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"When confidential information leaks out of an organization, people suspect a spy, not a psychic."
--John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy
"Aren't you a bit surprised that the only message that the dead seem to be able to give to us is someone had a nickname Miss Piggy? And they can only tell us that, you know, I had a heart condition?....I want to hear just one of the psychics today tell me when is there going to be the next bus bombing in Tel Aviv so we can avoid going on that bus." --Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, on "Larry King Live," March 6, 2001
How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'? --Jay Leno
The term was first used by renowned chemist William Crookes to describe renowned medium and magician Daniel Dunglas Home (1833-1886). In 1871, Crookes attended a Fox sisters séance and came away convinced that the rapping noises they produced were genuine spirits. Said Crookes: “I have tested [the raps] in every way that I could devise, until there has been no escape from the conviction that they were true objective occurrences not produced by trickery or mechanical means.”* In 1888, the sisters confessed that they had produced the raps by cracking their toe-joints and that they made bumping noises by fastening an apple to a string and surreptitiously bouncing it off the floor. Of Home, Peter Lamont notes: “Virtually everybody else in this field was caught cheating at some point, but he never was. I’ve been a magician since I was a wee boy, and I have worked in parapsychology for a decade. And I don’t know how he did some things. Nobody has explained them to date.” (TimeOnline)
Milbourne Christopher, however, in ESP, Seers & Psychics devotes an entire chapter to Home, exposing some of Home's tricks and speculating about others. Despite his reputation as the medium who never got caught, Home was caught cheating several times. Many of Home's marvels have been duplicated by Houdini and Christopher himself (Christopher 1970: pp. 174-187).
One person who was caught cheating was Florence Cook, a medium whose work in séances had been vouched for by Crookes. She not only cheated as a medium, she and Crookes seem to have cheated on Crookes's wife. According to William Williams, the medium and her scientific examiner had a secret affair. They “used the séances as a cover for their meetings” (Williams 2000: 66). [Williams's source may have been Trevor Hall's The Spiritualists: The Story of Florence Cook and William Crookes (London, 1962), published as The Medium and the Scientist by Prometheus Books in1984.* See Christopher 1975: 171.]
James Randi, who has tested many people who think they have psychic abilities, has found that when he has tested the alleged paranormal powers of psychics (1) they had never before tested their powers under controlled conditions, and (2) those who don't offer preposterous rationalizations for their inability to perform seem genuinely baffled at their failure. Often, psychics are not frauds; they genuinely believe in their powers. But they've never tested their powers in any meaningful way. Randi offers $1,000,000 to anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers. The Australian Skeptics will throw in an additional $100,000 (Australian) [about USD 75,000] for the psychic and $20,000 (Australian) [about USD 15,000] for anyone "who nominates a person who successfully completes the Australian Skeptics Challenge."
To believe in the ability of a person to channel spirits, to "hear" or "feel" the voices or presence of the dead, to "see" the past, the future, or what is presently in another's mind, or to make contact with a realm of reality that transcends natural laws is to believe in something highly improbable. Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people. Psychics aren't overly worried about other psychics reading their minds and revealing their innermost secrets to the world. No casino has ever banned psychics from the gaming room because there is no need.
The improbability of there being a paranormal realm is argued for in many entries in the Skeptic's Dictionary. If it is improbable that the paranormal is real, then it is improbable that psychics are tapping into the paranormal realm. Why then are psychics so popular with young and old, stupid and intelligent, ignorant and wise alike?
The main reasons for belief in such paranormal powers as clairvoyance and clairaudience are (1) the perceived accuracy of psychic predictions and readings; (2) the seemingly uncanny premonitions which many people have, especially in dreams; and (3) the seemingly fantastic odds against such premonitions or predictions being correct by coincidence or chance. Most believers do not base their conviction on the scientific evidence for psi, which is claimed to be overwhelming by Dean Radin.
However, the accuracy of psychic predictions is grossly overrated. The belief in the accuracy of clairvoyants such as Edgar Cayce and Jeanne Dixon is due to several factors, including mass media error and hype. For example, it has been repeatedly reported in the mass media that Jeanne Dixon predicted the assassination of President Kennedy. She did not. The New York Times helped spread the myth that Edgar Cayce transformed from an illiterate into a healer when hypnotized. One of the more egregious cases of mass media complicity in promoting belief in psychics is the case of "psychic" Tamara Rand, producer Dick Maurice, and talk show host Gary Grecco of KNTV in Las Vegas. All conspired to deceive the public by claiming that a video tape of a "Dick Maurice Show," on which Rand predicts the assassination attempt by John Hinkley on Ronald Reagan, was done on January 6, 1981. The tape was actually made on March 31, 1981, a day after Hinkley shot Reagan (Steiner).
Another reason the accuracy of psychic predictions is grossly overrated is that many people do not understand how psychics use techniques such as hot and cold reading. The accuracy of premonitions and prophecies is also grossly exaggerated because of lack of understanding of confirmation bias and the law of truly large numbers; their accuracy is also exaggerated because of ignorance about how memory works, especially about how dreams and premonitions are often filled in after the fact.
The strongest kind of evidence for psychic power comes from witnessing an alleged psychic perform. Some performers seem to be able to do things that require paranormal powers; these are the masters of the art of conjuring. Others seem to be able to tell us things about ourselves and our departed loved ones that only we should know; these are the masters of cold reading. Others surreptitiously gather information about us and deceive us into thinking they obtained their data by psychic means.
The success of numerous hoaxes by fraudulent psychics testifies to the difficulty of seeing through the performance. Psychologist Ray Hyman, who worked as a "psychic" to help pay his way through college, claims that the most common method used by psychics is "cold reading" and offers the following Guide to Cold Reading:
You must act with confidence. You don't need to be arrogant. In fact, you will probably benefit by pretending to be humble. James van Praagh and John Edward repeatedly warn their marks that they aren't always accurate, that they don't know how their power works, that they misinterpret things, etc. But they never give any sign that they are not really communicating with the dead.
You must do your research. You have to be up on the latest statistics (e.g., most plane crashes are in April; most planes have something red on their tails). You have to know what people in general are like from polls and surveys. Also, you must pick up in casual conversation before a performance any information that might be useful later, like talking to a cameraman in the afternoon and then during the evening performance you are "contacted" by his dead father, whom he told you all about that afternoon.
You must convince the mark that he or she will be the reason for success or failure. This is actually true because it is the mark who will provide all the vital information that seems so shocking and revealing. It is human nature to find meaning, so this is not a difficult chore. The mark will bring significance to much of what you throw at him or her. If you bring up "June" and get no response, you make the mark feel like they're not remembering properly. If you say "8, the 8th month, 8-years, August" and somebody bites by saying "Dad died in August" and the mark thinks it was you who told her that fact rather than the other way around. When you say "I see a watch, a bracelet, something on the wrist" and the mark says "I put my necklace in mom's casket." You say "Right. She thanks you for it, too." Everybody thinks you knew she put a necklace in the casket and they will forget that you were fishing for some jewelry on the wrist.
Be observant. Does the person have expensive jewelry on but worn out clothes? Is she wearing a pin with the letter 'K' on it. (You better know that 'Kevin' is a good guess here. But it doesn't matter, really. Since, when the mark tells you the name of the person, she'll think you are the one who told her the name!)
Use flattery and pretend you know more than you do.
The list goes on, but you get the idea. What looks like psychic power is little more than a game of Twenty Questions, or a fishing expedition, with the mark providing all the relevant details and connecting all the dots, while the "psychic" appears to be getting messages from beyond. Of course, sometimes the "psychic" is simply an observant, thoughtful person, who says things appropriate for the age and gender of the subject. For example, one of my students--right out of high school, tall, handsome, strong and athletic--was told by a "psychic" to stay away from the sex or he'd be having a baby. The student became an immediate convert. He'd already gotten a girl pregnant and had a daughter. Good advice became proof of psychic power in this young man's mind. She also told him other things "nobody could have known," such as that he had once thrown up all over himself and crapped in his pants. He apparently had done this as a young man and didn't realize that she was describing a nearly universal situation for babies.
The deception can be more dramatic than cold reading, of course. According to Lamar Keene, a "reformed psychic," some people seek psychic advice from professional psychics who exchange information on their marks. Some psychics do what is called a hot reading, i.e., they have hard information about you that they have gained through a variety of surreptitious methods. They may have done research on you and that's why they know things they shouldn't know. They may have an accomplice who chats you up, listens to your conversations, has you fill out a card, or the like. The psychic herself may chat you up before the reading and get information from you that she can use later. Still others are magicians who try to pass off their conjuring skills as paranormal powers.
It has also been argued that if psychic power existed, to use it would be "a gross and unethical violation of privacy" and "professions that involve deception would be worthless" (Radford). There wouldn't be any need for undercover work or spies. Every child molester would be identified immediately. No double agent could ever get away with it. Psychics would be in demand for high paying jobs in banks, businesses and government. "Most psychics would be very, very rich...." (Radford) and since psychics are such altruistic persons, giving up their time to help others talk to the deceased or figure out what to do with their lives, they would be winning lotteries right and left and giving part of their winnings to help the needy. We wouldn't need trials of accused persons: psychics could tell us who is guilty and who is not. The polygraph would be a thing of the past. Of course, the operative word here is if. If psychic power existed the world would be very different.
It seems clear that psychics can be explained in one of three ways: (1) they truly are psychic; (2) they are frauds, taking advantage of people's gullibility and weaknesses; or (3) they're deluded and self-deceived. Of the three options, the least probable is option number one. "Psychics" who are honest about their deception call themselves mentalists and call their art magic or conjuring. Yet, it is the "psychics," not the mentalists, who are the darlings of the mass media. Thus, when the mass media promote "psychics" for their entertainment or news value, they are either promoting fraud or encouraging delusions. Perhaps the media think that because most parties in the psychic game are consenting adults, that makes it okay. Perhaps the police agree and that is why telepsychics like Miss Cleo can practice without fear of arrest for fraudulently claiming to have psychic powers.
See also Akashic record, aura, Edgar Cayce, Jeanne Dixon, ESP, clairaudience, clairvoyance, cold reading, dream, exploitainment, Forer effect, ganzfeld experiment, hot reading, magical thinking, medium, mentalist, Raymond Moody, optional starting and stopping, paranormal, parapsychology, precognition, psi, psi-missing, psychic photography, psychic surgery, psychokinesis, remote viewing, retrocognition, séance, shotgunning, subjective validation, Charles Tart, telepathy, and warm reading.
My commentaries on various alleged psychics and psychic powers:
books and articles
Frazier, Kendrick and James Randi, "Predictions After The Fact: Lessons Of The Tamara Rand Hoax," in Science Confronts The Paranormal, ed., Kendrick Frazier (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986), first published in the Skeptical Inquirer 6, no.1 (Fall 1981): 4-7.
Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), especially chapter 13, "Put Up or Shut Up," where he gives accounts of tests done on several psychics who have tried to collect the $10,000 Randi used to offer to anyone demonstrating a psychic power. So far, no one has collected, even though the offer is now over $1,000,000!
Psychic Scams by May Chow
Psychic Experiences: Psychic Illusions by Susan Blackmore, 1992, in Skeptical Inquirer 16 367-376.
"A Guide to Cold Reading" by Ray Hyman
Psychic Sophistry by Tony Youens
Secrets of a Telephone Psychic by Jane Louise Boursaw
The Research With B.D. and the Legacy of Magical Ignorance by George P. Hansen
Deception by Subjects in Psi Research by George P. Hansen
Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece) by Chris French - "According to her website, Sally Morgan is 'Britain's best-loved psychic'....Could it be that, like so many self-professed psychic superstars in the past, Morgan is nothing more than a self-serving con artist?....This episode is reminiscent of the exposure of faith healer Peter Popoff by James Randi in 1986. Popoff would wow his audiences by giving specific and accurate details of their medical problems before claiming to cure them with his divine powers. This information was, according to Popoff, provided to him directly by some god. It was certainly an effective technique, as at this time Popoff was raking in around $4m per month (tax-free) from his poor, sick, and uneducated followers."
Don't fall for latest scams: Psychic readings, government grants and jobs are favorite topics for scammers "The most unusual, and obnoxious, came from an Allentown man. He received a letter in the mail offering a free psychic reading. He returned the card to accept the reading, but never received the results. He did get a bill for $29. The psychic said he needed help doing the reading, so he enlisted another psychic and had to pay him."
Axing came out of blue, says radio psychic "[Irish] Psychic Una Power broke down in tears yesterday as she told an employment tribunal of her shock when a radio station cut her hours and ultimately axed her popular phone-in show. Ms. Power (60), who hosted the 'Psychic Zone' programme on Dublin's 98 since November 1996, said she didn't see it coming when the station's management abruptly cut her hours and then cancelled the show after 12 years on air."
How could a well-educated TV executive let her addiction to psychics cost her £25,000 and ruin her marriage? You've heard of "sexual addiction"? How about "psychic addiction"? Samantha Brick claims: "what had begun as a mild intrigue in psychics became an obsession that cost me thousands of pounds (an eye-popping £25,000, to be exact), my business and even my house - and took nearly 20 years to shake. It got so bad I couldn't make even the simplest decision without psychic advice. I forfeited my health, became gripped by terrible depression and fractured relationships with friends and my family."
Head games: Psychic Sylvia Browne speaks her clairvoyant mind "Browne also has a soft spot for Salt Lake City, where she'll lecture on a Dec. 5 tour stop with [Montel] Williams in tow....I told James Randi two months before the fact that he was going to have a heart attack."
Jaycee Dugard Abduction Case Highlights Failure of Psychics by Ben Radford. A girl was abducted 18 years ago, held captive for nearly two decades, and no psychic helped find her. Yet, a Reno psychic is claiming the release of Jaycee Dugard proves her abilities.
Famous psychic blind to bookkeeper's embezzlement (Usually it's the psychic who bilks the client, but in this case Rosemary Althea's bookkeeper stole her employer's money right out from under her little all-knowing nose.) Althea had a bit role in an episode of Bullshit!
'Oprah' hears Tinker Bell, the flying Chihuahua's story (Yes, it's true. Oprah Winfrey, the most influential woman in show business, interviewed a pet psychic who helped find a small dog that was allegedly blown away by a strong wind.)
Anxious London Professionals Flock to Psychics ("Conceived in the heady heyday of the Belle Epoque, London department store Selfridges has yet to reinvent itself for the age of austerity. But there's one commodity on sale between the crystal decanters and bone china that perfectly reflects the preoccupations of the times. For just $70, a concession called Psychic Sisters retails peace of mind by the half-hour....A skeptic might observe that avoiding firm predictions is a good way of avoiding being proved wrong. As one such skeptic, I sit down for a reading with Ashby. Here's what she tells me: 'You work in an industry that's very fluid' (true) and 'you have a tendency to play it safe" (uh-uh). Still, Ashby's clients give enthusiastic testimony to her powers of prediction.')