Psychic fails test, BBC focuses on bullshit excuses

If you’re a skeptic then I guess the following story isn’t really news, nevertheless the way its been written up by the BBC is well worth noting:

A scientific experiment has found that two mediums were unable to demonstrate that they had special psychic powers.

The test by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, tried to establish whether mediums could use psychic abilities to identify something about five unseen volunteers.

The results, carried out under test conditions, did not show evidence of any unexplained powers of insight.

But medium Patricia Putt said this experiment “doesn’t prove a thing”.

Well she would say that, wouldn’t she. Anyway, this is how the Beeb describes the experiment:

The experiment, designed by Chris French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, asked two professional mediums to write something about five individuals who were concealed behind a screen.

These five volunteers were then asked to try to identify themselves from these psychic readings – with a success rate of only one in five.

This was a result that was “entirely consistent with the operation of chance alone”, said Professor French.

That’s not much for readers to go on but for any who knows how so-called ‘psychics’ operate it should be obvious that what the experiment was designed specifically to do was eliminate the possibility of the test subject obtaining information by way of ‘cold reading‘, a set of psychological tricks and techniques that ‘psychics’ – and stage magicians and mentalists – use to gain information from people without them realising just how much they’re unwittingly giving away.

Cold reading is, literally, a confidence trick – in simple terms that’s how cold reading works, by gaining the confidence of the subject of the reading so they’ll overlook that fact that most of information that the psychic is supposedly gaining by supernatural means is, at least initially, extremely vague and based on nothing more than educated guesswork.

I saw a perfect example of this some time ago while flipping the TV channels looking for something to watch, when I ran into the last five minutes of one of Derek Acorah’s shows. Acorah was working a small audience using a warm-reading technique called ‘psychometry’ in which audience members are ask to supply the ‘psychic’ with a personal object which they then ‘read’ to obtain information about history of the object and its significance to the person who provided it.

On this occasion the mark was a man in his thirties who presented Acorah with an expensive looking cine-camera the design of which suggested that it had originally been made at some point between the 1930s and 1950s and after being handed the camera, and summoning up his personal ju-ju, Acorah told the mark that he ‘sensed’ that the camera had been owned by a older male relative who’d been quite well off and had done quite a bit of travelling outside the UK in his younger years. That was enough to get the mark to open up and ‘confirm’ that the camera had belonged to his grandfather who’d been a civil servant and who did, indeed, do a lot of travelling both with his work and his job – from memory I think he’d stationed in Egypt at one point.

Of course, when a relatively young man turns up a show given by a supposed medium with an expensive film camera that’s at least thirty years older than he is then it’s highly likely that the camera has come down to him through the family. As it would have been a very expensive purchase at the time it was bought, not to mention a bit of boy’s toy at any time, it’s also quite easy to infer that the owner would not only have been male and reasonably well-off but that the camera wouldn’t have been a casual run-of-the-mill purchase but one bought for a specific reason linked to a hobby or personal interest and the age of the camera alone suggests travel as a distinct possibility.

And this is all, of course, just educated guesswork based solely on the appearance of the camera and the person who took it to the show, and nothing the least bit psychic or supernatural.

Now, if you’re wondering why I explaining all this, it’s because the BBC didn’t. The article could, and should, have included a reference to the fact that the experiment had been designed specifically to prevent the test subjects using cold reading techniques to obtain information about the five individuals that were concealed behind screens but rather than include that critical piece of information the article barrels straight on in to the excuses offered up by one of the so-called psychics who failed the test.

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.

“Psychic energy” was not likely to work in the setting created for the experiment, she said, and her success rate was usually very high.

Ms Putt said the experiment was designed to confirm the researchers’ pre-conceptions – rather than examine the nature of her psychic ability.

“Scientists are very closed-minded,” she said.

She said there were fraudsters operating as psychic mediums – but that it was wrong for scientists to think that such mediums “were all the same”.

Well of course Patricia Putt needs to work face-to-face with people or hear their voice in order to establish a ‘connection’ with them – how else is she going to get the feedback she needs to cold read her punters if not being able to see them, assess their appearance, body language, demeanour and/or verbal reactions to the stream of guesswork she spits out during her act. That’s why the BBC should have made at least some reference to cold reading in it article instead of allowing Putt to spin its readers a bunch of bullshit excuses which are left more or less unchallenged.

And its not just any old bullshit excuses, it’s the same old bullshit excuses you get every time a so-called psychic fails to perform under test conditions that do nothing more than prevent them from exploiting the credulity of their audience.

‘Psychic energy’ is ‘not likely to work’ in the setting in which the test was conducted – why?

– Does cellulose and plastic have the same effect on ‘psychic energy’ that lead has on Superman’s x-ray vision?

– Is it those dastardly skeptics with their super-secret skeptrino fields blocking her ‘psychic powers’?

I’m genuinely disappointed. The BBC give her a perfect platform on which to explain why ‘psychic energy’ is not likely to work under these test conditions as she cannot even manage to muster up a quantum flapdoodle defence.

‘Scientists are very closed-minded’ says the ‘psychic’ who’s quite obviously in a complete state of denial.

Seriously, there ‘s no ‘gotcha’ element to the design of this test. It doesn’t set ‘psychics’ up to fail it merely asks them to demonstrate their supposed abilities under conditions in which a positive result, a successful test, could only be plausibly explained as evidence of genuine psychic ability or a freak result, and the possibility of a freak result could then be easily eliminated by repeating the test under the same conditions.

That’s not being ‘closed-minded’ that’s just asking ‘psychics’ to demonstrate their abilities in a way that makes sure that they are obtaining their information by genuinely supernatural means and not by something altogether more mundane, and easily explained, such as cold reading.

As for Putt’s attempt to distinguish between fraudsters and  supposedly genuine ‘mediums’, this is really only a trivial distinction. Fraudsters know for a fact that they aren’t psychic and deliberately make use of techniques such as cold reading and other more cynical methods (‘hot reading‘) to rook their audience. ‘Genuine mediums’ still rely on cold reading and other psychological manipulations that, in scientific terms, are fraudulent but they are saved from being considered fraudsters, in the legal sense of the term, by their own unwavering capacity for self-deception.

Scientists and skeptics don’t think the mediums and con-artists are the same, we’re perfectly capable of distinguishing between deliberate deception and deeply ingrained delusion.

The last word on this article at least went to a skeptic –

But Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, who helped to organise the test, said it showed that claims to have special abilities “aren’t based in reality”.

This is, however, anything but adequate given the BBC’s failure to explain anything at all about the reasoning behind the construction of the test and the amount of space the article devotes to reporting Patricia Putt’s efforts to bullshit her way of trouble rather than confront her own failings.

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  • http://twitter.com/Neuro_Skeptic Neuroskeptic

    Oh dear.

    ““Psychic energy” was not likely to work in the setting created for the experiment”

    I agree. It’s not likely to work anywhere else either.

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  • Martin

    Did this scientific study also find that bears shit in the woods and that the Pope is a Catholic?  I demand answers now ;-)

  • Martin

    I might express that last better – as Unity says, this is not news to anyone with a rational brain, and irrational people will simply continue to believe what they believe despite whatever evidence is brought forward, so I don’t really see the point of the study.

  • Kabirkhan3000

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