Following an exchange with occult author Donald Michael Kraig on his blog, I briefly corresponded with him via e-mail about some of the points I raised in my last post, particularly the point that his approach to evaluating magical claims was an example of confirmation bias and incapable of properly evaluating the claims. In his response, he continued to assert that his method was “true skepticism.”
This post will reproduce part of my answer to him – which gives a more thorough example of the way that confirmation bias works – and will follow this with an example of confirmation bias and a lack of critical thinking that I chanced across the other day: namely, a gullible Thelemite claiming in public that he has “objective proof” of the supernatural thanks to his brother’s handy “Ghost Radar” (a toy that can be bought for $0.99 on an i-Phone).
Read on for more.
In his e-mail, Kraig continued to assert that
If most of the times [when conducting a magical ritual, you] get result X, you have to look at the times when you obtained result Y and see what the variables are between the experiments that obtained different results. Doing X under the same conditions should always result in X. If not, there at least one variablethat has not been accounted for.
Part of my response follows:
Sure, when X is a well-defined and specific result, like rolling a 6 on a die, drawing the Queen of Wands from a tarot deck, finding an object hidden in one box, observing metal glow a particular color, etc.
But when X is ridiculously broad and open to interpretation, like “I will perform a working to attract money to me,” you’re not doing “science,” and you have no way of reliably discerning that something you subjectively interpret as a “result” was really a “result” of your ritual. You’re just engaging in confirmation bias.
To use the money example, there are thousands of possible scenarios that could be considered “results” or “hits.” To name a few, one could find money in the street, have an investment turn out to be more lucrative than one thought, win a raffle at the local carnival, receive a raise or bonus at work, realize that the one has planned the budget incorrectly and thus discover that one has more money this month than one previously thought, get offered a scholarship or fellowship that one was not expecting, get loaned money from a friend, have a friend pay back a debt unexpectedly, win a certain amount at a casino, get lucky in a game of online poker, etc., etc., etc.
All of those things, while they don’t happen to one individual all the time, are relatively common and normal events and are all interpretable as “hits” for an operation to attract money. Several of the above scenarios have happened to me and those close to me in the recent months, and neither I nor any of them have done any "magical operations" for money.
Upon performing an operation to attract money, one’s mind is going to be on the lookout for anything that can be interpreted as a hit. And – since there are thousands of possible scenarios that could be considered “hits,” many of them relatively common – it’s pretty likely that an individual is going to find something that he can interpret as a hit. And in the event that he can’t, well, all he has to do is come up with some ad hoc explanation for why the magick failed this time. Then next time, he can change that one variable and then, presto changeo, he’ll hopefully be able to locate a hit. And if not, back to the drawing board.
In other words, there’s nothing that demonstrates that any “results” you obtain from such an operation were actually “results”*caused* by your operation, no matter how many variables you jot down in your magical diary.
You can’t “prove” anything at all under such a model. In order to “prove” anything, your magick would have to cause something very specific and even then, you’d have to be able to reliably replicate it (or, rather, something extremely similar to it and just as specific). And if you could do that, then you could demonstrate it to any impartial observer.
And again, if your response is going to be, “Oh, magick doesn’t work that way. We can’t always predict its results so specifically, etc, etc.,” then you’re admitting that this “magick” is totally indistinguishable from nothing at all and that there is no basis – not even “to you” – for saying that it “works” or that it’s real.
[Here ends the first selection from my e-mail]
In addition to the above selection from my e-mail, a portion of my response later is particularly relevant because it indicates the importance of this point, so I reproduce it below:
A lot of people come to the study of Thelema thinking that there’s something to this supernatural stuff, and they start out believing all kinds of false things about the universe: they think reincarnation, demons, and magic spells are real. These are, essentially, fantasies that the Khu develops and holds into shape through a misapplication of reason. It does this because these fantasies are pleasing to the mind. As I noted, the mind tends to perceive the universe as working in ways that it expects and wants, and it reinforces these views through logical fallacies and a misapplication of reason.
What students of this subject need isn’t a lesson in how to conduct confirmation bias. They need a lesson in ruthlessly attacking their convictions and *especially* being skeptical of claims that seem to them“self-evident” or things that they mistakenly think they’ve proven “to themselves.”
[This is the end of the selection from my e-mail that I will publish here.]
As if to demonstrate my point – gee, maybe the Universe is sending me messages, eh? – I chanced across a post on a site called The Omaha Community of Thelema in which a poster calling himself Frater Aequilibritas claimed to have “objective proof” of the supernatural (click here to see the thread, if you must).
On a side note, I have no idea what the Omaha Community of Thelema is. From what I can gather, it’s not an OTO body: it appears to be a rather casual association of Thelemites. At any rate, what follows isn’t meant to be a comment on all of its members. I will merely select and critique a handful of posts on a single topic, since they illustrate exactly what’s wrong with conducting all of your magical “experiments” via confirmation bias.
On one blog post, Frater Aequilibritas claims to have obtained this “objective proof” by means of his brother’s use of a “Ghost Radar.” What’s a Ghost Radar, you ask? Is it some intricate and advanced piece of equipment designed to pick up frequencies and energies largely unknown to most people and even to most practicing scientists?
No. It’s a cheap toy for your i-Phone.
Seriously. “Ghost Radar” is just an app for the i-Phone that sells for less than a dollar. It’s a goofy program that’s clearly supposed to be for laughs. According to the website of its creator, the highly scientific-sounding group “Spud Pickles”:
Ghost Radar employs a proprietary algorithm to analyze the quantum flux. This application does NOT detect EMF nor gravity. Readings for various sensors are analyzed to detect QUANTUM Fluctuations. Interpretations of the sensor readings are displayed graphically as blips on the radar along with numeric and textual readouts on the VOX. Use your Ghost Radar to hunt for odd changes in the flux. Hunters of all types may find anomalous areas of their environment where readings simply can't be explained. You be the judge. Are the results of your hunting evidence of paranormal activity?
Those versed in skepticism should already be hearing the bells of their woo-alarm going off upon reading this kind of silliness.
As this article from a site called paranormal people online points out:
the I-phone fails as a ghost hunting device, just from a look at its hardware; but what really does this software do? Is it anything more than a glorified random output generator? All indications are that the answer is ‘no’, it is nothing more than a cleverly programmed cell phone application that generates seemingly non-random display results.
Further, the web page goes on to point out that if such a device could actually analyze quantum fluctuations and detect the supposed energy responsible for them (which current quantum physics apparently suggests is unlikely to exist), it would be an achievement worthy of a Nobel Prize:
If such an energy exists, it remains laughable that the makers of the Ghost Radar I-phone app gained some miraculous understanding of a purely theoretical and fantastic idea of universal connectivity, there-by allowing them to program the application to measure this energy. An energy that no one can prove even exists. But for arguments sake, if we take for granted the idea that they did achieve this feat of physics mastery, are we supposed to now believe they found that the best way to proceed with this ground breaking research and knowledge was to make it into an i-phone app?
I suppose the Nobel Prize is much overrated these days.
I’ll suggest now, that if you don’t see the flaw in this situation, then you deserve to get caught in their scam and lose your hard earned money.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that the app is available under the “entertainment” category and that its website says, "results from this application cannot be verified scientifically and therefore should be used for entertainment purposes."
Honestly, going through the trouble of demonstrating that a toy can’t really detect ghosts is starting to hurt my head. So enough about this stupid app. Here’s what Frater Aequilibritas says about it:
[My brother] got a new, very hi-tech phone recently, and for a lark, downloaded the "Ghost Radar" app for it. It uses the already present components in the phone to detect various phenomena that are typically associated with ghosts (electromagnetic, temperature, etc.) to detect the approximate area and location of various "ghostly" presences. It takes a few days to adjust for background noise, wiring in the walls, and such, but it eventually determined there were around 6 "presences" in the top floor of their new apartment. This appeared equally on both of their phones. [It is unclear who “their” refers to in this sentence]
Courtney, an Asatruar, decided she wanted to help them "pass on" and prepared a ritual, the details of which I am uncertain at the moment, to facilitate this. Yesterday evening, they performed this ritual, and then took a test walk several times slowly through the house. Not a single presence appeared on the Radar.
Now whether or not these "presences" were actually ghosts or not is immaterial. What this does objectively prove (at least to my mind) is that the ritual was effective. It was designed to remove whatever was causing these "presences" from the house. It has effectively done just that, through simple application of focused will. It may not hold up in a laboratory test, and does not pass technical scientific rigour, but I think to deny its clear proof is misguided.
So, first of all, we’re not given enough information to say for sure what’s going on here. We’re told that two Ghost Radars reported six “presences” in the apartment, and then we’re told that after some kind of unknown ritual to remove the presences, the Ghost Radars both reported no presences in this space.
Even if this story is being reported totally accurately – and isn’t it interesting that “objective proof” of the supernatural always seems to consist of second-hand anecdotes? – it should be overwhelmingly obvious that this doesn’t rise to the level of “proof” of anything, especially since it’s not entirely clear what this toy is actually doing. There’s no way to tell in this situation that it was the ritual that caused those blips on the radar to disappear.
Anyway, the comments on the post are what really drew my attention to this bit of silliness. One commenter writes:
test every now and then pref. every few days, see if "they" "it" whatever, stays gone. if still gone after a month, then, wow. i've done a share of "ghostbustiNg" and thats' pretty good, just that things may tend to come back if really attached. none of it will tell us exactly what "it" "they" are tho. did anyone get voice messages or the like?
Astute readers will have noticed the confirmation bias present here. If the device continues to say that there are no entities, then it confirms the claim. But if the device reports more entities showing up, then, it demonstrates how persistent those entities really are, so it still confirms the claim.
Comments like this start from the assumption that the claim is already true. Something that is subjectively interpreted as a “hit” confirms the claim, and anything that is not perceived as a hit is just explained away or ignored.
This is not a path to truth of any kind.
Perhaps the saddest comment of them all is one made by Fr. Perseverabo. He writes:
Thats the kind of documentation that's needed. What the things were is not really important, nor where they went, it was the will of 'moving' them. It seems to have worked would agree. Sure it's not a laboratory test and reason and why will punch wholes in the theory, but remember what 'why' does... it stops progress.
And there we have it. Playing around with a toy provides “objective proof” of the supernatural, and those mean old rationalists with their “why” and their insistence on actually figuring out what’s really going on instead of twisting random data into confirmation of what they want to be true are going to stop “progress”…where “progress” means using a cheap i-Phone app to give yourself thrills and chills thinking that your apartment is swarming with spooks that you can ghostbust with your super-duper magical powers.
Seriously, now, imagine how a comments like the above look to a person who just heard about Thelema and wants to investigate the kinds of things that Thelemites think. These are grown people who are not only uncritically taking a very silly toy at face value, but claiming to validate kooky beliefs on the basis of said toy and actively disputing that trying to figure out what’s really going on can be useful or can represent “progress” of any kind.
Anyone with half a brain is going to run – not walk – in the opposite direction of any group that allows ignorance like that to go unchecked. For indeed, in any normal forum, someone making spurious claims like this would be called out on how stupid the whole thing is.
And this leads me right back to my point in this post: if leaders in the magical community teach confirmation bias as a kind of “proof” of supernatural magick – and refuse to teach students how to vigorously attack their own convictions – this is the kind of result we can expect: a group of slack-jawed yokels ooh-ing and ahh-ing over a cell phone toy as if it provides some kind of “objective proof” of anything other than their gullibility.
Now, despite everything I’ve just said, I’m not actually trying to pick on these hapless folks I’ve selected to illustrate this point. They honestly don’t know any better, and one of the reasons that they don’t is that all the “magical authorities” tell them that this is how it’s done. There are no role models for skeptical inquiry in the magical community because the magical community – unsurprisingly – isn’t interested in subjecting their claims to skeptical inquiry.And more to the point, attitudes like those seen above -- eager to ignorantly employ logical fallacies and utterly contemptuous of attempts to understand what's actually going on -- are absolute obstacles to any attempt to intelligently know and do one's true will.