Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 7, 2005|Volume 34, Number 5















Steven Novella

'Skeptical' neurologist works
to separate science from sham

By day neurologist Steven Novella often treats patients with debilitating neuromuscular conditions that occur when the brain fails to communicate with the rest of the body.

By night and on weekends he is a myth-buster, a scientist in hot pursuit of what seems too good or too strange to be true -- methodically proving why, despite our love of the improbable, there is rarely anything new under the sun.

He finds no great gulf between the two. "What I'm dealing with during the day is much more profound, but the underlying principles are the same," says Novella, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine's Department of Neurology. "Whether it's crop circles or life-and-death issues, we see the same logical fallacies, the same susceptibility to self-deception."

As president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, Novella is particularly interested in unusual and blatantly fraudulent health claims, but often tackles subjects beyond his medical expertise -- for instance, Ouija boards.

"We had a couple that believed they could operate a Ouija board," he says. "They were blindfolded with a handkerchief. Well, you can see through a handkerchief, so we properly blindfolded them. Their powers vanished."

Novella investigated this particular case, and many others, because the couple was a contender for $1 million offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. The New England Skeptical Society assists in screening entries for the prize offered by Randi, a veteran magician.

"There are a lot of magicians involved in skepticism because magicians are experts at deception, in knowing how people deceive themselves, in optical illusions, misdirection, false perception," Novella says.

To this day no one has collected the money -- but not for lack of trying. One hopeful contestant claimed he could control the flipping of a coin. Novella and his collaborators examined his claims by first designing a protocol to test their validity. "We found he was simply making some very common logical errors in his thinking," Novella says. "He would need an undefined warm-up period before the 'power' would kick in, and then later, after another undefined period, the power would disappear. He could choose out of the middle of the sequence any sequence he desired. That's basically cheating."

It's often tough to tell whether the person claiming to have supernatural powers is a con artist or a true believer because, unlike those who lay claim to this power, notes Novella, he is not a mind reader. "When you catch someone openly cheating you know they are toward the con artist end of the spectrum, but sometimes you have no idea," he says. "The coin flipper, for instance, struck me as sincere but naïve. Because the tests are too well designed for cheating, we are tending to see more true believers."

The tests are videotaped, and the claimants must agree to the test ahead of time to preclude any allegations that it was not fair. One purported mind reader was told the probability of guessing correctly for the initial screening would be set at 1% or 2%. Anything over that would then set into motion a more elaborate follow-up test. He got zero out of 20 correct, but still complained afterwards.

The list of claims goes on and on, notes Novella. There are people who say they can guess the sex of a fetus by looking at the mother's abdomen from a distance. Others obsess about crop circles and conspiracy theories. Dowsers make up half of all claimants. They say that by using rods or sticks they can find water or minerals, sometimes on site or even just by moving the apparatus over a map.

Novella and his group also examine phenomena described by people who are not competing for the Randi prize, such as stories of haunted houses and the ability to communicate with the dead. The society recently completed an investigation of two women who said they could record the voices of ghosts, a capability known as electronic voice phenomena, or EVP.

"They record for an hour or two in a supposed haunted location and try to get the ghosts to respond to their questions," Novella says. "They 'hear' the ghosts talk by amplifying the background noise."

Nothing is more effective than a field trip to investigate the claim, he asserts. In this case, Novella says, he never realized how much background noise there is in a quiet room and how much sound carries. The problem with EVP, he adds, is the listener has no idea about the source of the sound and there is no way to verify that the source is not something mundane.

Novella says skepticism is a useful vehicle for teaching logic and science to the public. He is always surprised at how people maintain their belief despite evidence to the contrary, which brings him to another interesting subject: the psychology of belief.

"Dowsers are a classic case of self-deception," he says. "If you know what the outcome is, you can subconsciously make the effect you need. When they find water or minerals, the rods cross or turn downwards. This is known as the 'ideomotor effect,' in which people make a small subconscious movement in response to an expectation. You will always have water if you dig deep enough. It's also known as 'confirmation bias.' You tend to remember the hits but forget the misses."

"The need to believe is a huge psychological aspect to this," he continues. "It's part of the human condition. Money is one motivator, but there is also a love of the fantastic. People like to be distracted from their everyday mundane lives for a period of time. People also are uncomfortable with doubt or not knowing things. The discipline of science is that we have to be comfortable with what we don't know."

Among the serious health-related subjects that he has investigated are claims by one doctor that he could 'cure' Terry Schiavo by using vasodilators to open the blood vessels in the brain. The doctor's claim was made as the young woman became the focus of an international ethical debate.

Another sensitive subject is the furor over whether vaccination causes autism. The issue is whether mercury-based vaccine is responsible for the seemingly rising incidence of autism. As disturbing as the subject is, Novella sees it primarily as a scientific issue to be answered with evidence and logic. After 70 to 80 hours of reviewing all of the current research, Novella says he found no association between the vaccine and autism.

"There also is no evidence of an actual epidemic of autism," he says. "Any increase in surveillance can dramatically increase the number of patients who are diagnosed. The number still hovers around 60 per 10,000."

The sad side of this, he says, are the parents desperate for a 'cure' who resort to chelation to rid the body of mercury. Some even try exorcism. "Looking at other possibilities gives you something simple and straightforward to fix," he says. "There is a basic human desire to oversimplify things, to make them manageable and controllable."

Novella has had a lifelong love affair with science and sees his role as primarily that of a teacher and educator in addition to being a physician and clinician. He wasn't born a skeptic, he says. "I believed a lot of wacky stuff when I was a kid; I had curiosity, but not discipline. As I studied science I began to learn how to think about things and separate real belief and truth from fantasies and fiction. I'm not a curmudgeon. I still like science fiction movies, but I also know to separate entertainment from what you are doing."

The New England Skeptical Society is small, with about 200 members, and not-for-profit. They are not out to change the world, notes Novella, but only want people to question and think more deeply about scientific questions. They wrestle with the issue of faith all the time, he says.

"Basically our position is that faith is a personal choice. We certainly believe in freedom of religion. What we deal with is when people cross the line and try to apply faith to science. The poster child for this is creationism. Intelligent design is very clever and deceptive, but it's still creationism, not science. We know they are talking about God, they're just being coy about it."

At home with his two children Julia, 6, and Autumn, 2, Novella puts aside his role as skeptic. He allows them Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny and whatever else they might absorb from the culture.

"They'll figure out that these things are not real," he says. "It will be a good experience for them."

-- By Jacqueline Weaver


Archaeologist's discovery may be final clue to location of long-lost Maya city

Materials research center established with $7.5 million NSF grant

Annual festival lets local artists showcase their works

Yale community members will share their unique artistic visions . . .

Message from the Leaders of the Yale United Way Campaign

Welcome, Parents! A schedule of Parents' Weekend activities

Matching fund for Katrina relief expanded


'Skeptical' neurologist works to separate science from sham

Yale Rep launches its 40th season with 'The Cherry Orchard'

Special packages for Yale community

Exhibition simulates viewing conditions intended by artists

Noted graphic designer Dan Friedman is subject of retrospective


Divinity School alumni will honor memory of missing classmate . . .

Audience will be 'postmodern detectives' in School of Drama play

New visions of religious icons featured in ISM show

Exhibit celebrates life of Yale's first Native American alumnus

WFF will honor women leaders from around the globe

Annual festival will include music, talks and shadow puppetry

Study shows stigma of obesity influenced by attitudes of peers

Book doctor

YUWO awards scholarships to 13 Yale affiliates

Yale Books in Brief

Campus Notes

Bulletin Home|Visiting on Campus|Calendar of Events|In the News

Bulletin Board|Classified Ads|Search Archives|Deadlines

Bulletin Staff|Public Affairs|News Releases| E-Mail Us|Yale Home