Psychics fail scientific test. Conclusion: scientists are closed-minded.

Scepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin.
— Thomas Huxley

Here we go again. Once more, psychics are amazed that they have failed to prove the paranormal powers they claim to have, but blame the scientists who are testing them instead of just admitting that they failed to prove their claims.

According to this BBC report, one of the psychics – Patricia Putt – said that her failure “doesn’t prove a thing.”

Well, it certainly doesn’t prove she has any psychic powers.

From the same BBC report:

“Psychic energy” was not likely to work in the setting created for the experiment, she said, and her success rate was usually very high.

Ms Putt said the experiment was designed to confirm the researchers’ preconceptions – rather than examine the nature of her psychic ability.

“Scientists are very closed-minded,” she said.

Quite. Another psychic agrees to the protocols for a test of her “psychic abilities,” then fails the same test, and then cries “foul.” But if she agreed to the protocol for the test, why is she now saying, in effect, that it was set up for her to fail? And why didn’t she refuse to do the test, seeing as how she (presumably) would have known the outcome before it happened?

It’s not the first time that Patricia Putt has failed a controlled test to which she agreed to all the protocols beforehand. Something similar has happened before. 

I think Ms Putt got it wrong when she said the experiment was “…designed to confirm the researchers’ preconceptions – rather than examine the nature of her psychic ability.”

There’s a bit of bad thinking going on there. The experiment was (from what I can find out so far) designed to just find out whether she could do what she claimed to be able to do. She failed to prove her claim.

And if you think about it for a moment, it is pointless to run an experiment to “examine the nature of her psychic ability” before it has been shown that she has any psychic ability anyway.

  There are two things that the researchers will not be claiming as a result of this piece of research:

  1. That psychic powers are not real.
  2. That the psychics involved are not psychic.

It’s nothing to do with the fear of a libel suit for claiming that the psychics are not really psychic, but more to do with the limitations of what can be legitimately claimed from the result of a scientific test. In this case, all that can be said, objectively, is that the psychics under test did not manifest their claimed abilities on that day at that time. It can’t be claimed as a result of this test that psychic abilities do not exist or that these psychics do not have the paranormal abilities they claim. The problem all psychics face is that under properly controlled conditions not a single one of them has ever demonstrated conclusively the existence of psi.

Admittedly, it takes a brave psychic to agree to undergo a properly conducted test. The fact that some do indicates to me that they are at least genuine in their belief that they have a paranormal talent, so I wouldn’t accuse them of being deliberate frauds.

For me, the most important point is this: the psychics agreed to the test conditions, which included the fact that they would not have face to face contact with the sitters – but after their failure, Ms Putt is now rationalising away the fact that she failed. Seeing and hearing her sitters, apparently, is necessary for her to be able to perform. But she is simply not in a position to complain. She failed the test under the conditions she agreed to and that’s it.

It seems to me the test was organised so that, among other things, cold reading techniques could not be used. Of course psychics need to see and hear their sitters; there is a lot of information that can be gleaned from a person’s appearance and general demeanour, for starters. A self-confident, assertive sitter is clearly different from a shy and timid person, and each sitter would need to be treated differently.

Proper controls also prevent sitters from using subjective validation, for example, to confirm what are, in fact, guesses made by some psychics. When the psychic says, “Does the name George mean anything to you,” it might cause the sitter to reply, “Yes, that’s my husband/father/son/brother/uncle/nephew/cousin/grandfather/grandson/son in law/boss/work colleague/[insert anyone else you can think of]” Which, to me, is not very impressive at all. Unfortunately, many “parapsychologists” are too quick to claim such a guess as a “hit.” Which probably explains why there is such a conflict between parapsychology and mainstream science. If a sitter has to “interpret” what a psychic says, then clearly the psychic is not providing specific information that would justify a claim of psychic ability.

Like everyone else, I have no psychic abilities, but my sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good) tell me that the paranormal community will waste no time in denouncing this latest – scientific – test of psi. What they won’t do is demonstrate the existence of anything paranormal.

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2 responses to “Psychics fail scientific test. Conclusion: scientists are closed-minded.

  1. Oh, there’s ‘bad thinking’ all right! A statement like ‘scientists are closed-minded’ is pointless. The point is that the scientists who designed this study are simply incompetent. As for the psychic who ‘failed’ the test and then complained – I don’t blame her. She’s not a trained scientist, so should be allowed to presume that the scientists knew what they were doing. Here’s the nub. The study is premised on a highly dubious assumption: that people are good at recognizing accurate descriptions of themselves. There’s reams of evidence that our self-images rarely match our actual characteristics. Yet the researchers had psychics generate descriptions of the participants, and asked the participants to judge their accuracy. A psychologist would be laughed out of the room if they ever proposed to validate a new personality test like that. The study as it was designed was worthless. The proper way to conduct the study would have been to compare descriptions provided by psychics with descriptions based on objectively validated measures like the MMPI, MCMI, NEO or PAI.

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  2. Leonard,
    Thanks for your comment.
    As I implied in my post, I have not yet seen the full report of the experiment, but that doesn’t matter; the post wasn’t about whether or not the experimenters have done a proper job (although I think they will have, and I do not accept that they are incompetent), but the fact that yet again – and it happens over and over and over – a psychic agreed to the test conditions but now complains that it wasn’t a fair test. Ms Putt had the opportunity to decline the test if she thought it was unfair or biased against her.
    A similar thing happened with Natasha Demkina – “The girl with normal (oops, I mean X-ray) eyes.” Her task was to match seven medical conditions to seven people who were presented to her. The agreement was that she should correctly match five out of seven in order to pass the test, therefore justifying further scientific research. In fact, she matched four and therefore did not pass the test. Then the internet lit up with outraged complaints on numerous pro paranormal websites claiming that four out of five should be near enough and that she should have been declared to have passed the test.
    I wonder how that would work elsewhere. I bought a lottery ticket once, and every number I selected was only one away from the numbers actually drawn. But I don’t think I would have had much chance of getting the millions by telling the lottery people I was so close I should be considered to have won.
    You can see a report of the Demkina test here:
    http://www.csicop.org/si/show/testing_natasha
    The point I was making is straightforward: yet another psychic agreed to be tested under controlled conditions that she was fully informed of; she failed the test; she complained later that the test was biased against her.
    I have no reason to doubt Ms Putt’s sincerity in her belief that she has the psychic abilities she claims, but it is a fact that she failed to demonstrate those abilities under the terms she agreed to.
    And it seems that my non-psychic prediction about the pro paranormal community denouncing the test is coming true already.

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