Humor 2. Reason 1. Rage 0.

by admin on May 13, 2015

This is a mostly off-topic post, but it starts in chess club.

At the Aptos Library Chess Club yesterday, a gray-haired woman comes in and starts talking with me. “Oh, I didn’t realize there was a chess club here!” she said. For a little while we chat about the history of the chess club, and I’m thinking she is a nice woman. Then she sees me taking attendance with my cell phone. “What are you doing with that?” she says. I explain. She starts telling me about how Verizon wants to build a new cell phone tower across the street, she tells me that cell phone use is probably responsible for my memory loss (never mind the fact that I only started using my cell phone 10 years ago, and my memory was not too great even before then) and cheerfully informs me that the radiation from my cell phone is “lethal, basically,” so all the kids in my chess club are going to die.

All said with a straight face, in a normal conversational tone of voice. And then she departs.

And through all of this, I regret to say, I said nothing. I just said “mumble mumble mm hmm.” Where was all my science training? Where was my journalistic devotion to the truth? Gone. Completely paralyzed by a nice old lady with paranoid delusions. All that was left was my habitual politeness. Tell me lies to my face, and all I can think of saying is “Thank you for coming to chess club.”

After chess club was over, I saw that all of the cars in the parking lot had anti-cell-tower leaflets on them, so that was in fact the purpose for her visit. Seeing me using the cell phone was just an excuse for her to go into her pre-planned rant.

Anyway, after she left I was so angry at myself. “Why didn’t I say anything?” I started going over in my mind all the things I could have said. Like about the fact that it’s ionizing radiation that damages cells, by knocking electrons off of atoms to create free radicals. According to Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect, it’s the wavelength (not the intensity) of the radiation that determines whether it can remove an electron. So yes, ultraviolet radiation and x-rays and gamma rays are dangerous. Science and society recognize that, and give us protection from them. But visible light is not dangerous. Longer-wavelength radiation is equally not dangerous. There is no known physical mechanism by which it could hurt you.

Not satisfied with physics? Then try biology. When cell phones first came out, there were plenty of studies about whether cell phone usage caused brain tumors. They found nothing. There have also been studies about whether electric high-voltage lines and towers cause increased rates of cancer. Nothing.

But what is infuriating to me about the anti-technology propagandists is that you can never convince them with science. The way you’re supposed to do science is to test a hypothesis. If the experiment gives you no evidence the hypothesis is true, you abandon it. You move on. But the propagandists never move on. They still say that cell phones cause cancer. For them, science is only a propaganda tool. They’ll keep looking until they can find somebody with a Ph.D. who’s willing to look authoritative and say the party line.

Anyway, I finally calmed down. After I calmed down, I had to admit that an enraged response would not have done any good. I certainly am not going to convince the “nice old lady” with my argument about Einstein and the photoelectric effect, and if I had made a scene then it would have disrupted the chess club. So maybe being polite was the right thing after all.

This morning I calmed down even more because I read two articles online that seemed somehow relevant to this problem of how to deal with peddlers of pseudoscience. First, a Facebook friend of mine pointed to a link to an article, The Biggest Concerns about GMO Food Aren’t Really About GMO’s. This was a wonderful article, the first one I’ve read about genetically modified organisms that actually took a somewhat balanced approach. It points out, for example, that many GMO’s were developed precisely for the purpose of reducing pesticide use! Not all of them, of course; some were made to enable the use of certain pesticides such as RoundUp. But the article makes the eminently sensible point that not all GMO’s are created alike, and we shouldn’t lump the good ones with the bad ones.

Anyway, I won’t rehash the whole article, but please read it if you’re not afraid of actually having to deal with nuance. Propagandists, of course, hate nuance. They want you to make decisions based on emotions and sweeping judgements like “all GMO’s are bad.” But real life is full of nuance, uncertainty, and the need to make a rational decision in spite of uncertainty. Any time you try to see both sides of a question, you are already striking a blow in favor of reason and against the propagandists.

The second article I read this morning was from the New Yorker, Scientists: Earth Endangered by New Strain of Fact-Resistant Humans. It was very short, but it made me laugh to think of the nice old lady as a new mutant strain of human. Perhaps humor is the best weapon against paranoia. Or the best antidote. Or at least the best consolation.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Edward May 13, 2015 at 10:44 am

Nice post. Are you going to tackle global cooling next?


Hal Bogner May 13, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Edward – Global cooling was our destiny in the 1970s, when we were warned that we were heading towards another ice age. Humanity has met that challenge already. 🙂

Dana – Great stuff – thanks! But one thing, though: “Propagandists, of course, hate nuance” seems like a pretty shallow thought…surely, it’s not that simple!


Paul in New York May 14, 2015 at 5:56 pm

Since you think about this kind of stuff, I’d love to know your thoughts on the relationship of chess, mathematics and the mind (perhaps even music, which seems to be related). How many great chess masters were mathematically inclined? Why are some humans gifted in math while others are dolts? Did mathematicians have to study math hard in school or did it just come to them naturally? And of course the big mystery (to me): why does an abstract mental process mirror, explain and predict the behavior of the physical world?


Eli Lowry May 14, 2015 at 8:36 pm

I love your post. It is funny how some people fanatically believe in certain falsehoods without researching the information for any credibility whatsoever. I have a Masters degree in Mathematics and every year when I welcome a new set of students and their parents to my class I have someone ask me when anyone is ever going to use this stuff. One year, an older gentleman, who was a grandparent of one of my students vowed he had made it through his life without ever using algebra. I merely let him conduct his rant, while feeling a hint of remorse for his feeble mind, and silently wondered why so many people view being phonetically illiterate as something to be ashamed of, yet being numerically illiterate is accepted as a normality.


Eli Lowry May 15, 2015 at 11:39 am

In my opinion, chess, math and music all drastically relate. Many strong chess players were also mathematicians or musicians. Take for example the well-known Emanuel Lasker, who studied mathematics from his childhood but who also became a chess world champion; or even yourself, who is a brilliant chess master and scientist; and if I had to assess, I would assume you have music abilities as well. I think anyone would agree that individuals have to be able to make good calculations in mathematics to get the correct solution. This is true as well in chess. Yet what many do not realize is that it is not the individuals who simply calculate well who are proficient at mathematics but rather, like you stated, ones who can view the math abstractly. What I am trying to say is that anyone of average intelligence can learn mathematics if it is viewed procedurally as a series of steps and precise algorithms. Yet viewing it instrumentally, or in essence, relationally, the mathematics becomes much more complex. Procedures may be easy to use to come up with a solution but ambiguity may still exist about how the mathematics applies to real life situations. In chess, knowing the move sequence of various openings is great, but knowing when to use one opening over others is even more important. Many beginners have an opening in mind they want to pursue and feel that if this position is not achieved then they have failed. Thus they will make every effort to achieve that position in the early stages, rather than focus on the fundamentals of development and centralized control. I had one student who was vehemently seeking a successful completion of the legal trap but epically failed time and time again because he did not consider the weaknesses he was creating while trying to complete the trap. I tell my beginning students who are in the chess club that they must learn openings, but above all, their ultimate goal should be to learn how to analyze the board effectively.
To clarify my opinion to your statement about why some people are brilliant at mathematics and some are dolts, I can only concur that some individuals do not have the ability to think abstractly. I have taught hundreds of students, using various teaching methods. Extensive research has been conducted to see if certain methods help students learn better than others. Although this research has proven that utilizing various methods is clearly more beneficial to the student body as a whole because every child learns differently, I cannot deny the truth that some students I have taught came into my classroom with an innate ability to succeed in math; even more than myself. I have studied mathematics for years, yet when using advanced calculus, I occasionally cannot see beyond the natural steps. It is the same as with chess. I see your chess abilities and I would be lying if I said I was not envious of your skills. My rating hovers around a meager 1700 and although I am still striving to become a master, it seems some days my blunders outweigh my perfections. Does this mean my mind is not capable of playing chess at a master’s level? Perhaps, or maybe I am just making final evaluations to early.


admin May 15, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Such a long comment deserves a response, even if it isn’t quite pertinent to the original post! I don’t think that there is a 100% overlap between chess ability and math ability, but I do think they are related, and you’ve possibly put your finger on the reason why: the need for abstract reasoning in both endeavors. The question, “Is it innate or can it be learned?” has no simple answer; I’m sure it’s some of both.

A couple of personal thoughts. First, I remember reading a long time ago that there is no point trying to teach “if-then” reasoning to students under a certain age because they just won’t get it. They don’t get the idea of a conditional; they think you’re declaring the hypothesis to be true. And I think that even some adults have this problem. To me, the story of your student who keeps trying to set up Legal’s mate may be a good illustration. He doesn’t get that Legal’s mate is something you can do IF your opponent plays a certain way. He just thinks Legal’s mate is something you should try to do every game.

On the other hand, we also have 8-year-old and 9-year-old chess masters, who clearly do understand “if-then” reasoning. So there seems to be a lot of variation in when people develop this ability. Maybe you can teach it, and maybe chess is a good way to teach “if-then” reasoning. Then again, there may be some students who can’t learn it until they’re 12, and you’ll just frustrate them and yourself if you try to teach them. More likely they’ll just give up chess.


Eli Lowry May 15, 2015 at 10:07 pm

I apologize for my post being non pertinent to the original post. In fact, I thought I was responding to you Mr. Mackenzie but I realized it was Paul in New York who wrote the post I responded to. When I received an email notification of the post, it had no name attached so I merely assumed it was the admin of the site. However, thank you for responding to me. I have been reading your material and am learning a lot from your articles. I love the number theory section. I had an adventurous friend who developed a fascination with unproven problems. He attempted to prove that every even number greater than 2 could be written as the sum of two primes. We sat down together many times and would make feeble attempts using induction, proof by contradiction and other methods to prove this problem, but never came up with anything of value. Anyway, your writing is brilliant and I am looking forward to reading more of it.


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