Interview with James Randi

March 28, 2013

I’ve written here before about James Randi, the retired professional magician and skeptic of the occult, and his  James Randi Educational Foundation, which investigate claims of paranormal, supernatural, and occult  ideas.

The self-described “News for Nerds” site, Slashdot, has an interview with Randi, in which he answers questions submitted by readers,   As one might expect, the discussion focuses on the work, by Randi and the Foundation, to combat irrational and magical thinking.  It’s a brief but entertaining read.  The page also contains comments from Slashdot readers, which are worth glancing through: there are some insightful ones, though there is, as usual, a lot of drek as well.

Ken Jennings v. Lore

December 16, 2012

In the course of writing this blog, I’ve referred to articles from quite a few different publications.  Until now, though, I have not referenced Parade magazine — the color supplement that comes in the advertising package with the Sunday Washington Post, and other papers.  It is not, frankly, a publication that I expected to be citing.  But this week, Parade has an article by Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy! game show champion†, addressing, and debunking, some hoary chestnuts of folk wisdom, the kind I refer to as “lore”, that parents often tell their children, without necessarily wondering whether or not they are true.  As Jennings puts it:

That’s the dirty secret of parenting: It’s a big game of Telephone, stretching back through the centuries and delivering garbled, though well-intentioned, medieval bromides to the present.

[“Telephone” is the American name for the game called “Chinese Whispers” in the UK.]

I suspect most readers will have heard most of these precepts at one time or another:

  1. “Stay away from the poinsettia! The leaves are poisonous.”
  2.  “No swimming for an hour after lunch. You’ll cramp up.”
  3. “When you start shaving, the hair will grow in thicker.”
  4. “Don’t eat snow—it’ll make you sick!”
  5. “Drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.”
  6. “It’s too dark in here. You’ll hurt your eyes.”
  7. “You are a special little snowflake.”
  8. “You need hydrogen peroxide on that.”
  9. “Take off the Band-Aid to let your cut air out.”
  10. “Don’t cross your eyes—they’ll get stuck like that!”
  11. “No soda! The sugar makes you hyper.”
  12. “Don’t wake a sleepwalker.”
  13. “Most of your body heat escapes through your head!”
  14. “You’re not fat. You’re just big-boned.”
  15. “If you pick up a baby bird, its mommy will reject it.”

Some of these, such as numbers 3 and 7, are just more or less harmless nonsense.  Others — number 12, on sleepwalking, is an example — embody basically correct conclusions for the wrong reasons.  (In this, they resemble the frequently given advice to get into a car in a lightning storm.)  Others are just nonsense from top to bottom.

For example, I have heard many people express their belief in number 5, the idea that one needs to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day.  As Jennings points out, many of these people have lost sight of the considerable amount of water that we take in every day in the form of food.   I’ve also heard the advice, mentioned in the article, that liquids like coffee or beer, don’t count, because the caffeine or alcohol acts as a diuretic.  At some level, this is true: if you drink a quart of straight whisky at one sitting, you probably will get a bit dehydrated, among other things.  On the other hand, the effect does have something to do with relative amounts: if I put one teaspoon of whisky, or coffee, into ten gallons of water, I am quite confident that you can drink as much of the resulting mixture as you want with no risk of dehydration.

One might argue that none of these adages is especially pernicious, so little harm is done.  But getting people to behave rationally, even once in a while, seems to be hard.  Reinforcement of irrational thinking is hardly constructive.

As Kin Hubbard said, “Tain’t what a man don’t know that hurts him; it’s what he knows that just ain’t so. ”


† Ken Jennings is a champion of the TV game show, Jeopardy!, who won more consecutive games (74) than any other player.  He was also one of the two human players involved in the Jeopardy! challenge match with IBM’s Watson computer system.

A Magician’s Lament: America the Nutty

March 11, 2012

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.  (David Hume)

I’ve written here from time to time about some of the notable appeals to unreason that seem to gain some public currency, such as the Mayan calendar doomsday prediction, scheduled for December 21 of this year.  (Think of the money you can save with no holiday shopping!)  A group of doomsday forecasters was honored with the 2011 Ig®Nobel Prize in mathematics, for illustrating the need for care in using mathematics to make predictions — of the end of the world, for example.

The “Wired Science” blog at Wired has an entertaining new opinion article by James Randi, in which he discusses our love affair with the irrational.  Randi is a retired professional magician, and the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which investigate claims of paranormal, supernatural, and occult  ideas.

I’m a magician by profession, now retired and dedicated to communicating the facts about the so-called paranormal and the occult, and the supernatural people, claims, and stories that abound.

Randi cites a poll conducted by National Geographic that found that almost one-third of Americans believe the Mayan doomsday predictions are “somewhat true”.  He also points out that some common beliefs, while clearly wrong, are not especially pernicious: many people think that whales are fish, or that we only use about 10% of our brains.

There are some irrational beliefs, though, that are potentially harmful, especially when they affect significant decisions.

Now consider this: Some 70% of Americans believe in some aspect of the paranormal — ESP, devils, ghosts, homeopathy, and spiritual healing. More than 25% believe there are humans who can “psychically” predict the future.

There are doubtless a number of factors that contribute to this, as Randi points out: ignorance, cultural influences, flawed cognition, and emotional instability all probably play a part.  The answer is not blind faith in “science”, but a healthy degree of skepticism about all novel claims.

Clueless Celebrities, 2010

December 31, 2010

Once again this year, the British charity Sense about Science has published its review [PDF] of especially silly statements made by various celebrities about science during the past year.   (My post about the 2009 review is here.)   As always, there are some striking new contributions to the world’s stock of lore.

Each year at Sense About Science we review the odd science claims people in the public eye have made – about diets, cancer, magnets, radiation and more – sent in to us by scientists and members of the public. Many of these claims promote theories, therapies and campaigns that make no scientific sense.

This year, for example, the pop singer Sarah Harding told a magazine interviewer that she always sprinkled charcoal over her food, in order to “absorb all the bad, damaging stuff in the body.”  (She should have met my great aunt — most of her meals included charcoal already, especially her famous “black bottom” fried eggs.)   Another dietary tip comes from Naomi Campbell, Ashton Kutcher, and Demi Moore, who periodically eat nothing but maple syrup, lemons, and pepper for periods of up to two weeks; this is supposed to “cleanse” the body.  David Beckham, Robert de Niro, and Kate Middleton all use a “Power Balance” silicone bracelet embedded with a hologram, which supposedly improves strength, energy, and flexibility.

All of this is not terribly surprising, considering the average level of scientific ignorance among the population.  Many of these claims are for diets and gadgets sold by the same sort of appeal to pseudo-science that is employed to sell “magical” hi-fi equipment.  Of course these folks are entitled to their own preferences, silly though they may be; but the rest of us should remember that having a pretty face does not mean that anything of very great value is going on inside.

WD-40: Canny Marketing

July 17, 2010

Today’s Washington Post has an article about a new social marketing campaign being launched by the WD-40 Company, for its eponymous product.  The product, WD-40, is a familiar sight in many workshops.  It was originally developed as part of “a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry”; according to the product lore, the “WD” stood for Water Displacement, and the formula was supposedly the 40th one tested.  The company has introduced a commemorative “Twin Pack”, with one modern can of WD-40, and one can with a “retro” design from the 1950s, complete with the company’s original name, Rocket Chemical Co. (the product was apparently originally developed for the Atlas Missile program)

WD-40 Twin Pack, courtesy WD-40 Co.

There is even a WD-40 Fan Club at the company’s site, where users are invited to contribute their favorite applications of the product.

Although you will find a can of WD-40 in many serious mechanics’ shops, the product has also acquired the reputation of being, like duct tape and baling wire, a favorite tool of the un-handy handyman.

If you didn’t own or couldn’t identify the right tool for the job, there was always WD-40 and a hammer.

If lawnmowers wore cologne, it would smell like WD-40, the Old Spice of the two-stroke engine.

WD-40 is to bad handymen what cream of mushroom soup is to bad cooks.

It is handy, and often seems a good short-term fix for things like squeaky hinges and stubborn locks.  But the temptation is to overuse it, and in places where it is not the right tool for the job.

Back in the 1990s, when USENET discussion groups were still active, and had not yet been rendered almost entirely useless by spam, I was a frequent participant in the group.  A question that came up regularly there was whether WD-40 was a good lubricant for bicycle chains.  The consensus answer is no, although it can be useful for cleaning really crappy chains.  In these discussions, it was almost inevitable that various more or less fanciful ideas would be advanced about what was actually in WD-40.  One of these discussions led to my own small contribution to the group’s FAQ:

Subject: 8a.8 WD-40
From: (Rich Gibbs)
Date: Wed, 09 Sep 1998 04:03:00 GMT

There have been many opinions posted here on WD-40's composition, but here is what the Material Safety Data Sheet [MSDS] says (it's from Oct 93, the latest I could find):

50% Stoddard solvent (mineral spirits) [8052-41-3]
25% Liquified petroleum gas (presumably as a propellant) [68476-85-7]
15+% Mineral Oil (light lubricating oil) [64742-65-0]
10-% Inert ingredients

(The numbers in square brackets '[]' are the CAS numbers for the ingredients, as listed in the MSDS.)

Mostly, WD-40 is a solvent, with a bit of light oil mixed in. It doesn't contain wax (except incidentally, since it's not exactly a reagent-grade product).

Personally, I use it sometimes for small cleaning jobs, but it's not a particularly good lubricant for anything that I can think of, offhand.

The composition of the product is still proprietary, although it does seem that it might have changed slightly, looking at the current MSDS [PDF].

Still, there is always a can of WD-40 in my toolbox, because sometimes anything that works is better than unobtainable perfection.

Clueless Celebrities

January 5, 2010

Since 2007, the British charity Sense About Science has published an annual review of especially silly statements about scientific topics that were made by politicians and celebrities in the preceding year.  The New Scientist has an article on the latest review, which summarizes some stunning new contributions to the world’s stock of “lore”. (The review itself, in PDF format, can be downloaded here.)

Overall, the main message from scientists to celebrities this year is nutrition is neither the cure nor cause of everything.

Some of the celebrity advice is very much to the point; for example, Roger Moore, who played James Bond in a few movies, has discovered that foie gras consumption is the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.  According to model and charity campaigner Heather Mills, if you eat meat, “it sits in your colon for 40 years and putrefies, and eventually gives you the illness you die of.  And that is a fact.”   There are several similar pearls of wisdom in the review.

Given the general level of ignorance about science in the population at large, I guess it is not too surprising that these celebrities are no less clueless.  But someone should tell them that being pretty ought to be enough — it is not just cause for public pontification.

Overall, the main message from scientists to celebrities this year is nutrition is neither the cure nor cause of everything.

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