Posts Tagged ‘richard wiseman’

So I said at the end of last year that my resolution for 2009, if I were to insist on summing up my aspirations in a single pithy phrase, would be “More words”. There weren’t really any areas of my life that I thought needed a major overhaul, but I wanted to get some more writing done. And I think I’m going to call that a win.

This year I’m going to pick a new aim along somewhat different lines. More words is definitely still a goal, but that’s been a continuous project for some time now, and doesn’t take on any more importance in 2010 than this past year. My new year’s resolution, such as it is, is something connected to my word count though, and will hopefully assist with it in a slightly roundabout way.

It reads thusly:

Stop clutching at spoons.

I should probably elaborate.

The Spoons Theory seems to originate from this site, with the full story in this PDF file. It’s something I stumbled upon online some time ago, and have heard a few other people make casual reference to since then. It’s a metaphor for living with an illness or disability, using spoons as a concrete representation of your physical energy.

The author is a woman with lupus who was trying to explain to a friend something of what it was like to be chronically ill. She grabbed a handful of spoons, just because they were within reach, and handed them to her friend to represent the energy or physical strength she had to do things. Then she got her friend to talk her through every activity she’d undergo in a typical day, and would take a spoon away for everything she wanted to be able to do. It helped to highlight the limitations that a chronic illness can place on you, and the restricted choices that sufferers are forced to make.

Now, I don’t have a chronic fatigue condition. I’m pretty much certain that there’s nothing actually medically diagnosable about me in that area. But I’m not an especially bouncy or energetic person. And I’m deeply introverted, which means that being around other people is always an intensely draining experience. So, because lots of those pesky “other people” keep insisting on hanging around the office I spend forty hours a week in, and often even try and talk to me, I end up being fairly tired in quite a bit of my spare time. This is especially the case when I want to do something like go out to a comedy show or any other gig in London, which tends to leave me with very few spoons left to do much else over the next day or two.

This is why I’ve never yet actually made it to a Skeptics in the Pub meeting. I can’t just amble into London and find a pub of an evening whenever I find I have some spare time. It takes a lotta spoons.

Plus, I’m trying to be a writer, and writing is hard. After all, a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, especially when you have to have to do research and look up actual Thomas Mann quotes for things on the interwebs.

My point is, although “More words” has been an admirable goal this past year, and I’m proud of my accomplishments in this area, I’ve spent more time than I would have liked getting frustrated at my dearth of spoons, and berating myself for my subsequent inactivity. And I want to stop doing that. I’m going to keep getting things done – my ambition hasn’t diminished, by any means – but I’m going to try and maintain a better awareness of my limitations. I’m going to let myself have some time off now and then without apologising for it quite so often and so tediously. I’m going to set aside some time for various creative projects when I have the energy and the drive to get it done, and also set aside some other time to say “fuck it” and take the evening off without a shred of guilt.

The theory is that this will make me happier without significantly cutting into my productivity. Let’s see how it goes. It’s not a resolution as such, I suppose, just a new way I’m going to approach things – but if you have anything you’re hoping to achieve in the new year yourself, Richard Wiseman has some tips that might be worth reading.

Happy 2010, people.

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Yes, I’m still moaning about the lack of time I find to get anything done. Couple of quick links.

James Randi on Uri Geller, summing things up nicely. The guy’s made a decades-long career out of convincing people that he does real, genuine, no-foolin’ magic using psychic alien powers and no trickery whatever. If he’s now claiming to be an illusionist relying on natural means, he’s a disingenuous twat. Randi put it more eloquently.

And when I go home for Christmas, I’m going to have to remember to try out at least some of Richard Wiseman’s quirky science tricks.

And that’s everything that happened today.

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(See, because it sounds like it’s something to do with golf, but it’s actually about someone called Putt trying to win money… Yeah, so I suck at titles.)

Well, it’s disappointing, but shouldn’t be surprising. It’s taken less than three weeks for Patricia Putt, the psychic failure of a recent paranormal challenge organised by the JREF, to turn up in the comments thread on Richard Wiseman’s blog, and revert to every tired, illogical, self-justifying cliché that we always hear from woo-mongers when their complete lack of magical ability is exposed. (Wiseman was one of the people who administered the test, and reported at the time that Ms Putt was perfectly pleasant, “a joy to work with”, and took the negative result in good stride.)

A few people have already responded to her comments in that thread, including Wiseman himself, and also Chris French, who was also involved in organising and carrying out the test, but I’ll summarise my only slightly belated thoughts here.

Ms Putt is quick to assure us once again that she’s not a con artist or a liar, has never even been accused of such, has been doing this for years, many satisfied customers, billions and billions served, yadda yadda. Yes, we know you’ve been at this for a while and have impressed lots of people with your amazing powers in entirely uncontrolled and non-scientific conditions. That’s why the JREF agreed to test you in the first place.

The first real taste of bullshit comes when she describes the protocols of the test as being “completely one sided in favour of JREF”. Perhaps what you mean by this, Ms Putt, is that for once things aren’t completely one-sided in favour of you. You’re not talking to someone who really wants to believe in you, will give you lots of chances to get things right, and will credit you with being close enough whenever you hazard a guess that’s not completely off the mark. You’re not getting the chance to assess your subject’s reaction to everything you say, so that you can judge by the confused or amazed look on their face whether you should change tack or press the point. You’re not getting to constantly ask questions and receive the kind of feedback that would make a convincing cold read easy to perform.

In other words, the protocols were designed to be completely fair, and to only test for the psychic powers you claim to possess, having ruled out any other plausible explanation for a positive result – and you agreed to all this beforehand. In the comments thread, Panka (one of Chris French’s team involved in orchestrating the test) reproduces the exact statement you signed to this effect, which includes the line: “I agree that the protocol outline describes a fair test of my claimed ability.” You were happy with everything before the test began; it was only after you failed, that the conditions displeased you. In my eyes, this rather undermines your protests that you are neither a “winger[sic] [n]or a whiner”.

She then makes a truly bizarre claim about the nature of the test results. (By the way, I know I’m switching from second to third person a tad erratically here. It’s entirely at the whim of what seems most rhetorically useful at the time). I don’t think I understand quite what she’s saying – her syntax, or lack thereof, doesn’t help her appearance of lucidity – but it doesn’t seem that she quite understood the point of the testing protocols. Amidst a rather confusing run-on sentence, she says:

every girl had accepted each and every message that I had written down not one had been discarded, not one thrown away each and every one of the ten girls had gone away with something


Let’s recap the way this test actually worked.

Patricia Putt gave individual, personalised psychic readings for each of ten people, under conditions which she’d agreed would not impede her ability to do so. Later, these ten people were each shown all ten readings – their own one in amongst all the others, which were done for people they had no connection to – and were asked to pick the one they most identified with, and which they thought was most likely to be the one that had been done for them.

That was it. The measure of success was the number of the ten subjects who picked the reading which really had been done for them – which, it turned out, was zero. What on earth do you mean that they “accepted each and every message”? They selected exactly one message, and even that wasn’t necessarily an endorsement of its high accuracy. In not one case was your personal reading for someone any more convincing than what you’d said for someone else, which shouldn’t have applied to that individual at all. They hadn’t “gone away with something”. They did discard your messages, when they consistently picked completely different ones. What, because they didn’t literally rip the piece of paper up which had their reading on it, throw it in the bin, shred it, incinerate it, or spit on it in disgust, you’re counting that as a win? I really don’t think you get what was being tested here.

Let’s see, what’s next… blah blah blah, something random about Gloria Hunniford… oh, now here’s a fun sentence:

I am very well aware that scientists and Mediums are diametrically opposed…

Well, you could say that, inasmuch as scientists are trying to evaluate claims based on evidence, while mediums only seem to be interested in evidence insofar as it supports their pre-existing claims.

…but perhaps one day scientists will open up their field of vision a bit more…

Wide enough to see things that aren’t there? We can only hope.

…and be prepared to work with people such as myself.

What? What do you think Richard Wiseman, Chris French, the JREF, and all the other people involved in setting up the logistics of this event were doing all that time, if not working with you, and taking great pains to be as accommodating as possible? You agreed that it was a fair test. Why is it still the scientists who need to be more open-minded and work with you, and not you who needs to actually do something?

Then another patronising and badly written metaphor about the way “intellectuals” view life, which just amounts to repeating the same misunderstandings about burden of proof as she’s already exhibited.

Then a Bible reference, which really doesn’t help, but is nicely rebutted further down the thread when Frank quotes a few choice verses right back at her.

Then she proclaims herself to be “throwing down a gauntlet” for the skeptics who continue to stubbornly refuse to believe that she’s magic, even in the face of the mountains of reliable evidence and irrefutable proof she hasn’t produced. You’re still not getting it. The JREF challenge was the gauntlet. You picked it up. You fumbled it. You fouled it at the 10-yard line. Or… some other, less confused sporting metaphor which implies that you were hopeless. You’re the one making claims which you want people to take seriously. It’s up to you to prove it. Professors Wiseman and French gave you an entirely sufficient opportunity to do this. You failed.

She then starts to vaguely outline some possible protocol for a future test:

Take me somewhere I have never been to before, bring with you and Historian wire me up if you must and let us see what the outcome is.

I have no experience in devising this sort of test, and I have no professional scientific background, but I would guess that it might be possible to arrange something like this, some kind of test of her psychic powers involving determining knowledge about a particular location which she couldn’t have acquired through any other means. I’m not sure how it would best be done, and maybe no practical way can be found which is amenable to all parties, though I’m sure someone at the JREF would be willing to discuss it.

But… but they’ve just done this, and you failed. (I’m having to repeat this point so often, and with so much emphasis, that these italics are starting to seem excessive even to me.) They performed a test which you’d agreed to, and they did “see what the outcome is”. You’ll probably be able to re-apply, but don’t act like you’re still waiting to be given a chance.

She even prefaces her vague, detail-free description of these protocols by exhorting the scientists to “try an experimental investigation”. What the hell do you think that thing was that you were just involved in? Rehearsals for a Broadway show?

The requirement for these scientists being surprised isn’t that “they allow themselves to be”, Pat. (Can I call you Pat? I feel like we’ve become friends.) The requirement is that you do something surprising. If five out of ten of your subjects had picked out their personal reading from all the others, that would have been surprising. It was agreed beforehand that this is what would constitute an impressive demonstration. If you’d done what you said you were going to do, the scientists would have been surprised. You didn’t, and no-one was surprised but you.

And that’s about it.

Cognitive dissonance: RESOLVED.

(More info from JREF President Phil Plait here.)

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