Monday, February 26, 2007

Doggerel #61: "But [Woo] Doesn't Work 100% of the Time!"

Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Whenever a skeptic points out a spectacular failure of some psychic, altie treatment, or whatever, there's always some woo who leaps to the defense by spouting this doggerel. This, however, completely misses the real skeptics' stance on woo: We don't demand that it operate at 100%: We only demand that it operate better than chance, placebo, or whatever baseline measurements are available.

There is a point behind popularizing spectacular failures: It means that psychics and quacks can fail in a manner that can't be easily ad hocked away. These failures often reveal the type of trickery involved, which can lead to a questioning believer to examine the lesser failures, and maybe even realize that their successes are meaningless and explainable without invoking magic.

Most woos who invoke this defense don't seem to realize that it's a bit of a backfire: If psychic powers always worked 100% of the time, there'd be less demand for a test. The fact that they don't work all the time is a good reason to perform a test: "Subtle" effects require rigorous experimental standards to measure, and it's not the skeptics who are afraid of that rigor.


Doggerel Index


Skeptico said...

Joe Vitale does say the Law of attraction "does work every time - no exceptions". A pretty strong claim he has yet to justify.

He is the exception, though.

Bronze Dog said...

I should have seen that coming. :)

Skeptico said...

I knew you were going to say that.

TheBrummell said...

This reminds me of an old Randi video, from when he went to Australia - early 1980's, I think.

In the clip (which should be on YouTube; I'm too lazy to look), some local water-dowsers are invited to test their skills. Before the test, each is asked what their past success rate has been - mostly in "helping" farmers find good spots to drill wells.

All of them answer 100% or "at least 95%". Of course, the average pooled success during the test was 11% (guess which of 10 buried pipes has water flowing through it, multiple trials), not signficantly different from chance.

Then the excuses started. "Sunspots!", "Unfamiliar terrain!" et cetera. Highly amusing, especially when the added entertainment value of those goofy Oz accents is thrown in.

Tom Foss said...

Well, sure, the Law of Attraction works every time, but it might not work in the way you intended. Why, you might get precisely the opposite of what you wished for, because the universe only heard part of what you said.

And then there's the small matter of other people counter-wishing, as in Skeptico's unanswered traffic jam example. Vitale's got plenty of 'outs' to his 100% accuracy.

Infophile said...

Then the excuses started. "Sunspots!", "Unfamiliar terrain!" et cetera. Highly amusing, especially when the added entertainment value of those goofy Oz accents is thrown in.

Hence why Randi started getting them to agree not to make excuses if they fail before the testing starts. It doesn't stop them from making excuses, but it sure makes them look bad.