Tag Archives: Parapsychology

Secrets of the Psychics – James Randi

Secrets of the Psychics – James Randi
Original broadcast: October 19, 1993
Description via PBS.org:

james-randi-69Can psychics predict the future? Many people seem to think so. Others argue that, in most cases, so-called psychic experiences are really misinterpretations of events. In this episode of NOVA, magician and confirmed skeptic James Randi challenges viewers to weigh the evidence for and against the existence of psychic phenomena.

Randi argues that successful psychics depend on the willingness of their audiences to believe that what they see is the result of psychic powers. The program highlights some of the methods and processes he uses to examine psychics’ claims. Using his own expertise in creating deception and illusion, Randi challenges specific psychics’ claims by duplicating their performances and “feats,” or by applying scientific methods. His goal is to eliminate all possible alternative explanations for the psychic phenomena. He also looks for evidence that they are not merely coincidental. His arguments can motivate your class to discuss the differences between psychic performances and legitimate cases of unexplained phenomena.

The Columbus Poltergeist

Did a poltergeist infest a home in Columbus, Ohio? Or was this the work of a mischievous teen?

skeptoid eyeby Blake Smith via skeptoid
Read transcript below or listen here

In 1982 a terrifying phenomena was lifted from the pages of parapsychology literature and turned into the highly successful film, Poltergeist. Although the film was not based on a real case, and the phenomena in the film veered wildly from the historical symptoms, it did make this peculiar type of event culturally available in a way it had never been before. So when a trouble household in Columbus, Ohio began experiencing flying objects and mysterious disturbances, one had to wonder: was this a poltergeist or merely zeitgeist?

poltergeist 02_250pxEnthusiasts of paranormal lore will know that the word poltergeist is derived from the german words for noisy and spirit. Before we get into the particulars of the Columbus Poltergeist, lets talk about skeptics and hauntings. Skeptics are often depicted as dismissing the idea of ghosts and spirits without investigation, but there is actually a rich history of thorough scientific investigations of such alleged phenomena. The most difficult challenge is that the allegedly paranormal events rarely manifest themselves when skeptical researchers are present. This leaves the investigator to more of a forensic role and sometimes with nothing but a collection of anecdotes.

Even the terminology for such events is difficult because a skeptical view of any such phenomena is predicated on examining each unusual component rather than collectively viewing them as a haunting. This is a problem for paranormal believers too in that ghost investigations are all trying to explain elusive phenomena.poltergeist 0800_225px Consider these words: phantoms, shadows, phantasms, ghosts, spirits… there is a robust lexicon to describe these non-corporeal entities, but no scientific proof that any of them exist. For the purposes of this article I’m going to talk about various aspects of this field but remember that these are terms which the scientific community – and Skeptoid – do not endorse as real or genuine. So when I talk about hauntings I’m not endorsing the existence of supernatural manifestations, but using the word to mean “the collection of unusual events” associated with such cases.

Poltergeists cases are characterized by loud noises, things being thrown, apportations of tiny objects, mysterious liquids appearing, rocks falling on the roof, and occasionally people being pushed, clawed, pressed or otherwise harassed. In most cases the poltergeist events are centered around one person – often a teenager. Many times when this central figure is removed from the scene the events stop and do not follow them to other locations.

In 1984 the home of John and Joan Resch became the scene of such events. Glasses, photographs, telephones and lamps were being thrown about and broken and the events all seemed centered on the Resch’s adopted daughter Tina.

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Are psychic powers real?

By Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know via YouTube

60% of Americans believe in psychic powers. What about you?

Where Is the Science in Electronic Voice Phenomena?

Via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

It is hard to turn on the television today without coming across a program about ghosts and the paranormal. These shows might shine an entertaining light on the unknown, but they are often more about their cast of characters and investigators than the science of parapsychology.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

Since the 1920s, when Thomas Edison hinted that he might have attempted to build a “ghost machine” to communicate with the dead, some have tried to apply a scientific method to proving the existence of life after death. So far this has been unsuccessful, and to this day every group of investigators, both amateur and professional, has their own set of protocols as to what is or is not considered paranormal (see Sharon Hill’s “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things,” SI, March/April 2012).

With no universally accepted methods of investigating the paranormal, the beliefs of investigators can greatly influence the outcomes of their own investigations. Some investigators believe removing objects from a location will end a possible haunting. Others use objects to capture spirits, and psychic investigators believe spirits can be blessed or cast away. None of these methods have been scientifically proven, yet every investigator claims that the method they use is successful.

In pursuit of scientifically verifiable evidence, tools of all types have been employed. Many theories about detecting paranormal activity have been tested using everything from dowsing rods to Geiger counters. While the evidence they provide is scientifically debated, some tools such as audio recorders have become popular mainstays of the paranormal investigator.

soundwave-175x150The art of recording EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, is one of the most widely accepted methods of collecting evidence. Originally, a portable tape recorder was used to record an investigator asking a series of questions and waiting for responses in the silence following each question. After the EVP session, the tape was played back and investigators listened for intelligent and relevant responses caught on the tape but not audible to the ear at the time. The theory is that spirits do not have enough energy to create sounds audible to the human ear but can leave impressions on the tape.

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Psychic test cards were actually invented to make psychic tests easier

psychic test cards
Esther Inglis-ArkellBy Esther Inglis-Arkell via io9.com

Earlier this week we did a post on survivorship bias, and how it could trick people into believing in psychic ability. It turns out that the most famous test of psychic ability was made expressly to allow for this kind of bias.

One of the most famous tests of psychic ability was made by J. B. Rhine. He claimed to identify strong psychics by testing a lot of people with Zener Cards. The tests involved two people, the examiner looking at the card, and the person being tested trying to guess the card that the examiner is looking at. Rhine noted that some people, a small minority, got a disproportionate number of cards right. They were “strong psychics.” Skeptics countered that, if you were to test any group on the street, some would do far better than average – just as some would do far worse than average. That’s the point of survivorship bias. You test a large amount of people and hold up the few who do better-than-average as examples of proof rather than coincidence.

One could argue that there shouldn’t be a coincidence at all. What are the chances that if someone looks at a card – a card that could show any picture at all – that another person will be able to guess the picture on it? The chances, it turns out, got a lot better once Zener Cards were invented. Zener Cards were made by Karl Zener, a paranormal investigator.

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Secrets of the Psychics

Secrets of the Psychics – James Randi
Original broadcast: October 19, 1993

Description via PBS.org:

Can psychics predict the future? Many people seem to think so. Others argue that, in most cases, so-called psychic experiences are really misinterpretations of events. In this episode of NOVA, magician and confirmed skeptic James Randi challenges viewers to weigh the evidence for and against the existence of psychic phenomena.

Randi argues that successful psychics depend on the willingness of their audiences to believe that what they see is the result of psychic powers. The program highlights some of the methods and processes he uses to examine psychics’ claims. Using his own expertise in creating deception and illusion, Randi challenges specific psychics’ claims by duplicating their performances and “feats,” or by applying scientific methods. His goal is to eliminate all possible alternative explanations for the psychic phenomena. He also looks for evidence that they are not merely coincidental. His arguments can motivate your class to discuss the differences between psychic performances and legitimate cases of unexplained phenomena.

Psychic Secrets

Jamy_Ian_SwissBy Jamy Iam Swiss via randi.org

The secret is out: professional storefront psychics are mostly comprised of fakes, frauds, cheats, and con artists. Step into a psychic storefront – especially in New York City or Southern Florida where organized criminal elements of the Romani (gypsy) culture is a significant presence – at your own extreme risk.

Second psychic in Hingham fraud probe surrenders to police - Quincy, MA - The Patriot LedgerWell, maybe that doesn’t seem like a secret to many skeptics, but the fact is that since the inception of the modern skeptic movement, skeptics have pursued and possessed specialized knowledge in the realm of paranormal claims such as psychic phenomena. Of course, skeptics are interested in a vast panoply of pseudoscience – a glance down the list of subjects at the Skeptic’s Dictionary [skepdic.com] will produce an alphabetical list of nonsense, from the doofus to the deadly, “From Abracadabra to Zombies,” as it says on the home page.

But the paranormal is a special area of interest and expertise, partly because of the so-called science of parapsychology, which for more than a century-and-a-half has attempted to establish the existence of psychic phenomena in the laboratory. Unfortunately, this science has yet to produce so much as a single replicable, paradigmatic experiment (as compared with even a “soft science” like psychology which has hundreds of such examples that can be readily replicated by new students and scientists alike).

Another reason for this interest is the role of magicians in the skeptic movement, who themselves possess specialized knowledge not only of deception and illusion in general but also in particular of the methods of psychics, which often encompass techniques that magicians and particularly “mentalists” routinely use in their own work. Thus the magician has been a key player in parapsychology investigation since the first committee on psychical research was organized by “Scientific American” magazine, with Harry Houdini as a member.

And finally – surely far from least – there is the terrible predation and damage that professional psychics do. Whether it is a television talk-to-the-dead medium who entraps people in their grief rather than helping them to return eventually, as they must, to the normal living of their own lives, despite the loss of their loved ones – or professional storefront fortunetellers-and-takers who use their traditional finely honed psychological weaponry to rob people of their dignity and self-respect, their self-control, and often their life savings.

220px-Secrets_of_the_PsychicsVideoIn 1993, the “Nova” television series devoted an entire program, entitled “Secrets of the Psychics,” to James Randi and his work as a psychic investigator and consumer protection advocate. Although this episode of the famous science documentary series has been available in various recorded forms, including in segments on YouTube, the program has just been posted in its entirety [here (illuminutti.com) and] here.

The show covers the gamut of psychic claims, and Randi’s investigations and insights. He looks at Russian psychics who claim to be able to gain special knowledge about a person just from examining a photograph. He tries to test specially psychically altered water, which seems to (rather hilariously) possess the special quality of being untestable. He looks at claims of the alleged psychic power to alter people’s blood pressure and brain waves. The program provides a synopsis of Randi’s legendary investigation of the faith healer Peter Popoff, and also provides a useful overview of Randi’s debunkings of Uri Geller during Geller’s metal-bending heydays.

Oh, and a young long-haired magician with a waxed moustache offers a brief original demonstration of psychokinesis in the first three minutes of the show. Go take a look!

The show is twenty years old but its principles and subjects are as fresh as today’s headlines, and literally so.

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James Randi – Secrets of the Psychics (Full)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Secrets of the Psychics was a PBS NOVA episode following James Randi‘s work.[1] Also appearing in stock footage are Peter Popoff, Uri Geller, and many others.

In the program, “Randi argues that successful psychics depend on the willingness of their audiences to believe that what they see is the result of psychic powers.”[2]

This program is not to be confused with a later UK documentary Secrets of the Psychics, which was transmitted under this title as well as Secrets of the Super Psychics.


(Psychic) Staring Effect

via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

In a nutshell: The psychic staring effect is the idea that people can tell by ESP when somebody is staring at them.

Can anyone really tell when someone else is staring at them? Sure, especially if the one doing the staring is standing right in front of you. But what about someone staring at you from behind? looking-back-over-my-shoulder_300pxNine out of ten people say they can “sense” when they are being stared at even when they can’t see the person who is doing the staring. What does science have to say about this ability to sense being stared at?

There have been several scientific studies on staring and all but one of them has found that people are fooling themselves if they think they can tell when they’re being stared at. The one scientist who found that some people can tell when someone else is staring at them is Rupert Sheldrake, the same scientist who found that a parrot and a dog can read the minds of people. If you think about it, you would have to be psychic to be able to “feel” somebody staring at you rather than see them with your own two eyes. That’s why this ability to tell when you’re being stared at is called psychic staring effect (PSE).

The first scientific studies of PSE were done in 1898 by Edward B. Titchener. He wanted to prove once and for all that PSE was a superstition. He did prove PSE is a superstition, but most people didn’t believe him anyway.

After Sheldrake did some tests that showed PSE is real, several other scientists tried to duplicate his work. No one else could find evidence for PSE. It looks like Sheldrake made a mistake or two. Right now it does not look like there is any logical reason to believe that some people can psychically tell when someone else is staring at them.

For more information on the study of psychic powers see A Short History of Psi Research by Robert T. Carroll (psi is what parapsychologists call perceiving or moving things with the mind only).

[END] The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Whatever Happened to Parapsychology?

Glenn McDonald, Discovery News via LiveScience

mind_body_225pxIt seems that stories of the paranormal sprout up every day, and everywhere, in pop culture and the media. Weird news websites number in the hundreds, and there are entire television series dedicated to psychic abilities, hauntings and paranormal investigation.

But that’s all showbiz, really. The actual academic study of parapsychology — the established term for phenomena such as clairvoyance, psychokinesis, telepathy and precognition — has seemingly disappeared since its heyday in the mid-20th century. So what happened to parapsychology?

It hasn’t gone anywhere, said John Kruth, executive director of the Rhine Research Center in Durham, N.C. It’s just become disorganized, underfunded and — in the realm of traditional science — largely ignored. The Rhine is one of a handful of privately funded groups in the United States still doing active research into parapsychology, sometimes called “psi phenomena.”

“People have never stopped doing research in these areas,” Kruth said. “But the skeptic community is strong and vocal, and they’re much better at working the media.” Kruth attributes much of the field’s decline in the United States, during the 1970s and 1980s, to media-savvy debunkers such as James Randi.

esp_200px“Certainly there are fraudulent practitioners out there, and we’re always watching for that,” Kruth said. “It’s like we have the frauds on one side and the debunkers on the other, and we’re in the middle, still trying to do science.”

Critics respond that, as a field of scientific study, parapsychology has much bigger issues. In short, the science has a fundamental evidence problem.

“It’s fallen into disuse due to the fact that there’s just nothing there,” said Michael Shermer, editor of the quarterly journal Skeptic and columnist for Scientific American. “Parapsychology has been around for more than a century. (Yet) there’s no research protocol that generates useful working hypotheses for other labs to test and develop into a model, and eventually a paradigm that becomes a field. It just isn’t there.”

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via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

In a nutshell: ESP stands for extrasensory perception. If you had ESP, you could see, feel, or hear things without using your eyes, hands, or ears. There are some scientists who say they have proof of ESP, but most scientists think the proof is weak and does not support a belief in ESP.

ESP stands for extrasensory perception.

mindcontrol_640px_200pxSensory perception is seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, or tasting. Extrasensory perception is when you see or hear something that can’t be seen or heard with your eyes and ears. Such experiences happen outside the normal range of the senses and are said to be paranormal or psychic. Most scientists don’t think paranormal events actually happen or that anyone is actually psychic.

If you had ESP, you could see, feel, or hear things without using your eyes, hands, or ears. Somehow your brain would get messages and images from distant places and distant times. If your brain confused you with perceptions from the past and from places far away while you were trying to get dressed, eat breakfast, get on the school bus, pay attention in class, or do your homework, you would have a very hard time making it through the day. As far as we know, this has never happened to anybody.

mind reading or telepathy

Mind reading is a type of ESP where a person “sees” what is in another person’s mind. Mind reading is also called telepathy. The scientific study of telepathy began over one hundred twenty years ago when it was called psychical research. Today, scientists who study ESP are called parapsychologists and their science is called parapsychology. (Psychical comes from the Greek word for spirit. Many parapsychologists say the mind is a spirit.)

rsz_museumesptestThe first scientific test of telepathy was done in England in 1882. Scientists at the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) tested several young girls who said that they could tell what each other was thinking. The scientists put the girls in different rooms and asked those in one room about a card or name of a person that a girl in the other room was thinking of. Many tests were given over a period of six years. The scientists said there was no way the girls could have got as many right answers as they did just by guessing. The scientists also said they were sure the girls weren’t cheating. The scientists agreed that the girls were reading each other’s minds. The scientists were right about one thing. The girls couldn’t have gotten as many right answers as they did just by guessing. But the scientists were wrong about the cheating. The girls—the Creery sisters and their servant Jane Dean—admitted they cheated by using secret signals. This wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last time, that children would fool scientists.

In 1848 two sisters, Kate Fox (age 12) and Margaretta Fox (15), said they heard strange rapping noises in their bedroom. They got people to believe that they were getting messages from spirits. Soon they went on tour with their big sister Leah who was in her mid-30s. They did séances, which became the rage in both the U.S. and Europe. In 1871, the Fox sisters fooled Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), an important scientist who attended a Fox-girls séance in London. Sir William said he tested the girls “in every way that I could devise” and was sure they were not producing the rapping noises “by trickery or mechanical means.” In 1888 the sisters confessed that they made the raps by cracking their toe-joints. They made bumping noises by fastening an apple to a string under their petticoats and bouncing it off the floor.

q461-2From 1979-1983, two teenagers tricked scientist Peter Phillips into thinking they were able to move and bend objects by their thoughts, a power known as psychokinesis. (Psychokinesis comes from two Greek words meaning mind or spirit and movement. Psychokinesis, when it involves moving an object with mental power alone, is called telekinesis, literally distant-movement.) Steve Shaw (18) and Mike Edwards (17) fooled the scientist for four years through more than 160 hours of tests. One of their favorite tricks was to pretend to bend a spoon or fork with thoughts, a trick made popular by Uri Geller. Geller, however, claimed that he had psychokinetic powers. At one time, he claimed he got his powers from the planet “Hoova” in another star system and a UFO called “IS” or “Intelligence in the Sky.”

Skeptics don’t think there is good evidence that anyone has moved even a pencil across a table using only the power of thought. Psychokinesis nearly always involves trickery, though we might occasionally think we caused something to happen when it happens right after we thought about it happening. If you point to the sky during a rain storm and say “let there be lightning” and then a lightning bolt shoots across the sky, you might think you caused it. You’d probably be wrong.

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James Alan Hydrick claimed to be able to perform acts of telekinesis, such as his trademark trick involving the movement of a pencil resting at the edge of a table.

Here he is exposed as a fraud by none other than James Randi:

It was soon after this appearance on That’s My Line Hydrick confessed the fraud to an investigative reporter.

Uri Geller’s Tonight Show failure (courtesy of James Randi):

Also see: Top 10 Psychic Debunkings

Amazing Discovery in Used Bible

I found the following story to be amazing because it’s the perfect example of how randomness creates incredible coincidences that people then interpret as a sign of something supernatural or paranormal.

What a coincidence! Just the other day i posted an article discussing coincidences.

Enjoy 🙂

Mason I. Bilderberg (MIB)

via About.com – Paranormal Phenomena

In this video report, Marion Shurtleff tells about how she bought a Bible in a used bookstore. When she got home and opened it, she found inside folded, yellowing sheets of paper. She was astonished when she read what was on them. Immediately she saw her name — and her own handwriting! It was an essay she wrote 65 years ago when joining the Girl Scouts — in another city 2,000 miles away!


A stunning coincidence like this makes the head spin. The odds of this happening are beyond astronomical:

  • That she went to this particular bookstore
  • On this particular day (the book could have been picked up by someone else any time)
  • That she sought this particular type of book
  • That she bought this specific book

And that would be remarkable enough if she grew up in this town. But she was a little girl in another town 2,000 miles away! So:

  • How did her essay get in the book?
  • Why was it ever saved in the first place?
  • Who saved it?
  • Why did they place it in a Bible?
  • How did it get to the city where Marion now lives, so far away?
  • How and why did it survive in the book considering all the hands in must have passed through?

We certainly cannot blame Marion for thinking that there was a higher power at work in this case. It’s such an unfathomable and unlikely — one might say nearly impossible — outcome that we can only wonder if it was somehow directed by “something,” whether you want to call it a higher power or collective unconscious or psychic phenomenon. What do you think?

MORE here and here.

Remote Viewing

via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

In a nutshell: Remote viewing is a kind of ESP where a person in one place “sees” what another person in another place is looking at. Remote viewing is another name for clairvoyance or telepathy.

remote viewing_250pxRemote viewing (also called clairvoyance or telepathy) is seeing things at a distance using the mind alone. A remote viewer may claim to read the mind of a person in a distant place to see what that person is looking at (telepathy). A remote viewer may claim to somehow directly see the place where another person is located (clairvoyance). Or, a remote viewer may claim to see a distant place even if nobody else is looking at it (clairvoyance).

Skeptics doubt that it is possible to see places, persons, and actions that are not within the range of the senses or such things as telescopes and binoculars. ESP scientists (parapsychologists) claim that they have proof of remote viewing.

Tests of remote viewing often involve having one person go to a remote site while another in a different location tries to get impressions of the site by reading the mind of the person at the remote site. There has never been such a test where one person looks at, say, the Golden Gate Bridge while another person across town says “she’s looking at the Golden Gate Bridge.” In one test, a person went to the Dumbarton Bridge (pictured below) and the remote viewer reported that he was getting “impressions” of


  • half arch
  • something dark about it
  • darkness
  • a feeling she had to park somewhere and had to go through a tunnel or something, a walkway of some kind, an overpass
  • there’s an abutment way up over her head
  • we have a garden, it’s a formal garden
  • formal gardens get passed
  • open area in the center
  • trees
  • some kind of art work in the center
  • this art work is very bizarre, set in gravel, stone.

If you try hard enough, you can match some of the impressions of the remote viewer with the Dumbarton Bridge, but if you only had this list to go by, I don’t think you’d ever figure out what he was talking about.

Your Sixth Sense

Perhaps you’ve lived this moment before. Perhaps you’re seeing yourself at a distance, as never before. Anomalous experiences are real and life-changing. That doesn’t mean they occur outside your own head.


By Matthew Hutson via Psychology Today

Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ve felt someone staring at you. Maybe you were at the grocery store.looking-back-over-my-shoulder_300px Maybe walking along the sidewalk. Maybe sitting on a bus. And sure enough, when you turned your head to look, the suspect’s eyes met yours.

You just had an anomalous experience.

The job of the conscious mind is to form a story out of all our sensations and reflections. Life as we experience it is not just a series of unconnected thoughts and events; it’s a coherent narrative unfolding in an orderly universe. But sometimes we have experiences that don’t fit our expectations and may even contradict what science has taught us is possible. In our attempts to accommodate such outlier phenomena, we often turn to unproven forces or entities. We start to believe in the paranormal.

Anomalous experience of this sort ranges from sensing a strange vibe in a room to feeling outside your own body. We often explain such experiences using concepts related to spirits, luck, witchcraft, psychic powers, life energy, or more terrestrial (and extraterrestrial) entities. Such explanations are often more appealing, or at least more intuitive, than blaming an odd experience on a trick of the mind.

astralt_250pxOne of the most common anomalous experiences is the sense of being stared at. When you see someone gazing directly at you, emotions become activated—it can be exciting or comforting or creepy—and this visceral charge can give the impression that gazes transfer energy. Further, if you feel uncomfortable and check to see whether someone is looking at you, your movement may draw attention—confirming your suspicions.

Another common experience is déjà vu, a phenomenon two in three people report. Most of us shrug it off as a mental hiccup. Indeed, researchers propose it’s a sense of familiarity without a recollection of why something is familiar, or perhaps a timing issue in the brain where thoughts are experienced twice because of a slight wiring delay, lending the second occurrence an odd sensation of repetition. But some people believe it’s a glimpse into a past life.

While anomalous experiences may be associated with stressful circumstances, personal pathologies, or cognitive deficits, the experiences themselves may not always be so bad, and may actually be healthy inventions. They’re just our attempts to make sense of a weird situation. After all, there’s nothing the mind likes better than a good story.

Meaningful Coincidences

photoalbum_250pxAlex and Donna Voutsinas were leafing through family photo albums a week before their wedding in 2002 when one picture caught Alex’s eye. In the foreground was Donna, five years old, posing at Disney World with one of the Seven Dwarves. Behind them was Alex’s father pushing a stroller. And in the stroller was Alex. The boy’s family was visiting from Canada, and the two children would not meet until 15 years later. When he saw the photo, Alex said, “I got chills. It was just too much of a coincidence. It was fate.”

Nearly anyone would get chills in such a situation, but it takes a lot less—hearing the same new word twice in an hour, meeting someone who shares our birthday—to make us pause and say, “Well, how about that!” Such moments occur when we spot patterns, an ability (and compulsion) built into the brain from the earliest stages of perception. Pattern-finding lets us make sense of sensory input (those four legs are part of a table) and to predict regularities in our environment (apples fall down, not up; they’re often tasty; and throwing them makes people mad).

Pattern-finding is so central to survival and success that we see patterns everywhere, even in random data—a phenomenon called apophenia. We spot faces in clouds and hear messages in records played backward. And while we expect some level of order in the world, on occasion our pattern-spotting gets away from us and makes a connection we wouldn’t expect. When that happens, we demand, at least subconsciously, an explanation.

It turns out that our favorite kinds of explanations involve “agents”—beings capable of intentional action. The agent could be a person, a god, or a superintelligent robot. We’re biased to blame even simple events on agents—spotting them or their footprints allows us to manage them if they are dangerous: It is better to mistake a twig for a snake than to mistake a snake for a twig.

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