Mystery Investigators

By Phil Plait | May 3, 2005 10:26 pm

‘It’s not hard to see an overall lack of critical thinking here in the United States. If you pause for about one millisecond you can probably come up with a few examples… or you could simply peruse any of the pages on my website.

Humans are really not very good at thinking skeptically. Evolution, ironically, has us all too willing to believe leaders, subserve to authority, accept fantasy as reality. We have to learn to think, and it’s hard. By the time we’re adults, it’s even harder.

That’s why it’s so important to teach how to think to kids. How many kids learn that science is just a big pile of facts, and never learn that it’s actually a rich tapestry of learning, a method, a way of thinking, a complex and beautiful interaction of humans, emotions, insights, drama, and the sheer joy of discovery?

We need to reach kids. And hooray for the good guys, some people are!

image of Richard Saunders bending a spoon, unpsychically Enter the Mystery Investigators. This is the team of Alynda Brown and Richard Saunders, two Australian skeptics (check out their magazine, featuring an interview with moi in the April 2005 issue). I’m proud to say they are my friends, because, by every definition I accept, they are heroes. They go into classrooms and teach kids how to think, by showing them where thinking goes wrong. And most importantly, they make it fun!
Alynda is a burgeoning expert in martial arts, and dazzles the kids with an exciting display of blades and leaps. Richard, wearing a stereotypical lab coat, shows the students how to bend spoons with nothing more than the power of their minds (and the power of misdirection, and just maybe the power of their thumbs). They perform all sorts of other magic tricks (including Richard standing on Alynda while she lies on a bed of nails). I saw them do an abbreviated performance when I was in Australia in 2004, and it was great fun. And all the while, they are showing exactly where thinking goes wrong. image of Alynda, a tough broad

One demo they did I liked very much: they said they were going to find out who in the room was psychic. They start off by saying that one person in the room can predict the future, and we can find out who! They get everyone in the audience to stand up, and have them pick “heads” or “tails” (by pointing at their head or their tail). They asked me to flip a coin, and everyone who guessed wrong had to sit down. The people who remained standing once again were asked to choose heads or tails, and I flipped the coin again, and so on. In our audience, there were about 120 people, so I knew it would take about six flips to eliminate everyone but two (I won’t tell you why– figure it out!). I then did the final flip, and presto: one person was left! Clearly, she must be psychic to have known in advance what seven coin flips would be!

Comfy? See how that works? She wasn’t psychic, of course. But no matter what, someone would be the last standing. It happened to be her (ironically, it was a woman they had named “Skeptic of the Year the night before). So how do you prove it’s meaningless? You do the whole thing again! In the end, you’re almost certain to have a different person standing.

It’s rather like the lottery. Someone has to win. But the odds are pretty good it won’t be you.

It’s the way they end the show that really gets me, though. They pull out a rolled up poster from behind the table. Unfurling it reveals an ochre and rust panorama, a detailed, 6 foot long picture showing the surface of Mars as taken by one of the two rovers currently exploring the landscape there. The image is a triumph of engineering and science.

The look out into the audience and say, “Let’s see an astrologer do this!”

Teaching kids lessons like these will make them better people. They’ll be less likely to be fooled by charlatans, and far more able to make important decisions later in life. Go to the Mystery Investigators website; they are willing to travel. I just bet you know a school that could use a show like this.’

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Cool stuff

Comments (11)

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  1. VisionEngineer

    This reminds me of a demonstration that my Psychology 101 professor did in class. He told us that he had psychic ability and that the previous night he tossed a set of four coins twenty times. There are of course sixteen different possible results from flipping four coins. For each of the twenty coin tosses he would concentrate and “send� us the results. He would then go through each possible combination and ask everyone to raise their hand in response to which combination they had “received� in their mind. He tallied all the student’s answers. After doing this for the twenty sets of coin tosses, he added up the number of responses for each possible combination of the coin tosses. Then he pulled out a sheet of paper showing what his “psychic� ability told him would be the results of the class’s answers. He was almost dead on. The trick is that he knew people have a psychological bias against certain combinations, i.e. all heads, all tails and preferred the results that had two heads and two tails. Any of the sixteen combinations had the same probability of occurring, but people think that all heads/tails is “odd� so a disproportionate number of people would avoid those combinations. To a lesser extent students avoided the combinations where there were three of a kind in the result. There was nothing special other than the ability to observe human behavior and use it to fool people. That is how a lot of stage performers do their tricks. They are good at observing and understanding how people behave.

    There was another psychic trick he told us about that he used to perform. He would have assigned seating and take attendance. The class thought they were penalized for missing class (they weren’t) and so it was important to be in your assigned seat (one of those large lecture halls). Halfway through the semester he would do a psychic demonstration. Graduate assistants would select seat numbers “randomly�. The selections were not really random but a select number of seats. He had previously done research on the students that sat in those particular seats. He would then tell the person in that seat all about his background: schools attended, family members, hometown, academic major, etc. It worked very well until one time he did this with a student and then asked him, “Did I accurately describe you?� The guy answered, “No, but you described my roommate perfectly!� This guy was sitting in for his roommate so that he would not be penalized for being absent!

  2. Michelle Rochon

    One of the most interesting shows I saw on TV was the series with that “mystery magician” showing all of his tricks… I heard it made a lot of magicians mad because he gave all the punches. 😛

    I always enjoyed magic shows. Not because I thought it was real or something, but because I always tried to see the trick. Which is pretty hard to do sometimes. They are well-planned shows, you can only admire the guy that found the trick.

    Too bad there are some people that are a wee bit too gullible.

    Great thing those two are doing there, a great way to make thinking interesting. 😛

  3. Thanks Phil for all the nice words. If there is anyone in the USA who would like us to tour, just send the money and we’ll be there! :)

  4. VisionEngineer

    Richard Ssunders

    Thank you for what you and Alynda Brown are doing. I’ve had to deal with way too many people who don’t know how to think critically as adults. I’m sure BA would agree. By the time someone is an adult it is usually too late to do anything about it. There needs to be more people like you out there teaching kids how to think. It would and will make this a much better world.

    Also a thanks to BA for what you are doing!

  5. X

    I My opinion most yough poeple do’nt seem to ask to many questions.
    they go like…
    hmmz ok this happens, so be it.
    there not asking why does it happen. or does it really happen or do i think it happens…

  6. Thanks again. Due to a typo, my name appeard as Ssunders. It is in fact Saunders. Oh well. I am also president of Australian Skeptics, check out the web site at

  7. Nigel Depledge

    X: interesting comments. You seem to be saying that the preceding comments come from people who are not asking questions about the demonstrations and/or descriptions in this blog, but are just accepting what is said or presented. Or, in other words, that these advocates of critical thinking are accepting things uncritically.

    However, if the presentation is suitably planned, it anticipates all of the critical questions (e.g. “how come that result shows x or y or z to be the case?”, or “but what about this interpretation that implies q or r to be true, or at least possible, instead?”).

    If enough detail and logical reasoning are presented, no-one needs to ask any further questions.

    The question of “why” is often a very different (and difficult) question to answer. Having established that something happens, it is usually not too hard to establish how it happens (although many things do require ingenious experiments and/or measurements to establish which of two or three possible explanations is the case), but it is then a very large step to establish why it happens. How does the sun shine? It is down to nuclear physics (the fusion of hydrogen isotopes into helium). Why does the sun shine? That is a far deeper and more philosophical question.

    The question “Do I think it happens?” is perhaps not so relevant, unless you mean “Do I agree with the interpretation that has been placed on these data?” or “Do I agree that the data are sufficiently accurate and reliable to infer such things from them?”. If you cannot genuinely fault the way in which data were gathered (or the way in which an experiment was performed), and if you cannot fault the logic behind the interpretation of the data, then you must accept the conclusion (unless there is an alternative possibility that the author has not even thought of, but would produce exactly the same results in the situation under discussion; in this case, you would need to come up with a prediction in which your interpretation and the other person’s interpretation would yield different results, then do the experiment or make the observation to prove which is wrong).

    For example, in another reply to one of the BA’s blog pages, I mentioned that some people choose not to believe in evolution. This is a very uncritical way to think: whether evolution happens (or not) does not depend on whether (or not) certain people choose to believe in it. If anyone genuinely wished to refute the concept of evolution, they would need to assess all of the data (200 years of fossil record, potassium-argon and uranium dating of rocks, the beautifully simple mechanism provided by the biochemistry of DNA as a carrier of genetic information, and so on), assess, on a case-by-case basis, the way it has all been interpreted and then come up with an alternative, coherent explanation that describes how each piece of evidence should be interpreted and how it fits into the new framework. This is a tall order, and it has not, to my knowledge, even been attempted. Thus, the concept of evolution remains the best explanation available for the data we have.

    Apologies to anyone who got bored reading this, I kind of got carried away.

    Incidentally, X, there are two ways you can make your online presence more credible: first, use a name that is a bit less anonymous; and, secondly, check your typing before clicking the “submit” button. Everyone makes typing errors, but in your comment above, they are so frequent it almost obscures the meaning of your text.

  8. Unfortunetly it’s because parents “teach” us(kids) to think that way. Child: “Why?”Parent: “Because I said so”
    It Annoys the heck out of me, and every other kid too, but eventualy they learn to accept, and not to questions such things or to challenge it (until they reach teen years but then the teenagers are often in the wrong). Not every one has Bad astronomy to turn to, I suppose I’m lucky in that way. (I’m 14 btw and I’m happy to say that I think criticly)

  9. I’m too lazy to figure out the coin trick, but 120 is 6! isn’t it? :-)

  10. Harald… close, but you’re not thinking binary enough. 😉

    OK, I’ll give it away. Every time you flip the coin, statistically speaking you’ll eliminate half the audience. After two flips, you’ll only have half of that, or 1/4 the original. After the next flip, it’s 1/8, then 1/16, etc.

    After you flip 7 times, you’ll be down to 1/128. So statistically, if you start with 128 people, after six flips you should have only 2 left. In real life that may be different (if everyone chooses heads, you can eliminate everyone with one flip!), but when we did it in Australia it worked out perfectly!


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