Monday, January 25, 2010

Nonsense Intolerance cont.

As I’ve stated before I have a pretty low tolerance for nonsense masquerading as science. Well last Thursday I hit DEFCON 4.
On the way home from work I stopped by the library to pick up a few books that I had on hold. I also noticed that Victoria had a few on the shelf too. So I picked them up. One of them was a DVD titled simply “Brain”. The cover looked like a National Geographic type program. It looked interesting. I even had a pleasant conversation the librarian about how interesting it looked. After dinner Victoria suggested that we sit down as a family and watch it.
It started off just fine. Slick computer graphics showed cutaways of the brain. They then moved over to interview scientists who were doing research on that particular part. The format kind of reminded me of the Universe series that we really love. So the format felt comfortable. The first half hour of the program was just fine. I take issue with a little bit of the ethics of using this type of brain science to improve combat forces but the science was well done. Then it took a turn off the deep end.
The last half hour was about ESP. They extensively interviewed the unremarkable cold-reader, John Edward and explored his so-called psychic ability as if it was a foregone conclusion. That’s when I really blew my top. The first step to investigating any phenomena is to see it the phenomena really exists. You don’t speculate as to how something works until you’ve determined that it works. But that is exactly what Dr. Dean Radin did. And they gave him the last ten minutes of the show to spout his nonsense.
I completely lost it during one scene. Radin had speculated that during one of his readings Edward’s heart rate would synchronize with his subjects. When he tested it and found that their heart rates did not synchronize he interpreted this clear defeat by claiming that he must be syncing with the person who had passed on. Unbelievable! His test failed completely and he interprets the results as a success. But not just any success, a success that is unfalsifiable. How in the world could we test to see if Edward is syncing with a person who has crossed over? Radin has obviously convinced himself that psychic phenomena is real and all of his results, positive or negative are interpreted to support that forgone conclusion. The kids were laughing at me by this point. I was not reserving any comment and they thought it was funny that I was yelling at the TV. “You do know that they can’t really hear you, don’t you, Dad?”
I was patiently waiting for the token skeptical response. They had it. It was about a 15 second shot of the cover of Skeptical Inquirer with overdubbing that said little more than some in the scientific community question Dr. Radin’s research. That's it? Something as controversial as psychics and you can only spare 15 seconds and one still graphic.
After the program was over Victoria noticed that the program was produced by the History channel. If there is a more inappropriately named TV channel I can’t think of it. A close second it ABC Family. What in the world does a program on ESP have to do with History? But this is the same station that has marathons on UFO stories, etc.
So afterword I took advantage of the teaching moment to talk to the kids about what psychics really do. I showed them a few videos of psychics being tragically wrong and having no remorse about the consequences of their wild guesses. I then took out a deck of cards and showed them how I could steer the kids into picking the card I had chosen and making them think that they had chosen it. I then showed them a video of Dr. Richard Wiseman doing a psychic prediction and explained to them exactly how it works.
Hey I’d think it was really cool if ESP really existed. But it’ll take more than these con artists and their carefully selected rubes to prove it to me. Shame on the History channel for giving an once of credibility to these con artists and pretending that there is any scientific validity to ESP.


  1. The History Channel. Ugh. That's too bad. Could be such a great network. I don't see how anyone can take J.E. seriously. Even Shatner busted him on his "Raw Nerve" show. Told him he was a fraud and was practicing woo-woo. Awesome to see.

  2. He's not even a good cold-reader. Max Maven is much better. In a video that was chosen by a believer as a good example of his work, he only got 3 out twenty correct. and those were vague or easy to guess hits.

  3. Well, even this not so scientific movie gave you a good opportunity for the kids to see how you felt and to back it up with some verifiable data.

  4. Eh. You can't trust documentary titles. They're so misleading.