Secrets of the Psychics – James Randi
Original broadcast: October 19, 1993
Description via PBS.org:
Can psychics predict the future? Many people seem to think so. Others argue that, in most cases, so-called psychic experiences are really misinterpretations of events. In this episode of NOVA, magician and confirmed skeptic James Randi challenges viewers to weigh the evidence for and against the existence of psychic phenomena.
Randi argues that successful psychics depend on the willingness of their audiences to believe that what they see is the result of psychic powers. The program highlights some of the methods and processes he uses to examine psychics’ claims. Using his own expertise in creating deception and illusion, Randi challenges specific psychics’ claims by duplicating their performances and “feats,” or by applying scientific methods. His goal is to eliminate all possible alternative explanations for the psychic phenomena. He also looks for evidence that they are not merely coincidental. His arguments can motivate your class to discuss the differences between psychic performances and legitimate cases of unexplained phenomena.
Can you test psychic claims with science? Here are a few creative ways that you can test psychic powers scientifically as well as the results of these types of tests that have been performed hundreds of times over the last fifty years. This is part of my Exposing Psychics series.
Regular readers of my not-so-super-secret other blog, where I write under my own name, know that last month Steve Novella and I published a rather nice (if I do say so myself) opinion piece in a peer-reviewed journal about what we called “clinical trials of magic.” In it, we argued that certain alternative medicine modalities are so incredibly implausible from a purely basic science viewpoint, on physics and chemistry considerations alone, that it is a waste of time and resources, not to mention unethical, to do clinical trials testing them. Two of the main examples we used were homeopathy (of course!) and reiki.
Reiki, as you recall, is a form of “energy healing” that I’ve discussed many times before. Its basic precept is that reiki healers, known as reiki masters, can, through a series of hand gestures that might or might not involve touching the patient and often involve symbols drawn in the air over the patient, tap into what they call the “universal source” and channel energy into the person being treated to heal them. You can probably see why I generally refer to reiki as faith healing that substitutes Eastern mystical beliefs for Christian beliefs. If you can’t see why, then simply substitute the word “God” or “Jesus” for the term “universal source,” and my meaning becomes obvious. Of course, reiki can get even more bizarre, particularly when it’s used in distant healing, which can only be likened (to me, at least) to intercessory prayer or when reiki masters claim to be able to send reiki energy into the past or the future. Yes, it does get even woo-ier than claiming to be able to channel healing energy.
Reiki is, without a doubt, far more a mystical belief system akin to religion than it is anything having to do with medicine. That much is obvious. That’s why I couldn’t resist a bit of amusement when I somehow (don’t ask how!) came across an article by someone named Tammy Hatherill, who runs Tammy’s Tarot and Healing entitled When Your Reiki Client Doesn’t Feel the ‘Energy’.
Wow. So reiki doesn’t always work? Who knew? Well, not exactly. Remember, reiki is a mystical magical belief system. Like a religion, it always works, and if it doesn’t it isn’t because the reiki has failed. You’ll see what I mean in a minute. First, savor the frustration of reiki masters who can’t get their clients to “feel it”:
It doesn’t happen to me very often, but on occasion it does. A client will say, “I don’t feel any different.” Or they may say, “In all honesty I didn’t feel the energy at all”.
What!!! How could the client not feel the wonderful and glorious energy that I felt and sensed whilst giving the treatment? How could they not ‘feel’ any different!!!
Please don’t despair, as the Reiki energy will still be working its magic and will still support the client on all the different levels (emotional/psychological/physical and spiritually.) Just because the client didn’t ‘feel’ anything doesn’t mean the Reiki wasn’t working.
See what I mean? If the patient doesn’t feel any different after the mystical magical glory that is reiki, it doesn’t mean anything at all. The reiki’s still working. How do you know? Well, you don’t. But if you’re a reiki master you do have a patter ready for your client before and after. Before, you basically tell the client that they will feel “something.” That something could range from tingles, colors, heat, cool, floating, heaviness, sleepiness, or peacefulness, to nothing at all. Convenient, isn’t it? I wonder what it would be like to be able to tell my patients that virtually any sensations they feel mean that the treatment worked—even if they feel nothing at all! Talk about a “can’t lose” setup. You really have to tip your hat to whoever thought of this scam.
Then, of course, there’s the after treatment patter for the mark client . . .
An examination of energy, as new agers use the term.
I’m feeling a little low today, so let’s tap into a source of energy from a neighboring dimension as a quick upper.
Faith in pseudoscience is rampant. Everywhere you turn, intelligent people fully accept the existence of anything from psychic phenomena, to angels, to new age healing techniques, to ancient health schemes based on mysterious energy fields not understood by science. Most of these paranormal phenomena rely on “energy,” and when the performers are asked to explain, they’ll gladly lecture about the body’s energy fields, the universe’s energy fields, Chi, Prana, Orgone, negative energy, positive energy, and just about anything else that needs a familiar sounding word to explain and justify it. Clearly, there are too many loose interpretations of the word energy, to the point where most people probably have no idea exactly what energy really is.
I believe that if more people had a clear understanding of energy — and it’s not complicated — there would be less susceptibility to pseudoscience, and more attention paid to actual technologies and methods that are truly constructive and useful.
A friend told me of her ability to perform minor healings, and her best explanation was that she drew energy from another dimension. She had recently rented What the Bleep Do We Know, so she was well prepared to explain that alternate dimensions and realities should be taken for granted, since science doesn’t really know anything, and thus those things cannot be disproven. That’s fine, I’ll concede that she can make contact with another dimension: after all, the latest M theories posit that there are probably ten or eleven of them floating around, and I’ll just hope that my friend’s is not one of those that are collapsed into impossibly small spaces. What I was really interested in was the nature of this vaguely defined energy that she could contact.
I asked what type of energy is it, and how is it stored? Is it heat? Is it a spinning flywheel? Is it an explosive compound? Is it food? These are examples of actual ways that energy can be stored.
In popular New Age culture, “energy” has somehow become a noun unto itself. “Energy” is considered to be literally like a glowing, hovering, shimmering cloud, from which adepts can draw power, and feel rejuvenated. Imagine a vaporous creature from the original Star Trek series, and you’ll have a good idea of what New Agers think energy is.
In fact, energy is not really a noun at all. Energy is a measurement of something’s ability to perform work. Given this context, when spiritualists talk about your body’s energy fields, they’re really saying nothing that’s even remotely meaningful. Yet this kind of talk has become so pervasive in our society that the vast majority of Americans accept that energy exists as a self-contained force, floating around in glowing clouds, and can be commanded by spiritualist adepts to do just about anything.
James Van Praagh and the Afterlife
by Ingrid Hansen Smythe via skeptic.com
There are a number of different methods of exposing an individual as a liar and a charlatan. One way is to engage the person directly in their self-professed area of expertise and then judge their performance. You might employ an alleged brain surgeon, for example, and pay that person to perform brain surgery on you—and if the surgeon uses a cork screw and salad tongs, and the operation turns into something akin to an autopsy or a dinner party at the Todd’s (Sweeney, that is), you’ve got fairly good evidence against the so-called expert. Alternatively, you could spare yourself the agony of direct engagement and read the published papers of the brain surgeon in question. If the papers are full of contradictions, wild inaccuracies and obvious fictions—if the surgeon believes that the hippocampus is an actual college, for example, or that olfactory bulbs are planted in the spring, or the ventral horn is a member of the brass section—again you have solid evidence that the brain surgeon hasn’t a clue and is not actually all that interested in the contents of your skull but, rather, in the contents of your wallet.
In his brilliant exposé of James Van Praagh, author Miklos Jako uses the first method and actually pays the renowned medium $700 for a reading. (Watch the reading with Jako’s editorial.) In tallying up the hits (12) and misses (64), Jako calculates a success rate of 16 percent. This is remarkably low, even for a cold reading, and Jako might have gotten a higher success rate had he engaged Bubbles the chimp. Worse yet, Jako actually feeds Van Praagh a lie about his father being involved in a drunk driving accident, and Van Praagh falls for it hook, line, and sinker. “He keeps going on about how he was very sorry it hurt you,” says Van Praagh. “He knows he embarrassed you on several occasions. He’s ashamed of that. He’s ashamed. He’s sorry, he’s ashamed of that. And please don’t think of him that way.” Jako’s outrage is palpable at this point, and it’s tough for him to remain composed. “My father never embarrassed me,” he says firmly. “Never.” Based on the evidence, Jako goes on to add his dead-on-the-mark assessment of the great psychic. “James Van Praagh,” he says, “you’re full of shit.” This sums things up nicely, I think.
You’d imagine that this masterful unveiling would settle the matter once and for all—but no. The critic can always assert that the old brain tumour was acting up again and that Van Praagh was simply “off” on that particular day, or that he was subconsciously stifled by Jako’s Kryptonite-like skepticism, or that an alleged error was just a silly misunderstanding, or that the spirits were being deliberately impish and uncooperative. None of this is Van Praagh’s fault. Thus, even when a medium is wrong more often than right, support continues or even increases.1
Unlike Miklos Jako then, my approach is to use the second method, examining the writings of Mr. Van Praagh in detail to see if I can detect anything that confirms Jako’s assessment. I’ll be analyzing his book Growing Up in Heaven, Van Praagh’s singular study of the afterlife as it relates, specifically, to the deaths of children. In it, Van Praagh shares his actual conversations with dead children, his interactions with the grieving parents, his philosophical intuitions, and his revealed insights into the afterlife for those of us dying to know what really goes on behind the veil.2
Before proceeding with the specifics, allow me to briefly sum up Van Praagh’s metaphysical position. Each of us is an eternal soul that reincarnates on the earth, and on other planets and in other dimensions, in order to learn all the lessons a soul’s got to know. These lessons are, predictably, things like patience and humility, and not things like how to make napalm or take the temperature of a cat. The ultimate lesson is that “we are all love created by Love,”3 and once we’ve figured out what the hell that could possibly mean, we achieve enlightenment.
- You Too Can Be A Mindreader (randi.org)
Yesterday one of the world’s most famous fake psychics (I know, that’s redundant) died.
Now being a skeptic and someone whom believes that all psychics are frauds (apart form those that are mentally ill and really do believe that they have psychic powers) many people might assume that I am rejoicing, and perhaps even celebrating her death (especially those who believe that people can have psychic powers, or just people who don’t like skeptics).
To be quiet honest I’m not sure how I should feel about her death, because there are just so many feelings I have about it that I can’t seem to focus on one to just go with.
On the one hand I am sort of glad that she’s gone because now she can no longer hurt people and mess with their emotions with her stage magician like “readings” while at the same time exploiting those people for fame and money.
On the other hand I’m also a bit angry, not only because of her exploitation that she basically got away with up until she died, but also because she would never would come clean about being a fake, despite the numerous failed readings and predictions she has had. Now that she’s dead, she never will.
Yet on the other hand I also feel a tad bit sad for her . . .
- Sylvia Browne’s Death (illuminutti.com)
- ‘Psychic’ Sylvia Browne is Dead (patheos.com)
- Psychic Sylvia Browne has died, son tells @TMZ; she was 77 (tmz.com)
- Author, TV psychic Sylvia Browne dies at 77 (globalnews.ca)
- Sylvia Browne, World Famous Psychic, Dies At 77 (hollywoodlife.com)
- Sylvia Browne dead: World famous psychic dead at 77 (myfox8.com)
- “Psychic” Sylvia Browne Dead at 77 (disinfo.com)
- Sylvia Browne “Psychic” Dies at age 77 (guardianlv.com)
- Psychic Sylvia Browne Dead (4umf.com)
- Sylvia Browne Blows Another Psychic Prediction (sandwalk.blogspot.com)
Earlier this week we did a post on survivorship bias, and how it could trick people into believing in psychic ability. It turns out that the most famous test of psychic ability was made expressly to allow for this kind of bias.
One of the most famous tests of psychic ability was made by J. B. Rhine. He claimed to identify strong psychics by testing a lot of people with Zener Cards. The tests involved two people, the examiner looking at the card, and the person being tested trying to guess the card that the examiner is looking at. Rhine noted that some people, a small minority, got a disproportionate number of cards right. They were “strong psychics.” Skeptics countered that, if you were to test any group on the street, some would do far better than average – just as some would do far worse than average. That’s the point of survivorship bias. You test a large amount of people and hold up the few who do better-than-average as examples of proof rather than coincidence.
One could argue that there shouldn’t be a coincidence at all. What are the chances that if someone looks at a card – a card that could show any picture at all – that another person will be able to guess the picture on it? The chances, it turns out, got a lot better once Zener Cards were invented. Zener Cards were made by Karl Zener, a paranormal investigator.
- Psychic test cards were actually invented to make psychic tests easier (io9.com)
- Witches Are Not Psychic (aulberich89.wordpress.com)
- The Survivorship Bias convinces people that psychics are real (io9.com)
- 10 Signs That You’re Psychic (dangerouslee.biz)
- Secrets of the Psychics (illuminutti.com)
via Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — They’re in a mystical business with few guarantees, so perhaps anyone could foresee tension between psychics and the law.
In two prominent examples, self-declared clairvoyants were recently convicted of big-money scams in New York and Florida, where one trial featured a romance-writing titan as a victim. But beyond those cases is a history of legal wrestling over fortunetelling, free speech and fraud.
While the recent trials involved general fraud charges, numerous cities and states have laws banning or restricting soothsaying itself.
Authorities say they aim to distinguish between catering to people’s interest in the supernatural and conning them. Still, some psychics feel anti-fortunetelling laws are unfair to them and to people who believe seers have something to offer.
New York psychic Jesse Bravo decries seers who make impossible promises or press clients to consult, and pay, them frequently. “There are a lot of predators out there,” he says.
But Bravo, an investment banker who moonlights as a medium, rues the disclaimer he’s compelled to give clients: Readings are for “entertainment only.” Unless solely for amusement, telling fortunes or using “occult powers” to give advice is a misdemeanor under New York state law.
“It’s a little insulting,” he says. “I believe in what I do, and the people who are coming to me believe in what I do. … But that’s OK — the state doesn’t have to believe in what I do.”
For all those who discount psychics, a 2009 survey for the Pew Research Center‘s Religion & Public Life Project found about one in seven Americans has consulted one.
Some visits evolve into extended — and expensive — relationships.
Best-selling historical-romance novelist Jude Deveraux paid psychic Rosa Marks about $17 million over 17 years, she testified at Marks’ recent federal fraud trial in West Palm Beach, Fla., according to newspaper reports. The psychic said she could transfer the spirit of Deveraux’s dead 8-year-old son into another boy’s body and reunite them, among other claims, the writer said.
“When I look back on it now, it was outrageous,” she testified. “I was out of my mind.”
Marks’ lawyer argued that Deveraux’s account was unreliable and that Marks was being blamed for some relatives’ confessed schemes.
Marks, based in New York and Florida, was found guilty and could get up to 20 years in prison on the top charge alone when sentenced this year.
Two weeks later, a Manhattan jury convicted seer Sylvia Mitchell of bilking two clients out of tens of thousands of dollars. Mitchell linked their problems to past lives and “negative energy” and prescribed cures such as giving her five-figure sums “to hold,” according to testimony.
Mitchell’s lawyer said her psychic efforts were sincere, even if their effectiveness wasn’t proved — or disproved. She’s due to be sentenced this month, with the top charge carrying up to 15 years in prison.
A private investigator who specializes in such cases says they’re about proving clients were exploited, not about passing judgment on clairvoyancy.
In such cases, “you’re dealing with a confidence scheme,” says Bob Nygaard , who’s based in New York City and Boca Raton, Fla. “It becomes clear to you the script (the psychics) are following.”
Some states and communities have concluded fortunetelling is so rife with rip-offs that it should be regulated or prohibited, at least as a paid business.
- Psychics say soothsaying laws unfair to believers in clairvoyance (salon.com)
- Psychics say soothsaying laws unfair to believers (miamiherald.com)
By Hemant Mehta via patheos.com
Cory Cove (a.k.a. “Sludge”), a morning talk show host on KFAN radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, invited host of A&E’s “Psychic Kids” show Chip Coffey to the studio on Monday and they had the best exchange ever.
Normally, talk show hosts (like Montel Williams and Larry King) treat psychics with deference. They ask the psychics to make predictions, they “ooh” and “aah” at the specificity of the claims, and then they rarely, if ever, take them to task when those predictions fail.
Cove, on the other hand, used the 7-minute segment to call Coffey out on his bullshit. (Note: Coffey had previously told Cove that he would have a prostate problem, setting up this exchange.)
- Morning Radio Host Interviews Psychic and Puts Him to Shame (patheos.com)
- Secrets of the Psychics (illuminutti.com)
- The great psychic con (illuminutti.com)
- Good work, Minnesota talk radio (freethoughtblogs.com)
A jury found a Manhattan psychic guilty on Friday of swindling two women out of $138,000 in a case that probed the fine distinction between providing an unusual service and running a confidence scheme.
The fortune teller, Sylvia Mitchell, 39, who plied her trade at the opulent Zena Clairvoyant psychic shop on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village, scowled as the verdict was read, reaching up only once to dab an eye.
After the verdict, Justice Gregory Carro of Manhattan Supreme Court said he considered Ms. Mitchell, who lives with her two teenage children in Connecticut, a flight risk and ordered her held in jail. She faces up to 15 years in prison when she is sentenced on Oct. 29.
Outside the courtroom, Ms. Mitchell’s longtime companion, Steve Eli, had sharp words with her defense lawyer, William Aronwald. “You should have let her testify,” he said as he walked away. “You should have let her testify.”
After deliberating for six hours over two days, the jury convicted Ms. Mitchell on 10 counts of grand larceny and one count of scheme to defraud. The jury found her not guilty on five other grand larceny counts.
During a weeklong trial, prosecutors portrayed Ms. Mitchell as a clever swindler who preyed on distraught people, promising them that she could alleviate their troubles through prayer and meditation to remove what she called “negative energy” and rectify problems that arose from their “past lives.”
- NYC psychic on trial on charges of conning clients (miamiherald.com)
- NYC psychic on trial on charges of conning clients (azstarnet.com)
- Manhattan Psychic Unable to Predict Grand Larceny Charge (observer.com)
- NYC psychic on trial on charges of conning clients (newsday.com)
- NYC psychic on trial on charges of conning clients (heraldonline.com)
- NYC psychic on trial on charges of conning clients (nbc-2.com)
- Trial Begins For Manhattan Psychic Accused Of Duping Desperate Customers (newyork.cbslocal.com)
- Psychic accused of scamming clients out of tens of thousands (huffingtonpost.com)
- Another psychic life coach on trial for swindling (doubtfulnews.com)
- Customers of Psychic Gave Her Thousands to See Their Past Lives (gawker.com)