Thursday, February 21, 2008

Making Asses

I do not personally believe that people claiming the ability to channel the dead have a genuine ability. I hope that some do. I would find comfort in proof of an after life. However, belief in such an ability is not, in my view, the most valuable and practical starting point. I view my scepticism not as an abject refusal to accept the existence of such ability – more that I have a high level of required proof.
I do not believe that all of those who claim such abilities are wilfully fraudulent. I believe that most are mistaken. I’m not talking here about the grandstanding psychics calling out to an audience of several thousand for a “Jonathan” who might be in this world or might have passed over; or who invite existing customers to their stage shows before picking them out and making them cry with knowledge already garnered. I want instead to discuss the jobbing mediums, the day-to-day, unassuming folk who may offer up their services gratis, or for some token payment, to friends or family or parishioners. These people in the main, I believe, are employing skills they themselves are not aware of but are nevertheless grounded in a real world model.
I spoke in a previous post about the possibility of someone cheating a personality test by answering on behalf of an imagined character. This is not a particularly difficult skill – we humans are a complex bunch, and so learning to interact with other humans ostensibly relies on conjuring up these humans in our mind, of attempting to model their behaviours mentally in order to establish boundaries of acceptable behaviour, or the best way to communicate with them, and so on. This sounds a little sinister but it is not; imagine, for instance, that you have heard a joke that you liked, and wish to share it with friends. Without even thinking too hard about it, you will probably be able to gauge which of your friends would appreciate the joke, and which would find it unfunny or even offensive (if it’s that kind of joke). By making these judgements you are recreating in your head the people in question. This is not a perfect process, of course, and some people will be much better at it than others, but it is an every-day skill that we use all the time without thinking about it.
Now consider this. You are a spiritualist. You believe in life after death. You believe it is possible for the dead to commune with the living. You have experienced people who claim to be able to do this, and have seen evidence which, to you, validates the process. You are interested in learning how to channel the dead. The key to learning how to channel the dead is to practice. And perhaps in your initial attempts, with friends and confidants, lead to quite poor responses. You are trying to garner meaningful messages from figures that appear to you in your mind’s eye and relate them to your sitter. Bearing in mind that you already are sold up to the notion that the figures are out there, and so validation of their existence is not paramount, how does this process begin? By relating information that comes “out of the blue” that seems to be attached to the figure or the sitter. And from within the belief system it remains good when you get a hit, and bad when you get a miss, but when you get a miss, it does not invalidate your belief, merely suggests that you have not yet become adept in the skill you are practicing. So you continue to practice. Occasionally you will get what appear to be astounding hits. At other times you will get miss after miss after miss. Perhaps you will couch such misses more carefully as you develop. You will still be alive to the possibility that it was just a miss, but you will see no reason to dismiss the possibility that the miss is only a miss because the sitter hasn’t made sense of it yet, or its significance may lie in the future. The point is, nothing you encounter will necessarily be enough to negate the validity of your core beliefs. You will see every hit and miss within your existing framework. Also, you will start getting better at it.
And here I finally reach my point, which is that the skills involved in cold-reading, based as it is on a real-world model (or known-world model, if you prefer something less loaded) are subtle ones. Cold-readers themselves are quite aware that it is not enough to read a book on the skill and suddenly be capable of doing it; without practice you will get nowhere, even through the hilarious “and/but” technique, perhaps the simplest form of cold reading ever devised, based as it is on using “and” to follow on from a hit with added detail, and “but” to follow on from a miss with a modified message. I don’t doubt for a second that our student psychic is more than capable of taking on cold-reading skills sub-consciously, and from within their own belief system.
An example of this would be the notion that if you can garner the rough age of the sitter and the gender (and neither ought to cause too many difficulties) then you can isolate with a fair amount of conviction a “question” that has been bothering them for some time. It is no stretch of the imagination for a medium to “feel” that this question is at the forefront of the person’s mind without necessarily understanding that they are just making a judgement based on sex and age.
I believe it is even possible for the very loose descriptions of visiting spirits that pass for hits amongst mediums to be arrived at by similar means. I once saw a psychic artist who I suspect was fraudulent in that she seemed, while the opening address of the church was in progress, to be sketching out variations of people sitting in the audience. The technique seemed simple enough – take an old man in the audience, and draw them as if they were a young girl. Switch the age and the sex and you can, with a certain degree of certainty, be able to come up with something with a passing resemblance to a dead relative. I believe that mental images of people can be arrived at again unconsciously by interpreting the sitter. An exercise for the reader might be to imagine what a friend’s father might have been like and see how far you get. Our putative medium would be in a position whereby they are imagining this fallen forebear but putting the source of that imagination down to the spirit world. This is not too outlandish a skill because, as already stated, our minds are quite used to generating models of real people; we’re doing it all the time.
An interesting analogy here is with the writer who talks of creating characters who, once formed, behave as they will; the author claims to have little or no power over them, and writing for these characters becomes something more akin to dictation.
The overarching point here is that we have a situation where a phenomenon has become attached to a belief system by way of an assumed mechanism. An individual can be trained to understand that if he presses a button, then a packet of food will drop down a chute, but without any full investigation he cannot ascertain what pressing a button has to do with food. It could be that some automated machine that is routinely supplied with food by an outside agency is at work. It could be that the button is monitored by a person who physically drops the food down the chute. It could be that pressing the button appeases a God who creates the food and drops it down the chute. The person is capable of interpreting his action and reward in any way that his belief system will allow, with the added kicker that every time the button is pressed and the food is delivered the belief system seems in some way validated, even though it serves no logical form of validation whatsoever.
To make matters worse for our thought experiment subject, the button may even be immaterial. If the subject only presses the button when he is hungry, then the food moving down the chute could be triggered not by the button at all, but by the hunger itself, or even an understanding by the creator of the experiment in the cycles of digestion the subject experiences. Yet in the mind of the subject it is the pressing of the button that causes the food to emerge.
And we can go a step further. If we place our subject in a room where there is a button and a chute, and at random send packets of food down the chute, if he is playing with the button he will in all likelihood associate the pressing of the button with the delivery of the food. He will assume, though, that he needs to press the button in a certain way in order to get the food, and will then try and fathom out that necessary method.
It is vital, therefore, that we learn to recognise and challenge our own belief systems, especially when dealing with causal relationships that we have long accepted. This takes us, kinda sorta, back to our well-meaning but mistaken cold reader. They need to isolate the phenomenon, look at its origins (either within them personally or from a historical perspective (see future posts on the history of spiritualism)), and seek out a mechanism that goes above and beyond the belief system. If the belief system itself is longstanding, then it is prudent also to look at the roots of the belief system itself. A fruitful example of this would be astrology, where in order to understand the supposed mechanism (even before we look at efficacy) we need to discover how the understanding came about, and refuse to accept at first glance any provision of a mechanism from outside current understanding, even once we have exhausted that current understanding. Even if we accept that the position of planets can have a subtle influence over our behaviour and life experiences, and this is simply not proven to begin with, how is it that we came to have such knowledge thousands of years ago – who did the research and how was the research carried out.
Assumed mechanisms and assumed correlations are not exclusive to the world of strange beliefs. It occurs in the button-down world of science too, although with an all important difference. In science, for instance, one might observe that chewing on the bark of a willow tree can alleviate headaches; one might go on to isolate what it is in the willow tree bark that alleviates headaches, possibly even synthesising it in a laboratory, but without necessary inquiry, the scientist can only guess at the mechanisms involved that link the bark derivative to the experience of pain. Where science wins over on this front, however, is that it is determined to establish the mechanism through evidence-based inquiry, and to give some CAM practitioners credit they too are determined to establish the mechanisms (although sometimes before they have established efficacy!).
Strange belief systems tend away from such inquiry. They assume a mechanism without such need for proof, and often end up defending this invented mechanism (attractive meme that it is) in the face of evidence to the contrary. This defence can even take the form of an attack on the notions of experimental proof in the first place. They will suggest that the mechanism shies away from laboratory conditions, for example, that something in the controlled environment dissipates whatever effect exists in the world at large. The belief becomes a full-stop, and no wider understanding can emerge.
What saddens me about this is that for many people who believe they have strange abilities, the abilities actually become secondary to the belief, and the belief gets in the way of any reasonable assessment of the ability. Take, for example, a recent Randi test on an individual who claimed that she could guess the sex of dead diary-keepers without even seeing the diaries themselves, merely the boxes containing them. Had this ability been framed without the mechanism she provided, then the ability she claimed to possess would have seemed, although still peculiar, much more amenable than her belief that she could determine the sex because the spirits of the dead gave her the information. It was doubtful that she had such an ability, but the fact that the ability was packaged up with the existence of an afterlife and the reality of necromancy, then had she somehow pulled off the feat, her belief system would have served as an obstacle to any inquiry as to how such an ability actually worked. What is more, the mechanism, rightly or wrongly (and I think wrongly) sometimes serves to inform the establishment of statistical significance.
To guess the sex of dead diary-keepers one would expect roughly a 50/50 split across a large number of attempts through chance alone, and the number of hits more (or in a perversion of probability less) to suggest something more than chance is at work is relatively low, but when the subject claims to be in communion with the dead diary-keepers themselves, one would expect a much higher hit rate. As the axiom has it “extra-ordinary claims require extra-ordinary proofs”. But we have moved away from the ability and into the belief system that supports the ability – the claim itself hasn’t changed, and so the required level of proof ought not to have changed either.
This is an almost flippant example – sexing diary-keepers in the unlikely event of being unable to examine the diaries themselves is a fairly useless ability, about as useless as rendering cutlery inoperable. However, when one enters the realms of the miracle cure, the stakes become much higher. There is a reasonable amount of testimonial evidence concerning situations where someone is diagnosed with an illness, then prays, or wears a particular piece of jewellery, or visits a particular hallowed spot, only to find the illness miraculously cured. This is the belief system’s full-stop at its most wicked, because it could be that there is a physiological reason for the cure (though I suspect misdiagnosis figures highly in most genuine cases), it could be that useful information could come from such miracles. If there is, we will never know, because in the closed mind of the cured believer it was not physiological deliverance but Something Else and so such inquiry is pointless, unnecessary and possibly even churlish, and bugger the rest of us.

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