“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)

ONE MAN

While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationist’s substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the Sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth, and will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a Flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.

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“It was a dark and stormy day” (Eclipse fears)

LOCK

Eclipses initially inspired fear, but today we understand the mechanics behind them, so they inspire, um, well, I guess it’s still fear. At least among some groups. And I’m not referring to the science enthusiasts who are fretting that an all-day road trip may turn into nothing more than a cloud viewing.

First, the basics for any second graders or Flat Earthers who have stumbled onto the blog: A total solar eclipse happens when the moon is close enough to Earth and it simultaneously crosses the path of the sun. This results in the moon blotting out the sun for a few minutes and a shadow being cast on part of Earth’s surface.

For a competing hypothesis, we leave the astronomy book and head to a Flat Earth group active in Colorado, headed by Bob Knodel. This bunch was profiled last month by the Denver Post, and the article related this exchange between Knodel and his underling:

“How are we Flat Earthers supposed to explain to our friends the solar eclipse in August,” asked one attendee. The room fell silent. “We’ll have to do more research and get back to you on that,” Knodel replied.

While awaiting his further investigation, let’s look at a few other ways the approaching eclipse may have been handled by other Flat Earthers. I say ‘may’ because, while I consider my Poe-meter finely tuned, it does get tough with these guys.

Now, being a Flat Earther normally requires more than thinking our planet is a plane instead of a sphere. The belief sets up a series of ad hoc rationalizations. For example, the planet being dark and light simultaneously would be impossible on a flat Earth, so an idea was invented that the sun and moon do a continuous loop over Earth and remain a fixed distance away from each other.

This, in turn, requires embracing geocentrism and a stationary planet. This supposed static loop of Earth’s star and satellite, however, would make an eclipse impossible. Rather than admit this, Knodel and his ilk are engaged in unspecified further research. And while this research has yielded no explanation of what is blocking the sun if not the moon, Flat Earth proponents are still using the celestial event to try and bolster their cause.

For example, they argue that an object’s shadow can never be smaller than the object itself.  They will use a ball and flashlight and point out the resulting shadow on the wall is larger than the ball.

This demonstrates why the Scientific Method embraces peer review and not self-produced videos. Mic.com quoted physics professor Will Kinney, who noted that treating the sun and a small flashlight as similar is the mistake here. While a flashlight sends out a narrow, concentrated beam, the massive sun sends broad light to all parts of the solar system.

Per the article, “Because of the sun and moon’s size and distance, they look like they’re the same size, but they’re not. You could re-create the solar eclipse at home, but not like it’s being done on YouTube videos. What you need is an extended light source that is at such a distance that it’s almost exactly the same apparent size as the thing you’re blocking it with.”

Beyond that, the only points I could find ascribed to Flat Earthers were probably Poes. A Reddit user described the upcoming eclipse as “maintenance downtime of the sun/moon hologram, which will get a firmware upgrade.”

Another argued that the moon is 400 times larger than the sun, so that’s why the latter’s light is being eclipsed. This was dismissed by Flat Earthers as trolling, not because of the complete lack of evidence for it – Flat Earthers are fine with such distinctions – but because it contradicts the Flat Earth model where the sun and moon are about the same size and always the same distance apart.

From here, we will move onto those who think the eclipse is real, but feel it entails more than an explicable celestial event.

We will begin with educateinspirechange.org, which embraces the most ubiquitous of the pseudoscientific approaches, the misuse of the word ‘energy.’ It managed to get that word in a dozen times during its essay on the eclipse. Here’s a sample: “As the Total Solar Eclipse gets closer, energies are rising more rapidly than ever. In the last few weeks, have you noticed people acting abnormal, like a person who is normally chilled out becoming anxious? This is because of the energy making its way to us.”

This is, of course, selective memory. In reality, some people act out of character during times of unremarkable celestial body positioning and others act normal during an eclipse. Still others bind together unrelated items and top them with a bow of post hoc reasoning.

Continuing, our anonymous author writes, “During this total solar eclipse, you will be engulfed much more intensely by the glittering streams of magical light beaming around the moon. I cannot explain with words how intense and magical this energy to come is.”

His stated inability to explain it with words doesn’t stop him from trying. Here are the results of those efforts: “The sun represents focus, self-expression, and is aggressive while the moon is something we use as a means of really putting our goals within reach. The total solar eclipse is a way for us to provoke external changes. It forces us into taking the route we have to in order to reach where we need to be.” That part could be seen as true, as some astronomy geeks are planning a route so they can see the eclipse in its totality.

Next, our writer “strongly suggests focusing on the moon’s energy and using your Labrodite crystals to get things going and provide you with a protective vibration.” He has no specific advice for those whose Labrodite crystal supplies are low, or who lack any vibrating protections. But he closes a mostly foreboding discourse by encouraging us to “not be afraid of what is to come.” Now there’s some advice of his that I can take.

Not all worry is about what will be overhead. In South Carolina, there have been concerns about what creatures the eclipse may unleash.  The state’s Emergency Management Division tweeted a map of where eyewitnesses over the years have said they have spotted lizard people. The agency warned, “We do not know if lizard men become more active during a solar eclipse, but we advise residents to remain ever vigilant.” This increased awareness seems to be working, as no reptilians have been spotted this week in Myrtle Beach.

Meanwhile, sciencealert.com reports there is angst about the eclipse being the  precursor of a collision with Nibiru. The gist of Nibiru beliefs is that this rouge planet will eventually either collide with Earth or throw it off its axis. Either way, Earthlings are hosed. This makes for a supple belief, as its ominous nature fits in nicely with awe-inspiring phenomenon, but its inevitability enables it to work when nothing special is going on.

Most often, though, it is when something noteworthy is happening skyward that Nibiru believers get excited – about our impending doom. The Hale-Bopp Comet’s initial appearance, in fact, was the genesis of the notion that a runway giant planet is coming to get us. Nancy Lieder predicted that Nibiru would annihilate Earth in 2003, which then became 2012, which then became she won’t say because it would cause panic, a justification whose lameness is only topped by its arrogance.

It is understandable why the ancients ascribed natural disasters and phenomenon to gods and goddesses. Lightning bolts being Zeus hurling a spear, wind being a bellowing giant’s breath, a tempest being an upset Neptune, got it. Similarly, it’s easy to see why an unexplained blotting of the sun would freak people out. But unexplained does not mean it was inexplicable, and astronomers eventually figured it out. Which is what makes Ann Graham Lotz’s take on the eclipse so pitiful.

Despite our complete understanding of what is happening and why, Lotz is determined to put a Bronze Age spin on it, punctuated by self-congratulation and self-righteousness. She quotes Joel 2:31, which reads, “The sun will be turned to darkness before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” She cites this scripture without explaining why the eclipses that have come along since the verse was written have been free of Earth-changing calamity.

Lotz wrote that when reading this passage, “I knew with hair-raising certainty that God’s severe judgment was coming on America! The warning is triggered by the total solar eclipse of August 21.” This is nothing more than subjective validation and a belief that the strength of a conviction matters more than its accuracy.

As to the amateur astronomers and school children enthused about the event, Lotz has strong condemnation. “The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.” Ah, got it. This is all just a distraction that will enable to Iranians to conquer our heathen selves.

Where most of see the alignment of the astronomical bodies and the laws of astrophysics, Lotz sees a holy harbinger. “God is signaling us about something. Time will tell what that something is.” These impossibly vague descriptors will allow Lotz to claim any tragedy at any time as fulfillment of her prophecy.

The aforementioned ancients had little knowledge of what was going on in their world, so they constructed supernatural explanations. Initially, their gaps in knowledge were extremely broad and were filled in with concocted deities. As knowledge expanded, those gaps shrank and today there aren’t many left. There are a few, such as not knowing how life originated, and some folks find comfort in these gaps, thinking the lack of full scientific understanding means that their god did it. But Lotz takes it even further. Even though we understand what an eclipse is and why it occurs, she still insists in foisting her fears and fantasies onto it.

In summary, Monday will bring one of the following: Divine judgement, mass extinction via a careening planet, reptilian generation, a mysterious object overhead, magical moon rays, or a standard solar eclipse. In any case, I’m there.

“Doctored evidence” (Exorcism)

possessed

Dr. Steven Novella is a leader of the skeptics movement and in this capacity regularly has to fend off damage done to the name of his employer, the Yale Medical School, by his coworker, Dr. David Katz. The latter uses the university’s reputation and resources to endorse all manner of unproven techniques and procedures and then calls them medicine.

On top of this, Novella has now another prominent man with Yale ties to do battle against. Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Yale alum psychologist, has expressed belief in demon possession and has found sympathetic forums in CNN and The Washington Post. The issue is not so much Gallagher’s belief as it is his dangling of his education and scientific background to try and bolster this contention. As we will see, this Appeal to Authority is only one of a half dozen logical fallacies Gallagher commits in making his case for diabolical disturbances.

CNN’s piece this month featured extensive quotes Gallagher fed to credulous interviewer John Blake. It also contained a token appearance by Novella, who is only mentioned beginning in the 63rd paragraph. Up until then, Blake had unquestioningly allowed Gallagher to talk of persons levitating, objects flying off shelves, victims speaking perfect Latin, and a 90-pound woman throwing a 250-pound man across the room.

The CNN pieces is less evidence for demonic possession than it is for Gallagher being in possession of fallacious thinking skills and faulty reasoning.

For example, he claims that allegedly possessed persons display hidden knowledge, such as how the exorcist’s mother died or what pets he owned. But this could be explained through cold reading. As to demonstrating unexpected strength, Novella noted this would not be unusual for someone hyped on emotions and fueled by adrenaline. As to the Latin, there is no telling if the person had ever studied the language, nor is there reason to suspect this would be a favored method of communication among Satan’s soldiers.

There is also the sizable issue of all this being hearsay. Gallagher provides no video evidence nor any other means of documenting his extraordinary claims. It is reasonable to expect more proof for claims of flying people and objects than a person saying it happened. There is no way to try and corroborate his tales or examine them for signs of trickery, hidden accomplices, or fabrication.

Further, even if these phenomenon had occurred, they are unexplained and it is the appeal to ignorance to fill in that gap with invisible visitors from the underworld.

Other than the anecdotes about defying the laws of gravity and physics, the cases cited by Gallagher are explicable through cold reading, educated guesswork, selective memory, and subjective validation.

What Gallagher lacks in evidence and substantiation, he makes up for in ad hoc reasoning. Specifically, he says demons won’t submit to lab studies or video analysis because they want to sow doubt, not confirm their existence.

To this, Novella retorted, “Skeptics will recognize this a special pleading, otherwise known as making up lame excuses to explain why you don’t have any actual evidence.”

Similarly, Gallagher credits demons with being tricky and able to avoid persons when they choose. Novella notes this is nearly identical to the rationale offered by aficionados of other unverified phenomenon. They claim aliens are too advanced to allow themselves to be observed, that Bigfoot has mastered stealth, that psychic powers are dulled by a skeptic’s negative vibes, or that western medicine is incapable of testing its eastern counterpart.

Novella reports that he has seen scores of videos of alleged exorcisms and they all lack any spectacular footage. No unimagined strength, no spinning heads, no sudden recitation of a dead tongue, nobody taking flight, no little girl slamming a man into the wall with a flick of her wrist.

Again, Blake tossed a bare bone to skeptics near the end of his story by giving Novella a brief say. But even this is followed by Gallagher being allowed to respond to his opponent’s criticism, while the token doubter is afforded no such luxury. Then the story ends on a sympathetic note for the exorcist.

I have noticed a decline in CNN’s standards. They still put out lots of good products, but allow themselves to be taken in by the occasional tripe, so this story was none too surprising. By contrast, I was saddened to see that the publication responsible for the Pentagon Papers and exposing Watergate had allowed itself to become a venue for such topics.

In his Post column, Gallagher gives passing praise to skepticism and science before veering sharply into the Appeals to Personal Incredulity and Ignorance. He wrote,  “The subject’s behavior exceeded what I could explain with my training. I could only explain it as paranormal ability.”

A basic distinction of the skepticism and science Gallagher had earlier alluded to is that an event being unexplained does not make it inexplicable. Nor is the observer granted carte blanche to fill in the blanks with the answer he favors. For evidence to be of any value, it must be attained through the Scientific Method.  

Toward the end of his column, Gallagher fires off two more logical fallacies. He commits the Appeal to Consequences by bemoaning, “Those who dismiss these cases unwittingly prevent patients from receiving the help they desperately require.” And those psychologists who encourage mentally ill patients to engage in guerilla warfare against furtive monsters are committing malpractice.

Gallagher completes his traipse through the fallacy landscape with an ad hominem, calling skeptics “closedminded, “vitriolic,” “unpersuadable,” and “materialist.” Even if all that is true, it provides zero evidence that demons are being conjured on  Gallagher’s couch.

“Corrective memory” (Mandela Effect)

steinbears

In my early 20s, I had memorized every batting champion and pennant winner in baseball history, so I decided to tackle home run leaders next. I went to the shelf to retrieve the book that contained this information and it was nowhere to be found. I only thought I had put it there. The brain that had soaked up a thousand pieces of baseball information in the previous week failed me when I tried to recall where I had put the book earlier that day.

Probably all of us have had these false memories, but when the same delusion happens on a mass scale, it is dubbed the Mandela Effect. This refers specifically to the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, when many persons were certain they had seen his funeral procession years earlier.

Another well-known example of the Effect is many persons thinking they recall a film that never existed, Shazaam, starring Sinbad. Also, the Berenstain Bears are frequently mis-remembered as “Berenstein.”

It’s unclear why these phenomenon happen. With the anthropomorphic grizzlies, it has been speculated that since “stein” is a much more common ending for last names than is “stain,” those who grew up with the Bears were exposed to many more examples of the former. This may have helped created a false memory, which would be easy enough since the stain/stein distinction was less important than the Bears’ personalities, appearance, and adventures.

As to the fictitious flick, persons likely confused it with Kazaam, Shaquille O’Neal’s tragicomic attempt at thespian arts. Shaquille and Sinbad sound somewhat similar, and the latter has Middle Eastern fantasy overtones, so the blanks were filled in with false memories.

As to the example that gives the Effect its name, when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, there was a march that may have resembled a beloved figure’s funeral procession in terms of length, attendance, tributes, and displayed emotions. His release and its immediate aftermath may be what persons are mistakenly remembering as a funeral.

Offering a more paranormal rationale is ghost hunter and psychic Fiona Broome, who wrote that this might be evidence of an alternate universe. As she describes it, we may move in and out of these universes, sometimes taking memories with us. But if this were true, we would also be sliding out a reality where Mandela still lives and another where he overthrew the South African government in the 1960s, and no one is claiming to have recalled these circumstances.

Broome is not offering a testable hypothesis so there’s nothing substantive we do with her idea. Instead, let’s consider more reasonable alternatives.

Brains confabulate invented recollections to fill in memory gaps. We might, for example, misattribute later memories to earlier events, or think our childhood trip to the creek was with our best friend when it was really with his brother. These fabricated recollections are sometimes provided by someone else. While a few persons may have mistakenly remembered Hannibal Lecter telling the FBI trainee,  “Hello, Clarice,” many more people think they recall this line because they heard someone else saying it. Indeed, being exposed to a false memory can cause it to become implanted.

And if the false memory centers on something important to the listener, confirmation bias makes it even more likely to take hold. One of the Birther claims was that Obama’s step-grandmother was captured on tape talking about his Kenyan birth. No such tape exists, but Birthers continued to parrot it because the idea was attractive to them. Conversely, the 1990 New York Times article describing Obama as Hawaiian-born is not something they would be likely to remember.

So then, common cognitive errors are all that is needed to explain the Mandela Effect. At least that’s the case in our parallel dimension.

“Lookalike context” (Doppelgängers)

LOOKALIKE

A motorist once saw my nephew enter a residence, then was perplexed four blocks later to again encounter my nephew, who was driving past him in the opposite direction. This was possible because the motorist has spied a pair of identical twins.

Had the motorist shared this story is some online forums, however, a solution more sinister than a split embryo would have been blamed. Doppelgänger is a German loanword that in today’s usage normally means lookalike, but more traditionally referred to an apparition that portends doom for the person it resembles.  

Per the legend, if a friend, stranger, or family member sees another person’s doppelgänger, it is an omen that harm will befall the authentic individual, while seeing one’s own doppelgänger means death. Doppelgängers might attempt to provide advice to the person they shadow, but this advice is meant to confuse, mislead, or cause ruin.

In English, doppelgängers are sometimes referred to by a much less excellent term, the umlaut-free “fetch.” By whatever name, there are legends that Abraham Lincoln and Percy Shelly saw their own. These stories are only told because these men met an early demise. There’s not much narrative in, “Dwight Eisenhower saw his, but the doppelgänger was thwarted and Ike lived to a ripe old age.”

Another tale centers on a 19th Century French schoolmarm, Emilie Sagée. Students swore they saw her doppelgänger many times, after which Sagée would always be exhausted. There is no way to confirm or refute these claims, though they most likely are a case of students messing with their teacher. 

Similar stories were passed down by Scots, Norse, and ancient Egyptians. The Scottish story was most prominent on the Orkney Islands, where inhabitants feared evil fairies would give birth to sickly infants, then replace them with identical-in-appearance human babies. Similar themes were the focus of the American films Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Changeling.

Doppelgängers also appear in works by Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allen Poe, and Charles Dickens. They are often described as casting no shadow and having no reflection, though it’s possible the root of doppelgänger mythology may be another myth, Narcissus.   

To the best of my knowledge, no one believes that Narnia, Chewbacca, or Bilbo Baggins are real. People obsessed with these notions might be geeks or aficionados, but they are not delusional. By contrast, persons fond of Bigfoot, angels, and ghosts are convinced they are real even though their existence has not been verified.

Doppelgängers straddle this line.  While they appear in works of fiction, they are also at the center of tales told by persons who pass the stories off as true. Most persons enchanted by the idea of doppelgängers consider them imaginary and in the same category as campfire stories, Poe works, and Lon Chaney Jr. movies. But there are a few believers, just like Ken Ham believes in dragons and unicorns and some Earth-based spiritualists believe in sprites and leprechauns. These positions are unorthodox even in the credulous creationist and cryptozoological camps, but people who hold them feel their case is bolstered since the creatures existed in tales from different cultures and over many centuries, but this is an ad populum. Neither the number of adherents nor the fervency of their beliefs has any bearing on whether something is true. 

There have been some documented cases of persons genuinely thinking their loved one has been replaced by an impostor. These are the results of brain injury, brain malfunction, or hallucination. This is more likely if the injury or malfunction impacted spatial reasoning. Similar occurrences that took place before science understood this might be how some doppelgänger legends were born.

If that’s boring and stodgy, another speculation holds that doppelgängers are visitors from another dimension or another corner of the multiverse. This always seems to be a one way road. We Earthlings are never able to access these portals, vortexes, or wormholes. I can live with that, we’ve got Renée Zellweger and guacamole on this side.

“Taken for a Spin” (Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo)

Psychic Fair. You know when and where, just CONCENTRATE.

Yesterday, I hit the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo, my third trek to this annual gathering of bioharmonic healers, crystal peddlers, and ghost stalkers. Last year, I went to as many booths as I could and related my experience at each. This time I wanted to choose one to concentrate on and relate the results in greater detail.  With so many purveyors of pseudoscience, alternative medicine, and clairvoyance to choose from, the potential for amusement seemed brighter than the auras that were being read.

At a shaman’s station, the despcriptive posterboard proclaimed that he would remove traumatic imprints and enhance enlightenment centers. But it also noted that these were only half sessions, so presumably my enlightment centers would receive only a truncated improvement and the traumautic imprints would only be partially exorcised. That seemed like paying for half a tonsillectomy or root canal, so I continued to stroll.

I next tried an astrologer, who told me that the time of one’s birth determines which planet will most impact a person’s life. Maybe mine is Saturn, hers is Mars, and the past-lives reader in beads, purple hair, and crescent moon dress at the next booth is Jupiter. Curiously, the one planet that would seem to have the most impact on all of us, Earth, is irrelevant to all this. I asked the astrologer how those who are most affected by Pluto were impacted by its downgrade to dwarf planet status. She seemed uncertain what I was referring to, but I wouldn’t expect Neil Tyson to know the inner workings of Sagittarius horoscopes, so perhaps we can forgive her ignorance of astronomy.

From there, it was onto the mediums, those who claim they can communicate with the dead. This took some time since these were by far the most popular tables and longest lines. People want to think they’re hearing from their loved ones or are having an issue resolved and these nattily-attired ghouls provide these assurances.

They always give the answers the recipient wants, the recipient in turn praises the experience to others, and the cycle continues. I asked the mediums if they could speak with those who had passed on and they all assured me they could. I asked if they could reach my older sister. That I never had an older sister would serve as an immediate, handy test of their abilities. They all said yes, with one cryptically offering, “Whoever brought you here knew to bring you to me.” Well, I brought myself and I knew I was going to seek out mediums to see if they could pass the most basic test, so I guess she was right.

Watching them dream up stuff about a person that never existed would have had comedic value, but not $50 worth so I moved on. I decided to attend a class on intuition that was free and being taught by the woman who arranges and coordiantes the expo.

She identified herself with the moniker Mystical Moonspinner and declared, “I am a psychic medium.” Stepping from beyond the podium, she turned to us Muggles and asked, “How do you know if you’re intuitive?” Hmm, well if it’s real, I would guess your intuition would tell you.

Moonspinner, however, suspected that everyone has intuitive abilities but that they can be repressed.

“Most everyone is born with intuition,” she said. “You will sense things when you are a child. Maybe the imaginary friends aren’t as imaginary as we think.” That’s what I’ve said, too. Of course, I was 6 when I said that.

Moonspinner continued. “We start out completey open to the idea, but as we go though life, we are told that we’re not supposed to see things, we’re not supposed to hear things, we’re not supposed to know things. We start thinking it can’t be real so I shut it down.”

But that changed when she 12, as she started having mood swings and couldn’t figure out why. A good guess would be that she was going through puberty. She had entered a fragile time where developing children leave behind the elementary school mentality of most classmates getting along in order to gravitate toward cliques. It is a time of change and new experiences so it can be simultaneously frightening and exhilarating, and those living it are left with a 12-year-old’s ability to comprehend and process it all. But this is a rational explanation, which the audience had not come for, nor was the presenter prepared to deliver one.
 
“I figured out that my empathic abilities were coming back,” Moonspinner told us. “It would take the form of my arm hurting and then finding out the person I was speaking with had had a sports injury in the same place.”
 
These experiences are explained by the Law of Truly Large Numbers. With billions of people undertaking several hundred actions per day, the normal goings on will sometimes lead to circumstances such as the arm story. Events like this happen coincidentally and require no supernatural explanation. Believing otherwise comes from selective memory, as Moonspinner is unikely to recall a time that she started hurting and there was no nearby injury victim, or the time she was talking with someone who had a pain she wasn’t receiving in phantom form.
 
She will remember only the incident she described, and because it has meaning to her, she assigns a powerful connection to it. This phenomenon known is known as subjective validation.
 
Next, she said spirits of the deceased also tried to contact her, but it scared her so she developed two types of netherworld repellent. “Visualize a bubble and the spirits will flee from you,” she informed us. “Or picture a white light coming down and clearing out your psychic clutter.”
 
Back to how the tween Moonspinner began realizing she had a resurgent talent. “I started knowing things. How many of you guys have thought, ‘I should call my friend Barb’ and then the phone rings and it’s her?”
 
Most of us, I imagine. But we have also have had many more times that we thought of Barb without her calling, and many times when Barb called without us having envisioned her first.
 
But to Moonspinner, it means, “Your brain is telling you, and you have to be aware of those things. I just know things ahead of time.”
 
This prescience did not include knowing who was going to fill the 3 p.m slot at the psychic fair she was coordinating, as that time period was listed as “To Be Determined.”
 
Moonspinner continued to regale us with tales, revealing that she had done a reading eight months ago in which she told a customer something big was going to happen, and it did. “Experiences like this give me validation.”
 
Validation, yes, but only the subjective kind. It seems profound because it had a huge impact on her, but it fails to consider any other factors that could be in play, such as “something big” being vague, or the customer who believed in the psychic taking deliberate or subconscious steps to help fulfill this prophecy.
 
Our psychic then opened the floor to questions and an audience member wanted to know why strangers walk up and tell her their life stories.
 
“Because you were an Indigo child. If we took away your shell of a body, we would be left with a ball of energy and yours flows differently and your force field is attractive to people.”
 
And if Moonspinner’s shell was taken away, she would no longer have the body part from where she just pulled that spiel. Other audience members covered any questions I would have had about dream interpretation or future visions, so I went another route.
 
“Is this a testable ability and, if so, do you know if it’s ever been tested or subject to studies?
 
She replied, “I’m a believer, but I’m a skeptical believer.” I felt like throwing up, but guess my spirit bubble held it back.
 
“I do ghost hunting too,” she continued, “but I’m a skeptic until I can’t prove otherwise.”
 
Of course, this inverts where the burden of proof lies, which is always on the person making the claim. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and negative evidence is no evidence at all.
 
Addressing the lack of studies, she said, “Can you hook me up to a machine and have it proven? Not that I know of.” She then hedged and related, “Well, actually, I was hooked up to an aura reading machine when a customer from a reading I had just finished asked me a followup question. My reader later told me later that my aura had changed when I was answering the question.”
 
Nice anecdote there, one of many she shared in lieu of any data. No, a medium relating what an aura reader had told her is not the type of study I had in mind. Rather, we could try someting like this. We could take six subjects,each of whom has one of the following distinctions, all unknown to the psychic: Colorblind, lefthanded, Canadian-born, registered independent, professional fisherman, and hardware store worker. The psychic could spend 30 minutes talking with each person in the presence of neutral observers who would also not know which person had which distinction, making this a double blind study. Afterward, we could ask the psychic to match the person to their distinction. The chance of going 6-for-6 by chance would be one in 46,656, so doing this, especially repeatedly, would be strong evidence for the ability. 
 
So when Moonspinner states, “I have known things that there is no way I could have known, but how do you prove that,” we have the answer.
 
She then moved onto a tale in which she had been thinking about teaching a class, but didn’t know what topic it should be. Five minutes later, she got a call from a fellow psychic who wondered if she would like to teach a class on mediumship. While the audience swooned with this further confirmation of the speaker’s power, I was wondering why two psychics would need a telephone to communicate.
In her final anecdote, Moonspinner told about when her toddler nephew was riding a small motorized 4-wheeler toy. “It could only go about 6 miles per hour, but he is only 3 and I’m overprotective, so I was kind of worried. But his mother said it was OK, so I deferred to her. But after three minutes, I started asking, ‘Where is he? We need to find him now.’ About a minute later, we saw him walking the 4-wheeler back up the driveway with a gash on his knee. He had wrecked it and gotten hurt.”
 
Both she and the audience attributed her insistence that they check on the toddler to her psychic ability and not her overprotective nature. This type of continual communal reinforcement, post hoc reasoning, subjective validation, and selective memory can convince a person that normal occurrences are a gift from beyond, above, or similar preposition.
 
Despite my serious doubt about all this, I didn’t completely shut my mind to the possibility of intuition. Because when Moonspinner asked if anyone had ever had an intuitive experience, I knew I would be the only one not raising my hand.

“Feeling board” (Ouija)

ouija

Many persons consider the Ouija Board to be harmless fun, but I disagree. It’s really not much fun.

In my youth, I never really got the thrill of sitting around asking questions of something that couldn’t answer. At least the Magic 8-ball offered a response. I was screwing around with the board once, which showed I had some naivete that it might work. But then I figured if a spirit really knew the answers it could move the planchette by itself. And if it were unable to move a light object a few inches, it wasn’t a very powerful entity.

Ouija sessions can be solo, but are usually done in groups, with everyone placing their hands gingerly on the teardrop-shaped planchette, which itself rests on a board. Imprinted on the board is the alphabet, along with  “yes,” “no” and “goodbye,” presumably so the spirit can tell us when he’s tired of fielding candlelit queries about deceased aunts and the cute new boy in algebra class.

The board was originally a fraudulent spiritualist tool in the 19th Century, then enjoyed a 1960s and 1970s heyday as a bonding experience for sleepover tweens. But among those for whom everything is either sacred or sinister, the boards helped summon demons or angry ghosts.

There is indeed an invisible force behind the gliding planchette and it’s an unconscious, involuntary movement called the ideomotor effect. In motor behavior, there are two parts of brain activity. The first drives motor activity, while the second is the conscious registration of that activity. The ideomotor effect occurs when this registration is skipped, and while neurologists are uncertain of the mechanisms behind it, we know it exists for reasons we’ll address shortly. Instances of the effect were occurring as early as the Fourth Century when messages were divined in held pendulums, and the effect is also the force behind dowsing and facilitated communication.

In a Vox article, Aja Romano wrote, “Paradoxically, the less control you think you have, the more control your subconscious mind is actually exerting. The planchette makes it easier to subconsciously control your muscle movements, because it focuses and directs them even while you believe you aren’t in control of them. The appeal of the ideomotor effect is that you actually may be communicating with something you can’t typically access — your own subconscious — and that the experience can feel like communicating with something paranormal”

Whenever participants are blindfolded, they are no longer able to produce discernible answers. This means that they were either in charge of the planchette all along or that the spirit is now speaking in its unknown language. In either case, the board is useless for deducing a message from another realm. In some of the experiments, the board is stealthily reversed when the subjects are blindfolded and the planchette is in invariably moved to where the letters had previously been.

Ouija boards were derived from Talking Boards, which assumed a variety of forms and were sold by those preying on the grieving following the Civil War. The boards were touted as a device to communicate with dead relatives and friends, and the various incarnations were consolidated into the Ouija Board and planchette, which were patented in 1890.

In a rare early 20th Century collaboration between Catholics and evangelicals, both condemned the device as demonic, and that reputation still largely holds in these communities.

Then there are those who believe in the board, but who think it’s excellent, not evil. For these types, ad hoc reasoning is used to dismiss the evidence that participants are providing the planchette power. When 1960s studies suggested that the ideomotor effect was behind it all, believers insisted the effect was a manifestation of ESP. And I found one guy online who explained the blindfolded problem by suggesting that the spirit must be able to see through the eyes of its conduits. These seem shaky rationalizations at best, but wanted to consult my go-to source on such matters and was told, “Reply hazy, try again.”