Testing psychics

Someone has managed to get a couple of self proclaimed psychics to agree to a scientific test of their alleged powers. Unsurprisingly at the end the two psychics were deemed to have failed the test. The BBC has the story here:


In keeping with the BBC policy of ‘balance’ they have printed comments made by one of the tested psychics who claims that the test was “designed to confirm the researchers’ pre-conceptions – rather than examine the nature of her psychic ability.” Furthermore she opines that “Scientists are very closed-minded” which got a big laugh in my office (I work in a university science department.)

The Guardian has the same story with a more pro-rational slant and a bit more background. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/oct/31/halloween-challenge-psychics-scientific-trial

According to Chris French, one of the test supervisors, the psychics were asked to confirm they were comfortable with the test, and asked to rank their confidence in each reading as they gave it. This indicates to me that a psychic who felt this was not a fair test would be wise to point this out when invited to; as opposed to taking the test, failing, and then making the claim that it wasn’t an appropriate test in the first place.

The BBC reports: “But one of the mediums, Patricia Putt, rejected the suggestion that this showed any absence of psychic powers – saying that she needed to work face-to-face with people or to hear their voice, so that a connection could be established.”

Perhaps Ms Putt fails to grasp the significance of the fact that ‘establishing a connection’ might not be due to psychic abilities but instead consist of making statistically safe guesses based on age, ethnicity, sex, body language and other bits of information that could be gleaned from looking at someone’s appearance.

If the point of the test is to isolate the ‘psychic ability’ from the capacity to do everything I’ve just mentioned (which is quite skill to do well – but surely couldn’t be classified as a paranormal ability) then you need to remove the possibility of some other factor causing the tester to get a positive result.

Except that if psychic ability *was* a real sense then hypothetically couldn’t it be subject to restrictions in the same way that our other senses are? I can smell stuff with my nose, but only if it is sufficiently close enough. If someone doubted my sense of smell they could test this by asking me to identify an orange by removing my ability to see it or touch it. But if they did this by placing it in a sealed box which also meant I couldn’t smell it, then I would appear to fail said test but would complain that my sense of smell was being inhibited by the confines of the experiment, so it couldn’t be deemed a fair test.

Ok that’s a pretty bad analogy. (But as this is NaBloPoMo I’m not letting myself dwell on that for days to come up with something better.) Nonetheless it got me thinking: why on earth did they agree that it was a fair test in the first place? For that matter why did they agree to do it all?

In the absence of any actual evidence that psychic powers exist, and knowing that where they are perceived to exist there is usually a much better explanation (which doesn’t turn everything we think we know about the universe on its head) I am confident in stating the following: Psychic Powers Don’t Exist.

If we are prepared to accept this as fact, then anyone who claims to have psychic powers is either a charlatan or suffering from an acute delusion. Anyone who knows full well that they are making it all up isn’t going to submit to any kind of genuine test that would expose them. (Setting aside for a moment the notion that they might think they can somehow rig the test to ‘prove’ what they say is true.) So if a ‘psychic’ is in that category then I feel an emotional response of disgust that they prey on vulnerable people for their own ends, much as I feel about banks mis-selling PPI’s. However, much as I may abhor what they do, I will accept that they are in possession of their critical faculties, if not their moral ones.

But if someone is in the latter category, then all bets are off. Ms Putt’s behaviour is not only irrational, it’s internally inconsistent. In answer to my earlier rhetorical question, I don’t suppose she has grasped the flaw in wanting a test which allows her to see and/or hear the sitter. And from her comment about scientists being closed minded, being rational doesn’t appear to be at the top of her agenda.

All of which leaves me feeling rather sorry for her. And slightly uncomfortable about the notion of the test in the first place. Perhaps the testers were hoping to help her get over her delusion by showing her scientifically that her claim was false. But if someone has already rejected the validity of science and rationality then that’s likely to be a lost cause. Perhaps they had reasons for supposing her to be of the Charlatan type and feel that by exposing her she would justifiably get her come-uppance. Perhaps they accept she is mentally ill but wanted to laugh at her: a horrible prospect but history is full of scientists who may have been rational but were nonetheless utter bastards (see above re the difference between critical and rational faculties.) Or perhaps they weren’t thinking of her in terms of being a person at all, but simply an example of a dangerous, exploitative but virulent form of hokum which needs debunking in the public consciousness.

Although the last one sounds callous, I don’t necessarily disagree with the thinking behind it. I’m aware I might be starting to sound like an apologist for unscientific nonsense but I really do think it’s important to expose bullshit for what it is. I’m just aware that this approach is unlikely change the mind of anyone who doesn’t think science is important to start with.

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