4th September 2007
Chris Robinson - living the dream
On Monday 3rd September a new series of Channel Five’s ‘Extraordinary People’ began. Among the extraordinary people scheduled to appear will be two people who claim to be extraordinary but, in my opinion at least, aren’t actually extraordinary at all. Why? Well because their only claim to fame is that they are psychic and even were I to accept that psychic powers were genuine this still wouldn’t make them extraordinary because psychics are about as rare as rabbits.
One of them is Derek Ogilvie aka ‘The Baby Whisperer’. He took Randi’s $1M Challenge and we are all waiting with bated breath to see if he succeeded. I have a feeling Randi will be commenting once the programme has aired but meanwhile he is keeping his word and maintaining a dignified silence. Of course a quick visit to the JREF website reveals that the $1 million is still up for grabs but hey, perhaps that’s another million.
But while we eagerly await Ogilvie’s baby whispering we have the excitement of seeing another psychic, Chris Robinson, ‘The Dream Detective’. I may well comment on the programme after I’ve seen it (Monday 10th September) but as I have some experience of testing Chris myself I decided to do a write up describing the test, along with my observations, before the broadcast so as to provide viewers with some interesting background.
Now of course at this stage I have no idea how the programme will deal with the subject but I doubt their intention is to show him in a bad light. My guess is there will be a lot of bending in a rearward direction in order to give us with an, ‘is he or isn’t he’ ending.
Chris Robinson first came to my attention back in late 1995. He had been reported in Psychic News as making a successful prediction on live television. This led me to draw the obvious conclusion - my scientific world view was well out of date. Just to verify I called the programme and spoke to the researcher who confirmed that the report was indeed accurate.
Chris followed this success by doing a similar test on the James Whale Television Show. The result was a little disappointing. Someone on the show (not Whale) put an object in a box. Chris’s task was to determine its contents ahead of time by interpreting his dreams. If I recall his narrative correctly, he mentioned something about “maps” (among a number of other things including batteries and I think giant boobs). When the box was opened it contained a toy car. James Whale interpreted this as a failure but, although it didn’t contain any batteries, the box was padded with paper so as not to give away the actual contents when handled. However Chris Robinson said this explained why he saw maps, which as we know are made of…. paper! I prepared to make a bonfire of Randi's books.
I got a sort of Gelleresque feeling about the whole thing so armed with nothing more than the Psychic News article and Directory Enquiries (they were free then) I got hold of Chris’s number and called him to see if he would let me test him. I confess I was somewhat amazed when he readily agreed. However there was a price to pay which was to listen to long conversations about his theories and how he had been uncannily accurate in the past. He had, I was told, helped Scotland Yard and accurately predict IRA terrorist attacks.
Chris has also appeared on ITV’s ‘Strange But True?’ presented by Michael Aspel. This told of the day he predicted an plane accident at an air show. I also found out that he had been tested by both Professor (then Dr) Richard Wiseman and Dr Susan Blackmore. Chris seemed to think he had done rather well at these tests but if you read the report Professor Wiseman did for the Society for Psychical Research it will tell a rather different story. To be brief he and two other psychics failed completely; in fact students acting as controls did better.
Anyway the test we agreed on was as follows. I would place three different objects into three different boxes and each box would be marked A, B or C. During the intervening three weeks Chris would note his dreams and through these attempt to identify the contents of each box. I would then visit him at his house where we would see if his predictions matched reality. In essence this was similar to the test reported in Psychic News and the one he did with James Whale only there would be three boxes this time and not one. I did emphasise that if Box B contained a banana and he thought Box A contained an apple this would not constitute a hit. No problem.
Taking Richard Wiseman’s example I too asked a number of students to try and guess the contents of each box and two came pretty close with Box B – in fact a good deal closer than Chris.
When I arrived at Chris’s house a reporter from Psychic News, Jonathan Stillwell, was already there and I discovered he had brought along his own little test box as well.
I took along a video camera to record the whole thing which I guessed would take about 15 minutes at most. I guessed wrong. Before coming to a final statement about the content of each box Chris went through page after page of ‘dream notes’ which included many of his past successes as well as the ones relevant to my test. The whole thing took hours.
Eventually we got down to the nitty-gritty. The results were as follows (if you believe in psychic powers look away now);
Box A: Chris said;
Postcard or letter
A replica Gun (semi automatic – no bullets)
Box B: Chris said;
Calculations or distance measuring,
Most of all ‘measuring’
A pair of binoculars
(it’s worth noting that two of the students guessed ‘spectacles’)
Box C: Chris said
Tracks & windows,
This was of course a complete failure, which to his credit Chris fully admitted. In fact he went so far as to tell Jonathan Stillwell he should write up the result even though it was plainly a negative (naturally Psychic News didn’t bother).
Chris then gave his impressions as to what was in Jonathan’s box. After a mercifully short summary he decided on a pump of some kind. It was actually a fan (the sort fluttered by Victorian ladies). Again Chris admitted failure, however he did phone me a couple of weeks later to tell me he realised he was actually nearer than we first thought. He pointed out that behind the fan in a car engine is nothing other than the water pump! Ta daaa! See, much closer than it first appeared.
Looking back at the notes I made at the time I recorded the following observations;
- He seems to exaggerate the accuracy of his past successes. When I could check the evidence it didn't back him up.
- His dream notes cover a huge amount of different subjects. A real scattergun approach.
- After any failure he tends to display a certain amount of reinterpretation.
Since then Chris and his predictive dreaming have occasionally resurfaced and in one comparatively recent case he appeared on Richard and Judy (probably about two years ago). This time I would be the first to admit he was uncannily accurate. The test meant that he had to predict a specific location and his notes, which remained in the studio, weren’t opened until he was actually driven to the site. If memory serves he was pretty much spot on as he drew a ship, a bridge and a hospital – he was on the Thames next to Guy’s Hospital. Both Richard and Judy were mightily impressed as I’m sure were their viewers. I wrote to them at the time to point out some of the shortcomings of their test protocol. Two years later I’m still waiting for a response. Another week and I’m giving up.
So how might this feat be duplicated using a non-psychic method? I would suggest that part of the answer lies in the sloppy way television tends to conduct such tests.
If you have ever appeared on a show like this I can assure you, you spend literally hours kicking your heels punctuated by the occasional appearance of a researcher. Perhaps something could be overheard?
But let’s assume that they are not so careless. Is there any other way you could gather information? Well there is one way that might be possible.
Within a television studio people often contact each other using headsets attached to two-way radios. You can tune into these using a radio scanner. All I would have to do is scan for a signal and hope the floor manager mentions something about ordering a taxi or some other useful snippet of information. Allowing me to hold on to my prediction until the last possible moment would conveniently let me make a few last minute additions.
I’m not saying that this method would guarantee results (or that Chris resorted to such chicanery) but what I am saying is that I doubt the television studio thought of it and took steps to guard against it - and if they are going to test people properly then they should. If the method failed I would simply resort to having a number of vague buildings drawn and then try to make them fit. A little generous interpretation by Richard & Judy would possibly dig me out of an otherwise embarrassing hole. If I didn’t do that well I could tell them about the time I predicted the Twin Towers.
Chris failed my test, James Whale’s test, Sue Blackmore’s test, Richard Wiseman’s test but curiously when tested by Professor Gary Schwartz he passed with flying colours. Now there’s a surprise!
I have high hopes that next week's programme will include some genuine testing. In which case my dreams tell me failure looms once again.
Dr Susan Blackmore for an account of her test with Chris.
Chris's less than flattering comments about Richard Wiseman.
Note he doesn't appear to have heard of thermal conductivity. Who's going to tell him?