‘KC and the Cards of WTF?’

True story: 

There I was, early Monday afternoon sometime in the spring of 1994, teaching advanced art class at a high school.  The students were allowed to do whatever they wanted (within reason!) in class as long as I wasn’t lecturing, they weren’t too loud, and they had art ready to turn in on Friday.

That day, what held their interest wasn’t art; it was science.

Yes, really.

Y’see, earlier in the day, the juniors had been given an assignment in science class:  pick a topic for a science experiment, and then do it.  The teacher had given them a list of suggestions, but they could also come up with their own ideas if they wanted.

One young man decided he wanted to run some experiments with Zener cards.


It went like this:  For about two thirds of the run, he guessed most of the cards correctly.  The ones he didn’t guess correctly — stars and circles — he always got wrong, and always mistook one for the other.  If the card had a star, he said it was a circle; if it had a circle, he said it was a star.  Every time.  In my opinion, those should have counted for “half credit” or something, because the odds of always being wrong, and always being wrong in exactly the same way, are also rather small.  Under any circumstances, he got sixty percent correct — three in five — out of the first sixty-five or so cards.

Then his classmates, standing around and watching, started getting excited.  Wow, K is guessing all these cards right!  Maybe he’s psychic!

And he got nervous, and he missed one.  Not a star or a circle, either.  Then he missed the next one, and the next one, and the next one.  Once he started missing, he didn’t get a single other card correct.  Remember, by random chance, any person ought to get twenty percent correct: one in five.  To get thirty or so in a row incorrect is statistically improbable:  only a zero-point-twelve percent (about one in a thousand) chance of that happening, in fact.

Do the math.  Even if you want to ignore the last ones, where K missed every card, he still got thirty-nine percent correct.

(If you are inclined to leave a comment containing something about ‘professional debunkers,’ you should make very certain you have all your facts in a row, and you should make very certain they are facts.  I claim no ‘meaning’ in what I observed; I only claim that I observed it.)

The point of the school assignment was to learn about the scientific method. The kids could have been observing the growth rate of spider plants to determine if they prefer country music over hard rock, and they’d have gotten a good grade so long as they wrote about the experiment correctly. I was proud of my student, even though he was doing something not related to art. There he was, thinking outside the box and refusing to take the easy-but-boring route…

About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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4 Responses to ‘KC and the Cards of WTF?’

  1. Honestly, I have a hypothesis about why this happened on a psychological level. The student was originally unhindered by outside influences or his own mind. He was guessing and he was getting lucky. (Perhaps there was even a pattern to the cards). Yet, when people started paying attention, his nerves reacted and messed with his thought pattern. Therefore he started second-guessing himself. I feel this is the same thing that happens when students take tests. They start to second-guess their answers as soon as other students start getting up and handing in their test. It puts pressure on the body and causes a chemical reaction that interferes with the firing of neurons.

    Again, purely hypothetical. I don’t study biochemistry or psychology. Just food for thought really. Thank you for posting this. It was quite interesting to read about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve no doubt he started making so many mistakes because he got nervous. The noise alone could have been enough to throw off his concentration.


  3. Mei-Mei says:

    Your student definitely learned a basic principle of experimental science: when you get unexpected results, the only conclusion to draw is…”needs further research.” 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: A unicorn is not a gryphon, and precognition is not empathy. | North of Andover

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