Monday, July 27, 2009

The “PhD Effect” and scientific prediction

This appeared on May 29th, 2009 in the blog, Things I Don’t Understand. I would like to thank the author (let's make John A. Underhill his nom de plume) for allowing me to reprint this article.

Randi’s Theory of PhDs

One of my personal inspirations to look at the Universe through scientific eyes is not a scientist at all, but a conjurer, escape artist and illusionist called James “The Amazing” Randi. Randi (as he is frequently called) is now semi-retired from show business, but is fully engaged in making speeches and writing books on the paranormal, upon hucksters and scam–artists, on fake psychics like Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne and all sorts of flim-flam that causes gullible people to be separated from their money. He does this through his own charitable Foundation, the James Randi Educational Foundation,based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Now many people are beguiled into thinking that Randi is some mere conjurer. He most certainly is much more than that. Randi is a genius of first rank and a highly original thinker whose persistence has infuriated many counsels of the “great and the good” including that most precious of elites, the PhD scientists of academe.

It’s not that Randi is against PhDs or the people that have PhDs. He is a blessed and trusted friend to many people who possess those qualifications and more. He was a great friend of Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman.

Its simply that in his long observation of PhD scientists that some of them are peculiarly blind to their own deficiencies as observers, thinkers or even experimenters, and can be fooled by simple trickery or deluded by chance or human error into believing the most preposterous of nonsenses.

Randi has his own theory as to why PhDs are more credulous than they would admit. He refers to it as the “PhD Effect” and whimsically relates that he notices at the PhD ceremony the Presiding Professor always wears gloves to handle the PhD certificates and wonders why this should be – and then Randi proffers the suggestion that it must be because the certificates contain a substance that transfers itself instantaneously to the new PhD holder through the skin, one of whose results is that the newly minted PhD cannot utter either of the following two phrases “I was wrong” and “I don’t know”.

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