Are we who we think we are?

Skeptics – always in two minds about something…

You may recall I mentioned in the last issue of the NZ Skeptic that we were surveying members to see if we were all still on roughly the same wavelength. We were spurred on to do this by the 4th World Skeptics Conference which saw long-time CSICOP leader Paul Kurtz call for Skeptics to take on religion, economics and politics as well as ghosts, UFOs, aliens, iridologists and the like.

It’s a big issue in the US, where they seem to feel under siege by the forces of religion and where a number of the Centres for Inquiry have been established in conjunction with the Humanist movement.

In discussing the issue with my Australian confreres, I felt, as did they, that our antipodean organisations had a different view as to what our core ideas should be, and it didn’t include assuming that all our members were Humanist Democrats! However, like any Skeptic worth his or her salt, I was prepared to change my mind should I be shown to be out of step with everyone else, hence the survey.

The results are now in (my thanks to the 15% of you who responded via post and online), and provide some food for thought.

As you will all have seen in our fine print and elsewhere, you officially belong to the New Zealand Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (NZCSICOP) Inc. The name is something of an historical accident, modelled as we were on the US-based CSICOP from whence all things sprang.

And, as noted in our Constitution, our aim is to examine critically the paranormal (e.g. psychic phenomena) and pseudo-science (eg astrology, creation science).

In more recent years, we have become known informally as the New Zealand Skeptics. While it’s a lot easier to say on radio and takes up less column-inches in the newspaper, it does mean that we are often assumed to be sceptical about all things, including general religious beliefs, political movements and economic predictions.

This has meant that, on occasion, we have been castigated by various outsiders for not getting stuck into anything and everything.

So where do we sit? I suspect in the classic fence-sitters’ position, somewhere in between the two…

How Do We Define Who We Are?

Traditionally we have tended to regard our focus as being defined by those areas in which scientifically testable claims are made or where empirically-based evidence is presented.

Thus we don’t target, say, Christian beliefs per se, except where you have people who claim they have discovered a piece of the Ark (let’s test it!) or who assert that the Earth really is only 6000 years old (where’s the evidence?). Beliefs are perfectly valid in a church setting, but if you want to bring them into a science classroom, then you have to meet the sort of standards and criteria demanded of any legitimate science.

This can mean that from time to time, we are sceptical of claims which appear to be legitimate, accepted science. It is through questioning both received and revealed wisdom that we learn more about our world. And it does mean that we have to be prepared to change our minds in the light of convincing evidence.

This distinction we have made between the world of belief and the world of evidence is one which appears to have strong support. Of the survey respondents, just about all of you are happy with this distinction, with virtually everyone giving it a 1 or 2, “strongly agree” rating.

In the initial years of the Society, much of the focus was on the spoon-benders and mind-readers that were the popular New Age figures of the day. While we still search for any signs that they really do have special powers, over the past ten years or so NZCSICOP has tended to focus on those areas with the greatest potential for harm either for individuals or for society. This has certainly informed your committee’s discussions regarding Bent Spoon Award nominations and areas where we have made public comment.

Thus we have typically said that we’re not out to castigate Granny for reading the tea leaves, but we are concerned where people are exploited by those asserting some form of objective, testable reality to dubious practices or claims. Where the potential for harm exists – whether physical, mental, emotional, moral or economic – the Skeptics have considered it unethical not to challenge such claims.

It looks like this stance has been reflected in some of the survey results relating to what you perceive as our core areas of interest, which led to what some might see as surprising results. Two strong basic aspects of critical thinking were regarded as highly important – academic freedom and misuse of statistics.

The First Circle of Skepticism

The topical areas of core interest were identified as:

  • alternative medicine
  • creation science/intelligent design
  • repressed/false memory
  • global warming research
  • GE/GM issues

This represents an interesting mix of the “easy” skeptical subjects and ones which are likely to include a broad range of opinions and hence be more problematic.

As your chair-entity, I am relatively sanguine about commenting on claims made by alternative practitioners – one can test many of the claims they make, cite sound research and generally put such areas through the rigor of the scientific process to see what comes out the other side.

Creation science, and its more recent evolution into intelligent design, has been a topic with us from the first. Again, it’s an area which makes readily testable assertions, and where the errors and manipulations of its proponents can be easily identified. This is not to say that it is a simple thing to deal with!

The latter three in that list, to some extent, represent topical concerns, and ones which can be particularly contentious. One respondent referred to them as “dangerous, expensive themes”. I am hoping that we have seen the peak in enthusiasm for repressed memory – it certainly caused a great deal of damage to a large number of individuals and families when at its height – but I think that sufficient skepticism and the weight of evidence against it may well see it relegated to the role of psychological fad.

Global warming and GE/GM issues are much more likely to stay with us as we work through the complexities of the science involved, and the even greater complexities of how we as individuals and as members of a broader society deal with these things. I know that our membership has a diverse range of views in this area – after all we count Green members, organic farmers, ecologists, RMA consultants and a whole host of people in our midst.

As topics, global warming and GE/GM fall well outside the realm of the paranormal, but there is more than enough room for debating the evidence from either end of the environmental and political spectrum and anywhere between! Personally, I don’t think this area is one where the ultimate decisions are necessarily going to be based on the science involved or the evidence presented. As a consequence, in my official capacity, I prefer, as our primer suggests, to “maintain a position of uncertainty where there is insufficient or ambiguous evidence”.

(And if you want to write and tell me I’m a wishy-washy fence-sitter, or convince me you know what’s going to happen with global warming or GE/GM, or provide me with material you think would help inform me, you’re welcome to do so. What I’d really like to hear, though, is how you think this re-lates to NZCSICOP and its aims.)

The Second Circle of Skepticism

This is the one which intrigued me, containing as it does many of the traditional areas of skeptical interest. It wasn’t until I worked my way through all the comments that I felt I saw the reasoning behind why such topics as astrology, ghosts, psychic phenomena and UFOs/aliens were regarded as second-tier interests.”

Many of you said you considered these topics to be dead issues”, easy targets, to be past the point where anyone takes them seriously anymore. The relatively low impact these topics have on society at large, and the unlikelihood of personal harm arising from them may well have played a part in their lesser rating. As one respondent put it:

“I used to be interested in paranormal phenomena, but I now think pseudo- and anti-science pose greater threats to our future, and that is where my interests now lie.”

Of course, one cannot be too complacent. We have seen deaths arise from UFO cults, and we know that thousands of dollars are taken in by psychic hotlines every month in this country. A salutary point to note is that while these results were being collated – and “scams and cons” graded into this section – the Press was giving lead coverage to a local businessman who had sent around $1 million to Nigeria in the hope of gaining untold millions in return…

Three other topics hit this second circle: counselling, organic/biodynamic agriculture and food scares.

The Outer Circle

It didn’t particularly surprise me to find meditation and economic predictions fall into the outer circle of skeptical interests. There are aspects of the meditation industry that may well attract our attention, and we’d all probably be sceptical of economic predictions regardless of whether we are members of NZSCICOP or not! But in general, they are not prime targets.

The one which did interest me was that of religious beliefs/faiths, as the responses to this one tended to be highly polarised, with scores of one or ten, with very few in between. Of those who did see it as a core interest, a number mentioned that belief systems are important in pushing people to promulgate misinformation, and so were therefore fair game. It should be noted that the respondents who graded religious beliefs with a one (core interest), tended to grade everything as a core interest.

However, the final results were unambiguous in putting religion per se outside our main brief. There are organisations which exist for those who want to directly challenge religions of whatever stripe, and many Skeptics have also been members of the Rationalists, Humanists, Atheist Society, Secular Students Club and the like. From the early-morning discussions I have had at various conferences, NZSCICOP members have as great a variety of religious/spiritual beliefs as they do political. I think that we are the stronger for that.

Predicting the Future for NZCSICOP

I think that our future is a fairly clear one, and one which ideally will have us all contributing in whatever fashion we can. We are planning some practical activities as a result of this survey.

We’ll be putting more resources online for people to have easy access to things like information flyers and useful databases (and we’ll be using some of that material in the NZ Skeptic for those of you without internet access).

We’re planning a competition for teachers, which will help us to establish and develop practical resources for the teaching of critical thinking across a range of levels in the education system.

We’re looking for more ways to be proactive in our approach, as many of you mentioned that as an important point to consider. Increasing contacts with like-minded organisations overseas will help in that regard, providing information and opportunities. Darwin Day, on February 12, provides one chance for us to take part in international celebrations of science, humanity and thought (see for more information).

We know what we need to do. We need to:

  • communicate the im-portance of asking questions and looking for evidence
  • encourage more critical thinking in our media and our youth
  • keep a sense of humour and an open mind

Fish but no Chips

John Riddell learns to his cost that fishermen can be as easy to catch as the creatures they pursue

I have a confession to make. I’ve been taken in by a scam. Normally this shouldn’t be cause for embarrassment, but I like to think of myself as a skeptic. I mean if anyone should be able to see these things coming it should be a skeptic. It’s only gullible people get taken in by scams right? It all comes from liking fishing too much. Salt water fishing in my case.

In our corner of the globe the target species is a fish commonly called a snapper. Fantastic eating and fun to catch. The world record is a bit over 30 pounds but a 2 or 3 pound fish is a good fish and much better eating. At least according to those of us who never catch the big ones. On a good day we catch the legal limit of nine per person (minimum size 27cm). But to have a good day you have to get everything right. Bait, berley, location, tide, tackle and weather all have to be right. Get one wrong and you catch fewer fish. Get two wrong and you catch none.

So like all fishaholics, between those rare occasions when I actually make it out on to the water, I spend a good deal of time thinking about fishing, reading the fishing magazines, listening to the weather reports, and thinking of ways of catching more fish, bigger fish, or let’s face it, some fish.

One day, while I was chatting to my cousin Don about fish, he mentioned that a friend of his swore by an electronic fish attractor. It is called “FishMAXTM“, and it’s a little box about the size of a pack of cigarettes. A sealed unit. Two wires come out of it. These wires are put in the water as far apart as possible. Once the electrodes are in the water, a little red light (LED) starts flashing on the box. That means it is working. It supposedly puts out a signal that attracts fish from up to three miles away.

Now I should have known better than to accept anecdotal evidence but we are talking about fishing. Rational thought gave way to greed. My ears perked up. “An electronic fish attractor? What a brilliant idea,” I thought. That was the first mistake. Allowing my enthusiasm to override logic. Here comes the next mistake. “Heck. If it really works, think of the money I could save on berley.” (Berley is what we call groundbait/chum, ie chemical fish attractor).

The phrase “If it really works” goes through the mind of everyone ever taken in by a scam.

I found an ad in the fishing magazine. Only $149.00 On the internet, $65.00

My next mistake. A little bit of knowledge. As opposed to enough. Fish have a thing called a lateral line. It is a line of receptors along the side of a fish that picks up small electrical signals in the water. Since fish can detect electric signals, it’s possible that an electronic fish attractor could work.

Next mistake. Do a little bit of research. As opposed to enough. I checked out the net. That’s inter, not fishing. There are lots of sites on the net about electric fishing. The thing is, it does actually work. There is a phenomenon called electrotaxis. If you get a fish in a certain type of electric field the fish will swim towards one of the electrodes. Once the fish gets really close it conveniently falls asleep (electronarcosis) and floats to the surface. Now this sounds too good to be true, but it is true. Fishologists and conservation types use these electric fishing things to study endangered species and also to catch pest species such as carp. When the electric field is switched off, the fish wakes up and swims away unharmed.

So I rang the toll free number in the fishing mag and told the “FishMAXTM” guy at the other end that they were only $65.00 on the net. “No problem.” he said and matched the price. Now I normally spend $8.00 on berley every time I go fishing so I was thinking “if it really works, think of the money I would save.”

I gave him my credit card details and he couriered it to me the next day.

So did it work? As soon as I got it I put the electrodes at opposite ends of my 3 foot tropical fish tank. The little red light began to flash. This means it is working. The fish in the tank carried on, blissfully unaware that they were being attracted to anything.

A guppy did swim up to examine one of the electrodes but then he swam away. The rest of the fish continued to distribute themselves randomly through-out the tank.

I confess to being disappointed. But not surprised. By now I had done a little more research. It turns out real electric fish attractors use high voltages (600V) and also a fair amount of power. They are also only effective in fresh water, and over very short ranges, a few metres at most. My fish attractor was supposed to work for thousands of hours without a battery replacement. Something began to smell fishy.

Since then I have been fishing four times. I used the FishMAXTM electronic fish attractor on two of those occasions. I caught fish. I usually do. But I caught more fish when I didn’t use it. On one of the occasions I used the FishMAXTM the berley I had been using fell off without my noticing. Even though the FishMAXTM was still flashing the fish stopped biting. When I realized the berley had fallen off, I put more berley out and we began to catch fish again.

By now I had decided that if it wasn’t a scam, it should be.

The thing is, fisherpersons are very superstitious. I try not to be. I usually catch a limit on days the Maori fishing calendar says are bad for fishing. And I always take bananas even though they are supposed to be bad luck.

The problem with fishing is the outcome can be so variable. This variability is the stuff that superstitions are made of. Most of the time you can’t see what is happening under the water. Sometimes the reasons people use to explain why they do or do not catch fish don’t have much to do with the real reasons. From the point of view of a scam artist, fishermen have got to be an ideal target species.

Ok, so lets think of a way of getting fishermen to give us money for a worthless and therefore cheap to make, product. What we need is a small sealed box that has a flashing light (LED) to show that something is happening. It needs to be sealed so you can’t look inside and see there isn’t much there. Inside the box we need batteries to power the light. We also need to have some wires that come out of the box. These wires can be put into the water. Once the wires are in the water the circuit is complete and the light begins to flash. We tell the fishermen that when the wires are in the water and the light is flashing that fish will be attracted.

One of the boys at the pub happens to have a PhD in physics and conveniently runs an electronics research lab. He very kindly connected my FishMAXTM up to one of his squiggleoscopes. There were a couple of volts DC but not much else. Next came the hacksaw and the Stanley knife. The unit was filled with a resin. It took quite a bit to get into it. Inside were two 1.5V AA batteries and the wire that connected them to the flashing LED. If there were any silicon chips or even resistors and capacitors or electrical components of any kind, the boys in the lab would have recognised them. But they just weren’t there. I admit that even I was surprised. I had assumed there would be some sort of circuit, even if it were just to make the light flash. It turns out the LED does that automatically.

So now I get to play games with the Commerce Commission and the Fair Trading Act.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Memoirs of a Psychic Researcher

University days are a great time to explore new directions. But sometimes you may end up a long way from where you thought you were going.

Back in 1969 I was a fresh-faced first year student at Auckland University. I had come there to bathe in the fountain of wisdom. I wanted to understand the deep mysteries of life, and learn how to think logically. Oh, and maybe learn how to speak Spanish fluently – you had to learn a language anyway, in those days, in order to get a BA. No real thoughts about how that might earn me a living – no big deal either in those days, as you were considered employable in a variety of professions with a BA. I did have an idea of eventually becoming really wise, and setting up in private practice as a clinical psychologist – I had heard of Freud and was yet to be disillusioned about his approach.

The first big event at Uni was “orientation”. In 1969, (maybe still today?) each society splashed out (pun intended) on wine and cheese evenings, to attract new members. I guess a portion of each new member’s funds were stashed away for next year’s wine and cheese. Anyway, I attended about a dozen wine and cheeses and joined one club. That club offered to sort out some of the deepest mysteries – it was the Psychic Research Club. I still feel a wee frisson at the memory: those wonderful youthful yearnings for secret knowledge, the suggestion that the world had so many wonderful properties waiting for my eager and well- trained mind to discover. Even if these psychic possibilities were all bunkum, I and my new-found friends decided that we would then have a new and interesting phenomenon to investigate, ie why do so many believe? In those hippy happy days (and I was already calling myself a hippy), the idea that there were no real psychic phenomena was rather novel. Many believed in Uri Geller’s psychic powers, and those guys at Duke University had apparently scientifically proved the existence of telepathy using specially designed cards in controlled experiments.

Our own investigations

Well, our motto was that we kept an open mind. We had not come to any definite conclusions, so, in true scientific fashion, we decided to carry out our own investigations.

I remember we did think that there were academics who seemed to be closed minded in rejecting psychic phenomena. Of course, they were also spoilsports – we had great fun going out on field trips to check out ghosts, and talking to eccentric colour therapists, “crystallologists”, people who had had prescient dreams, and the like. The focus of our studies, however, was to try to replicate the only possible scientific proof we had come across, the Duke university studies, which were published in the seriously academic-looking Journal of Parapsychology.


I recall that barely had we begun our serious work, when along came a couple of real spoil-sports from the Psychology Department. Professor Barry Kirkwood (now running a bed and breakfast on Waiheke Island I hear) gave a special talk – or it may have been a debate – on the validity of the Duke experiments, and a few other matters. He pointed out, I recall, a very serious methodological flaw. That is, the academics (in those days quite a few psychic experiments were conducted at universities) had admitted that psychic abilities could only be proved to manifest at some times and not others. Many attempts at replication (and to cut a long story short, also our own) failed. What factors turned “Psi” (the term for that ability) on and off were unknown. This problem is a classic one, and still slows down our scientific progress. The buggers, you see, only published their “successful” results, when probability calculations would “prove” Psi (telepathy, etc) was the most likely explanation. On the days the subjects failed – well, that was just an off-day: Psi had gone away, so those results were thrown in the rubbish bin. Thanks to Prof Kirkwood, we kept all our results, and learnt quite a lot about what randomly generated results look like, how to do statistical analysis, and what are appropriate, acceptable p (probability) values to prove anything scientifically.

I seem to remember that my friend Brian Whitworth, who was our president, got excellent marks for the statistics section of psychology.

In the end, as my now rather ancient memory goes, we tired of talking to “Psychics”. I remember Brian saying something about what nutters some of them were. They certainly never seemed to come up with anything definite that could be investigated scientifically. Then the other spoilsport in the Psych Department, David Marks (and another colleague, Richard Kammann) happened to be in a restaurant or bar next to Uri Geller. (I guess it was planned). Anyway, he heard first hand what Uri really thought of his fans – or should that be suckers. About that time, a jeweller I think it was, appeared on TV and de-monstrated how Uri’s “psychic concentration of energy” – or whatever he called it – was effective in re-starting watches that had stopped. (You have to remember that back in those days, most of us wore wind-up watches.) Apparently, when you followed Uri’s instructions of holding the watch in your hand, the oil thinned with the heat, freeing up the mechanism – for a while at least!

Finally, as I recall, we wound up our society, “for lack of evidence”, and had a final extra big wine and cheese party. Marks and Kammann published the landmark Psychology of the Psychic, which (to me at least) convincingly explained how so many otherwise sane people come to believe in psychic phenomena. I didn’t see Brian again after we graduated, although he did attend my (first) wedding, which occurred about seven months after I managed to get my girlfriend pregnant. It is a shame I didn’t listen to good old Prof Kirkwood earlier, and start tuning in to the actual processes and effects of the real world!

I went on to training college (now known as Colleges of Education), where I was paid a wage to study, and only briefly (and much later) became a trainee clinical psychologist. I was very disillusioned and disappointed with that profession, but that’s another story. For a while, I worked as a professional entertainer, as singer, guitarist, and magician with psychic abilities! I gave up the psychic act after a while, when I realized that the magician’s code of not spoiling the fun by revealing your tricks was incompatible with my newly acquired distaste for seeing people refuse to relinquish their belief that I was psychic – no matter how many times I denied it.


Blairs ‘rebirthed’

Tony Blair and Cherie took part in a ‘rebirthing ritual’ during a holiday in Mexico, says the Dominion (17 December). They were guided through the ritual while dipping in a Mayan steam bath. At least they were clean.

Psychic fails (as do we all)

It must be said that mystic powers called in to help find missing Christchurch teenager Ellon Oved have been a flop. Psychic Kathy Bartlett joined the search effort near a lake, carrying a board and examining the ‘aura’ of the area, the Dominion reports on December 5. However, the Eagle helicopter with heat-detecting equipment also failed to locate the 14 year old…

Reptiles have all the fun

Forget Tiger Woods, several hundred people paid $40 a head to attend a day-long session with visiting conspiracy theorist David Icke. He also gave an evening lecture at Victoria University, says the Sunday Star Times (November 4). A former British Green Party spokesman, Icke has raised eyebrows a few times – in 1991 during a BBC interview he proclaimed himself the son of God. But wait, there’s more. His theory has it that these reptilian shape shifters invaded Earth thousands of years ago, interbreeding with humans and forming a power elite. Explains a lot when you think about it.

Yet more Yeti furballs

A group of British explorers claim to have found irrefutable proof of a ‘yeti-like’ creature on an Indonesian island. The Evening Post (31 October) says the team discovered a footprint and hair samples of a primate which has long lived in the mythology of tribes-people in Western Sumatra. A cast of the footprint and strands of coarse hair are being sent to Oxford University and Australia’s University of Canberra for verification. Haven’t heard anything yet… The same team are off this year to the Gobi Desert in search of the Mongolian Death Worm – a metre-long snake which is reputed to kill a person with one look.

Hairy stars

Reporter Mary Jane Boland and her 4-month-old puppy Max consulted pet astrologer Helen Hope in Australia, for the Evening Post (6 October). Hope has written two books about pet astrology – Starcats and Stardogs which were released here on September 27. No-one, the former New Zealander says, has declared her books rubbish and they are selling well in Australia and rights have just been sold to the US and Britain. She also works on people and countries and predicted that, because of the position of Uranus, things will improve for Air New Zealand. I’m sure the Government will be relieved to hear this. Over the last few months we were to have ‘redefined’ ourselves to the world as well. (That must have slipped past me.) So what came of the canine reading? Well, Max is a classic Gemini, is very intelligent but always in need of constructive discipline. And he’s very special. I wonder what she’d say about my psychotic border collie.

Team gets divine help

A struggling English soccer team turned to religion by asking the local bishop to carry out an exorcism at the club’s grounds, says the Evening Post (9 November). The bishop performed the exorcism to remove all evil spirits from Oxford United’s Kassam stadium. It seems that a band of gypsies were moved on from the site and may have cursed it. Since the exorcism, it is said the team’s fortunes have improved, and they drew their most recent game.

Nessie to star?

Fans of Nessie who hope to catch a glimpse of the legendary creature might now be in luck, says the Evening Post (3 November.) A moving webcam is now filming the murky depths of the Scottish Lake, 230m deep. Head of the project, Adrian Shine, said the lake had more fresh water than the whole of England and Wales – “There is room for a few mysteries, although we’re not expecting to bump into Nessie.” The webcam joins two other cameras observing the exploration of Britain’s biggest lake. Check it out:

But is it art?

Michael Jackson’s good friend Uri Geller is upset at being censored – Sony Music removed religious words and symbols from a picture he drew for Jackson’s new album. The words God, Jerusalem, USA and Angel 2000 were all removed. Geller drew the black and white illustration on a napkin in Jackson’s hotel room. The picture features the heads of a man and woman, the pyramids, a UFO and symbols representing love, peace and hope. Maybe he should have stuck to spoons.

Report debunks ‘organic’ benefits

Scientific studies suggest “organic” foods are neither healthier nor safer than genetically modified products or those grown conventionally.

InterNutrition, the Swiss Association for Research and Nutrition, used published scientific papers to compare alternative production methods.

It released an English-language summary of the report, originally in German, at the weekend.

“The specific combination of all useful approaches offers the greatest potential for sustainable agriculture and healthy foods,” it said.

“This means that the unilateral rejection of genetically modified plants would be unjustified and short-sighted.”

Summarising its most important findings, InterNutrition said some studies showed that organic foods may contain more fungal toxins than foods produced conventionally.

There were no significant differences between conventional and genetically modified feeds in terms of nutritional composition and effects on animals.

“Meat, milk and eggs from animals given GM feeds are just as harmless for human consumption as if they had come from animals fed on conventional feeds.”

The problem of cross-fertilisation by pollen (gene transfer) between genetically modified plants and related wild species as well as between transgenic and conventional crop varieties arose only with a few important species of cultivated plants.

Growing crops by various agricultural systems side by side had always been possible and would continue to be so in future, the report said.

“The field studies carried out so far with transgenic, pest resistant crops do not confirm the environmental risks predicted by critics.”

The study found that worldwide, roughly 10.5 million hectares were given over to organic farming. Around 44.3 million hectares, mostly in the United States, were under transgenic plants.

The global market for organic foods was estimated at just under $US20 billion ($49.4 billion) and growing fast, while the market for GM plants was around $US3 billion.

From the NZ Herald, October 3

Whisky Galore

In which John Riddell conducts an entirely unscientific experiment and saves himself quite a bit of money

The first weekend of May each year is the opening of the New Zealand duck shooting season. It is a time when rednecks and yokels gather to harvest the surplus of the duck population. Like their cave dwelling ancestors before them, the males of the tribe gather on the night before the Great Hunt and tell tales of previous years. The youngsters listen in awe to the lies of their elders. There is enough male bonding to excite even the most boring anthropologist.

Being both a redneck and a yokel, I was invited by my mate Tony to one such event. On the Friday night we met up at an abandoned house by a swamp. As part of my contribution to the affair I took a couple of half filled whisky bottles. Now before anyone gets excited about how you shouldn’t mix guns and alcohol, it has to be said that serious shooters know that even a small hangover affects your ability to shoot straight. While some shooters might be too macho to admit that they are safety conscious, none of them want their mates to laugh at them when they miss. Even so it is usual to consume small amounts of high quality hooch.

Now I am getting to the bit that might be interesting to skeptics. I had one bottle of Glenfiddich and one of Wilson’s. For those who don’t know much about whisky, Glenfiddich is a single malt scotch of excellent quality. Wilson’s is a locally distilled drop, also of excellent quality. Just not made in Scotland. Glenfiddich is expensive. Wilson’s is not. The reason is a combination of good marketing and snobbery.

Tony thought it might be fun to switch the contents of the bottles and see if anyone noticed. Now Glenfiddich is much lighter in colour than Wilson’s but it comes in a green bottle and we didn’t think anyone would pick up on it. But when poured into a glass the difference is obvious.

But they didn’t notice.. The bottles passed the evening getting lighter and lighter. Tony and I were drinking Glenfiddich out of the Wilson’s bottle. The rest drank Wilson’s out of the Glenfiddich bottle.

We never did tell them.

This story is not only true, it’s an anecdote. People tell anecdotes not only to entertain but also to make a point. In this case I am trying to make the point that people’s expectations affect their experience. Our friends believed they were drinking Glenfiddich, so they enjoyed

the whisky more than if they thought they were drinking Wilson’s. But there is another possible explanation. It might also be that my mates don’t know squat about whisky.

In this case I think both are true.

Even though anecdotes should be printed on perforated paper, people use them as if they were good

evidence. In fact, they should only be used as a starting point.

After you have heard an anecdote, the next thing you do is form an hypothesis.

Hypo meaning under. Thesis meaning Theory. An hypothesis is less than a Theory. My hypothesis is that people’s expectations affect their experience.

Next I have to look for more evidence. More anecdotes. Off the top of my head, people who expect organic food to be tastier, think they can taste a difference. People who believe in the healing power of prayer, feel better after visiting a faith healer.

Now the fans of organic food can find loads of anecdotes that indicate how wonderful it is.

The problem with an anecdote is that it doesn’t eliminate those other explanations.

It may be true that “organic” food does taste better than conventional produce. Or it might be that people’s expectations affect their experience. After the anecdote, you have to perform an experiment.

Our local newspaper, a few years ago, got three “experts” to try and tell the difference between some organic and conventional produce. They gave them three different foods.

They fared no better than guessing. The difference between a controlled experiment and an anecdote is the experiment eliminates the other explanations.

You can try it yourself. Next time you are at the supermarket, get some organic orange juice, and also some not organic orange juice. Make sure both are juice, not cordial.

Get 10 glasses and label them 1 to 10. In half of them put the organic juice and in the rest out the other.

Write down which juice is in which glass. Now this is the important bit. Get someone else who doesn’t know which is in which glass to do the tasting.

If there is a difference they should get it right nearly every time. If they cannot tell, they will still get it right half the time.

This is the second important bit. Getting it right half the time means they are just guessing.

This type of test has been done often enough for me to be confident there isn’t any difference except for the expectations of the taster.

Which is a bit of a shame. Because even though I know Wilson’s is just as good, We still drank the “good stuff”.


Smile for the camera

Singaporean ghostbusters are turning to hi-tech equipment as they search for paranormal phenomena, reports the Evening Post (September 9).

Singapore Paranormal Investigators say they are taking a scientific approach to prove or debunk or unidentified flying objects. The team use digital video cameras, electromagnetic field meters and thermal guns. Many pictures suggesting paranormal shenanigans turn out to be the result of reflections, one has admitted.

‘God man’ warning

Three British men have died mysteriously after becoming followers of god man Sathya Sai Baba. The Dominion (August 28) reports his activities are being studied by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which is considering issuing an unprecedented warning to travellers against the guru.

Three Britons, one of whom claimed being repeatedly sexually molested by Sai Baba, have apparently taken their own lives.

Scorn poured on Sorbonne

The Sorbonne has been denounced as a refuge for irrational academics lacking intellectual rigour. The criticism refers to the institution’s decision to award a doctorate to astrologer Elisabeth Teissier who has advised leading French personalities, such as former president Francois Mitterrand.

The Dominion (August 15) says a number of scientists have called for Mrs Teissier’s doctorate to be revoked and have poured scorn on her 900-page thesis, The epistemological situation of astrology through the ambivalence fascination/rejection in postmodern societies.

Spirit search

An international hunt for witches was launched last August – kicked off by a British medium who wants to contact the Scottish King Macbeth and lift the jinx said to overhang Shakespeare’s tragedy, according to the Evening Post (August 16).

“I’m looking for two witches,” said Kevin Carloyn, high priest of the 1600-strong coven of British white witches.

The idea was to get in touch with the real Macbeth to see if he has anything to do with the weird things which happen when the play is produced. By now, Carloyn and assistants will have been to Cawdor, Macbeth’s windswept home in the Scottish Highlands and tried to pacify the disgruntled spirit. Haven’t heard if it worked, but then plan B was to go to the top and contact Shakespeare himself.

Rebirthing tragedy

Two assistants in a rebirthing therapy session that led to the death of a 10-year-old girl pleaded guilty to criminally negligent child abuse resulting in death says the Evening Post (August 4).

The pair were assisting psychotherapist Connell Watkins in an unconventional treatment session in Watkins’ home. The girl was wrapped in a flannel sheet and told to break out to be ‘reborn’ to her adopted mother. She wasn’t breathing when she was unwrapped more than an hour later.

Oh dear…

Two Waikato researchers say deer velvet seems to have no effect on sexual performance, says the NZ Herald (July 2). The pair Helen and John Conaglen received funding by the maker of the product and were studying its effects as an aphrodisiac. The 34 men who used velvet in their experiment had hormone levels and sex drives no different from those taking placebo tablets. For more than 2000 years deer velvet, a furry skin on growing antlers, have been used in Asia to improve sexual function.

No getting away from it…

Traditional Chinese medicines are here to stay, say Chinese and US doctors in a report in the NZ Herald (July 2). Cao Zeyi, vice-president of the Chinese Medical Association said herbal medicines have worked for a thousand years on trillions and trillions of people but proof was needed.

He was at a week-long gathering of Chinese doctors and their US colleagues and delegates said they must redouble efforts to gain a Western scientific approach to prove that traditional Chinese medicines and therapies worked.

“If we can show clinical results I think my colleagues will open up to the possibility (that they work),” said Dr David Eisenberg, head of Harvard Medical School’s research on complementary therapies.

“This is a global phenomenon. Herbs and supplements are here to stay.”

He valued the worldwide supplements market at $112.93 billion in 1999.

Bad news for ghosts

Tony Cornell of the Society for Psychical Research in Britain reckons he knows why ghost sightings have tailed off in recent years – it’s cell phones!

“Ghost sightings have remained consistent for centuries. Until three years ago we had received reports of new ghosts every week,” said Mr Cornell, of Cambridge. Paranormal events, which some scientists put down to electrical activity, could be drowned out by the electronic noise produced by phone calls and text messages. (The Press, October 15)

Divine result pleases Australian Skeptics

A $110,000 prize offered by Australian Skeptics Incorporated is safe after testing a world record number of water diviners at Mitta Mitta on Sunday. A total of 52 diviners, or dowsers, used an array of forked sticks, fencing wire, copper wire and bare hands to test their ability to divine water in surface containers on a green of the Mitta Mitta golf course.

Twenty two-litre bottles were filled with either tap water or sand, wrapped in brown paper, numbered and positioned in a large circle. Diviners were able to calibrate their equipment before the start and had only to identify the contents of each bottle without time restrictions. Sigrid Condon, a Mt Beauty mother with no divining experience, up-staged the line-up of professionals with the highest score of 14 out of 20 correct.

Bob Nixon, chief inspector of the Skeptics, said all scores fell into an expected pattern of random results – “The scores skewed towards failure: there were more bad scores below 10”, said Mr Nixon.

“We weren’t surprised. It was exactly what we predicted would happen.”

Midway through the test, a hostile group of diviners demanded Mr Nixon reposition the bottles, claiming interference from underground streams.

“We asked them to draw a map of the area and seven marked out streams, but there was absolutely no correlation between them”, Mr Nixon said.

The test was almost thrown into disarray when a dog, belonging to a Skeptics member, left his watery mark on one of the packages, calling a temporary halt to competition.

Mr Nixon said the event represented a new world record for the most diviners tested at the same place in one day, and the result added to the body of evidence accumulated over the past 20 years that divining is nothing more than random guessing.

Berrigan dairy farmer and diviner Shane Spunner was skeptical of the Skeptics’ ability to stage a fair test. “The test should have been made fairer by finding an area with no underground water”, he said.

From The Weekly Times, Victoria, Southern NSW, 14 March 2001.

Health, Wealth and Wellbeing through Critical Thinking and Bluebottle Farming

Bernard Howard reports from the Skeptics’ World Convention, Sydney, 10-12 November 2000

John Clarke’s gaze had been mercifully averted, so we were spared a TV series “The Congress”, showing all that could go wrong in planning an international conference. Heart-thumping, hair-tearing and nail-biting there may have been among members of the organising committee, but to the visitor the Third International Skeptics Congress proceeded very smoothly. There was a report that James Randi had found himself at the point of leaving Beijing without an Australian entry visa, but the revered face and voice arrived as planned. A catastrophe averted; an international skeptics meeting without our GOM is unthinkable.

The three days of the meeting were devoted to, respectively, “Wealth”, “Wellbeing”, and “Health”, broadly interpreted. A brief report cannot mention each of the many speakers, so I apologise in advance to those omitted. On day one, after initial formalities, and an address by Paul Kurtz, Founder and current Chairman of CSICOP, we heard of the many ways the unwary can be separated from their money. Apart from names familiar to skeptics, we heard from two Australians eminent in public affairs. First, Nicholas Cowdery QC is Director of Public Prosecutions for New South Wales, and shared some of his experiences of scams. Apart from some amusing episodes, he told of his astonishment when visiting South Africa to encounter a health campaign entitled “Raping a virgin does not cure AIDS”. The local witch doctors have been advising the ignorant otherwise, to the distress and shame of hundreds of ten year old females. Second, you would not think that anyone would send their life savings to a PO Box in hope of making a fortune investing in a bluebottle farm. And you would expect there could not be a more humourless, dead boring bureaucracy than the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. Both of these assumptions are wrong; the hundreds of Australians tempted by bluebottle farms and similar bizarre schemes were lucky that the PO Box they mailed their cheques to actually belonged to the Commission. Alan Cameron AM, the Chairman of the Commission, explained this imaginative method of assessing people’s gullibility. Sadly, it is regularly found to be high. This was my “top spot” of Day One. Randi was in top form in his evening presentation; in addition to showing us the video clips of his “Psychic Surgery” and the exposure of the fraudulent Peter Popoff, which he had shown during his tour of New Zealnd, he recounted a very disturbing episode at a meeting of evangelist Benny Hinn.

“Wellbeing” on day two covered many aspects of irrationality and critical thinking; from creationism to nuclear power; the “ten per cent of our brain myth”, psychic sleuths, and belief in magic. I liked Roland Seidel’s maxim; “Science tells us about the natural world, everything else tells us what it is like to be human”. My highlight of the day was Richard Wiseman’s two presentations. As well as having devised many ingenious tests of psychic claims, he is a deft conjuror and showman, and a frequent performer on UK television. He showed several film clips of fake seances, Rupert Sheldrake’s “psychic dog” (just a restless dog), and Sai Baba. We know the latter Indian “godman” is merely a conjuror; what was clear from the film is what a bad one he is, a real fumbler. A great contrast to the dazzling displays at the Congress from Bob Steiner, Steve Walker, Peter Rodgers, and Richard Wiseman. Skepticism and magicianship are natural partners.

Saturday evening’s Dinner afloat gave further opportunity for socialising and enjoying Sydney’s wonderful harbour. I found Darling Harbour by night a beautiful sight. Later, on a daytime bus tour, I thought it hideous.

And so to day three, “Health”. Dietary supplements, herbalism, immunisation, therapeutic touch, veterinary quackery, and, of course, cancer. “Raising a Skeptical Family” by our own Chair-Entity, was received very warmly. We often get the impression that Australians are very ignorant of events in New Zealand, and I was surprised to find that the Liam Williams-Holloway case had been followed closely over there. Once more, the Australian Skeptics demonstrated the respect in which they are held; in addition to the distinguished visitors we heard on day two, today we heard from Rosemary Stanton, the country’s leading nutritionist, Dr Gillian Shenfield, Professor John Dwyer and other prominent medical people. Prof Dwyer’s view that “Doctors must take a leadership role in protecting the public from quackery” sat uneasily in my mind with Dr Joe Proietto’s survey of a group of medical students, who, having read a hopelessly flawed journal article, were nevertheless prepared to recommend the therapy described.

My interest in the Health sessions meant I had to miss the concurrent session on “Cults & Crypto-religion”. This included speakers from China on Qigong and the Falun Gong. These, presented through an interpreter, were criticised afterwards as being nothing more than Chinese Government propaganda. Spouting “the Party line” has not died with the decline of Communism in the West.

The Australian Skeptics’ wealthy patron Dick Smith has long been a source of envy. I was surprised to find, advertised in the refreshment area of the Congress, “Dick Smith’s Australian Foods”. In selling his electronic business and moving into foods, he has jumped a level in the Periodic Table, from a silicon-based product to a carbon-based one. If the biscuits and cakes at morning and afternoon tea were his, I hope we may enjoy them here soon.

This was in every way a most successful event, of which our trans-Tasman friends should be proud. Paul Kurtz commented that, in all the skeptics conventions he had attended, he had never heard so much laughter from the audience. The Australian Skeptics have the same attitude as that which has inspired us from our foundation, “Take the work seriously, but not ourselves”. I am unlikely to be able to travel far to another international gathering, and I am grateful to our Australian friends for bringing this one within reach.

What Are We To Make of Exceptional Experience?

The following is an abridged version of a paper presented at Skeptics 2000, Dunedin, New Zealand. The author would like to thank NZCSICOP and NZARH for sponsoring this visit to New Zealand.

In this paper I discuss some major categories of “exceptional” or anomalous experiences and how to interpret them. I am particularly interested in the kinds of experiences studied by parapsychologists (ie ESP, PK, and precognition). An important assumption is that the description of an exceptional experience needs to be kept separate from any of its possible interpretations. The brain/mind is structured in such a way that exceptional experiences and their interpretations easily become conflated.

Interpretations of exceptional experience take principally one of two forms: normal or “N” theory accounts (NIEs) or a paranormal or “P” theory accounts (PIEs). Analysis of lay accounts of exceptional experience suggests an acceptance of and belief in paranormal claims ahead of the evidence that is necessary to warrant these claims.

Evidence supporting PIEs appears to be conflicting, inconsistent and, in other respects, seriously wanting. I argue that PIEs often result from eight special circumstances that pass unnoticed by the original investigators or PIE claimants. These are methodological flaws, sensory cues, imperfect randomisation, selection of best cases, subjective validation, inappropriate statistics, and outright deception, trickery or fraud.

The issue will be illustrated with seven specific examples.

1. Remote viewing ability

(1A) SRI series

This series of experiments on a form of ESP called remote viewing ran from 1972 to 1985 under the direction of Dr Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and created a huge international interest in the paranormal. Unfortunately, the studies were very badly flawed.

Science separates itself from pseudo-science along a number of dimensions. One of these is accessibility of the data. Following publication of interesting and significant observations it is an accepted scientific practice for researchers to allow colleagues who are doing serious research in the same field to have access to their original data. When researchers consistently refuse to allow colleagues such access, something important is being signalled. Of course data may get lost or destroyed or be difficult or costly to retrieve in the form required. Or they may be classified information or have commercial value that a scientist may wish to exploit prior to their general release.

However, when none of these considerations is applicable, refusal to supply a copy of a data-set leads to the unpleasant inference that something is wrong, that the data do not support what is claimed for them, that the data are an embarrassment following an extravagant claim that cannot be substantiated.

During the 1970s I made frequent requests to Puthoff and Targ for copies of their remote viewing transcripts. Targ and Puthoff consistently refused to supply this information, as they did to others I know who have made this request. Their only concession was to supply me with a single transcript from the Price series (Experiment 7) published in Mind-Reach.

Following publication of The Psychology of the Psychic, I conducted a “remote judging” exercise with the Hammid series of remote viewing experiments. The three remote judges had access only to the cues provided in the Hammid transcripts together with the target lists and the map provided to the SRI judge. No site visits were possible and none of the descriptive material from the SRI transcripts was available. A total of 24 cues was found in six Hammid transcripts.

The claim that the Hammid target list given to Arthur Hastings was randomised is also doubtful. It actually depends on which list one is talking about, because, although the SRI researchers were unwilling to admit this, no less than three listings of targets in the Hammid series were given to the judge. “I received three target lists” (letter from Hastings, May 26, 1977). One of these lists was randomised; this is the one cited by Puthoff as the (implying only) target list given to the judge. The other two lists provided by SRI (described in detail by Hastings in his letter to me of May 26, 1977) were not random.

Contrary to Targ and Puthoff’s claims, the quality of the subjects’ descriptions is extremely poor and, without the cues, cannot be matched against the targets. Had cue-less matching been possible, T and P would not have needed to leave these obvious clues in the transcripts in the first place.

Tart, Puthoff and Targ (1980) claimed to have conducted a re-judging of the Price series with all of the cues removed from the transcripts. After asking Puthoff for a set of the edited transcripts on multiple occasions over three years, they were eventually sent to a colleague Dr Chris Scott. On inspecting these supposedly “edited” transcripts, it was readily apparent that many obvious cues were still present (Marks & Scott, 1986). The little remaining credibility for Targ and Puthoff had now been absolutely and irrevocably destroyed.

(1B) SAIC or Star Gate series.

This series of remote viewing studies ran from 1985 until 1995 and was directed by Dr Edwin May. The Star Gate RV series consisted of three projects:

  1. “Operations” using remote viewers stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, to collect intelligence;
  2. “Research and Development”, the laboratory research conducted at SRI and later at SAIC;
  3. “Foreign Assessment” focused on gathering intelligence on what potential enemies were doing in the area of parapsychology.

Much of the information about Operations and Foreign Assessment remains classified although many ex-military remote viewers have established private businesses that offer remote viewing services. They are responsible for a lot of hype in the media, in their books and on their WebPages.

The CIA carried out a review of the SAIC program in 1995 which was aimed at determining: (a) whether Star Gate had any long-term practical value for the intelligence community, and (b) if it did, what changes should be made to enhance the value of remote viewing research. The review reached the following conclusions:

  1. “A statistically significant effect has been observed in the recent laboratory experiments of remote viewing. However, the existence of a statistically significant effect did not lead both reviewers to the conclusion that this research program has provided an unequivocal demonstration that remote viewing exists. A statistically significant effect might result either from the existence of the phenomenon, or, alternatively, to methodological artefacts or other alternative explanations for the observed effects.”

  2. “The experimental research conducted as part of the current program does not unambiguously support the interpretation of the results in terms of a paranormal phenomenon.”

The principal reason for this conclusion is that only one judge, who happened to be the Principal Investigator, was used in assessing matches throughout these experimental studies. The CIA report concluded:

“As a consequence, there is no evidence for agreement across independent judges as to the accuracy of the remote viewings. Failure to provide evidence that independent judges arrive at similar conclusions makes it difficult to unambiguously determine whether the observed effects can be attributed to the remote viewers’ (paranormal) ability, to the ability of the judge to interpret ambiguous information, or to the combination or interaction of the viewers and the judge. Furthermore, given the Principal Investigator’s familiarity with the viewers, the target set, and the experimental procedures, it is possible that subtle, unintentional factors may have influenced the results obtained in these studies.”

2. Ganzfeld ESP ability

This field is a core part of the parapsychology literature and has been intensively researched in at least ten different laboratories in the USA and Europe for about the same length of time as remote viewing. The ganzfeld research has gained an almost symbolic importance for the parapsychology field as the best case for the existence of psi. The results obtained in the ganzfeld allegedly appeared in multiple studies by different investigators with subjects who were not especially selected or gifted as psychics. It is the main focus for discussions of parapsychology in a leading psychology journal (Psychological Bulletin) and it has increasingly been viewed as a genuine and uncontroversial finding. Until now, that is.

Ganzfeld experiments involve two participants, a sender and a receiver, located in separate rooms. The receiver is in a ganzfeld that is usually created by wearing translucent Ping-Pong ball halves taped over the eyes and a red floodlight directed towards the eyes, producing an undifferentiated visual field. White noise is played through headphones. To reduce internal “noise” in the form of somatic sensations, the receiver may be taken through a series of progressive relaxation exercises. The term “ganzfeld”, a German word meaning “total field”, refers to the mild sensory habituation created by the environment described.

The sender is shown a target picture or video clip that has been randomly selected from a large pool of possible targets. The sender is asked to try to send the information about the picture or video to the receiver by psychic means (telepathy). The receiver is asked to receive this information and to report any images, thoughts or feelings that occur during the trial. The receiver is then given a randomly ordered set of four stimuli, the target plus three decoys. If the receiver chooses the correct target it is recorded as a hit. The mean chance expectation (MCE) is 25 percent: a statistically significant deviation above MCE is suggestive of an anomalous effect consistent with psi.

The ganzfeld research is unique in parapsychology for the way in which believers and sceptics have worked together to agree a protocol for properly controlled investigation (Hyman & Honorton, 1986). This resulted from the leadership of two principal figures, the late Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. One of the progressive outcomes of Hyman and Honorton’s joint communiqué was a set of guidelines concerning methodology. Hopefully these guidelines for ganzfeld research were implemented and the quality of studies improved as a consequence.

Not only should the methodology have improved beyond the earlier studies, which were heavily flawed (Hyman, 1985), but the results should not be dependent on a small band of investigators: when a small number of well-insulated people and organisations are responsible for a program, the research can go badly off the rails.

Milton and Wiseman (1999) systematically reviewed the ganzfeld literature since the Hyman/Honorton joint communiqué, 1987 to February 1997. They found 30 studies in 14 papers by 10 principal authors from seven laboratories; the database included 1,198 ganzfeld trials. They calculated a probability score across all 30 studies of only .24, meaning that the ganzfeld effect was so small it did not differ statistically from chance. Milton and Wiseman’s study, published in the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, has already created a few waves in the parapsychology pond.

Startling Results

As if this result was not damaging enough, the investigators went on to critically examine three of five other claims made by Bem and Honorton (1994) and to determine their methodological rigour. What they found is even more startling. The new ganzfeld studies, 1987-97, examined three out of five variables that Bem and Honorton had suggested were statistically related to high psi scoring rates in the autoganzfeld studies. These three variables were:

  1. Trials with dynamic targets (videos) had been more successful than trials with static targets.
  2. Novices who reported prior psi experiences in everyday life scored more highly than those who did not.
  3. Novices who reported studying a mental discipline such as meditation or yoga scored more highly than people who did not.

Milton and Wiseman’s analysis found only one of these variables to be significant of the new studies (number 2). However when they looked into the original studies examined by Bem and Honorton (1994) they discovered that there appeared to be no good evidence to support this in the first place. The two papers in which this ‘novices with mental training’ effect was allegedly found contained one non-significant effect (Honorton & Schecter, 1986) and one reversed effect (Honorton, 1997). The same problem appeared in respect of another of Bem and Honorton’s “discoveries” about psi, that high scoring novices were also high on Feeling and Perception on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Briggs & Myers, 1957). This was another “discovery” that appeared in the first study and then disappeared in the second.

Milton (1999) extended the meta-analysis to included nine further well-controlled ganzfeld studies run between February 1997 to March 1999. This longer series of 39 studies managed to reach significance (p= .011) but, when a single highly significant study by Dalton (1997) was excluded, the Stouffer z score was only 1.45 and p=.074 (not significant). Thus, there is no evidence of a consistently replicable ganzfeld effect across a 12-year period of well-controlled ganzfeld research. One or two strikingly significant studies appear now and then but this does not constitute replication. The occurrence of one highly significant study in a general run of non-significant studies in fact sets alarm bells ringing. Dalton’s (1997) study with an effect size that is significantly higher than the general run suggests the need for an in-depth investigation of Dalton’s protocols.

In addition to the non-significant meta-analyses, criticisms of studies included by Bem and Honorton have also arisen. These are:

  • Inadequate randomisation of targets and judging sets (Hyman, 1994)
  • Possible sensory leakage of target information (Wiseman et al, 1996)
  • Lack of replication (Milton & Wiseman, 1999)

3. Ability to detect unseen staring

Rupert Sheldrake (1994) proposed An Alice Through the Looking Glass vision of things that might be so but probably are not. He advocates the collective participation of non-scientists who have the “freedom to explore new areas of research”, and promotes a radically new theory of perception. We do not see images of things inside our brains, he maintains, the images may be outside us: “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images.”

This process of outward projection has some interesting implications. If our minds reach out and “touch” things, then we may affect what we look at. For example, when we stare at somebody from behind s/he may be able to feel that we are staring on the back of his/her neck. Titchener (1898) described the feeling as “a state of unpleasant tingling, which gathers in volume and intensity until a movement which shall relieve it becomes inevitable” (p. 895). Colwell, Schroeder and Sladen (2000) have recently reviewed the literature on psychic staring and carried out some empirical tests.

The idea that “unseen” staring can be detected has been supported in the following research with incidence rates as high as 68-86% (Coover, 1913), 74% (Williams, 1983) and 92% (Braud, Shafer & Andrews, 1993). Titchener rejected the idea that the staring effect was based on telepathy and suggested the hypothesis that the eye is attracted to movement and the starer’s gaze is therefore attracted to the staree’s head turning in his direction.

Sheldrake (1994) has conducted new experiments on the staring phenomenon and encouraged school children and other members of the public to participate in his research program. Experimental kits can be downloaded from the New Scientist Web Site including an interesting list of 24 “random” sequences for use in experimental trials. Sheldrake suggests that each child in a group is tested with a different sequence or use sequences determined by tosses of a coin. The results are being compiled by Sheldrake into a pooled data set.

A colleague, John Colwell, decided to put the Sheldrake findings to rigorous test under controlled laboratory conditions (Colwell et al, 2000). On the basis of Sheldrake’s observations, it was decided to investigate the staring effect both with and without feedback. Colwell’s team carried out two experiments. The results of the first experiment suggested that the subjects in the staring research are able to score above chance as a consequence of being able to learn the non-random patterns in the sequences using the feedback. The tendency of the participants to show negative recency by avoiding multiple repetitions was well matched by Sheldrake’s sequences that showed exactly the same property. The fact that starees can guess when staring is occurring at above chance levels therefore demonstrates nothing other than an ability to notice patterns. This is a low-level ability that even a mouse could manage.

John Colwell and his team repeated the experiment using 10 properly randomised sequences taken from random number tables instead of Sheldrake’s non-random sets. The results support the hypothesis that the improvement in accuracy during staring episodes observed in Experiment One was due to pattern learning. When no feedback was provided and pattern learning was blocked, no ability to detect staring was observed and also no learning.

4. Pets’ ESP ability

Are animals psychic? Since time immemorial human beings have attributed supernatural powers to animals. The latest example of a long tradition of paranormal claims on behalf of our animal friends is the “psychic pet”. For example, a pet dog is claimed to be able to use psychic powers to detect when its owner is returning home. This has been the subject of Sheldrake’s (1999) Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Sheldrake believes that a dog called Jaytee uses its “sixth sense” of telepathy to determine its owner Pamela Smart’s decision to return home.

According to Sheldrake, many pet owners claim the ability in their pets to know when a member of the household is about to come home. The dog goes and waits for the owner at a door or window, in a driveway, or even at a bus stop.

Sheldrake claims that on 100 different occasions between May 1994 and February 1995 when Pamela left Jaytee with her parents and went out, 85 times Jaytee reacted by going to the French window before Pamela returned, usually at least 10 minutes in advance of Pamela’s decision to set off for home. The anticipatory behaviour occurred regardless of distance or vehicle used. However, as Sheldrake acknowledges, the “anticipatory signalling” behaviour of Jaytee could have been cued by the expectations of Pam’s parents William and Muriel Smart as they consciously or unconsciously cued the dog that Pam would be home soon. It was necessary to conduct trials in which Pam set off for home at randomly selected times that were unknown to William and Muriel.

The story took an interesting twist in 1995 when Rupert Sheldrake (RS) invited Richard Wiseman to investigate Jaytee (Wiseman, Smith and Milton, 1998). Richard Wiseman’s team proposed eight normal explanations for the “psychic pet” phenomenon that controlled studies would need to take into account, including response to routine, sensory cueing, and selective memory.

Wiseman conducted four studies with the full co-operation of Pamela Smart and Sheldrake, based on the above safeguards and precautions. In none of these studies did Jaytee detect accurately when PS set off to return home. If this pet dog had any psychic ability at all, it did not appear in this study.

Rupert Sheldrake (1999) reports a series of observations carried out in a pre-planned series of 12 “experiments” in which Jaytee’s behaviour was recorded throughout Pam’s absences on time-recorded videotape. In these trials Pam came home at randomly selected times that were not known to her in advance. A third party (usually Sheldrake) selected the return time and bleeped Pam on a pager.

The resulting observations were analysed in two ways. First, by plotting the percentage of time that JT spent by the window for three periods:

  1. 1. The first ten minutes following the bleep: 55%
  2. The 10-minute period prior to PS’s return: 23%
  3. The main period when PS was absent prior to the pre-return period that varied between 110 and 150 minutes: 4%.

It would be a common sense interpretation of Sheldrake’s data to assume that JT could learn the timing of PS’s returns. This is exactly what happens. The results of Sheldrake’s tests are therefore not convincing. Why Sheldrake chose to use a pre-arranged bleep period that started between 80 and 170 minutes after PS had left is unclear. This restricted range for the bleep means that the return is more predictable. John Colwell estimated the return periods following the bleep by examining Sheldrake’s plots of the data. He found that PS always returned within a period of 110-200 minutes following her departure, 10 of the returns (83%) occurring during a 40-minute period between 120 and 160 minutes after departure. This means that JT may have learned when PS could be expected home and signalled accordingly. This hypothesis assumes no psychic powers, only the power of memory. The procedures used by Wiseman had allowed the return to occur at any time following PS’s departure. This procedure stopped JT from learning a simple routine based on timing similar to the situation that pertained when PS had followed a daily routine of reliable departures and returns.

5. Uri Geller’s ESP ability

In turning to claims 5-7 by self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, the fact that his claims are unproven is so well known among parapsychologists that we do not need to dwell on them for very long. However they need to be discussed because Geller is still actively involved as a paranormalist and many lay people appear to believe that his claims are genuine. There is only one peer-reviewed article on his ESP abilities; this is the same paper that reported the remote viewing studies carried out at the Stanford Research Institute by Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff (1974).

Like the remote viewing studies, Targ and Puthoff’s studies with Geller were very badly flawed. As in the case of remote viewing, however, the flaws were not apparent until in-depth investigations could be carried out into the experimental conditions. Following visits to the SRI laboratory Dick Kammann and I were able to reveal that the investigators Targ and Puthoff had left Geller unobserved in a chamber which had a hole in the wall stuffed only with cotton wool. An intercom was also available for Geller to listen to the investigators as they chose the targets and produced the stimulus drawings. At least one of the drawings (a bunch of grapes) was placed on a wall in the adjoining room opposite the access hole.

There has never been a single replication of this study. Repeated attempts by the author and others to persuade Geller to participate in laboratory experiments have been rejected. Field observations of Geller’s performance have revealed his use of sensory cues available from signals sent by accomplices.

6. Uri Geller’s PK ability

Geller’s claim to be able to bend metal without touching it is well known. However in spite of his claims, there are no peer-reviewed reports of his alleged PK ability (metal bending, influencing objects at a distance). Field observation shows that Geller can only bend metal in his hands.

7. Uri Geller’s clairvoyant ability

A set of 10 trials of a clairvoyance experiment was carried at SRI using a dice in a locked box (Targ & Puthoff, 1974). This study was also seriously flawed because Geller had the time and opportunity to flip open the lid of the box and see the target information. Again there is a lack of replication and field observations of his alleged clairvoyance ability suggest the use of normal perceptual-motor abilities in the form of signals from an accomplice and other means.

The genesis of P Theory

In the seven examples of Exceptional Experience discussed above, a NIE has proved to be a perfectly adequate explanation making any form of PIE redundant or superfluous. This rather pessimistic conclusion about the validity of PIEs is not purely a negative exercise however. Psychological and statistical studies of Exceptional Experience have yielded an interesting account of how the everyday operation of the processes of attention, perception and decision making promote PIE-thinking even when the alternative and more rational NIE-thinking can do perfectly well with the same experiential data. These analyses have revealed processes that make the genesis and high prevalence of PIEs understandable from a psychological viewpoint.

Subjective validation.

This is a powerful effect of belief and selective attention. Subjective validation occurs when support for one’s beliefs is found in a piece of evidence independently of any objective support. This process is also known under the term, “confirmation bias”.

Coincidences as “odd matches”.

There is a compelling and widespread tendency to believe that coincidences cannot occur purely by chance. An “odd match” is an association between two events that appears to lack a causal explanation. In The Psychology of the Psychic (1st ed.) Kammann and I referred to the belief that such odd matches cannot arise by chance as Koestler’s Fallacy after the most famous of its proponents. In fact, odd matches can and do occur by chance. “One-in-a-million” odd matches occur with a probability of precisely one in a million. The problem is that you and I are unaware of the million-minus-one combinations that do not strike us as vivid odd matches.

Assume that at the end of an ordinary day a person can recall 100 distinct events. This gives 4950 pairs of events. In 10 years and 1000 people we have 18 billion pairs of events. This generates 18,000 “one-in-a-million” events, some of which will be very striking.

The numbers of “one-in-a-million” experiences over the entire human population become impressively large. From the statistical viewpoint, that these experiences happen is inevitable. From a psychological viewpoint, it is equally as inevitable that the individuals concerned will have difficulty dealing with the experience without a fatalistic or paranormal interpretation. If a few exceptional experiences inspire their authors to write about them in their full paranormal regalia (e.g. Koestler, 1972) we have discovered the genesis of parapsychology itself. The reason parapsychologists continue to work in their chosen field is not the often disappointing results they obtain from their formal studies but their compelling personal experiences that have a PIE attached.

References available on request from the editor


I hate to spoil a good story, especially a skeptical one, but is there something slightly adrift with William Ireland’s piece on the Kaikoura UFOs?

He says the camera was looking down at an angle of perhaps 38 degrees, but does not use the figure to explain anything. However, looking down at that angle, at an object 6 km away, implies a height of 4.7 km, or 3.7 km if the distance is measured along the line of sight. But I thought an Argosy typically flew at about 6000 or 8000 feet, or 1.8 – 2.4 km.

The 6 km is given as a minimum, so the discrepancy could be worse than this: if the distance comes from the aircraft radar it should be reasonably reliable, so does this mean the angle is wrong, or my figure for a low-tech aircraft cruising height, or what?

Kerry Wood