Monday, June 24, 2013

Psychics and the Law

Last time I gave two examples to contrast good science with typical product promotion using marketing hype and anecdotal evidence.  A remedy or practice cannot be considered effective until it has been tested rigidly and without prejudice.  Some people may swear that it works for them, but never rule out the power of the placebo effect; wanting to believe it works is not proof.  In the case of prescription drugs, the FDA is required to oversee and approve testing and ensure proper warnings.  In the case of dietary supplements and some alternative medical practices, we are left on our own to distinguish between truth and myth.  The same reasoning applies to paranormal powers.

This CNN video tells about a self-proclaimed psychic who made a 911 call claiming that 32 spirits had told her the location of missing children.  The police and FBI dug up the yard behind a house greatly disrupting the lives of the family who lived there.  The publicity forced them to go into hiding.  The court now has ordered the psychic to pay $6.8 million for defamation.  The video concludes with a clip of well-known psychic Sylvia Browne appearing on a talk show in 2003 telling Amanda Berry's mother that Amanda had died.  Amada escaped from the house in Cleveland earlier this year.

Despite claims by a study in 2011 of proof of “the existence of precognition - an ability to perceive future events,” that claim was later discredited, no credible evidence exists for such power.  James Randi, a magician and investigator of psychic phenomena, has made a standing offer of $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers under controlled conditions.  No one has yet claimed the prize.  Few even try.  They often beg off with predictable excuses of not being in it for the money, not being in the mood, or being unable to perform due to the aura of skepticism that surrounds such a test.  Apparently they prefer to rely on support from their true believers than to settle the question once and for all.  Here is a link to an interesting, but slightly long (14 minute) video of Mr. Randi explaining some of his work to expose fraud.

Meanwhile police and the FBI spend our tax money investigating leads from so-called psychics.  This piece from 2010 lists several examples of missing persons who were found without, even in spite of, help from psychics.  It concludes with the thought, “If people are going to earn fame and fortune from claiming to be psychic, they should be held accountable for their failures.” 

With such a poor track record and no accountability for errors, how does this continue?  Law enforcement is probably too busy to prosecute every crackpot lead for wasting police time.  Citizens have short memories for failures and are encouraged to focus only on the successes.  Many want to believe in psychic powers, and apparently have trouble separating facts from the fictional accounts they see in the movies or on TV.  If the police ignore these “tips,” they may be accused of not doing everything possible. A na├»ve public puts them into a tenuous position of choosing between spending scarce resources on bogus tips or looking like they don’t care about the missing children.

In the long run, it’s not healthy for members of a society to take these psychics seriously.  It’s more money wasted in an economy where we don’t have that luxury.  It’s our time and governmental time wasted, instead of using valid information, brains and talent to analyze and solve our problems.

On the other hand, if you have questionable ethics and want to profit from the gullibility of your fellow citizens, master the art of cold reading, buy a set of tarot cards and set up a business touting your own psychic powers.  You can be wrong as often as you like.  Keep your predictions vague and general, and make sure to publicize widely those few times your guesses turned out to be right.  The rest of us must watch out for these types or pay the price.

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