Sunday, September 2, 2018

#2065: David John Oates

Since professional paranoid persecution complex promoter Alan Nunnelee passed away, we’ll give this entry to one of the legendary stalwarts of all things fringe crazy, the Australian-born but US-residing David John Oates. Oates is the main promoter of the reverse speech hypothesis, the idea that a recording of ordinary human speech, played backwards, can be interpreted as having completely different words that reveal emotions or beliefs that the speaker intended to keep hidden (an idea related to but not to be confused with backward masking). If you think it sounds silly, rest assures that it is even sillier than it sounds. What is amazing, though, is that some people actually buy into Oates’s ramblings, even giving him access to mass media (also beyond Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM, which of course popularized the idea) and paying real money for the equipment and instructions he sells, including:

  • Reverse-play tape recorders, only $225 (apparently no longer available)
  • iReverseSpeech, an iPhone app, $4.99
  • Reverse speech software, $179.95
  • The Reverse speech Metawalk series: “14 individual generic Metawalks taking you through the major metaphors of the unconscious mind, enhancing your natural abilities and clearing away sabotages to mental, emotional, and financial health”, $495.00
  • Signed copies of Oates’s book, $29.95
  • A complete training course, $1,495 (yes, Oates is training people to become “reverse speech analysts”).

According to Oates, since the technique shows what people truly believe, it has value to psychological evaluations, criminology and business negotiations (indeed, according to Oates, his idea is used, which is doubtful but a horrifying thought nonetheless). In some more detail, Oates’s claim is that people on average produces two related sentence every 15–20 seconds, one “forward-spoken” message and one “backwards” message unconsciously embedded in the person’s speech, which are apparently dependent upon each other and form an integral part of human communication (whyhuman communication would work like that is best left unexplained) and conveys the the total psyche of the person (how that would be beneficial to the speaker is also left unexplained). Apparently backward speech is always honest, revealing the truth about the speaker’s intentions and motivations. Oates’s examples from actual speech sound suspiciously and entirely unsurprisingly like auditory pareidolia, subjectively validated by the motivated investigator consciously searching for interpretations that fit the hypothesis – Oates, for example, almost always tells his witnesses in advance what they should expect to hear (that part has actually been tested: when the listeners are given the clips without being told in advance what to expect the results are, shall we say, variable, even when it is clips that Oates himself have actually selected; funny that.) There are good critiques of Oates’s claims here and here.

Needless to say, Oates’s ideas barely count even as pseudoscience, given the lack of detailed theoretical constraints that would yield even semi-testable hypotheses about what one should expectto hear, its utter lack of grounding in linguistics or psychology, coherence and reason, and – to some extent –Oates’s apparent focus on hawking merchandise over scientific testing. Apparently paying attention to the reverse speech messages can also help you gain longevity.

Diagnosis: Utter nonsense, of course, and though he might sound like a colorful village idiot, Oates has actually managed to convince some people in positions to cause real harm to real people. Though his claims are laughable, Oates is not altogether funny, in other words.

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