Subjective validation is the process of validating words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate because one is able to find them personally meaningful and significant. Subjective validation explains why many people are seduced by the apparent accuracy of pseudoscientific personality profiles. Subjective validation deludes everyone from the housewife who thinks her happiness depends on her blood type or horoscope, to the FBI agent who thinks criminal profiles are spot on, to the therapist who thinks her Rorschach readings are penetrating portraits of psychological disorders.
Subjective validation is an essential element of any successful cold reading done by astrologers, palm readers, tarot readers, mediums, and the like. The sitter in such readings must cooperate. Fortunately for the medium, most sitters are usually eager for the reader to succeed and are willing to work hard to find personal meaning in whatever the reader throws out. In a successful cold reading, the sitter will be convinced that the accuracy of the reading was not due to her ability and willingness to cooperate but rather to the powers of astrology, palmistry, tarot, or mediumship.
Sitters are often very compliant. A medium will say he senses a father figure trying to contact him from the spirit world and the sitter has only to find someone to fit the bill. It need not be the sitter’s father. So, when the sitter identifies this father figure as her deceased husband, the medium is validated by the subject. The medium is validated by the subject when the medium says she is getting the message “I do not walk alone” and the sitter makes sense out of this by seeing it as a communication from a departed soul who was in a wheelchair before she died. There may be thousands of ways to make sense out of an ambiguous stimulus like the name ‘Michael’ or the expression ‘broken wheel’ but all it takes is for the sitter to find one and the medium is validated.
Selective memory is also involved in subjective validation because it is very unlikely that any sitter will be able to find meaning in every utterance the medium makes. Fortunately for the reader, the sitter will usually forget the misses and remember only the hits. That is, the sitter will remember what she was able to make sense out of and forget the stuff that made no sense to her. Also, it rarely occurs that anyone makes an independent check of the accuracy of the sitter’s rating of the reader.* So, if a sitter is satisfied that a reading is very accurate that is usually taken as sufficient evidence by the medium – and by experimenters who test mediums such as Gary Schwartz – as proof of the accuracy of the reading.
The stronger the desire to make contact, the harder the sitter will work to find meaning and connections in the medium’s items. This fact should impact the design of experiments that are supposed to test a medium’s ability to get messages from spirits. Experimenters should always checks factual claims made by sitters. But even though the concern with factual accuracy is important in verifying the success of the medium, one should not lose sight of the importance of the studies that have been done on how the human mind works when it comes to making sense out of and giving significance to disparate data presented to it. The overall effect of subjective validation should show up in the way sitters rate the accuracy of the mediums’ claims.
I’ve discussed here and here how practitioners of paranormal piffle wish to look scientific. They fail under actual scientific scrutiny but, we have to admit, they are pretty effective at bamboozling the public with a sciencey show.
I came across a news story in Business Insider about an astrologer who was doing mighty well for herself. In times of uncertainty, society tends to turn to anything that will give them a sense of control. Astrologic and psychic advisors seem to fill that role for some people, even professional businesspeople. This astrologer, who thinks quite highly of her craft, had these things to say:
“What I do is scientific. Astrology involves careful methods learned over years and years of training and experience.”
“There are so many things we don’t understand in the world. What if 200 years ago someone had said that these metal barrels in the sky would get us around the world in a few hours? Or that we’d inject ourselves with mold to treat illnesses? People are so skeptical.”
And then I laughed.
Few examples of pseudoscience are more perfect than astrology, which has been studied A LOT, and whose practitioners still cannot demonstrate a root in reality.
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)
Remember the Bible Code? You don’t hear as much about it now, but it used to be kind of a big deal for some Christians. It was sort of the TAG argument of the 1990s — the magical, undeniable proof that Christianity was true. The only thing it actually proves is that some people will believe anything.
If you want to search for “codes” like the Bible Code on your own, there’s a program called Code Read Inspiration that allows you to search any .txt document. It’s the program I used to find my name “encoded” in the text of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason 91 times. Download it at:
Slate writing was a trick used by mediums that involved school slates and the claim that spirits were writing messages on them. Usually, a pair of slates would be used. They would be shown to the viewer clean, hidden in some way, and then shown to the viewer again but now with a written message. Henry Slade (1840-1905) is credited with inventing slate writing and incorporating it in his act as a psychic medium. Slade called himself a spiritual doctor and is often referred to as Dr. Henry Slade. Whether he invented slate writing or not, I can’t say, but he popularized the trick and was found guilty of fraud several times for his efforts.
The trick was done in several ways, but could be done either by surreptitious replacement of a blank slate with a slate that had a prewritten message on it or by surreptitious writing on the blank slate by the medium with a hidden piece of chalk. I imagine the trick could be done with or without the help of an accomplice. Clearly, it’s a good trick when done properly.
At one time Slade was reputed to be worth $1 million. When he was at the height of his fame it was impossible to gain an audience with him without making arrangements weeks in advance. He lived with great prodigality, but as he grew older, his wonderful powers weakened and gave way under the strain of his dissipation. His fortune was soon squandered and he eked out a miserable existence by slate writings at 50 cents a sitting.*
His luck ran out, though, and Slade died a poor man in a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The idea of a spirit writing silly messages on a slate kept out of view may strike us as absurd as the idea of pulling cheesecloth out of a sleeve and calling it ectoplasm from the spirit world, but at one time such ideas were taken seriously by many looking for some evidence of the reality of life after death. Perhaps the fact that science was discovering more and more about the universe that supported materialism was disconcerting and opened up a crack in the critical thinking abilities of laymen and scientists alike. Whatever the reason, ideas that seem transparently deceptive to us (séances in dark rooms, table rapping, apports and deports, spirit photography, etc.) were once willingly accepted as proof of the spirit world by educated people, many of them eminent scientists.
[ . . . ]
The deception is easy because of the overwhelming desire to survive death and be reunited with loved ones, and to believe, despite the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, that the universe is not indifferent to our existence. For some, even survival of consciousness and purposiveness to the universe would not satisfy their cosmic cravings. They want, like Hodgson, a universe of “ineffable Love and Wisdom.” The contemplation of the fact of their existence as percipient beings against all odds and the magical discoveries of science about how things work and came to be cannot satisfy their unquenchable thirst for mysticism. Join that unquenchable thirst to a belief that one is too intelligent to be fooled by a trickster and you have a perfect formula for gullibility among the learned.