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Fake Pterosaurs and Sock Puppets

When Daniel Loxton and I were doing the research for our book on cryptozoology, Abominable Science, we tracked down monster myths that had been handed down over decades by many different authors. In some cases the back trail for these legends peters out after just a few decades; in other cases, the inspirations for modern cryptid legends may be traced back centuries to the myths of Indigenous Peoples or the artistic expressions of millennia past. No matter the sources, they all ended up in books which indiscriminately compiled every cryptid legend as if they all had robust, plausible histories and back-stories. As we found out, most of the pivotal “sightings” of even the best-attested cryptids were indeterminate or questionable or outright hoaxes, yet they kept on being repeated by the cryptozoology community no matter how doubtful or discredited they were. There was no quality control or careful examination of the reliability of these reports, just stockpiling them all as if they all counted equally. In the end, we recommended that the cryptozoology community needed to get their house in order and weed out the garbage accounts and obvious hoaxes before any scientist would take them seriously.

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The Psychology of Magic

Dr. Tony Barnhart (photo by Dimitri Sherman)

IN THIS DELIGHTFUL SHOW of mind and magic Dr. Tony Barnhart, a cognitive scientist and part-time professional magician (with over 20 years of performing experience), shows how magicians are informal cognitive scientists with their own hypotheses about the mind. His work on the science of magic has been featured in Science News for Kids as well as in national television shows, and he teaches a course on the Psychology of Magic at Northern Arizona University where he teaches students the principles of cognitive science through the art of magic. Don’t miss this entertaining and enlightening show and bring the kids!

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14-11-19


Join Michael Shermer, and Special Guests for a dinner evening, and wine tasting

Join Michael Shermer, and Special Guests for a dinner evening, and wine tasting

For donations of $500 or more during our current fundraising drive, you are invited to join Michael & Jennifer Shermer in their cliff-side home when they host a fundraising dinner party and wine tasting event. We’ll have a spectacular sunset view of all of Southern California, and an 8-inch Meade telescope for some star-gazing that night. Dates to be determined. To get on the email list to be informed of upcoming dinners—often with special guests—call our office at 1-626-794-3119.


Waking Up, by Sam Harris (book cover)

Autographed copies of Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up

For donations of $100 or more to the Skeptics Society during our current fundraising drive, you will receive an autographed, Special Edition copy of Sam Harris’ new book Waking Up.

While supplies last.

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Magic Show & Lecture Sunday
The Psychology of Magic

Dr. Tony Barnhart (photo by Dimitri Sherman)

Sun. Nov. 23 2014 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

IN THIS DELIGHTFUL SHOW of mind and magic Dr. Tony Barnhart, a cognitive scientist and part-time professional magician (with over 20 years of performing experience), shows how magicians are informal cognitive scientists with their own hypotheses about the mind. His work on the science of magic has been featured in Science News for Kids as well as in national television shows, and he teaches a course on the Psychology of Magic at Northern Arizona University where he teaches students the principles of cognitive science through the art of magic. Don’t miss this entertaining and enlightening show and bring the kids!

This lecture includes a magic show!


Then, on December 7th
Alan Turing: The Enigma

IT IS ONLY A SLIGHT EXAGGERATION to say that the British mathematician Alan Turing (1912–1954) saved the Allies from the Nazis, invented the computer and artificial intelligence, and anticipated gay liberation by decades—all before his suicide at age 41. In November a major motion picture starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing will be released, based on the classic biography by Dr. Andrew Hodges, who teaches mathematics at Wadham College, University of Oxford (he is also an active contributor to the mathematics of fundamental physics). Hodges tells how Turing’s revolutionary idea of 1936—the concept of a universal machine—laid the foundation for the modern computer and how Turing brought the idea to practical realization in 1945 with his electronic design. Hodges also tells how this work was directly related to Turing’s leading role in breaking the German Enigma ciphers during World War II, a scientific triumph that was critical to Allied victory in the Atlantic. At the same time, this is the tragic story of a man who, despite his wartime service, was eventually arrested, stripped of his security clearance, and forced to undergo a humiliating treatment program—all for trying to live honestly in a society that defined homosexuality as a crime.

A book signing will follow the lecture. We will have copies of the book, Alan Turing: The Enigma, available for purchase. Can’t attend the lecture? Order Alan Turing: The Enigma from Amazon. This lecture will take place in Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech.


INSIGHT at Skeptic.com banner

Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at Skeptic.com sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Donald Prothero
Eine andere Welt

Donald Prothero visits Berlin to attend the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and reflects on differences he perceives in social and political trends and scientific understanding between Germany and the United States.

Read the Insight

Mike McRae
Next Gen Dr Karl? Not Me

Mike McRae considers the ever-changing fashions of the public face of science presenters—fatherly and professional, wacky and fun, and so on—and reflects on the necessarily varied audiences such tropes seek to reach.

Read the Insight


Follow Michael Shermer on Twitter, Facebook, and Skepticblog

NEW SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN COLUMN ON MICHAELSHERMER.COM
A Science of War: Do democracies make better lovers?

In Michael Shermer’s November 2014 “Skeptic” column for Scientific American, he considers democracies as perhaps the best way to create the type of perpetual peace toward which most sentient beings strive.

READ THE POST

FOLLOW MICHAEL SHERMER ON TWITTERFacebookInsight

The official White House portrait of John F. Kennedy, by Aaron Shikler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

ABOVE: Detail of the official White House portrait of John F. Kennedy, by Aaron Shikler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About this week’s eSkeptic

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by lone-gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. Yet, about three-quarters of Americans believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a multi-shooter conspiracy. In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer discusses several psychological factors at work that allow conspiracy theories to persist.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the author of the forthcoming book: The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (January 20, 2015).

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Why Kennedy-Assassination
Conspiracy Theories Endure

by Michael Shermer

Half a century ago (plus one year) this Saturday, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Less than a year later the Warren Commission released its comprehensive 889-page report, concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Since then, exhaustive investigations, such as those by Gerald Posner (Case Closed, 2002) and especially Vincent Bugliosi (Reclaiming History, 2007) have backed up that original finding: Oswald acted alone.

Nevertheless, according to a 2009 CBS News poll, between 60 and 80 percent of Americans believe that President Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy; that is, that there was more than one shooter in Dealy Plaza that day in November 1963. They are all wrong.

We’ve known the truth for 50 years, but many continue to deny the facts.

Consider just a few of the many facts that are not in the conspiracy believers’ favor: Oswald’s Carcano bolt-action rifle—with his fingerprints on it—was found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building, where he was employed, in a sniper’s nest he built out of boxes that also had his fingerprints on them. Three bullet casings there match what 81% of eyewitnesses in Dealey Plaza reported hearing—three shots. (And tests with this rifle found that three shots are possible in the amount of time he had.) It was the same rifle Oswald purchased by mail order in March 1963. Co-workers saw him on the sixth floor of the Book Depository building shortly before JFK’s motorcade arrived, and saw him exit soon after the assassination. Oswald went home and picked up his pistol and left again, shortly after which he was stopped by Dallas Patrolman J.D. Tippet, whom Oswald shot dead with four bullets, all witnessed by numerous observers. He then fled the scene and ducked into a nearby theater without paying. The police were summoned and Oswald was confronted. He pulled out his revolver and attempted to shoot the first officer but the gun failed and he was arrested, saying, “Well, it is all over now.”

So why, 50 years later, do the conspiracies persist? There are several psychological factors at work:

COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. Big effects need big causes—we want balance between the size of the cause and the size of the effect. Example: The Holocaust is one of the worst crimes ever committed in history and its cause was the Nazi government, one of the most criminal regimes in history. There’s a balance. JFK was the most powerful political person on the planet, yet he was killed by a lone nut, a nobody living on the margins of a free society. There’s no balance. To reduce this dissonance and balance the scales, people have concocted countless co-conspirators (some 300 total) to stack on the “cause” side of the scale, including the KGB, Communists, radical right-wingers, the CIA, the FBI, the mafia, Castro, pro-Cuban nationalists, the Military Industrial Complex and even Vice-President Johnson (in a coup d’état). We saw a similar effect unfold when Princess Diana died. The cause of her death? Drunk driving, speeding, no seatbelt—but Princesses are not suppose to die of common causes. So, to dissipate the dissonance, conspiratorial cabals, everyone from the Royal family to the MI5 British intelligence agency, were conjectured to have been the real cause.

ANXIETY. Psychological research also shows that when people are placed in environments or conditions in which they feel anxiety and a loss of control, they are more likely to see illusory patterns in random noise and to look to conspiracies as explanations for ordinary events. Sociological research has also found that natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes lead people to think that there are conspiratorial forces at work. The assassination of JFK was exceptionally disrupting and anxiety-producing, so it fits the bill.

RANDOMNESS. Another psychological factor at work is that the mind abhors randomness. We humans are terrible at understanding chance and probabilities. We find hidden patterns everywhere, even in purposefully random sequences and noise. And yet much of what goes on in life, in politics and in history at large is the product of chance and randomness. By this I do not mean to imply that JFK was killed by a random event, but that Oswald acting alone feels like a random factor when compared to a vast conspiratorial cabal plotting to overthrow the United States government.

Some conspiracy theories are real—Lincoln’s assassination, Watergate—so we should not dismiss them all out of hand without first examining the evidence. But once an unmistakable pattern unfolds before our eyes—as it has, for 50 years straight, in the case of JFK’s lone killer—it’s time to let the President RIP, for this conspiracy theory is DOA. QED. END

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Eine andere Welt

INSIGHT is not a political blog. However, the travelogue format Dr. Prothero has used here is inherently personal, and certain scientific topics discussed in the post (such the understanding and communication of climate science) are intertwined with political and social trends. I’ve decided to post this opinion/travel piece as written, with the note that the author’s political views are his own.—Editor.

I’ve written again and again on the old SkepticBlog site and in my book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future about the problems of science deniers in the United States. The U.S. is unique among the developed nations in the world in having a significant percentage of the population that embraces such anti-scientific ideas, despite our huge amount of money spent on education and science literacy. Indeed, we are the only developed nation in the world which has an entire major political party advocating scientific nonsense like this.

Thus, I was fortunate in the first week of November to find myself spending 7 days in Berlin, away from the political maelstrom occurring the U.S. Officially, I was presenting my research at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, my main professional meeting (and my 37th SVP meeting in a row). But instead of being isolated from the host country in a hotel, and relying on English-speaking tour guides (as most Americans do), I spent the week as a guest of my buddy from grad school, Dr. David Lazarus, a Curator at the Museum für Naturkunde (natural history museum), and his wife, Dr. Barbara Kohl. David is still a U.S. citizen, raised in Minneapolis but he has lived in many parts of the U.S.; for the past 30 years he has lived in Germany and Switzerland. Thus, he has an interesting perspective on life in the U.S. and in Europe, which I found valuable. I also immersed myself in the German lifestyle, taking public transit to my destinations, exploring the neighborhoods of Berlin, and doing it entirely with my rusty Deutsch from college. When you immerse yourself in another culture, you get a very different perspective on your own—and it’s not just better command of the language, and learning how customs are different. It can be a truly eye-opening experience.

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Next Gen Dr Karl? Not Me

Karl Kruszelnicki holding a copy of his book, Sensational Moments in Science, at Sydney Uni Live! (the University of Sydney's open day) in August 2006. Image by Enoch Lau, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Karl Kruszelnicki at a University of Sydney event in 2006. Image by Enoch Lau, via Wikimedia Commons. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

On the back of a book I wrote a few years ago is a blurb describing me as “the next generation Dr Karl”. Flattering, but I really hate that comparison. Not because I hate Dr Karl—who happens to be fantastic promoter of science—but because if it’s one thing the world doesn’t need, it’s one more wacky science communicator in a bright Hawaiian shirt.

Publishers love a hook for the reader. And since Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is arguably Australia’s most recognisable science writer, it makes sense that his name would be used to promote a science book written by a nobody like me.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Karl for Skepticality in 2008, and have spoken to him once or twice since. His personality is as bright as his wardrobe, and if you have a science question he’ll undoubtedly have a quirky, fascinating story to respond with. (He’s especially generous about answering questions on Twitter.) He certainly presents a lot for a science personality to aspire to, and I have much admiration for the man.

Beyond sharing a love of science story-telling, though, our similarities are few. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a colour brighter than khaki green. I have piercings and a few tattoos, and usually take great pains to avoid describing myself as geeky. I also do my best to correct anybody giving me a PhD (one I never earned), and I don’t call myself a scientist since I haven’t run an assay or poked at a patient in years. Dr Karl I ain’t.

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14-11-12


A message from Michael Shermer (photo by Eduard Pastor)

Be part of bringing the Skeptics Society’s Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech to the world

Fellow skeptics,

Since 1992, the Skeptics Society has sponsored the Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech, one of the premiere scientific institutions in the world, hosting over 350 of the biggest names in science. This series of lectures has covered the most advanced, leading-edge discoveries, and controversial topics in all of science, and enabled students, educators, and the general public to hear what’s new in science and skepticism. These lectures have helped people learn how to think critically about claims made in the name of science.

Now we want to take the Distinguished Science Lecture Series to a whole new level. While ticket, book, and DVD sales have provided enough funding to bring these cutting-edge ideas to tens of thousands of people, we would like to make them available to a much broader audience—to millions…to the world.

Following the TED model (I have given two TED talks that have been viewed by almost six million people), we are looking for a major donor/sponsor to reach this goal. Our speakers are just as prestigious as TED speakers—and our speakers’ talks are more in depth at full hour-long lectures—so there is every reason to believe that we too can reach millions of people around the world with our remarkable speakers and lectures.

A quality product on the Internet is, of course, a means to this end. We want to make our lectures available to everyone in the world who has Internet access by live streaming the events and then posting them shortly thereafter at Skeptic.com for viewing in the future. We would like to make this service available for free for viewers. To this end we have a detailed line-item budget available upon request and look forward to working with a major donor/sponsor to help take the Distinguished Science Lecture Series to the next level. We want to change the world, and in order to do that we need to make science and skepticism available to everyone in the world.

Sincerely,
Michael Shermer

Click the graphic below to download a printable PDF version of highlights from our Distinguished Science Lecture Series


Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series Highlights (banner)

We need your support.

Please be a part of bringing our Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech to the world, by making a tax-deductible donation online using your credit card, or by downloading a printable donation card to make your donation by cheque. You may also make a donation by calling 1-626-794-3119. The Skeptics Society is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational organization. All donations are tax deductable.

Make a tax-deductible donation
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Conspiracy Theories Booklet page one illustration by Pat Linse

Conspiracy Theories
Who Believes Them, and Why? How Can You Determine if They are True or False?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and why do they tend to proliferate? Why does belief in one conspiracy correlate to belief in others? What are the triggers of belief, and how does group identity factor into it? How can one tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one? For the answers, download this free booklet, created by Michael Shermer and Pat Linse, the founders of Skeptic magazine and your Skeptics Society.

Download the free booklet


Skepticality logo
Molly Crockett

Molly Crockett

SKEPTICALITY EPISODE 243
Of Cheese And Neuro-Bunk

Can the simple act of eating a cheese sandwich change your mood? Will taking some commonly prescribed drugs make you more likely to help random strangers on the street? Well-known neuroscientist Molly Crockett may have some answers. In this episode of Skepticality, Derek explores altruism, morality, and values-based decision-making in humans, with Molly, who reminds us against blind acceptance of some of the more overstated claims about neuroscience in the media.


The Way of the Mister: The Mormon Testimony

The Latest Episode of The Way of the Mister: The Mormon Testimony

WATCH THIS EPISODE | DONATE | NEWSLETTER | FACEBOOK | MrDeity.com

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Conspiracy Theories
Who Believes Them, and Why?
How Can You Determine if They are True or False?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and why do they tend to proliferate? Why does belief in one conspiracy correlate to belief in others? What are the triggers of belief, and how does group identity factor into it? How can one tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one? For the answers, download this free booklet, created by Michael Shermer and Pat Linse, the founders of Skeptic magazine and your Skeptics Society.

Download PDF

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14-11-05


INSIGHT at Skeptic.com banner

Weekly Highlights

INSIGHT at Skeptic.com sheds light, offers critical perspective, and serves as a broadly accessible, evidence-based resource on mysteries of science, paranormal claims, and the wild, woolly, wonderful weirdness of the fringe. This week’s highlights are:

Tim Farley
A Skeptical Maxim (May) Turn 75 This Week

Tim Farley looks into the origin of the saying ‘keep an open mind, but not so open your brain falls out’ and finds it is older than most skeptics may think.

Read the Insight

Blake Smith
Monsters & Science

Blake Smith recommends some of the spookiest episodes of MonsterTalk, The Science Show About Monsters. This post wasn’t listed in the pre-Halloween eSkeptic of October 29th because it was released after eSkeptic went out.

Read the Insight


Super-Science-Mashup-Attack-of-the-GMOs-banner

Super Science Mashup
“Attack of the GMOs!”

Kyle Sanders, the creator of Carbon Comic (which appear in Skeptic magazine) co-hosted an evening exploring the topic of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The highly informative event addressed the basics of concepts like “genetically modified” and “organic,” and included a blind taste test to see if participants could tell the difference between foods with these labels. There was a very excellent Q & A in the second half of the event with three biologists that addressed many concerns the public has about GMOs. Sponsored by the Pikes Peak Skeptics Society, the event was filmed live at the Ivywild School in Colorado Springs, CO. If you like what you see in this hour-long exploration of GMOs, you are encouraged to Tweet #MoreSuperScience to @Ivywildschool.


Marshmallow-Test-cover-detail

ABOVE: Detail of The Marshmallow Test book cover

About this week’s eSkeptic

Learning to control our impulses and delay immediate gratification may well be one of the most important things our species has ever learned. In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer reviews The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control by Walter Mischel (Little, Brown; September 23, 2014). Note: A shorter version of this review was originally published in the Wall Street Journal on September 19, 2014.

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and the author of the forthcoming book: The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom (January 20, 2015).

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Willpower and Won’t Power

by Michael Shermer

When Admiral William H. McRaven’s 2014 commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin was posted online it went viral with millions of views. Its core message is summed up in his memorable line, “if you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” The Navy SEAL veteran recalled that “if you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”

Admiral McRaven’s “life lessons” in his speech are, in fact, variations on a theme examined by the legendary psychologist Walter Mischel in his book The Marshmallow Test, because the key to being a successful Navy SEAL—or anything else in life—is summed up in the book’s subtitle: Mastering Self-Control. (Making your bed is a small form of mastery that establishes a pattern of self-control.) This fast-paced and engaging work is part memoir (Mischel recounts how he quit his three-pack a day smoking habit), part science (the extensive research on self-control is artfully summarized), and part self-help (a chapter provides handy tips for increasing your willpower).

Mischel begins by describing how he and his colleagues devised a straightforward way to measure self-control at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University in the late 1960s. In its simplest form children ages 4–6 were given a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 minutes later. Some kids ate the marshmallow right away, but most engaged in unintentionally hilarious examples (viewed through a one-way mirror) of how to overcome temptation. They averted their gaze, covered their eyes, squirmed in their seats or sang to themselves. They made grimacing faces, tugged at their ponytails, picked up the marshmallow and pretended to take a bite. They sniffed it, pushed it away from them, covered it up. If paired with a partner, they engaged in dialogue about how they could work together to reach the goal of doubling their pleasure. About a third of the original subjects, the researchers reported, deferred gratification long enough to get the second treat. View numerous examples of the popular Standford marshmallow experiments in this YouTube playlist:

I first learned of this research in a psychology graduate program in the 1970s, shortly after the original papers were published. At that time, the work was characterized as a study of “delay of gratification,” and there was not much fanfare surrounding the experiments. All that changed in 2006, when Mr. Mischel published a new paper in the prestigious journal Psychological Science. The researchers had done a follow-up study with the students they had tested 40 years before, examining the sort of adults they had grown into. They found that the children who were able to delay gratification had higher SAT scores entering college, higher grade-point averages at the end of college and made more money after college. Perhaps not surprisingly, they also tended to have a lower body-mass index.

Suddenly people started paying attention. New York Times columnist David Brooks considered the implications in a piece called “Marshmallows and Public Policy.” “Sesame Street” featured Cookie Monster controlling his impulses to indulge, so that he could become a member of the Cookie Connoisseurs Club. Investment companies used the marshmallow metaphor to encourage potential clients to delay gratification and save for retirement. Some parents started buying their children T-shirts that said “Don’t Eat the Marshmallows” and “I Passed the Marshmallow Test.”

It was too much. No single variable—such as self-control—can explain success or failure. Some critics have pointed out that Mr. Mischel’s original subjects were themselves children of Stanford University professors and graduate students—not exactly a representative sample. Other scientists noted that variations in home environment could account for self-control differences: Stable homes and one-child families encourage delay of gratification, whereas in unstable homes and those with multiple siblings, if you don’t nab a marshmallow now there won’t be any left in 15 minutes.

Mr. Mischel addresses these critiques, noting that studies in nonelite schools found similar results, and he acknowledges the power of the environment to shape our ability to delay gratification. While observing that genetics plays a role, too, Mr. Mischel builds a case for how “self-control can be nurtured in children and adults, so that the prefrontal cortex can be used deliberately to activate the cool system and regulate the hot system.”

This metaphor of “hot” and “cool” systems in the brain—not dissimilar to psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s model of “fast” and “slow” thinking—is meant to convey how the brain evolved to handle different environments: “one hot to deal with immediate rewards and threats,” Mr. Mischel explains, “the other cool to deal with delayed consequences.” He describes the way they work together: “As one becomes more active, the other becomes less active. The challenge is to know when it’s best to let the hot system guide your course, and when (and how) to get the cool system to wake up.”

How do you cool your hot system? Physically distance yourself from temptation in both space and time: For example, clear your fridge of tempting treats you know you shouldn’t eat. Keep reminders around of the negative consequences of gaining weight (stretched clothes) and smoking (photographs of cancerous lungs). Get a full night’s sleep and eat a healthy diet to maintain the energy level you need—exercising willpower, researchers have found, burns a lot of actual calories. Pat yourself on the back for even the smallest triumphs of self-control (like making your bed). And don’t be afraid to enlist help. Surround yourself with friends or family members who understand or share your weaknesses, who will encourage you to resist temptation and reinforce your self-control mechanisms.

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, the psychologist Steven Pinker attributed the decline of violence, in part, to the civilizing process between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century that taught people self-control through books of etiquette and manners. Pinker argues, in fact, that learning to control our impulses and delay immediate gratification may well be one of the most important things our species has ever learned. Still, as he also notes in his discussion of willpower and self-control, genetics may account for much of the differences in these studies, so we must be cautious not to overemphasize the environment in and instead take a realistic perspective and operate within those boundaries.

In one of Mischel’s experimental protocols children could ring a bell to call back the experimenter, such that not ringing the bell became another form of self-control. The Navy SEAL training camp had something similar, as Admiral McRaven explained in the final life lesson of his commencement address: “Finally, in SEAL training there is a bell. A brass bell that hangs in the center of the compound for all the students to see. All you have to do to quit—is ring the bell. Ring the bell and you no longer have to wake up at 5 o’clock. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the freezing cold swims. Ring the bell and you no longer have to do the runs, the obstacle course, the PT—and you no longer have to endure the hardships of training. Just ring the bell. If you want to change the world don’t ever, ever ring the bell.”

But if you do, Mischel might say (echoing Scarlett O’Hara), tomorrow is another day. END

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A Skeptical Maxim (May) Turn 75 This Week

Six Possible Sources of the Quote“Keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out” is a popular skeptic maxim because it summarizes key elements of skepticism in a pithy, humorous way. But who is the original source for this advice? Some attribute it to Carl Sagan, whose birthday is being celebrated this week as Carl Sagan Day in several locations. It turns out the phrase may in fact have a birthday this week—but that birthday has nothing to do with Sagan!

Tidbits from history like this are one of my skeptical interests. I indulge this interest by collecting dates for such things and posting them daily on social media. (You can find where to read them at the Skeptic History page on my blog). I’ve collected these dates over several years from all sorts of sources. As I find them, I add each one to my file for the next time that date rolls around.

Sometimes you can find anniversary dates for surprising things. For instance, did you know that the word “bunkum” (original root of the term “debunk”) is actually derived from a specific incident in the U.S. Congress?

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Monsters & Science

MonsterTalkLogoIt’s almost Halloween and for some of you that means you’re gorging on scary movies and planning your kid’s trick-or-treating costumes. If you like monsters and scary stories but don’t care for the kind of credulous treatment they always get on documentaries this time of year, you might enjoy a few choice episodes of MonsterTalk: The Science Show About Monsters. While we do enjoy a lot of listeners from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, I get the impression that some people haven’t tried out the show because they have reduced the field of monsterology down to a binary question of “is it real?” With a ready answer to that, they dismiss further inquiry.

The utility of monsters as a tool for science communication has more possibilities than that simplistic approach suggests. What we’ve tried to do with MonsterTalk is extend the “is it real” question with additional discussion such as:

  • Could this monster ever exist?
  • What evidence for it exists outside of legend?
  • If it couldn’t exist, what is possible within the constraints of real world science?

And we also try to ask what monsters our guests consider to be their favorites. It’s fun to hear what historians and scientists like to imagine lurking in the shadows.

You don’t have to subscribe to MonsterTalk to listen to an episode. Here are some links to the show-notes for some appropriately themed Halloween topics. On these pages you can click the “play” button and hear the shows without subscribing. We’re also working towards getting transcripts of all our episodes (such as this one), which will let both search engines and the hearing-impaired consume our content.

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