Skip to main content

Randi science

I admire the work James Randi does in debunking fake mentalists and demonstrating how easy it is for trained magicians to pull off the same stunts, though I do find that his in-your-face words can have something of a Dawkins effect - they can put people off by being insulting.

I've recently read his old but still entertaining book, Flim Flam (tip - the Kindle version is a lot cheaper than paper equivalents). It is an effective dismemberment of various claims to supernatural and paranormal abilities and events. It might seem at first sight he over-analyzes some cases. For example he spends page after page on the detail of the Conan Doyle fairy photos. This might appear unnecessary, because those pictures are so obviously fakes - the images of the fairies are quite clearly paper cutouts. Yet Randi usefully examines the different ways those who were apparently taken in by these crude fakes supported their beliefs and ignored the obvious.

However, I do notice one thing. Randi is understandably heavy on scientists who have a tendency to be naive when presented with fakery. It isn't their field. But because of this, he ought to be careful himself when writing about science, because his opinions in the scientific arena can be more than a little naive too. I found one example rather entertaining. Randi writes:
 Jack van Impe, a TV evangelist who perspires and preaches his version of science regularly to millions of believers, recently gave us an Easter message that reflected his ignorance of science. He referred to the preposterous "Jupiter Effect" so beloved of some nuts, which is supposed to cause wonderful catastrophes in 1982. The Earth should be a mess at the end of this claimed alignment of the planets, and I can hardly wait to see the show. Said Jack, "The Earth will be seven times hotter." Codswallop. The term has no meaning. "Seven" is a number, Jack. If you take the normal temperature to be 70 degrees Fahrenheit, that makes the new reading 490 degrees Fahrenheit. If you're in Europe or Canada, that same temperature is 21 degrees Celsius, giving the other folks a break with 148 degrees C, which is equal to only 298 degrees F.
Yes, of course seven is a number - but that doesn't mean that something can't be seven times hotter than something else. Temperature is a measure of the mean kinetic energy of the atoms or molecules in a substance, and one thing can have seven times as much energy as another. So something can be seven times hotter than something else. (Or the world can be seven times hotter at one point in time than it is at another.) What Randi is really identifying is the arbitrary nature of the temperature scales he uses in his illustration. (And the stupidity of the prediction.) But the way he phrased his attack shows that he too can get it wrong when working outside his field of expertise.

Image from Wikipedia


Popular posts from this blog

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope