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.

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Red Flags to watch out for

I am going to start blogging every now and then on some red flags you can find to help you distinguish a pseudoscience from a real science. These are very important to learn and can help you to make a quick judgement on the reliability of websites or books or articles, without having to do a big scientific study or finding one that had been done to assess the validity of people’s claims.

I will start out by making a clarifying statement. Just because an article or ‘scientist’ displays some red flags in his reasoning, logic and evidence, does not make that argument false. The same goes for a logical fallacy. An argument can never be proven to be wrong, but if the only evidence for it is illogical and suspicious, then it should be disregarded.

The red flag I will be discussing today is one which is as much a difference between science and pseudoscience as it is a red flag. It is the hyping up of very flimsy evidence to prove ones case. This is what distinguishes the scientists from the cranks. I will give some examples.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a great new battery technology which is able to generate power from the ambient heat from a person’s body, or a light, or the sun, or just heat which exists around us. Now this is a pretty amazing application of technology, but the scientists who were behind it played it down quite a lot. The same things happen with all of the great new discoveries in the search for the god particle, the Higgs  Boson. At one stage, late last year, there were a series of big steps made towards finally finding this elusive particle, and I was getting very exited about it, because they were very close to uncovering the particle. That was the opinion of most of the scientific and skeptical blogging community, and I got the feeling that the discovery was right around the corner.
But there were the scientists behind the discovery, just saying, “You know what, we are getting close, but we haven’t found it yet, lets just keep low and celebrate and dance when we finally uncover it.”
This is very humble of them, and it is very telling.

Could you imagine if a perpetual motion crank got a hold of evidence 1% as much of a breakthrough as that of the new battery? It would be all over the news, they would be asking for Nobel prizes, holding press conferences and they would probably be set for life.

This is a big red flag, if somebody is holding up their entire medical practice or ideology on one or two flimsy testimonials, and they are drumming them up like when man landed on the moon, then you should be suspicious. If somebody, however, is playing down a big scientific discovery, then you can probably lend credit to the reliability of the website.

I will leave you with a quote from Xi Zhi, “Large skepticism leads to large understanding. Small skepticism leads to small understanding. No skepticism leads to no understanding.” Xi Zhi, A Chinese Calligrapher of some note.

Why don’t people like evolution?

Hello to my skeptical follows in the world,

Over the years I have seen that those who do not like evolution have decided to not like evolution, and then find some facts to try to back it up (not saying that is their thought process, but it seems that way sometimes). A lot of people just have a generally negative attitude to the whole idea of evolution, and it really does get on my nerves. It also depends on the context of the situation, and this has been shown by many scientific surveys on people’s beliefs about evolution, but I will get to that topic on another blog post.

Some people do not like the whole concept of evolution for the plain fact that it is incomprehensible. Some people are unable to understand the gargantuan amount of time that evolution takes, nor can they understand how things can change so much in that time, because they cannot understand it. They don’t get how much change occurs, they don’t get how much time it takes, they don’t get how long 3.9 billion years actually is, they don’t get any of it.

As I mentioned before, the context is very important. When Somebody is sitting at home in their armchair, watching the fireplace with a glass of red wine, they have their own beliefs and world view that they will vow to stick to, but almost never will when in a challenging social situation. The human brain is very malleable in its thoughts, and because of emotions and mood, somebody’s thoughts can be altered quite a considerable amount when they are posed a question a specific way or by a certain person. When in a discussion about science and advancements in technology, most people will show a belief in evolution if asked about it, but if they are asked what they feel about evolution in a theological discussion where choosing evolution is ‘to go against god’, most will show a disinterest in evolution.

Many people also hear the words evolution and just roll their eyes and don’t bother to look at it any more because it is just complex science and they will never be able to understand it. This is the approach most of my family seems to take when dealing with any science which may go against Christianity, (whether intentionally to get out of a religious discussion or not) and it gets on my nerve sometimes. It usually goes a little like “Oh, well, this is all to complicated for me, I should have a crash  course on evolution or quantum mechanics before you talk to me about that stuff. I get this one more than the others, but I have dealt with the first two, and they seem to be posed by those with stronger attitudes against evolution.

I will leave you with a quote from Will Provine, ” As the creationists claim, belief in modern evolution makes atheists of people.  One can have a religious view that is compatible with evolution only if the religious view is indistinguishable from atheism.” , an atheist and science historian of some note.

Some questions on conspiracy theories

Salutations my skeptical cohort,

I have recently been asked a few questions by Genevieve Gorin about conspiracy theories and theorists. I will attempt to answer these questions to my fullest in this post.

The first question which Genevieve asked is ” Why do you think conspiracy theories are made up?”
This is a question which we can never really know the answer too, because we cannot read the minds of believers, but we can take a pretty good guess. I think that the reason why most believers believe is because it gives them some sort of personal victory, it makes them feel like part of the ‘in’ crowd. To any conspiracy there are three groups of people. Those behind the conspiracies, who are the most evil people on earth, are incredibly powerful and intelligent, but occasionally very, very stupid.
The second group are by-standers, they are you and me, blissfully unaware, of the conspiracy unfolding right before their eyes.
The third group is is the conspiracy theorists, who are the angels of light in the world, uncovering the mass conspiracy which is occurring. It makes them feel good about themselves, that they have seen through the veil.

However, for those at the top of the tree, people such as Rosie O’Donnell, it is making them a lot of money, a lot more than any of the skeptics or historians on the other side.

The second question asked by Genevieve is, “What do you think (a conspiracy theorists) function is in society?”
I think mostly the conspiracy theorists are fear-mongerers, seeding that tiny amount of doubt that the ‘common’ explanation which may spark them to become a conspiracy theorist themselves.

The third question Genevieve asks is “Why do you think people are so quick to dismiss theories?”
I think that most conspiracy theories are dismissed out-of-hand is because the evidence is flimsy, circumstantial and not actually in support of their theory. To most people with a good, thinking brain, it is obvious that there is nothing holding their theories up. To sum up, conspiracy theories are silly.

The next question is “What is the process of creating a theory?”
Most likely, it is just watching tape of Kennedy’s assassination or 911, and looking frame by frame at the film, until they find something which doesn’t look exactly as it should (according to their thinking).
Another thing about conspiracy theorists is that most of them don’t actually have a theory you can pin them down on. They just say “Why is this?” and “Why is that?” to everything they see.
They are also ‘in the loop’ of believing in a conspiracy and there is nothing you can say or do which will change their mind. Any evidence which supports their theory – supports their theory, and any evidence which doesn’t support their theory, was just planted there to cover up the conspiracy, and proves the conspiracy even more.

The last question Genevieve asks is “Do you believe in absolute truth? Why?”
Well Genevieve, it would be ignorant and arrogant for me to say that there has never been any conspiracy ever, in all of our years of politics. Of course things are covered up to support a particular party or politician, ‘It’s politics’. But here I am talking about hiding some money transfers or biased reporting and investigaing but not these grand conspiracies where millions of people would be in on the plot, and hundreds of people killed as a result.

Could you imagine how big it would be if the democrats showed that the Bush administration was behind 911. They would win the presidency for the next hundred years. Why would a president put that much on the line for NO CLEAR BENEFIT?
No, I don’t believe in absolute truth in politics, if there was complete transparency in politics, we wouldn’t be living the way we do today.

Just on a final note, if what conspiracy theorists say are true, then the politicians and ‘men in black’ would be so powerful, and so immoral to do such things, so many people would be in on the secret and to keep them all quiet would be amazing. And for the conspiracy theorists to think they can just see through the veil is ridiculous, and they would be taken out by the ‘men in black’ if there was any truth to what they were saying.

Any way , I hope that answers your questions Genevieve and good luck with your assignment.

I will leave you with a quote from Oswald Mosley, “Anyone who knows how difficult it is to keep a secret among three men – particularly if they are married – knows how absurd is the idea of a world wide secret conspiracy consciously controlling all mankind by financial power; in real, clear analysis.” Oswald Mosley, a British politician of some note.

Is SETI pseudoscientific?

Hello skeptical comrades,

Today I will be blogging about my thoughts on SETI, and where it falls on the science-pseudoscience spectrum, but first I will introduce SETI and what it does.

SETI, Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, searches for radio signals which may be from alien life forms as well as look out for earth sized planets which may be suitable for life. SETI uses radio telescopes positioned all over the earth to look for specific radio frequencies and patterns which may have been sent either intentionally or unintentionally by aliens on other planets. It also sends out radio signals on behalf of the human race to any possible aliens which may be out there. One might ask, how could an intelligent life form send out radio beams unintentionally? The answer is that most likely you are doing it right now, probably in more than one manner, because mobile phone towers, television broadcast towers, radio broadcast towers, WiFi, your microwave and Bluetooth all produce radio waves, and these could be picked up by alien life forms. You can test this for your self by tuning your television to a channel with bad reception or a channel with no reception, the white noise you see in just background from everything around you. (as well as the cosmic microwave background radiation.)

SETI is one of those in-betweeners in the pseudoscience spectrum along with naturopathy. SETI is essentially playing the lottery, because there is not really any harm in having a go at finding extra-terrestrial life, but the pay-out is huge if we do find other life out there. There is no proof that life could exist in other places in the universe other than ourselves and the genuinely massive numbers of the universe, but I think it is worth having a go. It falls under the fringe science category, but less fringe than cold-fusion.

SETI is different from ESP researchers which I blogged about recently in the way that SETI looks somewhere, doesn’t find anything, and then moves on, whereas ESP researchers have been sitting on the Ganzfeld experiments for 70 years, and have always come out with results of 0.25 for any rigorous, double-blinded experiment.

I will leave you with a quote from Metrodorus of Chios, “To consider the Earth as the only populated world in infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field sown with millet, only one grain will grow.” Metrodorus of Chios, a greek philosopher of some note.

ESP Researchers looking for invisible keys

Hello fellow skeptics,

I’m sure you have all heard the analogy comparing science to somebody trying to find their keys, and it demonstrates well how people use the process of science quite often in their everyday lives. For those who haven’t heard it though, it goes that when somebody looses their keys, they develop a hypothesis (my keys are under the couch) and then they proceed to test it. (look under the couch.) If their hypothesis was deemed incorrect (the keys weren’t under the couch), then they formulate a new one (the keys are locked in the car). This process is repeated until a suitable hypothesis which holds up to observation, (I found the keys) is found.

Now this is all well and good, but I recently heard this analogy abused by an ESP research proponent. He stated that when you lose your keys, you will keep checking the same place over and over again, ‘just to be sure’. This is his justification for why ESP research should continue to be done.

This is not true, for a couple of reasons. When somebody looses their keys, they first assess the prior probability of the likelihood that they lost their keys there. One does not check at great Aunt Sherle’s house if the last time one went there was when they were 11 for Easter one year. Nor does one check under the couch, if one has already looked 40 times, because every second time they checked they thought they saw something under there. I feel this is the point at which ESP research is at.

Prior probability says its unlikely, but we had a little look, just to make sure. We looked, we found nothing, the general scientific community left it, but a few cranks, nuts and loons stayed behind, convinced that 0.5000002 is worth investing millions of dollars in research. I think its well past time to move on, and the sooner ESP research is brought to a stop, The sooner the money can go to worthy science with real, interesting outcomes.

I will leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein, “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not to sure about the former.” Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist, master mind behind general relativity, special relativity, and mass-energy equivalence, Nobel prize winner & patent-office clerk of some note.

Homeopathic college in Australia website review

Hello from me,
I was browsing the internet yesterday, as is the norm, when I stumbled across homeopathycollege.com.au, which is the official website for the Sydney College of Homeopathic Medicine. It’s sad that what I thought was mostly an English and European pseudoscience has infiltrated Australia. I thought I might go over some of my thoughts on the website.
There is a handy ‘about homeopathy’ tab amongst others which explains the underlying principles of homeopathy. One thing I noticed is that right at the top the website says ‘Homeopathy is a system of medicine based on principles laid down over 200 years ago’ and here is one of the main problems with homeopathy, it’s based on 200 hundred year old crap. It hasn’t changed anything about its philosophy in the last 200 years.
Another claim thrown around commonly in the introduction is that homeopathy is both safe and effective. I agree with half of that statement. Yeah, it’s safe because it’s just water, no, it’s not effective because it’s just water. In the last paragraph the website states that ‘Homeopathy’s effectiveness in a wide range of conditions is increasingly being verified by high quality clinical and laboratory trials (both human and animal)’. This is completely wrong. Homeopathy effectiveness has been proved by poorly designed, non-double-blinded studies which do not control for placebo and the like. Homeopathy has been shown to have no effect when studied using large, rigorous, double-blinded studies.
That’s it on my review of this homeopathic site. I will leave you with a skeptical Quote from Undoubtedly the most famous of all skeptics, James Randi, “I do not expect that homeopathy will ever be established as a legitimate form of treatment, but I do expect that it will continue to be popular.”