Do You Believe in Psychics?

RQ asks: “With so much fraud in the field of psychics, and no proof that psychic powers exist, why do people continue to believe in them?”

Great question!

Our reader is correct in his assertion that the field of psychics is riddled with con-artists, and evidence to support the existence of these powers remains scarce despite decades of research.

One of the most recent examples of psychic testing occurred in 2012 when two psychics named Patricia Putt and Kim Whitton volunteered to have their psychic abilities tested in a university laboratory.

In the test, which was designed by Professor Chris French, Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths University in London, the psychics were asked to write down characteristics of five randomly selected people who sat behind a screen. While the subjects remained completely silent, the mediums were asked to write things related to each subject. Later, the subjects were asked if they could identify themselves from the psychics’ notes.

“Kim and Patricia felt they’d have no trouble in passing this test,” Professor French explained. “Despite expressing confidence throughout the experiment, neither were able to gain more than a single correct reading, a result entirely consistent with the operation of chance alone.”

However, the one correct reading by Whitton was impressive with the subject saying the psychic had “hit it right on the dot” about something she had been thinking at the time.

Whitton, who claims to have more than 15 years’ experience as a medium and healer who regularly appears in spiritualist churches in London and environs, was not at all discouraged by the outcome.

“I have always wanted to be involved in a test like this as I would like to bridge the gap between psychic energy and science,” she said. “I felt very comfortable about the test.”

In reference to the Merseyside Skeptics Society, who arranged the test, Whitton said: “Sceptics need to realize you cannot see, hear, feel everything as solid matter with the human eye, ear, and body. Psychics and mediums use a whole other part of the brain which is under-developed in the average man. Overall, I really enjoyed the experience.”

There is, of course, no evidence that psychics and mediums are using “a whole other part of the brain which is under-developed in the average man.” The scientific community rejects the existence of these powers (also known as ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition) because of the lack of experimental techniques that can provide reliably positive results.

“Pat and Kim clearly felt that they were receiving psychic messages, and their regular clients are convinced that they have psychic powers, but our test showed no such supernatural power,” said renowned science writer Simon Singh, who helped design and conduct the test.

“I suspect that people like Pat and Kim are intuitive and are subconsciously picking up on subtle hints, such as body language, verbal cues and so on. This provides the illusion of psychic power.”

This is not the first time – nor will it be the last – that psychics have failed to rise to the challenge of science. The other psychic in the Goldsmith experiment, Patricia Putt, also took part in a preliminary test for the James Randi Educational Foundation Million Dollar Challenge which offers a cash prize for anyone who can demonstrate psychic powers in the laboratory. She failed to pass that test.

Just for some perspective – Randi’s offer isn’t the only one on the table. There are at least 10 other sizeable awards available, including one by Scientific American which has remained unclaimed since 1922.

With this being the case, why do so many people continue to believe in psychics?

In search of an answer to this question, researchers conducted tests in 2015 to determine why some people tend to believe in psychic abilities while others are skeptical. They tested both believers and skeptics who had the same level of education and academic performance and found that those who believe in psychic powers tended to think less analytically. Instead, they interpreted the world from a subjective personal perspective and failed to consider information critically.

As this article explains, “Psychic claims are often general and vague – such as foretelling a plane crash or celebrity death – and this is in part why so many people believe in the possibility of psychic abilities. This is known as The Barnum effect, named after the famous circus tycoon Phineas Taylor Barnum (aka P.T. Barnum) who was known as a master psychological manipulator.

“The Barnum effect is a a common psychological phenomenon whereby people tend to accept vague, general personality descriptions as uniquely applicable to themselves,” the article explains. “Research…has shown that individuals give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them, that are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.”

However, demonic activity is certainly responsible for some psychic activity, especially in the field of mediums who call forth the dead. Because disembodied souls are incapable of materializing without assistance from either a supernatural or preternatural source, the Church warns that all such appearances are likely demonic manifestations.

As for psychics who attempt to read people or divine their futures, this information is also easily provided by demonic entities.

For this reason, the Catechism warns us to avoid all contact with psychics and mediums because resorting to these services conceals “a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone” (No. 2116).

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