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Weirdonomics & Quirkology

How the curious science of the oddities
of everyday life yields new insights
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Using an index finger, trace the capital letter Q on your forehead. Which way did the tail of the Q slant?

What an odd thing to ask someone to do. Exploring weird things and why people believe them, however, is what I do for a living. Coming at science from the margins allows us to make an illuminating contrast between the normal and the paranormal, the natural and the supernatural, and the anomalous and the usual. The master at putting uncanny things to the experimental test — the man I call the Mythbuster of Magical Thinking — is University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman. His new book, Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things (Basic, 2007), presents the results of his numerous (and often hilarious) experiments on all matters peculiar. (continue reading…)

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Michael Shermer & Michio Kaku
Discuss Science & Pseudoscience

The famous theoretical physicist and science popularizer Dr. Michio Kaku interviews Skeptic publisher and science writer Dr. Michael Shermer, in which they explore a variety of topics between science and pseudoscience, the normal and the paranormal, the natural and the supernatural.

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Mr. Skeptic Goes to Esalen

Science and spirituality on the California coast
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The Esalen Institute is a cluster of meeting rooms, lodging facilities and hot tubs all nestled into a stunning craggy coastal outcrop of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, Calif. In his 1985 book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, the Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman recounts his experience in the natural hot spring baths there, in which a woman is being massaged by a man she just met. “He starts to rub her big toe. ‘I think I feel it,’ he says. ‘I feel a kind of dent — is that the pituitary?’ I blurt out, ‘You’re a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!’ They looked at me, horrified … and said, ‘It’s reflexology!’ I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.”

With that as my introduction to the Mecca of the New Age movement, I accepted an invitation to host a weekend workshop there on science and spirituality. Given my propensity for skepticism when it comes to most of the paranormal piffle proffered by the prajna peddlers meditating and soaking their way to nirvana here, I was surprised the hall was full. Perhaps skeptical consciousness is rising! (continue reading…)

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Rupert’s Resonance

The theory of “morphic resonance” posits that people have a sense of when they are being stared at. What does the research show?
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Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to do a newspaper crossword puzzle later in the day? Me neither. But according to Rupert Sheldrake, it is because the collective successes of the morning resonate through the cultural morphic field.

In Sheldrake’s theory of morphic resonance, similar forms (morphs, or “fields of information”) reverberate and exchange information within a universal life force. “As time goes on, each type of organism forms a special kind of cumulative collective memory,” Sheldrake writes in his 1981 book A New Science of Life (JP Tarcher). “The regularities of nature are therefore habitual. Things are as they are because they were as they were.” In this book and subsequent ones, Sheldrake, a botanist trained at the University of Cambridge, details the theory, which is again hotly debated in the recent June Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Morphic resonance, Sheldrake says, is “the idea of mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms and of collective memories within species” and accounts for phantom limbs, how dogs know when their owners are coming home, and how people know when someone is staring at them. “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images,” Sheldrake explains. Thousands of trials conducted by anyone who downloaded the experimental protocol from Sheldrake’s Web page “have given positive, repeatable, and highly significant results, implying that there is indeed a widespread sensitivity to being stared at from behind.” (continue reading…)

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Quantum Quackery

A surprise-hit film has renewed interest in applying quantum mechanics to consciousness, spirituality and human potential
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In spring 2004 I appeared on KATU TV’s AM Northwest in Portland, Ore., with the producers of an improbably named film, What the #$*! Do We Know?! Artfully edited and featuring actress Marlee Matlin as a dreamy-eyed photographer trying to make sense of an apparently senseless universe, the film’s central tenet is that we create our own reality through consciousness and quantum mechanics. I never imagined that such a film would succeed, but it has grossed millions.

The film’s avatars are New Age scientists whose jargon-laden sound bites amount to little more than what California Institute of Technology physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann once described as “quantum flapdoodle.” University of Oregon quantum physicist Amit Goswami, for example, says in the film: “The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies.” Okay, Amit, I challenge you to leap out of a 20-story building and consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground’s tendencies. (continue reading…)

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