The diagram above was produced by my father in an effort to predict lotto numbers.  Usually in a given year, I read at least a few blogs on using data science to help improve a person’s odds gambling.  Gambling might include casino games, lottery tickets, and perhaps even stocks.  On the other hand - and I admit that I might be an oddball in this area - I feel that data science should be able tell a person if a rabbit’s foot “brings luck.”  I have a British copper penny from 1945 that I consider lucky although I hardly gamble enough to test its capabilities.  I suppose such notions are humorous.  However, I distinctly remember a priest once blessing children’s lunch boxes; the blessing is meant to protect the children rather than the food in the lunch boxes.  Priests can be asked to bless all sorts of things.  One would think that “sacred objects” should by now be tested for their potency.  I don’t consider this a test of God but rather a test of priests.  If my lucky penny isn’t lucky, I suppose I can throw it into a wishing well.

What is more scientific - dismissing beliefs and practices outright - or testing them?  Then, apart from whatever those tests have to say, there is a question of whether the outcomes should be considered relevant; whether or not they serve an important purpose.  I don’t know how often people are asked to “shut everything down and reboot the computer.”  For me, this technique intended to resolve some sort of computer operating problem almost never works.  I do it, however, to appease the masses - to show that I support their ritualistic shamanism.  A freshly-minted graduate might believe in the power of the “perfect cheer,” the “mission statement,” the “formula to success.”  But a company that has been around for some time has probably tried making adjustments to the outward suit; it quickly becomes apparent that such superficialities don’t necessarily lead to increases in revenues or profitability.  Such sweet treacle from the mouths of babes doesn’t always stand the test of time.

I was stopped in my car waiting to turn left at an intersection when a chain reaction occurred behind me.  A brand-new BMW had struck another vehicle at a fairly high speed.  One car after another released a loud bang or thump; then the reaction reached my car which likewise lurched forward after being bumped.  Thankfully, the chain stopped with me.  The next day I was able to properly inspect the damage.  There was barely any evidence of the collision, really - unlike the awful damage to the sedan that had struck my car.  I noticed an old palm sticking out from where my car had been hit.  Although I have no idea how it got there, all of my palms are blessed.  I thought to myself, wow this is pretty powerful stuff, these blessed things.  I then decided to put quite a lot of palms in my car.  Moreover, I fastened a blessed band of St. Christopher on the steering wheel.  I believe he is the patron saint of travelers.  This is the sort of experience that might be dismissed as unscientific while companies busily follow their formula to success.

For me, testing whether or not particular conditions lead up to specific measurable outcomes is a simple matter regardless of the exact context.  Fortunately, I am not in enough car accidents to test whether or not the palms are actually useful.  Moreover, I never remove the palms.  I therefore cannot assert that the palms add to my protection even if I were in many accidents.  I do, however, attempt to guess the cards in a shuffled deck; and I try to determine whether for example the foods that I eat can improve my ESP.  I don’t really focus on food specifically but anything in the data.  With a deck of cards, it is easy to determine success or failure.  Much less likely is measuring my ability to release telekinetic energy.  For example, do eating hamburgers or avocados help a person shoot out telekinetic force?  I would need a device capable to detecting a broad spectrum of ultra-low-level emissions.  I realize all of this sounds rather foolish except that I am in a perpetual state of “testing.”  What “sounds” foolish might be less so after one bothers to gather data and conduct tests.

It has been claimed that faith healers can heal people with their hands using the power of the Holy Spirit.  To me, this is a kind of emission; and it should be measurable using proper equipment.  If somebody had told me as a child that I could gain the ability to heal people with my hands if, say, I eat a box of raisins every day for several decades, for sure I would eat the raisins.  I recognize that I am practically entering the realm of superstition.  A baseball player might wear his undershirt backward in order to win a game; or he might eat apple pie beforehand; or put on a disgusting pair of old socks.  My point is that people should not be opposed to testing superstitions and beliefs that are testable.  Nor should we dismiss the results if the tests show that the supernatural is able to play a role in our lives.  Humans occupy a realm of knowledge inadequacy; and to me it seems perfectly fine to be open to the possibilities even if they seem a bit extraordinary.  When surreal things happen in life, it is because we failed to take into account the weird and peculiar in our analysis.  When passenger planes crash into buildings, this seems kind of surreal.  That Salvador Dali moment confirms that we were completely disconnected from reality.

It is called “data science.”  This has caused us to dismiss the weird and magical.  When I try to predict from a deck of cards, it is to determine whether, in the face of incomplete data, my instincts should be trusted that day.  Now, data science in the traditional sense might interpret the results in a purely statistical manner.  I get it.  If the circumstances and conditions seem to have no impact on outcomes, it isn’t a problem for me to set aside the card guessing.  However, I don’t delegitimize the adventure or journey.  I believe in the decades ahead, data scientists will encounter all sorts of beliefs and belief systems for instance in corporate environments.  There are often good reasons why beliefs exist - giving rise to certain routines, procedures, processes, and policies.  It is important to be open to the idea of putting things to the test and premising one’s assertions on data.  As sure as the sun rises, a data scientist will make recommendations that will prove unenlightened; and he or she will be blamed for miserable performance.  The data scientist has to work towards change; but it is quite difficult to change people without making some effort to understand them and engaging their perceptions.  We should do weird.  I certainly do.

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Tags: beliefs, esp, extra, force, hypothesis, matter, mind, omens, paranormal, perception, More…religion, religious, sensory, shamanism, shamans, supernatural, surreal, systems, telekinesis, telekinetic, testing, weird, witchcraft


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Comment by Don Philip Faithful on January 13, 2017 at 3:54am

That's a very compelling perspective, Melissa.  It's one that entirely agree with.  Apart from our limited sensory perceptions, there are the constraints of human existence.  We cannot live different lives despite the many potential benefits of experiencing alternate realities.  So what seems peculiar and perhaps primitive to an executive in a boardroom might make perfect sense and be more meaningful to a bushman living outside the boundaries of Western society.  What we have seduced ourselves into regarding as common thought might for others be quite odd.  I also subscribe to the notion of sensory perceptions - both external and internal - are distributed unevenly among a population; that certain segments of society can journey where others can only imagine or at times cannot even imagine in a literal sense.  Take for example the prophet phenomenon such as Elijah and Ezekiel who some might regard as individuals of polemic and political design; but more intriguing is the possibility that in fact they could foretell certain aspects of the future by virtue of an undefined empowering force.  I like the tangible perspective also such the biological where there should really be more research on phenomena that seem paranormal.  I recall an episode on television about a parasite that sometimes inhabits the human brain blamed for behavioural changes in people.  Were an evolutionary preference to develop over time, it would be a human-parasite symbiosis I guess in certain respects the way humans need populations of organisms to live in the gut for proper digestion.

Comment by Melissa Pompilius on January 12, 2017 at 8:45am

Weird is my favorite. I became a biologist because I was drawn to the weirdness of living organisms and the way that they cope with each other and their environments. Studying life requires careful observation, and a willingness not to dismiss the "weird" phenomena and results, especially since those kinds of observations have often led to significant advancements in our understanding of the natural world. A central theme in biology is how organisms take in information from their environment and use that information to manipulate resources for survival and propagation. Like other living things, humans also have a limited set of sensory equipment that shapes how we perceive and interact with our world. In my opinion, what makes humans so "weird" among organisms is our ability to imagine. Our imaginations have led us to devise incredibly sophisticated systems for making observations, analyzing the information collected, and using it to devise technologies that extend our sensory capacity and ability to manipulate our environment. I think it sounds "foolish" to dismiss the extra-sensory and the magical rather than engaging it scientifically with enthusiasm and imagination. We should absolutely do weird- with gusto.

Comment by Don Philip Faithful on January 9, 2017 at 8:26am

Business decisions are sometimes products of social construction rather than analysis.  Moreover, when analysis occurs, I have found that assertions might be apriorist in nature.  I tend to find positivism inextricably apriorist; and so I do not entirely trust science.  For instance, when examining the management records of one organization, I found that that managers seemed focused on administration to deal with escalating disability costs.  Some administrative solutions mentioned in the archives include "decentralization" and "downsizing."  Now, upon examining the actual distribution of insurance claims, I found that a significant percentage of costs can be reasonably attributed to workplace conditions such as the use of small cubicles and tight building ventilation, lack of physical mobility, all rather fashionable at the time.  Consequently, neither decentralization nor downsizing would have actually addressed the underlying problems.  But to me it is sometimes a matter of ritualism and trust in external intervention that leads to power dynamics involving human sacrifices (dismissals, layoffs, accelerated attrition).  So I choose not to place business leaders above Borneo's Kantu natives in terms of decision-making prowess.

Of course this being a forum of data scientist I am aware of weaknesses within the craft itself where the focus is on metrics rather than context.  Solutions and belief systems are constructed around the metrics rather than underlying phenomena.

Comment by Scott Mongeau on January 8, 2017 at 3:07pm
Daniel Kahneman's (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kahneman) work is interesting from this perspective: that humans inherently seek patterns, but deep analysis is costly (cognitively, in terms of glucose consumption, and in terms of time, when decisions need to be made quickly). Kahneman outlines the many cognitive biases that often lead to magical beliefs.

Sometimes these 'magical' beliefs are true, sometimes they are useful shortcuts, and other times they are tragically wrong. Even when we apply 'deep thought' (e.g. scientific analysis), we may make fundamental errors: Google flu trends, space shuttle disaster, Thalidomide, etc. Sometimes our time framing is too short. Other times we attribute false significance to correlating factors, or simply confuse correlation with causation.

As an example, I thought the following paper was quite interesting - an ethnographic study of Borneo's Kantu natives and their use of bird augury to make planting decisions. The augury system, as a 'data analysis' mechanism, essentially imposes forced randomness, which in this case is better than systematic decision making. In some systems, the sheer complexity involved suggests that random decisions can outperform structured decision systems. Deep insight, and perhaps one which politicians and experts should consider - there are outsized risks and dangers of forced intercession in complex, poorly understood systems... sometimes 'magic' as randomness leads to optimal outcomes!
Comment by Don Philip Faithful on January 8, 2017 at 8:18am

Scott, thank you for mentioning your talk on TedX.  I always find presentations on TedX really interesting.  I didn't realize that a PhD is offered in parapsychology.  Unlike those in the general data science community, I find myself more focused on the context surrounding the numbers.  This is made possible by the technologies I have developed over the years.  I believe in stretching the boundaries of our understanding of phenomena including the paranormal.  I feel that worthwhile insights made possible through data science in regards to the paranormal can be applied to other fields - and that our engagement of other fields can likewise be used to explore the paranormal.  Spells and hexes might on one hand be regarded as socially-constructed phenomena as people seek to gain empowerment; but actually I would be curious to know if the spells and hexes work and in what context.  If an incantation can ward off evil spirits, then why would this be or interpreted to be so?  When do people sometimes resort to cannibalism  - during food shortages in the secluded depths of the Black Forest - for nourishment or in the hopes of acquiring the youth and vitality of wayward children?  It's a test not just of perception but our socio-evolutionary identity.

Comment by Scott Mongeau on January 7, 2017 at 3:22pm
Thank you - a great topic! There is often not enough discussion concerning scientific research methods in the data science community. Proposing formal tests to prove / disprove paranormal phenomenon is a great exercise to sharpen and refine one's scientific research skills. I was interested to find that one can get a PhD in parapsychology and that there are academic research journals on parapsychology. The field often struggles for credibility, but it is through experimentation at the edge of belief that we can establish what qualifies as science, and what is lacking methodologically. As you point out, there are many daily, accepted assumptions which qualify as magical. I actually gave a TedX talk which touches on this topic and data science, if of interest (it is on YouTube under my name).
Comment by Don Philip Faithful on January 5, 2017 at 3:56am

Broadly speaking I try to add content for audiences that might have little interest in mathematics or statistics.  This isn't just to promote data science to a broader spectrum of people but also to "stretch" what most people might interpret as "data science."  Because the paranormal is interesting, and it enjoys a strong following.  I am going to include in this area the idea of celestial influence over fate and behaviour - e.g. astrology.  In terms of hunting for ghosts, in stories this is characterized as embodied spirits; in practice, as per your previous comment, there are "ghosts" in the data waiting to be resolved by detection and epistemological construction.  Things that are not fully understood wait to become embodied by those searching for answers.  On the other hand, on the specific topic of embodied ghosts, I would say that "I'm game" to discover and understand them on many different levels.  Society should attempt to understand such phenomena and also to make a record of its attempts.  I think I have an open mind in this area.  But those with closed minds are unlikely, say, to detect the ghost-prints of terrorists in the data - hidden in the quotidian aspects of reality - outside more substantive methods.

Comment by James Theobald on January 4, 2017 at 8:55am

I remember watching one of those ghost hunting reality series where a device called a 'spirit box' or 'ghost box', I think, was used to detect something from the spirits inside a house and translate it to simple words displayed on the box's front panel.  I thought it was a trick of some kind, but it intrigued me that someone would dedicate the time to develop something like that.  So, I looked up the device believing that I would have to go through many sites, and probably personal blogs that reference the device.  I was even more surprised to find entire websites dedicated to supplying ghost hunters with equipment to hunt ghosts.  I did find the spirit box then, but did not find it now during a quick search to refresh my memory.  There's certainly money to be made in questioning and researching the supernatural -- at least the spirit world.

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