quirks and quarks

Quirks and Conspiracies

When I was very young, I used to listen to CBC radio's national science program, Quirks and Quarks with my father. Now it has a regular slot in my podcast playlist. They recently ran an extended segment on Conspiracy Theories

While nobody's perfect, as a magician I believe that whenever you find people vehemently believing something which isn't true (which is the natural occurrence at the end of a great magic trick) then there's something to be learned.

This is an interview with. You can listen or read the transcript at the CBC website

JP: Yes. The ability to see connections is actually very useful. We all see connections in our everyday life because there’s a lot of cause and effect there. For instance, we wouldn’t survive a day in traffic if we can’t recognize that the metal thing that’s coming towards us is a car that might kill us. So it’s actually beneficial for us to learn how certain causes can lead to certain consequences. But other times, we make mistakes in that process when we see patterns that just aren’t there.
— Dr. Jan-Willem van Prooijen

Of course we are trained, pretty much from birth, to look for causes for everything we see in the world around us. One small cognitive glitch that occurs is a little rule of cause and effect which is often, but not always, true. Small causes give small effects and big causes give big effects. As an intuition, it's useful, but not infallible. But it seems true for almost everyone that the idea that some small causes could built up gradually, or be amplified by some kind of lever, doesn't sit well with us.

So when you see something like 9/11, the idea that an entire country's political policy and travel security could be upended in one morning by nineteen people feels wrong. The idea that every single person flying would have to take off their shoes at airport security, possibly for decades, because of one guy feels out of proportion. There must be something more there.

Of course conspiracies are the kryptonite of logic and reason. You can't kill a conspiracy theory with evidence, because any evidence against the conspiracy instantly and effortlessly becomes evidence for the coverup. 

Revolutions (Intellectual Ones)

I've recently come to believe that a very important course missing from the high school curriculum is the history of science. The course as it's taught is primarily about learning facts (laws, how to draw atoms, and so forth) and solving problems; both very important. But the emphasis is almost exclusively on what we know and not how we know it. 

When you take a step back and look at a history class, it's really is the history of humanity learning to get along (through the nicer bits of diplomacy and the uglier bits called wars.) The moral of twentieth century history is that we have almost but not completely got that figured out. Major powers don't go to war and haven't for decades.

Similarly, the history of science is the history of humanity learning what it should take to change our minds. In an excerpt from a longer interview at Skeptic Magazine, Lawrence Krauss explains why most people don't understand how scientific knowledge advances.  

On a recent episode of Quirks and Quarks on CBC I was introduced to the term pessimistic meta-induction hypothesis. Science has told us that much of what we thought was true ten years ago is now false. So ten years from now most of what we now think of as true will be false. So any fact we disagree with now can safely be ignored since it will eventually be discovered to be wrong anyway. 

You'd be surprised how many people believe that.