Psychic Readings are True

Psychic advert

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.

Psychic advert

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.
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Applied Cold Reading

Book in the snow
Book in the snow

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.
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Barnum and Bunkum

Zoltan, mechanical fortune teller

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, mechanical fortune teller

Zoltan, a fortune-teller who prob­ably won’t sue for libel.

I agree with Jourdemayne, but not with how she gets there. Continue read­ing

Another Petition


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.

Blogging and the English Law

A guest appear­ance from the law. Photo (cc) Jürgen Schiller García.

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.
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The Power of Doubt

Petri Dish
Petri Dish. Photo by believekevin.

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