The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘esp’

A Good Halloween Lesson: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 29, 2009

Again, in the spirit of Halloween and skepticism, I want to share with you all what is likely one of the best videos ever: James Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”. I often show this video to my students around this time of year, when many of them are (consciously or not) thinking about psychics & various paranormal phenomena.

If you’ve never seen the entire video, I strongly encourage you to watch it all.  In addition, if you really want to get a good look into real paranormal investigation, take some time to check out one of the best skeptical books on the topic: James Randi’s “Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions” 🙂

 

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Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific Sells “Ghost Detectors” & Other Woo

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 14, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I became aware of something that, as both a skeptic & science teacher, shocked me: Edmund Scientific, one of the oldest & most respected outlets for selling science equipment for educational use, has gone over to the dark side.  They are actively marketing & selling paranormal woo…

edmund-woo-meter

What are these products that Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific is now selling on their website?  They are…

EMF Ghost Meter – This is nothing more than a standard EMF (electromagnetic field) detector, which usually detects EMFs that are low frequency, such as radio & microwaves.  I have no beef with Edmund selling EMF detectors (I even have one in my classroom), but what galls me is the manner in which they are marketing this device.  They are actually calling it a ghost detector – and by doing so they are giving credence to the pseudoscientific flummery of the paranormal woo-meisters!  As they say on their website:

Detect Paranormal Presences

The preferred unit of paranormal investigators, this Ghost Meter can be used by laymen with professional results. The unit responds instantaneously to EMF fluctuations and spikes in energy with a detecting range of 50 to 1,000 Hz. The VLF range is 1,000 to 20,000 Hz. An easy-to-read LED display and silent on/off push switch make for seamless, simple operation.

Such devices are often used by so-called ghost hunters as they bumble around in the dark, freaking themselves out at every cool draft of wind & creaky sound they hear.  In reality, there is absolutely no reason to think that EMF meters are detecting any kind of “ghostly entities”, as a simple application of Occam’s Razor often shows that what the meters are actually detecting is the low-frequency EM-waves given off by nearby lighting fixtures, electrical lines, or even the other equipment carried by the ghost hunters themselves!

But if you thought that was bad, it gets worse.  Here are some other gems that Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific is now selling…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in education, ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

Wisdom in a Cookie

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 19, 2009

My wife and I love Chinese food.  Often, after a long day, I like to drop by our favorite Chinese restaurant and pick up some dinner.  And I think it’s hard to find many things better than a good, relaxing meal at the end of the day – unless, of course, you’re talking about dessert.  And what is the classic dessert of such fare?  The fortune cookie…

fortune cookie

Just today, we had some Chinese take-out, and I chomped a fortune cookie for dessert. Now, while I’m not going to claim that anyone really takes these kind of fortunes seriously, I’m going to use them as a little lesson in critical thinking because there are related phenomena that some people do take seriously.

Let’s take that fortune revealed in my cookie:

A party with friends is in your near future

Now, it is true that there are a few events in the upcoming weeks where I’ll likely be getting together with friends. So should I conclude that this little cookie successfully predicted the future? Of course not!

Were I to conclude this party prediction a “hit”, I would be guilty of a common logical fallacy, namely observational selection (also known as “cherry-picking” or “counting the hits but discounting the misses”). Observational selection is a common fallacy employed by those who believe the messages of psychics – like Sylvia Browne or Nostradamus – can accurately predict the future.

Think about it, of all the people who receive fortune cookies every day, probably many people got the same message about an upcoming party with friends. Chances are, most were not going to have such a party (a “miss”), and those people would basically ignore the miss and just eat the cookie. But then I get this cookie which seems to successfully predict an upcoming gathering of friends (a “hit”?). You can see what’s going on here – it’s just basic statistics. Many more “party with friends” cookie predictions miss than hit, but those are ignored in favor of the hits.

With a psychic’s predictions, such as Ms. Browne’s predictions for 2008, as with a fortune cookie, most of the predictions fall flat as misses. Actually, to be fair to Browne, she got half of the predictions listed at that link correct, but many were extremely vague predictions that I think hardly count (when do we go through a year with no earthquakes?). But the true believers ignore these misses, and then they employ selective thinking to justify whatever hits they perceive of “proof” of the psychic’s powers.

Side note: If Sylvia Browne (or any other psychics) really had any powers she claims to have, you might think that she would have predicted the global economic meltdown. Funny that she didn’t, isn’t it? I mean, it was only the biggest financial crisis in the world since the Great Depression…

Oops, that’s a pretty BIG miss!!!

Now, can a fortune cookie (or psychic) get lucky, providing a “prediction” of a once-in-a-million hit? Certainly, it can happen. For example, here’s a story about a “fortune-cookie-payout” where many people won millions of dollars based upon the numbers on a fortune cookie…

Powerball officials initially suspected fraud, but it turned out that all the winners received their numbers from fortune cookies made by Wonton Food Inc., a fortune cookie factory in Long Island City, Queens, New York. The number combinations printed on fortunes are reused in thousands of cookies per day. The five winning numbers were 22, 28, 32, 33, and 39. The sixth number in the fortune, 40, did not match the Powerball number, 42.

Were those people just lucky or was there something psychic at work with the fortune cookies? The discussion about statistics above should give you a hint, and besides, there’s a reason why it’s a called once-in-a-million shot. With enough cookies handed out over enough years, and with enough people playing lottery numbers based on those fortunes, eventually someone will get lucky.

So where’s this “wisdom” I mentioned in the title of this entry? Well, dear reader, I think the wisdom given to us by those tasty little fortune cookies is a lesson in critical thinking – how not to be fooled and, more importantly, how not to fool ourselves.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments »

 
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