Thursday, July 19, 2007

Skeptics, assemble!

The Story So Far

One of my friends is a Christian. Not just a Sunday Christian. Not even a happy-clappy isn't-God-lovely Evangelical. He's from a group with some beliefs that I can only describe as Medieval.

What do I mean? Well, if I said angels and demons, that wouldn't be the half of it. Exorcisms, channelling the Holy Spirit, prophecy, faith healing, the works.

There's another, more positive, difference between my friend and other Christians: he's willing to experimentally test his beliefs. In particular, he firmly believes that his fellow believers can reliably sense him praying for them, and has actually gone so far as to suggest an experimental protocol to see whether he's correct.

The Protocol

A cleaned-up version of his protocol is as follows. Myself (Skeptic 1), my friend (Believer 1) and his assistant (B2) all go to my flat in town. S1 and B2 synchronise watches, and decide on a start time for the experiment. B2 sits in the apartment block's communal garden, which is separated from the block by 20m of garages.

S1 and B1 sit in the flat's bathroom. This is a windowless room with no exterior walls, so no light or vibration can enter without being very obvious. There is ventilation but it's noisy enough that any sound getting through would also have to be very obvious.

The experiment lasts 10 minutes. S1 will select a trigger time by picking a number from 0 to 19 from a hat, and adding that number of half-minutes to the starting time. At this time, S1 will signal B1, who will begin to pray for B2. S1 will make a note of the starting time. S1 will also keep eyes and ears open for any potential communication channels - no mobile phones!

If/when B2 feels the effects of the prayer, he will write down the exact time he first felt it. Once the 10 minutes is up, B2 will return to the apartment. B2's time of receipt will be presented, and then B1's time of prayer will be revealed.

If B2's time falls within the half-minute during which B1 was praying, we mark the test up as a positive result. The experiment will be repeated a prespecified number of times (probably three) and the results collated.

Help Wanted

If there is more than one positive result in three experiments then, by my calculations, that will be proof at the 99% confidence level that either a) B1 and B2 can communicate supernaturally, or b) my test protocol is open to manipulation. That's where you folks come in.

I can't see any weaknesses in my protocol, but I have no experience of running this sort of test. Even if I did have that experience, I'd still want independent confirmation that I haven't missed any obvious issues. I would thus greatly appreciate it if everyone who reads this post would leave a comment either pointing out a flaw in the protocol or declaring it apparently sound.

Because it would be really embarrassing if I had to convert to Christianity...


Bronze Dog said...

Might have missed something, but here are a few thoughts.

Shy of a camera, you might want a friend to stay by B2 to make sure no cellphone contact occurs. Make sure he doesn't know the chosen time.

Lifewish said...

Fair point - I'll have to see if I can rope an S2 into this. I've mostly been focusing on stopping information leaving the flat, but your approach would provide extra-strong protection*.

The chosen time will be as random as a hat and some bits of labelled paper can make it. This seems sufficiently random, although I'm open to better ideas. Random selection means that no-one - not me, not B1, not B2 - will know the chosen time until after the bathroom door has closed.

* Whilst being ribbed and banana-flavoured for her pleasure? Hopefully not.

Techskeptic said...

May I suggest a variation?

I would suggest that you first ask how long of a "praying" interval is needed for B2 to detect B1. then set aside enough time for 20 praying intervals.

B1 then rolls a dice before each praying interval. 1-3 he prays for b2, 4-6 he prays for something or someone else.

I suggest this prototcol for two reasons:
1) you can predict, in advance what the 'hitrate' will be. With 20 samples, you can also predict how close to 50% you may be (variance)
2) I dont know how you "not pray" for someone. If praying for someone is like thinking about someone, then not praying will be as difficult as not thinking about someone when that is when the whole thing is about. But thinking about something else is easier. so I'm guessing praying for someone or something else is easier too.

Post the results!