Monthly Archives: June 2010

German Cover

Okay, just a short post but here we have the German cover that I have only just discovered. What’s with the frigging cats? I never suggested them but it would appear that every designer likes the cat motif. I must be more of a dog lover – actually truth be known – I am neither – having little empathy for non-human species.

I am beginning to wonder if I missed a whole trick here but what the hell- you live and learn. Anyway, now thinking of fresh ideas and new fields to plough.

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Glastonbury Report

As you can imagine, Glastonbury was unbelievable. I did not plan to go because my daughter was going for the first time and complained that it would be ruined if she knew I was there. The likelihood of finding anyone in this maelstrom of madness is slim but I gave in and did not buy a ticket.

However, the brilliant Robin Ince was performing and offered me a guest pass. If you are a follower of this blog then you will know that apparently I share a striking resemblance to Robin, so I thought it might be a hoot to turn up and play doppelgängers. Needless to say I was mistaken quite a few times by those under the influence. I met a really great bunch of comics who made me laugh alot including Ed Byrne and his lovely wife, Claire. I also met Shappi Khoursandi and introduced her to cider so became her NBF. Finally, the incorrigible Andrew Maxwell was awesome round the campfire and really knows how to party. I am not a comedy groupie but I think I should make more effort to go see live comedy.

If you don’t know anything about Glastonbury then suffice to say that it is a woo-fest. Michael Eavis organized the first festival 40 years ago in 1970 when he had Marc Bolan and T-Rex headlining. Since then it has grown into a behemoth of an event with over 200,000 festival goers. People drink alot, take drugs, dance madly, dress crazily and generally lose their inhibitions. During the week they maybe city accountants but come Glastonbury they are peace-loving hippie ravers.

Tiki Love TruckGlastonbury is a mecca of woo. There was too much to choose from but rather than pick the predictable astrologers, sooth-sayers or crystal worshippers, I managed to find something of the macabre that caught my attention. Parked near to my tent was this amazing “love truck” that had been transformed into a work of art. Pasted in the window was this note explaining that the car was a mobile shrine to John Joe Amador who was executed by lethal injection in 2007 for the unprovoked murder of a taxi driver in San Antonio. I read the report of the crime and it seems that there was nothing to suggest that Amador was innocent but one of the artists, Carrie Reichardt who worked on truck was moved to create this mobile work of art.

What I found most interesting was the fact that Nick Reynolds from the band Alabama 3 (I watched them the night before and they are neither from Alamaba nor are there just three of them) had made a death mask of Amador which was mounted on the front of the bus. Moreover, the truck contained the blood, hair and nails of the executed murderer. Hmm… spooky and very much in tune with SuperSense, which by the way is published today in paperback in the US under the new title, “The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs.”

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Italians Have Got Style

I have always thought that the Italians have style – whether it is their clothing, cars, or household items. I have just seen the cover for the Italian version of the book, and I have to say that it is very impressive. I think it has a Tim Burton feel to it who is one of my heroes.

The Science of Superstition paperback is officially published next week in the US so I am hoping that this will be a publishing sensation just in time for TAM 8 in Vegas where I will be speaking. I am on the bill after Michael Shermer which is a bit daunting! There are some great people there and I am looking forward to speaking to Carol Tavris, whose book I have just finished reading, “Mistakes Were Made.” I can highly recommend it.

In the meantime, I am off to Glastonbury Festival now to lie in a field over some lay lines and so will not be blogging regularly for a few days. I also have a bunch of important stuff coming up in the next few weeks, but I will try to keep you updated on my activities. If I can remember anything, I will be report back from Glastonbury where I hope to discover that I have been wrong all along, and that the supernatural is real.

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Michael Shermer’s Believing Brain

This looks like it may well be a good year for scientific books on belief. My paperback “The Science of Superstition” is out later this month and Robert Park (author of Voodoo Science) has a new book, “Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science,” out in August. Moreover, one of the high priests of skepticism, Michael Shermer, also has a forthcoming book on belief, tentatively entitled, “The Believing Brain.”

Back in February, Shermer gave a TED talk where he gave us a tantalizing 15min glimpse of what will be in his new book.  In true Shermer tradition, it was a very entertaining presentation, and I was very pleased that he highlighted the ADE651 story about bomb-detecdting in Iraq.  I was even more delighted to see he referred to my work in his Slant article.

I agree with Shermer’s main “patternicity” idea that we are inclined to ascribing agency everywhere. He also referred to Susan Blackmore’s seminal work on signal-to-noise thresholds in believers which is strongly associated with supernatural belief propensity.  In much the same way I argued in “The Science of Superstition” (formerly known as SuperSense), Shermer supports the idea that the natural inclination in humans is to believe and the skepticism and the scientific approach is unnatural. This of course, is an old idea and we are both indebted to the great 18th century Scottish rationalist philosopher David Hume, who said over 200 years ago,

“We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and  good-will to everything, that hurts or pleases us.”

Michael uses the modern language of statistics to explain the propensity of humans to detecting all manner of patterns that we have documented so much in this blog, as Type I errors – rejecting the null hypothesis. In other words, saying something is present when in fact it is not. This is much better than making a Type II error which is rejecting a real signal as not being there when in fact it is.

Why are Type II errors a disadvantage and how could a Type I bias have been selected for?   Stewart Guthrie in his book, “Faces in the Clouds,” argues that our intuitive pattern processing biases us towards seeing faces which leads us to assume that hidden agents surround us. Building on David Hume’s, “We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds,” observation, Guthrie presents the case that our mind is predisposed to see and infer the presence of others which explains why we are prone to see faces in ambiguous patterns. If you are in the woods and suddenly see what appears to be a face, it is better to assume that it is one rather than ignore it. It could be an assailant out to get you. Why else would they be hiding in the shadows?  In this case it is always better to err on the side of caution.

Of course, there is still much further research to be done, such as why are there individual differences and why does our shift to Type I errors increase under certain circumstances. These are some of the questions that we are currently researching in our lab but I look forward to reading Michael’s account which I know will be eminently entertaining and engaging.

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Superstition Works

I was very slow to get off the starting block on this one as even Ben Goldacre has already blogged this!  However, I have had something major to deal with this week (and no, its not you dear lady) but here is a short blog about a forthcoming study in Psychological Science about the tangible benefits of superstitions. A team from Köln in Germany has shown that university students of whom more than 80% believe in luck, perform significantly better on a putting task if they think they have been handed a “lucky” golf ball. They also did significantly better than controls on a second experiment if they were told that someone was crossing their fingers for them. In a third experiment, students who had brought their lucky talisman along to the testing session did better when it was in the testing room. The fourth experiment demonstrated that these lucky students attributed their better performance to improved self-efficacy. So there we have it. If you believe in lucky charms then you perform better because of perceived self-efficacy. It’s all in the Science of Superstition book, though I call it the perception of control.

I should point out however, that one error in the book I made was to endorse the Skinnerian account of where supersitions come from that has been re-iterated by other scholars on the subjects such as Andrew Vyse, in his 1997 book, Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. We have both reported Skinner’s famous 1948 paper on the origins of superstitious behaviour where he put several pigeons in Skinner boxes, set the food dispenser to deliver food every 15 seconds, and left the birds to their own devices. Later he returned and found the birds engaging in odd, idiosyncratic behaviours, such as pecking aimlessly in a corner or turning in circles. He referred to these behaviours as “superstitious” and offered a behaviourist analysis of their occurrence. The pigeons, he argued, were simply repeating behaviours that had been accidentally reinforced. Therefore superstitions were thought to simply emerge by the random reinforcements that we occasionally encounter such as having a great tennis match and wearing the same clothes again to try and repeat the success. However, this turns out not to be entirely robust and while some humans show this propensity, it is not inevitable.

Anyway back to our German psychology study. Maybe this research on superstition and self-efficacy explains Germany’s stellar performance in their game against Australia and why England fumbled the ball!

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Bad Case of Crabs

A coconut crab

The wonderful Gia Milinovich re-tweeted this site earlier today and I just had to blog it. These ugly monsters are coconut crabs that inhabit many Indo-Pacific islands including Nikumaroro, which is believed to be where the pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart ended her days after failing to fly round the world back in July, 1937.

your worst nightmare?

An expedition led by Richard Gillespie to Nikumaroro recovered artifacts and a partial skeleton lending weight to the claim that Earhart managed to land the plane on the island and survive for some time before succumbing to disease, hunger or some other misfortune. “The reason why they found a partial skeleton is that many of the bones had been carried off by giant coconut crabs. There is a remote chance that some of the bones might still survive deep in crab burrows,” Gillespie said. He intends to return to the island this summer and thinks that further remains might be found. I for one have no intention of ever wanting to see one of these ugly brutes in the flesh.

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Woo Bomb Detectors Again

While Jim McCormick may have started up trading again with his new website for ATSC Ltd selling the bogus ADE 651 diving bomb detector, I understand that he is still on bail and should take note of the latest press release from the City of London Police.

Today we learned that officers of the Overseas Anti-Corruption Unit (OACU) investigating the fraudulent selling of bomb and substance detection equipment have today carried out a number of searches in Devon, Kent and Nottinghamshire where they seized a large amount of cash, several hundred detection devices, their component parts and carry cases.

The team carrying out the investigation are specialists in international corruption and bribery. They have tested these devices under scientific conditions and it will be no surprise to readers of this blog that there was no evidence that they worked. I am surprised they found anything inside the devices at all after the BBC exposé earlier this year.

The head of the OACU, Det Supt Colin Cowan said “We are concerned that these items present a real physical threat to anyone who may rely on such a device for protection. It is for this reason that we are seeking to raise awareness of this threat and obtain assistance from the public.

“If anyone has any information about the manufacture, sale or distribution of these items then please contact the OACU by leaving a message on 020 7601 6969 or email: OACU@cityoflondon.police.uk. If urgent, contact the City of London Police’s main switchboard on 020 7601 2222 and ask to be put through to the Overseas Anti-Corruption Unit.”

I am not going to name names but you should be able to work out who is under investigation this time round.

So back to Jim McCormick. … Does he seem reticent and remorseful about his past activities? On the contrary he seems defiant as befitting ex-police officers,

“ADE 651 has performed several successful trials and tests in many countries for governmental agencies and private companies and these tests are documented and recorded by those respective clients and customers. Our success in the market in despite of all the intentions to discredit the equipment and the company is reflected by the excellent results obtained by our customer in using the ADE. The actual customers and new customers send new orders ADE 651 because of the results of the equipment in the field. The specialists know very well how and where to use the equipment in order to fulfill their tasks and commitments.”

You could not make this stuff up.

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The Island of Dolls

I find dolls creepy

There is something very creepy about toy dolls. Like many young boys, I used to scavenge derelict sites (you can read about the disgusting episode with the dead cat in SuperSense) and very often I would discover a discarded old toy doll. I found these objects surprisingly disturbing and still do today. Occasionally the eyes had been removed because the mechanism that made them roll back in the sockets when you tilted the doll had been removed.  So imagine the shudder I felt when I saw these images from this story about “La Isla de la Munecas” (The Island of Dolls) in Mexico.

The Stuff of Childhood Nightmares

Unbelievably, the Island of Dolls is the nightmarish vision of a reclusive hermit, Don Julian Santana, who spent the last 50 years of his life creating the macabre sanctuary where thousands of dolls are suspended from trees by nooses.

Something is not quite right here.

Don Julian Santana, is said to have created the island as a homage to a little girl who drowned in a nearby canal. And as if the story could not get more weird, Don was found drowned in the same canal in 2001. Now why hasn’t this story been brought to the big screen yet?

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How Pleasure Works

I have only really used this blog for promoting my book (after all it was set up by my US publisher) but I would like to take this opportunity to plug the wonderful new book “How Pleasure Works” from the brilliant Paul Bloom. Paul is a Yale Professor of Developmental Psychology and wrote “Descartes Baby” which has been so inspirational in my thinking. Now he has turned his attention to pleasure! Paul has the amazing ability to make deep concepts accessible and this new book is no exception. I think we both share a sense of the wicked and the sections on pornography are eye-opening (as it were). There’s some absolutely fascinating stuff on essentialism and his discussion of a concept you may not have encountered before “alief” is really thought provoking.

His UK publishers asked me for a blurb and I suggested, “Pleasure yourself with Paul Bloom’s new book – you wont be disappointed.” For some reason they did not go for that. I wonder why? There again, if you compare the US with the UK cover, I think on this instance we Brits have been particularly prudish! If asked by  Crassus from “Spartacus” on this particular issue, I would have to say that I prefer oysters!

It is on sale today in the US and UK and here are the two covers.

US Cover - Do you prefer oysters?

UK Cover - or being tickled with a feather?

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