On May 6th, self-proclaimed psychic Patricia Putt was put to the test by Professors Richard Wiseman and Christopher French in the UK, on behalf of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The testing by these two highly regarded academics was a preliminary 'screening' for an attempt at James Randi's 'Million Dollar Challenge':
A few months ago the JREF asked if Chris French (Goldsmith University) and I would carry out an initial test of a medium named Patricia Putt. We went back and forth about the protocol, and eventually settled on an experimental design. Basically, Patricia would carry out readings for 10 strangers, and then all of the participants would be presented with all 10 readings and have to select the one that best described them. To cut down on possible sensory cues, the strangers were not allowed to interact with Patricia, and asked to wear a graduation gown and facial mask.
...Patricia was a joy to work with, and carried out the readings as promised. I sat in the room with Patricia as she wrote her readings and sent the occasional twitter update.
None of the participants were able to correctly identify their reading, and so the results do not support Patricia’s claim.
To be clear on that result: Putt got 0 out of 10 correct. That's a pretty comprehensive fail. You can find the protocol for the experiment at the JREF Forum. Chris French also has written up his account of the day for the UK's Guardian.
This looks to have been a good solid test of what Putt claimed to be able to do - and if anything, by allowing speaking I think it probably favoured Putt a little in terms of allowing some possible sensory leakage. There are only two things that concern me. Firstly, there is no mention of the stance of the volunteers. I emailed Chris French asking whether any survey was done of their thoughts on paranormal phenomena, he told me there was not. This seems odd to me. What if all the volunteers were of a skeptical nature? Is it possible that they could intentionally pick the description that does not indicate them? While personally I think this is stretching things (especially with a zero out of ten result), it is theoretically a nasty flaw. With the final selection of reading by volunteers being blind, the sensible thing to me would be to have supporters/believers of paranormal phenomena involved, to put this possibility to bed.
The more important concern is over the setting of five selections out of ten as constituting the benchmark for success. While a casual glance might suggest that's 1 in 2 odds, it isn't. If Putt had achieved that benchmark, she would be doing so at odds against chance of over 600 to 1. Remember, this is just the preliminary test, in order to see whether she's worthy of going for the million dollars. Given Putt's 0 out of 10 result, in this particular case it's all academic - but still worthy of making a point of, given the reputation the million dollar challenge has.
I asked Chris French why the benchmark for "success" was set at 5 out of 10; he told me that "this was set by JREF and agreed to by Mrs Putt," before he got involved in the testing. This is consistent with previous 'preliminary' tests regarding the Million Dollar Challenge, with odds against chance of 1000 to 1 generally mentioned as being required for the preliminary, rising to a million to one for the true 'Million Dollar' test. As I've mentioned previously, those odds are probably valid given the amount of money Randi needs to protect against being won by a chance event. It does not, however, give any sort of 'scientific' test of whether someone has exhibited an anomalous sensory power, or at least done well enough to warrant further testing. See the Demkina case for an example of someone doing quite well but 'failing'.
Having said that, it's probably a valid argument that if you're going to sell your services as a talented psychic, you should be able to get five things out of ten correct, despite the odds. Otherwise, what value is this power - what sort of trust can we put in anything said, even if some of it is through some genuine psychic channel?
The other thing worth noting is that Patricia Putt agreed to setting 5 out of 10 as the level required for success. Hopefully she was aware (or made aware) of the odds she was going up against. But she took on the challenge, with full knowledge of the restrictions and benchmarks for success, so she has made her own bed.
The pointy end of the stick is though: what does Randi's Million Dollar Challenge offer us? This test has shown that one 'psychic', Patricia Putt, failed to show evidence for paranormal powers, on this one particular day. Nothing more can be claimed than that, all else is inference. It also has shown that even if something surprising happened, and a 'psychic' achieved results against odds of 500 to 1, it would be labeled a failure under this protocol. That any intelligent 'psychic' - whether genuine or fraudulent - would avoid putting themselves in that position is more than understandable. As such, it could well be argued that the pool of Million Dollar applicants might be composed of less than capable individuals. (Given that Putt has been put to the test previously by the BBC, with not-so-impressive results, this particular test result isn't that surprising).
So we basically have a testing system which offers no scientifically useful benchmarks, investigating mostly self-deluded individuals, which so far has proved that on that particular day, nothing exceptionally out of the normal has happened. In short, I fail to see why the Million Dollar Challenge is held in such high regard. Let's hope that - contra to what the Bad Astronomer says - the Million Dollar Challenge is *not* the "coolest thing" the JREF does.
The one thing that it does show is that you shouldn't explicitly trust the results of anybody relying on 'psychic' ability. That's the message that skeptics would do well to get across to the public, rather than large-scale dismissals of psychic abilities based on the continued retention of the million dollar prize.
For more information on this topic, see my previous article "The Myth of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge". Your thoughts?
- The Pearl Harbor ‘Winds Message’ Controversy: A New Critical Evaluation
- Science and Antiscience in America – Why It Matters
- Investigative Files: Searching for Vampire Graves
- Skeptical Inquiree: Curious Contrails: Death from the Sky?
- Bearing False Witness for Profit
- A Christian Physicist’s Dispatch from the Evolution Wars
Further reading from previous issues is also available at the website.
Regular readers will know that, despite the fun we have covering weird topics here on TDG, I do recommend a healthy dose of skepticism before accepting any of it at face value (and not just here...even prominent skeptics can be eager to believe in photoshopped
UFO photos Jesus pareidolia when it suits). I also take issue with 'false' skepticism, when people take on that mantle mainly to defend their own belief system. So this one is worth checking out for multiple reasons: a new 'handbook' for skeptics titled What Do I Do Next? (600KB PDF download, a condensed HTML version is also available). Daniel Loxton of Skeptic magazine put together a list of 100 suggestions for engaging in 'skeptical activism' and invited prominent skeptics to comment on them. He received numerous replies from people such as Ben Radford, Eugenie Scott, Jeff Wagg and Jay Novella.
I'm traveling at the moment, so can't go into too much detail with my own thoughts, but there's some interesting points in there that might be worth discussing if you want to have at it in the comments. For example, I find some things such as the call to donate to the JREF and other organisations almost embarrassing. Not because I disagree with it in principal - I know exactly how it feels to bust your butt with no financial resources at your disposal. But when you have guys like James Randi earning at least $170,000 a year for acting like a belligerent ass, how can anyone seriously ask hard-working folk on an average wage to donate to that? Ditto for CSI and other organisations that already wield considerable influence.
I also found the call to respect religion rather odd, given the usual attack lines of skeptical groups. I'm not sure where one draws the line between making fun of someone that believes that beings from Zeta Reticuli visited them in their bedroom last week, and respecting another person that believes that some Jewish guy resurrected from the dead 2000 years ago and in doing so absolved the entire world population of its sins. I would imagine this edict is not a consensus view in skeptical circles, although there was little debate about it in this booklet. I guess it ties in to the suggestion to make allies - although again, if that was the case then skeptical groups could make great steps by engaging with the 'real' researchers of paranormal claims out there, rather than making fun of them and their topics.
I must be knocking down a straw man there though - according to #21, "the goal of skeptical investigation "isn't to cast rhetorical doubt on paranormal claims, but to discover what's true." I'm not sure how that can be reconciled with the wholesale dismissal of those claims elsewhere in the book without investigation, but it certainly sounds great in theory. In fact, there's a lot to like in the suggestions made regarding working with people and being polite. I have my doubts about whether it will be embraced though, given my past experience with 'skeptics', and the attitude of many of the current leaders of the field - but let's leave my cynicism to the side and hope for the best.
Feel free to praise the good points, and offer criticism of the bad points, in the comments.
In January and February residents of Morristown, New Jersey, spotted some strange lights in the sky. I don't remember seeing too much about it here on TDG, although I managed to track an item down in one news briefs post: "Genuine UFOs over the Garden State, or just road flares attached to helium balloons? Watch the video and decide."
Well, it turns out that the UFOs were in fact...flares attached to helium balloons. On April 1, two New Jersey 'skeptics' - Chris Russo and Joe Rudy - came forward in an article for the eSkeptic newsletter claiming to have staged a hoax to test people's gullibility.
[W]e set out on a mission to help people think rationally and question the credibility of so-called UFO “professionals.” We brainstormed the idea of producing a spaceship hoax to fool people, bring the charlatans out of the woodwork to drum up controversy, and then expose it as nothing more than a prank to show everyone how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, along with investigators of UFOs.
The hoax garnered the attention of local press and MUFON (although that was at least partially because the hoaxers contacted them), but hit paydirt when the History Channel's UFO Hunters devoted an episode to the sightings:
The icing on the cake came when the popular History Channel show UFO Hunters featured the Morristown UFO as their main story one week. Bill Birnes, the lead investigator of the show and the publisher of UFO Magazine, declared definitively that the Morristown UFO could not have been flares or Chinese lanterns.
...This begs an important question: are UFO investigators simply charlatans looking to make a quick buck off human gullibility, or are they alarmists using bad science to back up their biased opinions that extraterrestrial life is routinely visiting our planet? Either way, are these people deserving of their own shows on major cable networks? If a respected UFO investigator can be easily manipulated and dead wrong on one UFO case, is it possible he’s wrong on most (or all) of them? ...
Does this bring into question the validity of every other UFO case? We believe it does.
I'd have to say that there is a pretty lazy generalisation about "UFO investigators" here. I don't write off stem cell research just because Woo Suk Hwang admitted to fraud. Like any other area of investigation, cases (and investigators) should be treated on an individual basis. It's worth noting that these sightings attracted *zero* interest on perhaps the premiere public email list for ufology, UFO Updates.
However, the skeptical duo are right to say that there should be a question over the validity of all UFO cases (though it's not because of their hoax). This is an area filled with speculation, hoaxing and misidentifications. They are certainly right, therefore, in calling on people to be more skeptical about lights in the sky, and media reporting about them. Hopefully people treat the 'lights in the sky' cases of UFO with a bit more skepticism in future, considering this hoax case, and last year's "Chinese Lantern" invasion in the UK. Conversely though, it would be nice if skeptics acknowledged that UFO sightings go beyond simple specks of light in the sky.
There's an interesting twist in the tale though. The Morris County prosecutor has now charged the skeptical hoaxsters with disorderly conduct. Actually, I'm surprised the pair came forward taking responsibility, considering that it seemed quite clear that charges were likely, given this story from mid-February which discusses the concerns of local air traffic authorities:
Capt. Jeff Paul, a spokesman for Morris County Prosecutor Robert A. Bianchi, said on Wednesday that federal authorities have expressed concern that the objects — which could be flares attached to balloons — might be a threat to flights on their final approach to Newark Liberty International Airport.
“The Federal Aviation Administration advised us that they would issue an advisory to aircraft in the area,” Paul said in a prepared statement.
...Morristown Police previously said the lights appeared to be a hoax, road flares attached to helium balloons. The lights were swaying, police said, and observers at Morristown Airport saw what appeared to be balloons.
Either these guys are very honest, or they're a little dumb. Or maybe they couldn't resist the reveal - as I've said before, in my opinion a large part of modern skepticism is about boosting the intellectual ego.
Interesting to note also that although some skeptics loved the prank, other prominent skepticks such as Ben Radford worried about how this might affect public perception of the skeptical movement ("Should skeptics hoax the public, or is that a breach of ethics that will ultmately harm the skeptical position?"). Others also worried about setting flares loose without precautions against them possibly starting fires.
'Hoaxing as education' is not a new phenomena in skepticism, and the ethics of it have been debated before. Randi has the dubious honour of being at the forefront of such pranks, with Project Alpha and the 'Carlos' tour. And if we take this recent SkepticBlog entry at face value, prominent skeptics are now encouraging a return to such tricks.
Coming back to the idea that this event calls into doubt the whole field of ufology, it is also worth noting that 'real' UFO investigators are more than aware that the hoax hypothesis should come into serious consideration when looking into a sighting. Canadian UFO investigator Chris Rutkowski pointed this out on his blog yesterday:
Actually, this doesn’t do much other than show how people’s perceptions can be affected by their beliefs, and how all UFO sighting reports have to be scrutinized carefully so as to rule out hoaxes.
That’s exactly what serious ufologists have been saying for, oh… about 50 years.
I'm sure many 'UFO believers' out there are having a bit of a giggle, or cheering, about these skeptics being charged by prosecutors. I'm not one of them. I don't really agree with what they did, but I can appreciate what they were trying to do (excepting any feeding of their intellectual ego). Anybody laughing at these guys should ask themselves why they are doing so, because it might reveal a bit about any 'beliefs' they might have.
Anyhow, the whole hoax was carefully documented on video and posted on the 'net. So if you want to check it out, I've embedded the first instalment below; parts two and three are here and here respectively.
On a final note, let's not label this the "Great UFO hoax of 2009" as a Newsweek blog did. It garnered hardly any attention, apart from one UFO show primarily aiming at entertainment - if you'll pardon the analogy, it didn't even register as a blip on the radar.
Previously on TDG:
I get quite a few requests for interviews, which I usually turn down - because (a) I'm pretty boring, and (b) I'm pretty boring. However, when Alex Tsakiris of the Skeptiko podcast contacted me about having a chat, I decided to make an exception. Alex's interviews always evolve into interesting discussions, and he'd doing some excellent work with his own research initiatives into mediumship and other areas of parapsychology. Plenty of topics to sink our proverbial teeth into.
So, if you can bear my Australian drawl, here's my Skeptiko interview, hosted by Alex Tsakiris. The discussion revolves around ideas at the edge, and the 'new skepticism' - it's around half an hour in length. Feel free to post any thoughts here, or in the Skeptiko section at the Mind-Energy.net forums.
The January/February 2009 issue of Skeptical Inquirer (33:1) has been released, with an all-star cast presenting a themed issue on the topic of UFOs. As per usual, the website has a number of the articles available online, for free reading:
- "The Trained Observer of Unusual Things in the Sky (UFOs?)", by James McGaha.
- "UFOs and Aliens in Space", by David Morrison.
- "Return to Roswell", by Joe Nickell.
- "The Minsk UFO Case: Misperception and Exaggeration", by James Oberg.
- "Search for the Ark", by Massimo Polidoro.
- "UFOlogy 2009: A Six-Decade Perspective", by Robert Sheaffer.
- "The Stephenville Lights: What Actually Happened", from 'The Editors'.
- "An Astronomers Looks at UFOs: A Lot Less Than Meets the Eye", by Andrew Franknoi.
- "'Buzzing Bee' Missile Mythology Flies Again", by Kingston A. George.
Full details at the SI website.
Legendary 'skeptic' James "The Amazing" Randi has recently been posting videos to YouTube, in which he gives his thoughts on certain topics. A couple of weeks ago, he discussed the "woo-woo" area of parapsychology:
I've remarked previously about Randi's verbal sleight-of-hand, and there's plenty in this particular vodcast. Considering that it has had over 10,000 views, it might be worth pointing out some of his best work.
First off, we are informed that there are just two types of parapsychologist:
One kind, goes through life constantly deceiving themselves, making excuses and rationalizations for failures, and yet turning out many books and papers on their work, always promising further progress - if only sufficient funding were to be provided! And that usually follows, because there are lots of wishful thinkers out there...with money.
The other kind of parapsychologist spends some time at it, then looks at the evidence more closely, and opts to take up another profession. Sterling examples of this reversal can be found in Dr Susan Blackmore, and Dr Chris French - UK scientists who saw the train wreck they could have been part of, but left the track in time to avoid the inevitable collision with the real world.
So, basically if a parapsychologist has not become a 'skeptic', then they are self-deceiving and seeking money. Simple. I do find it odd that Randi considers Dr Chris French to have taken up "another profession", considering he's currently working with Rupert Sheldrake on telephone telepathy research and recently published research into possible causes of haunted houses. He certainly may have modified his opinion, but he has not changed profession. And we've discussed Susan Blackmore's Damascus-road experience previously here on TDG.
Furthermore, I'd imagine a few parapsychologists would have choked on their coffee reading that requests for funding are usually met by wishful thinkers with money...
Randi goes on to illustrate the lack of positive results in parapsychology:
In fact, both Duke University and Stanford, in the USA, gave up their many years of involvement in parapsychology, simply because they had no positive results to support their continued involvement. And the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab, known as P.E.A.R, the 'Pear Lab', closed down operation just recently, after almost 30 years in business. And for the same reason
Randi is either uninformed on the issue, or being deceptive - he can choose either horn of that dilemma. Duke University's parapsychology lab certainly closed down decades ago, but not because of a lack of results. Joseph Rhine moved DU's parapsychology lab off-campus, and continues to this day as the Rhine Research Centre. Rhine's research reported positive results. Stanford University's interest in parapsychology was disrupted when the Stanford Research Institute separated from the University and became SRI International. SRI International was the nursery for the Stargate remote viewing project, of which statistician Jessica Utts concluded: "Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance...there is little benefit to continuing experiments designed to offer proof, since there is little more to be offered to anyone who does not accept the current collection of data." That's a little hard to reconcile with Randi's statement of "no positive results"...
Randi finishes by mentioning PEAR, claiming they closed for the same reason (that is, no positive results). That's a little at odds with the comments of PEAR founder Dr Robert Jahn:
For 28 years, we've done what we wanted to do, and there's no reason to stay and generate more of the same data. If people don't believe us after all the results we've produced, then they never will... It's time for a new era; for someone to figure out what the implications of our results are for human culture, for future study, and - if the findings are correct - what they say about our basic scientific attitude.
James Randi has a history of similar mis-statements of fact in regards to parapsychology - last year in a newsletter he referred to Dr Dean Radin's experiments in presentiment as "his latest distraction", after negative results in other experiments. Radin had in fact been investigating (and publishing positive results) on presentiment for 10 years. Additionally, Radin had reported positive results in his other areas of research. Again, either Randi has no idea of the scientific research being published by parapsychologists (in which case he has no authority to criticise it), or he is deliberately misleading readers/viewers.
And yet the 'defenders of science and truth' admire him so. Quite amusing really.
Previously on TDG:
Last Friday night magic duo Penn & Teller were the 'celebrity contestants' on game show "Don't Forget the Lyrics". Contestants on the show try to remember and sing the lyrics to various hit songs; each time they correctly do so, they win more money, with each step taking them closer to the 'million dollar song'. Celebrities play on behalf of their favourite charity. P&T's choice? The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)!
Though they teased skeptical fanbois by heading into six-figure heaven for a few moments, they crashed back to earth with an incorrect lyric to a Doors song (Jim's no doubt got a big smile on his face on the 'other side'), resigning the JREF to a 'paltry' $25,000 donation. Although that will surely come in handy, paying a good 14% of James Randi's wage for the coming year ($US175,000). Homeless children and starving babies be damned...there's a cranky old man who needs to misinform the public about the 'truth', at least according to his long-held prejudices. Unfortunately, P&T's winnings will only help feed and clothe one - there are thousands of them out there folks, in desperate need of funds to allow them too to stand up and annoy the crap out of us with patronising sermons. I say huzzah for Penn & Teller for bringing attention to this silent epidemic...
In his documentary series The Enemies of Reason (see the end of this post for video links), Richard Dawkins talked to hypnotist/magician Derren Brown about the skill of "cold reading" - techniques used by fraudulent mediums (and mentalists) to convince people that they know their personal details. A new DVD has been released of the 'uncut' interviews from the documentary, and RichardDawkins.net has announced that the complete interview with Derren Brown is freely available on YouTube (almost an hour total length). I've posted part one underneath - you can watch the next five instalments by clicking on the links at the end of the video:
Unfortunately, it would seem that the uncut interview with Rupert Sheldrake is not part of the DVD - that might have made things a touch more interesting...
Previously on TDG:
- Michael Dennett argues against some of Jeff Meldrum's Bigfoot evidence in "Science and Footprints".
- Joe Nickell researches the history of the use of "Hex Signs".
- Massimo Polidoro investigates "The Curious Case of Street Light Interference".
- Paul Quincey dispels the spookiness of "Quantum Weirdness".
- Ben Radford reveals "The Secrets of Spectacularly Skewered Skin".
- Andrew Weiss is shocked at "The Wholesale Sedation of American's Youth".
Full details of the new issue at the Skeptical Inquirer website.