The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘Wall Street’

Psychics on CBS News: Epic Fail

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 19, 2009

**Note: For more background on this topic, see previous posts Psychic Failure in Investment Scams and Psychic Parasites.

I just watched a fluff-piece on CBS News, and I think you’ll just have to watch it for yourself before reading my comments on it…

Notice, in the reporting there was not one hint of skepticism about these self-proclaimed psychics and their woo. Even worse, there was a hint of argument from popularity in that report where the reporter stated that in these tough economic times even more and more people are going to psychics for advice – with the implication that if more people are doing it, then there must be something to it.

Save your money, folks. Whether or not they truly believe in their powers, psychics are just pseudoscientific woo-mongers… this phenomenon is nothing more than a mixture of cold reading by the psychic & wishful thinking on the part of the person seeking advice (and sometimes by the psychic themselves).

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in economics, media woo, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Psychic Failure in Investment Scams

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 26, 2009

I wanted to pass along an excellent article from Joe Nickell, skeptical investigator for the Center For Inquiry, concerning a recently revealed Ponzi scheme and the role that psychics played in it. In an earlier post, called Psychic Parasites, I outlined how many psychics are playing off people’s fears in these tough economic times, and Nickell’s article shows very nicely why this is dangerous.

You can read the entire article here, but allow me to summarize some of the key points…

Now we know: Buffalo-area investment manipulator Guy Gane Jr., who has been accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of operating a 5.8-million-dollar Ponzi scheme, regularly sought advice from “psychics.” …

… One of Gane’s self-professed psychics was Ellen Bourn, who is a past-president of the Lily Dale Assembly, the world’s largest center for spiritualism (the belief that one can communicate with the dead). Her Web site bills her as an “incomparable metaphysician, psychic, master astrologer, healer and teacher.” In actuality, her real name is Ellen Bornstein, and she—like Sylvia Browne and many other “psychics”—has traits associated with a fantasy-prone personality. …

… Gane’s other psychic [James F. Lagona] has an even longer list of claimed powers—or fantasies: He is a self-described Christian mystic, dowser, spiritualist medium, healer, tarot reader, etc., including exorcist. He also describes himself as a Bishop of the Western Rite Orthodox Catholic Church and “renowned metaphysician,” as well as a bankruptcy attorney—although the home he practiced from has suffered foreclosure and is presently boarded up.

psychic-accuracy

I really like the manner in which Joe finishes his article. I can’t say it any better, so here it is…

I would just ask the two alleged psychics: Couldn’t you get an inkling of what was going on? Catch a glimpse of those millions of dollars disappearing from people’s retirement funds? Feel the vibrations from the impending scandal and misfortune that you yourself were caught up in? Were your psychic colleagues at Lily Dale and elsewhere unable to warn you? Now do you understand the consequences of living in a fantasy world?

Sadly, I don’t think either of these supposedly “gifted” individuals (nor their gullible believers) will even take the time to consider that their “powers” are non-existent and reside purely within their own personal fantasy lands. More’s the pity.

Posted in economics, psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

The Financial Crisis & Business Skepticism

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 14, 2009

The news about the economy is, by most accounts, pretty dismal these days. As time goes on, we are finding out about more an more shady deals on Wall Street and even outright fraud – think Bernard Madoff. How did we get caught up in this hysteria of wishful thinking that drove an insane economic bubble which ultimately burst so badly?

I’m no economist, and I don’t like to write about economics, but I wanted to take a moment or two to give a shout-out to someone who is applying skepticism & critical thinking to these questions – Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show 😀

In the last week, Jon Stewart has very publicly and vocally taken those financial reporters, networks, and commentators – such as CNBC’s Mad Money with Jim Cramer – to task for failing to apply their own skepticism & critical thinking to the situation. And in the end, when dealing in business and/or investing, it boils down to that old adage: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

I want to share two video clips of Jon Stewart laying the skeptical smackdown on CNBC for failing to apply critical thinking to these issues. The first is a broadcast from The Daily Show earlier in the week where Stewart criticizes CNBC for giving sloppy or shady financial advice…

stewart vs cnbc

The second video is an interview between Stewart and Cramer as they discuss what went wrong and the business media’s responsibility to be more willing to ask tough questions and follow through…

stewart vs cramer

I have to agree with Stewart. While it is incumbent upon all of us to apply our critical thinking skills to issues of business & finance, at some point we depend upon the business media outlets, like CNBC, to provide us with trustworthy information. Let us hope we’ve all learned this painful lesson well.

Posted in economics, media woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Psychic Parasites

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 10, 2009

A few days ago I saw an article on CNN.com titled “Psychic’s business booming in tough economy.” It seems that when times are tough, such as in the current economic crisis, there are many people who are looking for some kind of reassurance and guidance for what to do. And, sadly, when there are people who are desperate, there are those parasitic scumbags who will take advantage of them – specifically, psychics.

psychic

And it seems that the kind of people who are flocking to some psychics are those involved in high-finance and business…

As the economy tanks, [psychic] Usleman’s business is booming.

“It’s more types of people I have never seen before,” says Usleman. “Men in the business world, high-powered jobs, stock market, Wall Street.”

Since last fall, she says she began to see a new type of client — a “logical, [A-type] of personality.” Many of them are “just completely lost,” says Usleman.

Relationship advice, typically the bread and butter of the psychic business, has been supplanted by something new.

“Should I merge with this company? Should I bring in a partner to my company,” are the kind of questions Usleman gets from her clients.

I don’t know about you, but this article sent a bit of a chill up my spine. This is eerily similar to something I blogged about earlier – in my post Stars & Superstition – called financial astrology, where some financial advisers & investors actually use the thoroughly useless pseudoscience of astrology to make big financial decisions.

Like astrology, consulting a psychic seriously is to simply engage in all manner of magical thinking. The primary technique by which pretty much any psychic performs their “miracles” is a well-known psychological tactic called cold reading. One of the best books on the subject of cold reading is Ian Rowland’s Full Facts Book of Cold Reading – which clearly outlines the techniques by which psychics either intentionally or unintentionally do their readings. Here are some basics to cold reading

1. Remember that the key ingredient of a successful character reading is confidence.

If you look and act as if you believe in what you are doing, you will be able to sell even a bad reading to most subjects. One danger of playing the role of reader is that you may actually begin to believe that you really are divining your subject’s true character!

2. Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys.

These can provide you with much information about what various subclasses in our society believe, do, want , worry about etc. For example, if you can ascertain a subject’s place of origin, educational level, and his/her parents’ religion and vocations, you have gained information which should allow you to predict with high probability his/her voting preferences and attitudes to many subjects.

3. Set the stage for your reading.

Profess a modesty about your talents. Make no excessive claims. You will then catch your subject off guard. You are not challenging them to a battle of wits – You can read his/her character, whether he/she believes you or not.

4. Gain the subject’s cooperation in advance.

Emphasise that the success of the reading depends as much on the subject’s cooperation as on your efforts. (After all, you imply, you already have a successful career at character reading – You are not on trial, your subject is!) State that due to difficulties of language and communication, you may not always convey the meaning you intend. In these cases, the subject must strive to fit the reading to his/her own life. You accomplish two valuable ends with this dodge – Firstly, you have an alibi in case the reading doesn’t click; it’s the subject’s fault, not yours! Secondly, your subject will strive to fit your generalities to his/her specific life circumstances. Later, when the subject recalls the reading, you will be credited with much more detail than you actually provided! This is crucial. Your reading will only succeed to the degree that the subject is made an active participant in the reading. The good reader is the one who , deliberately or unwittingly, forces the subject to search his/her mind to make sense of your statements.

5. Use a gimmick, such as Tarot cards, crystal ball, palm reading etc.

Use of props serves two valuable purposes. Firstly, it lends atmosphere to the reading. Secondly, (and more importantly) it gives you time to formulate your next question/statement. Instead of just sitting there, thinking of something to say, you can be intently studying the cards /crystal ball etc. You may opt to hold hands with your subject – This will help you feel the subject’s reactions to your statements. If you are using , say, palmistry (the reading of hands) it will help if you have studied some manuals, and have learned the terminology. This will allow you to more quickly zero in on your subject’s chief concerns – “do you wish to concentrate on the heart line or the wealth line?”

6. Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue.

Even during a cold reading, a liberal sprinkling of stock phrases will add body to the reading and will help you fill in time while you formulate more precise characterisations. Use them to start your readings. Palmistry, tarot and other fortune telling manuals are a key source of good phrases.

7. Keep your eyes open!

Use your other senses as well. Size the subject up by observing his/her clothes, jewellery, mannerisms and speech. Even a crude classification based on these can provide the basis for a good reading. Also, watch carefully for your subject’s response to your statements – You will soon learn when you are hitting the mark!

8. Use the technique of fishing.

This is simply a device to get the subject to tell you about his/herself. Then you rephrase what you have been told and feed it back to the subject.

One way of fishing is to phrase each statement as question, then wait for the reply. If the reply or reaction is positive, then you turn the statement into a positive assertion. Often the subject will respond by answering the implied question and then some. Later, the subject will forget that he/she was the source of the information! By making your statements into questions, you also force the subject to search his/her memory to retrieve specific instances to fit your general statement.

9. Learn to be a good listener.

During the course of a reading your client will be bursting to talk about incidents that are brought up. The good reader allows the client to talk at will. On one occasion I observed a tealeaf reader. The client actually spent 75% of the time talking. Afterward when I questioned the client about the reading she vehemently insisted that she had not uttered a single word during the course of the reading. The client praised the reader for having astutely told her what in fact she herself had spoken.

Another value of listening is that most clients that seek the services of a reader actually want someone to listen to their problems. In addition, many clients have already made up their minds about what choices they are going to make. They merely want support to carry out their decision.

10. Dramatise your reading.

Give back what little information you do have or pick up a little bit at a time. Make it seem more than it is. Build word pictures around each divulgence. Don’t be afraid of hamming it up.

11. Always give the impression that you know more than you are saying.

The successful reader, like the family doctor, always acts as if he/she knows much more. Once you have persuaded the subject that you know one item of information that you couldn’t possibly have known (through normal channels) the subject will assume that you know all! At this point, the subject will open up and confide in you.

12. Don’t be afraid to flatter your subject at every opportunity.

An occasional subject will protest, but will still lap it up. In such cases, you can add, “You are always suspicious of those who flatter you. You just can’t believe that someone will say something good about you without an ulterior motive”.

13. Remember the Golden Rule – always tell the subject what he/she wants to hear!

That’s it. If you can gain a decent mastery of those 13 tricks, then you can easily hang out a shingle and out-psychic any psychic scumbags out there. There’s nothing more to it than that!

And that’s what makes this whole thing all the more scary. In these difficult economic times, some of the very people in places of financial power – businesspeople & Wall-Street types – are giving into their fears and allowing that to drive them irrationally into the arms of people who can only give the illusion that they have any clue what they’re talking about. I find that to be pretty damned unsettling.

As a humorous way of cautioning people to be wary of those making psychic claims, here is a spoof video of psychic douchebag John Edward getting Skepticallypwnd 😀

Fortunately, the CNN.com article did end on a cautionary note, one which I would pass on to anyone thinking about giving their money to a psychic charlatan

Financial adviser Ryan Mack says adding the cost of a psychic reading into an already stretched budget is not a good investment.

“Regardless of what the stars say, regardless of what the map says in terms of — if Pluto is lined up with Mars,” says Mack. “You have the ability within yourself to save, to plan and to be diligent.”

Sound advice, no psychic powers required. Oh yeah, and it’s free, too.

Posted in psychics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Stars & Superstition

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 27, 2009

Today there was a solar eclipse – it was really only visible from the Indian Ocean and surrounding region.  But if you happened to be nearby, you would have been treated to some pretty spectacular sights, like this sunset over Manila Bay in the Philippines…

solar-eclipse

Whenever relatively rare events such as eclipses take place, they quite understandably draw our attention. All people seem to have, if you’ll pardon the pun, a universal interest in the stars & skies above us. Unfortunately, this sense of wonder that we have when viewing the heavens can all too easily lead us down the path to woo & uncritical thinking.

Leaving aside the fact that there are still a number of people who believe in geocentrism (the view that the Earth is the center of the universe), it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that somehow mysterious cosmic forces are influencing our daily lives. I am talking about, of course, that infamous bugaboo, astrology.

Aside: “Astrology” is NOT the same thing as “astronomy”. Astronomy is a real science, and it just kills science geeks like me when we hear people mix the two terms up. It’s like saying oil & water are the same thing…

Now, don’t get me wrong, given the evidence around us it’s easy to see that various celestial objects in the sky influence us. After all, our own Sun is a star, and it constantly bathes our planet in life-giving light. Our calendars, indeed our entire concept of time, is based upon motions & cycles of the Sun, Moon, and stars. And if a dinosaur killer asteroid were to suddenly whip out of deep space and impact the Earth, I think we could all agree that would qualify as some kind of influence, right?

We accept that those sort of celestial influences upon our daily lives are real because there are understandable and have concrete physical processes behind them (such as the inverse-square law of light and Newton’s law of universal gravity). But astrology doesn’t provide any mechanism for explaining the supposed influence that it peddles – modern astrology merely makes random connections and inferences, much as any other form of prophecy or divination. Despite the implications & claims of its practitioners that astrological systems are scientific, there is no peer-review system for astrology. In fact, most “predictions” by astrologers are little more than guesses, overly-broad generalizations that anyone could make, or post hoc fabrications which seem to fit events after they’ve occurred. For example, this can be seen in this astrology blog entry where the writer attributes events such as 9/11 and the current economic recession to something called the “Cosmic Trigger.” My favorite line is this one…

When we see an activation of the Aries Point, we always get big news. This has happened a dozen times in the past decade — stuff like Sept. 11, the tsunami and other events. The Aries Point is like this bell waiting to be rung, only it’s not a bell, it’s like a crystal bowl that vibrates the universe.

Wow, it would sure be nice if these astrologers could actually predict something big like the stock market crash before it happened, wouldn’t it?

Needless to say, in all forms, astrology employs heavy doses of magical thinking in order for it to make sense to its adherents.

astrology

For a much more thorough analysis of astrology and why it doesn’t work, I refer you to an excellent article by Dr. Phil Plait, “The Bad Astronomer” – check it out here! I’ll give the last word on debunking astrology to that master of skeptics, James “The Amazing” Randi…

I want to close this post by telling you why I think it is important to beware of pseudoscientific nonsense like astrology. Everyone knows that we’re in quite an economic downturn now, but one thing you may not know is that a disturbing number of Wall Street traders & brokers have used astrology (called financial astrology) in their daily work! Really, I’m not kidding. And, sadly, astrology is not the only psuedoscience which influences the investment trade.

And if that wasn’t enough to give you a little thrill, think about this – former First Lady Nancy Reagan regularly consulted an astrological adviser, and she would use the astrologer’s advice to influence the schedule of events for President Ronald Reagan! So the daily activities of the most powerful man on the planet (with his finger on THE Button) were being set by a pseudoscientific crank. Wow, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

In uncertain times such as these, it is often comforting to take a night-time walk and gaze upon the heavens, drinking in the vast reaches of our cosmos. But in our desire to seek solace in the skies, we must be careful not to abandon our reason. As I like to say to my students, “It’s okay to keep an open mind, just not so open that your brain falls out.” 🙂

Posted in astrology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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