Psychic Readings are True

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.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. Part of the epi­stem­o­lo­gical equa­tion has to be the belief of the psychic them­selves: they may be say­ing true things, but they are usu­ally lying about what they know and how they know it.

  2. Martha says:

    One of the first things I learned in psych 101 is that pos­it­ive rein­force­ment is stronger if it is applied ran­domly rather than every time. Perhaps this applies to the psychic’s being “right,” as well. The times when the psychic is incor­rect add to his/her aura of being honest.