The first event of the conference was actually called the "Solved Mysteries Workshop", but in deference to Andrew Harter's new Harry Potter-like DVD, I've changed the title a bit. In many ways, this workshop was about defending ourselves against the common tricks used by charlatans the world over and throughout time to convince people of their arcane abilities.
|So What Are You Takin' A Picture Of?|
Speaking for the side of the right and true were Andrew Harter, Hal Bidlack, and Mr. Randi. One of the first points made is that an education does not make one smart, just educated. In particular, academics tend to be fooled because they overestimate how savvy they are at detecting deception.
|The Quest To Leave No Pun Unturned, Begins|
The late Dr. Richard P. Feynman was quoted as saying in response to question about how to explain an anomalous performance, "I don't know, but I don't know much about how magic tricks are done."
|He Knows Whereof He Speaks|
The first problem discussed was how to successfully blindfold an individual who claimed to be able to see without using their eyes.
|No Peeking You Two!|
Volunteers were blindfolded, and were examined by others to see if the blindfolding appeared to be successful. Those blindfolded were then challenged to read, and they did, with varying degrees of success.
|Andrew Takes An Aggressive Approach|
We were now asked to break into groups and come up with ways of improving the blindfolding. Several options were considered. Randi and Andrew took these suggestions and gave the problems associated with implementing them. The difficulties tended to fall into two categories: problems with preventing peeking, and problems with reasonable objections from the subject.
From their experience, the best method is to use child-sized swim goggles filled with foam rubber to press against the eyelids and keep the eyes closed. The point was reinforced that the idea is not to prevent the subject from succeeding if the phenomenon is real, but only to prevent cheating.
|Must... Stare... Harder|
Next, we were shown a demonstration of apparent telekenisis, and asked how we would go about eliminating methods of cheating. Styrofoam peanuts were a recommended way of detecting the use of either breath or static electricity to move the carefully balanced pencil.
|Dance! Dance for Me!|
Cold reading was discussed, and a film was shown of James Van Praagh, spliced together from several readings, to show the common themes and techniques he uses to elicit information and to create apparent "hits" in the minds of his sitters. The challenge to testing these subjects and of testing remote viewers resulted in much the same ideas for both. Tests should eliminate subjective judging processes as much as possible, and should make use of forced-choice questions. In the case of remote viewing, the targets should be selected from a large pool, and the choice of target should be random instead of picked by a human, to prevent selection biases.
Finally the difficulty of securing a take-home object from tampering was discussed. The distinction between "tamper-proof" and "tamper-evident" was discussed, with a preference for the latter, especially of a type which would make the tampering evident to the researchers without making it evident to the subject.
We were left with two final thoughts: first, that we should not be trying to change the minds of the true believers, but to reach the "reasonable majority". Second, that people will never believe that they are easily deceived.
One other thing: if the video of this workshop is ever released, and you see me looking back expectantly every once in a while, I am looking for Julia Sweeney to show up. About an hour into the workshop, Hal walked over and asked that I save a seat for her next to me. I was way ahead of you on that, Hal.