I like James Randi, a lot. He has had a rough year, and I wish him well – and I have long supported the JREF, despite endless objections to some of Randi’s videos. Long time readers of this blog will recall my annoyance, near apoplexy, at woo in the Nazareth Never Existed one, and his sceptical piece on man-made global warming (strongly suggesting he did not believe in it) shocked me, but hell I guess it’s good to question. If a difference of opinion with another sceptic OR parapsychologist stopped me talking to them, and far more importantly, listening and learning from them, I’d be both ignorant and friendless.
The JREF staff I have spoken to over the years have been unfailingly polite and helpful, despite my tendency towards accepting some “paranormal” beliefs, and my strong commitment to investigating these issues scientifically. I’m particularly a fan of the JREF forum, where I have made many friends, and can promise that though there are some acerbic and rather strident critics there, there are also some excellent sceptics, critics and thinkers. I learn a lot there. I have respect for DJ Grothe and Phil Plait, who have both been JREF Presidents, and usually enjoy my reading there.
However, often the JREF videos can be wrong, or misleading. Today I finally saw this years Pigasus awards, ofter spotting a mention on the SPR Facebook page, and went and watched it. The Pigasus Awards are basically Ig Nobel Prizes for the worst in some paranormal, psychic or parapsychological related field, a mock honour that highlights the worst out there. And I tend to actually be pretty pleased with some of the choices, and irritated by others. There is a good wikipedia page on the Pigasus Awards
Anyway this years Awards make for fun viewing, so here they are
Video (c) JREF 2012.
Now, the bit I have a problem with this year is the awarding of the Pigasus for Science to Daryl Bem for his work on habituative presentiment, that infamous study I wrote about a few weeks back – if you have no idea what I am on about best read that first. Given I don’t actually believe in psi, and find it hard to see how it can work — though clearly there would be vast adaptive advantage in precognition if such a thing could exist, so yes in evolutionary terms it would make sense — why am I so irritated?
Listen to the speech again.
“The winner of the Pigasus Award for Science is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research which has been discredited on many accounts, by prominent critics, such as Drs. Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, and Chris French.”
I had not actually read Steven Novella’s piece before today, but I do in my previous piece refer to the research he cites — Wagenmakers et al (2011) — and link to it and Bem’s response. I am curious as to why Novella was mentioned rather than Wagenmakers here, and even more striking omission is that while two of the researchers who performed the recent failed replication of Bem’s experiment are mentioned, Stuart J Ritchie the other author does not get a mention at all. I have seen lots of theoretical criticisms of Bem’s work – here is an interesting thread on the JREF Forum, and here is Bare Normality’s recent blog post. However to me the most important critique remains that of those who have like Galak & Nelson and Ritchie, French & Wiseman actually replicated the experiments. As I commented in my last piece on spin in science and the Bem affair, there have of course also been successful replications.
Now the use of the word shoddy to describe Bem’s work is to me highly unfair, given that Wagenmakers critique, if correct, is that the methods used by almost all social scientists and lots of “hard” scientists too for dealing with probability are flawed, and these are inherent issues in our statistical methodologies. I’m not going to get involved in a discussion of Frequentist versus Bayesian analysis, because I’m not qualified to do so — but if Wagenmaker’s et als critique as put forward by Novella is correct then it is a common and widespread issue effecting a centuries research across the sciences, not something specific to Bem. How is that shoddy? I don’t know if it is correct – Bem has responded, and I encourage interested parties to go back and read the papers and discussion, which are linked in my last piece. The use of the word “shoddy” however really needs some justification.
Let’s move on. Randi continues –
“such examination, shows very strange methods used by Bem, which ends up unproven, though the popular media of course have chosen to embrace it.”
I have seen some suggestions of methodological flaws, which I linked above, but the paper was published in a major peer reviewed journal and has generally been positively commented upon by many of those who have like myself been through the paper looking for such flaws to explain the bizarre results. As anyone who has read my last piece knows, I am dismayed by the media spin: but plenty of popular science magazines have also reported on the affair, and the failed replications.
The biggest problem is if strange methods were used by Bem, the same software, and the same methods have been used in the failed replications. So why did they fail? A failed replication speaks far more to me than all the theoretical objections folks have raised, and is no real scandal. People do research, get funny results, others try to replicate and if replication fails we then start to try and work out what the hell is going on. Now in this case Dr Richard Wiseman is maintaining a “file drawer” registry of replications, and will publish a meta-analysis later in the year or next, which will finally clarify what exactly the experiments say. I have plenty of time for French, Ritchie and Wiseman — but this assassination of character by implication and slur just annoys me.
The truth is Bem performed perfectly good science, and while the media hype that followed was a bit odd, over the top and regrettable, he will be vindicated or be proven wrong by perfectly good, and normal, scientific methods. The Pigasus Award seems to be an attempt to place Bem’s research firmly in the pseudoscience camp; I think that is manifestly unfair. I can’t see Ritchie, Wiseman and French condoning this, and have drawn it their attention: all it does is widen the gap between parapsychologists and their intelligent critics, and it’s simply misleading. It does also make those who bothered like the above British team to replicate and seriously take on Bem on the issue look like fools.
And here is the thing: Randi appears to think that Bem’s work is worthy as a Pigasus because it can’t be right. He has made an a priori assumption it will not be vindicated (as have I to some extent, I just don’t claim to know that until the evidence is in, it’s simply a personal prejudice…) but by the award of the Piagsus he goes much further, belittling Bem for taking the subject seriously enough to research it.
Randi seems to think he knows what science contains, and psi is clearly absurd. He ridicules those who use science to investigate these issues – if they happen to disagree with his prejudice, while praising those like Wiseman and French (and the not-to-be-mentioned Ritchie) who use exactly the same methodologies, yet find results he personally finds acceptable. This is not uncommon in an ideological struggle like the parapsychologicalist-believers versus sceptic struggle has been since the days of William James at least, but it is ultimately far more damaging and dangerous to real scientific inquiry than Bem’s research. Science asks questions, tests them, and falsifies hypotheses — and is conducted not by sneering and cheap shots, but by hard work and real research.
As usual the Daily Grail beat me to the story, and did it better, but anyway, enough. As usual, it is science that is the victim here, and the war of spin continues…
UPDATE: Just saw that Stuart J Ritchie one of the authors of the failure to replicate experiment wrote on Twitter “Should put it on record that I think James Randi giving Bem the Pigasus award is unfair, unhelpful and disappointing.”
I agree totally.
OK, a very quick post. I don’t know anything about stage psychic Sally Morgan, apart from having once seen her name on a poster. I looked her up on Wikipedia, and there was not much to say: she has received criticism for having lied about not previously knowing a Big Brother star she did a reading for, but replied she did it because “the director told her to”. Anyone who has ever worked in TV knows how easy it is to be inadvertently misrepresented or be set up, and how much the pressure is to comply — and how selective editing can make you look daft or dishonest. While I am as everyone probably knows by now no fan of mediumship, and automatically assume that celebrity psychics (with one strong possibility of an exception) are probably frauds or self deluding, well it’s hard to feel she was really deliberately deceiving there. Of course the SPR would probably say “caught cheating”, and break off any further investigation of her, as that was the historic rule, but I don’t think Sally Morgan is the type to step forward for controlled tests somehow.
Anyway Sally makes dodgy psychic TV shows that are the kind of thing I despise, along with the whole celebrity medium thing. “The problem with TV mediums if they are neither rare nor well done” — and they should be burned at the steak…
I woke up this morning to find Richard Wiseman tweeting about her being caught out; given it’s Richard, I have to obviously disagree. I am hampered by my almost total lack of knowledge of the facts of the case, but let’s face it that won’t stop anyone else having an opinion, including big name defenders of mediumship and big name sceptics. So in my obscurity I feel perfectly justified in speculating without all the facts, and Sherlock can slink off to Baker Street today and enjoy his 7% solution!
Yet, I have to question everything, including this…
How Sally Met Infamy
OK, briefly: she is doing a stage psychic show in a packed theatre, giving readings to the crowd. Everyone enjoys the first half. Then in the second half, a man’s voice is heard coming from the back of the room, through a window, and what the voice says, Sally says! This came to attention when RTE Liveline an Irish chat show ran a piece and several callers who heard the voices rang in. So let’s start there…
The whole thing came to light on Joe Duffy’s excellent show on RTE. Of the callers who rang in, two heard the mysterious voice coming from the projection room. They appear totally convinced of what they heard, and while they could be lying, why would they bother? No, I think the testimony may well be true. But as a sceptic I will question even that. Still it’s bloody convincing – here is the RTE Liveline show link…
The accounts are it seems pretty clear. Still ,let’s see what the Irish Independent has to say on the story! Their piece is pretty good, and well worth reading.
But the plot thickens, for an explanation is herein offered for what supposedly happened. The voices were real, but of theatre techs talking?
Stephen Faloon, the theatre’s general manager, last night denied anything underhand was going on and said the voice heard by the audience belonged to two ‘follow-spot operators’ working for the theatre, and not Ms Morgan.
“These two guys, Stuart McKeown and Mick Skelly, are professional light technicians who were working for us, and unfortunately because a window had been left open, were heard talking.
“But as soon an usherette heard them talking, and informed her supervisor, the window closed and the talking stopped.
“It was a slight distraction but that was the chain of events on Sunday night.”
The theatre stressed it would “never be a part of any scam”, or attempt to “mislead” its audience.
So says the Irish Independent. It seems entirely reasonable, the only thing I am surprised by is the naming of the two lighting techs – and I wonder if they will give statements at some point. Normally the theatre would juts say “staff members” in my experience, but the techs have been identified, the whole thing seems to be explained. Well maybe?
Yet Sue and Dorrie are absolutely clear this is not what they heard – they heard a voice saying things before they were said on stage, and many others heard it too. Sue even suggests the modus operandi- plants in the foyer relating what was heard there as psychic information to sally over a radio link.
Well if so, it does mean that all the people over the years who have accused Sally of Cold-Reading were wrong — she is actually Hot-Reading, using fraudulently obtained information. My first thought was that the Theatre managers account was entirely plausible – because as a sceptic I know how often human testimony can be mistaken, and the voice was a soft one we are told by Dorrie. Did they really hear two techs having a discussion, with a window simply left open cos it was so hot, and the annoyed usherette closed it gently for that reason? As the audience became concerned , if only a few words matched what was said on stage, then they could misheard and Sally be convinced of cheating — but is this what happened?
The issue for me as a sceptic is that I must be as critical of witness testimony that appears to debunk the paranormal claims as that which supports it. All too often sceptics fail this first test of objectivity. The witnesses COULD be wrong. Certainly they seem to have all discussed it and developed a pretty good theory as to the methodology: though perhaps not a method well known to the general public for psychic style scams, what they outline is a variant of one of the most famous exposes of all, that of Peter Popoff by James Randi. Watch this…
The method is known, has been used, and works pretty well, as we can see. It is also after “cold reading” the most popular suggested method for how psychic stage scams work. I still have my doubts though, for exactly this reason. It is so well known, and so easy to detect, that you really would have to be pretty crap to employ it. It relies on theatres and some of their staff being potentially aware and complicit in the set up, and those people never coming forward and denouncing the whole thing as a fraud. In this internet age where pretty much anyone could post anonymously, and upload video clips and recordings of the fraud as it happened, I’m surprised it hasn’t if this method is being employed extensively as often suggested.
My Tentative Hypothesis…
I am on record as saying that one does not even have to assume fraud to explain naturally enough celebrity psychic acts, though I’m sure fraud features in many. I believe psychics learn a language, a way of talking and expressing ideas, quite naturally, and that language actually includes many of the “cold reading” methods. I think it was Tanya Lurhmann’s superb Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1989) that first alerted me to this possibility. Her PhD thesis published by Harvard the book gives an account of how she carried out research in to British witches, and learned how they learned to be witches by developing interpretative frameworks and language codes that build up and support their religious beliefs. I had been observing how the Christian Union at my university had a set of linguistic tools and expressions that performed theological and analytical work for them automatically, and had wondered if they were expressions of heuristic short-cuts; I later observed how sceptic groups also build their own linguistic communities,and protect their beliefs by similar devices. I think every sub-culture does it – we all do it. I can talk sceptic, talk Christian Union, talk parapsychologist, and talk roleplaying games geek. I probably can not talk medium very well though…
Years later I read Prof Robin Woofitt’s work on Conversation Analysis of Paranormal types, especially two books,The Language of Mediums and Psychics; the Social Organization of Everyday Miracles (2006) and Telling Tales of the Unexpected: The Organization of Factual Discourse (1992) and a couple of shorter but brilliant articles by him. Woofitt is not investigating of the paranormal claims are actually true, but how the organization of ordinary language conversation works, and in doing so I believe he shows ways in which even people who are not in nay sense remotely psychic could certainly come to believe they are, and learn linguistic methods (some similar to cold reading) that would certainly convince them and others of that. I’m not saying all psychics are fakes or deluded at all: but I certainly believe a lot are, and Woofitt has provided invaluable guidance for those interested in this area.
So even celebrity psychics could genuinely believe in their gifts. If so, then how do they manage to convince an audience, with rather wooly statements?
I have long offered my theory on this, and curiously enough it takes us back to something I mentioned Sally Morgan saying at the beginning of this piece. Remember she said she went along with her Director telling her to lie about not knowing the reality TV client? She complied, and tried to please.
Now imagine you are in a stage show, and the camera puts your face up on the screen. You have been singled out by the medium, and agreed you may know “Godfrey” who died of eating too many pickled onions. (Actually that would convince me!) Once you have agreed you may be the person the spirit is talking to, it’s really just you and the psychic – her on stage, your ugly mug plastered all over the screen. She makes a whole series of announcements, and “facts” about your deceased love one, and you nod, say “er not quite” etc – but even if they say something totally wrong, would you call them on it? And if you do, they will say either “go home and ask about it” – suggesting further research may show they were right about the fact – or “oh, I think this is another spirit coming through” – shifting to a new client, or ” I don’t think this message is for you after all, anyone else?” Watch some stage psychics in action: they have learned, probably unconsciously, how to do this. These are all strategies for avoiding the uncomfortable fact they are wrong — and yet there is more.
The audience member who is being spoken to and whose face is on the screen probably wants to believe, and has a vast emotional investment in receiving a genuine message from the deceased. There are enough people in most theatre audiences that almost all the time someone can identify with a “Dave” with a “bad back” or similar, but from here on in what is happening is a process of negotiation between the medium and you as they offer facts and you confirm or reject them. Not only have you an emotional investment, your face is on the screen – you are under immense pressure to comply, to please the believing audience. So you will probably “accept statements” even if they are questionably true, or perhaps even if you think they are false.
If my hypothesis is correct, when you go outside after the performance, you may start to question some of the statements you accepted in the theatre. I am surprised that no one has in the seven years since I first proposed this idea publicly as far as I know actually tested this by conducting research: maybe they have and I have not seen it.
Yet in this hypothesis, there is no need for fraud, sophisticated or simple. The whole transaction is a negotiated one; the medium still believes they are psychic, the client accepts some but not all of what they were told, and tends to remember the hits not the misses as much research has shown. Simple cold reading or the Law of Large Numbers may not be enough to explain the celebrity psychics, and Roy and Robinson have certainly thrown great doubt on it, despite my confusion over their third paper, but there are certainly good academic papers supporting paranormal cognition out there. Here I don’t see any need for fraud.
So What Happened?
I don’t know what happened with Sally Morgan on Monday night, but honestly, I think we need to be fair, critically minded, and accept that it all may be more complex than a Twitter message can convey . Perhaps she just researched local newspapers,as one might think from the final section of the RTE show, where it was noted most of the cases were of this type of “big story”; perhaps she is genuinely psychic, perhaps she is deluded, and perhaps she is dumb enough to use the Popoff technique, in which case she will be caught pretty soon.
I for one am not quick to judge, and will wait and see. I do feel a bit sorry for everyone involved – the poor lighting techs, the ladies who are rightfully outraged after what they heard through the window, and even I guess Sally Morgan. I doubt it will effect her popularity though, as these scandals rarely seem to have much effect in the face of people’s will to believe…
Another old piece from RichardDawkins.net, but an important one I think! For DCG… “The Professor” is a reference to Richard Dawkins, and this was another piece from the week before The Enemies of Reason show…
Now many of you know that I am twice damned as far as the Prof is concerned, for not only am I a dodgy Christian, I’m also by profession a dodgy ghosthunter. Yep, if you did not know, you read that right… It’s an odd mix I suppose. Most Christians don’t seem overly keen on running ESP tests, or researching poltergeist cases or whatever, but I’m really quite comfortable with it. Long term readers of this forum are painfully aware of how passionately I defend proper academic parapsychology against its critics, while remaining a skeptic and supporter of Randi and the JREF. Anyway, I can’t see Prof Dawkins taking kindly to my chosen path. I guess this series of essays may be nothing more than an attempt on my part to justify my own position: I don’t like the idea of being dubbed an ‘enemy of reason’ much!
OK, so tonight I’m going to talk about my problem with the paranormal. And here we have a problem straight away – what is the Paranormal? The term is used so loosely as to be almost meaningless. I tend to make a distinction between the supernatural – things above or beyond the universe and nature, and so presumably if they exist outside the scope of the naturalistic inquiry of science, or at least unfalsifiable – and the paranormal, which I would argue is simply a term used for those phenomena lacking any currently agreed hypothesis or theory as to their cause but which may one day be included in the scope of science, because they are part of currently undiscovered natural laws, or we understand the principles which govern them, but so far have failed to apply them correctly. So those laws may well include misperception, wishful thinking, or all kinds of naturalistic explanations. I think this is roughly what Professor Dawkins means when he refers to perinormal phenomena.
This is where Prof Dawkins and I are in some agreement. I personally think many “paranormal/perinormal” phenomena will eventually become part of our knowledge as science advances. Why?
Well when I was a kid, Arthur C Clarke had a TV show called Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World . It was actually probably rather good, and had a slightly sceptical edge, but I was never a fan as such things did not interest me – I thought what I know know to be Forteana, Cryptozoology, Parapsychology etc etc were utter bilge. Still I recall the episode when Giant Squid were discussed, and we were told there was some evidence in terms of sucker marks on whales. Yet Giant Squid back then were thoroughly “paranormal”.
That was what, thirty years ago? Nowadays Giant Squid are perfectly respectable, though i still would not take one home to meet mummy and daddy, well not unless you really don’t like mummy and daddy! And the same with high altitude blue streaks, ball lightning, and a few other phenomena which in the 70′s were considered paranormal, but now have made the jump over to scientific acceptance, if not yet full explanation.
Others, like the legendary Sasquatch and Nessie are not looking so good after thirty years of research, and may well end up finally be accepted as myths. UFOs, well after Cartman got his anal probe and the bizarre excitement of the 90′s Abduction craze, nuts and bolts ufology is well in decline, and Wicca and the Occult has suffered from over exposure and the harsh light of day – never a happy fate for a mystery religion. It end up less The Devil Rides Out and more Sabrina the Teenage Goth Wannabe Witch. Still my point is simple – some “paranormal” phenomena make it as science includes them, usually without any radical new breakthroughs or changes in our understanding of the laws of nature, others just fade away as they are explained as mistakes or fail to stand up to scrutiny at all, and swim away like Nessie seems to have done. The thing is to keep an open mind without your brains falling out.
Anyway, so far hopefully so good. The problem I have with the paranormal is not people being interested in it — even Most Haunted had the advantage of creating a generation of new skeptics and hard core researchers, so I’m not entirely unhappy with it (and won’t decry my short association with the show – they paid me well, and I enjoyed the work) — but the fact that I don’t really know if the Paranormal works at all.
Let’s starts with a list of “paranormal” claims –
- ESP, Ghosts, UFOs, Zombies, Ball Lightning, Nessie, surviving Thylacines, Mediumship, Spoon Bending, Dowsing, Crystal Power, Atlantis, Witchcraft, Astrology, Poltergeists, Curses, Synchronicity, Astral Projection, Vampires, Werewolves, Psychic Pets, Auras, The Bermuda Triangle, etc, etc…
Now that’s a pretty outrageous list, and I would not necessarily advocate the reality of any of those. However, what if say Poltergeists were real? The very fact they have been placed in this category makes them immediately suspect, and makes any decent scientist worth his salt (so not me) ignore them utterly. Guilt by association. And you know what? You try and do some research in to a poltergeist case, and suddenly people all link you with Auras, Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle – you are a nut. Why – because you study the paranormal! Yet my question — what do any of these things actually have in common?
What does Spoonbending tell us about Atlantis? How are Psychic Pets linked with Werewolves? (Er, don’t answer that actually – I don’t want to know!) This whole paranormal category si just a vast dumping ground for subjects we think lack credibility – and in many of the above examples, probably quite justifiably! However paranormal is just a term of abuse – it tells us nothing about the phenomena except they are not respectable. There are plenty of unexplained phenomena and anomalies out there which are taken seriously – its research on these anomalies, on the niggling problems with our best scientific models which leads to revisions and to the models improving, and hence scientific progress after all. Yet “paranormal” as a term? It’s meaningless.I’m even wary about “parapsychology”. It’s too close for comfort to the despised term.
I’ve just realized I’m in danger of rehashing an article I write in 1996, when Prof Dawkins last publicly spoke on these things, decrying the X Files as it happens. (Amusingly he admitted in The Times interview earlier this week he never actually watched the show!!?) Still back then I wrote a little piece, which I may well repost next in my ongoing collection of CJ musings…