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