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Big Think Interview With James Randi
Question: When did you first fall in love with magic?
James Randi: Well, let’s get some definitions going first of all. I prefer to call it "conjuring" because magic would be controlling nature by means of spells and incantations and I’ve tried spells and incantations. They don’t work. You’ve got to use tricks, you see. So, conjuring is approximating the effects of what would be a genuine magic miracle of some kind. So, with that definition in mind, I got interested in magic; I was one of those unfortunate kids, I was a child prodigy. And believe me that is an unfortunate circumstance. I had a very unhappy time of it and I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and I stayed out of public school because I didn’t need it. I was self-educated. And so I took a trip to the Casino Theater on Queen Street in Toronto, Canada, many, many years ago. Just a little guy, about so big. I guess I was about 12 or so at the time. And I saw a magician. Oh, man, that got my attention. I figured maybe that’s something I could know something more about.
Up until then, I was going to be a chemist or an archeologist; one or the other. I didn’t know. But archeology and chemistry lost me to the art of conjuring and I immediately took it up and learned a few things and here I am.
Question: Which magicians did you admire growing up?
James Randi: Well, the magician I saw at that theater on that Wednesday afternoon matinee was Harry Blackstone, Sr. A rather short gentleman dressed in tails with busy white hair and a bit of a lisp. He spoke like this, more or less. And he was wonderful. He was a giant. He was... well, either a demon or an angel, I wasn’t quite sure. But he could do wonderful things and it really got my attention. And from then on, I started to meet the other people in the business all the way up to Blackstone, Jr., who was his son and took over the trade after his father died. And both of them are now deceased unfortunately, and I miss both of them.
Question: How did you become an escape artist?
James Randi: I took up the escape artistry thing on a peculiar sort of event. I was working in Quebec City at the Fleur Le Royal, I think it was called; a nightclub there. And a couple of cops came by and were eying me from the side of the stage and they came to me afterwards and showed me a pair of handcuffs and said, “Could you get out of these?” And I said, “Oh, yeah sure.” They were simple locks and, well we’ll see you after the show. And I said, yeah, sure, okay, thinking I would never see them again. And I packed up and was leaving the dressing room and suddenly they showed up in the stairway. I said, "Oh, I forgot about that." So, I went downstairs and they put a pair of handcuffs on me out in the street, much to the amusement of people passing by, I can assure you. And they opened the squad car door for me; I got in one side, and got out the other side with the handcuffs off.
Now, that got their attention. They hadn’t seen that before, but I will confide in you that handcuff locks are very, very simple locks. And I was pretty well set up for it and ready for it. But as they looked at me in some astonishment and said, “Well, do you think you could break out of our jail?” And I said, “Well, show me the jail.” Oh, they put me in the back of the squad car and off we went. And the next morning the headlines in the Quebec Soleil, was the name of the paper, came out with, "[...] Randi [..] de la Prison de Quebec." That means, the Amazing Randi, and I had never used that title before, up until then I was "The Great Randall," you see. But the Amazing Randi Escapes from the Jail of Quebec, or the Quebec Jail.
It made a bit of news and when I went to the nightclub that night, the Manager met me at the door and he said, “Forget the birds and the rings and all that sort of thing.” He said, “Do something in the escape business.” So, I went out there and I did a thing and that’s how I got into it. But it made a good reputation from me; I broke out of 22 jails around the world in my career. All legally that is. Yes, I’ve never actually been locked up in one where I – well there was one occasion. I won’t get into the details.
Question: How did it feel to break Houdini’s record for submersion in a coffin?
James Randi: Well, it wasn’t much of a feat really at the time, I must say, because I was much younger. He as 52 at the age when he did that, and I was, I think 22. So, I had the advantage, the physical advantage over old Harry. And so I took a certain amount of credit for it, but I did break his record by a few minutes. And I did it several times after that around the world and different countries and in different venues and increased my record to one hour and 44 minutes of being sealed up on a steel coffin under water.
Question: What kind of mental and physical training do escape artists undergo?
James Randi: Well it’s a matter of using some common sense to start with. You don’t want to use up a lot of oxygen. I got a very good night’s sleep. I did it on the “Today” Show on NBC with Dave Garroway, as a matter of fact. He was the host at that time. That was many, many moons ago. And I rested up very thoroughly; I stayed at the Hotel Shelton where there was a swimming pool, in New York City. I slept well, and I must say when I got into the coffin there, I was starting to think, well maybe I’ll make an hour or so. I made an hour and 31 minutes in that particular episode. But I just breathed in a very shallow manner. I didn’t take big deep breaths to use a lot of oxygen, and I relaxed and I had good assurance. I had headphones on so I as listening to what was happening outside. They would consult with me every now and then. I had a microphone on my chest. And I just took it easy. I kept my metabolism rate way down and at the end of an hour and 31 minutes though, I was really doing this kind of a thing and had to take every bit of oxygen I could possible manage, because you are rebreathing the air, you see. You’re not using all of the oxygen on every breath, of course, but it was tough. It was rather tough. I subsequently learned that I could do it, as I said, for an hour and 44 minutes, the last time I did it.
Question: What was your scariest moment as an escape artist?
James Randi: Oh yeah. Yeah, I came close at least twice to actually losing my life. Well, one happened in Toronto, Canada, the other one happened in Edgewater, Nova Scotia. I was sealed up in a coffin, they had cables fastened to me and they lowered me into the, I forgot—the LaHave River, I think it was outside of Halifax. I hope I got these names right. And they had a telephone with me and a microphone, headphones, the whole thing and I was there in the coffin. There was a huge crowd out on the embankment. It was some sort of a festival. I don’t remember what it was exactly. And they connected me with my mother who was back in Toronto, Canada. And the phone rang and she picked it up and she said, “Hello.” And I said, “Hi. This is your son.” And she said, “You sound funny.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m in a coffin at the bottom of the LaHave River.” And she said, “Oh come on.” And I said, “Yes, I am. And there’s a whole crowd of people out there listening to you.” And she fell silent. A little stage struck, I guess. But eventually she got over that and we had a little bit of a chat. And then I noticed something very strange happening. There was mud starting to ooze over the transparent panel, the glass panel I had in the top of the coffin through which I could see the daylight up above me. And I was under about six or eight feet of water held down by barbells and various things to weight me down. And they had a diver in beside me in an old diving suit, on with a big round headpiece and... helmet, that is. And he saw that I was slipping out of the harness and into the mud at the bottom of the LaHave River. And but for his ingenuity, I might still be there someplace, rather wasted and waiting for a rescue, I would guess. But the diver refitted the loop of cable around the coffin and I stayed down for the rest of the time and they finally hauled me up. So, that was very close. I could have drifted a way down the river with the heavy current, and they could have lost me altogether. And what would the world be without me? I mean, after all, let’s face it.
Then the other example was, I got locked up in a safe in Toronto, Canada, in the Sun newspaper office. I wanted to do a stunt that they would remember me for, and they had this steel safe and I jammed myself into it and barely got into the thing. I told them to close the door and I would escape. And my assistant, Moses, was outside at the time. And I sort of depended on him and he had to help me out of this one too. I worked at the door, pried on the back of the door and I saw the combination there and I felt the door coming out at me. And I knew what that meant. It was spring loaded in such a way that if anyone tried to knock the mechanism out of place, bars would jump in at the side of the safe and seal me in permanently. And they could only cut me out with an acetylene torch and that would take, a long period of time at very high temperatures and I wouldn’t survive that. So, I just said, “Moses.” And he said, “Yeah.” I said; have them dial up the combination on the safe. So, the manager sat down and I heard zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, zip, clunk. No, zip, zip, zip, and I said, Moses, find the person who opens it every morning. And a lady came over, the manager was breaking down, he couldn’t stand the tension. So, she finally dialed it up and "click," the door fell open. And I fell out on the floor. I passed out as I fell out on the floor as a matter of fact. So that was a second instance of my coming close to cashing in.
Question: Why do audiences fall for—and want to fall for—magic tricks?
James Randi: Well, I don’t know that we fall for them. We accept them. But let’s not put it quite that way. People like fantasy, they like to believe that there is a supernatural world out there, and devils and angels, and all kinds of things like that. They like to believe in that kind of mythology. And if they can be part of it, if they can be part of the action, or witness something to that effect, they like to do it. A legitimate magician, as myself, a conjurer that is, will always tell his audience is that what you’re seeing is simple tricks. They are illusions. They don’t really happen. Or at least you try to get that idea across to them. After all, I think very few people thing that David Copperfield actually uses a buzz saw to cut a girl in two pieces because that would be a waste of beautiful girls for one thing, and the costumes would be all torn up and everything. That would be a terrible waste. So, it’s actually a trick. It’s an illusion. These are very good illusions in most cases, or they don’t work at all. So, you’ve either got to be good at the thing, or you’re not in the business any longer.
But people do enjoy seeing this kind of fantasy happen. Now, mind you, in the days of computerized movies now where you can perform miracles on the screen, on the silver screen, as they say—and in 3D, remember that—the magician is sort of challenged to do something just a bit bigger than what he or she did the last time. And it’s getting more and more challenging for the conjuring profession. But you’ve got Penn and Teller, you’ve got Lance Burton, you’ve got Matt King, you’ve got people in Las Vegas like that who carry on every day.
Now, Matt King has been doing the same act for like 16 or 18 years now. And why? Because he’s pretty damn good at it; highly entertaining. He doesn’t have to be a mystical character. He’s a magician and he’s funny and he’s entertaining, he’s quick. He’s got great wit and such, as does Penn and Teller and Lance Burton, of course. But they’re pros. They’re dyed in the wool pros, and they are great examples of the conjuring art.
On the other hand, we have the so-called psychics out there who say they can bend spoons with their minds. Duh. You know, do ESP and various things like that. And these are people who are lying to the public. They’re not playing fair with them at all and they are leading them astray and are taking away, in my estimation, their emotional security, as well as their money.
Question: Would you perform a feat of conjuring?
James Randi: All right, I’ll have to turn a little bit to the camera so—what was your name again, I’m sorry.
James Randi: Vicky. I’m sorry Vicky. Now, Vicky, I’m a bit of an amateur at shuffling cards. Ho, ho, ho. But when a deck is as thoroughly mixed up as this one is, many people think that there’ll be a red, black, red, black. I’m not talking about suits, now just the color, you see. Red, black, but it doesn’t happen that way. For example here, we’ve got three reds; we don’t need the joker in there.
James Randi: Yes. And we’ve got oh, there’s another three reds. No, this is pretty good, the colors – I’m just looking at the colors now. The colors are pretty well mixed in here other than here’s another joker that we won’t use in there. All right. Now. What I’m going to do is, first of all. We suspect that the colors would be pretty well sorted, or alternated all the way through the deck. But I’m going to show you something rather remarkable. Here we have a well shuffled deck, very well shuffled deck. And I want you to come over here and just give me your hand, if you’d be so kind. Step over and join me on the set. Okay? Now just hold, like that with the palm up, a little closer—I see you have a rich future. Yes, well in any case. I want you to hold half of the cards for me, would you please. And I’ll hold the other half. And I’m going to show you something rather remarkable. Look at this.
When I turn the back over, watch this. One black card on the top and then all of the rest of them red. Every last one. Wow! And taking a look. Hold those for me, please. One black card on the top just to disguise it, but in this case, each and every one of them black.
Question: What first prompted your crusade against pseudoscience?
James Randi: Well, for one thing. As a magician—someone who professionally deceives people, but does it for entertainment purposes—I know two things with great certainty. First, how people can be fooled. And second, and that’s more important, how they can fool themselves. And they do.
Now magicians know this and they allow people to fool themselves, but for purposes of entertainment. But I see the charlatans out there, the people on television who say they can talk with dead people. I too can talk to dead people, but do they answer? I think Shakespeare asked a question like that one time in Henry the something or other. The point is, people can be misled into believing there is a supernatural world out there. Now, there may be. I can’t say that there isn’t. But certainly what is being shown us on television and through the media in general by people like John Edward, for instance, and Sylvia Browne and other performers like this who say they have these supernatural powers. That is nothing like supernatural powers. There is nothing happening there that the magician can’t explain. And that’s what got me so angry about it because I saw lives being destroyed, I saw money being taken. I saw emotional security being damaged desperately.
I had people coming to the James Randi Educational Foundation in Florida, they sit in my library, and the sit down, they say, “But our mother has control of the book. She has the power of attorney and she’s given all the money away to the faith healer, or to the fortune teller, the gypsy, or whatever, and what can we do? And the answer is, you can’t do anything. If she’s got legal control of it, she has a right to do what she thinks is right with it. Now, she’s wrong in that supposition. That is not what should be happening, in my estimation. People should be told the truth. They should be allowed to know that they can be deceived. And the average person out there doesn’t realize how easily they can be deceived by a clever operator.
Question: What prompted your crusade against Uri Geller in particular?
James Randi: Well for one thing, he obtained a very high profile back in the ‘70s, when he was [...], that’s Uri Geller, we’re talking about—who says that he can bend spoons with his mind. Duh, every fool can bend a spoon, but with his mind? That might be a different thing. He attained a reputation because he was tested at Stanford Research Institute. Now, after hours, it was informal, the institute had nothing to do with actually testing him, but he was tested on the premises, and that’s where that impression was given rise to.
Eventually, a scientific paper was written up for Nature magazine by the two rather naïve scientists who fell for the simple tricks that Geller did. He only has four tricks in his whole repertoire for the last 35 years that I know of. And yet he’s done very well on them. He’s obviously made money in the trade over those years. And that’s okay, hey making money as an entertainer... but he tried to tell people that he really had supernatural powers. That he came from, of all things—and this is his words and not mine—he came from a planet called Hoova, which apparently is a place where they get vacuum cleanas. I’m not sure. But he said this planet is way out there in the solar system, or beyond the solar system, and that he came from that planet.
No he wasn’t. He was born in Israel just like everybody else was in Israel. They are born the same way, of a mother and a father. He didn’t come from any mystical planet. Nothing like that whatsoever. But these scientists who saw him and who apparently tested him. They actually didn’t test him, what they did was they allowed him to do demonstrations of what he did best. They wrote a whole book on him, and they reported to Nature magazine that it was the real thing.
Well, I objected to that and ever since then I have been pursuing Mr. Geller. Now, he has changed his tune. He doesn’t want to be known as a "psychic," he wants to be known as a "mystifier." Ho, ho, ho. What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t fool too many people. You see, Mr. Geller has a problem; his problem is that he cost tens of billions of dollars in research funds all over the world, from countries, from companies, from various corporations, and individuals and universities who spent all kinds of money testing what they called “The Geller Effect.” And they wasted all that research money, and time, and careers as well. So, if Geller now comes out and says, "Oh, I was only fooling. Yeah, that was a fib that I told you. I didn’t really come from the planet Hoova, and I can’t really bend spoons with my mind, I just simply do it when nobody’s looking, you see." But if he were to admit that, I think that the law would probably come down on him pretty heavily. Certainly some people out there would like some recompense for their loss of time and effort.
Question: What pseudoscientific beliefs do you observe within the scientific community?
James Randi: Oh, well, such things as free energy for example. Zero-point energy. Getting energy from no place. That’s... we used to call those perpetual motion machines, but now they’re given much more highfalutin terms. But a lot of money is wasted on that. See, we have a million-dollar challenge with the James Randi Educational Foundation, and that challenge says, “Do something that is paranormal, supernatural, or occult and you win the millions dollars.” The million dollars is there, it’s with an investment house in New York City. All you do is perform as you say you can perform and you collect the million dollars. Now, Mr. Geller has never applied, for one thing. Sylvia Browne did apply. She was forced into it on a major television show some years ago, and she’s been looking for me ever since. She apparently can’t find me. She talks to dead people, and I’m alive, and she can’t find me. I’m in the phone book Sylvia, what’s wrong? But she says also that I’m not a godly person.
Now, I would think that Sylvia would think, maybe I’ll take this godly person to the cleaners and take his million dollars. Now, it’s not my million dollars, it belongs to the foundation, but it is a million dollars. It’s in investable bonds that is cashable, negotiable bonds. You can change it into a million dollars overnight simply by selling the shares. That’s all, and so it is there. It’s a million dollar prize and it’s a big carrot to wave in front of these people. Where are they? They should be knocking at that door right now, as a matter of fact, I would think.
Question: What does the JREF consider a legitimate test of paranormal claims?
A test of any specific claim is going to depend entirely upon that claim. If you say you can speak to dead people, I’ve got a whole load of questions I would like to ask certain dead people. Answers to which I already have, and the dead people, since they are dead, I don’t believe they’ve got the answers any longer, but if you want to call them up and ask them the questions and come up with the right answer, hey, you could win the million dollars. Now, many people say they can read minds, they can predict the future, they can interpret dreams and such, well, it all depends on the specific claim they make. All they have to do is say what they can do, under what circumstances, with what accuracy.
And some people have taken, literally, years. One fellow, a PhD in California took four and a half years to answer those three questions, and finally when we got ready to enter into tests with him of "remote viewing," as he called it, and he actually gave courses in this at the university in California, he suddenly changed his email address and his telephone number. We haven't been able to reach him since. Isn’t that strange? I guess he doesn’t need the million dollars.
Question: What has been the most difficult paranormal claim for the JREF to disprove?
James Randi: I’d like to say that there has been one particularly difficult one, but no, they’ve all been so easy. They’ve been so easy because they’ve been so transparent. I’ve been in this business for a long, long time and I’ve seen everything. Recently, I got a nice contract to go to South Korea and do a TV series, which I did there, testing South Korean "psychics," so-called. And they told me before I left, they said, “Oh, Mr. Randi, you signed the contract, so I guess we should tell, we’ve got psychics in South Korea that you’ve never seen before.” And I went off there with my assistant and we looked at them and turned to one another and said, “Wait a minute. This is the same thing that has been going on since the 1600s. It’s in all the books. It’s exactly the same thing. They’re serving kimchee at lunch instead of macaroni, or whatever, but in any different culture, in any differen... the costume is different, the language is different, but the same stunts are being done again, and again, and again. They haven’t invented anything new since the early 1600s.
Question: Do you believe supernatural thinking is ingrained in human cognition?
James Randi: Well, you’d have to ask a psychologist, and perhaps a few psychiatrists that question because technically I can’t answer that question. But I will tell you, I suspect strongly that people need to have some more romance in their lives. After all, look at the average kid who is male or female who was raised by their parents who believe that he or she will have children and will have a wife or a husband and they will be absolutely ideal people and everything will go... you will be a doctor, or lawyer, or you’ll be very wealthy, have a beautiful home. It doesn’t work out that way all the time. In fact, it seldom works out that way. And so they look around and say, "What have I done wrong?" And them somebody runs an ad on television saying, “Oh, I can solve your problems. I can give you guidance to the future, and I can look into the crystal ball, or read the tarot cards,” or whatever. They may tend to fall for that sort of thing because they say, "They wouldn’t’ say that if it weren’t true." Oh, yes, they would. And there’s a huge profit margin in this. So people do fall for these things very, very easily.
Question: As a “bright,” what do you believe?
James Randi: The term "bright" I don’t much care for, but hey, we did the best we could with it. I was with Richard Dawkins in Clearwater, Florida and a few other people who brainstormed and came up with idea of having the "brights." I think I was maybe the third or fourth person to sign the membership roster.
And a "bright" is someone who thinks logically and rationally; bases his or her decisions on rationality, upon logic, and upon evidence—that’s the major thing right there. And if we don’t have evidence, we can express our belief or lack of belief in it, but it has to be provisional. I believe that this is probably true, though I don’t have any evidence for or against. It’s a perfectly safe statement. And so, brights base all of their decisions and their beliefs on logic, rationality, and evidence. That’s the thing in which they differ from the average person who takes anything that comes along that looks attractive. “Oh, I like that; I think I’ll believe in it.”
Question: As the scientific picture of the universe gets weirder, could any religious claims ever be verified?
James Randi: Not that I know. I am an atheist, tried and true. I have been since I was, oh I guess about this tall. I’m only about this tall now. And I made up my mind that I was going to investigate all of these things and question them. I went to Sunday school. I was tossed out of Sunday school immediately. But it gave me 25 cents that I could have put in the contribution plate there, so when they pass the plate around, and I found out that at Purdy's Drug Store, you could buy a two-flavored ice cream sundae for 25 cents. And that was a great discovery of my childhood, I must say, and I took full advantage of it. My parents, bless them, never found out and I went off every Sunday morning as if going to Sunday school, but I lied. And I’m ashamed to admit it now, and if my dad and mom are up there someplace, or down there someplace, I have no idea, I ask them to forgive me.
Question: Why did you decide to come out publicly at age 81?
James Randi: Oh, well. I did it, first of all, my next book is to be called, this is a plug, "A Magician in the Laboratory." And I’m working on that currently right now and it’s more or less autobiographical because so much of my life is spent running around the world and sitting around in laboratories and watching, in many cases, watching scientists make total fools of themselves. But I forgive them for that, they’re just not informed. I tried to inform them and such. And I thought, "Well hey, before I publish the book, I should really come out and say to people, yes, I’m gay. I’ve been gay all of my life." I don’t have any problem with that whatsoever. The point that I came out so late in my life is only due to the fact that I never got around to it. All my friends and family have always known. All of my office people and such have always known about this. And I’ve never made any refusal to discuss it, and if anyone has every asked, I said quite frankly, “Yes, that’s the situation.” And for 25 years now, I’ve had a faithful companion and we get along just fine. We’re very attached to one another, I’m very happy in that relationship and it doesn’t enter into my work at all though.
Question: How has the public reaction been?
James Randi: Oh, the public reaction has been wonderful. I anticipated that it would be, frankly, but it’s been much more, much better than I even dreamed it could be. I’m still getting emails months after this happened. I’m still getting email from people who say, "Oh I just found out about so and so, and bang on, that’s the way to go." And these a people who can or cannot be gay one way or another, it doesn’t make any difference. They all accept it. And a couple of sour grapes out there, but I could ignore them safely. But a very, very small minority. People have understood and we are in an enlightened age.
Now, when I was a teenager, oh, that would have been the last thing I could have possibly have done. I would have gotten stoned, I would have gotten beaten up every day, I’m sure, by the kids at school. But not anymore. That day, I hope, is passed.
Question: Will coming out be easier for the next generation?
James Randi: Yes. And not only that, in that respect as a matter of fact. I’ve found one thing that I did not anticipate. I’m getting a lot of correspondence from young gay people who say that I’ve served as an example of how it can be done and they’ve determined that they’re going to do it too. And that’s very encouraging. I think that relieves them of a bit of a burden, you feel somewhat freed up.
Now, I didn’t notice the difference at all because I’ve been out all of my life if anyone asked. That’s all there is to it. And nobody ever... well some people did ask, or sort of hinted at it. And I would come out with it right away. I had no problem with that. I still have no problem with it whatsoever. Here I am. And people often will say, “But you named your car Sophia, after Sophia Loren.” A little blue Miata, a beautiful little jobbie. And they said, “Well, you keep on talking about Sophia Loren.” And I say, “Yes. You see, I’m gay, but I’m not blind." After all, you know, that is not Oil of Olay that Sophia uses. That’s got to be witchcraft.
Question: Have you ever personally been tricked or duped?
James Randi: Well, there’s this one girl, and I don’t want to get into the details. No, you know, the interesting thing is, that since I started this about the age of 12 to 14, I’ve got to know more and more about how people are fooled and how they fool themselves—the two things that magicians must know—I don’t think I’ve ever been fooled by an illusion... although sometimes when I first see it on stage, I’ll say, “Whoa, how about that.” Oh yeah... and I’ll think about it and I’ll say, okay, yes, right. There you go. I will come up with the solution eventually. As a matter of fact, when sitting at a Copperfield show, for example, and he always puts me in the fourth row or so, and I always move a little bit further back if I don’t want to be looking straight up his nose, you see. And what happens is, I’ll sit with a magician friend and we’ll nudge one another at a certain point and say, "Oh wow, how about that!" And people around me will say, how about what? They didn’t see anything happen, see. But we saw the moment of truth you know, when he might have done something like this, or it looks innocuous, but that’s when the thing happened. You see? And we recognize that. That moment of truth is something we spot and the people around don’t. And then when the girl jumps out of the box, they’re all surprised and we knew it all along.
Question: What makes you feel wonder or awe?
James Randi: Well, magic performances in many cases, and particularly some of the young folks that are sort of coming along these days are... particularly in Asia. Oh my goodness. Asia has pretty well taken over the magic business as far as numbers of people. Very, very competent people who are in the business, male and female. They really do a wonderful job.
But I am an old fashioned fuddy-duddy, you see. I stand outside my home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and I could watch a sunset, and my eyes will fill up with tears. They can because that’s nature. And I see... oh, I see a raccoon cross the lawn and stop and look at me and I say hello. And he doesn’t know what I am saying, but he goes on his way and he does his thing. That’s wonderful. These are little things that I still take great joy... and I like seeing the world and how it works. That’s why... one reason why these people who try to sell us a false bill of goods about how the world really works, and how really wonderful it is. Oh my, I can’t stand that. I just find myself repelled by that idea and I want to drag kids out into the sunset and say, take a look at that, or a sunrise even better. At my age, you appreciate sunrises more than sunsets. You see?
But I’ve had... I have a very good quality of telescope, for example, at my home in Plantation, Florida. And I’ll get out the tripod to show some guest, oh if Jupiter is up there, or whatever, or the Moon, or Andromeda if it happens to be in a good aspect. I’ll show them that. And kids come back on bicycles and stop and say, “Whatcha doin?” And they look in there and they... "What’s that." "That’s the planet Jupiter. And you know how far away it is?" And they’ll say, "Oh yeah, really?" And then I’ll show them Andromeda and I’ll say, "Now that’s not the way it looks now. No? No, that’s the way it looked quite a few million years ago. The light is just reaching us now." And when you see them go, "Oh," you know you’ve made a hit. That’s important. And if that kid comes by with a girlfriend the next day on another bike, "Can we see your telescope?" I’ve won a battle right there. That’s important. You’ve got to get the kids, you’ve got to get to them and say, “Take a look at this. This may surprise you.” And if you can do that and be successful at it, oh that makes my day, if not a week.
Recorded April 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
A conversation with the magician and scientific skeptic.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Want help raising your kids? Spend more time at church, says new study.
- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- A new study suggests that the social circles provided by regular church going make raising kids easier.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.
Be fruitful and multiply<p>Scientists in the United Kingdom collected data on more than 13,000 mothers and their children. Most of them were religious, but 12 percent were not. The data included information on their church habits, social networks, number of children, and the scores those children achieved on a standardized test.</p><p>In line with previous findings that religious women have more children than secular women in industrialized countries, a connection between at least monthly church attendance and fertility was confirmed. However, religious parents showed they could avoid the pitfalls that having more children can bring. </p><p>Typically, more children in a family leads to reduced cognitive ability and height in each <a href="https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/37/6/1408/729795" target="_blank">child</a>. Some studies find that children do less well in school for each <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13524-016-0471-0" target="_blank">additional sibling they have</a>. This makes a kind of intuitive sense, as parents with more children would have to divide their time, energy, and resources among more people as families expand. One would expect that the larger families would also lead to things like lower test scores. </p><p>Despite the expectation, the children of religious parents didn't have lower scores on standardized tests. There were small positive relationships between the size of the mother's social network, the number of co-religionists helping out, and the children's test scores. However, this association was small, didn't show up in all of the testings, and was unrelated to other variables. </p> These effects might be explained by the size and helpfulness of the social networks around the more religious. Women who went to church at least once a month had more extensive social networks than those who never go or who attend yearly. These social networks of co-religious people mean that there are more people to turn to for help with child-rearing, a point also demonstrated in the data. The amount of aid women got from their fellow churchgoers was also associated with a higher fertility rate. <br> <br> Conversely, an extensive social network was associated with fewer children for secular women. This finding is in line with <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1207/s15327957pspr0904_5" target="_blank">previous studies</a> and suggests that the social networks comprised of co-religious individuals differ from those found elsewhere.
So, how quickly should I join a local religious group?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="6RrmYM8M" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="9eb4740a7d1e10108a75fd2ed627a90f"> <div id="botr_6RrmYM8M_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/6RrmYM8M-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/6RrmYM8M-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The study is not without its faults, and more investigations into the relationship between fertility, childcare, ritual, and social networks are needed.</p><p>These findings all show correlation, not causation. Though it might be said the results point towards causation, various alternative interpretations of the data are apparent. The authors note that most religions are explicitly pro-natal. It is possible that religious women have internalized these values and simply choose to have more children than secular women do.</p><p>This idea is similar to a potential interpretation of why large social networks have the opposite effect for secular women. The authors suggest that, in some cases, these more extensive social networks are associated with work and exert an anti-natal influence. Again, the people who build such networks may be people unlikely to have large families under any circumstances.</p><p>However, the researchers' hypothesis endured. The help religious women get from their church-based social networks allows them to have larger families than those who lack these support systems. In some instances, these support systems also prevent the adverse effects of larger families. </p>
The community religion offers<p>As we've mentioned <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/what-is-secular-humanism" target="_blank">before</a>, religion offers a community, and a community provides social capital. As religion continues to decline in the West, the social bonds of faith communities that used to tie social communities together begin to decay. However, as has been noted by a variety of observers for the last few decades, fewer and fewer new organizations appear ready to replace religion as a source of community in our lives.</p><p>While many different organizations might offer social support that religion once provided the whole of western society, this study shows that different social circles can differently affect the people in them. This finding must be considered by those trying to find new communities to join or the authors of future research. </p><p>The community offered by religious groups provides real benefits to those who join them. As this study shows, having the support network religious community offers allows some parents to avoid pitfalls that bedevil those lacking similar support. It suggests that previous studies demonstrating that group ritual offers benefits like increased amounts of <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797612472910" target="_blank">group trust</a> and <a href="https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1069397103037002003" target="_blank">cooperation</a> are onto something and that those benefits have a variety of applications. </p><p>While this study is not without its blind spots, it offers a strong starting point for further investigations into the nature of ritual in our modern lives and how local support networks remain vital in our increasingly globalized world. </p>
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
A neuroscientist argues that da Vinci shared a disorder with Picasso and Rembrandt.
- A neuroscientist at the City University of London proposes that Leonardo da Vinci may have had exotropia, allowing him to see the world with impaired depth perception.
- If true, it means that Da Vinci would have been able to see the images he wanted to paint as they would have appeared on a flat surface.
- The finding reminds us that sometimes looking at the world in a different way can have fantastic results.
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODc3Mjc2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTA4MDg2NH0.T-98YvLjS9mUCQkgqHyV43Q7h_JIiubrev-Fp_0j4Pg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C38%2C0%2C579&height=700" id="58346" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="674799ba34e115a2e9a3e94c366bfc26" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The Virtuvian Man. Christopher Tyler suggests that Da Vinci used his own image as a template for the face in the drawing.
Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci created c. 1480–1490<p><a href="https://www.city.ac.uk/people/academics/christopher-tyler" target="_blank">Professor Christopher Tyler</a> of the City University of London's optometry division analyzed six pieces of Renaissance art by or held to be images of Da Vinci, including the famous <em>Vitruvian Man. </em>By looking at the paintings, drawings, and statues and applying the same techniques optometrists use on patients, Tyler was able to conclude that the eyes of the men depicted were misaligned.</p><p> He concluded that, if the images he analyzed were truly reflective of how Da Vinci looked, that the great artist had a mild case of exotropia. </p>
How would this have helped him paint?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b221010aa7688734d4d6a41f0df5933f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/j6F-sHhmfrY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://shileyeye.ucsd.edu/faculty/shira-robbins" target="_blank">Shira Robbins</a>, a professor of ophthalmology at the University of California at San Diego, who was not involved with the project, explained to <em><a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/10/19/leonardo-da-vincis-genius-may-be-rooted-in-a-common-eye-disorder-new-study-says/?utm_term=.d3f44ed91c16" target="_blank">The Washington Post</a> </em>how individuals with exotropia often turn to additional information to help understand the world around them:</p><blockquote>"What happens in some people is when they're only using one eye . . . they develop other cues besides traditional depth perception to understand where things are in space, looking at color and shadow in a way that most of us who use both eyes at a time don't really appreciate." </blockquote><p>Dr. Robbins agrees that, if the artworks analyzed accurately depict Da Vinci, then he probably had exotropia.</p><p>If Da Vinci did have a mild form of the condition, which would allow him to focus with both eyes when concentrating and with one when relaxed, Tyler asserts that the famed artist could have viewed the world in two or three dimensions at will, showing him the world exactly as he would need to recreate it on a flat surface. Quite the superpower for an artist.</p>
Does this mean Da Vinci would have been a hack if he had normal eyesight?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODc3MjY5NS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjYwOTgxOH0.eSu3YBpCuaDj59-4lzSeZ1WgwtV2ETGiWHqczzW3how/img.png?width=980" id="9c323" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="edd4e9e9d9c1156a53242df6288d7cc0" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the difference in where each eye is focused for each painting, drawing, and statue used in the study. The larger the difference, the more pronounced the exotropia is in the image.<p>Not at all. What Dr. Tyler is suggesting is that the tendency of people who have exotropia to rely on using one eye to see the world and thereby lose some depth perception allowed Da Vinci to understand better how the three-dimensional objects in the world could be translated into a two-dimensional image on a canvas. This could account for some of Da Vinci's skill in depicting shadow and subtle changes in color, since he would have relied on these details to understand the world. <br><br>His polymathic brilliance extended far beyond art, and nobody is claiming that his ideas for flying machines, tanks, or <a href="http://www.da-vinci-inventions.com/davinci-inventions.aspx" target="_blank">other inventions </a>were at all influenced by a vision problem.</p>
How can we know this? He has been dead for five hundred years.<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c26fc51b0aebbcd6905593015fec79e5"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LRAptNtN9-A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>There are reasons to be cautious anytime we make claims about people who are long dead. In this case, we have the bonus problem that we aren't 100 percent sure that the images used are supposed to look like Da Vinci. </p><p> That is the major caveat of the idea; all of the images used as evidence of his condition are assumed to look like him. While some of the images, like the <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Verrocchio)" target="_blank"><em>David</em> by Andrea del Verrocchio</a>, are generally agreed to be based on Leonardo the other pictures are claimed to be reflective of him based only on his statement that "[The soul] guides the painter's arm and makes him reproduce himself, since it appears to the soul that this is the best way to represent a human being." </p><p>Tyler also argues that the portraits he claims are based on Da Vinci share similarities with the images generally accepted to be portraits of him; including similar hair and facial features. This lends weight to the idea that the artist incorporated his own traits into his artwork, including his vision problem. </p><p>Leonardo da Vinci was undoubtedly one of the greatest geniuses of all time. If he had exotropia, then it was merely a minor addition to his artistic skills. It does, however, give us a literal example of how people who look at the world differently can use that vantage point to their advantage to create things we all can appreciate. </p>
The word "learning" opens up space for more people, places, and ideas.
- The terms 'education' and 'learning' are often used interchangeably, but there is a cultural connotation to the former that can be limiting. Education naturally links to schooling, which is only one form of learning.
- Gregg Behr, founder and co-chair of Remake Learning, believes that this small word shift opens up the possibilities in terms of how and where learning can happen. It also becomes a more inclusive practice, welcoming in a larger, more diverse group of thinkers.
- Post-COVID, the way we think about what learning looks like will inevitably change, so it's crucial to adjust and begin building the necessary support systems today.