The Psychic Astronomer

As you all know, I’m very interested in how science often becomes a belief system itself for ‘non-believers’. Here’s a little case study for anyone who has this same interest. Last week Phil ‘Bad Astronomy’ Plait posted an entry titled “How to be Psychic“, in which he said:

Do psychic powers exist? I don’t think they do, but that’s because for decades all sorts of tests have been run, and when they are done correctly there is no indication that anyone has any sort of psychic ability at all.

Some guy using the moniker ‘MachineElf’ (who may or may not bear a striking resemblance to…errr…me) posted a one word query to Phil’s original statement: “Citations?” And what an obviously unscientific thing to say that is, because you just know who became the focus of other commenters then…

Now, that’s not to say that psychic abilities are real. There may well be plenty of well-done tests which conclusively show that psychic abilities are a mirage – I’d just like to see some citations. I’d go further to say (a) what about well-done tests which show psychic abilities are real (such as the case of Leonora Piper, which ‘MachineElf’ cites in the thread), and (b) how do we know a test is “done correctly”? On the latter, for most skeptics I would say the definition is when no psychic ability is detected. However, I’d like to see some sort of standard test set up so that this question can be answered definitively – but to do that, there needs to be more open and intelligent discussion of what psychic abilities seem to offer – that is, plenty of mistakes, but also occasional ‘dazzle shots’ which convince people due to their highly specific nature. So a large part of the problem in correctly testing psychics – in my opinion – is how to grade the ‘dazzle shots’ scientifically (objectively).

Anyhow, I’m sure those interested in the ‘science as a belief’ theme will find plenty of interest in the comments thread subsequent to the “Citations?” post.

Editor
  1. Orale!!!
    [quote]Jose Says:
    September 19th, 2008 at 3:29 am
    @MachineElf
    Phil made an unequivocal statement, which suggests that he’s well read on the matter. I think it’s fair to ask him for some references, don’t you?

    No. Not when the information you seek is so readily available to anyone. His statement is a well established fact. So called psychics always fail to show even the slightest inkling of psychic powers when tested under circumstance that don’t allow them to cheat (consciously or unconsciously). And when I say always, I mean always. If you want to argue the point, just refer to proper studies that have shown psychic powers to be real. Good like finding one.[/quote]

    José ha hablado! (Thus Jose has spoken!)

    —–
    It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
    It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

    Red Pill Junkie

    1. I wouldn’t call them “shameless”
      Maybe deluded. Or at best misinformed.

      These people think Skeptical Inquirer deserves the same respect and reliability than a peer-reviewed journal like Nature. I’m not attacking the quality of SI per se, but this people seem to believe that if something it’s written in it, it’s true and settled forever.

      And where was Phil’s response in 100+ comments to our friend MachineElf’s query??

      —–
      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

  2. Another excursion
    For those with too much time on your hands, this randi.org thread from earlier in the year is even better. The patronising attitude and non-questioning of Randi from the other commenters is pretty funny (if at times, a little creepy…can you spell c-u-l-t kiddies?)

    Kind regards,
    Greg
    ——————————————-
    You monkeys only think you’re running things

    1. OMG
      You’re such a troll, Greg! 😛

      —–
      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

      1. The Man Behind the Curtain…
        [quote=red pill junkie]You’re such a troll, Greg! 😛
        [/quote]

        That thread is so funny though – I point out quite plainly that Randi either is (a) deliberately misleading readers, or (b) has not read the actual research. Those are the only two options possible – no matter what anyone believes about psi research, Randi’s post is categorically wrong in how it describes Dean Radin’s research. What is the result? I’m asked for citations to prove psi. Apparently, Randi doesn’t need to show citations when he throws out ad-hominems each newsletter, but I do.

        Thou shalt not question teh Randi!

        Kind regards,
        Greg
        ——————————————-
        You monkeys only think you’re running things

  3. Perhaps in tests people try too hard?
    In recent months my husband and I have found ourselves to have some form of telepathic link. After 37 years of marriage this may be put down to just old fashioned knowledge of each other’s preferences and ideas, or it may be due to body language. However, there have been so many recently where even when we aren’t looking at each other we can have the same thought instantaneously. We have also noticed that this is more likely to happen when we are NOT trying to make telephathic contact!

    When we focus/concentrate we fail, miserably. Only when we are truly relaxed do we succeed. I don’t say we succeed every attempt, but certainly often enough, usually unexpectedly. There is something in telepathy, but science has not understood what it is that it is dealing with (none of us really knows) and for some people psychic abilities of all form to exist, quite often to a larger extent than the majority.

    If I possess any psychic ability it is mild, but I have relaxed many borders with regards to allowing thoughts and ideas that go contrary to the norm so instead of blocking them, I let them filter in and out.

    I don’t think SCIENCE can answer the question of psychic abilities being real or imagined, not with the methods and understanding we have now. The scientific fraternity are also rather closed minded with regards to new ideas (contradictory this may be as a statement but is in reality a truism).

    Carol A Noble

  4. I have noticed the same thing…
    My wife and I have the same sort of connection. I also had it with one of my sisters. We would intuitively “know” what the other was thinking, and respond with the same sentence or word or phrase.

    Now, I agree that it may well be a result of familiarity. As a musician, I note (pardon the pun) that I and others I have performed with regularly can take a phrase or riff and run with it, creating an entire song from scratch. Improv, as it were, and in the end look at each other and wonder where the heck that came from.

    The thing with my wife and I is, however, that after more than 20 years of marriage, although we remain very different in our ways and interests, we still have this ability to “know” each other’s thoughts and responses, even to completely spontaneous events.

    Again, I am NOT claiming any special abilities, and I am sure that the scientific cultists will be on me like Puritans on a Witch, but so be it.

    Greg, the real truth in that article, the part that speaks volumes to me, is the reaction of the crowd to a simple request for a citation, any citation, and the absolute silence of the author on the matter.

    What a coward he is, a petty, little minded cretin, who would bravely let his spittle-flecked, mouth-breathing minions do his dirty work for him rather that stand behind his own remarks.

    Anyway, that’s my opinion on the matter.

    Now’s things down in Oz these days? 🙂

    Respects,
    Gwedd

    1. Not getting carried away
      [quote=Gwedd]My wife and I have the same sort of connection. I also had it with one of my sisters. We would intuitively “know” what the other was thinking, and respond with the same sentence or word or phrase.[/quote]

      I myself seem to have no ‘psychic’ ability at all. My wife though has on numerous instances done rather spooky things (knowing things she didn’t have access to through usual sensory modalities), and has many of the psychological pointers towards psychic ability (eg. being able to fall asleep in a matter of seconds). One day I’ll get her to try some automatic writing and see what happens…

      [quote]Greg, the real truth in that article, the part that speaks volumes to me, is the reaction of the crowd to a simple request for a citation, any citation, and the absolute silence of the author on the matter.

      What a coward he is, a petty, little minded cretin, who would bravely let his spittle-flecked, mouth-breathing minions do his dirty work for him rather that stand behind his own remarks.[/quote]

      I can’t agree with that. For the large part, Phil Plait has some really interesting things to say – I’m a regular reader of his blog. I just am of the opinion that he swallows the skeptical line without actually doing any real investigating of each specific topic (for instance, I doubt he has read anything in detail of Leonora Piper or Gladys Osbourne Leonard). Perhaps he should stick to astronomy and related sub-topics.

      He’s also a very busy guy – I don’t follow all the threads here on TDG, so far be it from me to expect him to reply to a small comment I made.

      Also, I refuse to condemn anyone (or blog in general/crowd) for the responses of a few commenters. If that were the case, I’d be hung, drawn and quartered for some of the comments that appear here on TDG.

      My post was just about pointing out how the belief in science manifests itself, with the comments replying to my post acting as a good illustration.

      Kind regards,
      Greg
      ——————————————-
      You monkeys only think you’re running things

  5. Very impressed…
    Great read Greg – very impressed by your comments and the way you put them across. It’s so refreshing to see that even in the face of many adversaries often making less than constructive comments you remained calm, professional and, most importantly, open to further debate.

    Just as a more general comment, I get so disillusioned and saddened by the amount of abuse that some people use on the internet. I’ve no problem with people having differing views (without variation things would probably be pretty dull and we probably wouldn’t progress) but it seems that a big phat slice of tolerance and politeness is often missing from discussions.

    Hurrah for Greg!

    T…

  6. Straw Dogs and Shadows
    I don’t know why people bother with science-zealots; that’s just as much tasteless low-hanging fruit as them going after the “God put bones in the ground to confuse us” creation-zealots, and them nearly as tedious as MAC-heads.

    oops.

    I mean, hey, life is short. And it’s not like anyone expects to convince anyone in any way other than to hand them the smouldering sticky certified proof, only as we see on both sides of any fence, still doesn’t actually change anyone’s world-view.

    but … what if we’re BOTH right? What if everyone is relaying precisely what they measure very carefully down their own personal rabbit hole? I describe my dream, you describe yours, why should they agree? I mean logically, knowing what we do about physics, neurology, cognition and perception, isn’t it more amazing that we so often agree? I mean, that’s pretty amazing isn’t it? I think blue, you think blue and we both see it in the sky? What are the chances?

    Sun Ra, extending Buddhist teachings, said “The Truth depends not just on who you are and where you are, but also on when you are.

    Not that I expect I’ve convinced anyone. I’m just sayin’ …

    1. That bothers me
      I think you’re right teledyn: An adult changing his/her mind over any particular topic is a rarer sight than Nessie. And that bothers me greatly.

      It’s like this election our American friends are ‘celebrating’. People are already going to vote one way or another. And no amount of TV ads or debates or news is going to change their minds. So why spend so many millions of dollars in this ugly exercise?

      Is true objectivity attainable?

      —–
      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

      1. The Election
        You make the mistake of assuming an informed, engaged, and educated electorate! Even with the absence of real debate, a tiny piece of information can switch someone on or off.

        Ad: “Candidate X is corrupt! It’s true. [Actually true reference/Entirely false allegation].”

        Average Voter: “I had no idea! There’s an election! I hate crooks. I’m voting for Candidate Y.”

        Enough guys like that show up at the polls and the expense pays off.

        1. local mileage may differ
          This varies somewhat between countries, and offices up for election. Of course voting is done mostly by emotion, hardly ever by educated, rational decision making.

          But in some places the electorate is very fickle, in others very set in their ways.

          Most often, I think, people vote against some candidate or party, not for anyone.

          —-
          It is not how fast you go
          it is when you get there.

          1. The gut
            People often use their gut instead of the brain, when it comes to thinking and voting 😉

            I agree, the electorate is misinformed, but as many TDGers already know, you can’t educate anyone who thinks that he/she already knows the answer; because they’ll refuse to look at your data.

            PS: I have a confession to make. As earthling pointed out, on the last election I voted so the other guy wouldn’t win.

            Do i regret my decision? Well, let’s just say I chose the lesser of two evils 🙁

            —–
            It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
            It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

            Red Pill Junkie

  7. Well played, Greg
    Bravely and rationally done, sir. It’s hard to keep one’s cool when confronted with these types. It just shows that when it comes to belief systems (and dogmatic skepticism is a belief system), we’re all biased. I find the same astonishing inability to question core views in my political discussions with my fellow Americans, and you’ve already pointed out how sadly polarized we are. This kind of non-skepticism is more about bolstering one’s self-esteem by retaining the ability to tut-tut about one’s intellectual superiority to “those delusional psi-believers” than it is about rigorous inquiry.

    It does show one other thing: the JREF challenge remains a brilliantly conceived stalking horse for the pseudoskeptics. They can just point frantically and shout, “See? See? No one’s won the million dollars! Boo-yah! No citations needed! Go sniff some power crystals and align your chi, you creationist/anti-science freak!”

    The Internet: Bringing us new breeds of insular stupidity since 1990.

    1. The Million-Dollar challenge
      It is becoming almost a tenant of DOGMA.

      —–
      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

  8. Crazy
    I just read the entire thread on Bad Astronomy.

    Greg, I have some bad news.

    Those people over there are crazy.

    And logic doesn’t work on crazy people.

    On the other hand, if you wanted to target them with WMD, Randi with a jug of Kool Aid would work nicely.

  9. Eureka!
    Greg, did you notice that someone finally cited four papers in support of Plait’s assertion, 3 of them from Wiseman, who’s been proven to be a fraud and a debunker by his own admission. Of course, it only took about 100 comments to finally get a response to your reasonable question, it didn’t come from Plait himself, and our good buddy Jose had to chime in with this caveat:

    And there are literally hundreds more studies done by actual scientists in the past century than the few Shane has mentioned. Heck, I’m willing to bet there are hundreds where the researches actually came to the conclusion that psychic powers are real. Sadly (and that’s a sincere sadly), those studies have had flawed methodologies.

    Of course! The old “flawed methodologies” trick. I’m sure our pal Jose, from the depths of his high school education and likely career in the food service sector, knows much more about solid experimental methodology than the likes of Dean Radin, Joseph Rhine and Charles Tart. Priceless. What were we thinking, believing the silly idea that psi has been supported by empirical evidence? Jose has all the answers!

    Ain’t bias a wunnerful thing?

    1. Whoa!
      How can we know Jose works in the food service sector, and did not go to college?

      And since when making an honest living in the fast food business is something to be ashamed of? Shouldn’t a person washing dishes for a living deserves more respect than a crooked politician or a bank CEO that makes laundry for the drug cartels?

      would we have to look into a person’s career & diplomas before being willing to listen to what he/she has to add to an argument.

      I certainly don’t agree with Jose, and I think his arguments on that thread are laughable; but we should try to refrain from personal attacks. That goes for me as well, actually.

      That said, I agree with you that some people love to rely to “faulty data” and “flawed methodology” when some study doesn’t agree with what they ‘know’.

      Saludos.

      [PS: My apologies if I seem to harsh; it’s just that I honestly believe we shouldn’t resort to the same tactics that the ‘skeptoids’ love to employ when dismissing arguments (i.e. ad hominem attacks, the same ones MachineElf suffered on that very same thread)]

      —–
      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

      1. Point taken
        Point taken and well made, RPJ. You’re quite right. My bad. After a while the snide and sneer just get to you and it becomes hard not to want to fight fire with fire. But we must take the high road.

    2. Massaging…
      [quote=pacificwhim]Greg, did you notice that someone finally cited four papers in support of Plait’s assertion, 3 of them from Wiseman, who’s been proven to be a fraud and a debunker by his own admission.[/quote]

      First off, it’s worth noting that only #1 of the 4 addresses psychics/mediums, which is what Phil Plait was discussing.

      Secondly, it’s pretty funny that he picked this paper, because it actually outlines some of the history of research into mediumship, and the problems with the catalogue to this point:

      Initial tests of mediums were carried out in the 1880s and primarily involved investigators attending se´ances, noting down the comments that the mediums allegedly received from the deceased, and then attempting to assess the accuracy of this information. The majority of the resulting reports argued in favour of the existence of genuine mediumistic ability, and contained lengthy transcripts of mediumistic messages along with detailed descriptions of the evidence supporting these statements (see, e.g. Hodgson, 1892, 1898). Critics have attacked this work, arguing that it often failed to assess whether the seemingly accurate readings could have been the result of various psychological stratagems, such as the mediums engaging in shrewd guesswork or producing very general statements that would be endorsed by the majority of people (see, e.g. Gardner, 1992; Hyman, 1977; Podmore, 1901).

      Over the years, several researchers have attempted to devise procedures that eliminate the potential for such stratagems, and then used these to examine some of the best-known mediums of the day. The resulting studies have obtained mixed results, with some work finding evidence in favour of genuine paranormal abilities and other research supporting the null hypothesis (for a review of this work see Schouten, 1994). This work has provoked a considerable amount of methodological and statistical debate, much of which has focused on the degree to which the procedures employed in those studies obtaining positive results have eliminated potential biases and problems (for a recent example of this type of debate, see Hyman, 2002; Hyman, 2003; Schwartz, 2003).

      The Wiseman paper explicitly says “researchers working in this area have yet to develop a relatively standard method of testing that is both practical and minimizes the potential for such artifacts.”

      Which of course argues exactly against Phil Plait’s statement. (I do realise that it also says that there is no research that suggests psychic abilities are real, but that was never my argument in that thread).

      On Wiseman being “a fraud and a debunker”. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the former, though the latter is certainly true. And as I’ve mentioned previously here on TDG, Wiseman does have a tendency to ‘massage’ facts and conclusions (search TDG for Wiseman). I even found parts of this paper to be disingenuous: for example, in the quote above, there is this passage:

      Critics have attacked this work, arguing that it often failed to assess whether the seemingly accurate readings could have been the result of various psychological stratagems, such as the mediums engaging in shrewd guesswork or producing very general statements that would be endorsed by the majority of people (see, e.g. Gardner, 1992; Hyman, 1977; Podmore, 1901).

      Now I think there should be a bit more accountability in throwing statements out like this one. (a) I’ve read Gardner’s thoughts, and they are a practically worthless (surprising, given his experience and intelligence) regurgitation of Hall and Tanner’s flawed work, embellished with speculation and mistakes of fact. (b) Podmore actually endorsed the abilities of Piper (the cited work is his critique of James Hyslop’s work with Piper, while Wiseman and O’Keefe used Richard Hodgson’s work with Piper in their example). (c) There is no way that anyone could consider Piper’s best work as being “engaging in shrewd guesswork or producing very general statements” – she gave highly specific answers to complete strangers.

      The paper is worth reading though, as an illustration of the methodological problems one encounters in scientifically evaluating mediumship. You get the feeling though that the further we go along, the more any sort of natural conversation between medium and sitter is being absolutely strangled – so how can we then say that these experiments ‘disprove’ psychic/mediumistic abilities?

      Kind regards,
      Greg
      ——————————————-
      You monkeys only think you’re running things

  10. Well done, sir!
    I have to say that my admiration for you, Greg, has just increased ten-fold. I have made the grave mistake, within such forums, of accusing the sceptics of this kind of dogmatism in the past. Perhaps I’m just too sensitive but I have come away battered and bruised, swearing never to venture there again.

    The problem for me was the fact that I could not argue with them on their own terms. I could not dispute their assertions because I was plainly not qualified to do so … I just didn’t have the book smarts.

    But you obviously do. And you made your point well and made it honourably. I was happy to see a couple of others chiming in with some support towards the end but, alas, it will make little difference. These people will continue to wear blinkers while accusing your kind of refusing to see the light.

    Dave.

    http://www.davidsmuse.co.uk

  11. Scientists?
    As valid as your request for citations was and as entertaining as the posts are, at the end of the day you are talking to sceptics and i wasnt really surprised at the responses. It did however reinforce your point about belief systems.

    There was an article in the BBC focus magazine a year or two ago that examined results of a telepathy experiment at some US university. It measured the brainwaves corresponding to the visual cortex of the ‘senders’ and ‘recievers’and, from what i remember, when a light was flashed in the eyes of the ‘senders’ a corresponding area of the brain was stimulated in the ‘recievers’. .(sorry, cant remember more of the details and ive had no luck searching for it.)I also seem to recall that the experiment was duplicated by …..some other people…! Apologies for being vague!

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