Thursday, August 3, 2017

Flim Flam Book Review by Joon Lee

Flim Flam: Psychics, Esp, Unicorns, and Other Delusions by James Randi is a book devoted to exposing false thinking, false rationalizations, and false evidence. The author, James Randi, is a man who feels that the world is already a dangerous and unknowable place, and that charlatans and tricksters should be outed as frauds and dupes. Randi covers such subjects like the Cottingley Fairies, where 2 girls played a prank that went wildly out of hand, the Bermuda Triangle, an ever changing geographic location where mysteries follow, and astrology, where diviners can predict the future by reading the movements of the stars. Randi takes a skeptical look at all of these phenomena and more and takes a rational point of view into how they are completely bogus, ruses designed to appeal to mankind’s desire for whimsy and the mystical.

As a student of history, my favorite part of the book was the Cottingley Fairies story, where two young girls managed to trick the entirety of England into thinking that fairies were real. Randi deftly sets the stage for the beginning of the story, how England was recovering from World War I, how spiritualism was on the rise, and how celebrated author Arthur Conan Doyle became deeply entwined in the whole drama and mess that two young girls created.  The story has elements of cryptozoology, dualism, as well as mass delusion and a seeming lack of critical thinking. What follows is a nation desperate for something spiritual and true believers who willingly provide the evidence.

The most notable facet of the story was cryptozoology and everyone’s belief into the existence of fairies, gnomes, and other hidden beasts. In order for people to believe in a pseudoscience, like the existence of fairies and gnomes, fast thinking and heuristics are required. The illusion of validity comes into play multiple times in the Cottingley Fairies story by way of Arthur Conan Doyle (famous author and scholar), Edward L. Gardner (cryptozoologist and believer in fairies and gnomes), and H. Snelling (camera/photography expert). Three adults, each outstanding in their respective fields, were each duped into believing that two young girls of low-birth had interacted and photographed live fairies. The illusion of validity is a cognitive bias in which a person overestimates his or her ability to interpret and predict accurately the outcome when analyzing a set of data, in particular when the data analyzed show a very consistent pattern—that is, when the data "tell" a coherent story. These 3 men were simultaneously dazzled by the evidence and convinced of their own expertise that the Cottingley fairies were real.

The Cottingley Fairies was just one story out of many in Flim Flam that really made an impression on me, how a perfect storm of expertise and misinformation was enough to convince an entire nation of the existence of fairies. This may seem like an interesting anecdote that doesn’t really impact daily life, but this story has interesting modern day parallels. I’m sure that the anti-vax movement is familiar to many people. Its origins go back to thoroughly debunked science experts and studies, yet it’s a myth that still persists.

Click for drunken re-telling of the Cottingley Fairies

It’s something that refuses to leave the greater realm of popular thought and it’s seriously injuring a not insignificant amount of children and adults.
In this article from the New York Times, Indiana has experienced 136 confirmed cases of whooping cough, one of which was actually fatal. Not vaccinating children and adults has very real world consequences and it’s amazing how misinformed people can be about the issue. Despite the CDC, an organization devoted to fighting outbreaks of disease, insisting and proving, again and again, that vaccines are safe and effective and don’t cause autism, there is still power and pushes in the movement toward greater social acceptance of anti-vaccination.

Overall, Flim Flam is an excellent book that still retains its relevance today after being published more than 30 years ago. It proves that humans are susceptible to incredible amounts of disinformation and that mankind still has issues with the truth. Pseudo-sciences such as holistic medicine and cryptozoology are just thin veneers of certification on really dubious thought processes. I never really gave much credence towards being a skeptic but I’ve found that through this book, I can never be too careful.

1 comment:

  1. On the subject of the anti-vaxxers movement, it's even spreading to dogs now... People are afraid that their dogs will get autism from their shots, risking their pets chances of getting rabies or other illnesses. I feel like it's going to be even harder to convince these people that vaccines are safe if their not even willing to get their dogs shots.

    Here's the URL-