More Options

The Disappearing Writing Guru, Sweetwater, and Chicken McNugget: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This

Barry L. Beyerstein

Volume 14.1, March 2004

As every conscientious skeptic knows, we are obliged to let all but the most patently absurd claimants have their day in court. If we hope to gain the respect of fair-minded occupants of the middle ground in such debates, we must be willing occasionally to conduct tedious and time-consuming tests on some pretty unpromising candidates. Unfortunately, there are some who will cynically take advantage of this willingness to keep an open mind. The bane of the worthy skeptic’s existence is the occult or pseudoscientific entrepreneur who pesters and cajoles his critics into designing and setting up a test, takes credit in the media for being willing to submit to such a grilling, and then bugs out at the last minute, citing some affront, the threadbare “shyness” dodge, or some other lame excuse.

We in the British Columbia Skeptics have been stung a number of times in this way. Our longtime supporters will probably recall the case of Linda Pitney, the Toronto graphologist who surfaced in the wake of The Write Stuff, the book debunking handwriting analysis my brother Dale and I published in 1992. Pitney contacted us via a national radio program we were on. She congratulated us for helping to weed out the many unqualified amateurs, crooks, and charlatans in the graphology business and grandly volunteered to show us what a “scientifically trained” graphologist like herself could accomplish. Dale and I set about designing the testing protocols and Pitney set about milking the media for free publicity for herself, based on her consent to the upcoming trials. Since all claimants must agree in advance that a proposed measure is a fair and adequate test of what they say they can do, they must be involved from the outset. Pitney strung us along for quite a while, gathering more publicity while she dragged things out with increasingly irrelevant quibbles. Once she began attributing our refusal to weaken the experimental controls to bias on our part, it became apparent that she was not going to agree to a decisive test of her abilities and negotiations broke off. Nonetheless, we heard from members of the Ontario Skeptics that Pitney continued to trade for quite some time thereafter on her assertion that she was about to take part in a scientific test to be run by the BC Skeptics.

Our long-suffering friends will probably also recall the infamous case of the Vancouver qi gong master, Mr. Ge. Mr. Ge, a recent immigrant from China, made all the usual claims of this nonsensical sect and offered to back them up with a demonstration before a meeting of the BC Skeptics. We said that he could address the group as he wished, as long as he consented to being tested after his talk. One of his many fanciful declarations was that he could beam his mystical qi energy into pure water, imparting a sweet taste to it. This seemed like the sort of thing that was amenable to a test at one of our meetings, so my then-graduate student Elliot Marchant and I set out to design a double-blind trial. We obtained two vials of distilled water from the Simon Fraser University Chemistry Department. On the night of his talk, Mr. Ge was to have beamed his qi into either (randomly chosen) vial A or vial B. This would be in Elliot’s presence, but out of sight of the audience and me. I was then supposed to administer with an eye dropper to the tongues of audience members a drop of first one then the other liquid, in randomized order. Each participant would have been required to guess which of the pair was the “irradiated,” and hence now sweet, droplet. At the end of the trial, the code was to be broken and we would have seen if the audience did any better than chance in telling which vial had received Mr. Ge’s ministrations. We’ll never know the result, because Mr. Ge didn’t live up to his end of the bargain. We agreed that he would have forty-five minutes to tell us anything he wanted us to know about the history and achievements of qi gong, to be followed by the test, whose exact procedures he had promised to follow. After rambling on for more than two hours in the most disjointed and vacuous lecture I think our group has ever had to suffer through, Mr. Ge announced that it was now too late in the evening; he was exhausted and wouldn’t be able to do the test after all. His qi was just too drained to proceed. We remained civil in the face of this cop-out and he promised to make himself available for testing at a later date. We phoned him repeatedly after that, but there was always some reason why he just couldn’t make it. We’re still waiting and he’s still taking credit for having taken on the skeptics on their own turf.

Which brings me to our latest drubbing. One day last year I received a phone call at my office. A Mr. Frank McL. (we’ll call him “Big Mac” for short—I promised him anonymity) wanted to tell me about the miraculous diagnostic abilities of his psychic teenaged son (we’ll call him “McNugget”). Apparently, several local physicians (none of whom had agreed to be quoted or contacted, of course) had been impressed with McNugget’s astounding ability to diagnose illnesses, not only from a brief visual inspection of a fully-clothed patient, but even from a photo of said sufferer! Now, I get several crank phone calls a week and I was rushed and harried that day, as usual. In my invariably polite way though, I declined to investigate his son because, I said, I had seen too many failed demonstrations of this sort in the past. Big Mac responded in a hurt voice, saying that apparently I wasn’t the fair-minded skeptic he’d been told I was, because I was obviously too closed-minded to examine the evidence when it was being offered. Bang! He had me. Citing (real and pressing) time constraints, I said I wouldn’t be able to get to McNugget until after the current Semester-from-Hell was over. He said that would be okay and that he’d call to remind me (which he did practically on a weekly basis, by phone or e-mail).

During one of these pestering phone calls, Big Mac suggested we do a preliminary test, because McNugget could diagnose from photographs too, as he reminded me. I asked if he needed a full body likeness, but Big Mac said no, a head-and-shoulders one would do. So I suggested that they go to the Simon Frazer University Web site and download my photo and see what McNugget could come up with. Big Mac agreed and I gently resisted his efforts to pump me for a few clues as to what kinds of infirmities I might be subject to—he did manage to worm out of me the useful admission that I was in pretty good health overall though. I kicked myself afterwards for falling for that sucker punch. When Big Mac got back to me by e-mail a few days later, McNugget’s “diagnoses” were even more vague and open to retrofitting than I had expected. To the best of my recollection, this was the first time Big Mac had also asserted that his son could heal as well as diagnose. Here’s what he had had to say:

Hello Dr. Beyerstein,
As per our phone conversation I had my son take a long distance look at your body’s energy using your picture from SFU. He said that there really wasn’t anything major. He found some problems in your upper neck that went down to your right shoulder; some small problem in the tailbone; little bit in your knees (but not bad). He did say that if you were going to notice anything it would be down the front of both legs from hips to above the knees. I ask [sic] him to take a close second look and he said he found a slight foggy green in the chest area but very slight. All in all you look pretty good compared to some of the people we have been looking at. If any of these areas are problems for you, please let us know and we will fix it up.

F.M.

Recall that I had already told them I was a pretty healthy puppy. The things McNugget thought were wrong with me were way wide of the mark, even allowing for his generous built-in fudge factor. He didn’t identify the minor complaints I do have (which will have to remain secret in case I am dumb enough to get drawn into this kind of mug’s game again at some future date). Big Mac seemed quite surprised that I wasn’t impressed and perhaps I didn’t let him down as gently as I ought to have if I had really wanted to retain their cooperation. At any rate, I told him we were preparing a proper in-person test session and we began to discuss procedures and how the test could be worked around McNugget’s school schedule. Big Mac was quite concerned that his son’s gifts not be revealed to his school chums for fear of ridicule, hence the anonymity rule. Graduate student Ian Webb, my brother Dale, and I had begun assembling a group of people with various unobtrusive afflictions. At this point, I detected the first note of worry in Big Mac’s voice—he obviously wasn’t prepared for what a genuine test would entail.

Unbeknownst to me, however, Big Mac had already begun scheming behind my back. Though I might not have been moving as quickly as the Mac clan had wished, I had very firmly agreed to get the test rolling—and had begun to do so. Nonetheless, Big Mac decided to contact Dr. Bruce Clayman, SFU’s Vice President for Research, to complain. In his e-mail, he impugned the intellectual curiosity and questioned the open-mindedness of certain un-named SFU faculty. Luckily, Bruce Clayman is a friend and an ardent supporter of the skeptical movement. An eminent physicist before becoming vice president, Bruce and I had actually collaborated on some research years ago. He suspected immediately to whom Big Mac was alluding and forwarded the Big Mac attack to me. I replied to Bruce that I had in fact set things in motion before this had been sent to him and he responded to Big Mac with a marvelously terse rejoinder, copied to me. It was fun watching Big Mac try to squirm out of this embarrassment with one lame excuse after another, but it was sobering to think that, had his missive not ended up on the desk of a good friend and ally in the senior administration, his duplicity could have had unfortunate consequences for my reputation in the university.

At this point, enter McNugget’s mother, MacMom. Even though Big Mac had been a bit slow on the uptake regarding what a valid test would entail, MacMom had quickly sensed that McNugget might be getting in over his head. My less than enthusiastic endorsement of the preliminary “test” results had obviously set off her alarms. Believing that the best defense is a good offense, MacMom phoned to demand that I justify the enormous privilege I was being granted in getting a peek at their gifted son. Her holier-than-thou demeanor at this late stage was rather off-putting, but I decided to ignore her rude and condescending manner. MacMom said she had done some checking on me on the Internet (finally!), and she wasn’t quite sure I was the sort of fair witness they had been looking for. I seemed terribly negative and (horrors!) biased, she said. MacMom seemed inordinately interested in whether I had any religious or spiritual beliefs, as if that mattered for what they had been persistently begging me to do for them. Her son was a sensitive soul, she said, and she wasn’t sure he could perform adequately under the cold-hearted, sterile conditions we were imposing. All we had asked (and they initially agreed to) was that McNugget present himself at our lab where we would have assembled fifteen or twenty volunteers with properly-diagnosed and documented medical conditions—ones that would have no obvious outward signs like an arm in a sling or a death-rattle cough. McNugget would not be allowed to pump them for information, just look them over, as the MacFamily had repeatedly assured me would be sufficient. McNugget would then be asked to check off for each of our volunteers those items that he thought applied to each person, from a very specific symptom checklist we had devised. I had also insisted that the whole proceeding be videotaped, to deal with the expected attempts to wiggle out of the results with ad hoc pettifogging at a later date. MacMom and I sparred a bit more on the phone and she said they’d have to “think it over.” That is, decide whether to renege on what Big Mac had already firmly agreed to.

A few days later, I received the following e-mail from Big Mac:

Hello Dr. Beyerstein,

I appreciate all the time you have given us. We have done some research on some of your studies and have decided that we will not put our son through this type of test. My son who is 15 said that he probably could put a fire in your hand and you would deny that it exists. He feels that you have years of reputation as a skeptic that would have to be thrown out the window when you witness what he does. We have met with qigong experts as well as a grand master and we didn’t see anything that comes near to what my son is capable of doing. The qigong masters were quit [sic] impressed with what he does. [I had told Big Mac about the disappointing results with various qi gong masters I had seen in China and in Vancouver.] Anyone can design a test to disprove just about anything.

Maybe if you could witness what he does and set out to prove that he does have this ability then we would be interested. But I know that won’t happen. It is a shame that intellectuals like yourself are wasting precious time to disprove everything. I first approached you with the idea that I could get some professional advice as to what is happening with my son. I am not really interested in making a circus show out of him. He is connecting to people and is able to see inside their bodies. Do you really think that we would be imagining this. We are a typical suburban family that has had their lives changed forever because of this. I don’t understand what is going on with him but I do know that it is real. I think we would be better off connecting with people who are truly interested in the science behind this phenomenon. Why can’t I just get a psychologist to look at him and advice [sic] what is happening rather than someone who is trying to disprove it. You are welcome to visit us anytime you feel you can come outside the paradigm. I am not saying that in a negative sense, we all have paradigms that we live within. It just so happens that our son has shifted the boundaries of our paradigm forever. Please excuse me if I sound brash in this letter. You have to put yourself in our shoes and imagine what it is like to endlessly try to convince people of something that you witness every day.

Thanks again for your time,

F.M.

So, after hectoring me for months, demanding my participation, the MacFamily backed out, claiming they are the open-minded ones and I am the one who refuses to challenge his entrenched beliefs. The following was my reply:

Dear Mr. McL[ . . . ]:

I’m sorry you feel this way about our proposed test of your son’s psychic diagnostic abilities. What I suggested to you was simply the standard way the scientific community always goes about investigating any claim; nothing more or less. The burden of proof is always on the claimant. It’s not up to the skeptic to prove the claimant wrong. I never proceed on that basis. It’s the job of the person who wishes his or her assertions to be accepted to supply satisfactory evidence. It is the job of the fair-minded but properly skeptical scientist to provide an opportunity for someone who claims to be able to do something to demonstrate it under conditions that control for the very human tendency we all have to see what we expect or want to see when we make informal, unblinded observations.

Without that kind of evidence, no one in the scientific community takes any claim seriously, whether it’s in conventional areas of research or in ones that seem to defy scientific orthodoxy. Despite what you and your son may feel about my objectivity toward such claims, I assure you I would change my mind if the data, collected with sufficient safeguards against error and fraud, warranted it.

In fact, the fame and fortune that would accrue to me for being the one who finally produced scientifically acceptable proof of such a phenomenon would be more than sufficient to compensate for any temporary embarrassment I’d experience in having to eat a bit of crow. Fraud has rarely been involved in my personal experience with such tests, but my testing of such claims over the past 25 years has shown me that subtle forms of self-delusion (that are part of the psychological make-up of each and every one of us, and which the controls I proposed help to eliminate) must be ruled out before accepting any fringe claim.

The last 100 years of psychological research on human cognitive biases, belief systems, and self-deception makes it quite clear that honest, sincere, intelligent, and well-educated people can easily fool themselves into believing what they hope to be the case if these controls are not in place before proceeding with an investigation. The infamous “N-Ray” episode is but one example of where even highly competent scientists have duped themselves. These procedures are just as necessary to control for the alleged biases of skeptics as those of the true-believers. Only then can the data speak for themselves.

It doesn’t matter what the observers’ preconceptions, hopes, or biases are if these controls are tight enough. It’s as the novelist Primo Levi once said, “Science respects what is.” You accuse me of not being open-minded. Open-mindedness requires nothing more than providing a fair opportunity for the claimant to demonstrate what he or she can do, under conditions that minimize the kind of cognitive slippages that can make things seem to be what they are not. It is not mere bias, as you seem to assume, to insist that such criteria be met before assenting to a claim. We demand no less of those who would try to sell us a used car.

In declining to take my friend James Randi up on his offer to pay US$1,000,000 to anyone who can perform satisfactorily under controlled conditions like the ones I proposed, those who talk big then duck his challenge typically cite the same concerns expressed by your son. However, in Randi’s tests the final decision on success or failure is actually made by an independent panel agreed upon in advance by Randi and the claimant, so it does not matter if Randi accepts the claim in the end or not. Still, the money, so far, has remained in the bank. If we could both agree on a similarly constituted panel who had the requisite knowledge and competence to oversee a test of your son under mutually-agreed upon experimental conditions, that would be a possibility we could discuss further.

The test I suggested to you would hardly have been a “circus,” as you suggest. That would defeat the purpose of the investigation, which is to arrive at the truth of the matter under believable conditions. A claimant cannot be expected to “strut his or her stuff” in an atmosphere that is not calm, orderly, and mutually respectful, with all procedures and end-points agreed upon by both parties in advance and strictly adhered to throughout. I am confident that if you were to ask anyone whom I have tested in the past, he or she would agree that I and my colleagues are low-key, courteous, and respectful in dealing with those we test. One such individual even said on a CBC radio program we were on that, even though she failed, I was the nicest skeptic she had ever met.

I have never publicly ridiculed any of the people I have tested, even though none has been able to pass the various tests we have conducted. To act otherwise would be counterproductive, for if we wish people to cooperate in future tests we must have a reputation for fairness and congeniality. In my opinion, it is a cop-out and, frankly, a bit insulting to claim I wouldn’t believe the data if they unambiguously supported your case. On the other hand, if someone makes a claim to have special abilities, but declines to demonstrate them under scientifically rigorous, but polite and non-threatening conditions, it raises serious doubts about the validity of the claim. Since in properly conducted tests all procedures must be agreed to by both parties in advance, the claimant gets to stipulate what the acceptable atmosphere will be. If all provisions are not agreeable to both sides, the test doesn’t proceed.

Seeking to have claims verified only by someone who wants to believe in the phenomenon in question will not get you very far, in my opinion, unless he or she includes the kinds of controls I am advocating (which, in my experience, believers rarely understand or employ). If the proper controls are in place, it doesn’t matter if the test is conducted by believers or skeptics. Without such safeguards, however, the tendency that we all suffer from that makes us jump to congenial conclusions is too powerful to permit a believable investigation.

As for your imputation that the scientific community has no interest in what might underlie such abilities, I would suggest that it is premature to look for underlying mechanisms before the phenomenon itself is established. Science only tries to explain that which can be reliably demonstrated. If the demonstrations were believable, however, I assure you the scientific community would be very interested because the implications for the entire metaphysical foundations of science would be enormous. If a putative phenomenon flies in the face of other well-established data in science, however, the community is well-advised to demand a higher standard of proof before accepting the claim. That is standard procedure and why I agreed to look at your son’s abilities in the first place.

I remind you that you approached me on this matter and you were quite persistent and even approached the Vice-President of my university who asked me why I wasn’t responding to your requests (which I had done). I agreed to be shown what you say your son can do. My colleagues and I remain willing to test his abilities in the time-honored tradition of such scientific investigations, if you would care to reconsider our offer.

With regards,

Barry Beyerstein

For some reason, I never got a reply.

Barry L. Beyerstein

Barry Beyerstein was a researcher in the Brain Behavior Laboratory, Department of Psychology, Simon Fraser University.