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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Audiobook, Autism research, & the Cheltenham Science Festival

Hello all. Just a quick update from from quarantine to pass on a few bits of news.

My latest article for Skeptical Inquirer, “Of Eye Movements and Autism: The Latest Chapter In A Continuing Controversy,” discusses a new research study that purports to show that Rapid Prompting Method, an unsubstantiated communication method used with nonspeaking children and adults with autism actually works. (Spoiler: We don’t know if it works or not, and the new research doesn’t help us figure it out.)

I am happy to say that my latest book SUPERSTITION: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION is now available as an audiobook from Audible. I am not the narrator, which is probably a good thing, but during this time when bookstores are closed, it is nice to have the book available in every format: paperback, kindle, and audiobook.

Although many things are not possible during the coronavirus pandemic, some things have become possible that might not otherwise have happened. For example, I will be appearing at the Cheltenham Science Festival at Home on June 5. The town of Cheltenham, England sponsors a number of cultural festivals each summer, but for obvious reasons, they are moving this summer’s events online. I recorded a brief talk on the subject of my new book on superstition which will be shown during the festival. Several Oxford Very Short Introduction authors will participate, as well some famous scientists, including Brian Greene and Brian Cox. The schedule of the conference can be found here.

That’s it for now. The warm weather has been a little slow arriving here in New England, but I am looking forward to spending some socially distanced time outside in the coming weeks. I hope you are finding ways to stretch your legs, too.


A Virus Changes Everything

What a difference a month and a half have made? Since I last wrote to you in February, the world has turned upside down. I’ve been working at home for a long time, but now many others are doing the same under much more difficult circumstances. I hope you are all healthy and safe.

The Book is Out But the Book Tour is Postponed

I am happy to announce that Superstition: A Very Short Introduction is now available in the US. If this lockdown goes on, it may eventually become difficult to obtain physical copies, because the publisher’s warehouse is currently closed, but for now, there are books in the pipeline available through all the usual outlets. The Kindle version has been available since January.51Bt6XwIn1L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_

As I mentioned in my last message, I planned a short book tour for England in May, including a talk at the British Museum, an appearance on BBC television, and several Skeptics in the Pub appearances, but for obvious reasons, the tour will have to be postponed. I am hopeful that it can be reconvened at a future date.

Superstition and the COVID-19 Outbreak

I am the kind of person who copes with stress by learning as much as possible about the source of the disturbance, and as a result, I have been reading articles and listening to podcasts about the novel coronavirus outbreak for some weeks now. If you are interested in going down the same rabbit hole, I recommend two newish podcasts, The first is The Epidemic, by Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist, and Ron Klain, who headed the Ebola Task Force in the Obama administration in 2014-2015. The second is Deep Background by Harvard Law Professor, Noah Feldman. Like many of us,1020px-SARS-CoV-2_without_background.png Feldman has become obsessed with the COVID-19 crisis, and he has both accelerated the frequency of podcasts and invited a parade of informed guests, including epidemiologists (on the likely course of the epidemic), psychologists (on how to cope), and economists (on how we will get the economy going again). Both are highly recommended if you are a deep diver like me.

One result of this immersion in the topic has been my latest article for Skeptical Inquirer, “Did Superstition Cause the COVID-19 Outbreak?” This was a challenging topic to take on, in part because it required much research into Chinese culture and dietary preferences. I made an effort to be factual and informative but also culturally fair at a time when anti-Asian racism is on the rise. I’ll let you judge how successful I was.

That’s it for now. Stay safe.


Vegas pod, UK Book Tour Dates, & Superstitious Real Estate—Part Deux

ElevatorMy latest “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer is a continuation of the topic of superstition in real estate. In this installment, I cover the 13th-floor phobia, which continues to plague developers in both the United States and Moscow—although the Russians deal with it differently than we do. I also discuss vastu shastra, the Indian version of feng shui. In the United States, vastu shastra is most commonly encountered in a version developed by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the developer of Transcendental Meditation who became popular after the Beatles visited him in India fifty-two years ago this month. Proponents of Maharishi vastu—like those of feng shui—make a number of unsupported claims about how the design of their buildings promote health and prosperity for the occupants.

A few weeks ago I spent a very pleasant hour with Jeff Walker on the “Jeff Does Vegas” podcast discussing the role of superstition in the casino. Jeff is based in Canada, but he makes many trips to Vegas each year and clearly knows the place well. He also has EP52.jpga terrific radio voice. Spoiler Alert: Jeff makes the surprising admission that he thinks his wife is unlucky, and I suggest an empirical test that might prove whether she is or not.

You can listen to the podcast here.

My mini book tour of England is shaping up nicely. I will be doing a number of dates in early May in support of my new book Superstition: A Very Short Introduction. I am getting excited about being in the UK in the spring.

The dates of the tour are below. If anyone is interested in the details of these talks, send me an email (or reply to this one).


Screenshot 2020-02-18 14.34.34.png

That’s it for now.