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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pseudoscientific Proof That my M&Ms are Psychic

Over the weekend I recounted a fictitious event that suggested that my M&Ms may or may not be psychic.  I was understandably dismissive of the possibility but when my fictitious friend Sam read the blog entry, he was irate over what he considered a wholly inaccurate recollection of the event.  I reminded him that both he and the event were fictitious but he was unswerving in his conviction that I had grossly exaggerated the details to create an unjust impression that there was nothing remarkable about the powers my M&Ms displayed.

I was still unconvinced, but I decided it would be unfair to dismiss the possibility outright.  My skepticism may have led to confirmation bias that did not allow me to see the actual predictive powers of the M&Ms.  Conceding this point, I proposed a fictional test.

We set about creating a rigorously controlled set of scientific protocols.  Sam picked up several bags of test M&Ms and a few bags of Skittles for our control group and we spent the next several hours asking the M&Ms to predict random coin flips.  To be thorough, we also tested Peanut M&Ms, Dark Chocolate M&Ms and the new Pretzel ones, though we were unable to obtain a sufficient sample size of the third group (starting eating them).

After several hundred trials, we crunched our numbers and determined that all of the predictive powers fell well inside normal ranges:

  • Original M&Ms: 47% success rate
  • Peanut M&Ms: 51% success rate
  • Dark Chocolate M&Ms: 54%
  • Pretzel M&Ms: 48%
  • Skittles (control): 49%
  • Reese’s Pieces: Do they still even make those?

The data clearly showed that the predictive powers of the M&Ms obtained by assigning value to the color was easily explainable by random chance.  This seemed to deflate Sam.  I was satisfied just knowing we could finally start eating all of the test subjects.

But Sam lifted himself from his depression quite quickly.  I was surprised to see the smile creeping back into his lips mere minutes after the negative conclusion.  Clearly something had occurred to him that merited a full-bellied laugh before he would share it with me.

“I’ve got it!” Sam said, “I think the M&Ms might still be psychic.”

“But… we just scientifically proved that they weren’t,” I argued.

“Right.  We scientifically proved it.  But you can’t scientifically prove the paranormal.  That’s what makes it paranormal.  We shouldn’t have been doing scientific tests at all.”

“Then what should we have been doing?” I asked around a mouthful of milk chocolate and colored candy shells.

Pseudoscientific tests,” he offered triumphantly.

My first instinct was to argue but as I tried to formulate a rebuttal I realized that it was perfectly valid.  After all, Tarot cards and astrology don’t pass scientific tests and people make a living off of them.  Perhaps I had been looking at it the wrong way the whole time.

“So how do you do pseudoscientific tests?” I asked.

“Well, instead of starting with something falsifiable, we’ll need some kind of untestable, unrepeatable, unverifiable claim.”

I nodded.  “Gotcha.  Like last night when I was visited by those space aliens that gave me the sacred parchments upon which were scrawled the ancient secrets of M&M divination.”

“Really?  Are you serious?” he asked excitedly.

“Sure, why not?  I could be lying.  I don’t believe me, but since I can’t prove me wrong…”

Sam was nodding along but suddenly a wrinkle occurred to him.  “Do you actually have the parchments?”

I swallowed the dark chocolate I’d been munching on.  “Turned to dust and blew away as soon as I finished translating them.”

“Ooh… good one.”

“Thanks.  So that’s step one.  What next?”

“Next we need to throw out all the data that doesn’t support our hypothesis.”

“So we trash all this,” I concluded, nodding toward the results of our failed survey.

Sam regarded me as though I’d just made an animal noise.  “What?  Of course not.  There’s some good stuff in there.”

“But… it proves we’re wrong,” I argued.

“Not all of it.  You remember that run we had with the Peanut M&Ms while you were playing Wii Tennis?  We got 12 out of 15 at one point.”

“But that was just random noise…” I argued stupidly.

“Not in pseudoscience.  We just publish that along with the best run we had with the other ones, leave out all the stuff about “control groups” and “blinding” and then list the relative psychic abilities of each type of M&Ms.”

“Like, Dark Chocolate is better, regular is the worst, et cetera.”


“Alright, what’s step three?”

“That’s it.  We’re done.  M&Ms are now officially psychic,” Sam pronounced.

“Don’t we need a plausible mechanism or something?”


“Do M&Ms have chi?” I asked.

“All things have chi.”

I scratched my head and glanced back at the colorful bowls.  I’d eaten enough now that they’d stop looking delicious and now simply looked like a McDonald’s playhouse for hamsters.  “I don’t know… are you sure that’s enough?”

“Dude, we now have as much support for our hypothesis as there is for acupuncture, reiki, feng shui, chiropractic, herbal supplements, astrology, magnet therapy, dowsing, anthroposophic medicine, cartology, palmistry, UFOs, cryptozoology, auras, seances, graphology and homeopathy combined.”

“Wow… so what do we do now?”

Sam scratched his chin and peered beyond me for a moment.  He was in his element to a degree I’d never witnessed before.  His gaze descended slowly and finally landed a few feet to my right.  “I think we should ask the M&Ms.”

Aaron Davies

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