Tag Archives: skepticism

Review 108: Flim-Flam!

Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James “The Amazing” Randi

((Now hold still while I read your aura. Yes, my spirit guide is telling me something, that you are experiencing some kind of pain or discomfort in your back, or perhaps your shoulders. And this is typical of someone born under your star sign, you know? Of course you do – your type is very insightful, even if you do sometimes let little things escape your notice from time to time. Here – I have a medicine that will help you, a special homeopathic formula that I mixed myself. It’s proof against all aches and pains. Yes, I have a spoon somewhere around – no, not that one, that one’s bent. I could tell you that I got the recipe from visiting aliens, but you would never believe me. Perhaps it was Atlanteans….

Ah, there is one other thing…. My spirit guide tells me that there is another spirit who would talk to you – someone you miss very much. I’m getting the letter P, or maybe G…. Does that mean something to you? Ah, good, good. My abilities have increased a hundredfold since I started transcendental meditation, and I credit the Master with my improved skills. Well, our time is almost up. I have to go charge my dowsing rod with the crystals that were given to me by my young daughters. They say that the fairies gave them to them, and who am I to say otherwise? But I will say this before we part – the numbers of your name, crossed against your biorhythms, tell me that you must not enter into any dealings of a financial nature this week.

You can leave your check on the table by the door.))

There is one truth that I have learned in my days, and that there is no idea so ridiculous, so implausible, so poorly-defined, that someone, somewhere won’t fall for it. Whether it’s psychic surgeons, aura readers, tellers of the future or viewers of past lives, UFO hunters, witch doctors, table-tippers, spoon-benders, mind-readers or water-dowsers, if you can figure out some simple slight of hand, the odds are good that you can convince someone you have supernatural powers. A few blurry photographs and some enthusiasm, and you can have aliens on our shores. Some clever guesses and a keen knowledge of human nature, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.

If you’re like me, it’s enough to make you want to disavow humankind and just go live somewhere off in the woods. Thankfully, James Randi is not like me.

James "The Amazing" Randi (photo by Andy Ihnatko)

A longtime magician and skeptic, James Randi has been one of the driving forces of modern skepticism. Since his 1972 debunking of spoon-bender Uri Geller, he has been an authority on people who claim to have supernatural abilities. He has traveled the world in search of these people, revealing the methods by which they knowingly or unknowingly deceive people who want so desperately to believe. This book, written in 1982 and well in need of an updated and revised edition, documents many of Randi’s investigations in painstaking and unrelenting detail.

He tells us first of the hoax perpetrated by two young English girls, one which was good enough to capture not just a credulous nation of newspaper readers, but a man regarded as one of the greatest minds of his time – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1917, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths released several photographs which showed them surrounded by gossamer-winged fairies. The public went wild for their story. Experts were called in to examine the photographs, and they all pronounced them genuine. The girls were interviewed, their cameras and equipment checked out, and no evidence of trickery could be found. In any case, believers said, two young girls would have no incentive to lie to the entire nation like this, would they?

Well, they did. Perhaps it wasn’t their intention to deceive the world, but that’s how it turned out. As of Randi’s writing, they hadn’t admitted it outright, but a year after publication, they did. What started as simple fun with a camera and some paper cut-outs escalated into something uncontrollable by two young girls, and a legend was born.

Frances Griffiths with her "fairies"

Elsie and Frances may have been innocents overtaken by events, but there are far more people who are fully conscious of their deceptions. A Holy Man who promises everything up to and including the ability to fly if you just follow his word and his special meditation technique. Researchers so intent on discovering psychic powers that they disregard even the most basic of experimental controls. People who manufacture fake artifacts to support their belief in ancient alien astronauts. There are those who take money from the unwitting and those who don’t, some who treat the ability they believe they have with humility and those who don’t. The weird, the arrogant and the dangerous – Randi’s seen ’em all. And every time another one pops up, he knows what to look for.

Belief is a weird thing. Under careful examination, every claim that Randi has seen has fallen apart. He has listened to them carefully and asked a very simple question that seems to elude so many others: How else could this effect be achieved? As a lifetime magician (though he prefers the term “conjurer”), Randi is an expert at getting you to think you see something that really isn’t there, and he brings this expertise to bear when he investigates claims of the paranormal. What’s more, he has a very good grasp of experimental procedure and how to test for a specific effect, and he is ruthless in making sure they are adhered to.

Science Badges (photo by Ruth Ellison)

But – and this is important – Randi is fair. If you come up to him and say, “Randi, I can see auras which tell me who the all gay people are,” he won’t just laugh in your face and say that you’re crazy. He’ll listen to your story, how your power works and how you use it, and then propose a simple test to see if it really exists. The test is to be double-blind, so when the target people come in and check the “gay” or “straight” box, that information is kept from both the aura-reader and the person administering the test. What’s more, the psychic has to agree in advance on the conditions of the test, signing a promise (rarely kept) to accept the results. Tests are usually done multiple times, just to give the subject a chance. When the results come in as negative – as they always have thus far – Randi doesn’t gloat. He doesn’t laugh and say “I told you so.” In fact, in one chapter he mentions that he feels bad sometimes, telling people who honestly believe they have a unique gift that, in fact, they don’t.

I suspect that Randi really wants supernatural powers to exist. I think he wants to meet someone who can move objects with her mind, talk to the dead or find water just by concentrating hard. Why else, then, would he have his Million-Dollar Challenge? What is described in Flim-Flam as a $10,000 reward for proof of supernatural abilities has grown significantly. Not because Randi is richer, but because he feels that his money is absolutely safe. Yet I think he would be happy to be able to give it away one day.

This book should be required reading for everyone who has encountered what they believe to be the paranormal. It is detailed, it is harsh and it is unequivocal in its assertion that if you see someone doing something that logic demands cannot be done, chances are excellent that it’s a trick rather than super-powers.

Unfortunately, the True Believers will invariably be unaffected, and that is something else that Randi takes great pains to show. No matter how often someone was shown to be a liar, a fake or a fraud, there were always supporters ready to make excuses. The psychics themselves are also very good at inventing reasons why their powers cannot be tested – the wrong kind of weather, interference from the cameras that are recording the tests, or just bad energy from the skeptics in the room. All the logic and science in the world won’t convince those who don’t want to be convinced.

(photo by Thomas Hawk)

As much fun as it is to read about The Amazing Randi rushing about the globe to put hoaxers in their places, it’s also a little depressing. It was written in 1982, on the heels of Randi’s book The Truth About Uri Geller, which exposed the spoon-bending psychic as a fraud, so you would think the one-two punch of these books would be enough to put paid to ridiculous beliefs in ideas that were demonstrably false. Well, you’d be wrong. Newspapers still run horoscopes every day, you can get a biorhythm app for your iPhone, psychics and mediums still rake in tons of cash, and there still innumerable people who put their faith, money and lives in the hands of psychic healers – only to lose all three.

But Randi is undaunted. He started the James Randi Educational Foundation to support critical thinking and skepticism, he’s still active in the skeptical community, and he’s still accepting applications from people who want his million dollars. He may have hoped that this book would be a nail in the coffin of psuedoscience and woo, but even though that didn’t pan out, he never gave up. One by one, case by case, the Amazing Randi has stared down the wild-eyed stare of unreason, and he has never blinked.

For that, I will always be grateful.

The tinkling noises you will hear as these pages are turned are the scales falling from many eyes. The groans are from the charlatans who are here exposed to the light of reason and simple truth. It is a light that pains them greatly.
– James Randi, Flim-Flam!

James Randi on Wikipedia
Flim-Flam! on Wikipedia
Flim-Flam! on Amazon.com
James Randi Educational Foundation website



Filed under James Randi, nonfiction, pseudoscience, science, skepticism

Review 70: Bad Astronomy

Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait

What do you think you know about astronomy? For example, what causes us to have seasons? If you said that it’s our distance from the sun – sorry, you’re wrong. Or how about why the sky is blue? If you think it’s that the sky reflects the sea, nope. Wrong again. Or perhaps you think that the moon’s tidal effect makes people crazy, or that an egg can only stand on end if it’s the Vernal Equinox or that an alignment of the planets will cause a terrible buildup of gravity that will kill us all!

All wrong. But you would not be alone. For a society as technologically advance as ours (and if you’re reading this, then chances are good that you live in a technologically advanced society), the general public has a big problem with science. People see it as being too hard to understand, or too removed from their daily lives. Politicians bemoan the fact that American schoolchildren are falling behind in science, but science funding is almost always on the list of cuts that can be made to save money. We love technology, but hate science, and that is a path to certain doom.

Of all the sciences, though, astronomy is perhaps the worst understood. A lot of people still confuse it with astrology, which is probably a huge part of the problem right there. For millennia, we have thought about the planets and stars as celestial things, unknown and unknowable by such base creatures as ourselves. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that we’ve been able to rapidly improve our understanding of the universe, and popular knowledge hasn’t caught up with that yet.

And so bad misconceptions of astronomy persist in the public imagination.

Fortunately, we have people like Phil Plait to set the record straight, and that is indeed what he does in this book.

While there are many educators out there who believe that a wrong idea, once implanted, is impossible to eradicate, Plait sees it as a teachable opportunity. Take, for example, the commonly held belief that on the Vernal Equinox – and only on the Vernal Equinox – you can balance an egg on its end. Many people believe this, and it’s an experiment that’s carried out in classrooms around the country every March. Teachers tell their students, and the local news media tell their viewers, but no one stops to ask Why. Why would this day, of all the days in the year, be so special? More importantly, how can we test that assertion?

Fortunately, that’s within the powers of any thinking individual, and it should be the first thing teachers do once they’ve finished having fun balancing eggs: try and do it again the next day. If you can balance an egg on April 3rd, or May 22nd or August 30th, or September 4th or any other day of the year, then you have successfully proven the Equinox Egg Hypothesis wrong. Congratulations! You’re doing science!!

Or perhaps you’ve heard the story that you can see stars from the bottom of a well, or a tall smokestack. This is because, the idea goes, the restricted amount of light will not wash out the stars so much, giving you a chance to do some daytime astronomy. Well, there’s an easy way to test this one too, if you have an old factory or something of that nature nearby. What you’ll discover is that no matter how much you try to restrict your view of the sky, it’ll still be washed out and you won’t see any stars at all.

One more good one that a lot of people believe – the moon is larger in the sky when it’s near the horizon than when it’s at its zenith. Again, this is something that’s very easy to test. Go out as the full moon is rising, looming large in the sky, and hold up an object at arm’s length – a pencil is usually recommended. Make a note of the moon’s apparent size as compared to the eraser. Then go out again when the moon is high in the sky and repeat your observation. The moon appears to be the same size, no matter how it may look to you.

Of course, there’s a lot of science into why these things are the way they are. The chicken egg thing is because there’s no singular force that is only acting on chicken eggs and only doing so on one day of the year (which is not even universally regarded as the first day of spring). As for the inability to see stars in the daytime, that’s because our pesky atmosphere scatters a lot of the light coming from the sun, so light appears to come from everywhere in the sky. The only thing you’re likely to see in a blue sky is the moon, and MAYBE Venus, if you’re really sharp-eyed and lucky.

The Moon Illusion is not well-understood, actually. It’s probably not the brain comparing the moon with objects on the horizon – the effect works at sea, too. It’s probably a combination of competing psychological effects that deal with distance, none of which can accurately deal with how far away the moon is.

Regardless, all of these things are easily testable by anyone. The problem is that so few people take that extra time to actually test them, or even think that they should.

There are some myths and misconceptions that take a little more expertise to explain, such as why tides and eclipses happen, how seasons occur and why the moon goes through phases. But these explanations aren’t very difficult and are well within the understanding of any intelligent adult. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths that are stubborn, entrenched into the heads of people everywhere and very hard to get out. Not the least of these are the beliefs that UFOs are alien spacecraft and that we never went to the Moon.

Interestingly enough, both of these rest on the same basic problem: we can’t rely on our own brains to accurately interpret the data that we see. Plait recounts a story where he was mesmerized by some strange lights in the night sky while watching a 3 AM shuttle launch. They seemed to hover in place, making strange noises, and it wasn’t until they got much closer that he was able to see them for what they were: a group of ducks that were reflecting spotlights off their feathers.

Our brains believe things, and interpret the observations to fit those beliefs. So when the dust on the moon doesn’t behave the way we expect dust to behave, some people believe that to be evidence of fraud, rather than the natural behavior of dust on the moon. We are creatures of story, which is why we like conspiracy theories and astrology. We want the world to make a kind of narrative sense, so often the first explanation we come up with is a story that sounds good. Unfortunately, just because the story sounds good, that doesn’t make it true.

He also takes a swipe at bad movie science, but in a good-natured manner. Even he admits that movies are more likely to favor story over science, but there are some common errors that make it into so many science fiction films – sound in space, people dodging lasers, deadly asteroid fields – these things may be dramatically interesting, but they’re all bad science. And while it would be annoying and pedantic to pick out every example of how the rules are bent for sci-fi (“Please. Why would the aliens come all the way to Earth to steal water when it exists in abundance out in the Kuiper Belt? I scoff at your attempt!”), they do offer an excellent opportunity to teach people about how science works.

One of the things I’ve always liked about Plait is his obvious enthusiasm for not just astronomy but for science in general. Here we have this excellent system to cut through the lies our brains tell us and get closer to knowing what’s actually going on. Science forces us to question our assumptions, look at things from many points of view, and arrive at a conclusion that best describes the phenomenon we’re observing. When Plait talks about science, he is not condescending or dry or super-intellectual, the way so many people imagine scientists to be. He’s excited that he gets to use this amazing tool for understanding the universe, and he wants other people to use it.

If you’re an astronomy buff, like myself, you probably won’t learn much new information from this book. But hopefully you’ll be re-invigorated to go out there and look at the world through a scientific, skeptical eye, and you’ll be willing to confront these misconceptions when next you come across them. Even better, you might start thinking about what else you think you know, and how you can go about testing it.

“If a little kid ever asks you just why the sky is blue, you look him or her right in the eye and say, ‘It’s because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae.'”
– Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy

Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Amazon.com
The Bad Astronomy Blog

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Filed under astronomy, education, media, nonfiction, Phil Plait, pseudoscience, science, skepticism

Review 07: The Demon-Haunted World

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

I miss Carl Sagan.

Ever since I was a kid, Carl Sagan has been the face of science for me. I would watch Cosmos and feel a sense of amazement that the universe was as wonderful as it was. He’d be there in his turtleneck and his blazer, smiling as though he’d just heard the coolest secret and he wanted to share it with you. And he did, except that it wasn’t his secret. Hell, it wasn’t a secret at all – it was the combined results of thousands of years of thoughts, deductions, mistakes, missteps, experiments, accidents and achievements. Whether he was talking about the orbits of the planets or the genetics of peas, or measuring the Earth with shadows, you could feel an almost palpable sense of wonder coming from him. You’d listen to him and think, “Y’know, maybe we humans aren’t too bad after all….”

Then the smile would fade, his eyes would get serious, and he would explain how, for all our achievements as a species, humans were still terribly fallible creatures. Our knowledge has, perhaps, outpaced our morals, and we are only a few simple steps away from losing everything that we’ve gained. Our mastery of nuclear technology could wipe out civilization in a day. Our carelessness with industry could do the same in a century. His earnestness was clear, as was his disappointment.

It was in this latter mood, perhaps, that he wrote this book. Simply by looking at the title, one can glean his attitude not only towards science, but towards the world around it. When he looks at the world, he sees a place filled with demons – not literally, of course – the demons of irrationality, superstition and an unfortunate willingness on the part of people to believe in things that just aren’t so.

This book is about the advocacy of skepticism and critical thinking. In a world where people are obsessed with celebrity, where people trust their feelings over their observations, where rulers make decisions based on the predictions of astrologers, Sagan feels rather threatened.

I can certainly understand why.

It still angers me that now, in the 21st century, we are still arguing about evolution over creationism. It amazes me that newspapers even print horoscopes, to say nothing of the fact that there are people who take them seriously. It horrifies me that evil men are still able to use fear and superstition to convince people that they should kill in the name of God. And it saddens me that so many people have given control of their lives over to their concept of a deity rather than taking responsibility for it themselves.

Sagan’s premise in this book is simple: knowledge is better than ignorance. Full stop. Whether it’s witches, “intelligent design,” UFO abduction or anything else, it is always better to find the truth rather than to rest comfortably in a lie. The truth is hard, yes, and it may feel better to stay wrapped up in our illusions, but no matter how comfortable they are, they’re still illusions. Still lies.

He spends a lot of time on UFOs and abductees, actually, and uses that as a bridge into other areas of skeptical inquiry. This is because UFO abductees (and the legions of enablers who encourage them – psychologists, writers, newspapers, and conspiracy nuts) exhibit the same behavior that allows unreason to flourish: an unwillingness or inability to consider other options. Yes, you see some lights in the sky that you can’t quite explain – the alien explanation would be a romantic and weird one, but wanting something doesn’t make it so. There is probably a reason why you saw things out your window, and that explanation is probably perfectly terrestrial.

Whether you’re talking about UFOs, reiki, power crystals, witchcraft, tarot cards, channeling, telepathy, past lives, Indigo Children, psychic surgery, miracles, visitations by angels, demonic possession, the hollow Earth theory… The evidence just isn’t there. As interesting and entertaining as a world containing such things would be, they’re just not so.

Wouldn’t it be better, Sagan asks, if we could all dismiss such things? If everyone could think critically about them, dismiss them, and turn their vast amount of energy and resources towards actually making the world better? If, instead of putting together high budget shows about ghosts and Bigfoot, networks made programs about scientific inquiry and achievement? Or perhaps a show about mysteries that science has solved? Instead of portraying scientists as either nerds or maniacs, why not show the scientists who are looking for ways to make safer materials, better medicines and more efficient cars? I suppose that the Discovery Channel has done a very nice job of trying to realize this dream, with shows like Mythbusters, and Penn & Teller strongly advocate critical thinking in their Showtime program Bullshit! But I reckon Sagan would want more.

This is where he does come across as something of a curmudgeon in this book. You get the feeling that if Old Man Sagan had his way, there’d be no X-Files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Flintstones. Science fiction would all be something like Contact – nothing that isn’t reasonably explainable by our current understanding of science. No evil robots or planet-busting Death Stars would survive such skeptical scrutiny. Indeed, you get the feeling that he would not only disapprove of those shows, he would definitely look down on those of us who do.

This is an attitude I’ve noticed a lot of in modern skeptics – a certain annoyance with fantasy and a rather condescending attitude towards those who haven’t signed on to the skeptical view of the world. I am a regular listener of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, and I enjoy it – except when they turn on the arrogance when talking about people who believe in things like religious revelation, alien visitation and the like. I can understand the attitude towards scammers – they deserve nothing but contempt – but there are people who take real comfort in their world view, regardless of how irrational it might be. Sagan addresses this as well in his book:

“All of us cherish our beliefs. They are, to a degree, self-defining. When someone comes along who challenges our belief system as insufficiently well-based – or who, like Socrates, merely asks embarrassing questions that we haven’t thought of, or demonstrates that we’ve swept key underlying assumptions under the rug – it becomes much more than a search for knowledge. It feels like a personal assault.” 

He goes on later to say:

“In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many ways consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.” 

So in other words, even if you know a lot, don’t be a know-it-all.

Sagan had a lifelong love of science and the wonders that scientists have performed. The world today, every part and parcel of it from that computer that you’re reading this on to the fact that you didn’t die before you were five years old, is attributable to the work of dedicated scientists trying to better understand the world. And that is the key message of this book: knowledge makes the world better. Science has performed wonders that aliens, witches and apparitions of the Virgin Mary have never been able to do.

A well-educated, rational populace is the greatest protection we have against tyranny, and it behooves every citizen to acquaint him or herself with the methods and principles that science uses. It is the greatest tool available to us if we want a better world. Yes, there will be missteps along the way, but the errors of science can – if we act out of clarity and reason – be repaired. Science is self-correcting.

Teach your children, encourage them to think critically about the world and no one will ever gain mastery over them. For an educated person is a free one. And if you can spread this kind of freedom, then perhaps Sagan can rest well.

“We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours.”
-Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

The Carl Sagan Portal
Carl Sagan at Wikipedia
The Demon-Haunted World at Wikiquote
The Demon-Haunted World at Amazon.com
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe
The James Randi Educational Foundation

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