Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Invasion of the randonauts

Today the following happened:
  • In the last few months I've been watching episodes of Agatha Christie's Poirot, and last night I watched the amazing "And Then There Were None."  Today on Facebook, one of my friends was participating in the thing that's going around to post your seven favorite book covers, and she posted the cover of the book by the same name.
  • When I went outside ten minutes ago, the cows in the field across the street were all staring in my direction.
  • An acquaintance who moved away five years ago emailed me last night saying he was in town for a couple of days and asking if I wanted to get together for coffee.  Today I went to the grocery store, and who should be there but him.
  • I looked out of my office window a few minutes ago, exactly at the right time to see a hawk zoom by, only about ten feet from the window.
  • I noticed that my angel's trumpet plant has nine new flowers on it.  The scientific name of the plant, Brugmansia, has ten letters, and today is September 9 (9-10).

Why all this stuff comes up is because of a link sent to me by a loyal reader of Skeptophilia yesterday, about a new hobby some people have -- they call themselves the "Randonauts."  The gist is that these folks are trying to prove that we're either in some kind of computer simulation, or else there's some Weird Shit going on, or both.

The way they do it is that you log into a site with a random number generator (the full instructions are in the link), and it will use those to plot out latitudes and longitudes of places near you.  After doing this a bunch of times, it will spit out the set of coordinates that got the most hits.  You go there, and...

... stuff is supposed to happen.  Here are a few things people have reported when doing this:
All of this is supposed to signify that our lives are being controlled, either by some super-intelligent power or by a simulation, and this is making the random number generator not so random -- and directing us to where there are leaks in the matrix, or something.

Tamlin Magee, who wrote the article for The Outline I linked above, was only mildly impressed by her experiences, which I encourage you to read about.  Here's her conclusion:
Whatever you think of the validity of hacking reality or the nature of our possibly deterministic universe, my time randonauting pushed me to pay closer attention to my environment, to stop and notice things, like artwork, signs, symbols, nature, and objects, that I might have otherwise filtered out by default. 
Do I understand the theories behind it all?  Absolutely not.  Do I think I’m challenging a demiurgical Great Programmer, jumping into alternate dimensions or tearing apart the space-time continuum?  Probably also not.  But my trips, nonetheless, felt imbued by a strangely comforting, esoteric mindfulness.  And if only for that reason, I will be randonauting again.
Now, far be it from me to criticize weird and semi-pointless hobbies.  I'm a geocacher, after all, not to mention a birdwatcher (a hobby a former student aptly described as "Pok√©mon for adults").  So I'm glad Magee had fun, and in that spirit, I'd like to participate myself.

But I don't buy the conclusion any more than she did -- that you're more likely to see weird stuff when you do this than you are at any other time.  I think, as Magee points out, what happens is you're more likely to notice it.

I mean, think about it.  You go anywhere, and your instructions are: notice anything weird.  No restrictions.  Not even any definition of what qualifies as "weird."

My guess is that this would work in every single location in the world you might consider going to.  Because, face it, Weird Shit is everywhere.

So what we have here is a bad case of dart-thrower's bias -- our naturally-evolved tendency to notice outliers.  That, and the desire -- also natural -- that there be some meaning in what happens around us, that it isn't all just chaos.  (We took a look at the darker side of this drive yesterday.)

Anyhow, I think this sounds like it could be entertaining, as long as you don't put too much stock in your results showing that we're in a simulation.  Although I have to admit, given how bizarre the news has been lately, it's crossed my mind more than once that maybe we are in a computer simulation, and the aliens running the simulation have gotten bored, and now they're just fucking with us.

Certainly would explain a lot of what comes out of Donald Trump's mouth.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is pure fun: science historian James Burke's Circles: Fifty Round Trips Through History, Technology, Science, and Culture.  Burke made a name for himself with his brilliant show Connections, where he showed how one thing leads to another in discoveries, and sometimes two seemingly unconnected events can have a causal link (my favorite one is his episode about how the invention of the loom led to the invention of the computer).

In Circles, he takes us through fifty examples of connections that run in a loop -- jumping from one person or event to the next in his signature whimsical fashion, and somehow ending up in the end right back where he started.  His writing (and his films) always have an air of magic to me.  They're like watching a master conjuror create an illusion, and seeing what he's done with only the vaguest sense of how he pulled it off.

So if you're an aficionado of curiosities of the history of science, get Circles.  You won't be disappointed.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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