My New Book & Your Unvaccinated Uncle

Summer is over, and the glorious season of autumn is blooming here in New England. I hope that, wherever you are, you are happy and healthy. I have just two items to report.

First, I can now announce that I have a new book arriving next spring from Oxford University Press: The Uses of Delusion: Why It’s Not Always Rational to Be Rational. After spending much of my career championing logic, reason, and science, I’ve come to a slightly more nuanced view. Without question, most of the time we should be driven by reason, but there are times when the path of reason is not the best path. Many people do things that don’t strictly make sense, and yet these actions help them achieve their personal goals and navigate the social world. That’s what this book is about.

The Uses of Delusion was the most pleasurable of all my books to write so far, and it is filled with stories and personal anecdotes to illustrate the main points. It will not appear until April or May, but it’s available for pre-order now. I already have one book talk scheduled, for the Stonington (CT) Free Library on August 24, 2022. You can be certain I will remind you about this and other opportunities to hear about the book as they emerge.

My latest “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine is called “Why Your Uncle Isn’t Going to Get Vaccinated.” All of us here in the US know someone who—six months after the vaccines have been widely available—still resists getting the shot. Meanwhile the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus rages. At this point, it seems unlikely these people can be convinced to get vaccinated, and in this article, I provide some possible explanations for a decision that seems more than a little crazy to the rest of us.

That’s it for now!

SV

Friday the 13th, 2021

There is just one Friday the 13th in 2021, and as the day approached, I was recruited for a few interviews. Here is a quick wrap-up.


I had a great time on the American Psychological Association podcast “Speaking of Psychology,” hosted by Kim Mills. The interview was on the psychology of superstition, and you can listen to the interview by clicking the green triangle below, A complete transcript of the interview is available here.


On the day itself, I had two minutes of Canadian fame as I appeared on Breakfast Television, “Canada’s #1 national morning show.” As luck would have it, the segment was very brief, but you can see it below.

And because you are all my close friends, I will reveal to you what my home television studio looks like. Here’s a behind the scenes photo:


I was also interviewed on “Doctor Radio” on Sirius XM radio early on Friday the 13th, which was a wonderful time. We talked quite a bit about COVID and anti-vaxxers. Unfortunately, Sirius is behind a paywall, and there is no publically available recording or transcript.


That’s the entire Friday the 13th roundup. Fridays will remain superstition-free until May 2022.

Until then, next time enjoy the tag end of summer.

SV

Sophie Germain and My Latest Talks and Articles

It is hard to believe we are already at mid-summer, but we are. It has been quite a while since I posted about my activities, and I’ve been busy.

Back in early June, I published “When Is It Reasonable to Choose Ignorance,” in Skeptical Inquirer. It reports on the wide reluctance of people at risk for Huntington’s Disease to take the genetic test that will reveal whether they will have it. Huntington’s is a debilitating and ultimately fatal condition that starts between the ages of 30 and 50, and there is no cure. People with an affected parent have a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease, but very few people get tested.


At the beginning of July, thanks to COVID-19 vaccines, I was able to travel to France to attend the Timeworld 2021 conference on the topic of Randomness. My presentation was called, “Can Humans Tolerate a Random World,” and the organizers were kind enough to let me give it in English. I was able to combine the trip with a vacation in Paris, a city I’d never visited before. What a beautiful place! My talk has been posted on YouTube and is available below.


More recently, I gave a talk, “Superstition: The Full Story,” over Zoom for Skeptical Inquirer Presents, a program sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, the publisher of the magazine I write for, Skeptical Inquirer. I had a very fun time with this talk, given that it was largely an audience of fellow travelers in the skeptical world. In addition, I got to work with the amazing Leighann Lord, standup comedian and host for many Center for Inquiry events. I had a blast. The video for the talk is below.


I will leave you with one discovery from my trip to Paris. In addition to the usual art museums and other sights, I made a point of seeking out some science-related spots, some of which I plan to write about in a future Skeptical Inquirer article. I visited Père Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in the city, which, today, is widely known for the grave of Jim Morrison, lead singer of the ’60s rock group, The Doors. But hidden away, not far from Morrison, is the grave of the great French mathematician Sophie Germain (1776-1831), As a woman in the 18th and 19th centuries, Germain suffered considerable discrimination in her efforts to become a mathematician. She was not allowed to attend the École Polytechnique, so to get around this problem, she assumed the identity of a former student, Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc, obtained the lecture notes, and submitted answers to problems. Ultimately, the professor, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, one of the finest mathematicians of the 19th century, was so impressed with her solutions, that he demanded to meet the Monsieur Le Blanc, forcing Germain to reveal herself. Happily, Lagrange was delighted to meet Germain and soon became her mentor and friend. 

Germain published work on elasticity and foundational work on Fermat’s Last Theorem, but she continued to suffer indignities after her death. When the Eiffel Tower was built in 1889, the names of 72 French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians were engraved around the base. All are men. Ironically, Germain’s work on elasticity was essential to the construction of the tower, but her name was omitted. 

When, after considerable searching, I was able to find Germain’s grave at Père Lachaise, I was surprised to find a tree growing out of it. (See the photo above.) Although there is some evidence the City of Paris has made efforts to maintain her gravesite, it was difficult to get a good view of her gravestone due to the size of the tree trunk and the scattered shrubs around it. Initially, I was quite disappointed to see the grave of a great mathematician in this condition, but perhaps there is another way to think about it. Trees are traditional symbols of both life and knowledge, and perhaps the tree growing through Sophie Germain’s grave can be seen as a metaphor for her determination to learn and contribute to mathematics despite the forces aligned against her. Perhaps it can be seen as a symbol of her strength.

Personally, I prefer that solution. 


That’s all for now. Enjoy the summer.

SV

Celebrities, Hypnosis, & Crystals

Happy Springtime! Here in New England it’s beginning to be keep-the-windows-open time.

Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey on the Larry King Show.

My latest column for Skeptical Inquirer is “From False Cause to False Cure: Autism and the Rich and Famous.” It reports on the reemergence of celebrities in the autism world—this time to promote discredited therapies for people with severe autism. I was happy to see that the article was promoted by RealClearScience and has now been translated into Spanish for the Buenos Aires based magazine Pensar.

My friend Andreas Mink, who writes for a number of German language newspapers in Europe, recently interviewed me for a fascinating story about the shockingly widespread use of hypnosis by police in witness interviews, particularly the Texas Rangers. I spoke about the fallibility of human memory and the power of suggestion in interviews. The two-page-spread article was published in the Sunday May 2 edition of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The article is behind a paywall, but for any of my German-speaking friends who might be interested, a pdf of the article can be found here. I love this graphic NZZ used with the article.

Finally, it appears that I am the go-to skeptic for comments about crystal healing. I am not sure how that happened, but I was recently interviewed for the Washington Post. In this case the author of the piece did a reasonably good job. The title says it all. “‘Healing’ crystals are having a pandemic moment. But science says they’re just pretty stones.” Very expensive pretty stones in many cases.

That’s it for now. Thanks to science, it looks as though I will be attending the 2021 Timeworld Global Congress on Randomness in Paris, July 1-3. I will be speaking on the topic “Can Humans Tolerate a Random World.” You can find out more about the conference at this link. I will let you all about it when I get back.

Bye for now. Enjoy the spring breezes.

SV

Beware the Child Rescuers

My latest piece for Skeptical Inquirer looks at the long history of false claims of child endangerment. The stimulus for this piece was the recent accusation of liberal pedophilia raised by the QAnon movement, but throughout history, claims of child abuse have been leveled against the opponents of social movements. Unfortunately, these false claims have the potential to harm children rather than help them.

For those who missed my recent Stonington Free Library talk, “Superstition: A Very Short Introduction,” it is now available on YouTube. I actually went to the library to give the talk, but the audience was on Zoom. Sometime soon I hope we can return to live events with wine and cheese receptions and book signings. For now, this will have to suffice.

That’s all I have for you at the moment.

I am happy to report that, thanks to my advanced age and the fact that I live in Connecticut, I am now fully vaccinated. I hope you all get vaccinated very soon. I don’t think things will every be exactly as they were before the pandemic, but we are getting closer to a much better world. I can’t wait!

SV

QAnon & Upcoming Events

My latest article for Skeptical Inquirer, “When QAnon Prophecy Fails,” is up, and it has already been translated into Spanish as “Cuando la profecía de QAnon falla” for publication in the Buenos Aires based Pensar Magazine. The recent disappointments of QAnon followers who believed Donald Trump would return for a second term brought to mind the classic book When Prophecy Fails. which tells the story of a doomsday religious group whose members actually became more committed after the end of the world failed to materialize. I attempted to apply the lessons of cognitive dissonance described in the book to the current case of QAnon followers.

On Sunday March 14 at 5:00, I will be giving a talk sponsored by the Stonington Free Library about my most recent book Superstition: A Very Short Introduction. The book actually came out about this time last year, and there were plans for me to give a talk at the library last spring. As the year developed, I kept holding out hope that an in-person talk would be possible. Finally, the SFL staff asked me if I would be willing to do the talk over Zoom, and I agreed. I am hopeful that whenever my next book comes out, social gatherings will be possible again. To register for the talk email: karla@stoningtonfreelibrary.org.

Finally, I have been invited to participate in the Aspen Institute Global Congress on Scientific Thinking & Action in mid March. This is an invitation-only event being conducted online, but it will include an impressive collection of scientists and science journalists from all over the world. Some of the topics on the agenda are science denialism, alternative medicine, climate denialism, and vaccine hesitancy. I will be representing the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I am looking forward to it.

That’s it for now. The vaccine seems to be coming a bit quicker now in the US. Because I am old, I am currently half vaccinated and looking forward to my second dose in a couple of weeks. If you have not already been vaccinated, I hope you get yours ASAP. #ThankYouScience

SV

A New Year

It has been several weeks since my last installment, but it feels like years. We passed the socially distanced December holidays and the masked New Year’s non-celebration only to be hit with a violent insurrection at the US Capitol building, Impeachment 2.0, and (finally!) the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden Jr as President and Kamala Harris as Vice President. I feel more than a bit dizzy.

My own activities during this time have been far less dramatic. Way back in December I wrote a column for Skeptical Inquirer, “The Tragedy of Our Commons,” about the role of national unity and disunity in the way different countries have responded to the coronavirus crisis.

On January 2, I participated in Monterey County SkeptiCamp, which was booked as the first skeptic conference of the year. I gave a talk entitled, “Do Superstitions Work?” In addition to me, my friend Janyce Boynton gave a talk about the pseudoscientific communication technique Facilitated Communication, which, unfortunately, remains popular with many parents of children with severe language disorders. The video below is of the entire conference, but you can scroll ahead to see Janyce at 1 hr and 13 minutes and me at 1 hr and 54 minutes.

Finally, on January 13, a new book, Pour Quoi Moi? Le Hasard Dans Tous Ses Éstats, was released in France. In English the title is “Why Me? Chance in All Its Forms.” The book is the companion to a conference that is now scheduled for this coming July, and It includes chapters by thirty-three scientists and other writers, including me. My chapter is “Can Humans Tolerate a Random World?” It appears in French in the collection, as do all the other essays, but I was delighted to see that my chapter was discussed in the opening paragraphs of a review of the book that appeared in Le Monde on January 15. If you are interested, you can find a pdf of the review here.

That’s all for now. There are a few things brewing for the future, but I will let you know about those when they are more definite, In the meantime, Happy New Year! I hope you get vaccinated soon—I’m still waiting—and that Spring comes quickly.

SV

Philadelphia Talk & Thanksgiving

Just a quick note to pass on the YouTube video of my recent Zoom talk, “The Psychology of Superstition,” for the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT). It was a nice event, however, there is a rather meandering beginning to the video. I was asked to arrive ten minutes early to deal with technical issues, and all the green room chitchat ended up in the video. So, you may want to scroll ahead about 12 minutes to the beginning of the actual event. I provided a slide show and my full “credibility bookcase” background.


It’s Thanksgiving week in a very unusual year. Students are coming home from college, and there is likely to be some slippage in compliance with health recommendations. All of this as infection rates are already on the rise throughout the country. I am cooking a modest Thanksgiving meal to be delivered to my mother and to a neighbor. It will be an unusual holiday season, but in the last weeks we have begun to hear some very hopeful news about vaccines. If we can just get through this dark season, there should be light and a return to relative normalcy by spring.

Take care.

SV 

Friday the 13th & Philadelphia Critical Thinking Talk

Another Friday the 13th has come and gone, and even in the age of pandemic, it holds a fascination. For reasons that I cannot understand, I am quickly becoming a darling of conservative media outlets, and this past Friday I was briefly interviewed on the far-right Newsmax TV. There is no online evidence of my appearance, so perhaps it didn’t happen.

I gave no other new interviews for this Friday the 13t, but there are enough older quotes of mine floating around the internet that they tend to be recycled whenever this scary day pops up. I am aware of quotes from me appearing in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Western Mass News, and the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Finally, I will be giving a zoom talk on the psychology of superstition this coming Saturday November 21 at 2:00 ET for the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking (PhACT). The talk is free, and you can register for it here. There will be slides, provided I can remember how to share my screen. I am very much in favor of critical thinking, so I am looking forward to this event.

A quick book recommendation before I go. If you are interested in the nature of the coronavirus epidemic and how it is likely to affect our lives in the future, I recommend Nicholas Christakis’ “Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.” I’m only a chapter in, but so far it reads like a fast-moving novel. Full of insight about what has and is likely to happen.

That’s all for now.

SV

Halloween, British Museum Magazine, and James Randi

Another quick update, just in time for Halloween.

I had a great time with Hanna and Cari, the hosts of the “College Talks & More” podcast, in an episode entitled, “Superstitions of Witches, Goblins, and Ghosts: A Halloween Special.” I talked about my new book, Superstition: A Very Short Introduction, and we got into some spooky stuff.

I received a copy of my article, “The Lost Art of the Curse,” which appears in the autumn issue of British Museum magazine. It is beautifully illustrated with images of items from the museum collection. I believe the magazine may eventually appear as a pdf online, but at the moment, it exists only as a physical magazine. Email me if you would like to receive a pdf of my article.

James Randi

Finally, skepticism lost a giant this past week. James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician, debunker, rationalist, and founder of the modern skepticism movement died last week at the age of 92. He lived a full and varied life, which was well summarized in a lengthy New York Times obituary. If you have not seen the documentary about Randi, “An Honest Liar,” (currently streaming on Amazon Prime) I highly recommend it. Randi was a hero to many who champion science and reason. He will be missed.

That’s all for now.

SV