If there’s one consistent feature of claims of psychic ability, it’s that they fail to show when exposed to close scientific scrutiny. Since Harry Houdini started to explore the world of mediums in the 1920s, no definitive evidence of psychic ability has been conjured up, and not for want of trying by successive generations of scientific exploration. So yesterday’s report that two professional mediums were unable to show any psychic ability under test conditions isn’t really a big surprise, particularly when you consider that nobody has been able to accurately describe a measurable mechanism by which psychic powers work.
The series of tests, carried out by Goldsmiths, University of London, in partnership with The Merseyside Skeptics Society, found that the two mediums performed no better than chance. Was the test a definitive refutation of psychic abilities? No. But this test now adds to the many others where a person who has claimed to be in possession of psychic powers has been unable to prove them.
At least these two mediums had the nerve and belief in themselves to have their abilities tested under blind test conditions, and they deserve credit for that. It is a pity that one or more of the big hitters in the world of professional mediumship didn’t use this test as an opportunity to prove themselves. Are they afraid of something?
This raises for me a question about the claims of mediums and the services they provide. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a medium sagely admit that there are some dishonest mediums out there cynically taking money off people. But how does the average consumer know that a medium can do what they say they do? A domestic gas engineer needs to be qualified to touch your gas fire or boiler. A financial adviser has to pass exams to give you advice about your investments. For many service industries, the consumer has an expectation that the one providing the service has some objective measure qualifying them to provide that service. Surely mediums, some of whom earn millions from their claimed psychic abilities, should have to pass a series of blind tests to show they are consistently and significantly better than chance before they can ask their clients for money, and more importantly, trample all over their emotions and mental wellbeing? Shouldn’t there also be a way to ‘strike off’ discredited and dishonest mediums found to be making it up, to protect their industry and protect people, some of whom are vulnerable, from being ripped off?
This isn’t only about whether the paranormal is real, but an issue of ethics and responsibility to fellow citizens. Sadly, I doubt that mediums will get together any time soon to clean up their industry.
Fortunately for the mediums in this test, another similarly consistent feature of psychic abilities is that they reappear once the the psychic is in control of the environment, so I don’t expect their careers to suffer any adverse reaction from their failure to prove their powers.
Most people will have seen the spooky shows on TV, Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted and so on to know that there’s a standard format. People go into a spooky building, in the dark with eerie night vision cameras, jumping at every noise, temperature drop or imagined touches on the shoulder, then run out screaming. If they’re lucky, they’ve got a psychic with them to commune with the spirits, if not they resort to spiritual automatic writing or dabble with an ouija board.
Accounts of alleged paranormal incidents can feature shovelfulls of excited hyperbole and excruciating cliché.
Dare to criticise such practices, or have the temerity to ask for evidence, and you risk being labelled a rabid skeptic who doesn’t know anything, after all you weren’t there. To self styled paranormal investigators, those with a skeptical approach are an enemy to their wisdom, a wisdom borne of front line paranormal investigation experience and the occasional spirit guide.
It’s refreshing then to read this article in the Salon which shows that skeptics aren’t alone in being the object of disdain of paranormal folk, they’re quite bitchy about each other too:
Nichols pointed out a laundry list of what he calls bad science in the series: Investigations always take place at night (Why would ghosts come out only then? How can you be a good observer in the dark?); investigators use unproven, “scientific seeming” instruments like magnetometers, which have ultimately failed to produce replicable results; they suggest that every odd sound, every “cold spot” and every “orb” (which have been explained away as side effects of digital cameras) are signs of ghosts. More generally, as Nichols put it, “they just run around like little girls.”
That about sums it up. Yet people still watch the shows and read the books and newspapers full of unscientific unevidenced drivel. Here in South Shields, our own local newspaper the Shields Gazette regularly features spooky articles with little more than anecdote and speculation fed on a diet of confirmation bias.
It shows that for the meantime at least, the public desire to believe in the supernatural and the extraordinary makes money, which makes the weird a lot more lucrative than scientific and rational explanations.