Home > Science > Reply to a Psychic

Reply to a Psychic

August 3rd, 2005

I have finished responding to a comment to a person calling themselves a psychic, and decided that due to the content and length of the reply, I might as well make it a blog post. It concerns the accuracy of psychic predictions, and how something can seem psychic without being so. My writing has been edited to take the form of a blog post; block-quoted and italic excerpts are from the comment left by the visitor to the site.

By the way I do know many psychics that have helped find lost or stolen children, that never accept a dime…

Fine. But that’s a belief, not “knowledge,” unless you have scientific evidence that what you heard or saw was indeed the result of some psychic powers, and not human intelligence, intuition and/or random events isolated and exhibited outside the context of the x number of times nothing happened. The point of this blog entry is not that all psychics are frauds, but that people like Sylvia Browne certainly seem to be frauds. As for people who call themselves psychics and are genuine in speaking and intent, as far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on that one. I will not accept the idea of psychic abilities until I see proof, but I will also not dismiss the idea of psychic abilities until I see proof. So far I have not seen anything even resembling proof.

By the way did you know Medical Doctors have something like a 60 to 70 percent accuracy rate? And don’t even ask about brokers..

So? I would like to see the figures on that claim, by the way–inaccurate how, measured how, etc. Nevertheless, to the best of my knowledge, no psychic has reached anywhere near that level of accuracy under scientifically controlled conditions. If you know differently, please point to the evidence; I’d be interested. But I believe that many and possibly all people who genuinely believe they are psychic are simply mistaken. One case (and I admit it is hearsay, but it serves as example) of a young man who studied psychic readings from a book he discovered, which professed to enable true psychic abilities, telling the reader how to psychicly read someone. He studied the book, and then tried it–and was amazed to find that the person he read said he was 100% correct! He continued on and did very well, believing earnestly in his psychic abilities.

At one point, a skeptic friend suggested he try something: the next time he does a reading, report to the client exactly the opposite of what he “read.” If he read “healthy,” say “ill.” If he read that a family member died, report that a family member survived a health crisis. If he read the person was an optimist, tell them they were a pessimist. And so on. This person wanted to truthfully affirm his abilities, so he decided to do so, and carefully followed the concept as laid out, not trying to go too far and making it ludicrous and so “disprove” the challenge.

So he has a readee and he begins the session. As he goes on, the client gets this look of disbelief on their face, and the young man starts getting uncomfortable–they can tell how far off and completely wrong this reading is, he thinks. But he sticks to it. And at the end, the person he read just sits there in astonishment, and remarks: “That was the most incredibly accurate reading I have ever gotten!”

As I said, hearsay. But it demonstrates the concept about how “psychic” readings have problems in terms of calling them “accurate.” The person being read almost always helps the reading with interpretation, working (as humans have the talent to do) to associate what is said with something in their lives. Case in point (not hearsay, I saw this on video): Carl Sagan once met with a class of college students, many who believed in horoscopes, many who did not. He told them that trained astrologers had drawn out highly specific readings for each one of them. The readings were passed out on pieces of paper, and each student read theirs privately. After going over the readings, the students were asked how accurate the readings were; in this case, almost all of the students reported that the readings were amazingly accurate.

Then the students were told to compare their readings with other students–and to their surprise, they found that they’d been had: all the readings were identical.

The point to this is that the readee does a great deal of work in finding “truth” in generalities. That’s the way that the human mind works.

This can even happen in cases where psychics work with police. Now, if a psychic can regularly take a piece of evidence into their hands and report, “the body is buried 320 feet from the interstate 42 miles from Barstow, in a shallow grave under a walnut tree” that’ll be quite amazing. If said psychic can demonstrate such accuracy 70% of the time, that’ll be astonishing. But that’s not what happens. Instead, generalities are given, which can apply to most situations, if the investigator is inclined to work with the reading and make the connections work. Sometimes a psychic may be highly intelligent and/or intuitive, and can give many clues with good accuracy in the same way that profilers can. This does not mean the person is psychic.

One cannot dismiss intuitiveness and knowledge. Cold readers use it dishonestly, but people who feel they are genuine can use it without even knowing. Intuition can feel a lot like psychic powers if you have good intuition. Intuition is little more than making associations at the unconscious level, drawing on the vast repertoire of knowledge of people that all of us possess. From the way a person dresses, you can make connections that might tell you what they do. Mannerisms and body language can telegraph a great amount of information about personality and emotional states that usually don’t register at the conscious level. Good knowledge of people can discern common habits, common failings, common ways of dying and loving and feeling and reacting.

Additionally, people getting readings often give as much information than they receive. Readings I have seen are conversations, back-and-forth, which provide the reader (honest or otherwise) with a great many clues from which parts of readings may be derived, consciously or otherwise. A person not saying a single word, not giving a single fact or clue or any information during the reading will likely not get as accurate a reading.

Another part of the equation is the forgiving of misses. As I pointed out in the entry, a psychic gave a reading where most of the information was not confirmed and some was actually wrong, but King praised the psychic as being “100% correct.” We dismiss the misses and focus on the hits. When a psychic gives clues that lead to the capture of a killer, that seems significant and is reported widely. But when a psychic can’t contribute anything or is way off, that doesn’t get reported.

Then there’s the “alternate explanation” problem. When something happens that seems psychic, people jump to the conclusion that it is psychic–and do not run through all the possibilities to explain the situation, and so of course do not confirm whether or not they really happened. One psychic on Larry King told a story (hearsay, no proof that any of it happened) about a cactus. Apparently, two men were in the desert and one died. A TV psychic did a reading on the dead man’s mother, and said that her son’s friend who was with him when he died would bring her a gift, a cactus. Sure enough, some time later, he brought her a cactus. Proof of psychic ability! Well, not quite–there are alternate explanations which could very likely be true.

For example, the reading was public, and so word could have gotten back to the dead man’s friend that he was supposed to bring her a cactus, and then for whatever reason, he decided to do so. Or perhaps the mother told him, directly or indirectly, and he said, “hey, yeah, I was thinking of doing just that” (truthfully or not), and so did. Or maybe it was simply that in this case, the gift of a cactus–representing the hallowed ground on which the woman’s son died–was simply an intuitive and very reasonable guess. None of these require psychic abilities to be true, and since none were investigated, one cannot claim that one “knows” psychic powers were the explanation, however easy it may be to jump to that conclusion.

These phenomena–readee association, not recording the misses, intuition, and ignoring alternate explanations, can make something completely mundane and non-psychic appear to be amazingly psychic.

Again, I’m not saying that psychics or psychic powers don’t exist; I am simply pointing out how we commonly mistake things for psychic when they are not. And these phenomena and others like them are exactly what the frauds take advantage of to fool people. But they are also what we commonly use to fool ourselves, however earnest we feel and however much we believe we are taking an “objective” approach.

The bottom line is, if something can be explained in other way, it isn’t proven–until you can dismiss the other ways and leave nothing but your hypothesis–and that’s what scientifically controlled tests are all about: making it impossible for anything else to explain the situation. And when psychics submit to these conditions (which they rarely do), their performance suddenly drops to levels that anyone could achieve through mundane talents. Excuses about “negativity” and “bad vibes” are just that–excuses.

Finally why isn’t the other side of the coin ever shown, I once did a reading … [writer goes on to detail a reading where an accurate prediction was made]

In my experience, that’s about all that ever gets shown, at least from psychics. I’ve heard psychics–including yourself–tell about their many hits, but I’ve never heard psychics listing their misses.

… I once did a reading Where the man asked did my father leave me anything That I haven’t found yet. I told him I saw sports tickets (which he kept saying he would do because they never went to sporting events they preferred to watch them on TV this was something they had discussed even described what they looked like though truthfully I was not able to read the team name He then asked me where to find it I told him the room they were in and that appeared to be inside a desk draw. Now I had read for him over an hour and told him many things and passed the many tests people like to give you. Later his wife said to me he doesn’t think your real, I said “Why? He said the tickets were in a short dresser draw not a desk. Swear true story!

First, your story here is not clear in many respects (I’m sorry, but your writing is a bit fuzzy). Your sentence, “I told him I saw sports tickets (which he kept saying he would do because they never went to sporting events they preferred to watch them on TV this was something they had discussed even described what they looked like though truthfully I was not able to read the team name” is both a run-on sentence and is unclear in meaning. He kept saying he would do what? Buy sporting tickets? Because they never went to sporting events? Was there a typo? Very unclear.

But the gist of your story shows flaws: first of all, intuitiveness. Tickets to sports events were found in a drawer (I’ll forgive you the inaccuracy of the type of drawer, but it should be noted). Now, if you asked me–a non-psychic–to look for sports tickets in a strange person’s house, where would I look first? No doubt, I would head straight for a desk drawer. That’s not psychic. That’s intuitive knowledge. It’s like predicting that cottage cheese would be found in a refrigerator or that you would find a TV in a living room.

The only part which could be claimed as psychic would be the prediction of sports tickets. And on this, I am unable to judge because I do not have access to the transcript of the conversation. For all I know, any number of verbal or even visual cues could have inspired this guess–a shirt with a sports team logo, the fact that men (often fathers and sons) commonly go to sporting events, or perhaps you heard him say they enjoyed sports and guessed tickets before he told you they never went to events but only watched TV. Depending on the whole hour of the reading and the contextual clues within, your prediction could be explained in many different ways without the need to ascribe them to psychic powers.

I also don’t know the other numerous “hits” you claim, nor am I informed of what “misses” you may have experienced, or what the ratio was. Nor do I know the nature of the hits–were they things no one could have possibly guessed, were they things which anyone could have guessed, were they predictable via hints and clues the person’s appearance, mannerisms and speech provided, were they little things like “you chew gum” which have a 50% chance of being hit-miss and you got 50% of them right? Without the specifics, there’s no way I can judge the accuracy or inaccuracy of your claims. And this is assuming you are 100% honest and genuine. What you give me is not even close to real proof; if I believe it, then I am not believing facts, I am believing unsupported claims. And I am not calling you dishonest or a liar, what you describe could absolutely be not psychic and you could absolutely believe it is.

Such is the nature of people’s acceptance of psychic abilities: not based upon carefully observed and analyzed facts or evidence, but in the vast area of uncertainty that is subjective experience.

But if you believe you are psychic, then visit this site and apply to take the million-dollar test. They will put you under scientifically controlled conditions. You will describe your psychic ability, and then together you and they will draw up mutually agreed-upon tests that will rule out all other possibilities. The tests will accurately count miss-to-hit ratios and account for probabilities for each guess (e.g., you get points for predicting correctly that a certain Muslim person eats bacon twice a week, but no points for predicting correctly that they avoid pork products).

If you are, as you claim, truly psychic, then you can claim a very public victory for the legitimacy of psychic reading, while you collect the million dollars and do a great deal more unpaid work because you’ll have a wonderful nest egg. How can you lose?

Categories: Science Tags: by
  1. August 3rd, 2005 at 19:56 | #1

    Well, that about sums up my take on psychics as well. Although I do believe in psychic tendencies and that most people who are truly psychic would probably just keep it a secret. I know I would.

  2. BlogD
    August 3rd, 2005 at 20:18 | #2

    Roy: Exactly. I mean, if you really have the ability to know things without seeing, then you would not be making money the way psychics publicly do. Such an actual ability would open the doors to both a great deal of money made without going public, and to a great deal of danger.

    And danger would be the key element: there are any number of people and organizations in the world who would literally kill to get their hands on someone with such a talent; if you truly had it and went public, your family would be at perpetual risk–work for us, tell us what we want to know, or we kill your nephew, that kind of thing–if offers of money to work for a questionable person or agency didn’t work first.

    To think that people with psychic abilities would squander them on 1-900 call-in businesses, and by doing so put their families at extreme risk, sounds foolish at best.

  3. Steve
    March 23rd, 2006 at 12:26 | #3

    Well, in reply to comment above, I would have to say why would they have a reason to hide? If they can truly help people, it seems kind of selfish for them to be so reserved. They are, in my opinion, just hiding behind a ridiculous shroud of inconsistency and using gullable fools to exploit them and get money. A dishonorable way to live is the best to describe it.

  4. Luis
    March 23rd, 2006 at 13:28 | #4

    Steve: My assumption is, if you had an actual pyschic ability and made it public, you would immediately be hunted down by every intelligence agency and terrorist group on Earth, who would gladly kill everyone you care about to force you to work for them. You wouldn’t be able to do any good deeds, you’d only be forced to do bad ones.

Comments are closed.