Archive for the 'Paranormal' Category

Oct 28 2014

What Americans Believe

Surveys are always problematic because they are subject to interpretation, the precise phrasing of questions, sampling bias, and perhaps hidden assumptions on the part of those taking the survey. The results of any single survey, therefore, should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, they can provide a useful snapshot (if done well) of the current culture. 

Skeptics are always interested in what the general public “believes.” The term “belief” is itself problematic, and when used in a survey it is subject to interpretation by those taking the survey. I am not one of those who object to ever using the term “belief.” It is a reasonable short hand for, “I find the totality of available evidence to be compelling,” or “I accept the scientific consensus on this issue,” at least in informal writing or conversation.

In a survey, however, I would prefer any questions about what people “believe” to be replaced by, or at least supplemented by, statements about what the scientific evidence says.

In any case, we have another recent survey about what Americans believe, from Chapman University. The survey covers a lot of territory, from religious affiliation and practice, to what people fear, to what they believe about scientific and paranormal topics. You can download the entire 73-page report of the results from the link above.

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Oct 09 2014

AWARE Results Finally Published – No Evidence of NDE

Back in May I participated in a debate for Intelligence Squared regarding “Death is not Final.” At the time I was updating myself on the published literature regarding alleged near death experiences or NDEs, and noticed that the AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitation) had been completed but the data not yet published. I was disappointed that I would not have these results available to me during the debate.

I had read about the study several years earlier. This is a prospective study of cardiac arrest patients to not only describe their NDEs when they occur, but to conduct a large prospective test looking for objective evidence of conscious awareness during resuscitation. The lead researcher, Sam Parnia, is a believer in NDEs, but designed a study theoretically capable of finding objective evidence.

The multi-center study involved placing an image in a location that was hidden from normal view but could be viewed by a person floating above their body during an NDE. This could be a way to objectively differentiate between the two leading hypotheses. Parnia and others believe that reports of NDEs represent actual awareness during cardiac arrest when the brain is not functioning. This, of course, would be compelling evidence for cognition separate from brain function.

I and most scientist favor the more mundane and likely explanation that memories of NDEs are formed at other times, when the brain is functioning, for example during the long recovery process. At least the memories themselves do not differential between these two hypotheses, and this explanation does not require inventing entirely new non-materialist phenomena.

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May 08 2014

After the Afterlife Debate

Published by under Paranormal

The debate hosted by Intelligence Squared on the proposition – Death is not Final, was a lot of fun. Of course, I am pleased with the outcome, as I think my partner, Sean Carroll, and I performed well, and in the end we won the final audience vote.

Off stage I found Raymond Moody to be a very nice guy. He is a philosopher of logic, and in general seems to understand a great deal about skepticism. He rejects the pseudoscience of ESP and other paranormal claims. Yet – he seems to have a soft spot for claims of the afterlife. Not surprising since he wrote the book on NDEs in the 1970s.

Eben Alexander was also very friendly, as I expected given his interviews and everything I have read about him.

Although interesting, debates are terrible venues for carefully dissecting the evidence. There is no time to look up references and check claims. Two times Eben Alexander and I came to an “impasse” and had to simply move on.

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May 06 2014

Afterlife Debate

Published by under Paranormal,Skepticism


I will be involved in a debate Wednesday evening (May 7th) at the Kaufman center in New York.

The debate will be from 6:45 to 8:30pm.

The debate is hosted by Intelligence squared, which hosts a series of such debates. While tickets are sold out, the debate will be live streamed. I have embeded the stream below, or you can see the stream here: http://goo.gl/WNV6nQ 

The specific topic is “Death is not Final”

Against this proposition will be me and Sean Carroll. Sean is  a physicist, so he will cover the physics angle, while I will cover the neuroscience.

For the proposition will be Eben Alexander, author of Proof of Heaven, and Raymond Moody, author of Life after Life.

The evening promises to be very interesting, so please tune in.

You can view the live stream of the debate here:

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Mar 17 2014

Life Imitates Science Fiction

A man is in an extended coma after a traumatic injury. When he finally awakes from his coma he finds that he has brought something back with him from the darkness –  psychic powers. Yes, this is the plot of the 1983 Stephen King movie, The Dead Zone. It is also the alleged story of a 23 year old Southend student named Rob Ball.

Ball was assaulted and hit in the side of the head resulting in a two week coma. He had significant brain injury, and after waking from the coma he suffered from significant memory loss and needed extensive physical therapy in order to walk. Describing his injuries, he said:

 ”It feels like my head is going to blow up and I’m convinced I’m going to die all the time now, because it’s had such an impact on my life. I get deja vu all the time. I don’t know if it’s something to do with the head injury, but I keep thinking ‘I remember this before’, and think something is about to go wrong.”

Memory loss and headaches are typical symptoms of a traumatic brain injury. The deja vu is an interesting symptom – this is the phenomenon of feeling as if a current experience is familiar, as if it has happened before. We do not yet fully understand the neuroanatomical correlates and functional causes of deja vu, but we have some fairly compelling leads.

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Mar 11 2014

Can Thinking Change Reality Part II

Yesterday I discussed a recent article claiming 10 lines of evidence supporting the claim that consciousness can directly alter reality. I addressed the first five claims in the list. Here are the next five.

6. The Placebo Effect

The author claims:

“It suggests that one can treat various ailments by using the mind to heal. Many studies have shown that the placebo effect (the power of consciousness) is real and highly effective.”

This is a common misconception, but it is demonstrably not true. Placebo effects (plural) are mostly reporting bias, regression to the mean, investment justification, researcher bias, and other sources of self-deception. They are transient, and significant only for subjective symptoms where reporting bias can play a major role. Studies have shown, in fact, that there is no significant “healing” that occurs due to placebo effects – no objective biological improvement.

I discuss placebo effects at length here, here, here, and here.

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Mar 10 2014

Can Thinking Change Reality

I love the documentary series, The Day the Universe Changed, by James Burke. It’s a follow up to his equally good, Connections (I know, they have their criticisms, but overall they are very good). The former title is a metaphor – when our collective model of reality changes, for us the universe does change. When we believed the earth was motionless at the center of the universe, that was our reality.

But Burke was not arguing that the nature of the universe actually changed, just our conception of it. Thinking alone cannot directly change external reality. That is magical thinking.

Such thinking, however, lies at the center of much new age spiritual claims. The secret of The Secret is that you can change your world by wishing. Proponents of such ideas are desperate for scientific validation of their basic premise. Such evidence does not exist. In fact over a century of such research shows rather conclusively that there is no such effect in operation in our world to any significant degree.

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Jun 20 2013

Sally Morgan Libel Suit

Published by under Paranormal,Skepticism

This is an interesting story with an unfortunate update.

UK self-proclaimed psychic, Sally Morgan, sued the Daily Mail for libel because they claimed that she used deliberate fraud during some of her performances by receiving messages through an earpiece (Popoff style). The case was recently settled, with Morgan receiving £125,000 to cover damages and legal fees. In a statement the paper said:

Brid Jordan, for Associated Newspapers, told the judge: “The Daily Mail withdraws the suggestion that Mrs Morgan used a secret earpiece at her Dublin show in September 2011 to receive messages from off-stage, thereby cheating her audience, which it accepts is untrue.”

The story may therefore be a cautionary tale for skeptics – don’t overstate criticism or state as factual speculation about motivation or fraud. This is challenging when also wanting to engage in critical analysis of dubious claims without pulling any punches – but that is the line we have to walk.

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Jan 15 2013

Defending the Million Dollar Challenge

Published by under Paranormal,Skepticism

Randi’s Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge is an icon of the skeptical movement. The challenge basically offers $1 million to anyone who can, “show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” So far no applicant has passed even the preliminary test for the million dollars.

It should not be surprising that the challenge is a thorn in the side of all proponents of the paranormal and charlatans whose living depends on belief in supernatural powers. The challenge is therefore under frequent attack by such proponents – always, in my experience, using unfair and often factually incorrect charges.

For full disclosure, even though this information is already on my author page, I am a senior fellow at the JREF (the James Randi Education Foundation, who offers the challenge), and I have participated in several preliminary tests. I have actually run three preliminary tests, and have participated in the development of protocols for others. The three tests I ran were designed and executed independently by me, with no input from Randi or the JREF, but following the rules they lay out and approved by the JREF before being executed.

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May 14 2012

Ghost Box

Published by under Paranormal

The subculture of pseudoscientific ghost hunting continues to evolve. Have you heard of a “ghost box?” It seems all you have to do is put the word “ghost” in front of something and it becomes technical jargon for ghost hunters, and also a great example of begging the question. A cold spot in a house is therefore “ghost cold.” An electromagnetic field (EMF) detector becomes a “ghost detector.” And now a radio scanner has been rebranded as a “ghost box.” Of course no one has ever established that any of these phenomena have anything to do with ghosts, so they are putting the cart several miles ahead of the horse.

A more scientific and intellectually honest approach would be to declare such phenomena as anomalous (although I don’t think that they are). Ghost cold would more properly be termed anomalous cold, or a regional cold anomaly, or something like that. One hypothesis for the alleged cold anomaly would be some sort of supernatural entity (call it a ghost) that acts as a heat sink generating cold spots. First, however, researchers should endeavor to find a mundane explanation for the cold. In fact before declaring it an anomaly they should thoroughly rule out any possible explanation. Only when that has been adequately done would they have a tentative anomaly.

It would then be reasonable to generate a hypothesis as to what is causing the anomalous cold, but such hypotheses are only useful if they lead to testable predictions. If the regional cold anomaly phenomenon is the result of “ghosts”, then what might we predict from that and how can we test it? I don’t know of any way to definitively test it, as ghosts are not a well-defined phenomenon, but perhaps there are some preliminary tests that could be done. For example, is there at least a correlation between cold spots and experiences often interpreted as ghosts or hauntings? Perhaps cold spots are just as likely in homes without other such “ghost phenomena.” Such a correlation would not prove the ghost hypothesis, of course, but it would at least be a start, and the lack of correlation would seriously jeopardize the hypothesis.

Ghost hunters, however, skip over all of this scientific methodology and reasoning and simply declare cold spots “ghost cold” and then use them as evidence for ghosts. They are then puzzled when scientists and skeptics don’t accept what they consider to be compelling evidence for ghosts, but what is really compelling evidence for the complete lack of scientific understanding on the part of ghost hunters.

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