I am not a psychic

I am not a psychics. The dead spirit of Carl Sagan does not speak to me. But it's fun to convince my class that it does. Meme origin unknown.
I am not a psychic. The dead spirit of Carl Sagan does not speak to me. But it’s fun to convince my class that it does. Meme origin unknown.

For the first day of class yesterday, I tried a new trick. We usually poll the class about issues that have a real science component, like vaccination or alternative medicine. It helps us to understand what they think they know. We added a new component yesterday, something we’ve talked about doing to a few years – we added a “psychic medium” trick to the first lecture. The names of the students, and their details, are changed to protect their identities.

The trick goes as follows. I tell the audience that the dead spirit of Carl Sagan speaks to me. I tell them he tells me things about the students. I get quiet, and I put a hand in the air and the other on my forehead. I say something like, “Yes . . . he’s here. He’s speaking to me now.” Some folks in the audience chuckle or smile; most are just quiet.

“It’s coming from over here,” I say, and gesture to the entire right half of the class. More chuckling erupts from the audience.

“I’m getting . . . something about a flower. Maybe . . . yes . . . maybe it’s a rose. A rose? Maybe it’s the name, Rosie?”

I miss. Rosie is not in the audience today, on the first day of class. No problem . . . Carl is still talking to me, feeding me information, so I move on.

“I’m getting something else. I’m seeing . . . maybe . . . Star Trek? Yes. I’m seeing . . . Captain Jean Luc Picard? Is there a Jean Luc in the audience?”

A student looks a little startled, and raised his hand. He is Jean Luc. “Ah, good. You’re the person Carl was telling me about. I see . . . yes  . . . he’s telling me that you have a keen mind. You’re . . . you’re an engineering major?”

The student reluctantly nods, and his eyes are wider now. The room is eerily quiet. Nobody is chuckling anymore. “Carl is also telling me . . . yes, I see it now. He is telling me that you like sports, too? You like sports . . . you like going to sporting events, but not alone. You like going with your friends. I see . . . I see you and a bunch of friends, arms around one another, at the United Airlines Center? Yes, it’s the United Airlines Center. It’s . . . Thanksgiving, or around Thanksgiving?”

The student doesn’t seem to know what Carl is talking about. But I know that I’m right, not only because of Carl’s insistent voice, but because the student sitting next to Jean Luc is freaking out. She’s trying to tell him by whispering that I am right. Jean Luc isn’t sure . . . he doesn’t recall this event clearly . . . but she does. And she is wide-eyed and excited and, perhaps, a little alarmed.

“I am getting November 22? I see that clearly.”

He’s still not sure, but she’s even more sure. I go for the finish. “Well, I see a photo of you and your friends in front of the United Center on November 22. You should check your Facebook page.”

The room erupts with laughter. I explain the trick, thank Jean Luc for being such a good sport, and toss him a door prize (one of those rubber wristbands, this one in support of a fake disease).

The Trick

Let me start by saying: I am not psychic. The dead spirit of Carl Sagan does not talk to me. However, I’m also not stupid. I know how to use the internet  and the web to learn public things about people that they forget are public. I am also a faculty member at SMU – I know the roster of my class before I even set foot in the room. I can know their names, their majors, etc. Facebook tells me things I shouldn’t know, but the students make public. I can find their home towns, their birthdays, and I can see photos they forget are public. Those photos tell stories and reveal details. Armed with this information, I can execute a very convincing “hot read” of an audience member. Here is how I did it.

  1. Before class, I memorize the names and faces of about 6 students. Not all students show up on the first day of class, so this gives me a safe pool of students to draw from.
  2. I also memorize their majors or, if they are a “pre-major,” their possible area of study. If they are a pre-major, and they are Juniors, then I can also assume they have “commitment issues” or that they have not yet “found their passion” – that is information I can bank for the hot read. It can seem like psychic powers, but it is a simple inference drawn from their major status.
  3. I then look them up on Facebook. That gives me recent photos (their student photos are old and bad). They also often post their birth day, home town, and other personal info as “public.” So I gather than and memorize a single, specific fact about them (like the details of a photo). For instance, I found a photo Jean Luc posted on his Facebook page, with the United Airlines Center in Chicago in the background; he and his friends were arm-in-arm in the foreground. The photo was posted on Nov. 22, so that was easy. It is a specific thing I can’t possibly know . . . unless I looked it up on Facebook!
  4. You need some showmanship to draw it out and pull it off, convincing the audience that you are “getting messages from the dead.” You need to add dramatic pauses, you need a physical tick or some other gimmick to convince them that this is difficult or exhausting. Do whatever you like, but do something. I close my eyes, hold my forehead, and put the other hand in the air. I look like an antenna with a migraine. It’s awesome and convincing.
  5. You need to embellish, and put in some weird starts and semi-fails to convince the audience that the line of communication to the dead is imperfect – not like speaking, but like looking at a semi-abstract painting. That is more convincing than just repeating facts. That’s why I threw in weird things like “Star Trek” before getting to the student’s name.

You also have to be ready to fail. If you bomb, move on. Don’t admit the mistake, just go to the next part of the schtick. People tend to forget the misses if your hits become spectacular.  It’s basic human psychology – specifically, it’s neuroscience, because our brains are not hard drives and they decide within a few seconds what to keep and what to toss. Misses are useless, and tend to be discarded by the brain. You can use that against people.

You can try it too! At your next conference talk, if you want to incorporate a couple of minutes that mess with your audience, try adding a cold + hot read. I like the hot read. It’s safe and easy to do – you just need a name and two basic facts about the mark. One of those facts should seem “impossible” for you to know (how could I possibly have known that Jean Luc was at the United Center on November 22?). Save that for last. They will forget all your mistakes if you make an unlikely but spectacular hit at the end.

Final Comments

This trick is how “psychics” fleece thousands of dollars out of people who want to believe in psychics. There is no credible and reliable evidence for the existence of psychics, and until all psychics submit to randomized, double-blind, deception-controlled scientific testing of their claims, you should not give them a single dollar of your money. TV psychics are often no better than flipping a coin, and they are ONLY that good because of editing. Think critically before accepting the claim that people speak to the dead. You might be about to be parted from your money.

General Mills, Cheerios, Food Labeling, and Science-Based Policy Making

General Mills announces Cheerios will no longer contain genetically modified ingredients. So . . . will they be individually hand-carved from rocks? A look at the science and values issues in the General Mills food labelling policy.
General Mills announces Cheerios will no longer contain genetically modified ingredients. So . . . will they be individually hand-carved from rocks, which contain no DNA? Let’s have a look at the science and values issues in the General Mills food labelling policy.

General Mills (in a blog post written by Tom Forsythe) announces that Cheerios, a flagship cereal for the company, will no longer be made with genetically modified ingredients [1].

What’s wrong with this announcement?

General Mills is adding labels to its food products, like Cheerios, that read “not made with genetically modified ingredients.” However, this is impossible – it’s scientifically inaccurate, and thus does a disservice to the natural world of which we are a part. So . . . are they making Cheerios from rocks now? No, I am not being snarky – I am merely attempting to identify something from which Cheerios can be crafted but that itself doesn’t contain DNA. That’s because all biological organisms are genetically modified . . . this is how natural selection, or “descent with modification,” works to create biological organisms adapted to their environment. Without it, life as we know it is not possible.

What General Mills actually means to say is that they will no longer use ingredients whose genes have been precision modified (e.g. “Biotechnology”) to make the organisms even better at resisting pests, or tolerating their environment, or increasing their yield. Precision genetic modifications are better tested and understood than those made in the wild, so this makes no scientific sense.

What’s right with this announcement?

When it comes to food policy and the science that informs it, one must separate the science issues (biotech foods are generally well-studied and well-controlled, with no known harmful side-effects for human consumption) from the values issues (people are afraid of eating new things, people make choices about what they eat based on philosophy, or politics, or religion, etc.). In fact, the General Mills blog posts stresses rightly that, “… it’s not about safety. Biotech seeds, also known as genetically modified seeds, have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in global food crops for almost 20 years.” They rightly distinguish the values and science issues in this policy.

Comments on the policy

So if they have the science right, what’s up with the change? The company claims they did this because it was easy – the ingredients in question were a small part of the manufacturing process and it was a minimal change for their manufacturing process – and “…because we think consumers may embrace it.” . Since the call for removal of Biotech ingredients from foods has been coming from a loud group of people who confuse science and values in the making of food policy, I have to speculate that General Mills did this not only because it cost them little or nothing to do, but because it would placate that population. It’s certainly a policy move, but not a science-based policy move.

General Mills is free to use whatever they want in their food products, so long as it is not in violation of food safety regulatory mechanisms. However, they should not mistake genetic modification for Biotech foods; the latter is a subset of the former. To claim on a label that you’re not going to make Cheerios from genetically modified food suggests each one will be hand-carved from rocks; rocks possess no DNA and cannot be genetically modified. As a scientist, I want scientific accuracy in discussions of food policy, and if you are going to label foods then do it accurately and do not confuse the core scientific issues. The blog post itself did a decent job of separating the science issue from the other issues; but the food label itself uses this misleading idea that one can EVER be free of genetically modified food. That is impossible.

[1] http://www.blog.generalmills.com/2014/01/the-one-and-only-cheerios/

NOTE: I teach a university course in the scientific method, critical and creative thinking. I stress with my students the importance of defining science, clearly framing the scientific portions of issues, and separating those parts from the values portions of an issue. Food labelling is a constant source of material for critical assessment in the framework of the scientific method.

Claim Assessment – Winter Break Edition (“The Ford Dealer” Email)

U.S. Federal Spending in 2011
U.S. Federal Spending in 2011. From Ref. 2.

I’ve been seeing a lot of friends and family over the last week during the Winter Break. One of my friends presented me with an email – it’s unclear whether they wanted me to read it and agree with it or read it and debunk it. It was a chain email, and after reading the first four or five paragraphs it was clear that this was fodder for critical claim assessment.

The email is discussed briefly over at snopes.com [1]. They collected it in August of this year. It is clearly intended as a hit piece on people who receive government assistance, and was circulating prior to the Presidential election. Broadly speaking, it’s an attempt to create a straw man – the cheating lazy American who games the system and makes a ton of money – and then blame that straw man for all the financial woes of the U.S. The version I saw was slightly modified to appear clearly in support of Governor Romney’s comments about the fraction of people receiving government assistance and the quality of those people. Here are the added pieces I saw in the mail. At the beginning of the message, prior to the introduction:

This is exactly why Mitt Romney said that 40 some odd % of the people are too dependent on the government. They have learned to work the system.

At the end of the mail is a plea to send the mail to 10 people. It then says,

Many of us believe business oriented leadership by Romney and Ryan would have helped turn disaster into recovery . . . the Business of America is Doing Business!

So, we realize this doesn’t seem like we’re doing much when we pass these on to our 10, but take a look at what the polls said.

Yes, we CAN help by getting the word out. Media refuses to cover such issues. PLEASE PASS THIS ON TO YOUR 10!

The common content listed at snopes.com is sandwiched in between these added sections. The use of conditional simple tense – ” . . . would have helped . . . ” – suggests that the added text was written AFTER the election’s outcome, as a “told you so” warning. However, the story clearly predates the election itself.

I found the piece overall interesting as fodder for critical claim assessment. I invite you to read through it and look for the many logical fallacies involved – for instance, there is reliance on anecdotal evidence (we cannot even know if the story is true as reported, including the specific numbers), hasty generalization (extrapolating to a large population based on a very small sample size), appeal to emotions, etc. I found one part of the mail specifically interesting. Let me excerpt the pieces and then discuss what I found so interesting.

[The woman purchasing a car at the Ford dealership] said the gov’t sends her $1500.00 a month in 1 check. And she gets $700.00 a month on an EBT card (food stamps), and $800.00 a month for rent.

Oh yeah, and 250 minutes free on her phone.

That is just south of $3500.00 a month . . .

Do the math and then ask yourself why the hell should she go back to work.

If you multiply that by millions of people, you start to realize the scope of the problem we face as a country.****

The socialists have nearly 51% of the population in that same scenario, so we are about finished.

So the claim is that based on this one woman (whose existence we cannot independently verify and whose numbers are not sourced), this is typical of what all people on government assistance receive. The claim is also that 51% of the population is on such government assistance.

Does that add up? Well, if every such person receives $3250/month for 12 months, and we take the population of the U.S. to be about 310 million [2] in 2011 (you’ll see why 2011 matters in a moment), then the cost to the Federal government is:

$3250.00 x 12 x 0.51 x 310,000,000 = $6.2 trillion

What is the total Federal budget of the U.S.? In 2011, the total Federal budget was $3.6 trillion [3]; however, only 43% of that budget is spend on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. That means a maximum of $1.5 trillion. Only a fraction of that money is spent in the way outlined above – on the food program ($78 billion [4]), or on a monthly stipend.

So if we take the claim at face value – as the author of the email clearly wants a reader to do – it is physically impossible for the message to be true. Given the basic falsehood of the premise for the final claim – that this “kind of person” is to blame for all the financial woes of the United States – how can we trust anything else stated in the mail. A major flaw like this financial extrapolation deconstructs the entire argument.

Is it possible that there is such a person? In a system as complex as ours, it’s possible. But is every person who receives any such money receiving such generous benefits? That’s not only extremely unlikely, it’s financially impossible.

That’s why I called this mail a “hit piece.” It’s intended to go straight for your emotions and by-pass your brain. If you apply a little critical thinking and some very basic math to the email, its power is robbed.


There were two particularly worrying things about this email. The first is that it claims to be derived from the Facebook post of the owner of a Ford Dealership – ostensibly, a businessman who says “The Business of America is Business!” This businessman is also apparently willing to air the private financial details of his own customers, a practice that is already distasteful (assuming it’s even true at all!). The second worrying thing is that the copy I saw had been sent internally within a business from a supervisor to his subordinates. This was being circulated intentionally by management within a business organization, asking employees to pass it along. At best, that is abuse of a corporate email system.

Both of these observations implies a total misunderstanding of basic money and math by management in either of these two businesses. The Ford Dealership owner used the hasty generalization fallacy to project the situation of a single person to the whole of those who receive any financial support from the U.S. government. Neither of these particular two businessmen stopped and did the math – if they did, they would have realized the core claims of this mail are impossible. At the risk of drawing my own hasty generalization fallacy, if anything spells doom for American business, it’s weak sense critical thinkers running the businesses that participate in our economy.

More info:

Is Tom Selkis a real person? If so, is he connected to Latham Ford?

Latham Ford is real. Tom Selkis is real; he is the owner and a dealer. See the snap of their page below. Does that mean he is really the origin of this mail? Not necessarily, because this information is publicly available and anyone could fake the origin.


[1] http://www.snopes.com/politics/taxes/forddealer.asp

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_the_United_States

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_federal_budget

[4] http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=2226

[5] The full mail, from [1]:

A Ford Dealer’s Report – From Tom Selkis’ (Latham Ford) Facebook – True story yesterday at the dealership.

I’ll try to make this as short and to the point as I can.

One of my salesmen here had a woman in his office yesterday wanting to lease a brand new Focus.

As he was reviewing her credit application with her he noticed she was on social security disability.

He said to her you don’t look like you’re disabled and unable to work.

She said well I’m really not. I could work if I wanted to, but I make more now than I did when I was working and got hurt (non-disabling injury).

She said the gov’t sends her $1500.00 a month in 1 check. And she gets $700.00 a month on an EBT card (food stamps), and $800.00 a month for rent.

Oh yeah, and 250 minutes free on her phone.

That is just south of $3500.00 a month.

When she was working, she was taking home about $330.00 per week.

Do the math and then ask yourself why the hell should she go back to work.

If you multiply that by millions of people, you start to realize the scope of the problem we face as a country.
Once the socialists have 51% of the population in that same scenario, we are finished.

The question is when do we cross that threshold if we haven’t already, and there are not enough people working to pay enough taxes to support the non-working people? Riots?? Be prepared to protect your homes.

She didn’t lease the Focus here because the dealer down the road beat our deal by $10.00/month.

Glad to know she is so frugal with her hard earned money.