Thursday, February 28, 2008

ARS Watch

Some trolls and tribulations from the perpetual rumour mill and anti-psych spam magnet alt.religion.scientology.

LRH plagiarised Scientology?

The question has been posed, in light of a couple of pre-1952 uses of the word Scientology, as to whether or not Hubbard plagiarised his "study of knowingness". Allen Upward used the term in 1910 as an attack on a religiose pursuit of science. This difference in use of the word clearly suggests it is unrelated to Hubbard's creation, but with Dr A Nordenholtz's 1934 book Scientologie, the truth is less clear. Roy Wallis, sociologist, commented on it in his critical book The Road To Freedom.

Nordenholz, in a thoroughly opaque work of philosophical speculation published in 1934, presents the notion of 'scientology' as a science of knowledge to be developed on the basis of a set of axioms. Apart from the name of the 'science', its concern with knowledge and how to grasp it, and the idea of erecting a set of axioms as the basic formulation of the science, it is not evident that Nordenholz provided much that became incorporated into Hubbard's Scientology.

A link to Boing Boing features what purports to be images from within the book, and items in the contents do seem synonymous with elements of Scientology, but as ever it is hard to testify as to the authenticity of what has been posted. That said, the alleged text is online in its entirety and does suggest a greater similarity than Wallis notes.

Threats of violence

Following the highly publicised demonstrations outside Scientology orgs c/o Anonymous ARS, and other public forums, have seen an influx of new critics, and with little surprise that influx has been, to put it diplomatically, quite a cross-section of society. Despite Anonymous making its position clear, and despite the February 10th demonstrations occuring without any violent incidents or arrests, posters claiming to support Anonymous have been making posts clearly setting themselves apart from the peaceful folk protesting against the behaviour of the Church (the "love Scientologists, hate Scientology" position). One such offending post included the following:

"Personally, I would love to see a bullet through the head of each of the
fraudulent bastards pushing this stuff onto vulnerable people and draining their
bank accounts."

If "London Lulz" is claiming allegiance to the cause of Anonymous, and he has suggested he was present at the London demonstrations, he seems not to have grasped the subtleties of Anonymous's approach. An all too common oversight people make when dealing with the subject of Scientology is to divide the cult into perpetrators and victims. His anger at Co$ has been vented not in the direction of the organisation itself, nor even those in the upper echelons who profit the most from selling its services, but the street-level "pushers," who are invariably the vulnerable wallet-drained folks who he is supposed to be sympathetic to.

What makes posters such as he all the more frustrating comes from the way in which ARS as a whole is a den of paranoia, bluff and double-bluff. It is generally accepted, in light of both the spamming of the group and the testimony of Tory Christman that ARS is targeted by OSA. This plus the active defamation of Scientology critics makes the possibility that some, of the violent Anonymous supporters at least are actually members of OSA trying to give Anonymous a bad name. When posters point people to hurriedly put together MySpace pages of invented Anonymous manifestoes the idea is given further credibility.

But such talk of violence hasn't just come from the likes of London Lulz. Pro-Scientology poster Tom Newton was hauled over the coals after a post where he suggested that Anonymous would be infiltrated by people hired by Anonymous's enemies who would then attempt to burn down the orgs and leave the genuine Anonymous members to face the police.

A couple of people who don't like you donned disguises and pocketed a few
thousand in used twenties and hired some professional criminals from another
city to wreck your party and your organization.

The post ought to have sided on conjecture, an exposure of a hypothetical weakness in Anonymous's MO, but Newton makes the mistake of suggesting that these events will transpire, turning conjecture into something much more threatening. It is revealing to note that although the Scientology critics turned around and criticised London Lulz for his statements, no Scientology poster criticised Newton for his similar transgression.


Tory "Magoo" Christman has recently started posting videos to YouTube on various Scientology-related subjects. She has been one of the clearest and most persuasive of the high-OT ex-Scientologists to emerge in recent years and is well worth checking out. More than that she remains a vibrant, life-affirming proof for doubting Scientologists that there really is life after the org. She also remains an important voice for children who are victims of disconnection and a life in Co$.

Attention Closing In On IRS Agreement and Accusations of Child Abuse

The Anonymous protests scheduled for March 15th seem to be focusing on families that have been torn apart through Co$ disconnection policy, and will highlight allegations of enforced child labour at the Sea Orgs. The Ex-Scientology Messageboard is rich in tales of the poor working conditions and treatment of children who have signed their billion-year contracts. It would seem that the events of February 10th have served to bolster many who were mistreated, who are now finding the courage to report their past sufferings to the relevant authorities (no, not you, Tom).

Also, pressure seems to be increasing for the IRS to revisit the notorious tax exemption that the church has enjoyed for so long. This is particularly timely in that a Jewish couple is currently defending similar tax-breaks that they have been claiming for their children's Jewish tuition. The hearing has put the secret IRS agreement under a judicial scrutiny it cannot enjoy.

Second Hand Hubbard

An observation has been made that was reported some time ago in The Beacon that Hubbard's work does not command a high price outside of the religion. Volumes expensive to buy from Co$ can be seen on ebay and abebooks for one dollar. This seems to have annoyed some posters; I believe such annoyances ought to be taken up with the Co$'s PR department.

One poster had this to say:

I worked in a used book store back in the 90s, and we'd refuse Dianetics in trade because we had so damn many of them, they were wasting shelf space that
could be used for books that people would actually buy. Seriously, they were a one-way trade... people wanted to get rid of them, but nobody bought them.

Shawn Lonsdale

Shawn Lonsdale, a critic of Scientology best-known for the videos he would air on Public Access featuring encounters with Scientologists in Clearwater Florida, was found dead earlier in the month in what has been treated as suicide. It is known that Lonsdale, who became the target of a Co$ smear campaign (you might remember his disrupted interview as part of the Panorama episode Scientology and Me), had suffered financial difficulties in recent months and a suicide note was found at the scene. I never encountered Lonsdale personally but it is clear from comments following the announcement of his death that he was a well-liked figure in the critical landscape. An online remembrance book has been made available for those wishing to share their words and thoughts.

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.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Corporate Quackery

Lafayette has, over the past few months, had to suffer two nauseating spectacles of pseudo-science at close quarters, each packaged neatly as powerful business tools. It appears that people employed in such scarily reactive fields as Human Resources or Personnel Management are soft targets for any magic bean that might come their way, just as long as the magic bean is dressed up in a bit of scientific lingo. Here are a couple of cases in point.

1. Myers-Briggs Type Indication

MBTI is a psychometric personality test devised by Katherine Cook Briggs and her Isabel Briggs Myers. They had latched onto a piece of abandoned Jungian psychology, and used it to create a tool they would hope would allow women to better judge what sort of role they would be good in following the second world war. It has slowly gained in popularity and is now perhaps the most used personality test by employers and managers. And why not? It's an attractive proposition. Rather than trying to gain the measure of an interviewee by their interview performance alone, a test would be able to place the person on an easy-to-digest chart. One could then compare their results against the results of other team members and use that to inform one's decision. Sadly, though, such a panacea of recruitment MBTI is not.
The test consists of a series of statements with which one must agree or disagree in varying strengths. These responses are then computed and used to position the individual across four "dichotomies". These dichotomies are Extraversion / Introversion; Sensing / Intuition; Thinking / Feeling; Judging / Perceiving. Thus an individual may come out as ESFP, or INFR, or any one of the 16 possibilities. Generally the type will be summed up in a description. Here's one:

Usually gentle and kind, they are intense and passionate about their values and deeply held beliefs, which they share with trusted friends. Because of their discreet manner, their enthusiasm may not be apparent. They are sensitive to others' pain, restlessness or general discomfort and strive to find happiness, balance and wholeness for themselves in order to help others find joy, satisfaction and plenitude. They are deeply empathetic.
They live life in an intently personal fashion, acting on the belief that each person is unique and that social norms are to be respected only if they do not hinder personal development or expression. They strive to adhere to their own high personal moral standards and are particularly sensitive to inconsistencies in their environment between what is being said and what is being done. Empty promises of adhering to something they value – such as environmental causes or human rights - set off an inner alarm and they may transform themselves into modern day Joan of Arcs.[sic!]They are quietly persistent in raising awareness of cherished causes and often fight for the underdog in quiet or not-so-quiet ways. In a team, they will raise issues of integrity, authenticity, and good or bad, and may to opt out if the team refuses to address the questions raised.
They are usually tolerant and open-minded, insightful, flexible and understanding. They live for the understanding of others and feel deeply grateful when someone takes the time to get to know them personally. They have good listening skills, are genuinely concerned, insightful, and usually avid readers. At their best, they inspire others to be themselves.

Personality Pathways

I hope by now alarm bells are starting to ring; a lengthy bit of creative writing consisting almost entirely of Forer statements. Added to this is the variability of the test. MBTI advocates will claim that the test cannot be cheated, but this is patently absurd. One can quite easily fool the test simply by answering "in character", to think "what would Jim Carrey put". What is more, if the test was so perfect, then you would expect to get the same result each time. Not so. It has been found that results can vary wildly when repeated. This ought to make intuitive sense. When asked "at parties do you generally like to mingle, or do you hug the walls" it rather depends on the party. The answer depends on whatever the person associates the word "party" with at that particular moment. But it only takes a few points here or there to tip you over one or other side of a so-called dichotomy.

MBTI is presented as a science yet its results are non-falsifiable. An ESTJ does not exist outside of the taxonomy of MBTI itself, so how can one test the accuracy of the test in identifying ESTJs? The only way is through consistency, and the test is inconsistent. We are left with nothing. Which might be all well and good when the test is just being used as the basis of a team building exercise, where a person is being led towards a level of introspection they don't usually have. Leaving aside that MBTI is a pseudo-science (and further warning bells should ring out when one learns that it is distributed in Europe by a company plumping for the CAM favourite of naming yourself after a respected university - clamouring for authority status) it may be quite useful. The trouble starts, though, when people begin using it to inform decision, which is akin to basing one's personnel decisions on that other Type Indicator system - the one that positions an individual across a range of 12 personality types on the basis of their birth date.

2. NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is based around the notion that one can, in one's communications with someone, use various linguistic tools to better ensure they respond in the way you wish them to. It grew out of Bandler and Grinder's study of three successful therapists, Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton H Erickson. It has subsequently taken on a peculiar, pyramid sale form, and is pushed on to, amongst others, salesmen, marketeers, magicians and speed-seducers. A noble bunch. The sell is to turn its users into power communicators, to make more sales, and become more charismatic. But as Derren Brown points out in his book Tricks of the Mind, if NLP was as good as its prospectus suggests, then why are so many NLP teachers and users such an odd bunch of short, repellent, chippy, would-be arch manipulators you wouldn't leave your kids with(not DB's exact words)? It's not a particularly detailed or sophisticated criticism, yet it is a difficult argument to dismiss.

The second trouble with NLP is that it often seeks to describe mechanisms that occur naturally, providing users with the ability to consciously employ those same mechanisms. But when one tries consciously to perform something that people do unconsciously, the success will come down to how successful an actor they are. This is supposed to be an aid to communication but can serve to erect a barrier to it. We're all familiar with the notion that folded arms makes someone look tense and defensive, but not as tense as defensive as someone who goes to fold their arms and then stops themselves.

So there we are; two flavours of nonsense I have been exposed to recently. But what is more troubling than the nonsense itself is the context in which I experienced it. As a free-thinking fellow I can use or dismiss MBTI and NLP as I see fit, were I encountering them on my own, out in the real world. As it was, however, these things were foisted on me at work. The difference is the level of what appears to be socially acceptable coercion, that the hogwash is encountered in a situation where it becomes potentially damaging to speak out against it, no matter how reasonably one does so.

Ben Goldacre, he of Bad Science fame, wrote recently about the continuing love affair that many educators still hold for Brain Gym, a series of physical exercises believed to assist the brain despite being palpable nonsense. Here the end users, the children, have hardly any voice at all, and are actively encouraged to dispense with reasoning they ought to be embracing, with teachers unable to counter the wishes of head-teachers, children unable to counter the wishes of the teachers, and parents unable to counter the views of their children's schools.

The great overarching worry is that there exists a general perception that questioning the wisdom and knowledge that one is being presented with is in some way negative. The false logic runs thus: we have Aim Q; we have bought untested Solution P to fulfil Aim Q; you speak out against Solution P, ergo you are not interested in fulfiling Aim Q. I shall leave it to the reader to provide ad absurdum values for Aim Q and Solution P. The point is, questioning one's solutions is vital and should be encouraged, and when Solution P comes at such a cost, as it does with Brain Gym, Applied Scholastics, MBTI sessions and NLP training, that questioning really ought to come before any cheques get signed.

PS - Also, in case you were wondering, I shall be posting soon on the recent and forthcoming Anonymous vs Co$ demonstrations.