On the 21 October at Goldsmiths, University of London, professor of psychology Chris French, author and physicist Simon Singh and Merseyside Skeptics Society‘s Michael Marshall put two professional psychics to the test. Kim Whitton, who describes herself as a “modern mystic” with more than 15 years’ experience as a spiritual medium and healer, and Patricia Putt, a medium and exorcist who also conducts investigations into hauntings and reported ghost sightings, were given a simple task – to provide a written reading for five volunteers, all of whom were women between the ages of 18 and 30. These could contain any information that the psychics felt would help the volunteers recognise themselves in the reading.
The catch? The sitters, instructed to sit and think about the kind of issues that they might expect a psychic to tell them about, were concealed behind a screen while the psychics wrote down their readings. Afterwards, the sitters were asked to read through the full set of readings produced by each psychic, and rate each reading on a scale from 1 to 10 according to how accurate they felt each reading was as a description of them, and to choose the one reading they felt best described them. For the psychics to pass the test, all five sitters had to correctly identify the reading that was written for them.
So how did Kim and Patricia do? Pretty poorly, surprise, surprise. Just one of Kim’s sitters correctly identified her reading, while none of Patricia’s did. As for the accuracy of the readings, the mean accuracy rating* for the target readings (the ratings given for the reading that was intended for each sitter) was 3.2 out of 10 compared with 2.4 for the non-target readings for Kim – a difference that was not statistically significant. In contrast, the mean accuracy rating for Patricia’s target readings was actually lower than the non-target readings, at 3.2 versus 4.2. This isn’t the first time Patricia Putt has failed such a test. Back in 2009 she took part in a preliminary test for the James Randi Educational Foundation Million Dollar Challenge. Needless to say, she didn’t win the money.
As Michael Marshall put it:
“It is very telling that, after hundreds of years of investigating such claims, nobody has ever been able to demonstrate the ability to contact the dead. I believe the overwhelming absence of evidence – despite a huge amount of interest and exploration over the years – is due to the fact that people can’t really obtain information by psychic means alone, and that people who feel these abilities are real are often misguided.
“I’d also urge anyone who is thinking of visiting a medium or attending a psychic stage show to think twice, and to question whether their money might be better spent elsewhere.”
Sound advice, indeed.
*surely it should be the median accuracy rating with only 5 readings?!
Prof Chris French’s Guardian column describing the experiment, and the response of the ‘psychics’ can be found here.