Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Meet you at Dragon*Con?

So I decided yesterday to go to Dragon*Con this year. I can drive down there and stay in a hotel that has a shuttle bus to get me downtown. There's a good "Skeptitrak" of skeptical talks to take in, with talks by all our favorite podcasters & bloggers. There's a science track and a space track, so there's no shortage of things to do. I'll go early, on Thursday, so that I can attend the Cancer benefit star party in Decatur that Phil Plait & Pam Gay are hosting. I'll bring along my "Death From The Skies" and have Phil sign it!

Squee! I'm such a fanboy!
Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Congratulations, you may be psychic!

Weekly World News, that bastion of scientific credibility, has reported that 53% of people are psychic, based on a study done at the University of Virginia on the townspeople and students of Charlottesville.

Say what now?

This study was published by the "parapsychology division of the University of Virginia School of Medicine" in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Although the article does not name specific researchers from the study, the division of which they speak is most likely the Division of Perceptual Studies, founded by Ian Stevenson in 1967. Dr. Stevenson was a psychiatrist and researcher who devoted decades of work to collecting past-life experiences and evidence of reincarnation. Unfortunately, though he carried out this work all over the globe until his retirement in 2002, he did not produce scientifically compelling evidence to back claims of such experiences. I encourage you to read his entry in Bob Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary, which is fascinating and quite thoroughly researched. He also co-founded the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is deserving of a separate post, already in the works and long overdue. (I've been busy... yadda yadda...)

Naturally, the UVa library has a subscription to the journal, so I look forward to finding it in the Alderman stacks later this week when I get a chance. Unfortunately, I can't find a version online, or even an abstract at the moment. According to the article, however, the study was a self-reported survey of 622 participants. Until I get a look at how the participants were selected, it's hard to say whether this is an accurate cross-section of the American population, as is claimed. (Maybe we are just special?) One researcher is quoted in the article as saying,
50% of America is psychic – the results of this survey confirm this fact.
I'm skeptical that any researcher into the paranormal would make such a sweeping and incorrect statement, especially if they expect to be taken seriously. The lack of a name attached to the quote only encourages my notion that this was made up whole cloth by a "reporter". At any rate, a self-reporting survey is no way to prove that a phenomenon exists. Serious scientific studies need to be double-blinded and carefully controlled before a claim can be shown to have validity. Participants in this survey report such paranormal experiences as déjà vu, out of body experiences, apparitions, hauntings, and more. Although these may be terrifying to a person in the moment, a more rational explanation is often to be found. A few years ago, a team of neuroscientists reported that they may have found a biological cause for that eerie feeling of déjà vu. Paranormal investigators such as Joe Nickell have found rational explanations for many hauntings and paranormal claims over the decades. Many psychics have stepped up to take James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, and none have passed preliminary testing. If half of us were psychic, someone would have noticed by now.

So, this article was published in a cheesy tabloid with a screaming, Vulcan-ish child on the logo. So what? Most people running across this article will snicker and move on. A small percentage, no doubt, will add it to the pile of "evidence" for their already-cherished beliefs in the paranormal. I'm more interested, personally, in what the survey-study itself has to say, and how much more widely it is reported, especially locally.

Muchas gracias to for the link! Also, kudos to them on the clever title.
Cross posted at One Astronomer's Noise

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Correlation, Causation, and Coincidence

I've been running around again. I'm back to CVille and to work, but before that I was out of town and away from my computer for almost a week, driving to New York, then flying to Georgia, with my "little" brother to get him set up for his new life in grad school. (I use the quotes because the 21-year-old is 6'2, more than a foot taller than me!) During my travel, I got a little reminder of one of my favorite logical fallacies:
Correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Detecting baloney with the best of 'em... Carl Sagan.

This one comes in handy when reading that "studies show that more people with x do y." Such articles are usually written to give the impression that x causes y, when no such thing can be concluded from the work. This fallacy can also be used in an argument about anything, and it has of course been parodied in a few places.

So here is my example from my travels. On June 25th, I had two flights, one from Newark to Atlanta, and then from Atlanta to Valdosta. This was also the day on which Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson passed away. The news of each one broke while I was in-flight, so I learned of each when I turned my iPhone back on after landing. And I thought, well that was weird, two flights and two highly publicized celebrity deaths! Surely, strange but a coincidence. The next Sunday, I had the same flights back, in reverse. After the first flight, I learned that the news of Billy Mays's death had broken while I was in flight. At this point, it's safe to say that there was a correlation between my flights and celebrity deaths. However, is this a good reason for me to miss my next flight, as to prevent another one?

Well, no, I took the last flight (bumped to first class, mind you) without guilt, knowing that I would not be the cause of loss of life in that way. Just because two things occur simultaneously, without a plausible method for their connection, or other supporting evidence, there is no reason to think that one has caused the other, or even that they have a similar cause. (Do pirates expel less carbon dioxide? I didn't think so.) Well surely, this situation is an amazing coincidence? Okay, but for all of the possible coincidences that *could* occur to all people, all over the world, is it any surprise that a small fraction of them do happen? As a pattern-seeking species, we look for significance in random events, but sometimes we just have to accept that they are random. Think about that the next time you want to associate one seemingly random occurrence with another, or try to find meaning in life's coincidences.

For the record, the US soccer team did get beaten by Brazil right before take-off of our last flight. A small death for some? Only if looking too hard for patterns.

Cross-posted at One Astronomer's Noise