critical thinking

Critical Thinking

Most of us have been in something like the following situation — we’re standing in front of a door, with a bunch of keys, and we don’t know which one unlocks the door. What do you do?

Well, if you’re like most people, you try the keys, one after another, until you find the one that works. Why? Because we understand that a direct experiment is the best way to understand if things work.

If you have a bit more knowledge, or notice some things about the lock and the keys, you may eliminate certain keys. You may recognize the brand of the lock and key, or visually be able to tell that certain keys wouldn’t fit the lock, at all. That might cut down your time.

The more you understand about the way locks work, the more you can eliminate certain keys as being likely to work.

A Testable Idea

Basically, you had an idea about how things might work — “One of these keys might fit this lock.” And you tested that idea to figure out what worked. This makes sense, right? It’s a really good method for figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and most people intuitively recognize it as a valid method.

In science, a testable idea is called a hypothesis. Part of science is testing hypotheses, to see what happens, and potentially figure out what works.

Science Isn’t Everything

One criticism of science is that science can’t know everything, and that there are things that may be outside of our perception, or understanding. That’s true. However, if something (a force, for instance) has an effect on the world, we can likely measure that effect, whether or not we understand how it works.

That’s where hypnosis is, in a lot of ways. we’re not exactly sure how it works, but we can measure the results.

If a force doesn’t have an effect, then it’s not really a force, is it? So, science can measure things beyond our understanding.

Let’s take prayer, for instance. Even if we don’t have a theory about how prayer might work, we can pray for a bunch of sick people, and see if they get better than people who aren’t prayed for. If prayer works, we can measure the effect, whether we can understand it, or not (it’s been done — look it up, I won’t get into that particular debate here).

And even if we can’t measure everything, we can build instruments that measure far beyond what we can perceive.

Pendulums And Dowsing Rods

I once had a discussion with someone, about the forces that our minds can emanate. We both agreed that our minds are powerful. We both agreed that our minds create our realities, in many ways. We both agreed that our minds can help us to manifest things. We even agreed that our brains radiate forces. But we had a disagreement about the scope of those forces.

I know that the brain radiates various types of energy. Heat, chemical, electro-magnetic, and more. We can measure those forces. I’m not going to be able to lift a car with the magnetic energy of my brain. Nor will the heat generated by thinking, set my couch on fire (plus, I don’t have a couch).

But our brain can somehow tell our muscles what to do, and they usually do it!

But she believed the brain could do much more. She supposed our brain could beam an energy that could affect objects at a distance. And she believed focusing on an object could get it to move.

The Rice Experiment

She used as her examples, the rice experiment, and dowsing rods. In the rice experiment, rice with water, was put in jars. The experimenter thought positive thoughts about one jar, negative thoughts about another, and ignored a third jar.

Now, different people have tried the rice experiment with different results. In other words, it’s inconclusive. And when experimental results can’t be consistently repeated, that can indicate a problem.

Dowsing, I don’t know much about except for a show I saw, where they took the world’s “best” dowsers, and walked them over a field with water pipes buried beneath the ground. Suffice it to say, they weren’t accurate in finding water. They had plenty of reasons (or excuses, if you prefer), as to why it didn’t work.

But I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough about dowsing to speak on it, beyond what I saw in that show.


But my discussion partner brought up pendulums. “You guys use pendulums in hypnosis all the time. Don’t you believe in pendulums?” “Of course, I do”, I said. “I can put a pendulum in my hand, and ask questions, and it moves to answer them. I can verify that. But I don’t think it’s a supernatural force, or my brain beaming a force field to move the pendulum. I think I’m making small movements with my arm, hand, or fingers, that I don’t realize I’m making. And I don’t attribute the answers I get to any supernatural force. It’s my own mind providing the answers.”

In other words, I feel pendulum movements are produced by things we already know about, and largely understand. It doesn’t require a supernatural explanation, or an unknown force.

So, how would you devise an experiment to test whether or not a pendulum was moved by psychokinesis, or by muscle movements?

Here’s what we came up with…

The Experiment

I suggested she take a pendulum, and suspend it from something. If the force from her mind could act at a distance, she should be able to move the pendulum, just by thinking about it moving. She could put her hands right up next to it (as long as she didn’t create a breeze), and ‘will’ the pendulum in various directions.

Of course, she couldn’t.

What Does That Prove?

Not much. It doesn’t prove that pendulums can’t be moved by the mind alone. It shows that she couldn’t move it, in a visually discernible fashion, in that specific situation. But it’s one piece of evidence that the mind doesn’t move pendulums by a projected force. And it’s one piece of evidence on the side of pendulums being moved by muscles. There would have to be a lot more experiments to confirm one way or another.

We could come up with lots of ideas about how a pendulum might work, and develop tests for all those ideas. That’s how science works.

But what if she had been able to move the pendulum with her mind?

Experimenters are susceptible to all the same brain mistakes we all make. We have misconceptions, prejudices, and idea blindness. Scientists sometimes have ulterior motives — money can be at stake, and reputations made or broken. That’s why experiments have to be repeated, (by other folks), and get consistent results, before they’re accepted. That’s to reduce those errors as much as possible.

So, if she’d moved the pendulum, it would have to be confirmed by other experimenters.

The Hallmark Of Fakes, Flakes, And Mistakes

Knowing that mistakes can be made, and knowing that people are susceptible to cognitive errors and may outright cheat, we can guess what happens when other people repeat experiments. Sometimes the initial result is confirmed, and sometimes not. It’s a slow march forward.

The hallmark of a bad experimental result, is that it’s not repeatable.

Let me put it another way…

If a pharmaceutical company spent $15 million developing a new drug, tested it themselves, and found it effective — would you trust that result? Or would you feel better if an outside entity (without a financial incentive to prove the drug effective) also tested the drug and found it worked well?

If you wouldn’t trust a scientist with a financial incentive to be impartial, why would you trust a guy that wrote a book about past life regression? His livelihood depends on it being true. Why would you trust a hypnotist or NLPer who says what they do works?

The answer is that you shouldn’t, necessarily.

One problem is, studies are expensive. There’s no big, well-funded group looking to study NLP and hypnosis. But we need to. We need to figure out what aspects work and what don’t, so we can work more effectively with them.

We need more solid hypotheses about how it all works, and we need to test them.

And we need less of. . .

Trying To Sound Scientific, When We’re Not

I’m guilty of this. My ideas make sense to me (surprise, surprise) and I tend to present them as if they’re fact. I marshal evidence to support what I think, and give less credence to evidence that disagrees.

But I also make sure, when I’m presenting an idea, that I say, “according to this school of thought, the critical factor plays a role in…”. In other words, I recognize that our ideas are just that — ideas — and many of them are as of yet, unproven.

What Gets My Goat

The other day, I saw a link on Facebook. It was from a reiki practitioner. It said something like, “Here’s that information on the science behind reiki.” I’m interested in reiki but so far, I haven’t seen anything that can’t be explained by a combination of touch, and hypnotic suggestion/expectation (not that I’ve looked that hard). But I’m interested to see if there’s something else. So, I followed the link and read the article.

I’ll summarize the article: Reiki works, because — quantum physics. There wasn’t really any science there, that I could tell. It was more along the lines of… ‘Quantum physics tells us that many things are possible. Therefore, reiki works!’

As near as I could figure, it was a bunch of sciencey sounding words, strung together to try to make people think there was a scientific basis. There was even a quote by Einstein there to support their point. And I’m pretty sure Einstein  would have laughed out loud at the science bits.

And these are two big, red flags for me. Pretending to have science behind you, when it’s not, and bringing in a call to authority, especially one that’s out of place. That’s what scammers do.

Here’s my point. If there’s science behind reiki, I’d like to see it. And by that, I mean a hypothesis about how it works, and experiments along those lines. For instance, “We think reiki is a beam of energy that goes from the practitioner to the client. We’re going to get instrumentation that reads all known wavelengths of the electro-magnetic spectrum. We expect to find peaks in the energy.”

Then, if they found peaks, you’d perhaps construct a hypothesis as to how a peak in that area of the spectrum could promote healing, and test that.

In short, if there’s not science there, don’t pretend there is. If there is, let’s hear it!

But Here’s What Usually Happens…

You’ll notice, when I talked about the woman trying to move the pendulum with her mind, I said, “Of course, she couldn’t.” Why, “Of course”? Shouldn’t I have an open mind? Well, yes. And I would revise my thinking, if convincing evidence were presented.

However, proponents of many forms of alternative healing suggest that their method works due to a previously unknown and undetected force. And that brings us to a good principle for weeding out ideas that are unlikely to be true.

Unknown Forces, Complexity, And Odds

When you suggest that a previously unknown and undetected force is responsible for a phenomenon, you drastically reduce the odds of it proving out — especially if the phenomenon can also be produced by already explained means.

Imagine that you throw a ball. You notice that the ball drops to earth after a while. You suggest that it’s probably invisible leprechauns that push the ball down. Most of us would instinctively reject that idea, because gravity already explains why the ball lands.

In short, while there are surely forces beyond our understanding, it’s much more likely that forces we do know about are causing results we see. And if you have to choose between something we already have confirmed, and a new, unknown, unconfirmed energy, I think you can see which the odds favor.

Ways Alternative Healing Methods Can Gain Popularity

An alternative healing method gaining popularity can be explained in a few ways.

  1. It doesn’t work, but some people think it does (studies will not bear out claims made by these folks).
  2. It works by the placebo effect, or suggestion, or some other previously known effect (well designed studies will separate the placebo effect and suggestion. Testing different hypotheses will often help show the mechanism by which the method works).
  3. Patients may think they’re getting better, but they’re not.
  4. It may work exactly how they think it works.
  5. It works by a previously unknown, undiscovered force.

Out of these, the last is, by far, less likely. And that reminds me of a story. . .

Past Life Regression Nonsense

I’ve heard some people talk about past life regression in terms that make me laugh. Sometimes something comes up during a regression, that couldn’t be true. Maybe a past life ended after the current life began. This is explained by saying that the soul could leave the body and enter another body. In order for that to be true, a whole bunch of unlikely things would have to be true.

Sometimes the history of that past life doesn’t jibe with what we know about history. That’s explained by the fact that there could be parallel universes, and the past life could have been in a similar, but not identical universe. Now, not only would past lives have to exist, but parallel universes would. And they would have to be very similar to ours. And souls would have to be a thing. And souls would have to be able to travel between universes. And memories, in some form, would have to travel with the souls. And hypnosis would have to allow us access to those memories. That’s a stack full of unlikely things. And an alternate explanation is that the person simply imagines the past life. Much simpler, and much, much, much, much, much more likely.

We know that people can imagine things. We know that, in hypnosis, thoughts can seem like real memories. We know that some people think past life regression is cool and true, and they want to have past lives. All of these things are real, and verifiable, and quite likely.

Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” If someone puts forth an idea that goes well beyond what we know to be true, and/or requires heretofore unknown forces, we can dismiss it, unless lots and lots of proof is provided, by multiple sources.


Recently, a guy I know posted a thing on Facebook. He said that August has 5 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in it, and that only happens once every 823 years. This was some sort of lucky occurrence and if you copied and pasted his status, it would mean good Feng Shui, and result in you getting money. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have money.

Now, any month that has 31 days, and starts on a Friday, will have 5 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in it. Just look. Think about it a second. What do you think the odds are that a month would start on a Friday? Maybe pretty close to 1 in 7? So, August having 5 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays in it has about a 1 in 7 chance. That’s a far cry from one in every 823 years.


So, anybody who understands how many days there are in a week should be able to ballpark it, and figure out that the post was not correct, even in the math.

But what bothers me even more is the idea that there’s some force in the universe that looks at Facebook posts, and then apportions money based on who posts what. How does that work, exactly? Do the Feng Shui gods do a weekly Facebook review session, and then send their decisions down to Chase/J. P. Morgan? Do they check Tumblr, too?

It’s just pure nonsense.

Often, when I point out the factual errors in a post like this (yes, I’m that guy), the posters tell me that they decided to post it, “just in case”, or say that “science doesn’t understand everything.” But in my mind, they’re just lazy. They simply would rather believe their magical theories, than make a small effort and think it through.

Your Belief Does Not Trump Math

I know. Not everybody likes math. But math (along with science), are ways to keep from getting fooled, and ways to help make good decisions.

I recently had a friend get on the bandwagon about a claim that adding a device which added hydrogen to a gasoline mixture would increase the efficiency of the engine a great deal. The guy making the claim said that his device would increase fuel efficiency by 56%, and that would result in a 56% savings on gas.

Now, I’m not smart enough to know if that’s true off the top of my head. It sounds right, doesn’t it?

But I did some math to check it out.

If you get 1 mile/gallon, and gas costs $1/gallon, it costs you $100 to go 100 miles. If you increase your gas efficiency 50%, you can go 150 miles. So now, 150 miles costs you $100. And to go 100 miles only costs you $67 (about). But you’ve decreased your gas bill 33%, not 50%.

In short, a 56% increase in efficiency of gas mileage, doesn’t give you a 56% savings in what you spend on gas. You would think a guy who supposedly had enough scientific knowledge to invent this device, would understand the math. So, was one red flag, for me.

So, I did a little research, and found a news special where they tested the idea, and found that it didn’t increase fuel efficiency, at all. Red flag #2.

When I informed my friend, they still insisted they were going to fit their car with a $2,000 system because, “maybe they’ve made advances since that news crew made their show.”

And there’s the problem. . .

We have a world where people believe what they want to believe, who won’t make the slightest effort to explore whether it’s true or not, and who just want to keep believing that way, because they like to. They won’t use math, or science, or critical thinking to test the validity of an idea.

And many of those folks are hypnotherapists and NLPers. And we cannot afford this kind of thinking in our industry, nor as a people. If we’re going to solve the very real problems we all face, we’re going to have to understand what works, and what doesn’t. We’re going to have to be able to separate real valuable ideas from snake oil. We’re going to have to think critically.



PS: Khan Academy has lots of courses on critical thinking, if you’re interested.

PPS: If you move your hand near a pendulum, the mass of your hand and the mass of the pendulum actually will cause the two to move toward each other. That’s a force that moves the pendulum, without you touching it. It’s gravity. However, since the mass of both your hand and the pendulum is quite small, you probably won’t notice. If you want to test this idea out, you can do the Cavendish experiment, or something similar.

About The Author:

Keith Livingston is the main instructor for Hypnosis 101. Keith has been studying hypnosis since he was a boy and doing hypnosis & NLP training since 1997.

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