(You Won’t Believe #6!)
“There is no way the psychic could have known that!”
I have been researching psychics since 2002, and I have heard this phrase too many times to count. Mentalist and psychic expert Mark Edward would answer that with “Oh yes, there is.” Let’s look at ten ways psychics could know that, with real life examples. I bet you don’t know them all!
1. These people are very good, slick, practiced, and fast.
Hollywood Medium’s Tyler Henry claims he has already given over a thousand readings, and he is only twenty-two years old. When you look at people who have been in the psychic business for ten or more years, those people are on auto-pilot; the questions and statements flow out of them naturally. To an audience member who is watching them for the first time, they appear to be making statements that seem specific, but if you watch enough of these readings you will see some of the same “specific” statements come up over and over again. Old photographs in a box, the sound of keys or coins in a pocket, a fire in the house, someone fell off a horse, a bird came into the house, a garden with roses—all are generalities that seem specific.
2. They use stooges, and sometimes it’s you.
I’ve attended several psychic group readings, and it is pretty typical to arrive early and find that the first couple rows are saved for friends and the best fans. I purchase the VIP passes to these events and never get to sit in the very front row. When I chat up these front row women (yes, they are usually women) I discover that they attend multiple shows in different cities. They talk comfortably and with statements such as “he usually does this in his shows” or “in his show a couple days ago, he said/did this….” Chip Coffey reserves a segment of his show for something called “Coffey Talk,” which is where he chats with the audience and answers questions. It was clear from the questions that several of his fans knew a lot about the TV shows Coffey had been on years ago. Some were fairly obscure questions only a true fan would know to ask. Later on, during the psychic part of the evening, he “read” one of these women with some specific statements. I guess you would call these people psychic groupies; they are unaware that they are being used as stooges and are honored that their dead family members always seem to come through at each show. The regular audience who is seeing Coffey for the first time think he is really accurate and don’t realize what is going on.
Also, in that same event Coffey said that he was getting a message about a psychic business one of the audience women was thinking of opening. He made it sound like he had received this information from the spirit world, but I knew he had been chatting with the woman during the break.
For Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! Show “Talking to the Dead,” Mark Edward examined the incident of psychic Rosemary Althea connecting with a couple’s daughter who had committed suicide. Althea snapped her fingers and said, “She was gone like that,” and the parents nodded their heads and wiped away tears. Mark explained to the show’s producer that there was something not right with that; you don’t want to say suicide unless you are very sure. The producer interviewed the parents, and sure enough, they said that Althea had done readings for them before and the couple was friends with Althea’s publisher who brought them to this show.
At another psychic show Mark and I attended in 2017, after the event was over I chatted with a woman who was so excited that the psychic had given her a reading.
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.
By Carrie Poppy via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI
Many readers will remember facilitated communication (FC). Back in the early 1990s, a new treatment came rushing onto the scene making promises that were enormously attractive to parents of children with autism. Proponents of FC claimed that many people diagnosed with autism were actually suffering from a physical rather than a cognitive disability. Trapped inside their faulty bodies were high functioning—and in some cases exceptionally intelligent—people. All that was required to free the person inside was to create a communication pathway.
That pathway turned out to be someone else’s guiding hand. Equipped with a keyboard and a facilitator who supported and steadied the communicator’s hand, children and adults who had never spoken a word began to type out full sentences and, in some cases, poetry and novels. Many psychologists and special education professionals were so taken with the results that they began to question their basic understanding of autism. The media quickly seized on the phenomena, reporting heartwarming stories of recovery from the prison of disability. Word spread rapidly, creating a strong demand for training, facilitators, and keyboards.
Then things turned ugly. Some of the messages typed out by communicators included serious accusations of child sexual abuse. Judges ordered parents removed from their homes, and children were placed in protective care—all based on the testimony of previously mute children and adults with autism who were now using FC. Suddenly it became very important to determine who was doing the typing—the person with autism or the typically functioning facilitator. Shockingly, the question of authorship had never been examined . . .
Most improbable coincidences likely result from play of random events. The very nature of randomness assures that combing random data will yield some pattern.
By Bruce Martin via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI
“You don’t believe in telepathy?” My friend, a sober professional, looked askance. “Do you?” I replied. “Of course. So many times I’ve been out for the evening and suddenly became worried about the kids. Upon calling home, I’ve learned one is sick, hurt himself, or having nightmares. How else can you explain it?”
Such episodes have happened to us all and it’s common to hear the words, “It couldn’t be just coincidence.” Today the explanation many people reach for involves mental telepathy or psychic stirrings. But should we leap so readily into the arms of a mystic realm? Could such events result from coincidence after all?
There are two features of coincidences not well known among the public. First, we tend to overlook the powerful reinforcement of coincidences, both waking and in dreams, in our memories. Non-coincidental events do not register in our memories with nearly the same intensity. Second, we fail to realize the extent to which highly improbable events occur daily to everyone. It is not possible to estimate all the probabilities of many paired events that occur in our daily lives. We often tend to assign coincidences a lesser probability than they deserve.
However, it is possible to calculate the probabilities of some seemingly improbable events with precision. These examples provide clues as to how our expectations fail to agree with reality.
In a random selection of twenty-three persons there is a 50 percent chance that at least two of them celebrate the same birthdate. Who has not been surprised at learning this for the first time? The calculation is straightforward. First find the probability that everyone in a group of people have different birthdates (X) and then subtract this fraction from one to obtain the probability of at least one common birthdate in the group (P), P = 1 – X. Probabilities range from 0 to 1, or may be expressed as 0 to 100%. For no coincident birthdates a second person has a choice of 364 days, a third person 363 days, and the nth person 366 – n days. So the probability for all different birthdates becomes:
Paranormal investigators playing the role of “experts” and pretending to be scientific is not going to fly when the lack of deep knowledge is evident and there are actual scientists in the audience.
When it comes to Creationists, I’m actually fine when they say “God did it—that’s what I believe.” They don’t have a scientific worldview, and that’s their choice (I don’t think it’s a good choice, but that is not the point). They ought to be happy with their science-suspending miraculous explanations. Instead, a few try to interject the sciencey stuff in there and shoehorn blatantly unscientific ideas into a scientifical framework. They just don’t know what they are talking about. For the listener with a scientific background, it is painfully obvious that they are ignorant of how difficult research is, how rigorously it must be undertaken, how carefully definitions are crafted, and how diligently records are documented. It’s nails-on-a-chalkboard difficult for me to listen to. The champions at doing this same thing are paranormal investigators. So what happens when paranormal investigators give talks at a science-fiction convention? It doesn’t go over very well.
I was at RavenCon, a sci-fi fantasy convention in Richmond, Virginia, last April. As an invited speaker, I was there to talk about science from a scientist and skeptical advocate’s point of view. Bob Blaskiewicz, CSI’s “Conspiracy Guy,” was also there to talk about conspiracy theory. We aimed to bring the hammer down on nonsense thinking! Not really—we were going to schmooze and look at people in cool costumes and listen to presentations and panels about topics we just don’t get to talk about every day.
As with any such event, I expect that the invited speakers have prepared quality content. Many are professional authors and artists, and there were many scientists, too. One thing that is noticeable at these events is that the audience is pretty up on science and engineering. The majority is really smart, read a lot, and comprehend and appreciate complexity and detail. This is not the best place to show off weak science cred.
The paranormal view has a presence at RavenCon. Not all sci-fi cons have speakers in that subject area. (I’ve been to the Paranormal track at DragonCon, but there is not an equivalent at Balticon.) In the lead up to RavenCon, the organizers invited Bob and me, perhaps partly to counter the presence of the paranormal group, to give some talks. One original idea was to have a panel about paranormal investigation with the different views represented, pro-paranormal versus application of scientific skepticism, or as I prefer to call it, evidence-based skepticism. However, this idea was scuttled when the leader of the paranormal group said she doesn’t do debates. (I actually don’t wonder why not.)
So, they presented their talks and we presented ours separately. They didn’t come to our talks, but I went to theirs. I’m interested in their views and what they have found. The first presentation was by the group’s “scientist.” He did some demonstrations and experiments with chemicals (that should NOT have been used in a hotel ballroom) presumably to show that science looks like magic… or something. I thought the whole thing was rambling and pointless, meant to look “gee whiz” but was more like “Oh, Jeez…”
Up goes my hand: “Can you tell us about your scientific background?”
By Chip Taylor via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI
With a half a century plus of interest in UFOs, astronomy, and science, I’ve despaired that in all that time I’ve never seen a real UFO. (With emphasis on what the “U” stands for of course.) I’ve seen bolides (really bright meteors), nighttime aerial refueling operations by USAF jets, odd contrails, space satellites, balloons, kites, birds, and insects. Some of these were initially unidentified, but only for a brief moment. Thus it was fascinating, weird, puzzling, and astonishing that in September of 2012 I actually got to see a real UFO that didn’t seem to fit any sort of known aerial object.
On a pleasant Sunday afternoon I was participating in a ham radio contest on Block Island, which is about a dozen miles off the Rhode Island mainland. It was one of those casual contests where there is plenty of free time to enjoy the day and watch the views. And there were a lot of things to watch. My friend and I were on an open roof deck of a house on the highest point of the Island on a crystal clear day with visibility to the horizon. Binoculars at hand, I was watching planes come and go at the nearby airport, sailboats off shore, an advertising blimp hovering between Narragansett and Newport, and birds flying about. Not a thing out of the ordinary.
And then, through the binoculars, I suddenly saw it: some kind of craft or “thing“ flying parallel to the distant shore at an estimated speed of perhaps thirty miles per hour. Too far away to see without binoculars, and even with them all I could make out was a parallelogram-shaped craft moving very slowly and into the wind. There was no sign of anything towing it and no sign of wings or motors. That was strange enough, but as it moved along it seemed to change shape: sometimes it was almost square, sometimes almost cigar shaped, but often getting shorter or longer as I watched. The shoreline was about eight or nine miles away I guessed, and if this object was directly above the beach then it would have to be quite large—dozens of feet long and high.
I watched for several minutes and finally thought to take a photo or two. About a minute afterward it dove steeply down and disappeared behind some low hills that were a short distance behind the beach. That steep dive seemed unusual. What was back there? Where did it go? What was it? Well, I was in the middle of a radio contest (My partner was so engrossed with the radio he didn’t even bother to check out this weird craft), I was quite comfortable that I wasn’t seeing alien visitation or biblical angels, so an investigation would have to wait.
Once back home it was time to see if I could determine just what it was that I saw.
When Kevin Trudeau was sentenced to ten years in prison recently, a lot of people scratched their heads. Sure, he had peddled and promoted a lot of nonsense in his day, from celebrating “natural cures” like homeopathy and “energetic rebalancing,” to recommending that his readers stop taking their prescription medicines. He had even tacitly encouraged parents not to vaccinate their children: “Vaccines are some of the most toxic things you can put in your body,” he said.  But this is America, where we don’t just send people to jail for saying things in books and on infomercials … do we?
But it wasn’t selling snake oil that put Kevin in the slammer. In fact, it wasn’t even the “natural cures” books for which he became so famous. It was his relatively forgotten book, The Weight Loss Cure “They” Don’t Want You to Know About.
In his infomercials, Trudeau had called his weight loss plan “easy” and said that those who followed the plan could “eat whatever they want.” A judge found that he had “…misrepresented the contents of his book [and] … misled thousands of consumers.” The courts were especially sick of him because they had dealt with him a number of times and had previously barred him from making outrageous claims about products in infomercials (at the time, he was selling a calcium product and saying it cured cancer). Trudeau had carved out an exemption for his books, only to exploit it. He was charged $37 million in refunds to his readers, which he refused to pay, saying he was flat broke. The court knew he wasn’t because he kept buying things like $180 haircuts. This time, when he went back to court, the judge threw the book at him.
When I stopped by Trudeau’s Ojai, California, home to visit his estate sale for Skeptical Inquirer, I found about thirty copies of that very book in his den. I went home with one copy for $3. I wanted to see what fantastic weight loss secret was so good that Trudeau was willing to risk his livelihood. And here’s what I found out.
It’s Not “Easy” Unless You’re a Masochist
“The most common myth is that to lose weight, and keep it off, you must eat less and exercise more.” —Kevin Trudeau
Trudeau’s weight loss plan is long, grueling, and so confusing it might as well be a Dante poem. You, the dieter, will be doing the treatment for approximately ninety-six days, then following a maintenance routine. The plan itself is divided into four stages. But even these stages are not clear: part four contains elements of the diet plan itself as well as the maintenance program; at times he contradicts himself by saying you should have only one massage a week, then later saying that you should get three; at one point, he says you must always eat six meals a day, then later he recommends six meals a day “plus breakfast.” Not only is the diet not simple but the reading isn’t either. A graphing calculator may be recommended.
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 . . .