Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Fighting Pseudo-Science, Prime Time Edition

Unfortunately I did not write my contribution to the Accretionary Wedge #2 (How the Earth Can Kill You). I am going to post this thought though. although I understand it is a poor replacement. Read the Accretionary Wedge first, there are some excellent contributions this time around, then you can come back here.

During an ad break in a football game Sunday I overheard a promotion for a new show on NBC, called Phenomenon, which is allegedly in search of the world's new "mentalist". The show is starring Chris Angel (who had a magic, err, excuse me, mentalism show called MindFreak where he entertained with a "distinct blend of magic, mentalism, and dazzling pyrotechnic effects") and Uri Geller. That's right, wanna-be magician, swindler, liar, and all around jackass Uri Geller is trying to make a comeback. For those of you who don't know who Uri Geller is, (or why he is always standnig around with an ED-afflicted spoon) he came to fame in the 70's with his claims of psychic abilities, including his most famous illusion, bending a spoon with his "mind." The folks over at the Denialism Blog have a nice summary and two exceptional videos showing 1) Geller getting debunked live on the Tonight Show thanks to tips from skeptic and debunker-of-BS James Randi, and 2) One of Geller's "secrets" getting caught on camera.

Even though Geller was before my time, I know of him primarily through my brother, who became a big fan of Randi's when we were young. My parents also took us to a live show where James Randi was the main speaker (and where my brother got to be the person who held the magic spoon as it was bent and broken by Randi's "mind"). I have no problem at all with illusionists, I think they can be entertaining, but whenever anyone tries to pass off their tricks as proof of supernatural abilities, well, that's just too much. People like Geller (or even worse Peter Popov, also featured in the videos I linked to) often use their tricks and personality to swindle people. Although these are two extremes, I think these characters and their techniques speak volumes about our role as scientists in society. We do not know everything, we aren't always right, and science has been used for plenty of bad reasons, but one of our duties, I believe, is to single out and call Shenanigans (or BS) when applicable. Although many things we see are not as blatant as Geller or Popov, they can be much more dangerous. Most pseudoscience is really just a slight variation on their themes, misdirection and manipulation. We see it with the ID crowd, the young-earth crowd, the "CO2 is life" crowd, it's really the same idea, misdirect and make it so there appears to be only one possible answer. I think the use of the term "irreproducible complexity" (a Beheism) is a direct analog to the "mentalist" illusion; It must be ESP/Supernatural Forces, what other explanation is there?!?!?

What is most baffling to me is this: Geller's whole spoon thing is completely debunked, so how does he get away with it? Maybe that is his real magic trick, convincing people to continue to believe his BS even when he's been outed a thousand times. Popov at least went bankrupt, but now Geller gets a new show?

And finally, am I the only one who is convinced that Uri Geller was the inspiration for Gob Bluth from Arrested Development, perhaps the funniest American television show of the last 5 years? You be the judge, can you guess who is who?



And just in case the video link from the Denialism Blog isn't working, here is one of the videos I mentioned

7 comments:

Amanda said...

Agreed. Arrested Development was hysterical. I wish it hadn't been taken off the air so early...never got a chance.

thm said...

As thermochronic mentions, Randi was one of my heroes growing up, and for a while I was really into the whole skeptic thing. (I now think there are other things more pressing than debunking astrologers to pay attention to.) Randi, in the video, mentions that neither the disastrous Tonight Show appearance, nor his book, really stopped Geller in his tracks, as a large fraction of the public continued to believe him. This is a phenomenon that continues to confound those of us in the reality-based community.

If you're a left-leaning rational type who's astounded by the inability of large numbers of people to think rationally when shown evidence, then stop what you're doing and read George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant. (It's short; you can read it this afternoon.) He explains, convincingly for many progressives, why rational arguments fail to convince large numbers of people.

(Now, there is some reasonable disagreement about the particulars of Lakoff's theory (scroll down towards the end), but my reading of the criticism suggests that the main phenomenon Lakoff describes is generally true although the mechanism isn't as well-established as Lakoff would have us believe.)

thm said...

More succinctly, the lessons of Lakoff applied to Randi: the notion that people will give up irrational beliefs when presented with solid evidence is itself an irrational belief, unsupported by the evidence.

Thermochronic said...

Amanda - I agree, I never watched it while it was on, but the DVD's made our first shithole apartment at ESRU bearable

THM - Nicely put, I will have to check out the book you recommend. Perhaps I can borrow it while I am visiting THM 2.0? Trying to think of a blogworthy name for the little dude....

imichie said...

I agree with you, illusionists can be entertaining, but why do they look so freakin' creepy? Not in campy way, but in a "hide the children when uncle Uri comes over" kind of way."

Thermochronic said...

Ha! Good point, I think it maybe because they are so into their hands, kind of grabby and touchy. They also like to wear blouses and flowy open chested shirts, again not usually a good sign. I suppose by definition they can't be trusted, not a good recipe for an uncle I think, unlike a thermochronologist of course....

Brian R said...

where's thermochronic?!

I was starting to come around thinking thermochronology was indeed the most exciting discipline in earth science...now, i'm not so sure...I think i'm going through thermopropaganda withdrawal!