Re: Psychometry

Eugenie C. Scott (ncse@CRL.COM)
Thu, 8 Dec 1994 16:57:45 -0800

> >
> I said that,
> just like early thoeries in such pratices as carbon dating were
> ridiculed and shunned, so psychometry is now. We should be open minded
> enough to recognize this as a new source of data that we really don't
> understand at the moment. I suppose ( notice the word suppose ) that for
> some, the idea of psychometry hits a little too close to home to make it
> a comfortable topic. If someone put forth that you could smoke crack and
> learn a to translate all of the Mayan glyphs in just one day, I would
> become a bit defensive too. The scientific endeavor thrives on new ideas
> that seem to discredit the old. No, just because you believe something
> to be true doesn't mean that it is true. People believed that the Earth
> was flat even though it wasn't. If you apply this argument to your own
> theories, then just because you believe them to be true, doesn't mean
> that they are true. You might say that "I have proven my thoeries to be
> true using scientific, empirical methods that go beyond mere belief."
> The words used in this way are so emically defined that the previous
> statement reallt carries no weight. When a Balinese ritual expert
> carries out an "experiment" to see whether or not the spirits really do
> exist and can protect us from harm, a very "empiric" method is used.
> The expert dances on very hot coals and is not burned. What more proof
> do you need? "Well, its just that the mind has a powerful effect on the
> body and due to a drug enhanced conscienceness, the ritual expert was
> not burned," said the sceptic. Then how does the mind get such control?
> "Uhhhh," said the skeptic. Why can't it be that there really are
> spirits that can keep us from harm?
> I don't believe in this psychometry right now. What made me respond in
> the first place was the responces saying that is was a hoax and
> shouldn't be connected with any real science. I am not the embodiment
> of the Mr. Spacecadet that was described in the original message.

I have followed the postings on psychometry with some interest. It seems
that most thus far are perhaps not aware (or not as aware as they should
be) that there is quite a literature on "psychic science", whether
dowsing, psychic surgery (a.k.a. shamanistic surgery), firewalking,
psychic detectives, and even psychic archaeology. Information on all of
these topics can be found from CSICOP, the Center for the SCientific
Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, reachable through e-mail at

When "paranormal" abilities like dowsing or firewalking are tested under
controlled circumstances, the "effect" either disappears or is shown not
to be unexplainable by known forces. For example, anyone reading this
list could firewalk on wood chips, but don't try sprinkling pennies
through the coals.... The explanation is basic physics having to do with
the ability of different substances to conduct heat. An oven and a muffin
tin are both 350 degrees hot; you can put your hand into the oven without
harm, but don't grab the muffin tin without a mitt. Similarly, human skin
can walk on wood coals (don't stand in one place too long...), but not on
hot metal. There was a (fortunately) short-lived fad for firewalking a
number of years ago where people would spend upwards of $400 to be taught
how to "make their minds rearrange the molecules on the soles of their
feet" so that they could walk on fire. After some physicists fired up
coals and walked without any "mental preparation" (much less spending the
400 bucks), the fad seemed to decline. Native people walking on fire
don't use any mental or paranormal abilities, either. But like I say,
don't sprinkle any metal among the wood chips or your favorite shaman is
going to have very sore tootsies.

A very interesting test of professed dowsers (members of the Australian
dowsing society) agreed a number of years ago to a controlled experiment
to test their abilities to find water. (This is from memory, so I may
have some details mixed up. It is written up in CSICOP's publication,
*Skeptical Inquirer*.) Magician James Randi set it up: a series of four
pipes were buried in the ground and at random (but timed) intervals an
investigator not seen by the dowsers (and himself unable to see the
dowsers) turned the water on through one pipe or another. Other
investigators recorded when dowsers claimed water was in particular
pipes. It was thus a double blind research design.

The dowsers were confident they could tell when water was running through
the pipes and which pipes were empty. Of course, when the test was
finished, the dowsers had done exactly as expected by chance. And these
were "professional" dowsers who claimed to have been doing this activity
successfully for years!

The essence of science is looking for alternate explanations of phenomena
and then rejecting the ones that don't work. If a phenomenon like dowsing
"disappears" under controlled circumstances, one is justified in doubting
if it is truly a phenomenon at all. What about those cases (suggested by
one archaeologist/dowser) where dowsing seems to "work"? Well, let's
consider some alternate explanations. The literature on this topic goes
into possibilities in detail, and I don't have time to reiterate them all
here, but the first question is, are there circumstances under which the
ability to find water occur more frequently than others? (We already know
there are more "misses" than "hits", but is there a pattern to the
"hits?") Could it be the case that surface features correlated with
underground water sources are noticed, subconsciously or consciously, by
the dowser? In some parts of the Midwest (where dowsing historically has
been more on a roll than elsewhere) just about *anywhere* you point a
stick you're going to find water! The point is, can the occasional
situations where dowsing produces water be explained without resorting to
paranormal abilities? If so, this is simpler (Occam's razor) and thus
preferable as an explanation to an unknown force or power.

Psychic archaeology, those few times when it "works", I expect can be
explained by subconscious or conscious "cueing" of the investigator on
surface features. After all, most sites are found by walking along
looking for probable places where earlier humans might have chosen to
build or live. Nothing spooky about *that!* Maybe some CSICOP member
can recall whether a controlled, double-blind test of "psychic
archaeology" has ever been performed. I'll bet the results were similar
to the dowsing results.

Psychic detectives are perhaps the best researched of the so-called
psychic phenomena, and there are no cases where a psychic has actually
helped solve a crime by providing information not otherwise available to
the police (and in many cases, already published in newspapers!) I
remember when I was living in Boulder, CO, a particularly nasty murder of
a young woman from a suburb of Denver was exploited by a Denver "psychic"
who told the police that the body would be found "near water." In that
environment, you might as well say that the body would be found "near
oxygen" for all the help it would be! Similarly, most predictions of
"psychic" detectives are too vague to be of any use, or are such a
laundry list of possibilities ("near something red" [a flower? a
billboard?]" as to greatly increase the probability the psychic will
score a (self-defined) "hit". Psychic detectives' predictions parallel
those of tabloid psychics' January 1 predictions: zip, once the vague and
already known predictions ("there will be earthquakes in the Pacific
Rim!" [wow! how do they know that??]) are eliminated.

I also heard the NPR broadcast, and I am afraid I was unimpressed by the
psychic archaeologist's supposed abilities. It was stated that he was
dead wrong more than half the time, which isn't very encouraging
considering that most of it tests (I gather) were conducted by taking him
to the site and asking him where to dig. Virtually any moderately
competent grduate student could probably do that.

The examples of his "visions" (scenes of torture, people being tossed of
cliffs while their intestines rolled oout behind them) seemed quite
imaginative, but why should we believe that they are actually valid
"pictures" of events that objectively happened at that place at an earlier
time? Sincerity and earnestness are no substitute for objective truth.
He may *believe* he is seeing actual, true, past events, but why should we
believe him any more than we believe the sincere and earnest person who
claims to have been abducted by aliens and forced to have sex with them?
(I've been on TV shows with these people. They are very nice. But I
don't believe for one minute that what they experienced is objectively
true in the sense that a truck just went past my window.)

If you believe that there is an objective reality that follows certain
rules (gravity, for example), and someone comes up with a new force or
explanation that you haven't heard of, by all means you should
investigate it. But if after repeated tests of the same claims, you find
that there "is no there, there", you should be less inclined to leap at
the next claim of similar untested powers.

Do I seem closed-minded? I hope not. I think it would be great fun if
psychic phenomena exist, but I keep thinking about the overly-optimistic
little boy eagerly shoveling at the pile of manure because he thinks,
"there's a pony in there somewhere." A lot of us think that among the
claims of psychic surgery, dowsing, psychic archaeology, psychic
detectives, etc, etc, etc, -- there ain't no pony. Not because we're
stick in the muds, but because we've been shoveling long enough.



Eugenie C. Scott
1328 6th Street
Berkeley, CA 94710-1404
FAX: 510-526-1675