Tom Jonard's Psychic Phenomena Page

    Just as there is pseudoscience there is pseudobiology.  That is to say there is a common belief that the list of sensory and mental capabilities widely recognized by science to be possessed by biological organisms and particularly people is not complete.  These extra capabilities said or claimed to be possessed by some people and animals include mediumship -- the ability to communicate with the spirit world, telepathy -- the ability to read minds, telekinesis -- the ability to effect physical objects using only the mind, remote viewing -- the ability to see a scene not within physical view and extrasensory perception -- the ability to otherwise sense physical reality.  All of these purported capabilities and others can be collectively referred to as psychic abilities

    This is not science or even pseudoscience per sae but a belief that unusual capabilities are supposedly demonstrated by certain people and animals.  (Maybe we could call this  pseudopsychology).  Though psychic abilities are generally unrecognized by science there are some researchers who study them seeking to confirm or deny their reality.  This field is known as parapsychology.  Parapsychology arose in the 1960's to address a rising tide of credulity regarding psychic abilities and replace it with true understanding.  When these researchers become advocates for the abilities they are studying rather than objective observers and experimentalists their purported research becomes as suspect as the phenomenon they are studying.  Unfortunately such activity has given parapsychology a bad name.  So too has the fact that in years of study solid convincing confirmation of psychic abilities has not been found.

    Some analysts and critics (in the sense of discerning analysts) of extrasensory capabilities claim that they are nothing more than deception which scientists are ill trained to uncover.  These critics say that magicians are better suited to study so-called extrasensory capabilities because their business is deception -- they know how to do it, they know how it is done and they know how to uncover it.  In fairness we have to say that these critics usually are magicians.  Their comments also fly in the face of the principle that scientists are at least supposed to be trained not to fool themselves.  But maybe being fooled by someone else is different.  And maybe that's the point of the magician's criticism.  They casually look at something that seems to be an extraordinary capability and easily see the deception in it.  We do not.

    It must be said that deception is not always intentional.  Indeed it is possible to be so thoroughly convinced of one's own extrasensory capabilities neither to feel nor see the need for test or confirmation.  Scientists know they are supposed to test for such biases as selective thinking and self-deception and yet they sometimes fail to do so.  Hopefully other scientists catch them up.  A nonscientist immersed in the alleged extrasensory experience is unlikely to consider the possibility that they are deceiving themselves.  Their experience is testimonial evidence to themselves of the authenticity and reality of that experience and what it means.  They may sincerely offer that testimonial evidence to others with no intention to deceive.  But it  is insufficient to establish the reality of any phenomenon to the extent that it is non-replicable and does not consider the possibility of self-deception.

    A while ago there was a Nova program on psychic phenomenon in which James Randi, a magician and a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) examined some psychic phenomena. As part of the show Randi revealed how a magician would do some of the same things.  Knowing that it is possible for a magician to do the same thing via deception and misdirection it behooves us to ask if "real" paranormal phenomenon are not effected the same way.  Not examining these phenomenon suddenly is not an option.  Nor is ignoring critical analysis of simple explanations psychic phenomena.  We might even be justified in requiring psychics to prove they are not deceiving or misdirecting.  If they respond with rhetorical answers about our lack of trust ruining their performance we need to hold fast in questioning.  If they say that sometimes they do and sometimes they don't use tricks we are justified in asking them to not not bother us again until they wish to claim they never have and never will try to trick us.

    Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could communicate with the spirit world?  Well first of all there would have to be a spirit world with which to communicate.  Part of the problem of mediumship is its underlying assumption that there is a spirit world.  This is a comforting assumption for many people faced with the loss of a loved one and it is a short leap from there to the belief that someone could communicate with that world.  Mediums and their believers would say that the existence of a spiritual world is just what their capabilities prove thus completing the circle of their argument.  Apparently given the popularity of a television show hosted by John Edward who purports to talk to the dead a lot of people have no problem believing this worldview.  For a number of reasons I do not believe in a spiritual world so I am not likely to believe in mediums.

    For those who believe here are some things to consider:  Why are the conversations with spirits always so banal?  If they inhabit the realm of God and his angels why is there never any revelation of earth-shattering import?  Why don't modern practitioners of this art produce physical manifestations?  Nineteenth century mediums regularly produced visual and auditory evidence of spiritual presence albeit in darkly lit rooms not brightly lit television studios.  Is it because it is both easier to prove trickery with and harder to do a physical manifestation than to simply claim to hear the voices of the dead?  If some mediums have come forward to confess that they faked their abilities and others have been caught in the act why should we give our credulity to anyone in the same profession?

    Perhaps believing the dead live on can be for some a great comfort.  But it is also a denial of the finality of death which prevents acceptance of separation and loss and moving on after.  Therein lies the destructiveness of mediumship -- rather than helping deal with the trauma of separation and loss which we must all experience in this life it only offers denial.  Mediums may say they are only offering comfort but grief counselors tell us that denial is only a stage on the way to true coping.  As a Christian I believe in the resurrection of the dead myself but that is not a belief in some shadowy existence in a parallel universe next door.  It is not a hope to talk to loved ones through the medium of a stranger but face to face.  And it is not a denial of separation and loss here and now.

    When I was young a mentalist named Kreskin had a television show on which he read the minds of audience members.  These things seem to run in fashion so now we have mediums like John Edward on our TV's.  Surprisingly the two professions use the same skills.  Aside from associates pumping the audience for information before the show and feeding it to the psychic and technological tricks like editing that removes their failures from the broadcast both rely on what is known as cold reading.  This is the skill of coaxing information out of the listener and then re-presenting it as something that just came to them.  This requires a lot of guessing, moving on quickly when the guesses are wrong, allowing the listener to fill in incomplete information and a manner that puts the listener at ease.  Psychics don't do well when someone they are reading is unresponsive as was demonstrated in the James Randi NOVA program.

    The most famous telekinetic was and is Uri Geller.  He claims to be able to move objects and bend spoons and keys with his mind and does not hesitate to demonstrate this on stage and television.  Again James Randi was also able to demonstrate spoon bending and moving objects without touching them on his Nova program and explain how it can be done.  Randi does not claim that his ability to apparently duplicate what Geller does proves that Geller is in fact doing the the same thing.  He only asks that Geller submit his ability to examination by someone who knows such tricks.  Geller on the other hand steadfastly refuses to duplicate his mental feats under scientific, controlled conditions.  Thus it always seems to be with psychic powers -- they work best when the psychic is in control of the environment.  With other psychics they mysteriously fade away when put to the test -- a fate that is moot in the case of Geller.

    A more serious claim and test of telekinesis is one that involves attempting to influence the result of a computerized random number generator (for example see here).  Such tests can be automated and completely blind and move the subject from the field of parlor trick.  Since computer random number generators are not in fact completely random and therefore should more properly be called pseudo-random number generators some experiments substitute radioactive decay for the random event since radioactive decay is entirely random.  All such experiments show a small but persistent statistical effect.  Since random number sequences can appear patterned to casual examination and since no clear violation of randomness results in these experiments (such as the number 1 coming up all the time) statistical analysis is required to discern what is not obvious.

    Remote viewing has been considered and rejected by the CIA for intelligence gathering.  Needless to say if remote viewing were possible it would be the ideal espionage tool as well as an ideal tool for monitoring any activity not actually before the viewer.  Not only that but we would no longer need television to view events we could not attend -- a boon to entertainment.  Unfortunately experiments in remote viewing do not reveal anything like television clarity.  The information that comes through does not come close to real viewing -- more outlines and shapes than images.  Again the results may be statistically significant but unimpressive.

    Extrasensory perception of all over kinds are commonly experienced and reported.  In fact there is a common term for that feeling of familiarity we sometime get in novel situations and experience -- deja vue.  The commonality of these experiences drive a similarly common belief that they reveal an underlying psychic reality.  But the real experience of deja vue could just as well reveal the underlying neurological reality that sometimes our emotions are wrong and our minds always constructively participate in reality rather than merely sense it.  Only research can unwind the truth in this.  Forms of extrasensory perception being explored in parapsychology research today include staring and the Ganzfeld.

    Research in staring tries to verify that, yes, you can sense when someone is staring at you.  Again there is common experience, anecdotal evidence for this phenomenon.  Some researchers have even gone so far as to construct models of how this might work that involve extension of a person's psychic space outside their body with physical consequences.  Clearly staring awareness is an evolutionarily adaptive capability that would have allowed our ancestors to survive in a preditor/pray situation.  Also staring awareness can result from environmental queues to which individuals maybe more of less sensitive.  Only careful experiments can confirm a psychic component to this.  Some researchers report positive resultsOthers do not.

    Ganzfeld experiments are a sort of combination of sensory deprivation and psychic abilities.  In Ganzfeld experiments the psychic receiver is placed in sensory deprived isolation (the Ganzfeld) and psychic transmitters try to transmit thoughts to that person.  Supposedly by reducing external stimulus the Ganzfeld allows the receiver to better attend to psychic signals.  Of course sensory deprivation is also well known to lead to hallucination.  The standard explanation of this is that the sensory system manufactures what the subject sees not that it is transmitted from outside.  Nevertheless some researchers report positive resultsOthers do not.

    All positive results in parapsychology reported to date are all "small, persistent" effects.  Unlike the large "in your face" effects portrayed in movies and the imaginations of believers the reality is more a suspicion of an effect than a clear positive result.  (This too is part of common experience.)  Such ambiguous results fuel the passions of both believers and critics without shedding much light on anything.  Better experiments might weed a signal from noise if any signal is to be found.  However it should be clear that if any psychic abilities of the scope commonly claimed by well known, public psychics existed parapsychology would not be in this quandary.  For more information see the Skeptical Inquirer, a periodical publication of CSICOP.

    I have mentioned several people who have made being a psychic their profession.  Believers in paranormal phenomena may like to argue that these are exceptions.  They might ask, What about those people who don't try to turn their abilities to profit?  Well chances are you have never heard of them for one thing and so my bringing them up is unlikely to cause any image to form in your mind as to my subject.  Also these few public figures are they who inspire belief in the population as a whole and drive continued uncritical public acceptance of dubious claims.  For many people seeing on TV is like "seeing for themselves" (which of course it is not) -- a common-sense test of truth and reality.  Any reason to doubt these public performers is also reason to doubt the field they represent as a whole.

    There is an important but subtle point in using magicians as critics and critical foils for people professing to posses psychic abilities.  We all know that magicians are entertainers.  What then are mediums and other purveyors and practitioners of extrasensory capabilities?  Some claim to be authentic and eschew the characterization of entertainers.  Yet if they do the same thing as magicians why aren't they just entertainers?  If we prefer not to see them as such then we are not being honest with ourselves or each other.  If we really wish to know the truth about extraordinary abilities, if we really wish to know the truth about our world and the possibility of spirits and seeing what is not there and otherwise feeling what is not there and moving objects with our minds then we are going to have to be honest with ourselves and each other.  To know ourselves and the world nothing more is required.  And nothing less.

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    Created March 12, 2003, 
    © 2003, Thomas A. Jonard