Tag: skepticism

I was skeptical before I ever knew there was such a thing as skepticism. I haven’t always been right – far from it in fact –  but I have always tried to look for truth wherever that took me.

My earliest memory is my first experiment. I can’t have been older than three and my parents had warned me not to ring the front doorbell because it annoyed my poor dog. Not satisfied with this statement I decided to drag a garden chair to our front door. The journey was only two or three metres but at the time it felt nearer two miles. I then bravely stood on the chair and rang the doorbell erupting into laughter when my dog let out a howl of dissatisfaction at the sound. I had successfully tested my hypothesis. I’m sure I later successfully replicated the experiment but I have no memory of this.

Not my childhood dog (RIP) but still very cute.

From the ages of about five to nine, whenever I asked my parents if I could add pepper to my meal I was told: “no you can’t have it, it’s not good for you.” When pressed they explained that it’s because the peppercorns stay in your stomach for seven years.

Where’s the pepper meant to stay?

Now I don’t know about you but as a child seven years sounds like an eternity. I’m not sure I even grasped how long that was but I thought the claim was fishy. How would the pepper stay inside me? How would my body even know what was pepper and what wasn’t? Wouldn’t the build-up of pepper block everything else at some point? My parents couldn’t answer all the questions I had and perhaps I didn’t even ask all of them out loud.

When I finally Googled the peppercorn claim in my early teens it turned out to be false just as I had predicted. Pepper does not stay in your intestine for seven years. In fact, black pepper may even aid digestion.  I also learned that the body does, in fact, retain some substances such as heavy metals and that our digestive system is actually pretty ‘clever’ – clever enough to tell different substances from each other.  Of course, to be scientifically accurate it’s not the digestive itself per se but the enzymes and cell membranes and all that but let’s not get bogged down with those details right now. Let’s look at what I learned.

Through finding out the truth about pepper I learned that trusting those with authority blindly isn’t always a good idea – especially if they haven’t done their own research.  Asking simple questions like “does this sound plausible?” or “is this even possible?” are vital and can help avoid many later problems.  Equally, through the doorbell experiment with my poor pup,  I learned that sometimes people with more experience are actually right and that I shouldn’t just dismiss their claims without consideration. They’re not just being controlled by Big Dog, (was that subtle enough?).

These early experiences were just some of the events that showed me the use and the beauty of skepticism. Not only did I end up believing something closer to reality I also learnt new information and for me, that’s one of the wonderful things about skepticism –  even if you’re wrong you learn something new.

One of my pictures from QEDcon 2017

With skepticism, you can learn about all manner of topics. Just last month at QEDcon in Manchester I learned how to fold a t-shirt in less than 5 seconds, explored some of my own and others cognitive biases and heard all about the cover-up of the Hillsborough disaster among much else. Skepticism has helped me see where I’m wrong and where I can and should do better. Skepticism is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to be embraced, enjoyed and shared.

Personal Stories Skepticism

Trusting first impressions isn’t always a good idea.  Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear and mediums who claim to be talking to the dead are probably just lying. In fact, when looking at the scientific evidence it is unlikely that any sort of genuine medium exists.

The psychic industry is worth billions and mediums can be very convincing. Below I’m going to list some common methods mediums use to con people so you can avoid frauds.

Cold Reading

Cold reading is the main technique that your garden variety medium will use. Wikipedia defines it as:

[A] set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists (readers) to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does.

Cold reading doesn’t require any prior knowledge of a person and is therefore very useful for mediums. Performer and author Derren Brown describes it as “fascinating, powerful and hugely manipulative.”

This is a topic so large I couldn’t hope to cover it all in one blog post or even ten. One of the best books on the subject is the Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland. I’ll draw a lot from his book for this post.

Rowland writes that within Cold Reading there are four major themes mediums draw on. These are: love, money, career, and health.  He also offers 38 elements that can go into a cold reading. These include elements about: character, events and facts, extracting information, and the future. Below I’ll go through seven of the 38 elements.

Seven Cold Reading Elements

1) Using greener grass statements that prey on our thoughts of “what if.” For example: “I sense that from time to time you find yourself contemplating your more domestic instincts, and wondering if they could perhaps be allowed more room to flourish.”

2) Using some fine flattery that dresses up a compliment with forays into excessive verbosity. For example: “The feeling I’m getting is that you are the sort of person who is often more caring than many people. You slip up sometimes, and you’re not perfect. However, on the whole, looking at the big picture, you care about the people around you and want what is best for them.” This is just a round about way of saying “you’re a caring person.”

3) Making good chance guesses such as “I sense some connection with the number 2, do you happen to live in a house with a 2 in the number?” Bear in mind that on a street with 100 houses this would apply to 19 of them. If the psychic is wrong they can always expand the search by saying “oh perhaps it is the house next door or across the street then” which brings us to 47 of the houses.

4) Using the rainbow ruse. This is when you make a statement about someone which contains “a personality trait and its opposite.” An example is “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there are times  when you can feel quite upset.”

5) Using Barnum statements. These are statements that most people would say apply to them. An example would be “You are sometimes awkward around people you don’t know very well.” When mediums make Barnum statements they are a little like those ‘relatable’ twitter accounts which post (or steal) relatable jokes and content. The difference is that mediums pretend that what they’re saying isn’t relatable and only applies to you. If you agree with a Barnum statement mediums can use that as the spring board to further ‘insights.’

6) Using veiled questions such as saying adding a slight rising tone at the end of a statement such as “I see a connection with industry and finance.” On face value, this is a statement but with the rising tone, it can also sound like a question which a client may confirm or deny. Using incidental questions by ending sentences with ““… now why would that be?” or  “… is this making sense to you?” is also a strategy medium’s employ.

7) When making predictions about the future there are several tricks mediums use. For example telling a client what they want to hear or using what Ian Rowland calls “Pollyanna pearls”. He defines Pollyanna pearls as statements that “focus on one area of the client’s life, and say that things that may have been difficult lately will improve soon.”

This list is very far from exhaustive but it gives a flavour of the techniques used.

Mediums will also sometimes use shotgunning which involves a rapid fire of statements. For example “I sense a father figure – it might not be your father per se – who has had some trouble with pulmonary issues or something to do with his stomach area, he ended up in hospital for something” This statement contains so many pieces of potentially accurate information that it could apply to a wide range of people.  It is important to note that shotgunning isn’t necessary for mediums. There are far better techniques.

Mediums also use our memories against us by summarising readings. In the summaries, mediums can avoid all their misses and add power to their hits. This can be very effective if done right.

A further thing to note is that mediums will nearly always try to avoid quantifiable characteristics when performing a reading. Mediums trap themselves the moment they say things like:”you’re always late for work” instead of “sometimes you struggle with time management.”  If they leave their statements undefined they can later wiggle out of any mistakes by re-interpreting the words they used, saying they meant something metaphorically or suggesting they were talking subjectively, etc..

Hot Reading

Hot reading is cold readings cousin and it is even more useful despite seeing less use. Hot reading is the use of information about the mediums client that the client is not aware the medium has. The more famous the client the easier this is.

Mediums can gain information by “trawling the Internet or government records, overhearing conversations, or even lifting your wallet for a quick peek,” (Sleight of Mind, 2011). They can also collaborate with other mediums or get their assistants to go through your stuff while you’re in another room and then feed them the information.

Demographic Data

Taking advantage of the wealth of demographic data available can elevate a chance guess to an (almost) statistically certain likelihood.

Saying things like there was a problem in a deceased person’s “chest area” or that they had “breathing difficulty” already covers a lot of ground. Problems in the chest area are the cause for most non-accidental deaths.  Pulmonary and heart disease are top 5 killers in both the US and UK. Mentioning these problems almost guarantees a hit.

Additionally, as this booklet points out, even if a person “died of ingrowing toenail the psychic can point out that ultimately their heart stopped beating – hence the chest.”

Mediums also commonly say they can sense the first letter in a name. Names starting with M, R (including Bob from Robert), S or J (or G as it’s so close) are common and therefore mediums will often throw out these letters knowing just about everyone will know a deceased person whose name began with these letters. Knowing which car colours are popular may also offer some useful fodder for a medium.

To illustrate this point when I was nine my parents took me to an event marking Halloween. One of the people present was a palm reader (who uses many of the same techniques as a medium).  I left the reading convinced in psychic abilities; the woman knew I loved animals, stories and toys. Knowing your demographic can make you look like a miracle worker!

The combination of all these techniques along with a healthy dose of confirmation bias in clients can make for a very effective medium.


Bonus: Some of the things mediums say are so common that they have led to psychic medium bingo sheets. Check one out here.

Note: This is the second post in a series of post debunking ‘Hollywood Medium’ Tyler Henry. Here is the first post.

Pop culture Psychics Skepticism Tyler Henry

Tyler Henry is a real life superhero or at least he plays one on TV. The charming 21-year-old ‘Hollywood Medium’ hosts a TV show now in its second season imaginatively titled “Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry” in which he pays visits to the rich and famous and speaks to their dead relatives who can apparently see into the future and offer comfort to living relatives.

Hollywood Medium TV show logo featuring the man himself Tyler Henry

Although it has been established that teleportation is the best superpower, speaking to dead people and predicting the future has got to be pretty high up there too… If only those powers were real.

In the interests of not getting sued, I’m not going to tell you that Tyler Henry is a fake, a liar or a fraud but I will be taking a closer look at his recent appearance on Buzzfeed with the Try Guys.

In the video, Tyler gives a reading to the four Try Guys some of whom appear sceptical at the beginning of the video but end up in tears by the end.

In my next series of blog posts, I’ll be going through the video (practically) scene by scene to cover some of the issues it raises. I’ll also be providing a very brief summary of some of the methods used by mediums.

In Tricks of the Mind the performer and author Derren Brown writes:

A television programme that shows edited highlights of a medium or psychic giving readings to a tearful audience has far more visceral impact than a debunker on another show deconstructing the techniques of such performance.

So, I can only imagine how helpful this dry blog series will be in changing minds….

If you join me in this journey over the next few weeks or months you’ll hopefully leave more informed and better able to spot frauds and charlatans. I’m using this Buzzfeed video as a case study because it is easily accessible and not hugely long.

Today we’ll start off defining a couple terms and I’ll give a little background, more terms will be covered at a later date. I don’t want to overburden you.

Definitions

Medium: A person who claims to be able to communicate with the dead.
Hit: When a medium makes a statement that turns out to be true or accurate
Miss: When a medium makes a statement that is untrue, inaccurate or misleading
(Psychic) Reading: The name of the consultation a medium has with their clients.
Client: The person being read.

Anyone can look impressive with enough editing.

Most people will have seen examples of a video genre known as “trick shots.” Captain Disillusion defines them as “Videos of people throwing objects at seemingly impossible targets and hitting them.” One of the best examples of a channel that actually does real trick shots is the YouTube channel Dude Perfect. Their videos are mind-blowing but they disguise a secret. The secret is the incredibly hard work they put into each and every scene.

What trick shot channels rarely if ever show is that to pull off the stunts that they do they require tens if not hundreds of tries. They just don’t include those shots in the final edit. The same goes for many television mediums. If they spend an hour with a person they will likely make hundreds of misses but the final episode of their show will only feature the 10-15 hits they make and maybe one or two misses. You’re not seeing true reality, you’re seeing the best version of reality.

To be a good medium you need a good video editor.

The same goes for this Buzzfeed video. I obviously can’t know exactly how long Tyler spent shooting with the Try Guys but I’d wager it’s at least double the runtime of the video unless he used hot reading (more on that in a future post). In the final video, the editors over at Buzzfeed put in the highlights, best hits and most impressive moments. Knowing this we can already mental discount some of the impressiveness of what we’re watching because we’re not seeing the full picture.

Not only this but we don’t know what happened before the camera’s started rolling. While the preparation for each scene was done there was likely time to have a brief conversation. The clues from this may not have meant much to the Try Guys but they could be significant. If he was so inclined Tyler would have been able to gain a huge amount of information out of the Try guys during the moments the cameras, microphones and lights were being set up and while makeup was being retouched etc.. The initial off camera meeting between Tyler and the Try Guys would likely also be a good time to do some subtle digging.

In Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown recounts a story he was told by a friend who worked on the team for a television medium. Before the main shooting began the medium did a dress rehearsal with one of the people she read getting a lot of information wrong along the way. When it was time for the proper shoot the medium now had all the information she needed to make 100% hits by feeding back what she had just learnt during the rehearsal.

With enough editing, anyone can look like a psychic genius.

So, to clarify: we’re not seeing the full picture only an extended highlights reel. This is likely even more pronounced in Tylers TV show. No producer or editor would allow their ‘talent’ to look bad on camera particularly if they gain monetarily from the show. Buzzfeed motion pictures will have slightly different priorities but in the end, they’ll also be wanting to make Tyler look his best in this video otherwise they may lose out on future interviews with him or anyone his agent or team represents.

When it comes to mediums your starting position must be one of scepticism. What is more likely: a person who has paranormal powers is speaking to the dead or a person without powers is pretending to have paranormal powers and is pretending to talk to the dead for monetary gain? Considering no medium has ever been shown to have genuine powers the answer must be the latter until further evidence is brought to the table.

Next time we’ll be taking a dive into the methods psychics use to fool us.

Skepticism TV Tyler Henry