Here you'll find the latest news from the nay-sayers, telling you what you don't understand, for the good of rationalism and the physical universe

The Laws of Physics Are Completely Understood

Physicist Sean Carroll, speaking at James Randi's "The Amazing Meeting", tells how anomalous phenomenon simply can't happen because the laws of physics are completely understood:

There are actually three points I try to hit here. The first is that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood. There is an enormous amount that we don’t know about how the world works, but we actually do know the basic rules underlying atoms and their interactions — enough to rule out telekinesis, life after death, and so on. The second point is that those laws are dysteleological — they describe a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose, just one that moves from moment to moment.

The third point — the important one, and the most subtle — is that the absence of meaning “out there in the universe” does not mean that people can’t live meaningful lives. Far from it. It simply means that whatever meaning our lives might have must be created by us, not given to us by the natural or supernatural world. There is one world that exists, but many ways to talk about; many stories we can imagine telling about that world and our place within it, without succumbing to the temptation to ignore the laws of nature. That’s the hard part of living life in a natural world, and we need to summon the courage to face up to the challenge.

There's a lot of elements to like about the talk, and Sean Carroll is no doubt a smarter man than me, but the pre-emptive debunking of apparent anomalies in science (such as parapsychology and the evidence for the survival of consciousness) - in effect, saying that we need not even test these anomalies because the laws of physics are already understood and preclude them - left me thinking of another well-known scientist's thoughts on the apparent completeness of science. Considering the alternative scientific viewpoints from the likes of physicist Henry Stapp, on theoretical explorations of the possibility of an afterlife, and Dean Radin's recent work on conscious influence in the famous double-slit experiment, the famous (though possibly apocryphal) fin de siècle quote of Lord Kelvin immediately came to mind when contemplating Carroll's pronouncements:

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.

Within a few years, science was turned on its head by relativity, and followed by quantum mechanics. One can only wonder if current-day anomalies, such as those explored by parapsychologiests, might one-day lead to some similar revolution, this time involving consciousness or information as primary elements of the cosmos.

The Man Who Astonished James Randi

In 1982, James Randi set out to test the claims of Dr. Arthur Lintgen, a physician from Pennsylvania:

He doesn’t read minds, tell the future, or talk to the dead, but can he can tell you what songs are on a vinyl record just by staring at it, and no, he doesn’t need the label. Lintgen claims he only became aware of his strange ability when challenged at a party in the 70′s, and found, to his surprise, that he could correctly identify records just by looking at the grooves.

“Friends of mine with more scientific and musical knowledge than I have tried it unsuccessfully,” he once told the New York Times. “I don’t know how I do it. I have terrible eyesight.”

In 1982, the ABC television series That’s Incredible decided to put Dr. Lintgen to the test in front of an audience, and to the astonishment of Stimson Carrow, then the professor of music theory at Temple University, Arthur was able to not only correctly identify 20 different unlabeled records, but was able to identify their pieces and composers.. all from about 15 feet away. The audience was astonished.

That kind of stunt might have been enough to impress viewers at home, but there were still many who remained skeptical of the man who could see records. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, not pre-taped television episodes. After all, it’s not like TV has the greatest track record of honesty.

So what happened when 'The Amazing' set out to test Dr Lintgen? Read the entire story at Who Forted?.

$#it New Age Girls Say

I'm in a bad mood, and I need a LULz fix before the weekend starts —hope you get a kick out of it too.

If you feel identified in any way with the video, like STOP it, k? Peppering your dialogue with Choprenglish is not going to get you any closer to your Pleiadian guides.

[OK, feeling better now...]

Randi's Partner Avoids Prison

In the sentencing hearing for James Randi's long-time companion Deyvi Pena (aka 'Jose Alvarez') today after his conviction on a charge of identity theft, the judge declared his desire to imprison Pena for two years, saying his actions constituted "a serious crime that deserved punishment." However, by the end of the hearing, the magistrate was persuaded to hand down a sentence consisting of six months of house arrest, followed by three years of probation:

Hurley repeatedly said he was concerned about the message it would send to be lenient on Alvarez, whose real name is Deyvi Orangel Pena Arteaga. Jose Luis AlvarezThe judge told Pena he came to court ready to sentence him to two years in prison. But after hearing passionate pleas for mercy and testimonials to Pena's generous, loving nature, Hurley said, "I am prepared to change that sentence."

..."I want to express my deepest regrets," Pena said. "It was never my intention to cause trouble for anyone."

Randi, 83, a native of Canada, told the story of how he proudly became a naturalized U.S. citizen and cherishes this nation's freedoms. He said that opportunity was foreclosed to Pena by U.S. immigration policies at the time.

"He was tempest tossed. He was cruelly treated," Randi told the judge. "This was a crime of desperation in which no one was hurt."

...Outside the courtroom after the sentencing, a relieved Pena hugged his friends one by one.

As per usual, I think Randi's being a bit loose with the truth here in saying "no one was hurt" - for instance, the victim of the identity theft reportedly missed his sister's wedding due to passport problems arising directly from Pena's actions. However, from all reports Pena is quite a lovely person, and two years in prison may have been a bit of a harsh punishment in my eyes.

Hopefully, given Randi's somewhat advanced age, the couple can now continue with their life together, though the end of the criminal case now allows for deportation proceedings to possibly be initiated. Pena is hoping to obtain political asylum in the United States based on a fear of persecution for his homosexuality back in his native Venezuela.

And I guess the other question that many would like answered, once again, is "when did Randi know?"

Update: A couple of recent court documents have been posted online, notably the defense's Sentencing Memorandum and Request for Variance" and an appendix of personal testimonials from the likes of Randi, Penn & Teller, and Richard Dawkins vouching for Jose Alvarez. The latter document sheds some interesting light on things such as Randi's financial position ("a shambles" in 2010, largely due to being allegedly fleeced by a contractor renovating his house, damaged in a hurricane in 2005) and the generosity of Randi and Alvarez/Pena to others (paying for flights, funerals etc. for friends and family unable to afford them). On a sidenote, the testimonial of Richard 'Rick' Adams also leads me to believe that he is the likely owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, and benefactor of the JREF, that I (probably wrongly) guessed previously as being Jeff Bezos.

See also:

Randi Goes 'Round the Bem

James Randi has announced his 2012 Pigasus awards, and in the scientist category has given it to Daryl Bem, for his experiments exploring the case for a precognitive ability in humans. Yes that's right, Randi frowns upon people doing science. Fail:

The winner of the Pigasus Prize in the scientist category is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research that has been discredited on many accounts by prominent critics, such as Drs Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella and Chris French. Such examination shows very strange methods used by Bem to prove his case, which ends up unproven - though the popular media, of course, have chosen to embrace it.

Do Drs Wiseman, Novella and French really believe that Daryl Bem should be the winner of an award that Randi says he bestows upon "the most deserving charlatans, swindlers, psychics, pseudo-scientists, and faith healers"? And do they believe that Bem's research employed "very strange methods" and that it has now been "discredited on many accounts" [my emphasis]?

Anecdote is Evidence, Redux

Last year I did a short commentary when what can only be described as a 'witch-hunt' began against British 'psychic' Sally Morgan, after a couple of phone-in callers to a radio show suggested that they heard people feeding her information via a wireless earpiece at her show:

Last week, a number of skeptics on Twitter began discussing a radio call-in show in Ireland in which someone said they had witnessed fakery at a show given by British 'psychic' Sally Morgan (you can listen to audio at YouTube). It remained a relatively low-key news item however, until yesterday when Professor French published an article in the Guardian with the rather definitive title, "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)"...

...So you can be sure that other skeptics were quick to urge caution, right? Wrong, the 'fact' of Sally Morgan's guilt went viral. Phil Plait (138,000 followers): "You'd think a real psychic would know if their methods were about to be exposed." Derren Brown (855,000 followers): "Sally Morgan caught proper cheating. Connecting you with dead loved ones via earpiece." Andy Nyman (20,000 followers): "Sally Morgan isn't Psychic - she's been caught using an earpiece. Another disgusting fake psychic" (followed by a later 'correction'). The JREF (10,000 followers): "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)".

As I said at the time, my criticism certainly wasn't meant as support for the validity of 'Psychic Sally' - it was instead a reaction to how hearsay from just a couple of people could spark outright attack against an individual. Not to mention that such an irrational, reactionary attack was being led by self-labeled 'rationalists'.

My reason for bringing up this issue is that last night Derren Brown played the same Dublin theatre where the incident originally happened, and he spoke to the staff there. This is what he subsequently tweeted:

Assured by the crew here that it was NOT Sally's ppl cuing her. It WAS just lighting ops chatting with window open. (They were making fun: show was apparently not good). The 'not good' bit obviously subjective. Point was, no sneakery from the lighting op room. There you go.

I haven't seen that retweeted by *any* of the high-profile skeptics who originally accused Sally Morgan of being fed information (let alone an outright "I shot my mouth off, my bad"). Poor form.

Klass Act?

Billy Cox - writer of the Devoid column/blog that often covers stories on the UFO beat - has posted an interesting anecdote about his own experience with well-known UFO skeptic Phil Klass:

Klass was a prolific writer who dismissed the Walton controversy as confabulation in his 1983 book UFOs: The Public Deceived. De Void was just beginning this forlorn and dreary journey back then. No reason for a newbie to doubt him. Except for, well, maybe this one case in Klass’ book concerning three people who suffered acute UFO radiation burns in Texas in 1980. Klass’ take on what became known as the Cash-Landrum incident stopped me cold. Because I’d actually done my homework on that one. And that’s when I got that first queasy feeling that the American press was routinely quoting a man who had a pathological disregard for truth.

It's a good cautionary tale about giving too much authority to leading skeptical voices. It caught my eye because it echoed my own experience with Martin Gardner's 'debunking' of medium Leonora Piper - a story which I was very familiar with, and which thus allowed me to see how loose Gardner was with the facts in achieving his goal.

Replicating Psi

LiveScience is featuring an article on the unsuccessful replication of Daryl Bem's controversial precognition experiment by skeptics Richard Wiseman, Chris French and Stuart Ritchie, after their paper was posted on the open-access journal PLoS ONE:

Bad news for Miss Cleo and other alleged clairvoyants: A new study has failed to find evidence that psychic ability is real.

Skeptics may scoff at the finding as obvious, but the research is important because it refutes a study published in a psychological journal last year that claimed to find evidence of extrasensory perception. That research, conducted by Daryl Bem of Cornell University, triggered outrage in the psychological community when the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology announced in 2010 that the paper had been accepted for publication. Psychologists immediately leapt on Bem's statistics and methods, finding reasons how he may have come up with the unbelievable results.

But the real key to a strong scientific finding is reproducibility. If no other researchers can replicate a particular result, it's not likely that the result is real. So University of Edinburgh psychologist Stuart Ritchie and colleagues decided to mimic one of Bem's experiments almost exactly to see if they would also find evidence of psychic powers.

The results were clear. "We found nothing," Ritchie said.

The LiveScience report also quotes Daryl Bem as saying, in his official response to the negative replication, that this one failed study does not automatically invalidate his positive results - and that some attention should be paid to the alleged 'experimenter effect', where skeptical researchers get negative psi results, and neutral/pro-psi researchers get positive findings:

In a response to be published alongside Ritchie and his colleagues' research in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, Bem wrote that it was still "premature to conclude anything about the replicability" of his experiment. It takes multiple replication failures to definitively refute a study, he said.

Bem also suggested that because Ritchie, Wiseman and French are skeptical of psychic abilities, they might have unwittingly influenced their participants not to display any clairvoyance. (The computer-based design of the study, however, is supposed to help prevent researchers from biasing their participants.)

"This does not mean that psi[psychic phenomena] results are unverifiable by independent investigators, but that we must begin regarding the experimenter as a variable in the experiments that should be included in the research designs," Bem wrote.

Now, I think it may be a stretch for Bem to invoke the 'experimenter effect' explanation - unless we stretch it to some sort of telepathic or psychokinetic influence - as Bem himself set up the study protocol specifically to run via a computer in order to minimize the experimenter interaction.) And if we do that, I'm not sure how you could ever really study psi in a standard scientific manner. On the flipside, as I've noted previously, skeptics need to be careful of writing Bem's 'experimenter effect' concern off as 'special pleading', given that arch-skeptic (and lead author on the negative replication paper) Richard Wiseman himself has previously published papers discussing this possibility.

What I was amazed by though was what the LiveScience article *left out* from Bem's response...and also what Wiseman, French and Ritchie have thus far failed to share in every mention I've seen regarding their negative replication. According to Bem:

Randi's Partner Pleads Guilty

James Randi's domestic partner, David Pena (formerly 'Jose Alvarez'), today pleaded guilty to passport fraud in a Florida courtroom. In doing so, Pena's attorney Susan Dmitrovsky outlined her client's "compelling reason" for committing the crime:

She said that when Pena was an art student in New York City he took on a new identity so he didn't have to go back to Venezuela and continue to face "horrific persecution" as a gay man. He resolved not to go back to Venezuela after someone had put a gun to his head in a bar, Dmitrovsky said outside of court.

Pena believed he was taking on the name, date of birth and Social Security number of a dead man, his attorney said.

"It was done strictly for survival," Dmitrovsky said. "It was a deep secret that he's glad is now out in the open."

When Hurley asked Pena about his residency status, the artist responded, "Right now, I'm illegal basically." The judge warned Pena that after his sentencing, it was a certainty that immigration authorities would launch deportation proceedings.

...Pena stole the identity a year before he began traveling with Randi in the magician's crusade to expose mystics, faith healers and psychics as frauds. Randi testified at an October court hearing to Pena's true identity, acknowledging he had seen Pena's Venezuelan passport years ago.

...Randi attended Wednesday's court hearing, but Dmitrovsky said that neither he nor Pena are talking to reporters about the case until after Pena's sentencing.

Beyond the risk of deportation, Pena could also be facing up to 10 years in federal prison at his sentencing on May 17.

An Honest Liar

"An Honest Liar" is a documentary work-in-progress about the life and work of James 'The Amazing' Randi. Looks excellent:

An Honest Liar will chronicle how a curious child rose to the ranks of showman and then advanced to renowned demystifier of paranormal claims. We will hear firsthand about his celebrated debunking of the spoon-bending Uri Geller and his many visits to the Tonight Show where he exposed the faith-healing Peter Popoff. The film will bring to life such schemes as “Project Alpha”, where two magicians posing as psychics fooled a scientific study on paranormal powers and the famous “Carlos Hoax” in which Randi unleashed a fake mystic upon the people of Australia.

Interspersed with episodes from his past, the film will go behind-the-scenes while Randi prepares for another grand scale debunking. With the precision of a seasoned magician, Randi will research, plan, and assemble an Ocean’s Eleven-type team for a carefully orchestrated exposure of a fraudulent religious organization.

Featuring such experts as Penn and Teller, Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye and Adam Savage, among others, An Honest Liar will explore skepticism, illusion, and the psychology behind belief. The result; an engaging, enlightening and comic experience that, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, will leave you asking, “how did they do that?”

Grailers will know that I've made it a bit of a hobby to occasionally prick the ballooning mythos surrounding the exploits of the Amazing one, but I also find him, as a cult figure (oh the irony), a fascinating character. Looking forward to seeing this documentary in full.

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