Archive | April 2010

Baloney Detection 101 — The Ideomotor Effect

Ouija boardsautomatic writing…table tipping in spiritualist seancesdowsing in all its forms, including bogus bomb detectors…the Clever Hans phenomenonapplied kinesiology…New Age psychotherapy techniques that purport to query the unconscious…what do all of these things have in common?

They are all in some form or other the results of a well-understood and empirically well-established psycho-muscular phenomenon known as the Ideomotor effect.

Known mostly to psychologists, it is a phenomenon which has been repeatedly confirmed since the days of William B. Carpenter in 1852, who called it ‘Ideomotor action’ after his investigations into dowsing, and to paraphrase Dr. Ray Hyman, who after he tested this phenomenon has said that “honest and intelligent people can (and do…) unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations.”

It is a mechanism in which mental suggestiveness can produce results of unconscious or involuntary actions that may be erroneously viewed as paranormal or supernatural by those unaware of it, both body and mind influenced by the power of subtle, unconscious suggestion. The nature of the movement caused by the effect is the result of a mild dissociative state, in which the user’s conscious awareness of the motion he is performing is suspended, producing the illusion of motion seemingly caused by mysterious forces external to himself, often considered to be paranatural or otherwise mysterious in origin.

Such notables as psychologist William James, chemist Michel Chevereul, and physicist Michael Faraday have tested this phenomenon and successfully shown that many seemingly inexplicable effects or forces can be more parsimoniously explained as resulting from Ideomotor activity, such as moving a ouija board’s planchette, the rod or pendulum of a dowser, diviner or alchemist, the hands of a practitioner of Facilitated Communication, as well as some behaviors often attributed to hypnotic suggestion.

The Ideomotor effect, though most people, even quite a few scientists, are unaware of it, is a well-documented phenomenon and includes the following features:

  • It amplifies the motion of a pendulum or other hand-held object, such as a divining rod in ways that the operator doesn’t consciously notice, and then…
  • …The operator, completely unaware of his own agency in the motion, ascribes it to something ‘outside’ or ‘other’ than himself…
  • …This ‘something outside’ is then thought to be some sort of paranormal, occult, or unknown scientific force, typically some sort of spiritual agency or ‘energy field’ in the operator’s vicinity…
  • …Which then produces a powerful feeling, quickly snowballing into a full-fledged delusion, that the operator possesses some sort of unusual or special ability, power over, or sensitivity to unusual forces or influences…
  • …And when thus used in attempts at divination this effect reveals no knowledge to the operator that he or she didn’t already possess, though the operator may not be aware that they know what they do on a conscious level. This is especially true when the effect is used in ‘water witching’ when the operator has unconscious knowledge of what local geological characteristics are likely to be in an area where underground water sources are to be found, and even if not, in most cases there is a fair likelihood of finding water by chance anyway.

In any case, success in this by the operator reinforces belief, failure is downplayed and forgotten, which causes…

  • …the psychological reinforcement resulting from the dissociation of bodily motion and conscious awareness of it to magnify the delusional effect, setting in motion cognitive mechanisms that prevent the operator’s belief in the effect from being falsified…

…and as a result, many operators become firmly convinced of their own powers, even despite evidence to the contrary, such as a careful and patient explanation with a demonstration of the scientific understanding behind this effect.

Project Logicality | False Premises

Why care for the truth? Why not? After all, the success of our plans depends on the truth of the claims we accept. And truth is a harsh mistress, unkind, even dangerous, when rejected by those unconcerned with her.

The truth is crucial to skeptical thinking, and one must always be careful to choose those facts that bear it out reliably and effectively. Even in a post-truth political world, to skeptics, facts matter. Here, I address False Premises, important parts of unreliable reasoning.

False premises are statements, claims, out-of-context factoids, half-truths, or assertions which are simply not true, or at least partially untrue, making any argument using them unsound.

They can range from simple myths, notions held out of ignorance, motivated reasoning, dishonesty, misinformed opinion, or pathological thinking. This is a common rhetorical tool for pseudoscientists, anti-scientists, politicians, apologists, cranks, and ideological con-artists of all stripes. Here are a couple of examples:

Quantum Mechanics supports the idea that reality does not exist unless it is being looked at by a conscious observer.

Quantum Mechanics explains telepathy as a result of the shared Entanglement of particles in separate brains.

The first is false because quantum observation has nothing to do with consciousness or even the possession of any other sort of function commonly associated with a living mind at all.

It simply involves the effects on a quantum object from its physical interaction with other particles, like bouncing photons off of a quantum object in order to measure some feature of it, such as its position or velocity.

Bouncing particles off of other particles to observe them alters their trajectory before we observed them, and so changes what we observe based on what features we are observing and what we are using to observe them with. No consciousness needed.

It is also demonstrably false because Quantum Mechanics, as a widely-accepted and well-supported scientific theory absolutely depends on the existence of an underlying reality to be a correct understanding of that reality on the micro-level, no matter who is running the experiment, when, or where.

The second is false because firstly, it’s pointless to explain something before it’s even convincingly shown to exist to begin with. After over a century of attempts at verifying it, psychic research has still failed to convincingly demonstrate the reality of telepathy to the scientific community at large.

It’s also false because secondly, there is no evidence of any quantum-level effects, especially entanglement, in the thus-far detectable neurological activity of the human brain. Human brain cells are too big, too complex, and interact with too much both within and outside of themselves to operate as quantum objects. Decoherence works.

Below are three common variants of this error.

The Big Lie:

This is a false statement so extremely and obviously wrong that it is difficult for many people to think that it would be told if it were not true, especially when told with seeming sincerity, as part of intentional deception, casual and uncaring bullshittery, or even delusion.

Three examples follow:

This starship is constructed out of corbomite. If you fire upon us, the explosion will destroy both our vessels.


I wouldn’t do that if I were you. As a man with an alien weapon in my brain, I can kill you just by looking at you crosseyed.


The scientific evidence for Psi is compelling, just Google “evidence for psi” to see for yourself.

That last example, slightly paraphrased, has been used by a commentator on my other blog at least once, and, though false and baldly stated, is probably quite commonly used by trolls on blogs and websites critical of psi research.

The Multiple Untruth:

This is also known as the Gish Gallop, after its frequent use in debates by the late creationist Duane Gish, and now by apologist William Lane Craig in his debates with atheists and skeptics.

This is the spitting out of so many misconceptions so quickly that they are almost impossible to keep in mind. Though the opponent of the one using this tactic may have the time to refute a few of them, those skilled in debate must judiciously choose which claims to refute and which to ignore. Not all arguments in a debate are of equal rhetorical worth.

This is often effective because against inexperienced debaters, it creates an impression of victory to the user’s audience. What choices you make in refutation matter.

The Noble Lie:

Plato is often credited with inventing this one, and he may indeed have. At any rate, he wrote about it in his dialogue the Republic. It’s a common debating tactic, a falsehood told not only for its rhetorical effect, but also for the intended result of believing the premise.

It operates on the assumption that those it is told to cannot handle the truth or are so stupid that they cannot possibly see through it.

Those treated like fools by being told the lie, once they know the truth, often have an emotional reaction to it, dismissing out of hand anything said by that source from then on.

Plato’s writing on this describes what he thought the ideal society, in which complicity to the social order was maintained by the Noble Lie, that the citizens were placed there by the gods with status set by their essence being of a particular metal, and that because of this essence, all should keep their place and avoid presumptuous human overreach by attempting to rise in status.

If your aim is to engage in intellectually honest, truly constructive discussions, it’s a good idea not to commit this, not only by avoiding intentional falsehoods, but avoiding unintentional misconceptions by making an effort to know what you’re talking about. Nobody can be right about everything, but it pays to do your homework.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

(Last Update: 2017.06.06)

Science Fiction & ‘Psionic’ Abilities

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been a big science fiction fan. After all, it’s what got me interested in science, and later, modern scientific skepticism.

As a science fiction fan, I’ve always thought that weird mental powers — known as ‘psionics,’ a sciency term for what we in the real world refer to as alleged psychic abilities — are just way cool, and my old concept (now long since outdated) of my science fiction setting Terra M (henceforth renamed Gods of Terra)used the idea as one of the major plot elements in the story lines.

So much for that for now…

I’m in the process of majorly rethinking my fictional universe, and as well as redoing the iconic characters of the setting, and also come up with the idea of brain-implanted alien artifacts called ‘hypershards’ to explain the powers of the setting’s evolved superhumans, hominids called Mirants.

These powers in so many fictional settings are so unlike the unproven abilities of real world psychics in that while sometimes subtle, they can also be unambiguously provable, sometimes ridiculously so. I suppose that this is one reason some of the real-world psychics who truly believe in their abilities take issue with being compared to the X-Men. After all, Professor X has to my knowledge never had any trouble using his telepathic abilities even under the most stringent conditions, no matter if a skeptic or believer was running the test, and few people in most comic book universes doubt the existence of such abilities precisely because they are so demonstrably provable.

Hmmm, sounds like sour grapes syndrome to me.

I think that SF psionics is cool because it has a strange sort of existential status, a superposition of being simultaneously both high-technology and low-technology. I’ll explain:

The low-tech aspect of SF psionics is the fact that you don’t always need advanced gadgetry to use it — You just concentrate, and stuff happens — depending on the setting of course. Some SF universes require their psionicists, or psions (SF psychics) to have some sort of material focus to help them center their concentration, ranging all the way from simple items like amulets or headbands made of crystal or weird metallic alloys (platinum-group metals are popular) to hyper-advanced ‘psychotronic’ machinery, often using reverse-engineered alien technology (I used a similar but modified idea for my hypershard-granted powers, which I call myria or myrionics).

The high-tech aspect, in addition to the some of the aforementioned gadgetry used to employ these abilities in some settings, is the fact that in many SF universes, these powers are relatively well-understood in terms of how they work and why, even if only according to the science of the setting. In these universes, psi is science, not pseudoscience.

Yes, it may be pseudoscience, but even as a skeptic it’s still fun to imagine. I’m a skeptic largely because I want to know the real explanations for what seems to be paranormal, not just accept on faith whatever psychics and believers assert without substantiation.

Trust me, I have looked at what passes for evidence of psi, and it’s curious, perhaps even suspicious, that the only supporting sources I could find are those entities dedicated to promoting it, like right here, and here. In my experience, the normal and natural have been tested countless times and always come up positive, and just the opposite has happened whenever the paranatural has been tested — It has consistently come up zero at best.

In an SF universe where the understanding of the laws of physics actually allows for it, there is usually a broad scientific consensus in those fields dealing with psi on a coherent theoretical basis for what it does and how it works, a situation most unlike the real world, where the paraphysical community still has nothing close to a general agreement on a workable, testable, evidentially supported theory of psi, despite a disappointing 130+years of investigation. The original pioneers of the field would not be pleased if they could see what passes for its ‘progress’ today.

Sigh…Yes, I know, there’s quantum mechanics, the most abused and misunderstood physical theory ever appropriated to support belief in woo, used for everything from ‘explaining’ telepathy to using science to ‘debunk’ reality. Sorry, but I still exist to write this post, even when you’re not looking at me. It’s curious that those who understand QM best, the majority of quantum physicists themselves, don’t advocate its validity in explaining psi. I wonder why…

Despite any wishes on my part, until psi can be demonstrated in independently replicated tests regardless of the attitudes or beliefs of the experimenters, it is likely to remain marginalized, even ridiculed, ever on the borderlands of science, and remain unlikely to ever ‘subvert the dominant paradigm.’

A Night at the Conference

The Mirus was having a grand time at the 2015 Annual World Skeptics’ Conference, chatting it up with some of the most brilliant clear thinkers in the world, including several of the skeptics who had just a year ago tested and validated him as the only proven supernormal being on the planet. Needless to say, the ten million dollar prize money he won in the final test came in handy: He used it to fund his own professional organization, both to try to find others like himself through testing, and to expose those who merely pretended to possess unusual powers by the same means. A skeptic with paranormal abilities…who would’a thunk it?

So far, he had been unsuccessful in the former, though some of the latter had been tested and found wanting, and most just never took the bait. He could easily speculate as to why.

The Mirus’ abilities stemmed from a bizarre alien artifact in his brain, a piece of technology stemming from an application of higher-order physics millions of years beyond humanity’s current achievements…a hypershard — a construct whose existence extended into eleven dimensions of spacetime — which would have had some…interesting effects had he been a normal human. Fully meshed with his own brain, the implant’s advanced nature alone qualified it as paranormal, since no one on Earth would understand its workings for millions of years to come…

He had no idea how it had gotten there…

Instead, he suspected that he belonged to a hominid species of which he was the only known member, characterized by variations in human brain architecture that allowed him to harbor his hypershard without going mad from the cognitive and perceptual feedback the implant might have produced in a Homo sapiens. He had hoped to confirm or confute that hypothesis with actual data some day.

He was in the midst of talking with the former magician who had hosted this meeting of minds, when his hypershard alerted him to the acoustic signature, complete with a diagram displayed by a superimposed visual overlay, of several…things…approaching the dinner hall he and several hundred others where in.

Hmmm. One of them seems familiar…awfully big though, I’d say around half a metric ton in mass. The rest are little guys, armored — as if that will do them any good against me — and armed as well. They don’t seem to have injured or killed anyone…yet. This is going to be interesting.

With this thought, he rolled his eyes and sighed as the beings strode into the room, the big one standing around three meters tall and built like a brick sh*thouse. This one, a reptilian being looking like something out of a Japanese kaiju flick, swayed its tail from side to side while looking around the room as if searching for something, its massive armored body striding forward with each foot step making a heavy *thump* as it walked.

The others, apparently of the same species, but less than a meter and a half tall, were likewise armored, and armed with what the Mirus immediately recognized as gauss weaponry, small magnetic railguns designed to be carried by a single soldier and capable of sustained and automatic fire.

The humans in the room cleared a path as one of the creatures brandished its weapon and fired a warning shot, the hypersonic rounds making a loud *crack* as they passed over the humans’ heads. The Mirus stood where he was.

One of the small ones pointed in his direction, and the giant, apparently the leader, strode over and stopped in front of him. It seemed to bow its head as if greeting him, and a series of guttural, staccato sounds, apparently spoken in several tones at once, issued forth. The Mirus responded in kind, and this exchange went on for several seconds until the giant said in perfect but multiple-toned English, “You speak our language well for a human, but your pronunciation is atrocious due to your vocal limits. We shall converse in your language instead.”

A smile crossed the Mirus’ face as he looked the towering being in the eyes and said, “Bazrikoss Gurao of Rhiljitar, what brings you to my humble little world? Have you forgotten that this planet is off limits?” The smaller beings, Bazrikoss’ bodyguards, aimed their gauss weapons in his direction as he continued, “And what’s with the toys?” Before a shot could be fired, he gestured, and the weapons were jerked out of the grip of the alien warriors as if by unseen hands, and like an exploded view diagram in a technical manual, immediately flew apart, the now disassembled pieces falling to the floor in a heap. “I hope your mooks know how to reassemble their equipment. They’ll need to.”

“Now then…” he continued, “where were we? Oh, yes, this is where I send you on your way…or else.” Bazrikoss’ left hand, now obviously artificial, began to flow like liquid, into something looking for all the world like some sort of ornate barreled weapon, its nanotech construction reconfiguring it into something nasty. The tip of the barrel leveled at the Mirus, glowing with a radiance so dark that it was almost black, and indigo lightning shot forth, rather than striking him, arcing and twisting around him before finally dying out, apparently absorbed harmlessly by nothingness. The hypershard again. Hmmm. Particle strike. Bad move on his part.

Bazrikoss screamed as the Mirus looked at him with a cold gleam in his eye, and then, starting outwardly, the giant alien began to dissolve, also into nothingness, until the dissolution reached the very center of what was left of his body, which then winked out of existence, something that had been on his right middle finger falling to the floor with an audible *plink!*

Our hero looked at the floor where the object had fallen, a transparent metal circlet, sized for the fingers of someone of Bazrikoss’ measurements. He strode over, and picked it up, walked over to one of the smaller beings and said, “I know what this is and what it does. Tell your master when this brings him back that if he ever sets foot on this planet again, he dies. In fact, tell him that I will kill him if he even enters this system. He had his one chance from me, and that’s all he gets. Next time, I’ll destroy his means of resurrection as well. Now go.” He placed the ring in the hand of the leading alien, and closed its fingers upon it, as the alien gate crashers turned around and left.

He turned and gestured at the pile of gauss rifle parts strewn on the floor, and they faded away as he said, “Wow. I must have set off the detection elements of every neutrino telescope on the planet with that. So, tell me people…what did you think of my little magic act?”