Snatching defeat from the jaws of the MDC

Bad Astronomy
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May 26 2009 8:04 AM

Snatching defeat from the jaws of the MDC

As you may recall, the JREF recently tested a woman named Patricia Putt who claimed she could "read" people, that is, write down statements that accurately described these people, without knowing them in advance. She applied for the Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, and the preliminary test was performed in England by JREF friends Professors Christopher French and Richard Wiseman.

Briefly, 10 women were read by Ms. Putt, she wrote down descriptions of them, and then after the readings each of the ten women was allowed to look over the readings and determine which one fit her best.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


In advance of the testing, Putt and the JREF agreed that if 5 of the 10 women chose correctly, then this would indicate that something interesting was happening, and she could move on to the final testing. And how did she fare?

Not one of the women picked the reading that matched her. Putt scored 0 out of ten.

When she discovered this, she was shaken, and seemed fair about it. However, that's now changed. On his blog, Richard Wiseman described what happened, and Putt has responded. As with almost all applicants who fail, she is finding ways to rationalize her failure. However, she goes much further than this, claiming that in fact she got 10 out of 10 right! How?

Because Ms. Putt made ten readings, and according to her each one of the women read did in fact choose a reading that she thought fit her best! In other words, Putt says that because each women did pick one of the readings, there must have been something in that reading that the woman felt fit her, and therefore Putt scored a perfect 10/10.

Um. Well, not so much. First off, if I write down 30 random character traits, of course everyone will find a few that fit them! This is plainly obvious, so having the women pick one reading that fit them best is no indication at all that Putt has any psychic abilities.

Worse, though, is that in the rules, each woman was required to pick one reading! So literally, Putt could have written "You eat puppies, you push little old ladies in front of cars, you pick your teeth in public, and you belch loudly in elevators," for each reading, and the women would have had to pick that. So this indicates nothing at all.

I also find it fascinating that in the comment, she says,

I should also like to point out that neither am I a winger or a whiner, so when I decided to take up the Randi Challenge I did so with both eyes open knowing that the protocols would be completely one sided in favour of JREF, and so it was.

I willingly walked into the lion’s Den knowing it would be a long, difficult and very tiring day with apparently nothing to smile about at the finish.

That's interesting indeed, since she had to sign a form indicating that she agreed to the terms of the Challenge. As a later comment states, she had to sign a form that in part says, "I, the undersigned, agree to all terms and conditions listed in this document outlining the protocol for my preliminary test in the James Randi Educational Foundation’s One Million Dollar Challenge. I agree that the protocol outline describes a fair test of my claimed ability."

Seems to me that I wouldn't sign such a form if I thought the test was unfair. And we know that many, many Challenge applicants try very hard to come up with reasons why they failed the test after the fact, despite the JREF jumping through many, many hoops to make sure that before the test the applicant is happy with it. No test is conducted unless the person applying is happy with it. That's a basic and inviolable rule of the Challenge.

But what I find most interesting of all is that after the test, Putt emailed Alison Smith, who is in charge of the Challenge protocols, saying (as quoted by French in the Guardian (see below)):

With them [the volunteers] being bound from head to foot like black mummies, they themselves felt tied so were not really free to link with Spirit making my work a great deal more difficult.

Hmmm, which is it? Did she score a perfect 10 out of 10, as she claimed in her response on Professor Wiseman's blog, or was it impossible to do the reading because the subjects were not free to be read?

Or is there a third possibility? I'll leave that to your imagination.

It should be noted, as Professer French points out in his Guardian article about this, that "For the record, no volunteers were "bound" and Mrs Putt did not speak to any of the volunteers after the test. One can only assume that she picked up on their feelings of being "tied" via her psychic powers."

So make of this what you will. It doesn't prove psychic powers don't exist, nor does it prove that Putt doesn't possess them if they do. But it does show that when you take out the bias, take out the feedback the reader gets from the client, and take out the aspects of the readings that allow someone being read to be led to the conclusions they want to hear, Putt scored zero.

Occam's razor slices close indeed. You may try to bandage the cut after the fact, but you're only covering up the reality of the wound.

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