Posts Tagged ‘reason’

My head has really not been in a writing place lately. I’m trying to write my way back into one today.

A new site’s been getting a lot of attention in the skeptical community, called Your Logical Fallacy Is. It’s a compilation of common logical fallacies – ways in which an argument can fail to logically support the claim in whose favour it’s cited – which you’re encouraged to link somebody to if they make any of these errors in the course of a discussion you’re having with them.

For instance, if someone demands your evidence that the Christian God doesn’t exist, and accuses you of being a godless fundamentalist with no empirical support for your position, you can point them to yourlogicalfallacyis.com/burden-of-proof, which will point out that it’s up to them to make a case for God if they’re making a claim about his existence.

Not everyone’s keen on the principle behind the site. Is it just another way for skeptics to be smug?

I’ve learned by now that any question about skeptics that includes the word “smug” is bound to make me bristle, regardless of its potential validity, and I need to give myself a quiet talking to before I respond in a way that makes me sound an arse. Part of the problem is that, while smugness is often an annoying quality in others, decrying it is something that it’s very easy to do smugly. Of course, by pointing out how smugly some people are objecting to others’ smugness, I’m unavoidably going to make things even worse and smugger than ever before.

Smug smug smug. The word’s doing that thing now. Is that really how it’s spelt? Smug. Hmm.

Anyway, Tannice’s objection in that link up there isn’t a ridiculous one. It can be satisfying to spot a hole in an adversary’s argument which completely undermines their conclusion, and depending on the attitude you’re bringing to the discussion, it might seem tempting to treat that accomplishment as some sort of conclusion, a victory, a zenith beyond which you need not progress any further. Obviously, this approach is indicative of being more interested in scoring points than learning anything new or getting closer to the truth, which may be an integral part of that detested smugness.

But I think it’s a little unfair to assume that this will be most skeptics’ prime use of a site that handily points out logical fallacies like this. It has the potential to be a useful tool for stimulating more rational debate, not just “an easy way to be a skeptical c*** online”.

Maybe there does need to be more focus among skeptics on what to do with a logical fallacy once you’ve spotted one, and how to best use an understanding of these common pitfalls to make our discussions more productive, and educate those who haven’t encountered them before and might think they’re all fine ways to make your point. But even if that side of things is being neglected, that doesn’t mean the addition of the Your Logical Fallacy Is site is a bad thing. It’s one more instrument in the arsenal, whether or not it’s used well by everyone.

I don’t think there’s a particular problem with skeptics being too smug. People can be smug – among many other, often far more undesirable traits – for all sorts of reasons. It’s not obvious to me that skepticism exacerbates it more than any other mindset.

Perhaps it’s especially grating in our case, because it’s thought that skeptics, of all people, really ought to be better at avoiding traps like smugness, rational self-examiners that we supposedly are. It’s worth noting that one of the fallacies listed on the site is “The fallacy fallacy“: the mistaken idea that, as soon as you’ve pointed out a mistake in someone’s argument, you’ve necessarily proven them wrong.

Hat-tip to Hayley Stevens for making me think about this, and for having sensible things to say.

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There’s a Reason Rally happening somewhere soon, apparently. And there’s some fuss over who’s going to be there. People just can’t seem to agree on who should be allowed to attend under that hallowed banner of reason, and who has already cast themselves too far into ill repute with their unreasonable positions.

I can understand Hemant’s frustration. He’s trying to get some notable names to the event, some regular favourites among the skeptical crowd, as well as some long-sought-after political notice from actual big-time representatives. But they’ve all pissed people off at one point or another, and alienated people with whom they might have got along. This is something shared by politicians, skeptics, rationalists, scientists, celebrities, and everybody who’s ever lived.

PZ Myers in particular has serious issues with some of the attendees, and with good reason. There’s more than one person known for endorsing alternative medicine on the list, as well as a couple of religious senators. They don’t exactly sound a perfect match for the usual critical thinking crowd.

But there are certain values that I think the Reason Rally is about. Reason, for instance. The importance of basing our beliefs and public policy on evidence, on factual data, on a carefully tested scientific understanding of the world that’s liable to change at any time in the face of new evidence.

Also, the virtue of respectful disagreement, and our ability to take wildly opposing positions on specific issues without becoming spiteful and furious and rejecting each other from every aspect of our lives. If compassion and kindness aren’t among the Reason Rally’s most important values, then I want nothing to do with it.

So, I say why not invite Tom Harkin, thank him for offering his address and for his positive support of freedom and secular values in his political office, and let him pay some public lip service to our shared cause. Then, openly and respectfully and clearly, explain why his stance on alternative medicine is uninformed, unsound, and at odds with the message that supporters of the Reason Rally want to promote.

Invite Bill Maher, cheer him as he tells some jokes, agree with him publicly and loudly as he discusses the inanities of religious prejudice, and also let him know that you think some of the things he’s said about women have been inappropriate and damaging and come from a place of ignorance.

Bring Dawkins along, tell him The Greatest Show On Earth was wonderful, and ask him if he has any further thoughts on why his elevatorgate comments may have elicited such a strong negative reaction.

Get Penn Jillette to do some magic and shout about God, and tell him you’re really not okay with that time he called a woman a cunt, and see if it’s something he regrets.

If people want to support reason, let them come. Not a single idea may pass unchallenged, the criticism and picking apart of fallacious logic must flow freely – but if you’re going to insist people shouldn’t even be there because they’ve ever been an asshole in the past… Well, you just enjoy that party. You’ll have lots of space to yourself.

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So, Reason magazine. Any thoughts?

I’ve been following their online presence for a while. For some reason, I had the preconception that they were mostly focused on religion, secularism, and rationality, but I may have been thinking of someone else. Reason predominantly cover politics, and they’re an interesting crowd. Even when I’m not entirely on board with their message, disagreeing with them tends to feel more worthwhile than it does with a lot of other commentators, who are often just boringly wrong.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com who may or may not be played by Bill Hader, was recently on Bill Maher’s talk show:

I take issue with a number of things he said, but in a way that’s more fun to unravel than when someone like Rush Limbaugh says something obviously stupid and cruel.

Among the generally liberal panel on liberal Bill Maher’s liberal show, Nick seems to be kind of on his own in suggesting that America’s economic problems should be primarily solved through spending cuts. Here’s something he said that was received with particular agitation:

We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.

I’m not so interested in whether this statement instantly proves Nick Gillespie to be a Republican, as Bill Maher reckons it does. But I do think it misstates the problem.

Actually, I suppose it’s possible that the problem only lies in one area, but the situation of “being in debt” depends on the relationship between two factors: how much money you acquire, and how much money you spend. (Stop me if the Micawber-esque economics is getting too technical.) Given only that the US is spending more money than it makes, there are clearly two methods available for getting out of the red:

  1. Increase the amount of money made (while avoiding a corresponding increase in money spent),
  2. Decrease the amount of money spent (while avoiding a corresponding decrease in money made).

America doesn’t just have a spending problem. It has a problem with the money, and the money both comes and goes.

If we’re spending money in ways that aren’t worth the trouble of raising the funds, we should cut that spending. But if we’re spending money on things important enough that raising more funds (which generally seems to mean taxes) is the less harmful option, we should do that.

Given just how many $1,000,000,000,000s are being talked about, it seems unlikely that enough spending can be cut to clear the debt, without increasing revenues at all. Nick Gillespie does actually have some suggestions that would make this a more practical idea, such as ending America’s engagement in the wars with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs (the scariest foreign land of all), but none of this seems to be remotely on the table for any of the country’s actual politicians, even the purportedly “small government” supporters on the right.

So it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, given this massive amount of money that’s already been spent which needs to actually be paid, to wonder whether the super-duper rich folks could be chipping in any more than they are now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting enterprise. I don’t want to punish people for working hard and becoming wealthy. I’m not saying we go crazy with this.

But I’m pretty sure the US economy was coping with income tax rates being what they were in the 1990s, before the Bush tax cuts came into play in 2001 and 2003. Those cuts were set to expire in 2010, but were extended. Business wasn’t being crippled and major corporations weren’t moving daily overseas to more liberal climes. And, presumably, tax revenues were significantly higher than they are now. So, maybe we could look at some things going back to how they were before?

I’m not saying that’s definitely the way to go. Someone who actually understands economics would surely see many ramifications to something like this which would never occur to me. But shouldn’t it at least be on the table? Or am I a socialist line-toeing democrat for even bringing it up?

So, that was a bit of a ramble which rather got caught up on one particular point made during the above clip. A lot of interesting stuff comes out in the rest of it, though, so have a look if you’ve got time.

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Follow me on some rambling development of a few unplanned thoughts.

Fans of UFOs – people who believe that assorted reports of strange lights in the sky constitute strong evidence for believing we’ve been visited by alien beings – tend to point to things which they say can’t possibly be anything other than some sort of alien craft.

It’s a tacit admission that what they’re claiming is very unlikely, in a way. They expect you to believe in the aliens only after you’ve ruled out all other possibilities, which you clearly need to do before you conclude it must be aliens. The thing is, they’re fairly easily satisfied that these other options have been ruled out.

Unfortunately, it’s a very unbalanced decision. The believers’ approach makes much greater assumptions about the completeness of our knowledge, and has much less appreciation for the magnitude of what they’re claiming.

I mean, look at what happens if you do completely rule one option out, for any given bizarre sighting in the sky.

Pretend we’ve totally ruled out any natural explanation for this thing we’re seeing, this pattern of lights in the sky or whatever it is. It has to be an alien visitation. Two things are immediately clear:

A) We must have been incredibly thorough in our examination of every possible terrestrial source of this phenomenon, and made a lot of pretty shaky assumptions about things we don’t understand and can’t really know, and


Whereas, if the aliens are the option being unilaterally excluded from consideration:

A) We’ve not overstepped the line all that far, given what we know about the laws of physics and the limitations they place on space travel, and

B) There’s something going on in the world which we don’t understand. Neat. Maybe we can learn something.

Neither point in this latter option truly boggles the mind.

It’s not truly scientific to declare it “impossible” that alien technology and the laws of nature have conspired to flummox us, but if we’re going to be shrugging things into negligibility, aliens are easier to push that way than the collective entirety of natural, man-made, and neurological oddities here on Earth that don’t always behave exactly how we predict.

And while bizarre but explainable terrestrial sightings might be fascinating in their own way – whether the true source is a secret military operation or a brain aneurysm-induced hallucination – they’re not as earth-shakingly, paradigm-shatteringly, mind-blowingly revolutionary as actual alien lifeforms dropping by to visit us.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the alien-hunters are going to have to reach a much higher bar if they really want to be taken seriously.

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“Order, order!”

The assembled deities fell into a respectful silence.

Kui-Xing, the Chinese god of paperwork, was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as though he normally commanded such obedience over thousands of unruly omnipotent beings. He had barely any divine kudos at all these days, and was often mocked by the more muscularly depicted gods for being “nerdy”.

But today, at this meeting of the gods, taking place once every ten thousand years, it was his turn to be in charge. Some customs mattered to the gods, and respecting the role of divine chairman was one.

“Right,” said Kui-Xing across the deathly hush. He took a moment to enjoy himself, looking out at the thousands of gods all obliged to defer to him. It would be a long time before he got to enjoy this privilege again – Fate only knew how many aeons it would be before his name came back around on the rota. But he was here now, and he was determined to make the most of it. He was putting on a passably booming and resonant voice, even if he’d never be able to carry off the gravitas of someone like Zeus. He cleared his throat, and began to speak.

“Gods and goddesses, deities and divines, almighty all,” he called out across the multitude. “We gather at this time, as we have gathered countless times since the dawn of existence, since before there was nothing. We, the true lords and masters of all that is, have come to revel and rejoice in the wondrousness of our glorious selves. This is the occasion on which we gather in this place, so that the very fabric of the cosmos itself may pay us homage, and offer forth divine truths and holy wisdom. Let us proceed and hold forth with THE CARNIVAL OF THE GODLY.”

His voice cracked a little as he rose to a roaring crescendo with the final words, and for a moment the lord of holy provenance over official documentation flinched in fear of ridicule, but the silence continued. The others’ respect for the protocol was too great. He tried not to let the agenda and list of announcements rustle in his hands, as he prepared to deliver unto the multitude the holy proclamations. Whatever celestial wisdoms he was about to impart would guide the course of all the gods’ actions until the next carnival, in another ten millennia.

“Right,” said Kui-Xing, a little hesitantly, the official script having taken him as far as it could. He took a deep breath and prepared to set the ball rolling.

“Carnival of the Godly,” he boomed, “announcement the first: It has been observed by The Barefoot Bum that atheism is under no obligation to provide alternative explanations for the state of the world than those provided by religion; religious ontology can be adequately rejected by scientific epistemology, and accusations of intellectual procrastination are baseless for this reason.”

A silence followed his words, as the assembled gods and goddesses processed and considered their meaning.

“Um,” said Minerva after some moments. “That doesn’t sound very godly.”

A burst of muttering broke out among the crowd, relieved that somebody had said what they were all thinking. Kui-Xing swallowed nervously. As chairman of the carnival, he was in no possible danger of usurpation, and nobody would dare to disobey if he ordered them all into silence. But he’d never been the type for the “iron hand” style of rule – and, although he hated to admit it, he couldn’t help thinking that the goddess of wisdom had a point.

“Nevertheless,” he cried, trying not to let his voice quaver with uncertainty, “it has been spoken, and it is so decreed.

“Announcement the second,” he pressed on before anyone had a chance to do too much thinking. “Tatarize, of the God Snot blog, has observed a scientific hypothesis about cognitive dissonance being overturned by a basic error in probability that went unnoticed for years; a valuable reminder that any cherished belief must be abandoned if the facts are against it, lest we stray into dogma and irrationality.”

The silence that followed this time was even stonier than the last.

“But… but the entire basis of my worship is built around dogma!” cried Zeus. “And fear! If we start encouraging people to stop believing things because of evidence, where are any of us going to end up?”

The holy avatars standing near to the lightning-god looked down at their feet and shuffled nervously. None of them wanted to be seen as acting carelessly toward carnival etiquette, but Kui-Xing could tell that uncertainty was spreading, and would risk turning into dissent if things carried on like this.

“The words I speak are of infallible provenance. The messages imparted here are, as ever, open to wide interpretation,” he bluffed, “and no doubt there will be time for much discussion on how we should best act in compliance once this meeting is dissolved.

“Announcement the third,” he continued, hoping against hope that the crowd would remain mollified. “Dr Vitelli’s Providentia blog describes the curious case of Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch of late 18th and early 19th century England; her cons included eggs inscribed with announcements of the second coming of Christ, and selling people passes that would allegedly get them into Heaven.”

“Oh, hell, I remember her.” Eyes turned to locate the source of the interruption, as Jesus continued. “Loki took the piss for centuries because of that mad bint. I still think it was him who wrote on those eggs and shoved them back up those chickens, just to mess with me and make me think I was late for an appointment.”

The mischievous giggling that followed could only be Loki’s, and Kui-Xing knew he had to bring things back under control quickly, before the trickster god made some wisecrack about Joanna Southcott’s box and it all dissolved into chaos.

“Regardless of any alleged past indiscretions,” he insisted weakly, “the announcement has been made, and must be acknowledged by the gathering. Now, may I continue with the next announcement?”

There was a rumbling of dissatisfaction, but Kui-Xing decided he must press on, and hope that whatever else was coming up would get them back on side.

“Announcement the fourth: Raithie has examined the expected characteristics of good and evil beings, and concluded that the immorality of the Biblical God is unavoidab-” He choked on his own words here, even before the deathly silence gave way to an outraged roar from the middle of the crowd.

“WHAT??” came the mighty yell, predictably enough, from Yahweh. “Who dares to question the perfect splendour of my good name?”

Although he was familiar with the Christian godhead’s bluster, Kui-Xing still flinched at the sound, and tried to pull himself together enough to respond and keep order. Fortunately, he was saved the task.

“Oh, give it a rest, Dad,” sighed Jesus. “People are always saying that about your old ways, and centuries of genocide can build up a fair amount of resentment in a species. I did try going down there to explain that you’ve mellowed out since then, but-”

“Can I jus’ say,” slurred Dionysus, “that thish – ‘scuse me – thish is the strangest Carvinal of the Godly I can rem’m’mber. Are you sssssure we’ve got the right – *hic* – the right set of, y’know, wossnames? Notes?”

“Man’s got a point,” muttered Ares. “We’re supposed to be celebrating our eternal glory and dominion over all things, and this jumped-up desk-tidy here” – he waved a hand carelessly at Kui-Xing – “keeps trying to do us down. I say we go to WAR!”

“That’s your answer to answer to everything, Mars, darling,” said Venus, stopping all the other gods dead in their tracks with the loveliness of her voice. “Please, be peaceful, and let the gathering continue.”

Ares trembled for a few tense seconds as he tried to control himself, then relaxed. “All right,” he mumbled, “fine, let’s get it over with. But don’t call me that name again. The Greeks were the only ones who really understood me. If you call me by that Roman name again… there will be WAR!”

“Announcement the fifth,” shouted Kui-Xing desperately, with no idea what else to do but continue while things were still almost under control, “is provided by someone called the Anti Chris – no, not you, I said ‘Chris’, sit down – and is about the comfort and reassurance provided by atheism in times of-”

This time there was chaos. Protocol was forgotten, and the fury of the gods was bellowed across the cosmos.


“They seek comfort by denying the obvious truth of our all-powerful wrath?”

“Always with their critical thinking and compassionate secular benevolence…”

“How can there be reassurance without the looming threat of our capricious and ever-lasting judgment?”

“I’ll show those secularists who doesn’t exist…”

“Ah, there’s actually a point about that here,” interjected Kui-Xing, going almost unnoticed amid the background noise of a bewailing pantheon. “Er, announcement the sixth is about American secularism, and the way its meaning is often subverted to demonise it as an anti-religious ideology…”

But no-one was listening. It had all fallen apart. Kui-Xing slumped to the floor and sagged hopelessly. The biggest debacle in carnival history, and it had to happen on his watch. He looked again at the list of announcements he still held in his hand, and wondered if Dionysus had been right. Maybe he had been reading material meant for another carnival entirely. Once things calmed down, the others would get billions of years’ worth of entertainment out of the god of paperwork being the first one to make such a huge administrative cock-up.

There was one announcement left, which he read quietly to himself while thousands of gods continued to scream their outrage all around him. Atheists needn’t be offended or troubled by the prayers of others, it said, when they are simply a manifestation of an underlying compassion and benevolence. Except in some cases, where prayer is used as a substitute for practical action, it’s the feelings that lie beneath the prayer that matter. And most people were good, and would do good deeds, and could be relied on to be practical and to care about people in many other ways than this largely harmless act of faith.

Looking around him at the fury and bickering the gods were capable of on their own, Kui-Xing had to wonder if it was really such a bad thing that the humans were starting to find them all unnecessary.

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So I’ve read a couple of articles about myalgic encephalomyelitis recently. (Not a bad opening line, I think.)

Mind Hacks had a fantastic post a few days ago about chronic fatigue syndrome, and the enemies of reason blog posted today about what the Daily Mail has had to say about it lately. (I’m not going to pick apart the exact differences between CFS and ME here; I believe they tend to refer to essentially the same condition or set of conditions.)

They both discuss recent research into CFS/ME, in which a UK team failed to find a virus that it was thought might cause the disorder in any of the 186 patients they studied. Last year, an American team reported that they had found the virus in 68 out of 101 patients studied. The UK team used a different method to look for the virus, and tighter controls to root out false positives (the Mind Hacks article has more detail on that), and although I don’t have the expertise to look at the raw data and try to determine if one study was “better” than the other, it seems like the evidence doesn’t quite tally with the idea that all cases of CFS are caused by a viral infection.

But both articles stress the important point that the lack of one simple root cause does not undermine CFS’s status as a genuine chronic illness. Which is important, because some people really don’t get that. Some people have trouble acknowledging the validity of a “psychological component” to an illness, or recognising the gray area between “psychological component” and “It’s all in your head”.

Anyone trying to dismiss anything as being “all in your head” needs to cultivate a much deeper appreciation of what your head is capable of.

To be fair, I do think the enemies of reason blog is a little harsh on the Mail here. The story he references from last week seems mostly pretty reasonable, treating ME as a genuine condition and describing the lack of evidence linking it to a particular virus in recent research. They do say that the “lack of a clear cause has led to scepticism that it is a genuine illness”, but, well, they’re right. There is skepticism about that, but they don’t seem to be expressing it themselves here, just mentioning that it exists. They don’t push it any further than that.

What’s really offended people though, and rightly, is the poll the Mail also put up on their site, asking readers to vote Yes or No on the question: “Do you think ME is a genuine illness?”

It’s become a cliché in the last few years to mock TV news programmes and newspapers for constantly asking people to “get in touch to let us know what you think”, and reading out texts from viewers and listeners on the air, treating them as if they were just as interesting and relevant as the news itself. But here it’s not just inane and trivial. Hosting that poll the way they are seems to give credit to the idea that what Daily Mail readers reckon, on a scientific medical matter, actually matters a shit. And it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.

Still, you can look at this questionnaire not as a test of the reality of CFS as an illness, but as a measure of Daily Mail readers’ ignorance. In any poll which asks people to vote on, say, the age of the Earth, if 60% of respondents pick “around 4.6 billion years” and 40% pick “around 6,000 years”, we don’t need to conclude there’s any genuine controversy or uncertainty on the subject. We just conclude that 40% of the demographic being polled are scientifically illiterate.

And we can do the same here. At the moment, it looks like 18% of poll respondents don’t know what they’re talking about on this subject. Which could be a lot worse. You can vote here, though bear in mind that, if the vote skews even further in the direction of reason, it may start to reflect well on Daily Mail readers. And I’m not sure anyone wants that.

Update 15/01/10: The Mail have actually issued an apology of sorts in response to people’s complaints about this poll, and it’s not totally lame. The idea that it “prides itself on its coverage of medical matters” is somewhat gigglesome, but credit where it’s due, they seem to have got this one right the second time.

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There are two methods you can use to bend spoons. (They both work just as well on forks, keys, and a variety of other objects, usually small and metallic. Spoons are traditional.)

The first one is to be psychic and use your magic psychic powers. Much distorted cutlery has been presented as the result of claimed paranormal abilities. Uri Geller, for example, has made a decades-long career out of doing almost literally nothing else. You can just tap into some strange cosmic energy, and alter the state of matter through the sheer force of your will, according to your desires. You can harness this inexplicable artefact of nature, a phenomenon as yet unexplained by science, the potential of which has ramifications beyond imagining for the socio-economic development of our species, and use it to make your kitchenware go a bit wonky.

That’s one way.

The other way is to just hold a spoon and bend it. Using your hands.

The second way is much easier.

But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, simply using obvious brute force renders the whole activity rather pointless. Because this method is so easy, it’s also deeply unimpressive. Anyone can bend a spoon, after all – but it takes someone quite special to be able to bend a spoon with only the power of their mind.

Which leads us to a question brimming with potential and overflowing with possibilities. Suppose you used the second method of bending a spoon, and just brought your arm muscles into play to give it a bit of a twist, but then – and this is the clever bit – you use some cunning misdirection of some sort, and dress it up as an example of the first method, to make it look like you’re demonstrating psychic powers.

Now wouldn’t that just be a thing.

I’d be surprised if nobody’s thought of this before.

Now, don’t get flustered before I’ve even said anything controversial. All I’m asking you to accept at this point is the simple fact that bending a small metal spoon with your hands is entirely possible, and so is inaccurately claiming that you were using psychic powers to do it. Look, here’s Hugh Laurie doing exactly that:

I’m pretty sure I could do that too, by just bending some spoons and going “Ta-da!” But that doesn’t really prove anything. The above demonstration is, obviously, part of a comedy sketch, and it’s funny because it would only bamboozle a stupid person. It seems fair to ask: could a better version of a similar trick be performed, so that non-idiots would be taken in by it?

Well, I’m going to suggest that it could. And I don’t think this is very controversial, either. If you’re going to disagree at this stage, and argue that nobody possessing the wherewithal not to drool all over themselves could ever possibly be fooled by some sort of trick, and persuaded that a bent spoon hadn’t simply been bent by physical force alone… well, good luck with that in a world where people who still think wrestling is real manage to get dressed in the mornings without help. People are always getting taken in by fake stuff, even intelligent people. If you’re a trusting person, and inclined to believe in psychic powers already, then it doesn’t seem implausible that someone might, in theory, be able to trick you.

For instance, take a look at this guy bending spoons:

That’s Michael Shermer, and he’s definitely using the second method to do it. He’s a skeptic, and he openly admits that he’s doing tricks. But he makes it look pretty good, doesn’t he? If he were to tell you he was using psychic powers, you wouldn’t have to be a complete idiot to believe him. It certainly doesn’t look like he’s just bending things with his hands, at any rate. It looks a lot like things look when people claim to be using the first method, and demonstrating real paranormal abilities.

Even if you think that Shermer’s demonstration isn’t quite as convincing as someone you’ve seen who claims to be genuinely using the first method (the fork thing isn’t all that subtle, for instance), it still seems possible that someone with their mental faculties grossly intact could still be fooled. If Shermer were unscrupulous enough to attach grandiose claims of psychic mastery to his techniques, and maybe hammed up the performance a bit, it could be moderately persuasive. The kind of people who might find it plausible wouldn’t have to be stupid or clueless at all, just like Uri Geller’s millions of fans aren’t all dribbling idiots. A lot of them are adequately functioning members of society.

A number of tricksters like Shermer are out there, bending spoons through non-magical means, and can be found all over YouTube. Many of them take the approach of confessedly bending spoons by the second method alone, and inviting us to marvel at how this can be made to look like the first method. Others will also show us the secrets behind the tricks they’re using, and give an even greater insight into how the effects of the first method can be simulated.

In short, if you put on an act just like these guys show you, you can make it look a lot like you have psychic powers. And not just to stupid people.

All the second method boils down to is “bend the spoon with your hands”, but disguising what you’re doing is where the interesting skills lie. For one thing, it’s important that people aren’t watching your hands too closely while you’re just exerting brute force. Cause a distraction, divert people with some attention-grabbing patter, move your hands somewhere out of sight, point at something else – anything that’ll give you a brief moment where you can give the metal a quick twist, so that when onlookers next see it, the bend is there.

Obviously if they look back to find it suddenly sharply bent, though, it might occur to them that they just missed you doing something devious. This can undermine your magical kudos, but luckily there are plenty of optical effects and quirks you can take advantage of too. If you’re moving the spoon around a lot, it’ll be hard for anyone to tell how bent it actually is, and you might be able to make it look like it’s becoming increasingly curved as they watch, even if it’s staying the same. You can see this sort of effect by holding a pencil horizontally in front of you, near one end, and waggling it up and down. The way the other end flops about will look loose and rubbery. (Try it, and you can really see the effect. Remember, we’re still not talking about stupid people. Even intelligent brains get easily confused by things they weren’t designed to be able to cope with.)

Also, a straight line can look either more or less curved depending on the angle at which you’re looking at it. I suspect that Michael Shermer is using this point to good effect in his final demonstration in the video above. The rod is bent from the time he holds it up, but the bend is held horizontally, in line with the plane on which you’re seeing it, so it still looks flat. The bend comes into view as he rotates it, but he’s making other gestures and telling you to see it bending upwards, so the truth might not be obvious.

Now, although this might all be a jolly interesting exercise, I must add that none of this has any direct bearing on anybody who’s actually using the first method – that is, anyone really bending spoons with genuine psychic powers. That’d be like miming to a Mariah Carey track and expecting Simon Cowell to give you a record deal. They’re not affected by the details of how a similar effect can be faked, because they know that they’re doing something completely different.

But we don’t know that. And these details are extremely relevant to our assessment of performers claiming to use the first method. Shermer could have claimed to possess psychic powers, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that many people would have believed him – but, because of his honesty, we know that those people would have been mistaken.

Who else might also be mistaken?

It’s not just the case that the second method can look a lot like the first – on top of that, people who claim to be using psychic powers often really seem like they’re doing tricks. Uri Geller may be a good example of this (depending on whether he’s calling what he does “magic” or “mystificationalism” today). This video seems to show him simply bending a spoon while people are distracted from looking at it directly, as well as providing supportive evidence that his broken spoons look like they’ve been bent repeatedly.

And then there’s his famous appearance on The Tonight Show, where he doesn’t bend any cutlery by any process, paranormal or otherwise. This makes sense if we were to assume he’s using the second method: he can’t just blatantly bend them, because that wouldn’t make for an interesting demonstration, and he can’t work with his own props which are designed for this very purpose, so there’s really nothing he can do. It’s harder to reconcile it with the idea of actual psychic abilities, which inconveniently fail to function every time we try to get a good look at them.

So, we have:

– a claimed paranormal phenomenon which is less than paradigm-shattering in its scope to begin with,
– a simple and naturalistic method by which the same effect of this phenomenon can be achieved,
– a plausible set of reasons why this naturalistic method could be mistaken for something more ground-breaking,
– an example of people demonstrating what a powerful illusion this naturalistic method can provide,
– a number of good reasons why certain individuals might be motivated to disguise this non-event as something more remarkable,
– some evidence that the man most commonly associated with this phenomenon could be using exactly these techniques to do just this,
– and a complete lack of verifiable examples of the phenomenon actually taking place in a way that can’t be easily replicated by conjurers or practised amateurs doing tricks.

Let’s stop being impressed by this now.

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