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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

September 28, 2009 | 26 Comments

The Theory of Increasing Government Idiocy

In software, it’s called feature creep. This is the bloat or encrustation that forms on a working computer program. It is caused by adding overly specific functions that originate with a “Wouldn’t it be cool to have a…?” but which are not strictly necessary, or even inapposite to the software’s main purpose.

As a piece of software ages, function creep is almost inevitable unless it is kept harshly in check. Lead engineers must be brutal in slapping down minor functionaries that come to him with wish lists. “We need new rules!” they will plead, tears in eyes. But he must harden his heart and focus on the software’s main mission. For the moment he gives in to one request, he will give in to others, and the software begins to pick up debris like a snowball rolling down a hill. Finally, the code reaches the point where it is barely recognizable from it earlier self; where it once took only one person to run, it now takes a dozen, four of them consultants with large hourly rates and occult knowledge.

How does such software survive? It cannot, unless it is a monopoly, unless all are forced to use it because it is the only option. Then the sluggish, brute package becomes commonplace, people adapt and they stop questioning their needless toils. Upstart rivals to the software are not just slapped down, but it is thought rude to question or consider them. At last, however, the package becomes so laden with gook, it collapses in on itself, and takes it users with them.

As it is with software, so it is with governments.

This country was founded on the idea of liberty, on the sentiment of Leave Me The Hell Alone Unless You Have A Damn Good Reason. We quickly went beyond, what some see as the necessities, of a police force and Army—many at the beginning argued against a standing Army!—to the paperwork spewing, rule generating, regulation creating, money confiscating, swollen carbuncle we have today. We have not yet reached the point where every possible aspect of our lives has at least one bureaucracy watching over it, but such a state cannot be far away. How did this happen to such freedom loving people?

Caring. The feature-creeping nightmare of excess niceness and solicitous mothering brought on by the love of our fellow man. The old joke used to be that a sweater was defined as a garment a child put on when the mother got cold. The new joke, on us, will be that a sweater will be required by law to be worn by children when the wind chill index drops below 50o F. Regulations will ensure sweaters, to be properly called sweaters, must have at least so many knots per square inch, the yarn thickness at least so many thousandths of an inch. Caliper-wielding bureaucrats will be dispatched to retail stores to issue hefty fines for those in violation. Any that complain will be told (1) “It’s the law” and (2) “It’s for the good of the children!”, a statement against which there is no rational counterargument.

A joke? Then how about this story: a Middleville, Michigan woman threatened with fines for watching her neighbors’ kids. Those kids stayed with hers at the school bus stop in front of her house. Her neighbor, a close friend, had to leave for work before the bus arrived, and our lady, for no fee, watched over them. A busybody ratted her out and she was charged with operating an illegal day care center. One at which the absence of paedophiles had not been properly certified! She was duly told to cease or face imprisonment. A Department of Human Services “spokesperson would not comment on the specifics of the case but says they have no choice but to comply with state law, which is designed to protect Michigan children.” We recoil now, but soon this idiocy will be commonplace and each of us will be scandalized when we hear our neighbor was not properly certified—by experts!—in child watching.

The reason we have come to this ridiculous state is obvious. Our government started with only a few men. But, roughly, for each idea these men had, an employee was needed. These employees themselves had ideas—created with love and caring—and those ideas needed more bodies, and so on. Even if at our beginning our leaders were the best and brightest, we need only remember that intelligence is not awarded evenly, and that as government grows the average intelligence of its employees must shrink. Therefore, the larger the government, the larger its proportion of the less able, the below average, and the downright stupid. At some point, a negative feedback kicks in with a vengeance, and we resemble the snowball barreling down the hill, crushing all in its path, with nothing being able to stop it.

September 25, 2009 | 26 Comments

Blasphemy Contest!

Blasphemy contest
No, I am not kidding; and, no, it isn’t mine. But, asinine as it sounds, a real-life, swear-against-God, Blasphemy contest.

The so-called Center for Inquiry (CFI) is an off-shoot, rather malign growth, of the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (now shortened to Committee for Skeptical Inquiry). When these folks used to chase ambiguous noises mistaken for ghosts they had a sense of humor, but after their success exposing Uri Geller’s spoon bending tricks, they had nothing left to do and they became dour and depressed. Instead of gracefully disbanding, they sought new enemies, resorting to imaginary ones when necessary. The Party must survive! They now feel that a good time can be had by encouraging people to curse a God in which they do not believe. Rules are here.

What’s blasphemy? Not a bad question, that. In our egalitarian, ego-centric universe the concept is now known only to academic historians, a few isolated and timorous humanitarians who fear being accused of it, and those who live in Flyover Country. Knowing this, CFI helpfully provides a definition:

Blasphemy: n. the act of denying or scoffing at God or God’s alleged attributes.

This called to mind a word which succinctly describes CFI’s behavior:

Juvenile: a. characteristic of children; immature; childish; puerile; infantile; as, a juvenile temper tantrum.

Who else but a spoiled brat teenager would rhetorically ask, “Are there topics you shouldn’t be allowed to discuss?” Not to be denied any whim, they are indignant that some “governments and institutions—and even some individuals—want to keep certain topics off limits.” With this, they broadcast their stunted imaginations and espouse a desire for an absurd philosophy. As an individual (I am not yet a government), I can think of plenty of topics that are off limits, and should be.

Suppose I know where the secret attack will take place. Any competent government should restrict my speech on this topic. It’s a cliché, but everybody agrees that my freedom to express “Fire!” in a placid theater should be circumscribed. And in keeping domestic harmony, an infinite set of subjects are sanely verboten.

But perhaps they are not arguing about the limits of free speech? Maybe they suggest only that all sufficiently broad subjects should be allowable. If so, then who disagrees with that? The folks at CFI have invented for themselves a pious foe; they fret that they are being hounded by befrocked men carrying ropes. When in fact, everywhere in the Western World, religion is on the retreat. Smug buffoons like John Stewart have made it a national sport to derive the best clever insult of faith.

Only restless adolescents derive pleasure from burning straw men. We can see this in their contest rules:

To enter, all you have to do is create a phrase, poem, or statement that would be or would have been considered blasphemous. Entries may take any form (haiku anyone?), but must be 20 words or less.

The key words are “would have been considered blasphemous.” This acknowledges forcefully that the battle they fantasize themselves in is long over. Not only that, but they are the victors. This spurious contest casts them as the kind of ungracious winner who shouts “Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!” over his victim.

There is the bare possibility of such a challenge providing a microscopic benefit, but only in a society which ruthlessly suppresses any hostility to the native religion. The martyrs who organized such a contest would rightfully enter into the Annals of Humanity. But that time has long past in these United States, and I wonder if these brave souls will shuffle off to Iran and publicly fly flags denouncing Allah. Much more likely, they will remain safely on the divan and chuckle to themselves Beavis-and-Butthead fashion, “Huh, huh. Religious people are stupid. Huh.” Brave, brave.

Anyway, it’s idiotic to malign the objects of faith when it is the acts of certain men that deserve castigation. This is like a quack doctor cursing the symptoms and ignoring the disease of his patients. Or as senseless as protesting the makers of a knife used by a maniac on a killing spree.

But let us acknowledge that some subjects are sacred to Progressive Man, and that speaking disparagingly of these topics is thought to be blasphemous. Here, then, are my entries for the contest (I emailed them per the rules). I want to emphasize that I am not necessarily endorsing these statements. But I do know what thoughts sting the modern mind. Some of them are low blows.

  • The equality of mankind is not desirable and is foolish to seek
  • Race A is intellectually inferior to Race B
  • Substitute “Sex” for “Race” in the above
  • George Bush was a good and wise president
  • Barack Obama should not be president
  • Theistic men are more moral than atheistic ones
  • Israel has the right to defend their country in any way they see fit

What are your entries?

Update, Friday morning: I forgot to include the email address to submit your blasphemies. Here it is: blasphemycontest@centerforinquiry.net. You are also required to have “CFI Blasphemy Contest” in the subject line.

September 18, 2009 | 51 Comments

But what about the children!

Satan is eating your babies! Well, not Satan himself. The Beautiful Red Master is obviously too busy for such detail, so the work has been farmed out to his willing minions, who as we know, by the very definition of the word, are a dedicated bunch. Why dedicated? Lucifer is the wisest of the angels, and he starts minion training early; most recruiting efforts are focused on nursery schools, girl scout packs and the like.

Don’t laugh. A not dissimilar version of this story was widely believed in the States back in the 1990s. A very large—a disturbingly large—proportion of people convinced themselves that Satanic rituals were being conducted right under their noses, by their quiet neighbors, by the seemingly diligent people who ran preschools, by even themselves!, though they couldn’t remember partaking. Bodies, and lots of them, were not just being eaten, but they were being sacrificed by nude covens and the bones buried under full moons. Sheriffs were dispatched, indictments were issued, sentences were passed. People actually went to jail! The Satanic Panic, it was later dubbed.

It was brought about by the highly dubious medical theory of recovered memories. Advocates (they never called themselves anything less) assured the public that traumatic memories, such as roasting an infant alive, were routinely repressed, but never lost. Horrors were tucked away in deep recesses of the mind, but they could be dislodged by the application of hypnosis, or through chatting with an earnest therapist trained for the work.

Legions of women trudged to their therapist to discover the evils in which they participated but couldn’t remember. Others wondered if they were victims of the foul play—because who doesn’t want to be a victim? The perquisites are endless. Anyway, these adventurous women were rewarded with tantalizingly lurid memories by the boat load. Tellingly, the longer the contact with the therapist, the more spectacular the recollections.

Blood rituals were a common theme, but the bulk of the memories were accounts of abuse, paederasty, and rape. Untold numbers of women discovered that they had repressed how old dad regularly had his way with them. Not a few females were encouraged to confront and accuse their now aged relatives, to cut off all contact if the family refused to ‘fess up, and, this being America, to sue, sue, sue. Others…

But it’s too depressing to continue. Luckily, however, one bright Spring morning, people began to wake and told themselves that widespread Satanic worship couldn’t be as likely as they had, just yesterday, thought. Besides, it was exhausting having to believe and track all those rumors! Sure, they said to themselves, all this was nonsense, but it was done with the best intent. Children were involved! We must do anything we can to protect the children, and since we went a little loopy in their holy name, everything is copacetic.

I retell the sad story of this epoch to admit that America has, at times, lost its mind. It has of course done so more than once, and will surely do so again: bouts of insanity are well known symptoms of democracies. We’ve already demonized (and resanctified) alcohol, and the Enlightened now equate smoking as being on the same moral plane as being a conservative, but since smoking has not yet been made illegal, there is still room left for some solid excoriation. So it is difficult to say what mania is next at bat, but be assured that the masses will fix on something.

At least we can take pride that we have exported the thrilling fear of child molestation to England, where it has been embraced by a grateful public who were tired of discussing the consequences of the European Union. Much more fun to point and whisper at a neighbor who was seen to smile at a child who wasn’t his. Laws and custom are being modified rapidly, all under the theory that anybody could be a child molester! That, incidentally, is a true statement: anybody might be, but hardly anybody is. No matter. It is the truth that counts—anything for the children!—and all the signs and marks of insanity can be found in that once great nation.

For example, there is now a legal requirement that adults who drive kids to soccer (football) games, or to boys outings and the like, must be registered and undergo a criminal check. Want to shuttle your neighbor’s kid to school? Don’t get caught! “Unregistered adults could be fined up to £5,000 under scheme to prevent paedophiles getting access to children” (link). Sobbing articles are being written in the best papers about how adults are pathologically frightened of kids; not scared of the pre-adults themselves, but of the lunatic grownup who is ready and perversely happy to infer the worst.

My advice: buck up, England. This insanity will pass: these manias only last a decade or so. That’s the outer limit of the mob’s patience, after which it will retire exhausted, lie dormant for a year or so, whence it will emerge, recharged and on the prowl for something new to fret over.

September 4, 2009 | 2 Comments

Can You Read My Mind?

Ghosts, ESP, telekinesis, astrology, and other assorted oddities are back in view. One of the “SyFy” channel’s most popular series is a show about hunting apparitions. The movie Men Who Stare at Goats will soon be upon us. It is important to understand that people believe in the paranormal not entirely because of wishful thinking. Many have conducted rigorous tests and have, through misuse or misunderstanding of statistics, come to think they are on to something. So I wrote a book to show people how mistakes can be made and how easy it is to fool oneself into accepting bad evidence. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 3—a test of telepathy—which should give you a good idea of the tone. I’d be very interested to hear people’s results of trying it.

Telepathy The ability to gather information about someone else’s thoughts through non-verbal, non-sensory means. Sometimes known as mind-reading or extra-sensory perception (ESP).

Quick—I’m thinking of a number between one and five! Can you read my mind? Was your guess three? That’s the most common guess. And if your guess matched my number maybe you have telepathy. Or maybe not. To convince me you had extraordinary powers, it would depend on how difficult, and how surprising, your guess was. If my number was three your hit is not necessarily that surprising because you could have guessed correctly by luck.

The number I was thinking of was e. That’s equal to about 2.71828. What? You’ve never heard of this weird number e1 and you think I was cheating? Well, I never said my number had to be an integer, that is, a whole number like one, two, three, four, or five. I specified a number between one and five and e=2.71828 is certainly in that range.

So You Think You're Psychic

But maybe you did guess correctly; even so, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised. Why? Because you might have used the fact that I was mathematically minded, guessed I was being tricky, and figured I would use an extremely common number, a number mathematicians encounter daily. Another number might have been π (which is about 3.14159). There are lots of mathematically common numbers between one and five, and there are an uncountably infinite selection of other numbers, which it is why it is necessary to set up an experiment, in advance, that allows me to quantify the chances of you and I thinking of the same one merely by luck. Controlled experiment are needed in which the only thing that is left to chance is the guessing (or mind reading) itself.

The end of this experiment, where you guessed my number between one and five, is the first example of a multiple endpoint; multiple endpoints were described in Chapter 2. The test, first announced with a “Quick!”, was not completely defined because I never specified the set of possible answers you could choose from. You were free to make any guess you wanted, whether an integer or some strange number and then, after the fact, when I revealed my number, transform your score to something that seemed surprising by arbitrarily defining your choice of possible answers. For example, you first might have thought that the possible answer were the numbers one through five. If you were to say the set of answers included all real numbers, the chance of you guessing my exact number by chance would be exactly 0 (Chapter 2 explains why this is true). That’s as surprising as you can get and terrific evidence of psi. On the other hand, I could retort that I limited my choice to e and π, which means a match happens half the time, thus a correct guess is not in the least surprising. This is why only controlled experiments with fixed endpoints are convincing.

Of all paranormal abilities it is probably telepathy (sometimes given the important sounding academic title anomalous information transfer) that most excites the imagination, engenders the highest interest, and generates the most enthusiasm. Almost everyone feels they have had some personal experience with various forms of telepathy, whether it’s picking up the phone just as someone calls, or thinking the same thought at the same moment as the person you are with. It is the ability that, even if you suspect other psi claims to be false, you are sure to think there is some truth to this one. Parapsychologists think so too and more experiments have been done in this area than any other.

Casual instances of telepathy are common. Imagine you and your sister are together, chatting over coffee about the hair dresser, about the bad hair style your mutual friend Edith effects to wear in public and so on, and then you have a flash, “Say, Judy, I was just thinking of that time when Bob chopped off half his moustache.” Judy says, “Me too! Isn’t that extraordinary! I must have been reading your mind!”

Not necessarily.

It may be the case that the more time you spend with someone the more it’s likely you will begin to think alike (maybe even look alike) and share the same thoughts. The more time together the higher the chances become that, if you want to think biologically, your brain’s neurons fire along identical pathways, using as input similar circumstances and shared sensory experiences, your minds arriving at nearly identical conclusions. Your common history and education, mutual background, and communal social activities help you interpret the world around you in a similar manner. It would be more surprising for two people like this—a married couple, for example—not to be thinking of the same things at the same times for a lot of their life. So how surprising is it that you and someone you know very well both happen to be thinking of the same thing? And how can you quantify the correspondence of thoughts? These tests can help answer that question.

Test Number One: The Card Test

This is a very easy and clean test. It is also very traditional in that the first formal tests of telepathy were very much like this. The materials needed are a deck of cards and your notebook. The set up is simple and quick. Cards are used because most people have at least passing familiarity with their shapes and values: this acquaintance is thought to ease mental transmission. The only difficulty may be in securing the help of a friend—but who doesn’t want to learn if they are telepathic? The next time you have a party you can assemble people into groups of two and run the test concurrently for each group.

WHAT YOU WILL NEED

  1. A deck of new clean playing cards (poker or bridge), or a deck of Tarot cards.
  2. At least one friend.
  3. Your notebook with two ruled columns (these can be done by hand). One column is headed Card and the next Guess.
  4. (Optional) A watch with a second hand.

WHAT YOU WILL DO

Details will be given for an ordinary deck of playing cards. Tarot cards will work but you must first remove the cards of the Greater Arcana (Death and all his brothers) and the Knaves of each suit (pentacles, swords, etc). Only 52 cards can remain in the deck for the probability score to be valid.

  1. Be sure to first remove all jokers from the deck of playing cards. Only 52 cards should remain.
  2. Riffle shuffle the cards at least seven times to insure they are thoroughly and randomly mixed. Riffle shuffling is the type where you take approximately half the cards in each hand, held lengthwise, and both piles are flipped towards each other to mix them. Square the deck when this is done. Straighten them out so they are all in one neat pack. For those who are interested, it was mathematically proven that cards should be shuffled at least seven times to attain true randomness (meaning the order is essentially unpredictable to you), so do not be lazy here.
  3. Decide who will be the sender and who will be the receiver. You can certainly swap roles in subsequent tests.
  4. The sender picks up the first card from the deck and notes it down in the Card column of the notebook. Shorthand should be used. Assume the first card was the Queen of Spades: QS would be written. Use ‘D’ for diamond, ‘C’ for clubs, ‘H’ for hearts, and ‘S’ for spades.
  5. The sender then concentrates on the card for a prescribed amount of time (say 30 seconds) during or immediately after which the receiver states their impression of the card.
  6. The sender writes this impression in the Guess column next to the Card column.
  7. Card number two is selected and the test repeated, and so on.
  8. After all cards are expended the sender then tallies the results by circling the matching results. The number correct is compared with the Telepathy Card Scoring Table for the score.


Telepathy card scoring table. This table shows the probability of getting n or greater correct matching cards from a deck of 52. Only correct guesses up to 6 are indicated, as it would be highly unlikely to get 7 or more correct. As it is, there is strong telepathic evidence by getting only 4 or more matches—the probability of this happening by chance is only 0.019 (this means it would happen by chance about 2 times for every 100 trials).

Probability of Getting at least n Correct Cards
n 0 1 2 3 4 5 6
p 1.000 0.640 0.260 0.080 0.018 0.0032 0.0005

This is only one possible scoring table because the guessing strategy used by the receiver can modify the probability results. A quick example will show how. Imagine the receiver always said Three of Clubs for each guess. Then she must get at least one guess correct, this being the time when the card was the Three of Clubs. All other cards will be wrong (of course). The makes the probability of getting 1 or more correct matches 1, and forces the probability of getting 2 or 3 etc. or more correct matches to equal 0. This table assumes the receiver is guessing freely, each time making a selection from any of the 52 possible cards, and the receiver may guess the same card more than once if she likes.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG

As long as both parties are careful about card handling (no peeking etc.), little can go wrong on this test except for the problem of feedback. Feedback is where the sender, consciously or not, informs the receiver if her last guess was correct. Perhaps the sender subtly smiles for correct guesses and frowns or grimaces for wrong ones. You might think this is not a big deal. Let me give you a simple example of why it is an enormous big deal.

Imagine a deck with only three cards, a Jack (J), Queen (Q), and King (K) (the suits are not important here). I shuffle the cards well and then select the top one, then try to mentally transmit its image to you. You say J. What is the probability you are correct? Well, there is one J and three cards, so the chance is one in three (p=1/3). I say nothing about whether your guess was correct or not. On to the next card. Again, I pick it up and concentrate. You say, for example, K. What is the probability this one is correct? Same thing, one in three. Finally, we do the last card. You pick up a strange vibration, reconsider your first choice, and say J again for the last guess (the point here is that you can say any of the three cards because you don’t know which cards are still in the deck). The No Feedback Scoring Table lays out the possible scores.


No feedback scoring table for a deck of three cards.

Probability of Getting at least n Correct Cards
n 0 1 2 3
p 1.000 0.700 0.260 0.037

Now let’s try the test again, this time with feedback. The cards are shuffled and I concentrate on the first one. You say J. “That was a hit,” I announce (with a one in three chance of happening, as before). I tell you it was correct. Now the next card. You say Q. What is the probability that you are right? It’s no longer 1/3 because you know the J is not one of the remaining two cards. You know, from feedback, that only the Q and K are left. So the probability of being correct by chance went from 1/3 to 1/2—a pretty big jump.

Let’s say your guess was right again, and the second card was a Q. I tell you this. This leaves one card on the table. What is the probability your last guess will be right? Well, if you have been paying attention, it is 1! You know it is the K without having to guess. Therefore, the probability of a correct guess has grown from 1/3 without feedback to 1 in the case of full feedback. This is an enormous increase!

The Feedback Scoring Table, given below, also depends on the guessing strategy used by the receiver. This is the one that is generated by an optimal guessing strategy, that is, one that uses all the feedback in the most efficient manner so as to maximize the probability of getting three correct guesses.

You can quickly see that the probability, without feedback, of getting all three cards correct went from 0.037 to 0.20, a whopping increase! In other words, if you had got all three correct without feedback it appeared you had psychic powers (based on the low probability score). But getting all three right with feedback is a completely unsurprising result and is not convincing evidence of psychic functioning.

Another thing to note is that, with feedback, you are guaranteed to get at least one card right, while there is only a 70% chance of this without feedback. It is also possible to examine the average number of hits you would get if only chance were operating. For this experiment, without feedback, you would expect about 1 hit. With feedback this doubles to 2 hits.


Feedback scoring table. The table to use with a deck of three cards when feedback is given. This table represents the optimal guessing strategy using full feedback.

Probability of Getting at least n Correct Cards
n 0 1 2 3
p 1.00 1.00 0.60 0.20

It becomes complicated to account for feedback when dealing with a full deck of 52 cards. It can been done, however, and a statistical test has been developed to account for it. This test is too complicated to include in this book but interested readers can look up the reference in Chapter 15.

The point to remember is that, with feedback the probability of getting a certain number of hits is higher than without, thus making the possibility of telepathy less likely. If feedback is suspected the tests must be modified and, in general, this is a very difficult thing to do. The simplest solution is to eliminate feedback.

One potential way to eliminate any possibility of feedback is to separate the receiver and sender. Stationed in different rooms each could agree to concentrate on one card for every minute. As long as everyone’s watches are synchronized, this should work quite well. (See the Ganzfeld test for some tips.)

A more insidious form of feedback is pencil reading. A well-known magician’s trick is to watch the pencil of a volunteer as he writes down the card to be transmitted. The magician makes his guess by watching the pencil as the volunteer writes. You would be surprised at how easy this is to do. Keep your notebook and pencil hidden. This type of cheating has been used in professional telepathy tests too, and the hapless researchers in these experiments found themselves in the position of reporting spurious positive results. Remember our golden rule: eliminate all sensory feedback!

Another form of naughtiness that is often found is misinterpreting or reworking the results after the experiment is over (multiple endpoints again). For example, suppose that you go through this test and get two hits, which is not very indicative of telepathy. But you notice that in five instances every time you guessed a card it came up on the next draw instead of the current one. That is, it appeared you were “seeing ahead” into the deck. You would have got five hits had you counted card-ahead guesses which now looks like great evidence of psychic ability. Wrong! The experiment was not to count how many cards you guessed right in the future but how many current ones you got right.

Here is a specific example of how this post-experiment data mining is wrong. Return to the pack of only three cards, the Jack, Queen, and King. Your goal is to guess the card names as before. A glance at the No Feedback Scoring Table, whose results still hold, confirms that the probability of getting all three guesses wrong is 0.30 (this is calculated using the principle that the probability of getting all wrong is one minus the probability of getting at least one right). Likewise, the chance of getting at least one correct is 0.70. Imagine the order of the cards and your guesses was the following:

Card Order Your Guesses
J Q
Q K
K J

Notice that none of your guesses was correct. But all is not lost because you notice that, lo and behold, when you guessed Q, although it wasn’t a direct hit, it was only one card away from the one you guessed. Using that logic to rescore the test shows that you now have two hits (the K and Q were only one card away)2. Naively using the No Feedback Scoring Table gives a score of 0.26. This is wrong because you have redefined the experiment and this changes the probability structure of the score. It is the case that the probability of getting at least 2 correct guesses is 0.83, which is three times higher than before (incidentally, the probability of getting at least one becomes 1, meaning you will always get at least one hit).

For a full deck of 52 cards, the probabilities in the scoring table are modified in a similar, but mathematically complicated, fashion—all probabilities increase making it less convincing that you are demonstrating psychic ability.

There is another even bigger problem with the probability calculation just given. It is incomplete. This is because you saw that your guesses were one away, but what if you saw your card was three away? Or four? Or some other bizarre pattern? There is a limitless number of possible patterns that may account for your guessed card being at other places other than the current card. And there is no way to know in advance what they are. All that can be said is that they all modify the probability score towards chance and away from psychic ability. Since there is no way to know in advance the only logical thing to do is to disallow all results except the exact results the test specified. If you truly feel you’re always better at guessing cards one in advance, set up a new experiment (like the one outlined under precognition) and then interpret the results under that experiment. It is impossible to give probability score tables for all the clever ways people can reinterpret results. You might decide to look two ahead, three ahead, or some random number ahead. You may also decide to look ahead and behind. You may change things to look only at the color, suit, or value of the card. There is no way for me to out-guess the creativity of the reader. Therefore, it is imperative that you stick to the original test.

Unfortunately, many published results in prominent parapsychological journals fall into the trap of redefining the experiment after the fact. These researchers post-interpret the results looking for significance. Some, wiser than others, do not try to claim “statistical significance” when they do this, and instead claim the results are “intriguing,” but this circumlocution doesn’t change the bad result into a good one. Attaching or not attaching a significance number does not make the practice right. You cannot, under any circumstances, claim results are meaningful when you did not set out to test them. Again, if you feel you are obtaining results that are not associated with the experiment, set up a new experiment specifically to test for these results.

Of course, if you’re doing this test at a party or other informal get-together you cannot disallow the possibility of cheating after one too many pinot grigios it’s impossible to tell what one of your friends might do. It’s human nature to want to impress other people and the temptation may be too great to “bend” the results in the right direction. This could all be in fun, but don’t fool yourself. If you feel you have a friend who is particularly adept, schedule a time with her alone and do the test under rigorous conditions.

The last big thing that can go wrong, and often has, is bad or incomplete randomization. If you fail to shuffle the cards correctly, particularly between trials, you will seem to do better than chance, but this may only be because you have, inadvertently or not, memorized certain patterns in the cards. Shuffle well to avoid this.

[Copies of the book may be had here.]

————————————————

1The number e is a number mathematicians like me meet daily. It is the base of the natural logarithm.

2It might be argued that the J guess was only one card away too, if the set of cards is envisaged as a circular chain. Whether or not it makes sense to ask for this interpretation depends on how many cards you want to get right. If viewed as a chain it is then impossible to get any wrong guesses.