Nobody Can Know What’s Unknowable

By Jeremy Fejfar, August 7, 2011

The practice of the mystical arts probably goes back before recorded history. There have always been shamans, mediums and psychics who have claimed to possess powers extending into the supernatural realm.

Alleged psychics are individuals who claim to be able to read another person’s mind, to predict events of the future or to communicate with the dead. I say “alleged psychics,” because there is no such thing as a real psychic.

James Randi, a magician and activist in the skeptic movement, has offered a prize since 1964 open to “anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event.”

Currently, the prize is $1 million, and to date, no applicant has ever made it past the preliminary test.

Psychics employ various techniques, including cold reading, to make it seem as though they know far more about a person than they do. They will throw out a number of high probability guesses and expound on the hits that the participant confirms, while quickly moving on from misses or explaining them away.

What psychics know is that even if 80 percent of their guesses are wrong, the participant will come away primarily remembering the 20 percent of the right guesses and will often believe the psychic had a near-perfect hit rate.

This hit rate also can be made to appear vastly better when watching a psychic on a TV show, where editing out the misses is possible.

Often, the entertainment provided by psychics is presented as just that — entertainment. So why should skeptics bother taking on these purveyors of “woo woo”? Because real harm can come of it.

Because police may waste precious time and money listening to a psychic while trying to solve a case. Because grieving families may have their normal grieving process hijacked by the false hope of communication. Because people have their thinking polluted by these magic tricks, they become more prone to fall for other non-evidence-based hokum.

Sylvia Browne is a psychic that has been exposed as a fraud many times, yet continues to be a regular on talk shows, and has many adoring fans. On “The Montel Williams Show,” Browne told the desperate parents of missing child Shawn Hornbeck that he was dead and had been kidnapped by a dark-skinned man with dreadlocks. She also called them after the show to offer her services to them for a fee.

Four years after being abducted, Shawn was found very much alive, being held in the home of a white Missouri man, sans dreadlocks.

To mislead desperate parents of a missing child, and to tell them their child is dead with her mock certainty is simply more than a civilized society should stomach. Browne also predicted in 2004 that Osama bin Laden already was dead, which we recently learned was not the case.

John Edward is another psychic who has made millions of dollars claiming to communicate with the dead. He was once exposed to have used information told to a cameraman before one performance, passing it off as information he received from a spirit.

It’s worth mentioning that both Edward and Browne have been personally invited by James Randi to take his million-dollar challenge. Browne accepted the offer in 2001 on Larry King’s show, but has since declined to follow through. One excuse she had given was that “I don’t know how to get hold of Randi,” which is a remarkable statement from a woman who alleges to speak to dead people, yet doesn’t know how to use a phone book.

John Edward used an equally flippant excuse to his not accepting the challenge.

The reason they don’t take Randi up on his offer is they know that a magician will see through their deceptions. It takes one to know one, so to speak.

It is noteworthy that not a single “psychic” predicted the events of 9/11. One would think a person who purports to know the future would have foreseen such a monumental cultural shift that was caused by the worldwide reverberation from the collision of hijacked planes used as missiles. Consider the subsequent chain of military action and loss of life, and ponder how such an event could have escaped the radar of every “psychic” on the planet.

Remember, when confronted with a person who claims to know the unknowable, be skeptical.

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