Astrology, Horror Movies, & the Media

It has been quite a while since I last posted anything here, and things have started to pile up. I have published two columns on the Skeptical Inquirer website, and a couple of other things have happened. Here is a quick roundup.

There is some evidence that astrology is gaining popularity among millennials, who are more secular than previous generations but no less spiritual. In my May SI column, I offered some suggestions as to why this might download.jpgbe the case.

I wrote this article after being interviewed by a film crew for a Vox “explainer” on astrology that will appear on Netflix in August. So, May was my astrology month.


Anthony Bourdain

In a single week in June we experienced the tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. I used these events as the motivation for an article about the role of the media in copycat suicides and homicides. There is considerable research evidence suggesting that many lives could be saved if the media—particularly television and internet news sources—were to adopt some simple standards for reporting suicides and mass shootings. Unfortunately, there has been very little movement in this direction.

In the week before the arrival of the new scary movie, Hereditary, Cari Romm, a writer for The Cut, called to ask me why people go to horror movies. Why do people voluntarily pay money to be scared? I offered some thoughts based on the available research, and 14-horror.w710.h473-1.jpgthe resulting article was quite fun. Later I went to see Hereditary and was not particularly impressed. The movie disappeared very quickly from the local megaplex, so it appears that audiences, in general, may have agreed with me. Nonetheless, I recommend the article in The Cut.

Over the Memorial Day weekend and the week following, I was fortunate enough to take a vacation in southern California. I gave an invited address at the convention of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, which, if you are interested, you can read here, and I vacationed in San Diego, Los Angeles, Joshua Tree National Park, and Topanga Canyon. I leave you with my favorite self-portrait from that trip, taken at a waterside establishment called Burgers, Bait, & Beer on the south embarcadero in San Diego. One of my favorite stops on the trip.

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Until next time.


Friday the 13th & Obesity

Happy Friday the 13th! Today I was lucky enough to be quoted in an article in the Toronto Star, and I participated in a discussion of superstition on BBC 5. If the audio of the interview becomes available, I will link to it here. In the meantime, here is a link to the Toronto Star article, “Superstitions Are a Control Issue.

My latest Behavior & Belief column for Skeptical Inquirer, “How Not to Combat Obesity,” downloadis up on the website. In this column, I investigate a USDA web page that once had some very useful information about the nutritional value of food purchased or consumed away from home. I think you will find the story interesting. A week after the column went up, new information came to light, so I appended a brief final chapter to the story.

That’s it for Friday the 13th. Have a wonderful weekend!



Going Broke 2 & Changelings

I am very happy to announce that the second, post-recession edition of Going Broke: Why Americans (Still) Can’t Hold on to Their Money (note the slight name change) is scheduled for release on September 3. Although the economy has almost completely recovered since the first edition was published in vyse_broke_1 (1)2008, Americans are still struggling with debt and financial insecurity. The nature of our money problems has changed, but in many respects, our circumstances are no better than in the years before the crash.

It has been a great privilege to be able to revisit a topic I covered a decade ago. I learned a lot. I also love the cover of the new edition. Going Broke 2 is available for pre-order on the Oxford University Press site and at

My latest column for Skeptical Inquirer, “The Enduring Legend of the Changeling” went up earlier this month. The802px-83_b_bartol_2_wick changeling myth is very old and widespread and its roots are universal. In the article, I draw a connection between changelings and the motivations of parents who embrace Facilitated Communication, the pseudoscientific treatment for autism, as well as those who become anti-vaxxers.

That’s all for now. Happy Spring!


RBG, Experts, & Another Mass Shooting

Hello from the depths of February.


I recently attended oral arguments at the United States Supreme Court, and the experience prompted me to write a short piece in The Coffeelicious about the experience. The essay is called “Miss Jeanne Louise, Stand Up,” and it is an unabashed appreciation of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


The January/February issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine included my column, entitled “Yes, We Do Need Experts,” and this week it became available online for the first time. In it, I review an important recent book by Tom Nichols entitled, The Death of Expertise.


Finally, on Wednesday there was yet another mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Once again a legally purchased AR-15 assault weapon was used to kill—in this case—seventeen people—high school students and teachers—in seven minutes. The gun control debate has begun again, and yesterday Skeptical Inquirer magazine reposted my December 2015 article, “Guns: Feeling Safe Does Not Equal Being Safe,” which once again sparked a lively debate on the SI Facebook page. Typical-AR-15-1024x301.jpg

That’s all for now. On a positive note, it feels like spring might be coming soon. Let’s hope.


William James and the Psychics

Image-4 (1)Happy New Year! It has been over a month since I last visited your inbox. For those of you who are not in New England this picture shows the world outside my window this morning.

My latest Behavior and Belief Untitledcolumn for Skeptical Inquirer is entitled “William James and the Psychics.” It’s based on a new book that provides evidence that the famous 19th century psychologist and philosopher’s interest in spiritualism was much more central to his life and career than otherwise thought. Séances and mediums were very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and despite the criticism of his colleagues, James attended dozens of séances and maintained that psychical research was a productive way to investigate the possibility of life after death.

This one is for psych majors. The January, 2018 Behavior Therapist, a journal of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, is a special issue on the topic of Pseudoscience in Mental Health Treatment. I wrote an article entitled “What’s a Therapist to Do When Clients Have Pseudoscientific Beliefs?” A pdf copy of the article can be found here. If you are interested in the entire special issue, a pdf is located here.

Finally, the January/February issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine is on news stands now. I have two articles this time, but unfortunately they are both print only. If you want to 159158read them, you will have to pick up a copy of the magazine or email me directly. The issue includes a special section called “A Skeptic’s Guide to Racism,” inspired by the sad and disturbing events of Charlottesville.  I wrote a short piece for this section called, “Combating Racism through Shared Goals.” My regular column is entitled “Yes, We Do Need Experts.” It reviews a great book called “The Death of Expertise” by Tom Nichols.

That’s it for now.

Happy winter, SV

Superstitious Rituals & French Statistics

A quick mid-December update.

My latest Skeptical Inquirer online article, “Do Superstitious Rituals Work?” was published on December 8th. In it, I summarize some very interesting new research that shows that rituals are effective in reducing anxiety and improving performance in a skilled activity. As part of the article, I included mention of San Francisco Giant’s third baseman, Pablo Sandoval, who performs an elaborate ritual before batting. Sandoval is a switch-hitter, and the video below captures his batting ritual from both the right and left sides. According to the research I cite in the article, Sandoval’s ritual probably improves his hitting.

I recently gave permission to have one of my Skeptical Inquirer articles translated into French so that it could be reprinted in a French magazine called Science et Pseudo-sciences. The original title of the article was “Moving Science’s Statistical Goalposts,” which was translated as “Statistiquement significatif: Les critères sont-ils suffisamment exigeants?” You can read a pdf of the French version by clicking here.

That’s it!

Winter Solstice is only a few days away on December 21. After that, the days start to get longer.

Happy Holidays to all!


Dan Q. Posin & more

I am very pleased to report that the current issue of the Skeptical Inquirer includes

Vyse ART Posin with kitty

Dan Q. Posin and his cat, Minerva

my article entitled, “Before Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, There Was Dan Q. Posin.” It is a tribute to an early science communicator who was an inspiration to me. The online version of the article includes several extra photos that do not appear in the magazine.


In a somewhat unusual twist on the typical superstition story, I was interviewed for Nature Careers magazine about snatureuperstitious scientists. The article is entitled “A lookout for luck.” Scientists are typically thought to value reason and evidence, but their experiments are often very elaborate and sensitive to the slightest error. As a result, it turns out that a number of these rational types have pet superstitious aimed at bringing them good luck in the lab. The article by Kendall Powell is quite interesting.

I have done two radio interviews recently, both international and both on superstition. The first was for Voice of Islam Radio, based in London. It was quite interesting to be on an Islamic station, sandwiched between discussions of readings from the Quran. The interview was quite enjoyable, but as far as I can tell, it was not archived online.logo-largo

My second radio interview was also quite interesting. It was for W Radio, in Bogota, Columbia, and for the first time that I recall, the interview was done alternating between English and Spanish. The program hosts posed questions through an interpreter, and I gave my answers in English, which the interpreter then translated back into Spanish. You can listen to the interview here.

That’s all for now.


Friday the 13th Roundup

Whenever a Friday the 13th falls in the spooky month of October there seems to be an extra bit of interest in superstition and magic. This year I was contacted by several journalists and radio show hosts. For example, I was quoted in the Omaha (Nebraska) World-Hearld in an article called “Inside the fear of the number 13 and Friday the 13th.”

download.jpgOne of the most interesting Friday the 13th newspaper articles this year was written by Philip Bump, a political columnist for the Washington Post. In a piece called, “Here’s how many previous Friday the 13ths you’ve managed to survive,” he both recycled a quote I contributed to an old National Geographic story and included a calculator that allows you to determine how many Fridays the 13th you’ve encountered in your life so far. I have survived 119 in my 66 years of living. Hopefully, I will get a chance to survive many more.

tdy-header-logo.png   The NBC Today Show website’s Friday the 13th offering was an article called “Do crystals actually possess healing powers? The answer is complicated.” My answer was a bit simpler: “No they don’t.” But I offered some thoughts about why people might feel better using crystals.

Finally, I did three radio interviews on Friday. I made a brief appearance on the Mitch Albom (of Tuesdays with Morrie fame) Show, for which there appears to be no audio available online. I also did an interview for the Mike Farwell Show in Waterloo, Ontario. You can listen to the segment by clicking here and then clicking on the 10:00 AM hour for the Friday the 13th show. The segment lasts about 20 minutes. Be sure to stay on after the host hangs up with me to hear callers talking about superstitions.

The third radio interview was for WTIP community radio in Grand Marais, Minnesota, and you can listen to the interview in its entirety below.

That’s about it for Friday the 13th, 2017. Next up, Halloween!

Until then, enjoy the rest of autumn.


The Doors, Las Vegas, and a Friday the 13th Preview

Hello, everyone. Happy Friday the 13th!

I rAlbumStrangeDays.jpgecently published a short memory of my first time hearing The Doors’ album Strange Days approximately 50 years ago as a high school student in Illinois. The Doors first two albums were released in 1967, and the second, Strange Days, has always been my favorite. The piece also touches on what it was like to grow up in the middle of the country during a time when a great cultural revolution was happening on both coasts. 

My latest column for Skeptical Inquirer, We Already Know the Las Vegas Shooter’s Motive,” has just gone up on the web. This latest shooting has created a challenge for investigators because the usual motivations have not presented themselves. I argue that we already know what the motive was, and I discuss the role of the media in the promotion of mass shootings.

Finally, it’s October and superstition is in the air. I have done a number of interviews for newspapers, websites, and radio in the last few days, and as a result, I will send out a Friday the 13th wrap-up sometime next week. But for now, here is a National Geographic article, “Friday the 13th Is Back. Here’s Why It Scares Usfriday-13-1416149_960_720.jpg,” (with pithy quotes from me) that first appeared a few years back. National Geographic tends to recycle this article whenever the scary date rolls around.

In addition, a college newspaper from Illinois recently used the National Geographic article as a source for their own piece on Friday the thirteenth, and in that article (which can be found here) I learned a fun fact: several tattoo parlors in the Chicago area (and perhaps elsewhere) are offering sale prices on tattoos. $13 for a 3-inch X 3-inch tattoo. I’m not the tattoo type, but that sounds like a bargain—provided you are brave enough to get inked on Friday the 13th.

That’s all for now.

Probability and the Immunity Dog

There has been a long summer’s break in the stream of SV communications to your inbox. I was busy completing a few projects, and there was nothing much to report. I hope your summer went well and that no hurricanes or forest fires have come your way.

I recently published a new online column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, “Moving Science’s Statistical Goalposts,” which will also appear in the print magazine later this fall. An article co-authored by seventy-two researchers proposes to change the


Sir Ronald Fisher

probability standard for statistical tests, making it much more difficult to claim an effect is “statistically significant.” I discuss this issue in relation to the great British statistician Sir Ronald Fisher and Compound X, a fictional hair growth treatment.

If that does not sound whimsical enough, I was also recently interviewed in Britain’s New Statesman magazine about chain letters, chain tweets, and something called the


Immunity Dog

“Immunity Dog.” I didn’t know about the Immunity Dog, either, but I am now informed. For those who have never seen the dog, a picture is provided here. To get an explanation of the canine’s importance (or lack of importance), you will have to read the article by technology reporter, Amelia Tait, which you can find here. It was a very fun interview, and the article is quite good.

That’s it for today. Until next time, enjoy the glories of fall.