Stuart Buck persists in claiming that scientists have a bias against the supernatural, and that we dismiss it out of hand. This isn’t true; the problem is that supernatural explanations are poorly framed and typically unaddressable, so we tend to avoid them as unproductive. What one would actually find, if one took the trouble to discuss the ideas with a scientist, is that they are perfectly willing to consider peculiar possibilities if they are clearly stated. We’ll even briefly consider something as insane and worthless as astrology, which is even less credible as a field of study than Intelligent Design.
Here’s an example from years ago on Usenet, in the newsgroup sci.skeptic. An astrologer, Thomas Seers, was insisting that his weird little pseudoscience was a suitable topic for a science course. One of the skeptics, Robert Grumbine, politely asks him for specifics:
Robert Grumbine: Let us say that I teach astronomy. Let us suppose I’ve decided to spend an hour on astrology. What would my presentation be? Keep in mind that this is a science class, so part of my job would be to discuss what experiments have been done that demonstrate that it works, as well as to describe how it works (in the sense of how the students could make the predictions themselves).
Thomas Seers: Hello Robert,
You appear to be asking a serious question, so I will give you an experiment to try. This will also give you an insight to what Alchemists did years ago.
On 10/20/99 from 2 AM to 8 AM EDT, mix a bowl of jello and you will find it won’t jel. My basic students have this as a homework assigmnet to learn of a void-of-course Moon period. Silly thing, huh. It can be repeated over and over again. Don’t spill it now :-).
I’m not an astrologer (surprise!) and I really don’t know what a void-of-course moon is—I think it means the moon is in a position where it really isn’t in one of the canonical zodiac signs, but I could be wrong—but Seers was a very serious astrologer who taught courses in the subject and cast horoscopes professionally. I think astrology is a lot of nonsense, but he at least had the credentials to represent his field, and gave us a testable operational definition that we could explore.
Apparently, during a void-of-course moon, you are supposed to experience lots of bad luck and things are just generally supposed to go wrong. Seers claimed that one simple, reliable test of this phenomenon that he and many of his students had routinely evaluated empirically was that gelatin wouldn’t set. Furthermore, he had used his astrological expertise to give us the specific date and time this phenomenon could be observed.
Now, if scientists (and that unruly mob of skeptics in the newsgroup) actually had an a priori bias against any supernatural explanation, we would have rejected this idea immediately, tossed a few metaphorical brickbats at the looney, and laughed long and hard. The moon in some place in the zodiac would stop cakes from rising, Jell-O from setting? Preposterous!
That’s not what happened. Instead, a number of us took the trouble to actually try it.
Bob Grumbine’s results:
Other messages followed this original post, where I (and others)
noted how we were proposing to make the jello and asking Mr. Seers
whether this would have any effect on the outcome. We were assured not.
10/20/99 at 2:30 AM EDT my wife mixed a batch of consumer-grade jello
according to directions. She split the jello to two containers, one
about 1.5 cups, and one about 4, and put into the fridge. When I checked
at 6:50 AM EDT, both had firmly jelled.
10/21/99 at 3:45 AM EDT my wife again mixed a batch of consumer-grade
jello and split in to two containers as before. At 8:00 AM EDT, both
had jelled, though the large was somewhat un-firm.
We followed Mr. Seers procedure both at a time he predicted that the
jello would fail to jell, and on a ‘control’ day. On neither day was
there any difficulty apparent in the jelling procedure. His prediction
Mr. Seers needs to do further work on either his prediction method,
or on his students’ ability to make jello. For the latter, notes
from our experience:
1) It is better to define what is meant by ‘jelling’.
a) By ‘firmly jelled’ I mean that in tapping the surface with my finger,
the finger came away dry and there was no imprint of my finger on the
b) ‘somewhat un-firm’ (on the control day) means that my finger comes
away with some jello on it, and there is an imprint of my finger in the
jello, but that imprint remains for minutes thereafter.
— It is possible that Mr. Seers’ students are labelling things as ‘not jelled’
that I would call jelled.
2) Shape of container likely matters. Not because of the shape _per se_,
but in the degree to which it is easy to cool. A hemispherical container,
as we used, is very good at preventing cooling (and hence jelling).
A large hemisphere with full recipe would have difficulty cooling (_did_
have trouble cooling) sufficiently in the time allowed. A long flat
pan would be more effective, and an ice cube tray even more so.
— It is possible that Mr. Seers’ students are using hemispheres as well,
3) Cooling time matters. We allowed 4.5 and 4 hours, respectively, on
the control and VCM day. After placing the jello in the fridge, the
door was left closed for the rest of the period.
— It is possible that Mr. Seers’ students a) did not allow as long a
period, and b) opened the fridge routinely in order to examine the
progress (or lack thereof) which kept the interior warmer than required
for prompt jelling.
The ball is back in Mr. Seers court as far as the VCM affecting the
jelling of jello is concerned. I’ve offered some thoughts on experimental
controls, based on my experience. His next round of experiments should
take these points in to account.
My original question still stands—what would my presentation be
for an hour presentation to an astronomy class? Keep in mind that this
is a science class, so part of my job would be to discuss what experiments
have been done that demonstrate that it works, as well as to describe
how it works (in the sense of how the students could make the predictions
Note, by the way, that one thing that I would be saying throughout the
length of the term is that the students should _not_ take my word on
anything. Honest as I am, I can be wrong nevertheless. If it is science,
there should be a way to test whatever it is I say (in principle at least,
granted some experiments get pretty expensive to run).
Wayne Hoxsie also took a shot at it.
My first attempt took 1.5 hours to gel, then I noticed that there was a
“quick” method that uses ice cubes to cool the mix faster. I used this
for subsequent controls and for the actual experimental run. All
gelled in about 30 minutes at 12 C. The time/temperature plots for all
runs (except the first without ice) were essentially the same.
Some other precautions I took were to mix all the packages together
into a homogenous mixture and store it in a tupperware container and
all water used was sampled at the same time and stored (or frozen) for
use in the experiment.
I also tried the experiment, and did controls on different days when the moon was not void-of-course. I actually make gelatin and agar routinely in my work—we imbed embryonic and larval fish in it so they can’t wiggle while we’re observing them.
I did this ‘experiment’ 3 times, once on Monday, once on Wednesday, and
just this morning. Each time I made up 17% gelatin (Sigma brand) between
5:30 and 5:45 AM, and 17% and 10% gelatin between 7:00 and 7:10. In all
cases, it was made in distilled, RO-filtered water, heated in a microwave
oven. I tested for whether it would set by putting a large drop on a glass
slide, and setting that on ice, or by putting a large test tube with 10ml
of the gelatin in the refrigerator.
In every case, on every day, the gelatin set within 30 seconds of being put
on ice; within half an hour of being put in the refrigerator. The 10% gel
was slower to set and less firm than the 17%, but there was no difference
I also tried remelting and resetting gelatin from prior days on Wednesday
and this morning. No difference.
I also attempted (most charitably, I think) to come up with an explanation for why Seers and his students would have had this problem.
By the way, I wonder if this wouldn’t have anything to do with auto-defrosting refrigerators. Their temperature does cycle with a regular rhythm, and I wonder if the occasional failure to gel you’ve seen might correspond with such fluctuations in temperature.
I should also mention that the refrigerators I have at the lab do not have auto-defrost—it’s not a good idea in freezers intended for long term storage of fragile biological materials like antibodies.
Seers did not accept any of our results, of course. He invented some amazing explanations: the best, I thought, was that he disqualified Grumbine’s results because he mixed his box of jell-o in two bowls. That was “breaking up the substance”.
My students lacking the scientific expertise follow a simple path, 1
box 0f jello mixed into one bowl, put in a refrigerator to cool ( as
long as needed ), following the instructions on the box. This has been
given out over a period of 20 years to them with at least a 90% return
on the results being the same, lacking a firm jelling process.
The box I mixed did not jell firmly, more soupy.
Our next experimental date will have to be on 11/30/99, new class
begins. That way the class can do it with you, then there will be a
comparison of results. Seems none of the astrologers on line tried it.
Alas for Thomas Seers, in addition to making gelatin with scientific grade reagents and a precision scale in small aliquots (I suppose that was “breaking up the substance”, too) I’d also thrown together a box of the store-bought stuff at home, before I’d left to work, exactly as he described. It set just fine.
If anyone else is tempted to try the experiment, there is a void of course lunar calendar online—these dangerously confusing astrological episodes seem to occur frequently. If I’m reading it right, we’re going to be in a VOC moon tomorrow (Monday) from 4:47 AM GMT until 5:35 in the evening! And dear gob, but Mercury is currently retrograde! I hope no one has any big plans for the day.
This trivial and silly episode illustrates my point, though. Scientific thinking is ruled by an interest in evidence. If the Intelligent Design creationists were actually to propose something specific, there’d be biology labs all over the world where grad students and post-docs and PIs would take a quick stab at testing their claims…and if they actually panned out, they’d be jumping ship for the ID camp en masse, proposing new experiments of their own.
I know that if my jell-o hadn’t set, I would have been completely baffled. My next step would have been to get in touch with one of my chemistry colleagues, ask for his insight, and arrange a replication, preferably double-blind, to see if it still worked. And if I’d gotten consistent, repeatable results that others could also duplicate, I’d probably be proselytizing for at least some aspects of astrology right here right now. Wouldn’t that be embarrassing?