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Robert Todd Carroll

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Investigating Psychics

Skeptic's Refuge



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March 28, 2004. According to the Sunday Herald's Jenifer Johnston, a five-year study has shown that "mediums can indeed discover your deepest secrets." The study she is referring to was done by the Scottish Society for Psychical Research (SSPR) whose vice-president, Tricia Robertson, co-authored the study. Robertson says the study shows that "mediumship can honestly gain information that ordinary people can’t."

According to Johnston, the study involved 13 mediums and took place in Scotland and London. According to Robertson, the study covered "13 different experimental sessions carried out throughout the U K." and "the average number of participants at a session was approximately 25. Usually six experiments were carried out at each session."

According to Johnson,

In each test the medium would sit in a different room from the participants and choose seat numbers they wanted to read from the audience. The audience, usually around 30 people, would enter a room out of sight of the medium and on their way in be given a random seat number. After the reading, adjudicators would distribute lists of what the mediums had seen and the audience had to tick which of the mediums’ statements applied to them.

 According to Robertson,

The authors identified 15 categories of participant. Let the capital letter be the reality, and the lower case letter be the belief e.g. Recipient is R; Non recipient N. A recipient who believes that he/she is the recipient and who is actually the recipient would be designated by the symbols Rr An actual recipient who believes that they are not the recipient is Rn. A recipient who does not know whether or not they are a recipient would be Rq

There is also a category P, which is used in the experimental sessions where no actual medium has been used (although the audience think that there is a medium). This allows responses to be analysed where no psychic factor from a medium is at work.

I have read the above (and the rest of the information about the study posted on the SSPR web site) several times and I must admit that I'm still not quite sure what exactly went on during these experiments. Putting the experiment in the best light, however, I came up with this "interpretation." The mediums were asked to do a reading for an anonymous person in another room. One experimenter assigned the seats to the subjects randomly. The mediums did their readings for a person known only to them as a seat number. The mediums produced a list of items for their subject.  After the readings, the subjects were given the mediums' lists and asked to say yes or no about whether items on the list applied to them. The subjects knew that not all of them would have a medium doing a reading for them. Subjects were asked whether they believed they were a recipient of a reading.

Then, some sort of statistical analysis of the data was done. The experimenters calculated that "the rules of chance would suggest an accuracy rating of 30%," according to Johnson. I couldn't tell how this was determined. The study concluded that "the mediums’ average was 70%, with some hitting 80% on some of the participants." And, one of the questions the experimenters sought to answer was “Will a person accept fewer statements as relevant in their life if they think or know that they are not the intended recipient?”

No specific examples of items the mediums produced were given, but Robertson claims the mediums have "information" about others and “the results prove that able mediums can accurately read their subjects. Their chances of guessing this level of information about their subjects is a million to one, statistically." Again, how she calculated this is not known. According to Johnston, Robertson thinks critics will claim she rigged the data. She threatents to sue anyone who claims such a thing.

According to Johnston, Robertson's study has been published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research and she will be presenting her finding to the International Paranormal Conference at Muncaster Castle, Cumbria. Richard Wiseman, a psychologist who has written extensively on testing psychics, is quoted by Johnston as saying: “It could be true, but testing mediums is notoriously difficult to do well and I’m not entirely convinced that a figure of 80% would be accurate.”

Robertson said: “I would welcome more academic research into this because it is an area where activity is unexplained as yet.” However, she and her colleagues assume that "information" has been transferred and needs explaining. What needs explaining is the statistical anomalies, if any, that the researchers discover. But they shouldn't assume that information has been transferred. They have no evidence for that. To ask: Well, how else do you explain the statistics? is to seek refuge in the sanctuary of ignorance. If your evidence for the paranormal depends on my ignorance and inability to explain your data, then your evidence hangs by a thin thread, indeed.

March 12, 2004. The Sacramento Bee promotes a local hypnotherapist, whose only apparent virtues are good looks and exceptional marketing skills. She claims, for example, that you can increase your breasts by two bra cup sizes through hypnosis or your money back! Since I'm trying to lower my cup size, I was more interested in her claim that "in studies, a placebo grew hair on 38 percent of the men who used it. It's based on belief." I checked out her web site to explore these rather interesting placebos that can grow hair on men. Here's what I found.

The placebo study for a hair growth drug called Propecia

The people who took the drug had a success rate of 60% growing hair of at least 100 hairs per square inch.

Those who took the PLACEBO also had excellent results. 40% of the participants who took only a sugar pill grew new hair- of at least 100 hairs per square inch.

This means, that based on belief alone, you can stimulate the follicles to regrow hair.

Sorry, Wendi. This does not mean that based on belief alone, you can stimulate the follicles to regrow hair. It means that, at best, Propecia can account for about 20% of the hair growth measured and that if all the men in this study had used nothing, some of them would have still had some measurable hair growth.

When I went to check out the reasoning on some of Wendi's other claims this morning, I got the "Cannot find server" message. (The quote from her web site above was lifted from last night's  e-mail to the author of the article, Allen Pierleoni.) This pleases me. For I can now stop this entry.

February 3, 2004. The New York Times has gone mainstream with an op-ed piece featuring an astrological evaluation of the Democrats running for President of the United States. I haven't read anything this stupid since David Hackett wrote a piece about an astrologer who did a chart for the United States of America.

January 16, 2004. Some people never learn. There's a scam born every minute and two journalists waiting in line to promote it as news. Even if the scam is just a variation on a theme like the polygraph. A couple of years ago I wrote an article about two such devices: the Truster and the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer. Now, mathematician Amir Lieberman at Nemesysco in Zuran, Israel, has invented a device that can fit in your eyeglasses and detect not only if the one you are interrogating is lying but whether he's in love with you as well. That would be humorous enough but it gets better. The chief operating officer of the company marketing this gizmo says that because it doesn't work well enough for law enforcement yet the company decided to produce a model for "personal and corporate applications," where the standards are lower I guess. You can read all about it in an article by R. Colin Johnson of EE Times: "Lie-detector glasses offer peek at future of security."
[thanks to Keldon McFarland]

January 29, 2004. The British tabloid The Sun has a gaga article about a Russian teenager with x-ray vision who does medical diagnoses. According to the tabloid,

Natasha [Demkina] first demonstrated her extraordinary ability at the age of ten, when she told her stunned mum Tatyana she could see “two beans”, “a tomato” and a “vacuum cleaner” inside her.

Her mother, who also possesses special talents--not the least of which is an uncanny ability to see meaning and give significance to drivel--realized that her daughter was referring to her kidneys, heart, and intestines.

Russia has a long history of such magical "healers" and "diagnosticians." If you know a little about apophenia and a few other things about why people believe weird things, you understand why bogus healers with bogus powers have always had a large following. (For starters, see Barry Beyerstein's "Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work".) Also important in investigating paranormal claims is to do a controlled, well-designed experiment. The reporter for the Sun who let Natasha "x-ray" her was very impressed when the 17-year-old's pupils dilated and "she seemed to go into a trance."

"Straight away she began identifying a pain site at the base of my spine which she called a ‘blockage,’" noted Briony Warden, who interpreted this as meaning that the young Russian had seen that she had four healing spinal fractures and some nerve damage. How Warden got from 'blockage' in the spine (whatever that might mean) to fractures and nerve damage is left for the reader to figure out. But proving x-ray vision is rather easy if you toss in a willing subject like Warden, allow loose interpretation of data with no predetermined idea as to what will count as evidence for or against the hypothesis you are testing (make it up as you go along), and allow for liberal selective thinking.
[thanks to Leslie Carroll and Charles Cazabon]

This story was about on par with one that appeared in BBCNews on January 26th about a parrot who is allegedly rational and telepathic. The author seems to be unfamiliar with the Clever Hans phenomenon, mentalism, conjuring, and the past history of people who have intentionally or unintentionally passed off various kinds of animal behavior as proof of animal rationality or telepathy.

Where's John Stossel when we need him?

reader comments

Mr. Carroll,

Love your site -- it's an invaluable resource. Keep up the great work.

Please be aware that John Stossel's book and his TV appearances of the last few years aren't exactly what they seem. He presents himself as a debunker of urban mythology; unfortunately this is a deceptive front used to advance a thinly veiled political and economic agenda (the "liberal media" canard in his book's subtitle should be a tip-off).

Many have questioned Stossel's creative use of data to support the "myths" he deflates. He receives thousands of dollars each year speaking at conservative and corporate industry functions. The majority of the "myths" subsequently exposed in his book and his TV appearances support the conservative/corporate interests to which he's tied -- all propped up by data of dubious reliability.

Please see:

[Carroll's comment: even this scathing review admits "Though Stossel's special reports for ABC News are conservative, they're also good journalism. He doesn't pull any punches against Republican sacred cows from big business lobbyists to B-2 bombers."]

[Carroll's comment: I couldn't find anything positive in this attack on Stossel's reporting on organic food. This page repeats some of the Salon complaints. For the record, Stossel's apologized for errors in the organic food program. He claims a producer misunderstood the results of scientific tests: "In my report, I said 'our tests' found no pesticide residue on organic or conventional food. Turned out a producer misunderstood the scientists who did the testing for us. They had only searched for bacteria. They did no tests for pesticide residue."]

[Carroll's comment: FAIR (nice name) provides more of the same: Stossel gets it wrong when dealing with environmental issues and he is a supporter of free markets.]

[Carroll's comment: This site is called the Environmental Working Group and has about 50 links to articles complaining about Stossel's program on organic food.]

I am aware that taking a particular political stance is not within the realm of your site. It's not the politics behind Stossel's output that's relevant. It's his twisting of statistics, his biased sourcing, his propensity to dissemble and the poor rationale behind his conclusions that make advertising his work on your site inappropriate.

I'm sure the integrity of is as important to you as it is to your readers. Please reconsider continuing to give your imprimatur to Stossel's questionable output.

Thanks for your time,

Devon Schumacher Chicago, IL

reply: Stossel's not perfect. Neither am I. He obviously ruffles some feathers and has the support of powerful conservative groups. I think he should be judged by two standards: 1. We should look at the entirety of his journalistic work, not just what we consider to be his failures; 2. We should compare him to others in the field of journalism.

There are not many journalists who take a skeptical look at paranormal or New Age beliefs. Stossel is one of them. Leon Jaroff is another. I think most readers realize that by advertising his book on this Mass Media Bunk page I am not committing myself to any particular political viewpoint.

Take a look at the things he debunked in his last 20/20 program.

  1. Myth No. 10 — Getting Cold Can Give You a Cold ... how political is that?
  2. Myth No. 9 — We Have Less Free Time Than We Used To  ... granted, this isn't about the paranormal, but is "time" a conservative political issue?
  3. Myth No. 8 — American Families Need Two Incomes .. okay, here's an issue you might say is a conservative's bailiwick.
  4. Myth No. 7 — Money Can Buy Happiness ... Of course it can, everybody knows that; he's just wrong about this one!
  5. Myth No. 6 — Republicans Shrink the Government ... Is this the token non-conservative issue?
  6. Myth No. 5 — The Rich Don't Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes ... "the facts: the top 1 percent of Americans — those who earn more than about $300,000 a year — pay 34 percent, more than a third of all income taxes, and the top 5 percent, those making over $125,000, pay more than half." To know whether this is their "fair share" or not we would need to know a bit more. If those making over $300,000 a year make 90% of the income, then paying 34% may be less than their fair share. If those making over $125,000 make over 99% of the income then paying more than half may not be their fair share. I think Stossel dropped the ball on this one. The way he put it is misleading.
  7. Myth No. 4 — Chemicals Are Killing Us .. Here's the one that's going to irritate the Green Party. Stossel is back on his high horse about distributing more DDT. Frankly, I'm a utilitarian and I believe that the positive and negative consequences of using something like DDT have to weighed in determining whether to use it. The fact that something is harmful isn't sufficient reason to ban it. Other things need to be considered as well, such as the benefits of using it. But I can see why taking a stand as Stossel does will irritate many people.
  8. Myth No. 3 — Guns are Bad .. believe it or not but even liberals own guns.
  9. Myth No. 2 — We're Drowning in Garbage ... Is garbage a conservative issue?
  10. I missed myth number one, which was revealed on Stossel's special (which I did not watch).

None of these "myths" are on topics I write about and I wouldn't even have bothered with them had not the letter writer called my attention to Stossel's political agenda. I have to agree with the writer that if these are typical of Stossel's debunking these days, then he has turned his skepticism to political issues, but they are not all conservative issues.

further reading (from Scientific American)

December 10, 2003. There is a very good example of the power of confirmation bias and selective thinking in today's BBC News story about a policeman--John "The Baptist" Sutherland--who uses prayer to fight crime.

Each month, Mr Sutherland compiles a list of crime issues in the borough he polices, Hammersmith and Fulham in west London. He then e-mails the list ... to more than 150 churchgoers in the borough, asking for their prayers for those specific issues, be they a reduction in levels of street crime or the arrest of a particularly prolific house-breaker.

How scientific and meticulous is Sutherland in his collection of data?

There had been a killing, and there was a fear of reprisals. So people were asked to pray simply that there would be no more violence. And there was no more violence.

Ask and you shall receive. If that doesn't prove the power of prayer, I don't know what does.
[thanks to Martin Wagner]

December 6, 2003. Last night I watched about 20 minutes of Sylvia Browne on Larry King and a 10 or 15 minute segment on 20/20 pitting John Edward against Michael Shermer. Watching these programs is difficult for me because they remind me of what we're up against. Television is a powerful medium but not too many people watch television to be reminded that human beings are easily manipulated and deceived. Television is the medium of manipulation and deception. It would be self-destructive to use this medium with any frequency or depth to expose human susceptibility to the likes of a Sylvia Browne or a John Edward. An occasional foray into the foibles of human beings can be entertaining. A media blitz on how easy it is to trick people would be suicide. Advertisers, in particular, might take issue with being exposed, even if indirectly, as the great manipulators that they are. But I digress.

Millions of people believe Browne and Edward, or Sonya Fitzpatrick, have a special gift that brings them into direct contact with the spirits of the dead, even dead pets. This belief not only supports their hope that there is life after death, it gives them hope that they might be able to make contact with a loved one who has died, even a beloved spaniel. These hopes are so strong in some people that they lead to irrational behavior. Take this example from Sylvia Browne and Larry King:

CALLER: Shizuoka, Japan. Hello. CALLER: Oh, hi.


CALLER: I'd like to ask about my mother. We had some unresolved issues.

BROWNE: Yes. But I don't know if you could have had any resolved issues with your mother because she was so very difficult to deal with. And I'm not saying that to be cruel. So, you see, the thing that you got to realize is when somebody goes to the other side, everything is OK.

CALLER: But she's -- you can definitely see her on the other side?

BROWNE: Yes. Little. She's little.

CALLER: Yes, well, the last time I spoke to her, she was alive.

BROWNE: Yes, but see, I don't -- she's not alive now.

CALLER: She's dead.


CALLER: You're telling me my mother has died?


CALLER: You're sure about this?

BROWNE: I'm positive.

CALLER: OK. Well, I'll have to get back to you after I've called her.

BROWNE: All right.

CALLER: Thank you.

KING: OK, now, what -- she doesn't know, hasn't heard from her mother.


KING: And she's trying to reach her, hasn't heard from her.

BROWNE: That's right.

KING: You saw her as gone.

BROWNE: That's right.

KING: OK. And you were truthful enough to say that.

BROWNE: Oh, I have to.

Of course, the caller was never heard from again. Neither King nor Browne will give it another thought. They are not going to follow up and see if the mother is dead or not. Why? They don't have to. The woman's dead. Sylvia "saw her as gone." That's all you need to know. Next caller, please. It doesn't matter that Browne just says whatever pops into her head, no matter how silly or stereotypical. She's little! She's Japanese. She must be little. Even in death the Japanese are little. Nice to know this stuff. Could come in handy. Everybody else who called wanted to contact the dead, so why would Sylvia assume this lady from Japan was any different? A mother and daughter with unresolved issues. The daughter wants to make contact. The daughter is not dead, so it must be the mother who is dead. The mother is the difficult one, of course. What would Browne do if she was confronted with the fact that the mother is alive. She said she was positive the mother had died. She could always say: I never claimed to be infallible. Sometimes I get it wrong. Let's move on. This is a win-win situation for the psychic. If the client can make sense out of what you say, you're right. If the client can't make sense out what you say, you're also right. And if the client can make sense out of what you say and find you in error, you're still right because you never said you were always right. Therefore, when you're wrong, you're right.

The psychic is actually never right, of course, unless she is either telling you what you already told her or what she has discovered surreptitiously in a hot reading. The psychic just says things and the client must make sense out it, find meaning and give significance to it.

CALLER: I was wondering if my mother is around me. I lost her when I was just 18. Or if anyone else is around me. I miss her so much.

BROWNE: I know. But you know what's strange? Who is the heavyset man with the receding hairline and the broad face?

CALLER: Possibly my father. I lost him a few years ago.

BROWNE: Yes. Because he actually comes around stronger. That doesn't mean she doesn't love you, but he just is -- seems to be more dominant.

CALLER: I see.

BROWNE: Because he drops coins.

CALLER: He drops coins?


KING: Wait a minute. He leaves coins?

BROWNE: Yes. She'll find coins.

KING: I don't understand that. How can a spirit hold a coin?

BROWNE: They can. They can move cups. They can move books. They can move your...

KING: Like poltergeists will move...


KING: ... things in a building.

BROWNE: Exactly. But a spirit is -- the stronger that they are, the more they are over there. The stronger they get, they can move things.

KING: We had a store in Miami once in which every morning, things were found off the shelves.

BROWNE: Right.

KING: They went crazy. They kept lights on all night and things...

BROWNE: Exactly.

KING: Poltergeists do that, right?

BROWNE: Absolutely.

KING: It was wild. Butler, Pennsylvania. Hello.

This poor caller takes a stab at "the heavyset man with the receding hairline and the broad face" and says it could be her father. The coin bit is a nice distraction. King gleefully validates belief in poltergeists and spirits messing about in our world. Who knows and who cares what the caller who misses her mother thinks.

CALLER: Hello, Larry. I was just wondering, I had two friends just recently pass away, one from a suspicious fire and one from a suicide. I just wanted to know if they're OK.

BROWNE: Yes. The suspicious fire -- you're right, it was an arson.

CALLER: Oh, wow. It's been suspected. They don't know what happened. They don't know if she committed suicide. They don't know if it was an accident. They don't know if she was murdered.

BROWNE: Honey, I just got through telling you it's an arson.


KING: Who said...

BROWNE: Arson means that somebody set it.

KING: But she said -- you're talking about two people, right?

CALLER: Yes. Another one committed suicide...

BROWNE: Yes, but she...

CALLER: ... shortly after she did, actually.

BROWNE: Yes, but she was...

CALLER: Or shortly after she died.

BROWNE: She was bipolar, honey. She had a mental illness.

CALLER: I got you. I could see that.

BROWNE: And that's the hardest because I work with a lot of doctors. That's the hardest. But you know for a fact -- you were with her -- she'd have up days, down days, up days, down days. We all do, but I mean, she'd go into these real high highs.

KING: What happens when a suicide dies?

BROWNE: Well, if they're ill, then...

KING: Mentally ill?

BROWNE: Yes. Then that's fine. If they do it out of spite, then they just have to recycle and do it...

KING: Some do it out of spite?

BROWNE: Oh, yes. Just to be mean.

This is a real dialogue between two adults on national television watched by millions of people. Enjoyed by millions of people. Any further comment seems pointless but I can't help but wonder if there weren't a few mental health professionals watching this show who were a bit surprised by Browne's apparent self-diagnosis on national television.





©copyright 2003
Robert Todd Carroll

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