Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 21, no. 4, October-December 2004, p6.
For many years – decades, now – I've criticized mass media for continuing to publish horoscopes. Scientists and skeptics have demonstrated repeatedly, scientifically, logically, persuasively, that those published horoscopes are junk. They're not valid. They mislead readers. They even influence some readers to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn't, and to that degree they harm their audience.
I've worked in several mass-communications media, including a daily newspaper in a big chain, a web-based general news outlet, an authoritative independent scientific magazine, and now an independent science humor magazine. Colleagues in other radio, television, and assorted media tell me what those are like. Outside of specifically-scientific media, neither scientific literacy nor scientific mindset prevail. The vast majority of media owners and employees don't know science, and don't care much about it. Neither science literacy, nor gullibility for pseudoscience, seems relevant for hiring or promotion. Anywhere that science is concerned, they literally don't know what they are doing.
Profit-Driven Corporate Media
Corporate owners are notorious for being driven by the near-term bottom line. They aren't far-sighted enough for the long run (by contrast, some family-owned newspapers count by generations, not quarters).
Some owners make it clear that their principal purpose is to make money. Rupert Murdoch obviously puts profit foremost throughout his empire, so his Fox outlets, for example, may place journalistic standards second (or lower), and scientific validity third (or lower), along their way to lowering cultural standards generally. When Murdoch retires, I hope his successors will prioritize for greater public responsibility.
It's almost as bad outside Murdoch's empire. Most local newspapers are parts of large chains, which achieve economies of scale by operating non-local factors by corporate dictum. The corporation picks the cartoons and non-news features to run, including the horoscope column. The local news staff gets to fill the "news hole" on each page, but has zero influence on anything else. They funnel their attention to what they can do something about. Most newspapers don't have a science writer, and simply copy Associated Press reports, though AP is depressingly careless. I know a science writer who professed to not know whether her newspaper even ran a horoscope because she never looked at the non-news pages ... in which their horoscope runs every day. Most readers don't distinguish the different sources of what that newspaper prints on different parts of different pages.
Editing from Ignorance
I don't know any science writers or science editors who favor running horoscopes. But none rise high enough to make grand corporate decisions. Most stay within their subject. They report to general-journalism veterans, who are usually knowledgeable about public affairs, but emphatically ignorant about nature. The general-news media I worked for published horoscopes, and I carped about that, but gently enough not to threaten my employment.
Those senior editors impose templates of ignorance on the science coverage. I once had to put all my science coverage through a senior editor who was utterly ignorant, who kept failing to understand anything significant, and kept directing me to irrelevancies.
Another senior editor declared that "all stories are people stories", thus crippling coverage of, for example, a comet hitting a planet. That's how reporting about that comet and that planet gets shunted aside for personality-pieces about whoever happened to discover things.
Science coverage is likely to remain poor in corporate mass media. The bean counters don't understand science. The moguls don't understand science. The journalists in general don't understand science. They'll probably remain disgustingly ignorant for disgusting decades to come. So the presence of a horoscope will keep indicating a medium's scientific invalidity: media that publish horoscopes pander and profiteer; they don't understand science, and don't respect the reader enough to report reality.
Now, however, little voices have a far better opportunity to be heard. I run an independent magazine, and I can print anything that won't alienate my subscribers. My contributors are often delighted to find an outlet where science, validity, and humor dominate decision-making. Horoscope-free specialty newsletters and magazines abound – seek them at your newsstand and library.
But the biggest influence by far is the World Wide Web. Small media have a far louder voice when you read what they say. For a horoscope-free, non-corporate take, follow links from these among your explorations: disinfo.com; projectcensored.org; transparency.org; eurekalert.org; quackwatch.org; debunker.com; csicop.org; utne.com. I don't agree with all their views, but I don't think any of them features a horoscope.
Because media like those – and of course your own favorite alternate viewpoints – can no longer be stifled, corporate influence is actually limited. If corporate media don't serve your needs, stop buying them, and find your own horoscope-free inputs instead.
Selected and arranged by Carl C. Gaither and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither. Illustrated by Andrew Slocombe. Bristol and Philadelphia: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. xv + 481 pages. Paperback. 0-7503-0635-1. $29.99.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #3, May 2005, p31.
Only a fraction of the quotations in this entertaining compendium are humorous, but quite a lot of them are witty, and most are wise. You can dip into it anywhere, and never fail to be diverted for however long you want, from seconds to hours.
"A drug is a substance which when injected into a guinea pig produces a scientific paper."
This book is meant not only for amusement but for scholarly reference. Anyone wanting to include a relevant quotation (famous or not) in their own writings can use this volume to find the best quotation. The Gaithers provide an index of subjects, by author. They also provide a separate index of authors, by subject. Whichever you have, and whichever you want, this book helps you get the right thing, and get it right. The compilers have scrupulously traced quotations to their sources, listed in an exhaustive 26-page bibliography. Readers finding gems from a source they never heard of can easily track down the whole book. Equally, it can remind you of an old favorite that's worth looking up again.
Max Planck: "An Experiment is a question which Science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature's answer."
The cartoons by Andrew Slocombe fill out pages in good humor. Most are located near the topic of the cartoon.
Dr. Leonard McCoy: "I'm a doctor, not an escalator."
"I'm a doctor, not a brick layer."
"I'm a doctor, not a mechanic."
"I'm a doctor, not a coal miner."
"I'm a doctor, not an engineer."
This book has extremely few proofing errors. The repetition of quotes from page 249 on page 250 are the worst – and trivial. Typography, printing, and binding, are all excellent, as expected from Institute of Physics Publishing. Other quotation books in the Gaithers' series from the same publisher, in similar bindings, cover most sciences and engineering.
John Allen Paulos: "Consider a precise number that is well known to generations of parents and doctors: the normal human body temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit. Recent investigations involving millions of measurements reveal that this number is wrong; normal human body temperature is actually 98.2° Fahrenheit. The fault, however, lies not with Dr. Wunderlich's original measurements – they were averaged and sensibly rounded to the nearest degree: 37° Celsius. When this temperature was converted to Fahrenheit, however, the rounding was forgotten and 98.6° was taken to be accurate to the nearest tenth of a degree. Had the original interval between 36.5° and 37.5° Celsius been translated, the equivalent Fahrenheit temperatures would have ranged from 97.7° to 99.5°. Apparently, discalulia can even cause fevers."
Even in such a fine resource, I can quibble with a few choices. I wish the dates were included, where known. A lot of medicine has changed from dangerous, a few hundred years ago, to comparatively safe. Quotations of wisdom vary by the realities of the times, and those times are not noted.
A few items are parody songs – meant to be sung to the tune of a well-known song. But that isn't noted till the end of each item, by which time the reader has already read it unmusically. When an item should be sung to a certain tune, tell the reader before starting the lyrics.
"Cold: A curious ailment that only people who are not doctors know how to cure."
The decision to start each section on a new page means that the many sections with one or a few entries leave lots of white space.
This book belongs in many of the same places that JIR belongs: in all medical libraries and staff lounges, and with professionals who could use a diversion. It would make a good gift, and a good award.
Will Rogers: "We were primitive people when I was a kid. There were only a mighty few known diseases. Gunshot wounds, broken legs, toothache, fits, and anything that hurt you from the lower end of your neck down was known as a bellyache."
Music CD Review
Approved But Not Funded. Composed, produced, arranged, mixed, and largely performed by Marc S. Abel. Musica Scientifica Esoterica, www.hippus.net, 2002. $12.99.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48 #4, November 2004, p31.
This disc offers a witty take on Science, featuring sympathetic lyrics, strong harmonies, and professional blues musicianship and production by Dr. Marc Abel and 18 colleagues, all from the Chicago area.
The Big Bento Box of Unuseless Japanese Inventions: The Art of Chindogu. By Kenji Kawakami. Translated and additional text by Dan Papia: WW Norton, 2005. 0-393-32676-4.
reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #6, November 2005, p29.
Rube Goldberg founded the modern era of humorous inventions in the US, and Heath Robinson did the same in the UK, in the first half of the 1900s. Even now, "Rube Goldberg contraptions" call to mind not only his cartooning style but his inventive wit.
Parodies and Commentaries, by David Kritchevsky. AOCS Press, Champaign, Illinois, 2003. ISBN 1-893997-46-4. 46 pages. $5.00. Order through www.aocs.org/catalog/product.asp?ID=wdk&dept=90
reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v49 #6, November 2005, p28.
Tucked away under a host of worthy technical volumes like Healthful Lipids and The Biodiesel Handbook, The American Oil Chemists' Society also publishes this songbook by a major scholar at Philadelphia's Wistar Institute.
by Ian Rowland. 3rd edition, 2002. 237 pages. Published by the author exclusively through his website, www.ianrowland.com. The new 4th edition: £28 plus postage from England.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 50, no. 3, 2007, p30.
Ian Rowland knows what you're thinking. Now that I've read his book, so do I.
Ian Rowland is a British magician who has perfected the art of "Cold Reading" to tell clients amazing things.
Cold readings are also used in tarot, astrology, palmistry, graphology, clairvoyance, mediumship, psychometry, crystal balls, and auras. The clients are usually surprised at how accurate the readings are. Readings work largely because most people share the same kinds of experiences, including the same problems. If you bring up a characteristic that almost everybody has to some degree, and scrupulously don't say how much the subject has of it, the claim rings true.
Rowland has learned the common thoughts of common people. I noticed that many of my own thoughts are so conventional that I must be pretty "normal", despite what some people say.
I got tuned in to this situation by fighting astrology. Horoscope writers spin lots of statements that are true for most people most of the time. Therefore, readers think their horoscopes are "right!", and credit astrology, rather than psychology, with the "hits".
Till recently, however, the only compilation of cold readings that I could find was the article, "Cold Reading": How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them, by Ray Hyman in The Zetetic (which later became Skeptical Inquirer), vol. I, no. 2, Spring/Summer 1977, pp 18-37. The paragraphs there descended from astrological horoscopes. I wanted better, more complete information. I knew there had to be more, but I couldn't find it.
Looking up "cold reading" sent me down some wrong alleys. For example, the term is also used for the quite different skill of narrators and actors who read a script for the first time – "cold".
Then, I heard about the first edition of this book, which was published in 1998. But it's not available in stores, and no library I use – including some major academic research libraries – has a copy. The price tag gave me second thoughts, so I put it off.
Finally I decided to buy it. It was already in its third edition, after only 5 years! The exclusive source is the author's website. This keeps control – and profits, and customer contact – away from distributors who don't care enough about the book. Rowland uses a clever security method to take credit cards, so I committed to the full retail price, plus intercontinental postage, totaling $64.61. Before I could even start worrying about the book getting lost in the mail, it arrived in perfect condition.
What a gem! This book is a joy to read, a splendid blend of human insight and practical showmanship. It includes everything I was thinking of, tons more that hadn't occurred to me, provides huge resources, and stays interesting the whole time. I read it cover-to-cover.
The most common themes of readings are love and money. Other popular topics include career, health, travel, education, and ambitions. A person not concerned with those would be rare indeed.
The heart of the book is the 119-page unit explaining how cold reading works. It covers the setup, principal themes, elements of the reading, the win-win game, and presentation points. Laced with revealing examples and entertaining anecdotes, it explains the theory and practice behind each point.
One of the book's many delights is the titling of the subsections. Here is a sampler:
The Fuzzy Fact
The Opposites Game
The Jargon Blitz
The Vanishing Negative
The Neverwas Prediction
I am wrong now, but I will be right soon
Reprising with gold paint
New in this edition are applications of cold reading to sales, romance, and interrogating criminals. Rowland comments on the ethics and legality involved, but may not always be heeded.
The author has some quirks that are excusable, and arguably good. He puts into print the time-honored speaker's maxim of "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." Each segment's introduction clarifies what it is about and where it fits into the larger scheme. Each segment ends by saying some version of "this ends the segment on such-and-such, the fourth of seven elements of thus-and-so." The phrasing is stilted, but it's brief and keeps the logical structure obvious.
The book is so meticulously proofread that I found only 2 typos, both trivial, on pages 123 and 125.
Though the contents are witty and wonderful, the physical production of the book shows some choices that I wouldn't have made. I eMailed Rowland about them, and got his reasoning, but I still don't agree.
Throughout the book, most places that need a long "dash" use a short "hyphen" instead. That is just plain wrong.
The paperback format and binding are conventional and appropriate. The paper is certainly opaque, a helpful characteristic which Rowland wanted. But the paper is much heavier than it needs to be. It's also very glossy, which gives awkward, annoying reflections from lighting in some rooms. Lighter, matte-finish book paper would feel more appropriate, be easier to read, and probably cost the publisher less.
The author likes the look of the "Souvenir" type font he used. But it is not the most readable. When I publish a book, I really want people to read it, so I use the most-readable fonts – typically "book" types like Bookman and Century Schoolbook. They aren't as condensed as Times, nor as artsy as Souvenir – but they read better, and that's what I want most. I often felt this book's lower readability slowed me down, when the actual wording would have let me go faster.
OK, if you have to read slower, consider it "savoring". This is certainly a delicious book!
By Donald E. Simanek and John C. Holden
Bristol, UK: Institute of Physics Publishing, 2002. 0-7503-0714-5. xii + 310 pages. Hardbound.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR v48 #4, November 2004, p34.
If you like JIR, you'll love Science Askew. Science satires, cartoons, puns, and parodies range from chapter-long tales down to punchy 1-liners.
Among the rules of the lab:
Experiments must be reproducible; they should fail the same way each time.
Experience is directly proportional to equipment ruined.
Teamwork is essential; it allows you to blame someone else.
My reaction upon reading most of the articles was "we should run this item in JIR!". But we reprinted an entire chapter in the last issue, and we published 2 of the articles (by the illustrator, retired geologist John C. Holden) in the 1970s, and the whole thing is already in a nifty package – this book.
From the computer expert's glossary:
On-line: The idea that a human being should always be accessible to a computer.
Machine-Independent Program: A program that will not run on any machine.
Documentation: Instructions translated from Swedish by Japanese for English-speaking people.
Simanek and Holden include fuel for debunking pseudoscience, and teaching students the distinctions. Ever the teacher, Simanek takes several opportunities to "talk straight" and point out legitimate science lessons. The pair of articles arguing opposing sides of the DHMO "controversy" afford chuckles, as well as stimulation for student exercises. "Di-Hydrogen Monoxide", of course, is H2O.
What engineers say and what they mean by it:
"Test results were extremely gratifying": It works, and are we ever surprised!
"The entire concept will have to be abandoned": The only guy who understood the thing quit.
"The designs are well within allowable limits": We just barely made it, by stretching a point or 2.
Holden contributes many clever and witty illustrations. Several other authors appear too, along with some items that have circulated worldwide on the Web which could not be traced to their original authors.
Some of Simanek's Laws of Statistics:
Anyone who trusts in statistics is taking a chance.
When 2 lines of a graph cross, that must be significant.
Once human subjects find out what you have discovered about their behavior, they begin to behave differently.
There are no important typos, and the trivial ones won't distract or confuse anyone. An illustration is mis-numbered, as is a footnote, but context makes the meanings clear. The illustration on page 110 misspells innumeracy and misperception. Page 273 gives the wrong dates for astrophysicist Thornton Page; they should be 1913-1996 instead of 1884-1952, which are the dates of physicist Leigh Page. At the time I found these little errors, none of them was posted on Science Askew's website, www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/askewcom.htm. All the tiny errors posted there, I missed.
Among the "do-it" 1-liners:
Professors do it absent-mindedly
Cosmologists do it with a bang
Logicians do it symbolically
Institute of Physics Publishing produced this book extremely well. The type is clear, the illustrations crisp, and all the parts are where they ought to be, except that there is no index. The paper is very high quality. The binding is excellent, comfortable, tight, and ought to last a long time. That's essential for this book, because the owner, friends, students, visitors, and everyone else lucky enough to happen upon it will dip into it time after time.
Despite excellent achievements by the authors and producers, this book has not been reviewed or advertised as much as it merits because the publisher refuses to send out many review copies, advertises very little outside its own periodicals, and discourages retailers. It took JIR considerable extra effort to wrest copies from the publisher, but this book is positively worth it.
Science Askew belongs in academic libraries, both for amusement and to stimulate classwork. Scientists, doctors, and educators will love this book. And it makes a splendid gift for anyone with technical knowledge and a sense of – or need for – humor.
Norman Sperling, in Teaching&, Sonoma State University, April 1989, p3.
I used to be plagued by cheaters in my large Astronomy 100 sections, and have evolved mechanisms to minimize it.
The California State University system has a policy on cheating. The part of Title 5 of the State Code that is reprinted in every student's catalog specifies that the penalty for cheating is expulsion from the CSU system! That constitutes abundant warning to students, as well as full definition of sanctions.
Hardly any professors file such charges. Virtually all handle cheating at a much lower level – making cheaters re-do the offending test or paper, or giving an F for that paper. A few give an F for the course. But so few file campus-level charges that, when I did so a few years ago, administrators had to look up the procedure.
From the cheater's viewpoint, course-level sanctions are trivial. Cheaters typically feel that they're going to do poorly on that paper anyway, so they have nothing to lose. At worst, if caught, they do indeed flunk it. Even if the penalty is an F in the course, the Transcript just shows failure, not cause. Thus, faculty might very well have caught your cheaters before. How could you tell? Those professors' policies taught the students that they can keep cheating with near-impunity.
Notice the explicit warning from my syllabus:
"Regardless of anything you may have gotten away with elsewhere, ANY cheating or plagiarism in my class will be prosecuted to the FULL extent permissible. Cheating and plagiarism are offenses against the CSU system, punishable by expulsion from the CSU system. Most of my students work hard for their grades, and I vigorously defend the value of their earned credit. In recent terms I have detected several different types of cheating, and will absolutely not tolerate it. As far as I know, no student I've caught is in the CSU system any more."
I read this out loud on the first day, in a tone leaving no doubt. Thus, all students who are tempted to cheat know that I will buck for expulsion when I catch them. When I catch a cheater, I do indeed file the strongest case I can with the administration, invariable arguing for expulsion. While administrators are very reluctant to expel, they frequently agree to suspend. I can tell a class that I intend to do this, with a perfectly straight face, that I indeed do this, with no sympathy extended after the infraction. This, and only this, practice teaches students that we mean what we say, and that there is an unacceptable penalty for cheating, making the gamble undesirable.
Incidents of cheating have dropped precipitously in my classes. When I first started including that paragraph, they dropped to about a case a year. And since I began reading it aloud, with feeling, in the first session, I have had just one case – a student who hadn't been there the first day. From this, I conclude that following state law, and saying so clearly, virtually eliminates cheating. Lesser practices merely school cheaters in becoming the next generation of embezzlers and the like.
I therefore urge all instructors to absolutely renounce all sympathy for cheaters, to prosecute every case and buck for expulsion, and to sincerely promise this to every class, unmistakably, both in writing and orally. It will tell the vast majority of our students that we defend hard-earned credit, that we mean what we say, and that college is for people who want to learn. And it will reduce cheating to very low levels.
Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 17, no. 6, March 1999, p3-4.
Most people know the detailed "ifs, ands, and buts" of their own specialties. To learn them often requires un-learning the simplifications of "common knowledge" and "conventional wisdom". Outside their specialties, however, most people don't know any better than to accept oversimplifications. So do most leaders, confronted by problems they are not expert in, and so do most mass media. And so do skeptics, though we often feel worse when we learn better.
The oversimplifications we learn abound with boundaries, but reality turns out to be much more muddled. This is true for countries, for languages, and for "mystical beliefs".
Maps often portray national boundaries as a sharp change from one solid color to a contrasting one. That gives the false impression that the area all in one solid color is all one uniform place, changing abruptly at the boundary to a contrasting uniform place. Before the Soviet Union broke up, most Westerners considered "Russian" and "Soviet" to be synonyms, and many were surprised when the flow of events featured the national identities of Lithuania, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, and others.
I learned another dimension from Dr. A. Florsch, who gave me a grand tour of Strasbourg Observatory. As we gazed toward the nearby Rhine River, he told me "I am a Frenchman. My father was a German. His father was a Frenchman, and his father was a German. And we have never moved!"
Languages and Dialects
Language, too, is much more varied than generally appreciated. I was taught that "in Germany, they speak German". That gave me the false impressions that "Germany" is one uniform place and "German" is one uniform language. I later learned that there are not only different accents and regional preferences, but also local dialects which are unintelligible to speakers of the nationwide version. In Newsweek I read a linguist's comment that "a language is a dialect with an army." Most often, the dialect of the capital becomes the "national language", especially through radio and television.
The same certainly applies in China. My ex grew up speaking Yantai dialect. It's a version of Mandarin which is not intelligible to people who only know Beijing dialect. Cantonese, in 2 southern provinces where many Chinese in America originated, is also not intelligible to Beijing or Yantai or dozens of other Chinese dialects. Most Mainland Chinese can now understand Beijing Mandarin, though they continue to speak their local tongue.
Before I married a Chinese woman, visited plain people in China (in contrast to just tourist sites), and talked so often with Chinese people in America, I would have bought the tone of some skeptics' rants against "feng shui" (pronounced "fung shway"). That is reported as the mystical belief that buildings and their furnishings must be arranged in certain ways for good luck, and certain other arrangements must be avoided to fend off bad luck. This gives the false impression that "feng shui" is a uniform belief, and that all Chinese swallow it whole. Reality is much more varied.
Yes, there are highly-respected people "proficient" in feng shui. And, yes, there are some users who "believe" their dictates. But the vast majority of practitioners and users operate much more casually. Hardly anyone concentrates on feng shui. For most, it is little more than "that chair will look good over there".
It's hardly different from the interior design practice of one of our neighbors. When she says "that chair will look good over there", clients take her advice. They don't call her mystical, but they can't explain her skill, either.
It is the varying degrees that most media, politicians, and skeptics miss. From my visits and conversations I have learned that China is a country with enormous variety in food, language, and scenery, and also enormous variety in beliefs, intensities of beliefs, and local leadership. I've learned that, since the central government relaxed its grip, when you hear "China cracked down on X", it really means that "One Chinese politician cracked down on X, but outside his influence, people generally went about their business as usual." And when you hear some skeptics say that "Chinese believe Y", interpret that as "Some Chinese believe Y, and many less so, and others not at all, and some contrariwise."
© 1980 Norman Sperling. Excerpted from What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You, 0-913399-04-3. First published in Astronomy magazine, vol. 8, no. 8, August 1980, 24-25.
Everyone who sees a total solar eclipse remembers it forever. It overwhelms the senses … and the soul as well – the curdling doom of the onrushing umbra, the otherworldly pink prominences, the ethereal pearly corona. And, incredibly soon, totality terminates.
Then it hits you: "That was supposed to last a few minutes – but that couldn't have been true. It only seemed to last 8 seconds!"
This effect frustrated my first 4 eclipses, and most fellow eclipse fanatics assure me they've been bothered by it, too. Yet tape recordings, videos, and the whole edifice of celestial mechanics all claim that it did last the full, advertised 2 to 7 minutes – to within a few seconds, that's what really happened.
Where did all that precious time get lost?