I see myself as a skeptic. And yet, time and again I surprise myself accepting an statement someone tells me without verifying it, or taking an unproven fact as truth. I am appalled at how naïve and innocent I choose to be when being doubtful requires an effort on my part. It is so easier to concede and so hard to question everything, or to doubt so-called “experts,” as Richard Feynman told us.
It sounds incorrect, but you’d rather don’t think about it. You are most certain the statement you are hearing is false, but you wouldn’t want to annoy the one conveying his opinion. You are in doubt and would like to ask, but you wouldn’t want to make those around you uncomfortable. You have all the power and knowledge to unmask the faker, but you don’t want to be the party pooper.
And so you settle for whatever it is you are hearing, reading or experiencing. Like I did when I visited this supposedly old Inca site on Ecuador last month.
This was allegedly a reconstruction of an Inca temple to the Sun God built on the very spot the equator crosses. After a short tour inside the temple, the tour guide started to demonstrate “in practice” we were standing over the very equator.
Supposedly, only on the equatorial line you can (a) balance an egg on a nail and (b) you can’t walk with your eyes closed. I laughed at these demonstrations, but to my surprise others took them as real. After a tourist managed to balance an egg, many cried in awe. It was true, we were on the Equator! This was so utterly ridiculous that I only laughed at it. Besides, I wouldn’t want to begin explaining basic logic to strangers.
A few minutes after the egg episode, they divided us in smaller groups and took us to a room. This room displayed several stones, bottles and rags. Even though they didn’t have a price tag on, they were obviously for sale.
The guide asked us to seat around the table displaying the stones. She told us the stone was Jade and described a few attributes like the color, where it came from and what the incas supposedly did with it. After the ‘scientific facts,’ the guide started to explain several unheard properties the incas found on the stone:
“Because this stone it is petrified water,–Wait, what? petrified water? Maybe she meant the rock was formed in contact with water… I could accept that. Yes, that is what she must have meant–it has several properties which are beneficial to your body, like strengthening your core and boosting your balance.”— ‘Core’ and ‘balance’? I remember hearing about these before, maybe on a ‘Power Balance‘ ad. OK, this sounds at least suspicious.– “I am now going to prove this to you. Is there any volunteer?”
Because I am known to be a skeptic, some friends tried to convince me to take part on the experiment. I refused, maybe a little out of embarrassment and maybe because, being a skeptic, I wanted to save face. After a few seconds, a friend volunteered.
The guide asked my friend to stand on one leg and to raise both his arms as if to outline a “T” with his posture. He did, and the guide asked him to hold the stone on one hand and to try and stay in that position regardless of what she did. After giving the instructions, she proceeded to pull one of his arms from below towards the ground. “Because he is holding the stone,” the guide said to the group, “he has increased his balance and won’t fall even though I am applying all the force I can.”
Indeed, you could tell the guide was making an effort at pulling his arm and that my friend, which was smiling, was surprised he didn’t fall. He didn’t even wobble.
“Now,” the guide continued, “please give me the stone back.” My friend relinquished the stone, and the guide said, “I am now going to apply the same force and you will see how he struggles to keep the posture.”
In fact, my friend now lost balance every time the guide pulled his arm down. This provoked the audience to laugh in awe. Some members were genuinely impressed. The funny thing is that, for an instant, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe–only maybe–this was authentic. Maybe it was because the group makes your mind follow the ‘common sense,’ that is, what the group takes as true. Not following the example of the rest seemed incorrect, as if you were to offend the guide or the rest of the group. Besides, the demonstration seemed to prove what the guide was telling us, and some of the group members–the same that had challenged me to volunteer–were looking at me with grinning faces which asked “now, how would you explain that?”
This had to have a simple explanation, I thought, and wondered what it was after seeing the demonstration again with another volunteer. Like the first time, the second volunteer lost balance when he let go the stone. Now, the whole group was convinced what they were seeing was true. That is, everyone but me.
And this was no ordinary group. It included a physician, a lawyer, and an engineer. All these seemed pretty satisfied accepting the demonstration; they were laughing in awe with the rest. So I decided to volunteer myself to understand how the scam worked.
The guide asked me to hold the stone and I, without yet realizing what was the trick, proposed to go about it different this time. “Let us try without the stone first,” I proposed. At the same instant as I uttered those words, I thought that altering the order of the experiment probably wasn’t going to help discovering the trick, because the guide could alter the order of the whole demonstration. But seconds after I proposed even this slight change–which the guide rejected, anyway–some people from the group complained to me “not to ruin things,” maybe because I could make the guide uneasy. In fact, I did feel a little ashamed at proposing this change for fear the guide could feel uncomfortable. How stupid was that feeling, preventing me from even thinking how to discover the trick!
The guide repeated the experiment step by step and I stumbled like the rest when he pulled my arm after I had released the stone. I couldn’t find the trick, and felt a little ashamed and embarrassed at me and the whole thing. The group laughed as with the other demonstrations, and many friends laughed specifically at me for not being able to explain it. I was angry! How come it was me against everyone? Everyone was on the side of this faker.
I asked her to repeat the last part, a request which for the same reasons described above made some group members frown at me. But this time, I caught it. The trick was that the guide pulled the arm closer to my hand when I wasn’t holding the stone, making a far greater torque than when she pulled nearer the shoulder. And she was not exactly pulling down, she pulled down and a little to the outside, making me stumble.
I knew all the facts, I knew the trick and I had a way to prove the stone didn’t had anything to do with it. And yet, I couldn’t.
I felt ashamed at being unable to prove the guide wrong the first time. I was also angry at the group for treating me as the stubborn unbeliever who wouldn’t accepts the facts that were being demonstrated. Besides, the whole group was convinced of the truth and I didn’t want to make them uneasy. And most of all, there was this feeling that the guide was, somehow, an authority, an expert whom I didn’t want to make ill at ease. How betrayed by my thoughts I feel now!
Once we left the temple, I proved the guide wrong repeating the experiment without the stone. I have to say I did feel a little happy at seeing their disillusioned faces once I did so, but I regret not being able to do it while the guide was there.
At least, I didn’t buy a stone like the rest 🙂