Saturday, September 12, 2009


Here’s a headline that you don’t see very often: “Psychic Wins Lottery.” And why not? If their powers of divination are real, then that sort of headline should be as trivial and commonplace as ones about Senators having sex with staffers. Moreover, clairvoyants should be cleaning up in casinos, racetracks, stock exchanges, and on their SATs. But they never seem to. Well, they say, we only use our gift for good, not evil. The powers of prognostication come screeching to a halt when personal gain is involved - and the Psychic Friends Network, I suppose, is a nonprofit organization. But let us take the point as granted. That being the case, why not win the lottery and donate the proceeds to charity?

A couple of years before she died, my mother, on a lark, went to a psychic for a reading, and returned slightly surprised by the accuracy with which the alleged medium could divine the details of her life. Reviewing a tape of the proceedings later – this was provided for an additional fee, of course – she was rather less impressed. Upon a second glance, it was clear that the alleged psychic was doing nothing more than the crudest kind of cold reading and was not even very good at it. Her supposed “hits” were actually generalities or elaborations upon information that my mother had herself volunteered. And would it be grotesque of me to mention that the alleged psychic failed to note a rather big event on my mother’s horizon - the imminent discovery of a nearly 100% lethal form of cancer?

Some psychics, quite clearly, are entirely conscious charlatans. Others, I think, really believe they have some sort of gift. By way of comparison, a British psychologist named Christopher French did an interesting study of dowsers, and demonstrated quite clearly that none of them could locate water at a level above what we’d expect by random chance. A curious thing, though: the dowers themselves concluded that it was it the test that was faulty, not their alleged powers, even though these had conclusively failed them. In any case, no psychic or alleged mindreader has yet met managed to demonstrate their abilities under reasonable scientific controls. Nor have they have been anecdotally impressive, in my opinion. Not one among America’s psychics gave us a clear warning of the events of September 11th, 2001? None among the mystics in that most superstitious of cities, New Orleans, saw Katrina coming? Is it too much to ask for just one accurate, specific prediction of a forthcoming global event? No, the powers don’t work that way, they say. The spirits of the departed are with us and sending us messages, but, for some reason, the messages arrive in the form of generalities and banalities or in messages left in tea leaves and Tarot Cards. They never arrive as clear as day: “Your grandmother is saying, ‘I left the meatball recipe tucked into page 580 of the Joy of Cooking. Also, go with the 5-year, 6% GIC instead of the Mutual Fund. Trust me on this. Weather is terrific - wish you were here. Love, Grandma. P.S., my new e-mail is’ ”

Polls show that about half of people believe in psychic phenomenon, past lives, reincarnation and the like, but, then, half of people also believe that the sun goes around the Earth, and a Harris poll from 2003 found that more than a third of people believe in astrology. In other words, a lot of people will believe in anything. Allow me to observe that since about 80 percent of people in the United States and Canada are Christians, the simultaneous belief by about half of them in such things as Horoscopes and reincarnation and spirit photography means, as I have said before, that many among the allegedly religious haven’t got a clue what their own churches teach.

Belief in paranormal phenomena tends to decline as education rises. People with graduate degrees are much less likely to believe in psychics and astrology and whatnot than, say, your average high-school dropout. I point this out because it reinforces my belief that education tends to cultivate the rational mind. Admittedly, I have met some smart people who have told me some spooky things about psychics that I can’t explain. But I do know that elaborate deception, trickery, or the failure of one’s own comprehension of an event are vastly more probable than the idea that a weirdo with a deck of cards or a crystal ball can violate the physical laws of the universe - but never win the lottery, too.

Nonetheless, some people will say that they do believe in this sort of thing, and that in times of trouble it gives them great comfort to drop some money on a reading by Madame Mysteriouso and her crystal ball. Who am I to rain on their paranormal parade? Fair enough - whatever gets you through the night. But who are they to rain on my rationalist parade, to make me smile and nod while they profess their belief systems without giving me a moment to express mine? The possession of any belief carries with it a vital corollary: you can believe whatever you want, provided you leave other people alone. And if you can’t keep it to yourself, if you absolutely must tell it on the mountain, then you have to be willing to listen to others in return, and sometimes you aren’t going to like what they have to say.

I want more than anecdote. I want real proof - the kind of proof that would pass muster in a peer-reviewed journal. If you tell me that there’s a ghost in your house, I want cameras from multiple angles to capture the moment that the candlestick moves on its own and Newton’s Second Law falls. If you tell me that there are spirits all around us, I want scientific instruments to measure their presence, not some crank with a crystal ball telling me that somebody whose whose name that starts with “M”, possibly Mary or Margaret or Melissa, and who might have had some sort of illness related possibly somehow to the chest area, and who possibly passed in the last few years, is here with us now, and wants to send me some messages that could have come from any greeting card. Please.

Want to really impress me? I’ll pick a word at random from the Oxford English Dictionary, write it down, and seal it in an envelope. Get your psychic to tell me what the word is.


Graham Broad said...

This early update was brought to you by a message from the other side! Oooga-booga-boo! But you already knew that, didn't you?

Alison Hunter said...

This is my favourite Sylvia Browne debunking clip. It's not as horrifying as the one you posted, but it's funnier.

Graham Broad said...

I love it. "There will be a big drug bust on the ports in the east or west coast." Wow - that's a gift she's got there. Almost as good as when she said, "One day the stock market will go up, the next day it will go down." Uh-huh. Well, I can fire my investment councilor now, can't I?


Very good!!!!! I agree the more you study, the less you believe in supernatural events.

Anthony said...

It seems like every few years the a new psychic medium in the spotlight and the so called debate about authentic psychic abilities is raised once more. It was during the Crossing Over with John Edwards craze that I first started looking into cold readings and the techniques these charlatans use to trick the emotionally fragile and the down right gullible. It's sad and frustrating at the same time since many of those who believe in such nonsense do so because of a tragedy they are unable to properly deal with. Anyways, great post Professor.

Cheers from Korea!