More Options

Workshop Report: To Err Is Human

Special Report

Nancy Shelton

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 20.3, May / June 1996

More than one hundred skeptics from twenty-one states and two Canadian provinces attended the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal’s superb Human Error Workshop August 17-21, 1995, at the University of Oregon.

Our guides throughout the five-day program, all CSICOP Fellows, were:

Alcock, Beyerstein, and Hyman are also members of CSICOP’s Executive Council.

Hyman, a cognitive psychologist, coordinated and moderated the talks, all of which were characterized by lively interaction with the attendees, and humor. Though others’ gullibility frequently elicited mirth, Hyman quickly warned us that everyone is subject to errors both in belief and action. He explained that Piltdown man, supposedly an early man but reconstructed by hoaxers from human and animal bones, fooled both laypeople and scientists for about 40 years. Was it a clever hoax? Hyman said no; filing the ape jawbone to make it fit the reconstructed human skull was crude and quite obvious after it was examined with the probability of fraud in mind. Canals on Mars, which spawned books about Martian residents, the Face on Mars, and N-rays are other examples of mistaken beliefs, as was the discovery of the nonexistent planet Vulcan.

The Central Intelligence Agency hired Hyman and a parapsychologist to evaluate psychics working for the government. Hyman told the workshop attendees that not only were previous studies flawed, but their psychic accuracy was about 15 percent. The problem was that no one could determine which 15 percent was right. (See Hyman’s “Special Report,” SI, March-April 1996.)

In his syllabus “How To Do Cold Readings,” Hyman said his purpose was not to teach us how to be cold readers; rather he wanted us to know how powerful this suggestive activity can be. “Many errors result from the human tendency to discover hidden meaning in seemingly random events,” Hyman said. He also cautioned us to be very gentle in disabusing those who believe such exercises are paranormal. “Cold readings work in the sense that the client is typically satisfied with the results . . . the error involved is in falsely assuming that the meaning and accuracy of the reading stems from some special occult powers of the reader. A related error is the assumption that the meaning of the reading is contained in the words of the reader.” Instead, subjects create their own inferences from proposed generalities. The more personal information the client supplies, such as day, month, year of birth, the more credence he or she gives to the reader’s accuracy and the greater the belief that the reader is psychic.

Andrus demonstrated how mystified we can be by visual cues. Among his many amazing creations that he encouraged us to play with were the Nutty Nuts and Bewildering Blocks. He challenged our auditory perception by playing his Never-Ending Chords on the piano. While watching his hands drop to lower octaves, we all “heard” the chords ascending.

Pankratz, an expert in medical anomalies and insurance fraud, discussed self-deception, a vulnerability within all of us. He told of patients who each had numerous hospital admissions for diverse symptoms within a short time period. The subjects had made up, distorted, or hidden medical information. Even though doctors were informed beforehand that these patients appeared to have factitious symptoms (as in Munchausen syndrome, a feigning of illness), some doctors persisted in treating for the nonexistent illnesses. He said that because patient malingering is intentional and voluntary, it is not considered a psychiatric disorder.

Alcock explained that we have both experiential and rational psychological systems, which collide with each other. “Feelings and rationality often produce contradictory results.” We have two sets of rules: one for religion, based on faith; another for the lab. We feel we have experience of psi even though it remains unproven. Frequency distribution is such that, in tests, some individuals will “get it right,” thus convincing themselves — and others — that they have psychic powers. Such convictions may be extremely difficult to extinguish. Often the belief comes first: We believe, and then find corroborative evidence while ignoring negative evidence. Occurrences close in time are frequently inferred to be causally connected. A dream followed by an experience that can be perceived as correlative may seem precognitive.

Alcock also said that beliefs that reduce concern are more readily accepted. Prejudice permits one to feel “I'm not responsible for others’ dire straits; it’s their genes.” Religion offers the comforting belief that departed loved ones will be met again in heaven. We often hold beliefs that have no rationale. “‘To be a good teacher you must be a good researcher' is nonsense, but offends some notion of what universities are all about,” he said.

Hunches are not necessarily processed rationally, he noted. Coca-Cola took down its billboards because, the company stated, “Nobody looks at them.” Sales dropped, and the billboards reappeared. Smokers rationalize evidence for cancer: “They'll have a cure for it when I'm 40.” Behavioral change precedes attitude change. If you get people to act contrary to their beliefs, they will shift beliefs over time.

Beyerstein discussed how the human brain evolved, and how technology, just in the last 100 years, has confounded our programming, thus leading to human errors. Electric lights have lengthened our awake cycle. Jets that cross time zones in a day play havoc with the natural rhythms acquired through evolution. Biochronometry (not to be confused with pop-psychology’s biorhythms) is the scientific study of rhythmicity and biological clocks. Among the cycles we are attuned to are: circadian (about a day) — sleep/waking cycle; ultradian (much less than 24 hours — breathing, heart rate, EEG rhythms; the basic rest-activity cycle (BRAC) — 90-minute period; infradian (a month or longer) — menstrual cycle, other hormonal rhythms, and seasonal changes.

Abrupt time shifts result in “desynchronosis,” the uncoordinated free-running of subsystem rhythms. Some effects are sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, and decreased vigilance. Optimum well-being depends upon the various cycles operating synchronically. Yet about a quarter of our population, often emergency workers whom we trust to make the right decisions (police, firemen, doctors and nurses, air traffic controllers), must operate under these adverse conditions, sometimes leading to fatal errors.

“Re-entraining,” or resetting the biological clocks, he explained, usually takes about ten days to two weeks. Since out-of-sync biological clocks favor a longer day, east-to-west flights have less effect than do west-to-east. Further, change is easier when everyone in the new time zone is on the same waking/eating/sleeping schedule. Shift workers, who have their days turned upside down, and whose duty hours are advanced from evening to afternoon to morning, have the most difficult adaptation. (Reversing the shift order, e.g., morning/afternoon/evening would be more effective for the workers and result in fewer mistakes — life threatening or otherwise.)

The workshop demonstrated why errors are part of the human condition. Some contributors to error are not enough information, overabundance of misinformation, excessive repetition, and innumeracy. We automate as much as possible to save precious resources. Our brains are not video recorders; many stimuli never get to long-term memory. Much of what we think we remember is reconstructed from codified bits and imagination. The purpose of scientific methodology is to find the truth. It can also help us to minimize our errors.

Nancy Shelton

Nancy Shelton is a freelance writer/editor who retired recently from the Defense Nuclear Agency and is a member of New Mexicans for Science and Reason. Address: 11617 Snowheights Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87112-3157.