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The Captain Kirk Principle

December 2002
Intuition is the key to knowing
without knowing how you know
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Stardate: 1672.1. Earthdate: October 6, 1966. Star Trek, Episode 5, “The Enemy Within.”

Captain James T. Kirk has just beamed up from planet Alpha 177, where magnetic anomalies have caused the transporter to malfunction, splitting Kirk into two beings. One is cool and rational. The other is impulsive and irrational. Rational Kirk must make a command decision to save the crew, but he is paralyzed with indecision, bemoaning to Dr. McCoy: “I can’t survive without him. I don’t want to take him back. He’s like an animal — a thoughtless, brutal animal. And yet it’s me!”

This psychological battle between intellect and intuition was played out in almost every episode of Star Trek in the characters of the ultrarational Mr. Spock and the hyperemotional Dr. McCoy, with Captain Kirk as the near perfect synthesis of both. Thus, I call this balance the Captain Kirk Principle: intellect is driven by intuition, intuition is directed by intellect. (continue reading…)

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Mesmerized by Magnetism

November 2002
An 18th-century investigation into mesmerism shows us how to think about 21st-century therapeutic magnets
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In an uncritical August 11, 1997, World News Tonight report on “biomagnetic therapy,” a physical therapist explained that “magnets are another form of electric energy that we now think has a powerful effect on bodies.” A fellow selling $89 magnets proclaimed: “All humans are magnetic. Every cell has a positive and negative side to it.”

On the positive side, these magnets are so weak that they cause no harm. On the negative side, these magnets do have the remarkable power of attracting the pocketbooks of gullible Americans to the tune of about $300 million a year. They range in scale from coin-size patches to king-size mattresses, and their curative powers are said to be nearly limitless, based on the premise that magnetic fields increase blood circulation and enrich oxygen supplies because of the iron present in the blood.

This is fantastic flapdoodle and a financial flimflam. Iron atoms in a magnet are crammed together in a solid state about one atom apart from one another. In your blood only four iron atoms are allocated to each hemoglobin molecule, and they are separated by distances too great to form a magnet. This is easily tested by pricking your finger and placing a drop of your blood next to a magnet. (continue reading…)

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The Physicist and the Abalone Diver

October 2002
The difference between the creators of two new theories of science reveals the social nature of the scientific process
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Consider the following quotes, written by authors of recently self-published books purporting to revolutionize science:

“This book is the culmination of nearly twenty years of work that I have done to develop that new kind of science. I had never expected it would take anything like as long, but I have discovered vastly more than I ever thought possible, and in fact what I have done now touches almost every existing area of science, and quite a bit besides … I have come to view [my discovery] as one of the more important single discoveries in the whole history of theoretical science.”

“The development of this work has been a completely solitary effort during the past thirty years. As you will realize as you read through this book, these ideas had to be developed by an outsider. They are such a complete reversal of contemporary thinking that it would have been very difficult for any one part of this integrated theoretical system to be developed within the rigid structure of institutional science.” (continue reading…)

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Smart People Believe Weird Things

September 2002
Rarely does anyone weigh facts
before deciding what to believe
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In April 1999, when I was on a lecture tour for my book Why People Believe Weird Things, the psychologist Robert Sternberg attended my presentation at Yale University. His response to the lecture was both enlightening and troubling. It is certainly entertaining to hear about other people’s weird beliefs, Sternberg reflected, because we are confident that we would never be so foolish. But why do smart people fall for such things? Sternberg’s challenge led to a second edition of my book, with a new chapter expounding on my answer to his question: Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. (continue reading…)

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Why ET Hasn’t Called

August 2002
The lifetime of civilizations in the Drake equation
for estimating extraterrestrial ntelligences
is greatly exaggerated
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In science there is arguably no more suppositional formula than that proposed in 1961 by radio astronomer Frank Drake for estimating the number of technological civilizations that reside in our galaxy: N = R fp ne fl fi fc L

In this equation, N is the number of communicative civilizations, R is the rate of formation of suitable stars, fp is the fraction of those stars with planets, ne is the number of Earth-like planets per solar system, fl is the fraction of planets with life, fi is the fraction of planets with intelligent life, fc is the fraction of planets with communicating technology, and L is the lifetime of communicating civilizations. (continue reading…)

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