It’s Halloween, which means that the results of the Merseyside Skeptics Society’s Halloween Psychic Challenge are out! Not surprisingly, the test found no evidence of psychic ability. The guys have done a great job with the publicity, even getting an article on the BBC News website!
This week has also seen the Good Thinking Society announce the shortlist for it’s very first “Golden Duck” award. I talk about both the MSS Psychic Challenge and the Golden Duck award nominees in my latest car vid, enjoy!
This weekend, the Merseyside Skeptics Society held their annual Halloween Psychic Challenge at Goldsmith’s College, London. I think the challenge is a great idea, and I for one am eagerly awaiting the results on the 31st. However, some aren’t so keen, and have had a bit of a dig at the society and skeptic societies in general. I’ve made a car vid talking about these concerns. Enjoy!
Recently Project Barnum, a group campaigning against psychics, was launched by RI podcast host Hayley Stevens. I totally agree with the aims of the group, and I’ve signed their petition calling for theatres to consider the evidence and think twice before allowing a psychic to perform at their venue.
There’s been some debate in the skeptical community on whether petitioning theatres to stop hosting psychics and mediums is the right thing to do. Deborah Hyde, editor in chief at The Skeptic Magazine, has argued that it’s illiberal to “restrict information or services” and that it’s “a proposal to suppress the distribution of a certain worldview”. I couldn’t disagree more.
On that first point, it’s important to realise that true psychic abilities, especially talking to the dead, are impossible. Therefore, anyone who charges money and gives out what both they and their customer genuinely consider to be messages from dead relatives, is committing fraud, plain and simple. Now I would describe myself as a liberal, that doesn’t mean I support letting anyone do what they want when they want at any time. In my opinion, it’s not illiberal to protect people from fraud.
Secondly, I find the idea of “suppressing the distribution of a certain worldview” to be a bit of an odd point. I’m more used to hearing the term “worldview” from creationist circles, where the phrase “only in your worldview!” is trotted out to dismiss the theory of evolution. I can’t see how it’s justifiable to protect a fraudulent act by describing it as a “worldview”.
Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics does a great job in spelling out the case against psychics on Deborah Hyde’s blog, and Mike Hall has written an excellent piece, pointing out the parallels between Project Barnum and the 10:23 campaign against homeopathy.
As far as I’m aware, Project Barnum was brought to life following allegations of fraud against Sally Morgan, when someone claimed to see her being fed information through an ear piece during a show in Dublin. Now, I can’t say whether the allegations are true or not, and as a skeptic I’m aware that anecdotal evidence is the worst kind of evidence, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. I believe that something like Project Barnum is long overdue, but if the Sally Morgan incident is a good catalyst for it, then so be it.
So, what are my issues with psychics? I’m aware that it’s quite a broad church, so for simplicities sake I’ll stick to the supposed ability to communicate with the dead. Now, I’m hoping that this is one of those situations where I don’t have to explain how ridiculous this concept is. Either way, no one has ever demonstrated a genuine ability to talk to the deceased under controlled conditions. If they could, it would turn our understand of nature on it’s head, and the psychic in question could easily walk away with $1 million from James Randi. As it is, we can safely conclude that the ability to talk to the dead is an impossibility of fantastic proportions, and anyone charging money for it is a fraud.
Although psychic abilities are either impossible or incredibly unlikely, it is possible to employ trickery to give the illusion of psychic abilities. I’ve no problems with people like Derren Brown using techniques like cold reading in his stage shows, as he makes it clear that it is a magic trick. I believe that cold reading can almost be an art form, and it can take it’s place in any magic show. It’s only when people claim it as a genuine skill that I have a problem with.
So what is “cold reading”? It’s a series of techniques that can be used to convince someone that the reader knows much more about them they actually do. The following clip of Sally Morgan shows her making a huge and pretty funny basic error, but it also shows a very simple attempt at cold reading:
She starts off with the word “barn”. Although that sounds quite specific, it is in fact ironically the beginning of several “Barnum statements” (statements which at first glance look pretty specific, but under scrutiny they can apply to many people). A barn would mean something to anyone that has ever worked on a farm, anyone who has ever visited a farm, anyone who has seen a film with a barn in it etc etc. She then tries to cast the net wider by expanding it to the names “Bernard” and “Barnard”. Finally, she tries to get the subject to do the work by taking the form of a distressed puppy and asking “Why would he say that?”. So, in those short seconds she exhibits three techniques of cold reading: a Barnum statement, casting a wide net, and attempting to get the subject to do the work. Classic cold reading that anyone can do with some training.
Of course, I couldn’t write about cold reading without mentioning that great friend of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, the man who pops to the toilet, the man who can’t sense child abductors even if he stands next to them, the man who calls skeptics paedophiles, “Psychic” Joe Power. He’s a medium from Liverpool, who made a total fool of himself on “Derren Brown Investigates”. The show includes a detailed explanation of the techniques of cold reading, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who’s keen to know how psychics commit their fraud. It’s available on 4od.
In conclusion, I’m supporting Project Barnum as I believe something needs to be done about psychics.
When James Randi was interviewed by Robin Ince at TAM, Randi regaled us with a story about Uri Geller appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1973. He was due to bend a few spoons with the power of his mind, and determine which film can out of ten contained some water using his psychic powers. Carson was keen to test Geller, and so phoned Randi for some advice. Subsequently, the spoons that Geller were due to bend were kept well away from Geller and his people, and each film can was weighed down slightly so the one with the water couldn’t be distinguished from the rest. You can see the clip of this below:
Now, I’m keen on people like Uri Geller who claim to have paranormal powers to be exposed, but you have to give credit to Geller for the way he handles the situation. He knows something is wrong straight away, and rather than ploughing on with the tricks, he starts to play the blame game. He talks about being put under too much pressure by Carson, and complains of having “low energy”.
In the end, this becomes a perfect example of why TV chat shows aren’t keen to expose psychics on live TV. The psychic just goes into a shell, nothing happens, and it makes for excruciatingly boring viewing. And anyway, I’m sure Geller would have appeared on another show the week afterwards and performed his parlor tricks successfully, therefore no-one remembers his appearance on the Carson show. In conclusion, exposing psychics is great, but they are tricky and know that giving nothing is better than failing.