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An Unauthorized Autobiography of Science

Journal article explanations of how science
works often differ from the actual process
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According to 55 percent of 350,000 people from 70 countries who participated online in Richard Wiseman’s Laugh Lab experiment (discussed in last month’s column), this is the world’s funniest joke:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, “Okay, now what?”

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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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As Luck Would Have It

Are some people really luckier than others, or is it all in their heads? Both
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Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neuromuscular disease that attacks motor neurons until muscle weakness, atrophy and paralysis lead inexorably to death. Victims of this monstrous malady could be forgiven for feeling unlucky.

How, then, can we explain the attitude of the disease’s namesake, baseball great Lou Gehrig? He told a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium: “For the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.” The Iron Horse then recounted his many blessings and fortunes, a list twice punctuated with “I’m lucky” and “That’s something.”

Clearly, luck is a state of mind. Is it more than that? To explore this question scientifically, experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman created a “luck lab” at the University of Hertfordshire in England. Wiseman began by testing whether those who believe they are lucky are actually more likely to win the lottery. He recruited 700 subjects who had intended to purchase lottery tickets to complete his luck questionnaire, which is a self-report scale that measures whether people consider themselves to be lucky or unlucky. Although lucky people were twice as confident as the unlucky ones that they would win the lottery, there was no difference in winnings. (continue reading…)

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