Archive for the 'Paranormal' Category

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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Feb 20 2012

Can You Figure Out This Ghost Photo?

Published by under Paranormal

I am on vacation this week. So for my blog this morning I am going to do a quickie – here is a photo I was just sent by an SGU listener. They wanted our help in explaining the rather creepy image on the photo. Before I even read the e-mail, however, the sender sent another e-mail saying that they figured out the answer. Take a look and see what you think. I will post the answer in a couple days as an addendum below the fold.

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Dec 08 2011

ESP Special Pleading

We all do it. In fact, we are generally very good at it. Smart and educated people are better at it.

Rationalizing is a daily practice, part of the “default mode” of human thinking. We make up reasons to justify believing what we want to believe. Often we are only dimly aware of why we want to believe something, the calculus largely occurring in the subconscious depths of our brains.

We defend beliefs because they are pleasing to our egos, because they minimize cognitive dissonance, and just because they are our beliefs. They resonate with our world-view, our internal model of reality.

We have at our disposal a long list of logical fallacies that we can marshal to the defense of our beliefs. Notions that are based on solid evidence and logic do not require such vigorous defense. Those beliefs that cannot be defended by logic and evidence require that bad logic and bad data be invoked to defend them. Luckily we have no problem distorting and cherry picking facts and twisting logic into pretzels.

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Mar 29 2011

Video Evidence

I am constantly being sent links to YouTube videos or news reports of alleged video evidence. The classics are still the most common subjects – UFOs, ghosts, Bigfoot, with some recent additions such as the chupacabras. I guess these are the iconic types of misidentification. If you see something weird in the sky it’s a UFO, in the woods it’s Bigfoot, and in your home or some spooky place then it’s a ghost.

The formula is simple – start with a picture, video, or just sighting of a poorly defined object, or photographic artifact. This could be something at too great a distance to see clearly, or obscured by partial cover, or under poor viewing conditions, or just out of focus. Then you add the prevailing cultural belief of the observer with a pinch of the argument from ignorance, and you have a paranormal sighting. This process can be summarized as “believing is seeing.”

This process is made more obvious when people of different cultural backgrounds interpret the same basic experience according to their own cultural beliefs. A waking dream in one culture might be a visit from the Old Hag, while in another it is a demon, and in yet another it is an abducting little gray alien.

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Jan 07 2011

Bem’s Psi Research

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology plans to publish a series of 9 experiments by Daryl Bem that purport to show evidence for precognition. This has sparked a heated discussion among psychologists and other scientists – mainly is it appropriate to publish such studies in a respected peer-reviewed journal and what are the true implications of these studies? I actually think the discussion can be very constructive, but it also entails the risk of the encroachment of pseudoscience into genuine science.

Peer-Review

Before I delve into these 9 studies and what I think about them, let me explore one of the key controversies – should these studies be published in a peer-reviewed journal? This question comes up frequently, and there are always two camps: The case in favor of publication states that it is necessary to provoke discussion and exploration. Put the data out there, and then let the community tear it apart.

The other side holds that the peer-reviewed literature holds a special place that should be reserved only for studies that meet certain rigorous criteria, and the entire enterprise is diminished if nonsense is allowed through the gates. Once the debate is over, the controversial paper will forever be part of the scientific record and can be referenced by those looking to build a case for a nonsensical and false idea.

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