Money for old rope?

May 8, 1998

Are psychic powers real or bunkum? Ex-magician Richard Wiseman took science into paranormal realms

Psychic powers are big business. Tarot-card readers and palmists make money out of divining your past and predicting your future. Mediums advertise their ability to contact deceased friends and relatives. In the past few weeks some have claimed to be able to achieve the impossible - helping England through to the World Cup final. Scientists dismiss such claims as bunkum - yet the public seems reluctant to share their scepticism.

A recent opinion poll by the Daily Mail suggests that over 60 per cent of people believe some psychics really do possess paranormal powers. Many are prepared to spend money to support their beliefs. Is the public correct? Can psychics perform the impossible?

In 1995 I set up a research unit, based at the University of Hertfordshire, to answer such questions by carrying out scientific investigations of psychic claimants. The team consisted of psychologists and magicians; the psychologists contributing experimental and statistical know-how, the magicians acting as expert observers, supplying inside information about tricks used by fraudulent psychics.

Most academic investigations of psychic claims follow a three-step procedure. First, you examine the claim and draw up a list of all the "normal" explanations that might account for the allegedly "paranormal" phenomena. Next, you construct an experimental protocol that eliminates these explanations. Finally, all being well, the psychic attempts to "strut his stuff" under these "test" conditions. If the psychic is successful you have good - "scientific" - evidence that something very strange is taking place. Failure suggests there may well be a more earthly explanation.

That is the theory, but how does it work in practice? A few years ago I was approached by a television producer making a documentary about "psychic detection". The television researchers had discovered three psychics who regularly contacted the press with predictions about various high-profile crimes. All three claimed an impressive success rate and the police took their suggestions seriously. I was asked to test their abilities.

There were several explanations that might have accounted for what the psychics seemed to be doing. They could have been supplying newspapers, radio and television with many different predictions, and then only made a fuss about those that turned out to be true. Alternatively, they may have made fairly ambiguous predictions and then misremembered them after the crime was solved.

I asked the police to supply me with three objects that had been involved in crimes that had already been solved. We asked the psychics to handle the objects and tell us the nature of the crimes. All three thought this would be easy. On the same day we also asked three non-psychic students to handle the objects and simply guess at the crimes.

We recorded the suggestions of both groups. Each suggestion was then allocated an accuracy score of between one and seven by someone who knew how each crime had been resolved. The results were something of a surprise. The psychics scored, on average, four out of seven. The students did better, averaging about five out of seven. Intelligent guessing outperformed psychic hunches.

Over the years I have tested many psychic readers, mediums and healers. The results have always been the same. Initial anecdotal evidence suggests that their abilities are genuine, but the claims have always crumbled under the scrutiny of scientific investigation.

So why are so many people impressed by these fraudulent psychics? The answer may lie in the way our beliefs influence how we perceive and remember information around us. A few years ago I showed several people a videotape of a psychic apparently using his paranormal abilities to bend a spoon. In fact, the "psychic" was a magician and the tape contained nothing but trickery. Viewers predisposed to believe in the paranormal thought that they had seen an impressive demonstration of psychic phenomena, while those strongly sceptical of psychic claims were convinced it was trickery.

Shortly after the experiment everyone was asked to remember what they had just seen. The believers appeared to forget those parts of the video that would have been vital to anyone trying to solve the trick. For example, at one moment the psychic placed the spoon under the table and secretly bent it. The majority of believers said that the spoon had never left their sight.

So do all of these negative findings mean that the whole concept of psychic ability has been disproved? It would be wrong to answer such a broad question by concentrating on one line of research. Most of our work has examined a particular type of psychic claim - people who appear to possess strong paranormal abilities. We chose this area because it is these people who influence public belief in the paranormal, affect people's lives and offer a unique insight into the psychology of deception and self-deception.

Other scientists, however, have taken a very different approach, avoiding self-proclaimed psychics in favour of using ordinary people as participants in their experiments. Instead of looking for large-scale psychic effects, they have concentrated on the possible existence of more subtle effects - such as the ability to read someone else's mind, what is commonly known as extra-sensory perception. This research involves experiments with hundreds of participants and stacking up results to discover if, as a group, the subjects have performed at above-chance levels.

Some of these researchers believe that initial results support the existence of extra-sensory perception. Most are agreed that a lot of follow-up work is needed before firm conclusions can be reached.

What we can be more sure about is that psychics do affect people's lives. It is assumed that people visit psychics for fun or that psychics act as a sort of poor man's counsellor, giving their customers an opportunity to discuss problems. Believing in psychics is a bit like believing in Santa Claus - it cannot do any harm and may make life more fun. This may be true for some psychics - but others can have horrific, even life-threatening effects on their unfortunate and misguided clients.

When I helped Carlton Television conduct an undercover investigation of psychics working in London, two actresses were asked to visit five different psychics and tell them that they had recently experienced a great deal of bad luck in their lives, including family bereavement. The psychics did not know that these problems were completely fictitious and that the actresses were fitted with hidden cameras that filmed each consultation.

Not one of the psychics offered any counselling or suggested that their obviously distressed clients seek professional help. Rather, most tried to distance the client from any possible social support by asking her not to mention the consultation to friends or family. All five tried to convince the actresses that a curse had been put on them and offered to remove it for between Pounds 250 and Pounds 900.

In another instance I was called to investigate a "psychic surgeon" who had set up shop in London. This so-called healer offered to cure any illness by making shallow cuts in his "patients'" stomachs to release evil spirits. The healer would see about 20 patients a night and moved quickly from one to another. He did not even wash, let alone sterilise, his hands or instruments between "operations". Many of his patients were seriously ill yet they were exposing themselves to additional illness.

Such cases act as sobering examples of how uncritical belief in the paranormal can be dangerous, especially for vulnerable members of the public who turn to psychics, often in a last desperate attempt for help.

It is crucial that psychic claims are properly investigated. Such investigations need to be open to the notion that psychics may indeed possess some remarkable paranormal abilities. They also need to consider the possibility that such claims are the result of deception and self-deception. The public must be told the methods and results of these investigations. Critical thinking and the scientific method are the best tools we have for sifting fact from fiction. They are also the most effective defence we can give people against exploitative conartists.

Richard Wiseman is senior research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire. This article is based on his lecture yesterday to the Royal Society in London, titled "Investigating the paranormal".

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