Friday, November 12, 2010

Stop the presses! Psychic Phenomena are Real!!!!

Now, this might be the coolest thing ever! Some researchers claim that they have conducted experiments that show that psychic phenomenon (pre-cognition, i.e. telling the future!!!) exist. Here´s the article that alerted me to this (which was sent to me by one extra-special Craigory Craig, who I won´t link to because he´s a professional now or something), and here´s a pre-print of the paper.

To begin, this is by far my favorite sentence from the paper:
After responding to two individual-difference items (discussed below), the participant had a 3-min relaxation period during which the screen displayed a slowly moving Hubble photograph of the starry sky while peaceful new-age music played through stereo speakers.

Why am I not surprised that this was the set-up researchers in this field would choose? I must be psychic.

In the above patchouli-scented experiment, they present the participants with two doors to choose between, one of which had a picture behind it and the other had nothing-- sort of like Let´s Make a Deal / Monte Hall game except instead of a car, you are rewarded with a picture of people doing it, and instead of a goat, you just get a blank screen. No, seriously, some of the pictures that were behind the curtain were "erotic pictures" (i.e. people doing it). The awesome thing here (if you have the sense of humor of a 13 year old boy, much like I do) is that people were able to guess with statistically better than 50% accuracy which curtain the picture was behind... as long as it was an erotic picture. My first thought is that this sort of psychic power explains why I miraculously turned up at my dorm room pretty much every time my freshman year roommate wanted it to herself. The force is strong with this one.

In another section of the paper, they talk about retroactive priming.  Each person was asked to indicate whether a picture was pleasant or unpleasant. In the retroactive experiment, a word was then flashed on the screen that was either congruous or incongruous with "pleasant" or "unpleasant". In the plain vanilla version, the  priming word was flashed first. In these experiments, we´d apparently expect to see that it takes a person longer to select "pleasant" or "unpleasant" if the prime was incongruous with what they were trying to choose, and I guess this has been shown in forward priming experiments. Between pictures, a photograph from the Hubble telescope again made an appearance... because apparently photographs from the Hubble telescope are to psi-sense as sorbet is to tongues.

So, here´s what I´m thinking:

Why are people only able to have pre-cognitive powers related to erotic images? Is this what the researchers set out to prove in the first place? If not, it seems that one could partition the pictures into categories such that one of the categories proved statistically significant. I actually don´t think they were being dishonest in that way, though. Just sayin´.

Certainly there have been other priming experiments done in the past in which a series of primes and pictures were presented without the delicious raspberry Hubble telescope in between. If retroactive priming is real, could they not re-analyze those old studies to see if the retroactive priming effect was present when it was not the explicit purpose of the study? It would be awesome if it were, as evidence of this would have just been sitting around waiting to be discovered.

If it´s not, I am actually not so quick to take that as evidence that these sorts of psychic abilities are´t real. Could that not be evidence that people have psychic abilities that lean in the direction of pleasing the experimenter by confirming the hypothesis of the study, even if the hypothesis was unknown to the participant? I mean, shit, if they were psychic enough to know what the word was before they saw it, they ought to be psychic enough to know what the experimenter was trying to get at. And, how crazy would that be??? That would certainly call into question all designed experiments in psychology, as effects could also then be attributed to the participants´ inclination to confirm the hypothesis, even if the hypothesis was not disclosed.

In any case, this is not a math-busters style post. I´ll leave the replication of this study to the ghost-busters / psychologists. Until then, I´ll be eagerly waiting to see if this ends up getting busted...

 So, what do you think? Do psychic phenomena exist? If you don't believe this, how much evidence would you need to overcome your prior?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Daylight Savings Time!

The only way I can ever remember which direction Daylight Savings Time changes the time is with the saying "spring forward, fall back." The fact that the direction of the changes is dictated by the season (i.e. how early the sun rises and sets) should have made it obvious what would happen with the time in the southern hemisphere relative to the northern hemisphere. In fact, I never stopped to think about this until... yesterday.

When I arrived in Brazil on October 6, I was one hour ahead of the US's east coast. One day, I woke up,  my cell phone time had sprung forward, and I was magically two hours ahead of the east coast. On Sunday, the east coast fell back, and I am now three hours ahead.

This is not earth-shattering news. It's just kind of weird. I'm guessing that this has never occurred to most people who have not switched hemispheres or do not work with people in the opposite hemisphere.

So, now you know.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Joint Probability of Being Mauled by a Bear and Struck by Lightning

This is an oldie but a goodie. A while ago, Ms. Sarah Bailey posted this article on my Facebook wall about a guy who got struck by lightning and mauled by a bear. They go on to say that the closest estimate of the probability of both of these things happening is zero. Agreed... for any random person.

Every person, of course, does not have the same probability of being hit by lightning and being mauled by a bear. Take Donald Trump, for example. While Zeus probably hates him for being the most pompous shit ever, thus making him about 1,000 times more likely to be hit by lightning than the normal person, I'd hazard a guess that he is rarely if ever within 100 miles of an un-caged bear.

On the other hand, look at Rick Oliver. According to the article, "he tends to piddle about his farm, checking on his chickens, working on his tractors and, as he was in the wee hours of June 3, fixing up his Chevy Malibu." It was while piddling that, upon hearing a mysterious noise off in the distance, he went alone to investigate. I'd say that sort of behavior makes you pretty darn likely to be mauled by a bear. It might also make you pretty darn likely to get struck by lightning if that same tendency to investigate noises outside also applies to thunder. 

Two points here: (1) these events are not independent. They are probably conditionally independent given a number of factors, such as rural-dwelling, gender==male, a love of Kenny Chesney, etc.  (2) If you meet several of those conditions (i.e. if you're the sort of person who goes looking for bears/lightning), as rare as occurrences of bear maulings and lightning strikes are in the overall population, I'd say you're fairly likely to be attacked by both.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Harm Caused by Animals

Possibly due partially to my most recent post re: personal alcohol expenditures, several people have sent me this few days old link, Harm Caused by Drugs, from The Economist. They show a plot of the relative harm caused by various drugs, both to society and to the individual. Alcohol ranks first. I guess I'm effed. 

While I guess it's cool, what I keep pointing out is that as far as I can tell, what they are plotting is not data on { mortality / crime / loss of dignity / accidental pregnancy / increased probability of jumping naked on a trampoline } that can be attributed to use of the drug. They are plotting some "drug-harm" experts' opinions on how much harm each drug causes. I'm certainly not saying that these people's opinions aren't valid, but how can the experts even assign a number to this? I actually looked at the summary of the study, and they are not giving rankings; they are coming up with these numbers based on weighting several different sub-categories of personal/societal harm. What is one unit of harm? How do you come up with the weights? Are harm to self and harm to society additive like this plot suggests? 

Also, the way this is phrased makes it seem as though this is a score of the intrinsic potential harm caused by the drug. I have a hard time believing that alcohol is fundamentally more harmful than, let's say, crack cocaine. I think what got alcohol it's primo number one ranking is the fact that it's so common.  

In this same spirit, I thought I would plot the harm caused by various animals according to an expert on the subject: Napoleon Dynamite. Each animal is ranked based on the harm it can cause to people due to natural fierceness and supernatural magic skills. Each of these is of course comprised of several subcategories, which were weighted according to their importance in determining overall  potential harm.   

On a related note, WTF, California??

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Well, shit...

I like to pretend that I'm good with numbers. Maybe not so much...