Turn it upside-down and it snows!

You’re good, sceptical people (well, sceptical people anyway) so I don’t expect you all to have much interest in this paranormal shit. Bear with me, though: it’s not that I’m trying to prove the virtues of parapsychology, nor that I’m convinced by it, but that something’s going on that’s far more interesting than the watchdogs of enlightenment values might think. In a piece for Skeptik Magazine in 2003 Michael Shermer became a psychic for a day. He brushed up on cold reading, found some unsuspecting victims and duped them into believing that he’d read their minds, seen their futures and talked with the dead. His conclusions were emotional and I’m a little sympathetic: people who manipulate the deepest feelings of others are indeed callous bastards. On the other hand, I don’t think his conclusions were fair

I am not a psychic and do not believe that ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance, clairaudience, or any of the other forms of psi power have any basis whatsoever in fact. There is not a shred of evidence that any of this is real, and the fact that I could do it reasonably well with only one day of preparation shows just how vulnerable people are to these very effective nostrums. I can only imagine what I could do with more experience.

Yet cold reading doesn’t seem to account for the achievements of some self-proclaimed psychics and mediums. In Randi’s Prize McLuhan writes of Leonora Piper

If cold reading is the true explanation, I’d expect to see the medium starting with general statements, then gradually firming up as she watches the sitter’s body language and receives feedback to the questions she’s artfully posing. But the successful transcripts don’t show that: they show the information pouring out while the sitter says little or nothing. They do show Phinuit [Piper's supposed spiritual entity] sometimes asking for validation of his statements, which is what a cold reader does. But a cold reader would surely then fellow this lead, and here that does not necessarily happen; instead Phinuit goes on the produce new details which may also be quite accurate. At times Phinuit was curiously unreceptive to hints thrown out by undisciplined sitters, and indeed seemed to be quite uninterested in them. For a cold reader that would be a wasted opportunity.

This echoes the view of one of Piper’s more sceptical subjects…

My question would afford a professional guesser the opportunity to get in some pretty good work, but there was no appearance of guesswork. Nothing was said to draw me out in the slightest degree – unless it was t0 make me ask questions. The replies were not given in a hesitating and half-questioning tone, so that I could deny or correct, or the speaker readily change them if occasion required; they were plumped out in the most positive and decided manner, and, so far as my knowledge extends, with but one partial example, were exactly right.

As the tone of this witness suggests, Piper and others didn’t merely prey on the vulnerable. They convinced sceptics and scientists like Richard Hodgson, Charles Richet and Frederic Myers. For all Shermer would like to think they’re just two-bit conjurors they also baffled some of the finest magicians of their times. McFarlane writes…

Take, for instance, the case of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, today considered the original and archetypal stage magician. In 1847 Robert-Houdin was commissioned to attend a sitting with the clairvoyant Alexis Didier. The conjuror was happy to accept, having earlier exposed a faker and being in no doubt that he would do the same again. He blindfolded Didier, then laid out ten playing cards face down upon the table, each of which Didier correctly identified. He carried out this test a second and third time, and each time Didier again correctly named every card. Dider was equally successful with a number of other tests, for instance identifying a hair that Robert-Houdin produced as belonging to his son, and producing the words “after this sad ceremony” when asked to reveal any phrase on page eight of a book Robert-Houdin had brought with him (the phrase was actually on page nine).

Endorsing a description of these events, Robert-Houdin wrote: “I am bound to state that the facts reported above are absolutely correct and that, the more I think about it, the more impossible it is for me to class them among the activities that comprise my art and works”.

The more I think about it the more obvious it is that Shermer’s exploits didn’t prove a lot. The Piltdown man was accepted by a lot of scientists but that doesn’t mean that evolution is bunk.  Penn and Teller got some hippies to demand an end to water but that needn’t prove environmentalism is a fraud. The fact that people liked Come Fly With Me shouldn’t lead us to extinguish the human race. Karl Popper used to hold that an argument has not been beaten ’til it’s stated at its strongest. Nowadays it seems they can be tossed aside at their weakest while other theories are embraced at their most plausible.

Am I saying all this proves the existence of psi? Should we move to venerate our beshawled Overlords? Must we apologise to Derek Acorah? No, no and hell no. As a sceptic might point out, humans are seekers of patterns and the fact that I and others can’t explain these odd events needn’t point to one conclusion: someone else might know damn well. Still, humans are also extremely susceptible to confirmation bias and it seems to me that Shermer – as elsewhereGardner and others have latched on to any explanation that sustains their prejudices. And when supposed “sceptics” endorse the same brand of naturalism and coincidencism in an idly prejudicial manner those views will be confirmed as rational; reasonable. As for our friends the psychics, well, they either indicate that psi has something going for it or they were so inexplicably masterful in their deception that they shouldn’t be dismissed as low-rent charlatans. They’d have to be Bernie Madoffs, not yer average coke-snorting accountants.

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