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.
By Mike McRae via ScienceAlert
Throughout history, there have been individuals who believe they’ve caught a sense of events yet to come.
True clairvoyance is unsupported by scientific evidence, but a subtle difference in how some people perceive the timing of events could help explain why many remain convinced of their psychic abilities.
A study by researchers from Yale University has provided some insight into why people think they have supernatural foresight, hinting at a physiological basis behind certain delusions.
The weight of evidence makes it fairly clear the human brain is not influenced by future events.
In many cases, proposed psychic abilities are the result of intentional fraud, with charlatans employing the same kinds of tricks mentalist magicians have used for centuries to feign mind reading and fortune telling.
But not all people who claim extraordinary abilities of future-sight are out to make a quick buck or two. Dismissing it as a sign of mental illness also tells us little about how such beliefs develop in otherwise healthy brains.
To gain an understanding of the neurological underpinnings of psychic prediction, the researchers made use of a test that had previously demonstrated a link between the timing of a colour changing shape, and the subject’s judgement of their ability to predict its transformation.
Only this time the researchers also evaluated the volunteers’ beliefs.
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Source: BPS Research Digest
A large proportion of the public – over a quarter according to a Gallup survey in the US – believe that humans have psychic abilities such as telepathy and clairvoyance, even though mainstream science says there is no evidence that these powers exist. It might be tempting for sceptics to put this down to a lack of general intelligence or education on the part of the believers, but in fact past research has failed to support this interpretation.
Now a paper in Memory and Cognition has looked for differences between believers and sceptics in specific mental abilities, rather than in overall intelligence or education. Across three studies – this was one of the most comprehensive investigations of its kind – the researchers at the University of Chicago found that believers in psychic powers had memory abilities equal to the sceptics, but they underperformed on tests of their analytical thinking skills.
Stephen Gray and David Gallo surveyed the psychic beliefs, “need for cognition” (how much people enjoy mental effort) and life satisfaction of over two thousand people online. For example, regarding psychic beliefs, one survey item asked participants whether they agreed or disagreed that “it is possible to gain information about the future before it happens, in ways that do not depend on rational prediction or normal sensory channels”. The strongest psychic believers and sceptics matched for years in education or academic performance (around 50 people in each group, in each of the three studies; aged 18 to 35) were then invited to complete a range of tests of their memory and analytical skills, either online or in person at the psych lab.
by Gordon Bonnet via Skeptophilia
Hard-nosed science types like myself are often criticized by the paranormal enthusiasts for setting too high a bar for what we’ll accept as evidence. The supernatural world, they say, doesn’t come when called, is highly sensitive to the mental states of people who are nearby, and isn’t necessarily going to be detectable to scientific measurement devices. Also, since a lot of the skeptics come into the discussion with a bias toward disbelief, they’ll be likely to discount any hard evidence that does arise as a hoax or misinterpretation of natural phenomena.
Which, as I’ve mentioned before, is mighty convenient. It seems to boil down to, “It exists, and you have to believe because I know it exists.” And I’m sorry, this simply isn’t good enough. If there are real paranormal phenomena out there, they should be accessible to the scientific method. Such claims should stand or fall on the basis of evidence, just like any other proposed model of how things work.
The problem becomes more difficult with the specific claim of precognition/clairvoyance — the idea that some of us (perhaps all of us) are capable of predicting the future, either through visions or dreams. The special difficulty with this realm of the paranormal world is that a dream can’t be proven to be precognitive until after the event it predicts actually happens; before that, it’s just a weird dream, and you would have no particular reason to record it for posterity. And given the human propensity for hoaxing, not to mention the general plasticity of memory, a claim that a specific dream was precognitive is inadmissible as evidence after the event in question has occurred. It always reminds me of the quote from the 19th century Danish philosopher and writer, Søren Kierkegaard: “The tragedy of life is that it can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.”
This double-bind has foiled any attempts to study precognition… until now.
The online psychic industry is a seemingly bottomless collection of clairvoyants, tarot card readers, psychic healers, and other people in purple outfits. Like its predecessor, the psychic telephone hotline, and its contemporary, the “internet modeling” industry (which involves less clothing and more talking than the more traditional modeling industry), online psychics typically charge several dollars a minute for personal encounters, with some charging as much as $200 for a 30-minute session, making seeing a psychic often as expensive as seeing a therapist.
Those who doubt the existence of psychic abilities point to the fact that clairvoyance would go against everything we know about science. But the vagueness of psychic powers poses a real problem when someone offers them for a price: when a psychic’s service cannot be pegged down by science, the practitioner can claim to do nearly anything… including curing cancer, ending suicidal depression, or bringing a lover back who is long, long gone. In fact, I once had a psychic tell me that my newly-ended four year relationship was “not over yet.” Fortunately for me and my ex, she was wrong.
But what happens when someone goes to a psychic for something really serious? I visited one of the most popular live-psychic sites on the internet, Oranum, and spent five hours speaking to thirteen of their psychics. Knowing I would never again have the patience for such a venture, I picked the boldest claim I could think of: I told each psychic that I had serious, life-threatening cancer. At first, that was all the information they got. But if asked, I was prepared with a back story: It was stage 3 ovarian cancer, and among other treatments, my doctor wanted to me undergo chemotherapy. I instead preferred, I said, “to find a spiritual solution.”
How many of the psychics would offer to help me skip medicine in favor of psychic healing?
The first psychic I spoke to said that she could not tell me to stop seeing my doctor. “That’s against the law, okay?” she said, looking directly in the camera, at me and the others who were tuned into her “channel.” We were all typing in a group, trying to grab her attention, but the word “cancer” had apparently won. Someone else in the group thought she was talking to them anyway.
“Why are you talking about cancer? Oh my god, do I have cancer?!” they asked.
I quickly left, satisfied that this psychic had refused to endorse my choice not to get real treatment from a real doctor.
The second psychic, a young woman with only two other people in her chat room, was eager to . . .