This quick missive will undoubtedly be my last of 2021.
Georgiana Houghton, “The Eye of the Lord.” 1870 (Author photo)
In my December column for Skeptical Inquirer, I venture into the realm of art history to discuss the work of two women, Georgiana Houghton and Hilma af Klint, who may deserve credit for the first introduction of abstract art. For decades, Wassily Kandinsky was identified as the first abstract artist, starting in 1910. But these two women were producing many abstract works before that date. I was drawn to this topic because all three artists were inspired by spiritualist beliefs. The article is entitled “Spiritualism and the Birth of Abstract Art.”
My only other item is a happy announcement. I have signed a contract for an audio version of my new book The Uses of Delusion: Why It’s Not Always Rational to be Rational.” So, when the book is released next spring it will be available in both hardcover and audiobook form. Given the popularity of audiobooks, I am delighted to know The Uses of Delusion will be produced for earbuds. At this point, I don’t know who the narrator will be.
That’s it for 2021. Merry Christmas, if you are celebrating that holiday, and Happy New Year to all.
I am back to report on two quick things, both of them rather spooky.
First, my latest column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine is “The Psychology of Scary Faces.” I’ve been watching French films lately, and this article was inspired by seeing George Franju’s classic horror film “Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face).” The movie employs several techniques for making faces scary. The column includes some rather gruesome images, so enter at your own risk.
A character in “Les Yeux Sans Visage” reacts to seeing a scary face.
Second, I recently had the opportunity to participate in a science podcast for kids called “Brains on!”, which is a production of Minnesota Public Radio and is supported by the National Science Foundation. The topic was “Spooky superstitions! Why we think 13 is bad luck,” and the hosts did a great job. I am always happy to participate in projects geared toward young people, and this one was a pleasure.
You can learn more about “Brains On!” here. A young kid serves as co-host for each show, and I highly recommend the podcast for any kids who are interested in science. (Which should be ALL kids!) The episode I appeared in is below:
In part due to the Halloween season, I had the opportunity to make a number of media appearances in recent weeks, all of them great fun.
On November 7, I made a virtual appearance on the BBC Channel 4 program “Sunday Brunch” for a lively conversation with hosts Tim Lovejoy and Simon Rimmer. The interview was about my book Superstition: A Very Short Introduction. It ran for about seven minutes, which gave us time to get into sports superstitions, the number 13, and the common British fear of magpies.
Also in the UK, students at Cambridge University have recently formed a group called, Cambridge University Students Against Pseudoscience, and as part of their Fall speaker series, I gave a talk entitled, “How Do You Become Superstitious?” In this case, I had to borrow a friend’s dining room to use as a backdrop because there was a major construction project going on at my house. CUSAP appears to be a terrific organization, and it is my sincere hope that similar groups spring up on other campuses.
Finally, back in early October, I appeared on the “Under the Cortex” podcast of the Association for Psychological Science. The title of the episode was “Why Some People Won’t Get Vaccinated,” which was based on my recent Skeptical Inquirer column “Why Your Uncle Isn’t Going to Get Vaccinated.” This was a very enjoyable conversation about a timely and important topic. You can listen to the discussion below.
That’s all for this missive. I will be back before long to tell you about some upcoming events, but for now, happy Thanksgiving for those of you who will be celebrating.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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.