Thinking about miracles

Frances Griffiths and Elise Wright were two young English cousins. In 1917 they claimed that they took photographs with fairies. During that time photography was still a new thing and hence everyone believed that fairies were real. One of the believers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyale, creator of the famously infallible Sherlock Holmes. In the photograph you can find Elsie with the fairy. You can read about the entire story here.

Is this photograph real? No it was not real. In 1982 Elsie admitted that all five of the photographs had been faked.

Long back there was a charlatan who used to pretend that he could restart broken watches by his power of thoughts. He would invite a large television audience to go and fetch an old broken-down watch and clutch it in their hand while he tried to start it remotely with his power of thought. With in few minutes the telephone in the studio would ring and one of the audience in a breathless voice would tell that their watch started. Everyone believed that the charlatan had psychic powers. Did he really have any powers?

No he did not have any powers. In those days watches were not digital and it had springs. Sometimes a sudden movement of a broken watch can get them started. Also the watch started only for 1 out of 10,000 audiences (0.01% of the audience). The poor audience focused on the numerator without giving any consideration to the denominator (Availability Bias).

Both these stories tell us that when there are people willing to believe anything there will be impostors. In the excellent book The Magic Of Reality, Richard Dawkins writes

But unfortunately there are some conjurors who are deliberately dishonest, and who pretend they really have ‘supernatural’ or ‘paranormal’ powers: perhaps they claim that they really can bend metal or stop clocks by the power of thought alone. Some of these dishonest fakes earn a large fees from mining or oil companies by claiming that they can tell, using ‘psychic powers’, where would be a good place to drill. Other charlatans exploit people who are grieving, by claiming to be able to make contact with the dead. When this happens it is no longer just fun or entertainment, but preying on people’s gullibility and distress.

How should we protect ourselves from these charlatans? We can learn a lot from people who are better than us even if they are not alive.

Feynman and broken clock

Richard Feynman’s wife died because of tuberculosis. The clock in her room stopped precisely the moment she died. Most of us would have made up stories by telling that the clock knew that she is going to die and it stopped. But Feynman being a great scientist found out the actual reason for why the clock stopped.

The clock was faulty. If you picked it up and tilted, it tended to stop. When Mrs Feynman died, the nurse needed to record the time for the official death certificate. The sickroom was rather dark, so she picked up the clock and tilted it towards the window in order to read it. And that was the moment at which the clock stopped. Not a miracle at all, just a faulty mechanism.

David Hume on Miracles

David Hume was a famous Scottish thinker who lived in the eighteenth century. His way of dealing with miracles was very clever. He wrote – No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish.

Let us put Hume’s advice into action.

Imagine you have a very good friend who always speaks truth. One day he comes and tells you that he saw a horse flying from earth to the moon in one second (light travels to the moon in 1.3 seconds). Should you believe his statement? Using Hume’s advice let us list down all the possibilities (1) The horse really flew to the moon faster than light (2) Your friend is lying (3) Your friend is hallucinating.

Out of three possibilities which of them is more miraculous. It should be obvious that option 1 is more miraculous. Hence reject that option and you can conclude that his statement is incorrect.

The Magic Of Reality by Richard Dawkins is a fantastic read. After reading this book I have decided to believe in any miracles as long as there is enough evidence supporting it. This way I can increase the odds of protecting myself from charlatans.



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