Ideomotor Effect

Halo skeptics,

Today I am going to be blogging about a very interesting psychological effect which has its hands in a lot of different pseudosciences. Amongst other things, the Ideomotor effect is credited with the natural explanation of Ouija boards, facilitated communication, dowsing and automatic writing.

The Ideomotor effect is a psychological phenomenon where a person performs slight actions subconsciously. In its most pure form, this effect accounts for bodily actions which take place without conscious decision by the subject. The production of tears is a result of the ideomotor effect in reaction to strong emotions. Instinctive jerking actions which happen when a person is injured in some way are effects of ideomotor. However, it has much more subtle and suggestive effects.

Dowsing, also known as divination, the pseudoscience in which a person holds some sort of stick or rod, and attempts to find water, or metals and ores, gemstones and many other objects, by feeling the vibrations or swaying of said held stick or rod. While dowsing also employs plenty of other logical fallacies and scientific phenomenons, like cherry-picking and confirmation bias, the most common phenomenon involved is the ideomotor effect. By holding out a stick steadily, your body will subconsciously make your hands move in slight ways which effect the direction the stick is pointing in. These small hand movements are what dowsers are following when they search for ground water.

Another common pseudoscience which involves the ideomotor effect is contacting spirits through a Ouija board. The way a Ouija board is set up is that a Board is set up with a smooth cloth layed over it. On the cloth are numbers, letters and sometimes the words ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘try again’ or ‘maybe’. An eyepiece of some sort is then placed on the board. Partakers in the activity then all place their hands on the eyepiece lightly, and watch the eyepiece as it seemingly glides around the board, spelling out words, questions, and making conversations. It’s great fun to play with, and the underlying factor in all of it is the ideomotor effect. The reason that the eyepiece is spelling so well and making correct sentences is because all of the players are subtly moving the eyepiece towards where they think it should go.

There is a very simple way to test this. By blind folding the participants, the effect is completely removed. Instead of the eyepiece moving elegantly around the board spelling eloquent sentences, it is just a mish-mash of random letters and numbers. If the body has no way of knowing how to subconsciously control the eyepiece in a certain way, then the body cannot do it, and nothing happens.

However, the most pseudoscientific, and obvious, use of the ideomotor effect is in facilitated communication. The concept of facilitated communication is as follows. A mentally disabled child will attempt to communicate with the outside world. It is done with the help of a facilitator. This facilitator will hold the hand of the mentally disabled child, while the child seemingly points towards letters on a board, presses keys on a keyboard or other simple communication types. This process has long been shown to be pseudoscientific from a few different lines of reasoning. It is now well-known that ideomotor effects on the part of the facilitator are responsible for the writing of the children.

The children who are communicating, if they are communicating, are writing poetry and pieces of literature well above their age or mental ability. They are also saying things which are well above their knowledge, claiming things about having problems in a specific part of the brain, despite this being well above their intelligence. However, the most definite piece of evidence is the same evidence which can be used to disprove a Ouija board, as they both rely on the same phenomenon. By simply blinding the facilitator, the effect is completely removed, and the children write random letters and numbers, with no specific words being made.

The ideomotor effect has another name, which it is commonly called by, the Clever Hans effect, so-called because of a show horse from around 1900. This horse, unlike other show horses, didn’t jump barrels or other fancy stuff like that, he did arithmetic. A spectator from the crowd would shout out a simple arithmetic sum, 4 + 3, for example, and the horse would tap its hoof 7 times. The horse and its trainer traveled showing off its amazing talents, but in 1907, an investigation was conducted by psychologist Oskar Pfungst, to find out how Clever Hans could conduct his arithmetic. After his investigation, Pfungst concluded that Clever Hans was not actually performing feats of simple maths skills, but was only cuing in on subtle, subconscious actions on the part of the trainer, who had no idea he was giving off those clues. This was probably one of the first recorded observations of the ideomotor effect. I suppose it is still fair to call Hans a ‘clever’ horse, because its clever of him to notice those small clues, and get his reward.

This is probably one of the first recorded observations of the ideomotor effect. The phenomenon is still remembered in tribute to Clever Hans, as it is the start of a long line of pseudosciences which have cued in on this subtle psychological effect to produce random results, cherry-pick data and use confirmation bias to create pseudosciences. I hope you enjoyed and learned from my special on the ideomotor effect and go away armed with another tool in the skeptical tool belt, to fight pseudoscience and illogic with science and knowledge, knowing that all pseudosciences use the same fallacies in their logic.


Confirmation Bias

Hallo skeptics,

Today I am going to be blogging about one of the most commonly used logical fallacies out there, confirmation bias. It is used in a range of topics including alternative medicine, religion, UFOlogy, astrology, psychics, mediums, and almost all topics which skeptics keep tabs on. Confirmation bias is a logical fallacy which is often referred to as cherry-picking, however is slightly different. While similar, cherry-picking refers to picking single studies from a sea of negative papers, confirmation bias is the picking out of specific results, not specific studies.

One of the most simple and common uses of confirmation bias is praying. I recently saw one of those Facebook like-hoarding pictures which asks for likes to confirm ones religious views, which read “Like this photo and in the next 120 seconds god will do you a favour”… it had over 30 000 likes. I read that and immediately saw it as a perfect example of confirmation bias. To anybody who likes that status, I can almost guarantee that something good will happen to them in the next 120 seconds. The reason is that people want it to come true. If something slightly good happens to that person in the next 120 seconds, they will attribute that to liking the photo… your basketball team makes a buzzer-beating game winner? God did that. Mum decides to give you a little extra ice-cream for dessert? god did that. Get a new twitter follower? god did that. Whatever happens, god is the reason.

It doesn’t even have to be within 2 minutes, you will remember anything that happens for the whole rest of the day and give credit to god… because a thousand years is like a day and a day is like a thousand years, or some post hoc reasoning like that. Even if nothing good happens, that means the devil was going to do something bad to you but god saved you because you liked the photo.

This photo is a perfect example of how confirmation bias works. Another common example is in alternative medicine. Lets say somebody gets cancer, and they decide to, along with their doctor approved, scientific medicine, have a chiropractor try to fix it. Once the cancer has been removed, the patient might only remember the chiropractic treatment that cured the cancer, and forget all the scientific medicine that actually removed the cancer.

Confirmation bias is one of the most common fallacies out, and is often combined with other fallacies like post hoc ergo proctor hoc, placebo, reliance on memory and the availability heuristic to form the greatest of all fallacies, the anecdotal evidence.

Roy Williams… Again

Hello there skeptics, atheists and scientists,

Today I am going to be blogging about Roy Williams again, I haven’t blogged about his arguments for a while now, I’ve been saving this one up. In his book, ‘god actually’ , Roy has a section entitled ‘Tackling arguments against a designing god’, today I am going to be rebutting some of these ‘rebuttals’. Most of his arguments are completely ridiculous in here, as he completely misses the point of particular arguments.

He discusses the idea of naturalistic, evolutionary, reasons for a religion to exist, and he misses the whole point of the idea. This argument is just a rebuttal of an argument used by Christians for religion. They say “If religion isn’t true, why does it exist. Religion must have some truth to it because otherwise why would humans have made up the concept in the first place. Natural explanations for religion like an evolutionary advantage to belief, or a ‘god center’ somewhere in the brain, are not arguments against god, as Williams portrays them as, they are rebuttals of arguments for god. And somehow, in all of it, Williams blames us for non-sequiters by saying that this is not an argument against god.

Another argument which Williams ‘takes on’ is the ‘god of the gaps’ argument, apparently, used by atheists. This is the first time I have heard god of the gaps being used to argue against god, but there you go. For as long as I can remember, the god of the gaps has been a logical fallacy describing religious people, not an argument against god. It has always been just like most, a rebuttal of theist arguments, not arguments of our own. Williams also happens to say that his beliefs are not god of the gap arguments, despite using arguments like irreducible complexity and creation of the universe, and quite often saying, “Science cannot explain this”, which is kind of the definition of the god of the gaps argument.

These are just a few of the arguments ‘taken on’ by Roy Williams, and they demonstrate the way Williams argues. He is completely unaware of the whole idea of most of the atheism VS religion debate. When it comes to science and logic, the burden of proof is on the affirmative (religion), and it is the job of the negative (atheism) to show the logical fallacies and factual incorrectness which may be present in these arguments. It’s quite fine for the religious to counter-rebut these arguments, but it’s not okay for them to claim that these are direct arguments against god, and then to just say that they are using non-sequiters. If he wants to tackle some real arguments against god, not some rebuttals, take a look at some of the apparent logical contradictions in god, the concept of cause-and-effect, or the idea of something from nothing.

That’s all for today, I will leave you with a quote from H. L. Mencken, “We must respect the other fellow’s religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.”, H. L. Mencken, an American journalist, essayist, magazine editor, satirist, critic of American culture and scholar.

Science VS Religion (predictions)

Hello there readers, rationalists and reasoners,

I am going to start this post with an apology, I haven’t blogged for the best part of a fortnight now, I’ve been having a few technical problems with my laptop, and me living where I do, its taken quite a while to get fixed. Amongst other problems, my browser would shut down every time I pressed the inverted comma key… I am still not game enough to try it again now its fixed. But now onto the topic of this post.

I am going to talk today about one of the many things which separates science and religion, predictions.

Predictions are one of the biggest things in science, being one of its most powerful tools. Every facet of science makes very useful predictions, which, most of the time, turns out to be true. Evolution, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Neurology, Theoretical physics, Engineering, all of them make predictions and have made predictions, and they almost always turn out to come true. These predictions are very powerful in science, because they help us to formulate hypothesises (hypothesesisiseses) and test them, as well as make and use things out of these predictions.

Religion works in exactly the opposite way. It makes absolutely no predictions about the world around us, all it does is make up stories after the observations. A bit like this:-

Science: Hey, where the hell are my keys?!?!

Religion: I dunno. Tell me when you find them. God’s hidden them from you, you’ll never find them.

Science: I think that if I look under the couch, I might find my keys, because all the other times I found my keys they were under the couch. I’ll go look now… yep, there they are, right under the couch, where I expected them to be.

Religion: Oh, so you found them, god must have heard my prayer for you to find your keys, and you did.

Science: You know that’s Post Hoc Ergo Procter Hoc fallacious reasoning, of course your prayer helped me find my keys.

Religion: What the hell is Post Hoc Ergo Procter Hoc?

Science: It’s a form of fallacious reasoning where somebody assumes that because ‘A’ happened after ‘B’, that ‘B’ caused ‘A’, which is not true.

Religion: Now that’s just Bologne talk, of course my prayer worked.

— End Scene —

Religion is just like this in the real world. Science is making so many predictions about the world, religion just says, “No, no, no, you’ll never find that out, only god knows that stuff.”, but science shrugs that off and soldiers on nonetheless, looking around and testing the universe we live in. I’ll leave you all with a quote from Linus Pauling, “Facts are the air of scientists. Without them you can never fly.”, Linus Pauling, A Chemist, Bio-chemist, peace activist, author and educator of some note.

The ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of the Creation-Abiogensis/Big Bang ‘Debate’

Hello there, all my moral, just, secular people,

Today’s post was inspired by a television show which aired on the ABC (Australia) entitled Q&A, which every week presents a handful of politicians, public figures, theologians and atheists, for an open discussion and Questions from the live and internet audiences, hence the name Q&A. This weeks program was a special program, because it put forward only two panelists, along with the host, and these where the Atheist Richard Dawkins, and Catholic priest George Pell. Richard Dawkins has made appearances on the show before, but this was the first time he went ‘head-to-head’ with only a Christian joining him on the panel. The show has made quite and impact in the media, with a lot of discussion about it going on even on the radio the next morning. The show can be viewed in full right here at this link here -> I will surely be making my comments on the show over the next few days, but here is today’s rant.

During the show, this oft quoted argument was brought up by George Pell, he said (not an exact quote) “Science can tell us a lot about the ‘how’, with evolution and the big bang, but it doesn’t tell us a lot about they ‘why.'” This argument is talked about by Roy Williams in his book I am reading at the moment, and I have heard it from others too. This whole argument is both a red-herring and a non-sequiter, and Richard Dawkins summarized it very well, “That’s just not a valid question.” The whole question of ‘why’ does the universe exist, is not relevant, its like asking why unicorns aren’t very good at snooker. In that way it is a non-sequiter.

Even if you do grant that ‘why’ is a valid question, it is not a question for the science, nor is it a question which could change the fact that the big bang or abiogenesis happened. The question is for philosophers and humanists.

The ‘Why’ question, “Why are we here.” Is also a good example of the unstated major premace fallacy, the question just assumes that there must be some meaning for our existence, when it is quite plausible that we could have no purpose to exist.

This question is also a red herring because it side-steps the real question of the ‘how’. This is the whole problem with Roy Williams’ book, at the start he asks the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ question, and he says, “Science knows the how, but not the why, I’ll write a book about the why.” In this way he can write a whole book without having to address a single question about ‘how’.
It is a really annoying question, because to people who are not aware of the fact that ‘why’ is not a logical question, the argument can have some weight. Most people like to have a purpose for their life, and this is where they get all caught up. The miss the point that Atheism has a point too, “We only live for 80 or so years, and we have no afterlife to look forward too, so lets just make the world as good as possible in this short time.”

I will leave you with my favourite quote from the entire evening where George Pell accidentally walks all over his own argument to try to just contradict Richard Dawkins on everything,
“Dawkins: the only thing that might convince me that Christianity is true is if a 700 ft Jesus walked into the room and said ‘I exist’, and I’m not even sure if that would convince me.
Pell: I’d say ‘you are hallucinating’.”

Fallacy Frenzy: Moving the Goalposts

Hi there, follow skeptics,

I am going to continue my on-going run of logical fallacies. Today I am going to be talking about a very common logical fallacy, not only used in discussions involving skepticism, but in everyday life. It is the argument called ‘moving the goalposts’. It is essentially a dirty, intellectually dishonest tactic to ensure that your opposition never reaches the full set of criteria for approval. It is not technically a logical fallacy, because there is no fault in logic in this argument, but it is usually counted as a fallacy because it is a common tactic, and it is not a very honest one at that.

The basis of this debating tactic is that you can always ask for more and more proof of something, all the time knowing that you will always be able to ask for more proof without ever having to concede defeat. I will explain it using the evolution/creation argument because it is a very common use of this arguing tactic.
A creationist states to an evolution proponent that there is a big gap between whales and land mammals, which must be filled in order to prove evolution.
The evolution proponent then proceeds to go out and do all the work, and manages to find a transitional fossil between mammals and a whale.
The creationist then has two options, he can either ask for a transitional fossil between two different species, or he can ask for fossils between the whale and the whale-mammal hybrid, or between the whale-mammal hybrid and the mammal. (notice this is also a god of the gaps argument in this case, I will deal with that logical fallacy later)
This is a moving the goalposts fallacy. This process can continue on for ever, with the creationist just asking for more and more proof, and the evolutionist providing it, and then the creationist asking for more.
No matter how hard the evolutionist works and how much proof he finds, it will always be just below the creationists criteria.

Another common example of this argument tactic is used by proponents of god in general. However, despite being a moving the goalposts strategy, it works in reverse to the previous example. God is usually described as the gap in our knowledge about the universe. This has been the general theory of god since its beginning.
When it was not understood how lighting and thunder was made, god was accepted as the creator of this thunder. An atheist at the time would have said that lightning is natural, the normal response would be “prove it.” So the atheist goes out and proves that lightning does not need god to explain it away. The god-believer will then say, “god makes the planets go around.” The atheist goes out and proves that there is no need for god to explain the planets motions.

This process continues to the stage where god is just the so-called ‘writer-of-the-rulebook’, and he decided upon the physical laws, and now just sits back and watches the action unfold. According to god proponents, god still exists, so they are happy, despite the fact that god is being pushed into an ever smaller corner. This is also an example of moving the goalposts.

That’s all for today, I will leave you with a quote from Bertrand Russell, “Logical errors are, I think, of greater practical importance than many people believe; they enable their perpetrators to hold the comfortable opinion on every subject in turn.” Bertrand Russell, a British philosopher, logican, mathematician, historian and social critic of some note.

Ad Hominem Logical Fallacy

Yesterday I blogged about the logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, or post hoc, and how it is used, and why it is an illogical argument. Today I will be continuing the logical fallacy blitz with the fallacy known as an Ad Hominem attack. This is a common argument used by a lot of different groups, even including skeptics sometimes, so it is important to understand this fallacy to make sure you don’t use it someday when arguing with a conspiracy theorist or a UFOligist. It is also used in politics a lot, especially at the moment in Queensland where there is a political election coming up in a few days.

The most recent use of this argument is by the Labor party in the campaign for the up-coming election. Due to the fact that the Labor Party is fighting an extremely up-hill battle (the latest poll shows that they could win as little as 12 of 89 seats in parliament), they are resorting to attacking the politicians themselves rather than just putting forward good policies or proposed plans. The most common one is the ‘Campbell’s web’ advertisement, which attacks Campbell Newman (the leader of the LNP) and his personal finances not the policies he is proposing or the political view-point he argues for.It is a prime example of an ad hominem attack, because they are attacking the arguer, and not the arguments.

I also mentioned that skeptics fall into this trap often. This is one reason why it is important to know about logical fallacies. The first is that you can call your opponent bluff when he uses one, the second is that you can also question your own arguments with them, to make sure your logic is valid, os that you can correct them, and not the person you are arguing with.

Skeptics often use this logical fallacy when they are arguing with people such as UFOligists, conspiracy theorists and homeopaths. They often fall into saying things like “This is just stupid, how could you honestly believe that what you are saying is true, it is ridiculous!”, or something of the like. This is a logical fallacy. You cannot just simply disregard an argument because it is silly, it is a logical fallacy. However, it is not a logical fallacy to say “The notion of homeopathy is just outrageous, and here is why.” That is not a logical fallacy. If you explain your ad hominem attack with logically sound arguments, then it is not a logical fallacy, it is just good use of the arguing technique of ‘making the other person look like an idiot.’

Ad Hominem attacks are usually last gasp attempts to salvage some victories in the dieing moments of a debate when the fallacious arguer realizes that he is losing by a large margin.

That’s all for me today, I will leave you with a quote from Thomas H. Huxley, “Science is simply common sense at its best; that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.” Thomas H. Huxley, most often known of as Darwin’s bulldog and refiner of agnosticism.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc


Due to all the political ‘hoopla’ going on in the great state of Queensland at this time, because of the upcoming election in a few days time, I have been hearing a lot of political arguing. I have been pretty happy with the quality and the logic behind the arguments, but the Labor party (who is almost guaranteed to lose to the LNP this year) has been resorting to Post Hoc arguments and Ad hominem  attacks in the up-hill battle to hold on to seats. Today I will not be blogging about these arguments, but I think now would be a good time to introduce you all to these two logical fallacies. Today’s blog will be about Post Hoc Ergo Proper Hoc.

Post Hoc Ergo Proper Hoc is a common logical fallacy which often seems to hold weight at first sight and also seems logical in basis, but is not. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc is latin for ‘after this, therefore because of this.’ You will see this argument everywhere, all the time, and for simple things, is logically valid. For example, to say that putting one’s hand on the hot stove will burn one’s hand. That is correct logic, but this argument breaks down when you try to apply it to even slightest of complex problems.

The most common use of this argument is in testimonials for alternative medicines and day-time television commercials for acne removal cream or the ab-circle pro. It is a perfect demonstration of this argument, and its flaws. If one has a sore back, and decides to go to the Chiropractor to fix it. The Chiropractor gives the patient some herbal remedies and a nice massage and manipulates his neck, and a few weeks later, the patients back feels much better. He tells all his friends about how the Chiropractor fixed his back, and all his friends go to the Chiropractor to get their sore back fixed.

This attribution to the Chiropractor is very illogical. There are a whole plethora of reasons why the patients back could have got better, other than the Chiropractor. The patients back may have gotten better any way, because it is a very arbitrary and subjective thing, back pain. He could have been the beneficiary of some pain-killers, or he might have been doing some home treatment like hot-packs and stretches, and that may have fixed up his back. It is unfair for the Chiropractor to get the credit.

It also is a common proof for some people that prayer works. If you pray for your friend Steve to make a speedy recovery from his Influenza, and he does recover, then you may attribute that to the fact that you prayed for it. Never mind the fact that everybody gets over the flu eventually.

I will leave you with a quote from an unknown author, “Correlation does not equal causation.” Anonymous, a Joe Klein, a 13th century English student and a New York Quartet group of some note.