Debunked! by G Charpak & H Broch, translator BK Holland. Johns Hopkins University Press, Reviewed by Bernard Howard.
For a refreshingly new look at some familiar skeptical themes, try this translation from the more elegantly titled French: Devenez Sorciers, Devenez Savants, by a CERN Nobel Laureate, and a professor at the University of Nice, recipient of a top CSICOP Award. Like all the best such writing, it treats serious matters with a light touch.
In discussing astrology there is a clear explanation of the precession of the equinoxes, showing how all the signs of the zodiac have moved round one notch in two thousand years, and a warning to would be post-grads at the Sorbonne to avoid those academics who awarded France’s leading astrologer, Elizabeth Teissier, a doctorate. Forer’s notorious experiment (in which all subjects are given identical, but supposedly personalised character readings) has also been visited upon a hapless class of psychology students at the University of Nice, with the usual results. At the same institution a dowser was tested and found wanting, and Chevreul’s 200-year-old test of pendulum dowsing is described in detail (he was French).
The book has several well explained examples of ‘magic’ tricks for convincing others of your psychic powers: telepathy, levitation, metals-with-memory, and (not for the faint-hearted) shocking feats with pieces of wire.
A long section is devoted to coincidences (extraordinary events), with striking examples and clear explanations of the statistics involved. There is such an enormous number of such events possible, and so many people to witness them, that some extraordinary event is not unexpected, but inevitable.
The famous NASA photo of the Earth from the Moon accompanies the question: If we Earthlings can see a Moonrise, why cannot Moonlings see an Earthrise?
At a church in southern France is a stone sarcophagus with a ‘miraculous’ property: though covered with a substantial lid, it fills with water. Careful experiments published 40 years ago showed that the lid , though of thick stone, is porous, and rain soaking through can account for the water in the sarcophagus. Despite this, unscrupulous journalists and TV producers today insist on the miracle. They are either liars or have never seen it.
This section of the book emphasised for me a feature which is irritating throughout – the translator has converted all the original metric measurements into USA units. Can many readers visualise an American quart? And when he writes that the water was 0.039 inches deep, the authors are not trying to tell us that the depth was measured to an accuracy of one thousandth of an inch, just that it was about a millimetre. A final chapter upbraids the anti-nuclear energy lobby, reminding readers of the numerous sources of natural radioactivity we are exposed to all the days of our lives, and finishes with the familiar plea for the application of science to solving the world’s problems.
An appendix explains the mathematics behind a couple of apparently unlikely, but quite probable coincidences. There is no index.