Category: Editorials


John’s New TV

(Submitted by TOMBC Team Member John Rael)

The day I went to my bank in order to get a personal loan, I came home, turned on my LCD TV (Westinghouse LVM-47W1), which I’ve owned for six years, and started seeing random ‘snowlike’ pixels on the screen. I turned it off in order to turn it on again… it would not turn on again.

I unplugged it and replugged it. Nothing. It was officially dead. Even though its standby light was on, and it kept making a slightly high pitched hum sound.

Keep in mind, without the loan I had just received (that very day), I would not have been able to afford another television until at least October. Anyways, I’m not sure how relevant any of that is to the coincidence, but there you go. Feel free to incorporate any info you happen to know about me personally (career, lifestyle, etc.). Also, feel free to ask me any questions.


Below are the extended notes for use in Skepticality Episode 241 provided Edward Clint.  Ed Clint produces the Skeptic Ink Network and writes about Evolutionary Psychology, critical thinking and more at his blog Incredulous. He is presently a bioanthropology graduate student at UCLA studying evolutionary psychology.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own hilarious commentary.

TV used to be pejoratively called the “boob tube”, until computer monitors became the rightful heir to that meaning, partly because televisions used to be cathode ray tubes. The cathode tubes of our primitive low-def ancestors were electron guns firing away at the screen one pixel at a time. Today’s liquid crystal display (LCD) TV technology is much more reliable, having fewer moving parts, and no electron gun. Thanks to this tubal migration, today’s tube-less TVs can have a mean-time-between-failure of 100,000 hours. This means that, on average, if you watched 5 hours of TV a day, it would take 54 years for the device to fail. A bit less if you like Peter Jackson movies.

TV failure in general is pretty rare. Then again, John, you’re probably not an average user. I’m told you spend a large amount of time and energy on making and consuming videos for the internets and whatever other media outlets still exist. I assume that means you work with lots of footage of cats and people falling off of things. So maybe you really put that Westinghouse through its paces. Even if you used it 24/7, it would probably take 11 years to reach the statistical breaking point.

What’re the odds you’d just happen to be able to replace a broken set on the day it breaks? A fairer question is, how many different expensive things breaking that day could have seemed like a strange coincidence? I have not been to your house, John, but I know you don’t drive, and I will assume it is populated with a variety of large fancy cameras that aren’t compensating for anything, some high end editing equipment, and at least two fancy blenders with way more settings than anyone could possibly need. I’m not sure why I assume there’re blenders, it just feels right. The breakage or loss of any of these items on a given day still isn’t too likely, but the odds are more moderately unhinged than crazy, which seems about right for John Rael.

Pictures of people (who look alike)

(Submitted by Friend of the Blog, Brian Hart)

Not twins.

Not twins.

Haven’t we all heard the old saw that everyone has an exact double somewhere in the world? Lookalikes are a form of coincidence – coinciding features that make people look so much alike that they seem to be twins, except they  are unrelated. They are having a special experience, and as photographer Francois Brunelle articulates below, it is not that they look like a celebrity – they look just like someone else. Brian Hart submitted this article a few months ago, and I’ve been saving it for a special occasion. This is our gift to you – whatever holiday you are celebrating, or none, enjoy this special piece of photojournalism.

“Brunelle has studied the human face since he started out as a photographer in 1968, at the age of 18. He said he was ‘fascinated by the resemblance between look-alikes.’

‘It is not about looking like famous people,’ he said. ‘The project is about looking like other people.

‘The fact that two persons, totally unrelated to each other, sometimes born in different countries, share the same physical appearance is really the essence of (it).'” – from the article.

 

A Street Performer’s Best Moment

(Submitted by friend of the blog, George Hrab, of Geologic Podcast)

Leave it to our good friend George Hrab to send us a music-related coincidence, and one of the nicest ones you’ll ever see.

According to the source article, this Berlin street performer was minding his own business playing “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat when who should walk by? Jimmy Somerville, the group’s lead singer. I’ll let the video (sadly filmed sideways) explain the rest:

I can only imagine both people were just as thrilled by the moment, but for entirely different reasons.

I was a Teenage Skeptical Psychic

(Submitted by guest contributor Ben Radford)

Though my skepticism didn’t really come until full bloom until I was in college, I was more or less skeptical of many things by high school, including psychics. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and though I hadn’t yet picked up my first skeptical publication I loved books about curiosities, trivia, and little-known facts (or, as I’d later realize, sometimes “facts”).

When I was a junior in high school I took an art class, partly because it was an easy A and partly because I wanted to try my hand at clay and modeling. Students didn’t have individual desks but instead were seated two to a side on stools around large square metal-covered worktables. There was one kid (I forget his name, but we always called him “Drac” because he was blond and had a vaguely vampiric visage) who sat at my table. We were casual acquaintances, and didn’t know much more about each other than our first names (apparently not even that).

However one day out of the blue, in the middle of class while cutting a piece of metal into the shape of a Picassoesque horse, I said to him, “Hey—I’ll bet I know your mom’s middle name.” He looked at me sideways and gave a quick laugh. “Yeah? What is it?” he challenged. Without missing a beat—and while staring him directly in the eyes—I said simply, “It’s Ann.”

His laugh stopped, his face grew slack, and the blood drained from his face. His eyes grew wide, and then narrowed. “How did you know that?” he demanded. I just gave a brief mysterious smile and went back to working on my horse. “How did you know that?” he asked again. I just ignored him.

I don’t know if he thought I was psychic, or I had investigated his family, or what, but the next week he moved to a different table, avoided me in the halls, and never spoke to me again.

Of course, I didn’t know his mother’s middle name; I had read that the most common women’s middle name was Ann. I played the odds, acted confident and authoritative about my knowledge, and passed myself off as knowing something I didn’t. That experience still serves me 25 years later as I observe psychics doing hot and cold readings, and informs my investigations into the psychology of psychic experiences. It made quite an impression on him, and I wonder if, to this day, he tells the story to others, offering it as his personal experience with real, unexplainable psychic powers.

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Ben Radford

Ben Radford

Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.

A Skeptic has Prophetic Dreams

Kitty Mervine

(Submitted by friend of the blog, Kitty Mervine, of Yankee Skeptic.)

really hate to share this with my skeptic friends. It sounds too far fetched. It should be noted, I never believed this was anything paranormal.  I had a dear friend Mary.  She was godmother to my 2 children. When our husbands were in the Navy, we ended up best friends. We were so close that when my daughter Evelyn was born, Mary was my Lamaze partner.  (My husband was out at sea for the birth.)  Through the years we kept in close touch.  Our families would visit.  It was with great happiness that we discovered we were both pregnant at the same time. Her daughter was born on Mother’s Day, and she joked my child would be born on Father’s Day. Sure enough (2 weeks overdue) my child was born on Father’s Day! Now, that would be weird coincidence enough. The odds of that are pretty far fetched. But we both just thought it was fun, and yet another bond between us.

Mary and infant Evelyn

Sadly, Mary was diagnosed with cancer a few years later. I didn’t worry too much as she had a form of cancer that was 90% curable. We all just assumed the 10% that died were elderly or weak in some way. For a young woman in her 30s that never smoked, was thin, and rarely drank, we assumed a cure of 100%. I made of point of staying in touch more than ever, because the treatment was really tough.

One Friday night I woke up at 2am and woke up my husband.  I told him, “l can’t sleep, I’m really worried about Mary.”  I’d never done this before.  He said he could see I was trembling. When he turned on a light, I was pale and simply crying out of control.  He calmed me down and reminded me she was still working full time and doing very well.  The next day I received a call that Mary was in the hospital.

She had contracted a cold and as a precaution went into the hospital; however, something had gone wrong.  Very wrong.  She was in a coma, and was most likely brain dead. Her husband was expecting to pull life support. It was totally out of the blue, more of a bad reaction to her treatment than the cancer. My own doctor later pointed out that odds mean nothing, at least not when you are in the 10%.  One of of ten that have this type of cancer will die. Mary died. I never could explain why I woke up in the middle of the night so scared.  But I also never attributed it to anything other than perhaps simply the stress of worrying over a friend and coincidence.  I was worried about her, but did not say or feel she was going to die.

My husband and I flew out to attend her funeral. It was probably the toughest thing I’d ever been through up to that point. Her three-year-old daughter didn’t get that mommy wasn’t going to respond to her cry for her to “Wake up!” at the viewing. The unfairness of life really washed over me. I couldn’t believe I had not only lost a dear friend; I had also lost the only person that shared memories with me about the birth of my first child.

In response to that desperation to keep her in my life, I dreamed about her almost every night. Finally, months later, when I felt myself recovering, I had a dream where she knocked on my front door. I answered it, and told her “Mary, you are going to have to leave me alone now.  I’m so sad when you come visit every night and I wake up and you are still dead.” In my dream she turned and walked away.  Sure enough, she has rarely since appeared in a dream. I know, rationally, that this was probably a way for me to slowly let go of my friend. Her death was so unexpected, I think I needed those months of dreams to adjust.  I never thought I was really communicating with her in my dreams. She was just in my thoughts so much during the months following her death, that it was perfectly natural she should inhabit my dreams for a bit.

About a year later,  I scared my husband when much the same thing happened again. His father was ill with lung cancer. He had been doing as well as one can with that illness. The cancer had not become any larger, and he had only recently stopped working. He was expected to do well for many months more. Once again  I woke up in the middle of the night quite upset. I was worried about his father.  Mark was “not again!” and got me back to sleep. That day, sure enough, we got a call his father has had a heart attack. His mother had a “do not resuscitate” order.  At this point my husband was looking at me really oddly.  I kept assuring him I was not paranormal. Certainly in his dad’s case there was much more reason for worry.

When my husband’s cousin, and my good friend, also became ill with cancer I was a bit nervous. Waking up in the middle of the night crying was not fun. I kept in close touch with her. I sent gifts, letters and books. One day I sent off a package with a dressy purse for her to take on a cruise through the Panama Canal. I got home from the post office to a phone call that my friend had died. While sad, there was also a sense of relief. I, of course, knew I had no special power to know when someone was going to die; but, three events would have been most uncomfortable.

Since then, others close to me have died. I have never again been even close to knowing when the end would come.  One thing that I found did keep me grounded during the two events was the thought that there was no purpose or good in my “knowing” when someone was about to die. When psychics make vague predictions, I’ve always said to the believers “But aren’t words from beyond that are so vague and general even worse than no word at all?” Why tell the police that a body is “in or near water”?  There are so many bodies of water, including bathtubs and pools, that it is as good as no help. Since my premonition or feeling about two deaths had no rhyme or reason, I choose to accept it as simply “one of those things”. Though I have to admit my husband still looks at me a little oddly at times, and not just when I serve “Sauerkraut Cake” (it’s good!) http://allrecipes.com/recipe/german-chocolate-sauerkraut-cake/


[EDITOR:  Kitty was remembered by James Randi in the keynote address of TAM 2013 for extraordinary service to the skepticism community. – Wendy]

 

 

Skepticality and The Odds Must Be Crazy

Based on the massive increase in hits today (by 9:30 Pacific we had surpassed our previous record for an entire DAY), most of you are probably now well aware that we were on this week’s episode of Skepticality, talking up our work and revealing our big news.

Going forward we’ll now be a regular feature of each episode of Skepticality, highlighting some of our favorite stories and, more excitingly, debuting some of our stories directly on the podcast.

So what does this mean for the site, itself? Well not a lot will be changing here beyond the expansion of some our content, and hopefully an increase in story submissions and comments afforded to us by having a wider audience tracking our posts. You can still expect several new stories per week and regular editorials, with the new addition of highlighting the posts that we share on the podcast and expanding the editorial content underneath them to include more in-depth analysis of the elements at play. So for those of you who ONLY read the web site, you’ll miss NOTHING. For those of you who listen to the podcast as soon as it’s released, you’ll most likely get to hear the story first as we’ll be posting it to the site the same day.

And for our new Skepticality readers: Welcome! We’re excited to have you here, and we hope you get involved. We have a couple of favors to ask of you as you delve into the site. One is the regular request to please submit your own stories! It’s your content that drives our site, so help us out. Secondly, please comment. We love your comments, even if they’re critical (although PLEASE keep them friendly and respectful). Did we miss something? Get a fact wrong? Get our stats wrong? Have crumbs in our beards? Tell us. Comment underneath and start a dialog and get the conversation flowing. This is a community site where we want to have fun and learn and expand our knowledge, so help out with that goal. Lastly, please share. Use those Like, +1, Tweet, etc. buttons, or share the stories in more old-fashioned forms, but pass along your favorites and help us spread to a wider audience.

Finally, just plain thank you to everyone who’s supported us so far in getting where we are. We’re extremely excited about the future of this site as we expand our audience, and we’re only here because of you. You’re awesome.

Wrap Your Brain Around Monty Hall

Monty Hall

Monty Hall

I have always been amused and intrigued by responses to “The Monty Hall Problem”, especially when I talk about it to audiences with a high concentration of engineers and mathematicians. If you are familiar with it, but you’ve always struggled with an unsettled feeling of “this can’t be right”, read further and let me know if my explanation of the solution helps to alleviate the discomfort. If you are not familiar, I guarantee you will give your brain a workout by reading on.

First posed to statisticians in 1975, “The Monty Hall Problem” is well-known among academics because it still sparks debate. Many seem to think that disagreements about its solution stem from issues in the clarity of the problem, but I contend that it really stems from human flaws in the way that we process information.

I often discuss this problem in statistics and cognitive psychology courses for several reasons. It is a great exercise in probability calculation and it can be used to teach basic mathematical modeling (and its purpose). An added benefit, since almost all of my students were psychology majors, is that it also illustrates a flaw in human cognition as well as a pattern of problem solving.  Even a knowledgeable statistician feels the need to run simulations to see the solution in action. Even then, fully grasping the mechanisms behind the answer often requires brute force cognition.

In general, human beings have a very difficult time wrapping their brains around concepts of probability. It is much like a visual illusion; we know that the lines are parallel/the circles are the same size/there is no motion, but we can’t make our brains process it in a way that represents that reality. It’s just not how our visual system works. I hypothesize that one of the reasons that probability is such a difficult field for most people is that it involves theory and models, which are distinct from observations and we must represent them differently in our minds to properly deal with them. Applications of probability often involve switching gears from the realm of models to data or vice versa and this is where I think most mathematicians get side-swiped in The Monty Hall Problem.

The Poser

In essence, here’s the problem:

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On The Luck Of The Irish And Taking Probability Personally

Millions of people around the world celebrate the 17th March in a variety of ways – from marching in a parade down Armagh Street in Dublin; dying the Chicago River green; partying in a number of pubs in downtown Reconquista, Argentina – or falling in front of my slow-moving car in central Perth, while wearing a green “St Patrick’s Drinking Club” shirt, Dr Seuss-style emerald hat and drunkenly texting on a phone.

Kylie Sturgess - Credit to Viva Life Photography

Despite the heart-stopping experience of checking on the well-being of craic-chasing pedestrians (who assure me that they’ve got the luck of the leprechauns as they laugh off tomorrow’s bumper-shaped bruises and hangover) – the day is usually a cheering one, filled with goodwill and Guinness Beer. Around 34 million people in the USA lay claim to Irish ancestry; even President Obama boasts of Irish cousins that he’s visited in the past. Cereal hiding lucky charms, the handing out of shamrocks, potential pots of gold at the end of rainbows – no matter where we are in the world, people are generally familiar with the claim that there must be something to the “luck of the Irish”… and I’m not just saying that because I graduated from a university that features a leprechaun as their football mascot.

The study of luck and how it is viewed is a familiar one to students of psychology and an important aspect of studying superstitions. Many of us may be familiar with the phrase “Luck is probability taken personally”, which I’ve read as being attributed to Chip Denman, manager of the Statistics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. So, how personally is luck taken and must it mean that it’s akin to any other “four letter word”? Can you really up the ante when it comes to being a lucky person and improve the statistical likelihood of having the “Luck of the Irish” (so to speak)?

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George Hrab on Coincidence

Last week we were excited to learn that George Hrab mentioned us in episode 251 of the Geologic Podcast. We’re definitely fans of his wide range of work, so the shoutout was a personal moment for the team. Some of us were even mildly verklempt, which was all the more relevant thanks to his mention of Gefilte fish, though less so since we’re not actually Jewish.

After a brief conversation with George via email, he graciously provided us with permission to post a transcript of his thoughts on the subject which I’ve placed below, followed by some additional thoughts by me, assuming you care. Please validate me by caring. Also, please listen to the podcast if you haven’t already since you get the nuances of George’s delivery, along with his general Georgeness.

Geologic Podcast #251 – Coincidence Transcript

I saw an interesting web site–no, a little blog post. There’s a place called The Odds Must Be Crazy. We’ll try to link to that in the show notes. But someone went onto The Odds Must Be Crazy–Brian H–he wrote this. He said, “I was listening to George Hrab’s podcast (episode 240) on my iPod while heading out to one of my familiar lunch spots in Santa Monica, California. In this episode George did a bit called the History Chunk where he tells what happened on this particular date in history, usually in chronological order, and the makes some kind of joke about it. He mentions how in 1982, boxer Duk Koo Kim died after a bout with Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini. Thirty seconds later I see Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini having lunch in the very restaurant I was walking into.  I clandestinely snapped his picture.”

This site is really interesting, and it talks about sort of the odds of things happening and how it can seem that the odds of something must be so astronomical that there must be some kind of a sign. So this Brian was listening to the show, I say “Boom Boom” Mancini, he looks up, and there’s “Boom Boom” Mancini. Now how could we calculate the odds of that occurring? I don’t know, but they’re astronomical. They’re astronomical. And yet if you think, “how many people that listen to the show didn’t see Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini when I said it?”, that would help to demonstrate the odds being not quite as horrifically set against as you might imagine.

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Knot That Strange

Last month an article on one of my favorite websites, io9.com, grabbed my attention. It included a discussion of studies and simulations which demonstrate (and provide evidence for) some of those things in life that lead us all to think that fate is trying to tell us something. Specifically, the adage we call “Murphy’s Law” states that what can go wrong will go wrong and it is supported by both mathematical proofs and observations.

“When it comes to long strands of string, from proteins in a person’s cells to the rigging in a ship, this means spontaneous knotting. People have written papers about how string knots up the minute it’s given a chance to jiggle around.”

The article goes on to discuss a simulation of a random walk (direction for each step is determined randomly) in 3-dimensional space with the restriction that no space can be occupied more than once. The path of the walk simulates the placement of a length of string – the beginning and end of the path are the ends of the string and no part of the string can occupy the same space as another part. What the researchers found was that any sufficiently long walk (string) must contain a knot. The longer the walk (string), the more knots.

This can teach us that tossing our Christmas lights into a box is almost certain to result in knots to untangle next year, but it can also teach us a lot about risks, coincidences, and how to think about those things.

Barbara Drescher

When I was nine years old my family lived on the Great Lakes Naval Station (on the shores of Lake Michigan) for about a year before buying a house off the base. Our home was in a cul de sac that was shared by several families. One of the families of which we were particularly fond was a widower with a boy and girl about the same ages as my brother and I. Fast forward to more than four years later, after we had moved twice and now lived 2,000 miles away in Sacramento, California. We drove the three hours from our home to a tiny fishing hole called Blue Lake for a weekend of camping and fishing. About an hour after we arrived, my mother suddenly blurted out, “Hey, isn’t that Bud Neighbor [not his real name]?” Sure enough, camped a few spaces down were our old friends.

I have had quite a few similar experiences, but none as bizarre or unexplainable as this one. Should we have been freaked out and considered some cosmic connection?

To find out, let’s turn back to the article I mentioned and Murphy’s Law. Is it true that anything that can go wrong will go wrong? Well, not exactly. You can get on that plane tomorrow and be confident that you will survive the flight (your odds are approximately 9.2 million to 1). However, if you “tempt fate” enough, even the least likely disaster will eventually happen. Of course, your plan to commit suicide via commercial airliner will require you to fly every day for more than 25,000 days to ensure success, and even then you have no guarantees.

The problem of spontaneous knotting is simply a matter of odds. It relies on something called “The Law of Large Numbers”, which dictates that any event which can occur will occur if given enough opportunities.* String knots up when there’s a lot of it because there are a number of ways in which it can be knotted.

Without going through a bunch of math, let’s look at how we determine probabilities. There are two properties to consider when determining whether an event is unusual (vs. expected):

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