Anti-ScienceScienceSkepticism

Idiots Pretend to Do Science, Get Fooled by Magician

I know many of you reading this are working scientists, and so of course you’re familiar with the famed medical journal, International Journal of Yoga. For those of you who don’t subscribe, you’ll be excited to learn that IJOY has just published this solid, peer-reviewed paper called Investigating paranormal phenomena: Functional brain imaging of telepathy. Better yet, it’s available online!

This study, run by “scientists” from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences and the Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation (both in Bangalore, India) involved a sample size of two: one magician named Gerard Senehi and one anonymous schmo who, unlike Gerard, does not lie or misrepresent himself as a psychic with magical powers. (Here’s an amusing NY Magazine article on Gerard if you’re interested.)

Both Gerard and the schmo underwent a single test of psychic powers while connected to an fMRI machine. The test in question was a standard magic trick in which the audience – I mean, researchers – thought of an image and drew it on a piece of paper. Then the magician – I mean, psychic – is to reproduce the drawing.

a.

b.

The researchers compared the drawings and determined that Gerard’s drawing (above, “b”) was “strikingly similar” to the original (above “a”), while the poor schmo’s drawing was nothing like the original. Now, it’s bad enough that we’re basically talking about a magician being tested on a magic trick, but what’s even worse is that the result would have earned Gerard no more than a C- in Mentalism 101 at Bozo’s Discount Correspondence Clown School. The original drawing (which apparently was just thought up on the spot by a researcher instead of carefully planned out and randomized beforehand) was a circle with lines inside it splitting it into eight sections. Gerard drew a square split into four sections. Schmo drew a misshapen rectangle inside another misshapen rectangle.

ZOMG SYKICK POWERZ EXIST!

Seriously, if you’re going to publish a paper based on a SINGLE test of ONE person, is it really asking too much to have it at least hint ever so slightly at the possibility of some interesting ability? Why not start with a dozen simple and easily identifiable and very different objects, randomly choose one by rolling dice, have a person draw it in another room, and then ask the test subject to state which object was drawn? Note that the person doing the drawing should have no contact at all with the test subjects, and the researchers who are watching the brain activity should have no idea which object was chosen. That’s called blinding! It’s usually standard procedure.

Repeat that test a dozen times, and if Gerard does better than chance (one correct guess out of twelve), you might be onto something. If he does better than, say, four out of twelve, well hot damn let’s test that guy some more. If he does better than ten out of twelve – well, that’s about what we might expect from someone claiming to have psychic powers, don’t you think? Meanwhile, if all goes according to plan, our non-psychic control schmo should regularly be hitting one out of twelve.

SCIENCE!

So with all that said, honestly it doesn’t even matter what the fMRI showed. There’s no commonly-accepted “psychic” area of the brain, and showing that Gerard was using a different part of his brain than the control schmo only suggests that the schmo was trying to guess at a geometric shape while Gerard was trying to do a magic trick.

This isn’t the first study to seek out psychic powers by looking at the brain. Sam Moulton at Harvard conducted some fascinating experiments last year, and, lucky us, he’s agreed to visit Boston Skeptics in the Pub to talk about it one week from today. That’s Monday, November 24, at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square – get the details on the Boston Skeptics web site.

Tags

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

Related Articles

11 Comments

  1. This is hilarious. I’ve actually visited the “Institute” in Bangalore. Check it out at vyasa.org.

    It’s a slightly kooky place, but it’s also a legitimate yoga retreat and training institute. I only spent an hour exploring its grounds and it annoyed me, but my Mom lived there for a few days. I’m going to have fun showing her this article.

  2. A good friend of mine was telling me this past week that the History Channel (i.e. the Credulous Channel) had a special on the brain and how it works with regard to a ‘sixth sense’. I don’t know the name of the show. They apparently were testing subjects in a ‘sciencey’ environment (a lab with complicated looking equipment and people in labcoats). While having the subject do something sixth-sensey, they took readings of brain use patterns. Their conclusion is that there is little doubt that humans have some sort of sixth sense, and scientists are getting close to figuring out how the brain does it.
    Now, the kicker….their prize test subject was John Edward. AND he was allegedly right 80-90% of the time! He can’t even do that on his own selectively edited tv show!
    I would find it all hilarious if it hadn’t actually been presented in a very convincing way and in all seriousness. Much of the uncritical public believe the History Channel to be a very trustworthy source of scientific info, and now those who watched this show were likely swayed into believing this is actually a real scientific breakthrough in the real scientific world. Grrr.

  3. @stacie: Don’t you just miss the days when the History channel had the distinction of being the “Hitler” Channel because of all the WWII footage and information they constantly put out? Man those were the days. They actually tried to present real history. At least the Discovery channel has the good sense to put all the crap that isn’t science on at times that most people probably are not watching, like during work hours and such. Sucks for the college students and scientifically aware house wives who would probably prefer something more enlightening but, oh well. You win some you lose some.

  4. The show was actually called “The Brain.” I flipped to it during commercial breaks of a show I can’t remember (or am too embarrassed to admit). So, I didn’t see the entire show but I was slightly interested for the first half. When the sixth sense thing came out I was expecting them to tear them to shreds, but it never came. It was lame, and then even in my intoxicated state, I realized it was not the Science Channel it was the “Credulous Channel.”

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close