The problem with ‘Ultra Spiritual’ JP Sears

 You might know JP Sears from his popular ‘Ultra Spiritual Life’ videos in which he presents a parody of faddish new age ‘spiritual’ beliefs and healthy eating/life coach gurus. See, for example, his viral send up of self righteous vegans:

Sears’ videos are often funny and witty and have proved popular with skeptics and rationalists because they effectively lampoon various fad diets and new age spirituality, highlighting the hypocrisy and logical leaps made by supporters. This has led many to assume that he is a comedian with a critical thinking or skeptical bent. Unfortunately, this seems to be an unwarranted assumption.

The first warning flag is that Sears not only lampoons new age spirituality and self-help, he also is a genuine life coach (about to launch a premium subscription service).


New Evidence for Life After Death?


About four years ago I wrote a post about the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) project being lead by Dr. Sam Parnia. The AWARE project is summarised on its official website as being about “using the latest technologies to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest… [and] testing the validity of out of body experiences and claims of being able to see and hear during cardiac arrest through the use of randomly generated hidden images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above”. I previously expressed a number of concerns about the research, with the chief complaints being: 1) the methodology for placing ‘hidden’ images was poorly controlled (i.e. some images were visible to staff, giving patients a rather less esoteric means of learning about their content) and 2) the lead researcher, Dr. Parnia, was already promoting and offering dubious (quantum) interpretations about the meaning of the positive results, before the data was collected!

The study has finally been published, and despite breathless headlines such as the Telegraph’s “First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study” or the Independent’s “Largest-ever study provides evidence that ‘out of body’ and ‘near-death’ experiences may actually be real”, the findings are actually remarkably unimpressive. For a start, the main finding, which is not mentioned in the abstract and quickly dismissed in one sentence in the discussion section, is that none of the 140 patients interviewed were able to identify a single hidden image. The paper tries to downplay this by pointing out that 78% of cardiac events occurred in areas without the special ‘shelves’ that held the images, this percentage however appears to be based on the full sample of 2,060 cardiac events rather than the 140 cases included in the study. It may be that the percentage is similar for these specific cases but the paper doesn’t tell us that and regardless, since the researchers seem to feel this makes the measure all but useless, you have to wonder why such a serious methodological issue was not identified as a problem in the piloting stage. Indeed, if we go back to this report from the BBC in 2009, we find a rather different take from Dr. Parnia on the importance of this null finding:

“If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity. It is unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded. And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.


Is Derren Brown a Skeptic?

Derren Brown

Derren Brown is a magician of the mentalist variety. Mentalists use a variety of techniques to create the illusion that they can read minds and have other amazing mental powers.

Recently Derren Brown created a storm of controversy when he claimed that he was able to predict the lottery numbers and then appeared to do just that on a live TV show filmed as the lottery numbers were announced. He claimed that he would reveal the technique used to make the prediction a few days later on a subsequent show however, when the show aired the explanations he provided were not convincing and created a substantial amount of uproar among both his fans and his detractors.

Various sites have provided detailed examinations of the problems with his explanations along with more plausible alternatives (which you can see examples of here and here) so I’ll just provide a brief summary.

The majority of the show was spent suggesting that he had used a group of 24 volunteers, various psychological experiments/complex mathematics and automatic writing to arrive at the numbers. This is a non-explanation as group psychology has absolutely no way of impacting a machine randomly selecting numbered balls nor can automatic writing give you insight into the future.

The second explanation, offered alongside immediate denials, intended to arouse suspicion of the ‘methinks, the lady doth protest too much’ variety, was that the lottery balls could have been tampered with. This is illegal and would also be practically impossible given the amount of security and safety systems that are in place to prevent such things from happening.

The much simpler explanation, as discussed by a significant amount of newspapers and commentators, was that it was a trick achieved by some clever camera effects, projecting the numbers onto the balls or some other form of trickery. This is the simplest explanation and is strongly supported by the fact that Derren did not reveal the numbers until the lottery draw was completed, has not yet won the national lottery and says himself that it was a trick (albeit with a nudge and a wink to suggest that maybe it wasn’t).

In essence Derren is simply a magician performing a trick on TV and as such there should be no real surprise that he would provide false explanations for how his trick was performed. Yet there was surprise, or at least there was a significant sense of irritation, which stems from the fact that Derren does not package what he does as magic or as involving traditional illusionist techniques. And without invoking those it seems that he did something impossible.


Watch This Programme!!!

Professor Regan's Medical CabinetOk, this is just a quick note to recommend that anyone in the UK, or anyone who knows how to use proxys, should really be watching this programme.

It’s on BBC  iplayer and it’s called ‘Professor Regan’s Medicine Cabinet’ but don’t let the diet-show packaging fool you, this is actually a quite ruthlessly skeptical show promoting the value of good scientific research and critical thinking on health issues and providing excellent illustrations of just how important blinded clinical trials are.


The Prevalence of Nonsense

On my way to work in the morning I jump on the bus and in a matter of minutes I pass Dr. Q’s Chinese medical centre. With promotial signs galore hanging from the window they proudly proclaim that whether my problem be acne, erectile disfunction or hairloss Dr. Q’s medical centre has a Chinese herbal remedy guaranteed to sort the issue, and if that doesn’t work, well there’s always the option of a course of acupuncture treatments which will apparently do just as well.

A few minutes more on my bus journey, and I come to ‘Tony’s natural food & organic cafe’ which explains in it’s takeaway menu that:

There are two oceans of water in the body; one ocean is held inside the cells of the body, and the other ocean is held outside the cells. Good health depends on a most delicate balance between the volume of these oceans, and this balance is achieved by salt- unrefined sea salt.