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Respected Scientists?

by Mary Rose Barrington


The Natasha Demkina Case

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RESPECTED SCIENTISTS? Such was the description given to the gurus of CSICOP, among them Profs. Ray Hyman and (master of ceremonies) Richard Wiseman, in a television programme on the Discovery channel (September 2004).

Natasha Demkina, a 17-year-old Russian schoolgirl celebrated in her home town of Saransk for making accurate diagnoses of people's medical ailments just by looking at them, was brought to New York (a gruelling 24-hour journey by train, flight and bus) to have her 'paranormal claims' tested by the self-styled world authorities. She was required to match seven written diagnoses against seven corresponding test persons wearing black-lens spectacles to avoid any eye contact. She said from the outset that two of the diagnoses were outside her range, but she was kindly reassured by Wiseman that she would pass her test if she scored five out of five on the other trials. Under these fairly taxing conditions she was in fact correct in four out of the seven trials, a result yielding a significant p value of .02, an outcome calling for a fair degree of congratulation.

But there were no congratulations for Natasha. While noting (in passing) that the odds against this result being due to chance were around 50 to 1, Wiseman told her that she had failed, and the patronising Hyman advised that she should forget her delusions and pursue her proposed medical studies (his own delusion being presumably that the diagnoses of medical practitioners are invariably correct). The commentator crowed that the girl would now return to Russia discredited. Mission accomplished!

The experiment itself was a perfectly sound test, although it was for something that Natasha did not actually claim to be able to do, making her performance all the more creditable. Her usual patients had current medical problems that they wanted to have diagnosed, and insofar as their subconscious minds possessed any useful knowledge about them they wantd to obtain this information. By contrast, the test persons had no need for a diagnosis, and if chosen by CSICOP it is very likely that they had no desire to open up the contents of their subconscious minds. Anyone who under these altered circumstances does not expect a diminished degree of efficiency betrays a woeful (or wilful) ignorance of the basics of psychical research.

One of the test persons had a metal plate covering part of his brain, and Natasha failed to identify this. But why should she? The man was not suffering from a medical condition. Whatever he had suffered had been treated, and Natasha did not claim to be a metal detector. Wiseman cross-examined her on this 'failure' rather as if she had committed perjury under oath. 'But if you can see inside people surely you would see a big metal plate?' The programme was called The Girl with X-ray Eyes, so perhaps Wiseman thinks this is how clairvoyance is supposed to operate? More probably his naively mechanistic argument was just intended to put over a simple CSICOP message to viewers: She got dsomething wrong - the claim is dismissed. Science has spoken.

As a fraction of the whole truth, this pronouncement scores about 2/10. The authentic message from science is that a probability of .02 would be considered sufficient in medical research to support the efficacy of a substance under test, and some fifty similar tests would have to be carried out before the results achieved by Natasha could be expected to arise by chance. So CSICOP's experiment actually demonstrated a prima facie confirmation of Natasha's ability to deliver paranormal diagnoses.
Respected by whom?

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