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

The Free Market & Some Sad News

My latest article for Skeptical Inquirer, “The COVID-19 Free Market Experiment,” was inspired by an appearance I made on a Chicago-areawaiter-5513560_1920 conservative talk radio program. The hosts were blaming the economic downturn in their area on the coronavirus restrictions imposed by the Chicago mayor and Illinois governor (both Democrats). The evidence does not support that view.

Over the last few weeks I gave a psychology colloquium presentation (over Zoom) at the University of Connecticut entitled icdorg“The Latest in Autism Claptrap and Why Science is Losing” and an online class for the Institute for Challenging Disorganization called “How to Control Spending: Practical & Creative Ideas.” Both were fun experiences, but unfortunately neither is available online at the moment.

Finally, we received some very sad news last week. Emory University psychology professor Scott Lilienfeld succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 59. Scott was a towering figure in the story_main_veffort to make psychology a rigorous science and a leader in the skepticism movement. I had the privilege of spending some time with him at a CSICon conference a few years ago, and more recently he was one of several co-authors on a short academic article critical of facilitated communication. He was incredibly productive, authoring over 350 articles and thirteen books, and he won many awards. Perhaps most importantly, Scott was a generous and good person. Many remembrances have been posted in recent days, but this press release on the Emory University website is particularly evocative. I wrote an obituary for Scott that will appear in the January/February print edition of Skeptical Inquirer. He will be sorely missed.

That’s all for now.

SV

COVID-19 and the Tyranny of Now

A very quick note.

My August “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, “COVID-19 and the Tyranny of Now,” is about how short-term thinking has not served us well in the coronavirus epidemic. After it appeared, I was happy to see that it was picked up by RealClearScience.com. This is the second coronavirus-related piece of mine to be circulated by the science aggregator.

After the “Tyranny of Now” article went up, I was contacted by “Chicago’s Morning Answer,” an AM morning drive show. The station is very conservative (they carry Sean Hannity in the afternoons), but I did my best to find some common ground on concerns about the pandemic. I will let you decide how well I did. The entire segment was posted on the station’s YouTube channel and can be heard below. The title of the video is “on secondhand deaths caused by COVID-19,” but that was more the host’s topic than mine. Nonetheless, I was happy to have the opportunity to go on air in Chicago.

That’s all for now. I hope you are making the best use of what’s left of the summer and that the weather is good where you are.

SV

Brazilian Skeptics & COVID, Superstition on BBC Radio 4, British Museum, & Spanish Translation

It has been almost two months since I last posted, but, of course, in pandemic time that is just a few minutes. I hope you are managing these dreadful times as well as possible.


Natalia_brownMy latest article for Skeptical Inquirer is, “Brazilian Skeptics Take Center Stage in the COVID-19 Crisis.” Brazil is doing almost as badly with the coronavirus crisis as the U.S., and they have access to even less sound scientific information. Like President Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has called COVID-19 “a little flu” and has mingled in crowds of people without wearing a mask. Natalia Pasternak, president of the foremost Brazilian skeptic’s organization and a microbiologist, has become a media superstar fighting against misinformation and pseudoscience.


p08j35s7.jpg

Rafael Nadal lines up his water bottles

I was interviewed for a BBC Radio 4 documentary about superstition in sport. This is a topic that has been covered many times in the press, but this half-hour-long program is by far the best I’ve ever seen. The producer Neil Kanwal got many athletes to talk quite openly about their superstitions, and several of the interviews are quite insightful. There is considerable discussion of tennis star Rafael Nadal whose superstitions are so extensive that they often delay matches. I was particularly honored that I was given the last word at the end of the documentary.

The documentary was very well received in the British press. It was ‘Pick of the week’ in the Times and Radio Times, and ‘Pick of the day’ in The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Express. You can listen to it here.


As you may recall, I was invited to speak at the British Museum in London in May, butScreenshot 2020-07-16 07.28.49 my UK trip was canceled when the virus came to town. As an alternative, I will be giving an online talk on August 10 on the “Ancient Origins of Modern Superstitions.”Unfortunately, this is a “museum members only” event, but you can see the website for the talk here, which includes a large image of this beautiful magical amulet —>.


A final bit of news. I recently learned that my latest book, Superstition: A Very Short Introduction, will be translated into Spanish. This is the first translation of this little volume. I am keeping my fingers crossed there will be others.


That’s it for now. I hope that you are staying safe and getting outside to enjoy a little nature while the weather is good. Take care.

SV