We Are Not Above Suckerhood: In Which I Present a Critical Thinking Award to Maria Konnikova

As I mentioned yesterday, it was my job to present the Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova for her book The Confidence Game, and that’s what I did. Oh, but unlike most of the rest of the conference, there will be no video record of my remarks, no historical record of the tears, the guffaws, and the many empty seats because most attendees were still recovering from the Tournament of Kings performance that had just concluded.

Lucky you, I just happen to have written my remarks in advance, and now you, dear reader of this quasi-live blog, can enjoy, through the glory of text, my award presentation to Maria Konnikova last night.

Photo by Mark Boslough

Good evening all, I’m Paul Fidalgo, communications director of CFI and host of its monthly-ish podcast Point of Inquiry. I’m here to present the Robert P. Balles Annual Prize in Critical Thinking, which is a $2,500 award given to the creator of the published work that best exemplifies healthy skepticism, logical analysis, or empirical science. [Etcetera etcetera.] …

There’s a sucker born every minute, goes the line attributed to PT Barnum. This fairly cynical cliche continues to resonate today because it evokes that which we all feel in our guts to be true: That some folks—many, many folks—will fall for just about anything. Of course, we are usually thinking of folks other than ourselves.

There’s a problem. When the phrase was supposed to have been spoken by Barnum, sometime in the middle to late 19th century, the word “sucker” wasn’t yet commonly in use to mean someone who is easily fooled. There is in fact no evidence that the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute,” was ever spoken or written by Barnum, in any variation, at all.

Who’s the sucker now?

Whoever coined the phrase, they were clearly giving humanity too much of the benefit of the doubt. A recent UNICEF estimate tells us that about 353,000 babies are born every day. That means that in our era, about 255 suckers are born every minute. Because, really, within each of us beats the heart of a chump.

Photo by @Skeptishrink

Maria Konnikova’s book, The Confidence Game, carries the subtitle “Why We Fall for it Every Time.” I think that “we” is important, because there’s nothing particularly special about being the victim of a con. We are all susceptible to having our biases, emotions, and self-images taken advantage of, manipulated by those who have made the engineering of our internal decision-making their livelihood.

It is not only a surplus of suckers we have to be worried about. “If you’re a sentient being you’ve almost certainly deceived at some point in your life,” writes Konnikova. “From reptiles to humans, the animal kingdom is full of liars.” So now we have untold thousands of liars born every minute, spanning an array of species. It’s all too much.

It seems to me that The Confidence Game could not have come at a better time. Last year, when we gathered here, we didn’t know we were about to begin living under the reign of Trump. Whatever your political persuasion, it is undeniable that our president emits lies as though he’s using them for echolocation, it’s like he doesn’t know where he is unless he can hear his bullshit waves bounce back to him. Most of us underestimated the lure of someone who reinforced the existing beliefs and biases of millions of people, who convinced them that he alone could fix what was broken in America, much of which he had made up to begin with. And for a con artist, Trump’s not even very good at it. He didn’t have to be. We are just that vulnerable.

And frankly, Trump is low-hanging fruit. Also attesting to the timeliness of The Confidence Game is the state of our lives online. Konnikova tells us that the con man’s genius lies in his ability to “figure out what, precisely, it is we want, and how they can present themselves as the perfect vehicle for delivering that desire.” Put aside the plague of fake news and viral hoaxes. Is it not the the very mission of companies like Facebook to be the “perfect vehicle for delivering [our] desires?” Presumably, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Amazon aren’t trying to scam us outright. But with the intimate knowledge they have of every facet of our lives, including our biases and emotional triggers, well, it wouldn’t be all that hard to turn us all into their marks.

I think the skeptic movement is at its worst when its members conclude that they are above suckerhood, and deride those who have been taken in by cons, hoaxes, and false claims, mutually reassuring each other of our imperviousness to bullshit. I know I have at times been guilty of this.

But at its best, the skeptic movement accepts that to err is human, that 255 suckers are indeed born every minute and that we count ourselves among them. Konnikova advises the reader to “know yourself well enough to recognize and control your emotional reactions. What kinds of things provoke what kinds of responses in me – and can I see it happening early enough to resist it by staying grounded in details and logic?” In order to fortify the public against the forces of bullshit, we have to look to ourselves, and understand what could cause us to tip from skepticism into credulity. Once we accept our own susceptibility, then we are best able to do what movement skepticism was intended to do: to keep people from being scammed in the first place, whatever form the scam takes.

The Confidence Game is a book that is more valuable than perhaps was even intended. Without condescension, without derision, and without unrealistic promises of a “cure,” Konnikova drops into the hands of readers the bad guys’ playbook. Here is how the con artist plies his trade and plies his victims. And the lessons are applicable far beyond the relatively small pool of con artists, helping to arm us against deception in whatever form it takes, and revealing just how vulnerable all of us are to having our most foundational concepts of self and society coolly and surreptitiously manipulated so that we act against our own interests.

Oh lordy, do we need that now.

And thankfully, we got it. That’s why I’m delighted to present the Balles Prize for Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova.

Header photo by Mark Boslough.

Richard Dawkins and Richard Wiseman: “Jesus Wept!”

Richard Dawkins is rather unflappable, but I do suspect he wasn’t quite ready, at least at first, for questioning by Richard Wiseman, who, let’s face it, gets rather silly. Impish? Yes, I’d say so. Now, the conversation the two had on stage at CSICon 2017 was fun and fluid, with lots of great insights and big laughs. But I also think the one Richard didn’t quite see the other Richard coming.

And I mean that in the best sense. It’s kind of cool to see Dawkins light up with delight at the playfulness of Wiseman, even if he didn’t always know exactly how to respond to it. For example, Wiseman displayed a picture of a truly odd sculpture of, supposedly, Dawkins, to which Dawkins exclaimed, “Jesus wept!” Also, Wiseman insisted that his Aunt Jean was not at all selfish, so how would Dawkins explain that? There was nothing to say to that. But usually, he very much did know how to respond.

Wiseman, in one of the non-silly lines of questioning, was interested in Dawkins’ expectations and reactions concerning his biggest books, The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Dawkins revealed that he had hoped to begin work on The God Delusion as far back as the late nineties, but there was a belief that such a book would fare poorly. Fast forward through five or six years of the George W. Bush administration, and it was suddenly clear that it was time to make it happen.

Now, it’s estimated not only that the book has sold about three million copies, but that the unauthorized Arabic language version, only existing as a digital file, has been downloaded about 30 million times. Why? Dawkins hopes there is “a hidden groundswell of irreligion in the Muslim world, a mismatch between what we’re told they believe and what they do.”

What can still impress someone like Richard Dawkins, the great evolutionary biologist? What makes him say “wow”? Well, actually, it’s more evolutionary biology. Dawkins said he’d read about incredibly elaborate termite mounds, which Daniel Dennett had pointed out look remarkably like large, magnificent churches. But it wasn’t just the similarity that blew him away. He was amazed that “one was built by design,” the church had an architect who devised every detail, but the other had no designer whatsoever. In fact, not one of the termites has any idea what they’re making. That’s astounding.

Dawkins always gets asked about aliens. You can always bet on an aliens question. (Listen to my Point of Inquiry episode with Lee Billings to learn more about what we know, or rather don’t know, about aliens.) He says, yes, he does believe there are likely other creatures elsewhere in the universe, and that they could very well so advanced as to be god-like to us. But if they are god-like, “they didn’t create the universe. They would have evolved in it.”

There was much more of course, but I’ll leave you with this. He is, in fact, working on an atheism-for-kids book, and he has an idea of what his final quote should be:

“There is such a thing as the truth. The truth is to be discovered by science. And the truth is utterly wonderful.”

Yeah, that’s pretty good.

P.S.: Here’s the Peter Medawar review of Père Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man that Dawkins said he loved so. Enjoy.

Photo by Brian Engler

Massimo Polidoro: The Ghosts of the Coliseum

Okay, so what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term “fake news”?

The ancient Romans of course!

Photo by Brian Engler

Wow, that was so not fair of me. Actually, the Romans have been the subject of historical fake news for millennia (I assume as much as any other empire), and today we heard from the endlessly charming Massimo Polidoro, as he taught us something about one of the most evocative aspects of the Roman story: The Coliseum.

The myths just keep on coming when it comes to the Coliseum. The whole thumbs-down-by-the-emperor thing to signal an execution? 19th-century invention. Christians being martyred before the Coliseum crowds? Nope, made up by Christians in order to serve as instructive morality tales. The architect of the Coliseum was killed in his own creation when he converted to Christianity? Heh, no. It’s not even known who actually did design the thing, which is a shame in and of itself.

Instead, Polidoro asks us to focus on what the Coliseum really represented, and what it says about us today. Animal slaughter, public executions, gladiators as popular athletes, games put on to channel the Roman aggression and thirst for war — all of these things are still with us. The Roman population became desensitized to the violence, and needed more and more distraction and amusement. There were no likes and retweets to stimulate their pleasure centers.

“We are children of the Romans,” Massimo said. If we’re going to learn the lessons of our forebears, then, we need to learn their real story, and treat the myths as myths.

Michael Mann: Let’s Not Jump Off a Cliff

Michael Mann has weathered more than his fair share of slings and arrows for his climate activism, and one year ago few expected that the projectiles would yet increase in size, velocity, and frequency. But here we are, fighting the same climate battle against the same entrenched interests, aided by a federal government that is so hostile to reason and science that there is almost no hope of reaching them.

Well, maybe not “no” hope? Not knowing that Trump would be the next president, Mann partnered with Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles for the book The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial is Threatening our Planet, Destroying our Politics, and Driving us Crazy. What a coincidence! Because what better way to communicate to Donald Trump a complex topic like climate change than through funny cartoons? It’s fool-proof.

Or not. Clearly, the book either didn’t move Trump, or he mistook it for a book full of just words and avoided it altogether. Never fear, because Mann has a new plan: A children’s picture book on climate change, done in collaboration with Megan Herbert, called The Tantrum that Saved the World. Not only is the book obviously full of big, easy to understand pictures, but it’s about a tantrum, which Trump will certainly relate to. There’s a Kickstarter for this project, so let’s see if it changes the course of the administration.

All that aside, we all understand the challenge before us. Somehow, the general electorate has to be reached, especially if so many of their elected officials won’t be. The idea that something is “just a theory” or contains degrees of uncertainty should not excuse the public from recognizing the very real threat. (Mann pointed out that even our understanding of gravity has uncertainties, but that doesn’t mean we go an jump off a cliff.)

Wildfires and superstorms are wreaking havoc and destruction. We have to get real about what’s happening to our habitat. As Mann said, “You can’t solve the problem if you’re not willing to discuss the underlying cause.”

Yes, you’d think that’d be so, wouldn’t you?

Kevin Folta: Share the Truth, Defend the Truth-Tellers

First thing, quick housekeeping note: Because I’m trying to churn out these posts in as timely a manner as possible, such that smoke rises from the unthinkably rapid collisions of my fingertips on my laptop’s keys, I’ve made an executive decision to use the lunch and dinner talks as a chance to get a break and regenerate in my cyber-organic alcove, even if only a little. I’m sorry. But despite all appearances, I am only human.

That means I was unable to report on the talk given by Steven Novella just now, but remember you can at the very least read along with attendees’ real-time responses, for these and all other talks, by following the #CSICon hashtag on Twitter. You know, where reasonable discourse usually takes place.


Kevin Folta needs you to be a part of an army of Johnny and Janie Appleseeds, except the seeds you drop will be remarkably resilient to pests, remove allergens, and help alleviate starvation in developing countries.

When you listen to Kevin Folta, you can’t help but find yourself with very big feelings about things like gene editing and Vitamin A. You see, it’s so easy for cutting edge genetic science to be distorted and demonized. It’s unfamiliar territory, it’s complex, and it reminds people of creepy sci-fi scenarios. But Folta gives the science – and more importantly, the drive to advance that science – a human face and voice.

And that voice sometimes strains around sudden surges of emotion, sparked by his descriptions of the effort to use gene editing to protect and improve staple crops that can keep people alive and prevent diseases, only to have those efforts blocked by anti-GMO activists.

They’re not just a nuisance. Folta says the grassroots efforts in the U.S. to stop genetic modification of food also changes the attitudes of those on whose behalf the work is being done. We know too well the mistrust that people in many parts of the developing world have for the U.S., and the campaigns to stop gene editing and other innovations can turn the beneficiaries against the very thing that is intended to save them.

Folta is deeply affected by this dynamic, frustrating to no end, especially considering the good that could be done for children who are malnourished. But it’s also personal for him, having been the prime target of an anti-GMO propaganda effort to discredit him, resulting in, among other things, a damaging New York Times piece for which he was asked what it felt like “to be a tool” of the agriculture industry.

But he says he got through it because of this community. People like us. When academics were too spooked to rise to occasion, it was the skeptic movement that stepped up and pushed back. And this, says Folta, shows the best of what this movement can do. “The science and skepticism audience can really make a difference here,” he said, by doing what we do best: Share the truths that science tells us, and defend those who tell the truth.

And we’re needed. Folta described the example of a young post-doc colleague of his who works with birds, who PETA has tried to bully and harass. It represents a cynical new tack, says Folta. “They’re going after early career females with families,” knowing that they are particularly vulnerable to being pushed out of their work.

So Folta wants us to be part of the solution, to resist the bullying, and most importantly, to share the truth. “Science,” he insists, still holding back some tears, “can win.”

Britt Hermes and the Naturopath’s Path Out

“I believed I was a real doctor.” So said Britt Hermes, a former naturopathic doctor who later came to recognize naturopathic medicine as a fraud, and now dedicates her efforts toward exposing its nonsense.

But before we even get to the case Hermes makes against naturopathy today, one has to grapple with the fact that this pseudoscientific practice had Britt Hermes, who is obviously incredibly intelligent and deeply empathetic, convinced of its power. She believed she was a real doctor. If she can fall for it, even if temporarily, our work really is cut out for us.

And she was rather hard on herself. Early on, she displayed a biographical blurb of credentials from her naturopathic days, and she mocked them. That can’t be easy. It’s one thing for an accomplished physician to deride the false claims of alt-med, but for someone who used to be devoted to it to then stand before an audience of skeptics and eviscerate her former life takes some pretty substantial guts.

And in case you thought that a naturopath was primarily concerned with herbs and being gluten-free or something, Hermes has news for you. Take, for example, the work being done on “plants and planets” in an “astrological system of medicine.” Or perhaps “the ancient art of bleeding,” where one can cure herpes by bleeding one’s knees. This isn’t some benign hippie health food concern. This is Theodoric of York stuff.

So, a tip of the hat to she who once called herself “Dr. Britt.” She’s doing a hell of a lot of good for people’s health now.

David Gorski: Quackery, Limitless in Abundance

What on earth is going on in academic medicine? From David Gorski’s presentation today, I learned that an association of schools with fake-medicine facilities exists, the Academic Consortium of Integrative Medicine, has over 70 member academic medical centers, which is up from only eight in 1999. What?

Gorski recounted a long list of deeply troubing developments in “quackademic medicine,” such as the recent $200 million gift to UC Irvine for the construction of an inegrative medicine research facility, Harvard students learning about meridians from an acupuncturist, and the Cleveland Clinic’s wide array of offenses against science, which includes nonsense treatments like reiki.

Reiki. Man, that’s a real humdinger, that one. The Cleveland Clinic’s website boasted that reiki involves a “universal life force that is limitless in abundance.” As Gorski clarifies, “Reiki is just faith healing with Eastern mystic religious beliefs.”

It’s maddening. So many resources and so much time and energy directed toward these unscientific non-disciplines. Those $200 million could certainly be better used to pursue real medical breakthroughs rather than making the supporters of homeopathy feel validated.

Part of the problem is how the quackademics muddle their claims with sciencey sounding terms, and layering it all with heaping dollops of self righteousness. Alt-med, CAM, integrative medicine, functional medicine, all of these in one form or another assert that they “treat the whole person,” the exclusively “treat the root cause of disease, not just symptoms,” and only they emphasize prevention of diseases (which is a surprise to, well, real doctors. But it’s okay, because these alt-med types are using “the best of both worlds.” This leads Gorski to ask, “How can you use the ‘best’ of quackery?”

Clearly, though, the reality-based community and the champions of integrative medicine are having different conversations. If you doubt that, note the quote from Dr. David Katz, who insists that homeopathy works, and that medical science needs to embrace “a more fluid concept of evidence.”

If your head has exploded over this, perhaps you’d like to check in with the Cleveland Clinic, and see if your unlimited life force energy an heal your freshly detonated skull.

The Guerrilla Skeptics Got Your Back

Rise up, skeptics! Fight for our cause! Not with arms, but with brains and fingers. That sounds weird, but go with me. One powerful way to battle bad information is to go to one of the great repositories of knowledge on Planet Earth, and clean it the hell up. That’s where Susan Gerbic and the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia come in, facts a-blazing.

You know Susan for her avalanche of interviews in the lead-up to CSICon 2017 (and 2016 for that matter). But her passion is directed toward leveraging the power of Wikipedia to make the world a better place for science and reason, and for the people who work for this great cause.

“We’ve got your back,” she told the assembled skeptics, assuring us that GSOW’s works to protect skeptics, academics, and scientists from online attacks, doxxing, and the badgering of their employers. By encouraging the generation of critical content on pseudoscientific issues, and using it as the foundation for vastly-improved Wikipedia articles, the truth can set up a permanent presence on the Internet. She is not messing around.

Interestingly, she contrasted the GSOW mission with that of the somewhat troubled March for Science, which she expressed some dubiousness about. At the march, “We told the administration…what?” The march lacked a tangible impact, any kind of result that can be pointed to in order to say, “here we made a difference.” The Wikipedia project, on the other hand, is very straightforward. Fix the wrong stuff.

Anyway, THEY WANT YOU: If you want to help out, they could really use you. Translation is a big thing right now. For example, since many of the people interested in the career and cancer-quackery of Stanislaw Burzynski are in Poland, having his GSOW-influenced article on Wikipedia be in Polish is of genuinely high value.

So go see Susan on Twitter at @SusanGerbic and the whole operation at @GSOW_team, and be all you can be.

Header image by @Reason4Reason

Maria Konnikova and the Luck Delusion

Later this evening, I’m going to be handing the far-too-heavy and frankly-dangerous Balles Prize in Critical Thinking to Maria Konnikova, the New Yorker writer and author of books including The Confidence Game and an upcoming book on poker. (She tells me not to worry about the weight of the award, she does yoga.)

I mention this here because at the top of her presentation, Konnikova asked the audience whether we feel that we are “lucky.” A good chunk of folks raised their hands to say yes, they’re lucky, by far the most indicated that they do not believe themselves to be lucky or unlucky (they’re skeptics, after all), and when she asked who thinks they are unlucky, I was (as far as I could tell) the lone hand to pop up, and rather enthusiastically.

(I should clarify. This is my shtick. I’m actually astoundingly lucky in countless ways, but I kind of do this Charlie Brown-esque everything’s-terrible thing as part of my persona and various pathologies. So it was mostly performative.)

“You and I will need to talk, sir,” Konnikova said to me from the stage with a wry smile, not knowing at the time that I would be her award presenter. Because I’m human, I found this charming collection of interactions, within this context, to be, well, what…lucky? Something like that.

Which of course it wasn’t, not in the sense of some mystical force called “luck” ensuring that I had a somewhat humorously ironic connection with Konnikova. It was just a thing that happened.

Here’s what’s really lucky. “Out of all the potential people that could have been born, you were born,” she told us. “You are here. And that is awesome.” It’s not mystical, but it is kind of a big deal.

It’s a big deal and it was out of our control, so whatever “luck” brought us into being evaporated as soon as we began existence. But in other aspects of our lives, we operate under the illusion of control, which Konnikova exemplified by citing a study involving coin-flip predictions, where subjects really believed that they could “practice” and “get better” at guessing heads or tails. Which is of course nonsense. And yet it feels real to people.

This manifests in the gambling world, in which Konnikova has spent a year of her life to research her new book, in two key falacies: One is the Gambler’s Fallacy, where people believe that some outcome of a game of chance is “due” to occur for whatever reason, which of course it isn’t. The other is the Hot Hand Fallacy, where a player or a team will believe they have some injection of luck pushing them through a string of successes. That one’s more complicated.

But, Konnikova says that generally, “Chance is random, it really doesn’t care what’s already happened. At all.” The Hot Hand Fallacy only shows little signs of validity because of psychology. In a competitive sport, greater confidence can improve a player’s performance or maybe intimidate the opponent, increasing the chances for additional success.

What’s the lesson of all this? Just sneer at folks who believe in luck? Hell no. “Shit happens,” Konnikova says, and it’s something we need to just accept. We need to embrace the confidence and happiness we get when good shit happens, and acknowledge that bad shit will also happen, and simply make the most of all of it.

“Thinking about luck in this way will make us better players at life,” she said.

Okay, okay. I’ll try.

You can watch Konnikova’s presentation at last year’s CSICon here at CFI’s Reasonable Talk.

You Can’t Help But Be Wrong: Richard Wiseman on Creating Curiosity

Almost as a direct contrast to Lawrence Krauss’s presentation last night in which we were reminded to look to see what is actually there, Richard Wiseman showed us how we can’t help but see things that aren’t.

To make an example of all of us, he asked us to choose one card out of a set of five on the screen, and lo and behold, when he took one away, we all believed he had taken away the one we had chosen. (“Not so skeptical now, are we?”) Well, he had taken our card, but only because he had swapped out every card, leaving four wholly new cards, making is seem to us that he had somehow plucked something from our minds.

But just as with all good magic tricks, we were delighted to be fooled.

The point was that our brains cannot resist trying to make sense of the senseless, has no choice but to seek patterns and understandable and familiar images. We see faces in random objects, and we miss big changes that don’t interest our brains. “You can’t overcome this bias,” said Wiseman.

“We’re not seeing what’s there,” he said. “We’re bringing a lot to the party.”

Well, it’s a good thing we brought Wiseman to the party.

Oh, I forgot to add, you know that optical illusion image of what could either be a duck or a rabbit depending on how you look at it? Wiseman said that as this picture has been studied by experts over a hundred years, “the consensus is that it’s actually a rabbit.”

Whatever. I’m #TeamDuck all the way.