Sunday, July 04, 2010

Magic

When I was a teenager, in the library I once came across a book on curses, spells and magical potions. Since I was just in a phase of reading fantasy literature, I could not resist having a look. It was full with recipes and rituals for all sorts of purposes. Most of them were love spells. I didn't really have a lot of use for that then. The one I recall best was against migraine. The cure was to press a raw egg against your forehead and mumble a few magical words that would make the pain go into the egg. The pain would then be passed on to whoever was unlucky enough to eat the egg.

I was fascinated by the amount of detail that was paid to these magical procedures, like at which time of the day and which moon phase herbs were supposed to be cut, and I liked to imagine what the world would be like if these spells actually worked. I didn't try any of them. My reasoning was if they would actually work, certainly nobody on this planet would still suffer from a broken heart or headache. Today I would probably give a different reason. The one offering a miracle cure is the one who should come up with a scientific documentation for the efficiency of their treatment. Needless to say, the spell book didn't bother with evidence that the rituals had any effect whatsoever.

I was thinking about the little book with the spells recently when I coincidentally came across a website selling spells. Sure, I know the internet is cluttered with nonsense, but for whatever reason this made me think. It's not only that the site offered "love spells, magic spells, reunion love spells, lover return spells, magical things, attraction love spells" and so on, they actually want money for it. "I have made magic spells, charms, genies, talismans and amulets available to you as a world renowned GURU and not as an amateur player in this field." Beware those capitals. The "lover return spells" seem to be particularly widespread. For what I am concerned, the sudden return of my past lovers would probably rapidly turn into a nightmare. So, maybe better, you might want to get a grip on a genie:
"The Conjuration or Invocation of genies are now possible bye following precisely the genie invocation spells and certian powerful invocation rituals prepared by me[...] A few examples of the things that these powerful genie spirits can do for you [...] If you desire to travel to another country, you don't need any documents or aircraft. You just order your genie and it will hold your hands and in a fraction of a minute, you will be in the land of your dreams."

Maybe he's just selling sleeping pills? But no, the genie can also "give you the correct winning numbers for LOTTO, POOLS, BINGO etc." Makes one wonder why the GURU hasn't won the lottery yet.

Okay, I admit, I didn't come across the website coincidentally. I read some forum where a woman insisted a spell she recently bought for only $200 had helped her (with a health problem). It was not an advert (no link, no name attached). I actually didn't know what she was talking about at first. After I figured she spent $200 on somebody sending her an email with some probably random generated "magical words" I could not but be stunned. It raised two questions for me: First, why do people waste money on entirely useless crap? Second, doesn't standard economical theory tells us that the value of a product reflects all the information about it? So why then doesn't the miracle of the free market accurately price useless spells at zero? (To be fair, they probably have some slight entertainment value and a psychological effect. But that's like saying you'd spend $200 on an iPod, and if it doesn't work the money was still well spent on making you feel better for helping the economy.)

Magical thinking

Wikipedia offers the following definition for magical thinking:
"[T]he term magical thinking is used to describe causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events."

However, just looking for correlations could as well be scientific thinking. It is more helpful if one adds that the anthropologist E. Tylor characterized such thinking as "pre-logical." Basically, pretty much by definition, magic is non-scientific. Magical thinking believes in causal relations or correlations where there are none. You believe in magic if you really think pressing a raw egg against your head sucks up the pain. But of course the boundary between magic and science becomes blurry when one reaches the front of research. A relation might after all exist, just that science hasn't yet looked at it. In fact, the smarter sellers of useless crap don't just insist on nonscientific products which amounts to declaring there's no known use of them. They add pseudoscientific explanations in the hope one or the other reader will be impressed.

An example of such unashamed pseudoscience are "Takionic products," that "with their aligned atomic polarities, enhance the body's natural ability to draw from the Tachyon Field for its energy needs." We can read for example on this website that
"Since existence of a Tachyon Universe cannot be proven by instrumentation currently available, Tachyon theory is constructed by examining observable effects and drawing conclusions. Since Tachyon theory blurs the distinction between metaphysics (which deals with non-physical realities) and physics (which deals with physical realities), it has not been well-received by some main-stream physicists [...] Though discredited by some physicists today, Tachyon theory persists, an artifact of theoretical physics that has yet to be replaced by a fully coherent and integrated alternative [...]

We experience the Tachyon Field with our senses, mind and spirit as a warm, pleasurable, energizing and healing sensation. Healers have learned to access the Tachyon Field's resources for its healing powers more successfully than the average person has. Belief in a "Higher Power" enables them to draw upon the Tachyon Field. The more they draw upon it, the more effective as healers they become."

It almost hurts my brain to read this (hand me the egg please). The statement that the "theory" has not been well received by "main-stream physicists" and is "discredited" should be an immediate warning for the reader. It means in plain text no credible scientist believes in this nonsense. Tachyons have been looked for and not been found. There's zero evidence they exist. And even if, they certainly would not do any energizing of your senses by means of a "takionic headband". Needless to say, the website doesn't offer any documentation of the alleged examination of observable effects.

In one of my first years at the Institute for theoretical Physics in Frankfurt, my office mate came across a very similar website selling tachyonic water. They had a service hotline, so he called them. We actually wanted to ask how they believe they can capture tachyons in water. A woman picked up and after a friendly opening, my officemate asked her what a tachyon is. She said she'd have to connect him to the technical service hotline, punched a button and then the line was dead. So much about the scientific details.

Just dumb?

It is easy to dismiss people who fall for pseudoscience like spells, plain water with a fancy name, or genies as dumb. Yet I don't think that's a good explanation.

One of my relatives, when she reached her mid 80s, became quite suspicious of all modern technology. One instance that I recall particularly well is that she had heard or read somewhere that the suddenly omnipresent cellphones' signals are basically radiation that's around us all the time. She then went on to blame it on these electromagnetic waves if a towel dropped off the hook, or something rolled off the table, or she just wasn't able to find it anymore. A perfect example of making up a correlation. I made one or the other attempt to explain that no way the low power in the radiation used could move macroscopic objects, but I had to notice my explanation was pretty much pointless.

It was not that my relative was stupid. In fact, she was even in her high age far from stupid. The problem was that she had no clue how modern technology works and all the basics were missing. The gap had gotten too large. I would have had to start all the way back with Maxwell's equations over a transistor to electromagnetic waves and antennas, microwaves, maybe moving on to the laser that's now a standard ingredient to so many household products. And if you were 86, would you listen to a twenty-something telling you how the world works?

Arthur Clarke's Third Law

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This quotation makes its point very well, though it's a little bit careless. I would want to add that technology can always be distinguished from magic, it's just that the technology might not be possible to understand with the knowledge or means at your disposal. But consider you came across an alien technology for cancer treatment. You might not be able to figure out how it works, but you'd be able to demonstrate that it works. I wouldn't call it magic if you can demonstrate, though maybe not explain, an effect. Indeed, the working of a lot of medications that are in common use today is not well understood. What we do is simply demonstrate that they work to the patients' benefits. Nothing magic about that.

Taken together, I've come to think there's two reasons people fall for magic (non-science) or pseudoscience (wrong science): One is that they have no idea how science works. Making up praises from satisfied customers on a website doesn't amount to evidence. ("Athletes have written letters which claim pain from sport injuries was lessened or eliminated, and rapid recovery obtained, from using Takionic products." Okay, fine. Double blind clinical trial? Just asking.) Second is that they don't have enough information, to be able to tell whether a product has any sensible reason to actually work at the present status of scientific knowledge. See, I have a lot of fantasy, and I can imagine that some thousand years into the future you can download a cure for migraine that consists of a software that lets some device in your computer emit targeted electromagnetic stimuli for affected brain regions that demonstrably alleviate the pain. Not so much different from buying a spell online. Except that that today's scientific knowledge isn't remotely close to making this possible. But to be able to tell, you need to have some rough idea of what the status of science is.

In the end, what it comes down to is lacking eduction. Education both about how science works, and what established scientific knowledge is.

I still haven't figured out though how the non-zero value of useless products fits into general equilibrium theory.

PS: If you get migraine after your breakfast egg, don't blame your wife ;-)

41 comments:

deathgrindfreak said...

I very much agree that it is the lack of education, as opposed to a lack of intelligence (of course both can come into play) that produces much of the pseudo-scientific we see. I know this sadly from experience, since my parents are very intelligent, but are also fundamentalist, young-earth creationists (My dad even has a degree in geology! But I don't think he paid very much attention in class).

stefan said...

Dear Bee,

the online spells are scary indeed...

why do people waste money on entirely useless crap?

with all these "love spells, magic spells, reunion love spells, lover return spells"... and spells for restoring health, my guess is that people who buy them essentially are buying hope in a desperate situation. Perhaps no surprise that they don't act purely rational, then.

And when there is demand, there is supply. Though it's quite amoral to cash in on other poeple's desperation in such a shameless way as selling "online spells"... But does the market care about about moral?

Cheers, Stefan

Uncle Al said...

If any sort of magical thinking were operational, from mere prayer to telekinesis, Bill Gates would be a burned greasy smear at the bottom of an explosively excavated 100 foot deep crater thousands of times/day.

A cardiac triple infarct would do in a pinch.

Bee said...

Dear Stefan,

Yes, I agree that people buy these things because they hope it will help. Especially people who are sick or have friends or relatives that are sick may be willing to try everything that anybody tells them might help. I understand that. What I don't understand is why the market fails in these cases to remotely accurately value the "product." There's no demand for disappointed hopes, there's a demand for cure. So the question is why doesn't the price reflect the efficiency of the product.

You see, I'm wondering if there's any one or maybe several assumption to the general economic model that fail in this case. One may be that people act highly irrational because all the purposes of spells are reliefs for emotionally very troublesome situations. But not everybody who has cancer will go and buy a spell just thinking one never knows, because one knows very reliably spells don't cure cancer. The other reason then may be that information is lacking or not spreading sufficiently. That however isn't very plausible either. That might be a good explanation for the frequently occurring 'new' cures, because one could argue that it's the newness that brings an (expected) lack of information. But there's nothing new about these spells. They've been around some hundred years and they haven't worked for the same time, so why is there still people falling for it? That's why I'm wondering. Best,

B.

Tim van Beek said...

When I was an undergraduate in Göttingen someone told me a story about a man who built a device in his cellar that was supposed to neutralize "earth radiation" (don't ask). He invited a physics professor and his assistent to his home to test the device, which they did, actually: Since the inventor claimed that he could feel if the machine was turned on, the professor sat down with him in his living room, had his assistant randomly switch the machine on and off and asked the inventor if he could feel anything. After a while it became clear that the inventor was correct in nearly 50% of all cases. He then claimed that a score of 50% clearly showed that the machine was working...:-)

Bee said...

Ha :-) That reminds me of an advertisement I once read: Reliable gender prediction of your unborn child through reading of mother's handwriting. In case of error, money back guarantee.

Georg said...

Hello bee,
its not only lack of education or
having had too much religious
education as a child and so on.
There is a psychlogic base to such
behaviour: Not knowing or understanding
some relation is somewhat unpleasant
or annoying.
I think everybody knows what I mean.
This is base for mankinds journey into
"science" but for a simple mind
lacking ability to go or to
follow on that path,
there is no "relief".
What comes out of that is "shortcut"
thinking, a welcome to any simple explanation of the world.
This is base of all religion, and ideology
magic spells beeing just a subspecies of religion.
(Aberglaube ist eine Untermenge
des Glaubens! I dont know how to translate this sentence keeping the pun)
But there are special circumstances, eg. when facing
sure death by cancer or one sufferes from
migraine for long times.
I think we should not judge those
people when looking for miracles.
This is like confessing any nonsense
under torture.
Regards
Georg

Bee said...

Hi George,

There is certainly some truth to what you say, yet most people do not go and buy spells when they are sick or heartbroken. In fact, many people when they suffer from a serious medical condition do rapidly attempt to become experts in the research on the disease they are suffering from. (This is not to say that they are always successful in outsmarting their docs, but that's not the point.) One could argue that it is in terms of natural selection the more promising strategy to be able to make well informed decisions. For this reason, I strongly doubt it is innate to fall for shortcuts and mystical explanations, it is more a matter of attitude which brings us back to the question of education and upbringing. Btw, I totally agree that superstition and religion have the same root, I would have said religion is a subclass of magic, but it tends to offend people who think believing in holy water is somehow more advanced than believing in magical amulets. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

An interesting piece that has itself a little magic in it. I would agree that it is a lack of knowledge that has people to believe such nonsense, yet I would also contend this lack of knowledge comes as the result of not being curious enough or care enough to find out as to learn otherwise. This is the warning that Carl Segan gave about the widening ignorance gap in respect scientific understanding.

My current greatest pet peeve however isn’t about magic yet rather when I see many people these days who build what is called environmentally friendly houses have their house wiring wrapped to have lessened the magnet fields they produce. I’ve asked many of them if they knew anything about magnetic fields with them replying all that was important is they knew being exposed to them wasn’t good for you upon which I recommended they leave the planet:-)

Best,

Phil

Bryan said...

It's plausible that the spell-buyer really feels better, because placebos really do "work" -- lots of science to back that up.

Bee said...

Hi Bryan,

Yes, I considered that, see remark about the iPod in my post. Sure, placebo effects are not worthless, but they're not worth more than a pill that has an actual demonstrable effect. Best,

B.

Dogma Trainer said...

The word 'magic' makes you a little crazy, doesn't it? ;)

I get that you don't get to be a scientist of your position/rank without a thorough grounding in the current scientific paradigms. And you were very careful to quote Clarke's Third Law, and to make sure that you pointed out that you weren't calling people 'stupid' (although the inferences are all there).

And the current scientific paradigms work well enough. (No argument.) But not so well that we can afford to assume that there isn't something *more*.

Man has always believed (in one form or another) that his thoughts/actions have an impact on the world he experiences. He 'prays' to a God, or casts 'spells', or practices some New Age form of 'positive thinking'. He tries to make a technology (a predictable, systematic method for achieving a given effect) out of what his mind can do. And, presumably, he doesn't do this without some grounding in data. Is he delusional? Ignorant? Or is he trying to grasp at something which is possible, though perhaps not as robust as other kinds of technology?

You as a scientist can assume one of two things... 1)There is not and never has been ANY effect of the mind upon the reality we experience. (This leads to believing that anyone who believes that there is is simply stupid or ignorant.), or 2) It *is* possible to demonstrate an effect of mind upon reality such as is not described/permitted in the current mainstream scientific knowledge. (This would require a radical revision of the concepts of 'mind' and 'reality'. Honestly, I can see why you wouldn't assume #2.)

In the end it comes down to data - what data you choose to believe and what data you choose to write-off. And it should. No one should believe in something simply because someone else says it's true. Unfortunately (or fortunately), that knife cuts both ways. Simply telling someone that they are stupid/ignorant is not going to remove/invalidate whatever *data* they happen to have.

Bee said...

Hi Dogma Trainer,

I totally agree with you, all that matters is the data. I would want to add though that data needs to be carefully raised and analyzed, I hope we can agree on that. You show me the GURU who has reliable, reproducible, peer reviewed data that demonstrates his genie predicts the lottery results and we can talk.

Mind clearly has an effect on reality, how do you think I'm typing these words? And it is highly likely that there are features of nature (including our own consciousness) that present day science doesn't yet know of. I'm all for openmindedness. But point remains, if somebody wants to claim there is a correlation between A and B (A: pressing an egg against your head and mumbling words and B: relieving pain) then that somebody is the one who has to show the evidence for his hypothesis. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Gosh, let's hope these people never need to go to an MRI. Or if, then that nobody tells them what the magnetic field is.

In any case, you're right that ignorance or call it lack of curiosity plays a role here. Some people just don't want to know because they are scared of reality. It's a difficult issue because arguably reality isn't nice. It's not fair, some problems can't be solved, and we all have to die. Better to not think about it. There is very likely some psychological benefit to denial, but I doubt that in the long run it can result in happiness. I think on some level most people realize when they are lying to themselves (some more, some less). Many religions even explicitly acknowledge this knowledge about belying oneself (as doubt that has to be overcome). Best,

B.

Georg said...

...who build what is called environmentally friendly houses have their house wiring wrapped to have lessened the magnet fields they produce.
This piece from Phil reminds me of a person,
where education did not help.
The person I think of has a PHD in physics,
but he spent a lot of money for
special switches to cut off electrical
lines in his house when not needed. He feares electrical fields, not the magnetic fields.
As a chemist (and radio tinkerer),
I tried to explain him all the facts
about electromagnetic waves and
everything from physical chemistry
which is relevant for interaction
in that field, in vain.
Reaction: "You never know", similar to
people buying a St. Florian picture against
fire, although beeing "not religious".
Georg

JRV said...

I'm just finishing reading Dan Ariely's "Predictably Irrational". (http://danariely.com/ ...Ariely is a professor of behavioral economics currently at Duke, formerly at MIT). Based on my understanding of Ariely's book, education may be a necessary antidote, but not necessarily sufficient. There is the placebo effect, for one thing. I also despair that the adequate education mountain is so high we may never be able to climb it. Apparently 24 % of US-Americans think Obama was not born in US, about the same percent think he might be the antichrist, and about the same percent thing the second coming will be within their lifetimes.

Magic?

I'm also reminded of Skinners superstitious pigeons:
"Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior." He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._F._Skinner#Superstition_in_the_pigeon)

Marcos said...

You answered your question on the article. People pay high prices for the spell because they don't have (or choosed to ignore) the information that the spell is useless. I don't know about any rule at standard economics that say that information spreads with time. I've seen economists use that assumption to simplify problems, but it looks more like frictionless planes than motion laws.

Now, as you talked about tachyons... I've ever wondered, on what kind of experiments the theory says they should appear?

Steven Colyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Colyer said...

Sigmund Freud began the long slow process of getting us away from the Age of Superstition. We're still in that Age, even as the power of The Information Age morphs into The Too Bloody Much Information Overload Age. There is overlap. Shrug.

The Phoenicians invented a love potion a long time ago. It was originally called brewer's yeast. It's now called alcohol. And as every frat boy will tell you, it works. But it's not Magic.

I work Magic every night on my back deck. I read by my security light, which goes off every 4 minutes. I then raise my arm, and abracadabra, it turns on! Action as a distance. :-)

I once knew an intelligent woman who believed herself a witch. A Wiccan Christian Kitchen Witch, in the new made-up blarney 100-yr-old "religion" of Pagan. I told her I was a warlock. "Warlocks are evil!" she said. All of them? "No, she said, some are good." Well, that's me then. :-)

In the end, what it comes down to is lacking eduction. Education both about how science works, and what established scientific knowledge is.

Truth that, so in the end what we need are better science educators. I think the Internet helps a lot, and will continue to do so. Patience is advised. But not too bloody much, thank you.

Zephir said...

Tachyon universe is no magics - CMB radiation is mostly manifestation of tachyons, i.e. gravitational waves, spreading in extradimensions. Even the photons of radiowaves are tachyons. It can be explained easily and logically.

Zephir said...

/*.. Tachyons have been looked for and not been found. There's zero evidence they exist...*/

They were regularly observed from 1964. In fact, virtually everyone can detect tachyons with his analog TV set...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discovery_of_cosmic_microwave_background_radiation

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee & Georg,

If you refer to anything as emitting electromagnetic radiation many people recoil in horror with as some not even understanding that the visible spectrum is included as being such although just one small segment of its overall spectrum present throughout the universe for which our very existence depends on and in so many ways.

One fellow who told me about having the special shielding around his wiring I asked if he was aware that the earth itself generates a strong magnetic field which was many time stronger than anything his wiring could produce and that he could prove this for himself by noticing that a compass’ needle would not visibly deflect from its natural direction when brought near a current carrying wire. He was undaunted however claiming that exposure to small energy levels were more dangerous than larger ones for reasons that he couldn’t explain or cite any research. Bottom line is ignorance has always been fear’s best friend, while knowledge its greatest foe.

”Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the caldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing,—
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”


-William Shakespeare- Macbeth- Act IV, scene I

Best,

Phil

Kaleberg said...

Magical thinking is a common human response to being powerless. Those who can change their condition do so, by fighting, by writ, by purchase, by will or whatever else it takes. Those who cannot turn to mystic ritual. It offers hope when nothing else does. This is sometimes comforting, but it is often cruel, adding injury to insult. I've watched people succumb to such fantasies while their loved ones died, and it was doubly painful.

On a lighter note, I always liked Dr. Who's version of Clarke's 3rd Law, "Any magic sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from technology." For the purposes of some stories magic is so highly developed that its use involves experimentation, analysis and advanced implementation. A few changes of phrase and one might as well be reading hard science fiction.

Tim Van Beek's story sounds a lot like N rays, discovered in Nancy as the French answer to Roentgen's X rays. They were debunked pretty quickly by just that method of tampering with the emitter, but the die hards insisted that N rays existed for some time afterwards.

Plato said...

Hi Bee,

Of course this presents some thinking on my part because I have evolved as you might say through these superstitions, yet I hold strongly to something that you cannot see, yet, experience.

Kauffman talks about the heart in an objective, a physiological sense, and yet there are emotive processes in the body that are strong and can carry us away even while we are aware of these currents.

So, we become the wiser, when we observe our relation with the world, still firmly aware that these experiences are subjective manifestations that are contained in these emotive forces.

So the intellectual is aware, and through advances of observation learns to shape their lives where all that has been contained in unruliness, now becomes educative. Moral and wise

Can they say they have ever truly overcome and become masters of their emotive states? Their intellects?

A scientist who can overcome the subjective rule of "irrevocable proof" as to these influences, should abstain from the scientific process? :)

Many scientists have their religion, yet are still scientists. How shall you cast them then, to the world of magic?

They understand the science just as well as you?

Tolerance maybe, while you deal scientifically with them?

This then reminds me of the historical journey of Newton in Alchemy, along side of, of his development of the legitimate processes, as calculus or gravity.

How was such an ignorant man, with his ignorant behaviour ever so careful to craft one side of his life, while he sought to perfect his other?

You may notice the contradiction with finding and looking toward and for the truth within ourselves?

In the magic of thinking, "I know something" that you would have cast aside, as easily as one might of any layman that has more to work toward in education. But you have indeed been patient.

What makes you, you?:)

Best,

Bee said...

Hi Marco,

I'm not sure that really answers my question. I am wondering why there is anything different with magic spells that prevents information (about their inefficiency) from spreading more than with any other goods or services? Consider for a moment I'd open a restaurant claiming I'm serving special food and when you come to eat at my place, you go back home and your house will be all cleaned, including the windows. I would go bankrupt immediately and that was the first and last time anybody ever tried to come up with such a business plan. But then there's people who go and claim they mumble some words and somebodies lover returns and it does not happen what you expect will happen, that such a "business plan" goes into the trash bin of failed start ups.

Tachyons, constraints depends on whether they are charged or not. Basically you look for them by Cherenkov radiation, constraints are tighter for the charged ones. Presently can't find no good reference with exact numbers, will post a link if I come across one. In any case, not a single tachyon event has ever been seen. Could of course be that they are just elsewhere than on Earth, but in any case, there's no evidence for their existence.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi JRV,

Yes, I had heard of the story with Skinner's pigeons. I came across that when I wrote this post about people's tendency to make up correlations and signals in random noise. But thing is, humans are not pigeons and the experiment that I wrote about in that earlier post was one in which (by design) people did not have time to actually consciously think about decisions they were making. It seems to me natural and not even wrong or problematic that the human brain tries to come up with explanations (or call it a theory) for input it receives, it's some sort of pattern recognition that runs all the time. The problem starts (as some others have pointed out above) if people discard evidence contrary to their theory, and often do so actually against their own interest. In this case you're wasting money on nonsense, money that could be better spend otherwise. It can be far worse though if people for religious reasons decline medical help etc. A clear case of natural selection I'd say. Best,

B.

Georg said...

This then reminds me of the historical journey of Newton in Alchemy, ...
Hello Bee,
dont be cruel :=)
The more or less unsystematic kind of
experiments in Newtons times were not
always "alchymy".
reason bihind was improvement of metal
extraction from ores and, of course
some "goldmaking".
Real alchymy is a kind of religion
around Hermes Trismegistos, but
most of "Reaserchers" like Newton,
Stahl, Becher, Markgraf or Böttcher,
did not call themselves "alchimists".
Some of them invented usefull processes still used today.
As a supervisor of the mint Newton
maybe had to work in this field,
if only to be able to comment
on proposals of those "Projectmakers",
as J.Swift calls them.
Regards
Georg

Bee said...

Hi All,

There's something wrong with Blogger's comment feature, feed and in particular comment moderation. Nothing I can do about it except telling you that many others have already reported the same problem on the blogger help pages. Sorry about that, hope it won't take long to fix. Best,

B.

clkirksey said...

Hi Bee:
Slightly OT but how do you feel about "free will" as a theoritical physicist? Isn't it possible that humans think of things like spells and religion because they are prewired to do so and some reject these ideas because of the envionmental stimuli in later life?

The idea of religion has been with us since recorded history. So it can not be an invalid concept. It just gets replaced with other concepts that may or may not be valid.

Steven Colyer said...

"Superstitions are everywhere at the World Cup. From the Mick Jagger jinx to the Nike ad curse to the Ronaldo baby hex (you know that last one is on its way), there are mystical and completely ridiculous explanations for everything that has happened so far. And now the Germans are getting in on the fun with a reliance on manager Jogi Loew's blue sweater."

Sportsmen have always been superstitious.

Kay zum Felde said...

Hi Bee,

in Germany the music broadcaster VIVA produces shows, where the kids can send SMS's with two names as input and get as output if love between people behind these names is true or not.

I thought sometimes, if such a "business" should not be forbidden.

Best, Kay

JRV said...

Hi, Bee

This is a big topic. Paul Krugman in his July 1 NY Times column starts with "When I was young and naïve, I believed that important people took positions based on careful consideration of the options. Now I know better."

Seems to me that the belief in eggs curing headaches and the belief in curing recessions by reducing deficits are two ends of the same stick.

I wouldn't completely discount the lessons of the pigeons. A simple just so story: A person has a headache. Looking for something cool to place against the head, picks up an egg. Headache goes away. Tells friend.

I've often said that in the US our education system has failed us. It seems obvious that we need better training in critical thinking based on facts, not ideologies. And more research on the irrationality of human behavior.

I've rambled on too much.

Best,

JRV

Tim van Beek said...


in Germany the music broadcaster VIVA produces shows, where the kids can send SMS's with two names as input and get as output if love between people behind these names is true or not.


Yes, I have seen that, too, but that's just an online version of a game we used to play with e.g. flowers ("er liebt mich, er liebt mich nicht"). I don't think many people take either game seriously.

On the other hand there are people who don't (and don't want to) understand that the braking distance of a car increases proportional to the square of the velocity, and not linearly. And that's a fact that can be proven, and ignoring it is manifestly dangerous :-)

Plato said...

"Plato made clear that merit and not heredity defined the gold man and that gold could be found in all parts of society."

Man is the most composite of all creatures.... Well, as in the old burning of the Temple at Corinth, by the melting and intermixture of silver and gold and other metals a new compound more precious than any, called Corinthian brass, was formed; so in this continent,--asylum of all nations,--the energy of Irish, Germans, Swedes, Poles, and Cossacks, and all the European tribes,--of the Africans, and of the Polynesians,--will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature, which will be as vigorous as the new Europe which came out of the smelting-pot of the Dark Ages, or that which earlier emerged from the Pelasgic and Etruscan barbarism.”

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, describing American Culture as a melting pot in a journal entry, 1845


Isaac Newton was not only a physicist and a mathematician. He devoted at least as much of his time to alchemical experimentation, religious scholarship, and the study of mythology as history, especially biblical chronology. Wisely, Newton never published most of this nonsense.Pg. 9

Almost as difficult as interpreting one's dream Bee?

Newton's Translation of the Emerald Tablet

It is true without lying, certain and most true. That which is Below is like that which is Above and that which is Above is like that which is Below to do the miracles of the Only Thing. And as all things have been and arose from One by the mediation of One, so all things have their birth from this One Thing by adaptation. The Sun is its father; the Moon its mother; the Wind hath carried it in its belly; the Earth is its nurse. The father of all perfection in the whole world is here. Its force or power is entire if it be converted into Earth. Separate the Earth from the Fire, the subtle from the gross, sweetly with great industry. It ascends from the Earth to the Heavens and again it descends to the Earth and receives the force of things superior and inferior. By this means you shall have the glory of the whole world and thereby all obscurity shall fly from you. Its force is above all force, for it vanquishes every subtle thing and penetrates every solid thing. So was the world created. From this are and do come admirable adaptations, whereof the process is here in this. Hence am I called Hermes Trismegistus, having the three parts of the philosophy of the whole world. That which I have said of the operation of the Sun is accomplished and ended.

Bee said...

Georg,

I believe your reply was addressed at Plato, not me?

Bee said...

Kay, Tim,

Ha :-) We had a game like that in school too, you took the couples' names and counted how often each letter appeared. Gives a list of digits. You take the digit sum, if necessary repeat, till you're left with a number from 1 - 9 that gives you a "love score," the higher the better. I think we did this mostly to kill time (like playing battleships and stuff like that). It's one of these children games, like rhymes, that don't make any sense. I think it's right what Tim says, most people don't take this seriously. Like they don't take horoscopes seriously. (I sometimes read it for entertainment. Actually, I read all of them and wonder which one I'd like best to be true.) In any case, good way to find out how seriously people take something is to ask them to pay money for it. Would you pay money to get a "love score prediction" based on your and your girl's name? (And let's hope her name is not Petra Müller...) Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi JRV,

"A simple just so story: A person has a headache. Looking for something cool to place against the head, picks up an egg. Headache goes away. Tells friend. "

Yes, but that's exactly why we have a scientific method and procedures to reliably test the efficiency of medications, therapies, or generally the safety and usefulness of consumer products. Your remark about economics is exactly why I'm saying we need to finish the scientific revolution since it didn't extend to the social sciences - to our all disadvantage. This just drives home my point that it's an educational problem. Best,

B.

JRV said...

Bee -

You said
....I'm saying we need to finish the scientific revolution since it didn't extend to the social sciences ..
Well put. Your reference was to a time before I started following your blog. Thanks, and best,

JRV

Nirmalya said...

My hypothesis would be that a lot of people are unable to judge the utility of the product. With these products you do not immediately know whether they are working or not, as with a gadget or a restaurant. Plus they aren't really subjected to scientifically rigorous testing by the users : they wouldn't stop taking their medicines to see if the magic cure would work.

Now if the users do come to a definite conclusion eventually, the time taken should be more than the time in which they influence others in their circle about the product. And in this time, their chances of spreading information and misinformation should largely even out.

Nirmalya said...

Bee,

I wrote a post on this in my blog and I used a quote from you. I hope you wouldn't mind?

Bee said...

I don't mind.

-B.