Monday, 15 February 2010

GUEST POST: Quacks, quacks, quacks

Given the popularity of that smackdown of homeopathic quackery by the Skeptics’ Vicki Hyde the other night, here’s a guest post on similar quacks put together by regular commenter Falafulu Fisi (and Vicki Hyde) a few years back when they were all over the telly.  It was an episode of 20/20 that finally kicked him into print . . .

Recent weeks have seen the screening of several documentaries about mysticism and so-called faith-based practices. TV3’s 20/20 profiled Taranaki medium Jeanette Wilson in a piece called "Back from the Dead";  another was an hour-long special investigation of the self-described Grandmaster Aiping Wang. Investigations they weren’t. Both documentaries displayed a complete lack of journalistic balance of this growing multimillion-dollar ‘faith-based’ industry. What cried out for solid, robust treatment was presented instead as just breathless entertainment. 

We watched Wilson and Wang make unchallenged claims for their treatments that challenge modern human knowledge - claims that contradict proven concepts and knowledge in fields as diverse as Physics, Philosophy, Psychology, Probability and Statistics. Instead of going to a recognised university to get opinions from each of these departments, we saw reporter Melanie Reid describing Wilson’s performance as “astonishing” and citing how impressed she was with both Wilson's presentation - "she looks just like Lady Di!" gushed Reid - and her accuracy - "she was coming up with specific names and relationships." Ooh ah!

Claims for “accuracy” are actually well-covered by a field called statistics. It is a pity Reid seems never to have heard of it, for the sort of hit-or-miss high-school level descriptive statistics used by Reid is not the proper way to test the validity of a claim or hypothesis. In proper statistical testing, a hypothesis is first formulated and then rigorously tested with a method called DOE (design of experiment). Since claims like the ability to talk to the dead would be dependent on many variables, a discipline called multivariate (many variables) analysis would also be applied. Following this, the hypothesis can be either confidently validated or rejected following such an analysis. Indeed, this writer is already confident that had 20/20 sought expert advice from the Auckland University Statistics department the result would be both a sure rejection of the validity of the psychic ability of Jeanette Wilson, and better television viewing.

Of course the very powerful images selected by 20/20 were chosen precisely because they make great entertainment for the unthinking. They didn't screen many of the more unimpressive readings, for example when Wilson asked a lady twice if her father had died, or the cases where she used the same names and stock phrases over and over again.  

While 20/20 did include a very brief critique, it was disappointing that the programme chose to focus extensively on one very emotional, but content-free reading in what they called a "test" of the medium's ability. The real tests of such skills have to be carefully planned in order to avoid naïve or misleading interpretations, and once again statistical hypothesis-validation must be applied. If 20/20 had divided the audience into different ethnicities and then asked Wilson to do a performance with groups only of Polynesians or Asians for example, it might well demonstrate a shortfall in Wilson’s techniques. As common names such as “Falafulufisi” or “Semisi” will probably be unfamiliar to her, I would suggest the hit rate for her guess work will likely be almost zero or quite low. This is just one way a proper statistical test should have been conducted.

Faith-based practitioners come in a range of makes and models - Clairvoyant, Psychic, Palm Reader, Spiritual Surgeon, Crystal reader/healer, Numerologist, Channelling Medium, Tarot Reader, – and cover a vast field of alternative therapies - Herbal Medicine, Holistic Therapy, Homeopathy, Naturopathy, Spiritual Healing and so on. 

For the most part, all use a collection of staple techniques well documented in many books such as Peter Huston's Scams from the Great Beyond. An example is that of fishing for names, where the medium will ask a client if a common name such as John "has any meaning for them." Asking leading questions designed to elicit information or agreement is another common tactic aimed at building confidence in the performer and making it appear as if they are revealing hidden knowledge. Telling a middle-aged audience member that their parent or grandparent is watching over them is another technique playing simple demographics, as it is more than likely that such people will have older relatives who have died. Neither Wilson nor Wang offer anything new in the way of technique.  

Wilson’s website for her ‘Taranaki School of Reiki’ informs us that “Reiki energy has a consciousness of its own and knows just where to go and what to do.” Faith practices frequently use the term “energy” to refer to some non-tangible entity that conveniently sits above or outside the ‘Laws of Physics’ meaning that the laws of Physics can somehow be defied. However, there is no such non-tangible entity as energy outside the ‘Laws of Physics.’ Energy is a concept well-defined and understood by Physics and all its physical properties accord with the Laws of Physics, which are observable, quantitative and measurable – none of which can be said for Wilson’s flights of fancy.

Grandmaster Aiping Wang’s interview included the claim that followers can be taught to heal themselves by “making connection with the energy of the universe” as well as by flying. Good luck. An Aiping Wang follower did say that he did really ‘believe’ he could fly His ‘belief’ is hardly relevant however – he either can or he can’t, and the proof of his claim would be simply to demonstrate the skill. He chose not to grant us this boon, but instead cited as proof of something that that there were lawyers, doctors and highly educated professionals in the group. This is a typical comment from people who wanted to justify faith practice as genuine, but it proves only that there are suckers everywhere. 

Claims such as yogic-flying, psycho-kinesis, bending of spoons by the power of the mind and so forth are all claims comprehensively answered by science and the sceptic literature. Were these things to occur as described, physical laws would be broken in all cases – amongst others Newton’s third law of motion, energy conservation and momentum conservation respectively. 

Some faith-based practitioners have jumped on the theory of quantum mechanics as a means of validating their claims. One website suggests that the phenomenon of quantum mechanics offers proof for the human mind’s psychic ability since, it suggests, “the mind is operating at a quantum level.” This particular website points to recent ground-breaking experiments conducted at the University of Innsbruck. In these experiments, instantaneous communication between sub-atomic particles at a distance has been inferred. Such a phenomenon is indeed ground-breaking, for it implies that faster-than-light communication is possible – something Einstein had ruled out in the 1930s.

Much more investigation is needed however to completely integrate and understand what the results imply, however these faith-based practitioners are not waiting for the science – they’ve already claiming that this instantaneity of communications is the explanation for psychic phenomena and the ability to see the future. The human brain emits some sort of quantum particles called “psychotrons” that enable us to communicate with the dead, they say. Now, except for their presence in the dreams of the demented, such quantum particles have never been detected. Never. But the claim for them is an instructive one for the way it illustrates the methodology – or lack thereof – of these practitioners.  

Science proposes its hypotheses based on logical deduction or inductive reasoning, which it then sets out to test. For example, the quantum particles known as ‘quarks’ were deduced on paper some twenty years before the first experimental observations confirmed their existence. By contrast, the ‘psychotron’ has simply been dreamed up and its existence is just wishful thinking. Neither deductive nor inductive reasoning has been undertaken or claimed, and no evidence has been given of their existence.

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman used to dismiss anything about the world that was not accessible to scientific method. Author and philosopher Ayn Rand went further: she showed that when presented with a claim that is purely arbitrary then that claim must be rejected. An arbitrary claim is one made entirely without proof, such as that there are green spiders on Mars or that we can talk to the dead. Since one can’t disprove a negative, the onus is on the one asserting the claim to offer some evidence. If none is offered, the door to such a claim must be closed – the arbitrary is out.  

If, in this case, the medium had definitive proof of the after-life, this should have been world-shattering news.  After all, with this sort of capability, it means there should be no unsolved murders, no missing children and all faith-based practitioners would be so wealthy from stock-market success they would hardly need to dabble in the day-to-day tawdriness of the faith-healing circus. The world would certainly be a better place, and that's something about which there could be no doubt. So where’s their evidence?

It doesn’t exist.

So why worry about these faith-based practitioners? 

There is no problem with Granny reading the tea leaves, but when vulnerable people are being exploited, it would be ethically wrong not to be cautious about such extraordinary claims without seeing extraordinary proof. That exploitation can take many forms, whether causing unnecessary heartbreak for distraught parents of missing children, fleecing little old ladies out of their retirement savings, false hope for dying cancer patients, or breaking up relationships through inappropriate advice - all of which we have seen occur here and overseas. Wishing doesn’t make it so, and no amount of wishing otherwise can change that.

Most reports on the latest medium or psychic doing the rounds are treated very lightly, but the ‘gee-whiz’ method chosen recently by 20/20 can have dangerous consequences. Readers and viewers are better served if the journalist takes the time to think critically about what they see - and you may find it avoids the clichés and makes a more interesting story and better television. 20/20’s own John Stossel has made an award-winning career out of proving this last point.  

We might all hope that one day we'll find someone who actually can speak to the dead - we'd all like the comfort of knowing that death is just a transition to another life. But if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck …


  1. First, I would like to thank Peter Cresswell for editing the article, there were some lines that PC had corrected (grammatically) and also changed the some of the wordings to make my points more clearer and that showed PC's editing skills.

    Second, I would also like to thank Vicki Hyde, Chairperson of the NZ Skeptics Society, because we co-wrote this article. Half of the content of the article was written by Vicki and half was written by me (Falafulu Fisi), so I should give credit of where it's due.

    Finally, the final edited/proofed piece was submitted to the NZ Herald for possible publication but it din't make it.

  2. Jeanette Wilson's view on genetic engineering from her website. She stated that she joined MAdGE – Mothers Against Genetic Engineering.

  3. Including Herbal Medicine, Holistic Therapy, Naturopathy - in your little list of the Quacks merely displays your ignorance of the matter.

    Ken Shock, Physicist

  4. I cant believe that it is so black and white to you. I used to be skeptic until one day I met a lady and around lunch we began talking and I asked her what she does. She replied she is a medium. I told her I didnt believe in that stuff. Right there and then my life changed. She began to tell me all about my past and present and what was coming up for me in my future. Now myself and my husband and children had just moved to the city and knew no one so tell me just how she knew all of this personal information. Since then I have read quite a few books regarding mediums and their abilities and have started attending development circles myself. I can tell you that once you are provided with real proof from someone you dont know about, stuff that you KNOW you didnt tell anyone then that is REAL PROOF. Yes some are fake and I have seen some that just generalise things but there are in fact real people with this gift. And to all of your suggestions as to why they dont know the stock market it is too in depth to go into like this but we are all here to learn lessons. And what lessons we dont learn in this life we will in our next. Spirits are not with us to give us an easy ride they are here to guide us when we need. Please do yourself a favour and do some research into genuine mediums and go and see one for a private reading. Publicly is not the best as you always wonder if they planted that person in the crowd to provide the entertainment the only time you will believe is when you see it for yourself not by listening to others.


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