Friday, 16 July 2010

Evidence and testimony

Here is a quote I see often on the Skeptiko forum: "You can't prove the existence of a new phenomenon based on eyewitness testimony alone. lots of pieces of anecdotal evidence do not equal one piece of good evidence."

I'd like to know where this belief comes from, where "anecdotal" and "evidence" get hooked together like this. "witness" and "testimony" are used as "evidence" all the time in courtrooms, and that is no different. Critics would say that a legal standard is lower than a scientific one, but it seems to me that with psi it's gotten to the point where it resembles Holocaust denial.

For instance, what do we have as evidence of the Holocaust? Troops entered the camps and found a lot of emaciated corpses (in the camps where they weren't incinerated), they heard anecdotes from survivors, and the found German-language paperwork associated with shipping people to the camps and what was done with them. How does this compare to psi evidence? Is it that much stronger, or isn't it? First, the witness testimony can be totally discarded if the same standard is to be used, because it happened "a long time ago." The same thing goes for all the bodies, because they've long ago disintegrated to nothing, and they could have been tampered with. For all we know, they are German soldiers, forced to be buried en masse in prison camps because that was the only location where they had sufficient labor. As for the paperwork, well, the Germans and English were constantly running elaborate deception campaigns. Perhaps for their own reasons they made it all up. And to top it all off, there are surviving Germans who deny that the Holocaust took place.

The point is that if you really don't want to see something, you can make outlandish arguments seem reasonable, like "witness testimony isn't evidence" or "anecdotes aren't evidence." What is "evidence?" Is evidence a faked lab report as in the great cold fusion hoax a couple decades ago? Or is it a prejudiced peer-reviewed article poisoned by cronyism as in the recent Climate Change scandal in the UK? Is it doctored physical samples like the falsely cloned sheep? What is "evidence" anyway? Is there a category of object or information that can ever be reliably described as "evidence"?

Video tapes can be faked with computer animation, so they can't be evidence. Policemen can be bribed, so their testimony has to be considered suspect, that isn't evidence either (and it's anecdotal), it is possible to counterfeit real-world articles - to pass off no-name Bulgarian jeans as expensive Levi's. An archaeologist digging up centuries-old ruins isn't going to be able to tell the difference between a real Picasso and a well done intentional fake, so his opinion can't be counted as evidence. Blood can be planted, test results, even when not faked, can be skewed or prejudiced by experiment design. Some parts of the results could be affected by a magnet placed too closely to a computer, or a janitor feeding a test animal. There are so many different ways "evidence" can be tampered with, intentionally or not, that there is no point in describing anything as "evidence," or is there?

Ultimately, the decision about what is and what is not evidence is an arbitrary one. With psi, witness testimony makes up the greater part of information available on the subject. This same witness testimony includes,in some cases a perfectly reasonable explanation why the effect is not easily found in a laboratory: it is dependent on very specific circumstances that cannot be generically reproduced in a lab.

There are police officers who deny that psychics are of any use in investigations. On the other hand, there are police officers who say precisely the opposite. In my mind, this would either nullify both or require a close look at each. A close look reveals that the officers who deny that psychics are helpful fall into a couple of groups. One group has no experience with psychics and can be discounted immediately. Another group has worked with psychics, but no positive results occurred in their presence. Fair enough, but this is unrelated to other cases witnessed by other officers where positive results did occur. Then there are officers who describe positive results, but say that they "didn't make the case" or words to that effect. These are the officers I see used most often by skeptics, which is strange, because they are equating psi effects that fail to "make the case" with no psi effect. This is not the same thing, and I would expect skeptics, who claim to be so careful, to notice the difference.

There are more examples of witness testimony to support psi than there are survivors of the German prison camps in WWII. There are more rigorous psi experiments available than there are similar examples made in an effort to prove that psi is false. Physical remnants of psi effects do exist. All of these things are "evidence." To discard witness testimony in the case of psi, is like a psychologist trying to diagnose a patient on the basis of personal artifacts alone. At some point the words you use are meaningful and should be listened to.

I understand that skeptics react to psi claims the way my wife responds to snakes, but this is no reason to be timid. You cannot expect people to walk around with a video camera trained on them all day long to capture any psi-influenced event that spontaneously presents itself. That just will not happen. To try and re-create in a lab psi of the strength seen naturally is like trying to get a fish to swim on a dry beach. It may be able to move a bit, but outside of its natural environment, it can only do so much.

With that in mind, ignoring witness testimony here is no different from ignoring it in a police investigation, or a psychologist paying no attention to his patient, or a salesperson ignoring his customer. You will never get the answer you seek if you are unwilling to listen to the answer. By treating psi as if it is the kind of thing that can be commanded at will to perform amidst a sterile environment populated by gas jets, sodium capsules, and other artifacts of a laboratory, is to completely ignore what it is and where it is normally found.

When Disney went out to make their "True-Life Adventures" series, did they try to recreate the ocean in their studio to film it? No. They went to the ocean, or the prairie, or Africa, New Zealand, the Philippines, or wherever they had to go. Archaeologists likewise go to dig sites, wherever they might be, and Zoologists, and even Climate Change scientists. All of these people go to where the phenomena they seek to study is found. Why is it that in parapsychology, phenomena that is only known due to witness testimony is considered tainted because of witness testimony?

Here is an analogy that shouldn't be too difficult to comprehend: a Bedouin tells his brother about some cracked jars containing scrolls that he found in a cave. The brother tells some other people and it eventually becomes known to archaeologists. By then, many of the scrolls have been sold to traders and are gone. The only evidence they were ever there is witness testimony from the brothers, and the fragments of a single scroll left in the cave. Should they be believed?

This is not much different from the situation with psi. There normally is a story about an event with some artifact, either in the form of additional witness testimony or some documentation, but this is almost always after the fact because of the nature of the events. If you managed to recognize the story above, you know it was the Dead Sea Scrolls, and that the Bedouins were believed, and many (or all) of the scrolls were recovered. Why miss out on a discovery of even greater proportions by insisting on the meaningless conceit that witness testimony isn't evidence?

When children from around the world spontaneously provide statements that indicate memories of having lived before as another person, and they provide enough information to verify that this person really existed, should all that be thrown out because it is witness testimony? What about the fact that thousands of children who have had no contact with each other or knowledge of reincarnation spontaneously make these statements? That fact alone should arouse curiosity at the very least, but it is also "evidence." It is evidence that for some reason unknown, many unrelated children are making similar unusual statements. When combined with verifications of the previous personalities (all of which comes down to witness testimony) you would have to be a very cynical person to deny it all. Either that, or a Holocaust-denier in principle.


Sunday, 21 February 2010

Mush for the brain

A youtube personality named QualiaSoup has been posting some slick presentations on the net lately. On one forum I read regularly, he's become a popular topic of conversation. At my office, he's all the rage. His videos can be found here:

The beauty of these presentations is how well-directed they are. The voice-over and images have a nice rhythm, and support each other well. All of the videos support atheism. Their purpose is to prove that religion is the result of poor critical thinking skills. Secondarily, belief in the supernatural or the paranormal are also the result of inferior critical thinking skills. With no small amount of condescension, qualiasoup endeavors to enlighten the troglodytes of the world with his simplistic videos. Too bad they don't make any sense.

The annoyingly arrogant narrator becomes only more so in the first few seconds of every video, as he almost instantly trips over every sentence he utters. Whatever the subject, he makes assumptions about his listeners that are not true. As a listener on the other side of the debate, it should be instantly clear that he cannot possibly be talking about you, because nothing he says is applicable. Oddly, everything he says is delivered in a dull, father-knows-best monotone. He really doesn't have a clue, but affects to know everything. The irony would be easier to enjoy if only qualiasoup were aware of what he is missing.

The problem is that he doesn't use any facts at all in the presentations. Instead, he makes logical calculations based on incorrect assumptions. Conveniently for him, he assumes that the evidence he is debating does not exist. In one video, he gave an example of something that happened to me some time ago. It was literally, the same thing; a prediction of a 20 roll sequence using 6-sided dies. He then dismissed the possibility that a prediction of the exact twenty number sequence would be made immediately before the dice were rolled. This is exactly what I did though. I predicted the entire sequence in one statement, prior to rolling any dice, and then it happened, exactly as predicted. But this just doesn't happen in qualiasoup's version of the world, because it is far too unlikely. The way he figures it, it will happen to someone, but it is impossible to know to whom it will occur. Not so, at least in my case.

This is what all of his statements are like. He doesn't believe in psychic events, so he dismisses anyone who has actual knowledge of those things. He doesn't believe in God, so he makes videos based on his opinions and prejudices. He doesn't bother to check anything out. I'm not sure what it says about his critical thinking skills, but his research skills get a big zero, for not having gone to the trouble of even looking at the material he imagines he is debunking.

Listening to the qualiasoup channel, if you can stand it, is like filling your head with wet cement. Don't let it happen to you, run for the exits if you must, but if you want to improve your critical thinking skills, qualiasoup is not the place to go.


Thursday, 21 January 2010

A forum response

Last night, I wrote a response to a question on a forum that happened to reference an interesting meeting. When I woke this morning, I realized that I'd never written anything about this incident, so this post will rectify that oversight.

In June of 1990, at 6:15 pm, at Garvin's restaurant in New York, I met a psychic I'd read about named Beatrice Rich. I was curious what a real psychic would be like, if there was indeed such an animal, and had set up the meeting to find out. She charged a hundred dollars for the reading, an amount that seemed high to me at the time, but from my current perspective as a forty-four year old, seems modest.

To avoid mistaken impressions, it should be pointed out that while I was skeptical whether other people, or any certain person was psychic at the time of this meeting, I was at the same time convinced of some of my own psychic experiences. The question then, was not whether anyone in the world could be psychic, but whether any certain person was. My skepticism of Beatrice came only from my long-held prejudice against people who made a career of their psychic abilities. In Beatrice's case, it wasn't entirely true, but I didn't know that at the time. She didn't "make a living" as a psychic, but performed readings once a week to satisfy demand.

This reading was the first of two I would eventually have, the second taking place shortly after the first, on June 24, 1990. I told the Maitre' d' who I was there to see, and he brought me directly to her table. She was perfectly normal in appearance, but her personality was pleasant to a degree I may not have ever encountered at that point in my life (and maybe not since either). To put it mildly, she did not come across as a person who could ever deceive someone else. This impression, I knew, might well be mistaken. I told her that I wanted to test her first, because we hadn't met before, and I needed some kind of bona fides before proceeding.

Thinking about it now, this must have been somewhat amusing to her because of the difference in our ages (I was twenty-four, and she was probably in her forties). In any event, she graciously complied by giving me some impressions that she was getting about me. She said she saw me working on a painting, that I was an artist, the painting was a landscape of a cold, deserted, far-away place. All true so far, but I didn't say anything. If my face registered somehow that she was getting everything right so far, I wouldn't know, but her next question couldn't possibly have come even if I'd been nodding my head in wild-eyed agreement with everything she said. She asked, "Is it Mars?" And she was right about that also. It was based on an old photo taken by Viking I (and thus in the public domain), and not by Voyager, as I thought last night when I made my post. Thanks to reader Ersby for his correction.

She then said she saw me working on a comic strip. She said that my wife's drawing were cleaner than mine, but my writing was better. She described my drawings as "lumpy", unflattering, but at the time quite true, at least of my cartoon drawings. My wife is also an artist, and is good enough that she has received serious attention from a couple of major syndicates, though at that time she hadn't yet made her first submission. All this was semi interesting, but then she did it again and gave me something very specific, she said, "The main character is a doctor, is it you?" This was completely correct also. I am not a doctor, but the main character in the strip, Dr. Andy, is based on me and he is a doctor.

So she was two for two here, in addition to making other statements that proved true. Some though, were not. Here are a few samples from my notes:
1) I asked her if she could tell me anything about my older sister, who had been adopted out of my family as an infant, and hadn't been seen since. She said that she lived in the north, in Canada, near an international border. She said that she was alive at the time and would be crossing this international border soon. She is moody and intense, sees her working with sick people, like at a hospital. She is big-boned, possibly overweight. She has dark hair. It is possible to find her. I asked if her name might be "Gretchen Schmidt", a name that I had run across as a possibility. She said it was not correct but that her adoptive parents are probably German.

There was no way for me to check any of this information at the time, because my sister still hadn't been found. Two years later, she found me. Rich was correct about her on most items, but not all. She lived in the north of Minnesota near the Canadian border, but not in Canada. I don't know what she did for a living then (she probably told me, but I forgot). She was not "large-boned" or "overweight". She is moody, her name was not Gretchen Schmidt, and her adoptive parents, named Pfiffner", are German.

2) I asked about a painting I'd recently bought as an investment. Her answer was incorrect in every way. Far from going up in value, or making a profit when I sold it, I received $25,000 less than I paid when it was sold at Christie's about a year and a half ago.

3) I asked her about a dream I'd had about the connection between me, my uncle, a friend, my father, and brother. She answered that the dream takes place in the 1850's, not later as I thought, that the family is well-to-do, and that the conflict between privilege and austerity is their point. I ask her to give me names from the dream, and she immediately comes up with "Ben" for the father, and, after some prodding, "James" for the brother. She sees a lot of wealth and connects it to pipe-fittings, lead, and pieces of pipe. The father is warm and friendly, someone else is disconsolate and frequently draws nature studies.

In my post last night I didn't mention most of these details, because the only parts that were pertinent were the names. But here, I'll point out that she was right about everything, at least to the extent the dream could be checked out. Some items were left out because there is no way to check on them. My father's name in the dream is Ben, as she said, just as my brother's name is James. Outside of the dream, I only have one family member named Benjamin, a cousin who was born after the dream. I have no relatives named James that I know of. The dream was about a life lived in a huge mansion, owned by my wealthy father. In one of the dreams about him, he owned a company that dealt in very large industrial-sized pipe fittings and pipes. Her comments about the personalities were correct also.

I asked a few other questions, and her answers were either generally correct or impossible to verify. With the items mentioned here however, she had done enough to convince me that she was genuine, regardless of the misses. The sample may be too small to generalize, but her statements about my dreams and personal life tended to be much more accurate than those about the future. The simple fact that there is a definable boundary to segregate the accurate from the inaccurate statements is interesting, but inconclusive.

I've got more incidents like this that, now that I think of it, I've never published. I may put some more on my website, later, in the dream section. Speaking of which, I may have to rename that section "Psi", because it will then include more than just dreams.