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Deconstructing the Dead

August 2001
“Crossing over” to expose the tricks of popular spirit mediums
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Like all other animals, we humans evolved to connect the dots between events so as to discern patterns meaningful for our survival. Like no other animals, we tell stories about the patterns we find. Sometimes the patterns are real; sometimes they are illusions. A well-known illusion of a meaningful pattern is the alleged ability of mediums to talk to the dead. The hottest medium today is former ballroom-dance instructor John Edward, star of the cable television series Crossing Over and author of the New York Times best-selling book One Last Time. His show is so popular that he is about to be syndicated nationally on many broadcast stations.

How does Edward appear to talk to the dead? What he does seems indistinguishable from tricks practiced by magicians. (continue reading…)

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Is God All in the Mind?

July 2001
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A review of Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause’s Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

About ten years ago I began research on the question of why people believe in God, I asked a colleague in a religious studies program to recommend the latest path-breaking scientific work in this area. (continue reading…)

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Starbucks in the Forbidden City

July 2001
Eastern and Western science are put to political uses in both cultures
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In the sixth century B.C., Siddhartha Gautama — better known as the Buddha — extolled the virtues of enlightenment through a “middle path”:

Avoiding the two extremes the Buddha has gained the enlightenment of the Middle Path, which produces insight and knowledge, and tends to calm, to higher knowledge, enlightenment, Nirvana. This is the noble Eightfold Way: namely, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

Twenty-six centuries later American physicist Murray Gell-Mann constructed a subatomic model he playfully called the Eightfold Way, because it consisted of eight particles with eight possible rotations. The name was a joke, he told a Caltech audience in a lecture on “Quantum Mechanics and Flapdoodle,” (continue reading…)

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Fox’s Flapdoodle

June 2001
Tabloid television offers a lesson in uncritical thinking
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The price of liberty is, in addition to eternal vigilance, eternal patience with the vacuous blather occasionally expressed from behind the shield of free speech. It is a cost worth bearing, but it does become exasperating, as when the Fox Broadcasting Company aired its highly advertised special “Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?” NASA, viewers were told, faked the Apollo missions on a movie set.

Such flummery should not warrant a response, but in a free society, skeptics are the watchdogs against irrationalism — the consumer advocates of ideas. Debunking is not simply the divestment of bunk; its utility is in offering a better alternative, along with a lesson on how thinking goes wrong. The Fox show is a case study, starting with its disclaimer: “The following program deals with a controversial subject. The theories expressed are not the only possible explanation. Viewers are invited to make a judgment based on all available information.” That information, of course, was not provided, so let’s refute Fox’s argument point by point in case the statistic at the top of the show — that 20 percent of Americans believe we never went to the moon — is accurate. (continue reading…)

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The Erotic-Fierce People

May 2001
The latest skirmish in the “anthropology wars” reveals a fundamental flaw in how science is understood and communicated
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Another battle has broken out in the century-long “anthropology wars” over the truth about human nature. Journalist Patrick Tierney, in his book dramatically entitled Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon, purportedly reveals “the hypocrisy, distortions, and humanitarian crimes committed in the name of research, and reveals how the Yanomami’s internecine warfare was, in fact, triggered by the repeated visits of outsiders who went looking for a ‘fierce’ people whose existence lay primarily in the imagination of the West.”

Tierney’s bête noir is Napoleon Chagnon, whose ethnography Yanomamö: The Fierce People is the best-selling anthropological book of all time. Tierney spares no ink in painting him as an anthropologist who sees in the Yanomamö a reflection of himself. (continue reading…)

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