“Free spirits” (Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo)

FAIR

Each year, the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo rolls into town. Another tradition is me having 86 cents in my expendable income account. That has kept me from paying for any paranormal products or psychic services, but I have some magic of my own and always come away from these events having gotten something for nothing.  

My first stop this year was at an essential oils table, where I was assured the merchandise was “100 percent certified pure therapeutic grade, with nothing synthetic.” When it comes to the only oil I ever buy, motor, synthetic is a good thing, so I’m curious what this is all about.

I asked the two women what they could tell me about the oils and they inquired if I had any aches or pains. Indeed, my head was hurting so they referred to their chart that recommended peppermint. Later, I checked other essential oil businesses and websites for their headache cures and among those listed were lavender, eucalyptus, rosemary, spearmint, roman chamomile, magnesium, turmeric, frankincense, wintergreen, birch, jasmine, sage, marjoram, bergamot, ginger, and basil. By the time I tracked all those down it would be way past the four hours my headaches normally last and it would be gone anyway.   

As to these ladies’ recommendation, per their instruction, I put a couple of drops on my fingertip and lathered up my forehead and the back of my neck. This caused a pronounced burning sensation, meaning the pains on the inside of my head were now matched by ones on the outside, so I at least had symmetry going for me.

Brushing off the unpleasantness, I asked if the oil had healing properties. Assured this was the case, I asked if they knew the science behind it.

“There’s lot and lots of science. Our company is all about science.”  What they lacked in specifics, they made up for in enthusiasm and assurance, so I continued.

“If there’s an active ingredient in it, is there a chance you could use too much of it?”

“Other companies, yes, but not ours. This is 100 percent pure.”

“But if it has healing properties, I would think there would be a danger of overdose. If you take a bottle of Excedrin, you’d be dead.”

“But that’s not all-natural.”

“Natural could still do you in. Hemlock is natural, too. So with the peppermint oil, is there a way to determine the proper dose?”

There is a look I get from psychic and paranormal fair merchants when I start lobbing anything beyond remedial inquiries at them. They are used to being asked, “What can craniosacral therapy do for me,” not, “Can you explain the mechanism behind craniosacral therapy?” Questions about the science are answered with “lots and lots” as opposed to providing examples of peer-reviewed articles and double blind studies.

I got that look, which they then turned on each other. They traded stammers before one of them offered that I should start with a drop or two and work up to what works for me. Of course, if no amount worked, I would keep going until I overdosed, which is what I was trying to avoid.

I was about to make this point when one of them changed the subject by offering me oil-infused chocolate chip cookies. I can’t ask probing questions if I’m chewing on confectionaries. To wash it down, they handed me water with lemon oil added.

“What does this do for you?”

“It helps with dehydration.”

Water helps with dehydration. Really glad I’m not paying for this information.

Glancing at the comparison chart that recommends oils in lieu of over the counter medication, I asked, “So for body aches, instead of Tylenol, I should take chamomile?”

“That’s right.”

“Why not just take Tylenol?”

“Because ours is pure.”

Oh, that’s right, you told me that. I need to look and see what oil helps with memory.

I then made my way to another table, where I asked a middle-age woman bespectacled woman with shoulder-length blond hair what she was offering.

“Readings, Reiki, and energy clearing.”

“What’s a Reiki healing?”

In a dreamy voice she intones, “Oh it’s wonderful. I love it. It holistically heals you from the inside. A week ago I got arthritis real bad and had Reiki done and I haven’t had it since.” There have been about 10 million such anecdotes in Reiki’s favor, none of them accompanied with an explanation for the mechanism behind it.  An eternal optimist, I hoped to be the first to track this down.

 “How does it work?”

“It’s spiritual. It’s the universe. It’s the angels. It’s the spirit guides and all the energy they use to heal you.”

“What type of energy does it use?”

“Well, we’re all made of energy. The Earth is made of energy, you, me, all living creatures, that type of energy.”

So someone would take my energy then give it back to me. Again, glad I’m not paying for these services.

Turning the subject to another of her offerings, I asked, “What’s energy clearing?”

“That clears away the energy we pick up from other people as you’re walking around or you’re living with them.”

“But that kind of contradicts the Reiki healing. Wouldn’t the energy clearing cancel out the Reiki energy you received?”

“No, it’s not connected. The energy that’s been cleared is low level. Depression, for instance, does not have a high vibration. The session helps to clear the clutter that builds up from negative thoughts and actions,” she told me. “Have you ever been talking to someone that just makes you sad for what the world has come to?”

Boy, she nailed that one. Why isn’t she manning the mindreading booth?

Moving on, I found a merchant who focused on a haunted house south of Buffalo, N.Y. He owns the house, he told me.

“Do you live in it?”

“No.”

“Does anyone live in it? Besides the ghosts, I mean?”

“No, I’m fixing it up.” He’s probably using sub-contractors for the various tasks, like remodeling, wiring, and ghostbusting.

He further explained, “I’ve researched the spirts in this house and its history. There was a failed exorcism there, another guy died there. Some people left after two months. Another family got out quickly and left all their stuff behind. People have tried to live there but it’s hard.”

I tried living in upstate New York for a while, I know what you mean.

“How do you research it?”

“There’s lots of scientific ways of researching it. Then there’s the personal, the feelings you get when you’re there.” So he bases it on science and feeling, and I have a feeling he’s exaggerating the science part.

This fellow was giving a free (there’s that key word again) presentation about this, so I followed him into the speaking room. Wonder if all this makes me a paranormal investigator investigator.

Once there, he enthralled audience members (well, with one exception), telling tales about these spooky surroundings. He assured us, “There’s definitely a dark entity there.” I imagine that’s called nightfall.

His talk contained the phrases, “something’s holding the spirit there,” “there’s a portal in that room that can’t be closed,” and “spirits are crossing a threshold.” There was talk about “an Indian chief” and “a woman in white at the pond,” both of whom he reported capturing on film. He also related a story about how a K2 meter stayed lit when he attempted to contact a former resident. “There was no explanation for it,” he said.

That’s because he didn’t ask me. The K2’s purpose is not to enable the dead to communicate via beeps and flashing lights as you walk up creaking stairs. Its function is to detect electromagnetic radiation and indicate the radiation’s strength and direction. There is there is no evidence deceased homeowners have the ability to leave this radiation behind.

When I asked if the K2 meters he were designed to chase ghosts, he said no but added, “When your body dies, energy can’t be created or destroyed. There’s still that energy somewhere. If you ask a question and it flickers, perhaps it’s paranormal.” And perhaps it’s from the cell phones, video cameras, and computers you brought in.

Other audience members asked questions like, “Are you worried about driving off the friendly ghosts and leaving only behind the evil entities,” and “If the house burned down, would the spirits go back out the portal?” Meanwhile, I got in a second question, about why ghosts in his photos would still be wearing clothes. He answered that they did that somehow, some way, so that people in the present could recognize them. By this point, I realized the peppermint oil wasn’t helping any and my headache had gotten worse.

 

 

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“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.

“The tooth comes out” (Tooth Fairy Science)

tooth

When my children put teeth under their pillow, they wake up with substantially more money than I did at their age.

If attempting to ascertain why, I could examine various factors, such as whether the amount the Tooth Fairy leaves has kept up with inflation, if the Fairy values incisors more than molars, and if the time in between lost choppers impacts the amount left. I could query 1,000 children, analyze results for socio-economic trends and determine if there is a correlation between the frequency of Tooth Fairy visits and the sell of home security systems. I may even endeavor to conclude once and for all if the Fairy is male, female, or androgynous. The findings could be put in a snazzy hardcover book with impressive graphics and detailed footnotes. Yet none of this would establish that a stealthy, mobile spirit is replacing extracted calcified objects with cash.

Tooth Fairy Science refers to doing research on an unverified phenomenon to determine what its effects are, rather than to ascertain if it exists.  It is post hoc reasoning in research form. The phrase was coined by Dr. Harriet Hall.

This shoddy science is a regular feature of studies into ghosts, cryptozoology, reincarnation, alien visitors, alternative medicine, parapsychology, and creationism.

I have three co-workers who believe our office is haunted. Curiously, this sprit only manifests itself when the workers are by themselves at night. Perhaps he is nocturnal and dislikes crowds. We have ample video and audio equipment in the office, and we could set these up and record what times bumps most occur, detect any unexplained shadows, and note any high-pitched whistles. This data could by analyzed and a conclusion reached about the ghost’s characteristics. But this would not take into account wind, pipes, electromagnetic interference, or a worker on floor above coming in at 11 p.m. We would have to assume the ghost’s existence and attribute these factors to it.

Similarly, cryptozoologists will shoot sonar into Loch Ness or look for disturbed vegetation in Bigfoot’s supposed stomping grounds, then attribute any findings they consider consistent with their monster to be proof the animal was there. As such, they do not consider other explanations, such as the sonar detecting a bloom of algae and zooplankton, or a warthog beating Sasquatch to the trap.

That’s because when Fairy Tale scientists uncover data that is consistent with their hypothesis, they assume the data confirms it. For example, psychiatrist Ian Stevenson spent years collecting stories from people who claimed to be reincarnated. He used these anecdotes to support his belief in reincarnation, and he used reincarnation to explain the stories, a textbook case of circular reasoning.

Moving onto alien abduction, John Mack talked with persons who claimed to have been taken by extraterrestrial beings. He assumed the stories to be real instead of considering that he might have implanted the ideas by asking leading questions, such as “Was the alien about four feet tall,” as opposed to “How tall was the alien?” The mental state and susceptibility of the subject was not considered, nor were explanations like fraud, attention-seeking, or sleep paralysis. 

Alien abductees aren’t the only subjects that spend time on a Tooth Fairy scientist’s couch. So do alternative medicine patients. Chi, meridians, and blockages are assumed to exist in “energy” medicines such as craniosacral therapy, iridology, therapueitic touch, reflexology, chiropractic, Reiki, Ayuvedic, and more. I have addressed the rest of these in previous posts, so we’ll address Therapeutic Touch here.

First, Therapeutic Touch is neither. The practitioner’s hands are close to the patient, but are never on them. As to the therapy part, practitioners claim to be able to sense a patient’s “human energy field” with their hands, then manipulate the field by moving their hands near a patient’s skin to improve their health. Scientists have detected and measured minute energies down to the subatomic level, but have never found a human energy field. Nine-year-old Emily Rosa designed a controlled test of the practice which Therapeutic Touchers failed spectacularly. Any seeming success is because of the fluctuating nature of many illnesses, the placebo effect, confirmation bias, and nonspecific effects. The latter is a common error and refers to confusing the effects of practitioner-patient interaction with the supposed effect of the treatment.

In a test that proponents claimed proved Therapeutic Touch’s validity, researchers gauged the effects of the technique on reducing nausea and vomiting in breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. All patients were on the same chemotherapy regimen and they were randomly divided into three groups of 36 patients. The first group received usual Therapeutic Test treatment, the second group got a similar treatment except the practitioners’ hands were farther from the patients, and the third group received no treatment. A single practitioner performed all the treatments, which was fatal to conducting a proper study because he should not have known which patients were receiving which treatment.

Since there is no evidence the energy field exists, there can be no evidence that how far the practitioner’s hands are from the patient would make a difference. The alleged energy can’t be measured, so there’s no reason to believe any energy was transferred to, or benefited, any patient. While the authors claimed the study showed Therapeutic Touch worked, they had failed to establish that the central feature of the practice even existed.

Likewise, parapsychologists are quick to point to rare instances of a subject performing better than chance as proof that various forms of ESP are legitimate. Unsatisfactory results are considered as the power being unable to be accessed due to cosmic interference, negative energy from a skeptical observer, or some other ad hoc reason. They look to justify the failure as owing to a particular cause rather than the cause being that the power doesn’t exist.

Then we have the creationists. The Institute for Creation Research website informs us, “The very dependability of each day’s processes are a wonderful testimony to the design, purposes, and faithfulness of the Creator. The universe is very stable. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. Earth turns on its axis and always cycles through its day at the same speed every time.”

All of these phenomenon are explicable through known laws of physics and astronomy, and the ICR has affirmed the consequent by saying if there is order in the universe, there has to be a god controlling it, and since we see that order, a god exists. They attribute any majesty to this deity without bothering to prove his existence first. It’s one thing to do this as faith in one’s religion. It’s quite another to claim this as science while bypassing the entire Scientific Method.

I’m going to have to wrap this up. My daughter lost another tooth so I’ve got more research to conduct. 

“I see someone reading this” (Psychics)

ICEBOOK

Penn & Teller gained their fame by putting fresh twists on the ancient art of magic. They followed this by becoming skeptic leaders, most prominently with Showtime’s “Bullshit!” and also appearing at most Skepticons. Despite this being their side gig, they are probably the second and third most prominent skeptics  behind James Randi.

When their Showtime program debuted, a few people found it hypocritical that two guys who made their money fooling people would be going after mediums, faith healers, and astrologers for doing the same. This necessitated that Penn state the obvious: That the duo were admitting their performance was bogus, while those they were exposing as frauds presented themselves as authentic. These days, most people who pull rabbits from hats use the term illusionist instead of magician to eliminate any confusion about what they claim to be doing.

While there is a key difference between magicians/illusionists and psychics, there’s also a big difference in the people they are performing for. While an illusionist’s audience wants to be impressed, they are trying to figure out how it’s done and maybe even hoping for a screw-up. By contrast, those who comprise a psychic’s audience have no concern with how it’s being done and greatly want it to work. This desire to experience psychic ability is even more pronounced when there are emotions involving death, loss, and grief. That is why when a reading on an audience member is going nowhere, the member will lead the psychic back to fertile ground.

This difference between audience expectations for illusionists and psychics was starkly demonstrated when my neighbor returned from a show that had featured both types of performers. She told me, “The illusionist wasn’t much, but he psychic was incredible! She knew I drove a Lumina and worked at Dillard’s! And she did the same thing for four other people, and got them all right! She knew one had a beagle and another was expecting her first grandchild. She did ten facts and got them all exactly right!”

I talked later with her husband, who revealed that the neighbor had filled out a card with precise information about her place of employment and her mode of transportation for getting there. So this was a hot read where the facts were fed to the psychic by one of her handlers. This is usually done by having the selected member and their pertinent information pointed out backstage, or by using a wireless earpiece, as Peter Popoff had done before being taken down by James Randi.

Mark Edwards of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry said of this method, “This is called ‘pre-show’ in the spook racket. Nobody seems to even consider that a psychic would be acting and using information they already knew. They take it on faith that everything they hear is coming from some divine source.”

But the psychic my neighbor saw relied on cold reading as well, using incredibly vague language. “She told me, ‘I see a marriage.’” Most people are either married, used to be married, or figure they will be some day. And even if none of those fit, it could be a marriage involving someone besides the audience member. This lack of focus and specificity helps the charade.

The glowing report continued with, “She knew there was an anniversary.” A statement this general could be filled in with anything. In this case, the void was plugged in with, “Our child was born on the eighth anniversary of our first date.”

And there’s one more. “Then she said she was sensing a name that started with C. Of course she meant Charlie!” No, she meant C which is why she said C. If she had meant Charlie, she would have said Charlie. She didn’t mean Charlie, nor did she need to since the neighbor filled in the rest. The neighbor thinking the psychic knew her husband’s name was typical of someone who wants so much to believe that they will fill in the holes or the gaping canyons. A psychic saying, “Someone here works in customer service and I’m seeing the number 34,” becomes “He knew I worked at Lowe’s and that my boss was 34 years old!”

Edwards related how he performed for a mostly credulous audience using cold reading techniques. He threw out usual generalities such as a dog dying or someone having car trouble. Then he decided to go for something weird and more specific. “I’m seeing a clown standing in a graveyard and he’s putting flowers on the graves. Does that mean anything to anyone? And I see the name Stanley.”

He was startled when someone shouted, “There’s no way you could have known that! There was an old man in my hometown who used to dress-up in a clown costume and put flowers on the graves in the cemetery. My name is Cindy but for some reason that guy always called me Stanley.”

Edwards thought it might be a ruse, but learned the speaker was genuine, and it took an intense 30 minutes after the show to get Cindy calmed down and convinced that Edwards had made it up. It was a somewhat crazy coincidence, but the Law of Truly Large Numbers comes into play.

Also, despite the specific nature of his fabricated vision, Edwards hadn’t singled out Cindy. “If I had looked straight at her then delivered the clown in a graveyard line directly to her, that’s a whole lot different than saying, ‘Does that mean anything to anyone?’ or ‘Does that make sense to anyone?’ Watch and listen carefully to the medium next time, and you will see how easily this works.”

In the heyday of telephone psychics, a classic magazine advertisement pronounced, “If they were really psychic, they’d call you.”

This is not a minor point because it drives home the fact that someone with genuine psychic ability wouldn’t need to ask anything. Yet in live shows, it’s almost all questions from the psychic, rather than them stating facts. Except for hot reads, it’s never, “You in the third row with the yellow hat. Your sister died of lung cancer six years ago and you regret that you saw her just twice in her last six months.” Instead it’s, “I feel someone here has lost a family member they wish they had been closer to.”

If you ever find yourself at a live psychic show, I suggest the NBA shot clock game, where you see how often a psychic can go 24 seconds without asking a question.

Had Edwards had been a neophyte psychic instead of a veteran skeptic, he might have thought he had the Gift. That’s probably how a few of them get started. Sure they miss a lot more than they hit, but so batters with a .300 average. They reassure themselves with, “I don’t know where this is coming from,” or, “I don’t control this, I go where it leads me.” This enables them to justify any excuse or whiff, perhaps even to themselves, and certainly to audience members who want to believe that, “I see someone in business for themselves” means, “He knew I owned a bakery.”

 

“The Kids Are All Might” (Indigo children)

SKID

Indigo children are said to be youngsters who possess highly desirable supernatural abilities. These awesome offspring are variously suspected to be multidimensional beings, human-alien hybrids, super-evolved hominids, or prophets destined to lead humanity to full enlightenment. While none of these distinctions have been confirmed in indigo children, we can be certain of their parents’ traits, most notably a massive ego.

The concept of indigo children originated with Nancy Ann Tappe, who attributed her discovery to her synesthesia. This is an neurological phenomenon where a person is using one sense but has another stimulated. Everyone does this to some extent. For instance, if someone hears the word giraffe, they likely will “see” this giant animal in their mind. But synesthesia primarily refers to such experiences as hearing a car start and associating it with the color green, or looking at a circle and getting an itching sensation. Tappe, then, attributed synesthesia to her seeing an indigo glow around select children.

A fairly minor point here, but that would not be synesthesia since only sight was involved. Perhaps she was claiming the color was her “seeing” the sixth sense. In any case, whether or not she is seeing shimmering children would be easy to determine. A dozen partitions could be set up, and behind each would sit either a person she considers indigo, a person she does not consider indigo, or an empty chair. She could then tell testers which partitions had an indigo glow rising from them. However, New Agers don’t normally care for these types of tests, instead preferring feelings, intuition, and client gullibility. Boyued by these elements, Tappe writes books on the subject and holds seminars, where hundreds of disciples bathe in each other’s bluish brilliance.

In her writings, Tappe lists traits to look for to know if your child is indigo. It’s unclear why this is needed, since having Tappe look at the kids would seem enough. Also, the list of indigo traits is so long and vague it could apply to everyone and so the Forer Effect comes into play. These descriptions include being curious, headstrong, unusual, driven, intuitive, intelligent, and resistant to structure.

Thinking one’s child is a hyper-evolved multidimensional being is attractive to those whose credulity is matched by their vanity. But author Sarah Whedon suggests the indigo label also appeals to parents who seek to excuse their child’s behavior and their parental responsibility to do anything about it. For instance, pro-indigo authors Jan Tober and Lee Carroll say such children may function poorly in conventional schools due to their rejection of rigid authority, their being smarter than their teachers, and their inability to embrace discipline.

Whedon suspects that many children who have ADHD or autism are instead labeled as indigo by their parents. This also gives a fabricated reason to avoid Ritalin or other medication, a plus in this mostly anti-vax, anti-Big Pharma community. Here, autism is just another word for telepathy. Skeptic author Robert Todd Carroll said, “It’s much easier for them to believe their children are special and chosen for some high mission instead of having a brain disorder.” Anthropologist Beth Singler considers the movement as part of a moral panic about children, parenting, ADHD, autism, Big Pharma, and vaccinations.

From a list of identifiers at indigochildren.com, we learn, “If this seems to describe you, chances are you are an Indigo,” followed by an exhaustive list of personality traits. Most are positive, such as creative, honest, sympathetic, and confident. Like astrology, it is kept general, while also telling the listener what it wants to hear. There are handful of negative traits thrown in – rebellious, antisocial, strange – in order to have cover for ADHD and autism.

I doubt if anyone who has wanted to know if their child was indigo has looked into it and decided the answer was no. If someone has gotten to the point of seriously asking that question, it reveals their motivation and mindset.

“Disregarding Henry” (E! psychic)

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Because people will always get sick, there will always be others selling the latest, greatest cure, regardless of how inexplicable or unreasonable it might be. The Old West traveler hawking elixirs from his wagon became Orthomolecular Medicine Man in the 20th Century, promising to remedy aliments with a Vitamin C overload. His descendant today has online stores and holistic health huts from which he sells detoxifying peach-mango mixes, Himalayan salt treatments, and craniosacral rubs.

The seriousness of adopting these methods is parallel to the affliction. If your aunt treats her mild lupus with corticosteroids from her rheumatologist, she will likely get better results than her neighbor who treats the same illness with jasmine-infused owl feathers from a shaman. The latter would likely experience swollen joints and fever, meaning a less enjoyable life, but not an extinguished one. The greatest danger, of course, comes in the form of cancer patients bypassing chemotherapy for ionic foot cleanses and milk thistle.

But whether one goes with what centuries of research and double blind studies show, or with what 30 minutes on Google reveals, both patients will die eventually, either from the disease or something else. And that is when those who prey on the sick and frightened are replaced by those who pounce on the grieving and lonely.

In the past, these charlatans preferred to project an element of mystery. They were septuagenarians with eastern European names, accents, and accoutrements. They resided in rural villages and gave readings in hushed tones with raised eyebrows and eyes opened in amazement. By contrast, today’s mediums are often telegenic, loquacious, eager to help, and easy to find.

The latest example is Tyler Henry. Like snake oil salesman, the conniving ghouls have adapted for the times. Séances with mysterious strangers in darkened rooms have given way to unrealistic reality shows featuring fresh-faced congenial chaps and ladies with immaculate coiffures and snazzy semiformal wardrobes. Having turned 20 this month, Henry brings a youthful exuberance to the art of preying on the grieving at their most vulnerable.

While he is young, there’s nothing original in his techniques. He keeps it vague, jettisoning misses and focusing instead on what his subjects considers hits. He then shuts up and lets his client fill in the significant blanks. For instance, on a reading with Jaime Pressley, Henry insisted he was driven to write the letter B over and over, which he did. Pressley excitedly shouted, “Brittany Murphy,” and indeed, Henry confirmed that’s where the spirit was leading him. 

About this revelation, Bobby Finger at Jezebel noted, “Mediums expect us to believe that the dead, in their desperate attempts to tell their survivors that everything’s just great on the other side, are only able to communicate in single words or syllables. The afterlife is apparently filled with stuttering apparitions of the formerly living.”

Whether Pressley was genuinely impressed or putting on for the camera, I’m unsure. But skeptics recognize what Henry did as a garden variety cold read. But Henry is versatile, as evidenced by his use of a hot read while victimizing retired basketball player John Salley. Henry mentioned “Moses” and Salley knew this was a message from beyond the grave from his friend Moses Malone. That Malone had died four months earlier and was friends with Salley are facts anyone could look up, but Henry added the extra element of procuring monetary gain from his online search.

His versatility is also seen by his purporting to have multiple psychic abilities. Besides speaking with the dead, he also claims clairvoyance, the ability to see the future. Put another way, he knew about the Paris attacks and did nothing to warn the victims. But can you blame the guy? Look how many potential new clients he has now.

He shows some originality by claiming another ability most psychics don’t, the capacity to diagnose medical conditions by merely sensing someone’s energy. What does your silly old oncologist know, I’m getting nothing but good vibes from your aura.

His public readings have so far been limited to the likes of Pressley, Salley, and Dr. Phil. But his stated goal is to fill a specific lowly niche in the pond scum of ghoulish mediums. He plans to specialize in parents whose children killed themselves. No one is more ravaged by guilt, tormented about words said or not said, actions taken or suppressed, than those whom Henry seeks to exploit. Dr. Steven Novella, founder of the New England Skeptical Society, said of Henry’s career ambition, “This is the worst grief a human can suffer. These are people at their most vulnerable. He is not a trained counselor, and working with the grieving is very tricky. The potential for harm is tremendous.”

Henry describes himself as a skeptic. Hold on a second while I hurl into my trash can. OK, I’m back. Henry said, “It’s important to have a healthy degree of skepticism. So in my readings, my goal is to bring up information that there really is no way I could know. I don’t like saying general things. I don’t like saying information that everybody knows. I focus on information that can’t be researched or Googled, and that usually includes inside jokes or sentimental pieces of information that only families really know.”

Skeptic activist Susan Gerbic noted this would be an easy assertion to test if Henry is sincere about it. She said, “If Henry really is a skeptic, surely he’s be up for a carefully designed and controlled test of his powers. I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon.” Indeed, Henry has relayed no premonition of when this test will take place.
Gerbic is correct. If I woke up with a newly-discovered ability to levitate objects, I would want scientists and doctors to examine it. I would want Penn & Teller and James Randi to see it, not to fool them and get a million dollars, respectively, but so that skeptics and scientists could try to deduce what unknown physics phenomenon was being accessed, how it could be controlled, and how it could benefit Mankind. Alas, as of this morning, I still lack this ability. The only thing I’m able to lift is the veil off of Henry’s fraudulent world.

“Psichobabble” (Dean Radin and extrasensory powers)

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Polls have consistently shown that about two-thirds of Americans believe in some sort of paranormal phenomenon. About two in five believe in ESP, about the same number who think ghosts are real. Also, just over half think that mind over matter can heal the body. There is another poll, the unscientific one I have taken of paranormal proponents I’ve spoken with over the years. This poll shows that zero percent of believers come to their position after a review of controlled studies employing the Scientific Method and peer review. Rather, it is based on personal experience, a cousin’s anecdote, or regular History Channel viewing.

Of course, the numbers have nothing to do with what is real. If 100 percent of those residing on a remote Pacific Island believe in the same Cargo Cult god, this unanimity of 1,000 worshippers will not equal one deity.

Some psychic promoters attempt to put a scientific spin on alleged extrasensory phenomenon. Author and parapsychologist Dean Radin is one of the more prominent using this approach. His overarching assertion is that, “Information can be obtained in ways that bypass the ordinary sensory system.” He calls this mysterious force “psi.” In presentations, he has never demonstrated that this force works and, in two books, has provided no evidence for its existence.

And while Radin uses graphs, charts, and statistical analysis, the applied mathematics veneer quickly gives way to the babble used by most psychics. He puts a lot of stock in studies, which would be admirable if they were conducted using solid research methods, sound statistics, and a following of the Scientific method. However, as one example as to this not being the case, these studies fail to explain how ESP or remote viewing could be falsified, and make no attempt to do so. Moreover, many of them rely on a preposterous ad hoc explanation to shoo away any failure. If people perform better than chance, this is considered proof of psychic ability. But if they perform at, or worse than chance, this is touted as proof that a separate psychic phenomenon is leading the test subject astray.

Radin dismisses skeptical scientists due to the “insular nature of their disciplines. The vast majority of psi experiments are unknown to most scientists.” Indeed, the Nobel Prize committee seems to not know Radin’s e-mail address and he has not sent it to them telepathically.

The numbers Radin presents can seem overwhelming (in terms of their volume and complexity, not in terms of their evidence). But this reveals the problem. Far better than an exhaustive book of graphs would be providing us with one prescient person who can correctly guess what word is scribbled on the note James Randi has in his vest pocket. Show me someone who can fool Penn and Teller by using genuine magic to move a cup across the stage, and that will blow me away with more than Radin’s analyses of 1,000 studies.

Being unable to produce such a person, Radin gives us a complex statistical overview of tons of data. Any seeming anomaly is attributed to psi, which skeptics recognize as the appeal to ignorance. In this case, it’s a New Age god of the gaps argument, whereby any unexplained phenomenon proves that psi is responsible.   

In classic pseudoscience tradition, Radin asserts the proof is coming someday. He insists that psi will eventually be explained as part of quantum mechanics. He anticipates people “pushing atoms around with their minds” and our bodies enjoying “mass mind healing” that will end disease and cure paraplegics.

He also anticipates miracles being verified, as we gain an understanding of how Jesus and Krishna used psi techniques to perform them. He also predicts we will see confirmation that mediums talk with the dead, although he failed to clarify if the deceased will finally talk back. He sees us being able to communicate telepathically with anyone, even our friend who now lives in another solar system, which will be possible due to psi’s contributions to the space program. The human mind will become as fast and capable as a supercomputer. Presumably a psychic will finally win the lottery, although the winnings will have to be split 200 million ways.

In his attempt to tie all this into quantum physics, he embraces the concept of entanglement as the key to understanding psychic phenomenon. Entanglement refers to connections between subatomic particles that persist regardless of them being separated by various distances. Radin therefore concludes that this must apply to all entities, be they microscopic, mammals, or moons. He wrote, “The fabric of reality is comprised of entangled threads that are consistent with the core of psi experience.” However, Skeptics Dictionary editor John Renish notes that, “Entanglement can be only of identical elementary particles”

Radin also misapplies the Uncertainty Principle, the idea that observing a particle will affect its behavior. He tries to project this notion onto every other entity in the universe. But the Uncertainty Principle only applies if the observation inputs energy into the system being observed. Put another way, viewing a comet through a telescope won’t cause it to veer off course. And thinking about a long-lost friend won’t prompt him to search you out on Instagram.

Just as astrologers have yet to find an exoplanet and Reiki practitioners have yet to discover any cures, parapsychologists like Radin have yet to make a contribution to neuroscience. Rather, they try to modernize what they consider the wisdom of the ancient mystics by misusing scientific terms and electronic equipment.