Can you test psychic claims with science? Here are a few creative ways that you can test psychic powers scientifically as well as the results of these types of tests that have been performed hundreds of times over the last fifty years. This is part of my Exposing Psychics series.
Regular readers of my not-so-super-secret other blog, where I write under my own name, know that last month Steve Novella and I published a rather nice (if I do say so myself) opinion piece in a peer-reviewed journal about what we called “clinical trials of magic.” In it, we argued that certain alternative medicine modalities are so incredibly implausible from a purely basic science viewpoint, on physics and chemistry considerations alone, that it is a waste of time and resources, not to mention unethical, to do clinical trials testing them. Two of the main examples we used were homeopathy (of course!) and reiki.
Reiki, as you recall, is a form of “energy healing” that I’ve discussed many times before. Its basic precept is that reiki healers, known as reiki masters, can, through a series of hand gestures that might or might not involve touching the patient and often involve symbols drawn in the air over the patient, tap into what they call the “universal source” and channel energy into the person being treated to heal them. You can probably see why I generally refer to reiki as faith healing that substitutes Eastern mystical beliefs for Christian beliefs. If you can’t see why, then simply substitute the word “God” or “Jesus” for the term “universal source,” and my meaning becomes obvious. Of course, reiki can get even more bizarre, particularly when it’s used in distant healing, which can only be likened (to me, at least) to intercessory prayer or when reiki masters claim to be able to send reiki energy into the past or the future. Yes, it does get even woo-ier than claiming to be able to channel healing energy.
Reiki is, without a doubt, far more a mystical belief system akin to religion than it is anything having to do with medicine. That much is obvious. That’s why I couldn’t resist a bit of amusement when I somehow (don’t ask how!) came across an article by someone named Tammy Hatherill, who runs Tammy’s Tarot and Healing entitled When Your Reiki Client Doesn’t Feel the ‘Energy’.
Wow. So reiki doesn’t always work? Who knew? Well, not exactly. Remember, reiki is a mystical magical belief system. Like a religion, it always works, and if it doesn’t it isn’t because the reiki has failed. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. First, savor the frustration of reiki masters who can’t get their clients to “feel it”:
It doesn’t happen to me very often, but on occasion it does. A client will say, “I don’t feel any different.” Or they may say, “In all honesty I didn’t feel the energy at all”.
What!!! How could the client not feel the wonderful and glorious energy that I felt and sensed whilst giving the treatment? How could they not ‘feel’ any different!!!
Please don’t despair, as the Reiki energy will still be working its magic and will still support the client on all the different levels (emotional/psychological/physical and spiritually.) Just because the client didn’t ‘feel’ anything doesn’t mean the Reiki wasn’t working.
See what I mean? If the patient doesn’t feel any different after the mystical magical glory that is reiki, it doesn’t mean anything at all. The reiki’s still working. How do you know? Well, you don’t. But if you’re a reiki master you do have a patter ready for your client before and after. Before, you basically tell the client that they will feel “something.” That something could range from tingles, colors, heat, cool, floating, heaviness, sleepiness, or peacefulness, to nothing at all. Convenient, isn’t it? I wonder what it would be like to be able to tell my patients that virtually any sensations they feel mean that the treatment worked—even if they feel nothing at all! Talk about a “can’t lose” setup. You really have to tip your hat to whoever thought of this scam.
Then, of course, there’s the after treatment patter for the mark client . . .
An examination of energy, as new agers use the term.
I’m feeling a little low today, so let’s tap into a source of energy from a neighboring dimension as a quick upper.
Faith in pseudoscience is rampant. Everywhere you turn, intelligent people fully accept the existence of anything from psychic phenomena, to angels, to new age healing techniques, to ancient health schemes based on mysterious energy fields not understood by science. Most of these paranormal phenomena rely on “energy,” and when the performers are asked to explain, they’ll gladly lecture about the body’s energy fields, the universe’s energy fields, Chi, Prana, Orgone, negative energy, positive energy, and just about anything else that needs a familiar sounding word to explain and justify it. Clearly, there are too many loose interpretations of the word energy, to the point where most people probably have no idea exactly what energy really is.
I believe that if more people had a clear understanding of energy — and it’s not complicated — there would be less susceptibility to pseudoscience, and more attention paid to actual technologies and methods that are truly constructive and useful.
A friend told me of her ability to perform minor healings, and her best explanation was that she drew energy from another dimension. She had recently rented What the Bleep Do We Know, so she was well prepared to explain that alternate dimensions and realities should be taken for granted, since science doesn’t really know anything, and thus those things cannot be disproven. That’s fine, I’ll concede that she can make contact with another dimension: after all, the latest M theories posit that there are probably ten or eleven of them floating around, and I’ll just hope that my friend’s is not one of those that are collapsed into impossibly small spaces. What I was really interested in was the nature of this vaguely defined energy that she could contact.
I asked what type of energy is it, and how is it stored? Is it heat? Is it a spinning flywheel? Is it an explosive compound? Is it food? These are examples of actual ways that energy can be stored.
In popular New Age culture, “energy” has somehow become a noun unto itself. “Energy” is considered to be literally like a glowing, hovering, shimmering cloud, from which adepts can draw power, and feel rejuvenated. Imagine a vaporous creature from the original Star Trek series, and you’ll have a good idea of what New Agers think energy is.
In fact, energy is not really a noun at all. Energy is a measurement of something’s ability to perform work. Given this context, when spiritualists talk about your body’s energy fields, they’re really saying nothing that’s even remotely meaningful. Yet this kind of talk has become so pervasive in our society that the vast majority of Americans accept that energy exists as a self-contained force, floating around in glowing clouds, and can be commanded by spiritualist adepts to do just about anything.
Baton Rouge, LA-When investigators climbed from out of the smoldering debris that was the home of Hank Thomas, the looks on their faces told the gathering crowd what these hardened veterans of the Baton Rouge Fire Department couldn’t put into words. Thomas, a yoga instructor and avid fisherman who had lived in Baton Rouge his entire life, had exploded. And as the grisly details slowly emerge, people are asking questions about what might be to blame and how they can prevent being the next Baton Rougian to erupt into a massive fireball of body parts and Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.
Some local medical professionals have proposed a controversial theory. Based on reports that Thomas has undergone acupuncture treatments for sciatica several times in the weeks preceding his untimely fulmination, a group of local experts are speaking out. They are warning the community to beware of discount acupuncture clinics.
“We aren’t saying that every incidence of spontaneous human combustion is linked to the incorrect placement of acupuncture needles,” Kuang Zhu LAC, Chief of Pragmatic Acupuncture in the Health and Wellness division of Vic’s Day Spa and Pet Grooming Center, explained during a recent press conference. “But in some cases, there is a relationship that is hard to explain otherwise.”
Zhu, a legally licensed acupuncturist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for over thirty years and founder of the “Know Your Needler!” campaign, is reaching out to the Baton Rouge community because of concerns that there are patients seeking care from unlicensed and poorly trained practitioners that don’t charge as much per session. “These rogue needle-wielding impersonators don’t fully grasp the power of acupuncture, acupressure, sonopuncture, electroacupuncture, cold laser therapy, or any of the other ancient techniques of stimulating specific acupoints. With great ability to heal, comes an equal ability to harm.”
Acupuncture, a component of Traditional Chinese Medicine developed sometime in the past 5,000 years, involves the insertion of small needles into specific points on the body in order to improve the flow of life energy or Qi. These points are found along meridians, major pathways in the body through which our life energy courses that are different from blood vessels, nerves and lymphatics in that Western science has been unable to locate them during anatomical investigation or with modern imaging techniques. When Qi is obstructed, it becomes stagnant and illness develops. Properly placed needles relieve this obstruction and improve our health in a number of ways. Needles placed haphazardly can, according to Zhu, lead to further obstruction, a worsening of one’s health, and perhaps even a fiery death.
Zhu states that the phenomenon of injury by inappropriate acupuncture is not new. He has seen countless milder cases over his three decades of practice in the United States. But the worst occurred during his childhood in China. “Neighborhood gangs and even local police forces would use purposefully incorrect acupuncture as punishment or as an interrogation enhancer,” Zhu revealed. “Once I saw a body with the hao zhen needles still inserted in acupoints I did not even know existed. Oh, the disharmony! My childhood ended that day. I’ve heard that the American military is even using acupuncture on the battlefield now.”
But not every local acupuncturist supports Zhu’s theory that excessive and erroneous needle placement is to blame for unexplained explosions of American citizens. Frank Grimes, a Baton Rouge chiropractor who incorporates acupuncture into his armamentarium of healing modalities, reminds us that correlation doesn’t always equal causation. “Yes, some of the remaining body parts have been found with needles still in them,” He admits. “But my concern is that linking acupuncture to spontaneous human combustion is akin to the claim that chiropractic manipulation of the neck causes strokes. Perhaps people who are already about to explode seek out acupuncture for symptomatic relief.”
At the heart of this issue for Zhu and his colleagues is the health of their community. He admits that acupuncture-induced detonation is likely rare despite the recent occurrence, and that most people who receive acupuncture from improperly trained practitioners will at most only experience mild stagnation of Qi.
- Improperly Performed Acupuncture Linked to Spontaneous Human Combustion (sciencebasedmedicine.org)
- Acupuncture as a migraine cure? (themigrainehelp.wordpress.com)
- Indian baby catches on fire – Spontaneous combustion or abuse? (doubtfulnews.com)
In a nutshell: Therapeutic touch is a kind of energy medicine. Those who do therapeutic touch wave their hands over a patient’s body to fix their subtle energy. The science says there is no such subtle energy.
Therapeutic touch is a kind of energy healing. Some people believe that health and sickness are caused by some sort of magical energy being blocked or out of whack in some way. There is no scientific support for this magical energy. It can’t be measured by any of our very high tech machines. Yet, many people swear it exists and that they can move it around or transfer some of their energy into another person.
Energy healers say they can “feel” the energy going through or around a person’s body. This is odd because the human hand is not a very sensitive instrument compared to some of the million-dollar machines we have these days to measure very small particles or packets of energy.
Therapeutic touch healers wave their hands over the body of a sick person. The healer thinks she is moving energy around and that this somehow helps the healing.
Nine-year-old Emily Rosa tested twenty-one therapeutic touch healers to see if they could feel the energy in one of her hands when they could not see if a hand was actually placed under theirs. She placed a screen with a hole in it for the healer’s arm to go through. Emily sat on the other side of the screen and placed her hand or didn’t place her hand under the healers hand for each test. The healers had a 50% chance of being right in each test, yet they correctly located Emily’s hand only 123 times in 280 tests. Wild guessing would have got about 140 correct answers. The test was very simple and seems to clearly indicate that the subjects could not feel the energy of Emily’s hands when placed near theirs. If they can’t feel the energy, how can they move or transfer it? What are they feeling? Most likely they are feeling what has been suggested to them by those who taught them this practice. Their feelings of energy appear to be created in their own minds.
How does energy healing work?
- Pragmatic Fallacy (illuminutti.com)
- 5 Things I’ve noticed about… Reiki Healing (illuminutti.com)
- What is Energy Medicine? (sohmitchell.wordpress.com)
- The Unsinkable Rubber Duck Of Alternative Medicine (acneeinstein.com)
Via The Soap Box
Psychics, and alternative medicine practitioners. Two different groups of people who peddle BS pseudoscience that wastes gullible peoples money. But which one is worse?
Now many people would say that alternative medicine practitioners are worse, because not only are they peddling something and taking peoples’ money for products and services that do not work, they’re also physically harming people as well, and even risking peoples lives by not only selling them products and services that makes them think they can forgo real medicine and medical services that could help them and even save their lives for the alternative stuff, but also selling them products and services that really can cause harm, and possibly even kill you.
So it sounds like a no brainer, right? Alternative medicine practitioners are selling you products and services that could harm you and possibly kill you, while psychics are just taking your money. Except… many alternative medicine practitioners might not know what they are doing is harmful, because some do seriously believe that alternative medicine does work (this is mostly due to anecdotal evidence).
People claiming to be psychics on the other hand are different, because while many alternative medicine practitioners might not know what they’re doing is fraud, psychics on the other hand almost always know what they’re doing is fraud.
Psychic powers simply do not exist. Every person who has ever been tested for psychic powers under controlled scientific testing conditions have always failed to prove that they have psychic powers, and the really famous so called psychics have never gone and had their alleged powers proven under controlled scientific testing conditions, so it is very safe to say that psychic powers don’t exist, and that anyone who is claiming to be a psychic is most likely lying (although it is also possible that they may be self-deluded and have actually convinced themselves they are psychic, or they’re just mentally ill) and therefore if they do take any money from you for their services, are knowingly committing fraud.
Besides committing fraud, psychics also . . .
Experts in the psychology of human error have long been aware that even highly trained experts are easily misled when they rely on personal experience and informal decision rules to infer the causes of complex events. —Barry Beyerstein
Integrative medicine is a synonym for “alternative” medicine that, at its worst, integrates sense with nonsense. At its best, integrative medicine supports both consensus treatments of science-based medicine and treatments that the science, while promising perhaps, does not justify.
It mixes the scientific with the metaphysical (“spirit-mind-body connection” is a favorite expression) and the scientifically untested, discredited, or questionable. Defenders of integrative medicine have an exceptionally high opinion of things “natural” or “organic.”
The expression is a marketing term popularized by Andrew Weil, M.D. Integrative medicine is not a medical “specialty,” nor is it special or superior to plain old science-based medicine. As David Gorski, M.D., says, “integrative medicine” is a brand, not a specialty. Weil’s branding and marketing strategy has paid off. The University of Arizona has given him his own Institute of Integrative Medicine to direct.
Weil graduated from Harvard Medical School but did not complete a residency nor, as far as I can ascertain, ever take the medical boards in any state.
According to [Andrew] Weil, many of his basic insights about the causes of disease and the nature of healing come from what he calls “stoned thinking,” that is, thoughts experienced while under the influence of psychedelic agents or during other states of “altered consciousness” induced by trances, ritual magic, hypnosis, meditation, and the like. —Arnold S. Relman, M.D.
[ . . . ]
Today, Weil mixes scientific medicine with Ayurvedic and other forms of quackery and calls this practice “integrative medicine.” One of his main tenets is: “It is better to use natural, inexpensive, low-tech and less invasive interventions whenever possible.” However, there is no scientific evidence for the claim that natural interventions are always superior to artificial ones. Millions of people use herbs and natural products for a variety of conditions, such as calcium, echinacea, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, glucosamine, saw palmetto, shark cartilage, and St. John’s wort. All of these, when tested scientifically, have failed to support the traditional wisdom regarding their healing powers. Pharmaceuticals and other treatments are much superior to most herbal remedies. If a plant has been shown to be effective as a healing agent, the active ingredient has been extracted and tested scientifically and is part of scientific medicine. Otherwise, any beneficial effect following use of the herb or plant is probably best explained as due to the placebo effect, natural regression, the body’s own natural healing processes, or to some other non-herbal factor.
Why so many people—including many highly educated and medically trained people—believe in the efficacy of quack remedies is a complex issue. As Barry Beyerstein has pointed out in his most thorough analysis of this phenomenon, there are a “number of social, psychological, and cognitive factors that can convince honest, intelligent, and well-educated people that scientifically-discredited [or untested] treatments have merit” (Beyerstein 1999). The typical believer in untested or discredited medical treatments accepts uncritically the apparently clear messages of personal experience that such treatments are effective. To the uncritical thinker, many worthless or harmful treatments seem to “work” (the pragmatic fallacy). Such people are either unaware of or intentionally ignore the many perceptual and cognitive biases that deceive us into thinking there are causal relationships between quack treatments and feeling better or recovering from some illness or disease. They uncritically place “more faith in personal experience and intuition than on controlled, statistical studies” (Beyerstein 1999).
Furthermore, the mass media is rarely critical of “alternative” healing and often presents non-scientific medicine in a very positive light. And critics of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) are often . . .
- A board certification in “integrating” quackery and pseudoscience with real medicine (scienceblogs.com)
- The Establishment Says YES To Integrative Medicine? (doomandbloom.net)
- Is Alternative Medicine Really ‘Medicine’? (npr.org)
If you can demonstrate a power unknown to science, there are people looking to write you a check.
It can sometimes be quite mind-boggling to hear a friend or family member reveal that they have some kind of supernatural ability. Often they feel an empathetic connection to others, sometimes the ability to perform minor healings, or to predict future events. Many times, these are abilities for which “supernatural” seems too strong a word; they are more spiritual or metaphysical, or based on some sensing of an energy. It’s more than likely that you yourself believe you have such an ability, or perhaps did at one time. Nearly all of us have. But whether the ability is energetic or spiritual, supernatural truly is the best word that applies. A supernatural ability could almost be seen as a superpower, something a fictional superhero might be able to do. And we all want superpowers. We all want your supernatural ability to be proven true. And we want it so much that a large number of groups around the world will pay you to prove it.
Such prizes have been available at least since Houdini, who had a standing $10,000 offer for anyone who could create a paranormal manifestation that he could not duplicate. The granddaddy of today’s challenges is the James Randi Educational Foundation‘s Million Dollar Challenge, which will pay anyone who can prove an ability unknown to science one million dollars, and Chinese journalist Sima Nan will kick in a million Yuan (about $150,000) on top of it. It’s not the only big prize out there: the Belgian group SKEPP offers the Sisyphus Prize for one million Euros, which at current exchange rates, is about a quarter million dollars more than the Million Dollar Challenge. The Independent Investigation Group, with affiliates throughout the United States, offers a $100,000 prize. Puzzling World in New Zealand has long offered the $100,000 Pyschic Challenge, and just across the pond, the Australian Skeptics offer a $100,000 prize. The Science and Rationalists’ Association of India offers a INπ 2 million Miracle Challenge, worth about $50,000. These are most of the largest prizes, but many, many smaller prizes are offered all around the world. If you have a supernatural ability of any kind, you owe it to yourself – or at least to your favorite charity – to prove it and use the reward however you see fit.
It’s easy to dismiss the groups who run these challenges as cynics who just want to gloat over someone’s failure, and for sure, such people are found in those groups. But many members of the groups joined because they, too, have always dreamed of having a superpower. Should you win the money and prove that a supernatural ability is possible, you’ll not only turn the world on its head, you’ll be handed money by people who have never been happier to sign a check.
I truly do encourage you to go for it. Here are three big pieces of advice, based on the experiences of the many previous claimants:
1. Be able to succinctly describe a testable ability.
The biggest headache for the people who offer these prizes is that the claimant can almost never provide a simple, clear description of their ability. For example, if you believe you have the power to influence a cat telepathically, you have to give a specific and testable example. Most claimants usually write in with a great lengthy email, telling about the many examples they’ve experienced of a cat doing whatever they wanted it to do; or perhaps with long rambling experiences of sharing the cat’s feelings or of their history of owning cats with whom they felt empathetic.
The challengers have no use for a long letter. You truly must be able to describe one specific ability in a single sentence. If you have many, then pick exactly one, one that you are most confident you can consistently prove.
Nobody is going to give you a cash prize for the length of your letter, or for the number of cats you’ve felt empathetic toward. You must be able to provide a clear, testable ability. If your ability is broad-reaching and vague, it will not be possible to construct a test protocol, and you will not be able to prove it. You must be able to select, within the scope of your broad-reaching abilities, something specific that’s testable and repeatable. For example, “I can make my cat jump onto its perch, within five seconds of giving it a mental command, when the cat neither see me nor hear me, and I can do it 8 out of 10 times.”
It has to be something concise, specific, and unmistakable. If you feel that your ability is too broad to be fairly represented by such a precise example, then you are unlikely to convince anyone, and will certainly be unable to prove your ability to the satisfaction of whatever criteria are agreed upon.
Many claimants report that they feel it’s unfair to try and represent their ability with a single demonstration that’s so much more specific than what they generally do. If you feel the same way and can’t agree to a simple test protocol, then you’re likely to leave the impression that your abilities are really just your own misinterpretation of ordinary coincidences. It’s something the psychologists call confirmation bias – you happen to notice when your cat jumps onto his perch while you were thinking of him, but you failed to weigh it against the far larger number of times your cat jumped onto the perch when you weren’t around and had nothing to do with it.
2. Be aware of why previous claimants failed.
Many people have taken such tests, and so far, all have failed. However, they’ve almost always cited an excuse or some external reason out of their control that the test failed. You must be aware of why previous claimants have failed, and be prepared not to suffer their same fate. This means preparation and anticipation of the problems.
Claimants are generally required to . . .
- Skeptoid #372: Prove Your Supernatural Power and Get Rich (skeptoid.com)
- Wang Li: Qigong “Master” a Conjurer of Cheap Tricks? (thediplomat.com)
- Testing the supernatural (ieet.org)
It’s time for alternative medicine to take its medicine! (See what I did there?)
Via USA Today
PHILADELPHIA — The 12-year-old girl arrived at the hospital wracked with abdominal pain.
Doctors diagnosed her with acute pancreatitis, in which pancreatic enzymes begin digesting not just food, but the pancreas itself.
The most likely cause of the girl’s condition: toxic side effects from more than 80 dietary supplements, which the girl’s mother carried in a shopping bag, says Sarah Erush, clinical pharmacy manager at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where the girl was treated last summer.
The girl’s mother had been treating her with the supplements and other therapies for four years to treat the girl’s “chronic Lyme disease,” a condition that, experts say, doesn’t actually exist. While some Lyme infections cause pain and other lingering symptoms, the infections don’t persist for years. And, according to the Infectious Disease Society of America, the infections don’t require years of antibiotics or other risky therapies given by some alternative medicine practitioners.
Doctors were able to control the girl’s illness with standard therapies, Erush says, and she was discharged from the hospital after two weeks.
Although the child’s story was unforgettable, Erush says, it wasn’t unusual. Parents now “routinely” bring children to her hospital with a variety of alternative remedies, hoping that nurses will administer them during a child’s stay.
There are an ever-growing number of supplements from which to choose: More than 54,000 varieties sold in stores and the Internet, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
About 50% of Americans use alternative medicine, and 10% use it on their children, notes Paul Offit, Children’s Hospital’s chief of infectious disease.
The girl’s story illustrates the serious but often little-known risks posed by some forms of alternative medicine, a loosely regulated industry that includes everything from herbal supplements to crystal healing and acupuncture, says Offit, author of Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine, (HarperCollins, $29.99), being published Tuesday
Many consumers view alternative medicine industry as more altruistic and home-spun than Big Pharma. But in his book, Offit paints a picture of an aggressive, $34 billion a year industry whose key players are adept at using lawsuits, lobbyists and legislation to protect their market.
“It’s a big business,” says Offit, best known for developing a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal illness that killed 2,000 people each day, mostly children in the developing world.
- Book raises alarms about alternative medicine (richarddawkins.net)
- ‘It’s all in the mind’ (theage.com.au)
- The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine (shotofprevention.com)
- Debunking the myths of ‘alternative medicine’ (smh.com.au)
- Steve Jobs Killed By Alternative Medicine? Dr. Paul Offit Says Supplements, Alternative Therapies Could Harm Health (medicaldaily.com)
- Dr. Paul Offit on the Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine (blogher.com)
- Beware of alt med – It’s a dirty business (doubtfulnews.com)
- “Sense and nonsense” about alternative medicine in USA Today (sciencebasedmedicine.org)