Monthly Archives: August 2009

Should We Teach About the Paranormal?

I am currently working on a textbook for psychology undergraduates. One of the reviewers who commented on the original proposal I submitted recommended that it should include a section on parapsychology. They have a point. One of the reasons I was so interested in psychology as a student was that I was wanted to learn about the paranormal. At that point, I had  not yet developed a skeptical view and still held open the possibility that there was something to it. It did not take long to discover that parapsychology was pretty much discredited in the scientific community though I hasten to add there are still a small number of parapsychologists working in university departments up and down the country. (I met a number of them at the Beliefs conference I organized at Trinity College, Cambridge back in March)

Interest in the paranormal is not going to go away so maybe the best way to address it is to cover the topic in a textbook. Last week Chris French wrote a piece in The Guardian about the plan to introduce teaching on parapsychology as part of the A-level syllabus in the UK. Chris works in the field of anomalistic psychology which according to his website at Goldsmith’s College in London is,

“.. the study of extraordinary phenomena of behaviour and experience, including (but not restricted to) those which are often labelled “paranormal”. It is directed towards understanding bizarre experiences that many people have without assuming a priori that there is anything paranormal involved. It entails attempting to explain paranormal and related beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences in terms of known psychological and physical factors.”

In other words, trying to understand why people believe in the unbelievable! I think that this is a welcome development as it pretty much addresses critical thinking and how best to go about designing experiments to test the validity of paranormal claims. That could be a valuable lesson for science students to learn as the methodology and statistics involved in analysing evidence for the paranormal is often very sophisticated.

On the other hand, paranormal claims have been tested over and over and over again with no reliable evidence for anything that cannot be explained by natural accounts. And before any of you start sending me your “explain that then” stories, the plural of anecdote is not data. Everytime I get a public lecture, I invariably get the “Prove it doesn’t exist” (logical impossibility) or “So how does your theory explain my Auntie Angus story?”

So my concern is that by writing about paranormal studies in a textbook is simply going to lend credibility to the notion that parapsychology is worthy of being taken seriously. And where does one draw the line? Should we also cover ghosts, witches and goblins? As much as I enjoy writing about it  and as entertaining and fascinating as belief in the supernatural is, I don’t think that it will make my textbook.


Filed under General Thoughts

US Atheist Buses Stirs Up Controversy


Controversial Ad Pulled then Reinstated

Controversial Ad Pulled then Reinstated

Yesterday, I learned that a dispute has broken out in Des Moines, Iowa –  home town of anglophile Bill Bryson.  Iowa atheists paid for the above bus ad compaign that was initially pulled and then reinstated by the Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) officials on Friday. The excuse was that they had never allowed the word “God” in any advertisement for a church. After meeting with representatives from the Iowa Atheists and Freethinkers group on Friday afternoon, DART officials decided to reinstate the adverts. However, DART will also be updating advertising policies to clearly communicate its position to uphold both civil liberties and the protection of citizens from that which is obscene or profane.

Methinks that DART are going to shift the goalposts on this one as they found that commuters did not want to ride on buses displaying the ad. “Drivers said people weren’t getting on buses or getting off the buses because of it,” said advertising director Kirstin Baer-Harding. “So with all the calls, it wasn’t something we wanted.”

Was the atheist campaign offensive? What do you think?

UPDATE: Just learned that a driver has been suspended for refusing to drive one of the buses. As one of her bosses points out it would be like a government employee claiming a religious right to refuse to work with someone of a different faith. “When you work for the government, part of your job is to respect the rights of your fellow citizens, and you cannot use your religious beliefs to evade that responsibility,” he said.


Filed under atheism, In the News

Things Are Not Always As They Seem

Watch the following clip CAREFULLY and then decide what you think you heard first time round.

The phenomenon known as the McGurk effect demonstrates how the brain can take differing visual and auditory signals and generate a new phenomenological experience. Richard Wiseman wasn’t so sure it worked and I think it depends on whether you are familiar with the English accent – not that  I have one anyway.

Still I’d be really interested in your comments. Tell me also which country you live in and whether you are bi-lingual. These may turn out to be important factors.


Filed under Research

Mindreading – Is It Really Possible?

Most of us read minds quite easily. Of course, I am not talking about true telepathy because we cannot directly access the content of someone else’s mind but we can readily infer what someone might be thinking given the circumstances of  the situation they are in. This allows us to understand their actions and predict what they might do next.

The classic demonstration of this mindreading that is taught to every psych undergraduate is the false belief task. For those of you who do not know, here is the scenario. Sally and Anne share an apartment. One day Sally comes home and places her hat in a bedroom drawer and then goes out. Meanwhile, Anne comes home, opens the bedroom drawer and decides to put Sally’s hat in the hall cupboard and then leaves. Now here is the crunch question. “When Sally comes home, where will she look for her hat?” Most children below the age of 3-4 years say that she will look in the cupboard. They fail to understand that Sally has a false belief. Older children understand that Sally holds a belief that just happens to be incorrect.

While most of us can easily pass the “Sally-Anne” task, unfortunately individuals with autism typically fail which has led to the conclusion that they suffer from “Mindlblindness” – an inability to infer the mental states of others. This  is thought to be one of the reasons that they find social interaction so distressing. Here is Alison Gopnik’s terrifying vision of what it must be like to have mindblindness at the dinner table,

“Around me bags of skin are draped over chairs, and stuffed into pieces of cloth, they shift and protrude in unexpected ways…Two dark spots near the top of them swivel restlessly back and forth. A hole beneath the spots fills with food and from it comes a stream of noises. Imagine that the noisy skin-bags suddenly moved towards you, and their noises grew loud, and you had no idea why, no way of explaining them or predicting what they would do next.”

I know what you're thinking!

I know what you're thinking!

However, help might be on the way. Physicist Michio Kaku writes in his latest book, “Physics of the Impossible” about possibility of using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to read the mental states of individuals as they think. At the moment, these fMRI machine are huge magnets that weigh several tons and cost millions. Kaku writes about the development of technology that would make handheld scanners possible.

But can you interpret brain activity in terms of the mental states at the time of recording? We learn that a UCLA/Rutgers study to be published in Psychological Science in October reports that it is possible to determine from the basis of brain activity measure, which of eight tasks an individual is undertaking at the time of recording. Sounds great. Maybe mindreading will be possible. However, the authors are a bit more realistic than Michio Kaku. While they got an 80% hit rate for identifying which of one of eight mental tasks, including reading words aloud, saying whether pairs of words rhyme, counting the number of tones they heard, pressing buttons at certain cues and making monetary decisions, the reality is that these are very discrete tasks and there is no mention of how we could determine the content. In other words, we would not be able to know whether the person thought that Sally believed her hat was in the bedroom drawer or hall cupboard in the Sally Anne task for example. Also each person may have too much variation in how their brain processes events so without the full history of an individual’s thoughts and the corresponding neural activity, it would be impossible to read their mind.

Still, such reductionist approaches to complex mental states may produce technological advances that stimulate the next round of cognitive neuroscience. So, I am all for it so long as I don’t have to wear the scanner.


Filed under Research

Do I Sound Like Robin Williams or on Speed?

Thank you Little Atoms for the interview last friday in London. I have to say  that I think I sound a bit like Robin Williams (a comparison I have had before). So have  listen and let me know. I am really so surprised that I sound so manic! Do I really talk that fast? Gosh.


Thanks to Tracy King over at SkepChick who has just posted my guest article, “Who Put the Woo in Woomen?”


Filed under book publicity

Looks a Bit Like Russell but Minchin is More Talented

As I consolidate my standing in the ranks of the skeptical community, I have increasing encountered the name of Tim Minchin in conversation, on You Tube and rising rapidly up the greasy pole of celebrity status. If you don’t already know about Tim , there’s a bit of Russell about him with the hair and eyeliner, a bit of Eddie with the occasional tangental thoughts, and Bill Bailey may be his long lost father but this Aussie with attitude has talent in spades. Keep your eye on this guy. My psychic third eye tells me he has much further to go (and I have been eavesdropping on the gossip going round London). This song kept going through my head for two days before the neurotransmitters finally packed up.


Filed under In the News

What’s in a Name?

I recently came across this report from the PsyBlog site that often produces nuggets of SuperSense relevent research. Apparently, people underperform in situations where poor outcomes are associated with the initials in their name. For example, researchers studied baseball records and found that baseball batters were much more likely to strikeout (that means failing to hit three pitched balls) if either their first or second name started with the letter “K.” K is used in baseball reports to denote a strikeout. Hmmmm must have been a chance coincidence.

But then the researchers found that people with names starting with A or B did better on academic performance than those whose names started with C or D. Surely not! Must just be a weird correlation. But here’s where it gets spooky. The researchers then performed an experiment where they gave participants an anagram solving test where the prizes either coincided with the participant’s own initials or not. The experimenters predicted that participants would be unconsciously drawn towards the lesser, consolation prize, if one of their initials coincided with the prize’s label. Consequently they would complete fewer anagrams. And would you believe it? That’s what they found.

So what’s going on? The claim is that we so love the sounds of our own names that we settle for outcomes that coincide alphabetically with our initials. This “implicit egotism” explains why researchers found that in a population of over 500,000 Belgians, people were significantly more likely to work for a company that shared the same initials. So that’s why I work at Bristol University after a brief spell at MIT and Harvard!


Filed under Research, supernatural