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Godless Particle

§ July 6th, 2012 § Filed under Science Saves, Uncategorized § Tagged , , , , , , , § No Comments


The signature smash

It’s a coincidence that I happened to be reading The Grand Design (by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow) when news of the confirmation of the Higgs Boson was announced. (I’m trying to fill some holes in a limited physics education.)

Many who read these pages probably bristle at that description – God Particle – for various reasons: it’s not much of a description at all; it’s got nothing to do with whether God exists or not; and the guy who coined the term, Nobel Prize-winner Leon Lederman , really wanted to call it the “goddamn particle” since it was so elusive. Oh, and on a related note, the eponymous Peter Higgs is an atheist.

God Particle. Please. If anything, the new (overwhelming) evidence for this particle paints God into a tinier corner than he was already in. It answers one more question about how the universe works that God doesn’t. This evidence allows us to focus more directly on a path to more discovery about the nature of mass, time, and space.

It renders the notion of God a little more irrelevant.

This step in our understanding of Nature sweeps God aside a tad more because God has no predictive or explanatory power.

Science makes wonderfully accurate predictions about how matter and energy interact. It explains with great detail and consistency how life persists, how planets move, how waves behave and scads of other processes that interact with our lives every day.

God (at least the God of Abraham), on the other hand, is capricious, and offers no explanations that shed light on what might happen next. One day devout Christians drown in a New Orleans flood, the next devout Muslims are crushed to death in a Turkish earthquake. What will he do next? We never know.

No, this isn’t a God particle at all. This is a science particle. Science predicted it. Science built the Large Hadron Collider that generated it. And science detected it.

The champagne being poured after this discovery sparkled in labs, universities, and halls of science all over the world while the God partisans search for the next gap in human knowledge to cling to.

Bitter Psychic, Meet Dr. Phil

§ May 31st, 2012 § Filed under Mad Mad Mad World, Uncategorized, Wacky New Age Crap § Tagged , , , , § No Comments

Part II

Skeptics are almost always at a disadvantage when doing major media appearances. Many talk shows seem to cater to heavily believer-based audiences, and seek to entertain more than to inform — despite presenting a façade of scientific or journalistic inquiry. Such was the case with my appearance on the Dr. Phil Show on May 25th.

Now let me preface my criticism below with a quick reality check. Around 80% of Dr. Phil’s studio audience (the day we shot the show) said they believe in psychic ability. While that high percentage of believers may or may not represent his at-home audience numbers, it clearly indicated which direction the fans in front of him were leaning. Dr. Phil was not likely to step on all those fans’ shoes.

Also, though Dr. Phil used language (like the word “experiment” in our demonstration of cold reading) that suggests serious inquiry, the show was clearly structured to entertain his audience, not to fairly present two sides of an argument. Viewed as entertainment trying to keep 80% of its audience happy, the Dr. Phil show is understandable.

The problem is, the show gives the appearance of a serious look at a question: “Do psychic powers really exist?”

It was not a serious look at that question. When the producers (who assured me that Dr. Phil was very much a skeptic) asked me about ways psychics could be put to the test, I offered several possibilities. (After all, our IIG  has been testing these kinds of claims for 12 years.) Instead, they opted to have me “psychically” read a group of strangers, which I did successfully.

How do I know I was successful? Three of the ten participants cried because of things I said. I mention them crying not out of any sense of satisfaction, but only to underscore that they were believing in an ability – getting information from the spirits of dead people – I know I do not possess. (By the way, add a camera operator and a segment producer to those at the reading who responded positively and seemed to be impressed by guesses I made. Those were edited out.)

The point of doing that reading (my first ever) was to show that by merely using cold reading techniques, I could convince people I was in contact with the spiritual world. I was not claiming that I was better at cold reading than Rebecca Rosen, the psychic who did the second reading of the group. I’m sure the thousands of readings under her belt have honed her skills well beyond those of my rookie debut. (I’d love to compare her hit rate, and count her total number of guesses.)

All my reading was meant to show was that a fake could be convincing. Yet, this stunning revelation was completely glossed over on the show.

It should also be noted that people don’t generally see two psychics in a row and compare them, like in the show. People go to one psychic at a time.

Also, the ten participants in the reading were not typical clients seeking out and paying for psychic advice. Normally, psychics’ customers are hugely self-selecting believers. (How many skeptics would pay $500 for a reading?) This lowers the bar for any psychic because her client is wholly uncritical and predisposed to find success in a reading. I mention all this because the show testimonials comparing me and Rebecca are irrelevant. Even if people had been read by two professional psychics, one would have scored better than the other.

Lest anyone mistake this show for a fair fight, here are some of the ways the Dr. Phil show slanted the discussion toward the psychic side:

  1. Invite 4 psychics to the discussion and place them on stage front and center.

(I was the only skeptic, and was relegated to the front row of the audience — physically lower than the psychics. Of course, that wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been given opportunity to respond after each psychic spoke or attempted a reading.)

       2. Introduce the psychics with great fanfare. The websites calls them “well-known experts.”

 (My description on the Dr. Phil website uses scare quotes in calling me a “professional skeptic..”

3. Edit out psychics’ poor showing in the live audience reading. Edit out part of Dr. Phil’s criticism of Dougall’s aura read of his (Dr. Phil’s) colors. Edit out my responses to some of the participants’ comments. Edit out my criticism of Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell’s citing of the Stargate Project  and to Daryl Bem’s experiments. Edit out my mention of Skeptical Inquirer magazine which addresses both those claims.

4. Edit out shots of two of the three sitters crying during my reading, one of whom later said he didn’t believe my ability. Edit out my reading hits on the camera operator and the segment producer.

5. Allow me to see only the severely edited footage of the Rebecca Rosen reading and the Colette Baron-Reid reading during the actual show, and allow little or no time (respectively) to respond to the techniques they used.

6. Give a vast majority of the show minutes to the psychics and to pro-psychic testimonials with little or no opportunity for rebuttal. (I’ll have specific numbers soon.)

Given the opportunity, I could have easily explained every bit of apparent success each of the psychics had as well as called attention to their misses during their live reads. As we’ve seen for years, people’s recollection of how well the psychics did does not jibe with how well they actually did.

(For example, when Rebecca Rosen said, “I’m supposed to talk about a hummingbird…” – which could mean any number of different things – a woman responded, “Oh my god, that’s my tattoo!” Phil reacts (see the clip) implying that Rebecca knew that this woman had a hummingbird tattoo. She did not. The woman told Rebecca she had a hummingbird tattoo. Throwing random thoughts out there and hoping they land on something is how psychics work. Psychics who talk fast and get a lot of guesses out score more points matching fragments of people’s lives. Hell, the hummingbird guess fits me! We have hummingbirds in our garden where I like to go to relax and smoke a cigar. Is that a hit?)

The bottom line is that the show was presented to me and the TV audience as a sincere examination of whether psychic ability exists. What it was was a biased, slanted presentation that gave huge advantages to the psychics, and short shrift to science and skepticism.

Look, if Dr. Phil wants to emulate Montel Williams and do silly shows full of wild claims and nonsense, he should knock himself out. But if he wants to be taken seriously as a reasonable person, he should reconsider how he presents (especially fringe) issues. Don’t whitewash an outhouse and call it a spa.

Bitter Psychic?

§ May 24th, 2012 § Filed under Mad Mad Mad World, Uncategorized § Tagged , , , , , , § 7 Comments

Maybe you’ve noticed that it’s pretty rare for those of us who appear in the  media on behalf of skepticism or secular humanism to get equal time to represent our side.

There are exceptions.

I got a fair amount of time to speak and a friendly edit on Penn and Teller’s  Bullshit (twice), the WGN Morning Show, and a few other TV shows. But the on-air ratio of us-to-them is usually some overwhelming amount of  time on the side of Bigfoot or alien abductors to a few snippets of a skeptic’s detailed explanation.

So when the Dr. Phil Show called CFI  looking for someone to represent the side skeptical of psychic claims, I was  pleasantly surprised. John Edward, whom I’ve written about in Skeptical Inquirer, appeared on Dr. Phil this past January, and now they were  doing another show with skepticism being represented. Great!

The producers  described Dr. Phil as being very skeptical, and asked about how the  psychics who would also appear on the show could be put to the test. I was overflowing with ideas.

Our Independent Investigations Group  (IIG)  has been testing these kinds of claims for over 12 years, and has lots of experience giving claimants a fair chance to shine. (None ever have, by the

Instead of me running a simple test, the producers preferred to have a skeptic “cold read” a group of strangers and then have a psychic – alleged psychic – read the same group. Both would be introduced as psychics. My first instinct was to let IIG member Mark Edward, an experienced mentalist, do the read. When I couldn’t reach Mark, I decided to do it myself.

I have witnessed (at least) dozens of cold readings and am very familiar with the technique. So I crammed the weekend before the Monday they taped the reading, and arrived at Paramount Studios that day walking with a cane. (The idea was to soften the sitters’ hearts so they would root for a positive reading. Buying into the psychic’s abilities is an important part of the perception of success.) I had to do something. I was nervous, and the psychic reading after me was younger, female, and very experienced.

By the end of my 40 minute session with 12 strangers, I had made 3 of them cry and gotten a fairly high percentage of “hits”, i.e. accurate guesses. I left much relieved, and my college friend Joe (who had witnessed the reading) and I both felt like my very first psychic reading (on national TV!) had been a great success. The strangers’ tears were testimony to their acceptance of me as a psychic.

When I arrived at Paramount the next day for the taping of the actual show, I learned that I, the lone skeptic, would be relegated to the audience while the psychics (billed on the Dr. Phil website as “well-known experts”) sat up on stage with Dr. Phil. I expected to be outnumbered, but thought the psychological disparity of sticking me in the audience was a low blow.

I’m not sure of the timing of when I was revealed as a fake (psychic), but those whom I read – even those who cried – now scoffed at my abilities. Even the psychics tried to pile on with one saying that I am a psychic, though a  bitter one. Wow.

So you’re saying that I – a completely science-based skeptic, study a deceptive technique, employ that technique to the degree that believers tear-up at my words, and admit my fakery freely to make a point about how such deception
works – am actually a psychic? In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, “Oh you’re way off.”

Ok, I get that Dr. Phil’s audience (about 80% of those in studio, we learned) is mostly believers in psychic powers. Maybe the show is afraid of challenging the views of so many of their viewers. But it would have nice to have a fair
chance to do so.

Maybe the edit will favor science in a way I can’t predict.

To find out, tune in to Dr. Phil on Friday May 25th, 2012 to see how equally the skeptical Dr. Phil presents two sides to a question about skills the world of science is very unconvinced about.

No Justice Scalia

§ October 5th, 2011 § Filed under Mad Mad Mad World, Uncategorized § Tagged , , , , § No Comments

U.S. Supreme Court

The L.A. Times article read like a blurb for a dystopian novel, or a story from a third-world country:

A death-row inmate is denied an appeal because his attorneys had switched law firms. A letter the court sent to the inmate’s lawyers’ old firm is returned, and the deadline to file an appeal expires before they can respond. The state and an appeals court ignore the clerical miscommunication by saying it’s the state’s prerogative to bar such appeals if the deadline has passed. The man may be executed before all his appeals are heard.

This is no Orwellian nightmare. It’s a real case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving an Alabama man named Corey Maples who’s in jail for murder. Maples is an admitted murderer whose appeal aims to avoid the death penalty, not prison. Even so, all prisoners in the U.S. criminal justice system should get hearings as far as their rights allow – especially when it comes to capital punishment. U.S Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia apparently disagrees.

There are at least three reasons this case should make you shudder. One is that Antonin Scalia, one of the nine U.S. citizens (presumably) hired to ensure some semblance of fairness in our legal system, responded to the draconian earlier rulings by saying (to Maples):

“You have a lawyer. It’s up to the lawyer to follow what goes on it court.”

So, Justice, a man’s life now rides on his lawyer’s diligence in monitoring his former employer’s clerical staff to ensure they forward mail in a timely fashion? I wonder how many people in the United States make regular contact with their former employers to insist they get their mail.

Hell, Alabama will still probably lethally inject the guy even if he does get a proper hearing. Alabama, although ranked only the 23rd most populous state, is ranked 6th in executions since 1976 with 54. (This is many times higher than all of Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Japan combined.) One must wonder why Alabama has such a high proclivity toward the highest punishment.

The third reason this case is problematic is the death penalty itself. It is sentenced unevenly throughout the U.S. – state by state, and racially, at least, and I’d bet by the economic status of the accused. (Are there many wealthy accused murderers executed?)

There are many reasons the death penalty has been outlawed in most of the civilized world. The callousness by which it is enforced is only one of them. Antonin Scalia, in opposition to other conservative Justices Roberts and Alito, is the embodiment of such callousness. Shame on him.

And shame on the 34 states who still hold the power of life and death over their inhabitants. This ancient, fatally flawed system must go.

p.s. A ray of hope appeared in an L.A. Times story across the page from the above.  After serving 25 years for allegedly murdering his wife, a Texas man was freed after DNA evidence showed that another man was responsible. He’s lucky Antonin Scalia didn’t sentence him.

An Atheist is Invited to Church

§ August 4th, 2011 § Filed under Religion, Uncategorized § Tagged , , , , , , , § 1 Comment

My Evening Behind the Orange Curtain

 When I got a call from a woman named Lindsey inviting me to appear at the Moment Church during their Sunday evening service, some warning bells went off in my head. She sounded like a nice enough person, but why would they want me, a career atheist, to even be at their church, much less have a voice there?

This ain’t no UU Church, by the way. Moment’s  “what we believe” statement of faith on their website represents what I would call pretty hardcore Christianity – God is the ubiquitous, all-knowing creator of the universe; the bible is inerrant; you get to heaven through Jesus; marriage is between one man and one woman. You get the picture.

I’ve always been an experience junkie, so I said yes. My friend Spencer, an ex-cop, half-jokingly asked me if I wanted to borrow an old Kevlar vest. I laughed and said no… thought about  lunatics with guns for a second, and said no again. Was I missing something here? Could these people be for real? I asked them if I could bring some other secular types along and shoot our own video — just in case something memorable happened. They said yes to both. That eased my mind a bit, but I still wondered if there was something up their sleeve.

Moment’s Pastor Tony Wood called on the Wednesday before to talk about how he’d like the service to go. He emphasized that he didn’t want this to turn into a debate or argument. It would be more of a chat that might build some bridges between our very different communities. That sounded fine to me. It meant less preparation and less stress.

I’ve accompanied CFI L.A. Chairman Eddie Tabash many times deep into the hinterlands of fundamentalist Christianity for his formal debates, and have been in lots of heated theological discussions with red-faced, veins-a-bulging Christians incensed at the idea of someone so casually blaspheming before them. That’s an evening you have to be in the mood for.

The ride down to Orange County from CFI  in Hollywood was full of speculation about what might happen. Karl and Craig, two CFI members keen to experience this encounter, ran through a litany of arguments our side has been using on apologists for ages – just in case it turned out to be an ambush. I was like a boxer going through a pre-bout warm-up.

The church itself is in an industrial park in Irvine, which immediately brought back memories of a double exorcism I once attended at a church in Sacramento – also in an industrial park. Location’s where the similarities  ended, though. Moment Church sublets from a larger church that has many of the bells and whistles that mega churches have – live, big-screen overhead projection, a slick P.A. system featuring light-show elements and a smoke machine, and streaming video.

When we finally found the front door (there were a couple of Spinal Tap tries) we were all greeted warmly and I was allowed into the pre-service briefing. They run their Sunday services pretty tightly, and I told them their script reminded me of the Oprah Show, which I had been a guest on. Tony seemed impressed by this, but neglected to ask me what the show topic was. (The topic, incidentally, was “Should you have sex before marriage?” As a Chicagoan in my mid 20s at the time, I felt it an obligation to represent the Ayes.)

Pastor Tony and James Underdown

The crowd of 200 (250?) seemed young – lots of teens and twenties – which explained the band opening the service with some (Christian) rock and roll, the big screens, and the text-in-your-questions format.

As Pastor Tony prayed before inviting me up to the stage, it occurred to me that they were taking a bit of a chance on me being there. I was largely an unknown element to them. But I saw no reason to change the warm and fuzzy tone of the service by going off on a rant —  maybe with examples of the gospels contradicting each other, or by explaining how free will can’t exist if God is omniscient. These people really did sound sincere, and I had been listening hard for ulterior motives in the tone of their voices! So I relaxed and had a good time.

The interview went well, I thought. Tony seemed genuinely interested, and I don’t think I offended too many of those in attendance.  I threw one bone to the non-believers in the crowd when I said “You (Christians) stole Christmas from us (non-Christians who celebrate the winter solstice).” Whether Tony knew what I was talking about or not, he didn’t bite, and we rolled respectfully onward.

Pastor Tony and Executive Director Jim

After the interview, the dozen or so atheists in the crowd politely sat through a heartfelt sermon about prayer that used background music for added effect, and then retired to the lobby for a few post-service pics and some abbreviated theological discussion.

Both camps went to the same restaurant afterward, ate amongst their own (we had beer, thank goodness), then reconvened for more discussion. Some of the kids that I spoke to wanted to know about paranormal investigations I’d been involved with and actually seemed fairly skeptically minded. I tried to underscore for them the similarity between belief in the paranormal and belief in the supernatural. (See my ReasonFest talk here)  I’m not sure if they saw the connection, but the conversation was enjoyable in any case.

I never did pick up on any sinister ulterior motives they might have had for inviting me there. Maybe they just wanted to pray for someone as outwardly hell-bound as me. It’s hard to take offense at that, even if I do think praying is a waste of time.

It seemed to me that these young evangelists are less angry, more tolerant, and more open to interacting with their secular neighbors than their parents’ generation. Time will tell if those qualities will ever find their way to elections, school board meetings, and their treatment of good people who don’t share their views. It’s a start, though. It is a start.

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