Why I Hate Psychics
On later reflection I realise that the things that had seemed so personal to me really weren’t. The name “Alistair” isn’t my aunt’s or mine. The medium could have said the name of any member of my large extended family and it would have seemed significant. Huge numbers of New Zealanders have Scottish ancestry, and the name Alistair is Scottish. A lot of old women struggle to put their shoes on, and this could also be a metaphor for a journey. Besides, most deaths are caused by chest-related problems. And most importantly, I had totally forgotten everything Tony said that didn’t relate to my aunt or me.
Psychological illusionist Derren Brown regularly demonstrates how suggestion and trickery can convince viewers that people have paranormal powers. Brown replicates “paranormal” phenomena by openly natural means. He can do séances. He can read minds. He can dictate what people dream. Brown explains the tricks of “cold reading” used by mediums to make it seem as though they know a lot about a person, when actually they know very little. It is a very old technique. Cold reading is usually done in front of a large audience, so that an initial description of a dead person is likely to match that of someone lost by a person in the room. Readings usually start out with very vague, tentative statements, such as a letter that could be an initial of the dead person, of the living person, or one of either person’s family or friends. The “Barnum effect” is the use of statements that seem very personal, but could actually apply to just about anybody. The question trick – asking “Who’s David?” – leaves it up to the subject to explain, and if they can’t, the blame falls on them for not being able to interpret the information, rather than on the medium. But most importantly, people either already believe in the medium’s psychic ability or they desperately want to. Once the excitement, emotion and adrenaline are rushing through them, especially in front of a minor celebrity on the TV, the subject becomes a complicit performer in the charade. They forget the misses and remember the hits, all because they really want it to be true.
Then there is “hot reading.” Hot reading is when you find out key information beforehand, then bullshit that you are psychic. It is way more common than you may expect and it is irrefutable charlatanism. New Zealand’s own prime time TV show Sensing Murder seems so convincing when you watch it. That is, provided you take on and trust all of the promises they make at the start. These include: that the filming is all done in one day; the psychics have no details of the case they are “sensing;” they don’t know the location they are going to; are kept under supervision to prevent them researching the case; and only correct statements are confirmed. But these are public, often high profile cold cases. Information on them is available. An entire day of filming is edited to 75 minutes, heavily fleshed out with dramatic “reenactments.” Confirmation of correct statements is ample fodder for an experienced cold reader. Most damningly, none of the shows revealed anything that wasn’t already known, no new leads have been discovered; none of the cases have been solved. Yet the blame is heavily laid on the NZ Police for not doing their jobs properly.
I have a personal grudge against psychics and mediums. When my brother Jonathan died three years ago, his body was missing for two and a half days. Searching for a missing person is the most exhausting, frustrating thing I have ever done. We’d search a park for an hour and then leave, knowing that we could have missed a spot. Then we’d look around at the surrounding streets, houses, fields, bushes, ditches, rivers, and vehicles, knowing he could be anywhere – fucking anywhere – and we had to keep looking. My uncle asked me when we were searching: “what did I feel had happened to him?” What did I feel? My severely depressed brother left the house in the middle of the night with no shoes, wallet, iPod or cigarettes. What did I feel had happened? I’m worried that maybe he’s hurt, or unconscious, or kidnapped. I’m worried about my parents. I haven’t been eating or sleeping and I’m scared, distressed, and tired. I hope he’s alive. I think he’s dead. What am I supposed to fucking feel?
And then the psychics called. Just like the police officer waiting at home with my mum had said they would. One woman we didn’t know called to say he was still alive and fine, just waiting for us to find him. We also had a family friend, now sadly passed away, who was an astrologer. He had looked at my brother’s star chart and seen a dark patch in the month of February, which would pass by March. He looked at my mum’s chart and saw a lovely year ahead for her. Another friend, who owns a “distance healing” machine called a SCIO (Scientific Consciousness Interface Operation system), called to say that Jonathan’s psychic energy field (or whatever) was weak but present. So all three predictions said roughly same thing. My skeptical but desperate parents saw a glimmer of hope. The only problem is that the psychics were wrong. A kayaker found Jonathan’s body in the river. He’d died the night he went missing.
Caring people who genuinely believed that they were helping made all three of these predictions. I don’t have any hard feelings toward them as people. The astrologer friend said later that his reading was too optimistic: if Jonathan had held on till the end of the month he would have been okay. The SCIO operator said she had misread the computer display. My problem is this: if paranormal predictions do not give accurate information, then what are they for? How is it different to guessing? If you can’t tell if someone is alive or dead, then you should shut the hell up. We all wanted my brother to be alive. What is the point of telling a desperate family to keep searching for a person they are desperately searching for, anyway?
And if psychics like Deb Webber from Sensing Murder really have the powers they claim to have, then they should get off TV and go and help families like mine. If I had her power and knew how to find bodies psychically, alive or dead, I would go and find them. I’d tell the police where they are, and if they wouldn’t help me, I would dig them up myself. How could you not? In an interview on Breakfast, Deb Webber said she “senses” that Madeleine McCann was smuggled, and the parents didn’t kill her. In other words, she is “sensing” the same scenario that most people who have heard the story are assuming has happened. But what is the point of that? How does that help? Why don’t you find the girl, or find her body? Why don’t you give specific information that would lead to an arrest?
One man whose sister’s murder remains unsolved after 20 years wrote a letter to NZ on Air asking them to stop the show. He received about one hundred phone calls over the years from psychics claiming to have information on his sister’s murder or the location of her body. Each lead had to be followed up by the police in case it was real information from someone pretending to be psychic. None of the claims led anywhere. The abhorrent show is no longer being filmed, but the featured psychics continue to tour New Zealand and Australia, performing in front of large, credulous, and (of course)
Psychic baloney isn’t new. The magician Harry Houdini went around debunking this shit nearly a hundred years ago. I recently had an argument with my uncle about Houdini. He believes that Houdini planted wires on the mediums to make them look like frauds, while I believe they were frauds and he found the wires. It was a fruitless argument, but we agreed that Houdini was too good a magician to be fooled by magic tricks.
Advances in technology mean a lot of the old Victorian medium’s tricks have disappeared. They are just too easy to see with modern cameras. But people claiming paranormal phenomena are enjoying a fabulous resurgence. James “The Amazing” Randi is a magician who has been investigating paranormal claims for over sixty years. His educational foundation offers the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge: a cash prize for anybody able to prove paranormal ability under controlled conditions agreed on by both parties. When asked if any claim has been particularly hard to refute, Randi replies, “I’d like to say that there has been one particular difficult one, but no, they’ve all been so easy. They’ve been so easy because they’re so transparent [. . .] in any different culture, the costume is different, the language is different, but the same stunts are being done again and again and again. They haven’t invented anything new since the early sixteen-hundreds.” The Sensing Murder team have all been invited to take the Million Dollar Challenge, as well as a similar one proposed by a New Zealand businessman offering $25,000. None have taken up the offer.
Randi is famous for his exposure of Uri Geller and the “Geller Effect,” where people report to have seen spoons bending and broken watches starting up in their homes when Geller is on TV. I have heard someone say they believe Geller is trustworthy because of his beautiful doelike eyes. I admit he was pretty dreamy in the 70s. But Randi says Geller’s performances are simply four magic tricks, which he himself can replicate easily. He says that if Geller really is using psychic powers to do his tricks, “he’s doing it the hard way.” Randi has a particular hatred toward Geller because his highly successful TV career managed to convince many scientists and academics that his abilities were paranormal, allowing many people’s entire careers and millions of dollars to be wasted on researching deliberately faked phenomena. In 2007, to the chagrin of Randi, Geller began to call himself a “mystifyer,” or entertainer, no longer claiming supernatural powers. Geller did not admit to performing all of the magic tricks he had been accused of, but did admit to pretending to guess the licence plate numbers of audience members, having been told them earlier by his agent. The arsehole was hot reading.
Magical duo Penn and Teller despise fake mediums so much that they chose to do the first ever episode of their TV show Bullshit! on people who claim to talk to the dead. Penn explains: “We hate these bastard psychics so much we have to spit . . . Once you’ve felt that pure grief, seeing it exploited can take away your sense of humour. Once a loved one has died, all you have is your memories of them. We don’t give a rat’s ass about the money these bastards are taking from the grief stricken. What we do care about deeply is the desecration of memories.”
Self-delusion can only excuse so much; inefficacy should be reason enough to prompt reflection on the extraordinary claims a person is making. There is too much at stake not to do so. But self-delusion is morally preferable to outright charlatanism. Charlatan mediums are taking grieving, vulnerable people, winning their trust, then shitting on their memories and taking their cash. You don’t get much lower than that.
There is a reason that some paranormal claims seem invincible to falsification. They have been tailored to explain any possible observed phenomena; the veritable definition of a pseudoscience. “Energy” tends to be a kind of catchall defence in these claims. When Uri Geller failed to perform his spoon tricks on The Tonight Show he blamed bad “energy,” saying he did not feel “strong” that night (the presenter Johnny Carson had taken advice from James Randi and not allowed Geller to use his own spoons, or to have access to the spoons before the show). A nastier version of the “energy” claim is for the medium or psychic to blame the sitter. They can say that the recipient of the reading is not remembering something properly, or has misinterpreted information, and will realise its true significance later on. They can blame the sitter for not having enough faith or blocking the spirit. Some claim that scientific investigations don’t work because spirits don’t like to be tricked, examined, or measured. Which is convenient, as it avoids crediting any evidence that may refute a paranormal claim.
Most people accept that there is such a thing as a corrupt stockbroker, pharmaceutical company, police officer, politician, lawyer, accountant, celebrity, or government. Why do some have trouble believing that the psychics on TV might be charlatans, too? Because they often cry when they’re asked difficult questions? Because they fake modesty by claiming to be mere channels for something greater than themselves? Or, maybe, just because people so badly want to believe in them? Anyone who has lost someone close to them knows the feeling of desperately wanting to have one last conversation with the deceased loved one. I would pay all the money I have, and much more, to have five minutes with my dead brother – just to tell him I love him, to ask him questions, to see his face and hug him. This is why skepticism is so important.
Fuck you, Deb Webber.
Fuck you, Uri Geller.
Fuck you, Tony Stockwell.
Suspension of disbelief means that grieving and vulnerable people are being swindled out of something worse than money. They are being robbed of all they really have left of their lost loved ones: their memories.