Photography(proof) for the blind(skeptics)
March 26, 2007 11:30 PM   Subscribe

On the other side, how do you teach calculus to an aardvark?

Now, I'm not one who really believes in psychic powers. I've yet to have any proof, and the people I've met who really do believe come across as really flaky (interestingly enough, the same sort of flaky impression I get from fundmentalist religious people). However, my mind is open to the possibility that there is more to the brain than science is currently willing to concede.

The comments on that post are most interesting, and give some intelligent feedback on the flaws in the idea.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:54 PM on March 26, 2007

He stole that idea from the film "Proof".

Here's proof.
posted by strawberryviagra at 12:15 AM on March 27, 2007

I was just gonna talk about Proof. Very good movie. Mmmm... young Russell...
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:55 AM on March 27, 2007

Proof was a good movie, but it doesn't bear much if at all on the way the linked "experiments" work. The movie is about trust; the blog is about empirical evidence. If I had to bet, I'd bet the writer hasn't even heard of the movie, because it's pretty far out of the way in terms of popularity.
posted by cgc373 at 1:55 AM on March 27, 2007

At first I read "How *dare* you prove photography to a blind man?", which is an entirely different discussion.

The sad thing about using logic to argue with people that believe in this stuff is, they just don't have the hardware to follow it, or they would have figured it out for themselves by now.
posted by rubin at 6:19 AM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

If he gets the right number, and continues to do so every time this experiment is performed, the blind man will eventually conclude that photography is real.

Or that the sighted man is psychic.
posted by carmen at 6:31 AM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is a pretty stupid blind man to believe that the sighted people have actually left the room, and that's somehow evidence of this "photography" thing.
posted by Caviar at 7:19 AM on March 27, 2007

Or the blind man could conclude he is part of a huge "selective perception experiment", which maybe could also be called a "small scale anthropomorphic principle experiment".

I unfortunately don't know where I can link to as an example, so I'll just tell a little story.

You're an avid sportsman, and watch each league game each weekend. One day, Friday, you get an envelope in the mail. In the envelope there's a note predicting which of the two teams will win on the weekend. It predicts correctly.

For ten weeks you get ten envelopes, always on Friday. All ten times the envelopes predicted the winning team correctly.

Then, you get an envelope saying that if you pay $20,000 they will tell you which teams they predict will win the next ten games.

Do you pay?


No, this can achieved by sending envelopes to 210 people in the first iteration. Halve of the people are told team A will win, the other halve team B. In the next iteration you only send envelopes to the remaining 29 people that previously got the correct predictions. After doing this ten times, a total of 211-1 envelopes were sent and there is only one recipient left. He received ten correct predictions.
That person will be you. (BTW If you pay the scheme is economically feasible.)

The predictions only work because 210-1 people were weeded out...
posted by umop-apisdn at 7:32 AM on March 27, 2007

I realize that it must feel awfully ennobling to write a blog post that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt(!!!) that People Who Believe In Pyschics Are Dumb, but at the same time, one wonders if the writer was familiar with the concept of an axiom.
posted by feloniousmonk at 7:44 AM on March 27, 2007

By which I mean, you can prove photography exists as a matter of physical science, if you are willing to admit the existence of light.
posted by feloniousmonk at 7:47 AM on March 27, 2007

In the comments on there:
There is no denying that there are hundreds of fake psychics. Heck, I wrote a horoscope column once, and I just made them up.

Must... not... snark...

posted by smallerdemon at 8:18 AM on March 27, 2007

Take that you straw man! I wrecked you good. Also, regurgitated last week's digg. Good stuff.
posted by nanojath at 8:55 AM on March 27, 2007

Well, this is a bit silly because there are multiple types of blindness, which one blind friend of mine referred to as "blinks, bats and blurs." My sense (not bothering to look up figures) is that most blind people have some light perception, but lack sufficient definition to perform tasks that many of us take for granted.

Even people without any optical light sensitivity have other ways of perceiving and understanding light. They can perceive radiant heat for example. And some Braille publications will render images as raised relief. So I wouldn't even use such an elaborate setup, I'd just make an analogy to between chemicals on paper and sensory nerves on skin, and their prior experience with relief images.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:45 AM on March 27, 2007

Or heck, for that matter, there are forms of photography that produce tactile representations. So you could walk through the process of creating photo-resist etching or photo-lithography plates.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:48 AM on March 27, 2007

Man, he really demolished that guy’s analogy.

“you can prove photography exists as a matter of physical science, if you are willing to admit the existence of light.”

Yeah, my first thought as well. You can prove the existance of the wave spectrum fairly easily to a blind guy (heat, say).

Unfortunately (often like religion) you get people stuck in dogmatic literalism when it comes to the occult or unknown or what have you.
“It’s psychic! You won’t get it unless you are too!”
But some folks refuse to recognize there is dogmatic literalism when it comes to the known as well. “Hey, something I can’t explain just happened to me...” “LIAR! It’s not Jesus or UFOs or psychic phenomena or...” “I didn’t say that it was, just that I don’t know what it means...” “WRONG! Science can explain EVERYTHING!!!”

I think a better analogy is how do you prove heliocentrism to Aristotelian geocentrists? (Bearing in mind they just burned Giordano Bruno at the stake). Or how do you prove the immorality of slavery to a successful slaver?

You see, what’s under discussion there is not the facts - because they’re not going to look through your telescope (or, in the case of the heliocentrists - consider the political and moral/spiritual (at the time) impact of the rejection of Aristotelian principals) - but how human affairs are going to be conducted.

F’rinstance papal bulls were issued rebuking chattel slavery. Didn’t get much more than a good laugh all around. This is not to equate the advancement of slavery with the ascendance of science (for you dogmatists) but to point out the difference between inquiry/understanding and teaching vs. derision and the exertion of power from whatever is percieved as a (currently) stronger consensual perspective.

You see, “slavery is bad” is demonstrably wrong in the “real world.”
One can make a great deal of money from exploited labor. Indeed, “slavery” is no longer practiced, and yet....who’s doing your lawn? Who’s bussing your tables?
That’s reality. We can agree on the immutability of the moral principle against slavery all we like - and yet it moves. It bends to the economic reality.

So too, there are realities beyond the “it’s, uh, psychic” dullards. Someone like that believes in such things for a reason. Now I’m not going to argue the way it’s posed (’you wouldn’t get it, you’re not psychic’) isn’t itself exclusionary, but I’d think an individual with better reasoning skills would inquire why a person thinks in such a manner and endevor to work with them on a more appropriate world view. Given that one is in a superior position of course. And right now ‘psychic’ phenomena isn’t really credible. No one puts any kind of money on it really (the ones who do, generally lose it).

From the inferior position however - consider arguing the moral implication of slavery with a wealthy slaver (or his modern equivalent). What sort of aetheric nonsense are you going to spout to him? He’s successful. He’s making money. ‘Ethics’ have no bearing on his actions in the real world. They’re just as invisible as “God” is to atheists.
Certainly some law enforcement agencies might give him problems, but that’s just force. And indeed, you can pay off the cops in some areas. Either way, he’s amassing a nice fortune doing what he’s doing. What you might have to say to him about some invisible philosophical rules are going to have no impact.
Now there is no question that the Earth turns and there is a vast array of science to empirically prove all sorts of things. But what’s at issue is how do we educate the bad and/or ignorant? How does one prove to someone who believes (tautologically) that you have to be psychic to understand psychic phenomina that his world view is qualitatively inferior to someone who depends on empiricism? I know there are a great many methods. Hell, the Socratic method still works well.
The skeptico method appears to be engage someone ignorant and deride them. (I don’t think they’re wrong in terms of criticism of the ‘psychic’ business).
But it seems to me the church did the same thing to Galileo, certainly not in scope - but they’re of a kind. (And really, it’s not like this guy is making money off of people, if anything he’s a victim)

“He was a firm believer in psychic powers, had had psychic experiences, and regularly visited a psychic...”

Well - what sort of psychic experiances? What do these psychic experiances mean - in practical terms - for you? What do you get out of visiting a psychic? (All for starters).

Hell, I could say I’m a firm believer in dream powers. I’ve had dream experiances and regularly visit a bed, where I engage in sleep.
I could assert I’ve dreamt about flying and it’s improved my mood upon waking.
From this type of enquiry (skeptico) I’d argue that it isn’t possible because the human body is heavier than air, prove it isn’t aerodynamic, and so forth.
Well, that misses the point of what I get out of dreaming. And indeed, one might be able to prove REM sleep, but how does one explain the personal, visionary and often useful experiances in the dream state.
“I dreamt I was riding a lion” “No you didn’t. A lion would eat you.”
But it’s quite simple - once I understand that I take dreams as literal things I can or should do - to prove or disprove the practical application of such a paradigm.
“I dreamt I could fly” or “I had a psychic vision of me flying”
Ok - do you plan to jump out a window?
Someone might dream of their lucky lottery numbers or some such. They should be disabused of such notions as well. But deriding them, I think, is less conducive to that goal.

Indeed, the church never really condemned heliocentrism. Just condemned Galileo.
Resorting to such power is always a lazier path. (Although I see the appeal, I get on that high horse myself. But I’m wrong when I do it too.)
posted by Smedleyman at 10:26 AM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Smedleyman: Indeed, the church never really condemned heliocentrism. Just condemned Galileo.

As much as Galileo has been turned into the poster-boy for persecution by a monolithic anti-science RCC, the actual politics of the case involved quite a bit of internal strife inside the RCC. Basically, Galileo was a pawn between two factions bickering over the issue of how to respond to the Reformation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:54 AM on March 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

It turns out that there really is some explanatory basis for the observation that people born at different times of the year do have different, broadly groupable, personality traits. It just has nothing whatsoever to do with stars, and everything to do with seasonal variations in mothers' diets, body fat levels, infections and immune system activity, and light/heat exposure.

The trouble with skepticism is that one is put in the position of having to prove a negative. Correlation is not causation, and because an effect is unrepeatable by experiments performed at will does not mean that nothing happened. Perhaps the correct experiment to prove telepathy, for example, has not yet been thought up. Not knowing the mechanisms by which it might occur makes experiment design rather difficult. The experimenters attempting to prove photography to the blind man are suffering under three handicaps: firstly, they are themselves blind; secondly, they don't actually have a functional camera; thirdly, they don't even have a theoretical model of how a functional camera might be built, and on what principles it might be based.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 11:48 AM on March 27, 2007

Mea culpa - on further investigation, it turns out that Civic Platform appears to be a white-racist, anti-Jewish website. Oops. This is why: I remembered reading an article about month of birth vs mental illness research in New Scientist magazine, and was just the first google result for "born different months new scientist".

However, on even further investigation, it turns out that New Scientist have put the article behind their paywall, and the Civic Platform copy of it appears to be one of very, very few full copies on the net, and is the one most linked to from a very wide variety of blogs. So I'll take comfort in the fact I'm not the only one who's linked to it without checking out the underlying host site. :)

(I posted this comment just to head off a potential derail. Now returning to the scheduled programme!)
posted by aeschenkarnos at 12:15 PM on March 27, 2007

“the actual politics of the case involved quite a bit of internal strife inside the RCC.”

I cede that I oversimplified it, but - yeah, pretty much exactly my point. Galileo was a pawn, he’s talking science, meanwhile it’s a different game altogether going on wherein scientific fact bears little relevance on the political/religious power stuggle. (If I remember correctly some pains were taken not to torture him.)

“I’m a Catholic, but - look! There are moons around Jupiter!”
“Yeah ‘leo, we know. Uh, we’ve got a beef with these other people here and if you keep...”
“But the Earth moves!”
“Ok. Ok, but right now there are some things going on with religious strife and....”
“Copernicus was right!”
“Uh, I really advise you don’t go around saying that. You could get hurt with all that’s going on.”
“I can’t talk about this?”
“Hypothetically, maybe. But just don’t go spreading it around right now.”
“Oh, ok.”
*years later*
“I’ve written a book!”
“Aw, crap.”

Galileo held to his truth despite the no less practical truth of what was going on around him. Similarly - the church overlooked the meaning inherent in his work.
People so rarely change their worldviews because it’s so rare that anyone makes any effort to understand another’s worldview.
Thus my point - what did the guy mean by “I’m psychic” and why does he hold that position?
Vs. the assertion of the validity of meaning derived from whatever source - empirical or a priori.
The fact that there are moons around Jupiter doesn’t change the truth of the earth as the spiritual center of the universe for mankind. Nor does the metaphor have any bearing on the observable form of the solar system.
The discord comes from the struggle over meaning, when in fact that’s itself an artifice.
(indeed, the Eris myth might be instructive here - who is the ‘fairest’? Wisdom? Power? Beauty? and must they be mutually exclusive?)
posted by Smedleyman at 2:19 PM on March 27, 2007

aeschenkarnos: The trouble with skepticism is that one is put in the position of having to prove a negative.

Not really, skepticism simply proposes that it's most reasonable to doubt claims until they are supported by evidence. The skeptical position regarding ESP is not, "it does not exist exist" but "there is not enough evidence for ESP to justify belief."

Of course, this lack of belief has practical consequences. Skeptics feel that in the absence of evidence for the efficacy of psychic powers that professional services based on these powers are unethical and illegal except as entertainment.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:01 PM on March 27, 2007

“Skeptics feel...unethical and illegal except as entertainment.”

Yeah, man. There’s always that disclaimer isn’t there? It’s always intrigued me the odd sort of collusion people seem to feel the need for in semi-ilicit, occasionally illegal, but most certainly unethical behavior.
People who wouldn’t think about stealing something themselves don’t think twice about buying a hot something-or-other for their car out of some guy’s trunk.
Similarly - it’s always amazed me that contractors get away with bad mouthing city/village/town services and oversight to their customers. From a homeowner standpoint - am I supposed to believe a for-profit organization is more interested in my safety and cost-savings than a non-profit (albeit tax imposing) institution?
And very often homeowners agree. Anecdotal but my neighbor told me that but for those dolts in city hall, work on his house would have taken less time, cost less, etc. Said the inspector was being a jerk. So I asked him if the inspector was looking for a pay off or something (brings out the predator in me) and the neighbor said no. Apparently being a jerk entails making sure the job is done to code. Now I’d agree it’s a pain in the ass, and perhaps some of the rules seem arbitrary, but I fail to see why I’d trust someone with a vested interest in cutting corners and maximizing profit vs. someone who stands nothing to gain. Sure maybe the inspector is a jerk personally, but again - your tax money is paying him to oversee your safety and protect you from for-profit institutions that might skimp on whatever to make some extra dough.

Similarly - the whole “for entertainment purposes only” gets a sort of wink and nod as though “but WE all know it’s really psychic powers going on, right?”
I think it’s the same phenomenon. Folks seem to want to get the bend on someone else and that’s what the grifter-types thrive on.
Had a scam being pulled on me once when I didn’t even know it. I asked a bunch of questions, one of which being “why come to me, why do I get this good fortune?” and of course, they flattered me. I’m a special sort of person, shrewd, etc. Now I might have no more personal morals than a cat, but I do live by an ethical code. It didn’t sound right to me, so I didn’t do it (not exactly based on Kantian ethics, but I wish to create an environment where the things valued by me and institutions on which I depend continue to thrive, this was not conducive to that). As it so happened it was a scam. Which went a long way to proving to me the old maxim - you can’t cheat an honest man. Not that I’m the most noble of individuals, but I’m most certainly honest with myself and upfront with others.

And I think it’s the antithesis of that idea - honesty with oneself - upon which the business of psychics rest. The general “were getting away with something” attitude.
Indeed, if one is psychic - has visions, what have you - if they’re of any use, beyond the very limited personal - why wouldn’t you use this thing to benefit mankind? If it can be taught - why not teach the process?
And there’s the rub - belief in psychic phenomena is predicated on ego and the illusion of having an edge over others.
Hell, a good deal of religious belief is as well (I’m going to Heaven, YOU’RE going to Hell).
Meanwhile the ‘gypsy’ keeps taking your money. Trading a concrete good for an illusory one.
Which is also part of the problem - it’s not “evil” per se. Yet it’s on this ground that it’s most attacked.
Well, attack a ‘gypsy community’ on a concrete level and they’ll just leave (casting ‘spells’ and what not - and perhaps working on a physical level to make them come true, like any good stage magician).
Some skeptics do an excellent job with concrete facts and disputing claims of magic. Rarely do they attack the source and ask who benefits from the claim.
Show the sucker how he’s being suckered and he won’t listen to the carnival barker anymore.
All this quite apart from any discussion of the unexplained weird stuff that occasionally happens to people.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:13 AM on March 29, 2007

« Older Warning! (N)SFW!   |   The future of slow motion porn has arrived Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments