Category Archives: Skepticism & beliefs

Detecting lies with questioning

124315322_efe6bf96ed_mThere has been lots of talk, and even a television show, about detecting lies by observing body language. But the actual support for this has been weak.

Here is an interesting article that describes how active questioning was far more powerful for detecting lies.

Here’s The Real Secret to Detecting Lies (And It’s Not Body Language) — PsyBlog.

Despite all the advice about lie detection going around, study after study has found that it is very difficult to spot when someone is lying.

Previous tests involving watching videos of suspects typically find that both experts and non-experts come in at around 50/50: in other words you might as well flip a coin.

Now, though, a new study published in Human Communication Research, has found that a process of active questioning yielded almost perfect results, with 97.8% of liars successfully detected.

Testing a paranormal power in Vegas

handHere is a detailed article on the steps used to test a paranormal claim for James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge. Although the claimed power was simple, the required testing was not.

The trials and tribulations of the 2014 James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge..

Mr. Wang claims that he can project or transmit a power, force or energy, hitherto unknown to science, from his right hand into the hand of a receptive subject. The subject will be able to feel this energy as warmth, movement, tingling or other notable sensations in their hand. It is also claimed that this energy (possibly known as “Qigong”) can be transmitted through various materials including wood, plastic and metal. It is important to note that this claimed ability still works even if the subject is unaware of the direct actions of Mr. Wang.

On the surface of it, this may appear to be a relatively simple claim to test, but experience has shown us that even simple claims can be quite a task.

Does brain training really work?

There are a variety of products out there that claim to improve your cognitive functions through brain training — often in the form of games. The game of Sudoku is particularly popular among people who think it is important to keep their brain active. This article from asks whether such brain training activities actually lead to generalized cognitive gains.


If you practice Sudoku, does your memory and concentration get better, or do you just get better at Sudoku?

The research is mixed, but the overall pattern of research is converging on a particular nuanced answer. It seems that practicing a particular task improves your performance mostly on that task, and to a lesser extent on closely related tasks, but not beyond that to more general intellectual function.

There does seem to be a particular advantage to doing novel things – don’t get stuck in a rut, do a variety of things and add some new experiences and challenges to your life.

But don’t buy into neurosciencey hype about “brain training” and scientifically designed games that are allegedly going to be better for your brain than other similar games. There is no cheat, there is no short cut to becoming smarter or better. The more you work, the more you benefit.

Anti-science and Progressives

Here is an interesting article from Skeptic that asks whether conservatives or progressives are more anti-science. Common wisdom is that conservative thinkers are more anti-science, but this article reviews a book that demonstrates that progressive thinkers are also waging a war against science.

Let’s settle this thing once and for all—right here, right now. Who are more anti-scientific—Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or progressives? Conventional wisdom would have us believe—or at least so says science writer Chris Mooney—that Republicans have waged an unparalleled and all-out war on science.

Indeed, certain big business interests continue to see basic climate science as an entirely too inconvenient truth. And, yes, some religious leaders will likely always deny the facts of human evolution, abortion, homosexuality, and stem cell procurement and therapeutic cloning. Responsible journalists have documented and exposed these affronts to reason quite thoroughly with appropriate vigor.

But are progressives really so different? Not according to Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell. In Science Left Behind, the authors contend that American media have long bestowed a “free pass” on the political Left (primarily progressives), who are just as likely to “misinterpret, misrepresent, and abuse” science to advance their ideological agendas. In fact, the authors say, progressives are currently waging an “undeclared war on scientific excellence itself.”


Light a Candle for Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini was an escape artist, magician, and showman. He was also an important skeptic famous for exposing the simple tricks used by mediums of his time. This article explains why we should light a candle to Harry on Hallowe’en.

Houdini’s careers in magic as well as escapology, aviator, filmmaker and movie star, author, book collector, and magic historian, are all fodder for fascinating stories in their own right. But we should particularly honor, this and every Hallowe’en, his career as a skeptic. While the link between magic and skepticism preceded Houdini by at least three centuries in the written record alone (marked with the publication of the classic Elizabethan text, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot, in 1584), and other magicians of the Edwardian era spoke out stridently against spiritualism both in the United States and Great Britain, nevertheless, Houdini crystallized the role of the magician in critical thinking, and the importance of having qualified magicians present when investigating self-proclaimed psychics.

Mistaken beliefs about crowds in emergencies

This is an interesting article about the beliefs held by police and safety professionals, and the actual behavior of crowds in emergency situations. Contrary to the myths, people tend to act rationally and cooperate when faced with a crisis.

Police and safety professionals fall for myths about people’s behaviour in emergencies.

Research shows that people typically shown signs of collective resilience in emergency situations. Promisingly, the professional groups recognised that emergency crowds are often cooperative; that acts of heroism often occur; that people use their local knowledge to aid their escape; and that people often underestimate the risk they face. On this last point, it was clear that many participants in this study held directly contradictory beliefs about crowd behaviour given, as mentioned, that many had also endorsed the idea of people overestimating threats.

Canadian municipalities and anti-science

teethHere is a disturbing article from the National Post on how some municipalities are practicing anti-science under pressure from fringe groups.

Attacks on science: Canadian municipalities often more likely to listen to activists than scientific facts | National Post.

In the past few years, towns, villages and cities throughout Canada have passed a wave of laws that could well be described as “anti-science.” Water fluoridation bans. Anti-WiFi resolutions. GE free zones. The decisions often fly in the face of scientific consensus, ignore the advice of experts and lend legitimacy to groups once considered fringe.

But, as activists are starting to discover, science does not matter when a city hall meeting is facing a room full of angry townsfolk.

Brain scan lie detection excluded from court

court houseWired Science is reported that a Tennessee court has thrown out lie detection “evidence” from brain scans because it was unscientific. The defendant had offered the scans as proof that he was not lying about defrauding the government over Medicare payments.

The defense tried to use brain scans of the defendant to prove its client had not intentionally defrauded the government. In a 39-page opinion, Judge Tu Pham provided both a rebuke of this kind of fMRI evidence now, and a roadmap for how future defendants may be able to satisfy the Daubert standard, which governs the admissibility of scientific evidence.

It is particularly important to note that the company actually violated their own protocols during the scan. After two tests produced different results, the testing was repeated a third time until the desire result was obtained.

“Dr. Semrau risked nothing in having the testing performed, and Dr. Laken himself testified that had the results not been favorable to Dr. Semrau, they would have never been released,” Pham noted.

Further, the company expert was unwilling to say if the defendant was lying or telling the truth on any specific question, but instead whether the person was “more overall” telling the truth.

Fake Bomb Detectors

A military supplier has been making lots of money selling dowsing-like devices to troops in Iraq that are supposed to detect explosives and other nasty materials. They devices come equipped with different programming cards to customize the substances they search for.

There has been speculation that the devices are fake and the programming cards don’t do anything. Now comes an analysis of the cards by careful dis-assembly, and the results are predictable…

There is no way in which this device could be programmed to distinguish the many different substances that the ADE651 manufacturer claimed it could, not to mention that any useful interaction with such an LC circuit would require a transmitter antenna, a power source, and lots of other components that the ADE651 appears to lack.

Dowsing for bombs

It seems that the military in Iraq has discovered a magical way to detect bombs, and they are spending millions of dollars to deploy it a checkpoints around the country.

The technology, however, is well known to be the equivalent of a dowsing rod and it is completely useless. Making fun of other people’s stupid beliefs can be fun, but when lives are on the line you have to be concerned.

More from the NY Times:

Iraq Swears by Bomb Detector U.S. Sees as Useless

Despite major bombings that have rattled the nation, and fears of rising violence as American troops withdraw, Iraq’s security forces have been relying on a device to detect bombs and weapons that the United States military and technical experts say is useless.

The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works “on the same principle as a Ouija board” — the power of suggestion — said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.