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Is It Irrational to Play the Lottery?

Posted on Jan. 12, 2016 by | Comments (55)

With the recent Powerball mania I thought it would be a good time to talk about how to tell a sucker bet from a fair bet, and whether playing the lottery is a rational behavior.

Whenever the lottery comes up, people tend to discuss the astronomical odds of winning, holding it up as the best reason to avoid buying a ticket. However, it is not simply the odds of winning that determines if a bet is rational, at least the way psychologists define the term. A rational bet is a fair bet, and what determines if a bet is fair is something called the expected return.

An expected return is the payoff that one expects to receive—the amount, in proportion to the bet, that one expects to gain. A fair bet is one in which the expected return, in the long run, is zero. In other words, one expects to break even. If you expect to do better than break even, you are at an advantage. The odds of winning are part of expected return, but the payout-to-bet ratio is equally important in determining advantage.


Barbara Drescher

Barbara Drescher taught quantitative and cognitive psychology, primarily at California State University, Northridge for a decade. Barbara was a National Science Foundation Fellow and a Phi Kappa Phi Scholar. Her research has been recognized with several awards and the findings discussed in Psychology Today. More recently, Barbara developed educational materials for the James Randi Educational Foundation. Read Barbara’s full bio or her other posts on this blog.

Uncovering Archaeology Fantasies

Posted on Dec. 30, 2015 by | Comments (6)

When I started the podcast MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic Magazine, one of our earliest episodes was going to be about “giants.” I didn’t know what angle I wanted to take on the topic because there are many kinds of legendary giants, but ultimately I decided to look into the famous hoax known as The Cardiff Giant. And when it came to picking a guest, only one person came to mind: Dr. Kenny Feder.

Like many skeptics I don’t trust my own (or anyone else’s) memory. I don’t recall if I first saw Feder doing his damned best to bring some sensible skepticism to any of the many documentaries he’s been on, or whether I first heard him in 2008 when he was interviewed on Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe #59. I suspect it was on National Geographic’s Is it Real? dealing with Atlantis in 2006. Regardless, I bought his book Frauds, Myths and Mysteries and was blown away by it. As I am fond of saying, there is more solid and useful archaeological skepticism on the cover of that book than in the entire run of History’s Ancient Aliens.

Feder’s popularity on MonsterTalk has not been equaled. His entertaining, clear and logical explanations of mysterious topics related to archaeology are our most popular episodes. But now, thanks to the work of fellow archaeologist Sara Head, you can get large doses of Feder and fascinating deep science-based discussions of many of the fringe topics which frustrate skeptics so much.


Blake Smith

Blake Smith is the producer and host of MonsterTalk, an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. He’s had a lifelong interest in science and the paranormal and enjoys researching the strange and unusual. By day he’s a computer consultant and by night he hunts monsters. He is married and has children. Puns are intentional; don’t bother alerting the management. Read Blake’s other posts on this blog.

Dark Matter and Periodic Mass Extinctions? Not So Fast!

Posted on Dec. 15, 2015 by | Comments (24)


The great tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

—Thomas Henry Huxley

In recent weeks, physicist Lisa Randall has been promoting her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs. She even spoke about her latest work for the recent meeting of the Skeptic Society Science Salon on November 22. Naturally, any book which talks about such sexy topics as astronomy and dinosaurs is guaranteed to get lots of fawning press coverage, with little or no scrutiny from the scientific community. Nearly all the coverage and reviews of the book I have seen are either by science journalists without the appropriate background, or by astronomers and physicists. They were a bit skeptical about whether there was any strong evidence for her idea that waves of dark matter contributed to mass extinctions on earth, but could not rule it out. To her credit Randall made clear that she is proposing a hypothesis to be further tested, not a fully complete theory for which she is confident is correct. Like the good scientist that she is, Randall emphasizes that she could be wrong.

This is  not a review of the entire book, which is generally well written, and explains the complicated physics of dark matter and other topics is a clear and lively fashion. Unfortunately, the urge to tie her topic to sexy ideas like periodic extinctions and impact model for the end of the dinosaurs got the most press coverage, even if the book itself is more cautious about these topics. Still, it was a mistake to invoke the outdated and debunked ideas like the notion of periodic impacts causing extinctions, which seriously detracts from the credibility of an otherwise solid piece of science writing.


Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

I Don’t Know What You Mean

Posted on Dec. 11, 2015 by | Comments (8)

Painting by Daniel Loxton, c.1999. Acrylic on canvas. 24″x36″.

The journal Judgment and Decision Making has stirred considerable interest with a recent paper titled “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit,” by Pennycook et al (read PDF). The authors conducted four surveys designed to explore differing individual reactions to “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.” That is, the authors are “interested in the factors that predispose one to become or to resist becoming a bullshittee.”1

Skeptics naturally share this interest.

The studies presented survey participants with vague, conceptually meaningless, buzzword-laden statements and asked them to rate the “relative profundity of each statement on a scale from 1 (not at all profound) to 5 (very profound).” The included statements were generated by two online tools: “The New Age Bullshit Generator” and, which “constructs meaningless statements with appropriate syntactic structure by randomly mashing together a list of words used in Deepak Chopra’s tweets (e.g., ‘Imagination is inside exponential space time events’).”2 Some of the studies also included motivational aphorisms, simple factual statements, and actual tweets selected from Chopra’s Twitter feed,3 such as this one:

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 10.36.51 AM


Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

So… Who ARE You Gonna Call?

Posted on Dec. 03, 2015 by | Comments (7)

Outside of Junior Skeptic (my primary ongoing project) a surprising amount of my professional output—most of my blogging, stage appearances, op-eds (PDF), and interviews—is given over to the oddly controversial argument that my field should exist.

It’s my opinion that “scientific” skepticism should be acknowledged as a distinct field of study with a unique mandate: the critical, science-informed, scholarly examination of paranormal, pseudoscientific, and other fringe claims. Consequently, I’ve rejected (PDF) periodic suggestions that skepticism should shift its focus from fringe topics toward arguably “more important” matters, or that skepticism ought to be subsumed as a side-project within some other sphere (such as “science,” humanism, or atheism).

Colleagues such as Steve Novella, Sharon Hill, Barbara Drescher, and Jamy Ian Swiss (video) often find themselves drawn to such discussions. I tend to agree with these and other traditionalist skeptics about the most suitable scope for scientific skepticism: “testable” (that is, investigable) claims. In addition, I’ve argued that it’s desirable for skeptics to emphasize a specialized core subject matter within that “testable claims” scope: pseudoscience and the paranormal. Not an exclusive concern with fringe claims, mind—that’s more restrictive than I or anyone wants to see—just an ongoing (and historically well-established) emphasis upon claims of that type.


Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

The Plane Truth: Noted Skeptic’s Newly Published (Posthumous) Book About Flat Earth Theories

Posted on Nov. 19, 2015 by | Comments (4)
Explore Bob Schadewald's last book, on the topic of most specialized skeptical expertise: Flat Earth theories.

Explore Bob Schadewald’s final project, a book on the topic of his most specialized area of skeptical expertise: Flat Earth theories.

I’m very pleased to learn that The Plane Truth, the unfinished final work of skeptical scholarship by the late Robert J. Schadewald (1943–2000), has now been prepared for publication and released online for free. You can read the book in its web version here, where you also find the EPUB ebook version available for download.

During his life, Bob Schadewald was the world’s leading skeptical expert on the history of flat-Earth advocacy. The pseudoscientific notion that the Earth is a flat disk may seem as quaint as it is preposterous, but so-called “Zetetic Astronomy” enjoyed a surprisingly strong period of public prominence in the UK and US during the 19th century—attracting attention from debunkers of the period such as Alfred Russel Wallace1 (see Skeptic Vol. 20, No. 3) and Richard Anthony Proctor, and prompting reflections from later thinkers including George Bernard Shaw and George Orwell. During the 20th century the relative sophistication of Zetetic Astronomy collapsed into muddled conspiracy theories, parody, and ultra-fundamentalist Biblical literalism; nevertheless, flat-Earth advocacy continues to this day.


Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

The 10 Percent Brain Myth

Posted on Oct. 17, 2015 by | Comments (12)

This is an excerpt from Junior Skeptic 37 (published in 2010 inside Skeptic magazine Vol. 15, No. 4), which is a quick ten-page tour of the “Top Ten Busted Myths.” Junior Skeptic is written for (older) children, and does not include endnotes, though I often call out important sources in sidebars or the text of the story itself. However, I’ve included one or two citations here for your interest:

Have you heard that we only use 10 percent of our brains? Imagine what we could accomplish if we could discover how to use that other 90 percent! Could we discover an untapped potential for incredible psychic powers?

There’s only one problem: none of that is true. Humans use every part of our brains.


Daniel Loxton

Daniel Loxton is the Editor of INSIGHT at and of Junior Skeptic, the 10-page kids’ science section bound within Skeptic magazine. Daniel has been an avid follower of the paranormal literature since childhood, and of the skeptical literature since his youth. He is also an award-winning author. Read Daniel’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

I Had a Skeptic "Win"

Posted on Sep. 29, 2015 by John Rael | Comments (12)
View the video version of this discussion on YouTube.

View the video version of this discussion on YouTube.

I had a skeptic “win.” That is, I produced content partially inspired by someone’s misconception; this same someone saw my content, and then changed their mind. Essentially, “Hey, you’re wrong, and here’s why.” “Huh. I guess I am wrong. Copy that.”

That never happens! I mean, yeah, it happens, but rarely enough that skeptics (if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase) tend to forget the hits and remember the misses. Cynicism is easy, but rarely correlates with reality. 
To give you a full picture, we have to go back to 2006 and look at Michael Shermer’s Scientific American article about Airborne entitled “Airborne Baloney.” In this article he explains how Airborne—”an orange-flavored effervescent concoction of herbs, antioxidants, electrolytes and amino acids that fizzles into action in a glass of water”—offers no objectively measurable effect on people’s health. Basically, it’s bullshit being sold to you in the style of a confidence man: “Hey, I’m just a school teacher. I’m an ordinary person like you. Now give me your money!” This, of course, was bad news: a company was misleading customers. However, some people considered it news that was bad to share.

In 2013 comic and actor Patton Oswalt was a guest on Never Not Funny, a podcast hosted by Jimmy Pardo and Matt Belknap. On the episode, they express great amounts of vitriol—not towards the multimillion dollar company who was, and still is, making money off of the ignorance of consumers, but against the science educator (“one of these fucking ‘skeptic’ assholes”) who was pointing out the truth.


John Rael

John Rael is the producer and lead kicker of the webseries He is also the co-host of The Odds Must Be Crazy on Skepticality. John has two BAs in Philosophy and Theatre Arts from the University of Northern Colorado.

Tony Ortega’s Scientology Book Tour

Posted on Sep. 28, 2015 by | Comments (3)

(Photo credit: Jim Veihdeffer)

Tony Ortega returned to his former stomping grounds in Phoenix on his book tour for The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology Tried to Destroy Paulette Cooper (see my review in eSkeptic) on September 15. Tony’s talk, sponsored by the Barrett Honors College Downtown Campus and held at the Walter Cronkite Theater, recounted his personal story of starting in journalism in the city where L. Ron Hubbard developed Scientology, and how he came to write about Scientology after first seeing their involvement in a lawsuit against then-Phoenix-based cult deprogrammer Rick Ross (see, for example, Tony’s December 19, 1996 New Times story, “What’s $2.995 Million Between Former Enemies?”). One story led to another, and further opportunities to write about Scientology arose after he moved to Los Angeles to write for New Times L.A.

New Times eventually acquired the Village Voice. Tony became its editor in 2007 and brought with him experience in bringing stories to an online format. His first foray into daily-updated content for the Voice was to pore through the archives and reprint interesting stories from the past, which he enjoyed but did not attract much readership. When he started writing daily about Scientology in 2011, however, readership exploded. He has written on the topic every day since then, first at the Voice and, beginning in late 2012, at his own blog, the Underground Bunker, where he has broken numerous stories about the Church of Scientology as it has continued to lose long-time members and leaders.


Jim Lippard

Jim Lippard is a long-time skeptic who works in the information security field. He founded the Phoenix Skeptics in 1985, and has contributed to Skeptic, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Skeptical Briefs, The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, Joe Nickell’s book Psychic Sleuths, and Gordon Stein’s Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. Read Jim’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

The “Mandela Effect”

Posted on Sep. 20, 2015 by | Comments (29)
Former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa meets with US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2005. And yet, according to some people's memories, Mandela died two decades earlier. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

Former President Nelson Mandela of South Africa met with US President George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2005—and yet, according to some people’s memories, Mandela died two decades earlier. (White House photo by Eric Draper)

At Chapman University I teach an undergraduate course called Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist. One of the course requirements is that each student must do an 18-minute TED-style talk. It’s a good exercise in learning to give public talks, as well as organize your thoughts in a manner conducive to both critical thinking and clear communication. The first student TED talk was by Taryn Honeysett on something called “The Mandela Effect,” of which I was unfamiliar. The name comes from the mistaken belief that the great statesman and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela (1918–2013) died while in prison in the 1980s, and it is characterized by a group of people who all misremember something in a similar manner.

The effect gained a cultural toehold in an Internet forum discussion over the proper spelling of a popular children’s book and television series called The Berenstain Bears, when a number of people insisted the correct spelling was Berenstein. (The series began in 1962, with the first book edited and published by Dr. Seuss—aka Ted Seuss Geisel.) Other examples of The Mandela Effect involve the number of states in the United States (50 or 52, with a sizable number of people believing it is 52, probably mixing states in the U.S. with cards in a deck), the correct spelling of the word definitely (or definitly), and people’s recall of what Darth Vader said in Star Wars: “Luke, I’m your father” or “No, I’m your father” (it’s the latter, although I too remember it by the more effecting version that addresses the subject).


Michael Shermer

Dr. Michael Shermer is the Publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University and Chapman University, and the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, Why Darwin Matters, The Mind of the Market, How We Believe, and The Science of Good and Evil. His new book is The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom. Read Michael’s other posts on this blog.

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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

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