Select Page

Yes, it’s a deliberately sceptic-baiting title. The plan is: it winds people up, they point out how I’m wrong and I learn something.

Psychic advert

I foresee you are about to lose some money. Photo by Timothy Krause.

I’ve not completely mad though. Obviously not all psychic readings are true. It would take an enormous talent to ignore reality that has shown many readings to be false or fraudulent. If I could do that I’d have a golden future in politics. No, I’m only arguing the true ones are true.

Even that sounds odd. By definition the true readings are true. Isn’t it a bit difficult to believe that any readings are true if, like me, you don’t believe in psychic powers? Surely that’s going to need a weaselly approach to ‘truth’? I prefer to say simple, but you can call weasel in the comment box below if you like.

The idea has been forming since I went on an Applied Cold Reading course. Applied Cold Reading works best if you can get things wrong, but sometimes it happens that you fail to get things wrong.* String a few of these fails together and your subject is stunned by how much you got right. Now you and I know that we were aiming for misses, but to your subject that doesn’t matter. You were right. That’s what she knows. The fact that you were right by accident or chance is irrelevant. You were right.

And now you’re in trouble because she’ll expect you to keep being right. But that’s your problem.

Just as applied cold reading can produce hits, so too can a psychic regardless of whether you think they’re using cold reading, mystic powers or blind luck. What these methods cannot do is produce hits reliably. If you were to be scientific about this, you’d find that out pretty quickly.

Even if you concede that I’m right about some psychic readings being true, it still sounds trivial. The accuracy won’t withstand scientific scrutiny. But is it reasonable to test psychic readings for accuracy? I think the answer is probably not. It’s not a question about physical reality its a question of human behaviour. No one lives their life entirely scientifically.

Here’s an example. You come home early one day and find your partner in bed with someone else. If you think “Don’t worry, it’s the control sample dear,” is an acceptable answer you might want to consider therapy. The fact is if we love someone, we don’t tend to draw up an extensive research project to see if he or she loves us.

We’re content, or even need, to believe we know the love is true. Sadly sometimes it isn’t, but people refuse to believe this, staying with someone in the forlorn hope that things will change. We may know other people who we’ve seen in abusive relationships, but it doesn’t shake our belief in our own.

That came out grimmer than I intended. I should have saved it for Valentine’s Day.

The point is that there are some things where we would consider the scientific method inappropriate or even harmful, even thought it is a reliable guide to reality.

Now consider why clients visit psychics.

It’s rarely for a chat about the nature of reality and how we might go about testing it. People visit to talk to people and, weird Derek Acorah shows+ aside, it’s not celebrities or strangers that they’re looking for. It’s loved ones.

The readings must at least have some relevance if they pull back repeat visitors. I think we can say successful psychics are producing true readings. This doesn’t impress sceptics who, quite reasonably, want accurate readings. So they test for accuracy. How will you test for that?

This is a weasel bit, but I think if you want to scientifically test psychics in the field two things will happen at the same time.

For a scientist interested in ontological reality, that which is real, the test is simple enough. You need a large enough sample and accurate recording, but it is testable as a psychological or anthropological experiment. For the client things are very different. Such a test ignores the social reason for seeing a psychic. For the client what matters is social reality and the client already knows love is there. If you can’t find it then it’s you who’s wrong not the psychic or the client.

And here’s the weasel bit: social truth is used to make a claim about ontological reality. Because psychics consistently tell clients that the people they care for loved them too, it’s used to bolster belief that the method of communication is reliable. For most people a system that consistently produces the right result is a reliable system. This intertwining of two different claims about reality puts sceptics in an impossible situation. Denying the reality of psychic communication is implicitly perceived as a denial of the social relationship, which cannot be disproven by the test.

Psychic messages that reaffirm a client had a meaningful and positive relationship with a now deceased relative might seem vacuous, but this doesn’t stop them being true. Likewise, attempts to trip psychics with false relationships aren’t going to shock some believers when they produce false results, because that simply reaffirms that a lack of love will be met by a lack of love.

If you want to show to clients that psychic claims are unreliable then you have to disentangle the social aspect. Yet visiting a psychic to talk to a (deceased) relative is a social act. If you’re talking to someone with a genuine dependency on psychics, putting the social aspect to one side is going to be very difficult. Simply ignoring it and concentrating on replicable facts is not going to work, as you’re left with the unappealing conclusion for the client: the person they love doesn’t love them. How easily would you abandon your belief your loved ones don’t live you?

I think if there were a successful debunking of psychics then it would acknowledge the readings were true about the social relationship, even if the methods were rubbish. I have no idea at the moment how that would be done, but I suspect the method would have to provide a hell of a lot of positive support to counterbalance the renewed loss of the relative, and produce plenty of consoling truths of its own.

But that’s my opinion. You can leave yours in the comment box below or cast your vote here:

Photo: Psychic by Timothy Krause. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

* There are degrees of wrong. I’m not aiming for ‘Your mother was a dinosaur’ levels of wrongness.

+ At first I typed “Derek Acorah documentaries”. Now that would have been a sign that I had lost the plot.