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.
The Beatles, for all their utopian good vibes, were no strangers to the dark side of the ’60s. They were, of course, at the center of a rather obsessive conspiracy theory — the first one after the JFK assassination to indicate that conspiracy theory had joined the flow of the times, and that it wasn’t just limited to the murder of a president. That theory said that Paul McCartney was dead, that he’d been killed in a car crash in 1966 and replaced by an imposter. (The incident that touched this off was a traffic accident, early in 1967, that involved McCartney’s Aston Martin.)
If the Paul Is Dead rumor was true, then an awful lot of people had to be in on pretending that the fake Paul was the real Paul. To me, though, the ultimate proof that the conspiracy theory was false always came down to Paul McCartney’s eyes. Just study them sometime; they’re among the most distinctive set of celebrity peepers of the 20th century. They are ever so slightly, and beautifully, cockeyed — Paul’s left eye slopes down, and his right eye tilts up just above the other one. They’re the special soul of his Cute One factor. Does anyone really think that a replacement Paul McCartney could have been found who had those exact eyes? As is so often the case, there’s only one thing you should ever lean toward believing about conspiracy theory, and that’s that when you look at it closely, it tends to fall apart.
Yet “The Sixth Beatle,” a documentary about the group’s earliest days, is rooted in a conspiracy theory.
How the Rumor That Paul McCartney Died in 1966 and Was Secretly Replaced by a Look-Alike Got Started
The history of ghost photography and its many problems as evidence.
In books promising you a glimpse of the beyond you find page after page of chilling photographic evidence that spirits of the dead walk the earth! A ghostly baby sits on a grave. A translucent figure descends a staircase. A childs face emerges from the flames of a devastating fire. Do these photographs offer real glimpses of ghosts? Or is there a more rational explanation for ghost photography? Let’s expose these mysterious images to the light of science and see what develops.
The history of ghost photography is closely tied to the history of photography itself. Early photography was much like all new technology in that enthusiasts had to become skilled with the various equipment and chemicals required for producing images. Before the invention of photographic film the photographers worked with chemically treated glass plates which could be cleaned and re-used to make new images. Early photographers were often running small businesses, using their photography to make portraits for 19th century families. Because of the bulk of their equipment, most worked in small studios rather than moving their equipment about. Sittings were arranged and paid for. The expensive glass plates were often cleaned and re-used, but if not cleaned properly the remnants of the old image could be seen in subsequent photos. This method of producing multiple exposures was certainly widely known within the field by the photographers, but was not well understood by the general public.
Before we dive into the story of the early spirit photographers, it is important to talk about the cultural stage upon which they performed. The spread of photography was happening simultaneous to the rise of a new religion or belief system called “Spiritualism.” The main ideas of spiritualism centered around the belief that the dead continue to exist as spirits and maintain their consciousness here on earth after they’ve died. Interaction with these spirits was said to be possible through the use of psychics or mediums. Spiritualism began in the 1840s and grew through the early 20th century, attracting millions of followers and adherents. In the wake of this growing movement, ideas such as parlor seances grew very popular and it was quite easy to find people who openly believed in spirits as a scientific reality.A large population of people seeking proof of life after death made it possible for a robust network of mediums to set up shop in the north east of the United States. It was in this environment that Boston photographer William Mumler introduced spirit photography to a community eager for more proof of life after death.
Mumler had been a jewelry engraver before he began his new career as a spirit photographer with a single photo which he alleged showed the image of one of his deceased relatives who had died several years before his self portrait was taken. In a time when photography was already an expensive proposition for a family looking for a portrait, Mumler was able to fetch several times the normal cost of a traditional photograph for one of his special portraits which would show a ghostly image of some alleged dead loved one along with the mundane image of the living subject.
How would he accomplish this? How did he fool people with his blurry but easy to reproduce multiple exposure photographs? It was a success for him because . . .
Some People Certainly Think So
Every show on TLC really knows how to tug at your heartstrings, but The Long Island Medium does it pretty much better than anyone else. That is because the Long Island Medium herself, Theresa Caputo, has an amazing ability to connect strangers with their loved ones who have passed away. By communicating through “spirit,” Caputo can learn how someone died, his or her nickname, and even deliver a message to the living. Her readings are so spot-on, it’s freaky.
Maybe even a little too freaky for some people. When a person has a supernatural ability like this, there are of course going to be skeptics. Caputo encounters them all the time on her show, like when one self-proclaimed skeptic, Brian, started to believe after Caputo’s tape recorder magically stopped without any prompting. Like with most issues in our society, the debate has mainly been alive and well on the Internet, the trolliest of troll-y places, since the show premiered back in 2011. Whether it’s through opinion pieces, blog posts, or videos, there are plenty of people online who make it their mission to debunk Caputo’s ability. So who are these people, and why do they think Caputo is not for real?
Caputo’s main opponent is James Randi, a former magician and escape artist who now spends his days “as the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims,” according to his website. Randi is famous for his “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge,” where anyone who can prove “evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event” will be awarded $1 million.
Randi claims Caputo uses a technique that many mediums employ called “cold reading,” where it may look like Caputo is simply chatting with the person, but she’s actually picking up information that she’ll use to make what she says seem very specific to the person she’s reading. He says Caputo’s questions about initials and life events are basically just guesses that she hopes turn out to be true. Randi, who has also taken on the famous mediums John Edward and James Van Praagh, awarded Caputo a 2012 Pigasus Award, which is awarded to parapsychological frauds who are most harmful to society.
Inside Edition performed an entire investigation on Caputo in 2012, which found that she was much less accurate in her live readings than she is shown to be on her TV show, as she would “strike out time and again.” Inside Edition had former psychic Mark Edward perform the “cold reading” techniques he believed Caputo uses, and the audience believed him.
It is hard to turn on the television today without coming across a program about ghosts and the paranormal. These shows might shine an entertaining light on the unknown, but they are often more about their cast of characters and investigators than the science of parapsychology.
Since the 1920s, when Thomas Edison hinted that he might have attempted to build a “ghost machine” to communicate with the dead, some have tried to apply a scientific method to proving the existence of life after death. So far this has been unsuccessful, and to this day every group of investigators, both amateur and professional, has their own set of protocols as to what is or is not considered paranormal (see Sharon Hill’s “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things,” SI, March/April 2012).
With no universally accepted methods of investigating the paranormal, the beliefs of investigators can greatly influence the outcomes of their own investigations. Some investigators believe removing objects from a location will end a possible haunting. Others use objects to capture spirits, and psychic investigators believe spirits can be blessed or cast away. None of these methods have been scientifically proven, yet every investigator claims that the method they use is successful.
In pursuit of scientifically verifiable evidence, tools of all types have been employed. Many theories about detecting paranormal activity have been tested using everything from dowsing rods to Geiger counters. While the evidence they provide is scientifically debated, some tools such as audio recorders have become popular mainstays of the paranormal investigator.
The art of recording EVPs, or electronic voice phenomena, is one of the most widely accepted methods of collecting evidence. Originally, a portable tape recorder was used to record an investigator asking a series of questions and waiting for responses in the silence following each question. After the EVP session, the tape was played back and investigators listened for intelligent and relevant responses caught on the tape but not audible to the ear at the time. The theory is that spirits do not have enough energy to create sounds audible to the human ear but can leave impressions on the tape.