Archive for the 'Paranormal' Category

Mar 25 2010

The Flake Equation

XKCD, a science-savvy webcomic, has a recent installment called The Flake Equation (a play on the Drake Equation which provides the formula for calculating the likely number of technological civilizations in the universe). I am now going to take his brief and elegant point and beat that horse to death.

While XKCD applies his equation to UFO sightings, it applies equally well to any paranormal or pseudoscientific phenomenon – bigfoot, ghosts, alternative medicine healings, etc. Often we are told by believers that “where there is smoke there is fire.” In other words – with so many people reporting sightings or healings, there must be something going on.

Skeptics, of course, recognize this as a fallacy. There is a major unstated premise or assumption in this position. We must ask ourselves – in a hypothetical world in which we are not and have never been visited by aliens, what would we expect in terms of sightings and experiences? Is such a world compatible with the current number and quality of sightings? I think the answer to this is a pretty clear “yes” – and that is exactly the point that XKCD is making.

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Aug 05 2009

Ghost Photo

Published by under Paranormal

3837925bThese stories crop up every now and then – someone looking through recent photos notices something odd, perhaps something that was not noticed when the picture was taken. Many people will shrug off such anomalies – weird stuff happens on pictures all the time. However, those with a certain inclination may jump on a paranormal explanation, which most likely means the photo will be presented as evidence for ghosts.

And sometimes the local news will pick up such a story, because they are suckers for that sort of thing.

The latest ghost photo flap deals with this picture (click to enlarge). Look in the upper left hand corner and you will see what appears to be the face of an old woman.

The news story is presenting this as “ghost or hoax” – a silly false dichotomy. Some of the comments to the story are buying this false dichotomy, give the old argument, “why would they lie?” – so therefore, the only other option, is that it must be a ghost.

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21 responses so far

Apr 03 2008

Levitating Frogs and Free Energy

I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in June 2005.


When I was a child some of my favorite toys were simple magnets. I was fascinated by the way they could push or pull on each other at a distance with an invisible force. It was like magic. Energy itself, all types of energy, seems like magic. Physicists, performing almost like stage magicians (nothing up their sleeves), recently delighted in showing off how they could levitate frogs using superconducting magnets.

It’s no wonder that mysterious energies play a central role in so much of the science of the weird. Many gurus and mystics claim they can heal by simply manipulating “life energy.” There is also no shortage of con artists and the self-deluded who claim they have found the secret of limitless free energy. Simply inserting the word “energy” into any claim, no matter how ridiculous, will give it the appearance of cutting-edge science.

Shortly after the discovery of electromagnetism, while it was still cutting-edge science, Anton Mesmer claimed to have discovered “animal magnetism,” a new force that he could detect and manipulate to “mesmerize” his subjects. Benjamin Franklin, considered an expert of his day in the electrical force, was asked to head a commission to investigate Mesmer, and he definitively showed the claims to be nothing but delusion.

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Apr 01 2008

The Psychics’ True Power

Published by under Paranormal

I am away this week filming the pilot for The Skeptologists. For NeuroLogica this week I am updating and editing some previous essays that I have written. This one was originally published in my Weird Science column in December 2004.


At a recent medical conference, a pharmaceutical company was offering free handwriting analysis–for “entertainment” of course. Always game, I agreed to have the depths of my personality laid bare, betrayed by the sweep of my s and the boldness of my t . To my skeptical eye, the results were laughably mundane and predictable. The reader knew, of course, that I was a physician, so it was no surprise when he “read” in my handwriting that I like science and have a desire to care for people. Wow!

But others were impressed by the apparent accuracy of their readings. The results are not dissimilar to many friends and acquaintances who have visited a local psychic, tarot card reader, or astrologer, and the many more who have seen TV psychics like John Edward and Sylvia Browne. “How do you explain this?” people ask, very impressed, convinced that something paranormal must be going on.

But like any magic trick, the real answer is far simpler than you would imagine. Psychics will continue to shout “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” while they try to dazzle their marks with fire and smoke-but once you’ve seen the man behind the curtain, the show is over.

So let’s have a peek.

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25 responses so far

Feb 15 2008

ESP for Healthcare Professionals

Most states require that health care professionals acquire continuing education (CE) credits (or continuing medical education – CME – for MD’s) in order to maintain their license. This is a good concept but unfortunately the system is completely broken. What I consider to be a minor problem with the system is that it is haphazard – professionals can get CE/CME credits essentially on random topics within their field. There is no attempt at ensuring that critical updates are part of continuing education. But as I said, this is a minor flaw.

What completely breaks the system is the absurdly low standards for what kinds of information qualify for CE credit. A professional could easily fulfill their CE requirements without having to expose themselves to any legitimate educational information. For example, nurses can get CE credits for learning how to do therapeutic touch, even though this modality has no scientific legitimacy at all. Of course the bigger problem here is that TT is used by nurses at all.

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Jan 28 2008

Uri Geller’s Confession and Human Fallibility

Uri Geller is a mentalist – a magician who uses trickery in order to simulate psychic or paranormal ability. He is a performer of modest talent – his signature trick that of bending spoons while no one is looking. But he has become an international celebrity by crossing a line most mentalists only flirt with, claiming that he performs his feats with true psychic ability and not trickery. Fellow magician, James Randi (scourge of all charlatans) has made an ongoing effort to expose Geller’s tricks for what they are, largely by reproducing them with slight of hand. As Randi says, “If Geller is using supernatural powers to perform this feat, he’s doing it the hard way.”

In an interview with me (not yet published) and in his online newsletter, Swift, Randi reported that recently, in an interview with German magazine Magische Welt (Magic World), Geller is quoted as saying:

’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer. I want to do a good show. My entire character has changed.

That is quite a revelation. Taken at face value it is a confession that all these years he has been nothing but a garden-variety mentalist and that he lied about having psychic power. I don’t know if this is the last word on the matter from Geller (he may have second thoughts about this reversal) but it confirms what skeptics and magicians have always known – it is not necessary to postulate paranormal powers in order to explain Geller’s feats.

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7 responses so far

Jan 07 2008

Looking for ESP in the Brain

A recently published study uses functional MRI to look as brain function in response to possible extra-sensory perception (ESP) stimuli. The study was negative, leading the authors to conclude:

These findings are the strongest evidence yet obtained against the existence of paranormal mental phenomena.

While that might be overstating it a bit, it was an interesting new approach to the question of ESP. Study authors, Samuel Moulton, a graduate student in the department of psychology at Harvard University, and Stephen Kosslyn, also at Harvard, decided to look for ESP in the brain by imaging subjects with fMRI during ESP and non-ESP signals. The ESP signals consisted in one trial of an emotionally close person looking at the target image and attempting to telepathically send the image to the subject, who was also looking at the image. A second trial involved a computer screen in another room with the target image (testing clairvoyance). And a third trial involved displaying the image to the subject again after the trial (testing precognition).

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Oct 30 2007

It’s Ghost Hunting Time Again

Published by under Paranormal

It’s that time of year again, the time for every newspaper and news outlet to do their obligatory Halloween story about ghosts and ghost hunting. It’s an opportunity for every amateur paranormal investigator to misrepresent science to the public, for the amateur skeptic to regurgitate a few token lines of reason, and for the grunt journalist to get their holiday fluff.

OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve been that token skeptic (and this year is no different). We skeptics collectively wring our hands, filled with angst over whether or not such token skepticism does more harm than good. The truth is, nobody knows. On the one hand, we provide at least some balance to the nonsense – perhaps we plant a seed of doubt in the occasional reader. On the other hand, we lend credibility to the bunk just by giving it our time and attention.

To my mind the real culprit here are the lazy journalists who follow the tired formula of the fluff paranormal piece. But occasionally we get lucky, we encounter a critical thinking “ringer” among the drones. Recently, I was contacted by Michael Hartwell to provide the skeptical point of view on yet another ghost hunting story. Michael is a regular listener of the SGU, so I had reason to hope the results would be better than usual, and they were. Rather than the token skepticism we are often content to accept, the article was closer to a 50/50 point-counterpoint.

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6 responses so far

Aug 06 2007

It’s A Miracle

I admit I am always bugged when I hear a news report to the effect that, “Doctors say the patient’s recovery is nothing short of miraculous.” I don’t know if more commonly reporters are introducing the term “miracle,” if they are suckering the doctors they are interviewing into using or endorsing it, or if the doctors are using the term on their own. Either way, it inaccurate and fosters misunderstanding and superstition.

Just today I received the following question from a long time NESS member, Fred Cunningham:

“The other day someone stated in letter to some publication that one proof of God was the 65 miracles at Lourdes. I have heard of medical miracles such as spontaneous remission of advanced cancer, etc. Has anyone compared the probability of a miracle at Lourdes with the natural rate of such events. I doubt that it would be higher than the natural rate and suspect that it is lower. An awful lot of people go to the place so only 65 cures seems a pretty poor result. The term ‘medical miracle’ may be a bit fuzzy, but there must be some standard set by Lourdes that can be used elsewhere. Have you ever encountered a situation that might be considered a miracle? At the college I went to, the term ‘miracle’ was defined as an event that had probability of less than one in a thousand.”

The term “miracle” implies a supernatural event, one that cannot be explained scientifically or naturalistically. It also carries a definite religious connotation, more so than “supernatural” or “paranormal.” Sometimes the term is used to refer to a low probability event. This is an unfortunate alternate definition, and I discourage its use, because it carries the implication that low probability events are inherently difficult or impossible to explain and therefore may be, or are likely to be, supernatural.
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May 15 2007

Skeptics, Paranormal Researchers, and the Shyness Effect

This past Saturday, May 12th, I was interviewed on the Beyond Reality radio show on the topic of demonic possession. The show is broadcast live from Rhode Island (WPRO 630 AM), streamed over the internet, and you can listen to the recording here. Jason and Grant, from SciFi Channel’s Ghost Hunters, host the show.

I must say, it was an enjoyable interview. Heir to the Warren’s ghost hunting legacy, John Zaffis, was also on the show, although we were interviewed separately and I never had an opportunity to debate him. Jason and Grant were very personable and respectful throughout the interview, although we disagreed on some key issues.
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