Regular readers may remember that a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about an experiment being performed by psychologist Chris French and science writer Simon Singh to test, under controlled conditions, the alleged telepathic powers of some self-proclaimed psychics. (You can read the original post here.) French and Singh conducted the test at the University of London, and in a deliberately ironic gesture, released the results two days ago -- on Halloween.
And the results were... (drum roll please):
The two "psychics" who had agreed to participate were asked to write down something about each of five volunteers who were concealed behind a screen. Afterwards, the five volunteers were asked to pick the descriptions that fit them best. The psychics achieved a hit rate of one in five -- exactly consistent with chance alone. [Source]
Now, so far, I find nothing particularly surprising about this. I've read a great deal of the literature regarding controlled tests of psychics, mediums, and so on, and also about human cognitive biases -- confirmation and dart-thrower's bias, the "Clever Hans" effect, and so on. When researchers are not exceptionally careful to screen out and control for these sorts of things, the results are immediately suspect -- which is why I don't think most anecdotal evidence in this realm, of the "I Went To A Psychic And She Was So Amazing" kind, is logically admissible.
What is more interesting is the reaction of one of the psychics who participated in the test, the rather unfortunately-named Patricia Putt. "This experiment doesn't prove a thing," Ms. Putt said. She went on to explain that she needs to be face-to-face with a client to establish a connection of "psychic energy." When she is allowed to see her clients, her "success rate is very high."
She ended with a snarky comment that the scientists had designed the test simply to prove what they already believed -- accusing them, with no apparent sense of irony, of confirmation bias.
"Scientists are very closed-minded," she said.
My response is that of course she prefers to work face-to-face, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with "establishing a connection of psychic energy." The psychics I've seen working first hand do what they do by paying close attention to body language -- they have trained themselves to watch their clients' every twitch, because that cues them in to how well they're doing, and where to go next with the "reading." I still recall seeing a psychic doing a reading for students in a high school psychology class that I was asked to attend (and of course I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do so!). The psychic, a woman named Laura, never took her eyes off the student she was doing a "reading" for, and as soon as the student gave the slightest sign that she was saying something that was off-base, she'd shift direction. And later in the class, I gave a quick glance at the clock on the wall -- I had a class to teach the following period -- and Laura immediately said, "Am I out of time?" And she hadn't even been doing a "reading" for me at the time -- I was sitting in the back of the classroom, and she simply noticed my eyes moving!
So despite Pat Putt's objections, I'm not buying that French and Singh deliberately set up the experiment to make her fail, or that they're closed-minded, or that the screens they used were made of special psychic-energy-blocking materials. The most reasonable explanation for the results is simply that the alleged telepaths were unable to perform, and that they accomplish their "very high success rate" with face-to-face clients a different, and probably quite natural, way. Admittedly, these were only two psychics, and a single experiment, and this hardly rules out the existence of psychic abilities in the global sense; but it very much places the ball in the court of folks like Derek Acorah, Sylvia Browne, and Sally Morgan. If what you are doing is not simply a combination of prior research, information provided by assistants, and sensitivity to human body language -- if you really are, improbably and amazingly, picking up on human thoughts through some sort of hitherto undetected "psychic energy field," I would very much like you all to man-up and do what any critical thinker would demand:
Prove, under controlled conditions, that you are able to do what you claim. And if you cannot do that, kindly have the decency to stop ripping people off.