I was in the office just after the failure of Harold Camping’s latest end of the world prediction and I was having a good laugh with one of my spiritual opposites; one of the office's committed Christians. We were laughing about Harold Camping, the former civil engineer who controls the US based Family Network of Christian Radio stations who had been telling his millions of loyal listeners that the world would end on May 21st 2011. These followers put up at least 2,000 billboards around the United States warning of the Judgement Day.
So me, as the office Atheist, and him, as a child of Christ, were on the same side for once. Now we do love a good discussion anyway, but he was laughing at
I am nought but a pattern recognising monkey. Skeptics know
all too well how easily we can be fooled. How our brains, albeit it the
pinnacle of primate evolution, are not in fact faultless processors of
cognitive and sensory information, but more akin to a ZX81 linked up to a £15
digital camera from down the market and an old ear trumpet. Just to get by and
handle everything that’s thrown at it, your brain takes a whole load of shortcuts
and is susceptible to many different forms of manipulation and persuasion from
society, individuals and our own imagination.
When I first wandered into the skeptical arena I noticed two
distinct strands that compliment and contribute to the sphere, science and
magic. I’m not sure if skeptics are allowed to have heroes or raise people on
too high a pedestal, but if I was to take a very unscientific straw poll asking
people to name the two most prominent figures associated with the movement, you
would get Carl Sagan and James Randi right up at the top, a scientist and a
bring their own tools to bear in the fight against pseudoscience and the promotion
of critical thinking. Scientists can push forward our knowledge by uncovering
the secrets that the universe holds through leaps of imagination backed up by
trial and data, but what about magicians what can they do? They are the people
best placed to challenge those frauds that take advantage of our natural
disposition to be fooled. From Houdini’s debunking of self proclaimed psychics
up to Randi’s interactions with such people as Peter Popoff and would-be
claimants of the $1,000,000 Challenge, supporting the old adage, about setting
a thief to catch a thief.
This is great for me as I love science and I love magic so getting
involved in something that incorporates both is brilliant. In Sleights of Mind, neuroscientists Steve
Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde turn the scientific scrutiny of their profession
onto the mechanisms and art of the magician. They show how an understanding of
how the brain works can illuminate the practice of magic and indeed vice versa.
How magicians exploit the gaps and glitches in the functioning of the human
brain and can actually point us towards interesting roads of study and
This is a great book that is a whole lot of fun to read. You
also get the idea that it was a whole lot of fun to research and write, have a look at their website later. This
isn’t a throw away topic for this couple and if you listen to their interview
on our podcast you can hear just how serious they are about this and their work
in sensory illusions too. They immerse themselves in magic and meet some of the
greatest living magicians in the world in their quest, including James the
Amazing Randi himself who has no problem in seeing the potential of what they
The book does explain some of the secrets behind the tricks
but you don’t have to read those bits if you don’t want to as they are marked out with spoiler alerts; I know you will
though. The explanations are often linked to references for videos on the
Internet, demonstrating the tricks described. The great thing is that even when
you know how it’s done, you can still get fooled. Rather than detracting from
the mystery, for me at least, it heightened the appreciation of what I was
seeing, or in most cases not seeing. I enjoyed the book immensely as it was simultaneously
entertaining and enlightening. It provides insights and explanations that are
fun and surprisingly practical. For instance I no longer feel guilty for not
noticing my wife has changed her top and I think I understand why I left the
butter in the washing machine. I also might be prepared for the next
person to phone up asking me to switch energy providers or help them shift
$1,000,000 from Nigeria.
I’ll leave you with a video of Apollo Robbins,one of the magicians that
they work with, for your entertainment. Watch how he pulls his victim's attention all over the place like he has it on a piece of string. Then for your further pleasure listen to
my conversation with the authors here and buy the book here.
Patrick Redmond- Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub.
This was going to be a simple
blog post promoting my recent interview with the author of the Jesus and Mo comic on our podcast. My original plan was to reproduce an example of the strip
on the site, but if you scan down the page you’ll see that this hasn’t happened,
and I’m finding myself increasingly annoyed by this fact. The reason ties in
with the whole controversy over depicting Mohammed, although the cartoon in
question claims to show a body double of Mohammed in a tongue in cheek
circumvention of the issue.
When I mentioned my plan to some people there was a little intake of breath and
a look of uncertainty. Imprinted on their minds are the scenes of Muslims
marching down streets bearing placards calling for the beheading of cartoonists
that satirise Islam. There was concern that it might not be the wisest thing to
do, that there may be implications for families and so I’ve not done it. But this really
really irks me. And so with some shame, along with such luminaries as the
producers of South Park
There has been a long history of skeptical thought and enquiry in Birmingham. One of those thinkers was a Birmingham entrepreneur called John Baskerville who is most famous for the publishing house he set up in later life and for his work on designing new fonts and dies for use in his press. He is less celebrated for his objection to revealed religion.
I like John Baskerville. I can see him now, resting against the bar at the back of our Skeptics in the Pub meeting room in the Victoria, one hand holding a pint while the other toys with the gold lace on his red waistcoat. I think he would have been ready with a barbed but insightful comment rounded off with a quote from Voltaire. Our fellow skeptic was born in 1706 in the village of Wolverley, nr. Kidderminster where it's believed he may have gone to the Grammar School. By the time of his death in 1775 he had