Baloney Detection 101 — The Ideomotor Effect

Ouija boardsautomatic writing…table tipping in spiritualist seancesdowsing in all its forms, including bogus bomb detectors…the Clever Hans phenomenonapplied kinesiology…New Age psychotherapy techniques that purport to query the unconscious…what do all of these things have in common?

They are all in some form or other the results of a well-understood and empirically well-established psycho-muscular phenomenon known as the Ideomotor effect.

Known mostly to psychologists, it is a phenomenon which has been repeatedly confirmed since the days of William B. Carpenter in 1852, who called it ‘Ideomotor action’ after his investigations into dowsing, and to paraphrase Dr. Ray Hyman, who after he tested this phenomenon has said that “honest and intelligent people can (and do…) unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations.”

It is a mechanism in which mental suggestiveness can produce results of unconscious or involuntary actions that may be erroneously viewed as paranormal or supernatural by those unaware of it, both body and mind influenced by the power of subtle, unconscious suggestion. The nature of the movement caused by the effect is the result of a mild dissociative state, in which the user’s conscious awareness of the motion he is performing is suspended, producing the illusion of motion seemingly caused by mysterious forces external to himself, often considered to be paranatural or otherwise mysterious in origin.

Such notables as psychologist William James, chemist Michel Chevereul, and physicist Michael Faraday have tested this phenomenon and successfully shown that many seemingly inexplicable effects or forces can be more parsimoniously explained as resulting from Ideomotor activity, such as moving a ouija board’s planchette, the rod or pendulum of a dowser, diviner or alchemist, the hands of a practitioner of Facilitated Communication, as well as some behaviors often attributed to hypnotic suggestion.

The Ideomotor effect, though most people, even quite a few scientists, are unaware of it, is a well-documented phenomenon and includes the following features:

  • It amplifies the motion of a pendulum or other hand-held object, such as a divining rod in ways that the operator doesn’t consciously notice, and then…
  • …The operator, completely unaware of his own agency in the motion, ascribes it to something ‘outside’ or ‘other’ than himself…
  • …This ‘something outside’ is then thought to be some sort of paranormal, occult, or unknown scientific force, typically some sort of spiritual agency or ‘energy field’ in the operator’s vicinity…
  • …Which then produces a powerful feeling, quickly snowballing into a full-fledged delusion, that the operator possesses some sort of unusual or special ability, power over, or sensitivity to unusual forces or influences…
  • …And when thus used in attempts at divination this effect reveals no knowledge to the operator that he or she didn’t already possess, though the operator may not be aware that they know what they do on a conscious level. This is especially true when the effect is used in ‘water witching’ when the operator has unconscious knowledge of what local geological characteristics are likely to be in an area where underground water sources are to be found, and even if not, in most cases there is a fair likelihood of finding water by chance anyway.

In any case, success in this by the operator reinforces belief, failure is downplayed and forgotten, which causes…

  • …the psychological reinforcement resulting from the dissociation of bodily motion and conscious awareness of it to magnify the delusional effect, setting in motion cognitive mechanisms that prevent the operator’s belief in the effect from being falsified…

…and as a result, many operators become firmly convinced of their own powers, even despite evidence to the contrary, such as a careful and patient explanation with a demonstration of the scientific understanding behind this effect.

Logical Fallacies — the False Premise

Alien Moai
Alien Moai

Hey, guys. This post shall attempt to address a common fallacy, more accurately a factual error, rather than one of pure logical structure, the False Premise, though often used in the context of a logical argument, and therefore as a component of specious reasoning.

The false premise is a statement, claim, fact or assertion that is simply not true, and which thus renders any argument using it automatically unsound or non-cogent.

A false premise can range from a simple myth or misconception that is held out of ignorance, willful or otherwise, to a claim or statement of belief resulting from a delusion, to a blatant, intentional prevarication, and this form of argument is often a common rhetorical tactic by pseudoscientists. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Quantum Mechanics supports the idea that reality does not exist unless it is being looked at by a conscious observer.
  • Quantum Mechanics explains telepathy as a result of the shared Entanglement of particles in separate brains.

The first is false, for one thing, because quantum observation has nothing to do with consciousness or even the possession of any other sort of function commonly associated with a living mind at all, it simply involves the effects on quantum entities by interaction through the physical act of measurement.

It is also false because Quantum Mechanics, as a widely-accepted and evidentially well-supported scientific theory, depends on the existence of reality in order to be true, no matter who is using it, when or where. QM makes the posting of this blog entry on the computer servers that you are not looking at (and are therefore not ‘consciously observing’…) possible.

The second is also false for two reasons: First, it’s pointless to explain something before it’s even convincingly established to adequate standards that the phenomenon even exists to be explained to begin with, and second, there is as yet no evidence of any quantum effects, especially entanglement, in the thus-far detectable activity of the human brain.

Three common variations of the false premise are listed and described below.

The first, the Big Lie is a false statement so huge that it is difficult, interestingly enough, for people to think that it would be told if it were not true. This is especially the case when it is told with genuine sincerity, as part of a personal misconception or even a delusion. Three examples follow:

  • This starship is constructed out of corbomite. If you fire upon us, the explosion will destroy both our vessels.
  • I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I’m a mirant. I can kill you just by looking at you funny.
  • The scientific evidence for psi is compelling, just Google “evidence for psi” to see for yourself.

Note that that last example, slightly paraphrased, has been used on yours truly on this blog at least once, and was, though false and boldly stated, probably not an intentional falsehood on the part of the one making it.


Next, the Multiple Untruth, also known as the Gish Gallop when used by creationists.

This is the use of so many specious arguments at once that they are almost impossible to keep in mind, and though the opponent of the one using this fallacy may have the time to refute a few of them, only those most skilled in debate find the opportunity in the time they have to give a rebuttal to all of them.

This is often effective because since only a small number of misconceptions is refuted when this is employed, it conveys the impression of victory in the debate to the user’s audience.

I notice this one a lot on blogs by psi proponents, who ingeniously cram so many factual misconceptions and other fallacies into their arguments that even this evil skeptophrenic blogger finds it impossible at present to deconstruct even a single complete argument in the space of only a single rebuttal. Several such posts in a series are usually needed to deal with them in as much detail as I would like. I tip my Evil Pseudoskeptic™ hat to them, for now…

Thirdly, the Noble Lie: Plato is often credited with inventing this one, and he may indeed have. This is a fairly common debating tactic, a falsehood told for its rhetorical effect, and often for the supposed result of believing the premise.

This variant operates on the working assumption that those it is told to are intellectually incapable of handling the truth and/or so imbecilic that they cannot possibly see through it on their own.

Those thusly treated like imbeciles by being told the lie, should they already know or discover the truth, often have an emotional reaction to it and summarily dismiss out of hand anything said by that source from then on.

Plato’s work, the Republic, describes what he proposed as the ideal society, in which the complicity of its citizens to the social order was maintained by the Noble Lie.

I’ve found that if your aim is to engage in intellectually honest, truly constructive discussions, it’s a good idea to put forth the effort not to commit this fallacy, both by avoiding intentional falsehoods, and alleviating the use of unintentional misconceptions by looking up on and knowing what you’re talking about, however tentative and subject to future correction and revision that may be. Nobody, however venerated, can be right about everything.

(Last Update: 2014/06/29)

Science Fiction & ‘Psionic’ Abilities

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a big science fiction fan. After all, it’s what got me interested in science, and later, modern scientific skepticism.

As a science fiction fan, I’ve always thought that weird mental powers — known as ‘psionics,’ a sciency term for what we in the real world refer to as alleged psychic abilities — are just way cool, and my old concept (now long since outdated) of my science fiction setting Terra M (henceforth renamed Gods of Terra)used the idea as one of the major plot elements in the story lines.

So much for that for now…

I’m in the process of majorly rethinking my fictional universe, and as well as redoing the iconic characters of the setting, and also come up with the idea of brain-implanted alien artifacts called ‘hypershards’ to explain the powers of the setting’s evolved superhumans, hominids called Mirants.

These powers in so many fictional settings are so unlike the unproven abilities of real world psychics in that while sometimes subtle, they can also be unambiguously provable, sometimes ridiculously so. I suppose that this is one reason some of the real-world psychics who truly believe in their abilities take issue with being compared to the X-Men. After all, Professor X has to my knowledge never had any trouble using his telepathic abilities even under the most stringent conditions, no matter if a skeptic or believer was running the test, and few people in most comic book universes doubt the existence of such abilities precisely because they are so demonstrably provable.

Hmmm, sounds like sour grapes syndrome to me.

I think that SF psionics is cool because it has a strange sort of existential status, a superposition of being simultaneously both high-technology and low-technology. I’ll explain:

The low-tech aspect of SF psionics is the fact that you don’t always need advanced gadgetry to use it — You just concentrate, and stuff happens — depending on the setting of course. Some SF universes require their psionicists, or psions (SF psychics) to have some sort of material focus to help them center their concentration, ranging all the way from simple items like amulets or headbands made of crystal or weird metallic alloys (platinum-group metals are popular) to hyper-advanced ‘psychotronic’ machinery, often using reverse-engineered alien technology (I used a similar but modified idea for my hypershard-granted powers, which I call myria or myrionics).

The high-tech aspect, in addition to the some of the aforementioned gadgetry used to employ these abilities in some settings, is the fact that in many SF universes, these powers are relatively well-understood in terms of how they work and why, even if only according to the science of the setting. In these universes, psi is science, not pseudoscience.

Yes, it may be pseudoscience, but even as a skeptic it’s still fun to imagine. I’m a skeptic largely because I want to know the real explanations for what seems to be paranormal, not just accept on faith whatever psychics and believers assert without substantiation.

Trust me, I have looked at what passes for evidence of psi, and it’s curious, perhaps even suspicious, that the only supporting sources I could find are those entities dedicated to promoting it, like right here, and here. In my experience, the normal and natural have been tested countless times and always come up positive, and just the opposite has happened whenever the paranatural has been tested — It has consistently come up zero at best.

In an SF universe where the understanding of the laws of physics actually allows for it, there is usually a broad scientific consensus in those fields dealing with psi on a coherent theoretical basis for what it does and how it works, a situation most unlike the real world, where the paraphysical community still has nothing close to a general agreement on a workable, testable, evidentially supported theory of psi, despite a disappointing 130+years of investigation. The original pioneers of the field would not be pleased if they could see what passes for its ‘progress’ today.

Sigh…Yes, I know, there’s quantum mechanics, the most abused and misunderstood physical theory ever appropriated to support belief in woo, used for everything from ‘explaining’ telepathy to using science to ‘debunk’ reality. Sorry, but I still exist to write this post, even when you’re not looking at me. It’s curious that those who understand QM best, the majority of quantum physicists themselves, don’t advocate its validity in explaining psi. I wonder why…

Despite any wishes on my part, until psi can be demonstrated in independently replicated tests regardless of the attitudes or beliefs of the experimenters, it is likely to remain marginalized, even ridiculed, ever on the borderlands of science, and remain unlikely to ever ‘subvert the dominant paradigm.’

A Night at the Conference

The Mirus was having a grand time at the 2015 Annual World Skeptics’ Conference, chatting it up with some of the most brilliant clear thinkers in the world, including several of the skeptics who had just a year ago tested and validated him as the only proven supernormal being on the planet. Needless to say, the ten million dollar prize money he won in the final test came in handy: He used it to fund his own professional organization, both to try to find others like himself through testing, and to expose those who merely pretended to possess unusual powers by the same means. A skeptic with paranormal abilities…who would’a thunk it?

So far, he had been unsuccessful in the former, though some of the latter had been tested and found wanting, and most just never took the bait. He could easily speculate as to why.

The Mirus’ abilities stemmed from a bizarre alien artifact in his brain, a piece of technology stemming from an application of higher-order physics millions of years beyond humanity’s current achievements…a hypershard — a construct whose existence extended into eleven dimensions of spacetime — which would have had some…interesting effects had he been a normal human. Fully meshed with his own brain, the implant’s advanced nature alone qualified it as paranormal, since no one on Earth would understand its workings for millions of years to come…

He had no idea how it had gotten there…

Instead, he suspected that he belonged to a hominid species of which he was the only known member, characterized by variations in human brain architecture that allowed him to harbor his hypershard without going mad from the cognitive and perceptual feedback the implant might have produced in a Homo sapiens. He had hoped to confirm or confute that hypothesis with actual data some day.

He was in the midst of talking with the former magician who had hosted this meeting of minds, when his hypershard alerted him to the acoustic signature, complete with a diagram displayed by a superimposed visual overlay, of several…things…approaching the dinner hall he and several hundred others where in.

Hmmm. One of them seems familiar…awfully big though, I’d say around half a metric ton in mass. The rest are little guys, armored — as if that will do them any good against me — and armed as well. They don’t seem to have injured or killed anyone…yet. This is going to be interesting.

With this thought, he rolled his eyes and sighed as the beings strode into the room, the big one standing around three meters tall and built like a brick sh*thouse. This one, a reptilian being looking like something out of a Japanese kaiju flick, swayed its tail from side to side while looking around the room as if searching for something, its massive armored body striding forward with each foot step making a heavy *thump* as it walked.

The others, apparently of the same species, but less than a meter and a half tall, were likewise armored, and armed with what the Mirus immediately recognized as gauss weaponry, small magnetic railguns designed to be carried by a single soldier and capable of sustained and automatic fire.

The humans in the room cleared a path as one of the creatures brandished its weapon and fired a warning shot, the hypersonic rounds making a loud *crack* as they passed over the humans’ heads. The Mirus stood where he was.

One of the small ones pointed in his direction, and the giant, apparently the leader, strode over and stopped in front of him. It seemed to bow its head as if greeting him, and a series of guttural, staccato sounds, apparently spoken in several tones at once, issued forth. The Mirus responded in kind, and this exchange went on for several seconds until the giant said in perfect but multiple-toned English, “You speak our language well for a human, but your pronunciation is atrocious due to your vocal limits. We shall converse in your language instead.”

A smile crossed the Mirus’ face as he looked the towering being in the eyes and said, “Bazrikoss Gurao of Rhiljitar, what brings you to my humble little world? Have you forgotten that this planet is off limits?” The smaller beings, Bazrikoss’ bodyguards, aimed their gauss weapons in his direction as he continued, “And what’s with the toys?” Before a shot could be fired, he gestured, and the weapons were jerked out of the grip of the alien warriors as if by unseen hands, and like an exploded view diagram in a technical manual, immediately flew apart, the now disassembled pieces falling to the floor in a heap. “I hope your mooks know how to reassemble their equipment. They’ll need to.”

“Now then…” he continued, “where were we? Oh, yes, this is where I send you on your way…or else.” Bazrikoss’ left hand, now obviously artificial, began to flow like liquid, into something looking for all the world like some sort of ornate barreled weapon, its nanotech construction reconfiguring it into something nasty. The tip of the barrel leveled at the Mirus, glowing with a radiance so dark that it was almost black, and indigo lightning shot forth, rather than striking him, arcing and twisting around him before finally dying out, apparently absorbed harmlessly by nothingness. The hypershard again. Hmmm. Particle strike. Bad move on his part.

Bazrikoss screamed as the Mirus looked at him with a cold gleam in his eye, and then, starting outwardly, the giant alien began to dissolve, also into nothingness, until the dissolution reached the very center of what was left of his body, which then winked out of existence, something that had been on his right middle finger falling to the floor with an audible *plink!*

Our hero looked at the floor where the object had fallen, a transparent metal circlet, sized for the fingers of someone of Bazrikoss’ measurements. He strode over, and picked it up, walked over to one of the smaller beings and said, “I know what this is and what it does. Tell your master when this brings him back that if he ever sets foot on this planet again, he dies. In fact, tell him that I will kill him if he even enters this system. He had his one chance from me, and that’s all he gets. Next time, I’ll destroy his means of resurrection as well. Now go.” He placed the ring in the hand of the leading alien, and closed its fingers upon it, as the alien gate crashers turned around and left.

He turned and gestured at the pile of gauss rifle parts strewn on the floor, and they faded away as he said, “Wow. I must have set off the detection elements of every neutrino telescope on the planet with that. So, tell me people…what did you think of my little magic act?”