Robert Todd Carroll
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,
According to Robertson,
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.
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:
glasses offer peek at future of security."
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.
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?
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.
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.
How scientific and meticulous is Sutherland in his collection of data?
Ask and you shall receive. If that doesn't prove the power of prayer, I
don't know what does.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Robert Todd Carroll