TV psychics: not in the real world, please

By Grant Jacobs 11/10/2009

Before getting back to science pieces, I’d like to join fellow sciblings Petter Griffith and Mike Kilpatrick in expressing disappointment over TVNZ’s encouragement of the services of their “TV psychic” for the family of missing toddler Aisling Symes.

Entertainment often plays on fantasies, asking viewers to temporarily accept some clearly fictional plot devices. There’s a place for “psychic abilities” as “super” powers to make a central character be more than a mere mortal for harmless fun.

But encouraging the use of a “psychic” to assist in a serious, real-world, matter?

Not in the real world, please.

Police will have access to people with appropriate training to assist them, such as childhood psychologists. Unqualified parties–no matter how well intended–are best to leave it to those whose job it is. Especially if well intended means a belief in “special” powers.

Surely this is basic commonsense?

The survey that Peter Griffith refers to suggests this is what most people think. It’s good to see, even if 27% in favour of the use of psychics is disturbingly high. (Perhaps many of these people think that using psychics, while unlikely to be right, can’t do any harm?)

Surely commonsense also suggests that it’s unprofessional for the media to use it’s access to the victims to place themselves or others into the
investigation or situation?

Perhaps to clear the air TVNZ should screen Nova’s episode “Secrets of the Psychics”?

Go on. Dare you. Double dare you.

Further reading or viewing

Those interested in further reading could try:

1. Video coverage of the Breakfast show coverage of Paul Henry’s interview with Deb Webber is available on-line, for those with decent internet bandwidth… (See 4:18 onwards in particular).

2. Ciarán O’Keeffe and Richard Wiseman of the Psychology Departments of Liverpool Hope University and the University of Hertfordshire, respectively, developed a careful statistical procedure for testing claims of medium ability, which they applied to 5 police psychics, published in the British Journal of Psychology (2005), 96, 165—179 (2005) Testing alleged mediumship: Methods and results.

Their paper is freely available, quite readable and includes a survey of previous studies. Please note the link is to a PDF file.

They concluded (p175): “In short, the present study found no evidence to support the notion that the professional mediums involved in the research were, under controlled conditions, able to demonstrate paranormal or mediumistic ability.”

3. The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) has $1 million on offer for “anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event.” This organisation has had a monetary offer for this challenge since 1964, 45 years ago. Of a couple hundred of applications who have completed the preliminary test, no-one has passed the preliminary test.
(Let alone forced the JREF to put them up to full testing.) According to the JREF, most claimants drop out prior to this. They remark that “The hardest part has always been to get the claimant to state clearly what he or she thinks they can do, under what conditions, and with what accuracy.”

3. Druckman and Swets survey a wide range of “human performance” issues in their text Druckman, D. and Swets, J. A. eds. (1988). Enhancing Human Performance: Issues, Theories and Techniques. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.. (ISBN 0-309-07465-7)

This work can be read on-line free of charge (downloads require a fee).

This work has been widely cited as having concluding there was “no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” (see page 22).

Pages 206-208 summarise the results of their survey of paranormal phenomena studies and page 17 has a useful short comment on the use testimonials as evidence, i.e. that it is unsound.

© Grant Jacobs, all rights reserved.