New England Skeptical Society
From NECSS 2013
The New England Skeptical Society (NESS) is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to promoting science and reason. It was founded in January 1996 as the Connecticut Skeptical Society, by Steven Novella, Perry DeAngelis and Bob Novella. The group later joined with the Skeptical Inquirers of New England (SINE) and the New Hampshire Skeptical Resource to form the New England Skeptical Society (NESS).
In 1996 Perry DeAngelis, Steven Novella, and Bob Novella founded the Connecticut Skeptical Society. "The three... formed the society in January 1996 after their love of science drew them into the network of national and regional skeptical societies and they discovered there were none in Connecticut."
As Evan Bernstein tells it, "One night sometime in late 1995, Perry was over [at] Steve's condo, casually flipping through a copy of SI (Skeptical Inquirer). He was reading through the list of local groups, and commented to Steve: 'There's no local skeptics group in Connecticut. We should start one.'" Steve states that he [Steve] took on the majority of the "heavy lifting" but Perry was "right there" the whole time. "He [Perry] was in love with the big ideas, the logistics and the details that was for other people to worry about, which is why Perry and I worked really well together. Because I quickly became the detail and logistic person that made things happen," but he gets the credit for having the original big idea.
The group later joined with the Skeptical Inquirers of New England (SINE) and the New Hampshire Skeptical Resource to form the New England Skeptical Society (NESS).
The NESS was actively involved in investigating claims of the paranormal; Satanism, homeopathy, dowsing, cults and UFOs all have been given attention by NESS. In October 1996, Novella had been on a Ricki Lake show that talked about vampires, one claimed to be a psychic vampire and could drain people's minds. DeAngelis stood up in the audience spread his arms and said "Drain Me". The psychic claimed that it does not work in public. DeAngelis later stated "I had my doubts she could drain a sink." Novella states that he and DeAngelis were guest lectures at a cult awareness conference, NESS arranged for James Randi to also be invited.
In addition the NESS hosts local lectures on a spectrum of skeptical topics, conducts investigations into local paranormal claims and screens local applicants for the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation. The group publishes a newsletter of original skeptical articles that can also be found on its website.
One of the NESS team's more extensive investigations was of Ed and Lorraine Warren who also live in Connecticut. According to Steven Novella, "the Warrens was interesting because for us, they were the big fish, right? They were the most famous paranormal proponents in our region. They were a little intimidating to us. We really thought, “Oh, we’ve really got to make sure we’re prepared and really get some experience and know what we talking about before we take them on.... We totally over-estimated them.... They’re presented as serious researchers who actually know what they’re doing. Then you meet them and, '“Oh, my god.”' ...The guy had no idea what he was doing, didn't know the first thing about anything relevant to paranormal investigation or ghost phenomenon." Novella and DeAngelis asked and were promised that they would be allowed to follow along on one of the Warren's investigations, but were repeatably turned down with different excuses. The Warrens have a "museum" in their basement that they claim are possessed, they were warned not to touch the Raggedy Ann doll as they might become possessed themselves. Steven Novella states that it was "full of off-the-shelf Halloween junk, dolls and toys". They reported that the Warren's refused to allow NESS to examine their best evidence for the ghosts and demons that they claim to find at their "investigations". In their opinion, NESS believes that the Warren's were more interested in protecting their reputation and not scientific advancement. When confronted about their lack of scientific rigor, the Warrens typically balked, Ed Warren stated '“you can’t have scientific evidence for a spiritual phenomenon.”' At the conclusion of the NESS investigation of the Warrens, Steven Novella writes, "What they are really hunting for are anomalies – anything even slightly strange. In the ghost-hunting world, anomaly = ghost. Scientific investigation does not enter into the equation."
One of DeAngelis' and Steven Novella's investigations was used in a newspaper analysis of how much truth lay beneath the events portrayed in the movie The Conjuring: "They (The Warrens) claim to have scientific evidence which does indeed prove the existence of ghosts, which sounds like a testable claim into which we can sink our investigative teeth. What we found was a very nice couple, some genuinely sincere people, but absolutely no compelling evidence...."
Novella and DeAngelis did manage to get one ghost hunting group to provide their best evidence of paranormal activity. They claimed that during a ghost investigation one of the team vanished. NESS was able to borrow the VHS tape for examination. Their first thought was that the camera had simply been turned off and then turned back on. They were assured that no one was ever near the camera at any time. They gave the tape to a technician, who ran the tape on a special machine that allows viewing beyond what is normally seen on a TV monitor screen. That showed that someone had been standing next to the camera when the crew member disappeared. "there were multiple discontinuities right at the same moment, audio and video discontinuities like footfalls with echoes that abruptly stop right at that frame and also a flickering candle that shifts right at that frame." The crew member was interviewed and says he did not disappear and in fact "The kid said nothing unusual happened". All the evidence shows that the camera was turned on and off, no one disappeared, but they did not accept that and were still insisting that the crew member dematerialized, "just immune to evidence and reason."
NESS has lectured to a ghost hunting group and been included on many ghost investigations. They feel that these people are not doing good scientific work, they are mainly just scaring each other with "ghost stories". At the lecture, the ghost hunters would not accept advice on how to correctly investigate and were not interested in knowing what would really convince scientists. To them ghost hunting is "just a lark... something for fun". Steven Novella thinks that is fine, but if they do they should "stop saying they are using science... Stop Just stop saying you’re doing science, [and ] making a mockery of the scientific method."
The NESS is affiliated with the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) and has on occasion acted as a preliminary tester for the Million Dollar Challenge. One such test was of a man who said "he could mentally control the outcome of random coin flips" once discussions became closer to a test date his claim changed to being only able to "influence" the coin flips. He also stated that he needed to warm up with an undetermined amount of coin flips and at an undetermined time the powers might leave him. This meant that he wanted to flip coins, and then evaluate the results looking for the statistical anomalies that naturally exist in random events. When NESS explained that the testing needed tighter controls he decided to abandon coin flipping and switch to psychically influencing a computer's random number generator. Another JREF preliminary test NESS was involved with was a man who claimed to be able to read minds. This changed from being able to see anything in another person's mind, to using playing cards to using phrases written on a card. Phrases were written on a card and the testers friend concentrated on the phrase. The results showed that the "mind-reader" did not understand the protocol, regardless that he had helped to write the protocol and agreed to it in advance. Specific phrases were agreed to, with exact words from that phrase were needed for a hit. The applicant instead of "common phrases gave "random thoughts". According to Steven Novella, "paranormal claims... represent an opportunity for the skeptical community to teach the public about the proper methods of science, the pitfalls of illogic and self-deception, and the reality of fraud for self-promotion."
Halloween 1996, NESS was called in to work with a paranormal team to decide if a home was indeed haunted, NESS member Robert Novella created a team of skeptics to investigate. A local radio station was offering a $5,000 prize for evidence of a genuinely haunted house. The New England Society of Psychical Research (NESPR) a group closely affiliated with the Warrens, were also on hand. The home owner "Mary" claimed to have been visited by various ghosts her whole life. Photographs were taken, which were later revealed to be black photos taken in a dark room. "The presence of the skeptics kept the imaginations of the believers from blossoming into yet another ghost story."
Perry DeAngelis had been told since he was a boy that Newtown, Connecticut was a hotbed for Satanists. After hearing rumors of fresh cases of Satanism, even a story from a nun claimed satanic atrocities were happening in Newtown. DeAngelis spent several days researching on the Internet, and came up with nothing. He then traveled to Newtown to search through the extensive archives of the town newspaper The Newtown Bee. Nothing concerning Satanism was discovered. Lastly DeAngelis interviewed the Police Communications Officer who said that there was to his knowledge no Satanic activity happening in Newtown. "Paranormal claims are often disconnected from reality and tend to take on a life of their own." Therefore, it is important to investigate paranormal rumors before the claims can grow.
Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism
According to Steven Novella and Evan Bernstein, the NESS was asked to speak for the New York Skeptics, September 12, 2009. That lecture was a tribute to Perry DeAngelis, and as it was near the anniversary of both his birth and death in August, they continued the tradition of celebrating Perry at each conference. Even after the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) organizers decided to move the conference to April, the SGU continues to celebrate the life of DeAngelis each year during their panel.
"NECSS started as the Perry DeAngelis show, which was a little show we put on for about 50 or 60 people... back in Perry's hometown of Fairfield, CT... And here we are five years later to a sold out auditorium and people coming all the way from California and across the ocean from Ireland and England, its just terrific stuff."
The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
"The NESS originally produced a weekly science podcast — The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe — featuring discussions of myths, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and the paranormal from a scientific point of view. The show also features discussions of recent scientific developments in laymen's terms, and interviews authors and other prominent skeptics." On September 20, 2006, James Randi joined the podcast providing a weekly commentary segment. The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe (SGU) is now produced by SGU Productions, LLC.
Jay Novella tells podcaster Christopher Brown about the very beginnings of the SGU, they had a friend that wanted to start a political podcast, "we barely knew what podcasting was... Steve said we should start podcasting and all our projects should shift to the web... we like to come up with new segments each year." In 201 the SGU started adding guest rogues to the podcast which the team really enjoyed. "The SGU is like sanity for us... the podcast is like a family member to me now.... I don't know what I would do without sharing that time with those people?"
When asked by Christopher Brown "Seven years ago did you personally have any idea that it would take off like this?" SGU rogue answered, "None whatsoever, we did this because we got tired of being just a local skeptics group and publishing a newsletter, which took a lot of work to do, four times a year for about 400 readers.... What if we could reach a thousand people by doing this with audio? Oh my gosh that would be so wonderful.... We are extreamly grateful to our audience... and are looking to bigger things from here". At the time of this interview April 2012, the SGU reported that they had been downloaded 25 million times since the first podcast in 2005. Steven Novella states that they started the podcast at the very beginning of the history of podcasts, it was before the involvement of iTunes, "we struggled for the first few months, which was good cause it gave us a few months to really work out the technical aspects of podcasting... it took a year for the numbers to start to take off. They were happy when they hit 200 listeners, but were ecstatic when they hit a thousand "that was a huge psychological barrier for us". The first big jump came after interviewing James Randi on the show, whom promoted the interview on the JREF website, which brought them up to about four thousand listeners. "Now (year) our show is rebroadcast on XM and a few other stations, we are getting... over 200-250 thousand downloads a week." The first few months the podcast was not weekly, until they got more organized Steve decided that they were going to produce a show every week. "The fact that I haven't missed a week in over six years is quite an incentive not to miss a week." Each live show is about 90 to 120 minutes long. Steve has to cut that down to about one hour 15 minutes for the broadcast show, and then get it down to exactly one hour for the XM show. He wonders what version people like more, the one hour version is much tighter but he has to cut out a lot of the banter and humor, while the 80 minute podcast show has much more personality.
Evan Bernstein speaking from Dragon Con to Richard Saunders about the importance of outreach. "The more we can expand our skeptical outreach to new audiences the better off the entire movement. Frankly we think people in general are better off if they come to understand what it is to have a skeptical worldview." Places like Dragon*Con might have like-minded attendees, but they might never have heard of our organizations and that there are a lot of people are tirelessly working on this.
Novella states that he started Neurologica and Science-Based Medicine blogs just after the Podcast started to take off after the first year. His reasoning was that he really enjoyed podcasting, but "its not really a great medium for some topics to really do it justice. You can have a 10 minute discussion and I don't feel like I can nail down the nitty gritty details that I would like. There were certain advantages to the written form." He was answering a lot of questions already by email and thought it would be better to just write a blog article, but it turned out to be a lot more work than he thought. He feels that "both podcasting and blogging are both powerful ways to communicating science and skepticism." Oftentimes he will first write the blog, and then read the comments and have discussion with people about the topic. Then he will talk about it on the podcast after getting feedback from the blog readers. Blogging is also a way of "crowd-sourcing" as readers may point him to studies and other articles that he wasn't aware of before. He talks about how it sounds very "quaint" how they were producing a paper newsletter four times a year, and now they are able to get out articles four times a week, and they are read instantly world-wide. No more folding paper and mailing them out.
Science-Based Medicine (SBM) is a blog dedicated to issues of medicine and science. SBM features health care experts in a variety of fields. Starting in 2015, SBM became a sponsor of NECSS. Editors are; Executive Editor, Steven Novella, Managing Editor, David Gorski, Kimball Atwood, Mark Crislip, Harriet Hall and Assistant Editor Paul Ingraham. Contributors are all mentioned above plus Jann Bellamy and Scott Gavura.
NESS members receive a discount to NECSS (the Northeastern Conference on Scientific Skepticism) and other NESS activities as well as a 40% discount on back issues of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Memberships are for 1 – 3 years or a lifetime, and are broken down for students, single adults, couples, and senior citizens.
- Pollak, Michael (August 24, 1997). "Taking the Wind from Silly Sails". New York Times. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
- Bernstein, Evan. "Remembering Perry DeAngelis Today". The Rogues Gallery. The Rogues Gallery. Retrieved 22 May 2014.
- "Steve Novella on Perry DeAngelis". Retrieved December 3, 2014.
- "Resources". Committee for Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved 2 December 2014.
- "Hunting the Ghost Hunters". The Ness. 1999-02-22. Retrieved 2014-03-19.
- "Articles". NESS. Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- "THE WARREN OMISSION". Monster Talk. Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- DeAngelis, Perry. "Hunting the Ghost Hunters". The NESS. Retrieved December 2, 2014.
- Novella, Steven. "Hunting the Ghost Hunters". Neuroligica. Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- Byrnes, Paul (July 12, 2013). "The devil among us". Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Publishing. Retrieved 13 December 2014.
- Novella, Steven. "NESS Participates in Randi Psychic Challenge". NESS. Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- Novella, Robert. "Ghostbusting in Hamden". New England Skeptical Society. Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- DeAngelis, Perry. "Satansim in Newtown". NESS. Retrieved December 8, 2014.
- "SGU Evan Bernstein on Perry DeAngelis". Retrieved December 3, 2014.
- Brown, Christopher. "MTS: Meet Evan Bernstein". Meet The Skeptics!. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
- Brown, Christopher. "MTS: Meet Jay Novella". Meet The Skeptics!. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
- Brown, Christopher. "MTS: Meet Steven Novella". Meets The Skeptics!. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "The Skeptic Zone 306". The Skeptic Zone. Retrieved December 9, 2014.
- "About". NESS. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "About". Science-Based Medicine. Retrieved February 22, 2015.
- "NESS Membership". NESS. Retrieved December 3, 2014.
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