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)