The Skeptics SA guide to

Psychics

The term ‘Psychic’ refers to a claimed, but unproven, paranormal ability to be able to see things that are not perceptible to normal human senses! As such, psychic ability is claimed to be a form of ‘extra-sensory perception’ (ESP), a level of perception that is beyond the range of the five physical senses.

Generally today, the term ‘psychic’ is most commonly used to refer to individuals who claim to have such extra-sensory abilities and claim they are able to have genuine experiences, visual, auditory or kinetic, where they can ‘see’ into the future. In the past, because such people were thought to have special powers that enabled them to ‘see’ into the future, and, to a lesser degree, into the past, they were known as ‘seers’.

Many ‘visions’ were spontaneous experiences, occurring either while awake or in dreams, indeed most primitive cultures believed that dreams were messages from the gods and often contained omens of future events. The Israelites, for instance, believed that Yahweh spoke to their prophets via their dreams e.g. in Numbers 12:6. Prophetic dreams were also part of Arabian culture, Mohammed mentioning an example where “I saw in a dream that a cock pecked me twice, so I know my end is near”. Hadith, Chapter 211.

More often the visions sought by the seers were deliberately produced by the use of a variety of techniques. These included:

  1. Meditation or self-hypnotic techniques
  2. Ingestion of various hallucinogenic substances either by mouth or by breathing in the smoke produced by burning narcotic herbs, a technique reputed to be used by the oracle at Delphi
  3. Modifying or restricting breathing either by:

These techniques were used independently of the much more common methods of divination, and fortune telling, which generally employed the use of particular arts, such as astrology, divination by lot (throwing sticks or bones and interpreting how they fell), or such techniques as ‘reading’ Tarot cards, tea leaves, cracks in burned bones, or interpreting the smoke rising from altars. Although such ideas were part of primitive belief systems and have no place in modern science, belief in psychics and ESP continues to persist, with a poll conducted in 2005 indicating some 41% of Americans reporting a belief in ESP.

The principal attraction of psychics for members of the public appears to be their claimed ability to predict the future. Humans are by nature extremely fearful and anxious, particularly about their future, and given this level of desperation to learn what lies ahead in their life, especially to be forewarned about possible dangers, people become easy targets for those frauds who claim to have psychic powers. Such psychics have been around for thousands of years, and many, such as the Pythian oracle at Delphi and Nostradamus, became quite famous, despite the fact that their prophecies were bogus. Part of their fame arose from the manner in which they presented their ‘prophecies’. For instance, the prophecies from the Delphic Oracles were always notoriously ambiguous, so that, whatever happened, they could always claim their prophecies had been correct. One famous example of this was when Croesus sought the oracle’s advice about going to war. He was told that if he did go to war “a great kingdom would fall.” He interpreted this to mean that the enemy would be defeated and their empire would fall, and so he went to war. Unfortunately he was defeated and the kingdom that fell was his own, yet the ‘prophecy’ was still strictly accurate!

The fact is, there is no such thing as a psychic, or ESP! Despite the fact that so-called psychic powers have been extensively tested under scientific conditions for over 150 years, there is still no conclusive evidence that such powers actually exist. Furthermore, it has been the experience of the author, who over many years, has met and dealt with a large number of so-called psychics, that psychic powers are completely imaginary; they exist only in the imagination of those who claim to have such powers, and those who are gullible enough to believe their claims!

When one examines those who claim to be ‘genuine psychics’ it becomes quite clear that they are either deluded or liars; these so-called ‘psychics’ can be placed into two categories:

The Deluded

It has been the author’s experience that those in the first category are usually ordinary everyday types of women, who want to believe they have psychic powers, for in doing so it provides them with a sense of purpose and authority. Historically one can find evidence that most of the so-called witches of past ages were usually social outcasts, especially impoverished widows, who found it convenient to have people believe they had supernatural powers. The fact that they appeared to have the power to foretell the future and to prepare various potions gave them a small degree of respect. Many modern women who claim to be psychics project this image to gain a degree of respect and power, in what is otherwise a very dull and ordinary life.

Most do not even charge for their ‘services’, being content to have the respect and esteem that comes from the image of being a psychic. While most avoid making any frightening predictions, the author has come across several who, although they rarely accept payment, will often create a dependency situation. They will warn people of some forthcoming disaster, encouraging people to constantly seek their advice, so they can avoid the predicted ominous future events.

The Frauds

These are totally unscrupulous charlatans whose only objective is to defraud victims of as much money as possible. A favourite advertising place for such scamsters is the pages of women’s magazines, where they advertise personal readings. With the advent of modern technology these personalised services have been expanded to include psychic phone lines and email services.

One popular scam used by some of these fraudulent operators, is to tell their victims that they have a curse upon them, or else that they are experiencing a run of ‘bad luck’ caused by negative forces. People gullible enough to consult psychics are easy prey for such nonsense, and, believing they face a disastrous future unless something is done, these victims willingly hand over thousands of dollars to remove the bad influence, to avert ‘bad luck’ or to have some imaginary curse lifted from them.

One notorious charlatan, Loretta Williams, who advertises under the name of Mrs Adams, as a Healer, Crystal Ball and Palm Reader, a Spell breaker, and Remover of All Evilness, claims to have “the strongest planetary energies and supernatural powers”. She, and her daughter-in-law Maria, have featured several times on Today Tonight and they are estimated to have defrauded gullible clients of over one-million dollars.

They tell people they have been ‘cursed’ and unless the curse is removed they will never be able to lead a normal happy life. Of course, they always offer to lift the curse if the victim is willing to pay them to do so!

One gullible victim, Jillian, was told by Maria that a curse was ruining her relationships and career, and if she did not pay them $40,000 she would be ‘doomed’, and that her life would continue to go downhill. Stupidly, she paid the money but found nothing changed in her life. In a TV interview she stated that she now realised Maria “was not a genuine psychic.” Unfortunately, what people like Jillian fail to understand is that there is no such thing as a psychic, so there cannot be any ‘genuine psychics’. Although Jillian lost $40,000 through her own stupidity, others have handed over much greater amounts of money: one anonymous victim admitted having handed over $310,000 to Mrs Williams.

After Williams was exposed by Today Tonight, she and her family fled Australia and began fleecing victims in England, once again using the name Mrs Williams. Fortunately one of her Australian victims who was now living in England saw her advertisements and contacted the BBC who set up an exposé. They arranged for several reporters to attend at her home for readings: both were told that they had ‘cracks in their aura’. Now while auras are another New Age fantasy, even those who believe in them will tell you auras ‘do not develop cracks’!

Both reporters were told these ‘cracks’ in their auras were allowing their peace of mind to ‘escape’ and this was the cause of the misfortune in their lives. The phoney Mrs Adams offered to heal their cracked auras by selling them special candles. These were no ordinary candles, and for that reason, they cost 650 each, ($1,443 Australian). One reporter was told he needed three candles to sort out his run of ‘bad luck’.

Psychics avoid being tested by non-believers, since this will expose the fact they are frauds, however, they do occasionally appear in public, usually touting their abilities to gullible television presenters and their equally naive audiences. On very rare occasions they appear on shows which reveal the fact that they have no special powers whatsoever,

One such instance occurred on 30 August 2004, when the popular television show Deal or No Deal, presented a special programme in which all the twenty six contestants were individuals who claimed to have psychic powers. They included Angel Intuitives, Animal Intuitives, Astrologers, Reiki Masters, Tarot Card Readers, Mediums, Psychics, a Shaman and a White Witch. The compere, Andrew O’Keefe, described the show as ‘a psychic experiment’ stating that one of their objectives was to see if psychics could perform better than ordinary contestants at guessing what amounts were in the various cases.

To begin, all of the contestants were given five questions and the person with the most correct answers, and who answers them the fastest, is selected to be the main contestant. The fifth question asked the group to identify the symbol on a card being held by the compere. It was either a square, a cross or wavy lines. Now, with their claimed psychic powers this should have been an easy task: one would have expected that most would have been able to determine that it was a cross. Statistically, even on the basis or random chance one would expect about one quarter of the group (6.5) would have guessed correctly, however, only two guessed the correct symbol. What had happened to their psychic powers?

Throughout the show both the main competitor and the others holding the cases failed miserably at guessing the amounts in their respective cases. As O’Keefe pointed out, during the show, normal contestants (those with no ‘psychic’ powers), score, on average, three correct guesses per show, so how many correct guesses did these so-called psychics make? They too only scored three correct guesses, a fact which clearly indicates that these ‘psychics’ have no special powers whatsoever! Yet despite any special abilities, these same people regularly advertise claiming they have extraordinary psychic abilities.

Many of the so-called psychics who advertise in women’s magazines and newspapers are fictional creations. As the WA ScamNet (2007) advised, “Often these so-called psychics do not exist. They are fictional characters created by mailing companies to fleece you of your money.”

One of the most prolific psychic scams was Marie France/Duval/Callas, who although she is advertised as “the greatest clairvoyant in the world”, a report by David Eccleston for A Current Affair suggests that she may not actually exist. Rather she appears to be the creation of a Chinese conman who operates from the offices of International Fulfilment Services in Singapore. He has been involved in a variety of fraudulent schemes, including selling ‘diet pills’ that contained nothing but baking powder. When confronted by the Current Affair reporter he claimed Marie was unavailable as she was in South America, however he did promise she would contact the show: they have heard nothing since.

These types of scams are big business. The Marie Callas con has ripped off over 180,000 Australians for an amount in excess of $15,000,000. In her advertising she offers people winning lotto numbers, lucky talismans, magic stones, as a ‘free gift’. Of course to receive this free gift you have to pay $60–$80 and in return you receive a few coloured stones or a cheap piece of jewellery.

As one writer to a web chat line commented, “I actually received her free talisman—but with a load of other ‘amazing offers’. But since receiving it things have changed... for the worse! I’ve thrown it away.”

However, one of the dangers in replying to these types of offers is that they pass on your details to other scammers who specialise in contacting gullible victims and you then find yourself receiving endless streams of junk mail from a great number of sources, offering a variety of worthless services.

Psychic phone lines

The only purpose of these ‘services’ is to extract as much money as possible from gullible members of the public. Phone operators are encouraged to keep people on the phone as long as possible. If the caller’s conversation is waning they are encouraged to suggest other personal areas that have not already been covered. Of course since the caller is paying around $5–$10 per minute to the dial-a-psychic service the longer they are kept talking the more lucrative the call. Phone operators receive a percentage of each call, so they are highly motivated to keep clients talking. One dial-a-psychic group circulated a newsletter to phone operators complaining they were not keeping clients long enough on the phone, suggesting they should keep them on line between 20 minutes and several hours (Edwards, 1996, p 12).

Not only do these ‘phone psychics’ have no psychic powers but many dial-a-psychic services provide their operators with a book of prepared scripts. As a result people who call these services, in the belief that they will be receiving ‘genuine’ advice from qualified psychics are given pro-forma answers, read from a script by operators who have absolutely no psychic powers (Edwards, 1996, p 11).

Because of the existence of television shows like Medium, and psychics such as John Edwards, many people believe that psychics are real. What people do not realise is that shows such as Medium, which although they are based upon real characters (who claim to have ‘genuine psychic abilities’), the stories are totally fictional. There are many psychics who, like the character in Medium, claim to have helped the police solve real crimes, however when these claims are investigated they are found to be completely false. These claims tend to be simply lies created by the various psychics to promote themselves in the eyes of the public. One of the most famous ‘mediums’ was Doris Stokes. Now deceased, she claimed to have helped English police to solve two separate murders, one at Kirkham and another at Blackpool. Investigation of these claims revealed that, in fact, she had not provided police with any relevant information. She also claimed to have assisted Los Angeles police to solve another murder, but the police advised that the only information she provided was already available in the local media (Plummer, 1981, p 1).

Shows that feature so-called psychics, such as John Edwards, are heavily edited. Viewers never see Edwards asking individuals in the audience a large number of questions until he finally gets something right about them, or as often happens, he is unable to get anything right and so he moves on to another member of the audience. All of this extraneous material is edited out, so that in the show you see on the air Edwards appears to select someone from the audience and tells them all manner of marvellous things. Even then, he often gets things wrong, but these errors are also edited out so that what you see is a polished performance from someone who appears to have incredible paranormal powers!

The techniques that Edwards uses are a combination of various skills in reading body language and what is called ‘cold reading’ and is one used by stage performers and even by psychologists. Even though he uses these techniques Edwards is not very good at it. The author has seen others, non-psychics, perform similar feats, but with much greater skill than Edwards.

In a Neuro-Linguistics training seminar Langkton (1980) invited a woman from the audience to come forward. He had her hold a crystal ball in her hand and asked her to stare intently into the crystal. After several minutes of complete silence, Lankton then proceeded to tell her a number of personal worries that she was having, including the fact that she was very worried about the health of her mother. Afterwards, he asked her how correct he had been, she replied, “One hundred percent.”

On another occasion the author witnessed Rowland (2002), demonstrate the cold reading technique at a conference. Without any preamble, he simply selected one person from an audience of 150 and proceeded to tell the subject that in the preceding three months he had been driving a white car which had been involved in an accident. He related other personal details to the subject and then, asking how much of what he had told him was correct, the subject admitted he was about 99% correct.

Neither Lankton nor Rowland claim to possess any psychic powers: they use only basic observational techniques which enable them to determine a great deal about individuals. From time immemorial psychics and fortune tellers have relied upon their abilities at using such techniques as cold reading, observing body language and manipulating verbal clues, to obtain information from their victims.

These techniques involve ‘throwing out’ general statements to the audience, such as “I am communicating with a dead lady by the name of Mary.” The ‘psychic’ looks for those few people who respond physically to this statement, by moving their heads or bodies, sitting more upright in anticipation, or widening their eyes, all normal physical responses affirming the ‘message’ appears relevant to them.

The ‘psychic’ then selects one of these and makes some general comment about her health before she died, such as “She is telling me she suffered from a heart condition.” The end part of this statement is deliberately slowed down, looking for a possible reaction from the audience member. If there is no response, they will retreat slightly, saying “No. No, she is saying it was a cancer but that it placed a great deal of pressure on her heart.”

Here they are using basic statistical information, since the majority of deaths amongst women involve either a heart condition (27%) or cancer (22%), they are reasonably sure of being correct. If they do get it wrong again, they quickly move onto another approach, distracting the audience member. However, usually by this time the subject is unconsciously nodding their head, so the ‘psychic’ now knows she died of cancer, and they will then give the subject some vague message, that Mary is very happy in heaven, with all her friends and relatives, and not to worry about them but to ‘look after yourself.’

The subject who is already a believer in life-after-death feels satisfied, they have had a personal message from their mother.

Thus, while there are no real psychics, there are many individuals who are skilled in presenting the appearance that they do possess genuine ‘psychic abilities’. The main reason for their success is simply that there are so many gullible people who want to believe!

Laurie Eddie, February 2013

References

Edwards, H, (199), ‘Exposé: Psychic Tele-phonies’, in Skeptic, 16:2, 10–14.

Lankton, S, (1980), Practical Magic: A Translation of Neuro-Linguistic Programming into Clinical Psychotherapy, Cupertino, California: Meta Publications

Plummer, M, (1981), ‘Doris Stokes Wrong—Police’, in Skeptic, 1:1, p 1

Rowland, I, (2002), The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, London: Ian Rowland Publications

WA ScamNet, (2007), Psychics, clairvoyants and other lucky charms, Department of Consumer and Employment Protection, Western Australian Government, 3 September, www.scamnet.wa.gov.au/scamnet/Types_Of_Scams-Psychics_clairvoyants_and_other_lucky_charms.htm, accessed 8 February 2013

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