Archive for February 6th, 2007|Daily archive page

A Sceptics Lot

I know something about you. Yes, YOU.

I know the digit “1” is really important to you. Not just as a number you see often. It is a number that is personally attached to you. Not just as something you strive to be. It is part of your everyday life, it might be either in your telephone number or as part your address perhaps that of someone you know. I also know it is written on your birth certificate – it is part of your birthday.

But this knowledge doesn’t make me feel any better. Indeed, I find the power to divine this kind of information more than depressing.

Before I tell you the sad tale of my powers, I’d like to relate another story; the story of a nine year old girl who was also able to do things other girls her age couldn’t do.

Her name is Emily Rosa and she was interested in the Therapeutic Touch. For those not familiar with TT, I’ll let them do the explaining.

Therapeutic Touch is a contemporary healing modality drawn from ancient practices and developed by Dora Kunz and Dolores Krieger. The practice is based on the assumptions that human beings are complex fields of energy, and that the ability to enhance healing in another is a natural potential.

Therapeutic Touch (TT) is used to balance and promote the flow of human energy. It is taught in colleges around the world and has a substantial base of formal and clinical research. This research has shown that TT is useful in reducing pain, improving wound healing, aiding relaxation, and easing the dying process. It can be learned by anyone with a sincere interest and motivation towards helping others.

Ms Krieger also has written that TT is helps improve conditions from PMS to headaches, to cancer to AIDS.

Emily Rosa found the idea of someone being able to detect and change the flow of human energy to be intriguing and decided to do a test for a science project. She asked TT practitioners to help her show the effects of TT. Twenty-one people agreed to be tested, each admitted to having more than one year of experience in using TT and one had even produced training videos on the technique. Each agreed to the test protocol.

Emily allowed the TT practitioners to ‘feel’ the energy of her hands and pick one most suitable. Emily then when behind a screen through which her subject would place each of their hands. The question was simple, over which hand did Emily hold her ‘test’ hand. The practitioner simply needed to feel Emily’s energy flow.

It turns out that the subjects were right almost half the time (41 percent). The practitioners were relieved and ecstatic. They felt they had shown their point; they hadn’t been wrong all the time.

But in reality the results were devastating. At least for the reputation of TT (despite detractors). You see a coin toss would have gotten it right 50 percent of the time. To be statistically significant, the practitioners would have needed to get 8 out of 10. One managed that; only to lapse back to 6 out of 10 on a second re-test.

This didn’t help those who sell Therapeutic Touch books, CDs, DVD’s etc. It did help Emily though. She got featured on Scientific American Frontiers and she became the youngest author ever published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and has since moved on to college to study. She also got the blue ribbon at the science fair.

But what happened and why were the TT practitioners relieved? That’s because they didn’t understand statistics. And few outside science understand statistics either.

That’s what got my radar spinning the other day when a commenter, Mom4Truth, left a response to a post last week.. She feels her mother has a gift and she explained to me,

There is a piece of advice that came to me through my mom that I always try and remember. It is that for every person her gift helps, there are dozens of others that it won’t.

I do think Mom4Truth is probably truthful on a number of different levels. I think she believes her mother. I believe her mother might be honest about thinking she has a gift. And finally she probably doesn’t understand the problem with what she said.

And it’s thoughts like that and the fact that I know so much about you that has me depressed.

I have a problem with sceptics who snark and point at the believers of ‘alternate’ realities. They think that simply pointing out the mistake will ‘correct’ the thinking of the believers. This belittles and misunderstands the nature of knowledge and belief.

It takes very few hits to create a reputation and most misses are forgotten. But thinking people not trained to doubt but brought up to believe will automatically improve their thinking after correction is both foolish and unreasonable. That belief and the general sceptical snarkiness is why I usually feel an outsider not only among ‘true believers’ but also among sceptics who feel forced to deride the practitioners of ‘woo.’ The sceptical snark also has a tendency to alienate believers and is not particularly conducive to teaching.

But it doesn’t matter where the believer thinks the knowledge comes, from spirits, tarot, astrology or God. In my vocabulary all are examples of magical thinking, the practitioners soothsayers. This isn’t meant to be demeaning, to be disparaging. That is simply how I see and name the world.

It gets worse. I also doubt expecting an increase of science education will be a solution. I doubt most people will find any science or math interesting enough to learn enough to overcome the power of evolutionary belief. Sceptics and scientists might not study history, or rhetoric, or the names and meaning of Edvard Munch paintings – all interesting for some but not all. Some sceptics spend time thinking about science but not all. And some ‘true believers’ can be ‘saved.’ But not all. But not all ‘true believers’ are stupid or dishonest. Simply miswired.
On the other hand, people like Emily also give me hope.

And some people, like Sylvia Browne, are con-artists and give me hives.

All one can do is repeat, explain and understand and wait for evolution to catch up. We have had millions of years to evolve woo. We have had a couple of centuries to respond. We need to teach and not deride; wait and lurk, strike when possible. That – and jail and abuse the con-artists.

Oh. And the number one?

Think about it.

In a two digit address, I have an almost twenty percent chance of being right. That holds for three and for digit addresses as well. If you are in America and live on a long street, any address higher than 9999 will probably have a 1 in it. Then there’s your telephone number, your postal code. If I still don’t have a hit, try your partner, parent or prodigy. Perhaps the house next door. Yeah. There will be a 1 there somewhere. That I can be pretty sure of.

And since you are able to read this, I can assume you’re older than 7 and the first digit in your birth year will be a one. That I know.

Unless you are over a thousand years old. And THAT, I doubt. A lot.

That’s my lot, a sceptics lot.

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Losing the Big Picture

In what can only be considered an extremely sad case, the LA Times is reporting the emotional meltdown of a Space Shuttle flight specialist.

A NASA astronaut is being held without bail after police say she attacked her rival for another astronaut’s attention at Orlando International Airport Monday.

Lisa Marie Nowak drove more than 12 hours from Texas to meet the 1 a.m. flight of a younger woman who had also been seeing the astronaut Nowak pined for, according to Orlando police.

Nowak — who was a mission specialist on a Discovery launch last summer — was wearing a trench coat and wig and had a knife, BB pistol, and latex gloves in her car, reports show. They also found diapers, which Nowak said she used so she wouldn’t have to stop on the 1,000-mile drive. Reports show that after U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman’s flight arrived, Nowak followed her to the airport’s Blue Lot for long-term parking, tried to get into Shipman’s car and then doused her with pepper spray.

Nowak, 43, is charged with attempted kidnapping, battery, attempted vehicle burglary with battery and destruction of evidence. Police considered her such a danger that they requested she be held without bail in the Orange County Jail, reports show.

Wow. I feel sorry for all the people involved here. Nowak, Shipman and the man in the middle Oefelein. The NASA press people probably didn’t sleep very well last night either.

Ms Nowak has destroyed her career. She probably didn’t do Mr Oefelien’s a whole hell of a lot of good either and I’m sure Ms Shipman will need to speak to a few victim counselors before she gets over this.

But for me the most haunting part is the quote the Time’s reporter found.

“A lot of my training is what you might think of as a Flight Engineer on ascent and entry,” she said in a pre-flight interview on the NASA Web site. “I sit behind and between the pilot and commander and help coordinate things and keep the big picture.”

I guess she lost sight of the big picture.