Tag Archives: Psychic

Village of the Damned

Solving the Puzzle of the Nighttime Hum

Here’s an interesting one, from the 12 June 2011 edition of The Telegraph:

“It is a mysterious sound on the very edge of perception that has driven thousands of people around the world to distraction. “

You can read the details here: “Tiny village is latest victim of the ‘The hum’,” by Richard Alleyne.

Based on the Engineering Thinking principles presented previously in this blog, if you were assigned to select the most probable cause of the hum from the following list, which would you choose?

-Ed Walker


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Correlations, Fraud, And Mediums

Humans are hard-wired for survival reasons to be alert to correlations, or apparent connections between events. For example, we observe Harry eat some red berries, following which Harry groans, falls down, and dies. Because of the observed correlation between red berries and death, we don’t eat red berries.

However, the consumption of red berries and death may have been just a coincidence, and not a true connection. Harry may have had a heart attack after consuming perfectly nutritious red berries. Or perhaps Harry washed down the berries with some tainted water. In fact, there are innumerable other possible explanations that do not lead to the conclusion that red berries = death.

To guard against faulty conclusions, engineers are careful in evaluating correlations. In other words, we have learned to be skeptical. But do we need to be so picky in everyday life? Yes, we do.

If we automatically assume that every correlation is indicative of a cause, we have closed our minds. And once our minds are closed, we close off the path to exploring alternatives, of gaining insights that may prove to be of great benefit.

In addition, the strong human tendency to interpret correlations as indicative of a true connection between events has another significant down-side: unscrupulous humans exploit this tendency in various schemes to enhance their wealth. As one who practiced magic for fun (and not much profit) as a youth, I can attest to the fact that there are dozens of methods by which a dishonest person, with knowledge of the magician’s art, can dupe the unwary.

For example, have you ever seen that show featuring a “medium,” someone with the supposed ability to hear messages from the dearly departed, who conveys the messages to a grieving relative? It is but one of many examples of immoral people exploiting our natural inborn tendency to accept correlations at face value. Fortunately, engineering thinking can be used to identify and squelch these scams.

If the medium were not a fraud, they could simply provide a specific verifiable message, such as, “Harry said to tell you to look for a key in his right middle desk drawer; it is for safe deposit box number 14764 at the First Third Bank. You’ll find $12,550 there; his winnings from a lottery ticket he never told you about.”

Of course, such specifics are never provided by the medium. Instead, the medium begins by talking in generalities, trying to elicit a response from the grieving person, and then builds to more specific comments based on what he learns. During this process the medium will often pause, and let the griever fill in the blanks:

“When you were first married, Sarah, I can feel a negative presence; it was your, … your, …”

“It was my mother-in-law.”

“Yes, it was your mother-in-law; and she was always, … always, …”

“Taking my husband’s side.”

“Yes, taking your husband’s side …”

And so on. At the end of this process, Sarah is not aware of all of the information she has provided, directly as illustrated above, or indirectly (by facial expressions or body language), that allows the medium to “read” her mind to the extent required to construct a plausible conversation with the deceased. The medium has thus deceptively constructed a false but believable connection between the medium’s “readings” and the facts presumably known only by the bereaved. (The same techniques are used by fortune tellers, mind readers, and other supposed psychics.)

In more advanced frauds, the medium will research the “mark” (usually a wealthy grieving person) well in advance of the seance, and be able to provide details of the mark’s prior life sufficient to overcome their hardiest skepticism. “How could you possibly know that he died from eating berries?” she will think. “You must indeed be talking to my dear departed Harry.” The medium, of course, will have scoured the public records prior to the seance, including Harry’s obituary.

The great magician Harry Houdini spent much time and effort exposing mediums of his day for the frauds that they were. For a somewhat more modern-day account, The Psychic Mafia provides a fascinating look at the inside of the seedy business of mediums and psychics.

I should point out that it is my belief that not all self-proclaimed psychics are deliberate frauds. Some of them, I think, have sincerely come to the conclusion that they are psychic because they have experienced one or more significant correlations (e.g. “I dreamed my friend would get into a car accident, and she did”), and do not have a science background sufficient to immunize them to the beguiling yet misleading power of coincidence.

Yet, even among this group, I have severe misgivings. Those who believe they are simply offering comfort to the grieving, or providing other forms of psychological advice, may inadvertently do great damage.

While on a vacation out west, my wife Barbara and I attended a session at the resort that was presented by a “life coach.” A grieving issue was posed by another lady in attendance, to which the life coach advised, in essence, “Get over it.” Barb tactfully intervened (Barb is a mental health counselor with appropriate training and credentials for such issues), and provided a compassionate but science-based response. After the meeting, Barb was approached by the lady who had asked the question and was profusely thanked, saying how upset she had been by the life coach’s remarks.

The Engineering Thinking bottom line: If you want advice on grieving, or any of the myriad psychological issues which afflict the human race, your odds of obtaining useful guidance are much better if you avoid the psychics, and go to a pro.

Next post: An engineer writes a novel.

-Ed Walker


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Cause or Coincidence?

Humans appear to be wired, for survival reasons, to jump to conclusions based on personal experience, particularly regarding potential threats. Eons ago, Harry eat red berries and Harry fall down, have convulsions, and die. Conclusion: We no eat red berries. Can’t argue with that. Although other varieties of red berries may provide wonderful nourishment, why take a chance?

Equating consumption of red berries with dying is an example of a correlation; an observed apparent coupling of one thing to another. As statisticians like to say, however, correlation is not proof of causation. The classic example of this is the observation that the rooster crows at dawn, i.e. there is a correlation between the rooster crowing and the sun peeping over the horizon. A primitive person might observe this correlation and conclude that the rooster’s crowing causes the sun to come up. Actually, as we know, the reverse is true; i.e. the rooster’s crowing is a result, not a cause. Therefore, to learn the correct lessons from observing correlations, it’s important to discern cause from effect.

In other instances, a correlation is simply a coincidence; i.e. no true correlation exists. For example, someone dreams that a loved one will be in an accident, and subsequently they are. Although the dream is observed to correlate with the subsequent unfortunate event, in truth this was just a coincidence (see “The Single Event Fallacy” in “I’m Right! (Or Am I?)”). But the person who had such a dream will (unless they employ Engineering Thinking) understandably be very likely to conclude that they’ve experienced a profound psychic event.

If an engineering design exhibits problems, engineers are very careful to thoroughly examine the situation. They can’t afford to confuse cause and effect, or to assume that correlations exist when they may not. Instead, they study and test until they have a reasonable certainty that they truly understand the root cause of the problem. This understanding allows engineers to devise effective solutions.

A misguided attempt to fix a problem, without understanding the true root cause, can make things worse instead of better. An even more unfortunate result is when a fix superficially appears to work, wherein in reality it introduces hidden defects. Later in time — after the supposed fixers have taken their bows and are long gone from the scene — the hidden defects erupt, wreaking havoc. Because of the time delay, the defects may not be perceived as having originated with the earlier faulty fix. This is indeed a tragic outcome: a supposed solution is perceived as being successful, when in reality it made things worse.

An Action’s Success Should Not Be Judged
On Whether Or Not It Appears To Improve Things In The Short Run,
Instead It Should Be Judged On Whether Or Not
(A) The Improvement Is Maintained Over Time, And
(B) The Improvement Is Superior To Alternative Actions (Including Doing Nothing)

For example, the conventional wisdom is that during the Great Depression president Franklin D. Roosevelt helped guide the economy to recovery by vigorously inserting the federal government into economic affairs. FDR initiated a myriad of intrusions, such as “work relief” programs; jobs that were funded by the government. Eventually — many years later, during World War 2 — the economy finally did indeed improve. Some observers thought, wow, FDR didn’t spend enough federal money, because it wasn’t until the world war started and federal spending went up even more, that we finally got ourselves out of the depression. In other words, there was a perceived correlation between massive federal spending and the end of the depression. But was this correlation properly interpreted? Was federal spending the root cause of the recovery?

In our next post we’ll take a look at how an engineering team might address that question.

Next Post:

A Brief Engineering Review of Economic Meltdowns

-Ed Walker


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Internet Hazards, Junk Journalism, and Movie Malarkey: Who Do You Trust? (Part 3)

Hazards From The Internet

An Internet site can call it itself anything. For example, just because a site bills itself as being a “fact check” organization does not mean that it delivers the facts. Similarly, those glowing Internet ratings and reviews that you read may have been written by folks who are owners or employees of the companies whose products and services are being reviewed. Of course, they do not identify themselves as such; e.g. a review that reads, “Ed Walker is a great engineer! – Ed Walker,” will likely not engender confidence in the objectivity of the review.

The bottom line is that owners, employees, friends, and relatives can all contribute positive but biased or completely false reviews (although sometimes these are counterbalanced by opposing and scathing lies posted by competitors and grouches).

How does one know whether or not to trust an Internet source? The best route is to verify that the source has been recommended or approved by a person or organization of unquestioned integrity. A traditional means of such fact-checking would be to rely on media outlets such as newspapers and television news programs. Unfortunately, this is no longer a reliable method…

Junk Journalism

Although there are many fine journalists, there are also many in the media who label themselves as such who are not; i.e., they are not balanced, fair, nor objective. This is indeed a tragedy, because average citizens do not have the time or resources to independently research the multitude of important issues which affect their lives. They need help from honest and competent journalists.

Many of today’s journalists, however, do not appear to have taken any courses in critical thinking, or even in the basics of true journalism. Pseudo-journalists routinely report things as facts when they aren’t (psychic phenomena), have no sense of balance (non-stop coverage of an event in a celebrity’s personal life while ignoring global calamities), and reflexively promote their own unscientific and emotionally-laden views (politics).

Some reporting of political issues by major news outlets is extremely biased and dishonest, going to such lengths as to employ fraudulent polling, wherein the desired result is obtained by over-sampling a part of the population that is in favor of the desired result. (This tactic is humorously demonstrated in a classic Stan Freberg TV commercial from the 1950s that claimed, “Nine out of ten doctors recommend Chun King Chow Mein!” The ad showed ten doctors in scrubs, comprised of nine smiling Chinese and one frowning white guy.)

As a minor example of the present unfortunate state of journalism, many reporters today seem to have a compulsion to be novelists. The newspapers in Tampa routinely begin a news item with flowery language of the “It was a dark and stormy night” variety, leaving out who, what, when, where, and why. Sometimes, maddeningly, such essential information is absent from the entire column.

Movie Malarkey

In addition to conventional news sources, we often look to the art of filmmaking for education and inspiration. Films based on insightful and well-researched literature can indeed be powerful learning tools. Lesser works, however, can be nothing more than slick propaganda.

Some movies are produced that purport to be documentaries, but aren’t. Some claim that they’re “based on a true story,” but actually have only a superficial resemblance to the truth.

For example, the popular movie Titanic (directed by James Cameron) did a wonderful job in recreating the technical details of a marvelous ship, but it did a lousy job in portraying the historical record. In addition to other distortions, it obscenely damaged the reputation of First Officer Murdoch: “In Cameron’s version, he is a posh git [British slang for incompetent person] who takes a bribe, shoots a passenger, panics, and commits suicide. In reality, he gave his lifejacket away, drowned, and has a memorial in his home town of Dalbeattie.” (ref. “James Cameron’s Avatar can’t be any worse than ‘Titanic'” by Libby Purves.

As an engineer I appreciate faithfulness to technical details, but all in all I would have preferred to learn the truth about the history of the times, rather than view accurate images of a big boat weaved around a story of deceitful distortions.

Artistic license is often cited as an excuse for grossly distorting history, to achieve a “dramatic effect.” Artistic license however should not be a license to steal, to alter the historical truth. Unless you know that the folks involved in making a movie have the highest integrity, it would be wise to ignore the “lessons” that movies teach.

This post completes an introduction to the principle of objectivity, which is essential to Engineering Thinking. To be objective we must be free of emotional blockages and willing to question our cherished assumptions. We must also be prepared to invest the time it takes to properly research important issues, so that we avoid the self-serving lies of the frauds, the agenda-driven propaganda of deceitful media sources, and the biases and delusions of otherwise honest folks.

In addition to objectivity, there are several other important principles of Engineering Thinking. But before we get into those, in our next post we’ll start to put what we’ve learned to work, with a practical analysis of a common problem.

Next Post:

My Spouse Is Too Moody: What Do I Do?

-Ed Walker


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I’m Right! (Or Am I?)

If you have strong opinions and want to test them scientifically, drill down to their roots and check them against the following list of unscientific justifications:

Unscientific Justifications

  1. That’s the way I was raised
  2. I work in a union and all my friends feel the same way
  3. I work in a corporate office and all my friends feel the same way
  4. Oprah feels the same way
  5. I read it in a best-selling book
  6. I saw a “based on a true story” movie
  7. Because that’s the way things should be

If your opinions are based on unscientific justifications, that doesn’t mean you are wrong. It does mean that you will probably have a very hard time defending your opinions when discussing them with others. And if those others also use fallacy-laden arguments, everyone will experience a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing (my apologies to William Shakespeare).

“But Ed,” you protest, “I don’t use unscientific justifications; I’m on guard against those. I base my opinions on facts, not emotion.”

Sounds good, but do you, really? Take a look at the following list of possibly unscientific justifications:

Possibly Unscientific Justifications

  1. It happened to me once
  2. I read it in a magazine
  3. I learned it in a seminar
  4. I read it in a textbook
  5. I watched a documentary
  6. It was reported in the newspaper
  7. My doctor told me
  8. A scientist said so on TV
  9. I read it on a “fact check” Internet site
  10. Some reviews on an Internet site said it was great

Because the principle of objectivity is so vital in the decision-making process, we’ll review the above list in more detail. Let’s start with “It happened to me once.”

Learning from An Experience

A personal experience can be a wonderful teacher. However, as real and powerful as an experience is, it is a sample of one. It’s only one experiment, if you will.

“What are you taking about, Ed?” you exclaim loudly. “If it happened to me — if I experienced it myself, saw it with my own eyes — then it’s got to be true!”

Not necessarily. Human perceptions are imperfect, and unless we’re careful we tend to jam our experiences into preconceived boxes that fit our expectations. Our memories are likewise imperfect, and tend to adapt to what we want to remember, rather than retain the reality of what really happened.

Nonetheless, for simple phenomena, one experiment is sometimes sufficient to reach an important conclusion. If you put your hand on a hot stove and get burned, a valid conclusion is — don’t do that again!

The Single-Event Fallacy (Am I Psychic?)

For complex phenomena, however, deriving a firm conclusion from a sole personal experience is an example of the single-event fallacy. For example, what if you dreamed that you were going to have a fight with your spouse in the morning, and sure enough, you did. Can you conclude that you’re psychic? Not really, because in this instance there are many variables involved. Dreams, for example, often mirror common events such as arguments with spouses, and there are billions of us dreaming such dreams every night. According to the laws of probability it’s quite likely that some folks will, on rare occasion, have a dream that coincidentally matches upcoming reality.

True psychic ability would be indicated by predictive dreams or visions that cannot be explained by coincidence; e.g. dreams of improbable events with very specific details (“On Tuesday I dreamed that on Thursday afternoon I would be in an auto accident involving a red sedan driven by a stocky man wearing a gray turtleneck sweater, and it happened!”) If you have such dreams, the next step would be to demonstrate your psychic predictive power to an objective independent observer; i.e. be tested. If you pass you will not only make history, you will make a lot of money — a one-million dollar prize is available to anyone who can prove, under scientific conditions, that they are psychic, or have any other paranormal ability (see JREF). (This prize has been offered for many, many years and there have been no successful applicants.)

Conclusion: When multiple variables are involved, engineering thinking requires the use of numerous samples (experiences) to fashion a reasonable hypothesis for the cause of an event.

Single Experiences Of Complex Events

Do Not Lead To Reliable Conclusions

We’ll continue our review of possibly unscientific justifications in the following posts.

Next Post:

Books, Magazines, and Seminars: Who Do You Trust?

p.s. If you are curious to learn more about the engineering mind, please check out the DACI Newsletter; you may find the Sightings and News Bullet sections interesting.

-Ed Walker


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