Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Parlor Tricks and Fatal Accidents

Actually, the comment in my previous post about there being a fine line between a parlor trick and a fatal accident reminded me of the time Skeptic magazine editor Michael Shermer confronted a gentlemen, let's call him Smith, who was claiming that it is some metaphysical power of the mind that makes it possible to walk across fiery hot coals. Smith was charging people a lot of money to go through his course, as a result of which they would be able to fire walk.

Shermer pointed out that, actually, the ability to walk across hot coals is a consequence of some very simple principles of physics (basically, though the coals are themselves very hot, they are very inefficient at transmitting the heat to your feet. As long as you keep moving you'll be okay. Just don't try walking across a comparably hot piece of sheet metal!). To demonstrate his point, Shermer, with no prior training, walked across the coals.

But Smith had an answer. It was still the power of the mind that enabled Shermer to walk across the coals. It was just that instead of having the confidence in his own supernatural ability to withstand the heat of the coals (confidence Smith's training course was supposed to impart), he had confidence in the soundness of his understanding of physics.

To which Shermer replied that, actually, he was scared to death of taking the walk. Basic prinicples of thermodynamics are convincing in a classroom. They are considerably less so when you are actually standing in front of the flaming hot coals in your bare feet.