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  • Hey, I am Michael Shermer, the director of the Skeptics Society,

  • the publisher of "Skeptic" magazine.

  • We investigate claims of the paranormal, pseudo-science,

  • and fringe groups and cults and claims of all kinds between --

  • science and pseudo-science and non-science and junk science,

  • voodoo science, pathological science, bad science, non-science

  • and plain old nonsense.

  • And unless you've been on Mars recently,

  • you know there's a lot of that out there.

  • Some people call us debunkers, which is kind of a negative term.

  • But let's face it -- there's a lot of bunk,

  • and we are like the bunko squads of the police departments out there, flushing out.

  • Well, we're sort of like the Ralph Naders of bad ideas

  • (Laughter)

  • -- trying to replace bad ideas with good ideas.

  • I'll show you an example of a bad idea.

  • I brought this with me.

  • This was given to us by NBC Dateline to test.

  • It's the -- it's produced by the Quadro Corporation of West Virginia.

  • It's called the Quadro 2000 Dowser Rod.

  • (Laughter)

  • This was being sold to high school administrators for 900 dollars a piece.

  • It's a piece of plastic with a Radio Shack antenna attached to it.

  • You could dowse for all sorts of things, but this particular one

  • was built to dowse for marijuana in students' lockers.

  • (Laughter)

  • So the way it works is, you go down the hallway and you see if

  • it tilts toward a particular locker, and then you open the locker.

  • So it looks something like this.

  • I'll show you.

  • (Laughter)

  • No, it -- well, it has kind of a right-leaning bias.

  • So, I'll show -- well, this is science, so we'll do a controlled experiment.

  • It'll go this way for sure.

  • (Laughter)

  • Sir, you want to empty your pockets. Please, sir?

  • (Laughter)

  • So the question was, can it actually find marijuana in students' lockers?

  • And the answer is, if you open enough of them, yes.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • But in science, we have to keep track of the misses, not just the hits.

  • And that's probably the key lesson to my short talk here, is that

  • this is how psychics work, astrologers, and tarot card readers and so on.

  • People remember the hits; they forget the misses.

  • In science we have to keep the whole database,

  • and look to see if the number of hits somehow stands out

  • from the total number that you would expect by chance.

  • In this case, we tested it.

  • We had two opaque boxes:

  • one with government-approved THC marijuana, and one with nothing.

  • And it got it 50 percent of the time --

  • which is exactly what you'd expect with a coin flip model.

  • So that's just a fun little example here of the sorts of things we do.

  • "Skeptic" is the quarterly publication.

  • Each one has a particular theme, like this one is on the future of intelligence.

  • Are people getting smarter or dumber?

  • I have an opinion of this myself because of the business I'm in,

  • but, in fact, people, it turns out, are getting smarter.

  • Three IQ points per 10 years, going up.

  • Sort of an interesting thing.

  • With science, don't think of skepticism as a thing or even science as a thing.

  • Are science and religion compatible?

  • It's like, are science and plumbing compatible?

  • These -- they're just two different things.

  • Science is not a thing. It's a verb.

  • It's a way of thinking about things.

  • It's a way of looking for natural explanations for all phenomena.

  • I mean, what's more likely:

  • that extraterrestrial intelligences or multi-dimensional beings travel across

  • the vast distances of interstellar space to leave a crop circle

  • in Farmer Bob's field in Puckerbrush, Kansas to promote skeptic.com, our webpage?

  • Or is it more likely that a reader of "Skeptic" did this with Photoshop?

  • And in all cases we have to ask

  • (Laughter)

  • -- what's the more likely explanation?

  • And before we say something is out of this world,

  • we should first make sure that it's not in this world.

  • What's more likely --

  • that Arnold had a little extraterrestrial help in his run for the governorship?

  • Or that the "World Weekly News" makes stuff up?

  • (Laughter)

  • And part of that -- the same theme is expressed nicely

  • here in this Sidney Harris cartoon.

  • For those of you in the back, it says here: "Then a miracle occurs.

  • I think you need to be more explicit here in step two."

  • This single slide completely dismantles the intelligent design arguments.

  • There's nothing more to it than that.

  • (Applause)

  • You can say a miracle occurs.

  • It's just that it doesn't explain anything.

  • It doesn't offer anything. There's nothing to test.

  • It's the end of the conversation for intelligent design creationists.

  • Whereas -- and it's true, scientists sometimes throw terms out as

  • linguistic place fillers -- dark energy or dark matter or something like that --

  • until we figure out what it is, we'll just call it this --

  • it's the beginning of the causal chain for science.

  • For intelligent design creationists, it's the end of the chain.

  • So again, we can ask this: what's more likely?

  • Are UFOs alien spaceships or perceptual cognitive mistakes -- or even fakes?

  • This is a UFO shot from my house in Altadena, California,

  • looking down over Pasadena.

  • And if it looks a lot like a Buick hubcap, it's because it is.

  • You don't even need Photoshop; you don't need high-tech equipment;

  • you don't need computers.

  • This was shot with a throwaway Kodak Instamatic camera.

  • You just have somebody off on the side with a hubcap ready to go.

  • Camera's ready -- that's it.

  • (Laughter)

  • So, although it's possible that most of these things are fake

  • or illusions or so on and that some of them are real,

  • it's more likely that all of them are fake, like the crop circles.

  • On a more serious note, in all of science we're looking for a balance

  • between data and theory.

  • In the case of Galileo, he had two problems

  • when he turned his telescope to Saturn.

  • First of all, there was no theory of planetary rings.

  • And second of all, his data was grainy and fuzzy,

  • and he couldn't quite make out what it was he was looking at.

  • So he wrote that he had seen --

  • "I have observed that the furthest planet has three bodies."

  • And this is what he ended up concluding that he saw.

  • So without a theory of planetary rings and with only grainy data,

  • you can't have a good theory.

  • And it wasn't solved until 1655.

  • This is Christiaan Huygens's book in which he cataloged all the mistakes

  • that people made in trying to figure out what was going on with Saturn.

  • It wasn't till -- Huygens had two things.

  • He had a good theory of planetary rings and how the solar system operated.

  • And then, he had better telescopic, more fine-grain data

  • in which he could figure out that as the Earth is going around faster --

  • according to Kepler's Laws -- than Saturn, then we catch up with it.

  • And we see the angles of the rings at different angles, there.

  • And that, in fact, turns out to be true.

  • The problems with having a theory

  • is that your theory may be loaded with cognitive biases.

  • So one of the problems of explaining why people believe weird things

  • is that we have things on a simple level.

  • And then I'll go to more serious ones.

  • Like, we have a tendency to see faces.

  • This is the face on Mars, which was --

  • in 1976, where there was a whole movement to get NASA

  • to photograph that area because people thought

  • this was monumental architecture made by Martians.

  • Well, it turns out -- here's the close-up of it from 2001.

  • If you squint, you can still see the face.

  • And when you're squinting, what you're doing is

  • you're turning that from fine-grain to coarse-grain.

  • And so, you're reducing the quality of your data.

  • And if I didn't tell you what to look for, you'd still see the face,

  • because we're programmed by evolution to see faces.

  • Faces are important for us socially.

  • And, of course, happy faces.

  • Faces of all kinds are easy to see.

  • (Laughter)

  • You can see the happy face on Mars, there.

  • If astronomers were frogs perhaps they'd see Kermit the Frog.

  • Do you see him there?

  • Little froggy legs.

  • Or if geologists were elephants?

  • Religious iconography.

  • (Laughter)

  • Discovered by a Tennessee baker in 1996.

  • He charged five bucks a head to come see the nun bun

  • till he got a cease-and-desist from Mother Teresa's lawyer.

  • Here's Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Watsonville, just down the street,

  • or is it up the street from here?

  • Tree bark is particularly good because it's nice and grainy, branchy,

  • black-and-white splotchy and you can get the pattern-seeking --

  • humans are pattern-seeking animals.

  • Here's the Virgin Mary on the side of a glass window in Sao Paulo.

  • Now, here's the Virgin Mary made her appearance on a cheese sandwich --

  • which I got to actually hold in a Las Vegas casino,

  • of course, this being America.

  • (Laughter)

  • This casino paid 28,500 dollars on eBay for the cheese sandwich.

  • (Laughter)

  • But who does it really look like, the Virgin Mary?

  • (Laughter)

  • It has that sort of puckered lips, 1940s-era look.

  • Virgin Mary in Clearwater, Florida.

  • I actually went to see this one.

  • There was a lot of people there -- the faithful come to be in their --

  • wheelchairs and crutches, and so on.

  • And we went down, investigated.

  • Just to give you a size -- that's Dawkins, me and The Amazing Randi,

  • next to this two, two and a half story size image.

  • All these candles, so many thousands of candles people had lit in tribute to this.

  • So we walked around the backside, just to see what was going on here,

  • where -- it turns out wherever there's a sprinkler head and a palm tree,

  • you get the effect.

  • Here's the Virgin Mary on the backside, which they started to wipe off.

  • I guess you can only have one miracle per building.

  • (Laughter)

  • So is it really a miracle of Mary, or is it a miracle of Marge?

  • (Laughter)

  • And then I'm going to finish up with another example of this

  • with audio -- auditory illusions.

  • There is this film, "White Noise,"

  • with Michael Keaton about the dead talking back to us.

  • By the way, this whole business of talking to the dead, it's not that big a deal.

  • Anybody can do it, turns out.

  • It's getting the dead to talk back that's the really hard part.

  • (Laughter)

  • In this case, supposedly, these messages are hidden in electronic phenomena.

  • There's a ReverseSpeech.com web page from which I downloaded this stuff.

  • Here is the forward -- this is the most famous one of all of these.

  • Here's the forward version of the very famous song. (Music)

  • Boy, couldn't you just listen to that all day?

  • (Laughter)

  • All right, here it is backwards,

  • and see if you can hear the hidden messages that are supposedly in there. (Music)

  • What did you get?

  • Audience: "Satan."

  • Michael Shermer: "Satan?" OK, well, at least we got "Satan."

  • Now, I'll prime your auditory part of your brain

  • to tell you what you're supposed to hear, and then hear it again. (Music)

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • You can't miss it when I tell you what's there.

  • (Laughter)

  • All right, I'm going to just end with a positive, nice, little story

  • about -- the Skeptics is a nonprofit educational organization.

  • We're always looking for little, good things that people do.

  • And in England, there's a pop singer.

  • Very -- one of the top popular singers in England today, Katie Melua.

  • And she wrote a beautiful song.

  • It was in the top five in 2005, called, "Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing."

  • It's a love story -- she's sort of the Norah Jones of the U.K. --

  • about how she much loves her guy,

  • and compared to nine million bicycles, and so forth.

  • And she has this one passage here.

  • We are 12 billion light-years from the edge

  • That's a guess

  • No one can ever say it's true

  • But I know that I will always be with you

  • Well, that's nice.

  • At least she got it close.

  • In America it would be, "We're 6,000 light years from the edge."

  • (Laughter)

  • But my friend, Simon Singh, the particle physicist now turned science educator,

  • and he wrote the book "The Big Bang," and so on.

  • He uses every chance he gets to promote good science.

  • And so, he wrote an op-ed piece in "The Guardian" about Katie's song,

  • in which he said, well, we know exactly how old, how far from the edge.

  • You know, it's 12 -- it's 13.7 billion light years, and it's not a guess.

  • We know within precise error bars there how close it is.

  • And so, we can say, although not absolutely true, that it's pretty close to being true.

  • And, to his credit, Katie called him up after this op-ed piece came out.

  • And said, "I'm so embarrassed.

  • I was a member of the astronomy club, and I should have known better."

  • And she re-cut the song.