Sunday, March 9, 2014

Psychics and frauds

Recently, I became aware of a line of videos of James Randi exposing/debunking people who claim to have supernatural or psychic powers. Below is a great example.

Good stuff, eh? I wish we had more of this sort of thing these days, instead of the Today Show (link to YouTube video), or Oprah Winfrey bringing these people on to peddle their woo onto the masses.

Examples such as this help bring to focus the failures of the human mind to accurately understand reality around them.
First and foremost, humans are pathetically easy to distract and manipulate.

Did you notice how much he waves his hands around? That's "misdirection" - to keep the person's attention away from some other thing they're doing. Without that, we'd be much more likely to focus on his face... and might have noticed his blowing on the objects. Though, like a good ventriloquist, he does a decent job hiding that fact, anyway.

... but he has all your attention and cognition refocused on the pencil and his hands (assuming we're not talking about where the camera is pointing, but rather you're there live when he does it).

Secondly, people like this abuse the ignorance of the audience. He's counting on the fact that most people don't understand basic physics, such as static electricity.

For someone who was taught "the laws of nature" by an ancient Chinese dude, he gets the principles of static electricity quite wrong.

When one rubs an inflated balloon onto one's head, the rubbing action polarizes between your hair, and the balloon. One becomes positively charged, and the other becomes negatively charged. Like charges repel, and opposite-charges attract.

If the pages of the book were statically charged, they'd be repelling, not attracting. It'd actually be easier to move them... unless the foam (which if they were statically charged the same, would also repel, or clump together - they didn't) managed to alternate charges on each consecutive page, somehow.

On top of all that... the charges eventually equalize for touching objects. That balloon you charged, and stuck to your dog's back... it'll eventually equalize, and fall off.... so worst case, this experiment with the foam would only need a few minutes to discharge, even if they were accidentally charged previously.

... but he's banking on the audience not having a clue about any of that. Like his "fourth level of consciousness" drivel, he's throwing scientific and gibberish phrases into roughly coherent sentences, hoping the audience thinks to themselves, "uh, I guess that sounds feasible."

Thirdly, and probably most damning of all for humanity, is the confirmation bias.

I like to think I'm a fairly hard-nosed skeptic. I embrace the idea that life is pretty much materialistic and can be understood through reductionist means, and doesn't need magic to make it seem special. I, unfortunately, am a minority. Humans are rife with personal biases, fears and primings. The older one gets, and the closer to the abyss of mortality one is perched, the more one is likely to be wishfully thinking that it won't all end... that there's something more to existence than their brief shot at life.

People love to buy into people like Hydrick, because they want to be reassured that magic is real... that supernatural things aren't scams. They want confirmations of their beliefs, so they can continue believing.

... meaning, frauds like this have a gold mine of opportunity preying on the fears of their fellow hominids. It's much, much easier to fool people when they want to be fooled.

So they are.

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