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Psychic Sophistry
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This first apeared in Think magazine which is published by The Royal Institute of Philosophy.

Think Magazine
Psychic Sophistry

Tony Youens

Publication Date: 04/01/2002

I was once offered a free psychic reading by someone who described herself as a ‘mystic’. We had met during a television debate and afterwards one of her satisfied customers told me of her amazing talent and assured me that a single visit would be enough to convince me of her abilities.

Accepting the offer, I made an appointment and visited the psychic at her home in Nottingham. I was ushered into a small room that was suitably festooned with mystical artifacts and adorned with books on tarot cards and astrology. During the reading my psychic used such ancient arts as numerology, astrology, palmistry, tarot cards and rune stones and even found hidden meaning in the colour of my tie. I remember that, amongst other things, she told me I was an only child and that I had four children the eldest of which was a boy. Both these statements are certainly true.

I can see how this might make an impact on many of her clients: the build up was superb and the ambience just right. But I was, and still remain, utterly unimpressed. The reason for my indifference was that I had studied many such psychic readings and understood how and why they worked.

The absence of critical thinking
Psychic readings come in a variety of different flavours and each psychic uses slightly different techniques to achieve their effect. Apart from those I have already mentioned above, the list includes spiritualism, tea leaf reading, graphology, psychometry and a host of other methods of divination and character analysis, each with it’s own impressive sounding name (although, mercifully, ‘extispicy’, the reading of entrails, seems to have fallen into disuse). There are two common fallacies that play an essential part in the uncritical acceptance of psychic readings.

Firstly, post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). This fallacy occurs when people assume that if event A preceded event B, then A caused B. An example would be believing that, as one passed one's driving test soon after buying a good luck charm, the charm must have caused one to pass the test. Many superstitions are based on the post hoc fallacy. And psychics make use of it too. People assume that, if one had an unhappy childhood, and if one's psychic claims that one had an unhappy childhood, then this must be because the psychic is somehow causally sensitive to one's past history: the psychic has occult powers. But of course, a one-off observation of one thing happening after another is not nearly enough to justify the belief that the one thing is causally related to the other. I scratch my nose. Immediately after, someone in China sneezes. Did my nose-scratching cause the sneeze? Of course not.

In addition, when people assess the effectiveness of such esoteric arts, many simply look at the results without considering what, if any, mechanism might explain how the results were achieved. Thus astrology, for example, is still highly regarded without anyone being able to come up with an even half-credible explanation of how it is supposed to work. You are told that you are going through a difficult time because Saturn is aligned with Mars in the third house; you are indeed going through a difficult period: ergo, astrology works! The question of how it is supposed to work is never raised.

Secondly, there is the appeal to ignorance (ad ignorantium). The burden of proof clearly lies with those who think that psychic powers exist rather than on those who believe they don’t. Yet people often assume that, in the absence of any proof that psychic powers don’t exist, it is as at least as rational to believe that they exist as it is to believe they don’t. Again, this is fallacious reasoning.

There is also a tendency automatically to attribute a supernatural explanation when a more mundane one does not immediately present itself. Psychics thus often try to claim victory by default. Those of us who are sceptical of psychic powers are familiar with the challenge, ‘Well how do you explain that, then?’ Sometimes it’s possible to give an answer and sometimes not; but when we can’t, psychics often smugly assume their case is proven. This has happened to me in a number of interviews. For example:

INTERVIEWER: ‘So, Zarina, explain to us how do you communicate with the dead?’

ZARINA: ‘Well I communicate with those who have passed on through my spirit guide Chief Running Wolf.’

INTERVIEWER: ‘Well, Tony, how do you explain it?

All Zarina has said is that she communicates with the dead (those who have passed on) by communicating with the dead (Chief Running Wolf) but any attempt by the sceptic to point out that no evidence has been offered will look evasive

Cold reading
Fortunately, in the case of psychic readings, an explanation is possible, but it is difficult to present the explanation as a sound bite.

The main mechanism involved is usually referred to as ‘cold reading’. This term refers to the way in which a reader can tell you a great deal about you without having any prior knowledge i.e. ‘cold’. There are other terms that stick with this temperature metaphor, such as a ‘hot’ reading, which means having prior access to information which is then fed back to you, and a ‘warm’ reading, which generally refers to information inadvertently given out during the course of the reading.

An important skill in cold reading is the ability to get information without obviously fishing for it. An advantage here is that no one expects the reader, whatever the method, to be able to come up with laser-like precision. Communication with the dead is, after all, not like using a telephone. For example, the psychic may fondle your watch (psychometry) and attempt to tune in to its vibrations. It’s not easy, so they begin cautiously, ‘I’m getting something about a man... called Michael.... "Mick", or is it "Mike"? I feel a kindly presence... very caring... could be difficult at times but generally has his heart in the right place.’ During the pauses the psychic will look briefly at you for some kind on confirmation that they are on the right track. It will be by no means clear if they are asking or telling you. But if you are not very forthcoming, they have no need to worry; they can simply ask ‘Is this making sense for you?’ Curiously, you might not actually perceive this as a question designed to elicit information. After all, you may think, the psychic has already given the name ‘Michael’; they are asking this question just to see if the information they have given is correct.

In this situation, you might say either that you have or have never heard of anyone called ‘Michael’: it really doesn’t matter. If right, the psychic can build on the information. Conversely, if they are wrong, and to be honest this is fairly unlikely given the popularity of the name, then ‘Michael’ is obviously not someone very close to you. So the psychic can either move on to something else or try and push a little further. For example, ‘I don’t think this a family member I’m getting but it’s certainly someone you knew quite well’. This simple sentence has the effect of opening up relationships both past and present, either at work or in virtually any social setting. They also have the option of making the switch to a future event, ‘I sense this person is going to play a very important role in your life within the next few months. It may well be you haven’t met them yet but if not it will be quite soon.’

The key to most successful readings is simple: the psychic offers up slightly ambiguous information and you, the client, then try to fit this into some aspect of your life. The psychic’s further responses are then dependent on your feedback. Unless you are a sceptic, like me, you will tend to be helpful. After all, the psychic is making great efforts on your behalf.

But suppose you are desperately trying not to give anything away. You offer no information and ask no questions. Well, there is still going to be some information leakage. With a one-to-one reading, the psychic is going to be aware of your gender and approximate age. They can probably make some assessment of your social status and level of intelligence. We all go through various stages of life, the stages that Gail Sheehy describes very well in her book ‘Passages’ [Gail Sheey, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life (New York: Bantam,1977)]. So knowing someone’s age can be of enormous help.

Here are two examples from my own experience. I once gave a tarot reading to a female in her mid-twenties. Using ‘Passages’, I memorised over fifty different age-appropriate statements and simply went through each one in turn, missing out those I felt were not applicable. Afterwards, a journalist asked my subject for her impression and she said she was amazed at the accuracy of the reading. Curiously, when she was later informed that my psychic ability was zero, she felt that this could not be the case and that I had some latent ability of which I was unaware.

On a second occasion, I posed as an astrologer for a television company. I was only given the subject’s gender and date and place of birth but from this I guessed which years in the subject’s life were probably significant. The result was surprisingly accurate.

It is impressive to be able to identify the specific problems and difficulties in someone’s life when there are so many things that could be happening. Well, in truth, it’s not that difficult. Problems can be classified under a very small number of broad headings. Once the psychic hits the right note it is simply a question of homing in and adding the necessary detail. Unless your life is uniquely problem free I am willing to bet you have problems, though not necessarily major ones, in at least one of the following areas

  • Relationships
  • Career
  • Money
  • Health

Here are a few sentences that a psychic might use to find out which applies to you.

‘There seems to be some kind of difficulty with a family member... ,<pause> or perhaps someone close to you at work...?’

‘Your career needs a bit of a shot in the arm doesn’t it? Maybe you should think about making a few changes.’

‘I can see some concerns over money..... But try not to let this worry you too much the signs are that providing you plan carefully things should turn out right in the end. It just takes time.’

‘I can see a health issue that’s... well, shall I say, worrying you.’

If possible, the psychic would wait for you to voluntarily confirm or deny the above, but if you prove a bit tight-lipped (shame on you) then they may ask you (either verbally or else by using body language showing that a response is required). Either way, the psychic can make the necessary adaptations. Look at the above sentences and ask yourself how you might feel if,

a) You’ve just discovered your partner has been having an affair.
b) You have just decided to enroll on a management course.
c) You’ve just lost your life savings on the Stock Exchange.
d) Your brother is about to have open-heart surgery.

You would surely be impressed, but would each statement also have some resonance if,

  1. You had a slight disagreement yesterday with someone in your family or maybe at work.
  2. You’ve been thinking about looking for a new job or just decided you need to re-organize your work.
  3. You’ve been left £100,000 by a rich uncle and are not sure how best to invest it.
  4. Your daughter has been off school because of flu or you have a toothache.

The point is that phrases used by psychics can be interpreted in many different ways, and as long as you can find some meaning the physic has scored another hit.

Of course, you might catch on if this pattern was repeated throughout the whole reading, but, like life, readings benefit from variety. Character profiles are one useful way the psychic can show just how tuned in to you they really are, e.g.

‘You have grown at lot, psychologically speaking, in just the last few years.’

‘You are a good judge of character. You’re the sort of person who probably can tell when someone is lying.’

People are surprisingly poor at assessing their own character so any type of character statement should work, providing it’s not insulting.

Predictions are useful and a fairly safe bet as you are in no position to say whether they are going to come true or not. Better still, why not make a prediction that is self-fulfilling? e.g.

‘Now I don’t want you to worry but can I suggest that you drive more carefully over the next three weeks? This is by no means serious but I get the feeling of some kind of accident. No one will get hurt, but it might turn out to be an enormous inconvenience. But look, providing you take things a bit easy then I think you can avoid it.’

Apart from all these ploys, the psychic has other things working in his or her favour. For instance, we all have a tendency to remember claims that are correct and forget those that aren’t. Our memories also are less precise than we like to think. Did the medium really tell you your dead father’s name was William? Or did they say,

‘I’m being told "William", or perhaps he was known as "Bill" to his friends? He wants to come through to you. Do you know a William... or Bill?’

‘My father was called William.’

‘Ah, that’s who it is then ‘cause he’s saying to me "Tell him it’s Dad."’

Amazingly I have heard exactly this sort of conversation - and it was accepted by the sitter!

So, returning to my reading with the mystic, perhaps you can begin to see the reason for my lack of amazement. Before agreeing to the meeting I had insisted on certain conditions.

  1. I would record the whole session.
  2. I would not answer any questions or provide her with information.
  3. I would not tell her what she got right or wrong until after the reading was over.

I should point out that even though these guidelines were fully agreed to, she still asked me questions throughout the reading. I did answer some, but only after pointing out that it was I who was providing the information. Regarding the correct statements she made about my being an only child and the number and gender of my own children, these correct statements were considerably outnumbered by the incorrect ones.

Using numerology, she said, ‘You have a "1" in your date of birth so you could have been an only child.’ No response from me so she continued, ‘Or if you did have brothers and sisters you were probably very solitary’. So now she has told me firstly that I could have been an only child and secondly that I might have had brothers and/or sisters. I wonder if that’s true of anyone you know?

A similar story occurs with the second ‘accurate’ statement. Using palmistry this time, she pointed out four lines below my little finger. ‘I can see four children. This longer line, the first one, represents a boy child and the three smaller ones girls.’ Again, no reaction from me so she continued, ‘But that’s only your potential. You may not have had all of those.’

I reminded her of this after the reading was over, confirming that I did have a boy and three girls. She looked suitably pleased with herself. However, I pointed out that although I had led a fairly sheltered life, my ‘potential’ was considerably more than four. The psychic was utterly unfazed.

Copyright 2002 © Tony Youens

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