Pseudoscience, Part 1

Johnny Carson famously mocked psychics, playing “Carnac the Magnificent.” He exposed psychic Uri Geller’s claims on his show.

For the past ten years my interest in diminishing the impact of psychics and pseudoscience has grown. I wrote a newsletter about scary psychics earlier this year.  Few groups stand up for reason and truth – there should be more. The good ones, like the one mentioned below, needs and deserves our support.

The Center for Inquiry (CFI) recently launched the Office of Consumer Protection from Pseudoscience,and I love that they’re doing that.  Science and Pseudoscience are, of course, directly opposed to each other.  The LA chapter of CFI offers a $250,000 Paranormal Challenge. They promise $250,000 to anyone able to demonstrate a paranormal, supernatural, or occult ability.  They work with the applicant to design a test procedure, the conditions, and when the test will take place.  They even administer the actual test! This would seem to be easy money for anyone with “a gift.”  Most recently an applicant claimed he had telepathy skills and was able to plant the name of a specific playing card into a friend’s mind in a nearby room.  Probably not a surprise, but under controlled conditions, he couldn’t do it. There were 43 applications for the prize in the first quarter of 2022 and the money, so far, appears to be safe. That said, if you do have a friend with psychic capabilities who could use $250,000, the application can be downloaded here.  

Debunking psychics and discrediting this sort of fraud can be entertaining, fun, and satisfying on several levels. However, beyond tricking gullible people out of hard-earned dollars, it can sometimes get very serious – even deadly.  This is especially true when people are persuaded to trust claims of medical remedies that haven’t undergone rigorous scientific testing.

In my work with the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA), we often deal with innovative companies in the medical space. An important investment success hurdle for many of them is FDA approval or being on a path to FDA approval. Companies typically construct tests with ever-increasing levels of rigor, knowing the FDA takes its role in protecting public health seriously.  Getting the science right and proving the case for products isn’t simple and I admire business innovators who take up this challenge.

But there are some companies, thankfully never seen at the ACA, whose objectives are more nefarious.  Let me repeat a story Robyn Blumner, the President and CEO of CFI, related recently. After periodontal surgery, her periodontist sent her home with a StellaLife “intelligent healing” kit, including a product called “BEGA Oral Care Recovery Kit,” with an “antimicrobial” rinse to promote “oral health.” When she got it home she noticed the word “homeopathic” on the front and thought, “I’ve just been handed a box of placebos.”  On closer examination, she noticed that every single claim of efficacy had an asterisk.  After diligent searching, she finally found where the asterisk was defined, and it said, “Claims based on traditional homeopathic practice, not accepted medical evidence.  Not FDA evaluated.” For Robyn, not paying attention (and how many of us are super observant after oral surgery?) would have meant hours of pain and discomfort when proven medicines no doubt would have worked far better. I suspect traditional medicine would have included pain-relievers like Tylenol and a scientifically tested antimicrobial oral rinse.

To the credit of her periodontist, once informed of the issue, they cut their ties with StellaLife, although the company continues to pedal its wares to dental offices across the United States. Organizations like the Center for Inquiry counter this horse-pucky, along with all the nut cases recommending cow urine, bleach, and cocaine as COVID-19 cures.  As intelligent and caring human beings, we must work to end anything we see that legitimizes or tolerates health pseudoscience. It’s not a small issue. The vitamin and supplement market, another category recent science has called into question, generated $50B in sales last year (2021).  Fifty billion dollars for products science is telling us are largely unnecessary and useless.  Many readers of this newsletter have no problems calling “Bullshit!” when they see it.  So, be on guard and don’t be afraid to take a stance.

End note:  After writing and reviewing this draft, I feared I might be being too critical of homeopathy.  After all, my mother, a long-time nurse, was someone who avoided homeopathic remedies, but was a big believer in supplements, especially her glucosamine and chondroitin and urged me to try them, which I did, but they did nothing for me.  And Maggie frequently reaches for arnica gel for bruises and Sssstingstop for bug bites and itches.  As a result, I spent several hours researching Homeopathy.  I began with Wikipedia’s extensive section,  and used it as a jumping off point.  I learned a great deal, some of it rather scary.  For instance, Scientific American in 2017 documented hundreds of babies being harmed and some of them dying from homeopathic remedies.  I also found the Journal of Medical Ethic’s well-researched and documented paper titled “Homeopathy is where the harm is: five unethical effects of funding unscientific ‘remedies.’  There are many more sources, but if this interests you, these are a couple of good places to start. Of course, not everything in the universe can be explained and we’re surrounded by mysteries.  But the best way to uncover and understand those mysteries is conscientiously applied scientific effort.

Post Script:  My Minnesota daughter, as opposed to the NYC daughter, read this most recent blog post and wrote me asking if I was familiar with the JAMA Network.  I was not, but have since spent a few hours exploring it over the past two days.  It is a superb site for the latest medical information, covering dermatology, internal medicine, neurology, oncology, pediatrics, psychiatry, surgery and more. The sites editors follow and report on recent medical research studies by area.  Each issue (48/year and online) contains a host of articles, each providing short abstracts about a particular medical study, when it was done, number of participants, where, etc. and then the entire text and often a downloadable PDF as well.

The breadth, level of detail, authenticity and timeliness is astonishing.  They’ve got all the most current studies.  Think of it as a searchable, easy-to-access medical journal of peer reviewed studies.  Any fears about its credibility were eliminated when I learned it was published by the American Medical Association and saw that, JAMA stands for Journal of the American Medical Association. Highly recommended.

Low Grades – High Achievement

No one told me, in my school life grades 1 – 10, I was smart.  It was quite the opposite. No IQ test, just the underlying assumption that, I was “slow.” My mother never gave up on me, but suffered years of my ambivalent disinterest in school, barely passing grades, and non-stop lectures from teachers on my failure to apply myself.  Undiagnosed ADHD may have had something to do with my inability to focus and miserable report cards.

Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences (book cover)

As an adult, I learned about the variety of intelligences we humans possess, mostly through Daniel Goleman’s breakthrough 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.” Howard Gardner also has done extensive research in this area and I like his eight variations of the intelligence framework and I quite like it. Here’s a  YouTube Video summary of those.

I recently found this concept shortened to just four: IQ – Intelligence Quotient, EQ – Emotional Quotient, SQ – Social Quotient, and AQ – Adversity Quotient.  While not mutually exclusive, you have different aptitudes in each area and they’re not static. You can improve, train and cultivate your capabilities in each area. Some of the work is fun and interesting, and sometimes it’s just, well, “work.” Here’s how I think about these categories:

1. IQ (Intelligence Quotient)

This one is about logic, reasoning, problem-solving, test-taking, planning, math, science, and they tried to teach me in school. I did not perform well here as evidenced by my standardized test scores. My two daughters can do well in these areas, but only with some specific adjustments. For instance, Ginger’s school grades improved significantly when given additional time to complete tests.  One of my granddaughters excels in this category, eating up brain challenges and learning new information.  She can’t get enough. I have had two nephews with the same experiences, and at least two of their offspring are in the same boat. In my first executive-level role in a large company, I came home one day and told Maggie how a super-smart, highly-educated individual had been assigned to my team.  I was intimidated by his Ph.D., and the fact that he spoke multiple languages fluently and had authored three books.  “How can I avoid looking like a dunce next to this guy?” I wailed to Maggie.  What I eventually learned was he’d been transferred to my group, his third or fourth such transfer, because his prior managers had been unable to get value from him. While academically brilliant, he had difficulty knowing when to speak up and when to shut up. It was hard for him to know the right things on which to direct his effort, focus, and attention. I learned a high IQ and brilliant academic accomplishment didn’t automatically mean top job performance.

2. EQ (Emotional Quotient)

This one measures how well you understand yourself and other people. Both of my daughters are off the chart in this area.  I always thought I was good at “reading a room,” but Ginger is better.  She goes beyond seeing and knowing what is happening with an individual or a group and intuitively knows the buttons to push to get the results she wants. This makes her a killer negotiator.  She’s a good team leader and good at influencing people to do what she wants. She understands which things require attention and those that do not, seeing between the lines things others miss.I suspect my oldest daughter, Christie, is much the same, although I did not have the same opportunity to watch her develop and don’t have as many examples as with Ginger.  But one comes to mind from a recent trip to Hawaii last year.  The girls were searching for a thermal pool mentioned on Trip Advisor but not published in any guidebooks.  When Christie asked some Hawaiian natives about it, she sensed a feeling from them that made her choose her words very carefully.  In retelling the story, it was clear her emotional intelligence was what led to a successful interaction and subsequent visit to a secret spa, a spot few tourists ever found.

Larsen and Steven Snyder, Ph.D.
Larsen and Steven Snyder, Ph.D.

One aspect of EQ is self-awareness. One of my co-founders at Net Perceptions was Steven Snyder, Ph.D. Steven was early-in at Microsoft. He is a brilliant man and worked closely with Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates in their early days, learning at the highest level techniques for building and managing an engineering-focused company. Steven’s Ph.D. is in psychology, doing an internship and several practicums during his doctoral training.  As the CEO of Net Perceptions, he was a keen observer of the company founders, the management team, and their interactions.  His annual performance appraisals were almost therapy sessions with detailed assessments of what was working and what needed improvement. Before our first performance evaluation meeting, I completed my own assessment, in writing, from my perspective. While keeping it to myself, I used the same form I knew he would use.  I went through every section, noting where I was doing well and where I thought could use improvement.

Snyder’s one-on-one meetings began with a discussion of the top priorities of the company, then moved gradually to how the individual was doing at contributing to our forward progress.  We’d verbally go through the assessment form, the one I knew Steven had already completed, but with the opportunity for dialog and discussion. Finally, Steven would remove his written assessment from a folder and slide it across the desk to be signed.  It was in our first performance appraisal meeting when I impulsively pulled out the assessment I’d done on myself and gave it to him.  He was surprised. He was reading my form as I signed his and left the room.  Later he would tell me, “You are the most self-aware person I’ve ever met in my life.” For the rest of my time at Net Perceptions, Steven had me do my performance assessment – written in the third person of course – and turn it in.

Besides self-awareness, those with high emotional intelligence typically are good at self-regulation and motivating themselves.  Typically they’re empathic, sensing what people around them are thinking and feeling. For instance, I can’t help crying at movies and am moved when hearing stories of others’ experiences.  I find it easy to put myself into another person’s situation, understanding what they feel.

I find developing EQ, an emotional quotient, easy and fun. It starts by being curious about strangers and other people. I love talking with those around me on a plane or in a restaurant, trying to gauge what they’re thinking about right now and what makes them tick, not just comments about the weather or how long the line is taking.  If I learned nothing else from my years of helping the MISS Foundation (a group helping parents who have experienced the death of a child or loved one), it is to listen without judgment.  Maybe this is why I get along well with people on all sides of the political spectrum, as well as those with a diversity of religious beliefs and experiences.

3. SQ (Intelligence Quotient)

Lotus experts, including Maurico Zagorin, Brian Buckland, Jim Meininger, Brett Engel, David Barnett among others.

This one is all about building and surrounding yourself with a network of friends and maintaining them. EQ techniques help a lot with SQ behaviors.  As the years passed, my roles in early-stage technology companies evolved into co-founder and CEO. I would join at the behest of venture capital firms who’d found an investment they liked, but needed a real company, not just a technical founder with a brilliant idea.  My skill was, as one VC said of me, “He chooses the right people to be on the bus and gets it pointed and rolling in the right direction.” My approach to founding and managing companies paid dividends when assembling a group of car experts to rebuild my Lotus Elan in 2013-2014.  The same skill also helped ensure that several multi-day, group motorcycle rides I planned were successful.  But what most manifests SQ in me is my “groups” of close friends, some of whom are only tangentially aware of the others.   For years I was well known as an early-stage investor and start-up CEO, at least in Silicon Valley.  At the same time, an entirely different group of people around the world knew me as “that guy who writes for motorcycle magazines and travels around the globe on his motorcycle.” I managed both because the start-up side of my career frequently left multi-month gaps in assignments.  I filled the gaps with motorcycle adventures documented in stories and photos, filling the story banks of various motorcycle magazine editors.  I wrote “evergreen” stories for editors who found my articles connected with their readers. And of course, motorcycle riding spawned its own vast category of sub-groups, such as the American Flyers Motorcycle Club, a group I still ride with at least twice a year.  Other motorcycle relationships based on competitive events (track days or precision riding competitions) or sub-categories of riding (off-road and trials), while no longer part of my riding life, still brings me in contact with wonderful friends who are deeply into these aspects of the sport.Just as motorcycling spawned sub-groups, entrepreneurship did the same. I’ve been active in the Arizona start-up scene, beginning with a role at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, (the center for one of the greatest alumni networks on the planet, as I was recently reminded on a trip to Dubai, as part of an Arizona Commerce Authority delegation).   My Lotus and NSX car groups, while not as active as they once were, still contain friends with whom I communicate and meet frequently.  My flying and high-end audio friends are now pretty much out of my life and I hear from those people infrequently.

4. AQ (Adversity Quotient)

New to me, this one is all about resiliency, and how quickly you recover after going through a rough patch. This is about how long you dwell on getting a C+ on a test on which you’d wanted an A.  It’s okay to be mad and disappointed, but those with a high AQ quotient spend only a short amount of time concerned about the failure. High AQ people quickly begin planning how they’ll do better next time.  I watched my granddaughter Parker do this with a remote control rock crawling truck.  She created a track behind our house and timed herself, over and over, dropping her times lower and lower, until soon she had the best time, beating everyone else who circled the track.  She never let a bad run get her down, she’d just line the truck back up at the starting gate, and go again.Finding ways to get past mistakes in the small things, builds this skill and helps you bounce back quickly when confronted with bigger challenges.  Nothing illustrates this to me more than watching NBA games.  It is amazing to see how players and teams make bad, bone-headed stupid plays, missing shots play after play, and then, slowly turn it around and within 5 minutes, go from a 15-point deficit to tying the game.  Their AQ must be a finely-tuned high-impact weapon. All of us experience stress, disappointment, and failure. Resiliency is all about how you turn it around to help, rather than hurt or hold you back.  The greatest bounce-back required for our nuclear family was triggered by the loss of Eric (our son and, Christie and Ginger’s brother). It was only later I learned about the high rate of divorce and suicide following the death of a child.  The death of a child, I think, is probably the most tragic and painful event a human being will ever experience. Although hesitant to see this event as anything other than a horrific tragedy with no redeeming value, it was a year or so after it occurred I discovered an unintentional benefit.  My boss at IBM’s Prodigy at the time was a weak, backbone-less VP, a sycophant living in constant fear of upper management finding out his incompetence. He had four strong-willed and highly competent general managers as direct reports. We each ran a major division of the company and were all very good at what we did.  Then a new performance appraisal system was implemented which required managers to force-rank their employees (meaning if you rated two as Exceeding Expectations, you needed to rate the other two as not-meeting expectations). I was the last of the four of us to be reviewed, and it became clear the other three had pushed him into high rankings for themselves.  As he sniveled, coughed, and complained, he informed me he was going to have to rank me as only “meets expectations,” the only time I’d ever not achieved the highest possible ranking. As I watched him squirm, it occurred to me, “He thinks he’s hurting me. He believes this will make me feel bad. My god, he has no idea how ridiculous this is. I’ve already been so deeply hurt in my life, nothing else, for as long as I live, will ever be able to touch me. I’m invulnerable! Nothing anyone can ever do or say to me will make me feel bad.  The worst has already happened and I made it through.  Everything from here on out is a piece of cake. Thanks, Eric.” On a side note, less than a week after this occurred, I found myself alone in an elevator with our company CEO. He saw me, grinned sheepishly and said, “You know that performance appraisal ranking is bullshit, don’t you?”  I just smiled and nodded.  

If I had to say just one thing to my grandkids, nieces, and nephews it is this: Don’t only pay attention to what your school knows how to measure.  As you figure out what you are good at and do well and the things you want to do more of, understand your school is mostly about IQ.  They don’t have ways to help you understand and get good at Emotional, Social and Resiliency. You’ll need to figure those out on your own, or with your parents help, like I did.  But it’s worth doing.  I believe these three non-IQ related items hold the keys to success just as much as IQ does, and very likely, much more.

Know Anyone?

The MISS Foundation 2021 Annual Report (cover)

Do you know someone who’s experienced the loss of a child, grandchild, parent or sibling? Allow me to point you/them to the MISS Foundation, a wonderful group, brilliantly led by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore. This group is like a down comforter for people caught in a cold, dark room of grief. Here is how I met Dr. Jo  — what her friends call her.

Ten years ago I was standing in line at the Starbucks on the corner of 7th Street and Thunderbird. Cacciatore was in line ahead of me.  I couldn’t stop staring at the tattoo lettering across her back. It was a script, a poem, or maybe a song lyric, I couldn’t tell.  But I knew there was a story there. After we’d ordered and she waited for her drink, I got enough courage and approached her, saying, “Wow! That is some interesting artwork on your back.” I watched her size me up, making an assessment and then a decision on how to respond. She looked directly into my eyes and said. “It is a poem from St. John called The Dark Night of the Soul. It was applied with ink mixed with the ashes of my dead daughter.”  I paused, stunned, and as we stared at each other, I teared up and mumbled, “Oh. I know something about what you feel. I lost my son.” Neither of us said anymore. I tried to talk, but couldn’t.  I was so choked up.  She got her coffee and left the shop.

tattoo on Dr. Jo's back

Later she would write of this connection on Facebook. Someone saw it, thought it sounded like me, and pointed me to it.  We ended up corresponding and soon became friends.  Cacciatore went on to complete her doctoral thesis on the heartbreak experienced by parents who’ve lost a child and the best methods for dealing with this level of grief.  She started a non-profit foundation called The MISS Foundation. Last year she published a book on grief which has become a best seller on Amazon.com titled “Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss, and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief.”

I’m now on the board of the MISS Foundation.  Here is their 2021 Annual Report, a year in which the organization made extraordinary progress, including coverage by Oprah and Prince Harry’s television series. Others do so much more than I do to help, but I love these people and what they do.  If there are angels on earth, they are here, in this organization.

Scary Psychics

Mark Edward cold reading workshop - CSICon
Mark Edward cold reading workshop – CSICon

Recent explorations into ethical questions have led me down a variety of rabbit holes, eventually to the whole psychic phenomenon and people claiming to be mediums and able to predict the future. One fascinating character is Mark Edward.  I watched a 90-minute presentation where he explained how he and others in the “business” of psychic predictions, fortune-telling, and cold-readings do their “amazing feats.” Edwards is a former magician, having had long runs at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. Like Penn & Teller, David Copperfield, and James Randi, he dutifully explains that what he does is a trick. There are no supernatural forces at work.  He, and others offering psychic experiences, are superb listeners and skilled observers.(1) They’ve learned to tap into the pattern-seeking aspects of the human mind. As he demonstrates in the video, it turns out to be relatively easy to manipulate someone into believing the medium has contact with the spirit world or can hear and speak with dead relatives – even in an audience of confirmed skeptics. But, in fact, they’re all scams and have been proven so time and time again.  Nevertheless, people continue to be taken in.

If you know someone who has paid money for a psychic reading and they feel they got their money’s worth, good for them.  However, it’s best to understand what actually happened: the professed psychic used his/her repertoire to present ideas that would match the individual’s profile – the willing believer – and connected the dots.  The dot picture – and all the connections – were already in the persons head.  It’s the way our minds work.

Along these same lines I found a report, published in December of 2021, about a twelve-year study of psychic predictions. It is exceptionally well done, brilliantly documented and you can read the whole study here.

During the twelve years, researchers found and documented 3,800 predictions made by those claiming the ability to foretell events by paranormal, supernatural, divine, or spiritual means.  Finding them required digging through television programs, radio broadcasts, magazines, newspapers, websites, YouTube, and other social media.  They tracked the predictions and recorded the results.  Here is what they found:

  • 11 percent of predictions were correct
  • 15 percent were “expected”
  • 19% were too vague
  • 2% were unknown
  • 53% were wrong.

Most of what was predicted did not happen. Anti-gravity did not become a reality, Prince Harry did not become king, COVID-19 did not “disappear” in December of 2020 and the president of France was not assassinated.  And the corollary most people miss, most of what happened was not predicted. Psychics did not predict COVID-19, Osama Bin Laden’s death or even that of Robin Williams.

As Tim Medham, the executive officer on the study said,

If my car mechanic was right only 11 percent of the time, I’d get a different car mechanic.  But if, overall, all mechanics were right only 11 percent of the time, I’d begin to think there was something seriously wrong with the entire industry.  The results indicate nothing better than educated guessing – or even uneducated guessing – and certainly no better than any non-psychic could do, and probably a lot worse.”

As I watched clip after clip of supposed psychics, knowing it was a trick and how it was being done, I became more and more convinced those choosing to do this work have to be sociopaths, perhaps even psychopaths.  They are conmen and conwomen – people with little, if any, ethical compass and only pretending to care for the feelings or well-being of others.  As Mark Edward revealed in his presentation (and in more detail in his book: Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium), it is nearly impossible for him to feel good about what he does.  His rationalizations for why he continues to do it – “it’s my living, it’s the only thing I know how to do” – rings hollow.  How “psychic mediums” Tyler Henry, Miss Cleo, Caputo, and John Edward can allow and encourage people to believe stage tricks are not tricks but real precognition is despicable.

Better understanding of how our minds work is a hobby for me. Since high school and competing on the debate team, why people believe what they believe and think the way they do has intrigued me.  A couple of years ago, my friend Steve Pittendrigh gave me The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. The book exposes how randomness in everyday events is frequently misinterpreted. That book quickly led me to Michael Lewis’s book about Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman titled The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds.  The New Yorker has a terrific article about the book here.  This pair of researchers were able to demonstrate beyond doubt that humans are not nearly as logical as we believe ourselves to be and are highly influenced by external forces.  Their work won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Our minds are wonderful things. There is more going on inside our heads that most of us know.  The better you understand those who would seek to mislead you for their own selfish purposes, and the tricks they use to do that, the better off you will be. I’ve left this link to last.  It shows precisely how cold-reading works and how easily some one can mislead us. 

End

  • There is a wonderful scene in an early episode of the “Sherlock” series starring Benedict Cumberbatch in which Sherlock Holmes uses his exceptional powers of observation and each detail he sees is briefly highlighted. He saw dirty fingernails, a suntanned finger with a pale stripe where a ring used to be, a book missing on a bookshelf, tiny scratch on a desk corner, etc. If you can train yourself to see such minutiae extremely quickly, parse it, store it and recall it, then you, too, can have a career as a psychic!