Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Be aware of cold reading and cognitive bias at CVS

So, I found an intriguing blog that mentioned Mill Avenue, Miles Loves ASU, but it also had some somewhat creepy elements. I read it with an eye for the anthropology and it looks like a fairly straightforward experiential read with strong religious elements and mystical thinking. Most of the narrative takes place at the CVS on the corner of Mill & University and involves various people. A pretty basic read and insight into this culture’s thinking.

However, this is the part that I’d like to draw people’s attention to:

Amidst the awkwardness of the conversation, Kiah’s knees began to hurt and the Lord gave her a word of knowledge about one of the kid’s knees in the group. She interjected into the conversation and abruptly asked, “Who’s knees are hurting?”

One of the kids instantly responded with a mixture of shock and questioning concern. Looking quite taken aback, he tentatively told Kiah that his knees hurt. He told her that he had knee problems and that they had been hurting pretty bad while they were standing around talking.

To the kid who responded with a “mixture of shock and concern” be aware this trick isn’t exactly as amazing as it seems. What Kiah did—possibly without knowing it herself—is a form of a very old con called Cold Reading. Joint pain is not uncommon among humans, particularly the knees (especially noting how poorly our skeletons function for standing upright), so finding one person in three with hurting knees is not at all uncommon. And, failing to find someone with hurting knees, she probably would have shrugged it off.

To ascribe the discovery to a supernatural origin really pushes the whole thing beyond the pale.

The story then goes on to describe how the group uses an incantation over the boy’s knee and the pain goes away. (Did they incant over it after he took the weight off it?) “The kid walked around. And then jumped up and down on them. And then squatted and bent them and stomped his feet. To his dismay and the dismay of his friends, his knees were completely healed.” Dismayed… Really?

This sort of “prophetic evangelism” is actually somewhat problematic in that it appears to teach people to use cold reading on other people and then ignore failures (for those of you who know what I’m talking about, this is a type of confirmation bias.) It’s not actually mystical and to treat it in such a fashion can lead inevitably to poor judgment.

Link, via Miles Loves ASU.


Miles said...

Hey Kyt,

Changed the 'dismayed' on my CVS post...
Read your response post and when you put 'dismayed...Really?' I asked myself the same question. showed me i was wrong. Faith remains unshaken, but my vocabulary took a bit of a hit ;)

Wanted to know though, apart from your thoughts on the prophetic/cold reading stuff and the 'dismay' word choice, any thoughts on the healings themselves? In the CVS post, or any other of my posts (like the part 1 of that post about John you commented on a while back)if you've read them...


Kyt Dotson said...

I wondered about the "dismayed" because it seemed out of place, wasn't sure how to process it. (I've been editing and critiquing students' fiction writing all day and vocabulary use is a big part of grading.) The youths in the narrative seemed enthusiatic enough that dismay read odd. Even those of us who study language still refine our use of it as we speak to others.

As for your question, I will have to come back and address it when I get a little bit more time to cultivate my thoughts. Too much going on at the moment (involving loud noises) and I'd like to be able to give my answer suitable attention.

Kyt Dotson said...

Many cultures develop a concept of healing and healers -- I should know this particularly well, I come from the Healer caste of my people. The knowledge of how it works is generally a long tradition of natural experience translated into chants, stories, and ritual teachings designed to preserve working knowledge of the human body, animal bodies, disease, herbs, and chemicals (often native to rocks/water/plants.) Many Native American tribes ascribe their knowledge of healing to the medicine gifted them from the great spirits like Bear, or accidentally given to man through Raven or Rabbit.

A great deal of the Semtic origin cultures, and thus modern religions, seem to have lost track of this as they've become more modern. It might be a problem of the Western dialogue. To escape from the enlightenment values, modern religions have a tendency to go instead directly to the mystical but lack the tethers and teaching that made the tribal understanding of healing function. They still retain, however, one extremely powerful mechanism without which even the most powerful medicine doesn't work: the confidence of the healer's supplicant.

This confidence, however, only works if the patient and healer belong to the same cultural background; whereas much of the traditional methods borne through Celtic, Native American, Xaolin, etc. have developed teachings that address physical conditions that exist external to our minds and simply combine this knowledge with the cultural connection.

The mind is the glue that holds together the structural acts of healing and as I've seen incantation involves that glue (my people also use incantation, but it involves also mnemonic devices for remembering the treatments of various maladies, identifying symptoms and counter-indications.) Case-by-case incantation only can appear to be effective in the short term but in the long term it's temporary treatment and not curative.

What could be done to solve this problem, which I've seen a few communities adapt, is to include a treatment aspect of the incantation for the patient. This is true for Celts, as part of thanking Brigette or another goddess for giving the knowledge of the medicine includes a cant for the patient that helps them memorize their own part of the treatment. Like the situation with an injured knee, physical therapy is equally important for healing as the proper use of painkillers and anti-inflammatory herbs; if the patient simply uses the endorphins from the initial healing experience to think their knee is suddenly okay, they will go on to ruin it further.