Ottawa Skeptic Visits SDARI

San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry

If you deduced from the title that one of us had been abducted to an alien planet, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. SDARI is not “an ugly planet. A BUG planet! A planet hostile to life …” That, of course, is Klendathu. Rather, SDARI is the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry.

Last month, I was in San Diego on business and thought that it would be interesting to visit the local skeptic organization. As luck would have it, that weekend included their event night. Sigrid likened my idea of visiting them to going to a local AA meeting on the road, but that analogy goes in the wrong direction very quickly.

The speaker for the evening was local paleontologist and professor of evolutionary biology at San Diego State University, Dr. J. David Archibald. He gave a talk entitled The Tree of Life: Perceptions of the History of Life Before and After Darwin – a presentation that was so good it was worth the visit alone, but what really characterized the visit for me was how welcome the SDARI folks made me feel.

SDARI hold their events in the Hillcrest area of San Diego, north-west of Balboa Park, in a community centre that’s part of an upscale shopping district. I had concerns about finding the right building in time, but when I emerged from the parking garage, I almost immediately ran into a large portable plywood sign with the word SDARI fashioned in duct tape. A few steps off the street, the centre’s doors opened into a large hall. It was so convenient that I imagine passers-by must, at times, wander in during events just to see what’s going on.

A handful of people were buzzing about the room unstacking chairs for the presentation and settling down at a few tables in the corner. A homey SDARI custom is for attendees to arrive an hour early with bag lunches or take-out food and share a meal before the event.

I was captured by Elie Shneour, who saw me scanning the room. A founding member of CSICOP and a director on the Board of the Skeptic Society, Elie is also one of the founding members of San Diego Skeptics, a previous incarnation of SDARI that dated back to 1985. He has been a biophysicist, head of the Biosystems Research Institute, chair of the San Diego County Science Advisory Board, a fluent multilinguist, a one-time resident of Japan, and an OSS officer who served behind the lines in France in World War II. I could have spent the whole night talking with this Renaissance man, but Keith Taylor, SDARI Event Programmer, caught up with me and took me over to the food table.

I joined Paul Wenger, SDARI President, who looked to me like Chris Cooper in The Bourne Identity, so I kept to my best behaviour. I also sat with sat with Barbara Hemmingsen, SDARI Treasurer; her husband Edvard, Rational Inquiry Editor; and many other group members. SDARI has been around since 1995, and so I talked with them about their secrets of sustainability. Certainly, these monthly briefings are a key component. Over the years, the group has hosted numerous speakers, who have covered a broad range of evidence-based subjects from science and skepticism to topical social and political issues. Since the seasoned SDARI membership has connections with local universities, access to knowledgeable speakers has facilitated their successful line-up, as has Keith Taylor’s enthusiastic approach to booking them.

Soon, people made their way to their seats, but before that night’s speaker got started, Paul invited me to say a few words. I gave the audience of 50 people an quick overview of Ottawa Skeptics, telling them about our website, podcast and local investigations, including the Perepiteia perpetual motion machine, Bill C-51 and EMF Balancers. At the end of the night, people wished our group well on our ongoing effort to hold alternative medicine to account.

Next, Dr. Archibald took the floor. He specializes in the rise of early mammals and the dinosaur extinction at the KT boundary and has led recent digs in Utah and Uzbekistan. He is also known for his Darwin collection. In 2001, he loaned some of his articles to The Huntington museum for a Darwin exhibition. His talk, which was the subject of his 2008 paper in the Journal of the History of Biology, “Edward Hitchcock’s pre-Darwin (1840) ‘Tree of life’,” was about one of his antiquarian finds called Elementary Geology by Edward Hitchcock.

Hitchcock’s book features a fold-out Paleontological Chart that shows two tree-like structures listing plant and animal types in the context of geological time. Given that Hitchcock was an anti-transmutationist and that the first edition of his book was published with the chart in 1840, 19 years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Dr. Archibald wondered how the chart fit into the context of the development of the theory of evolution.

The speaker explained how the iconography of the Tree of Life grew out of human geneological charts and scala naturae. He also described how natural philosophers like Augustin Augier, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Heinrich Bronn, Hugh Miller, Louis Agassiz, Georges Cuvier and, of course, Darwin and Hitchcock used this iconography to further both the creationist and evolutionary sides of the discussion. He concluded by saying that the new iconography in evolutionary biology seems to be the genomic spiral, but he noted that even this style of diagram had precusors, such as a circular chart published by Bronn in 1856.

Later in the week, I was invited over to Barbara and Edvard’s house to attend SDARI’s management board meeting along with Paul, Keith and Walt. Barbara deftly welcomed me, hosted the meeting, fed the group, made treasurer reports, proposed new business and kept the agenda on track, while I kept diverting them all by asking inane questions. I didn’t want to miss my chance to continue finding out about the group’s best practices.

SDARI keeps in touch with their membership through their website, e-mails and Rational Inquiry, a quarterly newsletter that has been published for over a decade. Of note, the fall 2004 edition features a brief history of the group.

Their key community service is support for the Greater San Diego Science and Engineering Fair (GSDSEF). The group offers (along with many other groups) junior and senior prizes of between $125 and $250, along with a paid subscription to CSI’s Skeptical Inquirer magazine. The prizes are awarded for projects that exemplify critical thinking, properly challenge established ideas or debunk popular misconceptions. Barbara explained that the large number of projects in the Fair makes judging the awards challenging. There are typically about 1,200 overall projects, of which she tries to select 200, which are subsequently screened down to 20 to be judged.

SDARI also does public outreach at San Diego’s EarthWorks, the city’s hugely popular Earth Day celebration. They set up a booth and hand out flyers, newsletters and promotional materials donated by CSI and the Skeptic Society.

From time to time, SDARI is called upon to comment on skeptical topics, such as in 1997 when the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide or in 2002 when the San Diego Maritime Museum hosted a special Halloween event to look for ghosts on the windjammer Star of India.

Barbara and the others told me a great anecdote about an anti-superstition event that they held in 2000 at a community centre in La Jolla. They had set up a number of exhibits outside the centre, including a ladder at the door. As luck would have it, the hall had been double-booked by a new age group, and the conflict was resolved by letting the new agers have the room, given that SDARI was already set up outside. The problem was that many of the new agers wouldn’t walk under the ladder to attend their meeting. Barbara has kindly given to Ottawa Skeptics a copy of the anti-superstition party kit, which they originally got from the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank SDARI, especially Paul, Keith, Barbara, Edvard, Elie and Walt. What was meant to be just a pop-in opportunity turned out to be a great sharing visit.

15. March 2009 by barry
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