Tag Archive: skepticism

(Submitted by guest contributor Ben Radford)

Though my skepticism didn’t really come until full bloom until I was in college, I was more or less skeptical of many things by high school, including psychics. I was a voracious reader as a kid, and though I hadn’t yet picked up my first skeptical publication I loved books about curiosities, trivia, and little-known facts (or, as I’d later realize, sometimes “facts”).

When I was a junior in high school I took an art class, partly because it was an easy A and partly because I wanted to try my hand at clay and modeling. Students didn’t have individual desks but instead were seated two to a side on stools around large square metal-covered worktables. There was one kid (I forget his name, but we always called him “Drac” because he was blond and had a vaguely vampiric visage) who sat at my table. We were casual acquaintances, and didn’t know much more about each other than our first names (apparently not even that).

However one day out of the blue, in the middle of class while cutting a piece of metal into the shape of a Picassoesque horse, I said to him, “Hey—I’ll bet I know your mom’s middle name.” He looked at me sideways and gave a quick laugh. “Yeah? What is it?” he challenged. Without missing a beat—and while staring him directly in the eyes—I said simply, “It’s Ann.”

His laugh stopped, his face grew slack, and the blood drained from his face. His eyes grew wide, and then narrowed. “How did you know that?” he demanded. I just gave a brief mysterious smile and went back to working on my horse. “How did you know that?” he asked again. I just ignored him.

I don’t know if he thought I was psychic, or I had investigated his family, or what, but the next week he moved to a different table, avoided me in the halls, and never spoke to me again.

Of course, I didn’t know his mother’s middle name; I had read that the most common women’s middle name was Ann. I played the odds, acted confident and authoritative about my knowledge, and passed myself off as knowing something I didn’t. That experience still serves me 25 years later as I observe psychics doing hot and cold readings, and informs my investigations into the psychology of psychic experiences. It made quite an impression on him, and I wonder if, to this day, he tells the story to others, offering it as his personal experience with real, unexplainable psychic powers.


Ben Radford

Ben Radford

Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of six books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media Panics and Hoaxes. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.

A Tale of a First TAMmer

(Submitted by reader Jim Preston)

I went to my first ever The Amazing Meeting this year, held at the Southpoint Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It was not only my first TAM, it was my first skeptical meeting of any kind. When I arrived, I went to the front desk to check in. I asked if I could have a particularly quiet room, away from the ice machine and the elevator. That was the only input that I had into which room I would get. When the desk clerk told me my room number I was amazed that the four digits were the year I was born.

So what are the odds that I’d be given a room whose number is the year I was born? According to their website, the Southpoint has 2163 rooms. So the simple odds are one out of 2163. Now, if I was someone who travelled a lot and stayed in hotels with at least 19 floors a lot, I’d say that this was bound to happen sooner or later. But I almost never stay in a large hotel. I’ve probably stayed in a 19+ floor hotel less than a dozen times in my life. So the odds that one of those times I would get my birth year room is more like 12 out of whatever the average number of rooms in those dozen hotels is, probably something in the one to two thousand range. Still rather long odds.

What I find most interesting about this is how much, even though I was a good skeptic and I knew it was just a coincidence, I found myself wanting to believe that there was some kind of significance in getting my birth year as my room number at my first ever skeptical meeting.

But maybe it was just an opportunity to apply my skepticism. But see, I said “opportunity”; I’m still phrasing it in terms of some kind of meaning.

Below are the extended notes provided by Barbara Drescher for use in Skepticality Episode 212.  Take a look and leave your comments below. Also, please be sure to listen to the podcast for our own sarcastic and hilarious commentary.

The author of this story did an excellent analysis himself. Even if we only consider the question of the odds of getting a single, specific room number on this specific occasion, at one in 2163, it’s much, much greater than winning the jackpot on any of the slot machines.

But the one thing that is most important to keep in mind is that it’s post-hoc thinking to even consider these odds. What if the room number wasn’t the year of his birth, but the last four digits of his SSN or phone number? Or his street address at home? Our lives are filled with numbers that hold significance for us. The odds of getting a room number that matches some other number of significance are actually quite high–much higher than if we chose one beforehand and tried to predict the incident.