Archive for the 'Paranormal' Category

May 18 2017

Follow Up on Bem’s Psi Research

telepathyAn interesting article in Slate by Daniel Engber reviews the story of Daryl Bem and his psi “Feeling the Future” research. If you are interested in this sort of thing the entire article is worth a read, but I want to highlight and expand upon the important bits.

For review, in 2011 Bem published a series of 10 experiments in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP). I wrote about the research at the time, and wasn’t impressed. I wrote:

“In the final analysis, this new data from Bem is not convincing at all. It shows very small effects sizes, within the range of noise, and has not been replicated. Further, the statistical analysis used was biased in favor of finding significance, even for questionable data.”

Bem had taken standard social psychology experimental protocols, mostly dealing with priming, and did an interesting thing – he reversed the order of the experiment so that the priming came after the subjects were tested. For example, he would give subjects a memory test and then let some of them study the material. He claimed that the studying had an effect backward in time to allow subjects to perform slightly better.

For experienced skeptics, this was not much of a surprise. When dealing with claims that have a vanishingly small prior probability, you need extraordinary evidence to be taken seriously, and this wasn’t it. We were already very familiar with these kinds of results – if you squint just right there is a teeny tiny effect size. But we already knew that experiments are easy to fudge, even unwittingly, and it would therefore take a lot more to rewrite all the physics textbooks. (What is more likely, that the fundamental nature of reality is not what we thought, or Bem was a little sloppy in his research?) The key (as acknowledged by Bem himself) would be in replication.  Continue Reading »

183 responses so far

Mar 22 2016

Fake Psychics Scam Billions

The Anything Can Happen Recurrence

I know, it’s redundant. All psychics are fake and a scam, but some are worse than others.

When most people think of psychics they conjure an image (see what I did there) of someone dressed in robes in a mystically decorated parlor who reads your palm or the tarot cards for $40. They are making a meager living giving people a bit of harmless entertainment. Some may actually think they have powers, some may know it’s all an act, but what’s the harm?

In truth, however, many psychics are predators who scam people out of hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars. They prey on the vulnerable and the desperate and can ruin lives. This is not a benign industry.

A recent report from Toronto is just one of many – a steady stream with no expectation of ending. They report stories of people who have been victimized by psychics promising to turn around their fortunes, while parasitically bleeding them of as much money as possible.  Continue Reading »

69 responses so far

Jan 21 2016

Grief Vampires

Published by under Paranormal

Words are important. They definitely shape how we think about things, and are critical for affecting public opinion. I feel that as scientists and skeptics we are often on the losing side of the branding wars, probably because of our pesky attachment to technical accuracy, transparency, and honesty. Or maybe we just stink at marketing.

There is one turn of phrase, however, that I think perfectly captures a situation and is useful for communicating the skeptical position – “grief vampires.”

Grief vampires are self-proclaimed psychics or mediums who prey upon the loved ones of those who have recently died. They exploit the grieving for their own monetary gain.

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40 responses so far

Nov 06 2015

Are People with Autism Psychic?

Published by under Paranormal

As a general rule of thumb, if a headline contains a question the answer is usually “no.” This headline is no exception.

Thanks to the low journalistic standards at the Daily Mail, an ESP proponent by the name of Diane Powell is getting another round of media attention for her claim that children with autism can have telepathic powers, which she feels is an evolutionary compensation for their otherwise limited ability to communicate.

The story revolved around a 5-year-old boy named Ramses Sanquino, whose mother believes is a savant as well as telepathic. I tend to be skeptical of specific savant claims, even though they are well documented in some cases. I don’t doubt the phenomenon, but I have also seen cases in which overzealous parents manufacture the perception of extraordinary abilities in their children.

I was even involved in a case in which a mother believed her young child, who was non-verbal, could read in two languages on a 10th grade level. She came by this determination through facilitated communication, which is not a legitimate technique. This was a clear case of projecting her hopes onto her mute and passive child.

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197 responses so far

Oct 01 2015

Yogic Farming in India

If I had to choose the one thing that has most transformed human civilization it is science. Prior to this remarkable invention history was characterized by conflicting ideologies, philosophies, superstitions, and religions.

Some practical knowledge managed to move forward, including various technologies and even enlightenment philosophy, but our attempts to understand and manipulate the world were burdened with magical thinking. Science set us on a new track, and in the last few centuries we have systematically replaced our old traditional thinking about the world with scientific thinking.

A thousand years ago European physicians attempted to understand and treat illness by manipulating the four humors while their eastern counterparts were faring no better with an astrology-based system of blood letting. If we wanted to anticipate future events, an astrologer would consult fanciful charts that have no actual influence on reality.  If we wanted to make our lives better, ensure a good harvest, or survive a plague we would pray to imaginary powerful beings.

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74 responses so far

Sep 04 2015

Mixed Messages on Psychic Detectives

Published by under Paranormal

UK’s College of Policing has released their draft Authorised Professional Practice on missing persons investigations (there is a public comment period open until October 9). This might not seem that interesting, but it is getting some attention because of their recommendations regarding the use of psychics.

Here is the entire section under “Psychics:”

High-profile missing person investigations nearly always attract the interest of psychics and others, such as witches and clairvoyants, stating that they possess extrasensory perception. Any information received from psychics should be evaluated in the context of the case, and should never become a distraction to the overall investigation and search strategy unless it can be verified. These contacts usually come from well-intentioned people, but the motive of the individual should always be ascertained, especially where financial gain is included. The person’s methods should be asked for, including the circumstances in which they received the information and any accredited successes.

Let’s break this down a bit: The first half is reasonable. Tips from alleged psychics cannot be ignored because people may have obtained information in some other way – from their own investigation or because they have a connection to the case – and are just claiming the information is “psychic” to obscure how they came by the information or to opportunistically exploit the case for their own reputation. Saying that such information should be viewed “in context” is therefore reasonable.

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5 responses so far

Sep 03 2015

Thinking Style and Paranormal Belief

One burning question that comes up in skeptical circles is whether or not people who believe in the paranormal, are highly religious, or are enamored of conspiracy theories think differently than skeptics. Obviously they have different beliefs, but the question is whether or not their brains function differently in some respects from people who are more rational and scientific.

It certainly seems as if this is the case, but being skeptics we understand the irony of relying on intuition to conclude that other people rely more on intuition. Fortunately we have some psychological research to shed light on this question, including a recent study I will discuss below.

First let me dispense with the obvious false dichotomy – we should not think of this question as if there are two distinct types of people. Psychological studies will often do this, but they are simply dividing a continuum down the middle, or are only considering people at either end of the spectrum.

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155 responses so far

Nov 10 2014

Feeling of Presence Induced in the Lab

I have investigated a few hauntings and ghostly phenomenon. In reality I was investigating the ghost-hunters who were investigating alleged hauntings. A few patterns quickly emerged. One is that actual sightings and reported events tended to cluster around a few individuals, or even one individual. Another is that such events never occurred when there was a skeptical investigator present.

Also very interesting, however, was that the real interesting stuff did not start happening until the early morning hours, such as 2 or 3 in the morning. Ghost hunters invent lore to explain this phenomenon (the haunting hours), but my hypothesis is that this is the perfect time for sleep deprivation to be taking its toll.

When the evidence for a phenomenon is reported subjective experience, we need to ask if those experiences are being generated by something happening outside the person, or just inside their brain. When the brain is sleep-deprived, it can become glitchy. We can fall asleep briefly without realizing it. We can start to slide into a dream state, and might even experience a fusion of the waking and dream state, even to the point of hallucinations.

One common report is the feeling of presence (FoP) – the sense that there is another entity in the room with us, although we can’t quite see it as it is lurking just at the edge of our vision. I have experienced this myself, during hypnagogic episodes when I am very sleep deprived.

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27 responses so far

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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78 responses so far

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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249 responses so far

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