Of tarot and criminal profiling

May 29, 2010

I have just finished a book called The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland, who is probably the world’s leading expert on this topic. Wikipedia defines it like this:

Cold reading is a series of techniques used by mentalists, illusionists, fortune tellers, psychics, mediums and con artists to determine or express details about another person, often in order to convince them that the reader knows much more about a subject than they actually do. Without prior knowledge of a person, a practiced cold reader can still quickly obtain a great deal of information about the subject by analyzing the person’s body language, age, clothing or fashion, hairstyle, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race or ethnicity, level of education, manner of speech, place of origin, etc. Cold readers commonly employ high probability guesses about the subject, quickly picking up on signals from their subjects as to whether their guesses are in the right direction or not, and then emphasizing and reinforcing any chance connections the subjects acknowledge while quickly moving on from missed guesses.

I first heard the term ten years ago when I began to get interested in scepticism. But I had never read anything as detailed as Rowland’s book. Ian Rowland a writer and mentalist who claims that he can replicate any psychic ability, and reveal all the tricks of the trade. Of course this does not prove that those who say they have those powers are charlatans but we know that it is perfectly possible to do these things with no special psychic abilities.

The book begins by challenging some myths about cold reading. Many people think it is about saying very general things or fishing for clues but that’s not the way it works. Once he has established what cold reading is not, Rowland then sets about a systematic examination of its real functioning. This is the best part of the book. He is an excellent communicator and I like the way he breaks down the subject down into manageable chunks. He provides an exhaustive typology of the language and techniques. The book then demonstrates how the theory is translated into practice. It presents different verbatim transcripts showing Rowland deploying all the different techniques he’s just described. He is able to convince ordinary people that he has psychic abilities. There’s also a 3900-word all-purpose astrological reading.

According to Rowland, anyone can do this but you need a lot of natural ability to be able get away with it. I know the methodology but I don’t think I would be very convincing if I tried to do it myself. What I find absolutely fascinating is watching an illusionist doing a cold reading.

Perhaps the most intriguing question about cold reading is the intent. Clearly many are engaged in cynical manipulation of their clients, especially the celebrities. But there may be many others who actually believe in what they are doing. They are encouraged by the positive feedback they get from their clients. Former New Age practitioner Karla McLaren said, “I didn’t understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone; I simply picked up the technique through cultural osmosis.”

It could also be the case that those doing the readings experience hallucinations, which might cause them to see things. This area could be a profitable one for further investigation.

The part of the book I like least is where he applies to other areas such as business or dating. However it is interesting to look outside the psychic/medium/tarot field and into other areas. In particular, I want to look criminal profiling. We have all been impressed by of profilers in The Silence of the Lambs, the British series Cracker and countless other movies and TV series. I have also read a number of books by real criminal profilers such as Paul Britton and John Douglas. The idea that you can build up a detailed psychological profile of a criminal by examining a crime scene is very seductive. I was always aware that it was not the same as real scientific evidence but I thought it could have some value in narrowing the field. Now though I have become increasingly sceptical about this field and its practitioners; it just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A few years ago large study commissioned by the British Home Office found that according to police officers a profile had led to arrest in just 2.7% of cases.

I don’t know if the statistics in the U.S.A. are any better but it is hard not to notice the hit-and-miss nature of the enterprise. The case of the Unabomber (Theodore Kaczynski) illustrates this. They got stuff right – he was white, had problems with women and was a recluse. None of this is particularly earth shattering. But they got his age wrong by about ten years. They said he would be meticulously organised when he just the opposite. And they predicted that he would have been educated up to high school level when in fact he had a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan as well as being a graduate of Harvard University.  Florida prostitute Aileen Wuornos, an American serial killer who killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990, was effectively excluded from profiling typologies because the FBI database of convicted serial killers did not include women. Another infamous failure was the Beltway sniper attacks, where the killer was thought to be a middle-aged white male—but in fact the crimes were perpetrated by two black males, one of whom happened to be 17 years old.

In an article in The New Yorker, Dangerous Minds – criminal profiling made easy, Malcolm Gladwell looks at the case of Dennis Rader, the self-proclaimed “BTK killer (BTK stands for Bind, Torture, and Kill) In 2005 Rader confessed to the serial killing of 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas area from 1974 to 1991. Here is the profile:

Look for an American male with a possible connection to the military. His I.Q. will be above 105. He will like to masturbate, and will be aloof and selfish in bed. He will drive a decent car. He will be a “now” person. He won’t be comfortable with women. But he may have women friends. He will be a lone wolf. But he will be able to function in social settings. He won’t be unmemorable. But he will be unknowable. He will be either never married, divorced, or married, and if he was or is married his wife will be younger or older. He may or may not live in a rental, and might be lower class, upper lower class, lower middle class or middle class. And he will be crazy like a fox, as opposed to being mental.”

The real Rader was married and had two children after the murders began. The Raders had a son in 1975 and a daughter in 1978. For 30 years Rader belonged to the Christ Lutheran Church and was also a Cub Scout leader who was remembered for teaching how to make secure knots. This profile looks uncannily like a cold reading – if you make enough guesses, some of them will be right, and the ones that are wrong will be forgotten. The problem is that those misses could lead the police in the wrong direction.  

It’s possible to go a long way with an observant mind the right phrases and a bit of mental agility. In the end it is a tough task trying to be a sceptic. We want to believe this stuff. You do not win any popularity awards for debunking. Medium James Van Praagh put it like this: “…we [psychics] are here to heal people and to help people grow. Sceptics… they’re just here to destroy people. They’re not here to encourage people, to enlighten people. They’re here to destroy people.” Rowland has an interesting take on the sceptical movement, of which he is highly critical.  He feels that too many of them are preaching to the converted. That may well be true but as I have mentioned in previous posts it’s very difficult to get people to change their world view. You can try to present what you feel is the most logical explanation but if people want to believe something else, there’s not much you can do.

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Cold reading elements #1: personality and character

May 29, 2010

I am going to summarise some of the elements of Rowland’s book, The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading. Cold reading does not involve a rehearsed script. It consists of numerous different types of statements (and questions) which can appear more significant or meaningful than they really are. Rowland calls each type of statement an ‘element’. The cumulative effect of these elements is to create the illusion that a reading of a psychic or mystical nature is taking place. He describes the 38 most useful and productive elements he has given them pet names for ease of reference and readability, and divided them into four groups. Today I am going to look at the elements for describing character:

The Rainbow Ruse

The Rainbow Ruse is a statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite:

You can be a very considerate person, very quick to provide for others, but there are times, if you are honest, when you recognise a selfish streak in yourself  or

I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self- effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.

Fine Flattery

Fine Flattery statements are designed to flatter the client in a subtle way likely to win agreement. Usually, the formula involves the client being compared to “people in general” or “most of those around you”, and being declared a slight but significant improvement over them:

I have your late sister with me now. She tells me she wants you to know that she always admired you, even if she didn’t always express it well. She tells me that you are… wait, it’s coming through… yes, I see, she says you are in many ways more shrewd, or perceptive, than people might think. She says she always thought of you as quite a wise person, not necessarily to do with book-learning and examinations. She’s telling me she means wise in the ways of the world, and in ways that can’t be said of everyone. She’s laughing a little now, because she says this is wisdom that you have sometimes had to learn the hard way! She says you are intelligent enough to see that wisdom comes in many forms.

The Psychic Credit

Psychic Credits are character statements which credit the client with some form of psychic or intuitive gift, or at the very least a receptivity to others who possess such gifts:

This card, the King of Wands, is generally indicative of a perceptive or even a psychic ability of some kind. Of course we all have these gifts, but they do vary from person to person. In your case, it’s the second card in the higher triad, which is devoted to your personal profile. This suggests you have very strong and vivid intuitive gifts, and good instincts which will serve you well if you learn to trust them. Since you also have the Eight of Coins in support of the same line, I would say that you have a very fine, almost psychic kind of acumen when it comes to dealing with material goods and financial affairs. You can perceive value in ways that not everyone else can.

Sugar Lumps

Sugar Lump statements offer the client a pleasant emotional reward in return for believing in the junk on offer. In general, the Sugar Lump relates to the client’s willingness to embrace the psychic ‘discipline’ involved in the reading, and to benefit from the insights thereby gloriously revealed:

Your heart is good, and you relate to people in a very warm and loving way. The tarot often relates more to feelings and intuition than to cold facts, and your own very strong intuitive sense could be one reason why the tarot seems to work especially well for you. The impressions I get are much stronger with you than with many of my clients.

The Jacques Statement

This element consists of a character statement based on the different phases of life which we all pass through. It is named after Jacques in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’, who gives the famous Seven ages of man’ speech:

If you are honest about it, you often get to wondering what happened to all those dreams you had when you were younger; all those wonderful ambitions you held dear, and plans which once mattered to you. I suspect that deep down, there is a part of you that sometimes wants to just scrap everything, get out of the rut, and start over again – this time doing things your way.

Greener Grass

The Greener Grass element is based on the fact that we all retain some fascination with the options in life that we did not take. You could say they form their own sub-set of the Jacques Statements referred to above:

I see indications of material success and professional advancement which are a credit to you, and which reflect your own drive and ability to get things done. You are the sort of person who delivers results, and this characteristic has brought its rewards. However, it has also brought its penalties. Although you would not necessarily advertise them too openly, I sense some feelings here of a potential desire for more domestic security, and a more stable home life. I would not go so far as to say this has been a serious problem for you, but I believe your loyalty to your career has not always delivered the returns you expected. I sense that from time to time, you find yourself contemplating your more domestic instincts, and wondering if they could perhaps be allowed more room to flourish. I think this has been an area of conflict within you, and I foresee that you will take steps to resolve this issue within the next 18 months or so.

 

Now imagine a client who comes across as a contented housewife, whose every waking hour revolves around her home and family. Here is the same Greener Grass statement as before, turned on its head:

I see indications of strong domestic instincts which have been allowed to flourish, and which have brought you a sense of security and stability which is a source of great strength to you, and also very much to your credit. Not everyone can be a good home-maker, but you can, and you are. However, the stability and the stimulation of family life has also brought its penalties. Although you would not necessarily advertise them too openly, I sense some feelings here of a potential desire for more career progress, or at least being able to find expression and fulfilment beyond the four walls of your home. I would not go so far as to say this has been a serious problem for you, but I believe your loyalty to your home and family has not always delivered the returns you expected. I sense that from time to time you find yourself contemplating your more professional or academic instincts and wondering if they could perhaps be allowed more room to flourish. I think this has been an area of conflict within you, and I foresee that you will take steps to resolve this issue within the next 18 months or so.

 

Barnum Statements

These are artfully generalised character statements which a majority of people, if asked, will consider to be a reasonably accurate description of themselves. Here is a selection:

You have a strong need for people to like and respect you.

You tend to feel you have a lot of unused capacity, and that people don’t always give you full credit for your abilities.

Some of your hopes and goals tend to be pretty unrealistic.

You are an independent and original thinker; you don’t just accept what people tell you to believe.

 

It is possible to get more mileage out of Barnum Statements by combining them with a technique called ‘Forking’.

Take a simple Barnum Statement, like this:

You tend to be quite self-critical.

If the client seems to be broadly in agreement with this, the psychic can develop and strengthen the idea:

You often give yourself quite a hard time over mistakes and shortcomings which perhaps other people wouldn’t worry about. You have a tendency to be your own worst enemy in this regard, and this self-critical side to your character has held you back on more than one occasion.

On the other hand, if the client seems to reject the initial statement, the psychic can develop the same theme in the opposite direction, like this:

But this tendency is one you have learned to overcome, and these days it rarely comes to the fore. You have learned to accept yourself, and to be reconciled with your own special mix of gifts and skills. You have learned how damaging it can be to be too self-critical, and all credit to you for having matured past the self-critical stage.


My media week 30/05/10

May 29, 2010

In the Wall Street Journal Matt Ridley, who has just published a book called The Rational Optimist, looks at Humans: Why They Triumphed. He also spoke at the RSA although the audio hasn’t been posted yet.

Don Boudreaux offers an impassioned defence of short selling:  Who you callin’ ‘Shorty’?

I liked these two pieces from The Onion: Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming  and Existentialist Firefighter Delays 3 Deaths.


Robin Hood: a gay libertarian communist?

May 22, 2010

In the year of Our Lord 1191 when Richard, the Lion-Heart, set forth to drive the infidels from the Holy Land, he gave the Regency of his Kingdom to his trusted friend, Longchamps, instead of to his treacherous brother, Prince John. Bitterly resentful, John hoped for some disaster to befall Richard so that he, with the help of the Norman barons, might seize the throne for himself. And then on a luckless day for the Saxons…

From the opening titles of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Merry Men: [singing] We’re men / We’re men in tights / We roam around the forest looking for fights / We’re men / We’re men in tights / We rob from the rich and give to the poor / That’s right! / We may look like sissies / But watch what you say / Or else we’ll put out your lights / We’re men / We’re men in tights / Always on guard / Defending the people’s rights / We’re men / Manly men! / We’re men in tights / Yes! / We roam around the forest looking for fights / We’re men / We’re men in tights / We rob from the rich and give to the poor / That’s right! / We may look like pansies / But don’t get us wrong / Or else we’ll put out your lights / We’re men / We’re men in tights / *Tight tights* / Always on guard / Defending the people’s rights / When you’re in a fix / Just call for the men in tights / We’re butch! From Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

 Whatever people think Robin Hood is, Robin Hood is. Thomas Hahn 

May has seen the release of the latest version of the Robin Hood legend starring Russell Crowe. I haven’t had the chance to see it yet but I have to admit that I have my doubts. My first reservation comes from what director Ridley Scott has said about the film and in particular his claims about its historical authenticity. Why can’t he just say that it’s an action movie? In a previous post about historical fiction I referred to a complaint by a historian about how a director would claim that everything on the set was an exact reproduction of the particular period but the characters would then open their mouths and say things that no one of that period would have come out with. There is a tendency to project our worldview onto these characters. In this film Robin is used as a critic of the atrocities of the crusades. I doubt that such moral qualms about violence against Muslims were felt in those days. And we learn that Robin Hood wasn’t just this outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor; he was also one of the key players in drafting the foundational document for civil liberties in the English-speaking world, the Magna Carta. In fact, the document that King John was forced to accept was prepared by the barons. But I have another complaint; I fear that all the romance, magic and joy are disappearing from movies. My benchmark is the 1938 classic with Errol Flynn prancing around in those tights. What a glorious celebration of the golden age of Hollywood that film was.

What can we say about the real Robin Hood? Dressed in his traditional Lincoln green, Robin’s habitat was Sherwood Forrest, the wild wood, a place where a totally different code of honour operates. It is simply not possible to locate the historical Robin Hood with any certainty. There are many potential candidates for the inspiration behind Robin Hood. One of them lived in the thirteenth century, a man called Robert Hod, whose lands were confiscated when he failed to show up for a court appearance, thus making him an outlaw. It was a perilous existence; if they were caught they would be hanged without trial. The first descriptions of Robin Hood portray him more as a kind of loveable rogue. It was only later that the idea of a man fighting tyranny became popular.  

What draws me and many other people to Robin Hood is his Protean nature. As the Thomas Hahn quote above says he can be anything you want him to be. Thus Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm sees Robin Hood within the tradition of the social bandit, aided by the downtrodden peasants. These bandits were admired, protected and helped by the ordinary people because of the way they flouted authority and defended the interests of the folk masses against their elite oppressors. However he can also be claimed by those on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Thus Tea party supporters emphasise the anti-tax strand. I found a piece from the free-market  Austrian economists at the Ludwig von Mises Institute:

As so much in legends, the historical truth isn’t what matters. Instead it is the legendary deeds of Robin Hood that excite us. The man who challenged the state, who dared to take what the rotten government claimed to own, the man who not only did these deeds himself, but also recruited others to help him and in doing so, gained the trust and affection of his people. It’s a legend that will never lose its appeal.

But there are many other unanswered questions about this legendary figure. Was he gay?  An academic Stephen Knight from the University of Wales outed Robin Hood in a paper with the suggestive title “The Forest Queen”. Knight based his case on certain 14th-century ballads, the earliest known accounts of the hero’s deeds. He cites the homoerotic imagery of arrows, quivers, and swords. For Knight Maid Marian never existed and was only added to cover up the activities of Robin and his Merry men. It has caused heated debate. I think that to argue about the sexual orientation of a character from folklore is the modern equivalent to the medieval debate about how many angels could sit on the head of a pin?

And Robin Hood is still present today and not only at the cinema.  He has the honour of having the airport at Doncaster named after him. In 2007, the University of Nottingham offered an MA course on the subject of Robin Hood. And in an ironic twist he even has a tax named after him .I am referring to the new tax on banks being proposed which is popularly known as The Robin Hood tax. Robin Hood and King Arthur are undoubtedly England’s most enduring legendary figures. In fact, they go beyond England’s borders – they belong to the world.


Robin Hood movie trivia

May 22, 2010

Here is some trivia I found on the IMDB and other internet sources:

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

This film was a truly international production. It featured an Australian (Flynn) a Hungarian director  (Michael Curtiz), an English star (Basil Rathbone). The score was by  a Czech (Erich Wolfgang Korngold); the art direction was by a German (Carl Jules Weyl) And the photography by an Italian (Sol Polito).

The film plays very fancifully with real history. Even the opening titles are full of inaccuracies.

Despite his flamboyant performance as Robin Hood, Errol Flynn privately professed that he found the role a boring one.

Although shot on location in California, indigenous English plants were added and the grass was painted to give a greener, more English look.

At 28, Errol Flynn was the youngest actor to play Robin Hood.

Prince John could not write out a warrant for Robin Hood’s arrest because he was illiterate; he “signed” the Magna Carta by putting his seal on it. And the Duke turned King Richard over to his own ruler, and it was this king who asked for the ransom on Richard’s life, not the Duke.

All the sword fighting scenes show the characters using one-handed swords. At this time, swords were two-handed swords, the necessary refinements in steel making that allowed lighter, more maneuverable swords had not been developed.

Walt Disney’s Robin Hood (1973)

Originally, Friar Tuck was to be a pig, but was changed to a badger to avoid insulting religious sensibilities.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Kevin Costner had originally hired a coach to help him learn to speak English with an “English” accent. He had too much trouble learning it though, fired the coach, and decided not to do it.

At the wedding, Tuck says “I now pronounce you husband and wife”. “Husband” wasn’t used until very late in the 20th century.

The Sheriff uses the word ‘thugs’ although this word isn’t commonly used until the British Imperial rule in India some 500 years later.

Robin and Marian (1976)

Golden Delicious apples (in windows during last scene) did not exist in 13th century England.

Robin Hood 2010

The production had planned to recreate the Tower of London in Caernarfon, North Wales but later decided on doing the tower digitally.

At 45 Russell Crowe is the oldest actor to have played Robin Hood in a movie. Sean Connery was nearly 45 when he played a veteran Robin Hood in Robin and Marian (1976).

Eileen Atkins replaced Vanessa Redgrave, who dropped out, after the accidental death of her daughter Natasha Richardson.

During an interview with Mark Lawson Crowe stormed out when Lawson accused him of having giving the hero an Irish accent.

Mark Lawson: The accent that you’ve given him, there are hints to me of Irish, but what… were you thinking in those terms?

Russell Crowe: ‘You’ve got dead ears mate, you’ve seriously got dead ears, if you think that’s an Irish accent.’

Lawson: ‘Hints of, I thought…’

Crowe (interrupting): ‘B*******.’ (Crowe then talks about his portrayal of Robin Hood before coming back to the accent issue)

Crowe: ‘I’m a little dumbfounded you could possibly find any Irish in that character, that’s kind of ridiculous anyway, but it’s your show.’

Lawson: ‘So you’re… well, I am just asking… so you’re going for northern English?’

Crowe: ‘No, I was going for an Italian, yeah, missed it? (Laughs) F*** me!

(The actor then refuses to answer a question about whether he had not wanted to deliver some of his most famous lines in Gladiator)

Crowe: ‘I don’t get the Irish thing by the way. I don’t get it at all.’

(He finishes the interview, waving his cigarette and walking out).


My media week 23/05/10

May 22, 2010

Great Lives looked at the life of Carl Sagan, one of the most important popularisers of science and a leading sceptic.

In The Media Show this week Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and Sunday Times editor John Witherow debated whether readers have to pay to access newspaper websites. Both papers have differing strategies and it will be interesting to see which one emerges as the winner.

ABC’c Big Ideas features a lecture by Professor Terry Eagleton who wonders why God has suddenly reappeared in intellectual debate? I am critical of some aspects of Dawkins’ thought but I found that Eagleton’s arguments for the existence of God left me completely cold.


War, technology and society

May 16, 2010

War is a human universal; its practice cannot be linked to any single type of political organization or society. There never was a Garden of Eden; fighting between bands villages etc in preindustrial societies was more frequent than it is now. The myth of the noble savage is that – a myth. This may be considered a tragic conception of Homo sapiens but it seems the logical way to read the evidence. Obviously individual aggression is part of the story but there are other factors. The pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was probably not pumped up in a hyper-aggressive state he was just obeying orders. War may be a constant in human history but it has mutated many times throughout history, reflecting changes in culture economics and society. I don’t know if there is one theory that can encompass tribal wars, the Mongol hordes, Panzer division and Shock and Awe. For the ancients conflict was seen as central to human existence and actually beneficial. Now we live in an age that has rejected war as a positive force but military conflict shows no sign of disappearing.

The role of technology is crucial in how war has evolved. During most of human history wars were fought with rudimentary weapons. But the state system has enabled the development of weapons of awesome power. In Europe the competition between fractious warring states meant that gunpowder, which in China had been used principally for ceremonial purposes, was put to a far more sinister use. Indeed the majority of the great civilisations China, Japan and the Islamic states, banned the use of gunpowder weapons until the eighteenth century. This destructive power would give Europe a decisive advantage when it colonised the world from 1492 onwards. In recent years the American army has enjoyed a huge technological advantage over all other nations. This though has not always been a recipe for success as recent events have shown.

So war has been an enormous driver of technological change. This leads to an uncomfortable reality reflected in the famous quote (see below) from The Third Man about the contributions of Switzerland and Italy to civilisation. War is undoubtedly a curse on humanity but without the Darwinian struggle we saw in Europe, we would we not have had so many inventions. This competition led to technological developments that may well not have occurred if we had been as peaceful as China or Japan. War then has had a transforming effect on society that goes beyond military inventions.

And this relationship continues today. I am thinking of an organisation, which although it is not particularly well-known, has done much to shape our modern world. I am referring to DARPA (The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), created in the wake of the Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1958. Their two most famous inventions are probably the Internet and GPS. They have also done important work on prosthetics, machine translation and alternative energy sources. There have also been some more eccentric ideas as chronicled by Jon Ronson in The Men Who Stare at Goats – staring at goats until they drop dead, walking through walls and other such New Age/Hippy madness. The Flower People’s revolution ended up being hijacked and led to prisoners being tortured with Barney the Purple Dinosaur at Abu Ghraib

War has brought these benefits but the price we have paid has been terrible. Of course wishing it away will not make it happen.  The best we can hope for is that we will be able to minimise its impact.  We have progressed enormously in technological terms but we are still the same species. And now we have more deadly toys.