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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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A couple of days ago, Channel 5 aired a documentary about Derek Ogilvie, the star of a show (aired on the same channel) called The Baby Mind Reader. His supposed abilities are pretty much explained by the title. His general routine is to meet with a parent/parents and young child, and tell them what’s on the kid’s mind; images, pictures, videos, and concepts appear in his head, and these supposedly relate directly to what the child is thinking.

And the first thing I want to say is that I really doubt that this guy is a fraud. He seems passionately sincere, and even pretty well-intentioned. I don’t think he’s deliberately trying to deceive people, or is conning anyone to make a fast buck. He’s trying to do some good, and help people, by making use of the talent he honestly believes that he possesses. He’s just not very skeptically minded.

He repeatedly insisted that he knows he’s not crazy, he knows he’s not lying, and he’s had so much specific information that it’s not plausible he could have got it from anywhere else. It’s only the last point that’s a source of contention for me. He’s really not in the best position to judge something like that, and when cold reading is so well established as a technique that can really impress people and give the appearance of spooky psychic powers, we can only find anything out for sure by doing proper, rigorous tests designed to rule out the “anywhere else”, and leave only the option of genuine psychicness.

If he is using cold reading, this still doesn’t mean he’s doing anything deliberately deceptive, but his style shows all the signs of it. He talks at the parents, throwing out lots of ideas fairly quickly, often being quite vague, and always looking for a reaction, to see whether he’s on the right track or should change course, or whether they’ll help him out by volunteering some details. And people will, if they’re already inclined to believe in him. (Those two links up there have plenty of detail until the Skeptictionary gets its own entry on cold reading.) He’s almost certainly not consciously lying, but there’s a lot of rationalisation going on in his head, necessary to relate the images his creative brain is producing to the feedback he’s getting from the parents.

His first test is at some college in the UK. A child-minder will bring in each of six children, one at a time, and Derek will spend some time in their presence, picking up whatever vibes he can, and will write up a complete reading for each child. The children’s parents aren’t present for any of this, but later on they’ll all get a chance to read through all of the readings, and see if they can pick the one that was made for their child. This will rule out the possibility that he’s just bouncing ideas off the feedback he’s getting from the parents, but still seems to fall well within the scope of the psychic powers he’s claiming to have.

Except, at one point, he points out this very fact himself, and talks about how he usually also has the parents there to work with and how much easier that makes things. Why should it? If you’ve got a psychic connection with the kid, the images you’re getting from them should be descriptive enough in themselves, without having to be nudged toward anything pertinent by someone else.

And at one point he starts going off doing a lengthy reading about the childminder herself, who is conveniently in the room and able to provide useful feedback on what he’s saying. The Professor running the experiment has to come through after several minutes and suggest he gets back on track; the impression this all gives is that Derek can only do anything in his usual limited scope, where the cold reading techniques can be relied on, and wants to be able to point to something “impressive” he achieved today in the event that he totally flunks the actual test.

Which he did. One of the six parents identified the correct reading; for the other five, the supposed transcript of their own child’s thoughts didn’t stand out from those of a bunch of other kids.

Again, he falls back to “It’s not made up in my mind”. Oh, piss off. Everything is made up in your mind one way or another, that’s how minds work. The question is whether your mind is doing it all on its own, or whether it’s being prompted by some outside stimulus. In other words, are you getting psychic readings, or are you just a human being with a creative brain? And his whine of “Just trust me on this, please” is frankly embarrassing. Of course they’re not going to just trust you, you couldn’t do it, what the hell do you think they put together this test for?

He said something earlier about searching for the truth, but he’s only searching for some justification of what he’s already convinced of. No “truth” is going to change his mind. He’s in tears after failing this test. He has to keep believing in himself, because it’s just not conceivable that he might have been wrong all this time. “It’s very sad when people say things about me,” he says. Well, they’re not being mean. They’re saying there’s no evidence to suggest that you’ve got psychic powers, because there isn’t. You were right there when they found that out. It’s called science, they did a test, and you failed. If you’d done what you’d set out to do, and given even four of the six sets of parents a reading they could recognise as applying to their child, they would have given you the credit for it. But you couldn’t.

Then we move on to another test, where he presumably hopes to have better luck, in Florida, under the watchful eye of the amazing James Randi himself. This time, the protocol is rather different, though it has also been agreed to in advance by Derek.

Incidentally, it really is important that he accepts every aspect of the testing before they get started. We wouldn’t learn anything if we were testing him outside of his claimed abilities. If he claimed his powers only worked when he was within a couple of feet of the child, or looking at the child’s face, then they’d have to arrange for that to happen, rather than putting him in the next room. Here, though, Derek has said that he’s happy with all the conditions under which the test is going to take place. We couldn’t test a pianist’s musical ability by handing them a violin; similarly, we have to make every possbile allowance so that someone like Derek is satisfied that the situation is conducive to a successful performance.

This time, there’s only one child involved in the test. Derek met ten children, and their parents, and chose this one to work with. There’s a box with ten different children’s toys, which Derek gets to examine, before he goes into a sound-proof room next door, from where he’s previously said that he’ll still be able to get a reading from the child. There’s a bag full of ten little balls, rather like table-tennis balls, numbered one to ten, each corresponding to one of the toys. When Derek says he’s ready (into a microphone, so that he can be heard in the other room), the child draws a ball from the bag at random, and they check the number. Randi then takes out the corresponding toy from the cupboard, and gives it to the kid to play with, under the supervision of the child’s parents. Derek writes down which toy he thinks the kid has, then tells them to move onto the next one. The numbered ball is replaced, and another random draw is made. This continues until ten draws have been made.

So, Derek has a list of ten toys written down that he thinks the child was given, in order, each from the available selection of ten. If six of his guesses match up with what the kid actually had at the time, he wins.

He got one right, out of ten.

But I guess he should have been happy with that, because as soon as he finished he said, “That was tough. I’ll probably get none.” Eesh. Dude, this is exactly what you keep saying you can do. It’s not a pop quiz. It’s not an end-of-term exam. You tell us you can read children’s minds, you’re being asked to read a child’s mind, in conditions under which you previously said that you could read children’s minds. If there’s anything to your claims at all, this is precisely where you should excel. The tests aren’t “designed for you to fail”, they’re designed for you to fail if you’re not psychic. If you had the ability you said you did, you would have been able to do this. You couldn’t do this. It’s not rocket science.

You’re right, Derek, Randi isn’t “going to give away a million dollars just off the cuff”. What he’s going to do is try to find out whether anyone is actually psychic, and be thorough in his efforts to rule out any other explanation for what looks like a successful result, and then give away a million dollars, if he finds anyone who can really do it. How was anything about the test responsible for your utter failure to show anything remotely impressive?

Randi opines that Derek is probably quite sincere, not a fraud, and the guy really believes he can do what he claims. He gets plenty of airtime to discuss his conclusions and his previous experiences with other psychics and claimants to paranormal skills, which is grand.

But then it goes downhill in the final stretch. Derek goes to have his brain scanned, to see what actually goes on in his head when he’s doing his thing. Someone with letters after his name hooks him up to an EEG-meter of some sort, or something similar, but right from the start it all smacks of pseudo-science.

The actual data we get from Derek’s brain is directly described in terms such as “a state associated with communication of a non-verbal and emotional nature, as opposed to a verbal or semantic nature”, which I’m sure makes a lot of neurological sense. But the inanely credulous Dr. Whatshisname doing the research seems to think that Derek is entirely vindicated because of this. According to him, the changes in brain state Derek registered are “consistent with your report and the activity that you’re engaged in,” and this apparently “confirms and validates what you say.”

No. No, it doesn’t.

What Derek says isn’t that he’s in a state associated with communication of a non-verbal and emotional nature. What Derek says is that he’s psychic. And you really can’t prove that with a brain scan. There are no “parts of the brain that we would expect you to use” while you’re employing psychic powers. We don’t know what parts of the brain those are, for the same reason that we don’t know what sorts of materials we would expect to find in the exhaust fumes of an alien spaceship, or what flavour of ice cream is Bigfoot’s favourite. There still hasn’t been any evidence presented that anything paranormal is going on.

It was so ridiculous, and no distinction ever seemed to be drawn between being psychic and having “something unusual going on in your brain activity”. Those two are really not equivalent. So far we’ve been testing the first. I’d be far more willing to grant Derek Ogilvie the second. And yet, he knows that “there’s something going on, and if there’s any way it can be proved it’s in these results, because this test categorically will determine if there is something unusual going on in my brain activity.”

Really? Measuring your unusual brain activity is the best way to prove that you can read babies’ minds? That wouldn’t be, say, those times you were asked to read some babies’ minds, and you were tested as to whether or not you could do it? That’s not as good a way to tell whether you can read babies’ minds, as sticking some electrodes on your forehead and looking at whether your thoughts are “emotionally dominant”?

This is about on a level with “Hey guys, the stuff-o-meter’s beeping! That means something spooky’s going on, and because we’re ghost hunters, it must be a ghost!” Seriously, people. What particular levels of brain activity are associated with psychic activity? We can’t have any answer for that until we’ve done some tests measuring brain activity in people who are definitely doing something psychic, compared it with a control group of people who aren’t, and come up with a theory that can be used to explain previous results and predict future cases. (You know, like how science works.) Until then, saying these results are “consistent” with something like that is meaningless. They’re also consistent with some guy having an overactive imagination, and a researcher who doesn’t know how to critically analyse his results.

Bottom line: Derek Ogilvie says he’s psychic, and that he can read babies’ minds. You know what would have validated that? If he’d read those babies’ minds. It didn’t happen when he said it ought to have happened. That’s called a falsifiable hypothesis. But he’s had some nice and comforting reassurance from the Doc, so he’s happy. And Channel 5 get to pretend that there’s still some point to this guy, rather than holding up their hands and saying “Okay, we admit it, we made some trashy TV shows and didn’t really care to scientifically investigate this guy at the time, we were just trying to make an entertaining show that would get good ratings, we’re a TV station, what were you expecting?”

Unsurprisingly, Derek’s going back to see the Doc again and do some more work with him. But he’s also planning to go see Randi again too, and reckons that now he knows the way it’ll work, he’ll be able to do better next time. I understand that he’s entitled to apply again after a year. I’m sure Randi can’t wait.

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