We live in a world where pseudo-scientific notions flourish, particularly on social media. Most daily papers run a horoscope column (see our blog post on Astrology). At the end of the year, we are frequently bombarded by predictions for the coming year by ‘psychics.’ These people claim to possess paranormal powers that they ascribe to a number of different sources. We have already mentioned astrology, but others claim that their powers arise from psychometry (this is said to be the ability to make relevant associations from an object of unknown history by making physical contact with that object). Still others resort to numerology for their predictions, while other groups claim that they possess the power of remote viewing (the ability to glean information about an object or person far removed from the viewer).
It should be emphasized that there is no known scientific origin for any of these methods of extrasensory perception. Furthermore, ‘experiments’ that claim to have validated these powers have been called into question. As scientists, we should approach claims of paranormal powers with a great deal of skepticism. At the same time, we should leave open the possibility that a person claiming these powers might actually possess them. While we remain extremely dubious about these powers, we should be sufficiently humble to acknowledge such powers if they are proved beyond reasonable doubt. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that maxim generally attributed to Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” We should also be mindful of Occam’s Razor, namely that if one has two or more explanations of a phenomenon, the simpler of the two hypotheses is nearly always the correct one.
In this post, we will confine our study to three different questions. First, can psychics or mediums communicate with the dead? Second, can psychics foretell the future? And third, can psychics solve crimes? But first we will begin by reviewing the past century of debunking, We will discuss a few of the most prominent debunkers of claims by psychics.
Some Prominent Skeptics:
A landmark in the development of science is the idea that events can be linked to physical causes, and that our present circumstances can be understood as the result of prior physical causes. The early scientists who promulgated these precepts were vindicated as we developed a phenomenology of physical laws. Thus, events that at one time were ascribed to the actions of gods (e.g., natural disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes or hurricanes) can now be understood as the consequences of basic physical laws. Phenomena that once were predicted by soothsayers, or were thought to be precursors of fateful events (e.g., eclipses, comets, supernovae) are once again explained by the physical and chemical laws governing astronomical bodies. And the beautiful and complicated structure of the Earth and its creatures, once ascribed to divine intervention, can now be seen as the result of billions of years of evolution.
Skeptics today are the descendants of several hundred years of scientists. They arise in opposition to those who claim divine or magical powers, as did ancient (and current) astrologers and spiritualists. In this post, we will discuss the contributions of three noted skeptics from the late 19th century on. As will become clear, in analyzing the claims of psychics and mediums, magicians are uniquely qualified to critique these people, as the methods used to “demonstrate” psychic powers turn out to be indistinguishable from the tricks used by magicians to amaze and delight the public. The three people we review are Harry Houdini, Martin Gardner and James Randi.
Harry Houdini was the best-known escape artist and illusionist of the late 19th and early 20th century. He was born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874. In 1878, his family emigrated to the U.S., where his father became a rabbi in Appleton, Wisconsin, and they took the name Weiss. Harry Houdini was an excellent athlete; he made his debut as a trapeze artist at the age of nine. Next, Harry took up card tricks and a magic act. At that time, he was regarded as merely a competent magician.
However, Harry soon gained world-wide fame as an escape artist. After gaining some fame in the States, Houdini embarked on a European tour. In London, he gave a demonstration at Scotland Yard where he baffled the lawmen by escaping from handcuffs and chains. Houdini then became an overnight sensation and played to packed audiences at vaudeville halls. Houdini was an expert at picking locks and escaping from handcuffs. Later in his life, he showed how many locks could be opened by clever application of force. In other cases, a shoelace would open a lock; and when all else failed, Houdini would conceal keys or lockpicks on his person. Houdini’s athleticism also helped him with his escape tricks.
Figure 1: Harry Houdini would escape from situations where he was bound with a series of locks and chains.
Eventually, Houdini devised more difficult and dangerous stunts. He escaped from straitjackets while suspended from a crane, and escaped from a wooden box into which he was placed while tied up with a series of locks and handcuffs. But his most famous stunts involved escapes while under water. He invented a trick called the “Chinese Water Torture.” Here, Houdini’s legs were locked in stocks, and he was lowered head-first into a tank filled with water. The stocks were locked to the top of the tank, and a curtain was lowered over the tank, which was covered with padlocks. After a few minutes, Houdini would appear, having unlocked himself and escaped from the tank.
In another escapade, Houdini was bound with handcuffs and shackles, then placed inside a packing crate that was filled with 200 pounds of lead and nailed shut. The crate, with Houdini inside, was then lowered into the New York Harbor on a cable. Within a minute, Houdini appeared at the surface; when the crate was pulled up, it was still nailed shut, with the padlocks and handcuffs inside.
Figure 2: Harry Houdini, with his legs bound in stocks, being lowered into a tank of water.
Houdini enjoyed a good challenge, but occasionally he took great risks. In 1915, Houdini was buried alive in a stunt near Santa Ana, California. He was lowered into a hole six feet deep, and earth was shoveled over him. Houdini had apparently not taken account of the weight of the earth above him, or its density. The pressure of the earth made it nearly impossible for him to breathe. Houdini lost consciousness just as his hand broke the surface, and he had to be dragged unconscious out of the pit by his assistants.
At the height of his fame, Harry Houdini organized a nationwide guild of magicians. As the head of this organization, he began a bitter feud with people who claimed to have paranormal powers. As a magician, Houdini was intimately familiar with the misdirection and sleight-of-hand used to perform magic tricks. He was quick to expose people who claimed to have paranormal powers. For example, Houdini made an enemy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes tales. Conan Doyle was an ardent believer in spiritualism. Initially, Conan Doyle believed that Houdini possessed mystical powers. But when Houdini began to debunk the tricks played by charlatans, Sir Arthur bitterly opposed him.
Houdini exposed as frauds a number of people who held seances, and who pretended to be in contact with the spirits of the departed. He showed how these people would convince gullible spectators that tables were moving by the powers of spirits, he also revealed how the effects of spirit rapping or knocking were carried out, and he caught various spiritualists using cheesecloth daubed with fluorescent paint, passing it off as an “ectoplasmic medium.” In 1926, Houdini paid H.P. Lovecraft and C.M. Eddy to write a book with the working title The Cancer of Superstition. The book was intended to debunk religious miracles. Houdini had also contracted Lovecraft to write an article debunking astrology. However, in October 1926, Houdini died of peritonitis from a burst appendix, and the manuscripts on astrology and religious miracles were never completed.
Harry Houdini used his fame as a magician to demonstrate how people claiming to possess paranormal powers were instead simply using tricks known to magicians. His work had a major impact during his lifetime, when seances were extremely popular, and mediums who conducted these seances could earn a great deal of money. Houdini also inspired later generations of magicians to continue his work in debunking such groups. Magicians like James Randi, who used the stage name “The Amazing Randi,” and the contemporary duo Penn and Teller, have been instrumental in exposing charlatans and showing how they accomplish their feats.
Martin Gardner was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in Oct. 1914. He first became interested in puzzles when his father gave him a copy of Sam Loyd’s Cyclopedia of 5,000 Puzzles, Tricks and Conundrums. Gardner earned a degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago and served in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
Figure 3: Martin Gardner, at the time when he worked for Scientific American.
Gardner then became an editor and writer at the children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty. One of his contributions to that magazine was a series of paper-folding puzzles for children. From that job, he then became a contributor to Scientific American, for whom he wrote a column called Mathematical Games. Gardner continued with his Mathematical Games column for 25 years, and his expositions on recreational mathematics and his fascination with puzzles inspired a generation of readers. Several mathematicians and scientists pointed to Gardner’s mathematical works as the inspiration for them to go into these fields. For example, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins were admirers of Gardner, as were science-fiction writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
Martin Gardner’s columns introduced readers to M.C. Escher’s work, and his column also included information on Penrose tiles, and many other topics. John Horton Conway, the creator of Conway’s Game of Life that was reviewed by Gardner, called him “The most learned man I have ever met.” And Noam Chomsky said that “Martin Gardner’s contribution to contemporary intellectual culture is unique – in its range, its insight, and understanding of hard questions that matter.”
Martin Gardner freely admitted that he struggled with calculus in high school, and he never took a math course in college. Nevertheless, he was able to explain complicated mathematical notions to millions of people who read his Scientific American columns and his books. Perhaps even more remarkable is that on several occasions Gardner inspired famous mathematicians to collaborate on topics in pure math, through his communications with notable figures in the field of mathematics. For example, Gardner introduced John Horton Conway to Benoit Mandelbrot because he knew they were both interested in Penrose tiles. And Gardner also was responsible for a collaboration between Conway, Elwyn Berlekamp and Richard Guy that produced a seminal monograph on combinatorial game theory.
Martin Gardner wrote a series of books on puzzles and games that derived from his Scientific American columns. He also wrote about works by his favorite authors, including particularly Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum. He was extremely prolific, eventually publishing over 100 books. Gardner’s best-selling book ever was his commentary on Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland books called The Annotated Alice.
Martin Gardner was fascinated by magic and was himself a talented magician. Like Harry Houdini before him, Martin Gardner was a fierce critic of pseudoscientists, and he organized his criticism into the 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. This book can be thought of as the first major work in the modern skeptical movement. In this book, Gardner skewered fads such as Flat Earth theory, homeopathy, dowsing, extra-sensory perception, numerology, Dianetics and creationism. Gardner later wrote several follow-up books that confronted other pseudoscientific notions.
Figure 4: Martin Gardner’s 1952 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science.
So it is not surprising that in 1976, Martin Gardner teamed up with philosopher Paul Kurtz, magician James Randi, sociologist Marcello Truzzi and psychologist Ray Hyman to form the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, abbreviated CSICOP. We will discuss CSICOP in more detail in our next sketch about James Randi. That organization produced a periodical called Skeptical Inquirer, and for 20 years Gardner contributed a monthly column called Notes of a Fringe-Watcher. Collections of those Gardner columns were subsequently published in five books.
One of the last topics that Gardner took on before his death in 2010 was the “dubious medical opinions and bogus science” promoted by Oprah Winfrey. Gardner was particularly harsh in criticizing Winfrey’s support for the pseudo-scientific notion that vaccines cause autism. Skeptical Inquirer named Martin Gardner as one of the Ten Outstanding Skeptics of the Twentieth Century.
Martin Gardner considered magician and skeptic James Randi his closest friend. Indeed, the two combined a love of magic with a clear-headed disdain for people who claim paranormal powers but instead rely on the distraction and misdirection common in magic tricks. We agree with the Skeptical Inquirer staff: Martin Gardner was one of the great skeptics of the 20th century, or for that matter, any century.
Randall Zwinge was born in Toronto in 1928. As a youth he was seriously injured in a bicycle accident that put him in a body cast for 13 months, and left some doubt as to whether he would ever walk again. During that time, he read books on magic and conjuring. He then dropped out of high school and for a time he performed as a conjurer in a carnival roadshow.
Taking the name James Randi and performing as The Amazing Randi, he then embarked on a career as a magician and conjurer. In addition to performing magjc tricks, he also emulated a number of Houdini’s escape routines while handcuffed from jail cells, safes and under water. For example, in 1976 Randi escaped from a straitjacket while suspended over Niagara Falls. He also worked with rock ‘n roll singer Alice Cooper’s tour for a year, and he designed the guillotine used by Cooper to fake his decapitation during shows.
Figure 5: Magician and skeptic James Randi
As an expert magician, James Randi was readily able to spot psychics who used conjuring tricks that were well known to magicians, to convince the gullible that they possessed psychic powers. At this point, Randi began to “out” fakers when he caught them. Randi achieved widespread renown beginning in 1972, when he claimed that Uri Geller was a fraud. Geller had gained worldwide fame for claims that he had psycho-kinetic powers; his most famous exploits involved causing spoons to bend with “his mind.” Gullible observers claimed that Geller had picked up the metal utensils, and had caused them to bend simply by concentrating his mental powers. Randi observed Geller on a few occasions; however, whenever Geller was subjected to a rigorous set of conditions demanded by Randi, Geller was never able to bend the items. Figure 6 shows a collection of metal utensils that were claimed to have been bent by Geller’s mental powers.
Figure 6: Spoons and forks that were supposedly bent by Uri Geller’s mental powers.
This led to a long series of charges and counter-charges between Randi and Geller. Geller’s devotees claimed that he had genuine psychic powers, while Randi claimed that Geller was performing simple and easily explained conjuring tricks. A major event was Geller’s appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Carson, who himself was an amateur magician, brought Randi onto the show along with Geller. Geller was subsequently unable to bend any of the items given to him. However, Geller’s popularity unexpectedly increased after the Carson debacle, as his followers claimed that Geller’s occasional failures to perform his “feats” only proved that he had legitimate mental powers (a “magician” would be able to perform the feats every time).
At this point, Randi pointed out that the “tests” of Geller’s powers that were designed by scientists and journalists were seriously flawed. He emphasized the necessity of involving professional magicians in such tests, as magicians were aware of the deception and mis-direction common to magic tricks. In fact, scientists turned out to be rather poor at spotting frauds. Scientists are proud of their powers of observation and their ability to conduct experiments; however, scientists are not used to subjects that deliberately deceive them. Thus, many people claiming paranormal powers were able to fool teams of scientists. However, when magicians were added as observers and were allowed to devise the conditions for tests, the psychics invariably failed, and frequently were caught attempting to cheat.
In 1976, James Randi became a co-founder of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, or CSICOP. Other co-founders included Ray Hyman and Martin Gardner, and the group was aligned with the Center for Inquiry run by Paul Kurtz. CSICOP had a novel method of operating. First, it took claims of paranormal powers seriously. Although the CSICOP teams had a great deal of skepticism regarding such claims, they would construct meticulous experiments that were designed to prevent any known examples of cheating. It always involved magicians in creating the protocols for testing claims of psychic powers, and in observing the claimants. And it publicized the results of the tests, frequently taping them for documentaries on claims of the paranormal.
James Randi offered a $10,000 prize of his own money to anyone who could display paranormal powers under trials arranged by CSICOP. Randi drew up legal documents that described, in great detail, the protocols for each test, and also the specific outcomes that he and the claimant would accept as having demonstrated paranormal powers (it is common for so-called psychics to retroactively claim that they succeeded, even after tests where they clearly failed, and Randi’s documents were drawn up to prevent this). Both the investigators and the mediums signed the documents prior to the tests.
Randi was one of the main figures who designed the testing protocols. For example, Randi participated in testing people who claimed that they could communicate with the deceased. Historically, these “conversations” with the dead occurred at seances where a medium would gather around a table with relatives of the departed. “Proofs” that a medium was in touch with the spirit world would often involve the table suddenly moving, tipping or even bouncing across the room. Randi knew that, if you inscribe a square inside a circular table, a person can cause the table to tip or rotate by placing their hands outside that inscribed square, and either pressing down hard or drawing their hands rapidly toward their body. This is shown in Figure 7, where the gray area denotes the part of the circle outside the inscribed square.
Figure 7: A circular table. The gray area denotes the part of that table outside of a square inscribed inside the circle.
So Randi insisted that the medium not contact the table in the area outside the inscribed square. Furthermore, he placed a sheet of waxed paper underneath each hand of the medium. The waxed paper prevented the medium from drawing the table towards them. Randi took equally stringent precautions to prevent the medium from tipping the table by inserting a foot under one of the legs. Needless to say, no tables moved during sessions monitored by Randi and his CSICOP colleagues. About 100 years earlier, Michael Faraday had tested mediums by placing a board atop a table, with ball bearings under the board. The medium had to place their hands on the board. This setup also prevented the medium from tipping the table if they placed their fingers on the board, which could easily slide horizontally but could not make the table tip.
Randi and his CSICOP colleagues also tested a number of “dowsers,” people who claimed to be able to locate underground running water – in other cases, the dowsers claim to be able to locate oil or gas deposits, or precious metals in the ground. This is often said to be accomplished by holding a pair of metal rods in the hands, or a forked stick, as shown in Figure 8. It is claimed that the rods “dip,” or move actively, when one is directly above the desired underground objects. The rods or stick are held in such a way that the rods are in unstable equilibrium; for a forked stick, this is often accomplished by pulling sideways on the two branches. Under these conditions, small involuntary movements of the hands will cause the rods to move up or down, often dramatically. These sudden movements of the dowsing rods can convince both the dowser and any observers that the rods are reacting to some strong external force.
Figure 8: An old drawing showing various methods of using dowsing rods to locate underground water.
To test the claims of dowsers that they could detect water running underground, Randi produced a square plot 10 meters on a side. He then laid out three different paths of plastic pipe, each pipe being 3 cm in diameter. Water was randomly sent through one of the paths, and the entire grid of pipes was buried under 50 cm of dirt. The dowsers were instructed to walk around the grid and “plot” the location and direction of the flowing water. The dowser would place pegs in the ground directly above the running water. In order for the dowser to be considered a success, the pegs would have to be no more than 10 cm from the actual water flow, and the dowser would have to be successful in mapping at least two of three different tests. In addition to the test while water was running through the system of pipes, the dowsers were also asked to pace around the 10 meter square and locate any “natural” water that was flowing below the grid (while no water was flowing through the pipes); the dowsers were also asked to map the location of any underground minerals below the grid.
Randi tested four dowsers in the town of Formello, about 30 miles outside Rome. All four dowsers claimed an accuracy of between 99 and 100 percent in locating water by dowsing. The dowsers first traversed the grid in order to map out any underground streams. They then walked the grid with their dowsing rods, and placed pegs to show where they had “measured” flowing water. Randi and his colleagues had carefully arranged that the pipes themselves would not vibrate as the water passed through them; he also used a gravity feed, so that the dowsers could not listen for pumps inside the grid.
One of the dowsers was unable to complete the test, so only three dowsers were tested. After the test, but before the results were announced, each dowser was asked how successful they had been. Each dowser predicted that they would be between 90% and 100% successful; indeed, before the test every dowser claimed to have had complete success in all attempts at dowsing. Not surprisingly, all of the three failed miserably to plot the location and direction of the running water. And one of the dowsers claimed that there was no “natural” water inside the grid, while the other two dowsers produced “maps” of the natural underground water that were in complete contradiction.
A blogger named Nicholas runs a site called WestCoastPlacer. He recently uploaded a post called “Deep Dive Into Dowsing.” It was a fairly comprehensive review of dowsing claims, methods, and uses. Nicholas concluded that there was no comprehensible physics behind the dowsing claims, and that it was yet another example of pseudoscience. But ‘Robert,’ one of the people commenting on the WestCoastPlacer site claimed that they were able to “Tune into the frequency of gold and remotely view it on satellite maps from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Then using the scientific John Fales effect in electronics of sympathetic energy frequency connecting identical frequencies gold to gold, etc, we go to the areas and walk straight to it.” So the dowsing world includes those who claim that their techniques work just as well with topographic maps as they do on the Earth itself. Who needs to slog around a meadow with a pair of dowsing rods, when you could work infinitely faster by just moving the rods over a satellite map of, say, Wyoming? By the way, I was unable to locate the “scientific John Fales effect” on Google.
But, you can purchase dowsing rods from Amazon. Here is the description of these two “99% pure copper” dowsing rods, that can be used for “water divining, energy healing, paranormal, gold”, etc. One is directed to hang small bottles of water from the rods if one is looking for water, a piece of jewelry if one searches for gold, and so on. Testimonials from users attest to the efficacy of this product. One satisfied user claimed that they located graves, while another took the rods to a “paranormal investigation” and located a ‘little boy spirit’ in their hotel room. Golly, P.T. Barnum would have loved Amazon!
On founding CSICOP, Randi and his collaborators also created a magazine called Skeptical Inquirer. The Skeptical Inquirer delved into all manner of claims of the paranormal. In this post we will focus on three of these: claims that psychics can communicate with the dead; claims that psychics can foretell the future; and claims that psychics can solve crimes. However, the Skeptical Inquirer published articles on topics as far afield as the Shroud of Turin (claimed to be a cloth that was wrapped around Jesus’ body immediately after his crucifixion), haunted houses, the accuracy of astrologers, efficacy of “magic crystals,” and much more. Both the claims and the tests were described in simple, clear language accessible to anyone with a healthy curiosity.
Figure 9: The Skeptical Inquirer monthly magazine.
James Randi was one of the most articulate spokespersons for CSICOP. He appeared regularly on TV, particularly to challenge people claiming to possess paranormal powers. He was witty, articulate and knowledgeable about his topics. And the contracts he signed with psychics were meticulously designed to remove the ability to cheat on the tests, and to set pre-determined standards as to what constituted success. The $10,000 prize offered by Randi was never claimed by any participant; indeed, eventually CSICOP increased this to a $1 million prize, and it has never been claimed.
In 1986, James Randi was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as a “Genius Grant.” Unfortunately, the bulk of that award was spent defending Randi from several different suits filed by faux-psychic Uri Geller. But Randi continued to use his showmanship to debunk claims of paranormal powers by a host of claimants. Randi also wrote several best-selling books on psychic phenomena; two of his most famous are Flim-Flam!, published in 1982, and the 1995 An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. Randi was an atheist, as were most but not all of the Fellows of CSICOP.
Following a series of health-related issues, James Randi died on October 20, 2020, of what were described as “age-related causes.” A fascinating fellow, an accomplished magician and a born showman, James Randi was one of the major contributors to organized efforts to debunk claims of the paranormal. He inspired a generation of skeptics who followed him. Notable among these were the magicians and skeptics Penn and Teller, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium.
Can Psychics Contact the Dead?
We will call people “mediums” who claim that they possess paranormal powers that allow them to contact dead relatives of people, and to pass along communications from the deceased to their living relatives and friends. This is part of a long historical tradition where people claim to communicate information from another sphere. In ancient times, priests and shamans attempted to bring messages from the gods, or to forecast upcoming events. In the 19th century there was a flourishing trade in mediums, who claimed to be in contact with the spirit world. Often, they would conduct seances with relatives who wished to hear from the deceased. These sessions were often conducted around a table, and would be punctuated by rapid movements of the table, rapping sounds in response to questions, spooky voices, or even appearances of “ectoplasm.”
Figure 10: A séance in the 19th century, with a table that is tipping.
Today, a number of people claim to use paranormal powers to contact the deceased. People will part with a great deal of money in return for the ability to communicate with departed loved ones. We will briefly discuss two people who have gained international fame for their work as a medium. The first is Thomas John Flanagan who is known as Thomas John. Before he began practicing as a medium, Mr. John performed as a drag queen; and in 2009 he pled guilty to posting ads for apartments on Craigslist and then stealing the money given to him as deposits for those apartments. Mr. John is famous for his touring performances in the show the Thomas John Experience.
John Edward McGee is known as John Edward. In 1998, Mr. Edward appeared on the Larry King Live show. This provided him with a great deal of publicity and that allowed him to create a show for TV. From 2001 – 2004, Mr. Edward had a show on the Sci-Fi Channel called Crossing Over with John Edward. From 2006 to 2008, the show John Edward Cross Country appeared on We TV. Mr. Edward has since been involved in touring around the world with his act. In the following sections we will make reference to Mr. John and Mr. Edward regarding their claims of paranormal powers.
The question of whether psychics can contact the dead is quite difficult to assess scientifically. Mediums often perform before groups of people; they call out questions and certain audience members respond. It is problematic to determine the effectiveness of a medium by interviewing their clients after a session. People have a tendency to remember ‘hits,’ and to forget ‘misses;’ furthermore, people often condense or re-order their recollections in order to tell a coherent story, or a more interesting story. Thus, a person who “remembers” that a medium mentioned many specific facts that “they could not possibly have known beforehand,” is often mis-remembering that they themselves supplied almost all the information to the medium.
It is also difficult to assess whether a medium is ‘genuine,’ because we know of many psychological tricks played by phony mediums. When we watch a medium perform, the tactics they use are essentially identical to those used by fakers. As skeptics, we list the various tactics employed by frauds. Using the maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof,” we must withhold any acknowledgment that these people are legitimate without solid proof that they possess real powers. Furthermore, if a medium is caught using tricks to obtain their information, we cannot attest that they possess genuine paranormal powers in other situations.
This happened with Uri Geller, who claimed that he possessed psychokinetic powers: specifically, he had the ability to bend metal cutlery simply using the power of his mind. On several occasions, Geller was caught using trickery and sleight-of-hand to bend spoons or forks. When he was observed by magicians, who set up conditions under which he could not use fakery, Geller failed. But his supporters rationalized that Geller actually possessed psychokinetic powers; supporters claimed that when Geller was observed by skeptics, the skeptics had blocked Geller’s powers with their “negative vibrations;” alternatively, they bemoaned the fact that someone like Geller, whom they believed to possess genuine paranormal powers, would occasionally resort to fakery (that is, when he was caught).
Here are some of the tricks used by fake mediums.
- “Cold reading” techniques are utilized to acquire information. This is a set of techniques that mediums use, where the information is actually supplied by the individual rather than being divined by the medium. One example of this is to make claims that could apply to nearly everyone, and have an audience member verify this claim. With a skilled medium, the audience member will be left with the strong conviction that the medium came up with this information “out of thin air.” For example, the medium might say “I’m getting the letter C …. or, was it a K?” Or, “I’m hearing from your father … oh, your father is still alive? It was on your father’s side of the family,” or “oh, perhaps it was your grandfather?” If a subject is not responsive to the medium, or they state that claims made by the medium are wrong, the medium will move to other vague questions, or will abandon that person and move on to a more cooperative subject.
A related tactic is to throw out statements that apply to many people, and to which an audience member can fill in the details. One such statement might be “I see a woman with blackness in the chest … breast cancer, lung cancer, heart disease ….” The medium has just listed three of the most common health problems that face women, and this could be applied to any female relative. Or, “I sense a father-figure in your life … they want you to know that although you had disagreements, they still love you.”
If such questions are posed to an audience, the probability that they will apply to some audience members is essentially 100%. For example, a medium calls out “Who is Jennifer?” to a group of 100 people. If we assume that each person in the audience knows 200 people, this means that the audience “database” includes 20,000 people. It would be nearly impossible that ‘Jennifer’ would not represent a “hit” to at least 10 audience members.
“Cold reading” techniques don’t even require that an audience member responds to statements addressed to them by the medium. A competent medium can gain quite a bit of information simply by carefully observing their subject and noting how they react to statements posed by the medium. Once a subject has shown a positive reaction to a statement by the medium, they can continue along this topic, moving from very general statements to more and more specific ones, spending much time reinforcing the “hits,” and moving on quickly from the “misses.” Afterwards, the subject will often re-run the conversation, and they will “recall” that the medium immediately made the most specific statements with no assistance from the subject, when in fact the subject provided most or all of the specific information.
A medium can also glean much information by careful observation of their subject. If they are wearing a ring it could indicate that they are married. Or, they may be wearing a brooch or pin that carries some special meaning for them. The clothes worn by the subject can often give clues to their social status, possibly even their occupation.
A related type of statement is often called the “Forer effect,” named for psychologist Bertram Forer. In 1948, Forer gave each member of a class of students a personality vignette that he said was tailored to each student’s unique “individual characteristics.” The students were asked to rate the extent to which the sketch accurately summarized their own personality traits. The students felt that the personality inventory very accurately agreed with their own personality traits; on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent), the students rated their personality sketch, on average, at 4.30. In fact, Forer gave every student the same sketch!
The sketch contained 13 items, including statements such as “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you;” “You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage;” and “At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.” This shows how statements that may appear to be rather specific can actually be extremely vague and apply to almost anyone.
The statement “At times you are extroverted … while other times you are introverted …” is an example of what is sometimes called a “rainbow statement.” It pairs the mention of one specific quality (extroverted) with its exact opposite (introverted). Despite the fact that this statement is vague and contradictory, the subject will quite likely accept it, particularly since virtually everyone has experienced both mental states at some time in their life.
- A second type of trick is called hot reading. In this case, a medium is able to come up with very specific statements about the experiences of a subject because they have obtained outside information about that person. In older days, a medium traveling to a town might look at local newspapers for information, and search the obituary columns. They could also look through local phone books, and see what they could gain from visiting a local library. They might also visit graveyards and note the names of those buried there, or they could visit local tradespersons and ply them for information.
Nowadays, this is all made infinitely easier by the Internet. A medium with a large following will sell tickets in advance. They can look at Facebook pages for detailed information on their guests. Much additional information can be found on other Web sites. One can look up information from school yearbooks, or search family histories on Ancestry.com. Google Earth can be used to obtain information about a person’s home. Skeptics remark about how easy it is to obtain voluminous information about people, even those who claim they never or rarely use social media.
Modern mediums can use clever methods to obtain information about their subjects. The Amazing Randi and a colleague, electronics expert Alexander Jason, discovered that medium Peter Popoff’s wife was wearing what appeared to be a hearing aid during his performances. They discovered that Elizabeth Popoff was using a wireless radio transmitter to send messages to her husband. Mrs. Popoff and her confederates would read prayer cards made out by members of the audience, and she would transmit information to Peter while he was onstage. Jason unmasked Popoff by producing a video segment where he revealed the information that Mr. Popoff received just before he produced “miraculous” bits of information about the subject.
Another technique is to employ confederates of the medium, who mingle with the audience before a performance or during an intermission. They write down detailed information that they derive from these conversations; the medium later produces these tidbits when talking to a subject.
Skeptics Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward Wilson were able to catch psychic Thomas John using hot reading. Before a Thomas John Experience show, colleagues of Gerbic and Wilson created fake Facebook pages about them; tickets for John’s show were obtained using that Facebook site. John subsequently interviewed Gerbic and Wilson on his show; there, he repeated false information about them that was listed only on that Website. Gerbic and Wilson were unaware of the details on that site, so that Thomas John could not claim that he was reading their minds. Since the fake Website was the only source of that information, Mr. John and his assistants must have obtained that by “hot reading” the Website.
A few people who have masqueraded as psychics have since recounted the techniques they used to convince their subjects. One of these is Mark Edward Wilson, who worked for a while as a medium and later grew to regret it. Wilson wrote a book, Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium. In that book, Wilson describes his career trajectory. He began as a magician who performed card tricks and illusions. From there, he began giving tarot readings and conducting seances, and he worked the late shift answering phone calls on the Psychic Friends Network.
Figure 11: Mark Edward Wilson and his book Psychic Blues.
Wilson eventually became disillusioned, as he found himself scamming people who were hoping to contact their deceased relatives and friends. The techniques revealed by Wilson in his book are the same cold-reading and hot-reading methods we have described here. Since writing his book, Mr. Wilson has collaborated with other skeptics in efforts to unmask people who claim to possess psychic powers. Wilson has received much praise for revealing the techniques used by so-called psychics. However, he has also been criticized because he continues to give performances that rely on cold-reading and hot-reading techniques; but now he no longer claims to possess psychic powers but is acting more like a magician.
We want to mention one ploy sometimes used by mediums, as it is simultaneously very simple yet devilishly tricky. This is called the “One-Ahead” trick. Here is how it works. A performer passes out pieces of paper and envelopes to the audience. Members of the audience are asked to write out a personal question or issue that they would like addressed. They would then seal the paper in an envelope, write their name on the outside of the envelope, and place the sealed envelope in a basket that was collected.
Figure 12: Tonight Show host Johnny Carson, as Carnac the Magnificent. This sketch is a parody of the “One Ahead” trick used by fake mediums.
The performer removes an envelope from the basket, and without looking at the name, holds the envelope to his forehead. They then “mind-read” the question that is inside the envelope, and provide a “reply” to that question. They then open the envelope, verify the information that they had “mind-read” from the paper, and contact that member of the audience. Here is how this trick is performed.
Holding the first envelope to his forehead, the performer simply makes up a statement and recites it. The performer then opens the envelope, and an audience member, who is a confederate of the performer, “verifies” that this information is correct. Now, the performer holds a second envelope to his forehead. But the information he presents is actually the question from the first envelope, which he has just opened and read! He then opens the second envelope, under the pretext that he is verifying what he had “read” in his mind; however, the contents of the second envelope will constitute the question that he will “read” as the third envelope!
The trick is extremely simple but powerful. For each envelope that is used, the performer is actually discussing the contents of the previous envelope, which has already been read. Thus the envelope held by the performer is always “one ahead” of the question he is currently discussing. This trick is valuable in yet another way. Typically, the performer will accumulate a basket full of personal questions, with the name of the petitioner on the outside of the envelope. The performer will carry out the “one ahead” readings for only a handful of the envelopes. After the reading, the staff will carry off the basket. However, they will then open all the remaining envelopes and write down the name of the audience member and their personal question.
After the “reading,” the performer will invite audience members whose questions were not read to participate in a private (and often expensive) séance. Those audience members will likely be extremely impressed that the performer is able to “read” personal details about them (forgetting that they already provided this information).
In summary, we have no reason to believe that mediums are able to communicate with the deceased. When professional magicians observe a “psychic” medium in performance, they seem to be using the same tricks used by magicians in their acts. The difference is that the magicians readily admit that they have no psychic powers, and that their “mind reading” is based on misdirection, cold reading and hot reading, and other tricks of the trade. ‘Psychics,’ on the other hand, claim that they have genuine powers. They swindle people out of their money by claiming to possess paranormal powers.
Occasionally, a psychic will be unmasked by skeptics, and we can see just what combination of tricks they are using. However, in most other cases the psychics continue to defraud the public. We are not aware of any claims of paranormal powers which skeptical magicians have not explained by normal means. The simplest explanation for any success shown by alleged mediums is that they are using the same tricks known to magicians. So for now, we conclude that psychics have shown no ability to communicate with the dead.
Can Psychics Predict the Future?
We will review the predictions of several psychics for the calendar year 2020. These psychics were chosen at random from articles about them on the Web (see here, here, here, here, here and here). As we have mentioned, 2020 was one of the most remarkable years in the past several hundred years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of April 15, 2021 has claimed 3 million lives worldwide, and over 560,000 American lives. The pandemic produced so many dire results around the world that a failure to predict such a catastrophe should invalidate the credentials of anyone who claims the ability to foretell the future. The COVID-19 epidemic had disastrous effects on human health, on employment, on the economy, on travel, and on normal activities around the globe.
Figure 13: A book containing psychic predictions for the year 2020.
There is a second reason why the COVID-19 pandemic provides an ideal test of psychic predictions. Many people who claim psychic powers make annual forecasts at the end of the calendar year. The first reports of the pandemic began to circulate right at the end of 2019 (Dec. 31, 2019 marked the first news reports from China about a new pneumonia-related disease). As a result, in our searches we restricted ourselves to psychic prediction for 2020, dated no later than Dec. 20, 2019. In that case the ‘psychics’ would have no prior knowledge of the earth-shaking incidents to come in the following year.
Yet a third striking feature is that the year 2020 was one of shocking and severe deprivation. Millions of people died from the effects of the pandemic. In addition, large segments of the economy were shut down as officials tried to slow the spread of the COVID-19 epidemic. This would also provide a challenge to psychics, as their predictions are generally positive and upbeat. It is well known that horoscopes tend to provide mostly positive predictions. So too are the annual predictions by psychics. They tend to predict that the coming year will be favorable for businesses, for individual love lives, and for personal growth. People who claim to possess psychic powers know that people enjoy optimistic forecasts. The few exceptions to this occur when an economy is in recession, when economists are predicting a recession, or when psychics are forecasting natural disasters. So, it would be especially interesting to see if psychics produced extremely dire economic forecasts for 2020, a marked contrast from their usually upbeat pronouncements.
We reviewed the predictions of about 10 psychics whose forecasts were available on the Web. We also reviewed a couple of Web sites that compiled 2020 predictions from several people who claimed psychic powers. Here is a brief summary of our results, which will be followed by some more detailed comments from individual seers.
- Did any of these psychics correctly predict a catastrophic pandemic for 2020? In a word, No. With the exception of some content-free statements such as ‘the coming year will see a number of challenges and changes,’ no one mentioned that a disastrous epidemic would strike the U.S., let alone the entire world. One or two psychics mentioned ‘medical breakthroughs,’ although some of these statements were particularly focused on a cure for cancer. The failure to foresee a calamity as great as the COVID pandemic should disqualify all of these people from claiming any paranormal powers.
- The pandemic enormously affected employment, businesses and health care expenses. Was this foreseen in the economic forecasts by our psychics? No. The nearest anyone came to anticipating this were a couple of people who predicted that the U.S. might experience a recession in 2020. Others said that Americans would do more business and shopping from home; we did not credit this as ‘psychic,’ since it was simply an extension of current trends before 2020. Many of these psychics predicted that 2020 would be a great time to open or expand a business.
- What about the 2020 Presidential election? Very mixed results. A couple of psychics claimed that astrology (or whatever pseudo-science they relied on) could not predict the winner of an election. Others predicted that Trump would win re-election, although several of those added that ill health would prevent him from finishing his second term. At the end of 2019, it was quite uncertain which Democrat would run against him. A couple of these ‘psychics’ listed up to 8 different Democrats as being the potential Presidential nominee.
All in all, this was a dismal showing by our so-called psychics. The failure to foresee something so consequential as the pandemic means that all of them flunked the test. Kristy Robinett, a ‘Psychic Medium and Astrologer,’ claimed the stars foretold that “A new business or making new investments will see quick expansion and success” in 2020. Tarot Reader Theresa Reed asserted that “Everything is beginning to bloom. All that hard labor pays off in 2020.” Astrologer Amy Tripp saw “A transit of great wealth … well suited for advancing career goals and making and saving money.”
Numerologist Felicia Bender predicted that “If you want to start or continue adding to your family,  is a great time to do it.” Nikki, self-titled “Psychic to the Stars” did predict that 2020 would see new natural disasters, which might have qualified as “close” to foreseeing a pandemic, although she followed up by predicting earthquakes and tornadoes hitting New York City! As for predicting the Democratic presidential nominee, she waffled around before mentioning that the nominee could be “Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, or Oprah Winfrey (!)” Ms. Nikki did suggest that the vice-presidential nominee could be a woman. She might have received partial credit for this, except that she followed by saying she saw the initials “M-O” (!) Nicolas Aujula, who defined himself as a “Past-Life Regression Therapist and Hypnotherapist,” garnered a “hit” when he predicted that Donald Trump would lose the 2020 election, but “he won’t go quietly.” However, this is not much of a prediction as Trump had sworn to contest the 2016 election if he lost it. And besides, Aujula remarked that his past lives had included “An Egyptian queen, a maid, a teacher in the French Revolution, a deer, a lion, and even lived in another universe.”
Self-proclaimed psychics frequently concentrate on predictions of celebrity events, although often the claims are so vague that their chances of occurring are rather high. For example, one of the psychics made the following predictions for 2020: 1) a race car driver will die; 2) a renowned singer will overdose; 3) an American author will die in a car accident; 4) a woman will shoot an artist; and 5) an American politician will have a “close brush with death.” I rate the probability of predictions 1, 2 and 5 as nearly 100% in any given year; so these are hardly predictions. Furthermore, predictions that global warming will continue, that California and Australia would experience wildfires, that there would be volcanic activity or earthquakes around the Pacific Rim, are merely guesses that 2020 will continue just like 2019.
So, we need to set a high bar for judging ‘psychic’ predictions. The event(s) need to be quite improbable; the prediction needs to be quite specific; and the predictor needs to be correct in a number of different cases. When a psychic lists eight different candidates for the Presidential nomination, they get no credit if one of them is correct. One of our psychics predicted for the economy, “Barring a complete collapse of the financial system, 2020 should be a good year for the economy.” Note that this person could claim a successful prediction if 2020 turned out to be a great year economically, a recession or even a depression!
Note that our results are very similar to other years where skeptics have reviewed the predictions of people who claim paranormal powers – basically, they all failed. But as we explained earlier, the year 2020 is special because of the pandemic that produced havoc with life all over the globe; the existence of a new virus was first reported right at the end of 2019; and almost everything about 2020 was calamitous. Thus, the year 2020 was an excellent time to test psychic predictions. As was expected, every self-styled psychic failed the test.
Before we finish here, we should mention that self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne made a prediction in 2009 in her book End of Days. Many people claim that she predicted the coronavirus pandemic, so much so that Browne’s book re-appeared on the best-seller lists. Here is Ms. Browne’s prediction: In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread around the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the disease itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.
What do we make of this prediction? We should give Ms. Browne credit for the first half of her statement; the year 2020, the “pneumonia-like illness,” and the global pandemic are all specific, and do fit the COVID pandemic. However, a vaccine against the illness was developed within a year, and the disease is not “suddenly vanishing” (in fact, it now appears as though COVID might be circulating for many years). One possibility is that Ms. Browne was simply paying attention to the warnings of epidemiologists, who had been predicting that major epidemics would occur, and probably with some frequency as animal-to-human contacts kept recurring. Furthermore, the book End of Days is chock full of predictions, few of which have come true. As we will see from the following section, Ms. Browne’s ability to solve crimes was terrible, so we need to take that into account in assessing whether she possessed actual psychic powers.
Can Psychics Solve Crimes?
There is a group of people who claim that their powers enable them to “see” the circumstances behind crimes, particularly abductions or unsolved murders. There are several claims for the source of these powers. Some people claim that they can ‘view’ the past paranormally, a phenomenon labeled postcognition. Others state that they use ‘psychometry;’ if they are given objects that belonged to or were touched by the missing person, they can divine the current location of the missing person or their body. Still others assert that they are capable of ‘remote viewing;’ that is, they are able to project their minds to remote locations and observe what is happening at that site.
Several of these ‘psychic crime solvers’ claim great success in solving crimes, locating bodies, or determining whether missing persons are alive or dead. There are a number of books alleging that various psychics possess miraculous powers, and that they have solved a number of crimes. In addition, several tabloid papers tout the accomplishments of psychics in solving crimes.
Figure 14: An advertisement for the TV show Psychic Detectives.
We need to be careful in evaluating claims of success by “psychic sleuths.” We cannot blindly accept the claims of these people, as they are self-serving and may be highly inaccurate. But we must also view with skepticism the statements of family members and law-enforcement officials. As we have seen with other paranormal claims, first-hand testimony of those who have encountered psychic claimants can be extremely misleading. People who encounter “cold readers,” for example, often attest that the psychics came up with information that cannot have been found elsewhere, and that they volunteered this information with no help from anyone else. With mediums, for example, we are often able to access video or audio records of these encounters. We see that the mediums simply throw out some vague references, and that the family members supply virtually all the information. After the encounter they forget about the information they supplied, and are left with the strong belief that all of this information was “divined” by the psychic.
It is highly likely that such tricks are employed by those who claim psychic powers. However, in cases of criminal investigations or missing-person cases, it is generally the case that no records exist of the interactions between psychics and the police, or family members of those missing. Thus, we need to analyze the degree of success of those who claim psychic powers. And here, in almost all cases the psychics produce nothing useful. We have mentioned the large number of books that claim “amazing” contributions by psychics to solving “cold cases” of murder or abduction; in addition, tabloid newspapers and TV shows also make sensational claims. In fact, there are now cable TV channels that seem to specialize in stories featuring real-life psychic detectives who solve crimes (also, investigators who “measure” paranormal activity in haunted houses, a subject that we do not cover here). You can even find a list on “Ranker” of the top 25 TV shows that feature psychics, ghosts, mediums and other paranormal phenomena.
However, we know of very few if any cases where a psychic has provided several clues that are crucial in solving a case. In 1993, CSICOP established a committee to investigate a number of claims by ‘psychic sleuths.’ Their task force made detailed studies of famous cases where psychics attempted to solve cases, or who suggested that they had in fact solved “sensational” cases using extra-sensory perception. They found numerous examples where the information provided by psychics turned out to be completely wrong. In other instances, the psychics provided a large number of vague “clues” to the authorities; when the case was finally solved, the psychic would “retro-fit” their statements to match the final outcome and claim a success.
The CSICOP team also found several cases where the psychics used “cold-reading” techniques; that is, they threw out vague suggestions and allowed the authorities or family members to fill in critical details. The psychics would then make statements about details of the case that “they could not possibly have known;” the authorities would not realize that they had provided those details themselves. There were also instances where the so-called psychic had simply done significant research on the case or on a missing person and their family, but had presented their knowledge as though it was obtained by paranormal means. This was summarized by CSICOP Fellow Joe Nickell in his 1994 book Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases.
Here are some famous cases where psychics were of no help whatsoever. In May 2001 D.C. intern Chandra Levy went missing. “Psychics” from all over the world predicted where the body would be found. About 15 months later, her body was found in a remote section of D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. All predictions by psychics were wrong. In a similar vein, Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City in June, 2002 by Brian Mitchell and Wanda Barzee. Again, psychics from around the world volunteered as many as 9,000 “tips” regarding Elizabeth’s whereabouts and whether or not she was still alive. Nine months later, witnesses recognized Mitchell from police photos, and Ms. Smart was released from captivity. Elizabeth’s father Ed Smart stated that “the family didn’t get any valuable information from psychics.”
A psychic was also consulted in the case of a victim of a Long Island serial killer. The psychic claimed that the victim would be found in a shallow grave, near water and near a sign with a prominent “G” in it. Since all of Long Island is “near water,” that gave no hints where the body might be found. When the body was finally found, it was not in a shallow grave, and a sign with a “G” would not be abnormal on “LonG Island.” Nevertheless, the New York Post announced its story with the banner headline “Psychic Nailed It!” That mis-information has since been repeated in 70,000 Web sites.
One of the psychics most studied by the Skeptical Inquirer staff is Sylvia Browne. Ms. Browne was famous for her appearances on the Montel Williams TV show and the Larry King show. She became one of the best-known American psychics; in 2010, her business manager claimed that Ms. Browne was making $3 million per year on her predictions and readings. Over her lifetime she published some 40 books, a few of which appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. She also hosted a radio show where she would perform ‘readings’ for people in the audience. Sylvia Browne claimed that she was frequently contacted by the authorities to help with murders and disappearances, and she boasted of an 85% success rate in providing important clues using her psychic powers.
Figure 15: Self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne.
However, there were some notable cases that Browne got entirely wrong. In 2002, Sylvia Browne was retained by the parents of Shawn Hornbeck, an 11-year-old boy who had disappeared. Browne told the parents that Shawn had been kidnapped by a dark-skinned man with dreadlocks, and that Shawn was now deceased, his body buried between two jagged boulders. In 2007, Hornbeck was found alive; his kidnapper was a Caucasian man with short hair. In 2004, Ms. Browne told the mother of kidnapping victim Amanda Berry, “She’s not alive, honey.” Browne asserted that Amanda’s body was “in the water” and that she saw a vision of Ms. Berry’s jacket in a dumpster. In 2013, Amanda Berry escaped and contacted the police (she had been confined and assaulted for nearly ten years; she led authorities to the kidnapper, where they discovered two other girls that he had also kidnapped and tortured). Unfortunately, Amanda’s mother had died in 2007, believing that her daughter was dead.
In 2010, the Skeptical Inquirer published the results of a 3-year investigation of Sylvia Browne’s visions regarding some 116 murder cases or unsolved crimes. They compared Browne’s public statements about the crimes with police reports and published evidence regarding the incidents. Their conclusions completely disagreed with Browne’s claims of 85% accuracy. In fact, authors Shaffer and Jadwiszczok concluded that of these 116 cases, Browne had been “mostly wrong” about 33 of the cases, 83 of the cases had never been resolved, and her predictions were “mostly correct” in none of the cases! Apparently the media had mostly accepted Browne’s own claims of remarkable accuracy, without ever checking out the detailed results.
In summary, there is essentially no evidence of psychics who have provided detailed correct information about crimes or disappearances that could not have been obtained from any other source. In particular, there have been no psychics who have contributed to successful solutions in a number of cold cases for the authorities. As we have mentioned, self-professed psychic Sylvia Browne claimed that the information she saw in her visions was 85% correct. However, when Skeptical Inquirer staff investigated those claims, they were unable to find a single case where Browne’s information was “mostly correct,” and 33 cases where she was completely wrong. The FBI told the TV show Inside Edition that they “Were not aware of any criminal investigation that has been resolved as a direct result of information provided from a psychic.”
We need to be somewhat cautious here. When people like Sylvia Browne are investigated, their record of success is dismal. Furthermore, most of the articles and books touting the success of psychics turn out to be bad journalism, hyped up to sell books (or to inspire movie scripts about the psychics). Also, when we have video or audio evidence of psychics talking to families or the police, we often see them using the same “cold reading” tricks that are familiar from other mediums. However, that does necessarily imply that all psychics are frauds. At the present time, we have no solid evidence that psychics are able to use paranormal powers to solve crimes. Here, we rely on the quote attributed to astronomer Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.” Certainly we have not been provided with anything like ‘extraordinary proof’ that psychics possess the powers they claim, and that those powers can be utilized to solve crimes.
Despite the fact that many people claim to have psychic powers, and despite the many books, TV shows and movies that feature ‘psychics,’ controlled scientific investigations have found no examples where psychics have proved their abilities beyond a doubt. In this post, we have concentrated on three questions: first, whether psychics are able to communicate with the deceased; second, whether psychics are able to predict the future; and third, whether psychics are able to solve crimes. In all three cases, no reliable scientific study has found any example of genuine psychic abilities. For several years, skeptic James Randi offered a $10,000 prize of his own money to anyone who could demonstrate paranormal powers under strictly controlled scientific conditions. After that, Skeptical Inquirer magazine upped the offer to $1 million; no one has ever collected that sum.
With respect to the ability of psychics to communicate with the dead, we know of several tricks used by magicians to come up with information about peoples’ lives. Unfortunately, the psychics who have been examined by teams of scientists and magicians are found to be using those tricks. We must disqualify any so-called psychics who are caught cheating, since (by Occam’s Razor) the simplest explanation for their feats is that they are using trickery.
Many people claim to be able to foretell the future. They often rely on pseudo-scientific techniques such as astrology, numerology or remote viewing in making their predictions. Many psychics claim to have been remarkably prescient in their past predictions (“Ms. X, who predicted the Notre Dame fire and the 2007 economic crisis, makes her predictions for 2020.”). But when we examine the predictions from these psychics for a coming year, they fail dismally. This strongly suggests that the psychics are either lying about their past predictions, or they are “retro-fitting” vague statements to make them agree with subsequent events.
Should you take seriously the predictions from these ‘psychics’ about upcoming events? Not at all. You should treat these predictions in the same way that you should treat the daily or yearly horoscope – you should ignore them. By the way, you should be especially wary of people who claim that, unlike regular astrologers, they are using the most precise and accurate data to make their predictions – spoiler alert: all astrological predictions are bunk (as demonstrated in our blog post on astrology)! And you should be careful not to give money to anyone who claims to possess paranormal powers. In particular, try to prevent your aged parents, relatives or friends from falling victim to people who claim to be psychic. This is a big racket, and unscrupulous people often target the elderly, whose diminishing reasoning powers may make them easy targets for swindlers.
As scientists, we should always be open to being proved wrong, if someone with genuine psychic powers should surface. But we must retain our skepticism, and insist on rigorous tests of anyone who claims abilities that can’t be reconciled with our current knowledge of scientific laws. An important take-away is that scientists may not be the best judge of paranormal abilities; people who claim these powers are often using fakery to obtain their results. In assessing these abilities, it is wise to include magicians. Since magicians perform their feats using misdirection and other devious methods, they know how to spot these tricks, and to design tests that eliminate the possibility of cheating.
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