July 18, 2003

No Atheists?, Psychic Rejection in Denmark, Psychology vs. Parapsychology, 1928 ESP Test Bombs, A JREF ESP Test, and More on Manek.

A mystery writer, Nevada Barr, though her featured detective character is an avowed atheist named Anna Pigeon, has just found God, and covers the discovery in her new book, "Seeking Enlightenment . . . Hat by Hat." Along the way, she comes up with the usual claims that seem to soften the blush she must experience. Example:

I don't think there's any such thing as a true atheist. It's more that anything you're told doesn't make sense, so you just sort of bumble along assuming there's no cohesive higher power . . . even if there's one that occasionally will throw an earthquake your way.

That's really difficult to respond to, because it assumes thought processes and emotional needs and directions that the writer thinks everyone has. I am certainly a "true" atheist. I'm not "proud" of it, because I didn't work hard to get that way, and my brain simply forced it on me. There's lots of stuff around that doesn't make sense to me, but I'm making headway; twenty years ago, it was a bigger supply of non-sense. I don't bumble at all, and I assume very little. There's loads of "cohesive" power all around me, higher or not. This is just a gross assumption by Ms. Barr, and I think she's just plain wrong. I also think she didn't find enlightenment, but darkening. Her collapse into the comfortable world of pretend and delusion, leaving a rational and real world, must have brought about a certain regret; this descent into complacency has its price.

I'm also struck by the hugely egotistical concept that is expressed here by Ms. Barr when it's perceived that a powerful deity actually goes out of its way to work up a geological upheaval — one that had to be planned and timed eons ago! — to express its vengeance and displeasure to her and to her community. No, Ms. Barr, that earthquake was the result of thousands of years of building pressure, and masses of rock and magma sloshing about until it finally broke loose, moved about, and made the neighborhood tremble and heave. It's what we brights call, "nature." Nothing personal about it, at all, though that may disappoint you.

This tirade was brought about because I'm tired of being looked upon as some sort of aberration, one of those warts, a freak who doesn't fit this world, someone who doesn't understand Pastor Ashcroft and his prayer-meetings. I'm a bright...

The "X-windows" matter handled here last week resulted in the photo shown here, being sent in to us. It shows reflections from two adjacent windows, one of the double-glazed sort that produces the X in cold weather, and the other a double-pane with the seal between broken...

Reader Thomas Kowal Andersen, in Denmark, writes:

A most terrible thing has happened here in Denmark. A twelve-year-old girl was reported missing, and everybody feared the worst. And the worst happened. The police found the girl abused, strangled, and buried in a park.

This could be an opportunity for a psychic to really make a difference, not that there was any lack of suggestions from them. The leader of the police investigation, vice-detective superintendent Poul B. Andersen said, in the Danish newspaper B.T.:

We have gotten many serious calls that we are currently dealing with. In addition to these were eleven calls from psychic women and clairvoyants, but if we had concentrated our investigation on their "visions," we wouldn't have found her body at all.

The body of Mia was found by a specially trained dog. The police didn't mention whether the dog is psychic, but I have a hunch that that's not the case. All these psychics really clutter up the real investigations with their nonsense visions. The perpetrator of this horrible crime will be found, but it will as usual be because of an investigation of the clues left at the crime scene.

That's quite typical, Thomas. I'm happy to see that the police superintendent there had the good sense to depend on proper police work, and not on wielders of crystal balls and Tarot cards. Yes, it sounds as if forensics and regular methods is a logical way to go, but we know of many police departments all over the world that turn to dowsing rods and local fortune-tellers when they need clues...

From "How to Think Straight About Psychology," a book by Keith E. Stanovich, Professor of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto, I offer you this set of observations on the sorts of materials available to the public, and how that can tend to detract from the reputation of the science of psychology...

Psychology and Parapsychology

The second class of material found in most stores might be called pseudoscience masquerading as psychology, that is, the seemingly never-ending list of so-called paranormal phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, precognition, reincarnation, biorhythms, astral projection, pyramid power, plant communication, and psychic surgery. The presence of a great body of this material in the psychology sections of bookstores undoubtedly contributes to, and also reflects, the widespread misconception that psychologists are the people who have confirmed the existence of such phenomena. There is a bitter irony for psychology in this misconception. In fact, the relationship between psychology and the paranormal is easily stated. These phenomena are simply not an area of active research interest in modern psychology. The reason, however, is a surprise to many people.

The statement that the study of ESP and other paranormal abilities is not accepted as part of the discipline of psychology will undoubtedly provoke the ire of many readers. Surveys have consistently shown that more than 50 percent of the general public believes in the existence of such phenomena and often holds these beliefs with considerable fervor. Historical studies and survey research have suggested why these beliefs are held so strongly (Alcock, 1987; Bainbridge & Stark, 1980; Grimmer, 1992; Stanovich, 1989). A materialist culture tends to weaken the traditional religious beliefs of many people, who then seek some other form of transcendental outlet. Like most religions, many of the so-called paranormal phenomena seem to promise things such as life after death, and for some people, they serve the same need for transcendence. It should not be surprising, then, that the bearer of the bad tidings that research in psychology does not validate ESP, is usually not greeted with enthusiasm. The statement that psychology does not consider ESP a viable research area invariably upsets believers and often provokes charges that psychologists are dogmatic in banishing certain topics from their discipline. Psychologists do not contribute to public understanding when they throw up their hands and fail to deal seriously with these objections. Instead, psychologists should give a careful and clear explanation of why such objections are ill founded. What follows is that explanation.

Randi comments: I have long maintained that legitimate scientists have a duty to provide opinions based on real science, when asked by the media for their comments. The late Carl Sagan was an excellent example of that sort of responsibility in practice; he did a fine job of representing science in the media, and he did not adopt the easier attitude that these were matters below the examination of serious researchers. Mind you, I've not suggested that a scientist should spend too much of his/her time on such activities, but there is, I believe, a basic responsibility that should be accepted by academe, a duty to at least give an informed opinion. Professor Stanovich continues:

Scientists do not determine by edict which topics to investigate. No proclamation goes out declaring what can and cannot be studied. Areas of investigation arise and are expanded or terminated according to a natural selection process that operates on ideas and methods. Those that lead to fruitful theories and empirical discoveries are taken up by a large number of scientists. Those that lead to theoretical dead ends or that do not yield replicable or interesting observations are dropped. This natural selection of ideas and methods is what leads science closer to the truth.

The reason that ESP, for example, is not considered a viable topic in contemporary psychology is simply that its investigation has not proved fruitful. Therefore, very few psychologists are interested in it. It is important here to emphasize the word contemporary, because the topic of ESP was of greater interest to psychologists some years ago, before the current bulk of negative evidence had accumulated. As history shows, research areas are not declared invalid by governing authorities; they are merely winnowed out in the competing environment of ideas.

Randi comments: To forestall any accusation that Stanovich is saying here that the fact that an investigation is "dropped" is proof that the claim is false, I'll add that a "dead end" proves no such thing, and certainly calls for further, different, approaches rather than denial of the idea. Absence of evidence is never evidence of absence. At the JREF, we doggedly pursue applicants until they either just prove so difficult and evasive that we can't handle them, or they drop out of the discussion. We don't even try to show that their claim is false; they fail to prove that it's true.

ESP was never declared an invalid topic in psychology. The evidence of this fact is clear and publicly available (Alcock, 1990; Druckman & Swets, 1988; Hyman, 1996; Milton & Wiseman, 1999). Many papers investigating ESP have appeared in legitimate psychological journals over the years. Parapsychologists who thrive on media exposure like to give the impression that the area is somehow new, thus implying that startling new discoveries are just around the corner. The truth is much less exciting.

The study of ESP is actually as old as psychology itself. It is not a new area of investigation. It has been as well studied as many of the currently viable topics in the psychological literature. The results of the many studies that have appeared in legitimate psychological journals have been overwhelmingly negative. After more than 90 years of study, there still does not exist one example of an ESP phenomenon that is replicable under controlled conditions. This simple but basic scientific criterion has not been met despite dozens of studies conducted over many decades. Many parapsychologists and believers themselves are even in agreement on this point (Alcock, 1981, 1990; Druckman & Swets, 1998; Krippner, 1977). For this reason alone, the topic is now of little interest to psychology.

Randi: That's not to say that for a given period of time scientists may not be captivated by a notion of some wunderkind who shows up on the horizon. Performer Uri Geller was the subject of much media attention back in the '70s, and many scientists could be found who were at least tentatively convinced that there was something genuine there that needed looking into; much of their conviction was based on the status of those who had accepted the spoon-bending and other demos as good evidence, not on their actual personal experience of the phenomena. The scales fell from their eyes when others pointed out the hyperbole and misconstruction — often innocent — of the descriptions of the performances. At this time in history, the "7-day-wonder" is often a 7-year-wonder, but transient, in any case, when things settle out. Today it would be difficult to find a scientist who still accepts the wunderkinder of earlier days, though the hoi polloi often seem impervious to the influence of better and different data. Stanovich continues:

It is sometimes mistakenly suggested that scientists deny the existence of such phenomena because they violate currently accepted theories of nature. From our discussion of the scientific process in Chapters 1 and 2, it should be clear that this claim is false. All scientists are in the business of overturning currently accepted theories of nature, for it is only by changing and refining our current views, while maintaining, of course, the connectivity principle, that we can hope to get nearer the truth. When a new phenomenon contradicts currently accepted knowledge, scientists question it and seek alternative explanations for it. But this is not the reason that psychologists do not believe in the existence of ESP. The reason is simpler. There is just no scientific evidence for it. In short, there is no demonstrated phenomenon that needs scientific explanation (Alcock, 1981, 1984, 1990; Hines, 1988; Humphrey, 1996; Hyman, 1992, 1996; Milton & Wiseman, 1999).

And now the irony. Psychologists have played a prominent role in attempts to assess claims of paranormal abilities. The importance of their contribution is probably second only to that of the professional magicians, who have clearly done the most to expose the fraudulent nature of most purported demonstrations of paranormal abilities (Randi, 1980, 1987). Three of the most important books on the state of the evidence on paranormal abilities were written by psychologists: James Alcock of York University, in Canada, 1990; C.E.M. Hansel of the University of Swansea in Wales, 1980; and David Marks and Richard Kammann of the University of Otago in New Zealand, 1980).

The irony, then, is obvious. Psychology, the discipline that has probably contributed most to the accurate assessment of ESP claims, is the field that is most closely associated with such pseudosciences in the public mind. Psychology suffers greatly from this guilt-by-association phenomenon. As will be discussed in greater detail later, psychology is often the victim of a "double whammy." Here is just one example. The assumption that anything goes in psychology, that it is a field without scientific mechanisms for deciding among knowledge claims, leads to its being associated with pseudosciences such as ESP. However, if psychologists ever become successful in getting the public to recognize these pseudosciences for what they really are, the pseudosciences' association with psychology will be seen as confirmation that psychology is indeed not a science!

I would differ with Professor Stanovich's designation of "ESP" as a pseudoscience. It is, rather, a postulated phenomenon of parapsychology. If Stanovich is referring to parapsychology as a pseudoscience, I disagree. It has all the structure and appearance of any other science, and must be respected as such. The fact that differentiates it from other sciences is largely that it has no history of successful experiments upon which to base conclusions.

Let me illustrate for you, as I frequently do for my lecture audiences, how I see that lack of supporting structure. Suppose we adopt, as a time-line, the image of a road coming from over the horizon behind us, and pointing straight ahead. This is our progress in science, bordered on each side by structures representing the significant events and discoveries that have been made in science. Looking over our shoulders, we can see, just a bit back on the road, a building that represents Digital Technology; workers are scrambling over the very substantial structure, adding to it and refining its parameters, while traffic in and out is unimpeded. Just a bit farther back, the Quantum Physics building looms, rather dark and mysterious, but prominent and stable. Much further back, we can see the Newton block, well-lit and landscaped. Well out of our sight but well-tended and firmly founded, is the Galileo edifice. All of that leads up to the roadway on which we stand, which, as with other edifices back there like the General Relativity bunker, is constantly being patched, repaired, and maintained by an ever-busy crew.

On each side of the firm, level, road, at the spot we find ourselves occupying right now on our journey, construction is under way on a beautiful but strangely-shaped shop humming away with occupants poring over weird diagrams. That's the Human Genome square. Adjacent is the busy Hubble quarter, processing endless images to discover secrets of great portent. Just ahead, the Nanotechnology Center is taking form on its foundation, slowly but confidently. And other fuzzy, poorly-defined but substantial excavations amid stacks of construction materials are to be seen in tantalizing profusion. The structures behind are firm and well-maintained; they support what we presently experience and are subject to change and the admission of more and better data.

Contrast this with the equivalent symbolic road that serves Parapsychology. On this rather winding and narrow road, pitted with potholes and poorly paved, we see next to us brave structures like Meta-Analysis and Gut Feelings, hastily assembled from scraps and with no foundations, rather sagging and in imminent danger of collapse. Behind the traveler on this road there are no structures still standing; only the tumbled ruins and smoking, burned-out frames of discredited and abandoned theories and paradigms can be seen. Just visible, far back, is the Fox Sisters mansion, deserted and moldering away. That's the Geller structure just a bit back there, built out of bent spoons; a light is on in one window, but it flickers. And ahead of us on this muddy road we discern only darkness, cold, and dense fog. The road dips away steeply and it has a bumpy, slippery, surface. No foundations are being prepared, only a few brave souls are seated drafting building plans at the roadside, and they mumble and fret as their main occupation. We note that baskets of rose-colored glasses are offered for the use of the travelers...

Forgive my diversion, one I could not resist...

What Professor Stanovich is asking of us, is to not tarnish the psychologists with the peccadillos of the parapsychologists; these are two very different sciences. The former has a rich list of confirming and supportive experiments, the latter has none except for the popular miracle-of-the-moment. In the same breath, I'll assure my readers that there are indeed responsible and capable parapsychologists; those are the ones who have no positive work to report...

Reader John Ruch of Boston, Massachusetts, wrote us about an ESP test held way back when I was just twelve days old. Now what are the chances of that? No, please don't answer...

This is the sort of test that is poorly — and amateurishly — designed and conducted, and which proves essentially nothing. Remember that media people are usually educated in the humanities, not in science. Writes John:

I was recently reading through old editions of the New York Times on microfilm and came across a story showing that the history of on-air telepathy tests has always been a sorry one.

The Aug. 19, 1928 issue of the Times carried the story "Bad Guesses Mark Telepathy Tests." It described the second annual "radio telepathy test" held at the studios of 3LO in Melbourne, Australia. The test consisted of three "testers" sitting in the radio studio concentrating on the following items, in order: an ashtray, a ball of twine, a pair of scissors, a paper clip, a flashlight and a pair of headphones. The identity of the items was not announced on the air, only that a series of objects was being concentrated on. "Hundreds of thousands" of listeners were to participate by also concentrating, writing down their impressions, and mailing them to the studio.

The Times reported that, "Many of the participants are said to have missed the point of the test and instead of concentrating on the objects supplied gave descriptions of scenes and past events. Others dealt with the political situation and news items in the papers and the recent transpacific [sic] flight." [Probably a reference to the Charles Kingsford-Smith flight, California to Australia, in June of 1928.]

Those who understood the test did not fare much better: "One person visualized an ash tray but placed it as the fifth object. No one mentioned the ball of twine, but several saw coiled string and one a ball of wool. The third object, the scissors, was mentioned by 160 people, but only one placed it in the correct position. A New South Wales listener visualized the electric flashlight, but no one mentioned a paper clip or headphones, the fourth and sixth objects."

Finally, the Times also provided information on what listeners did "visualize."

"The most popular objects seen were books, vases, coins, flowers, pencils, watches, clocks, pipes, knives, spoons, scissors, umbrellas, glasses, bowls, walking sticks, apples, brooches, buttons, animals (mostly cats), cards, chairs, cigarettes, photographs, matches, combs, fans, bottles, ink, bells, spectacles [and] thimbles. Several men saw glasses of ale, and perfume figured largely on the women's lists."

Comments John, "I visualize no change in the results of such tests all these years later...."

Well, this Australian test had an almost infinite target pool, so it was impossible to properly evaluate. And I must tell you something: the JREF test that follows here was worked up on the morning of Sunday, July 13th, before I'd read John's news item, yet two of the objects that I'd selected by finger-stabbing in randomly chosen books, turned out to be on my limited target pool, as you'll see! Oooooh!

The "Remote Viewing" locker here at the JREF, pictured a few weeks ago, now holds an object. We invite you all, psychic or not, to make a guess — or a divination! — of which of the following 25 articles in the list, it is. That makes it a "forced-choice" test, one for which no complex analysis is required, and for which the statistics can be accurately determined. And as promised, I give you now the cipher that will identify which one of these it actually is. That's necessary so that I may not simply change the choice to avoid having "winners." Cipher: 0-375-40741-3, 1357-49. The de-ciphering procedure, I'm sure you'll agree when it's revealed, will convince you that there were not multiple choices available to me. I will use this sort of cipher for all the objects used, which will be changed every four weeks. That means the present target will be replaced on August 10th. Decipherment will only be done after we terminate this series of tests, probably after about six targets have been used. The target pool will remain the same, and each target will be replaced after use, so that a duplicate use of any target is a possibility.

The list — the target pool — is alphabetical. One object, the actual target, is chosen by a random means. If you make a guess, please send that as the only content of your message, aside from a zero-to-ten estimate of your own psychic powers, to randi@randi.org. We will report the success rate obtained by readers as each target is changed.

It will be interesting to see what happens, and to see if those who have confidence in their powers do better than those who do not...! The list:

Bar of soap, wrapped
Barbie doll
Bicycle pump
Box of facial tissues
Can of soup
Deodorant stick
Empty bottle
Finger ring
Five-dollar bill
Floppy disk
Furniture spray
Icecube tray
Picture frame
Telephone cable, modular
Toy airplane
Toy gun

We'll not get into discussions of the validity or design of the protocol of this test right now, though we'll be willing to learn from your observations.

From reader Urvish Kothari comes this note dealing with the story last week of the Indian chap who insisted that NASA was studying his wonderful power, called "hrm," to survive on sunlight. I had to insert spaces into Mr. Manek's response to make it readable:

Dear Sir, I wrote to Mr. Manek, regarding his claim & NASA's ignorance. This is what he had to say in reply:

thanks and i am shortly filing my hrm phenomina to nasa and many times certain things are kept secret as they are delicate and interest of all concerned is to be safeguarded. I will be interviewed by bbc world services on 14th july at orlando I cannot disclose further till i file my hrm phenomina to nasa. BBC found out the details they wanted. On my part i cannot make disclosures or tell the names of concerned people till things go through safely. thanks hrm

Thanks you, Mr. Kothari. This is the usual answer we get when we ask "psychics" or other miraculous persons to show us the FBI, CIA, or DOD references they quote. All very secret, don'tcha know...? In passing, I'll just say that I have to wonder if anyone is watching Mr. Manek to see that he doesn't use room service or wander out to the local Kentucky Fried Chicken in the wee hours while he's here...

Two weeks ago, I ran a notice that Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, both of Sacramento, California, worked on the definition of the noun "bright" to define a person who depends on evidence, reason, and logic, for decision-making — as opposed to dogma, superstition, and mythology, that is. I ran a pair of photos on the page, and have been told that the one of Paul Geisert was not of the Paul Geisert involved. Mea culpa. Here's what the proper Paul looks like, and I offer my apologies. Google deceived me...

For up-to-date data on all sorts of phenomena that might be looked upon as supernatural or UFO-related, visit http://www.spaceweather.com/ and keep track of what's really going onů!

Finally, this news item...

ROME (Reuters) — Farmers are resisting an order by Piedmont region in north Italy to destroy almost 400 hectares of maize fields thought to contain genetic material, and may take the matter to court, farm officials said on Monday.

Damn! That DNA stuff is just everywhere!

How better to close this week than with a contribution from our favorite witch...?