“Psychic” wants our group to test her “abilities”
Posted: 24 October 2011 07:18 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I belong to a student club at my university called the UNCG Atheists Agnostics and Skeptics.  We’ve been around for about three years now, and keep growing each year.  Part of the reason is because we set up a table to hand out information to interested students, and maintain a visible presence.  Last week, a young lady from Sweden approached the table, and alleged to be psychic, and has asked to do “readings” of several of our members.  Obviously, as a group of mostly naturalists, we found her claims both intriguing and preposterous, so we agreed.

She claims that her specific ability is to make some sort of predictions about a person’s health, without seeing them, but while being in a room with them for 30 minutes.  Her specific criteria require that the room be completely silent, with no talking or other noise, that the “subject” be seated in a chair facing one wall, and that she be seated behind the subject in another chair several feet away, facing the other wall.  Over the course of the thirty minutes she and the subject spend in the room, she will write down her predictions about the health of the subject.  So far, she’s been rather vague about what health issues she will cover; whether it includes predictions of cancer, simple things like high blood pressure or asthma, mental conditions, etc.

One of our members suggested that she will simply try to listen to the subject and guess things about them.  For example, someone with asthma should have somewhat labored breathing, which may be something she can pick up on.

So I come here asking for advice; we’ve never tried to debunk a psychic before, and find ourselves relatively unsure what to do.  I’ve provided about as much information as she has given us so far, but feel free to ask about anything I may not have covered, and if I can, I’ll answer.  Please, of course, give us suggestions.

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Posted: 24 October 2011 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Hi and welcome, Paragon! That’s an interesting conundrum you’ve got there. I’d almost say talk to the folks at JREF since they have to deal with this kind of stuff all the time. But offhand I’d be concerned about a few things:

(1) Overly general claims (generalized pain, generalized sadness)

(2) Picking high probability illnesses (depression, low back pain, colds, high blood pressure) or illnesses that are apparent by looking at someone (broken leg).

(3) Making lots of claims, cherry-picking those that are correct.

(4) Claiming she isn’t stating the subject has the illness now, but that the subject did in the past or will in the future. Or claiming that the subject doesn’t realize they have the illness. (E.g. some hidden, slow-growing cancer). These are operationally unfalsifiable claims, or significantly increase her probability of being correct.

And perhaps also:

(5) Getting lucky with a small sample size.

So you need to devise some test that pins her down to specific illnesses, not generalized pains; she needs to make one claim per subject (healthy/ill and if ill, what precise illness); she has to make clear she’s claiming the person has that illness now; and there should be a pretty big sample size for her to work on.

If you could, say get a bunch of students, some with specific (but not visibly or audibly apparent) illnesses and some who are in perfect health and establish the guidelines beforehand about what will count as “success”. E.g. she has to distinguish ill from healthy and pinpoint the precise physical ailment for each of the ill students. NB: it really has to be established in advance which illnesses the subjects have, so you can know what she’s supposed to find out.

—and of course you have to find some way to be sure she can’t find out this information by nefarious means (e.g. by hacking the infirmary’s database, by hanging around with the subjects’ friends beforehand and asking questions, etc.), and no ‘cold reading’ by asking leading questions of anyone.

Half an hour per subject would be way too much. Say five minutes or less, otherwise this would take days.

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Posted: 24 October 2011 02:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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What Doug said. Alternatively, you could allow her to make any generalized or specific health claims, as long as you calculate the probability of her getting it right vs random guessing, which I am not sure how to do but the information should be sufficient if you can find it. For a simple example, if she makes a claim that a participant suffers from depression, you could take into account factors like the prevalence of depression in your age group in order to give her a “score” on that prediction. So if the prevalence is 20%, her chance of getting it right by chance would only be 20%...then, you could somehow use that information to get a “weighted” success rate for her predictions. A statistician might be more help than I am…lol

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Posted: 24 October 2011 03:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Sounds like she would depend on making informed guesses about a person based on sound. Breathing can provide several clues to a person’s general health. Obese people tend to breathe faster then slim people. Asthmatics may breathe with a slightly higher pitch. Mouth breathers vs. nose breathers and individual differences can reveal some clues to sinus and throat structures. And I assume that unless the participant chooses to spend the 30 minutes in a meditative state, they will be walking around, clearing their throat, yawning, and doing any number of other things which produce sound.

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Posted: 24 October 2011 04:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I am skeptical about psychic humans, however there may be animals which have certain abilities (beyond human ability). i.e. a dog may know the onset of a seizure in humans, before the subject actually goes into seizure. Several humans with Grand Mall seizure have dogs that warn them of the pending onset, so that they can prepare themselves by removing restrictive clothes and lying down in an area where they won’t hurt themselves while thrashing about.
Can this be classified as psychic, or are there other factors, such as smell, body language, elctrictro/magnetic activity?

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Posted: 24 October 2011 05:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Doug outlined things very well. I have a couple of suggestion myself to address some of the legitimate concerns voiced above.

1) Require her to wear ear plugs. Why does a psychic need to hear whats going on unless she is cheating

2) The point has been well made that vagueness is a tool of all hucksters and you have to do everything possible to eliminate that possibility or the study will fail. Force the ‘psychic’ to play by your rules. Instead of giving her the freedom to define the illness on her terms, make the parameters very specific. Once you have a significant number of test subjects, make a list of their illnesses and let the psychic work from this list. When someone is sitting in the chair she simply has to choose which illness on the list applies to the subject in the chair. If they are healthy then she can check off healthy.

3) As your control you should have a second room nearby and when the psychic is done with the subject have the person go to the second room where you can have a non-psychic guesser try to guess what the persons illness is using the same list.

4) When you have all your data collected analyze it and see if there is a statistically significant difference between the psychic and the control guesser

Of course, even with all these controls the psychic could try to weasel her way out of it by claiming that she has detected an illness that the person is not yet aware of. Short of doing an incredibly expensive series of tests on each subject there is no way to prove her wrong unless you limited the diseases to something simple. For example you could limit the scope of the study to High Blood Pressure which could easily be detected with a blood pressure cuff. Of course you might have to get some of your professors to volunteer as subjects since college age students have a pretty low rate of Hypertension and this would limit your numbers.

[ Edited: 24 October 2011 05:13 PM by macgyver ]
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Posted: 25 October 2011 09:59 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Write4U - 24 October 2011 04:27 PM

I am skeptical about psychic humans, however there may be animals which have certain abilities (beyond human ability). i.e. a dog may know the onset of a seizure in humans, before the subject actually goes into seizure. Several humans with Grand Mall seizure have dogs that warn them of the pending onset, so that they can prepare themselves by removing restrictive clothes and lying down in an area where they won’t hurt themselves while thrashing about.
Can this be classified as psychic, or are there other factors, such as smell, body language, elctrictro/magnetic activity?

I’m not sure that the effectiveness of seizure dogs has actually been proven and may be more myth than fact ( See this link which refers to a very small study done on this topic). Even if the dogs are effective it his most likely they are detecting some known physical property as you have suggested. Dogs have the ability to smell things and hear things that humans can’t. I think it would be more likely that the ability to detect seizures, if it exists at all, is attributable to one of their known senses, not a psychic ability.

I did find a couple of other abstracts that seemed more supportive of the ability of dogs to detect seizures but they were lacking in details and one actually relied entirely on the owners perception of whether the dog was able to do this which is obviously not a very reliable test.

[ Edited: 25 October 2011 10:04 AM by macgyver ]
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