Thursday, June 18, 2009

Magic & Cognitive Bias

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by Daniel Finkelstein - The Times Online

Thanks to Oliver for the links.

Thoughts for the week: the magic of Paul Daniels

Am I dumb, or just a sucker for magic? Science has come up with an explanation

You're going to like this. Not a lot. But you'll like it. A couple of weeks or so back I went to see Paul Daniels play the Radlett Centre. There was a sort of Seaside Special first half with hoofing and songs from Joseph that I could have done without. But once Daniels came on, things changed for the better. Magic. I can't get enough of it.

It helps that I'm pretty gullible. I found it mildly irritating that Daniels's wife, Debbie McGee, kept wandering across the stage, acting dumb. It was only in the car on my way home that it dawned on me that her appearances were contrived as a distraction so that Daniels could do the sleight of hand or whatever. How stupid am I? Well, actually, I prefer to say that Daniels and McGee had found a way to exploit cognitive weaknesses that were a result of my neurological design. And a new Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper allows me to use the description without blushing. Much.

Two neurologists (Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde, of the Barrows Neurological Institute) have collaborated on an academic paper with a group of magicians (Mac King, James Randi, Apollo Robbins, John Thompson and Teller, one half of Penn and Teller). In fact, the document they have produced is more like a manifesto.
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Thoughts for the week: Obama and the conspiracy theorists

Facts are the best way to combat crazy ideas? Don’t you believe it
On the day that Barack Obama was elected President, I asked readers of my Comment Central blog to let me know, in a few words, their greatest hope for him. I received thousands of replies. And most of them were touching, optimistic and only a little naive.

There were two types of reply that left me perplexed. The first were the hundreds of people who wrote to say that they hoped that the new President would be shot. You can’t read that over and over again without being perplexed about human nature. A second type expressed the hope that Obama would produce his birth certificate. This surprised me, because until then I had been unaware of the mad conspiracy theory that Obama was not eligible to be President, having been born in Kenya rather than America.

I thought it would be a good idea to seek out and post on Comment Central documentary evidence that Obama had indeed been born in the US. I needn’t have wasted my time. Judging by the replies, the evidence made not the slightest difference. I was forced to conclude that the bonkers idea that Obama was not legally allowed to be President was adopted merely to reduce the cognitive dissonance of those who believed that such a thing — an African-American becoming chief executive — could not happen.

The same sort of issue — the persistence of misperceptions in the face of evidence — has also been intriguing Brendan Nyhan, of Duke University, North Carolina, and Jason Reifler, of Georgia State University. And they have published two fascinating papers providing the results of experiments that they conducted into whether it is possible to correct such errors of fact.
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