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Posts Tagged ‘skeptic’

We’ve been winning all over the place lately. A brief review:

The guy who sold those completely bullshit “bomb detectors” to security forces in Iraq has been arrested on suspicion of fraud. The guy took some bits of plastic, told people it was a jumped-up dowsing rod that could find explosives, and made millions. I really hope they get the twat hard for this. The things sold for $8000 each, and are worse than useless. Someone in Iraq who thinks they’ve got a reliable explosive detector to help them avoid danger has a serious chance of getting fucking killed. Randi’s not happy either.

Hat-tip to the @BadAstronomer for that one, who also reports on those rifle scopes with Bible quotes engraved which were being used by the American military. Short version: they’re going to stop doing that. I’m sure somebody somewhere is outraged by this decision, but I’m not going to go and find out about them just so that they can piss me off.

Two homeopathy websites have been ordered to stop making shit up. No surprises in descriptions like “misleading”, “unverified” and “abused the trust or exploited the lack of knowledge of consumers”.

And the alternative medicine nut who was winning the voting in something called a Shorty award for Twitter users, ahead of much more worthy candidates, has been removed from the ballot (after he’d already fallen behind the fab Dr Rachie). You can vote for people in these awards by tweeting about it, but it was noticed that many of the people voting for “HealthRanger” didn’t seem to have much else to say. They appeared to be very new to this Twitter business, too. Maybe they were enticed there by the chance to vote in this important election, but didn’t find much to hold their attention beyond that. Or maybe they were dummy accounts created to rig the voting. Yeah, that fits.

He’s thrown a pretty hilarious strop over it, as well as threatening to sue, and declared that the whole award system has been “wholly discredited”.

Incidentally, products being advertised on the same page in which he makes this complaint include:

– an “all-natural intestinal cleanser” called Oxy-Powder
colloidal silver
biomagnetic therapy
– something “100% guaranteed” to cure your diabetes in a month (seriously, how the fuck is this kind of thing legal?)
– and something which “Pres Reagan used successfully” which you should use to “Protect your loved ones now!” We’re not told what Reagan used it for, what constituted a “success”, or what we should be protecting our loved ones from, but hey, it’s on a 2-for-1 offer! (These mysteries don’t really become any more clear if you click through, but the layout and colouring of the site just scream CON, as well as making my eyes hurt.

Which may bring some context to his notion of what it takes to “wholly discredit” an idea.

I’m in a weird mood today. Tea then bed.

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People have been doing magic for thousands of years. It’s never worked.

A bold and sweeping claim, perhaps, but no-one who knows me would deny either that I am bold or that I sweep. So I stand by it. Ideally, waving your hands and casting spells is the sort of idea that people grow out of a good while before they’re allowed to drive. (Or at least they’ll learn to understand fantasy as distinct from reality by the time they’re old enough to cause any significant damage to the world around them.)

Something like therapeutic touch has been around for millennia. The basic premise really does still amount to just touching someone, or waving your hands near them, and healing them with magic. And not just while in character as a level 8 cleric tending to your party’s injured wizard. Some people really think they can manipulate human physiology on exactly such a basic level.

The specific method of therapeutic touch was first devised in the 1970s, and still doesn’t seem to have gone away yet, despite being the same old ineffective nonsense as ever. They do some magic, and supposedly it makes things better. They use terms like qi and bio-energetic fields instead of magic, but it’s no more scientific (or less vague and indefinable) than just going “Ta-da!” and expecting things to happen. No physicist or chemist can tell you what this supposed energy field is, how it interacts with the rest of the world, how it fits in with the Standard Model of particle physics, or what consistent measurable effect it has.

An effort is sometimes made to make it sound scientific, but any claim involving the magic word “quantum” in conjunction with words like “natural” or “holistic” (as they so often do) should be examined with great suspicion, particularly when made by someone trying to sell you something. Quantum theory is a model of the behaviour of matter on an atomic scale, and encompasses the indeterminate nature of the existence of particles when their attributes are measured. Things on a quantum scale behave weirdly, and very unlike they normally do in the real world (i.e. on the much larger scale that we’re used to living in).

It does not mean that reality can be rearranged anyway you choose simply by wanting it hard enough, or that the nature of matter can be manipulated in any meaningful way. It does not imply the existence of any sort of mystical energy field which can be accessed, influenced, or understood, by something as macroscopic, unquantum, and irrelevant as the human mind. There is nothing like this in the entirety of physics. Leave the quantum alone. Seriously, put it down, it’s clear you don’t know how to handle it safely. Have some Fuzzy Felt.

The point about measurable effects may be the most important, however. Not fitting in with our current theories needn’t be an absolute barrier. There was a time when we didn’t have a clue what a neutrino was, but they were still out there doing their thing all the while, and eventually we noticed them. And because we kept noticing them, and they always cropped up in the same circumstances and behaved in the same way, we couldn’t ignore them. And if there’s some qi flowing through everyone which has any rules to its existence at all, we should be able to notice it. If it’s there.

This is really just basic scientific competence. If we can’t notice the stuff in some way, then believing that it exists is pointless. And if we can notice it, then we should be able to make sure it is where we think it is. If we back it into a corner, it won’t vanish into the aether, like the aether did.

However, in practice, the bio-energetic field that TT practitioners claim to work with has an annoying habit of completely disappearing whenever we try and look at it close up.

The most famous example of this came about after a nine-year-old girl had an idea for a school science project.

Emily Rosa invited twenty-one experienced TT practitioners to come and test out their skills, and to see if this human energy field really could be so easily detected by those who claimed to be experts. She sat each of them in turn at a table, and had them reach their hands through two holes in a partition. Rosa herself was on the opposite side, holding her own hand over one of the practitioner’s hands, either the left or the right. For each of ten “trials”, she would flip a coin to choose which of their hands to pick, hold her hand slightly over that hand, and ask them to tell her which of their hands she’d chosen.

According to all the standard claims of TT, this should have been easy. They should have been able to feel the energy from her body radiating outwards, if it was really present and “tactile as taffy“, as these things apparently usually are. But when they didn’t know what they were supposed to be feeling, the effect vanished. In this blinded experiment, the group of practitioners made 123 correct predictions out of 280 attempts between them. That’s slightly crappier than the most likely result of pure guesswork.

In 1998, Rosa’s results were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. There have been some criticisms about the testing, and doubts about the validity of the results, but Larry Sarner has already addressed these in ample detail over at Quackwatch. Even if Rosa was biased against TT, there was no real opportunity for that to affect the results; the ability that she was testing (to physically feel a human energy field) was exactly in line with what practitioners say they can do; and so forth.

But even if there were ways in which her methodology could have been tightened up, why has that not been done? Why have the people complaining about the poor quality of her research not done higher-quality studies and produced some successful results? If Rosa’s study is so flawed, it should be a single inconclusive anomaly, among a plethora of better controlled and more scientifically rigorous published papers. If that were the case, then we could acknowledge that the nine-year-old girl may not have thought of everything, and had mistakenly set things up in a way which didn’t recognise the genuine effects of this phenomenon. But all the evidence would imply that she pretty much nailed it. All the positive data we have on therapeutic touch comes from anecdotes and personal accounts, which aren’t enough to prove anything. All they can do is prompt us to wonder whether there might be something interesting going on here, and come up with some scientific tests to find out.

And we know what happened when we did that.

It’s not just science fair evidence against it, though. The Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking also tested a TT practitioner in 1996, in conjunction with the good ol’ JREF. That didn’t go well for therapeutic touch either. The participant, Nancy Woods, mentioned one factor which people used to criticise Emily Rosa’s study – she said that when the body is normal and healthy, there’s nothing for her to detect, but being close to an injured or painful body part is what provides a noticeable sensation. (Remember, though, that the practitioners Rosa tested were confident in their ability to detect energy fields in her perfectly healthy hands.)

So, the testers enlisted someone with chronic wrist pain and some nasty-sounding medical conditions with Latin names, and Woods agreed that she’d be able to tell this lady’s wrist apart from a healthy equivalent in another person. And indeed, in the preliminary “open” test, her magic powers seemed to be working fine. Ten times in a row, she tried using TT to detect the energy field from the injured wrist, and she got it dead on the money every time. Pretty impressive… but not really. The open test meant that she could see whether she was waving her hands over the woman with the wrist problem or the healthy chap. Under those circumstances, yes, therapeutic touch seems to work amazingly well.

But when you change that one tiny detail, and simply don’t tell her the answer beforehand, those energy fields suddenly become a lot less reliable. Their effect – and with it, any evidence that they actually exist – completely vanishes.

When Woods only had her TT sense of the energy fields to rely on, her success rate dropped to 11 out of 20. When you have to pick one of two options, being right about half the time doesn’t really require particularly impressive magical powers. It was working flawlessly mere moments before. Whatever can have happened?

There has been no study since which has shown significantly different results, and demonstrated anyone’s ability to consistently achieve the claims of TT in a true blinded test, let alone actually curing anyone. (If you think I’m wrong, send me a link to where it’s happened.) And until we have some similar, legitimate evidence that the proposed mechanisms of therapeutic touch are the most likely cause of what’s going on – ruling out all the usual bad reasons why people buy into alternative medicine, on the basis of multiple anecdotes or personal experience and so on – there’s simply no reason it should be believed.

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…but if you don’t believe me, you’re obviously closed-minded and mean.”

A lot of psychic and paranormal crapmongers seem to oppose the very notion of skepticism – at least, when it comes to their own special magical abilities. They’re so committed to their own unfounded claim, and it seems so obvious to them, that any way of thinking which ends up rejecting it must be too closed-minded, unwilling to accept new ideas, or simply invalid. All sorts of justifications are offered as to why it’s so unfair on them, when you try and avoid being gullible and falling for what might be a trick, or show up how unimpressive their purported paranormal effects actually are.

But others, in their own way, actively endorse and encourage a critical analysis of any unlikely claims. They hold no resentment at all toward scientists who regularly disprove the kind of thing they believe in, because there are fakes and charlatans out there who ought to be exposed as such. If these scientists would just test a real psychic, though, they’re surely come to see how genuine their powers are.

True believers don’t often tend to fall very near this latter end of the spectrum, because there’s an obvious incongruity between supporting skepticism and scientific questioning, and holding on to some wacky and unproven notion. But the “critical thinking” bandwagon is one that they often like to jump on, at least ostensibly, to give their cause some sort of skeptical legitimacy. (Rebecca Watson said something about that with far more eloquence lately, in answer to a question at some conference, possibly on the SGU podcast from Dragon*Con.)

The reason I bring all this up is that this site is hurting my brain.

The site that actually appeared in my Google alerts was: How to Get a Successful Psychic Reading – Five PROVEN Tips For a Great Reading. It’s somehow more vacuous than it sounds – the “tips” really amount to nothing more than things like, “Y’know, it tends to work better if you just believe everything they say, rather than being all doubtful and stuff” – but there’s a repeated emphasis on how PROVEN they are. There’s not a word of elaboration about this, but apparently it’s important, because there are links all over the place about knowing how to avoid all those “fake” psychics you may have fallen for in the past. Not like these PROVEN ones, see.

And so we end up at what seems like some sort of consumerist watchdog, where the quality practitioners are sorted from the chancers and cowboys, and you can find out who can really be trusted on the subject of vague instructions coming through from your dead granny about appreciating your life. Except, I can find nothing which describes any sort of process that actually distinguishes the two. You might think the genuine psychics would be expected to prove themselves in some way the fakes would be unable to emulate, but that doesn’t seem to be a necessary part of the process at all.

For instance, this page, examining the question of whether “Psychic Source” has “the best” psychic advisors, supports the assertion that they are the best, by… reasserting that they are, in fact, the best. Oh, and they only hire “about 5 out of every 100 people who apply for a position”. So either they’re very selective and pick only the most qualified psychics – with no explanation as to how they decide which ones those are – or they don’t have room for any more office chairs.

As best I can tell, the closest approximation to their vetting system seems to go something like: “Yeah, you know those guys who have been publicly made to look silly by some skeptical debunker? They’re not real psychics. But the rest of us, who that hasn’t happened to yet? Totally legit.”

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Reminder: Submit your entries for the 119th Skeptics’ Circle as per this entry here, ahead of Thursday September 10th. There’s plenty of time yet to get skeptically scribbling and have your post featured.

Now, on with the regular blog.


There’s nothing particularly special or original or unusual or remarkable about this post on the Law of Attraction. It’s just the one that I happen to have stumbled upon today, and which has reminded me that I really need to write something about this bullshit at some point.

It’s full of the usual craptastic blather that the kind of newagey idiots who follow this philosophy are always coming out with. Oh, don’t listen to the skeptics everyone, they just don’t understand this wonderful thing we’ve found, they keep trying to tell us it’s not real, just because there’s absolutely no evidence for it, they’re so closed-minded.

So far, so blah, but there’s one thing it made me wonder.

How much, or how often, is it our fault that people take this approach to skeptics?

See, now that I’ve asked it, I don’t even think it’s a very good question. I mean, how else are believers going to respond to people fervently disagreeing with them and denying the very existence of some important aspect of their lives, if not by reaffirming their beliefs and discussing amongst themselves our reasons for dissenting? Maybe there’s really nothing to say about this at all.

But something about the tone of it really grated, and I think it may relate to the common perception of skeptics as being closed off to new ideas, and unable to understand the new and exciting phenomenon in question, because of some insight we’re lacking. And I wondered, how much of this is a perception we could help to change through our actions, and how much is just an inevitable effect of believers and their delusions?

Could we be doing more to make sure we don’t seem like this? Or should we stop worrying about it, because we’re always going to get this kind of complaint from people devoted to their wacky ideas?

Eh. Not the deepest of deep thoughts, but I’m tired so it’ll do. Hopefully another big Skeptictionary entry should turn up in the next couple of days.

Also, the comments in the post that sparked off yesterday’s rant might be turning into quite a fun discussion. Or I might just start getting annoyed with everyone very soon. Hard to say.

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Reminder: Submit your entries for the 119th Skeptics’ Circle as per this entry here, ahead of Thursday September 10th. There’s plenty of time yet to get skeptically scribbling and have your post featured.

Now, on with the regular blog.


Ooh, someone’s written me a letter.

It’s not one of the old-fashioned kind which appeared on my doormat amidst the bills and ads for takeaway pizza services, admittedly. And it’s a bit impersonal, addressed to “Dear Skeptic”, and put up on the internet where anyone could read it. But it’s always nice to hear from someone who cares enough to write.

I’m terrible at producing timely replies to people’s correspondence, so I’m going to make a point of getting this one done straight away, and putting it up here, so that you can all hold me accountable for being prompt, and so that my pen-pal can find it immediately without having to wait.


Dear Demian Farnworth,

Hi! How’s it going? Please don’t feel you need to apologise for not writing sooner. I know how things can get on top of you, other priorities can mount up, and you just never seem to find the time for those little things you always meant to get around to. I’ve been meaning to replace the lightbulbs in the living room for months. It’s cool, you’re here now, and there’s no time like the present to catch up.

But I see you’re concerned about some of my behaviour lately, and I hope I can put your mind at ease on a few points here as well. Although I do feel we’ve gotten to know each other well over the recent years never that we’ve known each other, rest assured that your obligations to me stretch not an inch further than whatever guidelines you wish to establish for yourself.

Honestly, you are “obligated” to me in no binding way whatever. (At least, as regards the nature of our discussions, beyond the basic morals of human decency.) You could respond to all my questions by doing a little dance and showering me with confetti, and you would have reneged on no contract.

But there are favours which I might ask of you, to aid a smooth negotiation of terms in any future conversation. You may grant or refuse such boons entirely at your whim; I will hold no grudge if you prefer to disengage completely and keep your own counsel. But, well, if we’re going to have a discussion, there needs to be some give and take.

For instance, you’re quite welcome to articulate your gospel, explain what’s important to you, and express the truth as you see it. Of course you are, it sounds like a great thing to do, and I’m always interested in hearing what people think and what got them there.

But, well. If you do that, I get to judge what you’re saying. And if I want to persistently and mercilessly call bullshit on it, then that’s part of the deal.

You’re not obligated to just take this criticism with no resistance, obviously. You’re not even obliged to listen to me. I mean, if you do decide to stuff cottage cheese in your ears rather than hear what I have to say, then I might not want to bother talking to you any more – but hey, it’s your prerogative.

You’re even welcome to speculate openly as to my motives when I criticise you. I know I do that about you sometimes, which appears to be what pushed you to write to me in the first place. But, well. It kinda doesn’t matter why we’ve taken the positions we have. If I’m wrong about something, then you should be able to present an effective counter-argument to it, regardless of whether I got there through logical deliberation or sheer bloody-mindedness.

Take this point you make, for instance:

But unfortunately, you’re not looking to understand our position. You’re looking for a soft spot. And when you think you find that soft spot–you punch it…

You demand we give you a systematic explanation that satisfies you. We explain, you find another soft spot–and punch that one. Ad infinitum.

Yeah. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this thing called science, but it’s a pretty nifty thing we’ve figured out, which is how we’ve actually discovered everything we know to be true about the world. Sounds useful, right? And a big part of scientifically testing whether an idea is true is, as you put it, to punch its soft spots.

It’s sort of a violent metaphor, but a model of how the world works isn’t a puppy, or a baby whose squishy and fragile head needs to be supported. Those “soft spots” aren’t hunks of tender flesh being cruelly pounded by some brutal butcher; they’re potential weaknesses in a hypothesis. The “punches” I seek to deliver aren’t physically violent – I have only fractionally more upper-body strength than Mr Burns – but represent efforts to demonstrate flaws in this hypothesis, by asking probing questions, suggesting counter-examples, pointing out logical fallacies, and the like.

If your hypothesis can withstand being punched in this way – if it remains consistent, shows significant predictive and explanatory power, isn’t easily sliced away by Ockham’s Razor, and so on – then it sounds like it’s not such a soft spot after all. It sounds like it’d be quite a tough carapace surrounding a solid theory, were that the case. But you’ll never know that, if you never let anyone punch it for fear it might crumble.

And if it does crumble, then it’s not really something worth protecting.

So, when you complain about the way I seek out a soft spot and punch it, what you seem to mean is that I keep expecting you to be able to justify your beliefs with data and logic, and demonstrate that you’re making some sort of sense.

You’re not obligated to do that. But I’m not obligated to take you seriously if you don’t.

You’re also not obligated to assume that I’m capable of intelligent discussion, or that I’m willing to listen to new ideas, take new evidence on board, and refine or adapt my opinions and beliefs if it seems rational to do so. You’re not obligated to credit me with any intellectual honesty, and you are perfectly within your rights to dismiss my refusal to accept your conclusions as the result of pompous arrogance, blindness to reason, and a fundamentalist devotion to my own ideology which irrationally excludes your own set of beliefs.

Just like I’m not obligated to refrain from calling you a deluded, patronising, Bible-thumping, unthinkingly dogmatic twat.

But if I go around saying things like that, we’re really not going to get anywhere. And I don’t think we’ll enjoy each other’s company half as much.

The main theme of your letter was about your sometime tendency to change the subject on me. I fear I may have strayed from the subject myself a little in my own missive, but I’ll try to get back to that now.

If you’re changing the subject, that implies that the discussion is ongoing – there still is a subject, so we’re still talking, and I can presume you don’t consider this discussion completely fruitless just yet. But if you’re changing the subject because you consider the question I’m asking unimportant, it probably doesn’t seem that way to me. I’m only asking it because I consider the answer to be of significance, and if you don’t answer, whatever your reasons are, it sometimes just looks like you’re floundering.

You’re not obligated to disabuse me of this notion every time I ask a question you don’t want to answer. Maybe you’ve answered enough questions for one day. Maybe your dinner’s ready, or there’s a movie you want to go see. But if I don’t get an answer, that’s what it’s going to look like.

And while preaching the gospel might be the most important subject to you, it seems like it’d be a pretty ineffectual effort if you’re not going to take into account my objections, and the reasons why I remain unconvinced by all your grand proclamations about the wrath of God and the law of the cross. You’d probably have better luck if you let me ask some questions, and try to stay on-topic while explaining things to me.

I’ve run out of steam now, so I’ll stop here. But I do hope to receive another letter from you again soon. And what was that delightful perfume you used on the envelope?

Yours,

Skeptic


And people say the internet has killed the art of pen-pallery. Pah.

Also, I took this opportunity to check my unread mail, and found this particular gem also awaiting my attention. I don’t think I’ll be replying to this one, though. I’m not sure it even came to the right address. They seem to have confused me with a gullible prick.

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It’s logical fallacy hour again, here in Skeptictionary corner.

That rule doesn’t apply to me because I’m a beautiful and unique snowflake.

Special pleading can often look reasonably convincing, and be quite persuasive if you don’t know what to watch out for. It might also appeal if you’re already inclined to believe in the amazing specialness of the snowflake in question. It’s when someone presents what they want to use as a get-out clause, to stop you from drawing a particular conclusion. If the evidence seems to lead in a direction that they have a problem with, they might jump in with a special pleading to divert you from it. It can essentially be boiled down to, “That doesn’t count in this case, because…” followed by an irrelevant justification for why some particular example should be considered an exception to the rule.

I’m not selling medicines; all my products are natural herbal remedies, which re-align people with the spiritual energies of their mother Earth. So of course they shouldn’t be regulated for safety and efficacy the same way as conventional pharmaceuticals.

The love potion didn’t work? Ah, it’s because you used it when Mercury was in retrograde. That’ll be what went wrong.

It’s a popular one among psychics, or other supernatural nuts who’ve never managed to give any convincing demonstration of their supposed abilities. The JREF often sees it in applicants to their million-dollar challenge, who were all set to wow the world with their powers, agreed to all the conditions set, then fizzled out hopelessly when it came to the crunch. Patricia Putt was a recent example of this: after failing to do anything impressive, she started coming up with excuses as to why it didn’t work, in an effort to avoid the obvious, simple, parsimonious solution that her magical powers are all in her head. The “negative skeptical energies” which so often throw the powers out of alignment only seem to come up after the fact, when the psychic powers have failed to do what was promised and we’re ready to conclude that they don’t exist. Then a special pleading is necessary to try and get around this; suddenly there’s “a perfectly good reason” why it didn’t work.

When considering this fallacy, it’s important to remember that not all post-hoc reasoning is invalid, and not every exception to a rule means there must be an unfair double standard at work. The Fallacy Files use the example of police officers being permitted to break certain laws which normally apply to all road users, such as speed limits, under certain conditions which we can agree justify this exception being made (like if they’re in hot pursuit of some villainous mastermind). Police needing to drive fast to do their job properly is a relevant and realistic exception to the normal rules. My urgently needing to get home in time to catch the final of The Apprentice, however, is not.

Or, if I claim to be able to run a marathon in under 3 hours, it’s not special pleading to insist that the course avoid scaling any mountains. That’s a reasonable request, perfectly in line with what any reasonable person would infer from the initial statement, and doesn’t much diminish the claim. But if I also say that I have to be allowed to use rollerskates, because that’s just how I’m used to running, then that’s less logically sound.

A crucial part of what makes this argument fallacious, then, is that the excuse has to fail to explain why this example should be treated differently than it would normally be. This might be because it’s irrelevant (like the “natural” status of alternative medicinal treatments) or because there’s no reason to suppose it’s true (what the hell does Mercury have to do with anything?). This latter is the form that tends to crop up when skeptically analysing unlikely claims.

If, to leap haphazardly across to yet another example, your highly technical ghost-measuring device is failing to measure any ghosts where ghosts ought to be, but you then find out that you forgot to put the batteries in, then fair enough. It’s clear that an electronic gadget needs power to run, so it’s not like you’re only bringing this up now as a post-hoc excuse. You still haven’t proved anything, but we can agree that you’re not simply making a special pleading to explain this.

On the other hand, if everything was functioning properly, and you had to resort to complaining about “negative vibes” to explain why the ghosts didn’t seem to be there, then you’re floundering in fallacy. If your magic powers haven’t worked, then it doesn’t make your position any more tenable to blame it on someone else’s bad juju, when there’s no more evidence for that than for the ghosts. It just adds another layer of implausible claims which there’s no good reason to take seriously.

You still haven’t proved that someone doesn’t have magic powers, or that ghosts don’t exist, just by bringing the whininess of their special pleading into light, of course. But the burden of proof is on them if they want to be believed, and conjuring elaborate circumstances to excuse a failed attempt just raises the bar higher for how much evidence they need to bring.

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Let’s get one thing straight first of all. Animals are stupid.

Oh, don’t look at me like that. It’s not like it isn’t obviously true, and they’re too dumb to know they’re being insulted anyway. Even the ones I like are complete idiots. I’ve seen two-year-old kids who can talk better than any cat; I’ve watched dogs repeatedly fall for the same trick where I pretend to throw a ball, and every time they bounce away with moronic excitement chasing after nothing; we all know how terrible monkeys are at trying to move a piano; and don’t get me started on the legendary inability of voles to solve even the most rudimentary cryptic crosswords, no matter how simply and slowly you explain it to them.

I’ll admit that they’re not universally inept. Many of them can capture and tear apart a fast-moving hunk of raw meat more efficiently than I’m ever likely to; they’re often enviably cute; and those spiders which can leap out and grab something faster than you can blink are pretty cool. But in general, the point stands.

Our mighty human brains are the reason we’ve so easily and inevitably wrenched control of the world from Mother Nature’s puny green fingers, and the only time we ever deign to be impressed with the intelligence of one of her lesser creatures is when we’re patronisingly judging them by their usual standards of dumb-assery. We’re amazed whenever they show any slight proficiency for a skill at which every human is assumed to be naturally capable. This is why things like dolphins cleaning their tank, cats leaning not to crap in your shoe, or a horse being able to count to five by clopping his hoof cause such a stir.

Thing is, even then we’re giving them too much credit.

Clever Hans was a horse that wowed audiences in late 19th century Germany, by tapping out the answers to some really easy maths problems. Someone would ask the horse, say, “What’s three plus two?” and he would tap his hoof five times. I mean, I’ve seen four-year-old humans solving quadratic equations, but whatever.

Okay, so I am being overly disparaging. The maths is hardly impressive, but if a horse can really understand human words, and the syntax which holds them together in a sentence, that would be worth knowing. You’d start being more careful what you said around them, if you knew they might actually understand it, and be able to use their hooves to gossip about you later in Morse code or something. So, it caught people’s attention, because nobody had previously known of any animals that could do this, even if it does credit a simpleton quadruped way too highly naming it “Clever” for being able to add single-digit numbers.

But it caught a few scientists’ attention too, and those scientists started doing what scientists will tend to do when a new discovery is supposedly made – sticking their noses in further than anyone invited them and trying to see how true it is.

They wondered, not unreasonably, whether Hans mightn’t be getting his hoof-tapping cues from somewhere other than his unprecedented equine cognitive powers. No horse had ever shown any signs of this level of mental acuity before, or even anything close. I mean, look at how some of these questions were phrased: “If the eighth day of the month comes on a Tuesday, what is the date of the following Friday?” Now granted, as far as the mathematics goes, we’re still about on a par with modern GCSE papers. But that’s some fairly sophisticated sentence structure there, with the conditional clause and everything, not to mention the background knowledge about our modern calendar that you’d need for it to make any sense. Humans are good at all this, but it’s something we still haven’t had much luck teaching computers to learn, and it’s more than has ever been observed in even the smartest monkeys. And some of those monkeys can put particularly stupid humans to shame. This was seriously big news, if the horse really was that clever.

So although it was possible that nobody had looked closely enough to notice such language skills in horses before, or that Hans was some kind of prodigy, it might be something simpler. Maybe his handler was subtly signalling for the horse to tap the requisite number of times, and all the horse was doing was following simple instructions. It wouldn’t necessarily have been noticed if this was the case – people probably weren’t paying much attention to the guy just hanging around with the wonder-steed. Maybe it was all just a cruel and cynical hoax, to win the hearts and loose change of gullible audiences.

Well… not exactly. It doesn’t look like anyone ever knowingly cheated to simulate Clever Hans’ talents. Even when someone other than his handler was asking the questions, his success rate was still impressive. But it turns out they didn’t need to be cheating. Hans was picking up cues, but not intentional ones, and giving his answers solely based on the expectaions of his audience.

Remember that Hans wasn’t declaring his answer aloud, or writing down any unambiguous symbols. He would tap his foot, and again, and again, with a short pause between each time. One way to give an infallibly correct answer to any numerical question, without needing even a primitive understanding of mathematics, would be to start tapping, and somehow work out when you’re supposed to stop. If you have a captive audience eagerly watching your every move, and who do know exactly when you should stop to give the right answer to the problem, this might be possible. If you’ve asked Hans to calculate 3 + 2, your thoughts as you watch him might run along the lines of:

“Okay, let’s see if he can do this… One, two, good, you’re on the right track so far, three, still looking good, four, well done, almost there, this is a truly astonishing feat, don’t stop now… five! He’s done it! Is that it? He’s stopping there? Hurrah! This horse is a genius! Put him in charge of our country’s major financial institutions immediately!”

It seems likely that your body language and facial expression would have changed noticeably over the course of this internal dialogue, even if you didn’t do anything silly like leap to your feet applauding wildly the moment the fifth tap landed. And it seems that horses like Clever Hans can pick up on that kind of thing, and react accordingly.

What gave it away was when psychologist Oskar Pfungst, who was part of a genuine thing called the Hans Commission, checked what happened when Hans couldn’t see the person asking the questions. The success rate plummeted. When he couldn’t read the increasing tension on people’s faces as he neared the right point to stop, and the relief and relaxation that swept over them when he got there, he was just a horse tapping his foot and hoping it would be good enough to earn him another salt lick.

This is a good example of why, when establishing the validity of any claim, we need to do everything we can to be rigorously scientific about it. We’re going to end up wandering blindly down a completely fallacious route, if we don’t rule out any alternative explanation, from any source, in exactly the way that kooks and pseudoscientists and the delusioned always object to. It’s not a matter of “taking their word for it” that something’s really going on the way they describe, because even if they’re being completely honest (which a great deal of woo-merchants are), reality can always surprise you by being weird in a completely different way from how you expected. In this case, it seems that horses can infer a surprising amount of information from faces that peple don’t even know they’re making, which itself is actually pretty cool. (This curious phenomenon of subconscious non-verbal cues creeping in to provide misleading data has become known as the “Clever Hans effect”.) But there’s just no reason left to believe that the original story is true.

It’s not that Pfungst refused to be “open-minded”. He was open to the possibility of the claims about Hans being correct, but he didn’t completely and unthinkingly believe everything he was told straight away. He knew that a lot of the hype sounded unlikely, so he was also open to the idea that there might be a more mundane explanation. The bizarre and unprecedented claim was rejected, not because of “closed-mindedness”, but because of a complete lack of evidence. The evidence for the idea that horses can do sums has been stripped back to literally nothing. If we hadn’t been able to use science to do that, we’d still be stuck believing something ridiculous.

Of course, the science that blew his entire claim totally out of the water didn’t stop Wilhelm von Osten, the owner of the horse, from touring the country with him and continuing to make utterly baseless claims. This, in turn, is a good example of how retarded some people can get when they shut their basic critical faculties down in favour of not having to admit that they’ve ever been wrong.

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