Sunday, December 09, 2007

Considering auras.

I get these from time to time, but I don't get the migraine headache. Just the light display. No black spot in the middle, but they blur my vision. They're a pain because I can't do anything about them. I just have to wait until they clear my vision so I can see again. Still, at least I don't get the headaches.

While sitting through one of these recently, I started wondering about the other kind of aura. The one many claim an ability to see around people.

There’s a good reason I don’t study auras. I can’t see them, and I have no way to test whether anyone else sees them.

Many people can describe an aura around a person, and the descriptions are consistent. Attempts have been made to photograph these auras but nothing has yet been convincingly shown. So, I don’t study auras.

That does not mean I dismiss them out of hand. It just means that, as yet, I can see no current way to test those who see them. I can, however, indulge in a thought experiment since it costs nothing but a little time and allows me to speculate on test devices that don’t exist yet.

Telepathy is an example of something that can be tested. I don’t think testing one telepath will do any good. I’d say you need two. There’s no reason to suppose a telepath could pick up anything I might try to send them, so no test where I look at something and expect the telepath to describe it can be valid. I’d be trying to ‘phone’ the message, when I don’t have a phone. Further, the guy with a phone, who didn’t receive the message, will get the blame.

So, take two telepaths. They can be in separate buildings. Take two copies of a set of a hundred random photos and give one copy to each. Tell them to sort them into whatever order they like, but that you want them both to come up with the same order. That’s a test, with results that can be statistically examined. All of the tests carried out so far are with one telepath, as far as I know. To me, that’s like Bell trying to test his first telephone before he’s built the second.

But how to test whether someone sees an aura? True, the human body does generate a weak electric field but I can’t see it. One possibility would be to take a group of volunteers, and four or five who can see auras. Let them examine the volunteers, separately and individually, and see if they all describe the same thing for each volunteer. The overall ‘aura’ description is well known so that doesn’t count. What you’d need to hear is that specific subjects showed colours, streaks, whatever – and they have to match.

Can it be faked? Sure. Card sharks can tell what you have in your hand by tiny markings on the backs of the cards. You don’t notice the marks, but the shark can spot them across the table. Suppose your group of aura-seers set up a code; “if the subject has a blue shirt, we all say there are red lines in his aura”, and so on. It doesn’t take many cues to make such a code. People can carry on semaphore conversations with only two flags each.

Even if they come from different areas of the country—or the world—the day before the test, it’s not possible to rule out a quick chat on the internet. So that test will never prove a thing, in that no matter how honest the experimenter and his subjects are, their honesty will be questioned. If there’s to be a way to test people’s ability to see an aura, it has to be controllable by the experimenter and cheat-proof.

First, you’d need to know what constitutes the aura these people see. Then you build a device that can generate the same thing. Starting with the body’s electric field seems reasonable to me. So you build a device that generates a field similar to that around the human body. Tweak and adjust until your subjects say they see an aura around the device. Now you have a test device, and can design a statistically-testable experiment.

The device must show no external indication whether it’s on or off. That will only be known to an operator who cannot see the experiment. Neither the subject, nor the experimenter taking notes in the room with the subject, have any idea when the machine is on.

At, say, fifteen-second intervals, the operator either turns the device on, turns it off or leaves it alone. The subject has fifteen seconds to decide whether there’s an aura or not. You’d need three runs with each subject: continuously on, continuously off and random on/off. Again, nobody but the operator knows which run is active. The operator can be a computer, for this kind of test.

Should this show that there are people who can see these electric fields as auras, then there’s a whole new study into just how they do it. Paranormal? Maybe, but there are precedents for such abilities in other species. Many marine predators ‘see’ electric fields and can track their prey using these fields. Some snakes, and some birds, detect infrared radiation and use it to track prey in the dark. How that information presents itself in their brains is unknown, but it is reasonable to assume that it’s overlaid on their overall view of the world. As what? An aura around the target animal?

Now, I know there are sceptics with the scoffometers turned up full at this point, but remember this is a thought experiment, not a claim. Remember I’m not actually talking about a paranormal ability, but an ability which has been demonstrated in other species but not, so far, in humans. Also, remember there are six billion people in the world. Are they all the same as you, with the same range of abilities as you? All identical?

I guess what you ultimately have to consider is, does evolution apply to humans or not? Are we, in terms of ability, six billion identical clones, or have a few mutants appeared from time to time, an occasional example of convergent evolution here and there? I’m not even asking ‘has it happened?’ at this stage. That question can’t be asked until after the thought-experiment device is really invented. I won’t invent it. As I said at the beginning, I don’t study auras.

I’m asking ‘is it possible?’

24 comments:

Southern Writer said...

I'm not an aura seer, either. I think I might have seen one once, around a guy giving a presentation at a conference. I've seen colors that glow (like the one at the foot of my bed that time), but I can't say it was an aura. It was colors that glowed. And moved, and rose, and disappeared.

(I get the blind spots and the primitive patterns before a migraine, too. Unfortunately, I get the pain soon after, but can usually knock it out before it starts if I take two Excedrin and a cup of coffee as soon as I detect the blind spot.)

Romulus Crowe said...

Auras are of interest because they don't look like ghosts. If the aura is the person's 'spirit', as is often claimed, then ghosts should look like auras, not people. I think the aura is something else entirely and possibly more to do with a particular genetic trait than the paranormal. I could be wrong. It depends whether ghosts are surrounded by an aura, but I've never heard a report of that.

The lights you described didn't sound like an aura. They sounded to have more in common with the ghost-lights or 'corpse candles' that are commonly reported in the UK and elsewhere. A ghost who hasn't mastered a full apparition, perhaps? Nothing to do with orbs - if it's only visible on a digital camera, it's an artefact. If it's visible to the eye, then it's worth checking out.

Anyway, I thought I'd rendered you speechless a few posts back? My powers are obviously waning. ;)

Southern Writer said...

" _______________________!"

Romulus Crowe said...

Ah, I still have the Power of Irritation, I see.

For some reason, I have the urge to duck...

Southern Writer said...

" ___________ #@%%$##**&&@!!!!!____"

Romulus Crowe said...

Ouch! Next time, duck faster and further...

Dikkii said...

Aw man, auras?

Is there even an accepted quantifiable definition as to what these even are?

One of the reasons that skeptics scoff at this stuff is fundamental - if no one can agree as to how stuff like this is actually supposed to be defined, then what actually is it that you're asking?

Romulus Crowe said...

Dikkii - science works towards quantifiable definitions.

It doesn't start with them.

If a thing is already quantifiable and defined, it needs no further scientific investigation.

What I'm asking here is 'If so many people claim to see these things, is there a way to test whether they do or not?' Currently there isn't, but there might be, one day.

As I said, it's a thought experiment, nothing more. Just thinking, and hopefully persuading others to think outside their boxes too.

Imagination is permitted to scientists, you know. It doesn't have to be pure logic all the time.

Once in a while we kick back and just think 'What if...?'

Most of the time it comes to nothing, but now and then it leads somewhere.

Just now and then. But it can be worthwhile just to sit and think.

Romulus Crowe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Romulus Crowe said...

The comment deleted was me. My last comment came up twice. Oops.

Dikkii said...

What if indeed.

If so many people can say that they've seen "auras", then we should be able to have some of the building blocks in place to define this.

Lots of people claim to have seen Bigfoot as well. But we've got more quantitatively defining information as to what "Bigfoot" is supposed to be - big, hominid, hairy etc. This can, in turn be tested: any hair samples, spoor, carcasses, broken branches, tracks etc.

Aura viewers can't even come to agreement as to what it is that they've even seen. That's pretty fundamental in my book.

Romulus Crowe said...

My first thought on seeing the Bigfoot video was 'Man in suit'. The only 'evidence', if we can call it that, consists of footprints. No hairs, no spoor, no dead ones, nothing. It could just as well be eighteen inches tall, green and scaly with massive feet. The only scientific evidence of bigfoot is the size of its feet, and that's dubious at best. At this point I can't say bigfoot isn't two separate foot-shaped creatures that hop along in pairs.

Bigfoot sightings? Single figures. Aura sightings? Hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Aura viewers do, in fact, have a lot of agreement BUT they might be basing what they see on earlier reports. What they report needs testing, and the test I suggested would say whether it's worth pursuing or not.

It's a thought experiment, I repeat. Nothing more. I can't see auras so I can't verify that anyone else does. I also can't prove they don't.

My mindset doesn't just dismiss anything I can't prove without further examination. That's the way I am. Can't help it, don't want to.

I like being interested in things. I like not accepting what I'm told to accept. I like being a thorn in the side. I like causing controversy. I like making people think.

Auras might be bunk. I can't say for sure they are, so I won't. Making such a definitive statement with no supporting data would not be scientific.

Dikkii said...

It's a thought experiment, I repeat. Nothing more. I can't see auras so I can't verify that anyone else does. I also can't prove they don't.

Actually, it's very easy to prove what aura readers can see.

Get some down one day to a room with multiple one-way mirrors. Ensure that they do not know that there are other readers viewing. Put someone in front of the one-way mirror and then get the readers to answer some very tightly defined questions on size, shape, colour etc of the auras that they're witnessing.

The do it again with loaded questions prompting a variety of different answers that allow for answers in the negative.

Do these again with a different subject and a different crowd of readers, and then mix and match the readers with the same and then with different subjects.

If some of the readers' answers match up at a better rate than chance, you can then say that there might be something there.

This is a heck of a lot easier than testing for ghostly presences.

To my knowledge, such an experiment hasn't been run satifactorily.

My mindset doesn't just dismiss anything I can't prove without further examination. That's the way I am. Can't help it, don't want to.

There's nothing wrong with assuming the null hypothesis, you know. It's a rule of thumb in science (although it's not a definitive statement) that you can't disprove a negative. So why try?

And if evidence comes to light showing that the null hypothesis is wrong, so what? We can change our minds.

BTW - you don't seriously think that Bigfoot sightings are in the single figures, do you? They wouldn't be comparable to aura sightings by a long shot, but there would be a lot of them. And yes. Until I hear of hair samples, footprints that aren't faked, spoor and carcasses, I'm assuming the null hypothesis on that as well.

Romulus Crowe said...

The experiment you propose is the same as the first one I considered, but dicarded because it's open to cheating. It's also open to a lot of subjective stuff and excuses such as:

'Auras can change very quickly'
'I didn't see the red marks because the subject was facing the other way'
And so on. It would be a nightmare to pick anything statistically testable out of it.

The hypothetical machine (which unfortunately doesn't exist) does away with all the colour and shape stuff. It's a yes or no - is there an aura or not? Statistically, it's very simple. You would expect someone guessing to get it right about half the time, so an aura-seer should do significantly better than that.

The always-on and always-off tests will show up the frauds. If they're guessing, they'll be way off on those tests. Any wrong statement will count against them. And there will be frauds. There might be real aura-seers, but I can say for certain there will be frauds. There always are, in any study of the paranormal. Cranks and attention-seekers love this stuff, so finding a real aura-seer would be a challenge.

There's nothing wrong with assuming the null hypothesis, you know. It's a rule of thumb in science (although it's not a definitive statement) that you can't disprove a negative. So why try?

The null hypothesis is the basis of every experiment. For this one, the null hypothesis states that the results will be no different from those obtained by chance. A subject has to get significantly better than chance in order to disprove that hypothesis. Every experiment has a null hypothesis, the wording might vary but basically they all say 'It won't work'. It applies to every subject in science. It's not a reason to not bother, it's the initial statement for every study. The baseline that recognises that sometimes things just happen by chance and therefore don't count as repeatable observations.

Disproving a negative is easy. All you have to do is prove the positive. As long as the positive exists, you can prove it.

What science can't do is prove the negative. It can prove that something is there (if it is) but can never prove that something is impossible. Science can say 'unlikely, based on currently available evidence' but can never say 'never'.

For example, it is highly unlikely, based on currently available evidence, that an entire dinner set in fine bone china is currently in orbit around Betelgeuse. It's absurd to even think it, but science cannot currently prove it's not there. Of course, science isn't going to bother with that one because it's insane, but it illustrates the point. Some negatives cannot currently be proven. That will change. One day there'll be a telescope or a space probe that will definitively prove there is no dinner set orbiting Betelgeuse. It won't happen unless someone builds that probe or telescope.

Until I hear of hair samples, footprints that aren't faked, spoor and carcasses, I'm assuming the null hypothesis on that as well.

Actually, no, you don't have a null hypothesis here. You don't have an experimental structure, so there's no way to formulate a null hypothesis. If you found hairs, your null hypothesis would be something like 'these are from a known and identified species'. Then you would test that.

The null hypothesis is a specific part of experimental structure. It's not a denial-tool, it's the statement at the start of an experiment.

I'm afraid 'assuming the null hypothesis' means nothing at all. It's just the wrong use of jargon. Any scientist, in any field of research, is going to pull you up on that one. If they don't then their scientific training wasn't very good. Was it a test, I wonder?

Bigfoot is a separate discussion. I don't study cryptozoology, it's a separate subject, but I'll discuss it if you like - with the understanding, of course, that it's outside my field of work so I don't know the details.

Dikkii said...

The experiment you propose is the same as the first one I considered, but dicarded because it's open to cheating.

Actually, you'll recall that I set it up in such a way that the aura viewers don't know that there are other aura viewers participating, nor who they are, and that the examination gets done all at the same time.

Also, I don't see why you couldn't have a bunch of tightly defined questions that left no room for ambiguity - I'd propose multiple choice questions with "closest available answer".

And you'd control it with rigged questions that potentially led to entirely predictable outcomes.

Can it be faked? You'd have to admit that the control would stop a lot of that.

It's a yes or no - is there an aura or not?

That's fine, except for the fact that some aura readers believe that everything has an aura. That, in itself is not a tight enough question.

Disproving a negative is easy. All you have to do is prove the positive. As long as the positive exists, you can prove it.

Whoops, I meant "prove a negative." My bad.

Actually, no, you don't have a null hypothesis here.

Hmm. Perhaps I assume too much - if an extraordinary claim is made that Bigfoot exists, then surely, the null hypothesis must be that we have no evidence to suggest that it does? If that isn't the case, then I suspect that the year I spent studying HPS might have been in vain.

For example, it is highly unlikely, based on currently available evidence, that an entire dinner set in fine bone china is currently in orbit around Betelgeuse. It's absurd to even think it, but science cannot currently prove it's not there.

Groan. Russell's Teapot?

I'll humour you. Given that you're the one bringing this claim about the orbiting tea-set to my attention, I propose that you're a good proxy for the person who originally made that particular claim.

Which means that I can ask you this: how about you provide evidence for the tea-set, and immediately afterwards, I'll get to work on disproving it. Do we have a deal?

I'm afraid 'assuming the null hypothesis' means nothing at all. It's just the wrong use of jargon. Any scientist, in any field of research, is going to pull you up on that one. If they don't then their scientific training wasn't very good. Was it a test, I wonder?

I'm curious as to why, if it's not standard "use of jargon", as you describe it, you would imply that a scientist's comprehension skills are so deficient that they wouldn't be able to decipher such a simple statement?

In any event, a quick search on Google brings up 18,700 hits for "assuming the null hypothesis" in quotes. I would suggest that you steer clear of arguments such as these. You do leave yourself open to allegations of an implied appeal to authority that some might also classify as an an argumentum ad hominem. I wouldn't go this far, myself. You're just simply incorrect, is all.

Some might also say that you may have been attempting to slip style over substance in here, which is both a straw man and a red herring, but again, I'm not going to make that allegation myself. If anything, it just appears to be careless.

Bigfoot is a separate discussion. I don't study cryptozoology...

Well, I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere.

Romulus Crowe said...

Thread's getting long. I'll move it up to a post.

Romulus Crowe said...

One thing to deal with here - why do you assume I'm really making a claim about the orbiting teapot when I made it clear it was an illustration? That seems odd to me.

It was illustrating 'can't prove a negative' which you'd already agreed with.

Don't take everything I say as a paranormal claim. Sometimes it's just illustration, and not meant to be taken literally.

Dikkii said...

One thing to deal with here - why do you assume I'm really making a claim about the orbiting teapot when I made it clear it was an illustration? That seems odd to me.

I didn't assume that you'd made any such claim. The point is proving the negative is irrelevant. It is up to the claimant to provide proof of the positive.

Being agnostic, I usually cop Russell's Teapot from sanctimonious atheists who don't understand that agnostics generally know the difference between an extraordinary claim and the null hypothesis.

Yes, I know Russell told this parable to illustrate the folly of attempting to prove the negative. But Russell's Teapot is a two-edged sword - in the real world proving the negative is irrelevant and unnecessary unless evidence is provided for the existence of the teapot first.

Don't take everything I say as a paranormal claim. Sometimes it's just illustration, and not meant to be taken literally.

I fail to understand how you could have arrived at this conclusion. Unless you're being condescending, In which case, I implore you to stop it.

Romulus Crowe said...

The point is proving the negative is irrelevant.

Proving the negative is impossible.I used a ludicrous example to illustrate that. I'll have to find a better one. No scientist would bother to try to prove such a negative because it's absurd, but then no scientist would waste time trying to prove any negative. It can't be done with any finality.

I wasn't being condescending. I have often wondered if some linguist could come up with a way to add inflections to the written word. Text is too often misinterpreted - as I did, when I gained the impression you'd taken that teapot claim seriously.

Southern Writer said...

Get some down one day to a room with multiple one-way mirrors. Ensure that they do not know that there are other readers viewing. Put someone in front of the one-way mirror and then get the readers to answer some very tightly defined questions on size, shape, colour etc of the auras that they're witnessing.

The do it again with loaded questions prompting a variety of different answers that allow for answers in the negative.

Do these again with a different subject and a different crowd of readers, and then mix and match the readers with the same and then with different subjects.

If some of the readers' answers match up at a better rate than chance, you can then say that there might be something there.

This is a heck of a lot easier than testing for ghostly presences.



Dikki, what you've described here is a double blind test, isn't it? If someone used a double blind test with many different participants, and many different witnesses unknown to each other, and recorded the tests with both video and audio tape, and it turned out that the seers could describe the exact same auras, would you be satisfied that they were, in fact, seeing auras?

Dikkii said...

Dikki, what you've described here is a double blind test, isn't it?

It's actually possible to do this non-double blinded. But I'm not sure what the point of that would be.

If someone used a double blind test with many different participants, and many different witnesses unknown to each other, and recorded the tests with both video and audio tape, and it turned out that the seers could describe the exact same auras, would you be satisfied that they were, in fact, seeing auras?

I'd accept it as a possibility. I would agree that more research would be required, though, and would prefer that someone (preferably different researchers)attempts to repeat the experiment and fix any mistakes made the first time.

Some aura viewers maintain that video tape does not capture auras, though. Could this cause grief, I wonder?

Southern Writer said...

It's actually possible to do this non-double blinded. But I'm not sure what the point of that would be.


The point is to settle on a test that you find acceptable. One that meets all your criteria, so that if the results differ from what you're expecting, there won't be an argument with the way the test was conducted.



I'd accept it as a possibility. I would agree that more research would be required, though, and would prefer that someone (preferably different researchers)attempts to repeat the experiment and fix any mistakes made the first time.


You're presupposing errors, aren't you? Is that to give yourself a little wiggle room, in case the results turn out differently than you expect?


Some aura viewers maintain that video tape does not capture auras, though. Could this cause grief, I wonder?

I'm with you on that one. I don't believe video tape (and certainly not audio tape) captures auras. The recordings would be strictly for documentation of what each seer said they saw; you know, just to keep everyone honest, prevent cheating, and to keep it all straight. What about other paranormal occurrences? What if double blind tests were done on people who claimed to be psychic, for instance, or could predict the future, or control dreams, or astral project, or remote view, or something like that? What kind of test would it take to convince you "it might be possible"? What kind of test would convince you that you were seeing absolute proof? Let's draw a line here. Tell me exactly what you'd need to hear/see/observe/ in order to believe there are intangible realities in the world that exist without your knowledge or approval. I'm guessing there's not a test in the world that would convince you. I'm guessing that your mind is so set that nothing short of the Almighty Herself getting up in your face and saying, "Look, you skeptic, here's the deal ..." would ever convince you. I'm guessing not even that would not convince you. So if I'm wrong, just let me know. Tell me exactly what it would take, so that if we should decide to conduct the tests, we'll all be playing by the same rules, and not moving the lines around once the game has begun.

Dikkii said...

The point is to settle on a test that you find acceptable. One that meets all your criteria, so that if the results differ from what you're expecting, there won't be an argument with the way the test was conducted.

Which is why I questioned doing this test any other way than double blind. You have my full agreement on this point.

You're presupposing errors, aren't you? Is that to give yourself a little wiggle room, in case the results turn out differently than you expect?

You'll notice that I used the word "any". Which makes my answers to your questions "no" and "no".

Scientists are human and make mistakes. Results from tests like this must stand repeated testing. And post similar results. Imagine what would have happened, for example, if no one had attempted to replicate Pons and Fleischman's cold fusion experiments?

Romulus Crowe said...

Which is why I questioned doing this test any other way than double blind.

Did anyone suggest doing it any other way? I hope not. It would be a silly thing to say. Futher, I'd say you need a control group who can't see auras, to enure there are no visual cues given by the subjects that might influence their ability to guess.

Scientists are human and make mistakes. Results from tests like this must stand repeated testing. And post similar results.

Tha's how it works, yes. If I publish proof of the existence of ghosts, it's going to be tested by a lot of scientists because it's a very big claim. That's why the case has to be watertight before attempting to publish anything.

Imagine what would have happened, for example, if no one had attempted to replicate Pons and Fleischman's cold fusion experiments?

Nothing would have happened. Nobody's going to dismiss the possibility of such a claim without checking, but nobody's going to build a cold fusion reactor on the basis of a single report. If there had been no attempt to replicate this, then no businessman with any sense would invest in it. It was bound to be subject to attempted replication, though, given what they claimed. The Japanese were still working on it, years later, but there are no cold fusion reactors in the world as far as I know.

I can confirm that videotape doesn't show auras because if it did, we'd all see them on the tape. If the tape records it, it shows it, whether it was visible to the naked eye or not. Those recorders 'see' into the infrared and ultraviolet. We can't see those wavelengths, but the recorder does. When it's played back, the image on screen is visible light but the recorded image goes much wider, and those wider wavelengths show on the screen as light areas. Hence orbs: infrared reflected from dust, which we can't see but the recorder can.

Well, that does mean we can rule out those wavelengths as being connected with auras. If they were, we'd have recordings.

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