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.
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.
My 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, but 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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
My 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 a 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.
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).
Happy New Year! My first missive of the new year will be brief.
My January Behavior & Beliefcolumn for Skeptical Inquirer is “Superstition and the Chinese Real Estate Market.” Chinese culture is saturated with superstition, and Chinese superstitions have a powerful effect on commerce, including the housing market. This article explains why you might not want to buy a Hong Kong apartment on the 24th
Feng shui coins tied with lucky red string.
floor, and how you might be able to use feng shui coins to combat bad chi. If you believe in that sort of thing.
I am very excited to announce that I will be coming to the United Kingdom in May. As you may recall, I have a new book coming out this spring, Superstition: A Very Short Introduction. In connection with the release of this pocket-sized paperback, I was invited to give a talk at the British Museum. I really wanted to accept this invitation, and as a result, I have decided to organize a self-managed book tour in the UK in May. So far I am scheduled to be at the British Museum on May 11, and on May 12, I will be speaking at a Greenwich, London, Skeptics in the Pub event at the Star & Garter pub. There is a worldwide network of Skeptics in the Pub groups, but they are particularly popular in the UK. As a result, I am hoping to arrange a number of appearances at pubs and bookstores in England. The plans for this trip are just being hatched, but I will provide additional information as it becomes available.
I wrote the previous post as if it would be the last of 2019, but I did not fully consider the impact of Friday the 13th. So here is a very short followup covering just two Friday the 13th items.
On Friday the 13th I did a nine-minute interview with RTRFM radio in Perth, Australia. It was a fun conversation, and you can listen to it at this link. However, I should offer one trigger warning. There is brief mention of a somewhat distasteful episode of pica (i.e., eating non-nutritive items). On the other hand, the people at RTRFM found a very cute black cat to go with the story.
At the last minute, I decided to write a brief appreciation of Taylor Swift and her relationship with the number 13 for Skeptical Inquirer magazine online. As I mentioned in the previous post, this past Friday the 13th was Swift’s thirtieth birthday. You can read the story here.
OK. I am pretty sure this really will be the last post of 2019. Happy Holidays to all and may the New Year be bright and wonderful for you and yours.
2019 has been quite a year for your humble correspondent. A busy end to the decade. I finished a book, started another, wrote several articles for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, and gave talks in São Paulo, Brazil, Vienna, Austria, and Ypsilanti, Michigan. Somewhere in there, I also managed to break my foot, but I’m all better now.
Since you last heard from me (back in October), I’ve written two articles for Skeptical Inquirer. The first was, “Skepticism Blooms in Brazil,” a recap of my trip to São Paulo and a report on the amazing expansion of skepticism and science advocacy led by Natalia Pasternak, Carlos Orsi, and the other members of the new group Instituto Questão de Ciência (Question of Science Institute). The Institute just celebrated its first anniversary in November, but it has already established itself as an important force for science communication and reason in Brazil.
My most recent article for Skeptical Inquirer was inspired by a Facebook debate a few months back about whether atheists are more intelligent than religious people. This is obviously a rather sticky topic, but there is research that can help to sort it out. Given that I’d already stepped into a controversial topic, I went on to look at the relationship between religion and happiness. The upshot is that no one gets off completely cleanly, but I hope you will find the article interesting. A fitting piece for the coming holiday season.
As I write this, it is two days away from Friday the 13th. I am scheduled to do a couple of interviews on the topic, one for a Perth, Australia radio station and another for Voice of Islam Radio in London.
I leave you with a fun fact. This Friday, December 13, will be Taylor Swift’s thirtieth birthday. Thirteen has always been her lucky number. She sometimes paints 13 on her hand for concerts, and her twitter handle is @taylorswift13. She may have done more than anyone else to demystify the number 13. Happy Birthday, Taylor!
And Happy Holidays to you all. See you in the next decade.
It has been a very long time since I’ve posted an update, and much has happened. First and foremost, in August I made a trip to São Paulo, Brazil for a series of talks sponsored by The Institute Question of Science (Questão de Ciência). It was an amazing trip. On my first day there I was interviewed by several members of the press, including a reporter from Folha de S. Paulo, the largest newspaper in São Paulo.
The article published in the Folha de S.Paulo.
On the second day in São Paulo, I gave a talk at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo entitled, “Why People Believe What They Believe,” which was the first in a lecture series called “The Epistemology of Ignorance.” It was a great start to my trip, and the question-and-answer session after the talk was particularly interesting.
A video of my talk at the Institute for Advanced Study is available here:
On my third day, I gave a three-hour long workshop in the Psychology Department at the University of São Paulo entitled “Science and Clinical Psychology: How to Turn Them into Allies.” This, too, was a remarkably enjoyable session, in large part because the audience was so responsive, offering a number of interesting observations. There were some clinical psychologists in attendance who shared interesting stories from their practices.
A video of the entire three-hour lecture can be found here. Unfortunately, the sound did not work for the first 30 minutes of the session, so, if you are going to watch the video, I recommend you scroll forward 30 minutes or so.
On my final day, I gave a talk on the Psychology of Superstition in the auditorium of a very large bookstore in downtown São Paulo. Because the talk was open to the public, the sponsors offered simultaneous translation, both for the audience and for me. It was quite a fun experience. There is no video, but I can offer this photo of the event.
Carlos Orsi, the Emcee for the event, and me during the question and answer session. I am intently listening to the English translation of a question from the audience.
I am deeply indebted to my hosts on the Brazilian trip, Natalia Pasternak, the President of Questão de Ciência and Carlos Orsi, who is the Communications Director for IQC. They took care of my every need and gave me a wonderful introduction to Brazil.
After completing my time in São Paulo, I flew to Rio de Janeiro for four days of vacation before heading home. Rio is a spectacular city. I stayed at the Hilton Copacabana, right on the beach of the same name. The views were stunning, as the picture below suggests, and the beaches were beautiful. I ate some great food, drank the fabulous local cocktail, the caipirinha, and went on a tour of the Rocinha favela, the largest slum in Brazil.
It was a wonderful trip, and I am eternally grateful to my hosts, Natalia Pasternak andCarlos Orsi and to Questão de Ciência for inviting me.
Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro at dawn seen from my hotel window.
My most recent Behavior & Belief column for Skeptical Inquirer, “An Adventure In Peer Review,” was published back at the end of August. I reported a personal saga about the prestigious Cambridge University Press journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences publishing an article that presented quotes based on the discredited technique, facilitated communication. The quotes were purported to be the words of non-speaking people with autism, but overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that they were actually the unconscious statements of the facilitators assisting them. A number of colleagues and I wrote a commentary that was published with the flawed article, but the article was allowed to stand as is. In my analysis of this episode, I point to some aspects of the peer-review process that likely produced what, in my opinion, was an unsatisfactory outcome.
Later this month I am heading to the CSICon conference, in Las Vegas, the largest gathering of skeptics in the world, and then the following week I will travel to Vienna, Austria, where I will be talking about superstition at the Austrian Day of Science. More about that in a future post.
That’s all for now. I apologize for the length of this post. The weather has finally turned autumnal in Stonington. Wherever you are, I hope you are enjoying good times and pleasant weather.
On a recent trip to Washington, DC I visited a monument that most visitors to our nation’s capital never see. The German physician Samuel Hahnemann invented homeopathy, and in 1900, the American Institute of Homeopathy built a monument to him at a busy intersection in DC. In my latest column in Skeptical Inquirer, “What Should Become of a Monument to Pseudoscience,” I report on my pilgrimage to the Hahnemann monument and the history of homeopathy.
Speaking of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, my recent article on the rise of exorcism has been translated into Spanish. “La Nueva Ola De Exorcismos” can be found here.
In a couple of weeks, I will be traveling to Sao Paulo, Brazil to give a few talks sponsored by a skeptics organization there, Questão de Ciência. The schedule of events is out.
I am very excited to be going to Brazil to support this new skeptics group in Sao Paulo. It should be fun.
That’s it for now. It is very hot here in New England. I hope you are staying cool wherever you are.