Yes, it’s a deliberately sceptic-baiting title. The plan is: it winds people up, they point out how I’m wrong and I learn something.
I foresee you are about to lose some money. Photo by Timothy Krause.
I’ve not completely mad though. Obviously not all psychic readings are true. It would take an enormous talent to ignore reality that has shown many readings to be false or fraudulent. If I could do that I’d have a golden future in politics. No, I’m only arguing the true ones are true.
Even that sounds odd. By definition the true readings are true. Isn’t it a bit difficult to believe that any readings are true if, like me, you don’t believe in psychic powers? Surely that’s going to need a weaselly approach to ‘truth’? I prefer to say simple, but you can call weasel in the comment box below if you like.
The idea has been forming since I went on an Applied Cold Reading course. Applied Cold Reading works best if you can get things wrong, but sometimes it happens that you fail to get things wrong.* String a few of these fails together and your subject is stunned by how much you got right. Now you and I know that we were aiming for misses, but to your subject that doesn’t matter. You were right. That’s what she knows. The fact that you were right by accident or chance is irrelevant. You were right.
And now you’re in trouble because she’ll expect you to keep being right. But that’s your problem.
The best photo I’ve seen of cold reading by SPDP at Flickr.
I took a weekend off to attend a course in London on Applied Cold Reading. The course was given by Ian Rowland, who might be familiar to some readers as ‘Ian who from where?’, for everyone else he’s the author of The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading.
The Full Facts Book is mainly about Cold Reading in a psychic context. There are lots of people who can tell you how cold reading works in a psychic context. It relies on Barnum statements, statements that feel personal but they’re true for everyone. I don’t find that a satisfying explanation. I get the impression that the Barnum effect works best on gullible people. I know a few people who take psychics seriously and they’re all far less gullible than me. Another reason it’s a poor explanation is that there aren’t many people with a father called Brian, with dark hair, who’s missing fingers from his left hand.
I’ve been thinking over the Project Barnum debate, as seen on Jourdemayne’s blog. It’s a good example of how two intelligent people sincerely trying to work out what is best can disagree. Following allegations against Sally Morgan, should psychic events be banned from theatres? Jourdemayne argues no and Michael Marshall says yes.
Zoltan, a fortune-teller who probably won’t sue for libel.
I agree with Jourdemayne, but not with how she gets there. Continue reading
This time in support of Simon Singh.
I thought quite a bit before putting this up. While I support Simon Singh, I have doubts about Sense About Science. Sense About Science is loosely connected with Spiked Online through Living Marxism, which seems to think Christopher Monckton is a credible speaker on climate change. The climate change debate is one of the major sources of pseudoscientific nonsense on the web, so it’s disappointing that Sense About Science has so little on the topic. In the end I signed because Jack of Kent is asking for signatures. It was a big help that George Monbiot and Nick Cohen, who are aware of the history of the group, signed. Even now I’m not comfortable with the title of the letter, which implies scientists might somehow be exempt from laws that apply to everyone else.
This is another reason why I’m wary of signing anything that gets passed along by a group. If you want to sign with honesty you need to look into exactly what you’re signing. Often there simply isn’t time to do that.
First a disclaimer: My legal qualifications go as far as an A-Level I did at nightclass.
Nonetheless I’ve been reading a few posts recently on English law by other bloggers and they all seem to be making the same mistake. The bloggers are intelligent, fair and reasonable and the make the assumption that English law would be too. So I’m throwing up some points for discussion, most of it applies to bloggers around the world, but there are one or two stings for bloggers based in England and Wales.
Tip One: Be a multi-millionaire
This is useful in any legal system, but especially in England when you realise where the law comes from. We don’t have a 20th century or 19th century legal system in the UK. It’s a multi-layered cake of cases which has been built up over the centuries. Old laws remain in effect because they’re often useful. For example until a few years ago the legal definition of murder in England dated from Lord Coke’s ruling in 1597.
Murder is when a man of sound memory, and of the age of discretion, unlawfully killeth within any county of the realm any reasonable creature in rerum natura under the king’s peace, with malice aforethought, either expressed by the party, or implied by law, so as the party wounded, or hurt, &c. die of the wound, or hurt, &c. within a year and a day after the same
It was only updated recently because life-support machines were making the year and a day clause questionable.
A lot of law is like this, it isn’t formally written down. It’s common law which means there’s a huge tradition of relying on precedent and finding the right precedent is where a lot of lawyers make their money. Unfortunately there wasn’t a medieval internet and English legislation is a bit slow. Laws developed for a time when few people had access to a press are being called into service for libel on the internet. There are few precedents, so having a very good lawyer to make your case is a massive help. Incidentally, the fact the law goes back many centuries in the UK is part of the contribution to the fact that Scottish law is not the same as English law. Changing one doesn’t necessarily have much effect on the other.
Parliament could codify the law, and every so often they do. There’s plenty of demand for new laws though so older laws tend to get tidied when the clamour gets loud enough. With my big cynical hat on, there’ll be an election soon and all the politicial parties will want funding from donors with deep pockets. These would also be the kind of donors who are best protected by a vague and purchased justice and will want to fund parties with other priorities, as parliamentary time is limited. It’s not going to change soon. Simply declaring swathes of common law outdated isn’t a practical option either. If you want a better libel law then you’ll need to pressure MPs to change it.
As you can see I’m sceptical. I would read the PNAS paper this is derived from — except I’ve never been able to find a PNAS paper when it’s mentioned as an early release press story. PNAS does nothing to help find them.
There’s an interesting story on the BBC News site about the woman who discovered AZT could help inhibit the development of AIDS. It’s interesting because it shows what is usually the reaction to a discovery. She was examining petri dishes and found one sample where no cells had died after infection.
“I rang my supervisor, then I said: ‘I wonder if I forgot to put the virus in these 16?’” she recalls.
That tends to be my reaction. “That’s interesting!” followed by “I wonder what I did wrong?” In my experience that question is crucial because often the reason I’ve found something interesting is because there’s a gap in my knowledge rather than finding something new. It seems to be the reaction of people I work with. It’s common to ask a friend to look over what you’ve done and bounce ideas off people because it is possible that a simple mistake has been made.
It’s important because it’s the difference between scepticism and cynicism. Continue reading
This is one of those things that has been sat in the drafts box for a while and if quality was proportional to time then this review should be much much better than it is. Really I’m tempted to simply link to Martin Rundkvist’s review and say ‘me too’. I first saw Archaeological Fantasies, edited by Garrett Fagan, at the Classical Association conference this year. It was on one of the book stalls with a minimal discount so I didn’t buy it, thinking Amazon would be cheaper. That was a mistake twice over. It wasn’t cheaper at Amazon and it led to a long delay in me getting my hands on a copy. It’s a good book and it’s a much needed debate. You get the impression that people have been queuing up to talk about this from the way the book has a foreword, preface and introduction from various people. The book itself is divided into three sections.
The first is The Phenomenon. Rather than just say here’s pseudoarchaeology — it’s Bad. There is an exploration of what fringe archaeology is and what the attraction is. Probably the best chapter in this section is Katherine Reece’s Memoirs of a True Believer. I think this chapter underlines that fringe archaeology can appeal to intelligent and imaginative thinkers. What I didn’t see so much in this section was a view of fringe archaeology as a collection of phenomena. By trying to produce a single definition of pseudoarchaeology I think they may have overlooked the variety inherent in the field. A hard-line creationist would be the polar opposite of a New Age relativist, though I can see they could use similar methods to examine the past.
[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]
Las Vegas Trevi Fountain. Photo by *nathan
I’m running out of emphasis. On Sunday the Independent ran a story US ‘mirrors Roman Empire’ in Iraq war. It’ll be disappearing behind a pay wall soon. Potentially this could be a really interesting story. The Romans made repeated attempts to conquer the east and failed. For instance is the Coalition of the Willing running into similar difficulties in the terrain? But the parallel isn’t with the invasion of Mesopotamia. Continue reading
[A version is cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]
The Jefferson Memorial based, ultimately, on the Pantheon in Rome. Photo by dbking.
Now this could be a carnival in the making. A round-up of all the America is the New Rome stories on the web. I’ve already posted on how you can inanely cherry-pick elements of the past to bolster a political assertion. It’s an unquenchable well.
It’s awful politics though. Important politics issues are hidden behind what is often poor history. In many of the America is the new Rome articles there’s an idea that situations lead to inevitable consequences, like the idea that if America is the new Rome then moral decline and the fall of Empire are inevitable. You end up with the situation where people argue that society is monocasual, or close to it, rather than the complex interplay of creative individuals. An example is an analysis by William Federer which I found via The Lighthouse Patriot Journal, but a search on Google shows it’s been quoted with approval by many different people. It’s a shame because you could probably write a whole book about the errors in it:
Rome fell September 4, 476AD. It was overrun with illegal immigrants: Visigoths, Franks, Anglos, Saxons, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Lombards, Jutes and Vandals, who at first assimilated and worked as servants, but then came so fast they did not learn the Latin Language or the Roman form of government. Highly trained Roman Legions moving rapidly on their advanced road system, were strained fighting conflicts worldwide. Rome had a trade deficit, having outsourced most of its grain production to North Africa, and when Vandals captured that area, Rome did not have the resources to retaliate. Attila the Hun was committing terrorist attacks. The city of Rome was on welfare with citizens being given free bread. One Roman commented: ‘Those who live at the expense of the public funds are more numerous than those who provide them.’ Tax collectors were ‘more terrible than the enemy.’ Gladiators provided violent entertainment in the Coliseum. There was injustice in courts, exposure of unwanted infants, infidelity, immorality and perverted bathhouses. 5th-Century historian Salvian wrote: ‘O Roman people be ashamed… Let nobody think otherwise, the vices of our bad lives have alone conquered us’.
The corn dole was instituted around 50BC and as surely as night follows day over five hundred years later the city of Rome fell. Except it wasn’t Rome — it was Ravenna that fell in 476, the capital of the Western Roman Empire, but I assume Rome was synonym. Gladiators provided violent entertainment in the Colosseum? Not after AD 404 they didn’t — the Emperor Honorarius banned them. Attila the Hun was committing terrorist attacks? No. Not only is terrorist is not a synonym for nasty, Attila died in 453. He wasn’t terrorising anyone. Infidelity? That’s a human constant in all societies. So is talking, but so far no-one has suggested Rome could have remained great if it had embraced mime. Or if they have I haven’t heard them.