"The Skeptic Digest"
Subject: Skeptical Digest 21.2 (Summer 2008)
Date: September 6th 2008
Dubious News - In this Issue - New Website - Little Atoms Podcast - Events - Administrivia
Retired at twelve years old
The Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge was first pledged by James Randi on 6 March 1998 and during its existence to date, none of the applicants have passed even the preliminary tests. On 6 March 2010, however, the challenge is to be retired and the collective sigh of relief from fraudulent performers might even faintly shift the Earth's axis of rotation (of course that's probably unlikely given the inherent difficulty in accurately targeting a single focal point so as to avoid any cancellation effects from equal and opposing forces, but you get the idea). In any case, the termination of the challenge creates a rather notable absence in the sceptics' default defence against claimants of all things supernatural.
Although it will no longer be possible to follow Sylvia Browne's 'progress' with the challenge or to learn of further perfectly reasonable excuses for not taking JREF money and scientific acclaim, there are a number of organisations that still offer prize money for successful applicants.
In the UK, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) is currently offering �14,000 to anyone successfully demonstrating psychic powers, and the Indian Skeptics are offering 100,000 Rupees to be awarded by B Premanand himself, for any psychic, supernatural or paranormal demonstration. The list of prize funds continues too: $100,000 (AUS) from Australian Skeptics (including $20,000 for anyone who nominates a successful applicant), $50,000 (US) from CFI's Independent Investigations Group and, bizarrely, $2,500 (US) from Scientific American for a photograph of a spirit or a "visible psychic manifestation" under test conditions.
On its website, ASKE provides a list of 20 worldwide challenges which, at the time of publication, collectively offer over $1,500,000 in prize money in addition to the JREF prize. Randi states that the reasons for the discontinuation of the JREF challenge are to make available more funding for future projects and scholarships, and as he says in the first edition of this year's SWIFT, it will also bring an end to "hundreds of poorly-constructed applications, and the endless hours of phone, e-mail, and in-person discussions we've had to suffer through". So while one challenge that grew from a humble $100 (US) ends, many more are ready to continue in its place.
The Ganzfeld procedure has its origins in 1930s Gestalt theory but has been used consistently as an experimental method for testing telepathy and remote viewing since the 1970s. In brief, the experiment is typically conducted using two rooms, in one of which the individual acting as the receiver is placed in effective perceptual isolation. They sit comfortably in a chair under a red light, with half ping-pong balls covering their eyes and listen to white noise (which is also coincidentally often used during military interrogation). Meanwhile, a set of images (or video clips) is randomly selected from a large pool of such stimuli and a particular target stimulus is randomly selected from that set. The 'sender' then concentrates on the chosen target in an attempt to telepathically transmit stimulus information to the receiver. The receiver, who typically enters a mildly altered state of consciousness, is asked to free-associate any images or sensations they experience during the isolation, and is asked to identify target images when taken out of the Ganzfeld state afterwards. The technique provides little information about the physical experiences of the receiver when in the Ganzfeld state, but a study conducted by Harvard researchers and published in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience combined technological and traditional measures to provide exactly that. This particular study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the haemodynamic response and neural activity of participants who were presented with two images (two-alternative forced-choice tasks). Another individual, either biologically or emotionally associated with the receiver, focused on the target image, which was randomly selected from the two, and attempted to transmit this to the receiver.
Whereas the original Ganzfeld tests rely substantially upon participants' ability to match visualised images to target images, usually in the presence of distractor images, the imaging technique was hypothesised to highlight any telepathic effect as participants' brain activity (as measured by blood-oxygen level changes) would be distinctly different in response to novel images than in response to familiar ones. Previous (non-paranormal) research into familiarity effects had already reliably demonstrated such effects. Perhaps it is not a great shock to learn that the results were in line with chance expectation, but despite the counter arguments that ESP involves fundamentally different neural activity to normal perception, or that ESP effects are too weak to accurately measure in this manner, the study retains its methodological merit. If significant neurological differences are exhibited when studying 'normal' senses, perhaps a null result when testing ESP will add further weight towards a critical analysis of the alleged phenomenon. Or perhaps it's about time 'real' psychics were tested. I'm sure $1,000,000 should cover the research costs.
Only 64 years to live
Dr Yoshiro Nakamatsu plans to die in 2072, which is no small feat, since he will be celebrating his 80th birthday this year. Nakamatsu, or Dr Nakamats as he is more widely known, has no apparent morbid fascination; this date has simply been borne out of his research and his theory of devoting equal attention to food, drink, sleep, muscle training, spirituality, and sex. The Japanese inventor has over 3200 patents registered to his name, earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records and beating Thomas Edison, who registered a mere 1093. Dr Nakamats was the mind behind the digital watch, the floppy disk, the CD (devised because the popping noise from his vinyl copy of Beethoven's Fifth was a distraction from inventing), the DVD and the taxi-meter. He is also the only person to have licensed 16 patents to IBM. Nakamats eats only one meal per day consisting of no more than 700 kilocalories, and since 1971 has photographed every meal in order to recall those which might stimulate the best ideas. Dr Nakamats is not exactly 'normal'.
Nakamats is currently developing many projects, including: an energy self-sufficient house, bouncing shoes to decrease physical stress caused by walking, snack foods to improve mental performance, a revolutionary fluid to make sex more enjoyable (and designed to rectify Japan's falling birth rate), and paradoxically, a condom again intended to heighten pleasure, but also to rectify the world from AIDS. The common factor between all of these concepts, however, is that Nakamats devised them whilst underwater.
It would seem that the man who sleeps only four hours per day also finds inspiration whilst becoming slightly hypoxic. Nakamats immerses himself underwater in a feat of endurance in his own swimming pool until desperate for air or until ideas are forthcoming. He then emerges and scribbles the ideas on a Plexiglas tablet before continuing about the day.
In order to fulfil such a varied lifestyle with so little sleep, Nakamats naps in a device dubbed the Cerebrex, which is of course his own invention. It is a chair which, although comfy in appearance, also allegedly increases the blood circulation to the brain and increases synaptic activity in the brain through pulsating sound produced from headrest to footrest. Due to the unique technology contained within the recliner, Nakamats claims one hour in the chair has the same effect on the brain as eight hours of sleep.
The theory of power napping, however, is not new. Polyphasic sleep gives a supposed method to reclaim up to six hours that would otherwise be spent sleeping. It involves sleeping for a core period of a few hours and then taking strictly timed naps of 20 minutes or so throughout the day. In many cases a seemingly polyphasic schedule such as the one undertaken by Nakamats can simply be biphasic (normal) sleep with longer periods of sleep deprivation, but why so many notable individuals, such as Edison, DaVinci, Churchill, Franklin, and Napoleon, have been rumoured to keep odd sleeping patterns still remains unanswered.
The Skeptic Vol 21, No 2 Summer 2008
Towards a Cognitive Neuroscience of the Dying Brain Jason J Braithwaite offers an in-depth analysis and critique of the survivalist's neuroscience of near-death experiences
Searching for Cressie, the Crescent Lake Monster Benjamin Radford recounts the story of his search for a monster that never was
An Evening with James Randi & Friends Jon Cohen reports on the evening that will be remembered for all eternity as the greatest night there ever was (probably)
- Sprite, by Donald Rooum Cartoons by Tim Pearce Pictures from Hilary Evans' Paranormal Picture Gallery
A column based on the observation that sometimes statistics don't lie - they're just plain crazy...
Hits and Misses:
Retired at twelve years old
Only 64 years to live
- Editorial (Lindsay Kallis and Chris French) Skeptic at Large: eHealth (Wendy M. Grossman) Philosopher's Corner (Julian Baggini) Sprite (Donald Rooum) Through a Glass Darkly (Michael Heap)
- Who Shot JFK? by Robin Ramsay The Psychic Handbook by Craig & Jane Hamilton Parker DVD - Nick Pope: The Man Who Left the MoD - The UFO Phenomenon Unveiled directed by Philip Gardiner Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives by Richard Wiseman
The Skeptic Website & Weekly Podcast
We've very secretly been working on a new website - with added podcast - to bring a bit more content and functionality to The Skeptic and hope you'll take some time to have a look and send us feedback on the new site. There are a few bugs and glitches to iron out and we will be adding more content over the next few months, but we'll attempt to make the transition to the new site as painless as possible.
We've also teamed up with the team behind Little Atoms at Resonance FM to bring you a weekly rationalist and sceptical talkshow, with a sprinkling of other interesting guests. We've already had over 3500 views and almost 2000 downloads since our test run last month and have 73 episodes ready to listen to, featuring; Ben Goldacre, A.C. Grayling, Simon Singh, Julian Baggini, Johann Hari, David Colquhoun, Francis Wheen, Christopher Hitchens, Jon Ronson, James Randi, David Aaronovitch and many notable others.
For a sneak preview, visit http://skeptic.org.uk/joomla
Skeptics in the Pub
The Real X-Files - Nick Pope
Tuesday, September 16
A Sceptical Look at Spiritualism - Emma-Louise Rhodes Tuesday, October 21
The Skeptic in the Courtroom - David Allen Green Tuesday, November 18
Authenticity and its Influence on Behaviour, Attitudes and Beliefs - Mike Heap Tuesday, December 16
Email: simon at skepticsinthepub.org
Bad Science - Ben Goldacre
Monday 15th September 2008
Why don't creationists just shut up? - Paul Taylor Monday 13th October 2008
Beasts on the Loose - Neil Arnold
Monday 17th November 2008
Skeptics versus Believers - Professor Chris French and Nick Pope Monday 8th December 2008
Email: pub at skeptic.org.uk
APRU @ Goldsmiths, London
Is God a Dangerous Meme? - Dr Susan Blackmore Tuesday 7th Oct 2008
Conspiracy Beliefs: A Social Psychological Perspective - Dr Karen Douglas Tuesday 21st Oct 2008
Time to Rewrite Your Autobiography? - Dr Kimberley A. Wade Tuesday 11th Nov 2008
Psychoactive Plants and Psychic People: Does Psilocybin Really Cause
Psi? - Dr David Luke
Tuesday 18th Nov 2008
Magical Beliefs and the Two Cerebral Hemispheres - Dr Christine Mohr Tuesday 9th Dec 2008
Email: c.french at gold.ac.uk
Skeptical Digest is written by Mark Williams and e-mailed quarterly alongside published issues of The Skeptic; there may be occasional additional mailings. To subscribe to or leave the digest, visit http://skeptic.org.uk/digest (we do not sell, give away, or rent the e-mailing list).
The Skeptic is published quarterly. For details see http://skeptic.org.uk/joomla.
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