Skeptical Thinking


Just prior to Halloween, my friend Hugh wrote to me with a very spooky tale. It seems that a neighbour of his – let’s call her Margaret – had recently been on a ‘ghost’ tour of a popular historical location in Sydney, and had been involved in a quite unsettling experience. You will recall that I am not averse to the occasional ghost tour, so I was very interested to hear his account of Margaret’s adventure.

The particular locale in question runs several kinds of tours: straight historical tours, ‘ghostly encounter’ tours, ghostly sleepovers, and ‘extreme’ ghost tours. I believe that Margaret and her daughter attended one of the ‘ghostly encounter’ tours – an adult walking tour taken by lantern light and featuring moderately ‘spooky’ content.

Margaret told Hugh that the significantly creepy part of her tour occurred in a dormitory in one of the buildings that was on the evening’s itinerary. This is how Hugh described the incident in an email:

Last Saturday she and her daughter went on a night ghost tour of [a heritage site].(i)

She said the place had a very sad feel to it. Not of danger, or anger, but sorrow.

The touring party entered one of the old dormitories, and a number of them posed on the beds, feigning illness. Margaret felt this was disrespectful, so would not photograph her daughter doing this.

One of the women from the company group took a photo of a male colleague as he posed on a bed. She had put her bag down on the bed, and the man was sitting next to it.

She took several shots. Three, I think. But when she came to look at the photos, two of the shots were as expected — of the man sitting on the bed next to the bag. But in the third, there was a major change.

Instead of the man, there was a baby. The baby was looking directly at the camera, with a piercingly sad gaze. One of its hands was placed over the bag beside it.

The woman was visibly upset, and over the rest of the tour kept flicking through the photos on the camera, and saying she didn’t want this to be happening to her.

Both Margaret and her daughter saw the photo with the baby, and said it was not one of those ‘blur that could be anything’ ghost photos. The baby was as clearly there in the photo as the man in the others.

There was no baby on the tour.(ii)

Of course, this story intrigues me greatly. The first thing we all want to know is: where is the photograph? Right? Unfortunately, it seems that at this point in time, the photograph exists nowhere outside of the woman’s phone. Margaret did not ask for a copy, and it certainly hasn’t made it to the Facebook site of the tour provider (where people have no hesitation in posting up all manner of exceptionally unconvincing ‘ghost’ photos). There was a suggestion from Margaret that the woman didn’t want to ‘spread the story around’.

You can probably tell that I am deeply skeptical that this event unfolded in quite the way it seems. Now I want to make it very clear that I’m casting no aspersions on either my friend Hugh, nor on Margaret. I am sure Margaret is telling the story exactly as she remembers it, and I’m very grateful to both of them for allowing me to reproduce it here.

As I will try to show, however, I think that the least likely explanation for this whole affair is that someone snapped a picture of a ghost baby.

There are a number of things of which we should be be mindful as we begin to examine this event:

•Margaret did not know anyone on this tour, aside from her daughter.(iii)

•The photographs in question were taken on a phone and not a discrete camera (although Hugh’s story only specifies ‘camera’, this was one of the details I asked him to re-check with Margaret – it was a definitely a phone camera. This is a critical fact to know in considering certain aspects of the incident, as we shall see).(iv)

•The atmosphere on these ghost tours is highly charged, which I can verify from personal experience. People are skittish and jumpy.(v)

•Margaret was predisposed to feel ‘a certain way’ about the location. She said to Hugh that “the place had a very sad feel to it. Not of danger, or anger, but sorrow.”(vi)

•It is common that these kinds of tours are conducted by lantern light and there is often no other kind of light source. Margaret confirmed that this was the case on this tour.(vii)

•We like to think that other people won’t take advantage of our trust in them, but they can, and they will (for all kinds of reasons).

•People don’t, as a rule, remember past events particularly accurately, especially if they’ve witnessed them under emotionally enhanced circumstances.(viii)

With those thoughts under consideration, I believe that – looking at it from the point of view of an impartial observer – there are six different possible explanations for this incident:

1: A woman on a nighttime ‘ghost’ tour of an old building actually snapped a realistic and unmistakeable picture of a ghostly apparition in the form of a sad baby, and was, completely understandably, deeply distressed.

2: The woman snapped a picture of something that a number of people, including Margaret and her daughter, mistook to be a ghostly baby.

3: The woman showed people a photograph she’d faked to appear as if it was that of a ghostly baby (and also fabricated a convincing emotional performance in an effort to reinforce its reality).

4. The woman herself was the victim of a hoax in which someone, somehow, planted an unsettling photograph on her phone without her knowledge.

5. The story of the ghost photograph incident was completely made up by Margaret, and related by Hugh as it was told.

6. The whole story was made up by Hugh.

Each of these scenarios has its own problematic consequence:

1: Asks us to accept the reality of a supernatural event, and furthermore, an event that numerous people failed to witness in actuality, but only saw as a result of some unexplained photographic mechanism. Explains the whole tale as told, but requires we question the nature of reality as science and rational endeavour reveals it.

2: Asks us to accept that numerous people were mistaken in exactly the same way by a photograph that Margaret describes as being as clearly of a baby as those of a normal human adult taken just before it. Explains the events, but requires we question the credibility and/or memory of a number of witnesses.

3: Asks us to accept that the woman concerned staged an elaborate prank. Explains everything, but requires a mechanism of execution for the deceit, and a motive.

4: Asks us to accept that someone else staged an elaborate prank, and was prepared to cause distress to carry it off. Explains the woman’s anguish and preserves her credibility at the expense of additional complication to the methods and motives for executing a hoax.

5. Asks us to consider that nothing Margaret told Hugh is true. Explains everything, but requires we question the credibility of the person relating the tale.

6. Asks us to consider that Hugh concocted everything, possibly including Margaret.

I don’t know Margaret at all, so I must maintain in my mind the possibility that explanation #5 is valid, since this and #6 are the ones that require the least number of assumptions. I do, however, know Hugh very well, and Hugh says he knows Margaret well, so I will accept that there is no real credible motive for Margaret to just spin a fantasy for Hugh, and then maintain that fantasy when queried on it. So I will discard #5 since there’s no compelling evidence to reinforce it (it is significant to note that, according to Hugh, Margaret herself is open to suggestions as to what she witnessed).

#6 is somewhat more problematic. Hugh knows me, and the other friends to which he told this tale, quite well, and it is within the realm of plausibility that he would play a complex trick on us. At this time, I have no way of knowing whether or not this is the case. I have only had the discussion about this affair via email, and Hugh’s emails seem consistent and don’t hint at any deception. I believe he is being truthful about this event, but rational process requires I must allow this as feasible. Everything considered, though, it seems unlikely, so I will disregard #6 also (I’m sure that both Margaret and Hugh find these last two options amusing, but I hope you can see that they must necessarily be part of the equation in order to cover all conceivable contingencies).

Of those explanations remaining, the one I’m most inclined to think is the most plausible at face value is #2: that people were mistaken about exactly what was in the photograph. And yet, Margaret seems adamant about what she saw: “The baby was as clearly there in the photo as the man in the others.” So, if she’s right about that, then we are faced with the two main remaining possibilities: that the photo is a genuine photo of a ghost, or that it was faked.(ix) The easiest of those to examine from a procedural point of view is the feasibility of fakery; how hard would it be to concoct this kind of photo and insert it into a photostream on a phone without being detected? The answer is that it is not at all difficult, as I quickly discovered. It turns out that there are numerous phone apps that will allow the very quick creation of an archetypical ‘ghost’ photograph and save it to your photo library.

On Halloween, Violet Towne and I were booked on walking tour of Melbourne General Cemetery, so I decided to carry out an experiment: would I be able to take photos on my phone, and, unbeknownst to strangers on the tour, insert it into my photo library as if I’d taken it with my camera phone? The answer is that it was trivially easy. Here are two consecutive shots from my phone on that night. The second one contains the ghost:

Although there were about twenty people on the tour, I was easily able to make it appear that I was casually photographing the graves while preparing and inserting a ‘ghost’ into my image. If I’d been so inclined (and of adequate acting ability) I could have, without any doubt, convinced people that this image appeared without my knowledge.(x)

I emailed the image to Hugh, who remarked that it looked to him like a classic double exposure – which it does, indeed. He showed it to Margaret who concurred and said “Well that is pretty good and spooky but no, it looked like a normal photo of a baby – as though it had actually been sitting on the bed when the photo was taken.” I could have made my ‘ghost’ less transparent and more solid – at the expense of ‘ghostliness’ – but as Hugh quite correctly pointed out, that would have made it easier to detect as an added image, and more like a collage. In this instance, he said, lighting conditions and interaction with other things in the scene would become much more critical. All completely valid observations. But as a result of the reactions from Hugh & Margaret, I realised something quite crucial at this point: for my photo to have had maximal effect, I’d have needed to have made the ghost photo obvious as quickly as possible after I’d taken the shot. In this era of extreme pixel-pushing, almost everyone knows that you can easily stick a ghostly apparition into an image with Photoshop, so waiting a couple of days would certainly open up the possibility of that having been done. In addition to that, it’s much more effective to show people such a shot while they are primed to be expecting ghosts, and while their critical faculties are impaired by the frisson of the circumstances and are acted upon by group pressure.

The thing is, we also don’t really know how convincing the photograph was, since we don’t have it. Margaret says that the shot of the baby looked as real as the photos of the man on the bed, but how good were those shots, actually? They were taken by lantern light – that’s going to be pretty dim, even with each person on the tour carrying a lantern.(xi) Under what conditions did Margaret and her daughter view the images? How big was the phone screen, for instance? How long did she get to examine it? Who was in control of the phone – was she able to look for as long as she liked, or did the woman whisk it away from her ‘to show someone else’? Maybe the excitement of the incident clouded her perception and she remembered the baby to be more real-looking than it was? It’s hard to be sure of any of these things.

Even so, let’s go on and accept that the ghost photograph was 100% convincingly that of a baby sitting on the bed with its hand draped over the woman’s bag.(xii) Since no-one saw a baby there in reality, the photograph is plainly not a record of an actual real event that occurred at that time.

One thing we must consider, therefore, is the possibility that what was shown on the phone was a normal photograph of a real living baby on the bed taken at some other time in similar lighting conditions and then inserted into the phone photo library directly after the events in the dormitory had transpired. I checked to see whether I could do such a thing and found that it’s very easy to accomplish in a variety of ways. It just needs some basic iPhone knowledge and a little simple preparation. Anyone could do it.

Now, let’s contrast that scenario with the other main alternative: that a digital phone camera captured, via mechanisms unfathomed and with a high degree of realism, a phenomenon that no-one present witnessed with their eyes; that is, the supernatural apparition of a baby with “a piercingly sad gaze”. I cannot categorically discount this, of course, not having been there, nor having seen the photograph. I will say, though, that it occurs to me that this image, if genuine, would be one of the most persuasive ghost photographs ever taken. To put it into context, if the photo was as realistic as Margaret remembers, and the events happened as she recalls, and there is no fakery going on, then there exists no other photographic record, at this level of verisimilitude, of any ghostly phenomenon ever. I’ve seen hundreds of photographs purporting to be of ghosts, and I’ve never seen a single one that was ‘realistic’, (except for photographs that have been offered up well after the supposed event, and are therefore distant from the memory and verification of any witnesses). What we would have here, then, is a photograph of a ghost witnessed by numerous people almost immediately after it was taken. This would be, to my knowledge, unprecedented. It is, in any event, extremely rare. Had I been the photographer, I’d have wanted as much endorsement of it as I could possibly get. I’d have immediately posted it to my Facebook page for a start, or if I wasn’t a Facebook user, I’d have messaged it to several trusted friends for verification and time stamp. The idea that our mystery woman was just too freaked out by it to make it more public than the people who were in her immediate vicinity just screams ‘setup’ to me.

I hope you will agree that of these two possibilities, the faking of the photograph provides a conceivable, and not particularly elaborate, explanation for the ghost baby image.

Of course we don’t have any evidence at all as to why someone would seek to carry out such a deception, but when faced with the other option, coming up with a motive for a hoax seems the lesser of two leaps of plausibility: perhaps the hypothesised hoaxers had no other intention than to freak people out; maybe they thought it would be funny for the people concerned, but it worked too well and they chickened out when it came to revealing the gag; it’s even possible that they just wanted to see if they could pull off a stunt of this kind for aesthetic reasons. Maybe it was a rehearsal for a much more complex scheme to be used for publicity purposes by the tour company.(xiii) It could even be a bit of all of the above. These can only be speculations on my part, of course, but in my opinion even these speculations are more credible than accepting the alternative, which requires that we accept several supernatural mechanisms that have no basis in science or rationality. The main reason that Margaret herself is hesitant to accept the hoax hypothesis, is that she considers the distressed reaction of the woman who took the photograph to be far too convincing to be a performance. You can probably work out that if I can entertain the concept that Hugh, a person I know well, might be pulling my leg, I certainly have no trouble being skeptical of the motives of a woman who we know only as ‘the woman’ and whose photograph – the key piece of evidence in the whole adventure – remains, at this writing, unavailable for anyone to examine.(xiv)

This has been yet another long post, but I hope you will agree with me that these kinds of stories are worth exploring in detail. Unlike many of the scammers and swindlers who we encounter on the Cow’s rambles, people who have been involved in events that seem genuinely puzzling and mysterious deserve, I think, consideration and respectful attention. I have, myself, had one or two of those experiences. At the same time, it is important to keep a very clear idea of how the landscape of such things is shaped. It is one thing to propose a mystery. It is an entirely different thing to propose that the solution to that mystery involves even greater mysteries, especially when there are far less mysterious solutions at hand.

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Footnotes:

  1. Names and locations have been anonymised by arrangement with Hugh []
  2. Keep in mind that these are verbatim quotes of Hugh’s recounting of Margaret’s story – possibly not Margaret’s actual words. I note this only to make it clear that in stories such as this that are handed on verbally, all kinds of errors and assumptions can creep in as the story is handed on. I re-checked a number of details that were unclear to me from High’s account, but it is possible that there are still small differences between what Hugh recorded and what Margaret related. No-one is to blame here – that’s just how eye-witness stories go. []
  3. So she could have no idea of the bona fides of any other person there. For all she knew, everyone could have been in on a prank, except her and her daughter. []
  4. It’s crucial to the ‘hoax’ hypothesis. Inserting a bogus photograph onto a standalone digital camera, whilst not impossible, presents some technical difficulties. Pulling off the same stunt on a phone camera is ridiculously easy. []
  5. You will recall that, in my account of the Aradale tour which Violet Towne and myself took, I mentioned that other participants were certain they were experiencing supernatural phenomenon when there were far more likely explanations. And that tour was heavily tilted towards history, rather than the supernatural, so a more ‘ghost’ oriented tour is of course even more likely to imbue the proceedings with nervousness. []
  6. This, of course, is a highly subjective and emotional assessment. Margaret presumably knew at least something about the place she was visiting, and even if she didn’t, her reaction is unsurprising; as a rule, ghost tours are not conducted in cheery, jolly, well-lit places. It kinda doesn’t work. []
  7. So photographs are going to be always in dim light, or by camera flash. []
  8. This is not merely an assertion on my part. There is substantial science in place that demonstrates that human memory is pliable and unreliable. In addition, skilled practitioners can exploit those factors very effectively. []
  9. For the purposes of this investigation, whether or not a hoax was perpetrated by Margaret or by a third party who ‘framed’ Margaret, is incidental. []
  10. I achieved this trick with Ghost Capture, an iPhone app that is designed specifically to make ‘ghost’ photos. It comes with a library of images that you can insert as your ghost, but also enables you to use any image you like as your phantom. Right now there are numerous images in circulation on the internet that purport to be genuine ghost photographs, but which a casual search reveals to be the work of this app, or one of another dozen or so just like it. It’s pertinent to understand that a user with even a little skill could contrive to use this app on a ghost tour such as the one in question to create in a matter of seconds a reasonable ‘double exposure’ style ghostly apparition. []
  11. I checked with Hugh about the lighting – Margaret made it clear that there was no light other than the twenty or so lanterns carried by tour members. []
  12. And there’s another item we should consider. The bag was prominently identified in the story, both before the photograph was mentioned and then as a focal point in the ghost baby photo which showed, according to Margaret, “One of its hands… placed over the bag beside it”. The bag could quite conceivably be serving the purpose of magician’s misdirection prop, making you focus on something other than the thing you should be focussing on. It might, for instance, be distracting you from the fact that the photograph was taken on a different occasion, perhaps. Your eye is drawn to the bag on the bed, but not to the fact that it is a completely different bed, say. Because the bag is detailed so clearly in the story, it even makes me wonder whether the woman made a purposeful point of drawing attention to it. This kind of ploy is used in stage magic tricks all the time, in order to contrive a phantom continuity of events. []
  13. As there has been no mention of it on the tour site, one must assume that it has not so far been used with this intention. []
  14. I’m prepared to wager that if anyone attempts to pursue the photograph, it will never manifest. It will be either have been erased from the phone by the owner ‘because it was too disturbing’, or it will have mysteriously erased itself – vanished into the ether via the same supernatural mechanism by which it arrived. []

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Acowlytes! Let me introduce you to Food Babe. If you haven’t heard of her up until now, this is going to be a very special post for you. Food Babe, aka Vani Hari, is to put it quite simply, a reality-challenged, uneducated loon. Her basic schtick is to take everyday food items (anything that’s not chia or sprouts, principally) and concoct some kind of conspiracy around how they’re going to kill you.

She also gives travel tips:

The air you are breathing on an airplane is recycled from directly outside of your window. That means you are breathing everything that the airplanes gives off and is flying through. The air that is pumped in isn’t pure oxygen either, it’s mixed with nitrogen, sometimes almost at 50%. To pump a greater amount of oxygen in costs money in terms of fuel and the airlines know this! The nitrogen may affect the times and dosages of medications, make you feel bloated and cause your ankles and joints swell.

That’s right folks, airlines are trying to kill you with nitrogen. Up to 50% of it in the air they FORCE you to breathe when you fly. The fuckers!

Aside from being completely scientifically addled, that paragraph is, of course, nothing but pure unadulterated bollocks. She pulled all that information straight out of her ass – pretty much like she does with all her ‘facts’. The problem is, a HUGE number of people read this hogwash and take it as gospel.

You can read more Food Babe here, if you are a sucker for punishment. I guarantee it will make you feel more nauseous than an all-you-can-eat buffet at Outback Steakhouse.

NOTE: Not only has the main link to this article been redacted from the Food Babe site, someone is systematically moving all the cached links as well. The Google caches have been scrubbed, as has the Wayback Machine cache. In the grand tradition of historical revisionism everywhere, Food Babe is trying to make it seem like she isn’t an A-Grade idiot. Fortunately you can read the entire text of the redacted page at Skeptical Analysis.

The person who has just been appointed to the head of Australia’s once(i) world-admired science organisation, the CSIRO,(ii) believes in magic.

Yes dear Cowpokes, Dr Larry Marshall, a man whose scientific credentials barely cast little more than a dim glow from within the deep shadow of his business escapades, and whose tumbling grammatical trainwreck of a biography uses expressions like ‘leverage’ and ‘serial entrepreneur’, wants to create water dowsing machines.

Larry says he would…

…like to see the development of technology that would make it easier for farmers to dowse or divine for water on their properties.

“I’ve seen people do this with close to 80 per cent accuracy and I’ve no idea how they do it,” he said. “When I see that as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’

You know what, Larry? When you see that – as a scientist – you should actually ask yourself why no real scientists believe, for even a nano-second, that dowsing works.

You have no idea how they do it? My suggestion is that you look up the ideomotor effect and watch this video. Several times, if you don’t get it on the first run through.

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Footnotes:

  1. I say ‘once’ because, like everything else in this country lately, it seems that the idiotic buffoons who aspire to be some kind of ‘government’ here, are hell bent on making it the laughingstock of the educated world. []
  2. You know WiFi? The CSIRO invented that. Yeah, WIFI! []

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Image: Bill Brooks Creative Commons; Some Rights Reserved

Or: You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

Homeopathy is crap. Serious, unmitigated, archaic, superstitious hogwash-laden crap. There is no defensible argument for why it might have the magical qualities with which it is imbued by some. On that, Faithful Acowlytes, I think you and I are agreed. I’ve noticed in recent times, however, a growing tendency from the dozen or so remaining supporters of homeopathy, to wheel out the justification that its validity might lie in the Placebo Effect.(i) The Placebo Effect is also cited by supporters of various other dubious unscientific medical practices (yes, I’m looking at you Mr Acupuncture) as a possible legitimate modus explainii.(ii)

The problem is that the concept of the Placebo Effect has become eroded over the decades into a magical-thinking term of its own, specifically, a notion that a placebo invokes some kind of Mysterious Ability Unknown to Science for the human body to heal itself, based on a sort of ‘mind-over-matter’ mechanism that remains to this day entirely unexplained. As someone who understands what the Placebo Effect actually is, this really annoys me. And when I’m annoyed, I dust off the soapbox.

Today on TCA, we’re going to look at the exact meaning and intention of running placebo mitigated trials in medicine, and why the explanation for the Placebo Effect is most likely dull and unexciting. Prepare to have your illusions shattered.

To help illustrate things, I’m going to give you a very basic example of how a clinical trial involving placebos might work – it’s not the definitive way of conducting a placebo-based experiment, but for the sake of simplicity it covers all the issues that we need to examine.

Imagine that you have invented a new drug for the relief of nausea. All your theory says that this drug is the bees knees, but to meet the many requirements of getting a modern pharmaceutical legally to market, you must demonstrate this to the satisfaction of the various bodies that regulate this kind of thing (and, as unbelievable as a lot of people seem to find it, this is actually quite tough). What you are obliged to do is to set up a blind – or double-blind – trial (we’ve talked about blind trials before on the Cow, but click on that link it you want a refresher) which takes into consideration numerous factors that might influence your potential outcome. Understand: you do this in order to rule out as much external influence as possible that might offer alternative explanations for results of your experiment. In other words, you’re trying to demonstrate that your drug, and your drug alone, is responsible for any observed lessening of nausea for your patients.

The problem is this: in many areas of medicine, the results of interventions are not totally clear cut. Experience of nausea, for example, is partially subjective, and what you’re trying to do with your experiment is to get an objective overview of how your drug influences a patient’s assessment of nausea. It is very important, therefore, to iron out any irregularities that might be caused by, for example, a subject’s expectation of what a treatment might do.

If you have a hundred patients, and you give fifty of those patients a pill and fifty nothing at all, then half your study knows with certainty that they didn’t get the ‘anti-nausea pill’. This might influence what they report in regard to their nausea. Maybe it won’t, but you have to consider the possibility that it will, and set about ruling it out. The obvious thing to do, then, is to split your group into three parts instead of two, give one third the new drug, one third a capsule identical to the one containing the anti-nausea drug – but with no active ingredient – and one third nothing at all. If the drug has any merit, then what you would expect to see here is positive results from the drug, and then equally neutral results from both the the empty pill (the placebo) and those who got nothing at all.

Are you with me? Does this sound reasonable?

Well that’s exactly what scientists do in blind test trials with placebo controls. Only… pretty much every time this kind of experiment is run, the results inevitably look funny. If the drug is efficacious, the patients who get an active ingredient post a positive assessment of their nausea relief, as you would indeed hope. The patients who got zip (representing what is called the baseline) report a neutral assessment of change in nausea levels. The placebo arm in this kind of experiment, however, almost invariably returns a result of marginal improvement. Better than baseline, but not as good as the active drug. In other words, it seems that the patients who think they might be getting some kind of medicine appear to get an actual physiological benefit from simply popping a pill.

How utterly weird is that? Imagine the puzzlement among experimenters the first few times these kinds of results came back!

Now we get to the real problem of the misunderstanding of the Placebo Effect. Over the years, this result, which is a very real result and is seen almost without fail in a great number of clinical trials, has been taken to mean that the ‘idea’ of taking a pill (or indulging in some other kind of intervention) can have an actual physiological effect on a patient. To put it another way, it appears that if someone thinks they’re being treated, then somehow they seem to physically benefit from being under that illusion.

Only, that’s not exactly what the Placebo Effect is showing us.

In science, a placebo trial has a specific and clearly defined purpose: to account for all other variables from the experiment that can’t be explained by the agonist of the experiment itself. This would indeed include any strange psychological influence on physiology should such a thing exist,(iii) but it need not necessarily be constrained to only this. What most people fail to understand is that the Placebo Effect may also include numerous other factors. Some of these are: patient reporting bias; risk justification; confirmation bias and even just the kind of bias that might be inherent in being involved in a clinical trial in the first place. What do I mean by some of these? Well, let’s say you’re a patient in a study such as the one I suggested above. You are given a pill twice a day for the period of two weeks. You’ve given up some of your time to be on this trial (recording and reporting results and so forth) and you like the doctor who is treating you. This might very well influence what kind of modification to your results you record – only a little bit, perhaps, but ‘only a little bit’ is the scale of the typical observed Placebo Effect.(iv) Note that you might not necessarily be really feeling any difference in your nausea levels, but you are being ‘kinder’ on reporting them to the nice doctor (you would not even be aware of this – you are being given a pill and, in your mind, hey, it might be the anti-nausea drug… maybe you should be feeling a little better…) In addition to this kind of scenario, people involved in clinical trials behave differently to people in their actual usual lives. There is a tendency, for example, for them to be more aware of their day to day health and to take a little more care than usual with it. This of course can produce real physiological results that can easily colour their experience in the trial.

These things are very difficult to iron out of an experiment, and that’s EXACTLY what the Placebo Effect is all about – it is a generic container for the strange and uncatchable inconsistencies that occur when attempting to run an experiment where there are a lot of variables.

To boil all this down, it may well be that the Placebo Effect in any given clinical trial – and perhaps in all clinical trials – is down to nothing more than erroneous reporting; not any kind of physiological outcome at all, but just a noise phenomenon in the experiment that produces illusory effects simply because it is an experiment and not reality. In the actual real world, the thing we think of as the Placebo Effect may not even exist, and it’s impossible to verify such a speculation since trying to do so would necessitate the undertaking of an experiment and thus risk producing a horrible spiral of nausea-inducing recursion.

So the next time you hear someone justifying some kind of pseudoscientific ‘alternative’ remedy or other by invoking the Placebo Effect, I suggest you do the following: look them squarely in the eye and say, with a lisp… “Inconceivable!”

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Footnotes:

  1. For numerous reasons that I won’t even bother to go into here, that’s seriously clutching at straws, in any case. []
  2. Yes, I know that I just made that term up, and it bears not even the faintest resemblance to correct Latin. []
  3. And it should be noted that in the special case of pain – and a few other stress-related illnesses – it has been shown that a psychological element can come into play depending on the subject’s mental state. It is well to clearly understand, though, that it’s rare for such a psychological element to come even close to matching the level of pharmacological effects []
  4. Placebo Effects are never profound. []

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While Violet Towne was waiting at the pharmacist recently, she noticed the above item which she knew would pique my interest. This, Faithful Acowlytes, is ‘The Original AntiSnor Acupressure Ring™’ a little piece of cheap metal that probably costs a fraction of a penny for the material of which it’s made, but reels in a massive $39.95 for its purveyors.(i)

How does it work? Well, I’m glad you asked. According to the AntiSnor website, the ring is worn on the sucker’s user’s little finger ‘to apply pressure to the nerve points to activate the muscles which control upper airway patency to help reduce or prevent snoring’. And, to make it all sciencey and stuff, there’s this diagram that I’ve featured over to the left there. Yup. The red line that runs out of your little finger connects directly to your snore centres. Can’t argue with a diagram.

OK, so let’s firstly assume that acupressure/acupuncture works – which it doesn’t, but hey, just saying it did, what do the interwebs say about acupressure points that relate to snoring? I’ll tell you what they say – they say that the people behind AntiSnor just pulled the above ‘fact’ out of their asses. Aside from direct links to AntiSnor or AntiSnor publicity, there is absolutely no reason to think that there’s an acupressure point for controlling snoring anywhere near the point on your little finger at which the AntiSnor ring applies its pressure. Being very charitable, I will concede that some acupuncture charts show ‘sinus’ points on the tips of the fingers around where the sketch at left terminates its little red line. But if you can employ acupressure on a line drawn from one arbitrarily-chosen place to another on a diagram of the human body, why the fuck are there pressure points? Why don’t acupressure sessions merely consist of fat people sitting on you?

Puzzled by this conundrum, I ventured further into the wilds of the internet woo to see if I could find another diagram to help me out with the Mysteries of Acupressure. Oooh. Here’s one showing the supposed acupressure points in a hand:

Let’s have a closer look at the little finger:

Uh-huh. So if acupressure worked – which it doesn’t, but hey, just accepting for a moment the daft ‘logic’ of millennia-old Chinese hocus pocus, according to the chart the AntiSnor ring might conceivably be affecting your skin (wtf?) or your kidneys or your spleen, but I’m still not getting how it’s linked to snoring.

But I think I know what’s going on. Let me try to explain further via the use of another diagram of acupressure points on the hand.

You see what I did there? That, my friends, is science – am I right? Frighteningly, the people behind the miraculous AntiSnor™ ring can’t make sense of their product even by making shit up.

The AntiSnor website comes replete with the ubiquitous glowing testimonials, of course, but you know what I’m looking for dear Cowpokes, don’t you? That’s right, a science page. And I am full of glee to find that there is one. Well, ‘science’ in the duplicitious and disingenuous manner that we’ve come to know from people like this, anyway. Somewhat smarmily, on this site the page is called Medical Philosophy and we will see why AntiSnor have shied away from using the actual ‘S’ word in a little bit.

The more astute of you will have noticed on the AntiSnor red-line ‘explanatory’ diagram, a little logo with a microscope that says, intriguingly, ‘Clinical Trial 2012′. Violet Towne spied this same boast on the packaging, but with the rider: ‘European clinical trial. Details inside’. She was, unfortunately, unable to see these details as an obvious manufacturing error has rendered the AntiSnor boxes sealed shut with security stickers. Oh noes! Well, it has to be a mistake. It’s not like they’d want to hide such convincing evidence of efficacy from a potential customer, right? After all, if the sealing of the boxes was intentional, why, they’d have put such important information on the outside!

The ‘Medical Philosophy’ page might give us a clue to what’s inside though, because there’s some wonderful swagger right at the top, which I’ll quote here in full:

CURRENT MEDICAL RESEARCH HAS SHOWN THAT STIMULATION OF THE NERVES THAT ACTIVATE THE MUSCLES THAT SUPPORT THE AIRWAYS … MAY HELP REDUCE SNORING.

Reference: Inspire medical systems. Collaborated with Paul Van de Heyning.M.D.Professor of Otorhinolaryngology and head and neck surgery, and Wilfried De Backer, M.D. professor of Respiratory medicine of the University Hospital, Antwerp.

But wait a bit – the astonishing thing is that this claim does seem to hold a degree of truth! Indeed, Professors Van de Heyning and Doctor De Backer (and others) have a published scientific paper to the effect! Actual science! Only… it doesn’t have fuck-anything to do with acupressure, Chinese meridian lines, little fingers or metal rings. It’s about directly stimulating the nerves in the throat with electricity to cause muscle contractions.

AntiSnor is saying, without even flinching – proudly, even – that ‘Our product is effective because some scientists have shown that a procedure completely unrelated to anything we’re selling – except that it concerns snoring – might possibly(ii) work’.

This, it appears, is the extent of the AntiSnor™ Clinical Trial evidence.(iii) Oh, sorry, I forgot – there’s a picture of a microscope too.

The rest of the ‘Medical Philosophy’ page goes on with a whole lot of waffle that attempts to tie the nerves of the little finger into the picture but makes about as much sense Melissa Rogers explaining quantum mechanics. There are, of course, lots of CAPITAL LETTERS, because, you know, IMPRESSIVE. I was concerned for a moment that they might not get to tell us that the ring is hypo-allergenic. But I need not have worried.(iv)

The sneaky tricksy nature of this site intrigued me somewhat, though, so I wondered what else I could find out about AntiSnor and why they were being so cagey with their language. Well, it didn’t take more than a second to find out that they ‘have form’, as the constabulary puts it. In 2010, Australia’s Competition & Consumer Commission (the ACCC) well and truly bitch-slapped the maker of AntiSnor, ATQOL Pty Ltd, for misleading consumers on the efficacy of their product. In short, ATQOL was compelled to remove claims that their deceitful little gadget ‘had a ‘proven history of successful drug free treatment of snoring’ and was ‘Tested and recommended by a Physician’. As a result of the ruling ATQOL provided the ACCC with court-enforceable undertakings that it would:

• not make absolute representations that the Anti-Snor Ring will stop snoring or relieve sinus problems, restless sleep or insomnia

• not represent that the ring has a ‘proven history of successful drug free treatment of snoring’ unless it has caused clinical trials to be undertaken to prove such a history

• not make any representation that the ring has been tested, approved or recommended by a health professional unless that health professional has undertaken testing in accordance with accepted standards for the design, conduct, records and reporting of clinical trials

• amend the ATQOL website and any current and/or future advertisements or publications to remove the incorrect representations
ensure that all future representations made in the promotion and/or sale of the ring comply with the Act, and

• implement a trade practices law compliance program.

So what do we think, my Crusading Cowmrades? Has ATQOL lived up to their end of the bargain? Are they giving consumers a fair appraisal of the efficacy of their shiny little trinket, or is it time for the ACCC to pay them another little visit…?

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Footnotes:

  1. Or more if you don’t buy it directly from the AntiSnor website. The pharmacist was whacking on a hefty $10 margin. []
  2. The authors of the paper quite clearly state even in the abstract that ‘Further research is needed to evaluate this… as a strategy’ []
  3. I will accept here that there may be different ‘evidence’ hidden away inside that sealed package, that is, through some massive oversight, nowhere mentioned on the AntiSnor website. But I sense that you are already feeling the magnitude of my disbelief. I’m certainly not forking out fifty bucks to prove myself right. []
  4. And I bet it’s hypo-allergenic as in ‘cheap stainless steel’, rather than as in ‘expensive gold’. []

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fortune

One area of hokum into which I’ve not ventured much here on the Cow(i) is the murky depths of the profession known as ‘psychic mediumship’ – or, by those at Cow Central as ‘despicable emotional opportunism’. This morning I saw on my friend Dr Rachie‘s Facebook page an ad for a purveyor of this nonsense, one Lisa Williams,(ii), who is, it would seem, currently plying her wares on my turf. I thought it might be time to turn the eye of the Cow onto things clairvoyant.

According to her advertising, Lisa Williams is apparently ‘TV’s top medium and psychic’, but as I rarely watch tv I can’t speak to that claim. All I can say is that I’ve never heard of her, so she’s obviously not as famous as people like John Edward or Sylvia Brown. A Search™ for ‘tv’s top medium and psychic’ also tends to throw a little doubt on the assertion since people like Michelle Whitedove, June Field, Carla Baron, Colin Fry and Sally Morgan – along with numerous others – purport to hold similarly lofty distinctions. In fact, the search returned so many names that the full scope of this industry put me on the back foot slightly. Psychic mediums are astonishingly big business it would seem.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that – it just confounds me that, here at the cusp of the 21st Century, people are still being sucked in by the same sort of flimsy trickery that has been around for millennia.

Lisa Williams’ website is a veritable library-full of addled waffling and nutty feel-good advice. I will allow here that there is a vanishingly small chance that Ms Williams actually believes all the stuff she says, but it should be clearly understood that the ‘gift’ she so often talks about in her writing makes her a packet of money. And while I say there is a chance, I’m being very generous. Quite frankly, I think that Lisa Williams, like so many of these so-called spirit mediums, is a fraud.

Ms Williams features on her site a page called ‘Messages From Beyond’ – or, more accurately, ‘Messages from Beyond®’, for it seems that she has successfully registered this fairly common phrase as a legitimate service mark. How this kind of thing gets through the US Trademark office completely boggles my mind. Pretty soon you won’t be able to write an English language sentence without paying royalties.

There are a couple of videos on the this page and these are what make me think that Lisa Williams is less a dizzy self-deluded fruitcake than a cynical opportunist. Watch this one and we’ll talk about it:

Oh boy. Well, the very first thing that happens revealing: “Fantastic, I think this is it,” she says outside a hotel door. As if she’s ‘psychically’ arrived here. This is a small thing, but it sets up the tone of what’s to come. Lisa Williams is already hiding facts (things she previously knows) under the guise of flakey absent-mindedness. It’s so ingrained that it’s a habit.

What follows inside the room is a classic – albeit heavily edited – cold reading (although, for all we know it could have been a ‘hot’ reading – we have no idea what Lisa Williams knew about these people before she arrived. She could have had someone assemble a complete dossier on them).(iii) This is nothing more than a performance. Personally, I find it so offensively manipulative and cynical that I was almost inclined not to embed it. Taking advantage in this way of bereaved and emotionally fragile people like Joanna, the young woman in the video, is, in my opinion, despicable. Putting the video on your website in order to attract more business is the lowest form of exploitation I can think of.

As I said, this clip is quite obviously edited, and we simply can’t tell what was removed. We can be totally sure that we’re only seeing the things that we’re meant to see – no bad guesses, no flubs, no ‘fishing’ for hits. Even so, there are some telling moments:

“I see a wedding picture on the wall”, says Lisa, a punt which Joanna immediately contradicts. She had a wedding picture, but she took it down. Lisa Williams makes this seem like a hit, but it just plain isn’t. It’s a complete no brainer to guess that a person who has been relatively newly married will have a wedding picture on their wall somewhere, but in this case it’s actually a miss so Ms Williams swings around for “Oh, he [the husband] ‘interfered’ with it”. Whoa. That could mean just about anything – and sure enough, Joanna looks for an explanation. Cold Reading Basics #1: be general and allow the mark to fill in information for you. I’m sure this is what fills up most of the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor, but for some reason, this one survives – probably because it’s rectified so favourably.

If you think I’m being unfair here, take a look at the second video on that page.

This one features some stuff from a live show, and the major observation I can make is that if this is a portmanteau of Lisa Williams’ best stuff then her usual show must be appallingly transparent. Watch her fish for a rube with this one:

“I see a little girl on a scooter… riding up and down… with a cat in a basket. She’s got one sock rolled up and one rolled down and she’s waving at you…”

All the time she’s scanning the audience… but no-one’s biting.

“She’s showing me that she’s, like, your grandmother, or your mother, or…

OK, she’s now expanded the possibilities from ‘little girl’ to include ‘mother’ and ‘grandmother’ and ‘or’. Remember here that a large number of people that make up Lisa Williams’ audiences have come to hear their dearly departed make contact, so in this case we’ve cast the net so wide that really the only females not specifically included in that kind of description are young women who haven’t had children – the least likely part of the female population to have recently died, and, of course, they were little girls once, so that’s covered too. And there’s the hugely all-encompassing ‘or…’. That little girl could be ANY female. I’m sure that with some deft footwork Lisa Williams could get transgender folks in there too.

…it’s like a red scooter… And I want to say there’s a connection to the name Mary. And her feet blew up.”(iv)

Nothing.

“Come on, help me out here,” pleads Lisa Williams to an audience frantically trying to find relevance in their own lives to her vague fishing. The happy little girl on the red scooter means bugger-all to them.

When she does get a response, you get the distinct feeling that it’s more out of sympathy than for even a small shade of accuracy. It’s a young woman who obligingly feeds our ‘clairvoyant’ more information to be recycled as ‘psychic’ insight. Once Lisa Williams cottons onto the fact that the mark is Eastern European (the woman has a pronounced accent) all manner of opportunity presents itself. It appears that the ‘departed’ in question is the woman’s grandmother. Ms Williams runs with it using lots of hand gestures to help make generalised visual impressions. The grandmother wears ‘some kinds of rags and mismatched clothing’ which apparently explains the socks from the first fishing expedition. There’s ‘something about vinegar’. Oh please – there’s probably also ‘something about’ potatoes and pickled fish. This stuff is banal and offensive. Somewhere along the line the little girl riding a scooter with a cat in the basket goes by the way. Somewhere along the line the name ‘Mary’ is completely forgotten. In fact, that picturesque image first conjured up by Lisa Williams – a feisty little girl called Mary with odd socks and a happy wave, riding on a red scooter, has been deftly supplanted by a manky European babushka with bad teeth and appalling table manners. It’s truly audacious swindling.

I won’t go on. Watching the two videos above is so distasteful to me, that I almost abandoned this post several times. I find it terribly hard going to see people being hoodwinked so blatantly and so callously – and, more troublingly, so easily and transparently.

The main content on the Lisa Williams’ Messages from Beyond® page features another riff on the Law of Large Numbers. It is in fact a psychic win/win scenario. Here, Ms Williams features from time-to-time a ‘message from the other side’ that has come to her while on the toilet or picking her nose. It’s a great con. She can put any old shit here – being 100% wrong has no negative consequences whatsoever. All the lame waffling will go unnoticed for the most part, but should anything happen to ring true with someone who reads her website – Bingo! She’s a psychic! And you can bet that Ms Williams will make sure everyone knows about it.

It’s truly shameful.

And, if nothing else, the awful faux Comic Sans-style font in which all these revelations are proffered is embarrassingly childish. As is the appalling spelling. For the record, Ms Williams, ‘purserver’ is actually spelled ‘persevere’, it’s ‘feisty’ not ‘fistey’ and ‘hypercondriac’ is usually penned as ‘hypochondriac’. But I suppose it’s really the ‘spirits’ who can’t spell, right?

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Fortune teller image from Vintage Blog.

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Footnotes:

  1. Well, excluding our interludes with Sister Veronica, that is. But I’m fairly sure you understand that as just silliness. []
  2. Dr Rachie wasn’t advertising it, you understand – she was holding it up to scrutiny. []
  3. Just to clarify, in case people don’t know these two terms: a ‘cold’ reading is where the supposed psychic fishes for evidence from the victim using vague catch-all language, and builds on any hits by emphasising the stuff that fits and de-emphasising or ignoring stuff that doesn’t. A cold reading also involves scrutinizing the mark’s body language and other physical signs such as accents, type of clothing being worn and so forth. A hot reading, on the other hand, is built on knowledge that the psychic has already gathered in some manner, and which is known to be true. This kind of information is often accumulated by accomplices who mingle with the audience before the show begins, pretending to be punters themselves and asking questions like ‘Ooh, have you lost someone too dear? I lost my old Uncle Gilbert – who did you lose? Was it long ago?’ etc. It’s a technique that is widely used by stage psychics and faith healers such as Peter Popoff. It can be astonishingly effective if you’re not aware of it. []
  4. This kind of language – ‘her feet blew up’ – is enormously useful in cold readings. This could mean the ‘departed’s’ feet could be swollen. It could also mean an accident, like a land mine. The first one is very general – I defy you to find a grandmother who hasn’t had, at some stage, swollen feet – but the second meaning might pay off on the very odd occasion, making it seem like a totally astonishing hit. If you are clever and do this kind of thing often enough, eventually you’ll get a very powerful payoff. []

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