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Unacceptable ideas?

From the science correspondent of The Guardian: Sally Morgan challenged to prove her psychic powers on Halloween
Sceptics have invited Sally Morgan to demonstrate her ability to communicate with the dead in a specially designed test

I was talking in Tuesday’s lecture about how psychic powers were (for me) an Unacceptable Idea in psychology – and a story about scientists testing psychic powers crops up within a week! Is this spooky? No. It’s a coincidence, but our, very sensible, tendency to be on the watch for patterns and connections leads us into seeing connections in chance occurrences – just like seeing shapes in clouds (“very like a whale”*).
But it is interesting.  I was too general in talking about psychic powers in the lecture. Here are some different categories:

Communicating with the dead: that’s the skill that’s being tested here. That’s an unacceptable idea to me, because it challenges too much about my ideas about life and consciousness. When Garry talks to you about the mind/brain problem ask him what relevance evidence about being able to talk to the dead would have.
Reading other people’s minds: OK, I’d go along with this, if I could see a scientifically acceptable mechanism for it – but see later.
Moving things with the power of your mind: as I said in the lecture, this violates too much of what I understand about physics and causation to be acceptable to me. It would also mean that no physically-based experiment would be reliable -someone could be reaching in with heir mind and moving things around. Having said that, for quite a long time it’s been possible to monitor brain activity and use that (via non-psychic mechanisms, like switches and levers) to change or move things in the world. Back when I was an undergraduate, W. Grey Walter was able to get people to learn how to turn a light on and off by thinking about it – or to be more precise, he was able to pick up a specific EEG pattern that someone could learn to produce, and use that as a signal for a mechanism which operated the light. There are really exciting developments in that area now, which could enable people with disabilities to operate a wider range of aids, or even regain control of paralysed limbs. That would look like magic/psychic powers, but “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

This suggests another reason for some ideas being unacceptable – accepting them would mean rearranging too much of your current understanding of the world

The ‘challenge’ being set to Sally Morgan seems pretty straightforward:

In the challenge, Morgan will be shown photographs of 10 deceased women and asked to match each to an entry on a list of their first names, by connecting with their spirits. Singh said the test was expected to last 20 minutes. To pass, Morgan will be required to match seven or more names to the right photographs.

The test was designed by “Professor Chris French, head of the anomalistic psychology research unit at Goldsmith’s, University of London”. The two problems are assessing the level of accuracy required to be convincing (French wants seven out of ten or better) which is basic stats/probability, and ruling out trickery, which can be very difficult. Scientists aren’t very good at dealing with cheats, because we expect the world to be fairly regular and lawful – and consistent. I used to do a classroom demo of mindreading with a colleague (who was the real magician: I was just the attractive assistant), in which we invited the class to hypothesise how we did it and set up simple experiments to test their hypotheses. We could fool them all the time, because we had three, different, alternative methods. They often guessed accurately that we were using method A and devised a way of preventing that. We just switched to method B so their method A hypothesis seemed to fail – so they ruled that out, and went on to test their hypothesis about method B. We just switched back to method A, and fooled them.
French says, in the online version of the Guardian story:

With the right controls in place, we can perform an experiment where anyone who is deluded or who wants to cheat would find it very hard to be successful, but someone with genuine psychic ability, as Sally claims to have every night in her sold-out shows, should find the whole thing a breeze.

Good luck, Chris.

By the way, one of the ‘important questions in psychology’ from session 2 was ‘what is Derren Brown?’ My answer in class was: ‘he’s an entertainer’, which is a bit unfair to Brown. He knows a lot of psychology, and is very skilled and inventive in applying that knowledge (along with a lot of other skills) in his act. One of his demonstrations (reading people’s characters) is a straight re-run of a classic psychology experiment (Forer 1949). Works great.
Not surprisingly, Brown was asked by The Guardian to comment on the Sally Morgan test. Here’s what he said in the online article:

It’s important people don’t think that a test is a way of debunking or disproving. It’s a great way of anyone making amazing claims to show that they hold up and are not just a result of trickery or self-deception. The test should be both scientifically rigorous and yet fair to the psychic: it would show, if the psychic is successful, that what he or she does is real.

Such tests are important because it’s too easy for a person to fool others (or themselves) into thinking he or she has special abilities. If someone is going to put you in touch with your dead child you’d want to know if they were real, deluded or a scam artist.

The print version left out the first paragraph, which actually changes the meaning for me – Brown seems a bit less dismissive of the possibility of Morgan actually being able to do this in the fuller version.

A Guardian request to Morgan for comment on the challenge was passed to her lawyers, who did not respond.

Forer BR (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: A classroom demonstration of gullibility Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 44, 118-123.

* Harmless time-waster: find the source of the quotations


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