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Woosceptibility: A Brief Interview With James Randi

James Randi, perhaps better known as “The Amazing Randi” has spent most of his life performing magic shows. In 1996 he created the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) designed to expose the fraudulent claims made by psychics, faith healers, and snake oil salesmen. The ultimate goal of the JREF is to create a new generation of critical thinkers – people who will not be hoodwinked by the aforementioned hucksters.I had the good fortune of interviewing Mr. Randi briefly at the recent conference known as “The Amazing Meeting.” I was eager to pick his brain about human behavior and magical thinking. This is what I learned…

Randi identified certain groups of people who seem to be more susceptible to magical thinking and/or belief in the paranormal. According to him, the top two are:

1. News reporters. Although at first I wasn’t sure if Randi meant that reporters like a good story versus they believe a good story – he told me that in his experience, they were some of the most gullible people on earth. In fact, they were more interested in implausible stories than true ones – and Randi said that the more fantastical his explanation for phenomena, the more likely they were to believe it and write about it.

2. Academics. This surprised me since I assumed that this group would actually be less susceptible. Randi suggested that they are more likely to be taken in because they are single-minded about phenomena. They are over confident in their ability to understand how things work, and when something cannot be explained in their framework, they’re willing to attribute it to the paranormal.

Who are the least susceptible? Children. Why? Because they are simple thinkers, and harder to distract. The art of magic is in distraction of the sophisticated mind. Children tend to be very concrete, so they don’t expect things to happen with hand-waving and flourishes. They keep their eye on the coin (or other item being transferred from hand to hand), and are more likely to know where it is at all times.

To wrap up our short interview, I asked Randi if he could explain why people believe in magic, fantasy, and the paranormal? He responded plainly:

Ultimately it’s not about intelligence or lack thereof. It’s about people not wanting to accept that life is random, suffering is inevitable, and there is no good reason for bad things happening.

What do you make of Randi’s observations?

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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53 thoughts on “Woosceptibility: A Brief Interview With James Randi

  1. Draal says:

    Academics at what level? Kindergarten, Elementary, High School, College, University? Trade school? … Instructors? Teachers? Scientists? Engineers? Professors? Researchers? Shamans? Priests? Mentors?
    I want to be clear on what he means by Academics. I believe, from my own experience, that researchers can be arrogant in their beliefs but more specifically in their specialty. At times, research seems like >90% failure punctuated with a little bit of luck. But because most experiments fail to illicit evidence on a hypothesis that forces a scientist to constantly reevaluate what we know. It makes us skeptical of our work and of others. Multiple models must be tested to rule them out and only when all the ducks line up in a row, do we feel confident enough to present it to others. We know our peers are smart and intelligent and we must be able to defend our views against criticism so we don’t look like fools. [It also explains why a researcher is so adamant about their findings; they put a lot into their work and, by golly, when the evidence fits their hypothesis, it'll take a lot of counter evidence and an alternate explanation to move them from their positions.] So I am in disbelief that Randi was implying a research professor is more susceptible to woo.

    Rather, I suggest that you swap out Academics with Engineers and the same paragraph would read exactly the same but be more precise.

  2. Alaskan says:

    This article reminded me of a quote, so for that I am appreciative:

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool” (Feynman).

  3. DVMKurmes says:

    Draal; Randi has multiple stories of PhD level scientists-physicists, chemists, etc. jumping to paranormal conclusions. Banachek was an apprentice of Randi’s and went to a university where he tricked multiple scientists into thinking he had psychic powers to bend spoons, etc. He was supposed to admit to trickery if anyone ever asked him directly-no one ever did. There is an SGU interview with Banachek from about a year ago with the details.
    Randi has had so many “research professors” do this that he has a good reason to think they are susceptible to magical thinking. There are several videos available online of Randi discussing this.

  4. I believe Randi means academics at all levels, and the higher level the academic, the more likely they are to be fooled due to their greater confidence in their own intelligence and powers of observation.

    I think Randi has stated something to the effect that scientists often make the worst investigators of paranormal claims.

    I believe part of that is due to the confidence in their intelligence and powers of observation, but part is also due to the fact that scientists aren’t used to their subjects actively trying to fool and deceive them.

  5. DVMKurmes says:

    The Banachek interview on The Skeptics Guide to the Universe was August 2nd, 2008. Free on itunes or the SGU site.

  6. LovleAnjel says:

    I don’t remember if it was Randi specifically that said this, but research scientists tend to be fooled because “rats don’t lie.” As Karl said, they think their study subjects are being honest.

  7. Joe says:

    @Draal on 16 Jul 2009 at 8:34 am

    Two reasons that (science) academics are susceptible to woo are: first, we rely on honesty. A Supreme Court justice once noted that the biggest obstacle to justice, hence a most heinous crime, is lying under oath. Likewise, scientists rely on honest reports from human subjects, and observations of said honest, subjects.

    Second, unlike magicians, we are not trained in deception and how to detect it. I like magic tricks and when I watch them I know I am being fooled, I just can’t see how. When a subject presents as “the real psychic” (as opposed to a magician) scientists mistakenly assume that our usual, controlled experiments are adequate to investigate them.

    Some time ago, true scientists set up a lab to study psychic phenomena. James Randi offered to help them; but they responded that they knew how to design experiments, thank you very much. So, James (anonymously) sent two young proteges to be examined- although they were only doing parlor tricks, the scientists found the psi was strong in them (Project Alpha). When the researchers began publicizing their amazing results, Randi burst their bubble.

    Further to the difficulty in fooling children- Carl Sagan (Demon Haunted World) lamented that we squeeze critical thinking out of them (paraphrased- shut up and take notes).

    @Val, thanks for the post.

  8. Draal says:

    I’m aware of the Banachek experiment. The thing with Peter Phillips was that he already believed in parapsychology. It was no stretch for Banachek to fool someone that already fooled himself.

    Would the Banachek experiment still work if the physics professor was picked at random? (I hope not.)

    Randi has multiple stories of PhD level scientists-physicists, chemists, etc. jumping to paranormal conclusions.

    If you can dig them up, I’ll like to read them.
    And just because Randi says so, doesn’t make it a fact. That’s an argument from authority.

    Does Randi’s stories of Ph.D. level scientists the rule or exception? Or is the nature of Randi’s work and history make him more likely to attract/seek out the woo believers? People that make headlines are those involved in extra-ordinary situations. Normal people going about their normal lives don’t capture the headlines. It’s when they stick out from the crowd do they get noticed. In other words, is Randi’s generalization of Academics a true cross-section of all academics or just the ones that are moths attracted to the flame, so to speak?

    Randi identified certain groups of people who seem to be more susceptible to magical thinking and/or belief in the paranormal.

    AFAIK, ~15% of Americans are athiest, the rest believe in some form of a higher power. Does belief in a higher power constitute belief in the paranormal? If so, 85% already crossed over to being paranormal believers. Is Randa making the argument that Academics are then more likely than others to believe in additional paranormal beliefs?

  9. zoe says:

    Except, life isn’t random. And things do tend to happen for reasons. That’s why science works. The world isn’t just one big chaotic mess, it has order and structure. People are pretty innately eager to discover that order, but not necessarily skilled about how to go about it to get the most reliable results. I think it’s akin to how all children like to draw, but most adults don’t know how to draw realistically because they were never taught the rigors of proper technique. Magical thinking is the unrefined form of science – it seeks out the causalities and forces which make the world work the way it does. It’s not the opposite of scientific reasoning.

    Also, our society functions in such a way that very few facts about the world have any significance to how people live their lives. We have the freedom to be wrong about 99% of the world, with almost no consequences. Most aspects of woo (with the exception of alternative medicine) are mere flights of fancy. Not many people believe they can fly to work or make piles of cash appear by magic.

    I think Randi deals with people who are particularly passionate and attached to their woo beliefs, but I don’t think most people care all that much. For most people I think it’s just a superficial and fun element of life.

  10. Draal says:

    @Joe
    That’s the thing, there are more types of scientists that do not interact with human subjects for their own data. We rely on instruments based on physical properties for unbiased data. Like a ruler, scale, ect. Sure, the measurements can be interpreted to fit a model but the measurements shouldn’t vary if its a physical property. Even if probability is concerned, enough samples will give the same average. That’s why statistics are a necessary tool.

    Why should scientists that work with human subjects be the respresentatives for the rest of us?

  11. Honesty: I am encouraged that people mention this. In the past year, I have begun including honesty as a fundamental concept in the scientific process, along with the more familiar concepts (replication, measurement, etc.). This honesty principle is amazingly strong. When I mention that health care study results can be biased by self-interest, ppl look at me like I am paranoid, and hav committed sacralige by openly suspecting researchers and journals of being tainted by money. I prefer to think of myself as appropriately skeptical, and thus less subject to the woo that is involved in mainstream academic endevirs such as those under investigation by Senator Grassley (incl. Biederman, Nemeroff, etc.). These people are dishonest, and so are their sponsors. It doesn’t matter how impressive their graphs and charts are, or how many letters follow their name, or how many publications they have.

    As often discussed here, there are many people willing to defend at great lengths the craziest woo, when we can tell very easily that a bias called “profit motive” is involved. Should it not be a fundamental lesson to “follow the money;” to suspect that the profit motive can direct people, both consciously and unconsciously, to be biased, to introduce bias, or to accept biased results?

    A number of studies have documented the phenomenon that, in the area of psych meds, with inherently subjective measurement of success, study results can vary according to whether the research was sponsored by a pharmaceutical company or not. When this potential source of bias is suggested, the biased researchers start to use woo-type arguments (change the topic, hide behind Oz’s curtain of credentials, appeal to testimony, etc).

    Peter Gotzsche of Nordic Cochrane Center concluded a great article, examining such dishonesty, with this comment: “who would buy a washing machine that is 5 or 10 times more expensive just because its manufacturer compared it with other machines and claims that it is the best?” (medical journal of australia june 6, 2005. -Gotzsche is spelled with 00f8 letter o with slash, and following that, sp like ‘Nietzsche.’)

  12. Zetetic says:

    Zoe says:

    “…life isn’t random. And things do tend to happen for reasons.”

    Yes – Beyond the “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” logical fallacies, things do happen for reasons. An accident causes injury. But what irks me is those who say things like “everything happens for a reason” and what they mean is everything is predestined.

  13. Harriet Hall says:

    Randi jokes that when PhDs graduate and are handed their diplomas, the presenter’s hand anoints them with something that makes it forever impossible for them to say “I don’t know” or “I was wrong.” :-)

    The Banachek experiment was particularly fascinating, because Randi kept writing them to say “Watch out because your subjects could succeed by cheating with method X.” Banachek was indeed cheating with method X. Even with Randi’s forewarnings, the scientists didn’t bother to check for method X. Amazing!

  14. Draal says:

    I rather like the saying: BS means BullS**t, MS means More Bulls**t, and PhD means Piled higher and Deeper.

  15. Calli Arcale says:

    A Supreme Court justice once noted that the biggest obstacle to justice, hence a most heinous crime, is lying under oath.

    It was noted long before that. One of the oldest examples is this:

    If any one ensnares another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

    This is the first article of the Code of Hamurabi. The English translation uses fairly archaic English, but basically it’s saying that if you commit perjury, or even make a criminal complaint that you can’t prove, you’ll be put to death.

  16. James Fox says:

    Joe wrote: “Carl Sagan lamented that we squeeze critical thinking out of children (paraphrased – shut up and take notes). ”

    I’ll be borrowing this thank you very much.
    ~J

  17. sowellfan says:

    The term academics would seem to me to include *all* of the Ph.D. level people that inhabit universities – and in my experience, a lot of those people are going to be in the liberal arts faculty – thus *not* scientists. Most of the discussion in this thread has been kind of concentrated on the science types, who just may not realize the tricks of paranormal investigation – but liberal arts types don’t really even have the scientific method to help them out.

  18. Adam_Y says:

    @Draal
    Yeah yeah yeah…. Even scientists who use instruments screw up. For some inexplicable reason I have had multiple engineering professors describe stories involving people ignoring scientific evidence that something will or will not work. One case invovled a well known defense company trying to develop a piece of technology that a model that faculty at my university developed said wouldn’t work. Guess what happened…. It doesn’t work.

  19. ravettb says:

    There are a couple of studies showing that more intelligent people, because of that intelligence, tend to have more difficulty in changing their viewpoints. They can “rationalize”, i.e., create reasons for things belonging to their particular world-views, more easily than less-intelligent people. See, e.g., Sternberg, “Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid”, for a popular account of this.

  20. Stu999 says:

    I always summarize that last statement as “the unwillingness to accept that shit happens”.

  21. Draal says:

    There’s an old saying in Tennessee, I know it’s in Texas, probably Tennessee, that says ‘Fool me once…, shame on…shame on you. … … Fool me. … You can’t get fooled again.
    And remember,
    You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.

  22. mrbadguysan says:

    @Draal

    “Rather, I suggest that you swap out Academics with Engineers and the same paragraph would read exactly the same but be more precise.”

    Alright, let’s test that idea out.

    Engineers. This surprised me since I assumed that this group would actually be less susceptible. Randi suggested that they are more likely to be taken in because they are single-minded about phenomena. They are over confident in their ability to understand how things work, and when something cannot be explained in their framework, they’re willing to attribute it to the paranormal.

    I would freely admit that we are indeed single-minded about phenomena; engineering emphasizes Methodological Naturalism to the exclusion of all other constructs. Having to actually produce something that functions in a material reality can do that to a person.

    Funny, I don’t recall ever having attributed unexplained phenomenon to the paranormal, I have never witnessed such attribution take place, nor have I reason to believe that this is a widespread, acceptable practice.

    Draal, I have no idea what it is you have studied or done for a living. What I can say is that the Engineering profession has kept a much cleaner house than the medical profession or Research Academia. Have you ever heard of “Alternative Aviation” (You would have if you listen to QuackCast?) I mean, flapping your arms in order to induce lift is just as effective as homeopathy is at treating disease. I’ve never heard an Aerospace Engineer recommend flapping ones arms in order to fly (although they have recommended jumping out of windows…), but a large minority of Medical Practitioners do engage in homeopathy, and pharmacies do sell homeopathic products.

    Perhaps this has to do with dealing with much simpler systems engineers deal with, or that the investment involved is much larger in the corporate sector.

    In any case, if you want to throw a particular profession under the bus, you’d do well to find a better example.

  23. DVMKurmes says:

    OK Draal, here is one example;
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bbAyaLq4mQ

    Randi’s years of experience with this are not an appeal to authority, he has been doing it longer than anyone else. He also said at TAM that you had to be careful with magicians as well. An inexperienced or gullible magician might know one way to do a trick, and if someone does it another way, they might go for the paranormal explanation. The term Randi and Penn and Teller used was “half smart”. That means that knowing one thing does not mean you know everything, and anyone can be fooled, especially if you don’t have the humility to consider the possibility.

  24. Joe says:

    Draal on 16 Jul 2009 at 11:00 am @Joe “Why should scientists that work with human subjects be the respresentatives for the rest of us?”

    They are not; but that is the topic under consideration. Tout simplement.

  25. Adam_Y says:

    @mrbadguysan
    Actually, engineers associate them with alternative cosmology theories. At least electrical engineers. Moral of the story is not to cast stones into any particular field because there are idiots in all of them.
    @Draal
    Do you know what engineers even do?

  26. mrbadguysan says:

    @Adam_Y

    I’m not aware of Electrical Engineers associating themselves with alternative cosmological theories, as a group anyway. I think you’re referring to some YEC (Young Earth Creationist), named Spike Something.

    But since engineering doesn’t really deal with any ultimate truth regarding the universe, a particular engineer can be as crazy as an acre of snakes. As long as his/her product adheres with a purely materialistic universe, nobody cares.

  27. Draal says:

    :P rattled a few cages, eh? :P

    Draal, I have no idea what it is you have studied or done for a living. What I can say is that the Engineering profession has kept a much cleaner house than the medical profession or Research Academia.

    Should it matter? I’m new to this blog and so I am under the impression that my background shouldn’t matter but rather how I presented my arguments.
    As Dr. Novella put it: “Argument from authority:
    Stating that a claim is true because a person or group of perceived authority says it is true. Often this argument is implied by emphasizing the many years of experience, or the formal degrees held by the individual making a specific claim. It is reasonable to give more credence to the claims of those with the proper background, education, and credentials, or to be suspicious of the claims of someone making authoritative statements in an area for which they cannot demonstrate expertise. But the truth of a claim should ultimately rest on logic and evidence, not the authority of the person promoting it.

    It was very intentional that I did not say, “I’m so and so, have such a degree, work in this field, with X many years of experience.” If that’s how an argument is suppose to start, than I’ve wandered into the wrong place.

    OK Draal, here is one example;
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bbAyaLq4mQ

    I refer to my previous post since the physic guy called Randi. I questioned if the Ph.D.s that seek out an audience with Randi are not the typical average scientist. I propose that those that contact Randi are already predisposed to woo no matter what field or degree they cite.

    They are not; but that is the topic under consideration. Tout simplement.

    I was try to illicit a definition of Academics. I rather think research professors (including engineering research professors) shouldn’t be lumped into this broad generalization. And I explained why.

    Yeah yeah yeah…. Even scientists who use instruments screw up. For some inexplicable reason I have had multiple engineering professors describe stories involving people ignoring scientific evidence that something will or will not work. One case invovled a well known defense company trying to develop a piece of technology that a model that faculty at my university developed said wouldn’t work. Guess what happened…. It doesn’t work.

    That’s not woo or belief in a paranormal phenomenon. That’s more likely human error and stubborness.

    You would have if you listen to QuackCast?

    What?! I can’t listen to everything and expect to get all my work done. I subscribe to SGU, SGU 5×5, Skeptoid, How Stuff Works, and Adam Carolla. I catch Mythbusters every now and then.

    @Draal
    Do you know what engineers even do?

    Yes, I do.

    Moral of the story is not to cast stones into any particular field because there are idiots in all of them.

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! Hallelujah! It struck me as odd that Randi singled out anyone especially Academics. I was being sarcastic about engineers, ’cause frankly I wanted to piss a few engineers off so they’d know how I felt when Academics were labels as wooable.
    But since people are citing their personal experience, my personal experience is that engineers are more religious than most, especially ones with a family and kids. (I would argue that it’s logical to do so but another time for that). Belief in a higher power is a belief in the paranormal. Am I wrong? Hence, I asked what Randi meant by “more susceptible to magical thinking and/or belief in the paranormal.” Since 85% of America believe in a higher power, what is the point in singling out a group. It’s shooting fish in a barrel, you can’t miss. Did he mean that academics believe in MORE paranormal things than besides a God? If you need to throw in that criteria, than that’s Special pleading, yes?

    And besides, look at how many people I got to post on this blog for the first time? Good for you! You’re practicing #90 from “What do I do next?” http://www.skeptic.com/downloads/WhatDoIDoNext.pdf

  28. amyr says:

    @zoe: Yep, things do happen for reasons that we may or may not understand. But not necessarily out of fairness. We know (or can discover) what causes breast cancer; we don’t know why one woman is diagnosed at 35 and another is cancer-free. Maybe a better phrasing is that people don’t want to accept there are large portions of their lives they can’t control.

  29. mrbadguysan says:

    @Draal

    Wow, that’s some powerful sophistry you got there.

    I’m somewhat amazed that you turned an admission of ignorance on my part (i.e. “I don’t know anything about your professional and academic life.”), into some sort of argument from authority. What’s even more perplexing is that you dragged Dr. Novella into this, thus using an argument from authority. Additionally, I did notice that at no point did you address the substance of my argument, but instead simply constructed a straw-man out of some perceived malfeasance on my part.

    In regards to Quackcast: The idea of “Alternative Aviation” is not of my creation, it is something that I had heard from Dr. Crislip, on the QuackCast. Why you became defensive about it is simply beyond my comprehension. Could it be that, subconsciously, you know that your argument is not as good as you think it is?

    But then we get to the real meat of your argument. Your assertion is that Engineers exhibit religiosity that is equal to that of the general population, which is greater than that of the scientific community, and that that religiosity is a form of paranormal belief. However, that wasn’t the question posed to James Randi.

    “Randi identified certain groups of people who seem to be more susceptible to magical thinking and/or belief in the paranormal. According to him, the top two are:”

    One of the two criterion is “magical thinking.” Engineers can not afford to exhibit magical thinking, if they did, their devices would not function.

  30. Chris says:

    mrbadguysanon …. I can understand why you might be disappointed at engineers being ones who would not follow the science, but unfortunately having that kind of education does not insulate them from woo.

    One particular engineer who I have had issues with is Andy Cutler. He is a chemical engineer who thinks he understands biochemistry, which is why his Autism-Mercury Yahoo site promotes pushing chemicals into kids to chelate a fantasy amount of mercury. He means well, but he really does not know the depth of his ignorance in the subject.

    Trust me, engineers are human. And if doctors can get sucked into the woo (like Weil and Oz), then so can engineers.

    You say:

    One of the two criterion is “magical thinking.” Engineers can not afford to exhibit magical thinking, if they did, their devices would not function.

    Um, what kind of engineering do you do? Many, like me, work on a small part of a larger organization. The final product is a concept that could be years away. Or in the case of many, there is no final product, but a process. That does not mean that the engineer has a particular insight to prevent woo thinking.

    I would also like to say; the last time I was at at skeptic meeting it was ruined by sitting next to one of those engineers who thought he knew more than anyone else. He was pontificating erroneously on astrophyiscis. I as a mere aerospace engineer could not disabuse him of his errors, so I gladly gave up my seat to a astrophysicist who the engineer would only feign to listen to out of strained politeness.

    To summarize: engineers are just people, and just as medically trained doctors get sucked into the woo… so can engineers.

  31. Chris says:

    Draal:

    What?! I can’t listen to everything and expect to get all my work done. I subscribe to SGU, SGU 5×5, Skeptoid, How Stuff Works, and Adam Carolla. I catch Mythbusters every now and then.

    Podcasts are what I listen to while doing mundane work. I just watered my garden while listening to the Australian SkepticZone.tv podcast. I will often have a podcast going while doing finances or grocery shopping. Podcasts are particularly handy when shopping with teenage children (all I am is the chauffeur and bank, I am mostly ignored in the store).

  32. Charon says:

    I’ve seen that claims of Randi’s about scientists (academics) before. I think he has a very good point about scientists not generally expecting to be actively fooled.

    On the other hand, what he’s actually trying to say is that academics are much worse than magicians in detecting magic tricks. Holy crap, really?!

    Scientists are much less easily fooled by most things than the general public. Read, e.g., _How We Know What Isn’t So_ (Gilovich). Every cognitive weakness mentioned in that book, I say, “Hey, that’s why science does X!” People are very easily fooled even by things that aren’t _trying_ to fool them, and science (aided by statistics) is precisely that endeavor that helps us best avoid such fooling.

    And if a single PhD physicist at a major university believes in magical powers, it’s a lot more newsworthy than a million random people believing in them… and gets Randi’s attention more. I’d wager everything I’ve got that scientists in general believe less in magical powers than the general populace, but Randi is being fooled himself by paying more attention to the former group.

    So scientists are more easily fooled by tricks than magicians. It would be pretty freaking sad if that weren’t true. Otherwise I’d expect firemen to be better at quantum mechanics than physicists, and baseball players to be better at DNA sequencing than genome scientists. Phrased that way, Randi’s statement is a tautology, almost.

    I agree with Randi that the effect is worth keeping in mind, however. When testing people who might be fooling you, have some experts on that help you out.

  33. Charon says:

    And let me say on a personal note that while I very much respect Randi and what he does, he’s a jerk. I say this as someone who completely agrees with him on all things woo. Now, I’d probably be a jerk too if I had to deal with all the stupid/mislead people he’s dealt with over the years, but still, he’s a jerk. And when his mind is set, it’s set, and won’t change. (On trivial, unscientific things too – for example, I argued with him about the definition of “organic”, which he believed couldn’t possibly refer to plants grown without synthetic pesticides. He apparently believes language never changes, and that words can’t have more than one meaning. Oh, and he was a complete jerk about it.)

    So I’m not particularly surprised when he criticizes some group (e.g., scientists), and think his criticisms should be taken with a grain of salt.

  34. mrbadguysan says:

    @ Chris

    Let me try and restate my claim, for the sake of clarity.

    I’m not so naive as to believe that no engineers are plagued with woo. Religiosity among them is indeed high, and many of them have very stupid ideas in their heads, as you have stated.

    What I am saying is that the nature of engineering causes engineers to compartmentalize; their woo ideas don’t bleed into their professional endeavors. If such a thing did happen, their devices would not function as intended, if at all.

    Now, as to the points you raised regarding my experiences and magical thinking. I should have been clearer about this before, but I am an Mechanical Engineering Student. I realize that my experience is very limited, but the completion of projects are required as part of the curriculum. Now, as I said before, I’ve never heard an attribution, by anyone, to supernatural phenomenon as it pertains to engineering. You say you work for a small firm, and I have no reason to doubt that. I’d imagine you’d know your coworkers rather well. Have you ever heard a statement like, “Additional Lift will be generated by the pilots positive thoughts”, or “This transducer has inaite intelligence.”, or anything of that sort?

    Magical thinking and foresight are not synonymous. When, say, Arthur C. Clarke wrote about the communications satellite (Not sure if he was the first to do so.), no such thing existed in reality at that time. But it wasn’t magical thinking on his part, because there’s nothing scientifically impossible about a communications satellite, in and of itself.

    Individual engineers rarely have a hand in every component of a given system (well, except the project engineer, but that’s a west-coast phenomenon.) However, even though you don’t know everything about a system, you’d make the assumption that everyone working on it has a similar understanding of reality.

  35. Adam_Y says:

    @Charon
    Randi isn’t an idiot and after looking at the definition on Wikipedia he was right. Your definition does not actually fit the United States definition of organic.

  36. Draal says:

    @mrbad
    “Wow, that’s some powerful sophistry you got there.”
    -I take that as a compliment. :D

    “What’s even more perplexing is that you dragged Dr. Novella into this, thus using an argument from authority.”
    XD It called a citation. It was easier for me to copy and paste and then give credit to the author.

    You’ve invented the perception that I and others were pointing out that engineers have magical thinking when it comes to their work. You’ve logically argued that things wouldn’t work if they did. But Um, no. no one said that. That’s a straw man you constructed. So I did not address something that I or anyone else was arguing against.

    I proposed that engineers are woo people of woo because they they are religious. That implies they believe in a higher power which a paranormal belief. So, many engineers believe in a paranormal belief.
    I did not say engineers believe in mystical phenomenon like dark matter or dark energy. (that was a joke)

    I then point out that the vast majority of Americans believe in a higher power. And as someone pointed out, why single out a group?

    Therefore, I was being sarcastic by labeling engineers as likely to be magical thinkers.
    @Charon
    :::hug::: very sensible posts.

  37. Draal says:

    @Charon
    Randi isn’t an idiot and after looking at the definition on Wikipedia he was right. Your definition does not actually fit the United States definition of organic.

    1) Wikipedia is not an authoritative source for definitions. 2) Words have multiple definitions. 3) Languages are constantly evolving and with it, so do definitions. 4) No one called Randi an idiot.

    But unfortunately Charon, the label “organic” on a food product does not technically mean all synthetic pesticides cannot be used.
    see list of approved pesticides: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELDEV3100278&acct=nopgeninfo

  38. Newcoaster says:

    In his book “Why People Believe Weird Things”, there’s a chapter near the end called “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things”.

    The gist of it is that because they are smart, or knowledgeable or educated, they assume they can’t be fooled. They can.

  39. Newcoaster says:

    In the book “Why People Believe Weird Things”, by Michael Shermer there’s a chapter near the end called “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things”.

    The gist of it is that because they are smart, or knowledgeable or educated, they assume they can’t be fooled. They can. By having the arrogance to assume they (we) can’t be fooled, we fool ourselves, or provide the conditions needed for a deceptive person to fool us.

  40. LovleAnjel says:

    The practical upshot of all this is that people, regardless of their training, are still people, with all of our inherent mental foibles. Spending 5 years on a research project doesn’t make you overall smarter than anyone else, it just makes you smarter about your project.

    We don’t teach anyone, scientist, engineer or child, to be skeptical. Generally someone has to have a personal interest in the subject to develop their skills. (Example: I am an academic scientist, and I have always had a strong interest in knowing how “the trick was done”, so I’d be harder to pull something on than some other scientist who was never interested or pursuant of that interest.)

    I think Randi has just had years of exasperated interaction with academics.

  41. Adam_Y

    “Your definition does not actually fit the United States definition of organic.”

    I suppose that can depend on the context in which you use the word organic.

    Form Wikipedia:

    “Organic chemistry is a discipline within chemistry which involves the scientific study of the structure, properties, composition, reactions, and preparation (by synthesis or by other means) of chemical compounds that contain carbon.”

    “Apart from elemental carbon, only certain classes of carbon compounds (such as oxides, carbonates, and carbides) are conventionally considered inorganic. Biochemistry deals mainly with the natural chemistry of biomolecules such as proteins, nucleic acids, and sugars.”

  42. Chris says:

    mrbadguysan:

    You say you work for a small firm,

    No… I said “Many, like me, work on a small part of a larger organization. ”

    Which basically means many engineers do not work on one whole product, but one bit of a large thing. If you are still a student this may not be quite what you are expecting.

    Take a look at a multi-story office building. Now look at the seperate parts that require mechanical engineers. Not one person did the heating and ventilation system and then the elevators.

    Big word of advice: Engineering Co-op, best part of an undergraduate engineering education.

    And trust me, you will meet the magical thinkers. It does not matter what kind of education they received (good grief, Jonathan Wells is a cell biologist!). They are out there, and they can be very annoying.

  43. Adam_Y says:

    @Karl
    You are right. I just assumed they were quibbling about the definition of organic produce and products.

  44. Charon says:

    Adam_Y: I didn’t call Randi an idiot, because he’s not. You, on the other hand, appear to be.

    American Heritage (4e): “organic… 3a. Of, marked by, or involving the use of fertilizers or pesticides that are strictly of animal or vegetable origin.. 3b. Raised or conducted without use of drugs, hormones, or synthetic chemicals.”

    Draal: Thanks for making the obvious points clearer to Adam_Y. I am aware of the complicated and contentious (and evolving) definition of “organic” given by the USDA. If you prefer, I’ll say that I was using the layperson’s definition, rather than the bureaucratic definition. E.g., the definition from a standard English dictionary, not from regulatory agency policy. In any case, this was not the problem Randi had with the term.

  45. pedantsareus says:

    # Draal

    Just one point: “illicit” is an adjective meaning forbidden by law, rules etc.

    I believe you meant to use the term
    “elicit” – to evoke or draw out.

  46. nokomarie says:

    I’ve got to admit that Randi has always irritated me rather. He’s not a very good magician; I can see straight through his tricks but there he is making the point of having gotten one over on people. Quite the little man with a drum to beat in my opinion.

    The whole thing with his canard about academics and his compliments about the true vision of children probably goes to actual, PHD-level academics. To get successfully through the massive levels of post-graduate studies that I am thinking of takes considerable focus and concentration. A drive to exceed if you will. One of my brothers is both brilliant and what I would jokingly call dangerously over-educated. He would be the first one to brush off the Amazing Randi’s help were it to be offered and probably the last one to twig that there were plants in his control group. In fact, I am sure he would feel profoundly betrayed. I can’t help feeling that Randi just barely turns an ill nature to good use. He can’t help thinking up con games and makes it acceptable to himself and others by using his mindset to alert people to just how easily they are lied to. Probably just as well for all concerned.

    Nevertheless I must agree with his final summation at the end of the interview as long as I get to rephrase it: Life appears to be random, particularly to those who are suffering for no good cause. Is there any wonder in people searching for reasons and weapons with which to conquer pain be it a drug, a saint, or magic?

  47. daijiyobu says:

    Per: belief “in magic, fantasy, and the paranormal [...as a kind of metaphysical anodyne, since factually] ‘life is random, suffering is inevitable, and there is no good reason’.”

    The idea of “purpose” [T for teleology] and ‘personalization’ [A for anthropocentrism] is, I’ll guess, what we’re getting at here, while we live in a purposeless, impersonal universe.

    Religion is one such anodyne [with a claim of absolute truth], and alternative medicine another.

    I’ll also connect this to two things from my academic background that seem at odds: existentialism [E] and alternative medicine [AM].

    Across the former [E], there is the ethos that any meaning and purpose, in terms of one’s existence, can only be self-generated.

    That is: it’s the responsibility of the individual to salvage meaningfulness from absurdity, and such is by definition very subjective.

    In terms of AM — and it’s something I’ve recently written about

    http://naturocrit.blogspot.com/2009/07/naturopathys-essential-supersitious.html but not in this sense specifically —

    there is the ethos that T and A are objective fact.

    I find it fascinating that AM claims what is subjective [in the sense of 'freedom of conscience'] as objective fact [kind of like an 'American Taliban of pseudoscience'], in the same manner that radical religions are IT [the one truth].

    [BTW, we met in person at TAM, Dr. J., :) ].

    -r.c.

  48. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    The point is, we all can be fooled. We all have been fooled at one point or another. We tend to think that we cannot be fooled and we tend to go with our first impressions.

    I worked as a magician in my younger years, doing birthday parties, picnics, banquets, etc. I always preferred performing for adults. They were much easier to misdirect. Kids haven’t learned enough to be fooled. They don’t make the usual assumptions that adults make.

  49. Leeward says:

    @mrbadguysan
    Quote:
    “I’ve never heard an Aerospace Engineer recommend flapping ones arms in order to fly (although they have recommended jumping out of windows…), but a large minority of Medical Practitioners do engage in homeopathy, and pharmacies do sell homeopathic products.”

    Simple reason for that…. money.
    An Aerospace engineer makes nothing from pseudoscience and the results are usually incontrovertible
    (in fact he usually ends up being unemployed and losing cash)

    OTOH, pharmacies and homeopathy practitioners can make a lot of cash.

    Cheers,
    Lee

  50. nokomarie says:

    To; Leeward

    Only if their insurance contracts are in-line, and even then rather less than you think.

  51. LindaRosaRN says:

    Certainly the proliferation of post-modernism in academia is a major problem today. This insanity has infected so many areas of study, e.g. nursing, education, social studies, literature, etc.

    And once unvalidated notions invad academia, they have the patina of legitimacy that is difficult to combat. This is doubly true of journals that have sloppy peer review.

    Regarding children, I know of one particular CAM practice that is guaranteed to make life-long skeptics of any child. It’s actually the use of craniosacral work in combintion with Attachment Therapy. While a child is being restrained and harassed by the Attachment Therapists, the craniosacral person feels the child’s body for any alteration in spinal fluid flow and then reports to the Attachment Therapists whether or not the child is telling the truth. If believed to be lying, the various brutal methods used by the Attachment Therapists are intensified. Alas, the child is in a hopeless lose-lose situation, but he does learn what idiots the therapists are.

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