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23 April 2014 21:59 (South Africa)
Opinionista Jacques Rousseau

Separating sense from nonsense

  • Jacques Rousseau
People opposed to genetically modified foods have coined a word to describe the objects of their opprobrium – “Frankenfoods”, like Victor Frankenstein’s monster are, by implication, unnatural abominations. Could the same logic be applied to sense (as in reason, rational thought)? If so, the snake-oil peddled by John Edward, astrologers, fortune tellers and similar charlatans might be called “Frankensense”.

Somewhere out there, a reader named Sally has just suffered a terrible loss. Or maybe it’s Samantha, or Sarah – anyway, something that has an “s” sound in it. Her husband – actually, perhaps only a family member, or … well, someone close to her has recently passed. His name was John, or maybe Joseph? It’s something starting with “J”, anyhow, although that might be his nickname.

He says to tell you that he forgives you for that thing that you did. You remember that terrible thing that caused you to fight, and upset members of the family on both sides so much for a time? He’s moved on now, found peace, and wants you to do the same.

I know these details about Sally thanks to John Edward, the “psychic medium” who will soon be returning to South Africa to fill concert halls and provide individual consultations with people who want to talk to their deceased loved ones. You might recall Edward thanks to his show “Crossing Over”, in which he demonstrated his ability to communicate messages from the dead. Dying, it appears, automatically confers upon one a speech impediment, judging by Edward’s difficulty in identifying exactly with whom he is speaking.

The dead also seem to retain a peculiar obsession with the living. It must be all that time they have on their hands, but you’d hope that one of them would occasionally think of passing on some information of general interest, like “it’s true, these angels play great harp”, or “watch out folks, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is real – don’t believe that stuff in the Bible”. After all, they can still save the family members left on Earth.

But no – we don’t get to hear about whether the 72 virgins are actually chilled or white raisins, as suggested by Luxenberg’s study of the Koran and its language, or whether we should be doing anything differently to access whatever eternal bliss might be on offer. All we get are vague generalities, suitable for interpretive moulding to match what we’d like to hear. The reason for which is patently clear: Edward is simply making it up. Or rather, he’s damn good at picking up the subtle clues that allow him to say what his audience would like to hear.

The primary technique he uses to do so is called “cold reading”, and involves a combination of astute interpretation of whatever subtle clues the victim reveals, along with a barrage of high-probability guesses (“shotgunning”). The “hits” among those guesses are followed up on, while the mentalist moves on quickly from any “misses”, where the audience member shows no response to the guess.

Practiced mentalists get enough hits to appear to have an uncanny insight into the lives of those they are reading. But when we are impressed by folk like Edward (or more honest practitioners of these skills like Derren Brown), we sometimes forget our eagerness to fill in the details that allow things to make sense, as demonstrated by the Forer effect.

We can also fail to notice that mentalists mostly employ what are known as “Barnum statements” – statements that appear personal, but in fact apply to many of us. An annotated transcript of psychic readings by Edward and Doris Stokes shows how easy it is to create the impression that what is mostly guesswork and intuition can add up to something resembling mysterious knowledge.

So what, some might ask? What’s the harm in this entertainment, especially when relatives of the deceased might find comfort in hearing that their loved ones are content and still connected to the living in some way? For any of us committed to reason, the harm seems quite obvious and lies partly in what Paul Kurtz dubbed the “transcendental temptation”, where the success of techniques like cold reading lead us to more favourable dispositions with regard to mysticism, and thereby subtly undermine our critical faculties.

New Age talk of angels watching us, the continuing presence of astrology columns in newspapers that purport to be serious, the continued good sales of metaphysical claptrap like “The Secret”, and the fact that some take Deepak Chopra seriously are all part of the same basic problem, namely that our hopes for life to have some significance beyond the here-and-now lead us to suspend, or at least suppress, critical judgement.

Perhaps it’s possible to compartmentalise our relationship to evidence in various aspects of our lives. We could be evidence-led when it comes to deciding what to invest in or whether it’s safe to fly, but more tolerant of magical thinking when attending a John Edward show. But I’m sceptical of our ability to do so, and the risks in doing so seem too severe. Gullibility is a trait that seems worth suppressing whenever possible – perhaps especially when it manifests in ways that allow people like Edward to exploit our grief for financial gain.

And suppressing it is relatively easy, because the basic techniques of separating sense from nonsense are simple enough to be taught to your kids. Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” is a wonderful primer on the subject, and offers us a “baloney-detection kit” for identifying bad arguments:

  • Seek independent confirmation of alleged facts.
  • Encourage an open debate about the issue and the available evidence.
  • "In science, there are no authorities. At most, there are experts."
  • Come up with a variety of competing hypotheses explaining a given outcome. Considering many different explanations will lower the risk of confirmation bias.
  • Don't get too attached to your own ideas, lest you get reluctant to reject them even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
  • Quantify whenever possible, allowing for easier comparisons between hypotheses' relative explanatory powers.
  • Every step in an argument must be logically sound, a single weak link can doom the entire chain.
  • When the evidence is inconclusive, use Occam's Razor to discriminate between hypotheses.
  • Pay attention to falsifiability. Science does not concern itself with unfalsifiable propositions.

In the meanwhile, if you’d like to become a psychic, here’s a cheat-sheet detailing the essential techniques. Please let me know if my mother gets in touch? DM

  • Jacques Rousseau
jacques rousseau 02

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy.

When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

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