Dec 23 2013

Brain Scans and Psychics

In a trifecta of pseudoscience, Dr. Oz calls upon Dr. Amen to demonstrate (live on TV) how the Long Island Medium is real.

Where do I begin?

Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any scientific legitimacy, not to mention self-respect. He has gone from giving basic medical advice, to promoting alternative quackery, and now he is just another daytime TV sellout, gushing over psychics. With Dr. Oz, however, it is all done with a patina of science.

The Medium

Theresa Caputo is just another fake psychic doing bad cold readings before audiences that have more of a desire to believe than apparent critical thinking skills. Her performance on Dr. Oz is fairly typical – she fishes with vague and high probability guesses, working multiple people at once, who then struggle to find some connection to what she is saying.

For example, she tells one mark who is trying to connect with her father, “Your father wants to talk about  the coin collection?” This is a great vague statement. First, it is one of those statements that seems very specific, but in actuality is a high probability vague statement. Anything to do with coins can seem to be a hit, and in the fairly good chance that an older gentleman had a literal coin collection it will seem like a fantastic hit.

In this case, however, the target found a nice face-saving hit. Apparently another psychic told the same person that her father sends her “pennies from heaven.” There you go.

In another segment with Caputo she demonstrates almost a parody of terrible cold reading. She senses a father figure and a daughter figure. She says to an entire audience that someone lost a father and someone lost a daughter. She also goes out on a limb and says – something to do with the chest. Shockingly, someone from the audience steps forward. Caputo then makes two clear misses. She says that she senses the person was lost suddenly. The target clearly indicates this was not the case, at which time Caputo tries to recover by saying that – even when someone is ill, we did not expect to lose them at that exact moment. Right. She then goes for the daughter, which is also a clear miss, leading to that awkward moment when an alleged psychic so thoroughly fails that they struggle to find an escape hatch.

I also found it interesting that when asked about the brain scan test she was about to have, Caputo responded by saying that no matter what the tests show, she just wants to help people. She was seemingly pre-rationalizing for possible failure. Infer from that what you will.

Dr. Daniel Amen

Dr. Amen as made millions of dollars proving SPECT scans for a long list of diagnoses.  SPECT scans use a radioisotope to track blood flow in the brain, which can be used to infer brain activity. The problem with SPECT scan is that there is a tremendous amount of noise in brain activity so you need to be very careful about interpreting the results. There is some utility in looking for dead areas of the brain following a stroke, for example. SPECT has also been used to localize seizures (increased activity during a seizure and then decreased activity following the seizure).

Clinical use of SPECT, however, has been very limited because it is just too noisy. The test often does not have good specificity. Amen is using SPECT for a wide range of indications for which it has not been validated – we do not have data to show that the results of the test can be used to predict confirming diagnostic tests or response to treatment. But SPECT is very useful for generating pretty pictures that seem scientific and can be used to imagine any result you wish.

Harriet Hall wrote an excellent take down of Dr. Amen’s use of SPECT scans at Science-Based Medicine.

Amen has now started using SPECT and other imaging to study psychic phenomena. This is a common marriage – that between noisy and poorly validated testing and pseudoscientific phenomena.

Journey to Oz

Dr. Oz now brings it all together for his audience. He insists that he started as a “skeptic” but clearly he does not understand the first thing about scientific skepticism. The “I was a skeptic” line is just showmanship. Oz calls upon Dr. Amen, whom he calls a foremost expert in brain imaging to demonstrate how the Long Island Medium is real because his BS brain scans show something (what they show is, of course, not clear).

They can’t do a SPECT scan on stage, so they use quantitative EEG instead. This also produces pretty color-added maps of the brain showing relative activity in the different areas of the brain. They show the EEG of Caputo at rest and then while she is doing a reading. Surprise, surprise – the two EEG scans are different. She has less frontal lobe activity and more temporal lobe activity during the reading.

Amen admits this could have multiple interpretations, including simple anxiety (Caputo already admitted to being anxious, and she seemed anxious about this test). I would not even use the test to conclude she was anxious. You can’t tell anything from those scans. It’s just noise. Yet Amen confidently concludes that temporal lobe activity is evidence of spirituality and psychic power. Amen, trying to sound sage, informs us that there is more that is real than scientists believe is real.

Let me rephrase that – bullshit pseudoscience has declared many things real that legitimate science indicates probably are not real.

To summarize – Dr. Oz, acting in his role as chief promoter of pseudoscience on daytime television, calls upon a pseudoscientist to abuse a noisy brain scanning test to certify that a fake psychic is real. Oz gushes, and is a skeptic no more.

17 responses so far

17 thoughts on “Brain Scans and Psychics”

  1. BBBlue says:

    And it will forever be so. The target demo would rather believe in exciting, mystical powers that offer hope rather than the boring truth about these charlatans. Daytime TV has become a new religion, and Oz has become a modern purveyor of patent medicines.

  2. ccbowers says:

    “Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any scientific legitimacy, not to mention self-respect.”

    Fame and money are powerful motivators of rationalization for those who crave them. There is also probably something that is appealing about psuedoscience to him that aid in that rationalization.

    I do not understand why this trite and contrived narrative is so appealing to people. I am referring to the phony ‘close minded’ person (i.e. the ‘skeptic’ – those interested in good evidence), who is shown that he/she is wrong with nonsense evidence, and then he/she then becomes a ‘believer’ once they ‘allow’ themselves to believe.

    Its absurd, and almost always completely misrepresents the actual situations and facts. Yet, if ratings are any indication, many people find that idea very appealing. Perhaps it is an extrapolation of the underdog appeal- a way to show apparent know-it-alls that they don’t know it all.

  3. BKHawkeye says:

    Thank you for debunking this. “The Long Island Medium” is obviously a fraud, though sometimes you wonder if people of her ilk actually believe what they are doing is real. Dr. Amen is at worst a fraud. At best, he’s just deeply mistaken about the “evidence” an EEG will show when someone is engaging in a cognitive process, mostly because it conforms to his own beliefs. Perhaps he feels he has the right conclusion (that psychic abilities are real) and is just looking for evidence that correlates with it, even at a minute level. I’m no scientist, but I always thought one arrives at their conclusion AFTER the evidence (or lack thereof) has been examined. No one has demonstrated that psychic abilities exist.

    But Dr. Oz should know better. His promotion of this kind of schlock can be harmful to many who don’t seek out science-based solutions to their problems. Is there a point where you can start putting “Dr.” in quotes, or is someone entitled to that prefix for the rest of their life?

    I would say that you are doing God’s work when you debunk this huckster, but I also try not to acknowledge things that show no evidence of existing in the first place. I hope you understand the sentiment, regardless.

  4. ccbowers says:

    Of course good science and skepticism is not about ‘know-it-alls.’ If done correctly it is the opposite – it emphasizes humility in the knowledge we currently have, and what information we can extrapolate from the information we currently have. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t prefer the most likely of explanations, nor that we shouldn’t rule out the nonsense.

  5. steve12 says:

    How do we get the media to stop featuring charlatans? Some of it is purposefully exploitive, of course, and I’d put this example in that camp. But Daniel Amen is on PBS. You needn’t go too far to find out that Amen is not considered a real scientist or brain imager, but it seems to far for most of the media.

  6. steve12 says:

    or too far….

  7. Davdoodles says:

    They could have improved on the trifecta and made it a quad-fecta or whatever, by getting Oz to get Amen to get Caputo to prove that Santie-Clause exists.

    Seasonally appropriate and scientifically just as sound.

  8. Davdoodles says:

    “Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any scientific legitimacy, not to mention self-respect.”

    Australia’s last great larrikin Prime Minister (and a hell of an orator, particularly of acerbic put-downs), one said to Richard Carlton (who left a decent journalistic career with the ABC – Australia’s public broadcaster- like PBS maybe) to work on 60 Minutes’ odious Aussie franchise:

    “You had an important place in Australian society on the ABC and you gave it up to be a pop star…with a big cheque…and now you’re on to this sort of stuff. That shows what a 24 carat pissant you are, Richard, that’s for sure.”

  9. BillyJoe7 says:

    That was Paul Keating of course.
    Unfortunately, no youtube video.

    But here is the previous PM, Bob Hawke, giving it to the same interviewer:

  10. TBruce says:

    The “I was a skeptic” line is just showmanship.

    Dr. Mehmet “Reki-Masters-in-the-OR” Oz claims to have been a skeptic?

    Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaahahaha…(ad infinitum)

  11. locutusbrg says:

    The long island medium actually makes me angry. When I see her tell this family that list a child that the child is here yet she gets things wrong about the child. She is a disgusting vampire who feeds on death, and misery. I don’t know why more than any other bs peddler she infuriates me.

  12. Media has to make money somehow, they will try and push anything down our throat.

  13. The problem is that the only individuals who take this sort of thing seriously are (a) not very intelligent people and (b) the amateur sceptical community.

  14. BillyJoe7 says:

    Well, Will, it seems you’ve taken it seriously enough to not only read the article but also comment on it.
    So back on you. (;

  15. Time would be spent addressing pseudo scientific claims where intelligent people may be mislead. Complaining about every bozo who shows up on TV or in a newspaper article is a waste of effort. It might make the amateur skeptic feel clever and self important, but at the end of the day you’re shooting fish in a barrel.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:

    Maybe your time would be better spent on improving your language skills, but far be it for me to tell you how to spend your time….and back at you with that. (;

  17. JRock says:

    Dr. Novella, a side request if I may

    forgive my lack of citation and spelling, but I think you’ll find this a familiar topic.

    can you speak to the validity of radioactive sucrose scans used by Dr. Robert Haire to reveal psychopathology in the brain. he seems to provide decent evidence that dramatically differing scans, presupposing a typical brain vs. that of a psychopath’s, reveal some fundamental symptoms of the disorder.

    I ask this in reference to the subject matter of a forensic psych class in witch we studied Without Conscience. we discussed the neuropathology present in the disorder and generally took Haire’s work as valid. I believe the work is indeed peer-reviewed but I’ve been delving into your blog and would be most interested in your insight on the matter.

    hoping this rings a bell,


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