofstadter's "On Number Numbness" in the May 1982 _Scientific
American_ (reprinted in his book _Metamagical Themas_, 1985, Basic
Books) and John Allen Paulos' _Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy
and Its Consequences_ (1990, Vintage).
The Vitality of Mythical Numbers
By Max Singer
It is generally assumed that heroin addicts in New York City steal
some two to five billion dollars worth of property a year, and
commit approximately half of all the property crimes. Such
estimates of addict crime are used by an organization like RAND,
by a political figure like Howard Samuels, and even by the
Attorney General of the United States. The estimate that half the
property crimes are committed by addicts was originally attributed
to a police official and has been used so often that it is now
part of the common wisdom.
The amount of property stolen by addicts is usually estimated
in something like the following manner:
There are 100,000 addicts with an average habit of $30.00 per
day. This means addicts must have some $1.1 billion a year to pay
for their heroin (100,000 x 365 x $30.00). Because the addict
must sell the property he steals to a fence for only about a
quarter of its value, or less, addicts must steal some $4 to $5
billion a year to pay for their heroin.
These calculations can be made with more or less
sophistication. One can allow for the fact that the kind of
addicts who make their living illegally typically spend upwards of
a quarter of their time in jail, which would reduce the amount of
crime by a quarter. (_The New York Times_ recently reported on
the death of William "Donkey" Reilly. A 74-year-old ex-addict who
had been addicted for 54 years, he had spent 30 of those years in
prison.) Some of what the addict steals is cash, none of which
has to go to a fence. A large part of the cost of heroin is paid
for by dealing in the heroin business, rather than stealing from
society, and another large part by prostitution, including male
addicts living off prostitutes. But no matter how carefully you
slice it, if one tries to estimate the value of property stolen by
addicts by assuming that there are 100,000 addicts and estimating
what is the minimum amount they would have to steal to support
themselves and their habits (after making generous estimates for
legal income), one comes up with a number in the neighborhood of
$1 billion a year for New York City.
But what happens if you approach the question from the other
side? Suppose we ask, "How much property is stolen--by addicts or
anyone else?" Addict theft must be less than total theft. What
is the value of property stolen in New York City in any year?
Somewhat surprisingly to me when I first asked, this turned out to
be a difficult question to answer, even approximately. No one had
any estimates that they had even the faintest confidence in, and
the question doesn't seem to have been much asked. The amount of
officially reported theft in New York City is approximately $300
million a year, of which about $100 million is the value of
automobile theft (a crime that is rarely committed by addicts).
But it is clear that there is a very large volume of crime that
is not reported; for example, shoplifting is not normally reported
to the police. (Much property loss to thieves is not reported to
insurance companies either, and the insurance industry had no good
estimate for total theft.)
It turns out, however, that if one is only asking a question
like, "Is it possible that addicts stole $1 billion worth of
property in New York City last year?" is relatively simple to
estimate the amount of property stolen. It is clear that the two
biggest components of addict theft are shoplifting and burglary.
What _could_ the value of property shoplifted by addicts be? All
retail sales in New York City are on the order of $15 billion a
year. This includes automobiles, carpets, diamond rings, and
other items not usually available to shoplifters. A reasonable
number for inventory loss to retail establishments is 2%. This
number includes management embezzlers, stealing by clerks,
shipping departments, truckers, etc. (Department stores,
particularly, have reported a large increase in shoplifting in
recent years, but they are among the most vulnerable of retail
establishments and not important enough to bring the overall rate
much above 2%.) It is generally agreed that substantially more
than half of the property missing from retail establishments is
taken by employees, the remainder being lost to outside
shoplifters. But let us credit shoplifters with stealing 1% of
all the property sold at retail in New York City--this would be
about $150 million a year.
What about burglary? There are something like two and one-
half million households in New York City. Suppose that on the
average one out of five of them is robbed or burglarized every
year. This takes into account that in some areas burglary is even
more commonplace, and that some households are burglarized more
than once a year. This would mean 500,000 burglaries a year. The
average value of property taken in a burglary might be on the
order of $200. In some burglaries, of course, much larger amounts
of property are taken, but these higher value burglaries are much
rarer, and often are committed by non-addict professional thieves.
If we use the number of $200 x 500,000 burglaries, we get $100
million of property stolen from people's homes in a year in New
Obviously, none of these estimated values is either sacred or
substantiated. You can make your own estimate. The estimates
here have the character that it would be very surprising if they
were wrong by a factor of 10, and not very important for the
conclusion if they were wrong by a factor of two. (This is a good
position for an estimator to be in.)
Obviously not all addict theft is property taken from stores
or from people's homes. One of the most feared types of addict
crime is property taken from the persons of New Yorkers in
muggings and other forms of robbery. We can estimate this, too.
Suppose that on the average, one person in 10 has property taken
from his person by muggers or robbers each year. That would be
800,000 such robberies, and if the average one produced $100
(which it is very unlikely to do), $8 million a year would be
taken in this form of theft.
So we can see that if we credit addicts with _all_ of the
shoplifting, _all_ of the theft from homes, and _all_ of the theft
from persons, total property stolen by addicts in a year in New
York City amounts to some $300 million. You can throw in all the
"fudge factors" you want, add all the other miscellaneous crimes
that addicts commit, but no matter what you do, it is difficult to
find a basis for estimating that addicts steal over half a billion
dollars per year, and a quarter billion looks like a better
estimate, although perhaps on the high side. After all, there
must be some thieves who are not addicts.
Thus, I believe we have shown that whereas it is widely
assumed that addicts steal from $2 billion to $5 billion a year in
New York City, the actual number is _ten_ times smaller, and that
this can be demonstrated by five minutes of thought. So what? A
quarter billion dollars' worth of property is still a lot of
property. It exceeds the amount of money spent annually on addict
rehabilitation and other programs to prevent and control
addiction. Furthermore, the value of the property stolen by
addicts is a small part of the total cost to society of addict
theft. A much larger cost is paid in fear, changed neighborhood
atmosphere, the cost of precautions, and other echoing and re-
echoing reactions to theft and its danger.
One point in this exercise in estimating the value of
property stolen by addicts is to shed some light on people's
attitudes toward numbers. People feel that there is a lot of
addict crime, and that $2 billion is a large number, so they are
inclined to believe that there is $2 billion worth of addict
theft. But $250 million is a large number, too, and if our sense
of perspective were not distorted by daily consciousness of
federal expenditures, most people would be quite content to accept
$250 million a year as a lot of theft.
Along the same lines, this exercise is another reminder that
even responsible officials, responsible newspapers, and
responsible research groups pick up and pass on as gospel numbers
that have no real basis in fact. We are reminded by this
experience that because an estimate has been used widely by a
variety of people who should know what they are talking about, one
cannot assume that the estimate is even approximately correct.
But there is a much more important implication of the fact
that there cannot be nearly so much addict theft as people
believe. This implication is that there probably cannot be as
many addicts as people believe. Most of the money paid for heroin
bought at retail comes from stealing, and most addicts buy at
retail. Therefore, the number of addicts is basically--although
imprecisely--limited by the amount of theft. (The estimate
developed in a Hudson Institute study was that close to half of
the volume of heroin consumed is used by people in the heroin
distribution system who do not buy at retail, and do not pay with
stolen property but with their "services" in the distribution
system.) But while the people in the business (at lower levels)
consume close to half the heroin, they are only some one-sixth or
one-seventh of the total number of addicts. They are the ones who
can afford big habits.
The most popular, informal estimate of addicts in New York
City is 100,000-plus (usually with an emphasis on the "plus").
The federal register in Washington lists some 30,000 addicts in
New York City, and the New York City Department of Health's
register of addicts' names lists some 70,000. While all the
people on those lists are not still active addicts--many of them
are dead or in prison--most people believe that there are many
addicts who are not on any list. It is common to regard the
estimate of 100,000 addicts in New York City as a very
conservative one. Dr. Judianne Densen-Gerber was widely quoted in
1970 for her estimate that there would be over 100,000 teenage
addicts by the end of the summer. And there are obviously many
addicts of 20 years of age and more.
In discussing the number of addicts in this article, we will
be talking about the kind of person one thinks of when the term
"addict" is used. A better term might be "street addict." This
is a person who normally uses heroin every day. He is the kind of
person who looks and acts like the normal picture of an addict.
We exclude here the people in the medical profession who are
frequent users of heroin or other opiates, or are addicted to
them, students who use heroin occasionally, wealthy people who are
addicted but do not need to steal and do not frequent the normal
addict hangouts, etc. When we are addressing the "addict
problem," it is much less important that we include these cases;
while they are undoubtedly problems in varying degrees, they are a
very different type of problem than that posed by the typical
The amount of property stolen by addicts suggests that the
number of New York City street addicts may be more like 70,000
than 100,000, and almost certainly cannot be anything like the
200,000 number that is sometimes used. Several other simple ways
of estimating the number of street addicts lead to a similar
Experience with the addict population has led observers to
estimate that the average street addict spends a quarter to a
third of his time in prison. (Some students of the subject, such
as Edward Preble and John J. Casey, Jr., believe the average to be
over 40%.) This would imply that at any one time, one-quarter to
one-third of the addict population is in prison, and that the
total addict population can be estimated by multiplying the number
of addicts who are in prison by three or four. Of course the
number of addicts who are in prison is not a known quantity (and,
in fact, as we have indicated above, not even a very precise
concept). However, one can make reasonable estimates of the
number of addicts in prison (and for this purpose we can include
the addicts in various involuntary treatment centers). This
number is approximately 14,000-17,000, which is quite compatible
with an estimate of 70,000 total New York City street addicts.
Another way of estimating the total number of street addicts
in New York City is to use the demographic information that is
available about the addict population. For example, we can be
reasonable certain that some 25% of the street addict population
in New York City is Puerto Rican, and some 50% are blacks. We
know that approximately five out of six street addicts are male,
and that 50% of the street addicts are between the ages of 16 and
25. This would mean that 20% of the total number of addicts are
black males between the age of 16 and 25. If there were 70,000
addicts, this would mean that 14,000 blacks between the ages of 16
and 25 are addicts. But altogether there are only about 140,000
blacks between the ages of 16 and 25 in the city--perhaps half of
them living in poverty areas. This means that if there are 70,000
addicts in the city, one in 10 black youths are addicts, and if
there are 100,000 addicts, nearly one in six are, and if there are
200,000 addicts, one in three. You can decide for yourself which
of these degrees of penetration of the young black male group is
most believable, but it is rather clear that the number of 200,000
addicts is implausible. Similarly, the total of 70,000 street
addicts would imply 7,000 young Puerto Rican males are addicted,
and the total number of Puerto Rican boys between the ages of 17
and 25 in New York City is about 70,000.
None of the above calculations is meant in any way to
downplay the importance of the problem of heroin addiction.
Heroin is a terrible curse. When you think of the individual
tragedy involved, 70,000 is an awfully large number of addicts.
And if you have to work for a living, $250 million is an awful lot
of money to have stolen from the citizens of the city to be
transferred through the hands of addicts and fences into the
pockets of those who import and distribute heroin, and those who
take bribes or perform other services for the heroin industry.
The main point of this article may well be to illustrate how
far one can go in bounding a problem by taking numbers seriously,
seeing what they imply, checking various implications against each
other and against general knowledge (such as the number of persons
or households in the city). Small efforts in this direction can
go a long way to help ordinary people and responsible officials to
cope with experts of various kinds.
 Mythical numbers may be more mythical and have more vitality
in the area of crime than in most areas. In the early 1950s the
Kefauver Committee published a $20 billion estimate for the annual
"take" of gambling in the United States. The figure actually was
"picked from a hat." One staff member said: "We had no real idea
of the money spent. The California Crime Commission said $12
billion. Virgil Petersen of Chicago said $30 billion. We picked
$20 billion as the balance of the two."
An unusual example of a mythical number that had a vigorous
life--the assertion that 28 Black Panthers had been murdered by
police--is given a careful biography by Edward Jay Epstein in the
February 13, 1971, _New Yorker_. (It turned out that there were
19 Panthers killed, ten of them by the police, and eight of these
in situations where it seems likely that the Panthers took the
 A parallel datum was developed in a later study by St. Luke's
Hospital of 81 addicts--average age 34. More than one-half of the
heroin consumed by these addicts, over a year, had been paid for
by the sale of heroin. Incidentally, these 81 addicts had stolen
an average of $9,000 worth of property in the previous year.
 Among other recent estimators we may note a Marxist, Sol
Yurick, who gives us "500,000 junkies" (_Monthly Review_, December
1970), and William R. Corson, who contends, in the December 1970
_Penthouse_, that "today at least 2,500,000 black Americans are
hooked on heroin."
 There is an interesting anomaly about the word "addict." Most
people, if pressed for a definition of an "addict," would say he
is a person who regularly takes heroin (or some such drug) and
who, if he fails to get his regular dose of heroin, will have
unpleasant or painful withdrawal symptoms. But this definition
would not apply to a large part of what is generally recognized as
the "addict population." In fact, it would not apply to most
certified addicts. An addict who has been detoxified or who has
been imprisoned and kept away from drugs for a week or so would
not fit the normal definition of "addict." He no longer has any
physical symptoms resulting from not taking heroin. "Donkey"
Reilly would certainly fulfill most people's ideas of an addict,
but for 30 of the 54 years he was an "addict" he was in prison,
and he was certainly not actively addicted to heroin during most
of the time he spent in prison, which was more than half of his
"addict" career (although a certain amount of drugs are available
Reprinted with permission from _The Public Interest_, no. 23,
Spring 1971, pp. 3-9. Copyright (c) 1971 by National Affairs,
Truth Almost Extinct in Tales of Imperiled Species
By Julian Simon
Front page story, _The Washington Post_, Jan. 1, 1984: "A
potential biological transformation of the planet unequaled
perhaps since the disappearance of the dinosaur," says Thomas
Lovejoy of the World Wildlife Fund. "The folly our descendants
are least likely to forgive us," says Edward O. Wilson of Harvard.
These statements typify the scary rhetoric the public hears
about potential species extinction, usually a prediction that a
million or more existing species could be lost to mankind in the
next two decades if remedial action isn't taken at once. (To be
fair, the _Post_'s story was much less overheated than is usually
the case with this issue.)
Yet--there is absolutely no solid evidence supporting the
prediction that a million or more existing species will be lost to
mankind in the next two decades if radical remedial steps are not
taken by the governments of the world. A fair reading of the
available data suggests a prediction perhaps one-thousandth that
great. But the conservationists are beating the big drum for
money and action based on their frightening claims.
A recent fund-raising pitch from the World Wildlife Fund-
U.S., signed by its president, Russell E. Train, describes in
detail how the organization rallied support for reauthorization of
the Endangered Species Act, which Mr. Train asserts was itself
endangered. They did so by informing Congress that "some
scientists believe that up to 1 million species of life will
become extinct by the end of this century" unless governments "do
something" about it.
"When we talk about the loss of 1 million species," Train
says in his letter, "we are talking about a global loss with
consequences that science can scarcely begin to predict.
"The future of the world could be altered drastically if we
allow a million species to disappear by the year 2000."
I couldn't agree more; the sudden disappearance of a million
life forms would have major ecological effects. However, the WWF
prediction completely lacks factual basis.
WWF backs the million-species claim only with the statement
"some scientists believe." This is no scientific evidence at all.
You can find "some scientists" who will say they believe almost
any proposition you like, even if the established scientific facts
are quite the opposite. In the advertising trade (a usually
honorable trade that I practiced in my youth), such a statement is
known as weasel-wording. Such weasel-wording would draw the ire
of the Federal Trade Commission if made on behalf of a deodorant.
The available evidence on species suggests an astonishingly
different picture, however.
The proximate source for WWF's forecast is the 1979 book,
_The Sinking Ark_, by Norman Myers. Mr. Myers gives these two
statistics: the estimated extinction rate of known species
between the years 1600 and 1900 was about one every four years.
And the estimated rate from 1900 to the present was about one a
year. Mr. Myers gives no sources for these two estimates, but let
us assume they are valid.
The extinction-rate presented refer only to animals. But
there are no data for other species, to my knowledge.
Mr. Myers then departs spectacularly from that modest
evidence. He goes on to say that some scientists have "hazarded a
guess" that the extinction rate "could now have reached" 100
species per year.*
[* Norman Myers now says that today's rate is "a minimum of
1000, and possibly several thousand, species a year" and that "the
extinction rate could surely rise by the year 2000 to an average
of 100 species per year" ("Extinction Rates Past and Present,"
_Bioscience_ 39(January 1989):39). This article gives several
references for each of these claims, though most are to non-peer-
reviewed sources. --Editor.]
Next, this pure conjecture about upper limit of present
species extinction is increased and used by Mr. Myers and WWF
scientist Thomas Lovejoy as the basis for the "projections" quoted
in the fundraising letter and elsewhere. Mr. Lovejoy--by
converting what was an estimated upper limit into a present best-
estimate--says that government inaction is "likely to lead" to the
extinction of between 14 and 20 percent of all species before the
year 2000. This comes to about 40,000 species lost per year, or
about one million from 1980 to 2000.
In brief, this extinction rate is nothing but pure guesswork.
The forecast is a thousand times greater than the present--yet it
has been published in newspapers and understood as a scientific
Thomas Lovejoy and Norman Myers were at a meeting when I
first presented this critique. They found no statistical flaw in
it, although they did attack my interpretation, motives, and
credentials to discuss biological data.
Simply demonstrating that other peoples' data do not support
their conclusion may not be as convincing as presenting
independent contradictory data. But apparently there are no other
data to be found. The statistical analysis above certainly
demonstrates that the WWF warning of an extraordinary rate of
species extinction does not follow from the known facts, even the
facts presented by WWF itself.
Should this not be enough to discredit their assertion?
Three additional observations are worth keeping in mind.
First, there is currently much support for putting samples of
endangered species into "banks" which can preserve their genetic
possibilities for future generations. Second, genetic
recombination techniques now enable biologists to create new
variations of species. Finally, it is not easy to extinguish an
important species even when we try, as the experience of fighting
smallpox and the medfly revealed.
The facts cast the phenomenon of species extinction in a much
less frightening light than the WWF picture of fragile valuable
species dying off forever with no possibility of replacing or
substituting for them.
Reprinted with permission of the author. From Julian Simon,
_Population Matters: People, Resources, Environment, and
Immigration_ (1990, Transaction Publishers), pp. 145-148.
Copyright (c) 1990 by Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, New
Jersey 08903. This selection originally appeared in _The
Washington Times_, September 19, 1984. A more detailed analysis
is Simon's "Disappearing Species, Deforestation, and Data" which
appeared in the May 15, 1986 issue of _New Scientist_ and is also
reprinted in _Population Matters_, pp. 149-158.
_Julian Simon is a professor of business administration at the
University of Maryland at College Park. He is the author of_ The
Ultimate Resource _(1981) and co-editor with Herman Kahn of_ The
Resourceful Earth _(1983)._
_Space-Time Transients and Unusual Events_ by Michael A. Persinger
and Gyslaine F. Lafrenire
1977, Nelson-Hall, 267 pp.
Reviewed by Jim Lippard
Charles Fort and his followers have made a project of collecting
scientific anomalies not for the purpose of investigation, but in
order to taunt scientists. In the book _Space-Time Transients and
Unusual Events_ by Michael A. Persinger and Gyslaine F. Lafrenire
(P&L), however, collections of Forteana have been put together in
an attempt to find correlations between the events and suggest
possible explanatory hypotheses. The authors collected 6,060
events from Fort's works and other sources and categorized them
with respect to time, space, and category.
The first twelve chapters of the book consist in an
introduction and examples of anomalous events from general
categories and subcategories. The events are classified into fall
phenomena (e.g., falls of rocks, ice, liquids, animals),
electromagnetic-like phenomena (e.g., lights in the air, lights on
the ground, reception of radio signals by appliances other than
radios), unexplained sonic phenomena (e.g., booms, hums,
cracklings, shrieks), UFOs (e.g., in the air, on the ground,
abductions), unusual and infrequent astronomical events (e.g., new
stars, uncharted objects, solar and lunar peculiarities), unusual
and infrequent meteorological events (e.g., extreme weather
conditions, ball lightning, sudden temperature and pressure
changes, daytime darkness not corresponding to solar eclipses),
unusual and infrequent geophysical events (e.g., volcanic
eruptions, extraordinary earthquakes, sudden changes in water
level, unexplained holes appearing in the ground), unusual and
infrequent forces (e.g., appearing and disappearing objects,
crying and bleeding icons, spontaneous fires, spontaneous human
combustion, "phantom snipers"), unusual or unexplained
disappearances (of people, ships, and planes), unusual animals and
animal behavior (e.g., Big Foot, lake creatures, animals out of
habitat, unusual animal deaths, mutations), and unusual
archeological finds (e.g., "impossible" fossils).
The final five chapters contain an analysis of the data and
the proposal of several hypotheses. Data on volcanic activity,
earthquakes, meteors, and deaths of large numbers of animals due
to non-human activity were obtained from the Smithsonian
Institution's Center for Short-Lived Phenomena for forty-eight
months from 1968 to 1971 and compared with the Fortean data for
the same period. Correlations with significance greater than 0.01
(i.e., which would occur by chance 1 time in 100) were found
between occurrences within a one-month period of volcanic activity
and earthquakes, volcanic activity and unusual weather, volcanic
activity and the total of all Fortean events, meteors and animal
deaths, UFO sightings and all Fortean events, and unusual animal
observations and all Fortean events. To test reliability, the
data were split into two portions (1968-1969 and 1970-1971),
revealing "similar trends," though with stronger correlations in
the earlier interval. P&L come to no particular conclusions
regarding these correlations, except to note that the data are
"interesting, but not conclusive...[they] must be regarded as
significant trends...nothing can be concluded about the mechanism
of the events." (p. 179) They also note a significant correlation
between frequency of Fortean events and population density, for
which they propose (among other possibilities) the interpretation
that these events "are persistent artifacts of defective
'instrumentation.' ... the human population can be viewed as a
vast network of recorders and measurers that span the earth's
surface in varying numbers and densities. By probabilistic
demands there are deviant units in this network. ... Such deviant
units may be called 'neurotic' or 'untrained observers.'" (pp.
An interesting hypothesis proposed in chapter 15 involves
solar and geophysical forces. Various extreme weather conditions
have been found to be highly correlated with sunspot cycles and
solar disturbances. P&L propose that solar flares, geomagnetic
and seismic disturbances of the earth, and so forth may be
responsible for luminous displays in the air and on the ground and
explain such phenomena as UFO sightings, ghost lights, and
unexplained sonic phenomena. They further postulate that
geomagnetic effects on the human brain may be responsible for
inducing false perceptions. P&L note that a significant
correlation exists between the amount of minor earthquake activity
in a state and the frequency of unusual events occurring there.
While this hypothesis has some degree of _a priori_
plausibility and deserves further investigation, it should be
noted that some of the data collected has other mundane
explanation. Several of the example cases given in the book are
familiar to readers of the _Skeptical Inquirer_. The "ghost
lights" of Silver Cliff, Colorado were investigated in Bunch &
White (1988a) (but see Fraser & Bohren (1988) and Bunch & White
(1988b)). Evidence that the Betty and Barney Hill UFO abduction
case and the Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker (Pascagoula,
Mississippi) UFO abduction case are hoaxes has been produced by
Philip Klass (1987). The hauntings at Borley Rectory (and the
"spontaneous fires") appear to have been the productions of
"paranormal investigator" Harry Price (Hall 1985). A mechanism by
which "spontaneous human combustion" probably occurs has been put
forth by Joe Nickell and John Fischer (Nickell & Fischer 1987)--
their _SI_ article specifically mentions two of the cases listed
by P&L. The findings of modern nails and screws in ancient rock
is probably due to concretion over these items dropped in crevices
in modern times (Cole 1985). Alleged "human footprints" in rock
millions of years old have inevitably turned out to be natural
formations or dinosaur tracks (Cole, Godfrey, and Schafersman
1985; Godfrey 1985). The 1954 car windshield pits discovered in
Seattle turned out to have been there all along--the first reports
simply caused people to begin looking at their windshields instead
of through them (Medalia & Larsen 1958). Cases of bleeding and
weeping icons are probably hoaxes (perhaps using methods similar
to the (patent pending?) method of Bay Area Skeptic Shawn
Carlson). P&L themselves note regarding the observation of
uncharted planets and irregularities on planet surfaces that
"There is a conspicuous decrease in events of this type after 1920
... about this time, a significant increase in measurement
sophistication began which allowed marginally visible and
borderline phenomena to be properly evaluated." (p. 66)
Clearly, then, correlations between events with these sorts
of explanations and other anomalies are most likely coincidental.
It would be interesting to see if the correlation between
geophysical and solar activity and Fortean anomalies becomes
stronger when these events are removed.
The book makes quite interesting reading, and goes fairly
quickly because chapters 2 through 12 are composed mostly of lists
of anomalies. It is recommended for those interested in Forteana
and for a look at some plausible and some implausible hypotheses
put forth to explain them. Those wanting to investigate
particular anomalies, however, will not find details in this book
and are advised to instead consult the works of Charles Fort and
William R. Corliss (see review of his _The Unfathomed Mind_, _AS_,
Bunch, K.J. and White, M.K. (1988a) "The Riddle of the Colorado
Ghost Lights," _Skeptical Inquirer_ 12(Spring):306-309.
-- (1988b) "Kyle J. Bunch and Michael K. White Respond,"
_Skeptical Inquirer_ 13(Fall):102-103.
Cole, J.R. (1985) "If I Had a Hammer,"_Creation/Evolution_ 5:46-
Cole, J.R. and Godfrey, L.R., editors (1985) _The Paluxy River
Footprint Mystery--Solved_, special issue of
_Creation/Evolution_, vol. 5 no. 1.
Cole, J.R., Godfrey, L.R., and Schafersman, S.D. (1985)
"Mantracks? The Fossils Say No," _Creation/Evolution_ 5:37-45.
Godfrey, L.R. (1985) "Foot Notes of an Anatomist,"
Fraser, A.B. and Bohren, C.F. (1988) "Specious Scientific
Explanations," _Skeptical Inquirer_ 13(Fall):101-102.
Hall, T.H. (1985) "A Note on Borley Rectory: 'The Most Haunted
House in England'," in Kurtz (1985), pp. 327-338.
Klass, P.J. (1987) _UFO-Abductions: A Dangerous Game_. Buffalo,
Kurtz, P. (1985) _A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology_.
Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus.
Medalia, N. and Larsen, O.L. (1958) "Diffusion and Belief in a
Collective Delusion: The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic,"
_American Sociological Review_ 23:221-232.
Nickell, J. and Fischer, J.F. (1987) "Incredible Cremations:
Investigating Spontaneous Combustion Deaths," _Skeptical
The May/June issue of _The Arizona Skeptic_ will feature an
account of the mysterious lights of Marfa, Texas and an exchange
between self-acclaimed "internationally recognized philosopher"
John Bryant and Jim Lippard.
The Phoenix Skeptics will meet at the Jerry's Restaurant on
Rural/Scottsdale Road between McKellips and the river bottom, with
lunch at 12:30 on the first Saturday of each month except where it
conflicts with a holiday.
Request for Submissions
_The Arizona Skeptic_ is in need of material for future issues.
Please send your contributions to the editorial address on page 8.
Meeting reviews in particular are desired.
New Editor Wanted
The present editor may be spending the summer out of state working
on his dissertation, in which case a new editor will be needed
immediately. In any case, he will probably be leaving the state
near the beginning of 1993 to look for gainful employment or a
school that will give him yet another degree. The present
newsletter is put together with Microsoft Word 5.0, but switching
to another format is a possibility. Access to laserprinting is a
must. Contact Michael Stackpole in care of the Phoenix Skeptics
if you're interested in taking on this responsibility.
Articles of Note
Jacob Cohen, "Conspiracy Fever," _Commentary_ 60(4, October
1975):33-42. An old article about the JFK assassination which
deserves to be resurrected. Shows how the evidence of JFK's
wounds does _not_ support the claim that there was an assassin in
front or to the right. (Philip Klass and Lawrence Kusche are
briefly mentioned in footnotes about UFOs and the Bermuda
Patrick E. Cole, "Who Killed J.F.K.?" _Time_, December 23, 1991,
pp. 66-70. Another look at Oliver Stone's film and the
plausibility of some of its allegations.
Mike Dash, "Satanic Ritual Abuse in Epping?" _Fortean Times_
#61(February-March 1992):34-35. A followup on an alleged satanic
child abuse case reported in _FT_ #57 (see "Articles of Note,"
_AS_, November/December 1991). The first British case to go to
trial ended with the main witnesses for the prosecution
discredited. (This issue of _FT_ also has some letters on this
Jim Erickson, "Biospherians Began with 3-Month Food Supply,"
_Arizona Daily Star_, January 5, 1992, pp. A1-A2. Reveals that
the Biosphere 2 began with supplies of food for the humans and
animals, and that crew member Jane Poynter brought some supplies
back into the bubble on October 11 after leaving for surgery after
slicing off the tip of her finger in a rice-threshing machine.
"Managers of Biosphere Project Are Accused of Compromising
Experiment," _New York Times_, January 26, 1992. Reports on
accusations by filmmaker Louis Hawthorne, who was hired last year
by the University of Phoenix to make an educational
film/documentary about the Biosphere 2, that Biospherian Poynter
took airlock tamper indicators with her into the B2 after her
accident and that the B2's software has been designed so as to
allow editing of the data. Hawthorne is being sued by Space
Biospheres Ventures and the University of Phoenix.
Mary Lefkowitz, "Not Out of Africa," _The New Republic_
206(February 10, 1992):29-36. Debunking of some Afrocentric
claims that the ancient Greeks stole everything from Egypt; a book
review of six books which hold Afrocentric views. (Also see the
exchange between Martin Bernal and Lefkowitz which took place as a
result of this article in _The New Republic_ 206(March 9, 1992):4-
Alan Lightman and Owen Gingerich, "When Do Anomalies Begin?"
_Science_ 255(February 7, 1992):690-695. The authors maintain
that "scientific anomalies are recognized as anomalies only after
they are given compelling explanations within a new conceptual
framework," prior to which time they are either "taken as givens
or ignored." Examples adduced in favor of this hypothesis in the
course of the article include the flatness of the universe, which
became important with Alan Guth's inflationary universe model;
perigee opposition in retrograde motion, taken as a given under
Ptolemaic astronomy but explained under the Copernican model;
continental fit explained by continental drift; adaptation of
organisms to their environment explained by evolution; and
equality of inertial and gravitational mass, explained by
Jim Lippard, "How Not to Argue with Creationists,"
_Creation/Evolution_ XXIX(vol. 11, no. 2, Winter 1991-1992):9-21.
A description of bad tactics used by some Australian critics of
Ivars Peterson, "Off the Beat: Euclid's Crop Circles," _Science
News_ 141(February 1, 1992):76-77. A report on how retired
astronomer Gerald Hawkins (known for his studies of Stonehenge)
claims to have found five geometrical theorems represented in crop
circles which are not to be found in the works of Euclid. Four of
the five are revealed, the fifth kept secret as a "test" for
hoaxers. But surely the geometry of crop circles can exhibit
interesting geometrical properties without having been designed to
exhibit them. Hawkins' work here is somewhat reminiscent of the
"pyramid inch" concept.
Denis L. Rousseau, "Case Studies in Pathological Science: How the
Loss of Objectivity Led to False Conclusions in Studies of
Polywater, Infinite Dilution and Cold Fusion," _American
Scientist_ 80(January-February 1992):54-63. Rousseau, whose
investigations of polywater were a major factor in its demise,
simplifies Irving Langmuir's criteria of "pathological science"
into three conditions, which he illustrates with examples from the
polywater controversy, Benveniste's pro-homeopathy dilution
experiments, and the cold fusion controversy.
Rocky L. Stewart, "Bubble Trouble," _Harper's_ 284(February
1992):29-30. Resignation letter from the Biosphere 2's senior
software engineer, who cites false information being given by
project administrators to the press as one of his reasons for
The Arizona Skeptic is the official publication of the Phoenix
Skeptics and the Tucson Skeptical Society (TUSKS). The Phoenix
Skeptics is a non-profit scientific and educational organization
with the following goals: 1. to subject claims of the paranormal,
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Arizona Skeptic are copyright ) 1992 by the Phoenix Skeptics
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