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.
Via randi.org – JREF
It’s that time of year…
Fact: Around half of the American population, in survey after survey, say they believe in ghosts and hauntings.
There have been dozens of television shows, books, videos and Internet sites in the past 20 years featuring people who claim to be paranormal investigators who found evidence of the paranormal.
Around Halloween time, the media is dripping with hype about ghost tours, ghost hunts, and local paranormal investigations of the community’s historical places with breathless claims of proof of ghosts from these amateur ghost hunters.
What should we think about ghosts? It’s a complicated question. Here are some facts and FAQs to help get you square about where we are with our knowledge of ghosts and paranormal evidence.
This is a deceptively tricky question! The answer you get will completely depend on whom you ask. The “ghost” is one of the most popular concepts of the paranormal (beyond normal). Yet, there is not one agreed-upon definition across disciplines of what a ghost is since one has never actually been caught and examined.
Fact: No ghost has ever been confirmed caught and/or examined by anyone or anything. Therefore, we can’t determine its actual characteristics with any amount of certainty.
The common features we ascribe to ghosts is what we learn from popular culture where the concept of “ghost” has changed considerably through time.
The most common idea about a ghost is that it is the spirit of a dead person (or animal). This implies there is a “spirit”. However, we can’t define or measure “spirit,” either, because it has not ever been captured or measured. It’s more of a faith-based belief, like the soul.
Ghosts are interpreted as being what remains of a person that has not passed to the next realm of existence.
Fact: There is no scientific conclusion that any other realm exists for our “being” to pass to after death.
For reasons that are not consistent through time, paranormalists conclude that some unlucky folks may remain incorporeally stuck here after bodily death. Alternately, some paranormalists say that ghosts could be a form of psychic projection of the human mind.
Early scientific researchers (in the 1800s) who studied the concept in a methodical way, avoided the term “ghost”. Instead they used terms like “phantasms of the dead” or “apparitions”.
Your neighborhood paranormal investigator is fond of describing a ghost as a manifestation of the “energy” of a former being. “Energy” in this case is also used incorrectly since there is no energy sustained after you die. When bodies decompose, that energy is released into the environment.
By Sharon Hill via James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)
Yesterday, a study was announced with a headline that didn’t fit the results. That’s very common. But what was strange was that a few proponents of the study seemed to hang their hats on the headline. I wonder if they actually read the same study I did?
Here was the piece in The Telegraph (U.K.): First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study
The largest ever medical study into near-death and out-of-body experiences has discovered that some awareness may continue even after the brain has shut down completely.
It is a controversial subject which has, until recently, been treated with widespread scepticism.
But scientists at the University of Southampton have spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria.
And they found that nearly 40 per cent of people who survived described some kind of ‘awareness’ during the time when they were clinically dead before their hearts were restarted.
From reading just this pop media piece, I saw no indication of “life after death” mentioned. I saw a claim that people appear to be mentally aware (to some degree) when there is no recorded brain activity occurring. That would be an important new finding, there was no need to jump to a more overarching, unwarranted claim about evidence for “life after death”.Other media outlets followed suit with misleading headlines:
- “Life after death? Largest-ever study provides evidence that ‘out of body’ and ‘near-death’ experiences may be real”
- Scientific Breakthrough Suggests There Is Life After Death
- Scientific research finds that life after death is possible
- Life after death is real, British scientists confirm (Whoa! That one takes the prize!)
Unconventional theorist Graham Hancock seemed mighty smug about it:
The first inkling I saw (also on Twitter) that there was something a bit off with this headline was from Dr. Caroline Watt, Senior Researcher at the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh. (Yes, an actual parapsychologist. She wrote the book.) She seemed less than impressed with the study. I contacted her and, as is good advice, she said I should read the paper. So I did. I was also unimpressed. In a nutshell, the study attempted to objectively measure “out of body” and “near death experience” claims. The researchers concluded that it was not as successful as planned, but they discovered a small percentage of people report awareness in what medical standards considers a nonfunctioning brain.Dr. Sam Parnia, who headed this study, has done such prospective studies before. He suggests that the brain may “live” on minutes or hours after “death”. That is interesting, but not paranormal. Let’s see what the study showed.
By Bobby Nelson via randi.org (JREF)
Coming up around Halloween is a new movie based on the Ouija board. Popular culture ideas have a great impact on social acceptability and spread of beliefs. You can guarantee that the popularity of Ouija boards and the volumes of strange stories people tell about them will increase precipitously in conjunction with portrayals of totally fictional events.
One of the most controversial tools ever used in spirit communication, still used today, is a simple wooden board. It comes in many different sizes, with a variety of beautiful painted scenes and symbols. They all share certain characteristics. The surface of these boards will have inscribed the words “Yes”, “No” and “Goodbye“, the letters A through Z, and the numbers 0 through 9. The pointer, a planchette, is most typically a triangular or heart-shaped device that will point to the letters, numbers or words, spelling out phrases, names and dates. The planchette predates these boards, first seen in China a millennium ago and also used with a pencil attached for automatic writing (a method used regularly during the spiritualist movement of 19th century America.) Now the planchette and this board go hand in hand.
The board goes by many names – talking board, a witch board, spirit board – but most of us know it as the Ouija board.
The Ouija board is infamous. I would bet that most people reading this have heard a terrifying story that has either happened to a friend, or a friend of a friend, that involves the Ouija board. What is the history of this fascinating and popular tool of devilish mischief? Was it constructed under candlelight in a dark dungeon sometime in the Dark Ages? Or maybe it was created by a witch who practiced black magic and satanic rituals. Nope. The Ouija board is fairly young and it was made as a novelty item.
On May 28th 1890, a patent was filed by Elijah Bond, Charles W. Kennard and William H. A. Maupin for the item developed by The Kennard Novelty Company. The first boards were stamped February 10, 1891. Kennard named the board Ouija. People say the name Ouija means yes-yes because oui is French for yes and ja is German for yes, but Kennard claims the board itself repeatedly told him that Ouija meant good luck in Egyptian and the name stuck. The company only produced the Ouija board for fourteen months but kept corporate control until 1898 at which time the Ouija board was appointed to a man that would revolutionize the board’s history, William Fuld.
Fuld said that he invented the board and that the name did in fact mean yes-yes. In 1919, Fuld bought the remaining rights and sold millions of these boards along with other toys. Fuld would die from a horrible accident when he fell from his company’s rooftop while supervising a flag pole replacement. Fuld’s children took over the business and the production of Ouija boards. In 1966, the business was sold to Parker Brothers toy company, which was subsequently sold to Hasbro who now holds the rights to the Mystifying Oracle. [Source]
So when did the Ouija Board turn evil? The history seems generally harmless, how did it go from a toy, a novelty item, to being associated with Satan and demons? While use of the board was always criticized by scientists and some religious authorities, the majority of “evil” reports relating to the board came about in the 70’s, after a novel was published which was made into a blockbuster movie two years later. The story was about a teenage girl who tells her mother she has been talking to a person named “Captain Howdy” through the Ouija board. Later this girl becomes possessed by the devil, which causes her body to contort, she spits up green vomit and her head spins 360 degrees (among other extraordinary events). This iconic film, of course, is “The Exorcist” (responsible for the current popular culture perception of demonic possession.)
This video is about 34 minutes long. I was hesitant to post it because it’s not the most captivating video. But the information is very good. Judge for yourself.
Karen Stollznow is a linguist, author of God Bless America and the Bad Language columnist for Skeptic magazine, and author of the forthcoming books Language Myths, Mysteries and Magic, and Red, White and (True) Blue. She is a long-term investigator of paranormal and pseudoscientific beliefs and practices, a co-host of Monster Talk, and is a Research Fellow for the James Randi Educational Foundation.
- Karen Stollznow has a new book coming out soon (freethoughtblogs.com)
- TAM 2013 Recap… (skepticalhumanities.com)
- Author Explores Odd Beliefs & Peculiar Religious Practices (richarddawkins.net)
If you can demonstrate a power unknown to science, there are people looking to write you a check.
It can sometimes be quite mind-boggling to hear a friend or family member reveal that they have some kind of supernatural ability. Often they feel an empathetic connection to others, sometimes the ability to perform minor healings, or to predict future events. Many times, these are abilities for which “supernatural” seems too strong a word; they are more spiritual or metaphysical, or based on some sensing of an energy. It’s more than likely that you yourself believe you have such an ability, or perhaps did at one time. Nearly all of us have. But whether the ability is energetic or spiritual, supernatural truly is the best word that applies. A supernatural ability could almost be seen as a superpower, something a fictional superhero might be able to do. And we all want superpowers. We all want your supernatural ability to be proven true. And we want it so much that a large number of groups around the world will pay you to prove it.
Such prizes have been available at least since Houdini, who had a standing $10,000 offer for anyone who could create a paranormal manifestation that he could not duplicate. The granddaddy of today’s challenges is the James Randi Educational Foundation‘s Million Dollar Challenge, which will pay anyone who can prove an ability unknown to science one million dollars, and Chinese journalist Sima Nan will kick in a million Yuan (about $150,000) on top of it. It’s not the only big prize out there: the Belgian group SKEPP offers the Sisyphus Prize for one million Euros, which at current exchange rates, is about a quarter million dollars more than the Million Dollar Challenge. The Independent Investigation Group, with affiliates throughout the United States, offers a $100,000 prize. Puzzling World in New Zealand has long offered the $100,000 Pyschic Challenge, and just across the pond, the Australian Skeptics offer a $100,000 prize. The Science and Rationalists’ Association of India offers a INπ 2 million Miracle Challenge, worth about $50,000. These are most of the largest prizes, but many, many smaller prizes are offered all around the world. If you have a supernatural ability of any kind, you owe it to yourself – or at least to your favorite charity – to prove it and use the reward however you see fit.
It’s easy to dismiss the groups who run these challenges as cynics who just want to gloat over someone’s failure, and for sure, such people are found in those groups. But many members of the groups joined because they, too, have always dreamed of having a superpower. Should you win the money and prove that a supernatural ability is possible, you’ll not only turn the world on its head, you’ll be handed money by people who have never been happier to sign a check.
I truly do encourage you to go for it. Here are three big pieces of advice, based on the experiences of the many previous claimants:
1. Be able to succinctly describe a testable ability.
The biggest headache for the people who offer these prizes is that the claimant can almost never provide a simple, clear description of their ability. For example, if you believe you have the power to influence a cat telepathically, you have to give a specific and testable example. Most claimants usually write in with a great lengthy email, telling about the many examples they’ve experienced of a cat doing whatever they wanted it to do; or perhaps with long rambling experiences of sharing the cat’s feelings or of their history of owning cats with whom they felt empathetic.
The challengers have no use for a long letter. You truly must be able to describe one specific ability in a single sentence. If you have many, then pick exactly one, one that you are most confident you can consistently prove.
Nobody is going to give you a cash prize for the length of your letter, or for the number of cats you’ve felt empathetic toward. You must be able to provide a clear, testable ability. If your ability is broad-reaching and vague, it will not be possible to construct a test protocol, and you will not be able to prove it. You must be able to select, within the scope of your broad-reaching abilities, something specific that’s testable and repeatable. For example, “I can make my cat jump onto its perch, within five seconds of giving it a mental command, when the cat neither see me nor hear me, and I can do it 8 out of 10 times.”
It has to be something concise, specific, and unmistakable. If you feel that your ability is too broad to be fairly represented by such a precise example, then you are unlikely to convince anyone, and will certainly be unable to prove your ability to the satisfaction of whatever criteria are agreed upon.
Many claimants report that they feel it’s unfair to try and represent their ability with a single demonstration that’s so much more specific than what they generally do. If you feel the same way and can’t agree to a simple test protocol, then you’re likely to leave the impression that your abilities are really just your own misinterpretation of ordinary coincidences. It’s something the psychologists call confirmation bias – you happen to notice when your cat jumps onto his perch while you were thinking of him, but you failed to weigh it against the far larger number of times your cat jumped onto the perch when you weren’t around and had nothing to do with it.
2. Be aware of why previous claimants failed.
Many people have taken such tests, and so far, all have failed. However, they’ve almost always cited an excuse or some external reason out of their control that the test failed. You must be aware of why previous claimants have failed, and be prepared not to suffer their same fate. This means preparation and anticipation of the problems.
Claimants are generally required to . . .
- Skeptoid #372: Prove Your Supernatural Power and Get Rich (skeptoid.com)
- Wang Li: Qigong “Master” a Conjurer of Cheap Tricks? (thediplomat.com)
- Testing the supernatural (ieet.org)
A slightly dated story from October 2011, but still fun. 🙂
Mason I. Bilderberg (MIB)
Psychic James Van Praagh has made a fortune by allegedly speaking to the dead, but apparently he has no time for the undead.
That’s what a group of zombies recently discovered when they showed up at one of Van Praagh’s $100-a-head “spirit circles” hoping to pick Van Praagh’s brain about his so-called psychic powers.
For the record, the zombies were actually members of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), an organization that works to expose paranormal and pseudoscientific frauds.
Still, that doesn’t mean they weren’t out for blood, as protest signs reading “Talk to us, we won’t bite,” and “Psychics do not talk to the dead” demonstrated.
According to head zombie D.J. Grothe, who is also the president of the JREF and a Huffington Post blogger, the zombie attack was a fun way to make a point the organization is dead serious about: People who claim to speak to the dead, such as celebrity psychics like Van Praagh, Sylvia Browne and John Edward, are taking advantage of grieving people.
“We’re not rabble rousing,” Grothe told HuffPost Weird News. “This is a guy who is taking advantage of people’s grief. He’s not performing for entertainment, he’s claiming he’s giving messages from dead relatives. He gets people when they are at their lowest and sees them as his target market.”
Grothe says the group decided to dress up as the undead because Van Praagh has, so far, dodged questions about whether he’ll accept the foundation’s million-dollar challenge to prove his claimed psychic medium abilities under scientific conditions.
In the video, Van Praagh’s representatives first promise to get someone to talk with the group, but instead have the group kicked out by security.
- Dead Wrong, . . . Again (illuminutti.com)
- James Van Praagh Opens the Door to the Spirit World (omtimes.com)
- Sylvia Browne and the house of cards (skeptophilia.blogspot.com)
- Sally Morgan’s Just Another “Psychic” Predator. (matthewbuckley.net)
- Long Island Medium – How She Does It (noelanirodriguez.com)
- Dr. Oz, Psychics, and Bad Science (petruchio71.wordpress.com)
- Dead Wrong, …Again (skepticblog.org)