Where Grey Matter meets Dark Matter

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Episode 20 - 14 November 2009
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You walk through the sideshow, feeling a little sick from all the fairy floss and the rides you've been subjecting yourself to for the last half hour. You're too wired to go home but too tired for any more high-adrenalin entertainments. Then, out of the corner of your eye you spot a sign in black and purple, with shiny gold lettering, proclaiming "Madame Rosa, Psychic Extraordinaire". On closer examination you see that she claims to be able to tell you things about yourself that even you don't know. The price is right and the door's right there. Why not? Maybe you'll learn something.

The room is dark, and full of incense. There are celtic symbols on drapings which cover the walls, underneath a low ceiling with a red-shaded light bulb in the centre. There is a small table with two chairs, arrayed with an assortment of candles, beads and charms. You see a crystal ball sitting on a shelf, which accompanies small statues of dragons and ancient-looking books. You notice a poster about palmistry on the wall. You begin to feel claustrophobic, but at that moment the hitherto unnoticed beaded curtain on the opposite side of the room part and in flows a woman draped with as much velvet, black lace and silver jingly jewellery as you have ever seen in one place. Her presence overwhelms the room, and she ushers you into a chair. You begin to speak, but she shushes you.. "The spirits are speaking to me... telling me... you are looking for answers... "

"Yeah," you reply. Who isn't?

Over the next half hour she gives you a full reading. Tarot, palms, the crystal ball. You are dubious at first, but at some point the mood changes. You begin thinking about your life's meaning, your goals and ambitions. You begin to look for advice, and she gives it readily. She seems to be able to tell you what you're thinking. You come out at the end of it convinced that she was being guided by a higher force.


Lynne Kelly with the accoutrement of her trade.

Lynne Kelly is a tauromancer and self-professed skeptic. She is also an author of many books, including The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal , which explores the scientific explanations of many paranormal notions like spontaneous human combustion and the prophecies of Nostradamus; and Avenging Janie, a novel about the possible harmful results of fraudulent claims. She uses techniques of cold reading and a made-up system, akin to tarot, to deduce enough facts about a person to be convincing as a psychic.

Nadine was brave enough to subject her skepticism to an experience that has left a number of people convinced of Lynne's psychic powers. Lynne was kind enough to allow us to record the entire reading, and explain to us afterwards how she deduced the facts she did during the reading. (Note: the reading can be found in the extras, and the interview is on the main show.)

A successful cold reading relies on a few basic rules. The first, and most important, is that people are not all that dissimilar. A lot of things which can seem very personal to the sitter are actually quite common. Health issues, love issues, self-doubt, and stress from work are all things that most of us experience at some point. It's just that in usual circumstances someone you've just met wouldn't be bringing it up.

The second rule is that the sitter does all the work. The sitter will say things without thinking, and won't remember that they have. The reader will collect this information, and repeat it later as if it's being said for the first time. Done with enough confidence, it can be very convincing.

Another rule is to move quickly. The reader will throw out a bunch of educated guesses, and the ones that don't get a response are quickly abandoned. Through being exposed to a deluge of information, the sitter may not even remember the missed guesses by the end of it.

There are plenty of other techniques, but we don't want to spoil the interview.

So, do psychics have real powers? Well, maybe. But it's important to remember how easy it is to be fooled, especially when it's something you want to be true. So the only way to really find out is in careful experiments that control for people's biases. And until such tests prove positive, there seem to be explanations available for a lot of what they do, which don't require a new understanding of reality.


Refs:

  • Lynne Kelly's personal website, with descriptions of her books, her education and interests, and the system of Tauromancy itself. Warning: If you don't like spiders, you may want to get someone else to open the website and scroll down a bit.
  • Lynne's book about the paranormal deals with this topic extensively. The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal, Allen and Unwin, 2004.
  • There are plenty of videos online which show mentalists doing similar things. Mentalists are magicians though, and generally not inclined to reveal their tricks, so watch carefully. Start here.
  • Hey! Free online psychic readings!


BETA:

For this week's BETA segment, we thought we'd go digging to find some dirt on ants. The first thing we noticed was their optimistic social structure – whereby every ant never fails to put the needs of the colony before their own, often at kamikaze cost to the individual. But, like Woody Allen's character “Z” in the movie “Antz”, this sense of altruism might make a lonely (and somewhat neurotic) ant feel a little…forlorn:

Z: I'm supposed to do everything for the colony? What about my needs?

We go fossicking through the fossils to unveil when ants evolved, and began their climb to supremacy of the animal world, where they comprise ~20% of the world's animal biomass – we're essentially living on a big itchy, bitey ball in space. Each colony can comprise millions or billions of individual ants – yet another cause for despondency:

Z: The whole system makes me feel... insignificant.
Psychologist:
Excellent. You've made a real breakthrough.
Z:
I have?
Psychologist:
Yes, Z. You ARE insignificant.


19% of the world's animal biomass - the dreaded car-cutter ants.

But how does this ‘eusocial' society come about, whereby the majority of ants in a colony are sterile. Why don't most ants just sit around like so many non-reproductive weenies in their mum's basements playing World of Warcraft, each contributing zilch to society? No offense. This problem faced Darwin in his day (not in these exact words), and posed a potentially lethal threat to his theory of Natural Selection (paraphrased): “…unless we can explain how altruistic traits can be selected for and propagated, if those who show it don't reproduce, we can throw away the theory of Natural Selection.”

As it turns out, it is the sterility factor that drives the social structure. Because all the thousands upon thousands of members of a colony (generally) come from one very busy mother (the queen), all members of the colony are siblings or immediate family (and you thought trying to remember all the people at YOUR family reunion was bad enough). Being so closely related to each other, we can see that each member has almost the exact genetic combination as the next. If we take a ‘gene's eye view', by helping each other out (especially the reproductive members), each ant is ensuring the survival of their own genes, even though these genes just happen to be in other ants' bodies! Being sterile ensures that the individual ants aren't overwhelmed by the selfish desire to reproduce themselves, but wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to the survival of the colony instead.

This idea of pitching in for the greater cause has led to the concept of the superorganism, whereby ants can be likened to the workings of our organs and cells within our larger bodies. In fact, multi-cellular life can be considered a colonial enterprise, a communist division of labour with a common goal – survival.

But would the ant way of life ever work for humans?


Big City Comics' own sassy version of an ant super-organism.


Refs:


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