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Bad Press For Psychics; I TOTALLY Predicted That!

September 20, 2011 2 comments

I recently wrote a post about ‘Psychic Nikki’, a Toronto-area psychic who said she would be interested in taking the $1 million psychic challenge from the James Randi Education Foundation.

She has since backed away from that statement.

Now, The Guardian reports that a British psychic by the name of Sally Morgan has also gotten herself into a bit of a media firestorm.

It would seem that Ms. Morgan, Britain’s “best-loved psychic” (according to her website) did a show at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin on September 11.

The next day, Ms. Morgan was on a radio show called Liveline on RTE Radio 1.

A woman named Sue called into the radio show and claimed she was at Ms. Morgan’s show the previous evening, and asked about a something strange she experienced.

No, it was not a ghostly, eerie psychic experience. Instead, it seems that Sue was sitting near the rear of the theater and became aware of a small room behind their seats.

Sue claims she heard a man’s voice coming from this room. Not only that, but Sue says that 

“everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later.”

For example, the voice would say something like “David, pain in the back, passed quickly” and a few seconds later Sally would claim to have the spirit of a “David” on stage who – you’ll never guess – suffered from back pain and passed quickly.

A staff member realized that this voice was being heard by spectators, and promptly shut the window to the room.

A few other people also called into the radio show and corroborated Sue’s story.

This is a common trick used by “psychics” who do live shows. They will either have people placed in the crowd to gather information from the spectators about which spirits they would like to hear from, or use microphones to eavesdrop on conversations and gather information that way.

Someone will then feed the “psychic” this information through an earpiece, making it look like they predicted or “sensed” the information themselves.

Chris French, the writer of The Guardian article, points out that this is much like James Randi’s debunking of faith healer Peter Popoff in the mid-1980s.

Popoff, it seems, was getting information from “Prayer Cards”, information cards he asked his spectators to fill out before the show with name, address, and afflictions they would like to have “healed”.

This information was then fed to Popoff via an earpiece by his wife. And why not? They were pulling in a cool $4 million A MONTH by bilking these sick and needy people.

Sally Morgan isn’t doing too badly either; she is currently out promoting her third book and filming a third season of her TV Show, Psychic Sally on the Road.

But this isn’t the first time Ms. Morgan’s abilities have fallen under criticism. In 2007 she did a reading for Big Brother winner Brian Dowling, claiming she had never met him before.

In fact, she had done a reading for him in 2005. When questioned about this by The Independent, she simply said that she did it

because the director told me to.

But even though her techniques are getting exposed, she is going to continue to rake it in. Psychics benefit from that fact that people want to believe. So desperately do people want to speak to their dead relatives, or hear that they are going to find love that they will believe, and pay, anything to have that happen.

And there will always be those willing to take advantage of whomever they can for a few bucks.

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Ryan

Psychic Backing Away From $1 Million Psychic Challenge

September 14, 2011 Leave a comment

File:Psychic reading.jpgA prolific Toronto-area psychic named “Psychic Nikki” recently made headlines by saying that she would be interested in taking the ‘Psychic Challenge’ offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF).

The JREF offers a $1 million prize to any person who can demonstrate psychic abilities. What is the catch? Well there is none, really.

You just have to demonstrate a statistically significant ability to predict future events (beyond that of chance) in a controlled scientific experiment. The terms of the experiment are agreed upon by both the “psychic” and the JREF and the experiment itself conducted by a third-party.

Easy, right?

Unfortunately, of the hundreds of people who have attempted the test, none have been able to demonstrate that they are, indeed, psychic.

Enter “Psychic Nikki”.

On August 31, 2011, the CBC reported that Psychic Nikki was considering taking the challenge,

“I would say yes, I would take [the] challenge because I have enough faith in my own abilities if I was available,” Toronto-based psychic Nikki told CBC News.

“I am the real thing so I don’t have to worry about this stuff.”

The statement came after a high-profile challenge by James Randi to famous psychics to come and prove their abilities.

Psychic Nikki was quite confident. She has, by her own claim, predicted

the Sept. 11 attacks, the Japan tsunami and the deaths of Michael Jackson, crocodile hunter Steve Irwin and Anna Nicole Smith.

Though despite predicting these events, she did not bother trying to prevent any of them. You can actually check out her Twitter feed to see some of her predictions, which include:

I’m pretty sure people riot/protest in Paris every week…

Been 10 days, nuthin’ yet on that  one…

And my personal favourite,

The predictions are rather vague (excepting the Mona Lisa one), which is odd considering her website states that

She is an audient clairvoyant – the ability to see and hear and come up with specifics.

Psychics use specialized strategies to appear like they are foretelling the future. For example, they will make a large number of vague predictions (called “Shotgunning”), and then claim victory when any individual prediction comes close to the truth. Predicting an earthquake in California at some point will probably end up being true, but it is hardly convincing evidence of psychic ability.

Now, as revealed on the JREF website, Psychic Nikki has started distancing herself from the challenge.

The JREF called Nikki on Sept. 2, requesting an email address to send her information about the Million Dollar Challenge. After CBC News published a followup story on Tuesday, Sept. 6, Nikki returned the JREF’s call, leaving a message in which she promised “I will try to contact you in the next couple of days for sure.” The JREF called her back within an hour, again offering to send information about the Challenge and answer her questions.

A full week after Nikki promised to call the JREF “in the next couple of days,” she still had not responded.

She also commented on the challenge on the Dean Blundell show on September 9th. Most notably she said that

This test is controlled, that’s why I don’t want to take it

Which is basically the point. Once “psychics” find out that the test will be fairly testing their abilities, they either back away or ultimately fail the test. That is bad for business.

This is not at all surprising, but it is a bit refreshing to see it get coverage in big news outlets like the CBC. I expect that attention to this story will slowly dissipate once Psychic Nikki stops talking about it, but the point as been made.

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REMINDER: This blog is moving! The new location is http://www.aquantumofknowledge.com/ 

Remember to update your subscriptions! This site will no longer be supported after September 30, 2011. 

Thanks! 

Ryan

Just so nobody panics, I’m not REALLY retiring

April 11, 2011 Leave a comment

My last post jokingly suggested that I was considering retiring from blogging, after an xkcd cartoon summed up my feelings on the media’s science reporting.

And even though I have not posted anything in the last few days, I can assure you that I am in no way considering retiring from blogging.

I just like it too much!

But yes, things have been quite busy for me lately. Usually I spend my lunch hour writing a post or two while I catch up on the news. But the past little while I haven’t even checked my Google Reader. I actually have no idea how far behind I am in my reading, because it currently says I have 1000+ items to get through!

See? Told ya...

You would think I could catch up on the news on the weekend, but I generally don’t post much on the weekends. That’s my time to avoid the frustration of psychics and anti-vaxxers making the news. I did that this past weekend by reading a good chunk of “Knife of Dreams“, which is Book 11 of the Wheel of Time series (I almost gave up after Crossroads of Twilight, but luckily reviews of the Brandon Sanderson authored books have indicated that the series will pick up again).

So I will be back in full force soon. I can’t let CBS journalists get away with anti-vax quackery or let psychics pretend that predicting the Vancouver Canucks will win the Stanley Cup is any kind of impressive prediction!

Special Oscar Edition!

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

What on earth does a science/skeptical blog have to write about around Oscar time? With all the hype that surrounds the Academy Awards, which air tonight at 8:30 EST, it’s not surprising that coverage spills into areas of science, pseudoscience, technology and awesome. For example:

  • Filling the gap left by the death of Paul the psychic octopus, Heidi the cross-eyed opossum, who lives at a zoo in Leipzig, Germany, made her prediction for Best Actress on the Jimmy Kimmel show. She chose Natalie Portman for her role in ‘Black Swan’. This gave me great pleasure since I’ve had a crush on Natalie Portman ever since she was the only good thing about the Star Wars prequels.

  • The Economist wrote a short article on the science behind some speech impediments in honour of the success of ‘The King’s Speech’

  • 2 of the 5 nominated movies for Best Documentary deal with the environment. One of those films, called ‘Gasland‘, deals with hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” and prompted Scientific American to write a feature article about it.

  • By monitoring social media chatter from sites like Twitter and Facebook, the Meltwater Group has made their prediction of Oscar winners based on the number of mentions of a certain movie or actor/actress. Based on this data, the favourites are ‘The King’s Speech’ for Best Picture, James Franco for Best Actor, and Natalie Portman for Best Actress. 

  • And finally, the Best Picture nominees in LEGO form. You can see them all on Gawker, but here are my favourites:

127 Hours

Inception

The Fighter

Of Psychics and Serial Killers

January 26, 2011 Leave a comment

It was announced on Monday that the remains of four women who were buried near a Long Island beach were most likely the victims of a serial killer.

The women are supposedly prostitutes who advertised on Craigslist, which is where the killer most likely targeted them.

It is a horrible and sad story, and hopefully the police will catch the bastard before he hurts anyone else.

But of course, the media has found a way to make the story even worse with this little gem about a psychic who “predicted” where the bodies would be found. As reported in the New York Post:

A psychic eerily predicted where the victim of a suspected serial killer could be found — nine months before cops dug up the corpse and that of three other young women on a Long Island beach, police sources said.

In April, the clairvoyant, hired by the desperate family of Melissa Barthelemy, 24, of Buffalo, chillingly saw “her body buried in a shallow grave overlooking a body of water,” the police source said. The psychic also said “there was a ‘G’ in a sign nearby.”

Fox News has also run the same story on their website.

This makes me sick. Melissa Barthelemy was missing since July 12, 2009. So 10 months later, a desperate family willing to do anything to find her, turned to a psychic to try to find her.

This psychic took these bereaved people’s money and gave them nothing. Absolutely nothing in return.

What did they actually predict? After being missing for 10 months, the odds of the poor girl being dead were unfortunately pretty good. So nothing there.

Next the “psychic” told them that her body was buried “overlooking a body of water”. You are in New York! On the Eastern seaboard! There is water everywhere. If the poor girl was killed, odds are pretty good that she would turn up somewhere near a “body of water”.

The “psychic” also said that there would be a “G” in a sign nearby. And Melissa Barthelemy was found near Gilgo Beach. That’s pretty good, right? *facepalm*

They didn’t say if the “G” would be in the name of the lake, or the town, or a nearby store, or the hi*g*hway.

Simply looking out the window of my office, I count no less than 5 signs that contain the letter ‘G’. She certainly played the odds on that one.

But psychics don’t care if their predictions are vague. That’s the whole point. Horoscopes do the same thing. “You will face a difficult decision today.” Thanks horoscope, even though I face difficult decisions every day, you got that one right I guess.

If this “psychic” had this great power, why couldn’t they predict anything useful? Like the name of the lake, or a road, or the face of the serial killer? Because psychics don’t have a great power. They makes vague “predictions” and, after the fact, overzealous news outlets try to fit the facts to the vague predictions. This person is a con-artist who takes the money off grieving people.

So whoever this “psychic” is that took advantage of the Barthelemy family should be ashamed of themselves. These people have lost a family member and the idea of someone profiting off their misery makes me physically ill.

Update (April 14, 2011):

As it turns out, this psychic was even more off than I had originally thought. It seems that Barthelemy was not buried in a grave at all. She was found above ground in a wooded area, just like the other victims.

Also, even though she was found at Gilgo Beach, there was no indication that there was a sign nearby at all.

So again, chalk this one up to psychics taking blatant misses and spinning them so they seem like hits.

Fail.

“There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.”

December 2, 2010 2 comments

That’s what was postered on the side of buses in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal last year. And they are planning to do it again.

The Centre for Inquiry (CFI) is launching a campaign which would see similar ads on the sides of buses in Toronto starting in January, pending final approval from the Toronto Transit Commission. This  year’s campaign is “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”, and compares the belief in God and Allah to the belief in Bigfoot and Tarot reading.

Photo From Centre for Inquiry

The campaign’s website says:

Why is belief in Big Foot dismissed as delusional while belief in Allah and Christ is respected and revered? All of these claims are equally extraordinary and demand critical examination

Assuming they get approval to run the ads in Toronto, the CFI hopes to move the campaign into other major Canadian cities. 

Justin Trottier, national executive director of the Centre for Inquiry said about the campaign
 
I’d love it if everyone saw the ads and know the point of the campaign is to emphasize not the kind of knee-jerk debunking to anything suspicious but that we’re interested in a genuine debate, a conversation about so-called extraordinary claims. We’re not here to mock people who believe in these claims
 
But of course, there is mixed reaction from both the religious and atheist communities. Many religious leaders felt that the ads were designed to ridicule people’s faith. Others felt that their beliefs can stand atop the belief in Bigfoot, so a discussion on the topic would be welcome.
 
Some in the scientific and atheist communities felt that the ads were too confrontational, and that this was not the proper way to elicit a discussion on these topics.
 
My opinion is that extraordinary claims certainly do require extraordinary evidence. Bigfoot, psychics and the like all need proof before we can accept them as facts. But religion is built on faith; the belief without proof. I maintain my right to believe in a God or not, just as the rest of the world should. Challenging those beliefs on a bus is not a proper forum for this discussion.
 
Furthermore, if people want to worship a God I do not believe in, it is not my place to challenge them about it. They have as much right to believe as I have not to believe. However, if religion starts to influence government policy, then it definitely becomes fair game to argue the proper place of religion in politics. Thankfully, this is not as big a problem in Canada as it is in the USA.
 
I’d love to hear what  you guys think about this issue, so please take a second and answer this poll below, or leave a comment.
 

Women Get Scammed $85000 by “Psychic”

October 28, 2010 2 comments

The headline read Women: We Were Scammed By a Psychic.

I thought to myself, ‘This will be funny!’

But as I read, it turned out to be quite a sad story, and unfortunately one that will probably be repeated.

The Coles notes version of the story is that two women went to see a psychic named Patricia Johns to help them with their relationship problems. The psychic proceeded to prey on their vulnerabilities, and eventually scored roughly $85 000 from these two women.

One woman wanted to improve her marriage, while the other asked for help with her best friend. Said one of the women (who asked to remain anonymous),

I’m devastated over what she has done to me…She has just ruined my life.

The psychic used a different approach with each woman. On the first she used “smooth-talk”, but on the second she used something darker. From the WLFI article,

She did not say anything that was sweet-sounding,” said the second woman. “She had you in such fear – for your life, of things that she said people were doing to you. You are already in a weird state of mind when you have a great loss.”

The psychic used scare tactics to keep these women coming in for more sessions. $100 sessions became $400 sessions, and in one instance, the psychic even got one of the victims to buy her a Rolex. How? Well she told the victim that because her problems occurred at a certain time and place, she had to buy a special time piece and throw it into the river to break the curse on her marriage.

The psychic went with the victim to the jewellery store, picked out a $26 000 Rolex, and the victim paid for it. Later, when they went to the river,

The woman said she caught a glimpse of a watch being thrown into the river, but admitted she had no idea if it was a Rolex.

It’s easy to look at this story and say “Oh, these women are stupid” or “They should have known better”. They are probably saying that to themselves right now. But there is a bigger picture here.

When people are desperate, they will try anything. One of the victims in this story was desperate to save her marriage. Can we really blame her for wanting to try anything?

Lets remember that these psychics are very good at what they do. They know how to prey on people’s emotions. They can convince you that they have predicted something about your life, when really they have been guessing the entire time. (Read up on cold-reading to see how they do this).

This rings true of alternative medicine as well. We can’t blame people for going to Homeopaths or faith healers, because they are simply so desperate that they are willing to try and/or pay anything to help themselves.

The culprits are the purveyors of woo. The psychics, palm readers, faith healers etc, who make a living preying on the vulnerabilities and desperation of people like the women in this story.

If you want to go to a psychic for entertainment, for a laugh, that’s fine. But remember that they have no powers, no special abilities. All they have is just a knack for performance.

“In the course of a successful reading, the psychic may provide most of the words, but it is the client that provides most of the meaning and all of the significance.” –Ian Rowland (2000: 60)