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Medium: The Dubious Claims of Allison DuBois - Part II
2005.03.15 (Tue) 00:00
Dr. Gary Schwartz's Research:
"We believe that the purpose of science is to serve mankind. You, however, seem to regard science as some kind of dodge or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy and your conclusions are highly questionable. You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman."
— Dean Yeager, Ghostbusters
Allison claims to be a staunch supporter of science, and she claims that she herself has been subjected to numerous scientific tests. From the Medium web site:
[Allison] continues to support science as a medium used in the research of the afterlife. She has spent the last four years participating in various tests for the University of Arizona. Allison takes an active role in the direction and execution of research as a member of the Veritas Research Program Mediums Committee...
Of course, Allison's claims of scientific validation are only as good as the scientist who validates her. In this case, that scientist is the director of the University of Arizona studies referenced above, Dr. Gary Schwartz. Dr. Schwartz has an impressive résumé, and he is clearly an educated man. But instead of looking at Dr. Schwartz's résumé, let's take a look at his theories, methods and conclusions — the true measure of a scientist.
First, let's explore one of his theories. Schwartz seems to have several, but for now we'll focus on one that, in our opinion, is pretty far out there: Systemic Memory Theory (SMT), which is explained in Schwartz's book The Living Energy Universe. From what we can tell, this theory would have us believe that everything — people, animals, bricks, stars, ball peen hammers, everything — is alive, is evolving, and has a memory. In addition, it appears to advocate the "interconnectedness of all things" approach to the universe.
A review by Marc Berard published in Skeptic Magazine lays out one aspect of Schwartz's Systemic Memory Theory:
According to the book, a story that is on people's minds creates an energy system that is alive, so the story is alive, a living idea that can exist on its own. The example given is that people contacting Jesus could be in contact either with the "original" historical Jesus or a Jesus created from the concepts and stories of people since that time. This means that every different concept of Jesus exists as its own energy system being. Following this logic, that means Santa Claus, Freddy Kruger, Romeo, Ronald McDonald, and many other fictional characters exist as real spirits. And you might meet them since cause and effect are reversed in one chapter where we read that it was energy systems that created matter. "The purpose of physical systems may be to shape the evolution of living energy systems. From this perspective, the purpose of matter may be to evolve information and energy, the soul and spirit of the universe." You'll be happy to know that before time and space came into existence there was a single primal force guiding what came later. That force is Love.
Remember folks, this is really Schwartz's theory. He apparently believes that when people think about imaginary things, those imaginary things can potentially come to exist, and even take on physical existence. Maybe we should change the quote at the top of this Rant to "When you wish upon a star...."
Some people have concluded that, according to this theory, Schwartz must believe in the existence of a host of imaginary beings, including the Tooth Fairy. But does Dr. Schwartz really believe in the Tooth Fairy? According to Schwartz, he does not, and he offers the following answer found on a site calling itself Scientific Support for Evidence Based Mediumship, which recounts an exchange between Dr. Schwartz and well-known skeptic James Randi. The following is a statement made by Dr. Schwartz, which he confirmed to be accurate:
The theory of systemic memory predicts that informed energy can take on a "life of its own." Hence, imaginary beliefs such as the toothfairy, even Santa Claus, can potentially exist as dynamical info-energy systems.
However, this does NOT mean that I believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. Once again, skeptics make the mistake of confusing theory and predictions with personal belief.
Schwartz is saying that the Tooth Fairy et al "can potentially exist" as "dynamical info-energy systems" (whatever the heck that means), but that he does not personally believe in the Tooth Fairy despite what his own theory seems to say. How does this work? Schwartz goes on to explain:
I believe in observations, and I entertain hypotheses. For the record, I have never seen a tooth fairy, I know of no research on tooth fairies, and therefore Randi's abuse of language in making such a claim is irresponsible, inaccurate, and seemingly nasty.
Ah! So if we're reading this correctly, the reason he doesn't believe in the Tooth Fairy has nothing to do with the fact that the idea of the Tooth Fairy is patently absurd, but rather it is because no one has performed adequate Tooth Fairy testing yet. The words "the prosecution rests" leap inexorably to mind at this juncture.
By doing a little more digging, we can also see some of the other theories that Dr. Schwartz subscribes to. For one, he endorses homeopathy, as evidenced by his participation as a speaker at a 2002 conference held by the National Center for Homepathy. For the uninitiated, homeopathy is the use of almost infinitely small portions of some substance in a solution of water to cure ailments ranging from the common cold to cancer. Most scientists agree that physically the solution is nothing more than water, and our guess is that Dr. Schwartz would agree. So how are homeopathic remedies supposed to have any effect on the human body? Here, Schwartz's SMT dovetails nicely with homeopathy. He claims that the water — like everything else — is capable of having a memory, and that it is this memory of the original ingredients that allows homeopathy to work. Where's the proof for this? Beats the heck out of us.
We also found that Dr. Schwartz at least tacitly endorses claims of UFO sightings and alien abductions. In case you aren't familiar with the Phoenix Lights, they were a triangle of strange lights witnessed by thousands of people around Phoenix, Arizona, in 1997, and widely rumored to be alien spacecrafts. What were they? This quote from the February 24, 2004 Arizona Daily Wildcat offers the following:
The mystery went unsolved until 2000, when the National Guard staged an air show to prove to the public that an Air Force maneuver was behind the mysterious "Phoenix lights." They flew planes with flares attached to them over the city to "re-enact" the event.
But the people who had witnessed the real Phoenix lights... were still skeptical.
In case you are still skeptical, we also offer the following eyewitness account, as reported in the Phoenix New Times one year after the initial incident:
That night, Mitch Stanley and his mother were in the yard of their Scottsdale home, where Stanley has a large Dobsonian telescope.
He and his mother noticed the vee pattern approaching from the northwest. Within seconds, Stanley was able to aim the telescope at the leading three lights of the pattern.
Stanley was using a 10-inch mirror which gathers 1,500 times as much light as the human eye, and an eyepiece which magnified the sky 60 times, effectively transporting him 60 times closer to the lights than people on the ground.
When Stanley's mother asked him what he saw, he responded, "Planes."
It was plain to see, Stanley says. Under magnification, Stanley could clearly see that each light split into pairs, one each on the tips of squarish wings. Even under the telescope's power, the planes appeared small, indicating that they were flying high. Stanley says he followed the planes for about a minute, then turned his telescope to more interesting objects.
"They were planes. There's no way I could have mistaken that," he says.
Hey, aren't UFOs supposed to be "Unidentified Flying Objects"? These seem to be pretty well identified as planes.
So what is Dr. Schwartz's connection to all this? He wrote the introduction to a book which argues the authenticity of the Phoenix Lights, and also spoke at a symposium about the Phoenix Lights and other supposed alien encounters. For the record, we at the Two Percent Company are very much open to the possibility of extraterrestrial life (we'd say that the odds are very good that we are not alone in the universe), but we certainly require a lot more evidence than Dr. Schwartz seems to accept for claims such as the Phoenix Lights.
Homeopathy, alien abductions, and the Tooth Fairy — are there any bizarre theories that Dr. Schwartz doesn't endorse?
These issues aside, let's assume that we accept Schwartz's theories as plausible (quite an assumption, we admit), and move on to his methods. First, we might question Dr. Schwartz on the quote we cited above from the Medium web site. It seems to say that Allison herself "takes an active role in the direction and execution of research" in his program. What? He has a person who claims to be a medium directing and executing tests on other mediums? This seems like a serious failing in Dr. Schwartz's methods right off the bat. From here, it doesn't seem to get much better.
On several occasions, skeptic James Randi delves into the methods employed in Schwartz's lab. From the March 30, 2001 Randi weekly commentary:
Let me tell you, by a striking example, just why I believe that perhaps Gary Schwartz is not quite properly conducting this research. The following event was related to me by one who attended his "debate" recently. The "medium" Laurie Campbell did a demonstration for the audience. She asked, "Is there a John, or a Jonathan?" and she received a reply from an audience member who told her that "John" was the name of his deceased father. She followed up with, "And is there a 'b'?" To this, the man answered that his mother's name was Elizabeth, but that she was known as, "Beth."
In summing up Laurie's performance later, Dr. Schwartz dealt with the "anomalous" aspect of such readings to which he gives great attention, and thereby gave us an excellent idea of just how he derives his startling statistics. He asked for a show of hands from the audience. "How many of you have a father named John?" he asked. Several hands shot up. "And how many of you with a father named John, also have a mother named Elizabeth?" No takers, showing how unique and against-odds this double-hit of Laurie's had been....
Do I have to draw you a picture? Laurie didn't tell that man his father's name was John. The man told her! She just threw out two names, and required someone to pick up on either one of them. He identified with the name, and volunteered that it was his father's name. (In this game, the man is said to have "accepted" the name John.) And she never even said the name, "Elizabeth." The man volunteered that, too. Nor did she identify the "b" she guessed, with that man's mother! He filled her in on that, just as expected by the "cold readers."
But let's not stop there. Ray Hyman, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon and a known skeptic, had this to say about Schwartz's experiments in his article in the Skeptical Inquirer:
The research he presents is flawed. Probably no other extended program in psychical research deviates so much from accepted norms of scientific methodology as this one does.
I would have to make this article almost as long as Schwartz's book to explain adequately each flaw. Because any one of these flaws by itself would suffice to invalidate his experiments as acceptable evidence, I will discuss only a few of these here. First, I will list here the major types of flaws in the experiments described in his first four reports (I will deal with the fifth report separately below):
- Inappropriate control comparisons
- Inadequate precautions against fraud and sensory leakage
- Reliance on non-standardized, untested dependent variables
- Failure to use double-blind procedures
- Inadequate "blinding" even in what he calls "single blind" experiments
- Failure to independently check on facts the sitters endorsed as true
- Use of plausibility arguments to substitute for actual controls
The preceding list refers to defects in the conduct of the experiments and in the gathering of the data. Other very serious problems appear in the way Schwartz interprets and presents the results of his research. These include:
- The confusion of exploratory with confirmatory findings
- The calculation of conditional probabilities that are inappropriate and grossly misleading
- Creating non-falsifiable outcomes by reinterpreting failures as successes
- Inflating significance levels by failing to adjust for multiple testing and by treating unplanned comparisons as if they were planned.
As Hyman suggests, we would have to make this Rant almost as long as Schwartz's combined library in order to discuss every problem that Randi and Hyman identify with his methods, so we'll refer you to the Hyman piece as well as James Randi's commentaries for more information. Of particular note for short reads are a parable Randi tells about how Schwartz's tests are like a leaky boat, and a discussion of specific flaws in some of Schwartz's experiments.
With theories that sound like bedtime stories, and what some have called overwhelmingly sloppy methods, Dr. Schwartz's conclusions might already be deemed to be highly questionable, but we won't stop here. Schwartz claims to enter into his studies without a preconceived belief in the abilities of his subjects. Let's test that position against statements made by Schwartz about Allison DuBois in the Arizona Daily Star (and repeated in the Skeptics' Dictionary):
"As a scientist, I approach all this as an agnostic - I don't believe it; I don't disbelieve it. After testing her under conditions that ruled out the possibility of fraud, I came to the conclusion she's the real deal."
Dubois first called Schwartz four years ago, after seeing him on a "Dateline" NBC segment with John Edward on paranormal powers. She wanted to see how good her "gift" really was.
Schwartz first put Dubois through a direct, informal reading on himself. A beloved mentor of his had just died, but he told her nothing about that woman.
Among other things, Dubois told Schwartz "the deceased was telling me that I must share the following - I don't walk alone," a seemingly innocuous piece of information, but critical to him.
"My friend had been confined to a wheelchair in her last years - there is no way Allison could have known that," he said.
We have two words for this exchange — subjective validation. The term "subjective validation" refers to the observed behavior that "people tend to accept vague and general ... descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves without realizing that the same description could be applied to just about anyone." The fact that Schwartz seems to have viewed Allison's nebulous statement as such an impressive hit leads us to believe that he has fallen prey to subjective validation. It is clear that "I don't walk alone" could have numerous interpretations. To us, the immediate interpretation is that there are other people present (basically saying "I am not alone in the afterlife, there are others with me."). Although we can only speculate, one read is that to Dr. Schwartz, who had just lost a wheelchair-bound friend, the immediate interpretation was a reference to not being able to walk without assistance (basically saying "I can't walk by myself, someone needs to assist me."). Both could be valid interpretations, and there are likely many more interpretations that could apply. And that's exactly what subjective validation is all about.
This exchange also suggests that Schwartz's statement that he is "agnostic" about the abilities of the mediums that he studies is highly suspect. He may think he's agnostic, but to us, his willing validation of Allison's statement seems to tell a vastly different story. This is the respected academic whose testimony Allison relies on for her scientific validation.
If you'd like more information, you can read Hyman's critical analysis of Schwartz's research, Schwartz's response to Hyman, and Hyman's rebuttal. Also, the Wiseman and O'Keeffe piece that Schwartz references from time to time addresses some of the good doctor's possible scientific shortfalls.
To be clear, we personally do not think that Dr. Schwartz is lying. From what we have read about him, he seems to have a large emotional investment in his research, and he seems to have absolute belief in what he says. And perhaps this is the cause of the problems that so many observers are pointing out. Perhaps he wants to believe so fervently that he becomes blinded by the very emotional attachment that drives him forward.
Regardless of Dr. Schwartz's motivations, there are serious questions about his theories, his methods, and his conclusions, although he readily promotes his work throughout the popular media. We wonder what Dean Yeager would say.
— • —
Tomorrow, we will explore Allison's widely touted claims to have assisted various law enforcement agencies in their investigations — the claim that is the basis for the show Medium.
The Two Percent Company's Allison DuBois Week:
— • —
% Monday: An Introduction to Allison DuBois
% Tuesday: Dr. Gary Schwartz's Research (this Rant)
% Wednesday: Allison's Track Record Assisting Law Enforcement
% Thursday: The Success Rate of Allison's Powers
% Friday: Allison's Answers to Skeptics
Disclaimer: Throughout our posts, we are presenting statements and opinions of various third parties. The Two Percent Company makes no claims as to the accuracy of the statements of any third parties. In addition, any statements attributed to the Two Percent Company are strictly our opinion, and are not meant to be statements of absolute fact.
— • —
[ Filed under: % Allison DuBois Week % Bullshit % Two Percent Toons ]
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