Debate:A scientific test of the existence of magic

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Debate.png This is a Debate page.
Feel free to add your own spin on the story. Please keep it civil!
Information icon.svg This debate was created by Bob M.

Curse you all[edit]

During the debate Debate:Is all religion incompatible with science? it has been sort of suggested that cursing people might work, or that it could be tested.

Consequently, I would like to propose Rationalwiki's first double blind scientific test. What we we need is a group of people who will curse others - ideally with something not to horrible. And another group of people who will volunteer to be cursed. I would suggest that those controlling the trial only make a list of those prepared to be cursed - but that we only actually curse about 50% of them so that we have a control group. However, I'm sure that there are others who are better at designing trials than I am so your input would be welcome.

I'm also not sure if we should ask for sample curses or let the curses invent them on the spot. --BobNot Jim 21:39, 14 August 2009 (UTC)

A question for some cursing expert out there: is it possible to put a "positive curse" on someone? If so, I'd definitely volunteer to receive such curses.
As far as trial architecture goes, we would need to collect a list of all curses made, their targets, intended effects, and any other relevant info. We would also have to receive info from curse receiving volunteers when they think they have received a curse and what it did. This info naturally has to be kept hidden from each group.
Of course, this sounds like something to be carried out with maximum snark and minimum technically correct double-blind-ness, since that would make it less fun, so everyone should feel free to start making fun whenever you're ready. OneForLogic 19:54, 13 August 2009 (UTC)
Another thought that occurs to me is that we could simply curse people randomly whether they have volunteered or not and see what the results are.--BobNot Jim 19:58, 13 August 2009 (UTC)
Would that be a sort of "triple blind" test? OneForLogic 20:28, 13 August 2009 (UTC)
OneForLogic, a "positive curse" is termed a blessing.
Might I suggest that (1) a curse will not work if you do not mean it, (2) there are not enough people on the Wiki who believe in the necessary supernatural entities to invoke in the curses, (3) one cannot throw curses willy-nilly and expect them to work due to the constraints of natural law, (4) this experiment, if it ever starts, will end with not one curse being in any wise successful?
(Incidentally, I could make an attempt to recruit some actual magicians for this by putting a posting over at The Witches' Voice.) Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 20:01, 13 August 2009 (UTC)
Blessings. That sounds good; I'll happily volunteer to receive some of those. I mean very much for them to work, so that takes care of (1). I can't do very much about (2), so that can't be held against me. I'm an awesome person who deserves all kinds of blessings, so that covers (3), and (4) is certainly overly pessimistic, right? If actual magicians would be better at the issuing-of-blessings part of this experiment, go recruit them. This sounds like all kinds of fun already. OneForLogic 20:29, 13 August 2009 (UTC)
I'll be brave and take a curse. If you can get actual witches or whatever - why not? I'm game. But will they need a bit of hair, nail clipping or whatever? Or will a username do?--BobNot Jim 20:38, 13 August 2009 (UTC)

Draft of call for magicians[edit]

(Note: This site "The Witches' Voice" is very particular about language and requires that terms like "pagan," "witch" and "magic" be capitalized and spelled in odd ways. Try to keep the cookies down.)

Witches wanted for a scientific test of Magick.

We, the users of RationalWiki, being thoroughly unconvinced that there are any sort of spirits, Magick, or other supernatural powers at work in the world, have resolved to approach the problem with an open mind, and play host to a scientific test of the proposition that there is such a thing as Magick.
We seek Witches who will volunteer to work blessings, curses, or other Magick upon one or more willing subjects, who are the established users of RationalWiki; the content and expected effects of these workings must be disclosed to administrators of the Wiki before the workings are made.

To volunteer in this test, or (if you think it a futile effort) to explain your reasons for thinking thus, sign up for a user account at RationalWiki,

Editorial suggestions before I post it? Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 03:19, 14 August 2009 (UTC)

Since you sound serious about this, I'll try to, also.
Would a group of genuine believers in Magick really willingly deal with such a group of proud (and occasionally slightly dysfunctional) skeptics as the users of RationalWiki? Doesn't that somewhat violate the intent of your condition number 1 above? Regardless, it looks like an honest and well worded message to me. I'd sign it. OneForLogic (talk) 05:06, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
On the curses. Ideally I think they should be both explicit and improbable. In other words not "Bad things will happen next month" but "You will break a fingernail while lying in bed at on the 25th of August." Bad things happen all the time and we need some way to identify those which have been caused by the curses as opposed to those caused by the natural malevolence of the universe.--BobNot Jim 10:02, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
Uh oh, another parameter to control for. Is curse specificity enough to control for the effects of the natural malevolence of the universe (NMU)? Anyone have any sources describing NMU in detail? OneForLogic 14:26, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
Sorry, I agreed to be serious, didn't I? OneForLogic 14:31, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
The notice is now pending approval. These people can be extremely touchy, however, so I am uncertain whether it will go through. Mjollnir.svgListenerXTalkerX 14:53, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
Wait...I thought you were thoroughly convinced that there are any sort of spirits, Magick, or other supernatural powers at work in the world. — Signed, by: Neveruse513 / Talk / Block 15:06, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
I imagine that we are all pretty certain of it. I am about as certain of it as I am of my own name. But one must be prepared to ask for and look at the evidence. That is what scientific trials are all about. It seems to me to be an excellent way to test for magic using the scientific method. I'll be surprised though if the believers in Magic really put themselves up for a specific test.--BobNot Jim 15:57, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
Well you know Jim, those guys over at Conservapedia have been cursing us for two years and it doesn't appear to have had much effect. (We'll probably all burn in hELL though). Redchuck.gif ГенгисRationalWiki GOLD member 16:09, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
Ah, but maybe they've not been cursing us properly or in a controlled manner. I must say that I really do hope the witches participate. Maybe we could get a bunch of astrologers to tell our fortunes next and see how accurate they are.--BobNot Jim 16:22, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
They'd be almost spot on. That's the point. "Wow! I do have doubts about my future and I did see a tall, dark man today". SuspectedReplicant (talk) 16:31, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
In that case we'd need to make sure that their predictions were specific and not generic. Again though, under those circumstances, I doubt they'd participate.--BobNot Jim 16:39, 14 August 2009 (UTC)


Please sign below if you wish to be in the cursing or the cursed group.

  • Fuck you, and fuck me, too. ħumanUser talk:Human 22:45, 13 August 2009 (UTC)
I refuse to participate. The only magic worth studying is the kind where you stand atop a mountain with lightning flashing and call storms of flame upon your unsuspecting enemies. I have no interest in holding hands in a circle while chanting "We invoke the Mother Goddess" and dipping a sword point down in a chalice of wine. --The Emperor Kneel before Zod! 03:37, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
Fuck it, I'll join!The Goonie 1 (talk) 01:45, 14 August 2009 (UTC)

Give me your best shot! - Clepper

I have read enough Hellblazer comics to know better than to fuck around with these sorts of things. Count me out. TheoryOfPractice (talk) 03:33, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
As I said above I'm in. Though I'm a little surprised by the lack of interest shown by my rationalist brethren - do we really have so many closet believers afraid to take the chance or do people simply think it's too silly? I'd love to know.--BobNot Jim 10:05, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • I'm already cursed by rapier-like wit and rugged good looks(may be a lie), but I'm happy to be cursed by majik if they feel like wasting their time. Worm (t | c) 10:25, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
I had indeed thought it was too silly, but what the hell. I'm in too. SuspectedReplicant (talk) 10:29, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
If they want real names, I'm out. My name is unusual enough that they could figure out who I am fairly easily, and there is no fucking way I'm giving my identity out to a bunch of nutters. Enough about you lot - I wouldn't want the witches finding it out either. SuspectedReplicant (talk) 11:47, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • I am afflicted by a bald patch, so for what it's worth I'm also in. Do they need real names or birthdate and location? Or will "the stoopid git who masquerades as Genghis Khant on the internet" be sufficient? I'd also volunteer for any blessings that may be flying around - more money and more sex would not go amiss. Redchuck.gif ГенгисRationalWiki GOLD member 10:59, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • Curse me. - π 11:02, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • Go ahead, make my day. Z3rotalk 14:34, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • I'm game. --Edgerunner76Save me Jebus! 16:04, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • I'll do it, fuck it. Even if my real name is necessary I'll go for it.--EcheNegraMente Box it up and bury it in the ground 17:21, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • Don't you need some of the subject's hair or fingernails? In any case I have a dried bat hanging from my left ear so I'm safe. Totnesmartin (talk) 20:37, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
I asked that above - but perhaps that's Voodoo. Guess we'll have to wait for any reply from the witches. --BobNot Jim 20:49, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
It's similar to voodoo but it is/was a folk superstition here as well. Except the dried bat bit, I made that up. Totnesmartin (talk) 20:57, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • This is too amusing not to be involved in. Bring it. Scarlet A.pngpathetic 20:52, 14 August 2009 (UTC)
  • I'd like a blessing, if that's at all possible...WazzaHello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me... 11:09, 15 August 2009 (UTC)
  • I suppose there's all sorts of ethical problems with me putting the ex-gf forward as a potential cursee? Ah well, I'll give it a bash then (but dibs the 'you-will-earn-boodles-of-cash-and-get-laid-every-night-by-all-the-SI swimsuit edition-models' curse/blessing thing). --Psy - C20H25N3OYou know you want to 12:11, 15 August 2009 (UTC)

Experimental parameters[edit]

So far, it looks like the people taking this seriously are wanting an anedote driven survey - to try and see if a particular curse comes true in a study. There are, as have been pointed out, dozens of things to control, like how specific they are and what would count as it being effected, time frames, and so on. I think there is a simpler, and certainly more scientifically thorough method that can be used. Firstly, we need to admit that we're using self-reported data from effectively anonymous sources - impossible to verify and very subjective in what they would measure but that doesn't render it completely useless. We also need to admit that the source for the sample is RationalWiki, which is hardly a representitive sample. So, the following is how I would do it:

  • Try to recruit a wider sample, if there is a similarly inclined wiki-like forum for believers, get a similar sample size from there and note who came from where.
  • Get everyone to rate themselves 1 to 5, with 1 being "strongly/firmly believing in curses/witchcraft" and 5 being "strongly/firmly skeptical or disbelieving in witchcraft/curses". 1 to 7 might be more accomodating for pendants, but a 5 point scale I think is simple enough for the purposes required.
  • Study everyone in the study for a length of time, 6 to 8 weeks I think will do. During this time, people will report the following:
    • A "general happiness level", "feeling of good luck" or some other similar phrase, possibly multiple checklists of 1 to 10 for every day - importantly these should be completed and submitted at the same time each day.
    • Events that people, in general, would percieve as good or bad luck (this, of course, is entirely subjective so is probably not very usable).
  • Individuals from the study will be randomly selected to either recieve a curse, blessing or nothing. (If we had enough people to play with, I'd have half the people informed of this and half not informed. If we had even more, and it was allowed, I'd have groups who were intentionally misinformed)
  • The curses and blessings will be performed by the volunteers as directed.
  • The time that the curses and blessings are made will last for a week that is randomly selected. People who are recieving the curses and blessings will not be informed as to what time this will be.
    • Randomisation and blinding will be difficult considering the nature of the wiki and communication about this. You'd need someone completely independent to set up the procedures and parameters for this.

Once this is done, we do some clever statistics to see if there is a consistent and statistically significant increase or decrease in someone's level of whatever above the baseline established by the control group and the weeks that they weren't being cursed or blessed. The sketpical prediction (the nul hypothesis? I'm not 100% sure on statistics terminology) is that this will show nothing except what you'd expect by random chance looking at so many people and different variables. Of course, our big limitation is what to test and what to measure, previous experiments on prayer, for example, use people recovering from surgery as that can be measured and tested and isn't self reported. However, if done properly, we'd probably have data good enough to publish in the first issue of the Journal of Rational Wiki. Scarlet A.pngpathetic 22:06, 14 August 2009 (UTC)

How is a scale from 1 to 7 more accommodating for pendants? *evil laughter* - Clepper
I like your ideas but I'm not convinced by people reporting on: A "general happiness level", "feeling of good luck". I proposed earlier that the cursings (or blessings) should be both explicit and improbable. If somebody feels a bit more or less happy that could be down to anything. But finding a fifty pound note next Wednesday (or losing one) is a lot more explicit. If blessings and cursings work, why shouldn't they work at this level? I understand that that there is absolutely no chance that any witches would set themselves up to fail like that - but their explanations of why "it doesn't work like that" could make interesting reading.--BobNot Jim 09:41, 15 August 2009 (UTC)
Well, it might be impossible to focus it that way, since it would involve too much twisting of the world, whereas making unspecified good or bad things happen is a lot easier... General happiness going up or down, on the week the curse/blessing was cast, for a large double-blind experimental group, is a good starting aim. If we detect that kind of effect, then we can use the money we get off JREF to test just how specific things can get. WazzaHello? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me... 11:13, 15 August 2009 (UTC)
In an experiment you have to control as many variables as possible, to make sure that what you're testing is due to what you're testing, not something else that you've changed and just taking a collection of anecdotes and looking for a pattern is practically as uncontrollable as you can get. Reporting of specific events is open not only to wide interpretation but also there's a chance that people may not report "minor" things or things that they would self-interpret to be irrelevant to the idea of being blessed and cursed. Skeptics under the belief that they could be cursed may, conciously or unconciously, tone down bad things and big up the good things in order to skew the results in their favour. You'd also require an extended explanation of context. For example they'd say "my gran died this week" and it could lead any researcher into thinking it's a curse, or not. Without a wider context, was she sick already, was it sudden, was it an accident or illness etc. it's impossible to know that it was or wasn't due to a curse. Reporting a "number" or several and making it a standard gives you something to actually measure, by doing this over a period of time you can also generate a baseline of some kind to show whether someone will be optimistic - and interpret their average 7 or above - or pessimistic and make their average much lower. It puts all particicpants on a level field so that they can all equally contribute and build up a statistically significant piece of data rather than a collection of haphazard stories - if you just ask them "did anything bad happen this week" then you will find the corellations that you're looking for. Scarlet A.pngpathetic 11:40, 15 August 2009 (UTC)
I agree. That is why I am arguing for highly explicit rather than generalised curses. And for the same reason I'm sure the witches won't want to go that route.--BobNot Jim 12:08, 15 August 2009 (UTC)
The big problem is that such an experiment needs to be done as James Randi would do it, you have to talk to believers to ask how they want it tested, to establish what their claims are and then reach a concensus that not only satisfies what they believe they can do, but also the concepts of fair and balanced testing. If you're going to jump straight for making curses as specific and explicit as possible and they say "well, it doesn't work that way" before any testing has begun then you've achieved absolutely nothing. Scarlet A.pngpathetic 12:20, 15 August 2009 (UTC)
Again I agree with you. Until we are aware of what they claim they are able to do we cannot really sy too much about it. But, in my opinion, our initial position should be that we would like them to make their curses explicit and improbable. Let them explain that this will need too much twisting of the fabric of reality or whatever.--BobNot Jim 12:35, 15 August 2009 (UTC)
People need to sign a disclaimer and those under age of 21/18 (depending on jurisdiction) should submit a parent or legal guardian's approval. I don't want anyone getting hurt with this malarkey. Redchuck.gif ГенгисRationalWiki GOLD member 12:56, 15 August 2009 (UTC)
Hurt!! By this? Ah well, to be super safe I suppose. But the only possible danger I can see is the is through the nocebo effect. And with a group convinced of the non-effectiveness or any curses that shouldn't be a big deal.--BobNot Jim 13:29, 15 August 2009 (UTC)

How About Some Definitions?[edit]


An epistemological discipline whereby the truth of an assertion is tested by repeatable empirical observations.


Causing an effect by non-physical means (including e.g. ESP, Prayer, Rituals, Charms, etc). [Someone help me with this definition.]

My Thoughts/Reasoning[edit]

To effect or affect an event in a statistically significant way by whatever means is to invoke a phenomenon subject to scientific methods.

Typically once a phenomenon is then proven genuine (it happens) then the question of mechanism can be investigated. (Note it is important to suspend questions of how until one ascertains if something really does occur. I find it quite silly to speculate about the means of propulsion on UFO's when their existence as Spacecrafts for ET's has not been ascertained by any rational means.)

To my mind, if something we might call "Magic" were an actual phenomenon, was then investigated and the mechanism by which it occurs is then determined, it would then cease to be "Magic" and become technology. Electricity and Metallurgy were "Magic" for quite some time until they were scientifically investigated. By definition the mechanism's existence and ability to transmit effects makes it "physical".

The only premise by which "Magic" is not just unknowns physical nature, and thus defined as Magic by "virtue" of ones ignorance, is the gnostic belief that "the material world" is an illusion within a singular metamind or collective minds and thus as easily affected by direct conceptualization rituals (spells) as by physical acts. To my mind then given that premise, the act of driving a nail with a hammer in one's hand is no less the casting of a spell than is waving one's arms and mumbling Latin, (Or Celtic, or Hebrew or whatever).

Ultimately then I see "Magic" as meaningless except as defining a superstitious false belief, (Or for a premise in fictional stories.) To the extent that some ritual, or practice yields a real effect it is subject to scientific investigation as to means and mechanism and thus cannot be called magic per se.

Jambaugh (talk) 16:34, 4 October 2010 (UTC)

I think this is the best definition of magic I've ever seen (tl;dr version: magic and the supernatural are irreducible mental entities, and though they are testable there is basically no evidence for them as far as we know). Tetronian you're clueless 17:18, 4 October 2010 (UTC)