About this week’s eSkeptic
In issue 2.3 (1994) of Skeptic magazine, John Keller wrote a letter of analysis on “The Science of Santa,” taken from Spy magazine, in which he humorously demonstrated the impossibility of Santa delivering presents to hundreds of millions of children around the world in one night. For example, for Santa to visit 822.6 homes per second, the sleigh must travel at 650 miles per second. This will cause the lead pair of reindeer to absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second, bursting into flames and pinning Santa to the back of the sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force. Keller concluded that “if Santa ever did deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.”
In this week’s eSkeptic, we draw from the archives of Skeptic magazine issue 2.4 (1994) in which Gerald Huber, from Germany, begs to differ.
At the time this article was written, Gerald Huber was a student of mathematics at the University of Regensburg in south-east Bavaria. He studied logic theory and Ablian groups. The study of the paranormal and pseudoscience was his hobby.
Nickology, the S-effect,
and the Quantum of Santa
by Gerald Huber
As a long time professional Nickologist I can only conclude that John Keller is not familiar with the relevant literature. Though he may have a valid point with his refutation of some of the wilder claims of popular Nickology, his indiscriminate aspersions on the whole field betray a lack of scholarship and understanding.
Naturally, serious researchers of Nickology do not believe that there is literally an overweight, red-clothed man who delivers presents to all the children in the world. The intellectual nexus of Nickology is rather the investigation of certain mid-winter anomalies. “Santa” is an ontologically neutral term for these anomalies and implies none of the wilder theoretical constructs about reindeer or whatever. Unfortunately the word “Santa” has been tainted by the folklore version, so that those of us in the field encourage the use of the more neutral “S-effect.”
Impressive progress in Santa research has been made but, of course, I agree that so far there is no comprehensive theory which can integrate all the research results. If you compare the few decades which have been devoted to the serious investigation of Nickology with the 200 years which electromagnetism required in order to achieve its mathematical formulation through the Maxwell equations, then this becomes understandable. Then, too, critics are apt to overlook the fact that in comparison to the ever-present electromagnetic effects, the S-effect is rare and elusive and can only be observed with great difficulty. What we need is patience and more patience. Unfortunately, I must note that it is abusive articles like the one by Keller which make it difficult for serious Nickologists to achieve the acknowledgement from the scientific community which is needed to develop the field to a stage where the elusive effects can be harnessed and begin to contribute to the good of mankind as a whole.
Although there is strong suggestive evidence from the fields of microNickology (the careful statistical analysis of very small anomalies in gift distribution), responsible Nickologists don’t insist that the S-effect is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. As seekers of scientific truth the Nickologists remain open to the possibility that someday a mundane explanation for the noted anomalies might be found after all. We only ask the scientific community to accept that there are obviously phenomena which can and should be dealt with scientifically. Like all proto-science Nickology has not yet developed a fully systematized research program. It pains us that the so-called skeptics with their closed minds try to turn this into an unwarranted attack on the scientific status of Nickology. However, the history of science is replete with premature carping. If serious researchers were to pay undue attention to this quibbling, then progress in science would come to a halt.
Though total replication on demand of the mid-winter phenomenon cannot be guaranteed (though this is also true for all the social sciences), there are encouraging parallels in the experimental results from a number of experimenters in a variety of places using different protocols and experimental setups.
Of course, we agree that there are people out there who call themselves Nickologists, although they lack the scientific qualifications. There are also medical quacks, but does this invalidate the science of medicine? Nickology should be judged by its most responsible representatives, most precise data and most intellectually challenging theories, and not merely by those who make the easiest target. Instead of holding scientific Nickology responsible for the wild claims of the popular fringe, true skeptics should join with the sincere Nickologists in their effort to give this field a firm position in the scientific world by setting up chairs and research institutes.
A closer examination of Keller’s criticisms of Nickology shows them to be faulty and irrelevant. For example, in order to calculate the GDV (gift delivering velocity) he assumes that Santa has to be sequentially present at every spot where the S-effect takes place. However, recent advances in quantum mechanics suggest that such an assumption is unfounded. Modern Nickologist theory envisages the possibility that the S-effect is a non-localizable correlation between certain dates of the year and the frequencies of appearances of gifts. Though outside critics repeat like broken records their claim that these effects are in contradiction to physical laws, they only manage to demonstrate their own scientific ignorance. Keller’s criticism, I’m afraid, is based on an outdated worldview.
Many debunkers of Nickology claim that the burden of proof rests solely on the Nickologists. This attitude, however, is hardly the way to promote the growth of science. Instead, science proceeds by comparing various hypotheses against one another. But the debunkers avoid the honest and painstaking work of real scientists in developing and testing their theories. They confine themselves to attacking the models of the Nickologists without even trying to give positive alternative hypotheses (e.g., a detailed survey of gift distribution in Holland has shown that the observed effect cannot be explained totally in terms of a conventional theory). Although conventional theories like “Wealthy parents buy more costly gifts” explain the effect in part, there is still an intriguing residue of unexplained correlations. Instead of developing a model for these unexplained correlations and testing it, the skeptics (or “conventional theorists” as they should better be called) flatly reject the effect with glib remarks like “It’s obviously a coincidence.” Such an a priori attitude of refusing to even discuss an empirically established effect can hardly be called science.
Every argument which seems to be able to weaken the case for the S-effect, no matter how far-fetched, is brought into play. Critics like the well-known anti-Nickologist, Virginia, hold that even the pure possibility that a Nickologist may have faked his results makes them unreliable. Other sciences are, of course, not measured by such strict standards. Indeed, the application of such extreme measures would serve to make the pursuit of any science futile because you can never exclude fraud with absolute certainty. The self-proclaimed critics of Nickology don’t address this issue. Like any other science, Nickology is self-correcting and it can readily be observed that the most knowledgeable critics of Nickology are the Nickologists themselves.
Polemics and generalisations will not lead us towards a resolution of the Santa controversy; only careful research can do this. Unfortunately, articles like the one by Keller create a climate of witchhunting and make it hard for scientific Nickologists to get funding for future research (e.g. the Swiss Gnome Research Centre, which has long played a leading role in the investigation of the S-effect is now in grave danger of folding). So my plea to all truly rational skeptics can only be to think again and give Nickology the chance it deserves. It is not wounded pride which has prompted me to write this article, but the sincere fear that a true part of human experience might otherwise be lost to science.