BAN #99: I’m sensing a B and an S

March 25, 2019 Issue #99

Subscribers can predict the future: They know they’ll be able to read Thursday’s newsletter.


You can’t debunk something unless it’s bunk to start with

I love John Oliver’s show This Week Tonight. It’s an incredible deep dive into a single topic, usually some way someone is trying to screw someone else out of money, power, or whatever. It’s always something important, and in the meantime it’s amazingly funny.

My daughter sent me a note recently telling me to watch the episode where they go into “psychics”, or as a friend of mine calls them, grief vultures. Oliver handles this topic deftly, putting so-called psychics in their place. Happily, HBO puts the shows on YouTube, so I can show it to you now! One word, though: There’s quite a bit of swearing, so if you’re at work, put on headphones, and also stop reading junk mail like this and get back to work.

Love. It.

Now, to be clear, not all psychics are frauds. A lot of them you just saw on that show very much are. But some honestly think they have a gift, just as strongly as their clients think they do as well. But belief isn’t reality, and in reality they are not psychic. They’re guessers.

I’ve seen mentalists and other professional skeptics tear apart “psychics” like John Edwards, Sylvia Browne, and James Van Praagh, and have seen footage mediums don’t want you to see where they just stand there guessing letters and names and diseases and circumstances over and again and getting blank stares from the audience… until finally they get a hit. Then they zero in on that like a vulture swopping down on a fresh kill. It’s disgusting.

I saw the stat Oliver quotes on his show, that 4 in 10 Americans believe in psychics. You might think it’s harmless, though as Oliver points out it’s not, seeing as how much money the industry makes. And something he doesn’t discuss is that these “psychics” are disrupting the grieving process; the people might feel better temporarily, but they’re not healing. They’re holding on to false hope, and that is no help at all. So there’s plenty of damage being done.

Plus, it just erodes peoples’ ability to distinguish what’s real and what’s not. We already get enough of that from Trump. We don’t need it from anywhere else.

Or at all.

Book ’em

Sometimes I read books

[Note: I have a big pile of books publishers send me — if you ever write a book, you will be buried in free ones, so pro tip there — and I feel guilty that I haven’t been reading them and writing up reviews. I dislike doing stuff like that on the blog unless it’s a roundup of some kind, and that’s even more work than writing about them individually, somehow. Since I’m fundamentally lazy, putting up reviews here in the BAN seems like the perfect venue. So here you go.]

My literary agent, Seth Fishman, is more than just a science agent and nerd: He’s an author, too! He wrote a children’s book called “A Hundred Billion Trillion Stars”, and it’s really good. And I’m not just saying that because he is the only thing standing between me and getting wrung out to dry by some publisher for my next book, whenever I get around to writing that. No, it really is great.

I just got another kids’ book by him, this one titled “Power Up: Your Incredible, Spectacular, Supercharged Body”. It’s a sciencey book for very young kids — I’d say ones that are just starting to learn to read themselves, and still want to sit on a parent’s lap and read along or just listen.

The premise is what your body does with energy — dance, read, run, brush your teeth, and the like. It’s filled with little numerical facts (you blink 15,000 times a day) that are fun, and the illustrations (drawn by Isabel Greenberg) are cute and engaging. Funny, too: In the book he says that your pinky as enough energy to power all kinds of things — 1800 schools, 4 million refrigerators, and so on. I knew he meant matter to energy conversion, but that’s not explained in the book… until literally after the end! He has an “Author’s Note” that explains E=mc^2 to parents, in a way that they can explain it to their kids. Clever!

So if you’re looking to raise appropriately science-savvy kids and want them to see it as the cool topic it is, then this book’ll do you. He has links to buy it on his “Power Up” page.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[Billions of years ago, Mars had surface water: lakes, rivers, and oceans. This artwork uses actual topographical data to map where that water would have been. See Monday’s blog post about this. Credit: lttiz / wikipedia]

Monday March 18, 2019: NASA's Mars Pathfinder may have landed at the edge of an ancient inland Martian sea

Tuesday March 19, 2019: My TED talk: Science learns by making mistakes… and admitting them

Wednesday March 20, 2019: Holy spitting space rocks: Asteroid Bennu is active!

Thursday March 21, 2019: Contest: Pick names for Jupiter's new moons!

Friday March 22, 2019: Meteorite impacts a house in Uruguay

Et alia

You can email me at (though replies can take a while), and all my social media outlets are gathered together at Also, if you don’t already, please subscribe to this newsletter! And feel free to tell a friend or nine, too. Thanks!