Thursday, January 13, 2011

On testable claims / Open thread on episode #691

Sorry I'm late with this, but I noticed some people wanting to comment on the recent show with me and Jeff, so I thought I ought to put up a thread. If you didn't see the show, here's what you missed:

(Thanks for the Photoshop job, Eik!)

I want to mention a point about one of the callers. This caller told us that he had experienced what some would consider to be "out of body experiences" or OBEs. However, rather than just assuming that he had experienced a supernatural event, he came up with the idea of hiding playing cards so he could look at them while projected. If this worked, he would have been able to predict what was value was on the cards and check them while awake. Much to his complete lack of surprise, it did not work.

We also discussed some other alternatives at dinner. I brought up an example I heard from Martin Gardner: you should keep a book of limericks handy in your house but not read it. It's easy to recognize a limerick on sight, but it's not easy for your brain, conscious or subconscious, to invent a unique limerick on the fly. So if you're not sure whether you're experiencing the real world, just open up to a random page and find a limerick you haven't read yet.

Now, I noticed in my email that someone had written a comment on the blog, but later deleted it. I won't quote the comment in full, or identify the poster, but I think the content is worth mentioning because it demonstrates a common method of dodging attempts to make supposedly supernatural events become testable. The commenter said that it would be foolish to try this sort of experiment, because all the experts on OBEs know that you cannot read text or see drawn images while you are out of your body. The page will show either random gibberish, or something completely different each time you look at it.

And I say, gosh, how amazingly convenient that is for somebody who wants to to believe in OBEs but doesn't want it to be disproved by science. In the first place, how does anyone, in fact, know this? How did the researchers come to the conclusion that it was actually the text or pictures that were changing, and not (as most skeptics would suspect) simply the brain making shit up as it goes along? And in the second place, what is it about "text" and "drawn images" that make them prone to being changed randomly or become nonsensical scrawlings, while the rest of the physical world is not?

To his credit, the commenter proposed an alternative test, which is to have a friend place a random assortment of objects in a box so you can later identify what they are. But it seems pretty arbitrary to me to be separating drawn images from other real world objects. Writing doesn't have mystical properties on its own; it's ink that has soaked into paper, or it's physically chipped out of a hard surface such as stone, metal, or plastic. If your experience can include this sort of physical stuff being scrambled around without any reason, how do you know you can trust any of your senses? You could be looking at, say, a rubber ball, and it would appear to be a fully grown cow. It's all just a sensory perception of the real world anyway, so that doesn't make any less sense than words in English changing into words in French, or a random string of ASCII, or Arabic characters.

There is, of course, something our brain does already which generates a proxy version of the world as we understand it without requiring any reliable sensory input. It's called dreaming, or hallucinating.

And making an experience off-limits to testing by constantly introducing completely arbitrary reasons why the tests you propose are invalid... it's the oldest trick in the book.

Talk amongst yourselves.


  1. The page will either show random gibberish, or something completely different each time you look at it.

    I'll just point out that this is exactly how text often behaves when you're dreaming.

    Odd coincidence, isn't it.

  2. If I was testing someone I wouldn't use random objects exactly. I would make origami behind a screen (or from inside a closed off room). That way there's no chance of anyone but myself knowing what the testing objects are going to be until it's "go time".

    Anybody for origami Enterprise?

  3. “all the experts on OBEs know that you cannot read text or see drawn images while you are out of your body. The page will either show random gibberish, or something completely different each time you look at it.”
    That is no different from saying “All the experts on alien abductions know you can’t breathe in the spacecraft’s atmosphere, you have to be connected to an oxygen masks.”
    When I was a child, I was positive I heard Santa on my roof. The sound seemed as real as possible, but we all know that I was mistaken about hearing a magic man on my roof. I lived in Colorado, where is snowed, so my parents would throw rocks on the roof to make it look like the snow was disturbed by “reindeer”, (They told me this once I grew out of the Santa thing). Anyways, the way my brain perceived the sound was nothing like rocks hitting my roof, but like a cluster of reindeer. When I was about four, I woke my parents up thinking I saw a ghost outside my window on my swing set. I gave them description of a “glowing ball with arms”….Well my parents went outside and it was just a grocery bag caught on the swing set from the wind. I am kind of ranting, but my point is that when a person is convinced that something exists in reality, the mind can easily perceive it as real. Religious experiences might be a tad bit more believable if it wasn’t only Christians seeing Jesus, and Buddhists seeing Buddha. You never hear about a devout Christian having a vision of Muhammad, and you never hear a Muslim having a vision of Jesus or Mary. They only see what they are convinced is real. I believed in ghosts when I was four, so some garbage in the wind looked like a ghost.

  4. Yeah, the old ad hoc fallacy. Really popular amongst apologists. I have tried so many times to explain why an untestable claim is meaningless and why standards of evidence are important, only to be talked over by a theist.

    I wish I could always stick to the above point instead of getting tempted by the juicy contradictions that come up on the theist side. They always have an ad hoc, goal post move ready for their contradictions, and they just ignore the need for evidence.

    At least, that has been my experience.

    That guy with the card test is my hero. An awesome example of solid scientific thinking overcoming personal bias.

  5. As a follow-up to Lukas above (re changing text) I have been working on lucid-dreaming a bit from time to time, and one of the books I read on how to become a lucid dreamer specifically recommends reading text to see if you are dreaming or still awake!

    The book suggested that in a dream if you try to read the _same_ text more than once, it will shift and change each time because of how the brain works when dreaming. Thus, if the text does NOT change, you know you are awake (unless you are a solipsist). If the text keeps changing, you are asleep (or on drugs/hallucinating).

    So, if this were held to be true, it would add credence to the idea that OOBEs are just lucid dreams!

  6. I've tested a bunch of these supernatural claims, but I've never found anything supernatural about them.

    I've had OBE's plenty of times, but never have been able to walk around and look at stuff. Only the feeling of falling or suddenly flying. Once, I was paralyzed but felt conscious, and everything in my room that I saw was moving frame by frame like a lagging video game. That was when I got a bit freaked out and stopped trying OBE's. Nothing felt magical about these events.

    I've tried telepathy and telekinesis, never to any result whatsoever.

    I can see aura's, which I would describe as a blueish (always blue, don't know why) that can surround bodies and any object really. I don't find that to be supernatural either, nor do I think its interpretable. If anyone wants to test this one and repeat it for themselves, here is a simple way. Turn on a light, go to a white wall, put your hand up, screw with the focus of your eyes until you see something. It probably has some scientific explanation to do with perspective and light.

    Brains can do some really interesting things.

  7. Rod,

    I see the same "aura" thing, except mine is blue on the left and red on the right. I kinda assumed it has something to do with the light spectrum. Especially since I can only see it w/ sunlight or certain LED's.

  8. @Bob:

    Sleep paralysis is almost universal. It's what keeps most of us from sleepwalking or falling out of bed during very vivid, deep dreams. It's a physiological body defense mechanism. Unfortunately, we can sometimes awaken during such a time of paralysis, and for me, those times are among the scariest of my life.

    I swear I'll never fall asleep again just not to have the feeling. Of course, I do. But it sure the hell is freaky.

  9. Rod, look up retinal afterimage.

    Anthony, try chromatic aberration, the human eye is pretty bad.

  10. After watching this episode, I went to
    to find out how tides work. Its very complicated. Still don't quite understand. However, Science still rocks. :)

  11. Reminds me of the old RPG Shadowrun--mages and shamans could "astrally project," but for game balance, all printed information was abstracted so you couldn't invisibly spy everything you might need to know. Or maybe that was Mage: The Ascension, I dunno.

    Anyway, it's at least possible he's conflated a fictional trope with the OBE pseudoscience. Still, a Special Pleading is what it is.

  12. I'm having quite a few OBEs right now. I'm in the process of quitting smoking and keep feeling my mind slip ahead of me with momentum when I change directions or stop walking. Stairs are real fun. But I recognize this as a result of an altered mental state, not a real phenomenon. Otherwise I'd let my mind slip out for a smoke leaving my body unharmed.

    Stories such as OBEs are what began my true skeptic journey. The long stated "fact" that if you die in a dream, you die in real life. At first, this seemed plausible to me. If the brain thinks it died, that's all that matters. It stops and your dead. Without knowing much about medicine or science, I couldn't attack the idea on definitions of death. After about a week of agreeing with the "fact" it occurred to me, "How do they know what someone was dreaming about if they died while still asleep?" Going back to school and asking my "expert" friends this question, my class quickly rejected the myth and we all had fun sneering at the other classes and holding our superiority over them. Gosh, we were mean and arrogant little buggers.

  13. @Sue,

    I have no doubt that is terrifying, but I'm still hoping for such an experience myself. I don't think I'll like it, but the whole thing fascinates me.

  14. It's Sagan's Garage Dragon all over again:

    "Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder."

  15. @MAtheist

    I don't believe that's the one, the "aura" is different.


    I agree. However, Bob? First Tracie calls me Rob and now I'm Bob. Maybe it'll go Ben, Ken, Karl.

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  17. I have a pretty extensive vocabulary, but in all my 32 years of life I have never heard/seen "veridically". I initially thought that it was a terrible typo (though I couldn't figure out of what), but, apparently, has heard of it.

    So.. Thank you, Mr. Tommy Holland, for exposing me to a new word X). Though, to be honest, it does have an unusual phonetic :P.

  18. "The page will either show random gibberish, or something completely different each time you look at it.

    I'll just point out that this is exactly how text often behaves when you're dreaming.

    Odd coincidence, isn't it."

    Exactly what I had intended on poitin ut

  19. I'm actually more curious to know what causes that sudden feeling of vertical dropping that sometimes wakes you up.

    My half assed guess is that it is when you're waking up during sleep paralysis and the mind is shocking the system to break out of it.

  20. @Ing

    I never thought to associate that feeling with dropping, but it does feel like that now that I think about it. I think it happens to me when something external wakes me up.

  21. @Sue: I used to be convinced that I had often woken up unable to move, and it is indeed quite frightening. However, on one occasion while sleeping on a couch, I woke and noticed that my arms were not in the position I saw them in when I had thought I was awake and paralysed (they were either folded at first and the opposite when I finally woke up). I now think that when you believe you are awake and paralysed, you are in fact still asleep but either aware of the paralysis or maybe simply dreaming it.

  22. @Ing

    I have no idea what the real answer is to that, but the sleep paralysis thing might have something to do with it.

    My theory, before I knew about sleep paralysis, was that you were dreaming about performing some physical act and you were disoriented to suddenly find yourself in a completely different (not to mention prone) position. For instance I was once dreaming about riding a bike. Suddenly, my arms were up over my head, followed by swooping vertigo. Then I was awake.

  23. I tried some remote viewing experiments with lucid dreaming techniques back when I was a university student (mid-90s.) I found W.I.L.D. to be rather hard to get working, but when it does it's very much like the descriptions of OBEs you've heard.

    Unsurprisingly, I completely failed to view any of the test secrets correctly.

    Dreaming, hallucination, etc. are the same as wakeful perception, only unconstrained by the senses. Sometimes, those constraints fail when we're awake. (Well, if you have Charles Bonnet Syndrome they can fail all the time...)

    It's a rather obvious conclusion in hindsight: If mind is brain activity, the brain must contain models of reality - otherwise how could we perceive anything? Since such models must exist, we should conclude the brain is synthesising them. If it can do that with prompting from the senses, why couldn't it do so without?


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