4. "Psychics" and "Mediums"
I never cease to be amazed and dismayed, by the numbers of supposedly intelligent people who, in the Twenty-First Century, continue to believe in “the Occult”, “the Supernatural” and so-called “psychic” phenomena. There is simply no place for this kind of unfounded, superstitious rubbish in the modern world!
As a rational thinker, I don’t believe in the existence of anything “supernatural”, “paranormal”, or whatever you want to call it. In fact, I have difficulty in even understanding what those words actually mean; how can anything be “above” or “outside” nature? To put it simply, I don’t believe in anything which violates the laws of physics or of the natural Universe, or the principle of Cause and Effect.
While there are undoubtedly some so-called “psychics”, “mediums” and the like, who delude themselves into actually believing that they have special powers, the vast majority are simply confidence tricksters, preying on the naïve and the gullible – or even worse, on the grief of the bereaved. Their “special powers” are nothing more or less than conjuring tricks; just about every feat ever performed by “psychics” has been reproduced, at one time or another, by stage illusionists, who make no pretence of being anything but illusionists.
4.1. “Talking to the dead”
Cards on the table here. I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in the existence of God ( in any of his multitude of variations ), or “Heaven”; nor do I believe in any kind of “afterlife”, “life after death”, or whatever you want to call it – or that there is such a thing as a “soul” or “spirit”. I firmly believe that “this life” is all there is; when you die, that’s it – you simply cease to exist.
It therefore goes without saying that I believe the claims of “mediums” ( shouldn’t the plural be media? ) and “spiritualists”, who claim to be able to communicate with the “spirits” of dead people, to be utter drivel! These people have been repeatedly exposed as fakes and con merchants for the last couple of centuries – yet they still continue to thrive, taking money from the gullible and laughing all the way to the bank.
I’m sure most rational people will realise that all the “effects” employed by these people – knocking sounds, banging doors, objects apparently moving without being touched, etc. – can be easily explained as conjuring tricks. But what about the “messages” which they supposedly receive from “the Other Side”? ( The other side of what? ) Many people, who visit “spiritualists” for private consultations, in the hope of “contacting” a departed loved one, leave convinced that they have done exactly that, and that the “spiritualist” told them things that only they and their deceased relative could possibly have known.
Invariably, they have done nothing of the sort; these people are simply skilled manipulators. Anyone who visits a “spiritualist” for the above reasons presumably does so because they believe in such things – or want to believe - and expect to be able to contact their lost loved one – so they are not going to take much convincing! “Spiritualists” are skilled in the art of “cold reading”, as it’s known in the trade. They begin by coming out with some mystic-sounding waffle, making vague and utterly meaningless generalisations, to which the customer can assign some personal meaning, if he or she wants to “believe” badly enough. Then they pick up on whatever the customer says in response, and manipulate the conversation so as to lead the customer to give away clues and bits of personal information, without realising that he or she is doing so.
When “spiritualists” give public “performances” in front of an audience ( which can mean either a theatre audience or the congregation of a “spiritualist church” ), the trickery is even easier to explain. They simply exploit the laws of probability. For example, a “spiritualist” announces something like, “I feel the presence of someone called George, who has a message for someone here”, and then looks around the audience for any signs of response. Think about it; in any collection of a few dozen or a couple of hundred people, there is a greater than evens probability that at least one of them had some relative, now deceased, named George! And if no-one did, then the “spiritualist” simply plucks another common name out of the air, until it does get a response – and then performs some more cold reading.
Professor Richard Dawkins, one of Britain’s leading popular science writers, recently presented a TV documentary dedicated to debunking this kind of nonsense. He visited a so-called “psychic fair”, and put some of these charlatans to the test. One was a character who claimed that, by simply asking a person to pick a few cards out of a pack, he could not only predict their future, but also somehow obtain information from their deceased relatives.
Regarding Dawkins’ future, this fellow came out with a lot of mystic-sounding waffle, which amounted to saying that he was going to retire in the near future – hardly a great revelation, as Dawkins is in his 60’s!
For the “messages from the deceased” part, he claimed to be getting a message from “someone in your family, who served in the armed forces”. Now let’s see; for any person in Europe in their 60’s, there’s a better than evens probability that their father served in the forces during the Second World War! And for anyone of around my age ( I’m 46 at the time of writing this ) and in my country, this line would be an even safer bet; it would be a near-certainty that at least one of their grandfathers served in the forces during the War, and equally likely that their father did so in the era of National Service.
This is a classic example of how these people work the laws of probability to their advantage.
4.2. “Mind reading”
There are many so-called “psychics” who perform “mind reading” acts, often on stage in theatres or on TV shows. In fairness, most of these people never claim to be anything but illusionists – but I don’t doubt that similar techniques to theirs are used by those fraudsters who claim to have genuine “psychic powers”.
Most of these “mind reading” feats have remarkably simple explanations – some of which have been revealed on TV programmes, similar to those which reveal the secrets of stage magicians. So if you enjoy that kind of thing as entertainment, and don’t want to know how it’s done, then skip this section!
Some “mind reading” tricks really are nothing but conjuring tricks. A classic example is the one where the “psychic”, while blindfolded, asks a member of the audience to pick a card from a pack, asks them to concentrate on their card, then tells them which card it is. This is done either by means of hidden mirrors which enable the “psychic” to see the card through a gap at the bottom of his blindfold, or by using a sleight of hand technique to force the volunteer to “pick” a predetermined card.
The most seemingly impressive “mind reading” tricks, seen only in stage or TV shows, have an even simpler explanation. The “psychic” invites a member of the audience on stage; the latter confirms that he or she has never met the “psychic” before, and the “psychic” then proceeds to tell the subject details of his or her family, job, interests, etc., which he couldn’t possibly know. This can be done without the subject speaking a word, other than giving their name and saying, “No, we’ve never met before” – so it isn’t done by cold reading. So how is it done?
Well, the “psychic” has genuinely never met the subject before he or she came onto the stage – but one of his accomplices has! While the studio audience are queueing at the door, or in the theatre bar before the start of the show, the “psychic” has a number of “plants” among them, pretending to be fellow audience members. Each one engages in a casual conversation with a genuine audience member, manipulating the conversation so as to lead the person into giving away personal details. Then afterwards, he or she passes on those details to the “psychic” backstage, together with a description of the person, to allow him to identify the right person in the audience.
The “mind reader” doesn’t really have any “psychic” powers – just a well-trained memory!
There is a variation on this trick, performed on TV shows, which appears even more impressive, and equally impossible. Again, the “psychic” invites a member of the audience on stage; again, the latter confirms that they have never met before. The “psychic” then proceeds to tell the subject a lot of details about their home – such as what kind of tree they have in their front garden, what picture is on the wall of their living room, etc. – which he couldn’t possibly know, having never seen their home.
Once again, the “psychic” has genuinely never met the subject before, nor been anywhere near their home - but his accomplice has! The people in the studio audience for a TV show have invariably booked their seats several weeks, or even months, in advance; therefore, the TV company has records of the names and addresses of many of the members of the audience ( for couples or groups, they may only have the details of the one person who ordered the tickets ), together with their allocated seat numbers.
Weeks before the show, the “psychic” is given access to that list. He picks a person from the list – preferably someone who lives in a fairly “up-market” neighbourhood, so that their house is likely to be distinctive, as opposed to being one of many identical ones on an estate. One of his researchers then visits that person’s house under some pretext; for example, he knocks on their door pretending to be lost, and asks for directions to some place in the neighbourhood. Before going to the door, he will have made note of any distinctive features of the exterior of the house or the garden. The place to which he asks directions will be somewhere fairly obscure, so that the householder is unlikely to know it off the top of their head, but will probably say, “Come in a minute, while I look it up on the A to Z.”
Even if the researcher gets no further than spending a couple of minutes in the hallway, this will usually be enough to take a quick look around and note a few details about the interior of the house - what kind of dog the people have, the picture on their living room wall, any distinctive ornament on the mantelpiece, etc.
And of course, if this tactic doesn’t produce any usable material, then they simply repeat it with someone else, until it does.
So on the night of the show, when the “psychic” apparently picks a member of the audience at random, he actually knows exactly who they are, and has identified them by their seat number.
Yes, it’s that simple!
4.3. “Psychic surgery”
You might think that all this “psychic” business is just harmless nonsense. A lot of it certainly is; the show business variety of “psychics”, who perform “mind reading” acts and the like on stage, usually don’t claim to be anything more than illusionists, or that their performances are anything but entertainment.
Whether “spiritualists”, and their claims of “talking to the dead” are harmless is another matter entirely. Of course, they are taking people’s money under false pretences, but some might think that anyone stupid enough to fall for that sort of thing deserves to be conned! But more importantly, they are preying on people’s grief; who knows what the psychological or emotional effects might be, on a person who has been conned into truly believing that they are receiving “messages” from a deceased loved one? That’s something I’ll have to leave to psychologists to answer.
But there is one aspect of the phoney “supernatural”, which is anything but harmless; in fact, it’s extremely dangerous! This is so-called “psychic surgery”.
There are some people who claim, for a substantial fee, to be able to perform “surgery” to cure serious medical conditions, by “psychic” means, and without needing to make any incision to “enter” a patient’s body. As ridiculous as this obviously is, there are some who are actually taken in by it! It has become widespread on some Asian countries, such as the Philippines.
Some years ago, this subject was discussed on a British TV show, on which someone was supposedly going to perform such an “operation” live on stage, in front of both the cameras and a studio audience. The gentleman in question brought on his fully conscious “patient”, who he claimed was suffering with some kind of tumour, and said that he was going to remove it from her body by “psychic” methods. In full view of the cameras and audience, and without a scalpel in sight, he apparently plunged his hands inside the woman’s abdomen, and pulled out what looked like a bloodstained mass of tissue. After he cleaned up the blood, the “patient” was left with no scar, and was supposedly cured. This gruesome spectacle looked incredibly convincing.
The “surgeon” then came clean, and announced that he was in fact a stage illusionist. The whole thing had been nothing more than a conjuring trick, involving fake blood, pieces of offal and good old-fashioned sleight of hand. He had done it, he said, to demonstrate how certain fraudsters are able to convince people of their so-called “psychic powers”, and to warn the public about this sinister scam.
The danger of this sort of thing is obvious. If someone who genuinely believes in all this “psychic” nonsense becomes seriously ill, they might go to a so-called “psychic surgeon”, come away actually believing that they have been cured, and then refuse real medical treatment!
While these charlatans laugh all the way to the bank, they could be responsible for someone dying.
4.4. Putting “psychics” to the test
Many so-called “psychics” – of the variety who genuinely believe that they have special powers – will tell you something along the lines of “I’ve no idea how it works; I just know that it does!”
On the contrary; it isn’t necessary to know how something is supposed to work, in order to prove that it doesn’t!
Any kind of supposed “predictive” ability can be very easily disproved, by subjecting it to a statistical test, to determine whether the achieved results differ significantly from those which would be expected from pure chance or random guessing. This has been done many times, for astrology ( which will be dealt with elsewhere on this site ) and for various kinds of supposed “psychic” powers. Invariably, the results are no different from those expected from the laws of probability.
Here’s a classic example. Of all the numerous “powers” claimed by “psychics”, surely one of the most ridiculous is the so-called “ancient art” of “dowsing” – the belief that it’s possible to detect the presence of water by walking around holding a funny-shaped twig or a pair of rods. Yet a remarkable number of people somehow delude themselves into genuinely believing that they have this ability!
In the TV documentary mentioned in Section 4.1, Richard Dawkins actually managed to persuade a group of “dowsers” to submit themselves to a statistical test. This involved 36 closed boxes, arranged in six rows of six; within each row, one of the six boxes, chosen at random, contained a bottle of water. Each “dowser” was asked to identify where the water was in each row. This was a classic “double blind” experiment; as well as the subjects, the person supervising the test was not allowed to know which boxes contained the water.
At the end of the test, the boxes were opened, to see how many each “dowser” had got right. The result came as no surprise at all; all but one of the subjects had correctly found just one bottle of water out of six – exactly what would be expected from random guessing! Just one of them managed a score of two – and that’s just the kind of deviation from the mean that would be expected, with such a small statistical sample.
While these people, unlike many of their peers, had at least had the courage to allow their belief to be put to the test, they all went into immediate denial when confronted with the results. Every one of them expressed disbelief that their “power” had let them down on this occasion, and tried to come up with lame excuses. One even tried to question the honesty of the scientists!
Not one of them was willing to accept the simple truth – that it just doesn’t work!
[ Update, September 2018: Following two sections added. ]
4.5. "Psychic Nights"
In recent years in my country, it has become quite commonplace for some pubs – mainly those belonging to major chains – to host regular “Psychic Nights”, where they have a number of so-called “psychics” in attendance, who offer “one to one readings” for an extortionate fee.
I fail to see why this is even allowed! “Obtaining money under false pretences” is a criminal offence – unless you claim to be a “psychic”! Why exactly are these charlatans allowed to do exactly that, perfectly legally? The promoters of such events are probably able to get away with it, by claiming that they are merely providing “entertainment”. But the “psychics” themselves are not illusionists, providing entertainment; they actually claim to have “psychic powers”, and prey on the gullibility of those who believe in such rubbish.
4.6. How to wind them up
There’s a joke which I would really love to try out on a so-called “psychic” – especially one of the kind described in Section 4.5. That is, in the unlikely event that I’m ever able to speak to one, without having to pay for it!
I would claim that I’m also psychic, and that I can tell him/her something about him/herself. Then I would say something very silly, such as:
“Your father was a Ukrainian merchant seaman named Vladimir. He was also an amateur boxer, who fought in the European Championships. He died twenty years ago in a motorbike accident.”
Hopefully, the “psychic” would tell me that his/her father is English and still alive, and what his job actually is or was.
“Wrong! That may be the man who married your mother…” You see, psychics are never wrong!
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