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The Feynman-Tufte Principle

A visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van
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I had long wanted to meet Edward R. Tufte — the man the New York Times called “the da Vinci of data” because of his concisely written and artfully illustrated books on the visual display of data — and invite him to speak at the Skeptics Society science lecture series that I host at the California Institute of Technology. Tufte is one of the world’s leading experts on a core tool of skepticism: how to see through information obfuscation.

But how could we afford someone of his stature? “My honorarium,” he told me, “is to see Feynman’s van.”

Richard Feynman, the late Caltech physicist, is famous for working on the atomic bomb, winning a Nobel Prize in Physics, cracking safes, playing drums and driving a 1975 Dodge Maxivan adorned with squiggly lines on the side panels. Most people who saw it gazed in puzzlement, but once in a while someone would ask the driver why he had Feynman diagrams all over his van, only to be told, “Because I’m Richard Feynman!” (continue reading…)

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Codified Claptrap

The Bible Code is numerological nonsense masquerading as science
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In the epilogue of In Memoriam A.H.H., Alfred, Lord Tennyson captured the essence of the quest for a single unifying principle and purpose in nature: “One God, one law, one element,/And one far-off divine event,/To which the whole creation moves.”

The noble dream of finding teleological succor in the march of time has become big business, as demonstrated by works from Hal Lindsey’s 1970s blockbuster The Late Great Planet Earth to today’s Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. (Both are said to have sold in the tens of millions.) And if you can sprinkle your homiletics with scientistic jargon, so much the better. The latest and most egregious example of the (mis)use of science in the (dis)service of religion is Michael Drosnin’s Bible Code II, enjoying a lucrative ride on the New York Times best-seller list, as did the 1997 original. (continue reading…)

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