December 22, 2017

Nathan for You and Psychics

I really enjoy the show Nathan For You for many reasons, it's funny, creative and different from anything else I've watched. Yet, I think why I really enjoy it so much is that Nathan has the ability to draw attention to the ridiculousness of everyday people, as he shows that it takes very little to reveal the strangeness that exists within all of us. Getting a musician to play a smoke detector as a musical instrument to skirt international shipping laws, having a large man offset his weight through the use of balloons so that he can go horseback riding, meeting people who would camp overnight and solve endless riddles for an $11 gas refund and, in the same episode, having the gas station owner talk about the benefits of drinking the urine of the young.

What is happening could be described as a suspect business version of the Milgram Experiment where people are pushed or are willing to do things that they wouldn't normally do because someone is asking them in such a way that it seems that their personal responsibility towards the end result is diminished.With that, Nathan's seriousness isn't a secondary feature of the show, but a necessary quality. That seriousness is his lab coat that, along with the cameras, creates the situation where his ideas can be followed.

Yet, once and a while, as was the case with the gas station owner, there isn't a need to push or diminish personal responsibility as the weirdness openly existed in the people and not the situation created. While that is true of some individuals, an entire profession shows that same quality. The absurdity of the psychic is not below the surface, but inherent in the position. In the 'normal' businessman/businesswoman it is the strange business proposition that has to create a novel situation where Nathan can press his determination and seriousness to create the absurd. In the case of the psychic, the absurd is always there, and while his strange idea accentuates the absurdity, it doesn't have to create it.

Nathan has three episodes where psychics are involved and each demonstrates the absurdity of the psychic.

1. The Ghost Realtor 
The idea: A realtor could take advantage of the 50% of people who believe in ghosts by guaranteeing that the houses that they sell are ghost free.

Notable quotes: Psychic - "You know what an incubus is? It's a ghost that will have sex with someone until they die." Realtor - "Wow, that's like what I experienced when I was in Switzerland."

Exorcist - "Do you have any health issues? Are you constantly getting sick, do you have headache bothering you all the time?"
Nathan - "I do have one thing but it's kinda personal, it's uh..hemorrhoids."
Exorcist - "Yeah, that's demonic. Oh yeah. So how do you say that again? I do not say this name very often. Ham-ar-oids?"

Nathan - "Can it [exorcism] help with penis size?"
Exorcist - "Yeah, you see if it's demonic yeah I can cast out the demons from that. I don't have say for the thing to you know to increase your size or whatever."
Exorcist than places his hand on Nathan's head - "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ I command all of you demons, if there is a demon affecting this mans penis, male organs, making it smaller, whatever, if there is any demon there lodged in his penis right now, COME OUT IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST, come out."

The Take away: Don't be surprised to find emails about exorcisms for penis enlargement in your junk folder.

2. A Celebration (It's a clip episode where he catches up with people from old episodes):

The idea: Just catching up with the Ghost Realtor (She really embraced the Ghost Realtor branding and became the Ghost Realtor)

Notable quotes: The new psychic – "So I’m known as a psychic medium, but I’m also clairsentient so I feel my angles and I’m clairvoyant so I can see. I’m also clairaudient so most of the time I hear, I hear voices and I also do financial advising."

Ghost Realtor – "Do you want to ask a question?"
Nathan – "For Ron?" (the previous, now deceased, psychic)
New Psychic – "Yes"
*I skipped a couple less interesting questions*
Nathan  - "umm…I know on the show that he worked on the OJ trial, now that he’s on the other side does he have any clearer info on maybe who the real killer was?"
New Psychic – "He does but I don’t. I’m not getting a name or anything like that right now."
Nathan – "He knows who the killer is?"
New Psychic – "Yeah, yes."
Nathan – "Was it OJ?"
New Psychic – "This isn’t coming from Ron, it’s coming from me and that answer is yes."
Nathan – "But Ron’s not telling you that?"
New Psychic – "Every time I present him with that he steps back"
Nathan – "Who's telling you then?"
New Psychic – "My own connection with my own spirit guides"

The Take away: The possibilities have been narrowed down to either OJ did or did not kill Nichole Brown and Ron Goldman, thanks to Ron and the new psychic.

3. Miss Maria Garcia

The idea: That instead of advertising in a general way that you're an accurate psychic, instead pick out an extremely popular name and create individualized, targeted advertising that is in actuality not individualized at all.

Notable quotes: Psychic - "I've placed ads before and I haven't see a lot of return from them."

A person named Maria Garcia calls and the Psychic calls her back with Nathan there to schedule an appointment.
Maria - "Hello?"
Psychic - "Hello, is this Maria Garcia?"
Maria - "Yes"
Psychic - "My name is Dora, I'm a psychic"
Maria - "Hi"
Psychic - "Hi"
Nathan - *Whispers to the Psychic* - "Say you had a vision about her."
Psychic - "Ok"
Psychic - "I had a vision about you."
Nathan - *whispers again* 'and it was a strong vision'
Maria- "Oh"
Psychic - "And it was a really strong vision and it came to me in a dream."

The Take away: If a person generates and ensures the predictions that a physic makes happen, then the psychic was correct.

The multiple psychics and the exorcist on the show were each funny to watch and listen to independent of the situation Nathan created, they simply needed only screen time.

Nathan doesn't have to be a skeptic or even take a skeptical stance to make a skeptical point, as the only real difference between his show and a show like the Lond Island Medium is that Nathan isn't a true believer and the footage isn't being cut in a way that points out the hits and ignores the misses.
When much of mysticism is unpacked and shown in a way that doesn't accentuate or build up what is going on it is really effective in showing how underwhelming and silly it all looks. It is the difference between expectation vs reality.

If that second burger, the reality of psychics, was shown more consistently in the way that Nathan shows it then psychics would be a lot less appealing in general. Without showbiz magic, the real magic of psychics is a couple of stale tricks that sandwich a wrinkled fraud layered in cheese.

This highlights the effectiveness of the approach in it takes away the Us/Them conflict, as Nathan is more of a supportive neutral and the format of comedy is more disarming than any formal type of investigation would be. For those reasons, Nathan For You might be the best source of psychic skepticism I've seen on TV.

I'd be really interested to hear what someone with a strong belief in psychics thought of those episodes. Maybe my view is different in being a skeptic and the psychics on the show don't look as bad or as silly as I think they do, or maybe they would pull a Lamar Keene and conclude that those psychics were bad those weren't typical .psychics.

December 18, 2017

Dragons Need Balance - Two Dragon's Den Pitches Uncomfortably Familiar to Power Balance

I used to watch the CBC show Dragon's Den when it first came out and enjoyed it quite a bit. I even played soccer with someone that was on the show which was kinda neat, shout out to Wonton Crunch. With that, it is disappointing that my attention has been drawn to two pitches from the show's 12th Season that each makes the claim that they can instantly improve your balance. Those companies are Neuro Reset and New Age Performance (Seriously that's the name...with that name you're getting lucky to get away with simply not being more balanced for $50, I'd expect  'New Age Performance' to sell you an $1199 dollar pair of cleats that shock your feet and realign your charkras).

Both pitches are of the same nature and make the same claim. People come out, talk about having a product that improves balance by adjusting something, one of the dragons has their balance tested and they are shakey, the product is used and instantly the dragon's balance is now perfect. The dragons are amazed and compete with each other to become partners with the people making the pitch.

For those around for the momentary craze that was Power Balance (I actually wrote a post about Kingston Police selling them in a fundraising campaign)  both pitches seem a little too familiar, as they all involve a balance test, a change that doesn't seem to have an impact on balance, and then instantaneously after the product is used the person's balance has dramatically improved.

How is this done? Well, Brian Brushwood over at Scam School documents a variety of ways that it could be done and explainings the trick of instantaneous improvement in balance. Brian does such a good job that from watching the video once I've now been able to perform the trick on other people and explain how it was done. It's pretty easy to do, and I could see how someone could trick themselves into thinking that something else was the cause of the change in balance. The way to invalidate the balance test so that a person feels off balance in the first test and then when tested again feels that they have much more balance is pretty simple. When you want a person to be off balance push or pull that person at an angle that is away from their center of gravity (pretty much at any an angle away from where their feet are) and if you want them to feel more balanced push/pull towards the center of gravity (towards where their feet are works well). If you watch the Dragon's Den clips you can see that change taking place.

See a difference? 
Look at the direction of the wrist 

When Power Balance was required to show that their claims we different from the trick described above it resulted in a lost court case and a 57 million dollar settlement. Now, those bracelets have to make their claims in the vague way that Q-Ray bracelets do after they too lost a lawsuit involving unsubstantiated claims which resulted in the company having to return 87 million dollars.

With that background, the specific companies and the scientific backing for their claims can be examined, as each has company has a page dedicated to 'science'.

Neuro Reset is said to work through a "subtle energy pattern that wakes up the sensory nerve receptors", That pattern effect is said to be the product of 7 years of clinical research...which doesn't seem to be time well spent because that research wasn't even worth publishing on Neuro Resets's own "The Science" page explaining how it worked, let alone being research published in an academic journal.

This one is more obvious 
Check out his fingers and wrist 

Further, it is interesting that a technology that could improve the function of joints in the back and spine is being marketed to golfers and isn't being used to help people with medical issues that could be resolved if the claims being made were true. 

Neuro Reset even does the classic woo tactic of using the word 'quantum' as a justification in a way that doesn't make any sense, as the device's communication is said to work through quantum entanglement. Quantum entanglement is complicated, and I won't do it justice here, but it can be broken down into the understanding that when two particles are entangled and the same measurement is made on those particles the result will be the same regardless of the distance between those two particles in what was measured. What is important here is that entanglement shows no way to effect neuropathways in their functioning, and the No-Communication Theorem points out that there is probably no communication between the entangled particles.

On the other hand what is encouraging is that, despite its name, New Age Performance does have a legitimate science page and makes a plausible, non-quantum, claim. The page even has a few real published studies about how bite alignment improves athletic performance and a double-blinded study that found significant results for the New Age Performance style mouthguard. This science page was night and day from Neuro Resets mumbo jumbo, unfortunately, even if those tests were correct none of those tests remotely demonstrated the balance affect seen on Dragon's Den. That test was misleading, unethical and unnecessary, because if the product worked in the way that is documented on companies science page it wasn't needed.

Yet it doesn't seem that the evidence on the side of New Age Performance. While the studies linked on their webpage are positive, there are many negative follow up studies that are ignored, 1 (although it did have an effect on the hight of jumps), 2 (no positive effects), 3 (no positive effects), 4  (no positive effects), 5 (positive effects with power, but otherwise negative), 6 (no positive effects).

It seems that the study into the theory of jaw alignments effect on performance is much more negative than positive, and this isn't just my conclusion it was also the conclusion of the British Advertising Authority. The BAA reviewed similar claims made by Underarmour Performance Mouthware and despite Underarmour having a similar science page to New Age Performance, it was ruled that on multiple claims their ads were misleading and lacked substantiation.

I think the major lesson is that if something is claimed to immediately change your balance through a mechanism that seems strange or is hard to understand then it is likely taking advantage of a balance trick. That said can't the Dragons Den get one Marc Cuban style shark that displays a smidgen of skepticism? They did say it sounded 'too good to be true' it's a disapointed that the questioning stopped there and only further disapointment that each of those companies got offered deals and were legitimized by the whole process.