Archive for the ‘skeptictionary’ Category

Julian Baggini brought up an interesting concept in the latest issue of The Skeptic magazine. One way people sometimes try to slide an unconvincing argument past you is by using “low (or high) redefinition”.

I hadn’t heard the phrase before, but his explanation was immediately familiar. When an argument centres around a particular definition with an imprecise meaning, it’s a common ploy to bolster one’s case by broadening, or narrowing, the definition of the word as much as possible, rendering it either unhelpfully all-inclusive or unattainably precise.

Some examples might help make this clear. Julian cites the idea common to Christian theology of committing a sin “in one’s heart”; it’s sometimes claimed that when it comes to, for instance, adultery, thoughts and acts are equally sinful in God’s eyes.

Leaving the language pedantry aside, it should be clear that there are substantial differences, in the details of the action and the consequences, between merely harbouring lustful thoughts and actually acting upon them. But it’s useful to some models of Christianity to conflate the two, applying low redefinition so that the single word “adultery” applies equally to both, and ostensibly supporting their argument that, not only is there a connection between such thoughts and actions, but they amount to the same thing.

His example of high redefinition refers to health scares, in which the bar demanded for words like “safe” is set unreasonably high, so that it can never realistically be met, and sensationalist newspaper headlines can make a noise about the “dangers” of what are actually minuscule risks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, another example of this can be found in the Christian notion of what it means to be a “good” person. In examples such as this – which probably struck someone, somewhere, as a fine example of excellent Socratic reasoning – people’s claims of being a “good” person are struck down by the presence of any individual instance in which they’ve failed to adhere to any of a number of moral rules.

The way some Christians want to define the word, nobody can possibly be considered “good”; it’s crucial to the theology that we’re all sinners. But if good is really a zero-tolerance proposition at every level, it becomes an uninteresting concept. At the very start of that video, the interviewee gives us a much more accessible idea of what it means to be good, before the term is so precisely redefined by religious dogma: “I try to, most of the time… but I’m only a human being, we all make mistakes… I try to treat everybody with respect and dignity.”

The title of Julian’s piece was “That all depends what you mean by…”, which highlights the futility of getting distracted by semantic arguments about the precise definition of words in these sorts of discussions. If you know what you’re talking about, you don’t need an ambiguous word for it that’s just leading to irrelevant disagreements. Taboo the word, and just discuss the concepts, the exact probabilities, or the behaviours themselves that are in question.

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People don’t trust science.

And why should they? Science is devious stuff. It’s always trying to tell you that your strongly held religious beliefs are wrong, or toying with nature in a way man was never supposed to, or doing something hard to understand with big machines and long words that’s probably going to destroy the planet.

All of which is deeply offensive to the most basic human sensibilities. And worst of all is when scientists – those cold-hearted emotionless robots in white lab coats, or madmen incapable of seeing any beauty in the world who don’t care how much harm their experiments cause – try telling you that they even know what you think better than you do.

I mean, how dare they! Obviously you know your own mind. And if you woke up in the middle of the night and there was an owl on the bedpost with your mother’s face and a demon hovering over you whose genitals were singing Happy Birthday with the voice of Richard Simmons, then you know what you saw. Do these scientists think you’re crazy?

No, they don’t. Most scientists really wouldn’t tell you anything so condescending. But they do think that the human brain can be the epicentre of some pretty weird goings-on, and that the people who cohabit with these brains aren’t always in the best position to interpret what’s going on.

It’s really important to understand that, when scientists suggest that the way things seem to you might not match up perfectly with reality, they’re not being patronising or calling you stupid. There are lots of things that your brain gets wrong, which simply come with being human.

Optical illusions are a good example. These parallel lines ought to look more skewed than they really are. These white dots should appear to blink on and off somewhat disorientingly as you move your eyes around the picture. It’s to do with the way your brain processes visual information, and it’s fun finding out ways you can fool yourself.

Then there’s dreams. Chances are, your subconscious regularly makes up completely bizarre imaginary scenarios out of nowhere, and presents you with an entirely fictional version of reality – and often stops you from noticing that anything is out of the ordinary. This is so common that it’s considered unusual for anyone to say they never experience it.

But while certain very common and popularly recognised phenomena are generally accepted as just being quirks of the squishy grey stuff between our ears, some such quirks aren’t so familiar. There are some ways in which we just feel that our brains shouldn’t be able to let us down – it’s unthinkable that we shouldn’t be able to trust our own perception and intuition in certain areas. Which is why some things are harder to accept, and people may be inclined to respond to such suggestions by saying “I’m not crazy”.

And yet numerous other such phenomena are real and well understood. Some of these I’ve written about before: sleep paralysis, where you more or less continue dreaming but also can’t move; the ideomotor effect, where you find your body making tiny movements without you choosing to do so; pareidolia, where even a random mess of nonsense can throw up something that looks like an underlying pattern once in a while; and a wide range of logical fallacies, which show just how bad we can be at analysing data rationally if we’re not careful. And ignoring any of these cognitive oddities can lead you to get things wrong.

If you’re unaware of dreams, you might get some very funny looks from your co-workers on Monday when you describe how your teeth all fell out one night over the weekend but were magically back in place by the morning.

If you weren’t that hot on statistics, you might think that you’ve discovered a miraculous new remedy, when actually you just rubbed pineapple juice into your elbows three times a day until your cold got better anyway.

And if you aren’t familiar with false memory syndrome, then… well, things can get pretty horrifying.

In a way, it feels intuitive to expect your memory to be entirely accurate. If you remember something happening, that must be because it happened. What other reason could there be? But most of us regularly remember dreams, even though they didn’t happen. And most of us have, at some point, misremembered the way something took place, or disagreed with someone else about the exact details of a past event. Why would that ever happen, if human memory wasn’t prone to making serious mistakes?

The fact is, as in the case of dreams or optical illusions, we’re sometimes obliged to follow the data and mistrust what our brains tell us, in the case of memory too.

The most disturbing example of this relates to the sexual abuse of children.

Now, I need to be careful after a sentence like that. Clearly one extremely disturbing thing surrounding this topic is the actual sexual abuse of children. This is by no means a trivial or minor side issue, and I wouldn’t want any of my surrounding discussion to come across as apologist or dismissive of any serious cases of this.

And yet, precisely because it’s such a serious and heated issue, the occasions when people get unfairly tangled up in it are themselves especially serious, and merit particular scrutiny.

With that in mind, the history of false memory syndrome as regards childhood sexual abuse is quite horrific.

In fact, the whole idea of repressed memories that need “recovering” in therapy is controversial. People who’ve suffered through a childhood trauma often experience something like post-traumatic stress disorder, where the problem isn’t that they can’t remember what happened, but that they keep remembering it, and re-living it, constantly. If you don’t remember a particular childhood trauma, that’s probably because it didn’t happen to you…

…but that won’t necessarily stop you from “recovering” the memories in therapy anyway.

An article by Elizabeth Loftus reports some very disturbing specifics. A woman seeing a psychiatrist in 1986 became convinced that she had suffered serious physical and sexual abuse as a child, and that she was uncovering memories of “having been in a satanic cult, of eating babies, of being raped, of having sex with animals and of being forced to watch the murder of her eight-year-old friend”. Another woman, after therapy sessions with a church counsellor, “remembered” having been repeatedly raped by her father and forced to perform abortions on herself twice. On medical examination, it was shown that she had never been pregnant, and was apparently still a virgin. (I know the latter point isn’t always obvious from examination, but it was clear she hadn’t undergone anything like the several years of regular sexual assault that she was reporting.)

These two women both sued their therapists, and received seven-figure out-of-court settlements, and they’re not alone. But the damage this sort of intervention can do if the results are taken at face value is almost unimaginable. Meredith Maran has had to deal with the fact that her family spent years in turmoil because of her accusations that her father had abused her. In her case, this entirely false impression didn’t even result from any therapy sessions or hypnotic suggestion, but apparently just from being immersed in a sort of “incest survivor culture” for so long.

I don’t want to downplay the fact that, for many people, all kinds of abuse, sexual or physical or psychological, in childhood or adolescence or adulthood, is a very real and terrible problem. These people don’t need things made even worse for them by an exacerbation of any victim-blaming culture, or the worry that they’ll be accused of making it all up if they speak up and ask for help.

But, at the same time, our appreciation for critical thought shouldn’t just fly out the window because a serious accusation has been made.

A self-help book that was recently being promoted by the Church of England was criticised by scientists for its failure to take false memory syndrome into account. It told readers things like “If you are unable to remember any specific instances… but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did”. They’re putting forward “a feeling” as solid evidence that you were sexually assaulted as a child and just don’t remember it. This is incredibly reckless and irresponsible, especially given how much we now understand about the role of suggestibility in forming false memories that seem entirely real.

The main thing to take away is that memories don’t always relate to genuine events with perfectly reliable consistency. We have good evidence that the recollection of perfectly ordinary and totally sane people can be completely wrong, despite how real and reliable such memories feel. This is not a dangerous thing to know. It is not intrinsically antagonistic to genuine abuse victims for us to be aware of this. Understanding false memory syndrome should only give us a better chance of approaching the truth, by letting us more closely estimate the likelihood of the testimony being false, when assessing unlikely claims about demonic cults and baby-eating.

Helpful sources and further reading:

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Chris French in the Guardian
Cracked (what, you thought I was being scholarly?)
The British False Memory Society
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation

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You’ve probably heard that quote about how, if you hear the sound of hoofbeats, you should be prepared to see zebras, but expect to see horses.

What it’s getting at is that either horses or zebras would offer a perfectly adequate explanation of what you’re hearing, but one of them is rather more likely than the other. It holds less true if you happen to be exchanging aphorisms in the African savanna, but the basic idea still works, assuming you’re not in some unlikely scenario specifically tailored to unbalance your usual expectations. You can apply it to other situations, too:

If you hear beeping, expect a reversing truck, not an alien spaceship.

If you taste almonds, expect marzipan, not cyanide.

If you see homeopathy, expect a sham, not medicine.

If you see some bent stalks of wheat, expect some slightly trodden-on wheat, not aliens who travelled billions of miles just to make an easily replicated pattern while no-one was looking and then vanish without a trace.

Crop circles are a phenomenon in which patterns appear in the field of a particular crop, where the corn/maize/wheat/whatever has been flattened, usually by bending over and breaking the stalk near the base, in such a way that some sort of recognisable pattern is visible when viewed from above. They first started to take off in southern England around 1978, with farmers finding virtually perfect circles appearing in the middle of their fields overnight. Since then, they have become far more elaborate and complex. “Circles” no longer does justice to the intricate patterns and corporate branding logos that can appear overnight nowadays.

There was much debate among empassioned enthusiasts, people whose interest was grabbed by the strangeness of the phenomenon, for many years. There primarily existed two distinct camps with their own interpretations: either it was the result of a curious weather phenomenon – some kind of mini-cyclone appearing suddenly, with a very localised effect – or it had to have been caused by a particular intelligence, presumably extra-terrestrial in nature.

There were books published and TV discussions held, with ideas and assertions being thrown back and forth by either side, with nobody ever really getting a solid hold of what was actually going on. No aliens were ever caught in the act, no conclusive proof was discovered of visitors from another world. No sudden shifts in air pressure were ever shown to be able to have such a peculiar effect on wheat, without being observed in any other context, and the meteorological explanation became increasingly implausible as the complexity of the circles grew. People spent hours and hours, night after night, camping out near what they considered likely candidate fields where they hoped to be able to see first-hand the magical, mystical, mysterious process by which these circles were created.

One explanation often mooted from the very beginning was that it was all the work of “pranksters”, but this didn’t get much play among the dedicated enthusiasts. It just seemed silly. These crops were quite difficult to bend, they reasoned, and it wasn’t immediately obvious how an individual, or even a team of hoaxsters, could flatten a complete area of so much tall grass in such a short time.

Therefore, the reasoning went, aliens were much more likely. That was the only explanation which really covered all the bases without leaving any awkward loose ends or unconvincing assumptions.


You remember the zebras I brought up right at the beginning? In this analogy, the zebras are the aliens. And the horses are roughly analogous to “a couple of guys with some string and a piece of wood, who thought of a way to push some wheat onto the ground that’s slightly more efficient than whatever you could think of off the top of your head, and so gets the job done a bit faster than you might at first imagine”.

Specifically, our metaphorical horses (metaphorses?) are a couple of guys called Doug and Dave, who came up with the idea in a pub in the south of England in the ’70s, and only eventually owned up to it and started showing various media outlets exactly how they did it when Doug’s wife began suspecting him of having an affair. All the late nights and unexplained mileage on the car’s odometer that resulted from their hobby hadn’t gone unnoticed.

Unlike a lot of alleged paranormal phenomena, nobody disputes that crop circles exist. And moreover, the exact nature of their origins is also, in many cases, perfectly and abundantly clear. There are numerous people and organisations out there who we know do this kind of thing themselves. We have indisputable documented proof of some of these huge, intricate patterns being created by humans through entirely mundane means.

Of course, we only have proof that some such patterns were created this way. Not every single such circle has been created while a professional camera crew was present. Maybe aliens did create some of them. But this is like claiming that what looks like some dogshit on the pavement might have in fact come from a leprechaun. Why would you take the leap of logic to believe that, without some compelling reason not to go with the more obvious cause?

This means that, if anyone still wants to claim that some circles must result from an alien intelligence, their job is now to draw an absolute distinction between these two types of pattern – the man-made ones, and those of unquestionably alien origin.

And this is apparently rather tricky to do. It seems that the two types look a lot alike to a casual observer – or even, a lot of the time, to a supposed expert. There is no method consistently agreed upon of grouping one whole bunch together as being totally different from all the rest, and assigning them as likely candidates for alien creations. Experts have often pronounced particular circles to be undoubtedly alien, and then met the guys who knocked it together in 90 minutes. And while being proved wrong is an important part of any science, you also need to be able to refine your model based on the evidence that proved you wrong, such that every time you become a little bit less wrong than you were before. Cerealogists have never managed to get their shit together in this manner.

It often seems that all they have to fall back on is “It couldn’t have all been done in one night by humans”. But are they really the best authorities to trust on what is and isn’t physically possible? Have they actually crunched the numbers, or are they just arguing from personal incredulity? This was made overnight, by just a bunch of guys. Which might sound pretty unbelievable, but there it is.

None of the other ways that alien theorists purport to determine the extra-terrestrial origins of some crop circles seems to hold up either. Toward the end of Jim Schnabel’s fascinating book Round in Circles, the author describes some of the circle-making expeditions he went on, with some of the friends he’d made researching the history of the phenomenon. At first, come the following morning, the enthusiasts would look at the amateurish way the stalks were bent and immediately declare the site to be a mere “hoax”. But as he became more practised at it, he began to see the experts in the subject declaring their confidence that this particular pattern was indeed of alien origin, as they peered at stalks that Jim himself had trodden down mere hours before.

There is simply no reliable predictor of what to expect from a supposedly alien-generated crop circle. The features of the circles of provably terrestrial origin are often mightily impressive, and may seem to stretch the powers of human ingenuity, for anyone unfamiliar with just how that ingenuity can be applied in this field. We’ve seen them being mistaken for alien or paranormal phenomena many times, but it’s never been confirmed the other way around.

The human creation of fantastically impressive crop circles is a known phenomenon. We see horses galloping around us all the time, but never even a hint of a black-and-white stripe.

Other sources worth reading on this include Skeptical Inquirer, SkepticWiki, RationalWiki, and Skeptoid.

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It’s Ada Lovelace Day today.

Ada Lovelace – or, Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace – was born in London in 1815. Her father was the poet Lord Byron. She died at the age of 36. And, in between, she was the world’s first computer programmer.

When Charles Babbage built his analytical engine, one of the ways Ada Lovelace got involved was to design a method of getting the machine to output the Bernoulli numbers. It doesn’t matter what those are. What she did was to write the first ever algorithm for a computer. This was in the 1840s.

In her honour, some enterprising bloggers have established March 24th as Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which women’s historically under-appreciated contributions to science are celebrated all across the interwebs. This sounded like something worth doing, and which I thought might get me writing some more, so a few weeks ago I got hold of a copy of a biography of Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Franklin was was born in 1920, and died of ovarian cancer in 1958, and as under-appreciated contributions to science go, hers was a big one.

You know DNA? Well, you’re welcome.

To be less glib: DNA is the molecule that contains the genetic code from which everything that has ever lived (and arguably some things that haven’t) has been built. Here’s a rather nice picture of what it looks like. James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 for figuring out that this was what it looked like – a double-helix, those two looping spirals joined intermittently across the middle like that. Watson and Crick are the familiar names that everyone knows, and are the standard, simple, schoolbook answer to the basic question “Who discovered the structure of DNA?”

And they were indeed brilliant scientists, working at a prestigious university, at the forefront of one of the most exciting and important areas of biological research. But the whole idea that science is primarily achieved by lone geniuses, working in near isolation and having individual flashes of insight which suddenly and abruptly lead to huge and fantastic paradigm shifts, is – although not a complete myth – certainly a severe oversimplification.

Malcolm Gladwell has explained this general idea better than I could. The example he uses is of Philo T. Farnsworth, and the many other people involved in the invention of television. (Incidentally, the standard, simple, schoolbook answer to the basic question “Who invented television?” in England when I was growing up was always John Logie Baird. He gets a mention only in the final paragraph of Gladwell’s article, described as one of several people “who had tried and failed to produce mechanical television”.)

The point is that, even though the names of Crick and Watson are the ones best remembered today, being the two names on the particular paper in the journal Nature that first described the double-helical structure of DNA, this one paper was obviously built upon a huge body of previously established scientific study, and the two were never working in an academic vacuum. There were a lot of people involved in the study of the structure of DNA in the early 1950s – sixteen names are listed in Wikipedia’s sidebar on “Double Helix Discovery” – all to various degrees collaborating and competing.

Rosalind Franklin is among the more prominent of those names. She had made a name for herself in the previous decade with her work on the molecular structure of coal, and was widely regarded as a pre-eminent scientist for much of her adult life. She was funded more than once to go on a lecture tour of the US. The PhD students who helped her with her work tended to be somewhat in awe of her.

I mention this because, whenever you hear that a story is going to be about men who took credit for the work of a woman in times gone by, there’s a certain kind of image that may very naturally tend to form in your head. My own inclination is to picture a bunch of smartly dressed men with great hair and chiselled chins, lounging in very comfortable chairs, laughing uproariously at each other’s jokes, probably drinking brandy, and talking either lecherously or condescendingly at the one person who does all the actual work around here whenever she approaches. She’s been hard at work all day doing Science, and can only stammer meekly when the boisterous men grab the paradigm-shattering paper she’s written out of her hands, tell her not to worry her pretty self about this deoxy-ribo-stuff any more, and shoo her away.

And the reason I wanted to emphasise that, to an extent, Rosalind Franklin really was respected and recognised as a serious scientist in her lifetime, is to avoid letting you settle on the above scenario as your idea of what her career was like. Because that scenario is something out of a cartoon. It doesn’t do the feminist cause any favours to imagine that sexist bias only looks like that cartoon, because then it’s all too easy to suppose that sexism just isn’t something that happens any more. We’re done with all that chauvinistic nonsense. The feminists have won. We don’t see those fat-cats sitting around guffawing self-importantly and smacking the womyn-folk on the backside as they leave any more, therefore we have defeated all gender bias in the workplace.

Yeah, um, no. That’s not how sexism usually works. It’s a much more subtle bastard than that, and is something that Rosalind Franklin had to work against in decidedly more insidious ways.

Two years before she was born, women in England didn’t have the right to vote. When she was growing up, intelligence was not always seen as a desirable quality in women; when she was six years old, her aunt observed that she seemed “alarmingly clever”, and did not mean this as a compliment. Women who were clever could get into all sorts of trouble. While Rosalind was at school, the debate society discussed topics such as “That the Entry of Women into Public Affairs and Industry is to be Deplored”. After she got the highest mark in the Cambridge chemistry entrance exam at age 17, she would not be recognised as a “member of the University”, and could not earn an official degree.

She was also Jewish, at a time when many areas of employment and government departments would either not permit entrance to Jews at all, or would place a cap on the number or proportion of Jews allowed in. The fear was that Jews would simply overrun the place if such measures were not installed, and if admission were based solely on, well, actual merit and capability.

From what I’ve read of her career, though, once she’d established her credentials as an excellent scientist and was studying the structures of DNA and viruses full-time, it doesn’t seem like she was constantly fighting an uphill struggle against her gender simply to earn any scant recognition. There was no institutional scorn surrounding the very idea of a woman doing such complicated work. She published 45 scientific papers, a lot for such a short life. Her work was respected. But when most scientists are having their work discussed or giving lectures, we’re not told how, as well as providing fascinating insight into the field of X-ray crystallography, they could probably look quite nice if they did something with their hair.

It was not only complicated work that she was doing, but vitally important, too. Rosalind made arguably as significant a contribution as anyone to the discovery of the structure of DNA – in particular, she took the X-Ray diffraction image that inspired Crick and Watson to produce their famous model. It was a higher quality image than anyone else had managed to produce of its kind, anywhere.

It’s another over-simplification to say that anyone simply stole her data, though. Raymond Gosling was Rosalind’s PhD student at the time, and was involved in the taking of the photograph. Some months after it was taken, he showed it to Maurice Wilkins, who also worked in their department at King’s College London. Wilkins showed it to Watson, and this too seems to have been done in a justified spirit of openness and collaboration. It wasn’t any kind of a “smoking gun” piece of evidence, with vast significance in and of itself. It hadn’t been marked for any kind of secrecy. And Rosalind wasn’t the be-all and end-all of DNA research at the college. The worst you can really say of anyone’s behaviour in this regard, it seems, is that it was ungallant of them not to have at least kept her in the loop – and, certainly, not to have given her work more prominent credit when the famous paper was published.

She was increasingly ill in her final months and weeks, and underwent a number of operations. The unfairness that frustrated her and stopped her getting done everything she wanted to get done was due to the cancer, more than to any systematic gender bias. She was eulogised fondly by her colleagues immediately following her death, and her family were astonished at quite how influential their Rosalind – who had never liked to bore the non-scientists in her life with the technical and incomprehensible details of her work, and was too modest to try to convey its importance – had apparently been.

But outside of her immediate circle of colleagues, it was a long time before Rosalind’s involvement in this particular discovery was ever fully understood or appreciated. James Watson’s 1968 book The Double Helix is perhaps the most widely known account of the years surrounding the crucial paper, and has been lauded as a highly personal and detailed scientific account, but it also seems to be where a lot of the accusations of sexist bias lead back to. Lines like “the best home for a feminist was in another person’s lab” wouldn’t win him many friends today – and his generally dismissive approach to the role that Rosalind played didn’t go down well with those who’d known her at the time, either.

Many of Rosalind’s colleagues wrote to Watson objecting to his unfair portrayal before the book was published. Under some duress, he added an epilogue and admitted to have developed some respect for her achievements in the time since he’d made those first impressions. But Harvard University Press eventually backed out of publishing it altogether. Maurice Wilkins in particular described the book as being “unfair to me, to Dr Crick and to almost everyone mentioned except Professor Watson himself”. At the very least, Watson seems to have found it difficult to acknowledge the contributions of a number of other people to his work, and to have spent a good deal of time in the following years trying to justify certain of his actions, which he may have come to feel guiltier about than he admitted at the time.

Aside from the various links scattered throughout this article, pretty much my only source for all this has been the 2002 biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox. (Perhaps not great scholarship under usual conditions to have such a limited set of references, but I’m pretty sure the overall impression I’ve conveyed here is appropriately balanced and accurate.)

I’ll close with a quote from a letter that Rosalind wrote to her father from University, where he was worried that she was “making science her religion”. It’s one of the finest summaries of humanist philosophy I’ve read.

Science, for me, gives a partial explanation of life. In so far as it goes, it is based on fact, experience and experiment. Your theories are those which you and many other people find easiest and pleasantest to believe, but so far as I can see, they have no foundation other than that they lead to a pleasanter view of life (and an exaggerated idea of our own importance)…

I agree that faith is essential to success in life (success of any sort) but I do not accept your definition of faith, i.e. belief in life after death. In my view, all that is necessary for faith is the belief that by doing our best we shall come nearer to success and that success in our aims (the improvement of the lot of mankind, present and future) is worth attaining…

I see no reason to believe that a creator of protoplasm or primeval matter, if such there be, has any reason to be interested in our insignificant race in a tiny corner of the universe, and still less in us, as still more insignificant individuals… I see no reason why the belief that we are insignificant or fortuitous should lessen our faith – as I have defined it.

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I don’t know the sky that well.

I mean, we’re not completely unfamiliar, the sky and I. We’re on friendly-nod terms, when we see each other. But we’re not what I’d call close. We don’t really hang out together much. I’d definitely miss it if it went anywhere, but I get the feeling it wouldn’t much notice my absence.

I imagine we all have friends who we’re not as close with as perhaps we’d like. And the sky has a lot going on in its life that I don’t know anything about, often because I never really bothered to ask.

So what does the sky fill all its space with? Well, you’ve got birds up there flapping around a lot. You’ve got buildings and other man-made structures towering up into it. You’ve got human-designed machines, like aeroplanes, helicopters, balloons, and whatnot. You’ve got a lot of weather happening: rain, hail, sleet, snow, thunder, lightning, not to mention clouds of numerous shapes, shades, and consistencies, and the very odd things the Sun sometimes gets up to. You’ve got your Aurora Borealis.

And then you’ve got the rest of the Universe. Well, not all of it, but even just the bit you can see in the sky is pretty extensive. Other stars, other galaxies, distant nebulae, passing comets. Planets like Mars or Venus, a bit closer to home, are often visible from Earth with the naked eye. Orbiting satellites, closer still.

And there’s a lot of stuff I probably haven’t even thought of. All the things I’ve mentioned so far have their own fields of scientific endeavour, with some people spending years studying them to acquire a high level of expertise. I am not an expert in aircraft, or architecture, or astronomy, or aurorae, or aviation, or… a synonym for meteorology that starts with ‘a’. A lot of the time, I really can’t speak with much authority on what I’m seeing when I tilt my head up and open my eyes.

This is my point. I often don’t know what I’m seeing in the sky. And neither do you.

The term ‘UFO’ is widely used to describe alien spacecraft – machines that have been piloted here from another planet by extra-terrestrial intelligences previously unknown to human experience. But a UFO is an Unidentified Flying Object. Once you’ve decided that it’s a spaceship, it’s not unidentified any more.

And if you make that call, that means that you’ve positively identified something you’ve seen in the sky. Something quite possibly far away, small, blurry, moving rapidly, obscured, and otherwise pretty damn hard to see. Positively identifying the exact nature of something like that, without getting any closer or using any more technical equipment to examine it, or in any way verifying your assessment objectively, isn’t easy. Especially if you’re not an expert in aircraft, astronomy, and all the rest – but even if you are an expert, there are limitations on your deductive abilities based on what you might be able to squint at in the far distance. You’d have to have gathered a lot of information, and have some serious expertise in analysing and processing it, before you could really claim such a thing confidently.

Astronomers use carefully calibrated telescopes to observe their chosen celestial objects of interest, and take detailed notes of exactly what they see and exactly where they see it, so that a coherent picture can be carefully pieced together over time by repeated verification of observations. Naturalists use binoculars to track animals such as birds, often going to considerable lengths to avoid disturbing them, and to get close enough to have a good look, so that they can be really sure exactly what they’re seeing. And ufologists… well, they have a tendency to just point at stuff in the sky, and say “Wassat? Must be aliens.”

Okay, that might be a little unfair on some of them. It’s not like there isn’t any room for a proper scientific discipline here. You could examine this stuff critically, and do all sorts of technical sciencey things like checking your facts. But the people who actually do that tend to conclude that there’s probably nothing to any of this. It’s been observed before that amateur astronomers are the perfect people to find some reliable evidence of an alien presence in the sky, given how much time they spend looking up there and how much more they know about what they expect to see, but it doesn’t happen.

The people who witness these extraordinary things in the sky that can’t possible be explained are usually unqualified amateurs with no specialist equipment or knowledge. Of course they can’t explain what that curiously moving point of light is. But for some reason they often decide that their lack of expertise trumps anyone else’s potential insights, and if they can’t think of a mundane explanation, then they decide it must be something completely outside mundane science’s ability to account for.

In short, the people with the expertise are better at identifying what they see, which makes those things no longer UFOs. The people who really stand by their alien stories tend to be the ones who really want to believe they’ve found something, and can’t let it go, needing to sift through to find a particular interpretation of a particular set of evidence which supports their idea, and focus on that to the exclusion of all else.

And the particular self-affirming flaw I’m talking about here is the point of the word “unidentified”. I’m always seeing stuff in the sky that I don’t know what it is, and can’t reliably identify, and the same must be true of alien-hunters. But it should seem odd that alien craft are all they seem to be any good at identifying. How many people who claim to be capable of spotting a flying saucer in the far distance with their own eyes, and reliably telling you how far away, how big, and how fast-moving that blurry smudge is over there, could also tell you anything about the position and luminosity of Venus?

And if it’s not very much, then how do they know that Venus can’t look exactly like what they think an alien spaceship looks like?

If something is truly an Unidentified Flying Object, then by definition you don’t know what it is. But the assertions made by enthusiasts so often amount to nothing more than an argument from ignorance: “What we’re seeing here has no explanation, therefore you must accept my explanation“. But it doesn’t work like that.

There’s a lot of things going on in the sky that neither you nor I could spot and describe precisely from a single distance glance. “Something unknown to me” is a simpler, and therefore preferable, explanation than “something unknown to me and from another planet“.

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Man, I had this crazy dream last night. But I’m not going to tell you about it, because listening to other people tell you about their dreams is officially the boringest thing ever. They’ve done surveys. I’m not going to look them up, but I’m about 70% certain that it’s actually true. It sounds right, doesn’t it?

But dreams are pretty fascinating things, and not just in a Freudian analysis way where you get to nod thoughtfully and tell someone that their subconscious wants to shag a camel. For one thing, dreams give us a context in which we can talk about being naked in a school classroom and be confident that concerned bystanders aren’t going to call the authorities – in fact, they can often directly relate to our experiences.

And, more pertinently, they highlight the kind of weird shit the human brain sometimes completely makes up, and the kind of bizarre things that can seem to happen when parts of it are shutting down and going to sleep. If you didn’t really understand anything about the brain, and couldn’t realise that dreams are something that just happen to it sometimes, you might really believe that you magically went flying last night, or were being chased over a hill by some giant peanuts, or that your teeth fell out, or that Simon Cowell said you were a terrible haddock-juggler who’d never amount to anything, or that little green men walked through your wall into your bedroom and did invasive things to you while you had no choice but to lay there completely immobilised.

Yeah. If you didn’t know much about how the brain works, you might take that kind of thing seriously. Maybe even base an entire belief system around it. Sell a few books. That kind of thing.

What I’m getting at is that sometimes people decide that there’s something more substantive to their surreal nighttime experiences, despite the strong precedent provided by dreams. They may have lost count of how many times they’ve flown high above the ground on wings of yoghurt, or discussed the mysteries of the universe with a six-foot chaffinch, and just put it down to the imagined imaginings of an imaginative imagination. But some dreams are more persuasive, and convince people that they were real.

It’s not just the more mundane and realistic dreams that can seem believable, either. I’ve had dreams about hurrying toward a school lesson I was late for, which would by no means make for a weird or inexplicable episode in my life. It’s only the context that lets me know that it was a dream at all – I know that my lessons don’t normally take place in between falling asleep in bed one night and waking up in the same place the following morning, so it probably didn’t really happen. But some of these more persuasive visions, which convince people that they must have been a genuine experience, are way outside the realms of normal possibility.

Somehow, they still manage to feel like more than a run-of-the-mill dream. Often, this is largely due to sleep paralysis.

Have you ever had that thing where you’re drifting off to sleep, then suddenly your whole body spasms as if trying to pull itself out of a fall? I get it a lot. Apparently some people momentarily feel like they’re plummeting down a hole. For me, it comes with a not-quite-dreaming sensation of stumbling over on a pavement. It doesn’t really jolt you awake, and you can get back to drifting sleepwards after a moment or two, but just for an instant it’s very abruptly unsettling.

It’s called a hypnic jerk, and it’s one of those things that’ll happen when you’re falling asleep. The brain doesn’t make a perfectly smooth transition from a state of total consciousness to blissful slumber, and has to sort of shut things down in parts. Although we don’t seem to know exactly what causes a hypnic jerk, it seems to be to do with the way parts of you get ready for sleep at different times. Your muscles may start to fully relax into sleep, but part of your brain is still alert to these things, and when it notices all the tension seeping out of you it worries that you’re about to fall. So, it gives you a kick and jolts you back into action before you hurt yourself. Something like that.

But you’re not operating in perfect synch with yourself when waking up, either. Sometimes your brain can emerge from REM sleep, before the rest of you has caught up to the fact that you’re back in the real world now, and it’s okay to get up and move around.

Specifically, something called REM atonia carries on for longer than it should. While in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your brain naturally keeps your body paralysed. This is because REM sleep is when you do most of your dreaming, and you don’t want the nightmare about the cross-dressing murderclown to send you hurtling out of bed and into a wall. Your mad, panicky flailing for your life should be restricted to the dreamworld.

But what this means is that, in these cases of lingering REM atonia, you become conscious of your surroundings, probably feel “awake”, but are unable to move. Your brain is still kinda mushy, and not entirely clear whether it’s time to get up and face the real world, or whether it’s not quite done giving you surreal nocturnal visions from your subconscious yet. As a result, you may not just find yourself lying there immobile in the dark. You may also experience what Wikipedia rather charmingly calls a “hallucinatory element”.

By which they mean there might be a demon sitting on top of you eating your soul.

Seriously, that’s a pretty common hallucination/dream associated with sleep paralysis. You feel like you’ve just woken up, you can’t move, and there’s some kind of sprite/goblin/pixie/ugly little mythological bastard of your choosing, sitting right on you, pinning you down. A painting of this exact scenario is used as Wikipedia’s illustration for their page on sleep paralysis.

According to one of Chris French‘s students:

Common images are bearded, goblin-like demons laughing or whispering sinister speech, a faceless girl (usually covering her face with hair, moving around in bed moaning and feeling my body), hands appearing from the wall and attempting to strangle me. A hung man talking in the corner of the room, and some of the most bizarre experiences may include up to a dozen ‘critter’ entities (think Gremlins movie) laughing and talking about me.

That is properly messed up. And it sounds horrifyingly real. I’ve never been through it myself, but these kinds of personal experiences can be extremely persuasive, and when you’ve lived through something as vivid and unpleasant as this, I can imagine that it would leave quite a mark, and that you’d be pretty concerned to find out just what the hell is going on.

But it’s important to take these reports of personal experience with a grain of salt. After all, we’re talking about all this in the context of sleeping, and dreams. Nobody’s seriously denying that the brain regularly simulates some pretty fantastical scenarios for us during the night. Some people just deny that this explains what was happening to them this time, for this particular fantastical scenario that played itself out during the night.

And it’s worth treating this belief sensitively, and not dismissing it out of hand as a derisive inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Even though that does kinda sound like something I’d do. A lot of people experience sleep paralysis to some extent (possibly between 5-40%, depending on the number of associated symptoms), and even if they don’t ascribe it to any paranormal interference afterwards, it seems common to experience it as something very different from a normal dream at the time.

Lucid dreaming (where you become aware that you’re dreaming) is relatively rare unless you’re actively trying to achieve it, but sleep paralysis tends to come with something close to a normal, waking awareness of the world around you – you really have started to wake up, after all – which is why it’s so scary when you find that you can’t move and there are goblins in your room laughing at you.

But, while we can sympathise with the apparent reality of the experience, we don’t need to take it at face value. Even before we start, a particularly life-like and vivid dream is actually a more reasonable explanation than the genuine presence of, say, a mischievous imp. The kinds of things that sleep paralysis sufferers often report seeing have never before been experienced by anyone who wasn’t, at best, still a bit tired and groggy. These things are often truly unprecedented and unbelievable, and the evidence that there was ever actually anything there, more than simply an unsettling vision, is always flimsy to non-existent.

After all, how far do you have to stretch your imagination to suppose that these experiences are hallucinations provided by a half-asleep brain? Really not that far. Given some of the stuff we’ve all seen our brains do, it’s not outlandish to suggest that it might be providing us with unreliable information even when we think we’re awake and alert and accurately seeing the world as it really is. But positing actual intrusions, only occurring sporadically and momentarily just as you’re on the cusp of waking up, by genuine and real goblins and demons who leave not a trace of their presence after they depart, is not something to be believed lightly.

It’s not just goblins and demons sitting on you, of course. As mentioned earlier, some people report seeing hands coming through the wall, or creepy faceless girls out of a Japanese horror movie. And perhaps unsurprisingly, many reports of alien abduction are strikingly similar to reported experiences of sleep paralysis.

In centuries past, and in less scientifically minded cultures, it made sense that demons, witches, or other un-Christian manifestations would be what plagued people’s nightmares. (Wikipedia has a long list of possible cultural interpretations of the sleep paralysis experience.) But in some parts of the world these days, aliens are a more relevant aspect of society, and so it makes sense that something akin to the standard little-green-man abduction scenario would be envisaged. But with no lasting evidence of any such intrusion, and with the known facts about some people’s experiences of REM atonia while coming out of REM sleep, the “extraordinarily vivid dream” explanation is far more likely until any new evidence comes along to depose it.

If your personal experience has been enough to convince you of something genuinely strange, then can you really discount all the strange-sounding reports from people who claim to have gone through something similar? Was there really a cat with a melting face in Chris French’s student’s room that night? Are there also really regular succubus attacks in Iceland, ghosts in Taiwan and Mexico, hags who prophesy doom if you say the Lord’s Prayer backwards in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the demon Mora stealing people’s speech in Greece and Cyprus? If any of these ideas can be explained away as dreaming, imagination, or a misinterpretation of some other phenomenon, then why not yours?

It’s also worth noting that hallucinations accompanying sleep paralysis aren’t always paranormal in nature. Sometimes it just seems like some regular human intruder in your home, or something ambiguous like the sound of footsteps or shadows moving across the wall – often still accompanied by the paralysis, so still pretty scary. These also leave no indication of having been caused by any external phenomena once you fully awake. So, either aliens are visiting some people’s houses in the night, and abducting burglars from others, at very precise and opportune moments… or it’s something like a dream, produced by the endlessly creative human brain.

By all reports, sleep paralysis can be a fairly traumatic experience for someone who doesn’t know what’s going on or what to think of it, and the number of people it affects is far from negligible. If you’ve been through anything like this yourself, it might be worth finding other people with similar stories, or organisations set up for exactly this purpose, to try and find some ideas for what might help deal with it. There are some links at the Skeptic’s Dictionary, and easily found across the internet.

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Picture the scene

I’m not great at telling scary stories.

When I write fiction, it’s usually in a similar tone to most of this blog. Light and snarky, not as linguistically clever as it’s trying to be, that kind of thing. Very rarely am I capable of creating anything deep, or mature, or genuinely thought-provoking in a genre like horror.

But there are some stories that deserve to be profoundly unsettling on the basis of their content alone, regardless of my own inability to conjure much terror.

So imagine that you can’t speak. You can’t write. You can’t move your hands with enough precision to make any intelligible symbols. You can’t reliably gesture to indicate what you want, or reach out to take it. You have no way of letting the people around you know how you feel, or what you want. They don’t understand you. They can never understand anything you do or say or think or feel.

One day a woman you’ve never seen before comes in, sits you in a chair with some sort of electronic screen attached to it just in front of you, and takes hold of your hand. She starts asking you questions. You don’t take much notice, because you can’t tell her anything. Whatever your answers might be, you’ve no way of communicating them to her, and you don’t have much interest in what she’s saying. After asking her question, she starts moving your hand around on the screen, pushing your finger onto some buttons on it.

Then she announces to the room that you’re so happy to be able to talk to people at last.

You’ve no idea what she’s talking about. You’re just sitting there. But she keeps asking you other questions, moving your hand on the screen, and then telling everyone that you think this or that, that you’re happy, that you like someone and don’t like someone else, that you love music, all sorts of things. You don’t know anything about any of this, but you can’t say anything, can’t tell them they’ve got it wrong, can’t even pull your hand away.

You see everyone looking at you differently now, all staring at you as if realising suddenly that there really is a person in there after all. They’re all looking right at you, saying how wonderful it is that you’re talking to them at last, and asking you more questions. But it’s not you they’re talking with. You’re not saying anything, not doing anything. You’re trapped.

This goes on for days, weeks. You don’t understand why everyone’s being like this, as if you’re talking to them all the time, but whatever they think you’re saying, you’re the only one who seems to know they’ve got it wrong. People keep smiling at you, often with tears in their eyes, but it doesn’t seem right. Your parents have never looked at you like this before, your mother seems so happy to hear the things the other woman keeps saying, but you still just want to tell her something real. You can’t.

Then one day they’re not smiling any more. The woman moving your hand around is looking very serious, and your mother is crying. You can’t see the screen that your finger keeps being pressed against, but whatever words are on it are clearly upsetting people. Your mother is coming over to you now, holding you, still crying, asking more questions that you understand even less than before.

Did daddy hurt you, baby? Where did he touch you? What did he do to you? Oh god, how could he do this, I’m so sorry baby, we’ll keep you safe from him, I promise.

Your father stops coming to visit after that. You never learn why. You never hear about the questions he was made to answer by the police, the accusations hurled at him in court, the life stolen from him and his family, as this innocent man is branded a monster and locked away for years.

And you still can’t say a word to any of them. You’re as helpless as ever.

A little perspective

Now then.

That story ended with the loving father of a disabled child being jailed for sexual abuse. The evidence that put him away was based on the reported “testimony” of the child, but in fact the man was innocent, and the abuse never occurred. The child made no such statements, but someone practising facilitated communication (FC) claimed to be using this revolutionary technique to allow the child to communicate despite the disability. They attributed these untrue statements to the child, and they were believed.

Obviously this is a nightmare scenario. It would be terrible if this exact series of events genuinely came to pass. I’ve deliberately made it about as horrible as it could get. It should be unsettling to imagine this genuinely occurring, at the very least.

But that’s not an argument for anything. Not on its own. It’s just a story. If I just made a post titled “Facilitated Communication”, told a horror story, and told you to draw your own conclusions based solely on the emotions it evoked, I’d be about on the level of people who try to disprove evolution by shouting “HITLER!” a lot.

I’m not doing that. When you encounter a case of alleged facilitated communication, do not simply flashback to this nightmare scenario, decide that some horrifying atrocity is taking place, and start making phone calls to the rest of the angry mob to see who can remember where you stockpiled the pitchforks.

I am not trying to encourage anyone to make a decision, or take some action, based on an emotional response to something upsetting. It would be very manipulative if I were solely trying to influence your opinions by inspiring fear. But you know what? If an emotive and overblown story scares you, not into a rash and irreversible judgment, but into a greater awareness of the horrifying potential to this idea, and a realisation that it’s vitally important that we do everything we can to avoid it…

…then fucking good.

Obviously this exact scenario isn’t the natural consequence of every claim made about facilitated communication – again, I am not asking you to reject any such claims simply on the basis of one worrying hypothetical. But you must accept that no physical laws of the universe would be in any way inconsistent with the above scenario taking place. It’s not a fantastical tale set in a world of elves and pixies. It’s not dependent on unrealistic assumptions to make it possible. People with autism, paralysis, brain damage, and other medical conditions which leave them unable to communicate through traditional means really do exist. And so do people who claim to be able to perform this kind of facilitated communication.

Here’s one of them:

The technique was developed in the 1980s, popularised in the 1990s, and still has a substantial following today. The claim is that the “facilitator” senses tiny movements in the subject’s hand, and allows them to guide their own hand to the buttons on a keyboard that they wish to press, to type out a message. What you’re seeing in the video above, we’re told, is a nurse interpreting very slight muscle activity, in a man mostly paralysed and incapable of holding up his arm to type a complete message himself, and assisting him to make the actions he wants.

So, that’s one explanation of what’s happening. But if something more akin to my nightmare scenario above were actually taking place, it would look exactly the same to an idle outside observer who didn’t look any closer.

One explanation requires an entirely new and remarkable paradigm. The other one just means that people are getting things wrong again, and clinging to the ideas they find most comforting. For which explanation are you going to demand the most rigorous proof before believing it?

It may sound like I’m offering a scaled-down version of Pascal’s Wager, and encouraging you to act in fear of some scary but vanishingly remote eventuality, but there’s no real comparison there. I don’t want everyone to rush out and devote their lives to seeking out any instance where something horrifying might possibly be happening, and completely ruling it out. But this is a very public and noteworthy phenomenon, about which a lot of people are loudly making grandiose claims, and a much simpler explanation – that those people are wrong, and we could be risking a nightmare scenario like the one described above – is entirely plausible.

An analogy

Let’s say I publicly claim to have built a robotic cat. I hold up a pretty ordinary-looking cat, and tell you that it’s full of electronic parts that I put together, designed to act in every way like a real cat. To prove it, I offer to demonstrate how realistically it responds to pain. I show that, when I twist my cat’s limbs and jab it with pointy things, it screeches and wails and struggles to get away from me, just like a real cat would. I conclude that I’m a technological genius and demand massive government funding for further research.

If I really have built a fully lifelike cybernetic animal, then this would be a phenomenal accomplishment. My fantastic intellect and paradigm-shattering discoveries would truly be a landmark in the scientific development of our species. This should be taken very seriously, and there would be great excitement over the immense ramifications of what I’ve achieved. But before we go rewriting the history books…

…you might want to make sure I’m not just torturing a cat.

Now, most people don’t torture cats. You probably don’t need to be overly concerned about cat-torture in general. It needn’t keep you awake at nights. You don’t need to go out of your way to do background checks into everyone you meet to make sure they’re not a secret cat-torturer. Before today, you’d have had absolutely no reason to suspect that I’d ever even dream of torturing cats.

But when I’m demonstrating to you the realism of my invention… I gotta admit, it looks a lot like I’m just torturing a cat. In this case, you’d have to be very blasé on the subject of cat torture to just take me at my word that it’s an amazingly advanced cyborg, without wanting to check that I’m not just torturing a cat.

You see where I’m going with this?

The facilitators are presenting what may be a revolutionary technique that allows autistic and paralysed people to speak their thoughts in a way never before possible. This would be a hugely beneficial development, and deserves significant attention.

But they’re also presenting something that looks exactly like the nightmare scenario above would look, if that were really happening.

Isn’t it worth trying to make sure these people aren’t just torturing a cat?

Just believe it

The claims of facilitated communication can only earn any credibility once they’ve given us a good reason to reject the nightmare scenario, and proven beyond reasonable doubt that the process achieves what it claims to. Until then, we’re not being paranoid: the nightmare scenario is a legitimate fear that has not been dismissed.

But people have looked for just such a good reason, and they haven’t found much to reassure them. If you X-rayed my cat and saw only a collection of normal feline biological organs and a distinct lack of computer gadgetry, would you be reassured, or even more worried?

Some people object to even testing such a phenomenon. This is only to be expected when people are deeply emotionally invested in an idea which tends to be damaged by scientific scrutiny, rather than supported. How dare you even ask me whether my cat’s really a cyborg? I’m offended that you openly doubt me at all. Just shut up and let me keep testing the AI’s simulated pain threshold.

Someone criticised Steve Novella for expecting a subject using facilitated communication to be able to perform in a situation of “cold and advesarial [sic] testing”. It’s possible this person doesn’t think it’s right that claims of facilitated communication should be tested even in principle. Or maybe she just doesn’t think a reasonable test protocol can be put together, due to the inherent limitations of the phenomenon itself.

But the conclusion she seems to want us to reach is that it should therefore be accepted without question. Yeah, that sounds like a totally safe way to approach reality. What could possibly go wrong? I’m afraid X-rays will fry my cybercat’s circuitry, so you can’t do that. Are you happy to just take my word now? Go on, yank on its tail. It’s fun.

The commenter also misunderstands what science is. Yes, we’re talking about performing a controlled clinical trial. This does not mean that some poor autistic kid is going to be thrown into a harshly white and sterile laboratory somewhere, while a load of test tubes bubble over with dry ice, and people are given sinister injections of experimental virus strains over in the corner. I know you’ve probably seen a film and realised that these are the things that scientists like to busy themselves with, but that’s not actually how it works. Doing a good scientific trial is about removing as many extraneous variables as possible, so that the bare facts can be assessed and analysed as accurately as possible. It’s about trying not to be wrong, by whatever methods most effectively serve that goal. That’s all.

We can and we should test facilitated communication, and any worthwhile test must be potentially able to give us something which rules out the simple, nightmarish option. If I show you the code I allegedly used to program my cat, and some models of the pistons and valves used in the leg joints, this might not do much to put you at ease about Chairman Miaow’s safety. But if I stick a magnet to its side, maybe you’d become convinced. My cybercat is magnetic; real cats aren’t.

So: what would be true of genuine facilitated communication, that wouldn’t be true of an entirely fake performance?

The proof of the pudding

Well, the kinds of platitudes that commonly come out of FC clearly aren’t going to satisfy this demand. If all an autistic kid apparently has to say is that they’re happy to be alive and able to talk to people, or that they love their parents, then this is nothing that anyone else could not have typed for them. This is as pointless as noting that my cat purrs when stroked. Real and animatronic cats act like that. Duh.

But what if we asked the kids about something only they knew? If they could tell us something the facilitator didn’t know, that would prove that the facilitator wasn’t just using the subject’s hand to type. We’d know that they were really helping someone with a disability to communicate. So maybe we could get the facilitator to leave the room, and then show the subject a word, or an object, or a picture, or give them some sort of information, which we can then ask them about when we bring the facilitator back in after a moment.

That sounds fair, right? We don’t have to take the person to a scary laboratory and surround them with intimidating bubbling flasks of Science. They can just be wherever they usually hang out, meeting a new person and being shown, say, a red cup. That sounds like something they could probably handle. I mean, these kids are supposed to be writing poetry. They’re pretty eloquent when they get chatty. “Autism held me hostage for seventeen years but not any more because now I can talk.” I don’t see why they couldn’t handle something like “That man had a red cup”.

And if any FC subject proved to be capable of this simple task, it would leave the skeptics with nowhere to hide. It wouldn’t take much work to prove that the subject really must be communicating themselves, through the facilitator, just as claimed. It seems like the proponents and practitioners of facilitated communication would be dying to try this out.

People have tried it out. This exact protocol, and others like it.

It’s never worked.

To see what they found, let’s look at the question the other way round. What would be true if FC were a total sham, which would not be true if it were genuine?


What if?

One thing you would expect, in the case of a sham, is that it wouldn’t matter whether or not the subject supposedly “communicating” was paying any attention to the keyboard, or seemed aware of what was going on around them as their fingers were pressed against the buttons. You would also expect that the facilitator would have to be paying very close attention to exactly where they were moving the subject’s hand – something that surely wouldn’t be that important if they were genuinely only responding to the subject’s own movements.

And this is exactly what we find. Watch this video, and see if you can tell which is the person carefully scrutinising the keyboard, and which is the one with their eyes closed.

In the case of a sham, you might also expect to find that there are no real limitations on how fast the facilitator can type. If they’re doing everything themselves, they won’t need to carefully and delicately respond to very slight physical cues from the hand they’re holding, slowly and tentatively moving where they think they’re being led. They’ll be able to blast away, typing whatever they like at whatever rate they prefer.

And this is exactly what we find. This video of “Coma Man” Rom Houben is a fine example. When I first wrote about this, I noted that I’d probably have trouble matching that kind of typing speed with just one finger myself – and I’m a professional typist who’s not even in a coma.

In the case of a sham, you might also expect that what the facilitator knows should make much more of a difference than what the subject knows, when it comes to the responses you get. In other words, if the subject is given different information from the facilitator, you would expect that only the facilitator’s information is reflected in the responses.

I’m just going to quote one example of this being tested, from a study reported on an episode of Frontline on PBS:

NARRATOR: All the parties agreed to invite an expert in communication to come and assess Betsy. They chose Dr. Howard Shane from the Boston Children’s Hospital. Shane had devised a double-blind test, like this, to objectively determine who was authoring the messages, Betsy or the facilitator who transcribed the allegations. He showed both a series of pictures and asked them to type what they saw. When both Betsy and her facilitator saw a picture of a key, the letters K-E-Y were typed. But Shane wanted to discover what happened if each saw a different picture. When Betsy saw a cup, she didn’t type “cup,” she typed “hat,” what the facilitator saw.

Dr. SHANE: Here we go. Now take a look at this one. I want you to tell me what you see, okay?

NARRATOR: When Betsy was shown a picture of a dog, she didn’t type “dog,” but “sneakers,” what the facilitator saw.

Dr. SHANE: Okay. Want to take a look at that one?

NARRATOR: When Betsy was shown a boat, she didn’t type “boat,” but “sandwich,” what the facilitator saw.

Dr. SHANE: Betsy, now I’m going to show you something. Take a look at this. You take this. Now, what is that? Give it back to me. We’re going back in. I want you to tell everybody what I showed you.

When we went back into the room, she was unable to type the word “key.” I then took another key out of my pocket and said, with the facilitator present, “What is this?” and she immediately typed, “key.” So again it suggests that when the facilitator is aware of the information, we get the answer, but when the facilitator is unaware of the information, we don’t get an answer.

Yep. This is exactly what we find. It could not possibly be more obvious that Betsy is not providing any input here, and the words being ascribed to her are coming from the facilitator.

Oh, and as for the reason this test was being done, those “allegations” the facilitator had previously transcribed? They accused Betsy’s parents, brother, and grandparents, of sexually abusing her.

I wrote that nightmare scenario way back up there deliberately to be as hyperbolic as possible. This actually fucking happened. These innocent people were publicly accused of raping a 17-year-old autistic girl. The brother was taken away from his parents and put into foster care.

Have you ever been accused of raping a disabled child? It can seriously fuck up your social life.

That particular family avoided any truly horrendous consequences, not least because of the scruples and good skeptical sense of the local attorney appointed as Betsy’s legal guardian while the allegations were being investigated:

If the communications were real and she was being abused, the idea that on a legal technicality we might send the children back would be just absolutely horrible. On the other hand, if these were not real communications, the idea that all this would happen to this family and these children on a bogus idea was also unacceptable. So to my mind, the stakes were extremely high on both sides and it was very important that we reach a quality decision based on the truth.

I cannot fathom why this isn’t similarly obvious to everybody else involved. But some people don’t see that this is something worth checking carefully. People have gone to jail over cases like this. If you want us to believe that there’s something to this facilitated communication thing you’re bringing us, and that you’re not just cruelly branding a loving father as a child molester, then you need to make fucking sure you’re not full of shit.

But… why?

There’s something hugely important I haven’t covered yet. If all this communication really can be explained by the actions of the facilitators themselves, then what the hell are these people doing? What’s their agenda? Why are they moving coma patients’ and autistic kids’ hands around to type fake messages? Is it a power trip? What do they hope to achieve?

Here’s another quote from that PBS show, talking about the aftermath of Betsy’s case:

The facilitator, devastated by the test results, stopped using facilitated communication and persuaded Betsy’s school to stop using it, as well.

This is where the hopeful part of the story starts, I guess. That doesn’t sound like the action of a fraud. And, in fact, conscious fraud is not necessary for completely bogus facilitated communication to take place. When you see this going on, it is not fair to assume that anyone is pulling a deliberate scam. Sometimes it can be the result of people just getting things wrong. And sometimes they can learn what they got wrong, and start getting things right.

If you attack alternative medicine to someone who’s a fan of it, you need to be careful they don’t take it personally. Many people who buy into homeopathy or acupuncture do so because they seemed to have a positive experience with it, and just aren’t critically judging the value of their one anecdote against the weight of clinical data. If they think you’re telling them they’re stupid to believe what they do, or they’re wrong about what they know happened to them personally, then they’re likely simply to become further entrenched in their opinions and decide that skeptics are just obnoxious.

Similarly, many facilitators know that they’re not just making all this stuff up, and they don’t like being unfairly called liars any more than the rest of us. So if your criticism of facilitated communication seems like you’re simply accusing them of being full of it, they’re likely to become even more staunch in their position. And then they’ll be even less inclined to listen to, say, actual evidence, or be able to analyse the facts reasonably, and understand how experimental data undermines what they’re saying. If it feels like acknowledging this data will amount to admitting to lying, they’re not going to go for it.

But they don’t have to have been consciously lying at all. Just like a lot of people who specialise in many different fields of being wrong, a lot of facilitators really aren’t flat-out lying, or trying to con anyone, or insensitive to anyone’s feelings, or being overtly and deliberately dishonest. There are ways in which your brain can trick itself into believing all sorts of things, and the ideomotor effect is just one of them.

I wrote a whole separate article about that already, just so that I wouldn’t have to go into great detail here and make this post even longer. I’ve experienced it myself, in the swinging of a pendulum that I knew I wasn’t moving. And it can – at least partially – explain how someone can move a person’s finger all over a keyboard, convinced that they feel a guiding force that isn’t actually there.

Sure, an outrageous lie also explains the same thing. But that’s a whole lot of very blatant lying they must have been doing, and I’m not convinced there’s enough motivation there that so many facilitators would go along so eagerly with so much cruel and heartless deception. A lot of them are probably very sincere, but very defensive about it – not unnatural when they perceive that they’re being accused of something appalling. They may find themselves digging deeper and entering the dangerous but comforting world of self-delusion, but it’s vital to remember that this sort of nonsense can start from people just being wrong, and innocently failing to understand the full nuance of the situation – it doesn’t require that anyone be a horrible, immoral monster.

This also reminds us that the sincerity of anyone’s account of their own personal experiences with facilitated communication, however genuine, means nothing when it comes to the matter of whether or not it’s true. Even if they do firmly believe in what they’re doing, be skeptical of the conclusions they’re drawing. People were openly weeping with sincerity and honesty and Michael Jackson’s séance, for fuck’s sake. And that was a pile of horseshit so big that a 30C homeopathic dilution might actually still contain some particles of active horseshit.

You’re not calling anyone a liar by being doubtful. You just want to know if things are really as they seem. Remember the nightmare scenario. Knowing this is important.

In conclusion

1. A situation where one person claims to speak, with absolute authority, for someone else who is unable to deny or clarify their claims directly, has terrifying potential for abuse or misinterpretation. It is dangerously negligent to suggest that there shouldn’t be intense scrutiny of such a process, to make sure that such abuse or misinterpretation does not ensue.

2. When people have looked into examples of supposed facilitated communication, to try and make sure that there isn’t something terrible going on, they have never found reassuring evidence that the phenomenon is genuine. Not once have we actually made certain that it’s definitely real.

3. In fact, the evidence we’ve found during such checks has tended to directly contradict the claims of FC. In controlled conditions, the facilitators can’t provide the communication they ought to be able to. The excuses offered – like that the subject was made nervous by these controlled conditions – are offered post hoc and are wholly unconvincing. And they don’t change the fact that we’ve still not found a shred of positive evidence, so we still cannot safely take these claims seriously.

4. We have a better explanation, which is entirely consistent with everything that’s been observed, and which doesn’t require us to make any massive assumptions, or leap to any fantastical and unexpected conclusions that we’d never have guessed before. FC drastically changes our worldview. Of course that’s not an insuperable barrier; if the evidence supported it anyway, then we mustn’t let the size of this change of worldview stop us from accepting it. But the evidence doesn’t support it. And our alternative explanation requires no such massive shaking-up of everything we thought we knew. Sometimes people are wrong but desperately want to be right. That assumption isn’t much of a stretch at all.

5. Maybe it’s real. Maybe some cases have been genuine. But if you buy into it too quickly, before you’ve ruled out that you might be wrong… then the potential consequences if you are wrong are horrifying. If you haven’t ruled out yet that it all might be a mistake, look harder.

Sources and further reading

The Skeptic’s Dictionary
The National Autistic Society
Frontline: Prisoners of Silence
Neurologica, Neurologica, Neurologica
Bad Science

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I used to believe in some wacky stuff.

It didn’t seem all that wacky at the time, of course. When I first started taking an interest in the stuff I was reading online, about people’s religious experiences and psychics and mind readers and dowsing and so on, it sounded fascinating, and wasn’t obviously bullshit at all. I guess I tend to think about things a bit differently now, or maybe there are just more things that I’ve learnt aren’t real in the intervening years.

Anyway, there was a lot of stuff about dowsing that caught my eye, and made it seem like an accessible skill. There was reams of advice and personal experiences people wanted to share, and it sounded like you didn’t need to be whisked away from your cupboard under the stairs to a wizards’ school by a hairy giant in order to be a part of it. It sounded like anyone could join in, and learn to access some spiritual dimension which could provide insight and knowledge from beyond this world.

So I bought a crystal pendulum from a new age shop.

It feels so weird typing that sentence now.

It was cheap, but kinda pretty, and looked a lot like this quartz one. The idea, as described on that page, is to clear your mind and mentally ask a series of yes/no questions, while letting the pendulum hang loosely from your fingers. There are various ways the pendulum might swing – circular motions, clockwise or anticlockwise, back and forth, diagonally – and you can calibrate it with some control questions.

I don’t remember exactly how it went when I tried it, but it would have been something like: “Is my name James?” – and I saw it swing forward and back, so I knew that meant yes. “Is today Wednesday?” – another yes, with the same swinging motion. “Is there a dragon in my room?” – and it swung side to side, meaning no.

This was really exciting.

So I decided to test it out properly, and see if I could find out something that I didn’t know, and prove that I was really tapping into some amazing psychic source of power.

I think this is the point where my strategy departed from that of a lot of new age fans.

I got a deck of playing cards and placed one face down in front of me. I didn’t know what card it was, but I held the pendulum over it, and asked yes/no questions to narrow it down. “Is it black?” – no. “Is it red?” – yes. “Is it a picture card?” – no. And so on.

Eventually I narrowed it down to “Is it the five of diamonds?” and got a yes. It had given me a definite answer to everything I asked. It had never contradicted itself. I’d started with absolutely no knowledge or assumptions or preconceptions about the card in front of me, and my pendulum had honed directly in on its identity as the five of diamonds.

I still remember the fluttering in my chest – half excitement and half genuine fear – in the second or two before I turned over the king of clubs.

Aw, crap.

It turns out that there’s a bunch of reasons why people believe in this kind of thing, and post articles to the internet about their powerfully moving personal experiences with it. And these reasons don’t require magic to actually be real.

When I first started looking into it, it didn’t require any particular daftness on my part to take it seriously – it just seemed to be a part of the world. A somewhat secretive, not generally known, exclusive part, but that just made it all the more fun. At the depth at which I explored it at the time, I didn’t find any good reason to suppose that it was all completely fictitious. People were taking it for granted, writing detailed accounts of their achievements, and beginners’ guides to the basic techniques.

But once you start thinking about it more critically, you realise that magic powers aren’t the only explanation. They’re not the best explanation. In fact, they’re not even a very good explanation.

Some people are very keen to find evidence that supports the idea that their dangling crystal can tell them things – so confirmation bias plays a big part in explaining why it’s so widely believed, as well as a host of other logical fallacies. But the ideomotor effect is one of the most persuasive aspects if you don’t know what it is. And it’s the one I’m supposed to be talking about here.

When I was asking myself those questions, I really was trying to hold the pendulum as still as possible. I know I wasn’t deliberately swinging it around to make myself seem like an amazing wizard (“Look, it knows my name!!”), but it’s worth asking: how good am I at holding my hand perfectly still? When I look closely at my outstretched digits as I try to remain motionless, I seem surprisingly wobbly. If I’m going to hold something on a thin and flexible cord or chain, it seems likely that my natural shakiness is going to have some effect.

And it turns out that the pendulum picks up more than just a general jiggle from my unsteady muscles. Let’s say I know a forward-swing means yes, because of my first test question. If I then ask something else which I know, or expect, has the answer yes, then on some level of consciousness I’m going to be imagining getting a forward-swing answer from the pendulum. My hand will then actually twitch, without my being aware of it, to make the pendulum swing forward.

The mental processes to do this can really happen inside your head, without the part where you’re conscious of it. It “bypasses volition”, to be a bit technical (volition being your capacity to do something by your own will).

You can try it easily yourself with any weight on some sort of dangling cord. I’m trying it now with one of the earphones from my mp3 player on its lead, and it’s still quite odd to see. I concentrate on a clockwise spinning motion, and it starts spinning clockwise, even though I’m still trying to hold it as steady as I can.

If you’re thinking that this might be evidence that I was secretly psychic all along, you’re still leaping to a more complicated explanation than is necessary. If I’m not directly touching the cord, or holding it in such a way that my hand movements won’t affect its swing, then it doesn’t respond in the same way. It only moves like this when I have the capacity to be swinging it around unconsciously. The best explanation is that I’m simply moving my hand.

There’s also a common hypnotic trick, where you’re asked to close your eyes and stick your arms out, then vividly imagine a heavy weight in one hand pulling it down, and a balloon tied to the other pulling it up. You focus on the respective feelings of pressure and lightness for a while, and if you’re anything like me, after a couple of minutes you open your eyes and find that you’ve lifted and lowered your hands accordingly by several inches, without being aware of doing it.

The point is, your mind’s good at doing stuff like this without telling you about it.

Now, this doesn’t mean that nobody can dowse anything, or that we’ve proved that Ouija boards are universally a load of crap (yes, the people are just pushing the glass around even if they don’t realise it). But it reminds us the importance of asking the question “Is there a simpler, less Harry Potter explanation?” when we see something we think might be magic.

If I was doing actual magic over my playing card that time, then my skills make Neville Longbottom look like Gandalf. I must really suck at magic. I didn’t even get close to getting the card right. Magic just isn’t a good enough explanation for what happened there. But the idea that my hand wasn’t perfectly still, and made the pendulum swing a little by entirely natural means? Yep, that fits.

But what if I had got it right? What if I had no way of knowing what card I was staring at the back of, and wasn’t being provided the information by any means except the pendulum, and I actually got it right? And it kept happening, consistently?

Well, the ideomotor effect wouldn’t cover that. And I’d be a millionaire.

But it does cover, y’know, every case that’s ever been examined of any kind of dowsing ever. Except the ones that are outright fraud, where there’s conscious deception taking place. But there really doesn’t need to be any malice or dishonesty for people to make magical claims that aren’t based in reality. If you don’t know what the ideomotor effect is, and maybe don’t test out your new idea all that rigorously, and kinda let slide the few occasions where it doesn’t work… then I can imagine this being pretty convincing.

People who do things like dowsing aren’t being stupid or evil. But they are claiming that they can do magic, and it’s a big ask that we should take that at face value without daring to question it any further, even if we don’t doubt their sincerity. It’s the kind of massive claim that we should probably, y’know, check.

And, unfortunately for any aspiring Weasleys out there, natural phenomena like the ideomotor effect provide a better explanation for every instance of “magic” that’s yet been observed. They account perfectly for what’s going on, but the magical explanation fails to explain why the effect always vanishes when studied closely. It just doesn’t work. The five of diamonds was not my card.

Sorry, Hermione. Muggles win.

A more academic and less chatty approach to this topic can be found at The Skeptic’s Dictionary, RationalWiki, SkepticWiki, and all over the place really. Barrett Dorko and Ray Hyman, among others, have written rather more scientifically rigorous documents about the ideomotor effect in action, with examples of experiments in which it’s been seen.

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Or specifically, why I am not an apatheist.

I’m not exactly sure how long the term’s been in common usage (and you know how I feel about doing research), but I’d guess it’s only really taken off since atheism started becoming mainstream. For anyone not quite caught up, “apatheism” is a portmanteau of “apathy” and “theism” (or “atheism”, I suppose), and refers to people who profess not to care whether or not God exists.

Now, I don’t generally have many complaints with apatheists. I’ve been living with one for the better part of a year, and it’s a position which doesn’t naturally give rise to any sort of fundamentalist fervour, so generally we’re cool, apatheists and me. But I’ve decided lately that it’s not a position that I personally identify with.

It’s simple enough to sum up why.

A substantial number of the most popular conceptions of God throughout history and around the world – including probably the all-time numero uno himself – possess, we’re told, both the power and the authority to condemn each of us to eternal suffering, should he will it.

I’m a heroically lazy individual, but even I can’t muster up much apathy on the subject of my being condemned to eternal suffering.

Anyone who’s ever really believed in it can probably back me up on this: Hell is really fucking scary if you actually take it seriously. If I thought there was any remote possibility that I might be screwing things up the way I’m going at the moment, and risking sending myself there by worshipping the wrong god or rejecting the one true path to salvation, I’d want to seriously look into that. I don’t think I’d be able to simply shrug the problem off, or dismiss it as something not really relevant to my life. I’m pretty sure you’d have to be insane not to care about God’s possible existence, or the exact nature of his whims, if you thought that unending torture was genuinely on the cards.

But in general – my flatmate notwithstanding – those apatheists aren’t crazy. And so I don’t think it’s overly presumptuous to suggest that most apatheists do actually maintain some significant religious positions. They’d probably agree, if pushed, that they count their odds of being sent to Hell for eternal punishment after they die to be about as negligible as I do. And that’s not a trivial or careless conclusion; Hell is a culturally ubiquitous concept, described in the holy text of the predominant religion on the planet, held sacred by billions of people. It’s not an obvious nonsense to someone who’s never given the subject a moment’s thought.

So I think it makes sense to suggest that an actual disregard for the subject isn’t what most people mean when they call themselves apatheists. They may not have expended much effort in forming the opinions they have, but they’ve considered the matter far enough that it doesn’t need to trouble them any further. They’ve decided that the dire consequences often heralded by God’s self-appointed spokesmen are so unlikely that they can be ignored. Beyond that, who cares?

Well… still me, actually.

Obviously a great deal of the first bit does apply to me, too. I’ve rejected the possibility of God in any form that I might need to worry about, and don’t generally let the fiddly philosophical details bother me beyond that. But I still undoubtedly take an interest in much of the related discussion (my recent inactivity on this blog notwithstanding). I emphatically do give a shit, not so much about what can or can’t be conclusively disproved or vaguely hypothesised about some supreme being, but about the implications of people’s responses to the question “Is there a God?”

Clearly, there are battles here that I think are worth fighting, even if God himself isn’t my opponent. Religious fanaticism is one of the most damaging forces in today’s world, and I really think that a broader understanding of science, and skepticism, and humanism, and the kind of reality-based thinking that leads people to disbelieve in God, would be more beneficial to our species than just about anything else. While there are still people stoning witches to death, rationalising their own hate and prejudice as being that of an almighty creator, and telling millions of their followers that condoms are making the African AIDS crisis worse, I can’t be apathetic on this.

For those who can, it may be largely a case of picking your battles. Of the people in Africa not dying of AIDS, for instance, there are plenty of them busy starving to death instead. If you’re directly trying to combat famine by helping to feed people, then your faith or that of your colleagues probably isn’t much of an issue, and whether or not someone’s wearing a crucifix in a hospital in Kansas might not seem all that pertinent.

I can’t possibly tell what’s the most useful thing for me to be doing, on those fleeting occasions when I give some thought to the notion of doing something good. But this is something I can do. It feels like my fight. It ain’t nothin’. So there’s really not much about the question of God’s existence that I truly don’t care about.

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This is my Skeptictionary entry on the whole Mayan calendar 2012 apocalypse idea.

So, according to some, the Mayans believed that…

Actually, you know what? I’m just going to wait this one out. In just over three years, the point’ll be moot, and I think I’ll save myself the effort. It’s not going to happen, people.

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