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In a world of supernaturals, what would real psychics be like?


Ah, here’s something different, for my 1,600th post! Earlier last evening, some friends of mine were over at my place doing some gaming with me, and of course tormenting Eccles with a laser light pen. Here are some pics from that evening of fun…

The gang’s at the gaming table, and yes, that’s my thumb in the pic (on purpose)!

Spoils of War! We sorted out pieces from my old gaming dice collection for my friends’ use — I’ve no further need for it!

Our almighty GM ponders our characters’ fates during the game!

Mister Eccles is on the prowl, looking to catch the point of red light from our GM’s laser pen!

Last evening, we were playing a 4th edition GURPS RPG campaign set in a world were supernatural beings and forces really exist, but seek to hide themselves from the much more numerous, clever, and fearful, ordinary folk…

…after all, Ceteri, as the supernatural beings are called, are powerful, but humans are many and inventive, and enough mundanes can take down even the mightiest wizard, so the Ceteri work together…or ELSE!

Anyhoo…

In the real world, a psychic is a normal person who plays the role of a psychic using conjuror or mentalist tricks — as far as anyone’s been able to prove, pending the unlikely scientific documentation of genuine psychics — but we speculated on the reverse, what real psychics would do in an otherwise supernatural world of dangerous normals.

An aside: Self-styled psychic Craig Weiler, (whose blog is here) has proposed an interesting mythology of what he calls “psychic people,” an embattled special subset of humanity of which he imagines himself a member, who suspiciously resemble the X-Men, a notion he understandably takes exception to, since I’m sure the comparison strikes a little close to home.

But what if there really were such special people with psychic abilities, and what if they really were wary of persecution by normals? Well, they’d hide in plain sight, and not by announcing themselves as psychics on shows by people like Montel Williams, or Oprah Winfrey, but by posing as skilled normals, and make a healthy, honest living in the process, quite unlike those doing the reverse in reality.

Here’s how that would work:

Psychics whose powers involved telepathic or psychokinetic effects would pose as mentalists or conjurors, in the manner of Banachek, James Randi, or Penn & Teller, but to make their act foolproof, would also have actual magician skills to conceal themselves in the presence of otherwise mundane magicians and supplement their powers with extra things to do on stage.

Such a performer could use genuine powers in the first part of an act, then like in a Penn & Teller “reveal” at the end of the act, avert suspicion by showing how the trick was “really” done to the audience.

Professional camouflage.

Those psychics given to abilities involving prediction could pose as astronomers, meteorologists, statisticians, and other researchers who ordinarily use mathematical models to make predictions in their fields, and these psychics would only have to know just enough math to make their imposture as normals plausible, while keeping their day-to-day predictions believable (to a mundane scientist) while doling out their more spectacular and unusual predictions to other supernatural beings covertly.

In the setting we play in, there is a Council of allied supernatural creatures that works to keep the normals “in the dark” to preserve it’s existence, keep the peace with the normals, and prevent the very sort of embattlement that Mr. Weiler imagines “his people” to be experiencing.

On pain of sounding incredibly arrogant, I’m sure we all like to feel that we’re somehow special and a cut above the rest, but Weiler has it the wrong way around — I think that the genuine psychics, if there were any, and with the situation he believes to be the case, would NOT show themselves to the world on television, in seminars, or giving readings in dark rooms to gullible marks — a blatant display of actual ability would be suicide — but would keep themselves perpetually hidden from a world of normals who would never fully know of their existence, those normals being, to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones’ character in Men In Black, fearful, panicky animals…and who would definitely not suffer a (real) witch, or a psychic, to live free and unexploited if caught.

Joyous Festivus for the Rest of Us: Psychic Failures for 2011


Newtonmas

Image by firepile via Flickr

I owe a hat-tip for this post to the awesome Doubtful Newsblog and the Relatively Interesting blog, both great sources of news items for us skeptical types.

The year is drawing to a close, and our rationalist holiday of Festivus, or if you prefer, Newtonmas, is almost upon us, may Randiclaus’ beard remain white and well-groomed during this season of reason!

One thing us more skeptical types have noticed for many years now is the abject and persistent failure of those claiming psychic abilities to accurately predict anything important in a way not involving attempts at post hoc reasoning and special pleading to support, or just throwing random guesses using vague criteria of what counts as a success.

Well, with 2011 coming to an end, here is a run down of the year’s psychic predictions, and how they went horribly astray from what actually happened, from silence on the Fukushima disaster, not contributing in any way to the hunt for Osama Bin-Laden, to the more ordinary accounts in the media that failed to pan out at all, including those that were so vague and highly probable as to be sadly trivial in their fulfillment, and highly forgettable in any case.

I know — paranormal believers will consider that mean and disrespectful — but I’m Troythulu, not mellow like Carl Sagan was, so snarkitudinosity (is that a word?) comes with the package.

Of course, given our tendency to ignore and forget that which doesn’t stand out to us emotionally vs that which does, positive or negative, most people will not even remember many of these predictions, bated breath at the time they were made or not.

So enjoy the holiday, and thanks ahead of time for one great year of blogging and meeting awesomely cosmic people like you!

Skepticism is a Good Thing [Repost]


(Here’s something from my archives, my first actual critique of a post on a blog I used to frequent. I still pop in there once in a while, but less frequently than I have. Still, it was and still is a good source of insight into at least one believer’s mind and how he argues. The LOL of old Mistykins dates from the original posting of this critique. Rest easy, Mistykins.)

Hey, guys. I recently came upon this post on a psychic’s blog I sometimes frequent, the post in question being entitled There Are No Good Skeptics, and since I feel obligated to act the stereotype of the Evil Pseudoskeptic™, I thought I would have a little fun with it, deconstructing a few of the points it makes in order, and showing just how and where it is simply far off the mark.

Believers tend to have a very parochial view of skeptics, and often promote a number of common logical fallacies and misconceptions about them that they do not bother to challenge.

I’ll attempt to point out in this post precisely how they are excellent examples of highly flawed thinking and how in many instances, believers are merely launching defensive tirades.

There are too many misconceptions and logical errors in the article of discourse for all to be handled in the space of this post, so I’ll deal mostly with the four, in order, that stand out the most, those that the author himself has chosen to highlight.

Where possible for considerations of space, the points addressed will be complete and verbatim:

Skepticism does not allow curiosity. One of the hallmarks of almost every skeptic I have come across is that as soon as they find information that agrees with their views they stop looking. Why? If you’re convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist, you stop looking into it or looking for it. You simply assume that everything you hear that might be positive simply can’t be true.

Wow! My logical fallacy meter just overloaded. This is a straw man as well as a cheap ad hominem. It completely misrepresents how skeptical thinking works, nor are skeptics convinced that something isn’t true or doesn’t exist without doing the research to actually find out. Fact-checking is skeptical. Also…

There also seems to be a bit of a false dichotomy here to round out this troika of fallacies, implying that one has to either be curious or skeptical and not allowing for the possibility of both.

Skepticism does not challenge its assumptions. When you doubt something, you doubt it for a reason. For example, many people doubt the existence of psychic ability because they think all the people who believe it are gullible; Or that the rest of science would rush to embrace it if it were true or that psychic people would rush to the casinos and win millions of dollars. Skeptics do not seem to understand that these are mere opinions about something they know little about.

The three claims trotted out as assumptions are simply a set of straw people. I do not hold these as ‘assumptions’ as part of my skepticism. And they certainly aren’t representative of the views of most skeptics even if ‘many people’ hold them. There is a difference between being skeptical about something, and being a skeptic.

Speaking for myself, the only assumptions I use are that (1) science and reason are valid ways of knowing the world, and (2) the world is real, whether or not it is what it appears to be.

The last statement is just an ad hominem, in this case a cheap way to dismiss skeptics by calling them ‘ignorant.’ It would have been much more informative if he had simply done the research to find out what the ‘assumptions’ of skepticism really are, and then address them instead of just dismissing his critics.

Skepticism slows the advance of ideas. One of the amazing features of skeptics everywhere is that they make very few contributions to the area they are criticizing. In parapsychology this is extreme. Out of thousands of studies you can count all of the vetted professional studies performed by dedicated skeptics on one hand. (Part of the reason for this is that once people are doing careful experiments they are allowing themselves to be convinced by the evidence. At which point the other skeptics consider them to be deluded believers.)

What to say about this one…what to say…This claim is so blatantly false that it comes seriously close to being an outright lie, but as I normally read this guy’s blog with the assumption that he’s being sincere in what he writes, out of respect I’ll refrain from making such an accusation.

All of modern science employs skepticism, as the complement, not the contradiction, to the curiosity to ask new questions and the imagination to conceive new ideas.

Skepticism is essential as the means to separate the good ideas from the bad ones; what works from what doesn’t.

Thomas Edison once said that science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, the hard work of winnowing the intellectual gold from the intellectual rubbish, since most ideas ever conceived turn out to be wrong.

All scientists who have contributed to major advances in their field are skeptics by definition. It’s blind belief that impedes the advance of ideas.

Believers tend to express views of skeptics almost exclusively in terms of their relationship to the paranormal, and little else. They don’t consider the use of skepticism in the broader context of all of modern science.

It is very hard to learn new things about the subject you are skeptical about. Being skeptical means that you hold strong views on a subject. That means that contrary information only gets through via cognitive dissonance. That is to say, the evidence contrary to the opinion that is held has to be so overwhelming that the skeptic’s thinking process finally seizes up. All evidence up to that point is either ignored or dismissed. This is a very inefficient way to learn.

This claim is also simply false.

First, cognitive dissonance mostly applies to those beliefs that are very important, such as to our self-image and how we view the world, not what we only casually accept.

Second, different people deal with cognitive dissonance in different ways, and I deal with it by changing my beliefs without a hitch if the evidence warranting it is sufficient.

Third, as a skeptic I do not hold strong views on the paranormal, and many skeptics I’ve read consider belief in it it more interesting and important than the paranormal itself. To me, the idea of psi ability is just an intellectual curiosity, not something I’ve invested years and a lot of money in.

Conclusion: The author of the post critiqued here has said in at least one entry on his own blog that he has never understood the skeptical mindset, and his article is a prime example of that shortcoming.

In his article, he has attributed motives, thinking, beliefs and biases to skeptics that are simply not borne out as fact, and that despite claiming to be psychic he has no way of knowing short of doing the legwork to find out.

I have attempted to avoid committing such attributions in this critique, and out of respect for the author suggest that before he tries to present his personal views as objective fact, that he make the effort to inform those views. Otherwise, he’s just rehearsing his own prejudices.

The 10% of the Brain Myth


The idea that only a small portion of the brain, say, roughly 10%, is actually used is pretty endemic to our culture, and the implication is that the rest of it goes untapped, some 90% of it according to many.

It is not an easy task to determine the origin of this idea, and there happen to be a lot of possibilities to consider. It could have come from misquotes of Einstein, or from statements by William James, or any number of other well-known figures. Predictably, psychics have claimed that the other 90% is the source of psi abilities so as to support continued belief in psi by the general public.

This idea has been kept going over the years by advertising companies and credulous journalists, as well as self-empowerment gurus and works of popular fiction.

In actual brain imaging using the newest techniques, it can be shown that ALL of the brain is in use, and each region has its own use, from unconscious functions needed to keep us alive, thinking, perceiving and remembering among a myriad other essential neurological workings.

You can’t remove a part of the brain without disabling function, and all of it is in use for something, some regions less active than others at a given time depending on their use. The brain consumes about 20% of the body’s total metabolic energy, an enormous amount of resources for a single organ that allegedly goes mostly unused.

if the other 90% were not in use at sometime, then that percentage of the brain would simply not grow, since it grows according to its use, and the brain would be only 10% of its actual mass. The development of the brain maps itself to its use by the body.

Brain regions that are never used, like the visual cortex in people blind throughout their lives, never develop, and even with the proper functioning of the eyes, their brains lack the processing power to enable them to use what the eyes ‘see.’

No matter how amazing the brain is, and it is indeed amazing; this three pound lump of jelly that can think about the nature of the universe, think about concepts like infinity, and even think about itself thinking, the myth that only between 10% – 12% is ever used is just that, a myth, no matter how popular it is in our culture.

The Truth About Psychic Detectives [Reposted]


Paranormal investigator Ben Radford’s 11-part talk for the National Capital Area Skeptics on April 14, 2009. This is a bit lengthy, but very informative and amusing, unless you’re a psychic detective, in which case you probably won’t find it very amusing at all.

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