Why Do Mad Science?

When you’re a geek, you tend to use your geeky powers in all areas of your life.

Maybe you track the best deals on a car in a spreadsheet. Maybe you try to use logic to find your optimal life partner. Maybe you apply probability theory to decide (as Pascal did) whether to believe in God.

That’s what I call “mad science”–applying your scientific skills in unusual ways, to unusual parts of your life.

Science is just too much fun to leave in the lab when you go home at the end of the day. And there’s no harm in applying science to your daily life, is there? After all, when you do it right, you get good sensible results.

But sometimes things can get a little crazy. Sometimes, mad science goes into that gray area where it might be sensible, but it might be completely nutty. And it’s not obvious which it is. That’s fine, as long as you don’t try to tell the whole world that your mad science is real and true.

We’ve all seen headlines trumpeting somebody’s mad science project. And the problem is that many journalists can’t tell what’s good science and what’s nutty science. How could they? That’s just not something they teach in journalism school.

What’s a non-scientist supposed to believe about these mad-science headline-seekers? Is their work real, or is it crazy?

While I usually don’t want to get involved with the publicity hounds, there have been times when I felt like I had to.

In this section, I’ll show you a few examples of mad science where I’ve taken a closer look.

The “Bible Code”

Back in the 1990s, a number of Jewish mathematicians and rabbis thought they saw a pattern in the Hebrew text of the Bible. A secret message with information about things that would happen centuries after the Bible was written. When a journalist named Michael Drosnin got wind of this idea, he published a best-selling book, The Bible Code, which hardly anybody took seriously. Was it all just bogus? Or was there more to it than that?

Read my page on the Bible code to get my take on it.

“James the Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus”

In October, 2002, an extraordinary stone box was announced to the world. The inscription on it read, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Could it possibly be the final resting place of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth? James was the leader of the Jesus community in Jerusalem for about 30 years, until he was murdered by the high priest about the year 62. Is this him … or isn’t it? Read my page on the James Ossuary for more information.

The “Jesus Family Tomb”

In February, 2007, an Emmy-award-winning documentary producer announced that he had found the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth in a Jerusalem suburb — complete with inscriptions bearing the names of Jesus, his “wife” Mary Magdalene, and his “son” Judah. This ignited a brief firestorm in the world of Biblical scholarship. The producer claimed odds of 600 to 1 that this was the tomb of the real Jesus of Nazareth. In the controversy that followed, I played a role as the Probability Geek. Find out what I did and how things fell out.

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