Friday, September 7, 2012

Confessions of a Professional Medium

Last week I happened across this book review in the NY Times.  I bring this up not to endorse or criticize the book itself, but because the content of the review was a good reminder about the need for critical thinking.

The author worked as a psychic on the telephone and also offered the service of communicating with dead relatives.  Even though he was just a small time operator, he now feels remorse for almost 40 years of deception, using “tricks…to dupe people,” some of which are further described in the review.  The review reminds us that these techniques have been explained as hoaxes many times by better-known magicians and debunkers, such as James Randi, Penn and Teller, and the late Harry Houdini.

The problem is that many people hear about supposed paranormal powers and want to believe in them.  Fictional television shows and movies present psychic powers as real talents.  Cable channels try to legitimize psychics, seers and others.  The truth is that existence of such skills has never been verified by independent, unbiased and controlled testing.

Most advice from fortunetellers or horoscopes is so general that it could apply to anyone.  People make connections with what sounds reasonable or flattering and dismiss the rest.  When faced with predictions of the future, funny feelings or odd dreams, they look only for confirmation.  A dream about a death may be forgotten unless a death follows.  Then it is considered a premonition rather than the coincidence it really is. 

I once read a man’s account of how he was earning extra money for college by reading tarot cards.  Everyone oohed and aahed at his accuracy.  One day he decided to test his so-called powers, by reversing the reading, telling clients exactly the opposite of what the cards predicted.  He received rave reviews for those readings as well!  (Source not available)

Sometimes it sounds so sweet and nice that we just want to believe it’s true.  Take the case of pet telepathy.  It would be wonderful if our dogs or cats could send mental pictures or messages as described in this blog, but how could anyone verify such claims?  The cat can't verify it.  I don’t doubt the sincerity even of those who charge money for such a service, but it’s just not credible.

A few simple questions should clarify this issue.  Why do people who publish their predictions, vague as they are, have such a poor hit rate?  Objective tests of predictions in the US and elsewhere find accuracy less than 10%, a stark contrast to their claims of 90% or greater.  Where were all the people who should have warned us of the terrorist attacks of 9/11?   Surely there must have been a large ripple in the “force” about such a tragic event.  Typically they will say, after the fact, "I had a bad feeling, but it wasn't specific enough to warn anyone."  As Jay Leno puts it, “How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”

This not about being open-minded.  It is about needing more reliable proof than the interesting stories of friends, relatives or celebrities.  This type of scientific misunderstanding or lack of understanding should have no place in America.  In a functioning, interdependent society moving at the speed I’ve described before, it is not healthy for a segment to be making decisions on the basis of advice from those with unsubstantiated powers.  Our citizens waste their time and money on these activities.  They serve on juries where decisions, sometimes about scientific matters, have large ramifications.  Nice and comforting as it may be to believe in these practices, it is safer to be skeptical than gullible.  

Further information and an excellent review of this subject is available from the Skeptics Dictionary.

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