Plumbing the depths of psychic research

Does anyone else roll their eyes when they see that Dean Radin has come out with another paper about psychic powers? His latest is Genetics of psychic ability – A pilot case-control exome sequencing study, so you can see he’s now going to pretend he’s got genetic and molecular evidence. Let’s take a look at the abstract!

It is commonly believed that psychic ability, like many mental and physical traits, runs in families. This suggests the presence of a genetic component. If such a component were found, it would constitute a biological marker of psychic ability and inform environmental or pharmacologic means of enhancing or suppressing this ability.

“Commonly believed” is not evidence, so claiming that a “common belief” justifies “suggesting” there is a genetic component is a huge reach. If this paper wasn’t rejected at the first sentence of the abstract, it should have been thrown out at the second.

Then to say they’d have a marker of psychic ability if they found a genetic component is absurd. This is like saying, “If I had some bread, I could make a ham sandwich, if I had some ham” (literally on the nose, I have neither ham nor bread in my house right now.)

A case-control study design was used to evaluate differences between psychic cases and non-psychic controls. Over 3,000 candidates globally were screened through two online surveys to locate people who claimed they and other family members were psychic. Measures of relevance to the claimed abilities (e.g., absorption, empathy, schizotypy) were collected and based on those responses, individuals with indications of psychotic or delusional tendencies were excluded from further consideration. Eligible candidates were then interviewed and completed additional screening tests. Thirteen individuals were selected as the final “psychic cases,” and ten age-, sex-, and ethnicity-matched individuals with no claims of psychic ability were selected as controls. DNA from the saliva of these 23 participants was subjected to whole-exome sequencing. Two independent bioinformatics analyses were blindly applied to the sequenced data, one focusing exclusively on protein-coding sequences and another that also included some adjacent noncoding sequences.

They found their “psychics” with an online questionnaire. They invited people to basically write in and claim they had paranormal abilities, and got lots of submissions. I guess I’ll have to look at their results beyond the abstract to see what’s going on. Boy, was the population full of super-powered people…at least, on self report. They got 3,162 people writing in saying they had all kinds of powers!

The psychic cases reported various ages when their abilities began, with “0-10 years old” being the most commonly reported answer (n = 9). The psychic cases endorsed the following abilities in descending order (number of psychic cases in parentheses after each ability): claircognizance (psychic “knowing,” n = 13), clairempathy (psychic “feeling,” 13), emotional healing (13), precognition, premonition and precognitive dreams (12), animal communication (11), clairvoyance (11), mediumship (11), telepathy (11), astral projection (10), aura reading (10), clairaudience (10), clairsentience (10), lucid dreaming (10), channeling (8), clairalience (8), nature empath (8), remote viewing (8), physical healing (7), retrocognition (7), psychometry (6), geomancy (5), psychokinesis (4), automatic writing (3), levitation (1), and psychic surgery (1). Clairgustance and pyrokinesis were not endorsed. On average, cases endorsed 9.5 +/- 8.9 abilities.

Of course, they’re not so stupid that they’d simply accept them on their say-so. They winnowed out the real crazies with an online psychiatric test, and then subjected them to one of those online psychic power tests. They were very rigorous. They got the number of subjects down to 13. Before you get too excited, though, they actually failed most of the tests, but got accepted anyway.

The cases’ performance was better than controls on most tasks, although this difference only reached statistical significance on the Remote Viewing test.

The “Remote Viewing test” was basically, “What does my table look like?”. That’s it.

So, using a sloppy lazy test, they picked a tiny random group of 13 people to spit in a test tube, and they shipped the saliva off to a company to sequence the exons — that is, the part of the genome that was transcribed and translated to produce proteins. I’m going to have to criticize their methodology again. Not only is their sample so tiny that they have no statistical power, but also what they’re looking for is vague and unspecified. They’re fishing for any kind of silly correlation.

What’s really surprising is that they didn’t find any!

Sequencing data were obtained for all samples, except for one in the control group that did not pass the quality controls and was not included in further analyses. After unblinding the datasets, none of the protein-coding sequences (i.e., exons) showed any variation that discriminated between cases and controls. However, a difference was observed in the intron (i.e., non-protein-coding region) adjacent to an exon in the TNRC18 gene (Trinucleotide Repeat-Containing Gene 18 Protein) on chromosome 7. This variation, an alteration of GG to GA, was found in 7 of 9 controls and was absent from all psychic cases.

That’s right. They got diddly-squat.

No significant results were found when comparing psychic samples with general population samples obtained from a large-scale public sequencing database. This analysis followed standard practice
and excluded consideration of intronic regions.

They make a big deal of how they’re only looking at exon sequences in the methods, but then, when they found nothing, they decided, well, hey, let’s look at some introns. Again, this is bad design. They’re desperately looking for anything that might correlate with their “psychic” population. They found one thing.

However, probing intronic DNA adjacent to coding regions in exomes did find one non-coding region with a variation from the wild-type DNA sequence in 7 of the 9 control samples that was identical in all case samples and matched the sequence most commonly found in humans (i.e., wild-type). The variant was a modification from GG to GA in the intron region of the TNRC18 gene (Trinucleotide Repeat-Containing Gene 18 Protein) on chromosome 7 (rs117910193 position 5,401,412).

This is unimpressive. This is bad. They went trawling through billions of nucleotides to find a variant that might show up preferentially in their ridiculously defined “psychic” population, and they found one in an intron, a class of the genome that they initially excluded from their analysis. They demonstrate a truly pathetic incomprehension of probability and statistics.

But then, incomprehension of probability and statistics is a prerequisite for being a psychic power researcher.

And then…

The most conservative interpretation of these results is that they result from random population sampling. However, when the results are considered in relation to other lines of evidence, the results are more provocative. Further research is justified to replicate and extend these findings.

Wow. The only reasonable interpretation is that their result is the product of random population sampling. Their statistical power is feeble, they got no statistically significant results, except when they ignore their experimental protocol and reach for any variation that they can weakly correlate with their test population — which also showed no significant psychic ability, except that they were able to guess the color of a table.

You might be wondering what these “other lines of evidence” might be. So am I. I read the discussion, and they don’t give any. Not one bit. Instead, they offer a lot of excuses for why their results were so pathetic. For example:

For example, one cross-cultural sociogenetic hypothesis that potentially explains the observed variation is that the rise, spread, and prevalence of Christianity in the Early to Middle Ages may have contributed to the reduction of the wild-type variant across populations. Christianity has been historically associated with an extraordinary degree of cross-cultural success, both in terms of the extent of its spread and temporal persistence across populations, relative to other religious creeds. The historical spread of “Western Church” Christianity, or Roman Catholicism, measured using an indicator of historical Church exposure, was found to be responsible for psychocultural variation among contemporary Western populations, including low rates of consanguineous mating, high rates of monogamous marriage, and individualism. This would be consistent with the action of culture-gene co-evolutionary selection pressures stemming from the historical (and contemporary) tendency for Christianity to favor these sorts of behavioral and reproductive patterns. Christianity also strongly proscribes mystical and psychic experiences, such as mediumship, outside of a limited range of contexts (e.g., monasticism in some cases). Thus, as part of this broader psycho-cultural “syndrome,” Christian cultural values, once established, may have historically attenuated the fitness of those prone to these and other sorts of psychic experiences (i.e., wild-type carriers). Conversely, the alternate allele carriers’ fitness (controls) may have been enhanced

Now I’m no fan of Christianity, to say the least, but to claim without evidence that Christianity is at fault for extinguishing the genes responsible for granting psychic powers because they couldn’t find anyone with psychic powers with a molecular correlate to their non-existent powers is a bit loony.

The paper is embarrassingly bad. But then, it’s typical of the journal, Explore, that had the lack of standards to allow it to publish it.

EXPLORE: The Journal of Science & Healing addresses the scientific principles behind, and applications of, evidence-based healing practices from a wide variety of sources, including conventional, alternative, and cross-cultural medicine. It is an interdisciplinary journal that explores the healing arts, consciousness, spirituality, eco-environmental issues, and basic science as all these fields relate to health.

Yeah, right.

No one, other than trolls and corporate lawyers, likes DMCA takedowns

Rebecca Watson has been getting lots of them, and threats of lawsuits, in a tangled web of complaints from a couple of parties fighting over porn addiction vs. no porn addiction. I don’t want to even try to untangle it, but it sounds like Rebecca is just a civilian casualty taking friendly fire, or not-so-friendly lashing out by one side of the argument. I’ll let her try to explain it.

I’ve been there. It always seems like those most religious about free speech who fling around SLAPP suits and try their hardest to silence everyone else. I’m with Team Rebecca on this one: I’m not going to sue anyone no matter what they say about me, and it’s just abuse of the legal system to play these games. Did Richard Carrier or Ben Radford improve their reputations with their shenanigans? No.

A few other comments:

You too can support Rebecca Watson on Patreon!

I’ve noticed that she generally seems much happier and more relaxed since she kicked the atheist/skeptic movements out of her life and replaced them with surfing and a dog. There’s a lesson there. I’m replacing them with photography and an army of spiders.

Everyone congratulate her on her recent elopement! That seems to be a wise decision, too: my parents eloped, my niece is eloping at the end of the month. Getting out from traditional demands is another recipe for happiness.

Science words!

You don’t need to understand the meaning, as long as you string together a few science terms you learned in grade school, it must be true.

Do I really need to say it? Being injected with an RNA vaccine does not replace your entire nuclear genome with RNA.

Although…it does make me wonder what would happen if a magic enzyme added a hydroxyl group to all your ribose sugars to convert DNA to RNA. Yeah, changing the chemical properties of all of your chromosomes to make them more labile and prone to rapid breakdown and unrecognizable to most of the key proteins for transcription, among other things, would be kind of catastrophic and thermodynamically costly.

There’s probably some vicious Hebrew abuse going on there, too, but I wouldn’t know.

Wait, does this mean that when you die, your soul retains some kind of DNA-based organic structure?

No, stop, don’t over-think this. Trying to puzzle out serious meaning from that text leads to madness.

Please stop showing off how stupid atheists can be

Once upon a time, the growing atheist community was shattered by the emergence of a disruptive faction who thought there is more to this business than just disbelieving in gods. They were tyrants who wanted to force atheists to do more than yell slogans about how religion is a cancer, and maybe build constructive communities. These were the wicked Social Justice Warriors, or SJWs. They committed the abominable crime of bringing feminism into atheism, of being anti-war and anti-racism, of supporting equality with even LGBT people, and tainted the idyllic purity of true Reason and Rationality with…with values <hack, spit> and ideology (atheism was free of ideology before, existing in a realm of pure thought). These SJWs dared to dismiss the great good Old Guard of Atheism when all they did was exhibit a little light misogyny or xenophobia or corruption. They dared to criticize other atheists! They must be punished!

Well, I confess: I am one of those SJWs. Some people think I’m one of the ringleaders of this diverse group of terrible egalitarians and idealists, and therefore, they are entirely justified in coming to my blog and…actively demonstrating that I was right all along, and there’s a deplorable subset of atheists who aren’t very rational at all? I don’t get it, but regular readers of Pharyngula have noticed a series of abusive, nasty, misogynistic & homophobic & transphobic & anti-semitic & just plain vile comments showing up lately. Like these:

Just so you know, these are all from one lone vigilante, out to prove that he is a smart, reasonable, logical representative of modern atheism by going on an obsessive crusade against SJWs, using obscene slurs against everyone who is not a white Anglo-Saxon cis het man. He’s gone through dozens of hotmail accounts and made hundreds of these short, thoughtless posts to make his point, whatever it is, and I’ve just been blacklisting his accounts and deleting his obscenities almost as fast as he makes them. I don’t understand why, but he seems bound and determined to prove that some atheists can be deplorable, hateful, and illogical by making an example of himself.

So, I’m sorry to say, I’ve switched on the commenting feature that holds a new commenter’s first post in a queue awaiting my approval. This shouldn’t affect regular commenters, but if you’re new here, there might be a delay in your comments appearing. All because one atheist is an asshole.

James Croft addresses the critics of humanism

It’s very good. Read the whole thing.

But what about the argument that contemporary Humanism is becoming a cult, with its own unquestionable dogmas? Is the board of the AHA donning robes and preparing the thumbscrews? Of course not. In fact, steps like this show that organized Humanism is becoming more Humanistic. Humanism means more than a commitment to skepticism and freethought, and more than not believing in God (and the more I do Humanism the less I think that even matters). It means working to promote the dignity and worth of all people; fighting for the oppressed and the marginalized; working together for a more just world; and striving to bring out the best in ourselves and in others. Humanist organizations should seek to uphold these positive values at all times, and in disassociating themselves with the increasingly cringeworthy behavior of Richard Dawkins, the American Humanist Association showed a commitment to them.

Of course freethought, skepticism, and intellectual debate are central to the Humanist project. We should be vigilant against any tendency toward groupthink or cultishness. But for too many years, organized Humanism has focused on freethought and skepticism to the detriment of the broader panoply of values the tradition should uphold. It has promoted – even lionized – figures who are rightly well-known for their contributions to science and skepticism, but who are not good representatives of the fullness of our tradition. People like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins became darlings of our movement at a time when it was focused far too much on defeating religion, and far too little on defeating injustice. That is now changing, and some in the movement don’t like the change. They want to hold onto their heroes, and resist the criticism they receive. New battle-lines are forming, and with this decision the AHA has chosen a side.

Good for them that it’s the right one.

I know what side I’m on. I’m relieved at one decision we made years ago. When the late Ed Brayton and I were discussing what to call this network, we both shared the goal of making it inclusive and committed to broader concerns than just “there is no god”, and we went back and forth on appropriate names; we quickly ruled out anything with “atheism” or “atheist” in it, because even then we could see the divisions becoming deeper and there were a few too many people calling themselves atheists that we did not want to be associated with. When Ed came up with “freethoughtblogs”, we said “PERFECT!” and I immediately bought the domain. And here you are. And here we are, able to easily distinguish ourselves from those people.

I recently renewed the domain registration, by the way.

Thanks, Ed, for your foresight.

Idolatry of the atheist kind is just as repellent as any other

For those who don’t know, Todd Stiefel is a wealthy philanthropist who has been giving money to atheist organizations for over a decade. It seemed a good and noble use of his money, but now I don’t know — maybe it wasn’t about the cause so much as it was a cult of personality. He is deeply peeved that anyone would disagree with Richard Dawkins, and is going to use his money to punish those who question his words.

Wow. He will not support organizations that criticize Richard Dawkins — that is his right, of course, no one is going to compel him to donate to non-Dawkinsite organizations — but it’s still a chilling comment. Is there a loyalty oath or statement of faith attached to any grant from the Stiefel foundation? This is exactly what I never wanted to see happen to atheism, that it become a dogma attached to a figurehead, no matter who it is. The details of that letter are ill-thought out, too.

He’s unhappy because the American Humanists were “extremely public”. I don’t know what that means. Did they put on a parade or put up a billboard? No, they issued a mundane press release, kind of the minimum statement to explain a change in their policy. What were they supposed to do, shut up and be silent and not criticize Richard Dawkins at all? As Stiefel writes further down, this was “an opportunity to educate, disagree, and criticize”…which is what they did! They made a statement that said, “Richard Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values”, and removed an honorary award because he no longer represented the values of the organization. That’s it.

To Stiefel, this is “figuratively burning a heretic.”

He goes on to claim that Dawkins is “canceled”, an over-used, meaningless term that right-wingers love. Likewise, he implies that Dawkins has been erased from history. Hyperbole much? Dawkins is still selling books, still being invited to speak, is still living a comfortable upper class life, and still has mobs of fawning acolytes, as we can see above. I am appalled that atheism is now supposed to have idols.

I’m not even going to discuss his entire “transethnic” excuse, other than to point out that Dawkins was using the term entirely according to this definition: “a racist transphobic trolling and derailling tactic deployed when trans oppression is being discussed”. While maybe there are contexts — complex, fraught contexts — where it can be discussed reasonably, a Twitter fart from Richard Dawkins is not one of them.

This has been an issue with Richard Dawkins for over a decade, and he has learned nothing, and gotten worse, if anything. He is still defending his anti-trans stance for which AHA rebuked him.

Dawkins, however, disagrees. He is, he said, not a misogynist, as some critics have called him, but “a passionate feminist.” The greatest threats to women, in his view, are Islamism and jihadism — and his concern over that sometimes leads him to speak off-the-cuff.

“I concentrate my attention on that menace and I confess I occasionally get a little impatient with American women who complain of being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something which I think is, by comparison, relatively trivial,” he said.

“And so I occasionally wax a little sarcastic, and I when I have done that, I then have subsequently discovered some truly horrific things, which is that some of the women who were the butt of my sarcasm then became the butt of really horrible or serious threats, which is totally disgusting and I know how horrible that is and that, of course, I absolutely abominate and absolutely repudiate and abhor.”

Man, Islam is still his excuse for everything. Hey, you American women, shut up and stop complaining about being groped at work or treated sexually in professional situations. Don’t you know Muslim are horribly abused? He still hasn’t grasped the fallacy of relative privation. He still thinks he’s a passionate feminist even as he suggests that women ought to accept that their co-workers get to touch them inappropriately.

Hey, Richard! Stop complaining about being snubbed for an honorary award! Don’t you know that transgender women are still being murdered by Christians, and good Christian lawmakers are busy writing laws to oppress them further, right here in America, and in the UK, too? By comparison, everything that has happened to you is relatively trivial.

When you “wax a little sarcastic”, and discover that your zealous followers are being totally disgusting, do you ever retract and apologize? Have you ever apologized to Rebecca Watson, who is still clearly occupying a quadrant of your great brain? Do you abominate and absolutely repudiate and abhor the fact that you, personally and directly, blacklisted her from any conference that invited you to speak?

Does Todd Stiefel realize that Dawkins has consistently failed to live up to the values of free inquiry?

Let me out of the human race!

Some days, I do feel like I’d rather belong to any other species. It’s nice to know that there is a way out.

“They are not even technically human anymore. Vaccinated people are honestly a threat to humanity as a whole,” one anti-vaxxer wrote of the meme vilifying those who get the jab.

I’ve been vaccinated! Does this mean I’m not humany anymore? What a relief.

“People who are vaccinated will have modified DNA,” it continues. “No one discusses that DNA is passed onto the next generation. The risk that your children will marry into other cultures is possibly now shadowed by the fact that your children may marry into a COVID vaxed gene group potentially shortening their lives and that of others.”

Except…none of that is true. It’s an RNA vaccine, and unless you happen to have a reverse transcriptase that recognizes the vaccine sequence (hint: YOU DON’T), it’s not going to be inserted into your DNA. It’s going to be translated into a protein that will provoke an immune response until the RNA is degraded, which is inevitable. So nope, it’s not going to modify your genome, and it’s not going to be passed on to your progeny, and your kids will eventually have to be vaccinated.

Darn. I’m still human, and I still share a species with the dishonest twits who spread this misinformation.

I’ve still got mine

Way back in 2009, the American Humanist Association thought I was worthy of their Humanist of the Year award. I was honored to receive it, and still don’t know if I really deserved it, but I do keep it in my office. I had no idea it could be taken away.

Apparently, you have to maintain your status as a good humanist, which I think is entirely appropriate. If I start promoting bigoted ideas, it should be retracted.

As has happened to Richard Dawkins, who was a recipient in 1996.

Regrettably, Richard Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalized groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values. His latest statement implies that the identities of transgender individuals are fraudulent, while also simultaneously attacking Black identity as one that can be assumed when convenient. His subsequent attempts at clarification are inadequate and convey neither sensitivity nor sincerity.

Consequently, the AHA Board has concluded that Richard Dawkins is no longer deserving of being honored by the AHA, and has voted to withdraw, effective immediately, the 1996 Humanist of the Year award.

I’m sure that Richard Dawkins has many more awards and honors than I do, so he’ll hardly miss one little trophy, but it still has to sting to be told you no longer deserve this one.

It also sends a message that humanists should regard trans rights as a great good, one not to be denied.

P.S. I also have one of these (Dawkins received a similar award from the IHEU/BHA in 2009). I think that makes me a certifiable humanist.

And this humanist has been saying “Trans Rights!” all along.

Answers in Genesis is bad Christianity

Never trust this liar

Several years ago, Terry Mortenson spoke at a church here in Morris, and I attended along with several students. It was somewhat entertaining for me, because he lied and misrepresented evolution non-stop, and it was hilarious to look over at the UMM contingent and see all the jaws dropping open, unbelieving that anyone would be this blatantly dishonest. But then, if it’s Answers in Genesis, it’s always bullshit.

Now I’m amused again. Ken Ham is shocked and horrified that one of Mortenson’s speeches prompted a rebuke — he had been told afterwards that his homophobia is unwelcome, as was his unscientific stance on the age of the earth. Yikes. How dare anyone point out that the grand poobahs of Ken Ham’s bizarre cult are hateful and ignorant!

But the worst part, to Ham’s silly brain, is that the person who chastised the official position of his narrow understanding of literalist creationism was … the church’s pastor!!!

In various ways, AiG has been deplatformed by organizations too. This makes many people quite frustrated, angry, and upset. But do you know what is much more upsetting? When AiG is “deplatformed” by a church! And what issues do you think might cause this “deplatforming”? Well, LGBTQ and the age of the earth/universe issues! And actually, I assert that as a result the church itself has been “deplatformed” by the pastor as he is denying people the teaching they need on Genesis. OK, that’s a lot to take in. So let me share with you what happened to our speaker Dr. Terry Mortenson, who was “deplatformed.” Here is Terry’s report in his own words:

So what exactly did Mortenson say? It wasn’t subtle.

Sunday morning [Grace Point Church, Bentonville, AR, on Jan. 17, 2021], I gave a message on the “relevance” of Genesis, similar to what Ken Ham and all our speakers present for a first presentation in a church. I explained that Genesis 1–11 is foundational to the rest of Scripture and showed that the acceptance of millions of years and evolution undermines the Bible’s teaching on sin, marriage, death, the gospel, and morality. With respect to marriage, after quoting Jesus in Matthew 19:4–6, I said that adultery, fornication, pornography, homosexuality, and transgenderism are all wrong because they are contrary to God’s created order and commands.

Well, good for Grace Point Church of Bentonville, AR! It’s about time more churches pointed out that Ham and his ilk aren’t at all representative of the majority of Christians, although they like to shriek that they should be (it’s like how the organization One Million Moms is actually just a handful of prigs). Ham even admits it that he’s part of a tiny minority.

Sadly, the majority of Christian leaders compromise Genesis in some way.

Sadly, Grace Point Church is not without flaw: they invited Mortenson in the first place and, although they admit that the Earth is old, the dislike evolution and want it to not be true. I guess it is a major step forward when they are speaking out against homophobia, at least.

I’m also happy to see a smug obnoxious twit like Mortenson getting slapped down. Maybe progress in greater tolerance will have the added benefit of breaking AiG someday.