News Ian O'Doherty

Monday 22 September 2014

Psychic powers aren't real? I didn't see that coming

Published 17/01/2014 | 02:30

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It’s all in the mind: Scientists have proved that the notion of psychics is utter hogwash although Derren Brown is still great

Researchers in Australia have really put the black cat amongst the psychic pigeons after they conducted a study that proves that -- gasp! -- the notion of psychics and mediums is, to put it politely, complete and utter hogwash. Or Hogwarts, depending on where you stand on this matter. Using a series of experiments with a wide range of volunteers, the boffins at the Melbourne School for Psychological Sciences say they have proved that phenomena such as pre-cognition and ESP are mere tricks of the mind.

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As you might expect, psychics, mediums and chancers everywhere have been quick to defend their brand of hokum and have accused the researchers of being biased, 'anti-psychic' and, my favourite, one critic even accused the researchers of 'using bad science'.

We shouldn't need an experiment in Australia to reiterate what we already know -- but we do, it would appear. Because one of the things I've noticed in recent years is how belief in new-age nonsense seems to have risen in direct proportion to the number of people leaving organised religion. And while many have abandoned one brand of superstition only to replace it with another, they have certainly retained the arrogance of those who feel they have found a Truth. And people who think they have found the Truth tend to be rather hostile towards examination and criticism.

We all know at least one person -- and, it's likely, more than one -- who will look you straight in the eye and say, with great certainty, that they know of a psychic who is terrifyingly accurate. They will tell you a fantastical tale of someone they know -- or someone who knows someone who knows someone -- who has some weird, inexplicable example of psychic ability. This, we're expected to believe, is proof of some sort of afterlife or ether-world that only those with the 'gift' can access -- like some sort of computer code only accessible to a lucky few.

That's why the patently absurd rubbish we see emanating from the 'Angel' industry is treated with respect and even awe, as opposed to the simple ridicule it truly deserves. And before anybody says that this baffling belief in angels shouldn't be confused with the more 'serious' elements of parapsychology, I defy anybody to go to a show by a supposed psychic medium and not see angel cards on sale in the foyer. That's because, ultimately, whether it's an invisible being sitting on your shoulder or someone telling you that they can put you in touch with your dead Nana, they both work off the same principle -- exploiting the gullible and dumb.

I know you're meant to be polite in these matters but society has reached a dangerous and dishonest level of craven moral equivalence that now suggests that every belief, no matter how daft, is afforded equal respect. But when we remove the shackles of stupidity, what belief in the paranormal really breeds is ignorance and gullibility.

That may sound a rather harsh rebuke to people who happen to hold ideas that fly in the face of common sense and do no harm. But the fact is that such beliefs do cause harm and they should be exposed at every turn. I once had a row with a popular TV psychic and he demanded that I turn up at one of his shows to see him at work. I dutifully turned up and it was, quite simply, one of the most infuriating and exploitative experiences I have ever had.

Forget about this trend being anathema to science and logic, it can also be immensely cruel.

What I saw that night was a crowd consisting of the usual credulous folk mixed with a smattering of people who were suffering raw, real grief caused by the death of a loved one. These were then used as the victims of a despicably cruel confidence trick and should have been going to bereavement counselling rather than forking out 50 quid a pop for some charlatan to do a bit of (rather obvious, in this case) cold reading.

It was a crass and unforgivable manipulation of people who were obviously hurting and the crowd lapped it all up -- as if pretending to talk to a dead child in front of its young parents, for the edification of a Saturday night crowd, was somehow providing a service. That particular fraud, Colin Fry, threatened to sue me at the time and I welcomed his threat -- in fact, Colin, me old chancer, that invitation still stands. Feel free to send that legal letter any time you want. After all, as I've said before, I'll happily use the great Derren Brown as an expert witness.

What's interesting about the reaction to the Melbourne experiment is the outrage and emboldened nature of psychics and mediums who know that their stock is rising. People who should have been a figure of contempt, or at best, working in a tent at the bottom of the pier of some seaside resort, now demand that their cynical snake oil be treated with respect and gravitas.

I had a conversation with a woman who vehemently disagreed with a previous column I'd written on this subject and she also threatened to sue, this time on the grounds that I was discriminating against her religion. She believed that the spirits of her elders spoke to her on a daily basis, and she had regular conversations with them. It was, according to her, religious hatred to suggest that she consult a doctor about the voices in her head.

Forget about the proof of cold reading, or the ease with which a competent person can expose the tricks that are used, it is somehow rude to point out that they are willingly exposing themselves to something that is demonstrably nonsensical.

And, I'll warrant, the angry emails will come thick and fast from people who are convinced their tea pot can tell the future and who don't like being told otherwise.

To which I would say this -- there are no real psychics, mediums peddle myths and angels don't exist.

Unless you believe in guardian angels, of course.

In which case, I have kidnapped yours and unless you pay me a ransom I'm going to send it back to you one tiny wing at a time...

Irish Independent

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