Tag Archives: Australia

Phrenology and the Grand Delusion of Experience

Geoffrey Dean via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid. Its history shows why we must be skeptical of any belief based solely on experience.

In the nineteenth century, phrenology was hugely influential despite being totally invalid. Its history shows why we must be skeptical of any belief based solely on experience.

Today, phrenology (“head reading”) is usually seen as the fossilized stuff of cranks and charlatans. But in the nineteenth century it had a huge influence at all levels of Western society, more than all of its later competitors (such as psychoanalysis) put together. It was in­fluential because of its attractive philosophy and because practitioners and clients saw that it worked. But we now know that it could not possibly work; personal experience had led millions of people astray. Indeed, few beliefs can match phrenology for its extent of influence and certainty of invalidity. So it has valuable lessons about any experience-based belief.

Phrenology’s Influence

In the nineteenth century, phrenology affected all levels of Western life and thought. In Britain, Europe, and Amer­ica, its influence was felt in anthropology, criminology, education, medicine, psychiatry, art, and literature. In France, it eroded established power and led to wide social changes. In Australia, it rationalized the violence against Abo­rigines and explained the criminality of convicts. For ordinary people everywhere a head reading was often required for employment or marriage.1 But how could this happen if phrenology was totally invalid? For answers, we need to start at the beginning.

First Steps to Delusion

Around 1790, the German-born anatomist Franz Joseph Gall, one of the founders of modern neurology, put together his skull doctrine that later led to phrenology. He held that behavior such as painting or being careful had their own specialized organs in the brain, and that they influenced the shape of the skull. So the skull’s bumps would indicate behavior and abilities that were innate. Gall spent eleven years examining hundreds of heads to test his ideas: “If … he observed any mechanician, musician, sculptor, draughtsman, mathematician, endowed with such or such faculty from birth, he examined their heads to see whether he might point out a particular development of some cerebral part…. He also called together in his house common people, as coachmen and poor boys, and excited them to make him ac­quainted with their characters” (Spurz­heim 1815, 271).

Gall’s seemingly logical approach had two fatal defects. First, his claims were often based on a single striking case, for example “Cautiousness” was placed above the ears because an extremely cautious priest had a large bump there. Second, Gall looked only for confirmingcases and ignored disconfirming cases, a flaw not lost on his critics. Thus David Skae (1847), a physician at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, noted that once the truth is “fixed upon our minds,” looking for confirmation is “the most perfect recipe for making a phrenologist that could well be devised.” But to Gall and the thousands of phrenologists who came later, personal experience mattered more than procedural defects. Phren­ology had taken its first giant step on the road to delusion.2 Note that the delusion of experience is not limited to artifacts of reasoning such as the Barnum effect.

How to read heads. For each “brain organ” (whose number and location depends on which book you read) you guess its development (no yardsticks here) and thus its meaning (based on speculation), which you juggle (more speculation) against all the other speculative meanings and the all-important temperament based on external signs such as build and vulgarity (i.e., on even more speculation) to obtain a final assessment of character and destiny. If unsatisfactory, try again. This was phrenology’s secret weapon—it was based on an experience that could never be wrong.

How to read heads. For each “brain organ” (whose number and location depends on which book you read) you guess its development (no yardsticks here) and thus its meaning (based on speculation), which you juggle (more speculation) against all the other speculative meanings and the all-important temperament based on external signs such as build and vulgarity (i.e., on even more speculation) to obtain a final assessment of character and destiny. If unsatisfactory, try again. This was phrenology’s secret weapon—it was based on an experience that could never be wrong.

Continue Reading @ The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – – –

Guide to Cold Reading

By Ray Hyman via Australian Skeptics Inc

There are many people who promote themselves as psychics or clairvoyants, and who claim that their powers enable them to read your character, make contact with dead relatives, or provide insights into your life and your future.

Despite their claims, there has never been a successful demonstration of these powers in a laboratory, under properly controlled conditions. Indeed, the National Committee of Australian Skeptics offers a cash prize of $100,000 for any PROVEN demonstration of such powers. See The Prize.

By far the most common method employed by psychics who have been put to the test is called cold reading. This method involves the psychic reading the subject’s body language etc, and skilfully extracting information from the subject, which can then be fed back later, convincing the subject that the psychic has told them things they couldn’t possibly have known!


The following is our 13 point guide to cold reading — Study them well, then amaze your friends with your new found psychic powers!

1. Remember that the key ingredient of a successful character reading is confidence.

If you look and act as if you believe in what you are doing, you will be able to sell even a bad reading to most subjects. One danger of playing the role of reader is that you may actually begin to believe that you really are divining your subject’s true character!

2. Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys.

These can provide you with much information about what various subclasses in our society believe, do, want , worry about etc. For example, if you can ascertain a subject’s place of origin, educational level, and his/her parents’ religion and vocations, you have gained information which should allow you to predict with high probability his/her voting preferences and attitudes to many subjects.

3. Set the stage for your reading.

Profess a modesty about your talents. Make no excessive claims. You will then catch your subject off guard. You are not challenging them to a battle of wits – You can read his/her character, whether he/she believes you or not.

4. Gain the subject’s cooperation in advance.

Emphasise that the success of the reading depends as much on the subject’s cooperation as on your efforts. (After all, you imply, you already have a successful career at character reading — You are not on trial, your subject is!) State that due to difficulties of language and communication, you may not always convey the meaning you intend. In these cases, the subject must strive to fit the reading to his/her own life. You accomplish two valuable ends with this dodge — Firstly, you have an alibi in case the reading doesn’t click; it’s the subject’s fault, not yours! Secondly, your subject will strive to fit your generalities to his/her specific life circumstances. Later, when the subject recalls the reading, you will be credited with much more detail than you actually provided! This is crucial. Your reading will only succeed to the degree that the subject is made an active participant in the reading. The good reader is the one who , deliberately or unwittingly, forces the subject to search his/her mind to make sense of your statements.

5. Use a gimmick, such as Tarot cards, crystal ball, palm reading etc.

Use of props serves two valuable purposes. Firstly, it lends atmosphere to the reading. Secondly, (and more importantly) it gives you time to formulate your next question/statement. Instead of just sitting there, thinking of something to say, you can be intently studying the cards /crystal ball etc. You may opt to hold hands with your subject — This will help you feel the subject’s reactions to your statements. If you are using , say, palmistry (the reading of hands) it will help if you have studied some manuals, and have learned the terminology. This will allow you to more quickly zero in on your subject’s chief concerns — “do you wish to concentrate on the heart line or the wealth line?“

6. Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue.

Even during a cold reading, a liberal sprinkling of stock phrases will add body to the reading and will help you fill in time while you formulate more precise characterisations. Use them to start your readings. Palmistry, tarot and other fortune telling manuals are a key source of good phrases.

Continue Reading @ Australian Skeptics Inc – – –

James Randi: Debunking The Paranormal

By Studio 10 (Australia) via YouTube

Skeptic James Randi joins us on Studio 10, ahead of his tour around Australia in December: http://thinkinc.org.au/jamesrandi

James Randi An Honest Liar

10 Amazing Stories Of Australian Paranormal Phenomena

By Pauli Poisuo via Listverse

Whenever Australia comes up in a conversation, we usually remember to mention how absurdly dangerous the place seems to be. We talk about its diverse, dangerous fauna, and the harsh, unforgiving climate. However, what we often forget is that the continent also has a rich history of creepy myths and ghost stories. From UFO sightings to government secrets and frightening urban legends, Australia can scare you in almost as many ways as its animals can maim you.

Let’s take a look at some of the stranger stories from the “most dangerous country in the world.”

10 • Fisher’s Ghost

1-frederick_250pxThe legend of farmer Frederick Fisher is one of the most popular ghost stories in Australia. On a calm June evening in 1826, Fisher left his house in Campbelltown to run some errands, never to return. He was gone without a trace, leaving no clues that could explain his sudden disappearance.

Four months after Fisher vanished, a local resident stumbled into a Campbelltown hotel, pale and shaken to his very bones. He told the assorted audience that he had just encountered the ghost of Frederick Fisher. The spectral farmer had been sitting on a fence by the road, pointing with his finger at a paddock near the river that ran nearby. Then, the startled man watched the apparition fade away in front of his eyes.

The man who had seen the ghost was a wealthy and well-respected member of the community, so the police decided to investigate the paddock the ghost had pointed at. To their shock, they found the body of Frederick Fisher, dead and hidden from view. His murderer was soon found to be one George Worrall, Fisher’s neighbor and friend who had been taking care of his legal matters in the past. Worrall had already raised some eyebrows after Fisher’s disappearance, as he told everyone that Fisher had sailed to England and soon started selling the poor farmer’s belongings. The emergence of the body soon caused Worrall to confess, and Fisher could finally rest in peace.

Or could he? Some sources say that Fisher quite liked being a ghost . . . to the point that he still haunts the hotel mentioned in the legend today.

9 • Wycliffe Well

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Photo credit: tm-tm Tallinn

Wycliffe Well is a roadhouse and holiday park near Wauchope in the Northern Territories. The area is said to be one of the biggest hotspots for UFO activity in the entire continent. There have been many reported sightings in recent decades by locals and visitors alike, and this has made the relatively remote location surprisingly popular among UFO enthusiasts and the occasional tourist.

Why do UFOs congregate in Wycliffe Well? Nobody knows for sure. Some say the place lies at an intersection of two major LEY lines, which attract alien vessels and cause them to pass the place quite often. Others maintain the mysterious sightings are actually secret experiments by the Pine Gap US military base, which, according to some theories, is Australia’s answer to Area 51. Others still say the UFOs, if stories of them are true at all, are merely the desert sun’s reflection on birds and other tricks of light.

Whatever the truth may be, the roadhouse—stuffed to the brim with alien kitsch and UFO memorabilia—certainly benefits from the rumors.

8 • The House Of Miracles

Haunted House #1In the suburbs of Sydney, there is a small house where miracles are said to happen. In 2006, three months after their 17-year-old son died in a car accident, George and Lina Tannous were shocked to notice that the walls of the deceased boy’s room were mysteriously weeping aromatic oil. They soon became convinced that the oil was of supernatural origin, sent by their son from heaven to communicate with them.

As news of the mysterious “House of Miracles” started spreading, its fame grew and the faithful came knocking at the Tannous family’s door. They even noticed that the oil, combined with prayer, seemed to have healing properties. Pilgrims kept on coming, so the Tannous turned their house into a 24-hour chapel. A local Catholic priest became convinced that the phenomenon was clearly a miracle, and even started anointing people with the oil. Even Mr. Tannous’ trouble with the law in 2010 (curiously, he had been involved in a forgery case) didn’t stop people from coming.

The miracle oil, which was tested in 2007 and found to be a combination of oil and water, is still on the walls of the house today, and its true origins remain a mystery. The Tannous maintain its origin is divine, but although they have always refused to take any money from visitors, the president of the local sceptics’ association has his own suspicions about the mystery substance’s authenticity: He says the House of Miracles looks a lot like someone had been, and we quote, “running around the house dabbing oil and water on the walls.”

7 • Gosford Glyphs

4-hiero_250pxThe Gosford Hieroglyphs, or “Gosford Glyphs” for short, are a series of strange, deep-cut markings on a rock in Hunter Valley, New South Wales.

Since their discovery in the 1970s, this set of 300 pictures has achieved widespread notoriety due to their resemblance of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. What’s more, the area also seems to have a large, labyrinthine structure of strangely straight caves and tunnels underneath the stone. Does this mean that ancient Egyptians somehow managed to travel to Eastern Australia, and brought their rock-working tools along for the ride? How did they manage that? Was it magic? Were they helped by aliens?

It depends on who you ask. Steven Strong, the leader of a group of amateur archeologists researching the area, says that the amount of existing evidence (along with a second series of glyphs that his team has recently found) means the area still clearly has many strange mysteries to hide. Meanwhile, Egyptology expert Boyo Ockinga, from Sydney’s Macquarie University, has stated that the site has nothing to do with Egyptians. According to him, the glyphs are poor imitations that were most likely made by Australian soldiers who visited Egypt during World War I and developed a fascination with the culture.

6 • Picton

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Photo credit: Bluedawe

The small, rural town of Picton is located 80 kilometers (50 mi) southwest of Sydney. It’s a quaint little township, full of small-town charm and named after one of the generals at the Battle of Waterloo. It’s so quaint, in fact, that many of its residents choose to stay even after life has left them. Picton is said to be crawling with ghosts, from strange, spectral ladies that move shopkeepers’ signs around to invisible swimmers by the railway viaduct. The maternity hospital is haunted by ghostly, crying babies and an evil matron who attempts to strangle people at night. The Imperial Hotel’s jukebox sometimes starts to play by itself, even if it isn’t plugged in.

Some of the more well-known of Picton’s ghosts are the children who haunt the (surprise, surprise) cemetery. Two ghostly kids, a boy and a girl, apparently stalk the burial grounds dressed in old-fashioned clothes, disappearing behind the headstones and appearing in photographs of the otherwise empty cemetery.

The most famous of Picton’s specters, however, lurks in the Mushroom Tunnel, an abandoned railway tunnel that is thought to be haunted by the ghost of Emily Bollard, a woman who was taking a shortcut through the tunnel in 1916—only to be greeted by an oncoming train. The locomotive struck her and carried her mangled corpse in its cowcatcher all the way to the town’s railway station. According to legend, you can still encounter her ghost in the tunnel, forever trying to run from her oncoming doom.

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The Disappearance of Frederick Valentich

A young pilot who disappeared in 1978 might have been having a little fun, Spielberg style.

Brian DunningBy Brian Dunning via Skeptoid: Critical Analysis Podcast. Read transcript below or listen here.

Today we’re going back to 1978, when a young private pilot named Frederick Valentich rented a single-engine Cessna and literally flew off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Sadly there’s nothing unusual about that; the fact is that small planes crash every so often. But something was different this time. The case of Frederick Valentich has been called Australia’s most famous aviation mystery; not because he disappeared, but because his final radio transmissions reported a UFO. Ever since, a subculture of Australians, notably including Valentich’s own father, believed he was abducted by aliens and may yet be alive somewhere.

Valentich and his aircraft

Valentich and his aircraft

The Australian Department of Transport’s official accident investigation summary report gives a single line: The reason for the disappearance of the aircraft has not been determined. And that’s all; a sparse epitaph for a young man’s tragedy.

Frederick was only 20 years old, a member of the Air Training Corps, a volunteer youth cadet program sponsored by the Royal Australian Air Force. He’d had his private pilot’s license for a little over a year, and had a corresponding amount of flight experience. He lived with his parents, and by all accounts was a fine young man with no serious problems and was happily pursuing his career of choice. One day in October 1978, he showed up at Moorabbin Airport in Melbourne to rent a plane in order to fly out to King Island, a round trip of some 560 kilometers, about three and a half hours worth of flight time. He was turned away due to bad weather over the ocean. So he returned a few days later to try again, and this time got his plane, a single-engine Cessna 182L.

An artist's conception of Valentich pursued by a UFO

An artist’s conception of Valentich pursued by a UFO

He took off at about a quarter after 6pm in the evening of October 21, for what would be his first (and only) night flight over water. The weather was clear. King Island is about halfway between Australia and Tasmania. To fly there from Melbourne, you typically don’t fly a straight line, because that would mean you’re over water nearly the entire way; and flying over water is, of course, riskier than flying over land. So pilots typically go from Melbourne, southwest along the coast, to Cape Otway, which is the closest point on the mainland to King Island. This longer route is mostly over land. However even this safest route includes a stretch of 85 straight kilometers over water.

Frederick’s flight proceeded uneventfully. About twenty minutes after sunset, he turned away from the coast at an altitude of 4500 feet and began the long stretch over water. It was at that moment when he made his first radio call. Recordings of the actual radio conversation do exist; but for whatever reason, there aren’t any publicly available copies, and documentary films of the disappearance have always made dramatizations from the printed transcripts, which are available.

Valentich: Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet. Is there any known traffic below five thousand?

Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet, no known traffic.

Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, I am, seems to be, a large aircraft below five thousand.

Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet, what type of aircraft is it?

Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, I cannot affirm, it is four bright, it seems to me, like landing lights.

Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet.

Valentich: Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet, the aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above.

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The conversation continued this way for some five minutes:

Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne. It seems like it’s stationary. What I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me. Also it’s got a green light and sort of metallic, like it’s all shiny on the outside.

The conversation finally concluded after Valentich reported engine trouble:

Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, the engine is rough idling, I’ve got it set at twenty three twenty four and the thing is coughing.

(Twenty three twenty four means his engine power settings were typical.)

Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet, roger, what are your intentions?

Valentich: My intentions are to go to King Island. Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again… It is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.

Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet.

Valentich: Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne…

Melbourne: Delta Sierra Juliet, Melbourne.

His final transmission was at 7:12pm and 28 seconds. Melbourne declared an alert, which was escalated to a distress situation 21 minutes later.

Before we accept the popular explanation that Frederick and his airplane were abducted by a UFO, it’s necessary to point out that a few things were fishy.

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Psychics Boost Believers’ Sense of Control

Benjamin Radfordby Benjamin Radford via Discovery News

A new study has found that people who believe that psychics can predict the future tend to feel more in control of their lives than those who don’t.

A group of Australian researchers from the University of Queensland led by Katharine Greenaway offered the hypothesis that belief in psychic prediction would be positively correlated with a sense of control over one’s life.

psychic 1208“If it is possible to predict what the future holds, then one can exert control,” the study reports. “Having insight into what will happen in the future would therefore allow people to control their outcomes in a way that would guarantee personal success and survival.”

Several experiments were done to examine this phenomenon. In one of them, two groups of people were asked to read passages either promoting or disputing the idea that scientists have found evidence of precognitive psychic powers.

Afterwards, each group was asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about how much control they feel they have over their lives and circumstances.

Those who read the information confirming the existence of psychic powers agreed more strongly with statements such as “I am in control of my own life” and “My life is determined by my own actions” than those in the other group.

The Psychology of Prediction

What’s behind this psychology of prediction? Humans are a pattern-seeking species, and we constantly look for ways to make sense of the world around us. Many superstitious people, for example, find — or, more accurately, believe they find — ways of knowing and even influencing the future. Gamblers may wear a lucky shirt to a casino, for example, or an athlete might perform a small ritual before a game to assure good luck.

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