By Mal Vickers,
with assistance from Martin Hadley
Imagine what kind of world it would be if, from tomorrow, psychics really did have the abilities they claim to possess. The prizes from the next lottery would go to a series of psychics, presumably in order of merit. Fairly soon, non-psychics would stop buying tickets and the lotteries would fold. There wouldn’t be much point in casinos, bingo or horse races either.
The world we inhabit isn’t like that. We have lotteries and casinos that make a fortune, despite the presence of many psychics who travel the world flaunting their talents.
This month, (July 2013) Australia will be hosting a visit from prominent, UK based, self-proclaimed psychic Sally Morgan. Sally is scheduled to do a number of shows around Australia. Her shows are big events, like those of John Edwards and the late Doris Stokes. The Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne, which is hosting the Sally Morgan show here, seats about 1000 people. The emphasis is on supposed messages from the departed. These big psychic performances are not at all like the stereotypical local fair gypsy with a tent and a crystal ball, whom you might pay a few dollars for a giggle.
Yes, I know skeptics should always hold out hope that a real psychic may turn up one day, but for how long? For many years now the Australian Skeptics have offered $100,000 to anyone who can demonstrate a paranormal ability, including psychic ability. Even greater sums of money are on offer elsewhere in the world.
Testing psychics can be quite straightforward if a simple yet robust test protocol can be agreed on. For example, many psychics claim to be able to do readings from photographs. A person might send a photograph of a deceased relative to a psychic, and the bereaved and the psychic then hook up by phone for a reading. The psychic would typically claim to be using the photograph to help contact the deceased and would also typically claim not to be getting information from the bereaved relative. To test if this is true, exclude the relative from the test and pose this question to the psychic;
“Here are photographs of some dearly departed, would you please get in contact with the spirit world and ask them their names?”
Our phones remain steadfastly silent, despite the large sum of money on offer. And to those shopping mall or weekend market $20 psychics who don’t necessarily do it for money, we say: “Can’t you think of a charity that could use $100,000 courtesy of the Australian Skeptics?”
In October 2011, Sally Morgan was asked publicly to take part in a test of her psychic ability in the UK. The test protocol was put together by Chris French, a professor of psychology in the UK. Also on the test panel was science writer Simon Singh and members of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. On offer was one million US dollars. This was a serious offer. Check out the videos from the challenge here. Who would want to pass up a million dollars? Sally could have kept the money herself or given it to charity.
Sally Morgan’s lawyers reportedly stated:
“You well know that we all have far more important things to do than take part in this or any other ‘test’ at this point. She will not attend at Liverpool or at any other time.”
Skeptics have investigated how to perform like a psychic. Their abilities can be imitated in many ways.
The method that produces the best and most spectacular ‘hits’ is known as ‘hot reading’. The performer uses information actually obtained from the subject before the reading starts. Psychic performers have been caught obtaining information through questionnaires, conversations with audience members before the show and even from the internet.
‘Cold reading’ is where the performer uses a variety of skills after the reading has started, to discreetly get information straight from the subject, or to get agreement from the subject to various careful suggestions. Done cleverly, the performer appears to be getting information through psychic skills. Cold reading can work well or not so well, but compared to hot reading, it always has the advantage that the performer cannot be busted.
– Shrewd observation of the subject – what demographic is the subject? Age? How are they dressed? Why would they be here at a psychic show?
– You could go ‘fishing for clues’. You ask questions that don’t sound like obvious questions ‘does this make sense to you?’ Therefore, the subjects will help you, they believe in psychic abilities, they’ll unknowingly provide you with the answers.
– There are also the statements that cover all bases ‘the Rainbow Ruse’. For example, ‘your father was at times cold, but you knew his warm side’. He was in fact both cold and warm, like most people, you’ve covered all bases and everything in between, the subject will smile and agree.
What’s also important is the perception of the audience. People will naturally remember the hits and forget the misses. I.e. ‘wow, wasn’t it amazing how the psychic knew your father was such a warm, friendly person’. The comment about him also being cold is forgotten.
This is just a very quick look at the big subject of ‘cold reading’.
There is an excellent book available on the methods of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland. People such as Ian, and local skeptic Lynne Kelly, have shown how intelligence, empathy and practice can allow any person to demonstrate apparent psychic powers.
Lynne has amazed believers with the accuracy of her readings, only to confess to them later that she was a fake. You can guess how good she is from the fact that customers have told her many times that she really does have psychic powers, it’s just that she does not realise this herself. Some rational thinkers accept what psychics do with a kind of paternalistic justification, ‘Oh well…those that believe in that kind of thing sometimes need closure with departed loved ones, so why not let them have it?’
I’m not a fan of this apologetic thinking. Would it perhaps be better if people sought help from a professional grief counsellor? A grief counsellor should be capable of giving people the same kind of help.
If you argue that only psychics can offer benefit to grieving people then how does that compare with the harm that might be caused? There are many documented cases where psychics have caused harm. On the ‘What’s The Harm?’ website there are the accounts of the lady who lost half her life savings to a psychic/con-artist; and the child who died because a psychic/healer convinced her parents to change her medication. The parents of a missing child were told that their child was dead. Four years later he was found alive. The long list of loss of wealth, health and in some cases, life, is worth a read by anyone who may think psychics do no harm. To be fair, these problems aren’t always caused by the big-name psychic performer.
Typically, promoters of big touring psychic shows will try to market them in the media. TV snippets of the psychics’ performances appear to focus on close relatives of people who have died. Take a look at Sally Morgan’s promotional video on You-Tube. Audience members who are called to stand up for a public reading look and sound quite distressed, particularly when Sally voices the deceased.
What is really strange is how the most prominent psychics and high-earning psychics have a disclaimer that they are only entertainers. When (self-proclaimed) psychic John Edward’s television show ‘Crossing Over’ aired on Australian TV, one might have noticed, at the very end of the credits, and for just three seconds a text disclaimer appears. It states, in part:
‘The producer has relied heavily on the contributions of John Edward and other third parties in the creation of this program, which has been produced for entertainment purposes only’.
Sally Morgan is using a similar disclaimer for her Australian shows:
‘Sally Morgan is experimental/investigational. There are no guaranteed or certain results and the show is for the purposes for entertainment.’ (sic)
(Note, the above link to Sally Morgan’s Australian, Shoalhaven show no longer works, a full pixel capture of the page can be found here.)
So it’s all just for ‘entertainment’. I have a hard time reconciling that with claims of psychic abilities. In Sally Morgan’s promotional video she says – “You know, when you think about it, these messages, where are they coming from? The ether (lifts up her hands), as they say”.
One generally expects professional people to be able to do what they claim . Motor mechanics fix cars, bankers borrow and lend money, cabinet-makers can make cabinets and so on. However, psychics have never been able to show, under carefully controlled conditions, that they are indeed psychic. I’m yet to find a motor mechanic who fixes cars ‘for entertainment purposes only’, perhaps there are some that do *shrug*? My motor mechanic whistles sometimes, but I digress.
Have I missed something here? Is it ethical to use the relatives of people who have died to market ‘entertainment’?