Monday, 12 March 2012
QEDcon: Massimo Polidoro - The Search for Superman
Massimo Polidoro has worked extensively with James Randi, is the co-founder and head of the Italian skeptics group CICAP, and is the first professor of Anomalistic Psychology in Italy at the University of Milano. He is also the author of over thirty books.
His talk is essentially about his experiences trying to find a real-life psychic, or a person with other super powers. The search for Superman, people who claim to have amazing powers like Uri Gellar, etc.
In the 1970's the general attitude was that something must be out there with regards to psychic powers and that we just need to find it.
In recent years the question has changed into are psychic powers actually real? Massimo has never found any evidence in all his investigations. However, it's still important to search without being disrespectful.
In his experiences, Massimo Polidoro has noticed there are different types of individuals who claim to have special powers. He goes through each type for us.
Naive psychics: People who live in a world of their own, see mysterious things in everyday life. For example, "magnetic man" thought he was a human magnet as when he placed cutlery on his chest they stayed there. But once he realised what really happening (sweaty body plus gravity), the magic disappeared. The man was simply asked to bend forward and the cutlery fell. Man said he was now a non-believer.
Deluded psychics: people who have decided that they have supernatural power and nothing will shake this belief. They believe they can correctly identify cards without looking, guess what items their husband put in a box without looking, discern from a single picture if the person in the photograph is current alive or dead, etc. What they have in common is when they were asked to demonstrate the powers, they could not do what they claimed. However, as they were performing they thought they were dong alright.
These people do hot have an understanding of how to perform a test and adapt excuses to explain the negative result. They always think they are right.
Unlikely psychics: they tend to find a power that no one felt the need for. Many of these powers are shown in comic book hero forms. Madam Fatal (a guy who dresses as a granny), arm fall off guy (can grab one arm with the other, take it off his body, and beat someone with the severed arm), and of course.... bending metal with your mind.
The example in this category was the case of a girl believing that she could mummify eggs. She waved her hands over the eggs, then left the eggs for several days, and they were mummified. Why? An experiment was done where one egg was given to her to mummify, and 9 other eggs were just left without her hand waving powers. A week later, all ten eggs looked same. It turns out that if you break an egg onto a plate and leave it for a number of days, they look a little "mummified". She said that it only proves we all have these powers.
Bereaved psychics: These people have really suffered, but only by imagining they have some power connection to another reality can they cope with the grief/loss. Automatic writing, seances, etc. Any testing is fruitless and frustrating. The only position you will find yourself in is telling them that their loved one is dead, which isn't a nice position to be in.
Psychiatrist's case psychics: these people have mental issues and should be avoided. Unfortunately it's not always clear until you actually engage. For example, a friend of Massimo said he was receiving distressing signals, preventing him from doing anything, sleeping, eating, etc. His friend said that by doing some calculations he found the location of the signals. He went to the house where he thought the source of the signls was with a gun, and stayed all night. Lucky for anyone living there, no one came out.
Another example is that a man claimed that he could make the figures of a simple digital clock move. To do this he had to follow a ritual. He put on a big heavy jacket, had two scoops of honey, put on exercise bands, then he was ready to look very carefully at the clock. At this point he stretched out his arms, pointing to the clock, and shook his head up and down. Because he was moving up and down and looking at the clock, the clock appeared to move to him. The test was (obviously) over at this point. But the person being tested thought that he had passed.
Cunning psychics: Not necessarily dishonest, may have found seemingly strange things happen when they are around and feel special. Actually found these situations are pretty common, but sometimes transform into "miracles".
Frau... "differently honest" psychics: these people typically steer away from testing. One not so bright psychic tried to convince skeptics. A lady claimed to be a psychic detective found a missing girl drowned in a lake. Huge media attention. However, a year or so before this event, the paper reported that a girl last seen leaving club was thought to have slid her car from the road into the lake during a drive home. The car was known to probably be at the bottom of the lake. But this paper report was presented as a psychic vision. Volunteers dedicated weeks to searching for missing person. They found the car right where the newspaper had reported it. Psychic took credit.
Another case is when the National Geographic channel called saying a man had developed Jedi like power to knock people out. We were shown a video.
Listen to the "experts" explanation of why it didn't work. Blatant bull? What is happening is that people have the expectation to react in a certain way to the suggestion of the punch, and fall over when expected. It's a known psychological effect.
So how do you test a psychic?
1. Exactly define the claim - have them write down details and conditions etc
2. Agree on shared protocol - agreed on success and failure, control of experiment
3. Have them perform a demonstration - same way would at home, sign paper say just demonstration not test.
4. Add the control - double blind or whatever might be needed
5.See what happens and wait for the excuses
Inevitably they will come, people rarely admit they were wrong.
But why test psychics at all? Because if something really was out there it would be an amazing find. But to date it has proved to be a fruitless search.