"I realize that there is no concrete scientific evidence for psychic abilities (at least no evidence that's available to the public). However, has this stopped the US government and many local police forces around the nation from employing psychics? No, it hasn't. This has been going on for decades. Even China has what they call 'remote viewers'. I realize that our government isn't always good and ethical, but they (collectively) are very intelligent. Would they continue to waste money on psychics if they determined that such powers did not exist? I doubt it.
There is a lot of information that they withhold from the public. I doubt that we'll ever know the full story behind 9/11. Did President Bush play a role in it? We may never know. Did aliens really crash land in Roswell? We may never know. Do true psychic powers (which can only be supernatural) really exist? We don't know that either, but we can make some logical inferences based on the government's activities.
Yes, I know that the psychic phone friends and the tarot card readers on the street corners are almost all phonies, but this does not mean that all psychics are.
Skepticism is a useful tool in distinguishing fact from fiction, but I encourage all of you to avoid the trap of denialism."
I happened across this query on Yahoo! Answers just last week and it got me thinking about a few things. The first was that I was confused as to how this person managed to confuse skepticism with denialism. Denialism is a matter wherein a person denies the validity of an event or an entity despite the amounts of evidence in favor of the phenomena. Good examples of this would be the holocaust, evolution, germ theory, and others. Skepticism on the other hand is the complete opposite. Skepticism is ordering levels of acceptance based on the amount of evidence in favor or in contrary to a particular phenomena, and coming to the conclusion that there is not enough evidence to support a hypothesis, or none at all, in many cases. Good examples of this would be alien abduction, special creationism, astrology, ghosts, chiropractic medicine, homeopathic medicine, dolphin therapy, and in this case, psychics. So, let us never confuse skepticism with denial, as they are certainly two very different things, opposite one another.
The second thought that came to mind was something I've often wondered in the past: just how much money to state and local governments put into hiring psychics, and to what effectiveness do psychics solve crimes? I haven't been a "believer" in psychics since I reached the age of reason, just like I haven't been a "believer" in vampires since that age, but I wondered if my skepticism could be put to the test by the hard numbers. And can I find hard numbers without having to rely on statistics, of which I'm foremost skeptical? Hard numbers and statistics are two very different things, of course, so how hard can it be? I could utilize the gift that is the Freedom of Information Act to find the dollar amount the federal government, and at least my own state government puts into special crime investigation, and within that, I could find the hard dollar amount that went into psychics. Finding the amount of crimes that were solved with the help of psychics, and how large a role the psychics played in solving said crimes would be a whole different matter, and would involve some personal investigation of my own. Damn it!
Before I get to the topic, however, here are the subjects I will not be discussing in this blog: The "we only use 10% of our brain" argument. I will not bring this up because this is actually a myth - a commonly accepted myth, for whatever reason, which, with the slightest bit of research on something as trivial as Google, can be immediately dispelled and debunked. If we only used 10% of our brains we would be vegetables, if even that. I also will not discuss telekinesis, as that is a subject for another time, and a whole other volume of hokum. I will also not discuss Peter Venkman's research into the paranormal, but I still think Ghostbusters was a pretty awesome movie. This blog will deal with extrasensory perception, precognition, parasense, a sixth sense, and other related subjects.
I happened to find one source of a program that I found a little bit disturbing, not because of the nature of the program, but how long it went on without any conclusive results, and how expensive it was. The operation I'm talking about is the federal government's Stargate Project. Don't confuse this with Crazy Ronnie's Star Wars Initiative, mind you, but this was equally as insane. The Stargate Project was started in the early 1970s to experiment on the value of remote viewing. For those out of the loop, remote viewing is a form of ESP, and is the ability to use paranormal means to seek impressions about distant, unseen places or targets. From the 1970's to 1995, the US government spend twenty-million dollars per year funding this research, and in over two decades of applying the phenomena to rigorous scientific research, not one bit of conclusive evidence was reached to add to the validity of remote viewing phenomenon.
The studies that were done were certainly conflicting. Dare I take us back to my argument against statistics, but this is yet another example of how easily manipulated they are, and how they do not under any circumstances function as stand-alone scientific evidence because of their insurmountable amounts of variables. I need bring to your attention no more example than these conflicting conclusions. Just before the operation closed, a report was run buy the American Institutes for Research (AIR) which had a council primarily of two members, Professor Jessica Utts and Dr. Ray Hymen. The reports were performed based on the collected data of the man who took over Stargate in 1985, Dr. Edwin C. May, who was a long-time government employee working in programs dealing with precognition and ESP, and whose education is in Low Energy, Experimental Nuclear Physics.
Professor Jessica Utts' study found that subjects who claimed clairvoyance were correct about certain information at a rate of 5% to 15% above chance, citing statistically significance. In her side of the report to the AIR, she all but claimed these numbers to be proof of the existence of ESP and precognition. On the other hand, the information collected by Dr. Hyman was entirely different. According to the Hyman's data, remote viewers were correct about information only 20% of the time. Being wrong about information 80% of the time is hardly above chance in my opinion, and apparently in his as well. He responded to Professor Utts' results, saying her claim of evidence of precognition is entirely premature, and that "present findings have yet to be independently replicated." He also argued that the subjects' reports included large amounts of irrelevant information, and when the subjects' reports were on target, the information supplied was often vague and completely general in nature, much like ancient prophesies, which can be applied to just about anything. These are two very conflicting results based on the same data. I think what worries me even more is that Professor Utts is a long-time proponent of significant changes in collegiate level statistics education, arguing that the current curricula does a horrible job in teaching students how to properly interpret statistical results. She also argues that classes don't spend enough time on the misconception that correlative studies show causation. Although I most certainly agree with that second part, as anyone who read my last paper knows, I'm not so sure that she actually understands what she's saying. Either that, or she's learned a lesson since 1995, and is blaming her education for the public embarrassment that should have been her side of the AIR report.
Of course, I do not know the exact amount of control that went into these experiments, nor do I know if either of these groups collecting and interpreting the date were following the strict guidelines of the scientific method to begin with. I do know that Dr. Edwin May was, and still is, a proponent of psychic phenomenon, so it would be hard for me to say that the experiments performed, or the data collected and interpreted between 1985 and 1995 were unbiased and approached with skepticism the way they should have been. In other words, statistical evidence for psychic phenomena exists, but it was bias to begin with. According to the report itself, "Information provided was inconsistent, inaccurate in regards to specifics, and required substantial subjective interpretation." As for hard evidence, still, absolutely no evidence whatsoever for the validity of psychic phenomena exists. Total dollar amount for the Stargate Project: based on the information provided, the full cost of the project was $400 million dollars, and surely more, as the total cost of the project after it was transferred to the CIA in 1995 is not provided. For additional information on Stargate and the AIR's conclusions visit here: http://psiland.free.fr/dossiers/parapsy/psi_defense/remote.pdf
Otherwise, private research is done all of the time from private funding, most of these exercises take place at universities, such as Washington University's $5 million grant of recent, which resulted in the same failure as the government's remote viewing project. However, there has been one study that may show evidence for the existence of psychic phenomena.
Is This Your Porn?
Professor Emeritus Daryl Bem (psychology) at Cornell University recently published a paper called "Feeling the Future" in the magazine The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A former stage magician, Bem has a long interest in the study of psychic phenomenon, having specialized in mentalism. He was apparently a skeptic up until the point when he ran into noted parapsychologist Charles Hornorton at a convention hosted by the Parapsychological Association. Bem soon began work on the empirical side of attempting to prove psychic phenomena, and to provide controlled evidence that can be replicated by independent researchers.
Bem's experiment was as such: He put a computer screens in front of 100 students - fifty male and fifty-female - on either side was a curtain. Behind one curtain would be a blank wall, and behind another would be an image. Many of the images were erotic in nature, but not all of them. The point was, obviously, to get the students to choose the screen on which was the erotic image. Bem hypothesized that the group would be able to identify the correct screen roughly 50% of the time, as would say the laws of chance (1 of 2 options = 50% chance of success), however, that those shown the erotic images would have a higher hit rate. I'm already blown by what Mr. Bem is considering to be a control in this experiment, but I'll digress.
Of the 100 sessions in Bem's experiment, those shown non-erotic images chose the correct curtain 48.8 percent of the time - well within the bounds of chance. Those shown erotic imagery, however, scored a hit rate of 53.1 percent. According to Bem, this was a substantial difference, but may I remind you that even statistically, this is not a significant difference, and scientifically, 53.1 percent is still well within the bounds of probability and chance - only a marginal percent higher than 50%. If the results would have stated somewhere around 60%, I would be interested. If the results showed somewhere in the area of 70%, I would actually be quite amazed and I would want to replicate the experiment myself. If the results were 80%-90%, I would bow down and tell Mr. Bem that he very well may have stumbled upon evidence of ESP and precognition. However, 53.7% is hardly impressive, and as I said before, well within the boundary of chance. Why was there a difference between the two groups? Also mere chance, as variables would dictate, if you were to show one half of the group two blank computer screens, you would probably see the same, if not a greater difference. However, this would be called a control, and I see no evidence of one here. Another point to ponder: This research carried over the course of eight years, with the experiment being replicated nine times, so I must wonder how many of those experiments differed in percentage, as we seem only to be receiving the average percentages. What were the results of each individual test? Was it conclusive 100% of the time that students overwhelmingly chose the proper computer containing the erotic image against those who were tested without the erotic images? What were the percentage of students who chose the blank screen in each experiment? Were there more women than men who chose any of the above results? Where is this information? You would think it would be important, at least for a scientist, which a psychologist plainly is not. Especially this one, it would appear.
Now, onto a greater problem with this experiment. In his own words, "The remarkable finding is that their psychological responses are observed to occur about 2-3 seconds prior to the appearance of the picture, even before the computer has decided whether to present a non-arousing or an arousing picture."
Yet, a half a year later, the study has yet to be replicated independently, which would indicate little more than a fluke result. I also have not seen the entirety of the results to see if he managed to somehow score a difference between precognition (knowing what is coming) and anticipation (expecting something may come), nor have I seen what the orders of the photos were, which would well explain the anticipation.
With two highly-publicized studies, we see absolutely no evidence at all for precognition, and other studies not worth mentioning, over the past, fifty years, have come to the same results: Excited non-skeptics of precognition being met with a chorus of, "Here's what you did wrong." I suspect that no results in the future will prove anything further from this trend. So, why with such a lack of evidence for precognition, to police departments across the United States, Great Britain and Australia continue to pump worthwhile state money into such a worthless practice? Why are television shows abundant on the topic of psychic investigators?
Why is it that Patrick Swayze is dead right now? Living in Minneapolis, one of the suburbs of my fair city is called Edina. Edina is the home one of the "real life ghost mediums" who acted as, among many others, an inspiration of The Ghost Whisperer. Her name is is Echo Bodine. Her books have sold substantially well and she currently does live readings with the accompaniment of a keyboardist. The subject at hand is not Echo, however, but her brother, Michael Bodine, who my poor fiancee must deal with every time he saunters into her store to sign his literary nonsense.
Michael was the personal psychic of many stars including Lewis Black (that one surprises me) and Melanie Griffith, but most notably, Patrick Swayze, who died in 2009 of pancreatic cancer. I in no way intend any disrespect to Swayze or his family in this piece, nor do I intend to make light of pancreatic cancer, which is one of the deadliest forms of cancer known to date. However, that being said, why was Patrick Swayze dead at 57? The average lifespan - though at a very embarrassingly tied with Cuba at 36th in the world, underneath islands that most people have never heard of - is 75.6-years-old for men. Fifty-seven seems to be a pretty early age of death, not only for a man who was, admittedly, in pretty impeccable physical shape for most of his life, but more notably, had a psychic by his side to tell him what the future held for him. Swayze could have easily detected his cancer early enough to cure it, had his psychic informed him, or had he known about it. But how could he not? I don't want to hear another psychic explain, "It doesn't work that way," I want to hear just one give me a real answer as to why psychics can detect some things but not others. And if it's in a heirarchy of importance, I would think pancreatic cancer would be up there. And considering what Swayze paid this man, I think most certainly Swayze's family is entitled to a refund.
This may be a bit of a tongue and cheek example, but it's the dominant example. Therefore, why, again, are our state and federal government paying to hire these people? Why are our tax dollars being spent to fund hokum, with a statistical success rate of 1 in 17, though, I'm still skeptical of statistics, even when they work in my favor. You must realize that 1 in 17 is far lower than the rate of chance, and it's far, far lower than the success rates of our best detectives, who rely on investigation and evidence to solve crimes, instead of superstitious nonsense.
What are we doing funding this type of investigation and research? How many times do results need to be found inconclusive? How many years is it going to take to develop proof of something that is allegedly so common? Let's go back to chance for a moment, maybe a statistical expert out there can conclude how it could be that after hundreds of years of investigation and experimentation, absolutely no hard evidence has ever been found that precognition, or any sort of psychic ability for that matter? It was only months after Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was released that hard evidence started to turn up. It was only half a century after the standard model was developed that all but one of the particles it predicted have been found. Speaking of...where is that elusive Higgs boson anyway? I guess that's a topic for a later date.
For our federal government or state governments to spend a dime on psychics or psychic research is, in this man's opinion, a violation of the separation of church and state, as to date, psychic activity is nothing more than primitive superstition, and not hard, empirical fact. I suspect that will never change. For those who disagree, by all means, take those millions of dollars that James Randi has had up for years for anyone who can provide proof of psychic ability. Hell, I'll offer a few grand myself.
Thanks for reading,
The Smiling Skeptic
C. Allen Thompson