Interest in the supernatural has never been greater. But should you believe it? This is the fourth and final excerpt from Vicki Hyde's book on the science of the paranormal.
Humans have always wanted to know what was in store in life or in death. We've looked to the stars, peered at chicken entrails, and swirled thousands of cups of tea leaves. These days you can have astrological predictions texted direct to your cellphone. The technology may have changed but the hopes and hype haven't.
At the end of each year, tabloids and respectable publications fill their pages with psychic predictions for the year ahead. There are two things these regular features have in common: a large proportion of predictions are wrong, even when plausible instead of downright silly, and they consistently miss the truly surprising huge news events of the year.
For 1997, psychics predicted that Diana, Princess of Wales, would be crowned Queen of England or move to South Africa to train as an Olympic marathon runner or gain vast amounts of weight. What they didn't predict was Diana's sudden shocking death.
For 2001, psychics predicted that the nine US Supreme Court judges would vanish, a new ocean would be formed by the Mississippi flooding and Al Gore's wife would join the Taliban. And the big story they missed - the 9/11 attack.
In 2004 the more plausible predictions involved the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro. All wrong. What did the psychics miss? Just the massive Boxing Day tsunami that saw 214,000 people die across 11 countries.
The Ministry of Consumer Affairs has identified 40 or so outright scams involving the services of astrologers, psychics or clairvoyants. The old adage "cross my palm with silver" has been replaced by online real-time credit-card processing and automated billing.
Whether working an 0900 phone- line, in a television studio or a darkened seance room, using astrology or tarot cards, talking to the dead or channelling aliens, the techniques are all the same. And they involve human psychology rather than paranormal powers.
The most common approach involves cold reading, a term used by magicians to cover a set of techniques that can be used to psychologically manipulate people. It combines basic psychology, flattery, suggestion and statistics to get someone to agree with you - politicians and used car salesmen do this all the time. Dress this up in a paranormal context and it can provide a very powerful impression that special powers are involved.
Psychic readings often begin with a statement that rings true:
* You have some concerns in your life - money problems, relationship issues, a desire for a career change, possibly a health worry.
But then doesn't everyone? Much more impressive are the small details that mediums apparently reveal:
* You have an item of jewellery that is associated with the loved one.
But it's not uncommon for widows to continue to wear a wedding ring, or for people attending a medium's performance to bring a ring or a watch in the hope of some spiritual connection.
The books which teach cold reading list common experiences that can be exploited to make a reading sound specific:
* You have a box of photos you keep meaning to put in an album.
* You owe someone a letter.
* You have an old item of clothing in your wardrobe that no longer fits you.
* You have a broken cup which has some meaning for you so you haven't thrown it away.
* You had a special toy as a child.
Sound familiar? Humans are very good at finding patterns and meaning, seizing on connections as meaningful and personal. We are prone to remembering only the times a perceived pattern was confirmed and don't readily recall the experiences that provide counter-examples. It's a rare person who thinks, "Gee, I felt something bad was going to happen today and nothing did!"
WHAT DO you think of this description of you:
* You have a need for other people to like and admire you and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
That profile fits you and me and just about everyone else. It is an example of what is known as a Barnum statement, a generalised description that 80-90% of people will accept as describing themselves reasonably accurately. Whether presented as the result of astrological calculations, psychic readings or job assessment testing, if people think that it has been specially composed to describe them, they rate it as highly accurate.
Psychics typically fish, using vague statements with follow-up questions to pull out information that can then be woven into the reading. A very common fishing opening for mediums is:
* I see a father figure near you. Does that make sense?
By agreeing that this must be your father (or grandfather or uncle or . . .), you have been manipulated into validating the psychic's statement, making you more likely to agree with them as the reading goes on and, unwittingly, providing information the medium can feed back into the reading.
Another fishing phrase is "I am getting a strong feeling about [insert noun here]". It could be a season, a country, an activity, but the general intention is to draw information from you. People will cheerfully chatter away, not realising that they are providing the revealing information.
Any response is quickly followed by the psychic affirming it, to encourage you to think they have revealed the information to you, or knew about it all along.
Here is an example from a public show by New Zealand medium Jeanette Wilson:
JW: Does the name Frank have any meaning for you?
Subject: My father was Frank.
JW: Yes, that's right. I understand.
An experienced reporter later recalled Wilson as having specifically told the subject that his father was called Frank, when she did no such thing. Even those whose job depends on careful listening and recall can be easily misdirected.
Mediums never come up with names like Piripi Te Aorangi or Sione, but concentrate on relatively common men's names. A widow-heavy clientele makes that a necessary line but, more subtly, men often have traditional family names. So, instead of names like Dwayne or Dylan, mediums will ask about John or Michael, Charles or Richard, William or David.
It would be surprising if you couldn't think of someone with the name John in your extended family. Mediums boost the odds by accepting middle names, nicknames, friends and colleagues - and they don't even have to be dead to count as a hit. That can be explained away by saying the spirit world is watching over the living person. Mediums will commonly fire out a dozen names per reading, so it would be very surprising if they missed getting at least one apparent hit.
Some psychics hedge their bets even further by providing an initial. Few get quite as ludicrous as one desperate medium who, on not being able to get his subject to recall any special name beginning with "M", finally blurted out, "Ah, it's M for mother!"
Psychics have standard techniques to cover their errors. One is to blame the subject, telling them that they don't know enough about their own family history and will need to check it out, or that they will find out later, or even that they have suppressed the memory.
Another is the vanishing negative, where any answer can be turned into a hit. Thus a psychic may ask, "Do you work with children?" If you say yes then they'll respond with "Yes, I thought so"; if you say no they'll respond with "I didn't think so". Either way, they win.
TV psychics have the huge advantage of having their mistakes and dead ends edited out. What you see is usually as good as it can possibly get; raw footage makes it clear that the same techniques and patter are used over and over again. With a recorded television performance, you don't usually get to see the prompting and affirmations and other cues that the mediums rely on, whether consciously or subconsciously, to make themselves look good. When assessing a psychic, don't judge them by their demeanour. Many people in this industry are sincere, well-meaning individuals and they are almost impossible to distinguish from the con artists.
Record any interview and listen carefully to the words used, how much information you are giving and how often the psychic simply reflects that back. Transcribe the words to paper and note the number of open-ended questions, the number of spurious affirmations, the pauses waiting for confirmation or information, the use of common names or obvious inferences. Think about whether the evidence you are being presented with is really good enough to change how you think about the world.
Despite supportive media coverage and gushy testimonials, it looks like many New Zealanders have cottoned on to the level of credibility of this industry. A 2006 Reader's Digest survey of the least-trusted professions put psychics at the bottom of the list alongside car salesmen, politicians, telemarketers and real estate agents.
Abridged from Oddzone (New Holland, $24.95), an investigation into paranormal New Zealand, by Vicki Hyde, chair of the NZ Skeptics and managing editor of award-winning international science and technology review site SciTechdaily.com.
BOX: SENSING NONSENSE
ALICIA O'REILLY has been able to provide a detailed description of the man who murdered her," said Rebecca Gibney, presenting one show in the psychic sleuth series Sensing Murder. Yes, the show was claiming unequivocally that a six-year- old girl, raped and murdered 26 years earlier, had finally fingered the man who killed her.
As it turned out, this outlandish announcement had very little actual evidence to back it up, just like so many claims of psychics working with missing persons or murder cases.
So what sort of things should you look for when assessing a claim that psychics can help solve unsolved cases?
* Look for extravagant claims which have minimal evidence supporting them.
In the episode "A Bump in the Dark", about the rape and murder of Alicia O'Reilly, Gibney opened one segment by stating: "The psychics had established key facts about the dead girl's personality."
But had they? One said Alicia was a little shy, which didn't match her mother's description of an outgoing, highly energetic, rather rambunctious personality. The psychics described Alicia as happy and friendly and playful - but then these are common attributes for any six-year-old girl and very unlikely to be challenged as untrue.
* Listen for truisms being touted as amazing revelations.
Psychic Kelvin Cruickshank pronounced, "It sounds a little weird, but she must have been buried in a white coffin." But there is nothing weird about a little girl being buried in a white coffin - it's a fairly common practice for children's funerals.
* Listen for obvious cueing and changes of tack or spurious affirmations when an error is noted.
Cruickshank, looking at Alicia's drawings, spotted her pet - her dog, he announced. Off-camera someone said "a cat". The film crew knew there was a cat in the household as it had been part of the mother's story. "Oh, cat is it?" said Cruickshank. "Oh, it is too."
* See if you can identify a clear factual statement that can be checked out.
This is harder then it sounds, as unequivocal statements are not part of the psychic stock in trade. It can also be difficult to check facts without having personal contacts or knowledge to draw upon. That said, there was something in the Sensing Murder programme about Alicia that could be checked. Cruickshank made much of Alicia talking about children's television show What Now? and how that must have been a Saturday morning treat for her, adding that this clearly indicated her murder took place in the 80s. This was made more dramatic by a voiceover noting that Alicia had been murdered in 1980.
However, according to TVNZ, What Now? didn't go on air until nine months after Alicia's murder . . .
- Sunday Star Times