It’s Almost Like ESP

Popular psychologist Richard Wiseman is currently conducting a unique study that uses Twitter to gather research participants. He’s seeing if his Twitter followers can engage in remote viewing to detect where Richard is located (explanation here). So the idea is that Richard goes to a randomly chosen location, then asks people on Twitter to use their psychic powers to give any impressions about where he is, then later choose which of 5 locations they think he was at.

When he gave the go-ahead this morning, I was happy to participate.  Here’s what I tweeted to him:

“First thing that came to mind was a star shape (oops, thinking of Zener cards?). Railing. Concrete. A lamp post. Playground?”

I also acted like a real remote-viewer and scribbled a few drawings:

Then it came time to pick which location I thought he was at, out of these five:

Well look at that! My posts, railings, and concrete all over the place. But I thought the most striking resemblence was between my middle picture and his middle picture (C), so that’s the one I guessed.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t where he was. He was at D.  So if I am psychic, it’s only for my future experience, not for remote viewing a real location.

Wiseman’s experiment isn’t really unique except for the Twitter aspect. Similar studies have been done many times, and strangely, usually find above-chance results (i.e., people are able to guess where the remote person is more often than if they were guessing). It’s also full of holes and flaws in its methodology (so many that I hope the true purpose of the study is remaning hidden and this is all a cover story for a better study).  Still, it’s good to see psychic phenomena – which the majority of people in the world believe in with little question – getting some attention and new technology applied to it. I think both religious and scientific bigotry have kept good research from being done in this area, and I hope we can overcome silly taboos to engage in more of it.

Go follow Wiseman on Twitter to participate – it’s going for a few more days. Or see his blog for more details and results.

Phenomenon

I watched this new show called Phenomenon on Wednesday. Basically, it’s American Idol with magicians (mentalists, to be specific). Criss Angel plays the part of Simon Cowell, and Uri Geller plays the part of Paula Abdul.

First of all, I loved the show. It’s all done live (supposedly), which gives it a realistic feeling that you don’t get with a lot of modern magic on TV (e.g., Mindfreak or David Blaine’s specials). The guy with the nailgun was particularly intense; you know he probably won’t screw it up, but just knowing there’s a small chance he’ll puncture his brain on live television is enough to keep it interesting. The bear trap guy was less impressive. Dude, you didn’t even hide the fact that you switched the trap. And are you in pain or not? At least keep your act consistent.

But there is a degree of confusion in this show that sorta pisses me off. On one hand, there’s Uri Geller there, who claims to have “real” psychic abilities. In the introductions to the contestants, some of them told stories about sensing the death of a loved one, or whatever. The show seems to foster the belief that these people really do read minds.

On the other hand, Criss Angel is there. I think Criss Angel is awesome. If you watch carefully, you see that his approach is actually quite skeptical. On his show, he sometimes reveals how he did his tricks. He refers to his feats as “illusions” or “demonstrations”, and never claims to have any supernatural abilities. I think this was epitomized in one episode of Mindfreak, when he spent the entire episode putting on a seance and freaking people out by having them see and feel ghosts. At the very end of the show, he said something like “so do you believe in ghosts now? I don’t.” Nice. On Phenomenon, these people are illusionists; what they do is amazing, but not supernatural. They can make it look like they are reading minds, but they are not. It’s awe-inspiring in a similar manner to really good special effects in a movie. You almost believe it’s real, but you know it’s not.

Phenomenon can’t decide if it’s trying to amaze us by tricking us into thinking it’s real, or by showing us really good performances by people who we know are trying to trick us. Now, you know I’m not one to completely dismiss psychic phenomena. There’s something to them, and they’re worth researching scientifically. But nobody in their right mind is going to believe that flawless mindreading is going to happen on a reality show (nor any other silly game). I’d be more impressed if the show was up front about that.

My guess is that Uri Geller prevents it. He wants people to believe that stage magic is a genuine demonstration of psychic abilities, so that his own stage magic thrives. The dude does some impressive stuff, but come on, he can’t really bend spoons with his mind. Again, with him, I’d be more impressed if he didn’t put on the whole “everything I do is because I’m actually psychic” act. He did a demonstration of his “abilities” live on the show, by having the audience choose a symbol (one of the five Zener card symbols) that he had sealed in an envelope. It just barely worked out – and hey Uri, any chance you always pick the star in demonstrations like this? How about randomly selecting the symbol next time?

Anyway, like I said, loved the show, but I do wish it wouldn’t perpetuate the myth that stage mentalism and “real” paranormal phenomena are the same, or even related. I have a long standing interest in both, but they are completely separate things.

Bonus fact: Uri Geller designed the logo for *N Sync. It must have taken all his psychic energy to conjure up a star to put in front of the band’s name. Oh hey! Maybe it’s related to the fact that most people out of any randomly selected group will choose a star over other symbols. Well played, Uri.