Posts Tagged ‘randi’

…but never TAM to-day. Or something.

Tomorrow is the first day of TAM London.

TAM stands for The Amaz!ng Meeting. It’s a massive annual skeptical gathering, which started in Las Vegas and now has branches cropping up around the world.

The first ever international Meeting happened in London around this time last year, and I was there. It was great. And now I’m going to the next one.

If you’re reading my blog, you probably know about all this already. If you need more background explanation, visit the website, look at the list of speakers, and know that I’m the kind of person who gets hugely excited by the prospect of seeing biology professors, psychologists, and lawyers giving hour-long talks and panel discussions.

Also, if you’re reading my blog, there’s a chance you’re going to be there too.

I went and pre-registered today, which basically meant turning up at the hotel where it’s going to happen, collecting my ID badge ahead of time, and avoiding some of the queueing tomorrow morning. While there, I managed to boost my “hands shaken with people I’d never met before but who I recognised off of the internet” count by two. Namely: Carmen, who’s helping orchestrate the thing and gave me my badge, and James Randi, who was being photographed just outside the hotel entrance by a man who may have wanted me to get the fuck out of his shot.

This is what we call an awesome start.

But this leads me onto my point; it’s actually a pretty big deal for me to approach people who don’t know me and just introduce myself as if they had any reason to be interested. I’m really not an assertive or socially confident person, and tend to start feeling awkward and self-critical at a much greater rate than is normal or desirable when interacting with other people.

It might not sound like a massive conference with huge crowds of people is the ideal place for me to hang out. And you’d kinda have a point.

But I love this stuff. And I love the people who love this stuff.

So, if you’re going to be at TAM London this weekend and want to say hi to me, please do. If you know of me in any way, or if I might know of you, and you have anything at all you’d like to say, even if it’s just a quick hello in passing, then I heartily endorse this event or product endeavour.

But, you will need to bear in mind that there are times when I really suck at conversation even at the most basic levels. I may not have the nerve at any particular moment to take much initiative, in starting a conversation or contributing much to a particular topic. I may seem uncomfortable or frazzled, or like I’m not fitting in there or I want to be left alone.

None of this should put you off an attempt to be friendly, should you feel so inclined. I’m just making excuses ahead of time for if I seem closed-off, unresponsive, or uninterested. I’m not. Well, I might be kinda the first two. But I’m just hugely shy. Give me a chance.

I don’t have an iPhone or anything similar, and I’m not staying in the hotel with a laptop on hand, so I’m mostly going to be falling off the grid for the next couple of days as far as things like blogging and Twitter are concerned. I’ll catch up eventually.

Oh, and I’ll be the one looking more or less like this:

Goofiness of face is only an estimate.

Have a good weekend.

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…and being skeptical just got a little more fabulous!

Sorry. I’m not at all happy with myself for that line. The point is that James Randi, legend and grand high archbigwig of the skeptical world, is gay. So yeah. He talks about it with D.J. Grothe on the latest For Good Reason podcast.

It’s not earth-shattering news. But at the same time, it’s not no news, either. Maybe something like this ought to be a complete non-event, in an ideal world – but for those of us who live in this world, coming out is rarely an entirely trivial thing. It may not be a moment fraught with drama, as Randi’s certainly wasn’t. But we still live in a profoundly heteronormative society. (There have probably been like five or six occasions when I’ve written that word in the years since I picked it up from my uni housemates, but it feels like I use it all the time these days.) The notion of being straight as the default setting is not one that’s been completely given up anywhere, so professing to be of some other configuration is unavoidably a noticeable action.

A few people are insisting that nobody ought to be displaying any interest or expressing any emotional response to Randi’s announcement at all, because someone being gay ought to be such a non-issue as described above. And I’m sure they think that their position is the most tolerant and accepting of all, but I rather think it misses the point. Simply claiming that someone’s sexuality makes no difference to you – even if it’s entirely true and your judgments of people are genuinely made without any prejudice – isn’t enough. While the prejudice and oppression still exist, it’s up to the rest of us to overcompensate.

Not everyone is as comfortable in themselves and as assured of a largely benign response as Randi is. For some people, being open about their sexuality is a big event, and one that may be followed by serious negative consequences. One very easy (and not totally insignificant) way we can help those people out is by adding a cheer to the chorus at times like this. It’s important for them to see that other people who come out publicly are being supported, not chastised for daring to bring it up.

The people not willing to do that because “it makes no difference” sometimes sound quite aggressive in making this point (plenty of examples in the comments thread below Randi’s announcement). But their aggression is for some reason directed at the gay guy who’s just come out, as if it’s offensive of him to expect anyone to be interested in this. Guys. Not helpful. The people you should be angry at are the homophobes and bigots whose hostility and prejudice make this an issue in the first place. In some parts of the world, people are still being murdered over this kind of thing, so don’t get grouchy that some people haven’t simply got over it yet and could still use a little positive feedback on occasion.

So, rock on, Randi. You’ve deserved a big parade of your own for a long time, anyway.

Also, Baba Brinkman is awesome, and excels more than any other in the field of “music that on paper I really shouldn’t like but which actually totally does it for me”. Go watch the video for his rationalist anthem, Off That.

Also also, Rebecca Watson is doing some APPLE SCIENCE, bitches. (I would add a “WITH HER FALLOPIAN TUBES, BITCHES” but I don’t want to cross the memes.) Watch her experiment, and learn how you can set up your own! All you need is an apple, a knife, some cheap containers, and a callous disregard for the fragile emotions of the helpless fruit in your care. Go team science!

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So, the 10:23 campaign to inform the public about homeopathy rumbles on.

There were three points of action in this week’s update email (which you can subscribe to here if you’re not already getting it).

1. They’ve got a flyer (PDF link) which you can print off and distribute, containing all the fundamental information about what homeopathy actually is. I may try leaving the occasional copy in the printer at work and see if it gets noticed.

2. They recommend writing an email to the pharmacist Boots (if you’re in the UK), and provide a suggested form letter, asking for details about how much active ingredient exists in a given homeopathic remedy sold there. I’m planning to stop by my local branch sometime this week and see if they have anything on their shelves that I can question them about specifically. From the responses other people seem to be getting to this kind of question, it’s clear that some people selling these remedies don’t understand how homeopathy works (and are under the impression that there’s something other than water in a 30C solution), and some neither know nor care as long as there’s money in it.

3. There’s also a petition to the UK PM, which you can sign if you’re a British citizen or resident, asking that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) be tasked with evaluating whether the NHS should fund homeopathic treatments, or whether there might be some other, better use for several million pounds somewhere in the field of medicine. Sign here. Boom. Done. Mine is signature number 324. As I type this, there’s still time for you to be number 325.

On a partially related note, what’s the deal with George Vithoulkas? The grubbier parts of the internets are abuzz with gossip about Randi unfairly backing out of testing this guy’s mad homeopathic skillz for the $1 million challenge, but I haven’t really heard anything about this from the skeptics’ side, and couldn’t find much except this brief commentary from Randi in October 2008. Is it old news being stirred up for no good reason? His name is nowhere to be found in the log of applicants for the challenge, that I can see. What’s going on here? I feel on fairly safe ground deciding that this guy’s a kook, but I don’t want to rush to judgment on the propriety of his or Randi’s behaviour when I can’t figure out who did what.

The big facilitated communication post I’ve been promised for ages is coming soon, hopefully tomorrow. Honest.

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Okay, this is bugging me.

Last night was the first of this year’s run of Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People, a science-themed comedy and variety show orchestrated by Robin Ince. The second show is presumably in full swing as I type this, and I’ll be going myself on Friday. Reviews of last night’s show were already plentiful when I checked this morning, because we live in the future now, where the internets know everything and information moves at the speed of lol.

And while people’s opinions of the comedy and music and overall presentation differ somewhat, everyone is agreeing on one thing, which made for the most remarkable section of the evening.

Johnny Ball has lost his shit.

I’d have to be a little older than I am to be among those who consider this man a childhood hero, but he’s definitely someone I remember seeing on TV maybe 15 years ago, and he was definitely awesome. There’s also no doubt that he seemed on fine form at Boffoonery a few weeks back. (Apparently I never got around to reviewing my evening there. Summary: it was great.)

But apparently last night he really went off on one, launching into an extended rant about how we’ve got it wrong about all this “global warming” nonsense. By all accounts it was an uncomfortable spectacle. Botogol wasn’t impressed even before he got onto global warming; misswiz reckoned that only a minority of the audience actively heckled, though the rest could muster no more than polite applause when he finally left; the New Humanist found it a surreal moment in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable evening; and comedy website Chortle talked a surprising amount about science, and seemed among the least concerned of the commentators that he wasn’t actually being funny.

I think this latter was actually the main complaint for most people. Nobody was shouting or booing at him until he was already well over his allotted time, and it sounds like he was droning on without being very entertaining. I think a crowd in a good mood, like this lot probably were, could tolerate someone with some kooky bad science for ten minutes if it was at least sort of funny. But it sounds like it wasn’t funny, and after it had gone on for ages people started using the lack of funny as motivation to start heckling him for being wrong.

Of course, there’s also the assumption here that he is wrong.

Before I go any further, I’ll clarify that I’m not seeking to cast significant doubt on this assumption. From the informed responses I’ve heard, it seems that all Johnny Ball had last night were over-simplified arguments that fail to make a significant scientific case, and have already been refuted by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

But I’m not one of those people. I still have to defer to the scientific consensus on this kind of thing. When looking at the facts of the climate change debate, I can’t distinguish at a glance the sound science from the ideology-driven nonsense. If Johnny Ball is deviating from the position generally held by most scientists, that probably means he’s done more research into this than I have. He’s probably also still wrong, but how many people in the audience would really have been able to explain why?

Having said that, I’m not in a position of complete ignorance. I do know some things relevant to the issue of climate change. I know that science is awesome, that rigorous application of the scientific method is our best hope for approaching any sort of truth, and that there is currently an overwhelming scientific consensus which tells us certain things: that there is something going on with our planet’s climate which we need to be aware of, which we need to start taking some kind of responsibility for, and which we need to start considering how to respond to if we want this ball of rock floating in space to remain in any way a comfortable place to live.

If Johnny Ball also knows those things, I’m very doubtful that he also knows enough other secret scientific information, which the majority of actual scientists don’t seem to have picked up on yet, to support his position.

But – and here we finally get to the part that’s really been bugging me – I don’t necessarily think Johnny Ball is a denialist. I think he’s wrong, but it doesn’t automatically follow that he’s an ideological nutjob who can’t be reasoned with.

The point is even stronger in the case of James Randi.

This whole thing really kicked off after Randi, the man for whom the term “arch-skeptic” may very well have been invented, published an article on this subject. Representative of the general reaction from the skeptical community is PZ Myers: James Randi joins the ranks of the climate change denialists. The Lay Scientist was even harsher.

Here’s an extract from a quick back-and-forth I followed on Twitter earlier, between Brian Thompson and PZ:

AmSci: Randi may be wrong, but anyone who says “I’m not sure” isn’t a denialist.
PZ: Wrong. That’s a standard pose by the denialists!
AmSci: That’s because they’re posing. Randi isn’t. There’s a difference between honest doubt and dishonest doubt.

I think that Brian’s (AmSci’s) initial statement is somewhat over-simplified in the other direction, but he’s only working with 140 characters. And his latter response is exactly right. It’s infuriating when 9/11 “truthers”, or Moon landing hoax conspiracy nuts, or Glenn Beck, take some insanely contrary position, make a stream of ludicrous arguments against a well established idea, and respond to all rational argument by insisting “Hey, I’m just asking questions“. But the reason it’s infuriating is that it’s being used as a ploy, and it’s transparently obvious that their feigned naïve innocence is a front for a position they’ve already committed themselves to.

I don’t see any reason to suppose that Randi is being so disingenuous, or that he deserves to be bundled into the “denialist” camp because of this article. I’m going to go through what he says paragraph by paragraph and see if I can find anything truly objectionable. Follow along here.

An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us…

This is literally true. Randi’s not denying that the scientific process of peer review is the best way to approach the truth, but pointing out that the human element is always going to be fallible and subject to natural human biases, however much we strive to overcome them.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…

This paragraph just reports some facts about who’s saying what – the IPCC “has issued several comprehensive reports” on their position, while The Petition Project also exists with a certain number of dissenting voices. No conclusions are drawn from this data yet.

Happily, science does not depend on consensus…

This whole paragraph seems to be a perfectly sensible description of the scientific method, and the “humility in the face of facts” approach to understanding the Universe. Can’t see any problems here.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.

Still uncontroversial. He’s not trying to undermine the value of science, like many anti-science loons who like to point out that science has been wrong about stuff before, and claim that therefore it can’t be trusted. Science’s ability to respond to its mistakes is its greatest strength. Randi gets this.

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid. I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts…

This, I suppose, is the bit that’s got everyone all a-fluster. And I’ve got to say, I was expecting worse. I mean, he’s a denialist, he’s joined the fringe cranks, he’s “barely coherent”? I’ve understood every word he’s said so far. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but come on. Disagreeing with you does not equate to being incapable of effective communication.

“I strongly suspect” is a carefully measured phrase, and he’s well aware of the rudimentary nature of his knowledge. He’s looked at the situation, borne in mind that he’s not an expert, and formed his own summary, while seemingly retaining the capacity to learn more about it as his understanding develops. At least, that’s what I take from phrases like “this my amateur opinion, based on probably insufficient data”, anyway.

It appears that the Earth is warming…

The next few paragraphs are simply about the data we have, and not too much about what anyone thinks it means. The atmosphere is 0.04% carbon dioxide, and CO2 is a vital molecule for plant life. Nobody’s saying that this disproves anything. It’s just background info.

At the end he starts leaning toward an actual conclusion again:

And as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…

Some people are reading this as if he’s trotting out the tedious old line so elegantly summarised at ifglobalwarmingisrealthenwhyisitcold.blogspot.com. I don’t think that’s his point at all, though. Okay, the thing about more people dying from cold than from heat doesn’t seem pertinent – I don’t think anybody’s saying that global warming’s bad because the sun’s going to boil people alive – but it’s a piece of data, not a philosophical opinion or practical conclusion. He clarifies it a little further down:

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.

This is Randi’s value judgment on what seems most important, when all the problems facing the world are considered. That’s his personal judgment call. It’s not mine. (Mine is to mostly hold back and tentatively do what the clever people tell me.) But neither, as far as I can tell, is it one driven by an ideological opposition to climate change science, or by a political agenda, and neither is it held with any measure of arrogant certainty.

Randi’s a smart guy. He has an excellent track record of being honest, interested, and well versed in critical thinking. He knows about being wrong, and being fooled, and science, and questioning everything you think you know. Perhaps he’s been insufficiently diligent in following the good science through, on this occasion, and not performed a proper examination of how the scientific consensus came to be so strongly supported. But a lot of his biggest fans and fellow arch-skeptics seem fine with immediately deciding that he’s cast his lot in with the “deniers” and that there’s little more to be said about it, as if he were suddenly a tragically lost cause.

I don’t know much about Johnny Ball, but if there’s anyone I’d credit with the ability to change his mind based on the objective assessment of new information, it’s James Randi. But I’ve seen a lot less helpful and informative presentation of new information than I’ve seen shouting about denialism, and it’s starting to make me think that Jack of Kent was right all along.

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The weather has completely broken London, and it doesn’t look like there’s going to be much improvement this week. There were no buses running anywhere today, and most of the trains gave up after a brief struggle too. This kind of thing is yet another reason why I like having a temp job utterly devoid of any commitments of any kind. I had quite a nice day inside in the warm, writing stories and watching a fox chew through some bin-bags outside.

Anyway. Turns out there were a few fun quotes I missed from Stephen Green when I talked about his ads being banned a few days ago.

It is simple common sense to realise that with the HPV vaccine, girls will think they are covered against everything, especially if they are on the pill as well, so promiscuity will rise and there will be even more gonorrhoea and chlamydia cases and even more infertility.

Stephen Green of Christian Voice there, reminding us that all teenage women are moronic sluts. It’s just simple common sense.

Meanwhile, in “Fuck Yes” news, The Amaz!ng Meeting is coming to London this October. I am deeply, emphatically, profoundly there, and I really mean it this time.

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Evolution, huh? Then where’s my crocoduck?

It’s absurd to suggest that primary school children should get any kind of sex education. Kids shouldn’t be watching porn until they’re old enough to find it for themselves on the internet.

Any psychics in the audience, please raise my hand.

Sometimes it’s really hard to argue properly against someone, especially when they’re making a lot of sense and presenting lots of supportive facts, and even more so if you yourself happen to be full of shit. But the great thing about logical fallacies is that you can quite merrily argue against someone else, someone with a much less defensible position, and still claim a victory.

Sounds so much easier than actually responding to your opponent’s points with sincerity and understanding, doesn’t it? Particularly when the someone else you’re arguing against doesn’t even exist, and is a mere hypothetical construct entirely conjured up by yourself, for the sole purpose of smacking them down and calling your real opponent a failure.

A straw man is just such a construct. Pretend that your opponent’s position is something different from what it actually is, and explain why they’re wrong for believing something that they don’t really believe.

It’s a popular one with creationists who misunderstand (willfully or otherwise) the claims of evolutionary science, and assert that the lack of any dogs seen giving birth to cats undermines anything Darwin might ever have written. (Actually, evolution doesn’t predict this should happen; in fact there’s nothing in the entire field of biology which could possibly explain something so bizarre.)

And it’s something which skeptics need to be careful of when questioning people’s unlikely-sounding claims about, say, paranormal abilities. Maybe it does seem strange how few psychics have ever won the lottery, but it could be that we’re just misunderstanding the nature of the claim, in the same way the creationists are.

This is why Randi is always so painstakingly scrupulous about getting a detailed description of exactly what an applicant says they can do, and under what conditions, before testing them for the Million Dollar Challenge – to paraphrase one of his own examples, it’s no use trying to prove that someone isn’t really a musician by sitting them down at a piano and demanding some Beethoven, if they claim to be a flautist.

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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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