Psychics are Fake, James Randi is Awesome

Okay, I want to start this off by saying that there could be psychic powers in the world. I would love if it were true. It could be so well utilized in the information age. I am totally drawn to tv shows and movies about psychic powers and the like. It’s so appealing on a primal and emotional level, but I think  it is so very unlikely such things exist in the real world that there’s no point in living my life as though it were even remotely possible. Just as I wouldn’t live my life with the expectation that I might one day win the lottery. Not to mention that the chances of winning the lottery are without a doubt far far better than the likelihood of discovering psychic powers. After all, people have actually won the lottery before. Not just in an anecdotal “I swear it’s true” “friend of a friend” kind of way, but in a (verifiable) (no doubt about it) kind of way. No one in the history of the world has ever exhibited psychic power under reasonable repeatable experimental conditions, not once. This leads me to one of four conclusions. Three of them might seem slightly absurd. Lets see if you can guess which.

1. They are not real.
Simple, plausible, and by far the most supported theory. Occam’s Razor would certainly favor it.

2. Psychic powers are SO slight that they are very nearly untestable.
If this were true, it would mean these powers are useless to individuals. If large “scientific?” studies can’t even definitively confirm subtle or slight versions of these powers, then what chance does one person have of using them to their benefit. Under this theory, every single psychic you have heard of is still a fake. If it were true, the only ones who could utilize these effects would be corporations, governments, or any large organized institutions capable of aggregating many peoples miniscule abilities. I would actually be thrilled if this were proven and human kind learned to aggregate and utilize marginal psychic ability. We could certainly use use the help, but that has no bearing on it’s likelihood.

3. They are hiding.
This raises some big questions. Are the powers themselves conscious, in order to want to hide? Are they being hidden by someone or something? Why do they hide? What qualifies as a test, in order for them to discern when to hide? I suppose this would fit if you consider psychic phenomena the work of the devil, continuing his greatest trick of convincing the world that he doesn’t exist.

4. Psychic ability is naturally stifled by testing itself.
It has been suggested that the negative energy of the skeptics performing or observing the tests blocks psychic power. So it can never be proven to someone who doesn’t already believe in it unconditionally. I have even heard of it being asserted that the testers themselves are psychics who accidentally or intentionally use their ability to block the experiment’s success.

Do any of these explanations seem overly complex, conveniently circular, and fraught with unfounded assumptions? I find “Three” and “Four” so absurd as to be insulting. However “Two” only seems extremely unlikely. As far as I know, the governments “Remote Viewing” project was a complete failure. Then again, maybe Apple and Google will someday have their own successful ones. Actually, Project Glass is kind of like being psychic. In fact any person with a smart phone might seem quite psychic and magical to someone from 100 years ago. Amazing things are certainly possible in this natural world, but they will be understood and utilized by science and technology. Assuming something is magic and fundamentally defies explanation simply because we don’t yet understand it, is just lazy.

I am not a scientist, but it is just so irrefutably obvious what a tremendous impact science has had on civilization. Whether you think that is good or not is another discussion, but it’s effect is undeniable. Is there ANY quantifiable and verifiable societal gain in human history that can be attributed to mystical human powers? That fact that you probably don’t know the answer to that question for sure right off the bat, should tell you something in and of itself. When you are anywhere indoors, you can look around in all directions to find that every single thing in sight was made possible through the scientific method. Of course you might be able to see the sky or some other nature through your window, but you should get my point. If you are past a certain age, it is nearly certain that you are only alive because of scientific advancements. It is THE greatest tool devised by human kind, period. and yet it is so poorly understood and respected by the majority of the population that Psychics can still become famous and people still take Homeopathic sugar pills for all manner of aliments. Heck there are even fake fake psychics or mentalists like Darren Brown. He actually tells people that he uses tricks, but he lies about the tricks he uses to make them sound more incredible than they really are. With him I really don’t know how much of what he says is true or not. A lot of it sounds pretty reasonable. The best lies are always mixed with the truth, they can make you drop your guard. I’m just surprised at how few people believe that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence?

Now we come to James Randi. Once known as The Amazing Randi, he is a former conjurer or magician turned adamant skeptic and professional debunker. He takes particular offense to people claiming to have real psychic powers who use the exact same devices as magicians, but use them to fool and take advantage of people. He has spent most of his career exposing the absurdity of these claims. The Million Dollar Challenge is that sum of money, offered through his foundation, for anyone who can show scientific proof of any supernatural powers. The challenge has been going on since 1964 and no one has been able to claim the prize. No one has even been able to make it through the preliminary test. The only famous psychic to publicly accept the challenge was Sylvia Brown, but when the cameras were off, she failed to follow through. I recently read the article “The Myth of the One Million Dollar Challenge” in which Randi’s challenge is criticized for many things, but mainly for being too difficult to pass. That researchers of psychic ability had no chance of winning because of the large sample groups and lengthy testing that is required.  Then there is of course the rebuttal from Randi and then the response to his rebuttal. I am of the mind that such a test should be difficult, well beyond the reach of random chance. If psychic power is unable to out perform random chance in a measurable and repeatable way, then what good is it? Statistically, that would make everyone psychic, which is kind of the same thing as saying no one is.

Clearly I’m a Randi fan, but I think I can safely say beyond a shadow of a cognitive bias, that skepticism is crucial in this complicated world and not to be confused with cynicism, on which I will not comment.

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10 thoughts on “Psychics are Fake, James Randi is Awesome

  1. Alex says:

    Nice article coupled with a nice testament to the power of the scientific method and it’s unparalleled contribution to Human flourishing.

    Btw it’s Derren Brown not Darren (he really hates it when ppl get that wrong).

  2. Anonymous says:

    Actually, Derek Ogilvie (“the baby whisperer”) took the Million Dollar Challenge (and predictably failed) too. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woPpC6Q5Yrg

  3. Ana Thema says:

    Good article, although I think the ancient Cynics were onto something.

  4. My image won’t be appearing on your TV SET, chuckle

  5. Unless you’ve got internet on it like mine in front of me.

  6. And you do a search, that is!

  7. gramlyn says:

    We live in a time full of ideas. A time in which it has never been easier to learn about the most peculiar thing. No wonder being a sceptic is so attractive, as it promises clarity in a world of confusion. Scepticism gives you a machete to hack away what is false, or deemed to be false. Don’t get me wrong, i think science is a fantastic tool and a fantastic model of a part of reality. It can explain a lot, and a scientific explanation can be sound – but is it always the best explanation?

    Over time, i’ve come to value my own experience and perceptions a lot because that’s what matters most to me. I don’t always have to operate on the level of “common consciousness” so to speak. What science tells us can be true, but what i experience can be true as well, even if it stands in conflict with science. This might sound absolutely ridiciolous to you but i thought my perspective might further this discussion.

    One example perhaps: Improbable coincidences. Jung called them “Synchronicities”. You think of a melody and it starts playing on the radio. Alright, that can easily explained by chance, but i’ve personally experienced many EXTREMLY curious synchronicities and my freinds have as well. It could very well be that we will able to explain certain phenomenon using more advanced scientific apperatus, but there is something in me feeling that these powers are not always reproducable and in most cases deeply personal.

    • nickquest says:

      I certainly wouldn’t presume to say your experiences aren’t personal and valuable to you. I don’t think anyone would say that conflicts with science. They just might not be useful to anyone else. Generally if you want something to be valuable to others it needs to be reproducible, unless all you’re after is a good anecdote. Hence the term anecdotal evidence.

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