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reader comments: psi

13 Nov 1997
I think that people who accept any questionable subject without first giving it critical thought are fools, but by the same token people like you who just totally criticize and ridicule everything under the sun are just as bad.

reply: You must come from another planet which orbits a very small sun. I only ridicule those who are arrogant and dogmatic, maliciously deceptive, or who themselves engage in ridicule. I limit my criticisms to supernatural, paranormal, occult, pseudoscientific or fraudulent claims. I take it that such claims comprise your entire universe.

There are too many things in this world that defy scientific explanation and too many people that have witnessed the unexplainable for it all to just be swept under the rug and ignored.

reply: Well, what is it going to be? Am I just totally criticizing and ridiculing "everything under the sun"? Or am I sweeping it all under the rug and ignoring it?

For people like you it seems like that if God forbid something is beyond your comprehension or understanding then it isn't plausible or true, or the sources aren't credible, or they're hallucinating, or whatever other line you want to throw out.

reply: This may go over your head into the sun or under your carpet, but I'll give it a shot anyway. I don't criticize claims because I find them beyond my comprehension or understanding. I criticize only claims I understand. (By the way, that does not mean the same thing as criticizing all claims I understand.) I plead guilty to criticizing claims on the ground that they are implausible. Given a choice between a plausible credible claim or an implausible incredible claim, I will always choose the former. I do admit that I find it incomprehensible why some people prefer the implausible and incredible. No one could make it through the day if they chose to act only on implausible, incredible claims.

I find it quite reasonable to use as a guide when faced with an implausible, incredible claim the advice of David Hume and Thomas Huxley: ask yourself what is more likely, that the claim is true or that the one making the claim is deceived, in error or intentionally trying to deceive you?

I mean everyone knows that unless you have that trophy Ph.D. then you're not intelligent enough to understand or comprehend the world around you.

reply: naughty boy, you have stooped to ridiculing. I am not quite sure what your point is here. You seem to be implying that I am implying that people who believe incredible, implausible claims are not intelligent. If that is your point, then I can assure you that you are wrong. I am not aware of any evidence which would support the claim that there is a significant correlation between low intelligence and believing implausible, incredible claims.

I've always had an open mind about everything. I realize there are numerous frauds and hoaxes in every field but I also realize that everything in this world and this universe is not currently within human comprehension and explanation, and it may never be. I find it hilarious that guys like you and Randi cry about how many of the frauds out there are simply out to deceive the public in their efforts to make money, and this is very true in a lot of cases, but the first thing I noticed when finding your page and other similar ones was the advertisements for your books. At the top of the pages, at the bottom of the pages, and everywhere in between there's your "buy my book" ad. I guess you guys have just found your own little niche in the market eh?

reply: I guess it would be a bit much to expect you to recognize the difference between fraud and honesty, between deceiving people in order to take their money from them and selling them something of value. It may surprise you, but we do not criticize the thief because he wants money; we criticize him because he steals to get it.

Now, I've had a couple of experiences that I can't explain and I would LOVE for you to give me a rational explanation for this occurrence because quite frankly it scared the hell out of me! A couple of years ago myself and four friends went to a local country cemetery late at night accompanied by a Ouija board. No one is "into" the occult, it was simply for excitement. Two of my friends appeared to have contacted "something" through the board and we decided to try an experiment. I walked about fifteen or twenty feet away from the group and the board and proceeded to pull coins out of my pocket one at a time. Each time I told them to ask what type of coin I was presently holding AND the date on the coin. Six straight times the board somehow produced the correct answers without fail. Needless to say, everyone was very uneasy after this, none more than myself, and we quickly left the cemetery....and the board.

Now, I could care less whether you believe me or not because I was there and I KNOW what happened and I know there was no hoax of any kind involved. So you tell me what happened. Is my friend psychic? Was there spirits present? Or did they correctly guess the coin type AND date correctly SIX times in a row?? I don't think so. I would love to hear your comments.

B. Davis

reply: You must be joking. After all the kind things you tried to say about me above, you expect me to provide a rational explanation for this experience! I think you owe me and anyone else who is reading this an explanation. Why should we trust you? Is this what people in your part of the world do? Go to cemeteries at night with Ouija boards? You want us to believe that you have a psychic Ouija board and that you left it in the cemetery? Why didn't you try the experiment with another fellow's coins? Why didn't you try to test the Ouija board with some other thrilling questions, like how many fingers were you holding up behind your back? Why didn't you take the board to the race track and have it pick out horses for you? No, all you could think of doing was asking it to tell you what coin you had in your hand and what was the date on the coin. Not very original.

Why am I being so facetious? Well, you have already told me that I am not allowed to explain this event as a lie, nor am I allowed to explain it by coincidence. I am not allowed to explain it by a trick played on you by your friends. What is left? I can either explain it by spirits being present who have sensory capacities and can "see" coins and read dates and move hands on Ouija boards. Or I am allowed to explain it by admitting that one of your friends is psychic and that he used his psychic powers to either read your mind or leave his body to remote view the coins. I'm sorry, but given the options I find the most reasonable belief to be that you are either lying or were hoaxed. Coincidence is a remote possibility, but not nearly as remote as the possibility of ghosts, psychic powers or remote viewing. You may not believe me, but I have given you a rational explanation, though that is probably not what you really wanted. You probably wanted to have a good laugh at my expense for taking such a preposterous story seriously enough to rESPond. Good enough. I examined your claim for the sake of others who would take your claim very seriously, indeed.

10 Oct 1997

I am a computer graphic artist for a manufacturing firm in Tucson, AZ. I would like to commend you on your Skeptics Dictionary. I found it thoroughly enjoyable, and stimulating. Kudos on a job well done. I had an experience as a child that I would love to hear your ideas on. Being a skeptic myself, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that it happened, but I would love to get your initial reaction to it, as I have lived with the knowledge for many years, and cannot quite come to grips with it.

This happened when I and my twin brother were in the sixth grade in Bentwaters Air Force Base Elementary School in England. It was 1966. Classes were held in Quonset huts (left over from WWII). One class per hut. I was in one building, my twin was in another. I was taking a spelling test in the afternoon, when suddenly, for no reason I can discern, I worked out three math problems (subtraction: two digit numbers from three digit numbers) in the margin of the page. It was a very odd feeling, like automatic writing. There were no emotions connected with it. I didn't give it much thought.

At recess, my brother and I met on the playground. He asked me if I took a spelling test. I said yes, and he showed me a math test he had been taking, I presume at the same time. In the margins of his page, were three words that he had written for no reason that he could come up with. It turns out, the three words he had written were the three words I spelled incorrectly on my spelling test (he had spelled them correctly), and the three problems I had worked in the margin of my page were the three problems he got wrong on his math test (except I had gotten them right).

Even though my brother and I were close, there had never been anything like this. Frankly, it scared the bejesus out of us. Nothing like this has ever happened again. I could associate no real feeling that I was connected telepathically to my brother in any way. That was not part of the experience.

The experience was real, but because it only happened once, I have never had to really face it as anything but some very odd anomaly. But it buggers my understanding of coincidence. It also makes me doubt that if such events do happen as it did to me, how could science ever study it? The evidence is entirely anecdotal and the event non-repeating. But nevertheless, it did happen. I would like very much to hear what you think.
Ed Bertschy

reply: My initial reaction was "yah, right." In short, nice story, the kind of stuff that keeps belief in the paranormal going, but with about zero probability of being true. My next reaction, after about 30 seconds of thought, is that the experience was real but not the way you remember it. You or your brother dreamed the story or dreamed it up, or you heard a similar tale (a paranormal urban legend), told it enough times or heard it enough times to make you remember it as actually happening to you and your brother. 

13 Oct 1997

I was hoping for some kind of intelligent rESPonse. You dismiss this story outright because it doesn't fit some paradigm you have. This event really happened, just as I say it did. It is not some dim memory of a dream, or manufactured memory. It has not grown in the retelling. It scared the hell out of me and my brother, and that is why I remember it.

You are exactly what the Forteans warn against. If any evidence (anecdotal or not) comes along that doesn't fit within some prejudiced parameter, then it did not happen, or did not happen in the manner related.

I would love to be able to say that it did not happen as I am not comfortable with the implications. But it did. I am not willing to lie to myself or to anyone else for that matter.

I do not feel you should accept that it did happen on my say-so. I was asking for your opinion, hoping for some skeptical insight that would help me understand it a little better. The best you can come up with is "it didn't happen" because it cannot happen according to you.

Accept my apologies for bothering you with this. I obviously got the wrong opinion from your web page.
Ed Bertschy

reply: Ed,

Did you really expect me to encourage you in your memory and help entrench your belief that you and your twin brother really experienced automatic writing and ESP? Did you really expect me to come up with a skeptical explanation of psychic powers and paranormal events which validated your experience?

You say that the event "really happened, just as I say it did." Yet, you also say that you realize that I shouldn’t accept that it did really happen just on your say-so. If I do not accept that it really did happen, however, you conclude that my belief is "prejudiced" and based upon an a priori assumption that such events cannot happen.

I ask myself, "what is more likely? That you and your twin brother at age twelve had an extraordinary paranormal experience and never had another similar experience for the rest of your lives or that you are lying or mistaken?" For as long as there have been defenders of the supernatural and the paranormal there have been "good" people willing to lie about extraordinary experiences to gain support for their religious or occult views. This is a real possibility which any rational person investigating such matters must consider. Fraud in defense of the extraordinary is quite ordinary. I gave you the benefit of the doubt and did not conclude that you were making the story up. I offered another explanation.

You do not like my explanation because it does not fit with your strong belief that the event you remember as happening is of an actual experience. I did not ask you whether your brother remembers the event as you do, but I am willing to assume that you both remember it as you tell it and that both of you believe that the event really happened. Ask yourself "does the fact that you and your brother remember something vividly and are subjectively sure that you are remembering a real experience prove that the event actually occurred?" Your answer should be "no." Not because that answer fits with a prejudiced paradigm, but because it fits with what is known about memory from numerous empirical studies.

I suppose I should have asked you whether you have the exams with you, who you showed them to at the time, what their reaction was, and have you tried to contact these people since. I suppose I should have asked you why you both had your exams in your possession right after taking them and why you didn’t turn them in to the teacher. I suppose I should have asked you what your teachers said about the marginal writings. And, I suppose, you conclude that because I am not interested in conducting a full-fledged research project on this event, that I have dismissed it as impossible because of my preconceived paradigm of impossibility of paranormal events.

I can only tell you how I see it. You can believe it or not. I choose not to investigate your claim any further not because I believe that the event which you relate is an impossible event, but because it is an improbable event. Of course, it is possible that you and your brother really had a paranormal experience, but to encourage you to believe it really happened as you remember it on the grounds that it is possible that it did, is not the most reasonable course of action, in my view. I have written elsewhere about therapists who encourage their clients to fantasize and confabulate by not confronting them with the improbability of certain claims or the necessity of getting corroborating evidence for others. The therapists defend their non-confrontational and supportive technique on the grounds that for therapy to work the patient must have absolute trust in the therapist. Some therapists even revert to the notion of "the patient’s truth" to avoid having to deal with the issue of whether there is any likelihood that the patient’s stories are true.

Now, I know that this is not therapy, but there is a parallel here. Both you and these therapists want to rule out any procedure which confronts or challenges claims which on their face are highly improbable. There are many people out there who salivate at "anomalies" such as yours. To them, such stories make life interesting because they open the door to "infinite possibilities" and make life "interesting" and full of "exciting possibilities." You wrote to me knowing that I am not one of these people. Thus, I am a bit baffled by your indignation. I have written elsewhere about the work of Daniel Schacter, Piaget, and Elizabeth Loftus on memory, how memories are often false reconstructions of past experience, and how subjective certainty about a memory is not a good guide to accuracy. I offered you an explanation in terms of well-established scientific studies as to how a person or persons could come to a false belief about a past experience which seems absolutely certain to them. You didn’t like my explanation. Fine. But it was not offered on the a priori grounds that such experiences are impossible. It was offered on the grounds that there is probably a naturalistic explanation for your belief and that that explanation is probably going to be found in some serious reflection on how memory works.

Your reference to the Forteans is appropriate. There are some skeptics who do not approve of the way I (or James Randi or Martin Gardner) operate. These skeptics believe that every idea or claim should be given a fair hearing before rejecting it. That sounds reasonable, except that it is taken too literally: every single case, no matter how many similar cases have occurred before it, is unique and should be thoroughly tested and examined before rejecting it. I agree that we should not claim that an event did not happen unless we have strong evidence that that particular event did not happen. However, I do not think that we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an event did not happen before we take the position that we ought to reject the claim that it did happen. Rejecting the claim that an event happened is not tantamount to claiming that the event didn’t occur. Rejecting the claim that an event happened is reasonable if there are no strong reasons for believing it did occur and if there is a prima facie case that the event didn’t occur, ESPecially if there is a simpler explanation than one which requires belief in paranormal or supernatural events. This does not mean that paranormal or supernatural events can’t occur, only that they are very unlikely and that (a) extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and (b) it is up to the one who makes the claim to provide the supportive evidence; it is not up to others to investigate the issue and disprove the claim.

Ed replies: we did turn our papers in. I was admonished for having math problems on my spelling test. We tore them up and threw them away and did not even speak of it for some time. The event, as I described it, did happen, though I may have to reserve judgment until I learn a little more about memory (see? you may have done some good already!). That is the perceived truth of it though. My brother still doesn't like to talk about it. He is an ever bigger skeptic than I am.

reply: There may be another reason your brother doesn't like to talk about it. Too bad you didn't keep the papers. At least then you could have checked them to see if your memory about which problems and which spelling words you remember as being generated automatically did or did not corrESPond to the others' test questions.

Ed's brother, Kenneth Bertschy, replies.

26 Jan 1999
My name is Kenneth Bertschy, while "surfing the net" today, I came across my brother, Edward's, account of our "psychic experience" when we were twelve. I was checking links for out surname and stumbled across it. You essentially dismissed his account out of hand with nothing more than blaming it in a false memory. I assure you that the memory is not false and that the incident actually happened as he described it.

He did not tell you that on the day this incident happened, we showed our parents the papers and told them what we experienced. They were as stunned as we were. They told us to tell them immediately if anything else like this happens again. Well, it never happened again and we threw the papers away.

My parents, who live in Texas now, will be glad to verify the incident. My parents, Reuben and Johnnie Bertschy, are some of the nicest, most genuinely honest people you would ever wish to meet. "Just good folks" as they say, who are just as skeptical as I am.

My slant on the whole incident is that it may have been attributable to puberty! Just for a sheer guess, the only factor during that time which was different from any other time was that we were in fact going through puberty. Nothing else has happened to us before or since, making this a singularly memorable experience. So, please, don't dismiss it out of hand, it actually happened.
Ken Bertschy

reply: I may not be able to explain the incident, but somehow I think the puberty angle is a bit of a stretch. Puberty causes many weird behaviors, but if you can show that puberty is a psychic period, you will have a mighty big scoop. (I am sure you would have a large following among the teen crowd.) It is too bad you did not keep the papers. Unlike memories, the papers would have remained the same, even if a bit faded. Even so, with such a long time having passed, the chances of events being remembered out of sequence to their actual occurrence, interpretations of what was actually assigned by the teacher, etc., are impossible to check. The fact that neither of you ever had another similar experience indicates that neither of you is psychic. Your parents' memories, we can trust, are similar to those of your brother, but are of no more use in solving the puzzle than your own.

Ken responds:

26 Jan 1999
Re: Psi experience

Bob, even with the papers, our story is merely anecdotal, at best. This didn't happen under a controlled environment, so, you couldn't even rule out "atmospheric disturbances", swamp gas, or UFOs! But let me explain my side of the story and why I think that puberty may have something to do with it.

This incident occurred way, way back in 1966. Ed and I were twelve years old then. I was sitting in a Quonset hut, doing math problems, when, out of the blue, I started "receiving" letters that slowly formed in my head. It was a startling experience. There was a hesitation between each letter and I had the distinct impression that they somehow were coming from Ed based purely on the type and duration of the hesitation. I wrote down three words in the margins of my math paper, knowing that they were spelled incorrectly. I had the oddest feeling that these letters were forming in a specific part of my brain: the right hand side, directly behind my right eyeball and in line with my ear. I could not stop the letters from coming, nor could I start them, they just came. The feeling was that I was witnessing these letters forming in my brain and that they were "separate" from my other thoughts. What made it even stranger was that Ed did not know that he was "transmitting".

This is not your typical ESP story.  Now, how does this relate to puberty? I have a little sister, Sharon, who is schizophrenic. She's been in and out of insane asylums (sorry, psychiatric hospitals) most of her life (she turns 40 this year) and she is your classic example. She hears voices screaming at her, she confuses sensory input; sound has color, colors vibrate, that kind of thing. Anyway, like many schizophrenics, her symptoms did not appear until she started puberty, and then the symptoms were dramatic and devastating. What do she and I have in common? We both perceived voices in our heads that were not our own, and it started around puberty! The mechanism for perceiving a separate voice in your head obviously exists. Any schizophrenic will tell you. That doesn't mean that the separate voice exists in and of itself, it just means that the perception exists and is in fact, common among schizophrenics. I perceived a separate voice. I assumed it was Ed, but I didn't really know, that's why I had to ask him at recess if he had just had a spelling test. I also had the odd sensation that the letters were forming in a specific part of my brain. To me, this is a very schizophrenic notion; perceiving a spot in the brain where a thought occurs. The big question for me has always been: "Could I have experience a "mild" schizophrenic episode that somehow allowed me very briefly to perceive what Ed was concentrating on?" Of course, we'll never know.

As a layman, I cannot wade into deeper waters on this subject without drowning. But I think that there may be empirical data that may actually prove my point! Last year, Ed and I participated in a study at Harvard Medical School in Boston. We are members of a group known as VET. The Vietnam Era Twin Registry. This is a registry that tracks 4,00 twin pairs who served in the military during the Vietnam War. Many organizations use this group for scientific research. A few papers have already been published concerning biological versus behavioral causes for such thing as alcoholism, drug use, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Anyway, you could see the usefulness of such a study group. But I digress. During the interview last year, the interviewers asked me if I had experienced any type of ESP with my twin. I told them about the incident. So, I guess that the data of reports of ESP among twin pairs exists. Anyway, I think it would be very interesting to see:

A. The number of reports of ESP among the twin group as a whole

B. The number of reports of ESP among twins with a family history of schizophrenia.

C. The number of reports of ESP among a control group.

D. The number of reports of ESP among non-twin family members with a history of schizophrenia.

If there was a lopsided number among these, it could be significant. I think that reports of ESP and observations of schizophrenic patients are very similar in how both types of people "perceive" input. And my own personal experience reinforces this idea.

Finally, I don't think the idea that ESP is a form of mental illness would go over too well with any group.  Sorry to bore you with all of this, but I've had a long time to think about this incident and what it might mean, and I rarely get a chance speak about it at all. Thanks for hearing me out.

Ken Bertschy

reply: You've made some very interesting observations and I don't think I should speculate any further on them.

09 Aug 1996
I am curious why you spend so much time and effort to produce the pages to disclaim the paranormal. For some reason the subject seems to draw you. I think you should look into the real world and not the view you get from a lab. The reason psychic phenomena is hard to study in a lab, is because it is not a constant. Science can only analyze constants. If there are two many variables science usually fails. I am a believer in science but in this instance it seems to have failed. Maybe it hasn't. Duke and Berkley seem to have given some credence to parapsychology.

I wish, you as a scientist, would look at everything with a more open mind and realize that everything is not studied in a lab.


reply: What follows from your line of reasoning? That the facts that psi researchers can't get consistent results unless they cheat, can't duplicate any experiment, can't do anything more useful with their powers than predict card numbers or spots, or bend keys, and can't prove anything, are to be taken as strong evidence for the belief that psychic phenomena "is not a constant." Perhaps. But it seems more reasonable to me that this is evidence that psi is non-existent.

Are we also to accept as a reasonable explanation for the fact that good, incontrovertible evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, etc., is because these phenomena "are not constant." What belief couldn't be defended by this notion? Every contradiction in the universe could be equally justified if we could assume your inconstancy principle.

Now, in human affairs, it is a different story. Inconstancy may be the only constant in human affairs.

26 May 1996
About a year ago, I was sleeping, and at roughly 2:45 AM, from a deep sleep, I QUICKLY sat up in bed with my eyes wide open. I looked around the room for about 30 seconds, and just kept thinking, "something's wrong!" Sure enough, my phone rang! My phone was right next to my bed, so I picked it up, and a girl I had the hots for was crying and was in trouble.

Harsh eh? I've NEVER woke up like that before in my life until that night, and it scared the shit out of me. Anyway, the girl and I are very good friends now. I actually think of her as a sister.
"John \"Magnus\" Altinger"

reply: Experiences such as yours are uncanny and those that have them find it very difficult to believe it was just coincidence that one thing happened after another. There is a strong urge to believe in a causal connection in such cases. However, from a logical point of view, there are several things to consider. First, such cases are examples of post hoc reasoning. The fact that one thing precedes another is not sufficient evidence to support a belief that the former caused the latter. Your anxious thoughts may have preceded your friend's call, but that is not good reason to believe either that her troubled thoughts caused you to have anxious thoughts about her which caused her to phone you.

Secondly, she probably would not have called you at 2:45 am unless she thought you would be sympathetic. You may not have been good friends before the call, but she probably got some signals from you that you had the "hots" for her and were open to friendship or at least had a waiting shoulder to cry on. You probably also got some signals from her that not all was well in her life. Your combination of "hots" and concern for her were most likely why you woke up feeling anxious. You probably already knew that what was wrong was that the girl was having problems.

Finally, even you probably do not know what part of this story has been left out. Are you sure you didn't mention to her that she could call you any time about her problems? Or, give her any kind of hint that you were the kind of guy always available with a sympathetic ear? For, it is very odd for someone to call another person for help in the middle of the night unless the caller is reasonably confident she will not be told to bugger off.

10 Apr 1997
I've read that you're skeptical about precognitive dreams, and so am I, but I must tell you (briefly, since I know there's nothing more boring than listening to someone else's dreams, unless you're being paid handsomely for it) about two dreams that I've had: What do you make of these dreams?

(1) I dreamt several years ago that my father was hospitalized. In the dream I asked the doctors what was wrong with him, and the response that I got was that it was something involving the genitals (!). The next day, my mother called me (my parents live in another state) to tell me that my father had undergone emergency prostate surgery the previous day. Now my father had never had prostate or any similar problems in the past. In fact, his only health problems at that point were high blood pressure and cholesterol, and if anything I would have suspected him of having a stroke.

reply: I imagine there are certain psychologists licking their chops on this one: a daughter dreams about her father's genitals being defective. Anyway, the prostate isn't exactly what most people think of when they think of male genitals, but it's close enough for government paranormal work. Nevertheless, dreams by children of parental distress followed by parental distress are pretty common, especially when the children are adults and the parents past mid-life. I wouldn't make much of the coincidence.

(2) I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990 and for five years I remained cancer free. Two years ago I had a dream that I was lying on the examination table and my gynecologist told me that the cancer was back. I panicked in the dream and forced myself to wake up. I examined my remaining breast (sorry to be so graphic) and found nothing, so I didn't give it much more thought. A few months later I went to this same gynecologist for my annual. He felt a lump in the mastectomy incision area (an area I hadn't checked) and told me that it could be a recurrence and that I should have it checked. I did and, yes, the cancer was back.

reply: Anxiety dreams about one's own health are also quite common. I'm sorry to hear that yours came true.

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