On the Odds of a Nobel Laureate Making a Fool of Himself

If you’re talking about the King of Woowoo Brian Josephson, the odds are millions to one.

The Nobel Laureate in physics, who never met a psychic flimflammer he did not embrace, hasn’t been right about much since conducting the graduate student work in 1963 that earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in 1973.

Prof. Josephson (for whom the solid-state device called a Josephson junction is named) is the biggest critic of the work my colleagues and I did in 2004 to test the remarkably unsubstantiated claims of Natasha Demkina — once widely hailed by the British and Russian tabloid press as the”Girl With X-ray Eyes.”

As we reported in the journal Skeptical Inquirer* Ray Hyman, Richard Wiseman, and I failed to find any extrasensory eyes when we examined the Russian teenager — who was earning a nice living from people willing to pay her to “look” inside their bodies and tell them what their doctors are missing.  So we agreed to conduct a preliminary test of  Demkina’s guessing powers for the Discovery Channel documentary,  “The Girl with the X-ray Eyes.”

Regretfully, Prof. Josephson took umbrage to our research, denouncing us as “propagandists,” attacking our motives, and dismissing our experiment as “some kind of plot to discredit the teenage claimed psychic.”**  Naturally we were hurt.

Even worst than that, Prof. Josephson put his professional credibility as a Nobel-decorated physicist on the line denouncing our experiment’s statistical requirements, claiming we set the bar unconscionably high so as to force Demkina to fail — even though we clearly set the statistical bar far below the level Demkina claims to meet on a daily basis when reading her “patients.” She says her readings have never been wrong.

We had made it clear to Demkina and to the Discovery Channel producer that our experiment could only be a preliminary test to see if her claims warranted more carefully-controlled study.  We set a requirement of at least 5 correct matches for her and she only achieved 4, which Demkina, her mother, her agent, and the producer all agreed to as a failing score — at least before the test.

Sadly for us, we never got Brian Josephson’s agreement, figuring that as a physicist, he well knows why a scientific search for hard to observe phenomena requires much lower P values than clinical trials to see if an aspirin can cure a headache.  Indeed, physicists like Josephson rarely if ever report findings with experimental P values anywhere near the high 2 percent we set as the bar for Demkina to clear.

To put it into a layman’s terms that Prof. Josephson should understand, Demkina had about a 1-in-50 chance of passing our test by blind chance alone. But she was not guessing blindly.  She was allowed to study the 7 subjects for more than 4 hours, with her friend and her agent able to observe everything the subjects said and did during long breaks and pauses. Her chance of passing this preliminary, unblinded test was therefore far higher than 1 in 50 due to natural perception — with or without the help of her claimed supernatural perception.

The reason we couldn’t do a simple blinded test is that she refused. She explained that while she has absolutely no problem seeing through cloth clothing worn by patients, hanging any kind of cloth in front of her to block her view of the subjects would weaken her paranormal powers. I have no doubt of that.  Common ordinary vision is an essential component of fortune-teller’s power to “cold-read.”  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_reading

I can understand why someone who devoted nearly all of his life to proving the powers of palm readers, spoon benders, and Ouija boards would argue for tests that allow more than 1 in 50 charlatans and quacks to claim “scientific certification” of their powers. I just can’t condone it. Or stop ridiculing it. I expect a Nobel laureate to know better.

Which is why I’m wondering what the distinguished physicist is saying about the even more reprehensible “plot” of two groups of scientists, who had performed separate experiments at CERN, announced July 4th the detection of a new fundamental particle with all the properties predicted for the long-sort Higgs Boson.  The possibility of their observations being due to some other cause was less than 1 in 3.5 million, the researchers reported. Although scientists around the world were giddy with delight over their announcement, many say more evidence will be needed to firmly establish the existence of this highly elusive particle.

One in 3.5 million translates as a P value of approximately 0.0000029.

Compared to the whoppingly larger P value of 0.02 we used to look for the existence of something even more elusive — the psychic powers of yet another young trickster — I can almost picture Prof. Josepson in his Cambridge Tower of Woowoo, called the “Mind-Matter Unification Project,” sputtering over those scientific “scammers” who used so miniscule a P value instead of the 0.05 he says is the required norm.

I asked Prof. Josepson if he would like to comment on this commentary. He declined.

*Skolnick AA, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2005, “Testing Natasha: The Girl with Normal Eyes”
http://www.csicop.org/si/show/natasha_demkina_the_girl_with_normal_eyes/
Hyman R, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2005, “Testing Natasha”
http://www.csicop.org/si/show/testing_natasha
Hyman R, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2005, “Statistics and the Test of Natasha
http://www.csicop.org/specialarticle/show/statistics_and_the_test_of_natasha/

**Josephson, Brian. “Scientists’ unethical use of media for propaganda purposes.”  http://www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~bdj10/propaganda/

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One thought on “On the Odds of a Nobel Laureate Making a Fool of Himself

  1. Stop the presses: the CERN researchers announced Thursday that further analyses of the data from their separate experiments show the probability their findings are due to noise are greatly lower than they reported on July 4:
    http://public.web.cern.ch/public/

    Reanalysis by additional reviewers now push the probability of a spurious result to less than 1 in 550 million! They should have saved their time. Prof. Brian Josephson would have accepted 1 in 20.

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