Psychology toolbox: How to use skepticism
Derren Brown began his UK television career in December 2000 with a series of specials called Mind Control. In the UK, his name is now pretty much synonymous with the art of psychological manipulation. Amongst a varied and notorious TV career, Derren has played Russian Roulette live, convinced middle-managers to commit armed robbery, led the nation in a séance, stuck viewers at home to their sofas, successfully predicted the National Lottery, motivated a shy man to land a packed passenger plane at 30,000 feet, hypnotised a man to assassinate Stephen Fry, and created a zombie apocalypse for an unsuspecting participant after seemingly ending the world. He has also written several best-selling books and has toured with eight sell-out one-man stage shows.
DERREN BROWN: Magic is a great analogy for how we process the world, generally. So, we have this infinite data source coming at us, there's an infinite number of things that we can think about, but we essentially make up a story about what we're seeing. We edit and delete and we form a narrative and we mistake that narrative for the truth. The way you watch a magic trick of any sort and edit your experience to form a story that brings you to a point of going "oh my god that's impossible" is what we do every day in real life, and we have to because it's our only way of navigating forward. But it's important to remember sometimes that it is just a story that there's a lot of stuff going on that we're not aware of. And, of course, a magician doing a trick is exploiting exactly that process the fact that we are master editors.
So I am encouraging a form of skepticism, but I do think that the broad easy skepticism of the magician or the atheist, I'm an atheist, but I think that both of those camps have it too easy. So, there are things I think that are important skeptically and then there's also important checks on the very nature of skepticism. Particularly in the world of people making claims, grand claims, which is what I, as somebody rooted in magic come across a lot. An important point that I guess goes back to Hume, which is that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. So, if somebody is making a grand claim, a supernatural claim, for example, it's going to be up to them to come up with equally strong and impressive and grand evidence for that thing. As opposed to it's up to the other person, say you, to disapprove it, which is often what they say, well you can't disprove it. If I say I've got a green mouse living in my house and I expect you to believe that, it's not your job to prove that I don't have a green mouse by looking in every corner of my house because you could always miss the mouse, it's up to me to show you it. If I'm going to show you a photograph of it it has got to be a proper picture not a doctored picture and so on. So, what you have a lot of is evidence that isn't real evidence.
So, for example, a psychic medium using say her very demonstration of doing it as proof of psychic mediumship, well that's no more valid than if a magician saws a woman in half and says "well here's proof that I'm doing it. Look I'm sawing her in half." Well, that's not proof. Proof would be okay do it with my saw, do it with my box, do it with my woman as opposed to your assistant, and do it under some kind of controlled conditions and then maybe I'll believe it. You create conditions that everyone agrees on and then it becomes evidence. I think that just in terms of understanding not getting too caught up in other people's stories and other people's narratives and falling for them, that reserve of skepticism is important. And when it's your job to disprove and when it isn't that's important, particularly in a world full of charlatans and people trying to get us to believe what they want. But it's very difficult because it's very hard to know what information sources to trust, and that's just part of the world we live in now and it's dizzying and depressing knowing where you can start. But at least you can do your best, you can try and work authentically by spotting your own biases and understanding as much as you can the biases of others.
Where I think skepticism, in its broad modern popular sense of just don't believe in God, don't believe in this, don't believe in that, where I think it has its limits, and I speak very much as a skeptic myself and as an atheist as I said, where it is important to realize the edges of its usefulness is where those things that may not be objectively true but can be psychologically "true," in other words psychologically resonant to the path of living and what we take in life and what's important to us and what's helpful. So that's what you don't want to throw out, you don't want to throw out that baby with the bathwater. So, in religion for example, those things that are easily knocked down if you're an atheist, they're easy to kind of make fun of and disapprove, those things are also they're kind of often are strawman to knock down but they can often be pointers back to something that is psychologically useful. They're signifiers of something. If you take what happens with religion is that you have something that happens, an experience of transcendence or a kind of thing that happened historically, nothing magical or supernatural but just for people at that time a connection to a sense of the transcendent whatever that was, a message or something and then as that moves out of living memory to recreate it a bunch of practices and dogmas and things are formed to try and recreate that feeling. And that becomes now a thing of belief rather than a sort of knowledge that it was at the time. And then to sustain and protect that belief an institution is sort of created and developed and becomes politicized and powerful and monetized and all of those things and then it moves into a world where we are nowadays where things have to be sort of proved with evidence so it starts to try and come up with evidential arguments that somehow never quite really work. So, you do end up with a thing that's easy to knock down, but that can miss the fact that there's something at the heart of it, which maybe is useful. Maybe those narratives around religion are useful to us psychologically, maybe they have an archetypal or a mythological use that it would be a shame to dismiss because we feel the absence of those things.
It's the very fact we turn to psychics and fortune tellers and become terrified and lonely around death. Those things happen because we've lost touch with some of those myths and some of those more resonant narratives. So, I am I think being a little skeptical about skepticism itself and the easy narratives that it forms is also I think very useful.
- Psychological illusionist Derren Brown presents magic as an analogy for how we process the world around us. In the same way we believe in a trick by forming a narrative around it, we can tell ourselves stories in life.
- It's important to maintain a sense of skepticism. But it's equally as important to recognize the edges of usefulness in being skeptical.
- For example, an atheist can be skeptical of religion while still admitting that the narratives around religion might be valuable and psychologically useful.
Derren Brown returns to the stage with his new live, one-man show, Showman. Check it out here.
- AI gets overhyped. Here's why you should be skeptical. - Big Think ›
- On Skeptical Sexism and Comfort Levels - Big Think ›
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Dr. Katie Mack explains what dark energy is and two ways it could one day destroy the universe.
- The universe is expanding faster and faster. Whether this acceleration will end in a Big Rip or will reverse and contract into a Big Crunch is not yet understood, and neither is the invisible force causing that expansion: dark energy.
- Physicist Dr. Katie Mack explains the difference between dark matter, dark energy, and phantom dark energy, and shares what scientists think the mysterious force is, its effect on space, and how, billions of years from now, it could cause peak cosmic destruction.
- The Big Rip seems more probable than a Big Crunch at this point in time, but scientists still have much to learn before they can determine the ultimate fate of the universe. "If we figure out what [dark energy is] doing, if we figure out what it's made of, how it's going to change in the future, then we will have a much better idea for how the universe will end," says Mack.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Astronomers find these five chapters to be a handy way of conceiving the universe's incredibly long lifespan.
- We're in the middle, or thereabouts, of the universe's Stelliferous era.
- If you think there's a lot going on out there now, the first era's drama makes things these days look pretty calm.
- Scientists attempt to understand the past and present by bringing together the last couple of centuries' major schools of thought.
The 5 eras of the universe<p>There are many ways to consider and discuss the past, present, and future of the universe, but one in particular has caught the fancy of many astronomers. First published in 1999 in their book <a href="https://amzn.to/2wFQLiL" target="_blank"><em>The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity</em></a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Adams" target="_blank">Fred Adams</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_P._Laughlin" target="_blank">Gregory Laughlin</a> divided the universe's life story into five eras:</p><ul><li>Primordial era</li><li>Stellferous era</li><li>Degenerate era</li><li>Black Hole Era</li><li>Dark era</li></ul><p>The book was last updated according to current scientific understandings in 2013.</p><p>It's worth noting that not everyone is a subscriber to the book's structure. Popular astrophysics writer <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/ethansiegel/#30921c93683e" target="_blank">Ethan C. Siegel</a>, for example, published an article on <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2019/07/26/we-have-already-entered-the-sixth-and-final-era-of-our-universe/#7072d52d4e5d" target="_blank"><em>Medium</em></a> last June called "We Have Already Entered The Sixth And Final Era Of Our Universe." Nonetheless, many astronomers find the quintet a useful way of discuss such an extraordinarily vast amount of time.</p>
The Primordial era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEyMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjEzMjY1OX0.PRpvAoa99qwsDNprDme9tBWDim6mS7Mjx6IwF60fSN8/img.jpg?width=980" id="db4eb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e568b0cc12ed624bb8d7e5ff45882bd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1049" />
Image source: Sagittarius Production/Shutterstock<p> This is where the universe begins, though what came before it and where it came from are certainly still up for discussion. It begins at the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. </p><p> For the first little, and we mean <em>very</em> little, bit of time, spacetime and the laws of physics are thought not yet to have existed. That weird, unknowable interval is the <a href="https://www.universeadventure.org/eras/era1-plankepoch.htm" target="_blank">Planck Epoch</a> that lasted for 10<sup>-44</sup> seconds, or 10 million of a trillion of a trillion of a trillionth of a second. Much of what we currently believe about the Planck Epoch eras is theoretical, based largely on a hybrid of general-relativity and quantum theories called quantum gravity. And it's all subject to revision. </p><p> That having been said, within a second after the Big Bang finished Big Banging, inflation began, a sudden ballooning of the universe into 100 trillion trillion times its original size. </p><p> Within minutes, the plasma began cooling, and subatomic particles began to form and stick together. In the 20 minutes after the Big Bang, atoms started forming in the super-hot, fusion-fired universe. Cooling proceeded apace, leaving us with a universe containing mostly 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, similar to that we see in the Sun today. Electrons gobbled up photons, leaving the universe opaque. </p><p> About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled enough that the first stable atoms capable of surviving began forming. With electrons thus occupied in atoms, photons were released as the background glow that astronomers detect today as cosmic background radiation. </p><p> Inflation is believed to have happened due to the remarkable overall consistency astronomers measure in cosmic background radiation. Astronomer <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGCVTSQw7WU" target="_blank">Phil Plait</a> suggests that inflation was like pulling on a bedsheet, suddenly pulling the universe's energy smooth. The smaller irregularities that survived eventually enlarged, pooling in denser areas of energy that served as seeds for star formation—their gravity pulled in dark matter and matter that eventually coalesced into the first stars. </p>
The Stelliferous era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEzNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMjA0OTcwMn0.GVCCFbBSsPdA1kciHivFfWlegOfKfXUfEtFKEF3otQg/img.jpg?width=980" id="bc650" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c8f86bf160ecdea6b330f818447393cd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="481" data-height="720" />
Image source: Casey Horner/unsplash<p>The era we know, the age of stars, in which most matter existing in the universe takes the form of stars and galaxies during this active period. </p><p>A star is formed when a gas pocket becomes denser and denser until it, and matter nearby, collapse in on itself, producing enough heat to trigger nuclear fusion in its core, the source of most of the universe's energy now. The first stars were immense, eventually exploding as supernovas, forming many more, smaller stars. These coalesced, thanks to gravity, into galaxies.</p><p>One axiom of the Stelliferous era is that the bigger the star, the more quickly it burns through its energy, and then dies, typically in just a couple of million years. Smaller stars that consume energy more slowly stay active longer. In any event, stars — and galaxies — are coming and going all the time in this era, burning out and colliding.</p><p>Scientists predict that our Milky Way galaxy, for example, will crash into and combine with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy in about 4 billion years to form a new one astronomers are calling the Milkomeda galaxy.</p><p>Our solar system may actually survive that merger, amazingly, but don't get too complacent. About a billion years later, the Sun will start running out of hydrogen and begin enlarging into its red giant phase, eventually subsuming Earth and its companions, before shrining down to a white dwarf star.</p>
The Degenerate era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTk3NDQyN30.gy4__ALBQrdbdm-byW5gQoaGNvFTuxP5KLYxEMBImNc/img.jpg?width=980" id="77f72" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="08bb56ea9fde2cee02d63ed472d79ca3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Image source: Diego Barucco/Shutterstock/Big Think<p>Next up is the Degenerate era, which will begin about 1 quintillion years after the Big Bang, and last until 1 duodecillion after it. This is the period during which the remains of stars we see today will dominate the universe. Were we to look up — we'll assuredly be outta here long before then — we'd see a much darker sky with just a handful of dim pinpoints of light remaining: <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/evaporating-giant-exoplanet-white-dwarf-star" target="_blank">white dwarfs</a>, <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/new-observations-where-stars-end-and-brown-dwarfs-begin" target="_blank">brown dwarfs</a>, and <a href="https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/definition-what-is-a-neutron-star" target="_blank">neutron stars</a>. These"degenerate stars" are much cooler and less light-emitting than what we see up there now. Occasionally, star corpses will pair off into orbital death spirals that result in a brief flash of energy as they collide, and their combined mass may become low-wattage stars that will last for a little while in cosmic-timescale terms. But mostly the skies will be be bereft of light in the visible spectrum.</p><p>During this era, small brown dwarfs will wind up holding most of the available hydrogen, and black holes will grow and grow and grow, fed on stellar remains. With so little hydrogen around for the formation of new stars, the universe will grow duller and duller, colder and colder.</p><p>And then the protons, having been around since the beginning of the universe will start dying off, dissolving matter, leaving behind a universe of subatomic particles, unclaimed radiation…and black holes.</p>
The Black Hole era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjE0OTQ2MX0.ifwOQJgU0uItiSRg9z8IxFD9jmfXlfrw6Jc1y-22FuQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="103ea" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f0e6a71dacf95ee780dd7a1eadde288d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1400" data-height="787" />
Image source: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock/Big Think<p> For a considerable length of time, black holes will dominate the universe, pulling in what mass and energy still remain. </p><p> Eventually, though, black holes evaporate, albeit super-slowly, leaking small bits of their contents as they do. Plait estimates that a small black hole 50 times the mass of the sun would take about 10<sup>68</sup> years to dissipate. A massive one? A 1 followed by 92 zeros. </p><p> When a black hole finally drips to its last drop, a small pop of light occurs letting out some of the only remaining energy in the universe. At that point, at 10<sup>92</sup>, the universe will be pretty much history, containing only low-energy, very weak subatomic particles and photons. </p>
The Dark Era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE5NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Mzg5OTEyMH0.AwiPRGJlGIcQjjSoRLi6V3g5klRYtxQJIpHFgZdZkuo/img.jpg?width=980" id="60c77" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7a857fb7f0d85cf4a248dbb3350a6e1c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Image source: Big Think<p>We can sum this up pretty easily. Lights out. Forever.</p>
People often make a killing in stocks, but there are other ways to potentially turn major profits.
- Outside of stocks and bonds, some people make money investing in collectibles and make a fair amount on them.
- One stamp even sold for a billion times its face value.
- The extreme dependence on future collectability, however, limits the potential of most of these opportunities.