The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for July 15th, 2009

Las Vegas: A Town Based on Bad Math & Gullibility

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 15, 2009

During my recent trip to Las Vegas for TAM7, as with all my previous trips to “Sin City”, I noticed the large number of people gambling.  Now there is a certain social aspect to gambling, but a lot of people play these games of chance hoping that they’ll win it big.  They literally believe that, through some lucky charm or prayer, that they’ll hit the jackpot, and that’s exactly what the casinos want them to believe…


Of course, the casinos in Vegas are banking on a combination of people’s lack of critical thinking & skepticism, innumeracy (misunderstanding of math), susceptibility to the gambler’s fallacy, and basic gullibility – and based upon what I’ve seen, the casinos have been quite successful at cashing in on all of these things.

That’s because in addition to knowing basic human nature, the casinos also know the mathematical odds. They don’t say “the house always wins” for nothing, folks.  Even if someone occasionally wins it big (which will eventually happen by the law of large numbers, just as when someone wins the lottery), there are way more people who are losing money.  In the end, these casinos make much more money than they pay out.

Ironically, I saw the following slot machine sign while in Vegas…


In order to make this sign a more accurate reflection of reality, one of the O’s should be crossed out, because chances are that if you’re playing these games you’ll end up a loser.  So, statistically speaking, how does one win in Vegas (without cheating)?  The answer is simple, folks: you don’t play the game🙂

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Lessons from TAM7: Magic, Deception, and Promoting Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 15, 2009

Well, I got back from The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas a couple of days ago, and now that I’m back to some semblance of normalcy I can get back into a routine.  Which includes keeping up to date with this blog.  I wanted to take a few minutes to summarize some of what I learned at TAM7 in the two workshops I attended…

1. The first was with magicians Jamy Ian Swiss and D.J. Grothe – their workshop was on the relationship between magic, skepticism, and science.  The basic premise of Jamy and D.J.’s workshop was that because scientists are used to dealing with nature (which doesn’t lie) then they are just as easily fooled by charlatans & pseudoscientists as the rest of us.  On the other hand, magicians are professional deceivers, so they have an intimate knowledge of how people can be deceived and (perhaps more importantly) how people can deceive themselves.


In the process of their talk, Jamy and D.J. went through a history of magic & deception, touching upon the Reginald Scot, French magician Robert Houdin, founders of the Spiritualist movement (such as the Fox Sisters & Davenport Brothers),  Houdini, Joseph Dunninger, Milbourne Christopher, and Uri Geller.

Read the rest of this entry »

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