Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Danny Penman of the Daily Mail is a credulous idiot

Or a sensationalist liar.  Penman has a PhD in biochemistry and claims to be a skeptic.  For a skeptic, he believes a lot of strange things for no good reason and does his level best to convince other people to believe them too.

Here’s a list of some of the things he seems to believe in:

  • ‘Psychic’ Sally Morgan is really psychic
  • His broken leg healed in half the time it would have because he meditated
  • People might be able to kill goats by staring at them
  • Poltergeists might exist (in South Shields of all places)
  • We might be able to transplant human souls and heart transplants might also transplant memories and character to the new owner
  • Hypnotism alone can block pain
  • Faith healing works

It’s not that he explicitly says these things are true.  He uses a standard daily mail trick of saying “the overwhelming majority of evidence is against this, BUT…..” and then adding some reference to a deeply emotional anecdote.  The reader is supposed to focus more on the but than on the fact that evidence doesn’t support it.  It’s an effective trick and the reason I think Penman might be a liar rather than an idiot, selling people things they want to read rather than what’s, you know, actually true.

His article on Psychic Sally is topical because there are reports that last night she was caught cheating:

Sue went to see psychic Sally Morgan last night in the Grand Canal Theatre. She was great in the first half but during the second half Sue began to hear somebody talking loudly at the back of where she was sitting. She thought it was somebody heckling but she soon realised that everything he said Sally was repeating on stage. He would say a name like David and she would repeat it onstage. Other callers who were also at the show tell of similar experiences.

We’ve seen this shtick before.

It’s funny.  In just about every article I’ve read about Sally, she’s offered to do a reading for the interviewer, even if they seem skeptical.  However, her number one complaint seems to be about people who ask her to give readings at dinner parties.  They just want to trip her up. She has described a charming story in which a man at a party asked her to tell him something about himself, so to shut him up, she told him and his friends that he suffered from rectal bleeding and had recently been digitally examined by a doctor.  And yet…. she always offers to do readings for journalists she has appointments with.  Could this possibly be anything to do with Google?

Penman writes:

I was trained to be a cynical hard-nosed scientist. My PhD in biochemistry taught me that logic, rationality and devotion to the truth are the most important qualities for any scientist. When I became a journalist, I kept these values close to my heart.

*Snortle*.

Recently my ‘rational' view of the world was shattered [by Morgan].

Sally offered (as usual) to do a reading.  She began by delivering a bombshell:

"You're going to Greece," she said.

A few days earlier I'd decided to go on holiday to Crete. It was the beginning of a long list of insights that left me physically shaking and chilled to the core.

Really, insight?  Lots of people go to Crete, so it was a good bet.  Perhaps Greek holidays were especially cheap that year.  If Penman hadn’t had plans to go there, she could have insisted that it was to be at some time in the far future.  To the credulous, that would count as a hit.  If he was going to somewhere close to Greece, that would count as a hit too. If he’d recently been to Greece or even if he remembered it fondly from his youth, that would have counted as a hit too.  What seems like an impressive coincidence at first becomes a lot less so when you consider that it was practically impossible for her to ‘miss’.

When I showed her a picture of my girlfriend, Sally said that she would soon be moving to either Oxford, Cambridge or, most likely, Bristol. The previous month my girlfriend had accepted a job as a lecturer at a college in Bristol. Sally could not have known this.

Couldn’t she?  It’s surprising what you can find out with Google.  Did she have a blog?  Facebook or Twitter account?  If not, has Penman ever mentioned her in an article?  When I Googled Penman, the first link was to his agent, with convenient contact details.  Sally is in showbiz too: does she know the agent?  Could she have called and asked questions about him?  Perhaps he mentioned the new job to his agent in passing?  Could she have found out from the agency website what other clients that agent has and reasoned that some of those people might know Penman?  Perhaps she knows some of them personally, could she have talked to them?

This is all pure speculation, of course and I’m not claiming this is how she did it.  It might have been a pure guess, for example.  Besides, all she really needed to do was find out that she was an academic and then mention three good universities. First, this makes the prediction seem more impressive: she didn’t mention academia specifically.  That would have been suspiciously accurate.  But by mentioning Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol, she established that connection in Penman’s mind.  This could be just a mysterious way of revealing something she already knew.  And second, once again, if Penman’s girlfriend hadn’t been moving to Bristol, it would still be counted as a hit because – as an academic – it might well be something she intended or aspired to do in the far future.

So I’m not impressed so far.

One of the most stunning revelations concerned a long-running argument between my parents - a dispute Sally cannot have known anything about. When my parents married in the early 1950s, my mother wanted to keep her maiden name. My father was equally determined that she should accept his surname. Sally could not have known anything about this argument. And yet she knew about the dispute in detail. It was obviously not on any official records and I doubt if anyone outside the family knew anything about it.

Interestingly, unlike the previous examples, Penman doesn’t quote her verbatim on this issue, with the result that we don’t know what ‘detail’ she actually uncovered.  We don’t know whether, for example, she led him to reveal the information himself, which is a popular tactic of psychics.  Afterwards, it would seem as though she herself had supplied the information.  I would like to see a transcript of their conversation before being impressed.

Sally had only three working days to gather information about me from such official sources as births, deaths and marriage certificates. Even a skilled detective would have problems building up a comprehensive picture about my family in the time available. However, even if Sally had unlimited time and money, much of the information she gave me was simply unavailable.

Would a private detective have such difficulties?  I don’t really know, but I doubt it.  I don’t think Penman knows either. 

We can always look at the previously-mentioned article by Robert Chalmers for some indication of the actual – as opposed to Penman’s imagined – difficulty of this sort of thing:

The following morning, I get a call from Richard Wiseman. With no assistance from a spirit guide, he has discovered the first names of my mother and brother. He put my name into a search engine, which led him to my publisher's website, where he found my place of birth. Then he consulted a site called genesunited.com. "I put in Manchester, and your name," he says, "which produced a list of records. From those I found your mother's maiden name, which led me to your brother. The whole thing took me a little under 90 minutes." Continuing the process myself, via the online registry of births, Friends Reunited and a school website, I find my brother's middle name online: this was a fairly laborious process of trial and error, which took the best part of an hour.

These are people who – unlike private detectives or Psychic Sally – don’t do this for a living.

Penman is just engaging in wishful thinking to justify his credulity.  As for the ‘unavailable’ information, see above.  Maybe, maybe not.  There are unofficial sources in plenty, after all, and there’s the distinct possibility that she was leading him to reveal information and making it seem like she came up with it herself.  That’s what psychics do after all.

I quickly ruled out the possibility that Sally was lucky and simply guessed the details of my unusual and chaotic family. Her reading was just too detailed and accurate for that.

This would make a lot more sense if we knew what detail should be considered too much for coincidence.  But this brings up another trick magicians often use: they use different methods to pull off the same trick.  For example, suppose they produce something from thin air.  You know they’ve palmed it or it’s come out of their sleeve or something.  So they produce more objects, this time showing that they couldn’t have done it that way.  They might even make this part of the act: they might say that you probably think I pulled it from my sleeve and roll their sleeve up the second time.  Then they might say you probably think I palmed it and do the trick in some other way that means they couldn’t have palmed it.  They’ve done the trick in several different ways but we have a tendency to assume there was only one trick.  Perhaps in the last case, the magician really did pull it from his sleeve, but by that time he’s already demonstrated that the trick can be done without doing that.  Since we assume he is using the same method each time, it looks more mysterious.  I expect Sally did the same thing.  Some Googling, some cold-reading, some guesswork…

I was then left with two possibilities, both of which were equally ‘irrational'. Firstly, Sally had interrogated me under hypnosis, extracted deeply buried stories from my past and then fed them back to me. The second possibility was that my dead relatives really had come back to talk to me and proffer advice for the future.

You should always be suspicious when you find yourself with only two alternatives, especially if they are both insane.  If you genuinely can’t think of more alternatives, you’ve probably been fooled.  You’re probably trying to explain the wrong thing.

I decided to secretly test Sally by sending along three customers. Two were equipped with surveillance gear to see if Sally was hypnotising her customers.

After my exhaustive investigation, I can confidently say that Sally was not hypnotising or manipulating her customers in any way.

First, he can only at best be confident that she didn’t manipulate those customers and second, I think he’s already demonstrated that he is not competent to judge whether people are being manipulated.  I suspect he doesn’t know about the tools of cold-reading so doesn’t know what to look for.  Third, the investigation doesn’t sound very exhaustive to me.  Why didn’t he get in touch with James Randi?  Or Richard Wiseman?  Or any number of other high profile ‘debunkers’ of psychics?  Robert Chalmers did when he interviewed Sally.  And why did only two of the three have surveillance devices?  What kind of scientific test is this?

Here are the views of the people we sent along to test Sally:

The views?  What have their views to do with it?  What kind of way is this to conduct a test?  Why didn’t he publish recording or transcripts of the readings?  Why didn’t he send along a magician or an expert in the psychology of cold reading?

Penman sums up:

With varying degrees of accuracy, in all three cases Sally had provided at least some amazing insights that defied rational explanation. But was her ‘gift' paranormal? After my encounters with her, I have come to believe that the idea is not as far-fetched as many claim and that there are possible explanations from within the world science.

This should be good.  He continues:

Strange as it may seem, in scientific principle at least, time can theoretically flow forwards and backwards. If this were to happen in practice, Sally might be able to ‘recall' events that have yet to take place in our own ‘real' time (fans of Back to the Future will find this easier to comprehend).

This is pure babble.  Penman is referring to the fact that the laws of physics do not require that time run in any particular direction.  This is a long way from saying that time sometimes moves backwards somehow.  Besides, the idea isn’t even internally coherent.  Where, exactly, is time running backwards?  In Sally’s brain?  Then why isn’t her brain running backwards?  There’s no way I can frame this theory of psychic phenomena in a way that makes the slightest sense.  And there’s certainly no evidence for it (evidence of what?) It’s just an out-and-out stupid thing to say.

The other possibility, of course, is that we really do live on after our physical bodies die. The universe is composed of energy that ceaselessly fluctuates in space. Given that our minds may reside in energy fields generated by our brains, isn't it at least possible that our consciousness somehow becomes imprinted on the fabric of the universe where those with special skills can detect it?

Penman is pulling a Chopra here. He’s sprinkling the word ‘energy’ around like salad dressing in the mistaken belief that it explains anything.  What he suggests is ‘conceivable’ only in the sense that we could imagine such a thing.  But then we’d have to ask what substrate it is that our minds get imprinted on and how the software runs when our brains aren’t involved.  Why do they get imprinted?  Lots of other things generate ‘energy fields’ too.  Are they also imprinted on the ‘fabric of the universe’?  It’s just another incoherent idea with no hypothesis of how it might work and most importantly no evidence for it at all

And yet Penman has the gall to suggest that his deranged speculations have something to do with science.  He’s got a science PhD, for goodness’ sake, he should have a reasonably keen understanding of what constitutes science.

Above all, the fact that we cannot understand how psychics such as Sally operate does not mean that they are not genuine.

Wait, what?  Of course it doesn’t. Why would it and why would anyone claim it did?  But more importantly, Danny, less of the “we”.  I think I have an excellent grasp of how ‘Psychic’ Sally operates and so do many others.  You can read all about it here on our very own web.  You could have too, if you’d troubled yourself.  Don’t assume that everyone else shares your expansive ignorance. 

There’s a very simple way to find out whether Sally is really psychic.  You test her properly.  I’m certain that the JREF would be delighted to do it and if she’s on the level, Sally could earn a million dollars for a few hours work.  She certainly qualifies to apply for the JREF Prize

Let me assure you, Danny, that their tests will be a lot more competently designed than yours, so perhaps you’d rather keep your fingers in your ears.

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