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Idiots Pretend to Do Science, Get Fooled by Magician

x-posted from Skepchick!

I know many of you reading this are working scientists, and so of course you’re familiar with the famed medical journal, International Journal of Yoga. For those of you who don’t subscribe, you’ll be excited to learn that IJOY has just published this solid, peer-reviewed paper called Investigating paranormal phenomena: Functional brain imaging of telepathy. Better yet, it’s available online!

This study, run by “scientists” from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences and the Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation (both in Bangalore, India) involved a sample size of two: one magician named Gerard Senehi and one anonymous schmo who, unlike Gerard, does not lie or misrepresent himself as a psychic with magical powers. (Here’s an amusing NY Magazine article on Gerard if you’re interested.)

Both Gerard and the schmo underwent a single test of psychic powers while connected to an fMRI machine. The test in question was a standard magic trick in which the audience – I mean, researchers – thought of an image and drew it on a piece of paper. Then the magician – I mean, psychic – is to reproduce the drawing.



The researchers compared the drawings and determined that Gerard’s drawing (above, “b”) was “strikingly similar” to the original (above “a”), while the poor schmo’s drawing was nothing like the original. Now, it’s bad enough that we’re basically talking about a magician being tested on a magic trick, but what’s even worse is that the result would have earned Gerard no more than a C- in Mentalism 101 at Bozo’s Discount Correspondence Clown School. The original drawing (which apparently was just thought up on the spot by a researcher instead of carefully planned out and randomized beforehand) was a circle with lines inside it splitting it into eight sections. Gerard drew a square split into four sections. Schmo drew a misshapen rectangle inside another misshapen rectangle.


Seriously, if you’re going to publish a paper based on a SINGLE test of ONE person, is it really asking too much to have it at least hint ever so slightly at the possibility of some interesting ability? Why not start with a dozen simple and easily identifiable and very different objects, randomly choose one by rolling dice, have a person draw it in another room, and then ask the test subject to state which object was drawn? Note that the person doing the drawing should have no contact at all with the test subjects, and the researchers who are watching the brain activity should have no idea which object was chosen. That’s called blinding! It’s usually standard procedure.

Repeat that test a dozen times, and if Gerard does better than chance (one correct guess out of twelve), you might be onto something. If he does better than, say, four out of twelve, well hot damn let’s test that guy some more. If he does better than ten out of twelve – well, that’s about what we might expect from someone claiming to have psychic powers, don’t you think? Meanwhile, if all goes according to plan, our non-psychic control schmo should regularly be hitting one out of twelve.


So with all that said, honestly it doesn’t even matter what the fMRI showed. There’s no commonly-accepted “psychic” area of the brain, and showing that Gerard was using a different part of his brain than the control schmo only suggests that the schmo was trying to guess at a geometric shape while Gerard was trying to do a magic trick.

This isn’t the first study to seek out psychic powers by looking at the brain. Sam Moulton at Harvard conducted some fascinating experiments last year, and, lucky us, he’s agreed to visit Boston Skeptics in the Pub to talk about it one week from today. That’s Monday, November 24, at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square – get the details on the Boston Skeptics web site.

8 comments to Idiots Pretend to Do Science, Get Fooled by Magician

  • TomWoolf

    What a brilliant drawing by the magician! It could be:
    – a chopped up rectangle/square
    – a bird
    – a house (overlapping shingles/siding)
    – a neighborhood
    – a downtown
    – a flag….

    Great way to maximize a possible match to the researcher’s pic.

    The guy knows his shtick!

  • Jim Shaver

    But TomWoolf, Gerard’s drawing is definitely similar (I would even agree with the term “strikingly similar”, under different circumstances) to the original drawing, and the similarity has very little to do with Gerard’s ability to be vague. As Rebecca said, he’s a magician, performing a magic trick! His drawing is similar to the original, because he secretively had a peak at the original, one way or another. That’s how the trick works — he’s not guessing.

  • IPVlazy

    OK so first of all, those pictures look nothing alike, and secondly I don’t understand why every time scientists do an experiment testing psychic powers it is always not as controlled as it should be. Maybe it is because they really really want psychics to be real when they know that it is impossible.

  • Traveler

    How you you learn anything from an fMRI study of just two people? It doesn’t matter whether you are looking for psychic powers or arithmetic skills. With just two people in a single trial you don’t know that the differences in their scans weren’t the result of one of them being distracted by thoughts of his girlfriend while the other was distracted by thoughts about lunch.

  • Chris Noble

    “…and secondly I don’t understand why every time scientists do an experiment testing psychic powers it is always not as controlled as it should be.”

    What do you mean? They controlled for the phase of the moon! That’s better controls than most scientific experiments!

    “Both the subjects were scanned on the 3 rd day of the lunar cycle and at the same time of the day (1400 hours IST) separated by a three-month interval.”

    Although the Sun was in a different star-sign

  • The Blind Watchmaker

    Hmm, the reaserchers may want to read page 28 of Corinda’s “13 Steps to Mentalism”.

  • DLC

    I’m getting an image here of a man . . . did you by any chance have a grandfather ?
    And did your grandfather wear pants ?

  • patrik.e

    I totally love that title, Rebecca! =) Anyway, TomWoolf already said what I was thinking.

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