Monday, 29 September 2008

Ogilvie cries, loses JREF challenge

Skepchick has footage of Derek Ogilvie losing the JREF $1m challenge: It was originally a documentary on UK channel 5. Ogilvie claims to be able to telepathically communicate with children and babies and the tests are designed to allow him to demonstrate this.

It is absolutely side-splitting from start to finish.

It is hilarious when the first child hates him and refuses to speak to him. His inability to deal with children is bizarre considering his line of work, but also hilarious. There is more hilarity when he becomes increasingly desperate and his behaviour increasingly erratic. He is clearly cold-reading, which he obviously finds 'difficult' (read 'impossible') without feedback (the parents are not present). In two cases, he decides that there's a problem with adjusting the car seat, which is a classic cold-reading technique. This is nearly as hilarious as the tears that roll down his face when he sees the results.

This latter might seem callous. Ogilvie seems sincere and to genuinely believe his claims, so it might seem churlish to derive pleasure from his being upset. That would be true if he didn't ignore all the evidence telling him that he's not psychic. It would be true if he didn't immediately (and predictably) make excuses for his failure, suddenly claiming that the tests he himself helped design were unfair, and didn't go straight back to selling books and performances despite his obvious and complete failure of the tests.

I'm sure he believes what he claims to believe, but when he's faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary and ignores it, he's crossing the line between delusion and willful ignorance.

So I'll continue to find his distress hilarious for now.

The only part of the documentary that leaves a mildly nasty taste in my mouth is the end. Ogilvie has activity in his brain measured while claiming to connect telepathically with a child. The results show unusually high levels of activity in parts of his brain used for emotion and the conclusion is that the activity can't be explained at the moment and is consistent with what he claims about his abilities. That would seem to be true, but the show doesn't point out that it is entirely irrelevant. All it shows is that he enters some kind of state when he's doing his thing. It doesn't validate his claims in any way. I wish the show had made this clearer. It seemed that they were bending over backwards to provide some 'balance', which was just not necessary: he made some claims, they were tested fairly, he failed. That should have been the end of it. Who cares whether his brain shows unusual activity when we don't know how to interpret it? Of course, Ogilvie puts an enormously positive spin on this, even though it has not strengthened his case in the slightest.

The documentary finishes with Ogilvie claiming that he'll take the test again. I'm not going to hold my breath. He knows he can say things like that and get clean away with not following them up. Throughout, Ogilvie comes across as sincerely believing in his claimed abilities and as deluded rather than fraudulent. I almost felt sorry for him, until I remembered what he did (and continues to do, despite his failure) for a living. I'm not alone in wishing he could have learned from the experience, to let go of his delusion and move into the real world, but he may be too far gone. That is what Ogilvie should be weeping about.

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