O4R: News at Eleven (Part 1)

By Jeanine DeNoma

In Part I of this article, I will cover O4R's mission and some of its ongoing activities to fulfill this mission. In Part II, I will discuss some O4R history and past programs and activities.

Oregon has its share of pseudo-science. Since its formation 11 years ago, O4R has come face to face with much of it. In addition to the normal bunk, Oregon has the McMinnville UFO-Festival, the Oregon Vortex, several haunted lighthouses, and is the native habitat of some claimed Bigfoot hoaxers.

From its inception O4R's goals have been: 1) to promote public understanding of science, the scientific method and critical thinking; 2) investigate pseudoscientific and paranormal claims; 3) provide public education about such claims; and 4) create a social network among Oregon skeptics. As a scientific organization, O4R focuses on testable claims; as an educational nonprofit, O4R's primary mission is public education.

O4R's mission closely mirrors that of The Committee for the Scientific Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), the publishers of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine, although we have no formal affiliation with CSICOP. We are one of many local skeptics groups around the country. The Skeptical Inquirer lists 38 such local groups in 28 states and Puerto Rico.

O4R's primary public education activity is its free public lectures; however, we sponsor a variety of other activities, including investigations, the Library Project, scholarships, and an activity booth at the Corvallis da Vinci Days festival and school science fairs.

O4R frequently collaborates with other organizations, universities and local libraries to sponsor programs and activities. We work with local news outlets, responding to requests for information, guiding reporters to appropriate skeptical experts, and coordinating interviews and media appearances for speakers before our public lectures.

O4R has published 28 issues of the Pro Facto. Many of its articles have been reprinted in the newsletters of other local skeptics groups or used to create single-topic fact sheets to distribute as educational materials. Our members interact with other skeptics around the world, especially other local leaders, to exchange resources and share experiences, expertise, and ideas for programs and activities. And we work with other skeptical organizations to develop an awareness of the skeptical movement and the importance of having a skeptical mind.

Investigations are a primary part of O4R's mission-our way of knowing what pseudoscience is brewing in Oregon. Most investigations occur when an individual takes an interest in a topic and fairly and thoroughly examines it, often drawing upon resources and expertise from the skeptical community. Other investigations are done under O4R's name after carefully considering legal concerns, relevance and resources.

An investigation may require specialized knowledge, but many require only critical thinking and careful observation, and the time it takes to study and fully understand the claim in question. Following an investigation, a written report for this newsletter is appreciated. Below is a review of a few investigations reported by members.

At the Oregon Vortex in southern Oregon near Gold Hill mysterious forces violate of the known laws of physics-at least if you believe the claims of the operators of this fascinating roadside tourist attraction. Mark Cowan, Josh Reese and Ted Clay visited the Vortex to see what might really be going on there. Cowan's report was published in the Winter 1998 Pro Facto and appears on the O4R website at oregoniansforscienceandreason.org/activities/investigations. Included on the website is an animation demonstrating how the popular plank illusion makes people appear to change height. This report is among the most frequently visited websites for information about the Oregon Vortex.

The laws of physics are popular targets for pseudoscientists, especially in the free energy movement. Free energy guru Dennis Lee demonstrated his "300% efficient motor" in Portland on October 19, 1999, as part of his pre-millennial national tour. Dave Chapman, Andrew Greenberg and a couple of friends (the group described themselves as three electrical engineers and a "physics nerd") went to see the show. They were "equipped with several thousands of dollars worth of test equipment" with which to examine Lee's remarkable engine. Perseverance paid off. After a four-hour sales pitch, they had a brief opportunity to examine the engine. Their report appeared in the Vol. 5 No. 4 issue of Pro Facto.

Why does the granite monument in Portland's underground Washington Park Station have an incorrect value for Pi? Mark Cowan tracked down the answer for a report in the Summer 1998 Pro Facto.

McMinnville, Oregon, was the site of a famous 1950 UFO photograph taken by local farmer Paul Trent. In 2000, McMenamins Hotel Oregon began honoring that photo with an annual festival. McMenamins buys historical buildings, turning them into pubs and hotels, a nd stages events that celebrate local history. The festival now bills itself as the largest UFO event outside of Roswell, New Mexico. It's a mixture of UFO true believers, sci-fi and fun. Attendees can choose among serious UFO talks, an alien costume ball and a local parade down the main street of the historic district. O4R members have been monitoring the festival and learning UFO lore: local sightings, cattle mutilations, alien abductions, and, most recently, the recovery of alien implants.

O4R member Ted Clay undertook an examination of the claims surrounding those beautiful pieces of field art-crop circles. While this work was not specifically O4R's, Clay stands as an example of the kind of outstanding contribution an interested and persistent individual can make by investigating a claim. He has become recognized as a leading skeptical expert on the topic, has given multiple talks on the phenomena, and recently appeared on the National Geographic TV series Is It Real?.

While visiting a local winery, O4R member Carolyn Bawden learned of an exciting new method of wine production. These new wines were even better than organic wines because they created "balance" between the Earth and the universe by using homeopathic and "life energy" principles. Bawden's report on Biodynamic Wine appeared in Vol. 7 No. 2 issue of Pro Facto.

Educational activities
O4R has a variety of ongoing educational activities. I will review only a few here and save others, such as O4R's participation at local science fairs and da Vinci Days, for a later installment.

The O4R Library Project
The O4R Library Project provides the Skeptical Inquirer and skeptical books to local libraries.

Richard Leinaweaver initiated this project, and CSICOP provides O4R with a special subscription rate. Leinaweaver first identified libraries that did not carry the magazine. He ranked those libraries by the number of patrons served and per capita income of the population served. From this data he selected 12 libraries with the greatest need and the largest potential readership to receive ongoing subscriptions. Finally, he confirmed that each receiving library wanted the subscription. The first subscriptions were provided in 2000 and renewed in 2002 and 2005.

We hope to make additional donations of skeptical books, although to date we have only donated copies of Robert Sheaffer's book UFO Sightings: The Evidence to the McMinnville Public Library.

Members may donate a subscription to a library at renewal times if the library accepts the subscription. To date, an additional donation has been made to Western Oregon University. Book donations may be made at any time.

Skeptics Toolbox Scholarship Fund
In recent years O4R has sponsored a student scholarship to the Skeptics Toolbox. This project was initiated in response to a challenge by O4R member Herb Masters who has attended the conference for many years and recognized its value in teaching skeptical and critical thinking. The scholarship is supported by CSICOP, which provides a reduced student rate, and by donations from O4R members. The 2004 recipient was Jake Boone, an Oregon State University (OSU) student in Computer Science. In 2005 the scholarship was awarded to Beth Timmons, an OSU student in Crop and Soil Science.

You may nominate a student for the scholarship by submitting their name to the Board. You may also make a donation to the scholarship fund. Love Those Electrons
O4R is on the web at www.o4r.org. The website is currently undergoing a major revision. Robert Neary has taken over this project from our retiring Webmaster Mark Cowan. Watch the site for dramatic changes.

The O4R list manager Dave Chapman has recently implemented a change in O4R's electronic communications. There are now two elists: one for members' discussions and one to keep members up-to-date with O4R's happenings.

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Copyright (c) 2006 Oregonians For Rationality