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Norman Sperling
2625 Alcatraz Avenue #235
Berkeley, CA 94705-2702

cellphone 650 - 200 - 9211
eMail normsperling [at] gmail.com

Norm Sperling’s Great Science Trek: 2014

San Luis Obispo
Santa Barbara
Palm Springs
Death Valley
Tucson
El Paso
Corpus Christi
Baton Rouge
Tampa
Everglades
Key West
Winter Star Party, Scout Key
Miami

MARCH 2014:
up the Eastern seaboard
mid-South

APRIL 2014:
near I-40, I-30, and I-20 westbound

MAY 2014:
near US-101 northbound
May 17-18: Maker Faire, San Mateo
May 23-26: BayCon, Santa Clara

California till midJune

JUNE 2014:
Pacific Northwest

JULY 2014:
Western Canada, eastbound

AUGUST 2014:
near the US/Can border, westbound
August 22-on: UC Berkeley

Speaking engagements welcome!
2014 and 2015 itineraries will probably cross several times.

To outflank a violent front

Heading south on I-75 to outflank the violent front. Will reassess from central Florida.

Why Mass Media Keep Running Horoscopes, and How That Shows You Who Not to Heed

Norman Sperling, BASIS, vol. 21, no. 4, October-December 2004, p6.

For many years – decades, now – I've criticized mass media for continuing to publish horoscopes. Scientists and skeptics have demonstrated repeatedly, scientifically, logically, persuasively, that those published horoscopes are junk. They're not valid. They mislead readers. They even influence some readers to act in ways that they otherwise wouldn't, and to that degree they harm their audience.

I've worked in several mass-communications media, including a daily newspaper in a big chain, a web-based general news outlet, an authoritative independent scientific magazine, and now an independent science humor magazine. Colleagues in other radio, television, and assorted media tell me what those are like. Outside of specifically-scientific media, neither scientific literacy nor scientific mindset prevail. The vast majority of media owners and employees don't know science, and don't care much about it. Neither science literacy, nor gullibility for pseudoscience, seems relevant for hiring or promotion. Anywhere that science is concerned, they literally don't know what they are doing.

Profit-Driven Corporate Media

Corporate owners are notorious for being driven by the near-term bottom line. They aren't far-sighted enough for the long run (by contrast, some family-owned newspapers count by generations, not quarters).

Some owners make it clear that their principal purpose is to make money. Rupert Murdoch obviously puts profit foremost throughout his empire, so his Fox outlets, for example, may place journalistic standards second (or lower), and scientific validity third (or lower), along their way to lowering cultural standards generally. When Murdoch retires, I hope his successors will prioritize for greater public responsibility.

It's almost as bad outside Murdoch's empire. Most local newspapers are parts of large chains, which achieve economies of scale by operating non-local factors by corporate dictum. The corporation picks the cartoons and non-news features to run, including the horoscope column. The local news staff gets to fill the "news hole" on each page, but has zero influence on anything else. They funnel their attention to what they can do something about. Most newspapers don't have a science writer, and simply copy Associated Press reports, though AP is depressingly careless. I know a science writer who professed to not know whether her newspaper even ran a horoscope because she never looked at the non-news pages ... in which their horoscope runs every day. Most readers don't distinguish the different sources of what that newspaper prints on different parts of different pages.

Editing from Ignorance

I don't know any science writers or science editors who favor running horoscopes. But none rise high enough to make grand corporate decisions. Most stay within their subject. They report to general-journalism veterans, who are usually knowledgeable about public affairs, but emphatically ignorant about nature. The general-news media I worked for published horoscopes, and I carped about that, but gently enough not to threaten my employment.

Those senior editors impose templates of ignorance on the science coverage. I once had to put all my science coverage through a senior editor who was utterly ignorant, who kept failing to understand anything significant, and kept directing me to irrelevancies.

Another senior editor declared that "all stories are people stories", thus crippling coverage of, for example, a comet hitting a planet. That's how reporting about that comet and that planet gets shunted aside for personality-pieces about whoever happened to discover things.

Science coverage is likely to remain poor in corporate mass media. The bean counters don't understand science. The moguls don't understand science. The journalists in general don't understand science. They'll probably remain disgustingly ignorant for disgusting decades to come. So the presence of a horoscope will keep indicating a medium's scientific invalidity: media that publish horoscopes pander and profiteer; they don't understand science, and don't respect the reader enough to report reality.

Less-Filtered Voices

Now, however, little voices have a far better opportunity to be heard. I run an independent magazine, and I can print anything that won't alienate my subscribers. My contributors are often delighted to find an outlet where science, validity, and humor dominate decision-making. Horoscope-free specialty newsletters and magazines abound – seek them at your newsstand and library.

But the biggest influence by far is the World Wide Web. Small media have a far louder voice when you read what they say. For a horoscope-free, non-corporate take, follow links from these among your explorations: disinfo.com; projectcensored.org; transparency.org; eurekalert.org; quackwatch.org; debunker.com; csicop.org; utne.com. I don't agree with all their views, but I don't think any of them features a horoscope.

Because media like those – and of course your own favorite alternate viewpoints – can no longer be stifled, corporate influence is actually limited. If corporate media don't serve your needs, stop buying them, and find your own horoscope-free inputs instead.

The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading

by Ian Rowland. 3rd edition, 2002. 237 pages. Published by the author exclusively through his website, www.ianrowland.com. The new 4th edition: £28 plus postage from England.
Reviewed by Norman Sperling, JIR vol. 50, no. 3, 2007, p30.

Ian Rowland knows what you're thinking. Now that I've read his book, so do I.
Ian Rowland is a British magician who has perfected the art of "Cold Reading" to tell clients amazing things.
Cold readings are also used in tarot, astrology, palmistry, graphology, clairvoyance, mediumship, psychometry, crystal balls, and auras. The clients are usually surprised at how accurate the readings are. Readings work largely because most people share the same kinds of experiences, including the same problems. If you bring up a characteristic that almost everybody has to some degree, and scrupulously don't say how much the subject has of it, the claim rings true.
Rowland has learned the common thoughts of common people. I noticed that many of my own thoughts are so conventional that I must be pretty "normal", despite what some people say.
I got tuned in to this situation by fighting astrology. Horoscope writers spin lots of statements that are true for most people most of the time. Therefore, readers think their horoscopes are "right!", and credit astrology, rather than psychology, with the "hits".
Till recently, however, the only compilation of cold readings that I could find was the article, "Cold Reading": How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them, by Ray Hyman in The Zetetic (which later became Skeptical Inquirer), vol. I, no. 2, Spring/Summer 1977, pp 18-37. The paragraphs there descended from astrological horoscopes. I wanted better, more complete information. I knew there had to be more, but I couldn't find it.
Looking up "cold reading" sent me down some wrong alleys. For example, the term is also used for the quite different skill of narrators and actors who read a script for the first time – "cold".
Then, I heard about the first edition of this book, which was published in 1998. But it's not available in stores, and no library I use – including some major academic research libraries – has a copy. The price tag gave me second thoughts, so I put it off.
Finally I decided to buy it. It was already in its third edition, after only 5 years! The exclusive source is the author's website. This keeps control – and profits, and customer contact – away from distributors who don't care enough about the book. Rowland uses a clever security method to take credit cards, so I committed to the full retail price, plus intercontinental postage, totaling $64.61. Before I could even start worrying about the book getting lost in the mail, it arrived in perfect condition.
What a gem! This book is a joy to read, a splendid blend of human insight and practical showmanship. It includes everything I was thinking of, tons more that hadn't occurred to me, provides huge resources, and stays interesting the whole time. I read it cover-to-cover.
The most common themes of readings are love and money. Other popular topics include career, health, travel, education, and ambitions. A person not concerned with those would be rare indeed.
The heart of the book is the 119-page unit explaining how cold reading works. It covers the setup, principal themes, elements of the reading, the win-win game, and presentation points. Laced with revealing examples and entertaining anecdotes, it explains the theory and practice behind each point.
One of the book's many delights is the titling of the subsections. Here is a sampler:
Fine Flattery
Sugar Lumps
Barnum Statements
The Fuzzy Fact
The Opposites Game
The Jargon Blitz
The Vanishing Negative
Pollyanna Pearls
The Neverwas Prediction
I am wrong now, but I will be right soon
Forking
Reprising with gold paint
New in this edition are applications of cold reading to sales, romance, and interrogating criminals. Rowland comments on the ethics and legality involved, but may not always be heeded.
The author has some quirks that are excusable, and arguably good. He puts into print the time-honored speaker's maxim of "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." Each segment's introduction clarifies what it is about and where it fits into the larger scheme. Each segment ends by saying some version of "this ends the segment on such-and-such, the fourth of seven elements of thus-and-so." The phrasing is stilted, but it's brief and keeps the logical structure obvious.
The book is so meticulously proofread that I found only 2 typos, both trivial, on pages 123 and 125.
Though the contents are witty and wonderful, the physical production of the book shows some choices that I wouldn't have made. I eMailed Rowland about them, and got his reasoning, but I still don't agree.
Throughout the book, most places that need a long "dash" use a short "hyphen" instead. That is just plain wrong.
The paperback format and binding are conventional and appropriate. The paper is certainly opaque, a helpful characteristic which Rowland wanted. But the paper is much heavier than it needs to be. It's also very glossy, which gives awkward, annoying reflections from lighting in some rooms. Lighter, matte-finish book paper would feel more appropriate, be easier to read, and probably cost the publisher less.
The author likes the look of the "Souvenir" type font he used. But it is not the most readable. When I publish a book, I really want people to read it, so I use the most-readable fonts – typically "book" types like Bookman and Century Schoolbook. They aren't as condensed as Times, nor as artsy as Souvenir – but they read better, and that's what I want most. I often felt this book's lower readability slowed me down, when the actual wording would have let me go faster.
OK, if you have to read slower, consider it "savoring". This is certainly a delicious book!

Take a Nebula, Condense and Stir

Space age research shows that the Solar System’s members are all cousins. They started with the same ingredients in the same nebula, and underwent related processes.

Their mass, and how hot they got inside, govern which processes each object underwent, making them the way they are today. So my graph plots mass versus how hot they got, arraying characteristics that are all talking about the same things.

Some of the old categories are distinguishable, and some are not. Comets (retaining original ices) all plot left of “the water’s edge”. Meteorites are all the small things at the bottom. Stars shine at top right.

But “planets” includes some objects that are physically like brown-dwarf almost-stars, other objects that are like the 7 big moons, and one object scarcely distinguishable from comets. “Asteroids” now have known borderline-cases with comets, meteoroids, and moons; planetologists have long suspected that small moons are captured asteroids and comets, and not original equipment.

Tectonics, subduction, and volcanism only occur on a few differentiated objects. These processes require a rigid (solid, cooled) surface, overlying a warm, fluid interior. On my graph, these conditions occupy a small zone: the smaller planets, and larger moons and asteroids.
Everything above that zone (more massive) has stayed fluid through the present, so they have no crust on which to show tectonics, subduction, or volcanism.
Everything below that zone (less massive) is so small it lost heat almost as fast as it gained heat, and probably never melted, differentiated, and formed a solid crust over a liquid mantle.
Everything left of that zone (colder) never melted and differentiated, so there was no warm fluid to drive tectonics, subduction, or volcanism.
And no object lies right of that zone because anything that hot is so massive that it plots higher on the graph.

excerpt from What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You, pp 68-70.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results
This Book Warps Space and Time
What Your Astronomy Textbook Won't Tell You

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