Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science

We, as human beings, are on a constant journey to grasp the mysteries, uncertainties, and purpose of life. Robert L. Park, the author of  Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science, presented superstitions, ideas, and claims that were unfathomably true due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of life’s entities. What is the truth and meaning of life compared to its purpose? why should we believe? who should we believe? Are just some of the natural thoughts that are sparked by curiosity. We are intrigued by the mysteries of life. We try to prove the very existence of life through facts and studies that has been concurred with up to that present day, and yet human’s tendency to belief that there is some connection between entities that we can not possibly explain at that moment in time. Park ridicules the fact that we believe supernatural and fraudulent beliefs, even when the whole idea of curiosity is to understand the truth when we are faced with uncertainties.

One of my favorite parts of the book was when Francis Galton was introduced along with his interest in the heritability of intelligence and behavior. He developed statistical methods needed to study. One of his studies that I related to was the one about twins, being a fraternal twin myself. He found that identical twins are more likely to develop similar personalities and interests than fraternal twins. While that is more known today, that information was considered ahead of his time.

Relating this book to the class was one of the easiest things I have had to do. Everything I needed to know was in the very first sentence of the book as it says, “Almost a year had passed since the tree had fallen…” in the Introduction part of the book. The crazy part about this is the day I started reading the book, the day I read that line, was the same day a tragic situation occurred to a friend of mine. That same morning, my friend’s mother was driving to work, like a typical day, until a tree fell on her car and ended her life. That kind of coincidence drove me crazy. Having this class be about superstitions and the paranormal and then have this weird timing occur caught me off guard. What are the chances that I would start the book on that same very day? The only unfortunate difference is that Robert Park, the author of the book and the person who had the tree fallen on, had survived where this amazing woman, Susan Niler, did not. If you would like to read more about the tragic event that happened to a friend of mind, you could read the news reports here.

This book is easily relatable to the outside world due to the variety of topics touched. The topics that are discussed vary from science and religion, to controversy issues like the Plan B Pill and terrorists. The book gets to a spiritual point when it talks about our soul and personal identity and the change that comes from our culture and not our genes. “It takes more than a unique strand of DNA to make a person”. (pg 82)


Book Report: Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition

        Superstitions have been a part of my life since I can remember. I don’t know if it has to do with my guilty conscience or just thinking a routine or action brings me luck. Either way, I can’t get away from performing these acts whenever they arise in situations. After reading Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, by Stuart A. Vyse, I learned a lot about our minds and how it perceives things. Vyse uses specific examples throughout this book to demonstrate how and why people believe in superstitions. Being a psychology professor himself, he witnessed a lot of superstitious acts because superstition is frequently associated with fear of failure. He goes into how some of his students used lucky pens, held rabbit’s feet, dice, and teddy bears, as well as a need to simply see the cover of their textbooks as they took an exam to comfort them. Throughout the book, Vyse describes superstition as an escape route for many.
       One of the most interesting parts of the book was when he gave us an example of a superstition experiment conducted many times by Mr. B. F. Skinner in the 1940’s; this experiment was titled “‘Superstition’ in the pigeon.” Skinner would place a hungry pigeon in a chamber where the feeder was controlled automatically by a timer. Every fifteen second, food would drop out. Since his pigeons were very active, they did not just sit patiently in front of the feeder (like I would do, with my mouth open). After just a few minutes in the chamber, Skinner’s pigeons would develop its own distinctive ritual, thinking that action caused the food to come out after two or three reinforcements of it working on cue. This experiment is a simple example of how minds work when it wants to believe something.

       This book was a nice read for those interested in the human brain’s trickery and the understanding of how we perceive certain things in life. The break-up of the book with many examples kept it interesting and made me want to keep reading. It will be added to my book collection and re-read one day in the future for sure. 

Too Much Sugar?

            When I was younger, I used to have a best friend that had energy that could last all day. Having lots of energy is usually normal for younger kids, but he had more than the usual. With all this energy, his mom rarely ever let him have sugar. When she did let him, he would immediately start to act even more hyper than ever. I would always think to myself “good thing she never lets him have sugar”. Now, I’m thinking to myself “I guess it was all an act when he had sugar”.
            This myth began in 1973 when a specific diet was implemented for curing hyperactivity. People began to believe that it depends on what you eat that makes you more or less hyper. Even though this myth was busted soon after in 1978, the rumor continued on. With multiple studies done, it has been seen that sugar doesn’t effect hyperactivity, but can effect sleep, temperment, and emotions (webmd.com). Sugar also seems to immediately effect the parents expectations. Parents were seen to say that their kids were more hyper, even though the ‘sugar’ was a placebo (sciencenews.org).
            It truly amazes me how much a myth can convince people of certain things, and how long they can stick around! Why hasn’t this myth gone away after studies have come out proving it to be wrong? It’s definitely hard to change the way people think, and a lot of people are pretty gullible. This myth will probably continue to stick around, and more and more kids will not be allowed to have sugar in their diets.



Book Report Ryan Bladel

            In the introduction chapter of Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions by James Randi (“The Amazing Randi”) we are left with a statement before going into the first chapter. “ Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lot under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition.” I believe this ideal sets the stage for what’s to come in this book.

            Through out this book James Randi, a former magician, makes it his goal to “debunk” many of the trickeries of his time. Although he does not claim to ever prove 100% that paranormal powers do not exist he states, “I can only show that the evidence for them does not hold up under examination.” It was interesting to hear about old stories of people that claimed to have extraordinary powers; some are even still myths today. Some examples of myths that Randi attempted to debunk were: two girls that claimed to play with “real” fairies and gnomes, the dangerous Bermuda triangle! Beliefs in astronomical abilities, UFO’s, the aliens having a hand in making the pyramids, ESP, Psychic Surgery and so on. Each chapter was a new topic for him to investigate and he did so thoroughly. In his writings about the two girls who claimed to talk and see living fairies and gnomes he gave us 20 guide lines that were used to disprove many of the claims of paranormal powers throughout the book. Randi was so confident in his ability to disprove any claims of paranormal abilities that he offered any 10,000 dollars if they could prove, in a controlled setting of his choice, the existence of their “powers”.  650 people tried out and only 54 past the preliminary round but none ever saw a cent.

            My favorite part of the book was chapter 3 titled “All at Sea…”. This chapter dealt with the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, which is located in the middle of Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Miami. The myth all started in “…1945 when five Navy Avenger aircraft flew into the are and reportedly vanished mysteriously…” A sixth rescue plane then flew into that area and vanished abruptly as well. This tale and every claim to come within the next few years were all embellished by an author named Charles Berlitz in his books titled The Bermuda Triangle, Mysteries from Forgotten Worlds, and Without a Trace. Berlitz sold over 5 million copies, published in 20 languages and made more than 1 million in royalties. Randi then goes on to give scientific based explanations as to what happened to the 5 navy avenger and the rescue aircrafts that disappeared. “The pilots were understandably lost, flew around in confusion until out of fuel, ditched, and sank in rough seas. The search plane, known to be dangerous because of the frequent presence of gas fumes in the crew are, could easily have exploded and gone down in a perfectly explainable accident…in fact it was seen to explode by personnel on a ship in the area…”

            This chapter also discussed another myth once again brought to popularity by Berlitz in his Pyramid Theory about the existence of Atlantis. He claimed a giant 470-foot-high pyramid and a 1,000 foot-long man-made Mosaic resembling road was enough to prove the existence of Atlantis. He disproves the walk way by showing it is merely beach rock which is naturally formed and can be found in many other places around the ocean. The pyramid like structure is too naturally formed over time.

Over all it was interesting to see Randi disprove these myths that many people globally took to be truths. I found it to be very hilarious how he pretty much ends up politely calling the people he disproves an idiot. I remember watching the video of Randi simply exposes Hydrick’s “paranormal psychic powers” The look of being found out on Hydrick’s face was priceless. Here is the video again along with another one that has to do with the astronomy chapter to give you an idea of how Randi went about disproving.

Why People Believe Weird Things

     Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer was actually an interesting read.  First off he begins the book with a few chapters on skepticism and how we as humans think.  In this first part of the book Shermer talks about what actually causes us to believe things that aren't actually true.  This section called 25 Fallacies That Lead Us to Believe Weird Things is a great way to wrap up the beginning of the book.  It is a part of the book that you definitely can connect with if you haven't already.  Shermer covers topics such as rumors, coincidence, after the fact reasoning and rationalized failures among quite a few others that provide incite on ways the reader would have processed information in the past.  The next section of the book covers pseudoscience and superstition.  Two sections that stood out for me in this part of the book were about alien abductions and medieval and modern witch crazes.  But in particular I found the later to be the most interesting.

     Besides covering the general history of witch hysteria it also talked about the recovered memory movement.  This movement occurred during the later half of the 20th century, during which psychologists and doctors administered hallucination inducing drugs as well as hypnosis and other forms of treatments to help people recall past memories; particularly those about sexual abuse.  A study from 1995 mentions that since 1988 over one million people had recovered memories of sexual abuse.  Now where have we heard about something like this before?  Yes, false memory recall.  A doctor makes a patient recall false memories under the influence of something whether it be drugs or just hypnosis, and the patient is actually making up a story that will become reality to them.  This was of course terrible because people were being charged with crimes that they didn't commit.  One woman was charged with over 3,200 acts of sexual abuse.  Shermer draws similarities to the victims of these false claims from the accusations of witch craft in medieval times.  The victims were poor men and women who could not afford a proper legal counsel. This I think was definitely my favorite part of the book just because it tied so many pieces together for me so fast, and was about something that I was already interested in.

     Part three of the book was about evolution and Creationism, a debate that can get pretty entertaining, especially when you watch Bill Nye and Ken Ham debate the topic.  I highly encourage you to watch it the link is below!  But anyway Shermer gives great background on Creationism as well as a whole section about confronting Creationists in which he gives 25 Creationist arguments and 25 Evolutionist answers.  I personally am a fan of the "Science only deals with the here and now and thus cannot answer historical questions about the creation of the universe and the origins of life and human species," argument.  Finally part four covers what I cannot believe is a debated topic, the Holocaust.  It was not long ago that I found out that there are people who believe that the Holocaust didn't really happen and it still strikes me that people can deny the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.  Now I grew up on Discovery Channel, Animal Planet National Geographic and well a lot of cartoons but that's beside the point.  My views have been shaped by science and history since I was little.  I consider myself very lucky and very thankful that my parents allowed me to develop my own views.  But at the same time I do not know if I will ever be able to wrap my head around the way some radical people think because of the way I formed my own beliefs.  This does not mean that I will never try to understand, I most certainly will, but I will also continue to be fascinated by the things other people are able to come up with.

And this is an interesting article I found about modern day witches.
This article about a person becoming a modern witch also provides good incite.


Book Report - Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and other Delusions - JR

The book I choose to read for our class book report is Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and other Delusions. I choose this book due to how much the title of the book stands out to me. I shortly then realized that the author of this book, James Randi, is the same man we have seen in videos through the class lectures who offered a prize of people could do their tricks under his supervision. The book covers a few topics and gradually takes the reader through a process of breaking the material down. Occasionally it he offers facts and doesn’t engage the reader but it may be a learning experience if reading the book. One thing that stands out rather largely is that the author makes claim to not necessarily proving that any of these myths do not exist, merely that under scrutiny they do not hold the same weight as originally perceived. As a reader I thought this was good to read because if a person choose to be naive or choose to play devils advocate and argue the skeptical side about the subject you could think opposite to what James Randi suggests and that wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. The images below may suggest how much facts and myths may plague peoples mind even in this century.

My favorite part of the book was the chapter dedicated to the Bermuda Triangle and Atlantis. I am a large fan of many different forms of mythology and enjoy letting my mind wander around wild claims, such as the city lost under water. One of my favorite mythologies is that of Vikings. One thing I have been told about engaging in movies and books is to let your mind open and allow yourself to delve into the world the subject wants you to be part of. One issue with that is when you can’t separate fact from fiction.
The one section regarding the Bermuda Triangle was fun to read because I knew little facts about the area. I personally always believed in some of the myths. Sme of the major myths come from a writer who supposably documented all events happening in the triangle. After close scrutiny it was revealed the publisher was nothing more than a writer. He had exaggerated claims of things that happed hundreds of miles from the area, made up material to sounds more dramatic, and was found lacking credibility when put under a microscope. This author is Berlitz and he may be one of the larger reasons for such myths revolving around the Bermuda Triangle.
The other myth is that Atlantis is this area. Atlantis is the city lost under water. Berlitz claims that there are artifacts found in this area that suggest man made roads and construction that suggests life once present. For a person who enjoys their mythology I was all ears. Research then showed that many of the materials found were consistent with trading industries and would suggest they were material fallen overboard near shore. The roads were a material called beach rock, which is found often in Australia and carbon dating showed the material to not fit the claims that the city is as old as once suggested.
Although I would love to believe in the lost city and the mysticism that revolves around the Bermuda Triangle the facts show there is little evidence to ever support the claims. When looking for evidence to refute the claims and not support the theory it is clear that boats traded often in the area and use materials that are currently found in that location, carbon dating shows the city would not be as old as thought to be, and many disappearances in the area are exaggerated descriptions on the parts that fit the myth and neglected facts that do not comply.
It is important to note that the theory of Atlantis may derive as early as 400 B.C. Plato who was a Greek Philosopher. See below for a crude yet funny example of a "stand up philosopher" from one of my favorite films History of the World Part 1,
Fact is due to the cast time gap of Plato there are many refutable facts regarding what was clearly said or done. Although he is recognized for his work in mathematics he is not an expert in geography or aquatics which means he has little authority to make claims of a lost city under water. The principles of the author and the class give way for thinking outside of class. Not to take information directly as given to you. A good method to use would be one which Plato would have used which was the Socrates method which is to question everything. Take nothing for face value. Overall, I would say give the book a read but many of the principles and take-aways you may have received through the original text and/or lectures. 

Justin R.

Lucy and the 10% Myth

            Just recently I watched a new movie called Lucy. This movie is about a 25-year-old woman, Lucy, who was forced into drug trafficking. When she was captured, the valuable synthetic drug, CPH4, was sewn into her abdomen. As a drug mule in captivity, Lucy was kicked in the stomach by one of her captors, forcing the drug to release inside her abdomen. From this drug, Lucy begins gaining increasingly enhanced physical and mental capabilities. Three of these capabilities are telepathy, telekinesis, and mental time travel. With this being said, all I could think about is the 10% myth that our book talks about. I found it so interesting that Hollywood was able to create a movie based off false science, and still have so many people believe it! I actually think it is unfair for them to teach people false facts, but hey, that’s what Hollywood’s good for. Even though knowing that people use 100% of their brain before watching this movie kind of ruined it, I was still happy that I learned this before I believed the movie!

Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer

            In, Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer teaches the reader to be skeptical but not ignorant to seemingly fascinating things in the world. The author himself is no stranger to miracle pills, crazy diets, and psychic readings. He recounts past experiences dealing with the paranormal and pseudosciences and how he explored each one.
            The book starts off explaining the basics of science, pseudoscience, skepticism, and the paranormal much like our textbook did. He then delves into specific superstitions and pseudosciences like aliens, modern day witch hunts, cults, and near-death experiences. He then talks about the age-old debate between creationism and evolution where he includes common arguments from the creationist side and some well thought out counter arguments. In part four he showcases examples of pseudohistory with the deniers of the Holocaust being the main topic. In his final pages he discusses why the general public believes such weird things and more importantly why intelligent people believe these things, which brings me to my favorite part of the book.
            My favorite part of the book is the chapter “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things”, which details how intelligent people use scientifically sound arguments and then make unfounded leaps to unbelievable conclusions. One such person was Frank Tipler, who is a renowned professor in theoretical mathematics. He’s published many credible papers in the field of physics but he also authored a book called, The Physics of Immortality: Modern Cosmology, God and the Resurrection of the Dead, which explained that God is real, the afterlife exists, and everyone will at one point be resurrected in the far future. When Stephen Hawking was asked his opinion of Tiplers’ views he replied, “My opinion would be libelous.”

            While the previously mentioned entry was my favorite part I thoroughly enjoyed that he included personal experiences into each section. It really made the book an entertaining read and it offered insight into real life altercations between those making claims and their skeptics. While I’ve always been skeptical of the aforementioned topics I’ve never read such well reasoned arguments like in this book. I can honestly say this book has really given me the tools and information to explain to proclaimers why it is that I don’t agree with their beliefs, and for that I considered this well worth the read.  

Here's a video of Michael Shermers' skepticism in action. It's geared toward disproving elements of religion so if that's not something you find intriguing I'd recommend skipping this video.