December 2, 1994


The only disadvantage of an honest heart is credulity.

Philip Sidney

A tearful young woman told the TV audience that a black man had hijacked her car with her two small children in it. She said that he told her to get out and when she asked about her children, said that he didn't have time, and took off in her car, with the kids in it. When I listened to her, I said to Lu that I didn't believe it. No way would someone who wanted to steal a car allow himself to be encumbered by two small children. When the car, whose make, color and license number were broadcast nationwide, didn't appear, it became more obvious that something was fishy. It turned out that she had driven the car into a lake with her still alive children in it.

The cops weren't really fooled. They deal with convincing con artists all the time, and it's their business to be skeptical. But the general public seems to have been completely taken in by her story, and were shocked when they learned the truth. Most did not question that a black man would hijack a car and that he would be stupid enough, or cruel enough, to take two small children.

What this clearly demonstrated was the general public's tendency to believe almost anything, no matter how unbelievable it is. In the thirties, Orson Wells performed a radio play of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. They made it as realistic as possible and didn't announce that it was a play. People all over New Jersey panicked, roads were blocked with cars containing people who were trying to escape the invading Martians. When the radio people re-broadcast the play many years later, they made sure to interrupt the program, every so often, with a statement that it was just a play.

Just as a small child believes that talking hand puppets are real, there are a large number of people who really believe that illusionist David Copperfield actually made the Statue of Liberty disappear.

One of the lessons that I used to teach my children was a simple coin trick where I made a coin disappear and took it out of their ear. I did it often enough so that they were able to figure it out. I doubt that it made the impression that I wanted it to make, because some of my grown kids believe some incredible things today; but they don't believe that magicians actually make things disappear.

There has been a move afoot for some time to teach children critical thinking. I believe that the first step in teaching critical thinking is cultivating a healthy skepticism, but that would have a large number of parents up in arms.

If you want to create a scientist, a good habit to cultivate is the ability to compartmentalize information. I do this with almost everything. There are some things that I know are true; some things that I believe are true; some things that I believe are false; and some things that I know are false. As I get new information, some things change categories. The most radical change for me came when I found out that man has 46 chromosomes instead of 48, as I had been taught. That may not seem to be a very significant change -just two chromosomes- but that change opened up a whole new field of science and led to the discovery of the cause of Down's Syndrome(Mongolism) as well as many other abnormalities.

I don't wish to imply that gullibility is peculiar to people who are not scientists. It is not uncommon among scientists. Trickster Uri Geller managed to fool some Stanford scientists, interested in extra-sensory perception(ESP), with tricks that any magician could perform. Scientists are routinely fooled by statistical trickery. All of the so-called "evidence" for ESP is based on statistical trickery by people who really don't understand what statistics can and can't do. Whenever you hear the statement "statistics prove," you can be pretty sure that it is baloney. You can't prove -or disprove- anything with statistics. You can calculate whether something is probable or improbable and give it a number; but that is all that you can do. Sometimes the probability of something being true is so high or so low that you are very safe in believing or not believing it. One of these things that can be believed, is that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and that the more you smoke, the greater the probability is that you will get lung cancer -if you don't have a heart attack first.

You would think that finding out that there isn't any Santa Claus would cure a kid of his gullibility, but it rarely does.

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