www. Aidan Reilly .net

Random things

This is a page where I keep random thoughts and musings that don’t belong anywhere else.

Sloppy thinking, and sheeple

I quite like the word sheeple. It has a certain ring to it. I think it also captures far more of our behaviour than we usually like to acknowledge. There are still many people for whom superstition and blind, unthinking, follow-the-crowd, behaviour is the default. Even when we think we’re being rational and thoughtful, so often our thoughts are governed by factors we are only dimly aware of, if at all. I say ‘still’ in the previous sentence, as I like to think that we are, as a species, slowly edging our way out of the darkness of superstition into the light of reason. And I’m not excusing myself from such sloppy thinking — I’m sure I’m as guilty of it as anyone. But I’d like to point out a few common misconceptions here, about things that I come across in my life, to do a very little bit to dispel sloppy thinking and irrational thought.

Now there are lots of websites that deal with urban legends, exposing fraudsters and conmen, and similar things; some of them make for entertaining reading, some of them are just depressing. If you’re not familiar with these, they’re well worth a look. One of the most famous is probably James Randi’s site (link) — amongst others, he definitively exposed Uri Geller as a fraud (this was back in the 80s and early 90s — and yet two decades later, Uri Geller was still giving successful performances as a ’psychic’; it’s enough to make one despair. He was even fêted by the Cambridge Union Society while I was a student, proving that the academically gifted can be just as gullible as anyone else. Or maybe that’s just arts students.)

There are lots of others. Badscience.net, written by Ben Goldacre, is one of the more famous ’bad...’ sites, probably due to his column in the Guardian, although Phil Plait’s Badastronomy I think is older. An example of the kind of thing I’m talking about is the swirling-water-in-the-plughole effect. It always surprises me how many people believe the myth of it spinning one way in the north and the opposite way in the south, despite the fact that it obviously doesn’t and is trivial to test! Phil has a passable explanation here (though neither his site, nor the Physics FAQ actually has a decent explanation of the Coriolis effect). In honour of those sites, I guess I could start by calling this one ’Badcycling’, as that’s what my first couple of entries will be about. Although that just sounds like someone who can’t ride a bike.

© Aidan Reilly 2014