Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Its Time For Believers in Mediumship to Face Harsh Facts.

Actor Rafe Spall, about to appear in a ITV drama about paranormal investigator Harry Price,  recently made some not too favourable comments in an interview with digital spy regarding mediums and in particular the psychic industry:
"In research for this, I watched a lot of mediums - Colin Fry, Derek Acorah, Mystic Mary - and it raises many interesting ethical questions... Because obviously it's not real. It's manipulation and it's make-believe. But they're not messing with people, they're not frightening them, they're giving them comfort. The people who come to these shows are in desperate pain, delirious with grief, and they need some comfort. But... they're paying for tickets, and these mediums are making - as Harry Price said - a fat living preying on bereavement. It's the misery industry - you're making money out of people's misery, which is very questionable.They're giving people hope and when people are in agony, who am I to say that they shouldn't be doing it? But do it for free. Use your 'powers' to connect with the afterlife pro-bono, then we're all good. Go and do a normal job [as well] - something else that is befitting of monetary reward."
Of course this comment hasn't been met with rapturous applause by all sections of the internet. In fact some believers, and hopefuls,  in psychic abilities are livid with Spall. Much of the criticism was levelled at Spall's lack of expertise in the field. These examples taken from the Society of Psychical Research's facebook page 




The problem with comments like this is two-fold. Firstly we have no idea how much research Spall did for the role. Its possible that he has been looking into this for some time. Sure he only name checks three psychics, but should we reasonably expect him to remember and list every single psychic he has read about or watched? Of course not. He is simply using these names as an example of the kind of mediumship he is discussing. The second, and more troubling problem with attacking his lack of expertise, is he's not actually wrong! The "psychic industry" does profit from the bereaved. From the outside, to an unbeliever, this seems like a heartless practice. Believers should find Spall's comments troubling, because that's the conclusion many of us have come to after years of investigation into psychics and mediums.

I decided to look into commenter Chris's claims of research into the physic abilities and found a write up of one of his tests in "Psychic News". The write up exemplifies many of the problems that ocur when mediums and believers conduct their own psychic testing.  The test he performs is some what interesting, but ultimately not performed under anything close to strict conditions, as he concedes himself in the piece. One massively glaring error in his protocol being, the psychics and non psychics are placed in seperate groups. They then proceed to "read" the others in their group. There's no potential for blinding here the psychics know they are in the psychic group and rate their readings higher. As this rating is done by tallying the amount of correct statements, which is highly subjective, there's nothing to prevent bias. Likewise, the non-psychics are aware they are in a non-psychic grouping, and are not expecting correcting readings, therefore not subjecting the reading to the same psychological manipulation that make "genuine psychic readings" seem accurate to the sitter.

I may well look at the test in greater detail over the next week or so, but its not from malice I say this, sorry but this isn't research. Its mucking about in the village hall. Twenty years of this aren't going to overturn hundreds of years of legitimate research in fields such as psychology and neuroscience which offer rational explanations for psychic phenomena.

Getting professional psychics to engage in legitimate testing is nigh-impossible. The big-names simply avoid controlled conditions like the plague. Semi-professional and amateur psychics, many of them "shut-eyes" who legitimately believe their own claims, that have engaged in testing fail to show positive results under tight controls. Positive results that are attained disappear in replication with said controls in place. See here and here for example.

But does the discovery of fake psychics through such testing logically lead to the conclusion that all psychics are fake? Blogger Ian Wardle says no, making this analogy:

"If we lived in a world where £20 notes didn't exist then it is likely there would also be no counterfeit £20 notes either. There would be no purpose in counterfeit £20 notes since no one would be fooled by them. However in our world where £20 notes exist and they are in demand, then inevitably there will be many counterfeit £20 notes.
Similar reasoning applies to psychics, albeit to a lesser degree. That is to say in world "a" there will be fake psychics, but it seems clear to be that they will not be as numerous as fake psychics in world "b".
The major problem with this analogy being: we actually see real twenty pound notes. They massively out number the counterfeit ones. We use the qualities of the real twenty pound note to distinguish between a real and fake one. We can't use the qualities of a real psychic to identify a fake psychic, as we simply don't know of any real psychics.

He continues
In addition they sometimes use the argument that since every psychic they have heard about turns out to be a charlatan, then it is reasonably, via induction, to infer there are no genuine psychics. But this is rather like a person flicking through a wad of £20 notes, carefully removing the counterfeit notes which are fairly easy to discern with the naked eye, and then declaring that since every note they've examined so far is counterfeit, it's reasonable to infer they all are! 
But Ian, our wad of psychics would contain only counterfeits, as that is all we would know of, we wouldn't flick though it at all, we'd discard it. It would be reasonable to infer all £20 notes were fake if no one knew of a real one!

By definition the term "fake twenty" would be meaningless in a world with no real twenties!


Arguments such as Ian's are common place and amount to nothing more than claiming that we can't dismiss the existence of psychic abilities until we've tested every single person, and parrot, who claims to possess them. Imagine this blanket refusal to accept the null-hypothesis in another field of science, should physicists still desperately search for the luminiferous ether for example? You can thus bin any of the advancements in physics made since the mid-eighteen hundreds in that case. Which come to think about it is roughly the time of the birth of spiritualism when the Fox sisters first foisted this psychic deception on the world.

Until some actual plausible positive results regarding psychic abilities are born from legitimate and well designed studies then we simply can't accept the phenomena exists, meaning we would have to conclude Spall is correct. But there's the ethical aspect to consider too.

Does consultation with a psychic help the grieving person come to terms with their loss?

I'd argue not, but I'm aware the the grieving process is a complicated thing and I'm not a psychologist or a grief counsellor.... but neither are most mediums. Can they be sure that their proclamations about dead loved ones don't damage the grieving process?

Look at the description of the first stage of the commonly accepted five stages of grief:

"The first reaction to learning of terminal illness or death of a cherished loved one is to deny the reality of the situation. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain."


Does it not seem like the words of a psychic, though they maybe comforting at the time, allows the grieving to linger in this stage of grief perpetually? This could well explain why so many people habitually revisit psychics and mediums, its to keep the denial strong, to ward harsh reality away. Its a cruel comfort indeed in that case.

And to charge for this comfort, especially if based on falsehood is callous.

A beautiful lie is a lie non the less.

Until evidence is provided otherwise every word Spall said seems correct. Believers can baulk all they like. Shut-eye psychics can deny it and claim to help, the sad truth is those individuals aren't just deceiving the grieving, they are deceiving themselves too. Those who offer these "services" for free may be excuse of monetary exploitation, but the potential for harm is the same.