Not too long ago I found myself sitting in a meeting in Dublin within which the Paranormal was being “successfully” demonstrated. Well-known paranormal investigator Richard Saunders announced, “ I’m smelling tobacco, specifically a pipe smoker, it is definitely coming through for somebody here”. It’s a hit, my father who passed away was a pipe smoker. Amazing … proof of an afterlife.
Actually no, Richard is in fact a skeptic and was illustrating how cold-reading works. If he had been claiming psychic powers, he could have then gone on to build upon that hit, by getting me to do most of the work for him. If I had been pre-disposed to believe, I would have of course been impressed, would no doubt have told him that later, and perhaps requested a personal reading as I gushed about how accurate he had been.
So are all psychics frauds? Not knowingly, while many of the more famous names (“Hi Sally Morgan”, “Hi Joe Power”) are outright frauds and refuse to be tested because they know that they are conducting deliberate fraud in order to generate a lucrative flow of income, there are also many others who truly believe they are gifted and can indeed channel the dead. What happens is that they throw out vague terms that yield hits, not because there is anything supernatural taking place, but rather due to the statistical certainty of it. For example, pipe-smoking, who in a small audience could possibly smoke a pipe these days? Well, how about a departed parent (so double the size of the audience), or grandparent, or uncle, or … and so the number of potential hits suddenly multiples greatly thus making the possibility of a hit almost certain. It is not the psychic doing any work, instead the “impression”, such as our pipe-smoking example, is tossed out, and the audience then fills in the details and feeds that back as a hit.
The psychic also gets caught in a feedback loop. With a positive response to a hit the psychic believes “it is working”, and so a cycle is established in which further “impressions” are tossed out and this then results in further hits. Later comes all the gushing feedback, “you are so amazing”, and this reinforces the belief. After going around that loop many times, our psychic will be convinced that it is all very real, and often no amount of debunking can ever shake them lose from this
What happens when it does not work?
Non-hits can be ignored, or it can also be rapidly modified until it fits and we get a hit. Oh and there is also the ultimate get-out clause, “You need to go away and think about it, you have simply forgotten and have not worked it out yet”, and so the fact that there has been no hit is deemed to be your fault, and no longer a failure.
Are there any real psychics?
In all of human history there has not been one single verified example … ever. While there are indeed deliberate frauds, most practitioners are those that have successfully fooled themselves into thinking they have a gift when in fact they do not have any such gift at all.
Are those that truly believe stupid or gullible in some specific way?
No, not at all, it simply confirms them to be human, because we can all be fooled. Generally the smarter you are, the more sure that you cannot be fooled, the easier it is to be fooled.
If we can indeed all be fooled like this, then how can any of us be sure about anything?
The scientific method recognises this and so it has evolved a means to handle it. Not only does it have a process of rigorous peer-review, but it also has a concept known as double-blind testing. Lets take a quick water dowsing example (This is how Richard demonstrated the concept) …
- Place six pots down and put a bottle of water under one
- Get the water-dowser to test and sure enough, it actually works, the rods swing towards the pot with the water under it … amazing water-downing works … or does it, because the water dowser knew where the bottle was.
- Now hid the water in a double-blind fashion. This means that neither those running the test, nor those being tested know where the water is. Run the test, and again and again it fails
Running double-blind tests not only eliminates deliberate cheating, but also eliminates subconscious hints, for example the person being tested could pick up the fact that the tester is holding their breath as the right pot is approached.
Because the scientific methodology eliminates our ability to fool ourselves it is the very best tool we have for working out the things that are actually true. What we also know is that every time a claimed psychic ability is properly tested it fails, and so the amount of actual verifiable objective evidence for such gifts is exactly zero. Anybody claiming it is real is either lying and has simply managed to successfully fool themselves in truly believing in something that is not actually true at all.
The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland – Amazon UK – Amazon US – It is expensive on Amazon, so those links are for you to check out the reviews, a far better option is to get it On-line for £20 direct from the author here (Yes even £20 is pricy, but this is the cold-reading bible, and no I don’t get a cut)
TED talk – James Randi