Sunday, 24 July 2011

Crystal experiment

Here's a brief extract from my book Believing Bullshit.

Professor Christopher French and colleagues Lyn Williams and Hayley O’Donnell at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London, conducted a study into the claim that crystals have unusual powers that can be detected when they are held. The resulting paper was presented to the British Psychological Society Centenary Annual Conference in Glasgow in 2001. The study compared the reactions of a group of volunteers who were told to meditate while clutching real crystals bought from “New Age” shops with a control group given fake crystals. Those given real crystals reported higher concentration powers, heightened energy levels, and better spiritual well-being. However, exactly the same feelings were reported by those holding fake crystals. This experiment repeated an earlier one in which the experimenter, Williams, knew which crystals were real and which were fake, and so it was not “double-blind.” This second study was double-blind. The result? Neither experiment found any difference in the effects reported between real and fake crystals. Richard Wiseman, a colleague of French’s, commented on the results: “The suggestion is that the power of crystals is in the mind rather than in the crystals themselves.”2 Let’s suppose you believe in the miraculous powers of crystals and, in particular, in the ability of people to sense the power of crystals that they physically handle. But you’re now presented with these experimental results that strongly suggest, as Wiseman notes, that the experiences people have as a result of handling crystals are a product of the power of suggestion, rather than anything in the crystals themselves. Oh, dear. What do you do? One commentator on a blog reporting the experiments responded like so:

There is much that exists beyond the visible spectrum of light, and beyond the five senses. Not being able to prove the existence of something does not disprove its existence. Much is yet to be discovered. You would do better to discover it by looking outside your narrow frame of reference.

This is a curious collection of sentences.The first three are, of course, all true—indeed they are truisms. Yes, there’s much that exists Playing the Mystery Card beyond the visible spectrum of light and beyond the five senses. X-rays, for example. It is undeniable that not proving the existence of something does not disprove its existence. And of course, who would want to deny that “much is yet to be discovered”? However, while the first three sentences are truisms, they fail to engage with the experimental results. What the experiment produced is some rather compelling evidence that some of the effects people typically report on handling crystals—increased concentration, spiritual well-being, heightened energy levels—are not a result of some special feature of the crystals themselves but rather of the power of suggestion. It is important to stress that what we are looking at here is not a mere absence of evidence for the claim that crystals have such effects, but rather that it is some positive evidence of the absence of any such effects. Yet notice how, in response to this experimental evidence, our commentator says “not being able to prove the existence of something is not to disprove its existence,” thus misrepresenting the results of this investigation as a mere absence of evidence.

What of the suggestion that there’s much that is “beyond the senses” (whether it’s a supernatural realm or merely more of the natural world is left open) that the methods of science are not well suited to discover (being too “narrow”). The thought seems to be that if we want to discover more about this undiscovered realm, we need to open ourselves up to other ways of knowing. But what other ways of knowing? A survey of crystal healing literature and websites suggests a combination of gut feeling and
intuition (see “I Just Know!”) and heavy reliance on various anecdotes about the effects of crystals, such as people being supposedly cured, and so on (see Piling Up the Anecdotes).

This is a fairly typical example of how people Play the Mystery Card in order to deal with compelling scientific evidence against their beliefs in miraculous or supernatural phenomena. The scientific method has a fantastic track record when it comes to revealing what lies beyond the visible spectrum of light and is hidden fromour ordinary five senses. As I say, scientists have discovered not only X-rays, but also subatomic particles, distant galaxies, and so on. We are given no reason to think the scientific method is not suitable when it comes to investigating the alleged powers of crystals.

Indeed, many of the claims made about crystals clearly are scientifically investigable because they have observable, empirically testable consequences. Moreover, science has produced good evidence that at least some of these claims are false. Still, our commentator sweepingly dismisses such scientific findings, misrepresenting them as a mere “absence of evidence.”

On no grounds whatsoever, and in the teeth of evidence to the contrary, our commentator insists that scientific methods are far too “narrow” to refute the various claims made about crystals. And of course, his dismissal of such scientific evidence is delivered with an air of humility and superior wisdom in contrast to
the implied know-it-all attitude of the scientific critics.

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