News Flash: Psychics Still Useless

You may have heard about this bizarre story out of Texas this week, where a self-proclaimed psychic called police with a tip that a certain home was the site of a mass grave containing dozens of dismembered bodies, including the bodies of children. A swarm of reporters, FBI agents and Texas Rangers promptly converged on the address, bringing cameras, news helicopters and cadaver-sniffing dogs.

At first they found spots of blood on the porch, seemingly proving that the psychic tip-off was good as gold. But after obtaining a search warrant and examining the property in more detail, they found that the blood had a mundane explanation, and there were no bodies, no mass grave, and indeed no indication of any crime at all.

"With the assistance of various agencies out here at the scene," Captain Evans said, "we were able to search the premises after the arrival of a search warrant, and we have no indication that there are in fact any bodies located in the residence, the shed, or any property here at the scene."

(Some news agencies excitedly and mistakenly reported at first that bodies had been found, only to be forced to retract that claim subsequently.)

Are any of us surprised? Of course not, because as this story demonstrates further, all psychics are worthless frauds and con artists. Shame on the Texas police for not knowing that from the beginning and treating her "tip" as the useless hoax it was. How do they justify this colossal waste of time and resources chasing a wild claim from a posturing charlatan?

"Some of the information that was provided to us did specifically match information we found at the scene," Mr. Evans said.

Ah yes, of course. Because there was in fact a house at the location described by the tipster, that means that the wild claim of a mass grave was plausible? This reminds me of the Christian apologists who say that if the places described in the New Testament were real, that proves that Jesus really did walk on water and come back from the dead. You can't justify an extraordinary claim with merely ordinary evidence.

The obvious explanation for how the tipster was able to describe the house is that it's someone who knows the people who live there. That was in fact suggested by one of the homeowners, who believes the source was a mentally unstable neighbor with a vendetta against them. The Texas police say they plan to track down the tipster and charge her with filing a false police report, as they should, and I hope this embarrassment is an object lesson to them the next time some deluded person calls in with another wild story.

But the most comical part of it all is the "real" psychics claiming - wait for it - that this sort of thing makes them look bad!

"Oh my God, now we're all going to get a black eye," was Jacki Mari's first thought when she heard that a false tip from a psychic had led law enforcement officers on a fruitless search for a mass grave in East Texas on Tuesday night.

Ms. Mari, also known as Sherlockjackie, has, by her own reckoning, helped solve more than 400 murders and missing persons cases around the world -- all without leaving her office outside Chicago. Her own psychic powers -- she calls it "extrasensory intelligence" -- told her that the informant's tip was spurious, Ms. Mari said...

You'll also note that, once again, a credulous media has given a pretender unrebutted column space to claim they've "helped" in dozens of cases, without debunking this claim or even asking for follow-up details about which cases these were. The standard M.O. for psychics in a real police investigation is to provide dozens of tips, ranging from the absurdly specific but unverifiable to the uselessly vague ("The body will be found near water," "The body will be found near a church"), and then claiming that they "helped" if any of those statements turn out in retrospect to be true - even if many more of them are wrong, and even if the "psychic"'s advice played no role in actually helping the police find the body or catch the criminal. (Another classic example was the "remote viewing" company which wrongly claimed kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart was dead.)

When a psychic can provide a convincing demonstration of their powers in a controlled test, I'll believe there may be something to their claims. Until and unless that ever happens, the only reasonable conclusion is that psychics are all either self-deluded or deliberate fraudsters, and don't deserve to be taken seriously by the police or anyone else.

June 10, 2011, 12:22 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink37 comments

Swimming in a Sea of Pseudoscience

This past weekend, I was out at brunch when I saw a rack of free magazines in the restaurant's foyer. I picked out one of them, which as it turned out was a promotional brochure and schedule for something called the New Life Expo to be held in New York City this coming weekend.

I read on, and the further into it I got, the more appalled I was. If you thought that humanity was entering a new and enlightened age, this magazine will force you to reconsider. If you took your impressions of the human race from these pages, you'd have to conclude that we're barely keeping our heads above water in a sea of irrationality, one that freely blends religious mysticism and pseudoscientific gibberish alike. Every kind of nonsense that human beings have ever invented is bursting from these pages - and I don't doubt that this expo will attract legions of the duped, the gullible, and the woolly-headed to feed from the trough.

One of the recurring themes among presenters at the expo is 2012. They're all tremendously excited by the imminent arrival of this year, and they're certain, with the infallible certainty of all good apocalyptic prophets, that something momentous is going to happen. The amusing thing is that they don't agree about what it is. Among the possibilities touted are life-threatening catastrophes and pole shifts, the battle of Armageddon, the emergence of an Antichrist-led global tyranny, life-altering waves of light, the creation of glorified bodies by the Archangel Metatron, a great cosmic awakening, and more:

Some of the presenters at this event, I'm sure, are simple con artists who are cynically exploiting the gullible by learning the right buzzwords to stir into their word salad ("ascended", "enlightened", "indigo", "vibration", "natural", "angelic", "harmony", "dimension", "shamanic" and "consciousness" are perennial favorites). But it's the sincere ones that concern me more. At least some of these people are probably mentally ill, but they're not getting the help they need because they're surrounded by fellow-believers, creating an environment where psychiatric delusions are normalized and rewarded rather than recognized as symptoms. Here are two likely examples:

Like the demon-obsessed evangelicals who treat mental illness as an event of religious significance rather than a medical condition, New Agers are discouraging the genuinely sick from seeking help and treatment. Their endless doctrinal flexibility and limitless tolerance for the absurd are part of the reason for this. But I can't believe that no one among the organizers of this event noticed the symptoms or drew the obvious conclusion. It's more likely that they just see this as an additional source of income, whatever the consequences.

And money, of course, is a huge motive of the expo's organizers and presenters; they're not even shy about it. Ironically, some ads rail against the profit-driven corporatocracy and the greed of the mega-wealthy while hawking their own products and charging hundreds or thousands of dollars a pop for seminars and private consultations. Others promise that they can teach conference-goers the infallible way to acquire fabulous wealth for themselves, using the law of attraction, astrology, or whatever other fashionable nonsense is in vogue. Still others run the classic snake-oil salesman's game of enriching themselves by selling false hope to the desperate, promising good health with no effort or magical cures for incurable diseases. The cures on offer run the gamut: psychic powers, prayer, ionized water, "far infrared light" (a new one to me), fad diets, "detoxification", and classic scams like the Rife machine. One unintentionally hilarious ad apparently touts a raw-food diet as a means of healing gunshot wounds.

Most of the ads also display the credential inflation so common among pseudoscientists. Since most of their "specialties" require no knowledge and no certification, why not claim as many as you can? If one kind of bait doesn't hook a potential client, maybe another one will! In that vein, here's one who claims to be an MD as well as "an ordained rabbi in the Baal Shem Tov lineage, clan chief of the Lakota Spirit Dance, a Native American Sundancer, and a lineage holder in the Nityananda liberation tradition, and acknowledged as liberated by his two recognized enlightened spiritual teachers. He is an in-depth teacher in Advaita Vedanta, japa yoga, bhakti yoga, nada yoga, and karma yoga." (Busy fellow! - and he must be absolutely up to his eyeballs in student-loan debt.)

Like the Learning Annex, the organizers of the New Life Expo believe that appealing to the lowest common denominator is a can't-miss money-making strategy, and they're not wrong about that. For the most part, human beings are eager to be swindled, and lack the critical thinking skills needed to tell the difference between science and bullshit. I'd like to say that, unlike the theocratic believers organizing to take over the state, their brand of woo is harmless - but to people who let psychics make all their important life decisions, who rely on colonic cleanses rather than chemotherapy, or who encourage and enable psychotics and schizophrenics, it's not harmless at all.

March 18, 2011, 5:49 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink20 comments

How to Think Critically XI: The Null Hypothesis

So, you may have heard that Rhonda Byrne, author of The Secret, has a new book on the same subject, called The Power. Personally, I'm bewildered. Her first book promised to tell you how to get everything you've ever wanted. What possible room could there be for a sequel?

You might also have heard of the famous athletes who are wearing this bracelet, which, according to its makers, uses "processed titanium and holograms" which are "designed to interact with your body’s natural energy", improving balance, energy, recovery time and flexibility. Although the makers admit they haven't done any scientific studies, they allegedly have favorable testimonials by major athletes from Alex Rodriguez to Shaquille O'Neil - and hey, what more do you need than that?

I wonder if any believers in these products ever tried putting them to even a simple test. For instance, the authors of The Secret claim that reality is controlled by human willpower, and that you can use this effect to get yourself wealth and riches, a dream job, a trophy spouse, a house on the beach, a fleet of luxury sports cars, etc., etc. To judge if this is true, why not try it on a much simpler and more unambiguous outcome? Why not, for example, flip a coin and will it to come up heads twenty times in a row, or roll a pair of dice and command them with your mind to turn up seven every time? If the claims of The Secret are true, this should be easy to accomplish.

Or take these magical "hologram bracelets" - why wouldn't you try, for example, shooting a hundred baskets (or hitting a hundred pitches, or a hundred putts, etc.) with and then without the bracelet, and see if the outcomes are noticeably different? Although it wouldn't be a double-blind experiment, it would still be better than no testing at all.

What these stories show is that humans don't have an instinctive grasp of the null hypothesis: the basic assumption, which you should always make in the absence of specific evidence to the contrary, that the events you see are due to chance. The Secret (and its inexplicable sequel) teach you to wish for what you want and keep on wishing until something good happens - and then triumphantly concludes that your wishes control the functioning of the universe. And if you don't get what you want, the author leaves herself a convenient escape hatch: you did get what you wished for, you just unintentionally wished for something different than what you thought you wanted. The belief is structured so that nothing can convince its devotees of the existence of chance, no matter how tenuous the connections they must draw.

Failure to employ the null hypothesis causes belief in all kinds of pseudoscience and magic. There's another example from a non-Western culture, this one from Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained, a case study of the Zande people of Sudan by the British anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard. When a house in the village collapsed, the people promptly concluded that those who lived there must have had enemies who were powerful witches. Evans-Pritchard pointed out, in vain, that the house was infested with termites. As the Zande explained, they were perfectly aware that termites could weaken the structure of a house and cause it to collapse. What they wanted to know why was it collapsed at that particular moment, when some people were sitting under it and not others - and that fact, they could think of no other way to explain than by blaming it on witches who bore those people ill will [p.13].

And then there's this classic story, from James Randi's Flim-Flam!: Gerard Croiset, a Dutch "psychic",

attended a parapsychology seminar and competed with an East German "psychic". During the encounter, the German concentrated on withering a flower, while Croiset concentrated on saving it. The flower survived, and Croiset crowed victory, saying that his powers were stronger. [p.143]

If you start with your conclusion and go looking for correlations that can be interpreted to support it, you'll almost always find one if you look long and hard enough. The world is full of coincidences, and the human brain is extremely good at finding connections, regardless of whether they exist in reality or not. To avoid falling into this error, it's essential to begin with the hypothesis of random chance and no connection, and then definitively rule it out with a repeatable experiment.

Other posts in this series:

October 29, 2010, 6:55 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink42 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• It's about time! The SEC has charged a psychic with securities fraud for claiming to be able to supernaturally foretell the direction of the market.

• The staff of IslamOnline, a Cairo-based journalism website that offers a platform for liberal and reformist views, have gone on strike over plans by the Qatari owners to impose stricter editorial controls and force a more conservative viewpoint.

• I'm very glad to report that Ireland's government is now backtracking on the ludicrous blasphemy law it passed several months ago. The government plans to hold a referendum later this year on whether the law should be repealed. Now it's just up to the people of Ireland to do the right thing.

• Less positively, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld religious language in the Pledge of Allegiance, ruling against a new lawsuit brought by Michael Newdow, and reaching the ridiculous conclusion that "one nation under God" is not religious language. One of the judges who took part in the original decision (which Newdow won before his first case was thrown out by the Supreme Court for lack of standing) wrote a scathing dissent. Newdow plans to ask for an en banc rehearing.

• Also, there's a truly outstanding article by Johann Hari interviewing the Ethiopian women fighting back against bride abduction, the brutal practice of men finding wives by kidnapping and raping them (at which point, in agreement with biblical law, they're expected to marry their rapist - since they've been "ruined" and no other man will have them). In the shadow of a vicious dictatorship, there are heroic women, and men, fighting to change a culture where this is accepted and common.

March 20, 2010, 10:01 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

Run Your Car on Water! (No, Not Really)

The other day, I came across a pseudoscience site so laughably ridiculous I just had to share it:

(Warning: Page has sound.)

As the URL indicates, the unknown people behind this site are selling a kit which they claim will enable you to turn your car into a "water-burning hybrid" that can use ordinary tap water as a fuel source. I'll go over the mechanics of why this is impossible in a minute, but first, I want to call attention to this curious claim:

You can run your car on water, supplemental to gasoline, to increase your car's fuel efficiency and reduce your fuel costs significantly.

Supplemental to gasoline, not as a replacement for it. The site elsewhere claims that this technology allows you to save "over 40%" on fuel costs. Now, if you think about this, why would it be only 40%? Either water works as a fuel source or it doesn't, and if it does, then why can't you rely on it exclusively? Why can't you make a car that runs entirely on water and doesn't use any gas at all?

In any case, the site has an explanation of how this technology is claimed to work:

Our easy conversion guide will show you how to use electricity from your car's battery to separate water into a gas called HHO (2 Hydrogen + 1 Oxygen). HHO, also called Brown's Gas or Hydroxy, burns smoothly and provides significant energy - while the end product is just H2O!

Clearly, the proprietors of this site are banking on their readers not knowing the laws of thermodynamics. Yes, water can be electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen gas; and yes, those gases can be burned and will recombine into water. The inconvenient fact that this ad leaves out is that each step of this process necessarily involves a loss of energy. This technology "works" only in the same way as a businessman who loses money on every sale but thinks he can make up for it on volume.

The problem is that water, unlike natural gas or petroleum, is a highly stable compound. The chemical reaction that turns hydrogen and oxygen into water is said to be thermodynamically irreversible - that is, under natural conditions, it runs only in one direction. To put it another way, it takes more energy to break water into its component elements than you get by putting those elements back together. You certainly can use an external source of energy, such as a car battery, to break water down into hydrogen and oxygen; but the process of burning those gases will inevitably release less energy than it took to break the water down in the first place. Therefore, if this technology operates as described, it not only will not increase the mileage of your car, it will actually decrease it!

The description quoted above - "use electricity... to separate water" into Brown's Gas, and then burning the Brown's Gas, which "provides significant energy" - sounds suspiciously like a perpetual motion machine. Another excerpt confirms that that is what this site is claiming:

Your car will become at least 40% more fuel efficient...

The only way this could make your car more fuel efficient is if burning the Brown's Gas produced more energy than it takes to extract it from water, and if that were the case, this cycle could be repeated indefinitely. If this technology worked as its vendors claim, it would produce unlimited energy for free. Anyone who chooses to believe that this is possible is joining the long line of perpetual-motion devotees who've bet against the first law of thermodynamics. And, as noted physicist and skeptic Robert Park points out in his book Voodoo Science, no one has ever won that wager.

That said, there is a plausible, non-crackpot scheme for using water as a fuel. That technology is called nuclear fusion. With a working fusion reactor, such as the one the ITER consortium is currently building, it's theoretically possible to extract hydrogen from water and then, under extremely high temperatures, fuse that hydrogen into helium. But this, too, is a thermodynamically irreversible reaction, and more importantly, it's a nuclear reaction. It in no way resembles the crackpot pseudoscience of splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen, then recombining those gases into water and somehow ending up with more energy than you started with.

August 16, 2008, 11:37 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink37 comments

A Critique of the Learning Annex

The Learning Annex is a privately owned continuing-education school in New York. As a resident of New York City, I can testify to its success - its kiosks of free course catalogs are on nearly every street corner in Manhattan. It was founded in 1980 by Bill Zanker, who sold the company in 1991 and then repurchased it and resumed ownership in 2002. The 2007 Inc. 500, a list of the nation's fastest-growing private companies, ranked the Learning Annex at number 346 and said that it makes over $100 million in revenue in each year.

Learning Annex catalog

On my lunch break last week, I picked up a Learning Annex catalog and flipped through it. Some of its offered courses are about professional software, how to found a small business, how to interview for a job, or other serious topics. Others are about dating, diet, or other self-help topics. But a great many of them are straight-up pseudoscience. A large number of Learning Annex classes promise to teach students how to develop their psychic powers, how to get rich or find the perfect spouse using the "Law of Attraction" (the Law of Attraction is a very popular course topic), how to communicate with dead relatives, how to "reverse the aging process", how to heal using qi gong, how to improve your life with neurolinguistic programming (for the jaw-dropping price of $2500), and many more.

As a private business, the Learning Annex profits by people signing up to take its courses, so they have little reason to turn away anyone who offers to teach a class. This no doubt accounts for much of the bottom-feeding superstition in these pages. There are many self-deluded people who are eager to share their credulity with the world, and of course it's much easier to claim to be a teacher of psychic powers than to be a teacher of Photoshop. One requires actual skill and education, while the other thrives on a lack of any discernible qualifications or results. The mantle of "psychic teacher" can be worn by any charlatan; if they've published a book or run a website, so much the better.

But it goes far beyond that. The Learning Annex, far from passively putting up with these miracle-mongers, actively works to promote them and boasts about their presence. The first page of its catalogue, as well as a later full-page ad, prominently advertises a webcast by noted psychic failure and free-speech enemy Sylvia Browne. The Browne webcast is presented as a tie-in for the launch of their own new pseudoscience-themed site,, whose index page is a gleeful mishmash of astrology, angels, psychics and feng shui. The back page of the catalogue, meanwhile, advertises a course taught by TV psychic Char Margolis.

Learning Annex catalog

Purely on an economic level, it's hard to fault the Learning Annex. No doubt they, like much of the media, have found that peddling pseudoscience is a great way to rake in the bucks. Marketing to skeptics is an endeavor that some might say suffers from an intrinsic contradiction. But the credulous are huge in number and eager to be exploited.

But the problem with pandering to superstition is that, inevitably, it degrades one's seriousness and credibility. The more this nonsense infects its pages, the more the Learning Annex will lose what real educators it has. After all, if you're a genuine, credible expert on some important topic, why make yourself a laughingstock by sharing space with fly-by-night psychics, people who talk to angels, and hawkers of the latest get-rich-quick scams? Pseudoscience, like water, seeks its own level. Before long, if they continue at this pace, this is all the Learning Annex will have left - just one more outlet for every brand of nonsense our society has to offer.

Every educational institution has to confront the fact, at some point, that real teaching is a difficult, expensive business. It's certainly possible to succeed doing it legitimately, but the temptation will always be there to lower the standards, throw open the gates, and make the easy money from people who flock to have their superstitions catered to and their prejudices reinforced. "What's the harm?" is the usual rationalization - a rhetorical question which can be answered by noting that the harm, though subtle at first, is very real indeed. It consists in sending the message that pseudoscience is a legitimate area of study, worthy of being put on a par with genuine science. Inevitably, science suffers from that equation.

May 7, 2008, 8:50 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink21 comments

The Cure for Cancer! (Cure Not Included)

The other day, I received a jaw-dropping piece of spam e-mail:

The Detox Box

The Detox Box is a remarkable device that uses frequencies to destroy toxins in the body. It's similar to how a singer can hit a note and shatter a wine glass.

According to the e-mail, this marvelous machine is based on the ideas of one Dr. Royal Rife, who lived in the 1930s and claimed to have developed the world's first "virus microscope". (It is physically impossible to resolve the average virus with a light microscope, since the size of a typical virus is smaller than the wavelength of visible light. This gives the reader a good idea of the quality of evidence supporting Rife's claims.) Rife then went on to invent a "beam ray" device which, he said, could cure cancer and other diseases using the principles outlined below.

Rife was able to observe the frequency at which viruses and bacteria vibrated... When increasing the intensity of the frequency at which they vibrated, its natural oscillation also increases, causing it to disintegrate from the structural stresses and break just like the wine glass did. Rife named this intensified frequency the mortal oscillatory rate, or "MOR". He discovered that every microorganism has its own frequency and can be destroyed by intensifying this frequency until it explodes. Rife invented a frequency machine (now known as a Rife machine), the forerunner of today's "Detox Box" instrument.

As is usual for pseudoscience, the companion website gives a large number of unsubstantiated, anecdotal testimonials and is generously larded with fear-mongering "facts" about how modern medicine is poisoning us all. Thankfully, the "Detox Box" can purge one's body of these toxins. (Any substance or organism that causes people harm is lumped together under the heading of "toxins", which is also standard practice for alternative medicine.) Apparently, all one needs to do to use this treatment is to hold two stainless steel cylinders (shades of Scientology's E-meter) or apply electrode pads to the skin to let the healing frequencies flow through the body.

Also as usual, the principles being advocated have only a superficial resemblance to actual science. First of all, some of the "toxins" the website lists are arsenic and lead. How is the "Detox Box" supposed to help with this? Arsenic and lead are atomic elements. They are not compounds that can be "shattered" by any kind of destructive resonance, unless this product is claiming to produce nuclear fission inside the body, in which case the user has bigger problems.

And though it scarcely needs saying, viruses and bacteria are not wine glasses. Resonance of the type that shatters glass can only occur in a uniform substance with nothing to damp out vibrations, so that every part of the object vibrates at the same frequency and there is nothing to absorb or cushion the vibrational energy. This will not happen with a bacterium, or any other complex object with many different component parts. And even this effect only occurs with sound waves, not electromagnetic energy as this quack device provides.

So, how much are the proprietors asking for this dubious panacea?

The professional price is $1495, which is a $500 savings off the regular price of $1995.

That was where this e-mail ceased to be amusing. Taking advantage of the sick and the desperate by selling quack machines at outrageous prices is no longer a harmless deception, it is an act of evil. People have died after forsaking evidence-based medicine in favor of Rife machines to treat cancer and other lethal illnesses. The attorneys general of several states have won injunctions against operators of these machines for making fraudulent claims about their efficacy.

Although I don't anticipate swift results, I'm going to bring this site to the attention of the FDA. If experience is any guide, it's likely that it will fold on its own before any action is taken. I only hope that no one else is hurt or dies needlessly before that happens.

October 15, 2007, 5:00 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink51 comments

Popular Delusions VI: Homeopathy

Before the advent of evidence-based medicine, a huge variety of quack nostrums and dubious cures flourished. Many of these have faded away with time - and in cases like radioactive water, this was almost certainly for the best. However, some superstitious treatments that predate scientific medicine are still being used today. One of the most prominent is homeopathy.

Invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the early 1800s, homeopathy claims that "like cures like": a substance that produces symptoms of disease in a healthy person will cure those same symptoms in a sick person. (By this principle, one would assume that the homeopathic cure for a person who has been shot is to shoot him again.)

However, it's not as simple as just administering these substances to the sick person. Instead, they must be successively diluted - adding one part remedy to nine parts water, mixing, adding one part of the resulting solution to nine parts water, and so on - repeating this process many times until, by our subsequently acquired understanding of atoms and molecules, there is not even one molecule of the original substance left. Not to worry, though, because homeopaths claim that the water "remembers" what used to be dissolved in it, so that the process of dilution actually increases rather than decreases the remedy's effectiveness. (Incidentally, homeopathy also claims that that all illness comes from internally originating "derangement of the vital force's normal harmonious vibratory frequency", and that the "vibrational pattern" of the remedy is what gets the body back into shape.)

There is absolutely no rational basis by which this could work. Everything we have learned in the last two hundred years about how the world works rules this out, and if homeopathy could be shown to have significant curative effects, then practically everything we thought we knew about the laws of physics and the human body would have to be thrown out. However, there is no such effect. Large, well-designed studies routinely find that homeopathy is useless. Skeptico, for example, links to a Lancet review of 110 clinical trials which concluded that homeopathy does no more good than a placebo.

I don't know for certain how Hahnemann came up with the idea of homeopathy, but based on how it's claimed to work, I think I can offer a plausible speculation. Here's what probably happened:

Searching for a new method of curing diseases, Hahnemann at first guessed that a toxic substance which produced symptoms in a healthy person would cure a disease with those same symptoms in a sick person. This approach did not work, and naturally it had terrible side effects. In a bid to remove these side effects while keeping the presumed curative effects, he tried a variety of experiments. One of these experiments entailed successively greater dilutions of these substances. Unbeknownst to him, he had actually diluted his formulas to the point where none of the active ingredient was left. (Avogadro's work on molarity and molecules was not published until over fifty years later.) But when he administered the result to patients, they showed improvement without showing any of the harmful side effects.

Knowing what we now know, it is obvious why this worked. The side effects ceased because none of the harmful substance was left. The improvement occurred because of his patients' belief in the treatment, the same improvement that often occurs in people receiving care that they believe will help them. In other words, what Hahnemann actually discovered was the placebo effect. Believing he was on to something, he never compared the effectiveness of his "potentized" solutions of water against doses of ordinary water not prepared using any special method at all, which would have shown him his error.

Nevertheless, homeopathic medicine was a hit, and it is easy to see why. In Hahnemann's era, the scientific approach to medicine was rudimentary at best. Treatments were based on old, discredited superstitions such as the theory of the four bodily humors, and many of them, such as bloodletting, were actively harmful. Compared to these, Hahnemann's approach was an improvement because it simply did nothing, allowing the body's natural recuperative powers to work without interference.

Of course, we now have far more effective treatments that do not cause unnecessary harm, so there is no longer any good reason to rely on homeopathic medicine. And in any case, the idea that water "remembers" what substances it has come in contact with was absurd from the beginning. It is a particularly silly bit of magical thinking, and the logical gaps in the idea should have been obvious even in Hahnemann's day.

For example, during the process of preparation, how does the water "know" which substance it is supposed to concentrate? In addition to whatever the homeopath chooses to add to it, any reasonable volume of water, no matter how pure or filtered, is bound to contain at least minute quantities of all kinds of toxins and contaminants - bacterial proteins, viruses, insect secretions, human and animal skin cells, heavy metals, natural radionuclides, pesticides, fertilizers, arsenic, asbestos, industrial byproducts, and so on. (See this list from the EPA). Are we to believe that water can somehow tell the difference between the one remedy the homeopath adds to it and all the other dissolved molecules it contains, and selectively amplifies only the former?

On the other hand, what if the homeopathic preparation of water does indeed amplify the curative properties of every substance dissolved in it? In that case, the probability is very good that any reasonably sized body of water will naturally have come in contact with some or all of homeopathy's chosen remedies at some point in the past. By homeopathic principles, the more dilute the remedy, the more concentrated its curative effect. Therefore, it follows that any glass of water must be a homeopathic panacea, already containing an extremely dilute and therefore highly effective version of any "remedy" one would care to name. It seems pointless, therefore, for homeopaths to waste their time and money stocking medicine cabinets with specially prepared remedies for different types of disease. Whenever they feel ill, all they should have to do is drink a glass of tap water, and they should be cured of whatever afflicts them. But this would not generate much revenue for homeopathic practitioners, so it is probably not surprising that they do not talk about this.

Other posts in this series:

June 30, 2007, 2:19 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink21 comments

A Daylight Atheism Consumer Warning

Consumers, be advised! When you want to know the future or ward off bad fortune through the invocation of magical power, don't trust just any fake dime-store psychic. Be sure to choose only the best fake psychics for all your supernatural needs.

Such is the message of a bulletin issued recently by the United Kingdom's official consumer-protection agency:

The UK's Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has warned consumers not to fall for scams perpetrated by bogus clairvoyants, fortune tellers and healers.

Fake psychics had been mailing UK households saying "something bad" would happen to them if they did not buy a lucky charm or send money, the consumer protection agency said this week.

I have called before for consumer-protection groups to take action against individuals making extravagant and unproven supernatural claims, and this cannot help but be a step in the right direction. However, I fail to see why the Office of Fair Trading took action against only this psychic scam and not others. The only important difference between these psychic claimants and the other, more prominent ones is the directness with which they promise magical help in exchange for money.

Is it that these scams seem to be threatening consumers, whereas the so-called "genuine" psychics never stoop to such explicitly extortionate tactics? But how could that be? Everyone experiences both good and bad fortune in their lives, and a genuine psychic would surely be able to foretell both and tell customers how to avert the latter. If the more prominent media psychics never warn people about threats to come, surely that must mean that they are also scammers. They're merely running the opposite scam: telling people what they want to hear for money, as opposed to telling people what they don't want to hear and then demanding money to nullify their own prediction.

In fact, the OFT appears to take action against garden-variety scammers doing this very thing:

Others had offered Money Creating Scarabs of the Pharos (sic) and Parchments of the Sacred Olive Branch, claiming to bring good fortune, the OFT said.

Again, if this is illegitimate, why are the more prominent psychics and mediums who do very much the same thing not subject to liability?

But the most ironic part of the article must surely be the following:

Den Jones, a spokesman for the Spiritualists' National Union, the largest organization of healers and mediums in the U.K., said consumers shouldn't respond to mass mailings.

"If one is looking for a spiritualist healer or medium, there are qualified ones and unqualified ones," he said. People wishing to use one should only go to people certified by his organization, he said.

For the record, here is how to become a member of the Spiritualists' National Union. The major hurdles, apparently, are twofold: gaining the sponsorship of two existing members, and paying an annual application fee.

The procedure is that the appropriate application form is completed and returned by the applicant with the appropriate remittance to the Union's Head Office: if it is received in correct form, i.e. correctly sponsored and the correct amount of subscription and joining fee enclosed, the applicant will be accepted immediately into provisional Class B membership for a period of twelve months...

Notably absent on that page is any mention of actual testing or examination to see if the applicant possesses any genuine psychic power as a precondition of membership. If customers go to a psychic claimant who is a member of the Spiritualists' National Union, the only thing they are assured of is that they are consulting a person who has paid his membership dues to the Spiritualists' National Union. There is no formal test whatsoever to ensure that the applicant has any psychic abilities at all. The SNU does claim to conduct tests on its members, but it makes it plain that these are strictly voluntary and carry no penalties for failure:

One important facility which the Union offers to members is the provision of an educational scheme which provides courses in the various aspects of the movement: it conducts examinations for those who wish them and makes awards to successful candidates.

Of course, if this organization were to establish an actual test of competence for membership, one that ruled out the possibilities of subjectivity and fraud, there would almost certainly be no members left. The fact that James Randi's million-dollar prize has gone unclaimed for years is good evidence for that.

* * *

In other news, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab is closing its doors after 30 years of operation. Set up to study claims of human psychic ability, the lab's major (in fact only, as far as I know) experiment consisted of having volunteers stare at a random number generator and try to alter its output through willpower alone. The results? After three decades, the lab's director claims, his data shows a deviation from pure randomness by 2 or 3 parts out of 10,000. In other words, the PEAR lab claims to have shown that, in a run of 10,000 coin flips, participants can on average produce 2.5 more heads than would be expected by chance alone. How many millions of dollars have gone into producing this result?

As Robert Park has written, one of the sure signs of pseudoscience is an effect that can be found only at the very limits of detection, hovering at the boundary where results fade into statistical noise, and cannot be amplified. This is just what we would expect from a self-deceived scientist misinterpreting occasional fluctuations in randomness as data, which is almost certainly what has happened here. The PEAR lab has had more than enough time to produce a genuine result, and they have failed to do so. It's about time that they close down so that those resources can be redirected to areas of real importance where there are actual discoveries waiting to be made.

February 19, 2007, 11:06 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink10 comments

The 40th Skeptics' Circle

The doors of the Observatory are closed, and an eager crowd has gathered before them, milling about anxiously to await the unveiling of the newest Skeptics' Circle. Your host, Ebonmuse, steps up to a podium beside the doors and addresses the crowd thusly:

"Step right up, folks, to the Daylight Atheism Museum of Superstition and Pseudoscience! Dare to plumb the most bizarre depths of the human imagination! Marvel at the fascinating beliefs cultures throughout history have dreamed up to explain the world around them! We have a stupendous and spine-tingling assortment of strange and wild ideas for your edification and amusement. You'll laugh at their gullibility, you'll learn from their mistakes, and just maybe, you'll learn something about how your own brain works. Admission two for a penny - who'll be first to dare the weirdness within?"

He sweeps a hand dramatically toward the doors, which open onto a wild scene. The great telescope has been stowed away, and the vast domed room instead contains a madcap menagerie of trophies and exhibits that showcase the follies of humanity throughout history. Beneath the high ceiling, an elaborate orrery contains detailed models of the planets of the solar system encased in a set of interlocking crystalline Platonic solids. Animals crowd the decks of a scale model of Noah's Ark at the far end of the room, and putative Philosophers' Stones are scattered on pedestals, misshapen lumps some of which glow with their own inner light. Ancient statues of minotaurs, centaurs, mermaids and other fantastic beasts glare down on the exhibits in frozen stone.

Your host leads the tour group into the museum. "First, we have the Alternative Medicine wing - a durable field that's spawned all sorts of strange ideas. Just look at this authentic ancient Chinese acupuncture needle. Taking a cue from a classic pseudoscience, modern practitioners believe that sticking needles into people, and even into animals, can cure diseases by diverting the flow of an imaginary energy called qi! Skeptico sets them straight, in an essay titled No point to acupuncture on animals."

The next exhibit is a collection of hypodermic needles. "So like the acupuncture needle and yet so dissimilar, this one differs from the last exhibit in that it has actually cured people of suffering and disease. Sadly, some people reject the benefits of modern medicine in favor of ineffective quackery. Autism Street, in An Old New Twist on Undead Bad Science?, debunks a study claiming to detect correlation between autism and heavy metal levels in children's hair."

The tour's next stop is before an apparently empty glass case. "This case may seem empty, folks, but in fact, it contains the scientific integrity of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. They weren't using it, you see, so they've generously agreed to donate it as a permanent bequest to our museum. P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula gives us the full story in Damn the NCCAM."

Before a flourishing tray of deadly nightshade, poison ivy and hemlock, Ebonmuse continues, "And let's not forget, folks, that 'natural' medicine has been held out for ages as the cure to all ailments, as if the products of nature were somehow intrinsically better for you than the products of science. The Saga of Runolfr casts a critical eye on claims that consuming raw honey will cure pollen allergies, in The Cure for Allergies? And for a classic example of how 'natural' products can still be harmful, what could be more natural than HIV? A Moment of Science, in Skepticism Run Amok, an Appropriate Level of Skepticism in Evaluating HIV/AIDS Causation, asks why, if HIV does not cause AIDS, anti-retroviral drugs developed specifically to combat HIV are effective in extending AIDS patients' lifespans.

Our next exhibit, as you can see, is a single glass of ultra-pure distilled water. If the claims of homeopaths were correct, this would be the most powerful medicine known to man! The Two Percent Company informs us of the remarkable range of ailments that homeopaths claim to be able to treat with a single herb, in You Might Need Arnica Montana.

And finally, we have this table of assorted old-fashioned medical instruments - best not to ask what most of them do. The skeptical grandmaster Orac of Respectful Insolence is never one to shrink from the details, however, and gives us not one but two Friday Doses of Woo: Mere regularity is not enough and the appetizingly titled Would you like a liver flush with that colon cleanse?

Our next stop is the Psychics and ESP wing, another reliable source of uncritical thinking. The Island of Doubt, in The sense of being stared at ...not, registers disappointment that his alma mater, the University of British Columbia, is giving a platform to the notorious credulophile Rupert Sheldrake and his claims that people can psychically detect when they're being stared at.

Next, Skeptico again favors us in Medium guesses about serial killer, pouring rightful scorn on the vagueness and after-the-fact rationalizations of Allison Dubois.

And lastly, See You at Enceladus spins a tale of The Beirut Syndrome or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Credulity, about psychics who claim to have predicted the current warfare in Lebanon."

Beneath a gallery of faded and tattered documents, Ebonmuse continues, "History is the noble art of unearthing the past. Yet this genuine science, too, attracts the hoary speculations of the gullible. What we need is some skepticism to root them out, and thanks to several generous donations to this museum, we have it! The Second Sight, in Giant UFO Built Yowie Pyramids of Bullshit, offers sharp criticism of the true believers who are convinced of the existence of ancient contacts between pharaonic Egypt and aboriginal Australia; while Be Lambic or Green throws down the gauntlet against claims that Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci were the first Europeans to catch sight of the New World, in Rediscovering America."

As the tour takes another turn, the parchments and scrolls on display grow more ancient and venerable, and the sound of distant chanting echoes in the air. "That's right, ladies and gentlemen," your host announces, "we've come to that most sacred of all cows: religion. In Render unto Caesar [nothing], Infophilia analyzes the meaning of the biblical verse 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto God what is God's,' concluding that it does not necessarily mean what it has always been construed to mean.

We also have an exhibit courtesy of Debunking Christianity that is titled Which Part Fits in Which Slot, Again?, remarking on the difference between natural events and miracles and the inconsistency with which Christian apologists invoke both categories. In a related vein, The Philosophy of the Socratic Gadfly asks whether 'ineffable' is a meaningful and useful term to use in arguments over the existence of God.

Atheist author Sam Harris has been making waves with his book The End of Faith, reviewed by Fearless Philosophy for Free Minds."

The last stop in this section, incongruously, showcases a Bible next to a vacuum cleaner. "But the comparison is more apt than you might think, as Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant explains in Jesus' Lubricant, which compares religious proselytizers to salesmen who steer every conversation into a pitch for their product.

After all this credulity, you must be hungry for some real science, my fellow skeptics. Luckily for you, we have exhibits on that too." He points upward, to where several smaller, less regular bodies orbit among the planetary models hanging below the ceiling. "What constitutes a planet? Interesting Thing of the Day gives a skeptical viewpoint in Xena: Troublemaker on the edge of the solar system.

In that vein, Humbug Online reenacts the Moon landing in the conspiracy theorists' preferred style, in Spooked911 Moon landing faked!

While we're on the topic, I'm particularly honored by the presence of our next benefactor: the illustrious Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy Blog. In Bad TV on the Science Channel: The Apollo 11 "UFO", the foe of bad astronomy everywhere mercilessly debunks a credulous and dishonest documentary which asserts that the Apollo 11 astronauts witnessed a UFO.

And isn't our Earth one planet among many? Deltoid and Thoughts from Kansas keep us up-to-date with the goings-on of this blue and green orb - with a refutation of the myth that environmentalists caused needless deaths by unconditionally opposing the use of DDT, in Zombie DDT Myth Will Not Die, and some good news for science from a recent slate of elections, in Final tallies: Science wins in Kansas.

A major part of science is critical thinking. In Doggerel #30: "You Need to Think Outside the Box!", Rockstar's Ramblings rants about claims that skeptics don't "think outside the box", pointing out that true believers are actually the ones whose thoughts are limited by their jumping to magic as the first explanation for everything.

And when it comes to understanding science," your host continues, "nothing is more important than educating the younger generation. Agnostic Mom has an account of one mother's plan to do just that, in An Accurate Guess Is Still Just A Guess."

As the tour nears its end, the tour group passes through a set of doors into a back room. "We have a special treat for you all today, one not open to ordinary visitors - a tour of our archived collections, the interesting material that just didn't fit anywhere else. For example, Salto Sobrius has donated an exhibit on the skeptical leanings of a classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy author, in Fritz Leiber, Skeptic.

And then there's Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, who debunks the religious mythology that has grown up around flag-folding ceremonies, in Flag ceremony update.

And last but not least, Unintelligent Design laments the credulous leanings of Alton Brown, host of the Food Network TV show "Good Eats", in Alton Say It Ain't So!"

Following a sign reading "This Way to the Egress", the tour lets out before the museum's front doors. Ebonmuse addresses the group one final time. "Thank you for attending, fellow skeptics and critical thinkers! It's been my honor to play host to you all, and I'd like to extend my special gratitude to the many excellent bloggers who generously contributed to this exhibit. Don't forget, the next Skeptics' Circle will appear at Interverbal in two weeks, so get those submissions in!"

August 3, 2006, 8:28 pm • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink52 comments

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