Being Psychic

Thursday, January 18, 2007


The official guide for kids...

James Randi is changing the way he runs his $1,000,000 skeptic’s challenge. (Have paranormal powers? Prove it. Get $1,000,000.) This is interesting only in that it’s somehow satisfying to read about these debunkings of fraudulent psychics. Silvia Browne. James van Praagh. John Edward. Etc. Penn & Teller have fun with it. So should you. But, really. Old gas-bags on the Montel Williams Show can’t channel your dead cat.

The James Randi article in Wired contains a few goofy examples of this stuff:

In 10 years, though, nobody’s passed the preliminary exam. The most recent one was administered in Stockholm in October, when Swedish medium Carina Landin tried to identify the gender of the authors of 20 diaries by touching the covers. She got 12 right; 16 was the agreed-upon threshold for success. (The foundation plans to re-administer Landin’s test following revelations that several of the diaries were older than stipulated in the protocol.)

Before that, the last preliminary test was in July 2005, when a Hawaiian psychic named Achau Nguyen traveled to Los Angeles to demonstrate he could mentally transmit his thoughts to a friend in another room. Under the watchful eyes of paranormal investigators, a video camera and a small audience, Nguyen selected 20 index cards from a deck of 30 and focused on the words written on each of them in turn — while one floor below his “receiver” wrote down the wrong word, 20 out of 20 times.

Arthur C. Clarke has a famous set of three laws of prediction:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

What I find interesting here is that — while Swedish medium Carina Mandin and Hawaiian psychic Achau Nguyen are clearly full of shit — the paranormal tricks they’re trying to do are completely not full of shit. They’re just going about them incorrectly. Carina’s trying to demonstrate her ability to extract metadata from a source. And Achau just needs a mobile phone and he’d hit a perfect 100% at transmitting data from himself to his friend in the neighboring room.

“Being psychic” is pretty much the goal of the information age we’re currently in the process of entering. No matter where I may be, I want access to info about where my friends are and what they’re doing. I want to know what music I might like, even from bands or scenes I’ve never heard of (and I want to hear it whenever, wherever I want). I want to know what interesting is going on in my neighborhood tonight. When I drive, I want to know exactly what’s around the corner or up the road. I want to be kept up-to-date on the experiences of people in Baghdad. Etc.

(Death is death, so there may be limits on how “psychic” a person can really be. But see Clarke’s rule #1. And then wonder about the possibly-changing nature of death itself given Kurzweilian posthumanism (e.g., my brain backed up into a computer while my body dies), life extension, and just simple personality simulation based on what we know about a person’s pre-death behaviors.)

Thinking about the information revolution (or whatever — I never know exactly what to call these trends) from this perspective is useful, I think. For a couple of reasons. One, it shows the lack of imagination and the lack of resourcefulness of these dipshot psychics. Two — and so much better — it opens the mind up to these sorts of magical possibilities. Which is nothing new, I guess. But I haven’t heard it stated like this before, so I’ll go ahead and do it myself.

Do I win James Randi’s $1,000,000 if I can communicate the words written on some cards to a friend in another room using some invisible technology Randi doesn’t understand? Is something still paranormal when it becomes possible using recently-developed technology? Or does “paranormal” always mean “bullshit?”

Amazing comments

Posted Wed, October 31, 2007, 9:01pm EST by Joe

I found your Blog a refreshingly insightful look at Woo Woo and Critical Thinking.

I have not quite figured out who you are yet but I am looking forward to clicking on "home" and figuring it out.