Geoffrey Dean via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI
Today, phrenology (“head reading”) is usually seen as the fossilized stuff of cranks and charlatans. But in the nineteenth century it had a huge influence at all levels of Western society, more than all of its later competitors (such as psychoanalysis) put together. It was influential because of its attractive philosophy and because practitioners and clients saw that it worked. But we now know that it could not possibly work; personal experience had led millions of people astray. Indeed, few beliefs can match phrenology for its extent of influence and certainty of invalidity. So it has valuable lessons about any experience-based belief.
In the nineteenth century, phrenology affected all levels of Western life and thought. In Britain, Europe, and America, its influence was felt in anthropology, criminology, education, medicine, psychiatry, art, and literature. In France, it eroded established power and led to wide social changes. In Australia, it rationalized the violence against Aborigines and explained the criminality of convicts. For ordinary people everywhere a head reading was often required for employment or marriage.1 But how could this happen if phrenology was totally invalid? For answers, we need to start at the beginning.
First Steps to Delusion
Around 1790, the German-born anatomist Franz Joseph Gall, one of the founders of modern neurology, put together his skull doctrine that later led to phrenology. He held that behavior such as painting or being careful had their own specialized organs in the brain, and that they influenced the shape of the skull. So the skull’s bumps would indicate behavior and abilities that were innate. Gall spent eleven years examining hundreds of heads to test his ideas: “If … he observed any mechanician, musician, sculptor, draughtsman, mathematician, endowed with such or such faculty from birth, he examined their heads to see whether he might point out a particular development of some cerebral part…. He also called together in his house common people, as coachmen and poor boys, and excited them to make him acquainted with their characters” (Spurzheim 1815, 271).
Gall’s seemingly logical approach had two fatal defects. First, his claims were often based on a single striking case, for example “Cautiousness” was placed above the ears because an extremely cautious priest had a large bump there. Second, Gall looked only for confirmingcases and ignored disconfirming cases, a flaw not lost on his critics. Thus David Skae (1847), a physician at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, noted that once the truth is “fixed upon our minds,” looking for confirmation is “the most perfect recipe for making a phrenologist that could well be devised.” But to Gall and the thousands of phrenologists who came later, personal experience mattered more than procedural defects. Phrenology had taken its first giant step on the road to delusion.2 Note that the delusion of experience is not limited to artifacts of reasoning such as the Barnum effect.
There are many people who promote themselves as psychics or clairvoyants, and who claim that their powers enable them to read your character, make contact with dead relatives, or provide insights into your life and your future.
Despite their claims, there has never been a successful demonstration of these powers in a laboratory, under properly controlled conditions. Indeed, the National Committee of Australian Skeptics offers a cash prize of $100,000 for any PROVEN demonstration of such powers. See The Prize.
By far the most common method employed by psychics who have been put to the test is called cold reading. This method involves the psychic reading the subject’s body language etc, and skilfully extracting information from the subject, which can then be fed back later, convincing the subject that the psychic has told them things they couldn’t possibly have known!
The following is our 13 point guide to cold reading — Study them well, then amaze your friends with your new found psychic powers!
1. Remember that the key ingredient of a successful character reading is confidence.
If you look and act as if you believe in what you are doing, you will be able to sell even a bad reading to most subjects. One danger of playing the role of reader is that you may actually begin to believe that you really are divining your subject’s true character!
2. Make creative use of the latest statistical abstracts, polls and surveys.
These can provide you with much information about what various subclasses in our society believe, do, want , worry about etc. For example, if you can ascertain a subject’s place of origin, educational level, and his/her parents’ religion and vocations, you have gained information which should allow you to predict with high probability his/her voting preferences and attitudes to many subjects.
3. Set the stage for your reading.
Profess a modesty about your talents. Make no excessive claims. You will then catch your subject off guard. You are not challenging them to a battle of wits – You can read his/her character, whether he/she believes you or not.
4. Gain the subject’s cooperation in advance.
Emphasise that the success of the reading depends as much on the subject’s cooperation as on your efforts. (After all, you imply, you already have a successful career at character reading — You are not on trial, your subject is!) State that due to difficulties of language and communication, you may not always convey the meaning you intend. In these cases, the subject must strive to fit the reading to his/her own life. You accomplish two valuable ends with this dodge — Firstly, you have an alibi in case the reading doesn’t click; it’s the subject’s fault, not yours! Secondly, your subject will strive to fit your generalities to his/her specific life circumstances. Later, when the subject recalls the reading, you will be credited with much more detail than you actually provided! This is crucial. Your reading will only succeed to the degree that the subject is made an active participant in the reading. The good reader is the one who , deliberately or unwittingly, forces the subject to search his/her mind to make sense of your statements.
Use of props serves two valuable purposes. Firstly, it lends atmosphere to the reading. Secondly, (and more importantly) it gives you time to formulate your next question/statement. Instead of just sitting there, thinking of something to say, you can be intently studying the cards /crystal ball etc. You may opt to hold hands with your subject — This will help you feel the subject’s reactions to your statements. If you are using , say, palmistry (the reading of hands) it will help if you have studied some manuals, and have learned the terminology. This will allow you to more quickly zero in on your subject’s chief concerns — “do you wish to concentrate on the heart line or the wealth line?“
6. Have a list of stock phrases at the tip of your tongue.
Even during a cold reading, a liberal sprinkling of stock phrases will add body to the reading and will help you fill in time while you formulate more precise characterisations. Use them to start your readings. Palmistry, tarot and other fortune telling manuals are a key source of good phrases.
A new study has found that people who believe that psychics can predict the future tend to feel more in control of their lives than those who don’t.
A group of Australian researchers from the University of Queensland led by Katharine Greenaway offered the hypothesis that belief in psychic prediction would be positively correlated with a sense of control over one’s life.
“If it is possible to predict what the future holds, then one can exert control,” the study reports. “Having insight into what will happen in the future would therefore allow people to control their outcomes in a way that would guarantee personal success and survival.”
Several experiments were done to examine this phenomenon. In one of them, two groups of people were asked to read passages either promoting or disputing the idea that scientists have found evidence of precognitive psychic powers.
Afterwards, each group was asked to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with statements about how much control they feel they have over their lives and circumstances.
Those who read the information confirming the existence of psychic powers agreed more strongly with statements such as “I am in control of my own life” and “My life is determined by my own actions” than those in the other group.
The Psychology of Prediction
What’s behind this psychology of prediction? Humans are a pattern-seeking species, and we constantly look for ways to make sense of the world around us. Many superstitious people, for example, find — or, more accurately, believe they find — ways of knowing and even influencing the future. Gamblers may wear a lucky shirt to a casino, for example, or an athlete might perform a small ritual before a game to assure good luck.
- Belief in Psychic Abilities Increases Sense of Control (illuminutti.com)
- Belief in Precognition Rises When People Feel Helpless (livescience.com)
- Loss of Control Increases Belief in Precognition and Belief in Precognition Increases Control (plosone.org)
- latest psychic predictions 2013 (educationbulletinboard.com)
- Belief in Psychic Abilities Increases Sense of Control (counselheal.com)
- How Psychic Readings May Benefit You (martinaclarke.wordpress.com)
- Belief in precognition increases sense of control over life (medicalnewstoday.com)
- How Psychics Use Precognition (proberthuges.wordpress.com)
When I saw on Twitter that a ‘major new peer-reviewed study’ was about to reveal serious health impacts from GMO corn and soya, I was intrigued to say the least. Would this be Seralini 2.0, a propaganda effort by anti-biotech campaigners masquerading as proper science, or something truly new and ground-breaking?
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence – and it would take a lot of extraordinary evidence to confound the hundreds of studies showing that GMO foods are just as safe as conventional, as summarised in this recent AAAS statement:
“The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”
So when I found the paper, again via Twitter, I determined to read it as I would a climate ‘denier’ paper which aimed to overturn the scientific consensus in that area – with an open mind, but a sceptical one. I could see that it was already generating news, and the anti-GMO crowd on Twitter were also getting excited about some new grist to their ideological mill. Here’s what Reuters wrote:
“Pigs fed a diet of only genetically modified grain showed markedly higher stomach inflammation than pigs who dined on conventional feed, according to a new study by a team of Australian scientists and U.S. researchers.”
- The Top 5 Lies About Biotech Crops (illuminutti.com)
- Mark Lynas, environmentalist who opposed GMOs, admits he was wrong. (illuminutti.com)
- Former anti-GMO crusader speaks at Donald Danforth Plant Science Center (stltoday.com)
- Why Exactly Do People Care About GMO Foods? (minus the hysteria) (jessicagottlieb.com)
- Chuck Norris puts the hurt on GMO foods (wnd.com)
The Great Psychic Con
These and millions more like them represent the kinds of statements we get from people who say they’re skeptical, but who’ve been to a psychic and have come away as believers in the paranormal. Many times I’ve been asked to try to explain the “paranormal” experiences of people who tell me they’re skeptics, but who can’t think of any other explanation for something than that it was paranormal. I call it the “Explain That!” game. I’ve posted responses to some of these requests, but I can’t say I’ve been able to persuade any of the believers to consider alternative explanations, even though they ask me to provide them with one. [Some of my explanations for various psychic readings are here, here, here, and here.]
“There’s no way he could have known my grandmother’s name?” “How do you explain his predicting the lights would go off at the shop?” “How did he know my uncle’s name?” “There’s no way he could have known my father died of a heart attack.” “How could he possibly know that my brother collects cuckoo clocks?“
How do psychics know so much about me? I’ve heard or read many times variants of that question asked by people who are intelligent and educated, but naive. For example, a local sports writer visited a psychic to get a story about her predictions for the local high school athletic teams. He ended up writing two stories. I didn’t read the second one, but the first revealed how amazed he was at how much she knew about him and how accurate she was. It made him think, he wrote, that maybe there’s something to this psychic business. There is, but it’s not what he thinks. In my letter to the editor of the local paper where the sports writer plies his trade I said:
Bruce Gallaudet is an experienced journalist, but he seems to know nothing about cold reading and subjective validation, the two tarot cards up the sleeve of a working psychic. He’s dazzled within 60 seconds and befuddled when she tells the old man that she’s sorry he had to cancel a trip. Did she ask about your knee injury? Or about the outdated calendar you keep at home, along with the box of newspaper clippings? Did she mention your business venture setback (but you’ll do well in new endeavors) or the health problems a loved one is having?
Stick to local sports, Bruce. You were in way over your head with Ms. Mertino, the Davis Psychic.
The fact is, psychics may know certain things about you in the same way that many people know many things about others by knowing their age, sex, occupation, education, where they live, how they dress, what kind of jewelry they’re wearing, or their religion. Does anyone have perfect knowledge of others based on what are sometimes called warm reading techniques? Of course not. We’re dealing with probabilities, not absolute certainties here, but it doesn’t matter. The psychic is not obligated to stop the reading when she makes a mistake. If she misinterprets your wearing black as a sign of grieving for someone who has died, she doesn’t have to say “oops, wrong again.” No, she just slithers on to the next question or statement, ignoring her “miss” and counting on you to ignore it as well. Eventually, she’ll hit something that resonates with you, that you can validate. The key to a psychic reading is not the psychic’s ability to tap into a world you are not directly privy to. The key to a psychic reading is your willingness to find meaning or significance in some of the statements she makes or questions she asks. If mentioning the death of a loved one evokes no response from you, the psychic will move on to another statement, another question.
It is also possible that the psychic you are dealing with is a very sleazy professional fraud who investigates her clients before she does the reading. Doing a hot reading, however, is not likely if you are a drop-in. Although, even drop-ins can be conned by distracting the client and looking through her purse or wallet. Some psychics who work fairs, for example, have a colleague who walks by those in line trying to pick up information about various clients who are in conversations. The colleague passes on the info to the “psychic” via a wireless device. Most people who visit psychics on a whim are probably not going to be a victim of someone using hot reading, however. Why? Because it’s really unnecessary. Cold reading works just as well. (For a special case of using hot readings by sharing information in order to con wealthy clients who go from psychic to psychic, see Lamar M. Keene. The Psychic Mafia. Prometheus, 1997).
- More Psychic News (iLLumiNuTTi.com)
- Medium (illuminutti.com)
- 50 Things That Look Like Faces – Pareidolia (illuminutti.com)
- Hutchison hoax (illuminutti.com)
- Cattle Mutilation (illuminutti.com)
- Electro-sensitives (illuminutti.com)
- 5 Things I’ve noticed about… Psychics (illuminutti.com)
- Online Psychic Service Warns Public to Avoid Psychic Scams (seriously) (illuminutti.com)
Australian Skeptics are again organising a major test of water divining, repeating an exercise last undertaken 11 years ago at the Mighty Mitta Muster in Mitta Mitta, northern Victoria.
Organised by the Borderline Skeptics with input from Australian Skeptics Inc and the Victorian Skeptics, diviners putting themselves up for the test will, depending on their results, be in the running for the Skeptics $100,000 challenge. (In fact, the amount for the Mitta event has been boosted by a further $10,000 from Borderliner Russell Kelly.)
The Mighty Mitta Muster is an annual event, held on the Victorian Labour Day weekend, featuring the usual range of events at rural shows – woodchopping, tent
pegging, stunt riding and egg throwing – but it hasn’t had a water divining test since the last time the Skeptics rolled up in 2002. (A previous trial was run in 2001, and a third was planned for a year later but was cancelled – as was the entire Muster — due to bushfires.)
At the 2002 event, 30 diviners put their skills to the test, but out of 20 bottles containing either water or sand (a 50/50 chance of being correct), the highest score was only 13, which is well within the realms of chance alone.
The excuses used post-trial to explain away the failures were many and varied. A video report on the event by Richard Saunders can be seen on YouTube.
MORE . . .
- New Video from the Amaz!ng Meeting 2012: Supporting Skepticism Around the World (randi.org)
- Will the real Australian sceptics please step forward? (australiansceptics.com)