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Lauren Becker

Volume 16.1, March 2006

Sympathy for the Empath?

Tampa Bay Skeptics Report (Tampa Bay Skeptics), Winter 2005—06, Gary Posner:

This past October, Gary Posner received a telephone call from Ron Pearce of Prattville, Alabama, asking to be tested for the Tampa Bay Skeptics “$1,000 Challenge.” The contest promises a $1,000 prize to anyone providing verifiable scientific proof of the reality of any paranormal phenomenon.

Pearce claimed that he could use psychic abilities to determine the medical ailments of ten volunteers simply over the phone or via e-mail without actually seeing them in person. Furthermore, he said, “I do not need photographs—just names and conditions or problems . . . for me to put together with the names . . . or you may even use numbers instead of names.”

Posner then used the TBS e-mail list to solicit volunteers, explaining the nature of the challenge and assuring them that medical information would be kept confidential. A list of ten ailments, ranging from high cholesterol to multiple sclerosis to mental retardation, was then e-mailed to Pearce along with, naturally, a numerical list, keyed to volunteers, 1—10. In order to win the challenge, Pearce would need to match each person’s number with its corresponding medical condition.

In the end, out of ten determinations, only one was correct. Pearce explained that he had never been tested in this way before, but that he would be able to demonstrate his “empath” abilities in person. He said he could relieve patients of their symptoms and diseases and added, “I’ve had people [whose] cancer has actually disappeared” [as a result of his presence]. When asked to provide medical record documentation of these cases, he declined to even make the attempt.

Posner explained that TBS and the scientific community cannot accept paranormal claims without solid, reproducible evidence and Pearce agreed that, at least in this test, he failed the challenge.

The Power of One

New Zealand Skeptic (New Zealand Skeptics), Spring 2005, Jay Mann:

Jay Mann entered his local pharmacy one day and was disturbed to find a sign announcing that a certain iridologist would be offering consultations there at a later date. [Iridology is the belief that you can diagnose illness, both past and present, by studying the pattern of lines in the iris of the eye.]

“I asked the pharmacist if he really felt this was helping the community or his image,” writes Mann. “I said that I had to rely on his professional expertise for assistance in choosing between competing products, and his promotion of iridology would make me (and others) dubious about his professional judgement.”

Mann went home, found the “Truth Kit on Iridology” by John Welch, and later left it with the chemist [pharmacist]. He had noticed an ad in the local “old-folks publication” promising that the pharmacy would host regular visits from the iridologist and so left the store with minimal expectations—clearly the pharmacy was already committed.

Writes Mann, “To my utter surprise, on a later visit to the shop, the Truth Kit was returned with a comment that the iridologist would not be returning again. . . . We agreed that a ‘discipline’ purporting to diagnose illness, that would misdiagnose nonexistent problems while missing actual disorders, was not acceptable.”

Mann explained that this was his first success in changing a misleading action by a pharmacy and acknowledged other “total failures.” For example, a pharmacist selling “oxygenated vitamin water” dismissed Mann’s skepticism saying, “many people think it’s very powerful.”

When trying to improve awareness at a local level, the difference between success and failure seems to depend on the claims made by the product or procedure. As Mann notes, “most health products are sold with no real claim to do anything. Cleverly worded but meaningless statements . . . are neither provable nor disprovable.” But, he writes, “iridology makes specific claims for efficacy and accuracy, and these claims had been demolished by the Truth Kit.” Success.

The Wisdom of Experts

NMSR Reports (New Mexicans for Science and Reason), January 2006, John Geohegan:

Skeptical of a recent book, The Wisdom of Crowds, members of New Mexicans for Science and Reason began their December meeting with a creative exercise designed to test the questionable claims made by the author, James Surowiecki.

In his book, Surowiecki proposes that collective intelligence is likely to be superior to the intelligence of experts. To test this theory, member Keith Gilbert designed two experiments:

At the opening of the meeting, the group would 1. Estimate the number of beans in a jar and 2. Estimate the number of cards, on average, which would be dealt from a deck before all four suits appeared. By then plotting a histogram of the estimates, Geohegan explained, “If crowds are much wiser than individuals in the manner implied in Surowiecki’s book, we might expect to see the standard bell-shaped normal probability curve.”

For the first test, however, what they saw was not a bell. Though there were 704 beans in the jar, the average guess was 563. Not only was this a 20 percent error rate, there were no guesses at all in the 700’s. Judging from the graph, the median guess was even less than 500, a higher percentage of error lost in the average number because of three members who guessed wildly wrong above 1,200.

For the second test, on average, the group guessed that 10.33 cards were needed in order for all four suits to appear. The graph showed a noticeable peak at 10 cards and the beginnings of a bell shape. The problem, though, is that the algebraically calculated answer is 7.665. So, though the group produced a more statistically uniform response than in the bean problem, their answer was wrong by a margin of 35 percent!

Though these games are a fun way to begin a meeting, they are relevant to a more important issue. At a time when many Americans want to write science education standards according to majority belief rather than scientific evidence, these tests provide easy and obvious examples of the inaccuracy of public opinion and alert us to the inherent danger of acting upon it.

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Lauren Becker, Director of Marketing at the Center for Inquiry, is a science and nature interpreter who has taught at museums, parks, and planetariums around the country. Known for her commentaries on Point of Inquiry, the Center for Inquiry’s radio-show style podcast, she is an experienced environmental activist and advocate for science literacy and education.