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No clairvoyants win a Prague contest

For three months, clairvoyants, psychics, and fortune tellers in Prague – and Czechia – have had the opportunity to win $4,000 in a very easy way. Just arrive to the Nový Smíchov mall, paranormally look through the safe box over there, see what's inside (or be a prophet or soothsayer and predict the objects that would be written in this blog post), and write the correct answer – "a toothbrush, a [restaurant] bill, and a walnut [marble would be tolerated]" – to a web form.



Socialite, sponsor, and trader Václav Dejčmar (who co-hosted my black hole talk in Prague-Barrandov in January) contributed the money and the toothbrush. Leoš Kyša, the vice-chairman of Sisyphus (the Czech counterpart of CSICOP; the name is chosen because the fight against paranormal beliefs looks like a fight against windmills) added the bill, and Jakub Kroulík from Deceitful Players (falesni-hraci.cz), a gang of playful skeptics who have learned to do everything that psychics can do, added the walnut.

You know, many psychics and fortune tellers have to work hard and get $10 from one client. You need to repeat it many times to earn $4,000. So the safe box could be handy.




Hundreds (360) of psychic wannabes (EN) – and perhaps some people who hoped to be lucky (or to be hiding some amazing abilities they haven't fully realized yet) – have submitted their guesses about the three objects. A sword, a book, a tablet; ATM card; black stone; black casino token; keys, telephone, nothing; socks, watch, coin. You may imagine – something like one thousand of random objects appear in the list. No one came close to the truth.

And it was so easy: just say "toothbrush, bill, walnut". ;-)




The challenge was a part of a more general, greater Paranormal Challenge. A person with paranormal abilities may win $40,000 (one million crowns) if he or she agrees with the organizers about a protocol that guarantees that the probability of success by chance is smaller than 1-in-100,000, or something like that.

Those things sound like fun to those of us who have no doubts that it's strictly impossible for a human being to correctly guess the content of a safe box. But a very close relative of mine reacted angrily. ;-) The organizers of the challenges are some unbelieving Thomases and the true psychics have no reason to deal with them!

It's much better for the psychics to deal with 400 or 4,000 clients and get $10 from each than to write three words and get the same money in a minute. ;-)

Well, more seriously, this challenge doesn't really prove that there aren't any psychics. Dejčmar himself may be a psychic, for example, and he has silently earned his money by reading from the crystal ball. ;-) But what this challenge does prove is that all the people who are making their living by collecting $10 or so from their clients by making prophesies using tarot cards and dozens of similar protocols (one example) are fraudsters.

Of course, I know numerous people – well, mostly female but not only female – who believe in these crazy things. This belief must be an important foundation of their spiritual balance and they are clearly ready to add an arbitrarily unlikely extra belief in order to defend the basic claim.



If you think about the world in the scientific way like I do, you just can't comprehend it. The truth is always superior – it's valuable by itself but it's ultimately practically useful, too – and if one has some truly powerful evidence that indicates that a proposition is true and its negation is false, it simply has to affect the opinion of a rational person.

There are many fundamental differences between the spiritual/religious/superstitious view on the world, and the scientific one. They also share some similarities.

A truly scientific soul is ultimately "disinterested" in questions that sound meaningless from a scientific viewpoint, and the "antireligious warriors" share a lot with the theists. I was reminded about these matters when I saw Don Page's guest blog at Sean Carroll's blog.

Don Page is a believer and Sean Carroll is an aggressive atheist. But when you look at their views in detail, they are extremely close, especially when you get to crazy things such as the Boltzmann Brains that both of them believe.

In both cases, the are incapable of seeing the overwhelming and sharp evidence – pretty much rock-solid proofs – that their opinion that we may very well be Boltzmann Brains are simply wrong. They are unable to see such things because their completely wrong dogmas (God has to exist; high-entropy states are always preferred at every moment etc.) are infinitely more important for them than any finite amount of evidence, so they just can't learn an iota about certain aspects of the inner workings of the Universe.

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reader M said...

'Of course, I know numerous people – well, mostly female but not only female – who believe in these crazy things.'


lol. The implication is clear. I often wonder, when reading your posts, how you manage to deal with woman logic in your intimate relationships with women (don't take this as an insult ladies, but we all know what I mean; yes, men are illogical too but...). This female logic occasionally drives the mentally average man insane, no doubt; but for someone like you who has dedicated his life to being a real-life Sheldon Cooper, how the hell do you react? Probably before you learned the queer logic of love you drove quite a few women absolutely bonkers with your thinking.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear M, your generalization is certainly wrong. I know many more *females* who are as non-superstitious as I am, and in fact, I would say that the average woman is much more *practical* than I am, which is not quite the same thing as being scientifically oriented, but it's still highly correlated with their opposition to skepticism.


reader m said...

Dear Lu, I am having trouble understanding your reply. My conclusion about women is that, on average, they let their emotions interfere with their deductions more often than men do, though both sexes let their emotions interfere with their deductions tremendously because all people are animals, not angels.


reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, I am not even sure whether angels are free of emotions.


Maybe that women typically don't separate emotions from facts and reasoning so sharply. It may be linked to their "less separated" hemispheres of the brain.


But way too many men suffer from the same problem. And women have been trained to display emotions (more emotions than men) which may be increasing the appearance of "how much emotions matter for the women".


But I tend to think that if one looked meritocratically to the "real essence", one would find out that emotions don't really matter much more for women than they do for men, and women are also able to be equally or more cruel than men.


So I am simply not sure about any of these widely believed differences, or their strength. If I wanted to distinguish men and women,I would still measure their ability to do "top mathematics" or "string theory" where you may see that women are more than 1 order of magnitude less likely to do such things.


But I think that the more ordinary aspects of their reasoning one considers, the less distinguishable men and women actually become.


reader Luboš Motl said...

BTW, many of these questions about the opinions among men and women etc. may be judged by looking at the discussion under the Technet article about the event

http://technet.idnes.cz/diskuse.aspx?iddiskuse=A150320_143625_veda_kuz



Most participants are male but I would say that the average women in the discussion is more rational than the average man. There are sensible males but lots of crazy males saying things like science can never show anything, it has always been wrong, and so on and so on. Lots of female comments are totally uncontroversial.


However, they also point out the relationship between technet.idnes.cz and ona.idnes.cz ("she" part of the very same news portal) dedicated to "women" (meaning stupid women). For one rational, science-based article at technet.idnes.cz, there are three idiotic articles at ona.idnes.cz about astrology and numerous superstitions that are playing with the readers' emotions and sometimes use a celebrity that recommends this junk.


This is how the whole Internet works, the writer mentions: there is OK stuff but it's always numerically beaten by the unfiltered crap, so guess who wins the public opinion battle at the end.


reader m said...

'LOL, I am not even sure whether angels are free of emotions.'

This is because you grew up in a country infected with Communism. And we all know what Stalin thought of angels.


I was reading your reply, trying to figure out where it was irrational; but after I had read it several times, it came across to me as essentially rational and good. It clarified a lot of what I've felt at times but have not articulated to myself as clearly as you have here. For me, the most important thing you said is that women perhaps seem to be less rational than men merely because of a survival strategy involving the display of more emotions. Perhaps.


reader Eclectikus said...

G. K. Chesterton has an ingenious saying about people who stop believing in God (well, probably apocryphal):

"When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything."

And Chesterton was certainly a very pragmatic person, his "Father Brown tales" are indeed an ode to the logic (and there are tons of christians with a strong component of scientific thinking). So perhaps it is no exaggeration to think that people who have a religious belief, I mean a standard religious belief, are vaccinated de facto against believing in most of the stupidities of soothsayers, magicians, horoscopes, etc... say, they have covered their supernatural quota ;-)


reader m said...

'300+ comments.'


Meh, I won't make any conclusions about women or men in general from a data set of 300 comments. But I get your point and agree with it: Men and women are deeply irrational. I'd be the first to admit this; my view of human nature is (perhaps too) pessimistic.


reader Uncle Al said...

The proper test is the same description, but four toothbrushes in the box. A clairvoyant would triumph. Theory is crippled by its postulates. Theory cannot see beyond its assumptions. As so beautifully illustrated here, observation is triumphant. So look already.

A proper crystal ball is natural single crystal alpha-quartz, that is birefringent. Proper alignment of the optical axis versus the viewer can be creepy, especially now with linearly polarized lights that can be surreptitiously rotated. (The URL is questionable about movie circularly polarized glasses. Their trick is to look in a mirror with one eye closed, then, obviously, both eyes closed.)

http://www.evilmadscientist.com/2011/a-stunning-display-of-natural-birefringence/


reader Tony said...

Looks like one of those events where you go to see the (model) babes who come to meet prospective sugar daddies or sponsors. And you hope to fool one of them;)


reader Tony said...

Btw, I think M is gay hitting on you.


reader Peter F. said...

"The sum all [of a persons's] ‘addictions’ [original word in Swedish was “laster”] is a constant" is, I think (and know to be), a relevant saying.

My paternal grandmother claimed it came from August Strindberg but I have not been able to confirm it did.

I suspect that she used the saying to justify her penchant for sweets. She died as a side-effect of late in life acquired diabetes.


reader Gordon said...

I claim to be a retrodictive psychic. The box contains a toothbrush, a bill, and a walnut. Now give me the money :)

"Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future."-Bohr
"The future ain't what it used to be."-Yogi Berra


reader Gordon said...

Chesterton is full of crap. Religious delusionists are far more likely to believe in such stuff than atheists. Most atheists that I know are either scientists, mathematicians, or polymaths curious, but sceptical. The credulous are the believers in the invisible sky father.


reader Eclectikus said...

Well, please read carefully, the Chesterton quote is about men who stop believing in God. You (I assume), and me, and many other people that were born atheists, actually we never stop believing because we never begin to believe, so the reasoning does not apply to us.

On the other hand, you probably have met many theist scientists too, and I see no problem in them having to coordinate profession and faith. What I've never known is a physicist (theist or atheist) who believes in horoscopes or fortune tellers, and behold a qualitative difference between the two types of "magical thinking".


reader M said...

I agree. What Chesterton says here is wise. If you've got a strong belief in God, you can walk through life confidently without needing to put your belief in anything else outside yourself. It is only once you have given up God that you are forced to look elsewhere for something beyond yourself to guide you or to give your life meaning. Many times, what people go to is no better than God - Spiritualism, Communism, a career in a soul-crushing company, etc.


reader M said...

I should have said 'Many times, what people go to is much worse than God.'


reader Gordon said...

Actually everyone is born an atheist until brainwashed by parents with their organized religions.
Actually I have not met many theist scientists---maybe the theists infest the humanities...some scientists are deists, and I have no quarrel with that, and may be brushed with some of that myself.
Chesterton was a practicing Catholic---'nuff said...


reader Gordon said...

Hmm, a Naschkatze


reader M, the Queen of England said...

Some of the greatest minds of the 20th century - like Ronald Knox - were Catholics. Your swift dismissal of them is crass. In any case, no one is born an atheist, i.e., with the belief that God does not exist - at best you can call all babies agnostics. But even then, you are on thin ice, because babies, lacking language, do not have mental concepts.


reader Eclectikus said...

I'm not sure if everyone is born an atheist, what I am sure is that humans have always needed the "supernatural thinking" one way or another, it is an empirical fact. It is also certain where we have reached despite of this "minor flaw", and is not bad at all.

I do not know if humanity is headed for an atheistic society, many people no longer need religion at all, or religion just have become merely a cultural habit, but certainly much remains to reach that stage of "everyone is an atheist" and no one knows the product of that cultural leap, probably not good, I fear, in line of the Chesterton aphorism.


reader Eclectikus said...

Here is a non-exhaustive list of Christian thinkers:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christian_thinkers_in_science


reader Luboš Motl said...

Well, I would guess that kids are born unable to distinguish natural and supernatural, so the truth is in between two of you.


It's also related to a doubt I have about the statement of yours, Eklecticus. Maybe people never had any desire to be obsessed with something "supernatural" that is out of this world in the sense of being unreachable or unreal.


The alternative explanation is that these people just wanted to figure out and exploit ambitious things and insights in the real world for the same - theoretical and practical - reasons why they study any other science. In this sense, religion and spirituality is nothing else than science that is not being done in the right way so that the people don't find anything that actually works.


Apologies to the believing readers of TRF that this is pretty much how I see the relationship between religion and science. Science *is* a form of religion that differs from the other ones by a method that actually works.


reader Peter F. said...

Yes, almost all ideas can work as opioids almost no matter what feelings and percepts they! And so can rigorous intellectual/scientific attitudes and habits. And so can feelings of contempt, anger, fury, superiority, etcetera,,,.


reader Eclectikus said...

I like that approach Lubos: "religion and spirituality is nothing else than science that is not being done in the right way", I'm sure that many christian thinkers would endorse that thought in the sense that Religion (as Science) is not much more that the infinite search of response to questions people make themselves. Science has developed a reliable method to accomplish this challenge, and Religion has covered areas where Science has nothing to say, at least for now, e.g. the soul, live after death, Good and evil, morality, creation of Universe... well, this last one could be controversial given the current developing in Cosmology, but creation was in the judeo-christian agenda from the beginning ;-)

About if Religion works (or not) is other thing. Religion doesn't work in solving Science problems, sure, but saying that doesn't work in any way is from my point of view exaggerated, many people use religion:

http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/WorldReligionsPercentlg.gif


reader Peter F. said...

Not only snacking (on anything that excite the snacker) but even gnashing the teeth can bind ill-at-ease feelings so they are less likely to find outlets that are not as harmless (as (teeth-gnashing).

I think it is not such a bad idea to refer to any defensive or self/social harm-preempting and in some other cases in addition also 'opportunity exploiting' preoccupations (simple neuromuscular activities, emotions, and from primitive mental to sophisticated language-function involving intellectual preoccupations) by the portmanteau word "actentions".

It is inEPT (IMHO ;>) to not recognize how evolution endowed us humans with a 'central neural Actention Selection Serving system' that generate a unique abundance of more or less sophisticated ways to be addicted; I level the same hedged blame to anyone who does not recognize that this characteristic boils down to relatively recent and partly fairly well known, partly implicit mutations - and which ones.

However, it is even more inEPT to not realize that the same hugely significant aspect of how we are can be grasped (understood more than just generally) by way of a heuristic sub principle of Natural Selection (Darwin's heuristic super principle) in the phylogeny of fauna. - and how this system of functions work to produce the many actentions that reflect significant challenges in our own lives as well as challenges naturally selective challenges in the lives of our ancestors. And lastly it likewise 'inEPT' to not recognize that all this (how we evolved and behave) deserve to be flexibly and elastically referred to with help of the MAD-inspired acronym AEVASIVE and a small assorment of complementary similarly conceived acronymic grasping-tools or insight-facilitating conceptual "lenses". %-}


reader Rehbock said...

Luboš
Religion answers questions but science questions answers. Religion demands one accept and science demands one challenge. Religion has all the answers science looks for them.
Science is a form of religion? it seems more the opposite or orthogonal to science.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Rehbock, I don't think so. AFAIK all these differences between science and religion are spurious.


Science primarily looks for questions, but so does religion. This is really how early converts or people planning to convert to religion describes themselves. They are looking for answers.


But the other side of the "looking for answers" coin is "to have the answers". We look for answers because when we're finished, we have them. This is always the case, both in science and religion.


In fact, I think that it is still more accurately to say that "science has [almost] all the answers while religion questions these answers". This is surely what the battle between evolutionary biology and religious creationism looks like, right?


Science is surely *not* the permanent dissatisfaction with *any* answer, constant 50-50 uncertainty about every question. Science is a method to find possible answers to questions and assign them with different levels of confidence - and religion is really the same thing. I just think that its answers are less correct or less accurate because the method - based on the idea that one communicates with the creator either directly or through church officials - doesn't work as well as the scientific one.


reader Eclectikus said...

Rehbock, Besides what Lubos said above, I think the set of questions is different, and the methodology is obviously different. But above all they produce very different outcomes, Science obtains inconclusive but verifiable results, and Religion gets results over the long term and not verifiable. Science calms the human curiosity, and Faith appeases the spirit and consciousness as a human being. Science improves Nature's knowledge, Religion explains human nature. Science leads to technology, Faith helps mostly to Arts and Philosophy. Both branches have fought each other and coexisted at once, and the results have been obviously good. I for one am unable to imagine how this world would be if in the past we would have been deprived either of these two facets.


reader Gordon said...

Actually the truth is not between the two views. We are not born believing in a religion or a sky father or a god in any sense. We are born with neural structures that have the potential to develop belief systems. When born, certainly one is not a theist. This develops. I guess we are not born "not believing" in God, but then we are born not believing in much except that which is really hard wired.


reader Gordon said...

Hmm, and Ronald Knox was a scientist? Sure there are some like Lemaitre or Maldecena, but around 96% of the best are not believers. Those who are are nearly uniformly Catholics--their brainwashing techniques, while somewhat diluted from the heydays of the Jesuits, is perhaps only surpassed by the Scientologists.

"babies, ... do not have mental concepts."...QED they do not believe in a God.


reader Gordon said...

Yeah, like rationality, tolerance, evidence-based beliefs....
(dont trot out the Stalin/Hitler stuff---has zip to do with religion or lack of it..psychopathic narcissists)


reader Eclectikus said...

I have to say that I didn't say we were born atheists as an argument, rather it was an emphasis to underline the fact that we weren't repentant theists, ie we have never believed in God.


The argument was (and is) that the existence of religion is an empirical evidence, and you can not argue this.


reader Rehbock said...

Luboš People look to religion and science for these answers so they are in part used for same purpose. That does make science a form of religion, but only if it is alright to include as science looking for incorrect answers in all the wrong places.


reader Gordon said...

Religion (eg organized Catholicism) treats people as little children who need constant control based on fear, guilt, and other similar toxic emotions. The control is exerted by a hierarchy of mostly old men who forgive sins for money and confession---sin, wash and rinse, sin again...naughty child; hell-fire waits-there are monsters under the bed...:)


reader Eclectikus said...

Why do you focus in Catholicism? Nothing to say about other christian confessions, or judaism. In any case it seems to me you have some belligerence on this matter, and belligerence and objetivity are enemies ;-)


reader Gordon said...

There seems to be a misconception here---I do not really think many atheists and agnostics have a strong belief system that God does not exist in the same way that religious folks believe in God . It is more that the evidence does not stack up, so move on...only the most strident atheists seem to be riding a strong belief system. Atheism is not really a belief system. It is more like I dont believe in fairies, or in perpetual motion machines, or in, say, cold fusion. I am open to change my opinion of these things given evidence...this is not much of a belief system.


reader Rehbock said...

I respect your respect for Religion. I do not see it a different facet of science, though. I suppose it is a subjective reaction rather than a considered analysis.


reader Shannon said...

(OT) And the past was never what we thought it was ;-) http://www.exposingtruth.com/105-photos-stonehenge-constructed-modern-times/


reader Gordon said...

Nah, just on this blog. I am an equal opportunity critic---Baptists, orthodox Judaism, etc...the more controlling the religion, the more I use it in examples. Church leaders who claim their statements are infallible also create a good target. In real life, I never mention religion. It is just that this is generally a science blog.
Posting a list of famous religious people is hardly useful..
Before the 20th century, religion was the cultural norm and it was dangerous to your social life and job prospects to not join some religion. The situatiyon is similar to that in US politics right now, where one would be insane to say you are agnostic or atheist if running for office, or in general.
After the 20th century, sure there are some examples of people like John Wheeler etc, but posting a list of famous scientists and mathematicians who are not religious would completely swamp your list and likely crash the server.


reader Eclectikus said...

Thanks, more than Religion itself, I do respect people's legitimity of being religious, more than being communist, nazi or ultra-ecologist. In other words, I don't think that Religion is a bad thing for people in average, there are worst things nowadays.


reader Eclectikus said...

So you're accepting that being religious was a norm during many centuries, and yet Rationalism and Science surfaced without problems. It is an important fact.

Yep, posting a list of famous religious people is not an argument about the goodness of religion, but it is an argument of that a lot of people was able to keep the two visions without much problem, and this is an important fact too.

In my opinion things have changed now, for what you need to be brave is not to recognize your atheism (or agnosticism), but to recognize that you are a believer, I'm sure many people actually hide it. And I don't like that attitude... religion as sexual orientation belong strictly to person's privacy and are details that are irrelevant to the professional activities. IMHO.


reader Shannon said...

I have never ever heard my religion criticising the Big Bang Theory or any other scientific discoveries. On the opposite they are eager to know more about it and include these discoveries into their belief. Catholics have a high respects for the human intelligence and curiosity. It is encouraged.


reader Eclectikus said...

Totally agree, and specifically history of Astronomy is difficult of understand without the colaboration of catholic priests. By the way, you might be interested in this site:

http://www.reasons.org/facts-faith/issue03


reader Rehbock said...

Shannon:
In that respect the Catholic Church is to be commended. but they are the exception. In the U.S. we have a Taliban like group tat takes quite literally all the words of the bible but is allied to Catholics. This is of course in name of saving the unborn. the joke involves scientiste sacrificing a fetus to save mankind and theists sacrificing mankind to save the fetus.
I am not wanting to attack you or Catholics.it is one of the problems in mankind that is not special to religion. We are as humans often intolerant on basis of such criteria. I fortunately ( or. not) am here because my parents refused to let such get in the way.


reader M! said...

Have you read anything by Knox? His life story is not only monkishly thrilling (if that isn't an oxymoron), but his prose is gorgeous. If you haven't read anything by him, please order a copy of his (short) sermons, 'Pastoral and Occasional Sermons' (Ignatius Press has a beautiful hard-cover edition on Amazon.com); I'm not a Catholic but I will be reading and re-reading these, for their elegant style, for the rest of my life. Knox, like John Henry Newman (one of Knox's heroes) was a famous Catholic convert, first having been brought up Protestant. At the age of about 6, Knox was already writing admirable poetry in Greek, Latin and English; he alone translated the entire Latin Vulgate into what he called 'Timeless English,' and his biographer was none other than Evelyn Waugh, his dear friend.


reader M said...

'Hmm, and Ronald Knox was a scientist?'

What does being a scientists uniquely have to do with being a great mind? There are other human endeavors besides science; it does not have a monopoly on human genius.

'Those who are are nearly uniformly Catholics - their brainwashing
techniques, while somewhat diluted from the heydays of the Jesuits, is
perhaps only surpassed by the Scientologists.'

As with scientists, there are awful humans who are Catholics; and there are beautiful humans who are Catholics. A true Catholic, I believe, does not desire the compulsion of any non-Catholic to be a Catholic; the profession of faith would then merely be false and against the conscience of the non-Catholic. But indeed, Catholicism, like almost any other human group, has a history replete with mistakes. I would argue that the past mistakes of the Catholic Church contravene its true Christian spirit; Christ would not have been a torturer.

' "babies, ... do not have mental concepts."...QED they do not believe in a God.'


Yes. But then, that's the obvious reverse implication of the fact that babies are not atheists or agnostics.


reader m said...

The fact that one can go from belief in God to 'better' things - like belief in the scientific method - does absolutely nothing to preclude one's going from God to something much worse than God, like Communism. I have put quotation marks around 'better,' because this presumes that the most important goal of human life is not to come to know God; the most important goal of human life could very well be that.


reader m said...

In regard to what you said about Stalin and Hitler having nothing to do with religion - you're wrong. Surely Stalin and Hitler had very low empathy (perhaps they both would qualify as psychopaths, though I doubt that this is true for Hitler; he seemed less psychopathic than merely intensely cynical and angry). Communism and Nazism basically were forms of religion; but their axioms were practically the reverse of those of Christianity. Please watch this 12-minute video on Hitler and Christianity (http://www.cbn.com/700club/features/churchhistory/godandhitler/), which I find mostly accurate, despite its coming from a Christian source.


reader Shannon said...

I know in the US they are nuts with religion... their belief takes weird proportions and distortions. USians will be USians. ;-)


reader Rehbock said...

My parents had a word for these fanatics. I thought "begottet" was a German word for crazy with religion.
They have been dead for years so I can't confirm. But I cant find it on line so it was probably their made up word to describe this.