Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Final exams for the psychics

Regular readers of Skeptophilia may remember my writing a few months ago about a challenge issued a while back by the Merseyside Skeptics Society to "Britain's Favorite Medium," Psychic Sally Morgan, to prove her alleged abilities under controlled conditions.  The whole thing happened because Psychic Sally had been accused of hoodwinking her audiences; the claim was that she was not picking up communiqu├ęs from the Other World, she was receiving information about her subjects from assistants via wireless earphones.  Psychic Sally, of course, heatedly denied the allegations, and in fact sued the reporter who broke the story for libel.  (The outcome of this case is yet to be decided.)

Psychic Sally and the others of her profession recently received a second chance to prove that they're telling the truth.  The MSS has just announced that they have arranged for a controlled test of two supposed psychics who have volunteered to have their abilities examined by skeptical scientists, including psychologist Chris French and noted skeptic and atheist writer Simon Singh.  They have issued invitations to Britains top five psychics -- Sally Morgan, Colin Fry, Gordon Smith, Derek Acorah, and T. J. Higgs -- to participate, or at least to attend.  Thus far, all five have refused.  However, two unnamed psychics have agreed to participate, and the results of the test -- scheduled to be performed tomorrow -- will be released on Halloween.

I find two things interesting about this.  First, I am rather impressed that they found any psychics who were willing to undergo rigorous testing.  Every time there's been a close look taken at psychics by people who understand how easy it is to dupe the layperson with sleight-of-hand and misdirection, the psychics have turned out to be cheating.  (Consider, for example, the remarkable failure of famed spoon-bender Uri Geller to bend so much as a paperclip on the Tonight show with Johnny Carson, and James Randi's public exposure of James Hydrick as a fraud.  Note that both Carson and Randi were professional magicians, and knew how to fool an audience -- so they were quick to figure out how Geller and Hydrick were cheating.  And if you haven't seen these clips, they're well worth watching.)

So anyway, it's fascinating that there are people out there who are either (1) so cocky that they think they'll be able to game French & Singh, or (2) are really convinced that they are, in fact, psychic.  Either way, it should be interesting to see what happens.

Equally interesting -- or damning, depending on how you look at it -- is the failure of any of the top-grossing psychics in the UK to agree to participate in the study.  The first time Psychic Sally was asked, she responded, "I have better things to do with my time."  You'd think -- if she really does believe she's psychic -- that there would be no better thing to do with her time than to prove, under controlled conditions, that she really can do what she says she can.  I can only imagine the boost in attendance at her shows if two respected scientists publicly stated, "Yup.  Psychic Sally is the real deal.  She really can get in touch with the spirit of Grandma Betty."  Hell, I'd attend in a heartbeat.  I'd love to talk my Aunt Florence again, for example, if for no other reason to get her chocolate-almond fudge recipe, which I have tried repeatedly to replicate without success.

Of course, the most likely reason that Psychic Sally et al. are refusing to attend is that they know that they won't be able to perform.  And that, of course, would be another nail in the coffin for their reputations, which have already come under enough fire lately.  So I suppose a refusal is less of a blow to her business than an outright failure would be.

But of course, as Michael Marshall, vice-president of the MSS states, there is always the chance that some people really do have psychic abilities.  As skeptics, we are required to keep our minds open to that possibility.  And if so -- if such things do exist -- there is no reason why they should not be accessible to, and analyzable by, the methods of science.  So whatever the outcome tomorrow, it's gonna be interesting.

1 comment:

  1. Alas, even if you could reach Aunt Flo, you'd probably just learn that she never measured anything, but just put in what looked like the right amount.