Monthly Archives: July 2010

I’m Off to SciFoo

Well, SciFoo has come round again and I have the privilege to be asked back this year. For those of you who do not know anything about SciFoo, watch the video of last year – though for some unimaginable reason it does not feature me. Never fear, I am buddying up with Michael Shermer, Laurie Santos and Paul Bloom to give presentations on skepticism & activism, children’s & monkey’s understanding of objects and the essentialism of pleasure. The guest list is outstanding this year and I am looking forward to shmoozing with some the smartest people gathered together. There are a bunch of media scientists from the UK including Armand Leroi, Adam Rutherford and Marcus du Sautoy – should be interesting to see how that mix works. Then there are international science best-sellers like Jonah Lehrer & David Eagleman. Mixed among these luminaries are the occasional Nobel prizewinner – “Oh yawn’s ville – so you got an award but have you been on the Colbert Report yet?”

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Alton Towers Suspends Superstitious Ride on Friday 13th

Alton Towers Cancels Superstitious Ride on Friday 13th

It would appear that the superstitious fear of Friday 13th has pushed the managers at Alton Towers to temporarily close their recently opened ride, “Thirteen” on this auspicious day. I was contacted by a market research company that conducted a large scale phone poll of superstitious beliefs in 1,111 adults chosen at random from up and down the country. What they found was very similar to surveys undertaken by Gallup of the UK population over the past 10 year.

People are remarkably consistent with around two thirds saying that they had some form of superstitious belief with again the usual male-female split in the data. Half the males sampled (N=477) and three quarters of the females (N=634) said they had some superstitious belief. Also interesting was the finding that the youngest demographics of 16-24 years and 25-34 (75%) were more superstitious than the older groups of 45-54 and 55+ (60%). The least superstitious city surveyed was Belfast while the most was Glasgow. Finally, about half of the respondents thought their beliefs came from others but the most common source was, “I do not know, I just have them.”

However, to close a ride down is simply reinforcing the general perception that there is something to be feared. There again, estimates of the cost of lost business on Friday the 13th is said to be somewhere between $800-900 million in the US alone and as I previously blogged, more Californian Asians die on the fourth day of the month because the Chinese and Japanese words for the number 4 sound like the word for ‘death.’ We also know that sportsmen perform better when they are allowed to indulge their rituals so psychologically, superstitions work. Who am I to devalue the power of belief?

I understand that there has been some discussion about this on Facebook. I, for one, would quite willingly take the ride on Friday 13th. What about you?

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Blood On The Page

Sachin Tendulkar - Ooh let me finger your pages!

Well, I talked about it and I even asked my publisher whether it was possible, but finally someone has got round to publishing a book that contains human blood mixed in with the pulp. According to the BBC, a special edition new biography of Indian cricketing star Sachin Tendulkar will contain drops of his blood, its publishers have reportedly said.  Ten copies are being printed containing a signature page mixed with his blood that will sell each for $75,000 (£40,000) each. This is the ultimate in memorabilia collecting that I have written about and I just want to say I told you so. Some people want to have a physical connection to someone they admire through owning and touching the objects that are imbued with psychological essence.

When I asked my publisher about doing the same for SuperSense (now re-titled, “The Science of Superstition”) they thought I was crazy. More importantly I am not a sporting legend like Tendulkar. It may have just seemed a bit gross. In any event I did have a stamp made up with red ink that contains my essence. So some of  you who proudly own such a rare copy which I have personally signed with this special stamp, could in principle have me cloned at a later date. One problem that the publisher’s may not have considered is that such books containing human tissue may violate strict regulations without a special import exclusion. There again nobody knows what cricket is in the US.

One of the good things about blogging and Tweeter is that people keep sending you stuff and I just got this from @AbrasiveShrub. Thanks – keep sending me more.

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Anti-Vaccination Beliefs Spark Epidemic

Did you know that Andrew Wakefield is originally from Bath and went to school in this fine city? That’s the second local person that I have blogged about who has been at the centre of some really dangerous beliefs.

plague masks to ward off miasmaAs you are probably aware, people used to escape the squalor and disease of London by visiting spa towns like Bath to take the waters centuries ago. During this time people still believed in miasma (“bad air”) as the major cause of cholera epidemics. During epidemics, people would walk around with “plague masks” shaped like a birds beak, stuffed with special herbs to cover the smell of corpses and disease as well as combat the miasma. However, in 1851, John Snow, a London physician figured out how cholera epidemics spread through poor sanitation by tracing the outbreaks back to a single water pump in Soho and thus the field of epidemiology was born and the miasma belief disappeared.

Epidemiology is the statistical science for studying disease in the population. It addresses large scale studies looking for the factors that contribute to illness. It was through large scale epidemiology studies, that scientists were able disprove claims that giving children the triple vaccine caused autism. As many of you are probably aware, this claim was made in a paper to “The Lancet” written by Andrew Wakefield that triggered a mass hysteria that vaccination was unsafe. Despite the fact that the study was flawed, contaminated by conflicts of interest and subsequently disproven by good epidemiological studies, once the whiff of doubt has been expelled, the smell lingered on. Even though Wakefield has been struck off the medical register for unethical research, people are still frightened of giving their children vaccines even though this puts them at a greater risk.

Anti-vaccination hysteria has now sparked a whooping cough epidemic in Marin County, California according to a recent article in the New York Times. Marin County is ranked no. 1 in the Bay Area in 2009 for parents choosing not to vaccinate their children on the basis of a “personal belief exemption”. That is shocking and in my opinion inexcusable. It tantamount to playing Russian Roulette with your children and ever other kid in the neighbourhood – especially newborns who are too young for vaccination.

What’s worse, and again sadly familiar, is that these beliefs are held by highly educated parents. According to the article, Caroline Lawson, the mother featured in the piece is an MIT graduate who prefers to treat whooping cough with herbs, homeopathic remedies and craniosacral therapy, as well as antibiotics. Why not pop on a plague mask as well? At least it will also be fun for the kids.

Here is a picture of Andrew Wakefield at an anti-vaccination rally in Chicago earlier this year.

The intrepid Jamie Bernstein corners Andrew Wakefield

I just had to add this to the post after discovering that the wonderful Jamie Bernstein, who is pictured here with Wakefield, handed him a note. I bet he thought that he had got lucky with her phone number until he read it later.

It said

“Dear Andrew Wakefield,

I know that you truly believe that what you are doing is helping people and that the ends justify the means, but I just want you to know that the things you are doing –- the actions you have taken in the past have hurt people –- killed people. Your work has scared and manipulated parents into not vaccinating their children, putting them and their entire community at risk, all in the name of safety. Children have died because of you. I just want to make sure that you fully understand that.

Sincerely,
Jamie”

Way to go Jamie. How to crush a man’s ego. Brilliant! I bet he felt gutted.

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How Should Scientists A Dress?

As more and more scientists are appearing in the media and addressing events such as TAM or TED, there is some pressure to be more presentable. Here we have two examples that I am happy to share.

Laurie Santos giving her TED talk at Oxford, 2010

Yale professor, Laurie Santos, who I am proud to claim as a former student of mine and now a valued colleague, gave her TED presentation in Oxford this week on human irrationality in economic reasoning and her research on primate behaviour in trading situations. Although I was not there, I know that she will have given a very polished presentation. Here she is being very cool in the private life of a scientist.

A more shabby professor with an ill-fitting jacket (thanks Jamie)

Here is one of me at TAM this week.  Clearly, we want our speakers to be seen to have made an effort but is there a danger that presentation starts to take over the message? One of the things I learned at TAM is that the audience prefer the speakers to move around and be a bit more engaging rather than being stuck behind the podium. Obviously people what to hear what is being said but presentation is very important to convey the message. Information is not enough – we need it delivered in a way that keeps the audience paying attention. So for my talk tonight at the Frome Festival (which will be a much smaller or should I say ‘select’ event), I will bring along a hand-grenade for a demonstration. That should make them sit up.

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The Amazing Meeting Where Amazing Things Happened

Animated me Photo by Dave Fayram

It’s the end of my TAM8 experience. I thought I would write a post before heading off. This has been one of the craziest five days that I have experienced. It all started off so well. Bristol airport was empty last Wednesday and the flight to Newark could not have been any easier. I actually managed to work on the plane by taking notes of Damsio’s book, “The Feeling of What Happens,” for the new book I am working on (more of that later). Anyway, I had a disaster at Newark where I lost my wallet with all my cash and credit cards – nightmare!

It is a major pain in the neck to arrive in another country without cash and especially credit cards. You can’t even make a long distance call back to the lost & found in Newark to see if someone handed in a wallet. I had major communication problems with the lady from Continental’s lost and found in Vegas – she was an idiot. She could not conceive of a foreigner having no access to cash & credit. Alison, the local organizer for the Amazing Meeting, sent Bart, the JREF development officer to pick me up in a multi-seater van. He was not too happy as there had been a cock-up and there was no one to meet me off the plane but we bonded quickly when he realized that he had lost the parking ticket for the airport within 5 mins of meeting me. I was jinxed! Just to make sure that he did not take the wrong turn on the freeway to get to the hotel, Bart turned on the google map on his phone. However, after a quick acceleration of the van, his phone jumped off the dashboard and preceded to skid all the way to the back under the seats. When we pulled over to look for it, it was gone. So I called his phone and we discovered that it had slipped to the gap under the seats.

Weird phone moments was to be a recurrent event. Michael Shermer who was one of the speaker first up described how only that morning he was talking on his son’s iPhone with the headphones inside the hotel lift when he politely gestured for the woman sharing the lift to exist first. He thrust his hand forward but because of the connection to the headphones, the iPhone snapped out of his hand and ended up sandwiched in the gap between the lift and the floor. He described how both of them watched in horror as the iPhone rattled down the gap to plunge down the rest of the lift shaft. His talk was on amazing coincidences!

Anyway, to my talk. The auditorium was daunting. I don’t know exactly how many were there but it was pretty full from where I was. I gave my usual animated presentation –  I hate podium talks – I think this was generally appreciated. I ended up talking about the ADE 651 story which got a spontaneous round of applause. It went well and lots of people come up for autographs – which is ironic after I had just talked the essentialism of collectibles! However, my big thrill was Simon Singh who came up afterwards and said that he enjoyed the talk. He also very interested in the woo bombdetector story. Watch this space. Anyway, got to dash to catch a plane. Thank you Vegas. It was a blast.

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Unlucky Number Plates Drop In Value During Recession

These would be lucky number plates.

I have often been asked if there is any evidence that superstitious beliefs increase during economic recession. Last year I blogged  about the Whitson & Galinsky study that demonstrated that individuals are more inclined to see structure among ambiguous signals and endorse the power of superstitions when they were asked to remember a time in their life when they were stressed and did not have control. However tantalizing such demonstrations are, they hardly constitute strong evidence that superstitious beliefs increase during economic recession.

So I was delighted when Shiri Einav sent me this recent paper from the Journal of Economic Psychology by a team that had conducted an analysis of the price of personalized car number plates that were thought to be either lucky or unlucky.

Travis Ng and colleagues investigated the value of Hong Kong car number plates purchased through auction from 1997 to 2009 and found that an ordinary 4-digit plate with one extra lucky ‘8’ was sold 63.5 per cent higher on average. An extra unlucky ‘4’ by contrast diminished the average 4-digit plate value by 11 per cent. In Cantonese the number “8” rhymes with “prosperity” whereas the number “4” sounds like the word for “death.” Moreover the fluctuations in the prices of lucky and unlucky plates mirrored the economic fluctuations with unlucky numbers dropping the most during recessions.

So there you have it. Research into superstitious thinking does have tangible consequences for the economy. I am about to board a plane for TAM8 in Las Vegas where I intend to put all my savings on black.

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Let’s Face It

I am preparing for TAM8 in Vegas next week and finalizing what to include in my presentation.  I am on after Michael Shermer and I am pretty sure that he will be talking about patternicity which is the subject of his forthcoming book. I want to avoid using the same examples of pareidolia that I am sure he will be using. So it is with reluctance that I am posting this brilliant ad which demonstrates the power of our tendency to see faces everywhere, coz someone is going to use it in a talk on pareidolia.

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