A medium serving of bollocks

April 20, 2009 | By | 16 Replies More

Listening to the radio at work just now, I heard the breakfast DJs Matt & Jo talking to an alleged psychic/medium from New Zealand – the name escapes me for now so for the sake of convenience I’ll call him K (for Kiwi). The segment began with K’s story of how, in his youth, he started seeing spirits in the form of small bright lights in front of his vision (similar to what happens to me right before I cop a massive debilitating migraine). These spirits would reveal things to K about peoples’ still-living relatives. When he talked about it he copped flak from his peers, so he concealed it until relatively recently. It was, more or less, along the lines of most medium origin stories: young child with a gift hides it as a child due to teasing or trouble, then makes a living off it in adulthood. You could also apply that to a lot of X-Men origin stories, but that’s another, um, story.

Image by Bitterbug at Flickr (creative commons)

Image by Bitterbug at Flickr (creative commons)

The fun began when K started a reading for the DJs Matt & Jo. During the intro, Jo sounded like an agnostic sort-of believer (not really sure, but willing to believe – I guess she watches “Medium” and not “The Mentalist”) whilst Matt was a dead-set skeptic (you make the big claim, you provide the big evidence). Knowing this, K “read” Matt first, saying straight off that his mother, who had died of cancer, was “there” with a small girl (or talking about a small girl) and there was also the presence of a dog. Matt stated that his mother hadn’t died of cancer, that there was no “small girl”, alive or dead, that applied to his life and that all the dogs that could possibly have been relevant were still alive. Immediately, K became defensive and flatly stated that Matt was wrong. “You’re wrong, this is what they’re revealing to me.” Matt defended himself, saying “Sorry, but I’m just being honest – none of what you said applies to me,” which attracted the response, “Well, you’re just being a skeptic.” He spat the word “skeptic” out like was poison. “The spirits are telling me there was a small girl and a dog which mattered in your life, so you should take notice of that and think about those things – that’s what the spirits say, but let’s move on.” Swiftly turning his attention to Jo (I could almost hear Matt derisively raising his eyebrow), K mentioned something about a car accident involving her father (whom he knew to be deceased). Jo, now sounding unconvinced, revealed that her father had actually died in a plane crash. “Ah yes,” said K, sounding increasingly desperate (yet still nice and smug), “that’s what it might be,” then attempted to include the third member of the studio crew (whose name escapes me) in his reading (also to whom nothing applied). This vagueness went on for a couple more uncomfortable minutes (uncomfortable for K anyway, I’m sure, but I was enjoying it) and then they threw to a song. I would love to have been a fly on the wall as K made his (no doubt speedy) exit from the studio.

After K had left, Matt tallied up the ratio of correct guesses to flat-out bollocks with the result 28:72. K, with his amazing powers of talking to dead people who apparently have special knowledge, was accurate less than a third of the time. A third! Most people could make random guesses – let alone educated guesses – about people and have a better hit ratio than 28 percent! Assuming Matt wasn’t lying to K about his reading, that is, but there’s really no reason for him to do so – every skeptic I know who is deserving of the term is willing to change their opinion on anything given sufficient compelling evidence. However, every study I’ve seen involving the powers of alleged mediums (should we call them “media” collectively?), be it an actual scientific study or just a cheap TV show (which are almost universally biased towards confirming super powers), doesn’t show self-proclaimed psychics as having any higher a success rate than a “non-psychic” random guessing.

K basically went through the standard cold-reading playbook and didn’t try anything I haven’t seen before. It goes something like this:

1. Throw out some generalisations based on whatever information you may have on your subject, even if it’s only what you can glean from looking at them briefly and observing their gender, probable age group, ethnicity and anything else that’s informative
2. Concentrate and expand on any hits
3. Completely ignore any information that doesn’t apply to the subject  and change the topic  or change who you’re reading and repeat from step 1.

If called on mistaken information:
1. Insist that the spirits are right and the subject is wrong, missing or forgetting something, in need of further contemplation of the reading or simply a “skeptic” (which, in cold-reader parlance, seems to mean anyone who can see through your bullshit)
2. End the reading and use a combination of the following excuses or qualifiers: skepticism/bad energy/sunspots/microwave ovens make it difficult to make a precise reading; pressure to provide a reading can affect its accuracy; sometimes the spirits can be confused; subjects need to think further on the revelations provided to them; subjects need to “open their minds”.

Unless you’re particularly gifted in one-on-one situations, this approach usually works better with a large audience a la John Edwards (AKA The Biggest Douche In The Universe – thank you South Park). As any scientist will tell you, your sample size has to be of a sufficient size to rule out such things as random chance, lucky guesses and personal bias. Your average TV medium knows this, too, but in their case the sample size needs to be large to increase the chance of a confirmation and not to reduce the chance of error or flawed data. When using the scientific method, your test needs to be double-blind – that is, neither the researchers or subjects can know if their pill is a placebo or the real thing until after the testing. If you are testing psychics, ideally your subjects and your research team shouldn’t know who is the “real” psychic and who is just there as a “non-psychic” control (but still using identified cold-reading techniques indistinguishable from the “real thing”). Similarly your psychics shouldn’t know who are believers and who aren’t, and the subjects should be forbidden from responding positively or negatively during their reading, lest their responses steer the psychics in any way – if you’re psychic, you shouldn’t need GPS, you should know where you’re going. In the case of John Edwards and other TV psychics, I think it’s safe to assume that at least half the people in the audience are there in the first place purely because they know of John Edwards, believe he’s legitimate and want to hear from a departed loved one. Given that John Edwards’ staff are known to screen his audiences for him (similar to how televangelists screen those who are to be “healed” on stage, eliminating anyone whose condition probably won’t respond to bullshit), how about we conservatively lift that proportion to two-thirds. Then, unleash Edwards. Using his scattergun approach, he can then aim at a group of, say, 50+ year-old women with expressions of great hope on their faces and mention something about, for example, a departed man with a bald patch, possibly something about cancer or heart disease and throw in a light-hearted, affectionate mention of a strong personality but with a big ol’ soft heart under the tough exterior. Well, how many women in their 50s do you think would have lost a brother, uncle, father, grandfather to one of the two biggest killers of men over 50? How many people would say, especially after someone’s death, lovely things like “they were a big softy on the inside” and choose not to focus on any character flaws they may have had? “Strong personality” might be a post-mortem mutation of “aggressive domineering bastard.” Whichever, I think they point here is pretty clear: anyone who is even a little observant could make it as a reader; you just have to have the balls to put yourself out there and bullshit people for a living (Stan Marsh illustrated that very point in the above-referenced South Park episode – to his extreme annoyance people still flocked to him for “readings” even after he told them he was full of it and explained precisely how he was getting his “hits” and how many misses he was glossing over).

As someone who was once a Fox Mulder but evolved into a Dana Scully (she always looked better in heels and an overcoat than Fox), I’m able to see this from both sides. I did once believe that life, of a sort, followed death and that dead people could pass messages to the living. However, this was based on wishful thinking (my grandfather Bill, who was awesome, died in 1991 when I was 15 and I still miss the guy) and on a lack of information. Everything science & medicine knows (and continues to reveal) about the brain points to a physical root cause for the mind, for consciousness and for self-awareness. If it were not the case and some kind of immortal soul or spirit was actually behind who we really are, severe brain injuries should, in theory, have no effect on how our minds function. If our conscious selves are separate from our physical selves, how is that a good friend of mine changed into a totally different person after her car was hit by a truck, nearly killing her and critically damaging her brain? How was it that she had to basically re-learn the entire English language and re-learn who all her friends were (also, we all had to readjust to her new personality)? How was it my other grandfather (who passed in 1989) completely forgot in his last years who my mother was and continually spoke to her as if she was his wife? If consciousness and the mind are products of an ethereal spirit unconnected to the physical body – a spirit which survives death, of all things, the mere fact of a physical deterioration or trauma to a person’s brain tissue shouldn’t have such an effect on their personality, memories, cognition, language – and all the things that the brain governs – should it? People once believed mental illness was caused by demonic possession – now with each passing day we’re learning more and more about how infections, trauma, congenital defects as well as environmental factors affect who we are and why we behave as we do. If “you” are your immortal spirit and not a product of biochemistry (among other things), surely “you” shouldn’t change just because your vehicle gets sick.

The point is that every psychic I’ve ever seen or heard about has been nothing more than a clever charlatan with great observational skills. They all start by casting wide nets of generalisations then slowly narrow their focus on any response which supports their statements, all the while ignoring anything which doesn’t fit (in this, the subject is complicit – it takes two to tango, as they say) or, in K’s case, blaming the subject for not confirming the reading.

The belief that consciousness lives on after the death of the body which supports it is untestable, unprovable and unfalsifiable. You can’t prove OR disprove it (as always, it’s up to those who claim the truth of a proposition to provide evidence for it and not the other way around and such evidence has not been furnished), yet people make their livings – very handsome livings in many cases – claiming to talk to extinguished minds. Our Kiwi psychic did absolutely nothing to support the myth of psychic ability, life beyond death or immortal non-physical consciousness. Initially it disappointed me that such repeatedly debunked pseudo-religious woo-woo was getting nationwide airplay on a popular radio station, but K ended up making himself look like both a rank amateur and a complete charlatan at the same time, without any help from anyone in the room. I’m sure this farce wouldn’t have de-convinced any true believers but hey, these cranks aren’t about changing skeptics’ opinions, they’re about pandering to peoples’ superstitions and preaching to the converted – hell, K proved you don’t even have to be good at it!

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Category: Fraud, ignorance

About the Author ()

Hank was born of bird-watching bushwalking music-loving parents from whom he gained his love of nature, the universe & bicycles. Today he’s a musician, non-profit aid worker, beagle keeper and fair & balanced internet commentator – but that just means he has a chip on each shoulder.

Comments (16)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Hank: I loved reading this. Great descriptions.

    I especially enjoyed the section of the problems of mind-body dualism. Amen, man. How utterly and undeniably true. Your examples annihilate dualism. No need to read 863 philosophy books. The argument is over.

    If only most media hosts would clamp down on these charlatans (like Matt and Jo did). Bring them on and make them prove their skills, which they won't, then send them back to the psychic fairs where they spend most of their weekends.

    Last year, I had a bit of fun hiring a tarot reader to tell me about myself. After a spectacular beginning (that had even me wondering), she completely crumbled. I wasn't trying to embarrass her–I actually thought she was pleasant and her red, green and yellow hair made her look the part.

  2. Hank says:

    Your tarot story was classic! She may not have been all that accurate (especially about your family's reproductive history – she seemed to miss all the bases there) but hey, something has to pay for her hair-dye I suppose. We all have a vice and every vice has a price.

    I'd like more radio & tv stations to ignore these nutter but they know that this woo-woo crap sells advertising space regardless of its truth, and that many people regard it just as entertainment. I'm sure the percentage of people who actually believe that some people talk to ghosts isn't that high – then again, a large number of people believe Genesis is a sodding textbook.

    Having said that, I can only think of two examples of woo-based series on Aussie non-cable tv right now: Medium (entertaining I'll admit) and Ghost Whisperer (execrable, beyond doubt). Doctor Who, Star Trek & Buffy re-runs don't count. I'm sure far fewer people actually believe in Daleks, vampires and Klingons than in seeing dead people.

    Countering those, we have Bones (naturalist forensic scientist + Catholic cop partner); The Mentalist (former psychic scammer turned police consultant uses his cold-reading skills to nail crooks); Lie To Me (lead character nails crooks using ninja body language skills to expose deception); all the CSI franchises (different characters and locations but each one based on evidence, evidence, evidence and all featuring labs lit like singles bars); Mythbusters (not strictly science but certainly employing the scientific method to test urban legends); Catalyst (a great Aussie magazine program purely about the latest in science) and probably a few others. Occasionally there are short series about psychic police investigations on tv or a John Edward series, but they don't seem to last long.

    Not that I have a problem with fantasy though – I'm sure Ghost Whisperer has some good moments that don't involve J-Love-Hew's cleavage (though I'm not convinced) and most of my bookshelves are lined with science fiction and graphic novels about Batman. I'm happy to suspend my disbelief and just go with a good story (I still quite like Medium, even though the real-life Alison DuBois seems like a bit of a shrew). I do, however, have a problem with people presenting fantasy as reality and especially making cash from vulnerable people for powers they plainly don't have. That includes healin' evangelists (cue accusations of anti-hick bigotry), TV psychics like Douche Boy and astrologers (but they're a whooole other post).

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Hank, I am beginning to see the differences between Ozzies and Kiwis.

    Tarot card readers always make me think of a bit from T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland"

    "Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,

    Had a bad cold, nevertheless

    Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,

    With a wicked pack of cards. "

    If she knew the future then why didn't she avoid catching the cold?

  4. Hank says:

    I don't hold K's New Zealandness against him – every country produces idiots in vast quantity. But really, this shuyster really should've done some homework on Matt & Jo beforehand. Sure, that's cheating, but con artist needs a plan B (unless he believes his own bollocks).

    The main difference between Aussies and Kiwis is that Aussies are better than Kiwis at everything (except rugby, trimming giant hedges & letting gays get married – all of which could be combined in the right euphemism). We have more species of poisonous octopus than they have sheep and hobbits put together. Apart from that we share lots of common ground. For example:

    – both countries produced America's most famous creationists, namely Ken Ham (Oz) and Ray Comfort (NZ). Both chumps realised they had to go to America to make a living from being ignorant bastards (no offence intended to any Americans or ignorant bastards).

    – Russell Crowe was born in NZ but has lived here most of his life. We claim him when he's being good (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind) and blame them when he's hitting people or playing in his godawful band.

    Hmm. That's all I got now, but I'm sure there's more…

  5. Mindy Carney says:

    Here in the land of ignorant bastards, we fervently hope that the rest of the world is not clued in to the fact that other ignorant bastards can come here and make a living being same to audiences of same. Damn. We've been found out down under.

    Thanks, Hank, for bursting my bubble.

  6. Hank says:

    I sure didn’t mean to imply you guys have a monopoly on ignorant bastards! Hell, we just voted out a pack of them that ran the country for 11 years. We may have replaced them with a bunch only marginally less bastardy, but I digress …

    There are plenty of ways ignorant Aussie & Kiwi bastards can make a living at home – including being a creo whackjob fundie! It’s just that we’re a small country (only 20 million, NZ is 4 mil) and, while our ignorant bastard percentage (or IBP) is likely to be the same as in the US, the US beats us in real numbers (300 million of you! Beats me how Cuba and Vietnam are still on the map, but I digress again). You can be a comfy ignorant bastard down here but if you want to make really big bucks for Jesus, you must go to the bigger market.

    Building Ken Ham’s Whacky Flinstones Museum in Australia wouldn’t have been feasible from a funding and patronage point of view (and for the Aussie tradition of natural history museums being run by the Big Science Conspiracy [oh, but I’ve said too much!] and not Hanna-Barbera literalists). Also, Ray Comfort soon found out that the idiot market in New Zealand, while pretty strong (see: Russell Crowe), couldn’t hold a candle to the shining beacon of American fundamentalism (he bypassed Australia completely after hearing about our legions of acid-spitting attack parrots – it’s a rumour we’ve been spreading for years).

  7. Mindy Carney says:

    ::::excitedly waving hand in air while bouncing up and down::::: Attack parrots?! Cool! Me, pick me!! I want one!!! Where does one get one of those jaunty, helpful pets? Perhaps you could FedEx one to me, carefully concealed as a "regular" live-animal-please-exercise-caution package? I won't tell anyone where I got it, I swear.

    That'll teach the ignorant little bastards-in-training who tromp down my breezeway and turn on my spigot right before dropping their junk food wrappers in my yard . . . .

  8. Tony Coyle says:

    Hank: Does PZ know about your multitudinous poisonous octopi?

    When I moved to the US (in '95) it appeared to be moving towards secularism – how was I to know the 'tards were merely biding their time! (Unlike them, I don't claim the power of prophesy)

    My wife and I have been looking with envy at Australia – it's just so far away from family and friends (but then again – it's really far away from family! 😛 ). Kiwiville seems just a little parochial for us!

  9. Mindy Carney says:

    Geez, Tony, don't go now. We're finally just starting to MAYBE head back toward secularism. It will be a long, slow journey, made all the slower should intellects like yours up and vacate!

    Stay a while longer, help us fight the good fight. We're not as loud as they are. We need the brain cells.

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    Acid-spitting attack parrots? Is that a metaphor?

  11. Hank says:

    Mindy, we jealously guard our parrots o' doom (aka "horrorkeets"). No can do I'm afraid. You could always import some drop-bears though!

    Tony, I've yet to compare notes with PZ on Aussie cephalopods, but I must say it was very heartening when I discovered his affinity for our squishy overlords.

    As for NZ, it's brilliant. Nice people, amazing scenery, great weather, beautiful roads (though hard to appreciate in a campervan). Mrs Hank & I honeymooned there in '06 and always talk about going back (and I'll be renting something fast & British to take on some of those nice roads). He'll I'd happily retire there. Tomorrow! And raise hobbits.

  12. Hank says:

    Erich: horrorkeets, drop-bears and hoop-snakes are part of that great Aussie tradition of "lying through our teeth to make Aussie wildlife seem more bizarre and scary than it already is in order to freak out foreigners." But when I think about it, there's really no need to embellish our fauna's lethality 🙂

  13. Mindy Carney says:

    I'm trying to imagine the scope of the damage a drop-bear can do. OR a hoop-snake. A drop-bear – does he attack with his droppings? By dropping items on his prey? By dropping in on his prey before eating them? By dropping from a tree or a balcony and landing on his prey? Just curious.

    And the snake – – has a hoop and lassos prey, or perhaps disguises his snakely self AS a hoop, and just as the hips start gyrating, unhoops himself and sinks in his fangs? OR stays hooped, just squeezing smaller and smaller until suffocation is the obvious end?

    Will I be punished for devolving a comment thread down to it the essence of drivel?

  14. Tony Coyle says:

    nd raise hobbits.

    what's wrong with leaving them the size they are?

  15. Tony Coyle says:

    Mindy – I'll stay, but just for you!

  16. Tony Coyle says:

    regarding Australian 'wildlife' — you have nothing to compare with the wild haggis, native to Scotland!

    The haggis (g. nutrimens occultii) is an elusive creature that requires great stealth and intelligence to catch. It exists in great abundance, yet the lack of sightings 'in the wild' attest to it's uncanny stealth abilities. (I understand it was from the haggis that the skunkworks discovered how to make stealth aircraft – and not many people know that!)

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