“The Girl with X-Ray Eyes”
CSICOP Turns Victory into Defeat
by Guy Lyon Playfair
“It’s not about results – this is about belief.”
– CSICOP’s Richard Wiseman
“The Fire Brigade” in Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 was not in the business of putting fires out, but of starting them with books when told that an illegal book-owner had been unmasked.
Likewise, CSICOP does not scientifically investigate claims of the paranormal (let alone the actual phenomena), it debunks them en bloc.
So when the news about 17-year-old Russian clairvoyant diagnostician Natalya Demkina reached the top floor of their “Ministry of Truth”, out went the order:
Find this girl and stitch her up once and for all. Set up an experiment that’s guaranteed to fail.
“Firemen” Ray Hyman and Richard Wiseman were introduced by the bossyboots narrator of “The Girl With X-ray Eyes” (UK Channel 4, February 14, 2005) as ‘card-carrying sceptics from CSICOP’ and ‘the world’s foremost sceptical scientists’ who have ‘taken on and discredited many celebrity psychics – including Uri Geller’.
With that gratuitous smear out of the way, the great scientists set to work.
After a 12-hour train journey from her home in Saransk to Moscow and an 11-hour flight to New York across eight time zones, Natalya was given just one day to catch up with her jet-lag (so I have learned, though this was not mentioned by the narrator) and then asked to demonstrate what she calls her ‘medical vision’ on six patients.
Five announced that they were impressed by the accuracy of her diagnoses:
‘Unbelievable but true,’ said one.
‘Amazing and disconcerting,’ said another.
‘She picked up on that right away’, said a third, referring to her migraine.
At least one of the diagnoses was as close to a hundred-percent hit as you can get.
That would not do at all. So the Firemen shifted the goalposts and asked Natalya to do something she had not done before: to match seven assembled patients with their doctors’ diagnoses. Shock, horror! She got four out of seven right despite the fact that she was clearly under considerable stress.
The Firemen had not even allowed her mother and sister to remain in the room to give her support. This, we were told, was to preclude ‘the possibility of cheating’. We were not told how they could possibly have cheated under the circumstances. Instead, we had a lesson in data massaging.
The researchers had apparently set five out of seven as a pass mark. Getting only four had a guesswork-probability of one in nearly eighty. One in twenty (p=.05) is usually accepted as significant, but not by the firefighters.
In CSICOP newspeak a success is a failure if they say so. ‘She had the claim, we tested it, she didn’t pass the test’, Wiseman crowed smugly, adding with surprising candour that ‘it doesn’t matter what we do in terms of testing – it’s not about results, this is about belief’.
‘If she fails,’ said bossyboots with a nasty edge to her voice, ‘her reputation could be ruined along with the hope and dreams of her devoted patients’.
This was evidently the purpose of what had more in common with a Stalinist show trial than a serious experiment, although we were allowed a brief glimpse of Natalya at work on her home ground, where ‘she has convinced a number of doctors’ and local support for her seemed unanimous.
Journalist Igor Monichev described how he had put her to the test with the aim of debunking her, asking if she could indicate which part of which of his arms had suffered a fracture in the past. Natalya looked for a minute and a half, then pointed to her left wrist. Another direct hit.
One is reminded of Rev. C. H. Townshend’s insistence (in 1852!) that ‘a thousand negations are nothing before one affirmative proof’ and his condemnation of those who ‘insist in having all right or nothing’.
Every attempt was made to sling mud at this fresh-faced girl who fairly radiated honesty and desire to help people.
The fact that Natasha was a devout Orthodox Christian was made to sound like a serious mental disease, and worst of all was the news that she sees twenty patients a day five days a week (while still at school) and has lately been ‘asking for donations’.
As I am sure did the Firemen. There were insinuations that Natalya’s apparent successes were all due to cold reading and fishing, although we were shown no evidence to support this smear.
As Hyman is a noted expert in cold reading one wonders why he did not use himself as a control diagnostician.
And so, ‘with the scientists’ dismissal ringing in her ears’, Natalya went home to Saransk where, as Igor Monichev put it, ‘They don’t test her, they trust her’.
Natasha had, it seemed, learned at least one word of English during her trip to New York. Asked for her opinion of the CSICOP tests she promptly replied with a four-letter expletive beginning with the letter ‘s’.
Other critics (linkout):
Nobel Laureate physicist Dr. Brian Josephson, F.R.S. (Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge, UK), found this test to be seriously misleading.