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Common Sense

December 2004
Surprising new research shows that crowds are often smarter than individuals
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In 2002 I served as the “phone a friend” for the popular television series Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. When my acquaintance was stumped by a question, however, he elected to “poll the audience” instead. His choice was wise not only because I did not know the answer but because the data show that the audience is right 91 percent of the time, compared with only 65 percent for “experts.”

Although this difference may in part be because the audience is usually queried for easier questions, something deeper is at work here. For solving a surprisingly large and varied number of problems, crowds are smarter than individuals. This is contrary to what the 19th-century Scottish journalist Charles Mackay concluded in his 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, a staple of skeptical literature: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” This has been the dogma ever since, supported by sociologists such as Gustave Le Bon, in his classic work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind: “In crowds it is stupidity and not mother wit that is accumulated.” (continue reading…)

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Flying Carpets & Scientific Prayer

November 2004
Scientific experiments claiming that distant intercessory prayer produces salubrious effects are deeply flawed
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In late 1944, as he cajoled his flagging troops to defeat the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, General George S. Patton turned to his chief chaplain for help.

Patton: Chaplain, I want you to publish a prayer for good weather. I’m tired of these soldiers having to fight mood and floods as well as Germans. See if we can’t get God to work on our side.
Chaplain: Sir, it’s going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of praying.
Patton: I don’t care if it takes the flying carpet. I want the praying done.

Although few attribute Patton’s subsequent success to a divine miracle, a number of papers have been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals in recent years claiming that distant intercessory prayer leads to health and healing. These studies are fraught with methodological problems.

Fraud. In 2001 the Journal of Reproductive Medicine published a study by three Columbia University researchers claiming that prayer for women undergoing in vitro fertilization resulted in a pregnancy rate of 50 percent, double that of women who did not receive prayer. ABC News medical correspondent Timothy Johnson, cautiously enthused, “A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results, but many physicians remain skeptical.” One of those skeptics was from the University of California at Irvine, a clinical professor of gynecology and obstetrics named Bruce Flamm, who not only found numerous methodological errors in the experiment but also discovered that one of the study’s authors, Daniel Wirth, a.k.a. John Wayne Truelove, is not an M.D. but an M.S. in parapsychology who has since been indicted on felony charges for mail fraud and theft, to which he has pled guilty. The other two authors have refused to comment, and after three years of inquires from Flamm, the journal removed the study from its Web site and Columbia University launched an investigation. (continue reading…)

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The Myth Is The Message

October 2004
Yet another discovery of the lost continent of Atlantis shows why science and myth make uneasy bedfellows
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Myths are stories that express meaning, morality or motivation. Whether they are true or not is irrelevant. But because we live in an age of science, we have a preoccupation with corroborating our myths.

Consider the so-called Lost Continent of Atlantis, a mythic place that has been “found” in so many places around the planet that one wouldn’t think there was anywhere left to look. Think again. On June 6 the BBC released a story about satellite images locating Atlantis in, of all places, the south of Spain. The story quoted Rainer Kuhne of the University of Dortmund in Germany as saying, “Plato wrote of an island of five stades (925 m) diameter that was surrounded by several circular structures — concentric rings — some consisting of Earth and the others of water. We have in the photos concentric rings just as Plato described.” (continue reading…)

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Mustangs, Monists & Meaning

September 2004
The dualist belief that body and soul are separate entities is natural, intuitive and with us from infancy. It is also very probably wrong
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When I was 17 in 1971, I purchased my dream car — a 1966 Ford Mustang — blue with a white vinyl roof, bucket seats and a powerful eight-cylinder 289-cubic-inch engine that could peg the speedometer at 140 miles per hour. As testosterone-overloaded young men are wont to do, however, over the course of the next 15 years I systematically wrecked and replaced nearly every part of that car, to the extent that by the time I sold it in 1986 there was hardly an original piece remaining. Nevertheless, I turned a tidy profit because my “1966” Mustang was now a collector’s classic. Even though the physical components were not original, the essence of its being — its “Mustangness” — was that model’s complete form. My Mustang’s essence — its “soul” — was more than a pile of parts; it was a pattern of information arranged in a particular way.

The analogy applies to humans and souls. The actual atoms and molecules that make up my brain and body today are not the same ones that I was born with on September 8, 1954, a half-century ago this month. Still, I am “Michael Shermer,” the sum of the information coded in my DNA and neural memories. My friends and family do not treat me any differently from moment to moment, even though atoms and molecules are cycling in and out of my body and brain, because these people assume that the basic pattern remains unchanged. My soul is a pattern of information. (continue reading…)

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Miracle on Probability Street

August 2004
The Law of Large Numbers guarantees that one-in-a-million miracles happen 295 times a day in America
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Because I am often introduced as a “professional skeptic,” people feel compelled to challenge me with stories about highly improbable events. The implication is that if I cannot offer a satisfactory natural explanation for that particular event, the general principle of supernaturalism is preserved. A common story is the one about having a dream or thought about the death of a friend or relative and then receiving a phone call five minutes later about the unexpected death of that very person.

I cannot always explain such specific incidents, but a principle of probability called the Law of Large Numbers shows that an event with a low probability of occurrence in a small number of trials has a high probability of occurrence in a large number of trials. Events with million-to-one odds happen 295 times a day in America. (continue reading…)

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