Monday, July 25, 2011

Crystal experiment

Here's a brief extract from my book Believing Bullshit.

Professor Christopher French and colleagues Lyn Williams and Hayley O’Donnell at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, conducted a study into the claim that crystals have unusual powers that can be detected when they are held. The resulting paper was presented to the British Psychological Society Centenary Annual Conference in Glasgow in 2001. The study compared the reactions of a group of volunteers who were told to meditate while clutching real crystals bought from “New Age” shops with a control group given fake crystals. Those given real crystals reported higher concentration powers, heightened energy levels, and better spiritual well-being. However, exactly the same feelings were reported by those holding fake crystals. This experiment repeated an earlier one in which the experimenter, Williams, knew which crystals were real and which were fake, and so it was not “double-blind.” This second study was double-blind. The result? Neither experiment found any difference in the effects reported between real and fake crystals. Richard Wiseman, a colleague of French’s, commented on the results: “The suggestion is that the power of crystals is in the mind rather than in the crystals themselves.”2 Let’s suppose you believe in the miraculous powers of crystals and, in particular, in the ability of people to sense the power of crystals that they physically handle. But you’re now presented with these experimental results that strongly suggest, as Wiseman notes, that the experiences people have as a result of handling crystals are a product of the power of suggestion, rather than anything in the crystals themselves. Oh, dear. What do you do? One commentator on a blog reporting the experiments responded like so:

There is much that exists beyond the visible spectrum of light, and beyond the five senses. Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered. You would do better to discover it by looking outside your narrow frame of reference.

This is a curious collection of sentences.The first three are, of course, all true—indeed they are truisms. Yes, there’s much that exists Playing the Mystery Card beyond the visible spectrum of light and beyond the five senses. X-rays, for example. It is undeniable that not proving the existence of something does not disprove its existence. And of course, who would want to deny that “much is yet to be discovered”? However, while the first three sentences are truisms, they fail to engage with the experimental results. What the experiment produced is some rather compelling evidence that some of the effects people typically report on handling crystals—increased concentration, spiritual well-being, heightened energy levels—are not a result of some special feature of the crystals themselves but rather of the power of suggestion. It is important to stress that what we are looking at here is not a mere absence of evidence for the claim that crystals have such effects, but rather that it is some positive evidence of the absence of any such effects. Yet notice how, in response to this experimental evidence, our commentator says “not being able to prove the existence of something is not to disprove its existence,” thus misrepresenting the results of this investigation as a mere absence of evidence.

What of the suggestion that there’s much that is “beyond the senses” (whether it’s a supernatural realm or merely more of the natural world is left open) that the methods of science are not well suited to discover (being too “narrow”). The thought seems to be that if we want to discover more about this undiscovered realm, we need to open ourselves up to other ways of knowing. But what other ways of knowing? A survey of crystal healing literature and websites suggests a combination of gut feeling and
intuition (see “I Just Know!”) and heavy reliance on various anecdotes about the effects of crystals, such as people being supposedly cured, and so on (see Piling Up the Anecdotes).

This is a fairly typical example of how people Play the Mystery Card in order to deal with compelling scientific evidence against their beliefs in miraculous or supernatural phenomena. The scientific method has a fantastic track record when it comes to revealing what lies beyond the visible spectrum of light and is hidden fromour ordinary five senses. As I say, scientists have discovered not only X-rays, but also subatomic particles, distant galaxies, and so on. We are given no reason to think the scientific method is not suitable when it comes to investigating the alleged powers of crystals.

Indeed, many of the claims made about crystals clearly are scientifically investigable because they have observable, empirically testable consequences. Moreover, science has produced good evidence that at least some of these claims are false. Still, our commentator sweepingly dismisses such scientific findings, misrepresenting them as a mere “absence of evidence.”

On no grounds whatsoever, and in the teeth of evidence to the contrary, our commentator insists that scientific methods are far too “narrow” to refute the various claims made about crystals. And of course, his dismissal of such scientific evidence is delivered with an air of humility and superior wisdom in contrast to
the implied know-it-all attitude of the scientific critics.

9 comments:

mark shulgasser said...

Funny how the shape of an argument is easier to absorb when it's placed on a single page, not spread out in a dreadful Kindle.
It's clearer to me now that the point of your "crystal experiment" passage is not the experiment per se, but the analysis of one blog commentator's response. Fair enough. (It's worth providing the reference: http://recursed.blogspot.com/2006/05/debunking-crystal-healing.html ) .

But the more I study your report of the study itself, the more alarmingly daft it all appears. First let me state a few qualifications; I was a doctoral student and assistant to Stanley Milgram in experimental social psychology, and a student of Sam Messick, the brilliant statistician of Educational Testing Services, Princeton NJ. So I have some familiarity with the world from which this study emerges.

I believe that this study including the interpretation of its results is classically fallacious. Let's substitute Prozac and a placebo for real and fake crystals. Half the subjects take Prozac, the other half take a look-a-like sugar pill. One day later both groups report greater well being, etc. to the same degree. May we conclude that we are seeing nothing the placebo effect? Yes, but, unfortunately, Prozac takes 3 to 4 weeks to produce its effect. The problem is you have disproved a single member of a set and then claimed to have disproved all members of the set. This is called putting a heavy spin on a null result. Another way of looking at it is pulling the wool over people's eyes. Compelling scientific evidence, indeed!

To witness such shocking and transparent misuse of reason in the name of reason, by people in authority, causes cognitive dissonance, and incoherent, anxious response. I have no doubt that Mr. Anonymous avoided directly addressing the study, its results or methodology, because he was more concerned to shed some calm and blessing among a disturbed group of fanatics who actually are so blind as to think that this contrived little dramatization has anything to do with reality. Not everyone will put their finger on the fallacy consciously, but all should be rightfully hesitant to change their beliefs or behaviors on the basis of this type of report.

Milgram's famous obedience studies can also be summarized in 75 words or less, but what gives them entry into the annals of science is the fact that every possible parameter was varied down to the very sex and clothing of the experiments, in a decade-long series of replications and variations, publications, independent analyses and so forth.

Did this study even get published? From your footnote, seems not. It’s the sort that goes direct to press tidbit, to be read for amusement ("Fancy that!") along with the daily horoscope. In short more junk science of the kind with which we are now inundated.

I will spare analysis of the variables and parameters of time and space that were blithely ignored. But I will point out that debunkers will continue to set up lab experiments knowing full well that claims about the miraculous always locate it the context of true emotional crisis that is antithetical to controlled experiment.

Stephen Law said...

Except the claim being tested, clearly stated at the beginning of the extract above, is of course that the crystals have certain psychological effects detectable "while they are being held". Not two days, months, or years, down the line.

So your point would seem to be irrelevant. No one is claiming these studies show crystals don't have long term effects.

Also the book makes it clear in the Samantha case, discussed immediately before, that

Also notice that I don't claim these studies conclusively prove anything, merely that they are strongly suggestive that certain effects - specific psychological effects noticed *while holding the crystals* - are due to placebo.

Which they are.

Mark Shulgasser said...

Isn't this ingenuous? It's easy to dismiss a vague claim with a clap-trappy study. A serious study carefully defines parameters and variables in order to come up with a meaningful result.

I asked if the study had been published.

I also brought up the question of bias, elsewhere, which you dismissed as follows:

>>>>Yes, flawed peer review and experimenter bias, etc. are all indeed a bad thing [sic]. They are also things that rational and/or scientific scrutiny can and has exposed [sic].>>>>

Yet you present this study, concealing your knowledge that it was performed by a notorious debunker, pretending that the question of bias has been eliminated simply by use of the term "double-blind", whereas the study reeks of bias both unconscious and conscious in its assumptions and design.

You ask us then to notice that you "don't claim these studies conclusively prove anything . . . " but they are "strongly suggestive" and an example of "compelling evidence" regarding "specific psychological effects" which is a preposterous overstatement.

Forgive me if I sound over-heated, but after all, when you fling terms like bullshit around one might question your commitment to cool rationality. You are bound to evoke precisely the emotional response you claim to condemn.

Eamon (Paraconsistent) said...

Stephen,

As you say many of the claims about crystals have empirical effects which we can test, and when crystal proponents claim to have personally observed the effects, either in themselves or in others, they ipso facto agree that crystal efficacy is testable.

In the next breath, however, they will claim 'that scientific methods are far too “narrow” to refute the various claims made about crystals,' that is, that the effects of crystals do not admit of a systematic and controlled review.

Insofar as crystal proponents so claim, however, they are diachronically inconsistent. That is, they assert A at T1 and not-A at T2. Something must give. They cannot have their CAM cake and eat it too.

Stephen Law said...

Mark.

I see no evidence that Chris French et al are not open to evidence that some paranormal stuff is real. He remains skeptical only because he has, to date, not found any compelling evidence for, and quite a bit against. So am I, actually.

What is your evidence that he is biased?

In any case, even if was is biased, a double blind trial is quite good at dealing with such bias. That's why such experiments are double blind - to deal with the effects of experimenter bias.

At the end of the day, your objections seem to boil down to - "But this stuff is real and these people are all just biased!" That last claim being made without any supporting evidence at all.

Adzcliff said...

Hi Mark.

I'm intrigued why Chris French's status as a 'notorious debunker' is relevant here? Are you suggesting that the continued ellusiveness of the paranormal may somehow be his fault - or that his methodologies are carefully designed to leave it at large? Having seen French speak on a number of occasions, I've always considered him a serious scientist. I'm always impressed by his openness to the supernatural, and his willingness to share one or two anecdotes about claims he's been unable to explain scientifically - where the supernatural can't/shouldn't be discounted. So I guess I'm inclined to think that crystal energies are perfectly entitled to exist, but the fact that they don't reveal themselves in scientific studies probably can't be parked at his door?

As for the Prozac analogy, you may be onto something: only recent evidence suggests that in the vast majority of cases, anti-depressants are themselves just an elaborate placebo. The suggestion being that the presence of side-effects makes double-blinding near impossible; with those side-effects probably constituting the bulk of the 'treatment' (if not all of it).

Not sure what you think?

Adzcliff

mark Shulgasser said...

Hi Adzcliff,

French may be a very nice fellow, but I'd have to say that's anecdotal. I think the study exhibits bias on the face, as I explain below. As for prozac, I just used it as a hypothetical -- yes, it should have been a pill without without side effects, or add a third condition, a pill with side effects only. . ?

Now Stephen,

It is pure naivete (not faux I hope) on your part to think that double-blinding is sufficient to eliminate bias in this sort of experiment -- necessary but far from sufficient. Many studies, and even more important, much thought, has gone this issue.

This is from Wiki:

In experimental science, experimenter's bias is subjective bias towards a result expected by the human experimenter. David Sackett,[1] in a useful review of biases in clinical studies, states that biases can occur in any one of seven stages of research:

1. in reading-up on the field,

-- If French was read-up on the field, why would he choose to test the most pop, cereal box, claim of the crystal mongers, rather than the more considered versions of putative effects? He only demonstrates familiarity with the copy on a gift shop trinket.

2. in specifying and selecting the study sample,

-- of course, I have no publication to look at to fill in these blanks, all we know from you is that the subjects were volunteers ( a few more details are available on the web in a journalistic account ). These days all subjects are volunteers, I believe -- something about ethics. So that tells nothing.


3. in executing the experimental manoeuvre (or exposure),

4. in measuring exposures and outcomes,

5. in analyzing the data,

6. in interpreting the analysis, and

7. in publishing the results.

-- of 3-7 sufficient details are lacking. My point is not to further parse an unconvincing study but to show how small a role is played by the double-blind in the analysis of bias.

--continued--

mark Shulgasser said...

--continuation --


Your invocation of double-blind is soothing catechism, almost a poem. Such a study would never be published if it weren't double-blind -- not that the fact that a study has been published is, or is supposed to be, indication of conclusiveness, and apparently it hasn't been published anyway.

Finally, I'm sure I never said I "believe" in crystals. I certainly do not! It's a matter of critiquing science and not swallowing it blindly.

Crystals may be salubrious, I would hazard, if carefully chosen, admired, displayed, over a period of time, like a houseplant or a pet. They are as good as anything and better than some in evoking conditioned responses of certain moods. In fact, owners of precious gems are markedly healthier as a class than those who do not have them -- I'll bet.

Of course the danger is that living with the rock one might determine that it's a fake one. Then the double-blind would come off. Perhaps with the use of television cameras . . hidden, of course, would be unethical, not allowed in a serious academically funded experiment. . . Then, if you came up with the same null results, I would also want to mention that your placebo and your control are confounded, you actually need at least three groups to draw a conclusion here.

In fact, I see another serious problem for the study: the suggestion implanted in both groups equally (in the form of a pamphlet describing the 10 changes the crystal was supposed to produce -- I find this at this truthseeking website: http://100777.com/node/422) that suggestion might easily have wiped out the effect. Placebo is an elusive critter, can't assume it is additive.
That is, half the group should have been given no suggestive pre-trial information, generating a four-cell rather than two-cell study, to get some possible information that the conceptual bias simply ignored.

The professional scientist looks upon every new piece of research first of all with scepticism, s/he knows the pitfalls. Everyone else should do the same.

When reporting from the edge of the known, it is difficult to be brief without tendentiousness.

But isn't your book really about picking up girls who wear crystals in clubs and malls? I mean Bullshit this and Bullshit that, a few more beers and then some mocking banter about her crystals and look into her eyes and sinuously murmur: "But your using reason right now, aren't you, as we speak? Well then. . . ."

Forgive me, just having a bit of fun.

When you run around panting "highly suggestive" and "compelling" on the basis of so little you sound just like a believer when they get hold of a bit of quasi-science from the Maharishi Institute.

I'm reminded of a quaint book I have, published in 1931, called "Sorry But You're Wrong About It", with short chapters containing tips on how to debunk all kinds of wrong thinking, from astrology, telepathy, but also "That the beautiful are dumb", "That bald-headedness is due to tight hat-bands", "That women can drive automobiles as well as men", "That one man is as good as another" and so forth. Written by A. E. Wiggam, self-declared disciple of Dewey.

It begins thusly:

"You are wrong if you believe THAT POPULAR NOTIONS ARE NOT ALWAYS WRONG. Popular notions are always wrong. They have to be wrong. The human mind is so constructed, my dear friend Manstreet,--both yours and mine,--and it operates in such a way that all general impressions and beliefs abut matters of fact and the laws of nature which have not been corrected and tested by that particular way of thinking called science are bound to be wrong."

It's a bit like your philosophy of science stops in 1931, if not earlier.

Adzcliff said...

Thanks for this Mark.

He does seem a nice fellow, but my comment was more about his (apparent) scientific honesty when discussing his and others' research - which I assume is designed to investigate reality (and give paranormal claims a fair crack of the whip), as opposed to confirming preconceptions.

You also mention this:

"But I will point out that debunkers will continue to set up lab experiments knowing full well that claims about the miraculous always locate it the context of true emotional crisis that is antithetical to controlled experiment."

What is the evidence for this, how do 'debunkers' know it, how were the studies designed/analysed, and why shouldn't we be skeptical of them too?

Ta.

Adzcliff