I’m quoted in a new article by Russ Dobler on techniques that can fool people into thinking you’re psychic (by way of the upcoming Spider-Man movie!) for his Adventures in Poor Taste website… Check it out HERE!
I’m quoted in a new article by Russ Dobler on techniques that can fool people into thinking you’re psychic (by way of the upcoming Spider-Man movie!) for his Adventures in Poor Taste website… Check it out HERE!
My Spanish-language article on water dowsing is now out for ‘Pensar’ magazine, thanks to Alejandro Borgo for the translation!
Los tiempos de estrés social, dificultades e incertidumbre estimulan el interés en todo tipo de adivinación y profecía. El público va a ver videntes y adivinos con más frecuencia en tiempos de depresión económica que de prosperidad, tiempos de pérdida en lugar de amor. Son la naturaleza humana y el pensamiento mágico en sus diversas formas, incluidas la superstición y las conspiraciones, las que ayudan a las personas a lidiar con el estrés diario. La gente quiere estar segura de que las cosas buenas están a la vuelta de la esquina, que las fortunas mejorarán y los romances apasionados con proverbiales extraños guapos y altos están en las cartas.
Esto fue cierto durante la pandemia, pero hay otras tensiones —ambientales, como el cambio climático, incendios generalizados y una sequía duradera que ha mantenido reseco gran parte del suroeste de los Estados Unidos durante años. No es de extrañar que la gente esté cada vez más desesperada por encontrar agua.
The New York Times informó recientemente sobre un aumento en el interés y la contratación de radiestesistas (o «brujos del agua») —también llamados zahoríes o rabdomantes. Si alguna vez ha escuchado la frase «No lo harían si no funcionara», la radiestesia es una refutación perfecta. A lo largo de los siglos las personas han venerado y perpetuado prácticas a pesar de que simplemente no funcionan. La radiestesia es un ejemplo de libro de texto sobre el tema. Parte de la razón de la longevidad de la radiestesia es su versatilidad en el mundo paranormal. Se dice que la radiestesia encuentra cualquier cosa, incluidas personas desaparecidas, tuberías enterradas, depósitos de petróleo e incluso ruinas arqueológicas (ver Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath? —Radiestesia y arqueología: ¿Hay algo debajo?— en Skeptical Inquirer, marzo/abril de 1999).
Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.
This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.
The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).
I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real? TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.
The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.
According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).
However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.
How Dowsing ‘Works’
If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”
I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.
Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.
The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).
And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.
Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.
In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?
There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.
The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
I often investigate claims about psychic detectives, and last year I researched claims made by psychics in the tragic case of a missing Ohio boy in late 2020. He went missing without a trace, and several psychics gave information about where he was; what did they say and how accurate was it?
My article is now online; you and read it HERE.
I recently had a free-ranging chat with Vito D’Amico (aka The Amazing Vito) on myriad things including the perils of Zoom masturbation, Bigfoot sex, the wanna-be “vampire” roommate of a girl he dated, why ghost beliefs can be harmful, confirmation bias, why real animals are more amazing that imaginary ones, and more. Check it out!
In cause you missed the recent episode: Susan Gerbic, of Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia, joins us to bring us up to date on her recent psychic research and writings, as well as her team’s ongoing efforts in shoring up the information on various Wikipedia pages in response to pandemic misinformation. I share my thoughts on one of the last public theatrical events I attended before Covid-19: the Theresa Caputo Experience! We compare and contrast some of the psychological tricks and showmanship involved in a psychic’s stage performance and how people get sucked into a celebrity psychic’s crafted image.
You can listen HERE!
This installment finishes our discussion on three missing persons cases that Ben, Celestia, and Kenny followed in real time and tracked with psychic detective predictions on how the cases would play out. Part 2 features Ben’s examination of the Harley Dilly case, a teenager who went missing in December of 2019. The same content warning applies: we must discuss some details of the case that may be disturbing to some listeners. With these three case studies, it becomes clear how well-meaning (and sometimes not-so-well-meaning) psychics gum up the works at police departments and cause distress to the families as tragedies occur. With social media, this effect is increased with the second-wave effect as followers on social media send and resend a psychic’s prediction to authorities.
You can listen HERE!
In our recent episode special guest Kenny Biddle joins Ben and Celestia (remotely!) to look at some current missing person cases as they unfold in real time, and how psychics have “helped” (or interfered) in the progress of each case. This turned into a rather long study, so this part has cases brought by Celestia and Kenny, with some discussion of why checking and debunking this type of psychic activity necessarily falls to grassroots skeptical activists. Content warning: missing child cases, as well as psychic pronouncements on what happened to these victims, are discussed in detail.
You can listen HERE!
In recent months there’s been plenty of rumors, myths, and misinformation about the newest coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19. I’ve written several pieces on the topic, tackling both intentional and accidental bogus information. Some of the most pernicious, of course, involves misinformation about healthcare decisions (such as fake cures), but there are others.
One of the most curious is the recent resurrection of a prediction by Sylvia Browne. In her 2008 book End of Days, Browne (who died in 2013) predicted that “In around [sic] 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
This led to many on social media assuming that Browne had accurately predicted the Covid-19 outbreak, and no less a respected authority than Kim Kardashian shared such posts. One news writer asked, “Doesn’t it sound very similar to this novel coronavirus and the disease, Covid-19? Be it the nature of the illness, the year mentioned or the part about the resistance to treatments—the similarity with coronavirus is uncanny… Netizens are absolutely stumped with the reference of coronavirus outbreak in the book.”
While most of the commentary seems to take the proclamations about Browne’s prediction at face value, there were a few skeptics. The website Snopes did a short piece explaining the topic, giving it a rating of “Mixture” of truth and fact—which is rather generous as I’ll explain.
A Closer Look at Browne’s ‘Prediction’
Skeptics such as myself, Joe Nickell, Susan Gerbic, Massimo Polidoro, James Randi, and others have a long history of taking a closer look at psychic claims. Let’s revisit the passage in question: “In around 2020 [sic] a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
There’s a lot packed into these two sentences, so let’s parse this out. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around”: Browne doesn’t write “In 2020,” which would narrow it down to one calendar year; she writes “in around” whose grammatically awkward construction suggests to the editor in me that she (or her editor) added the word “around” in a late draft to make it more general—a typical psychic technique. What “around 2020” means varies by subjective criterion, and could plausibly include a range of plus or minus three or more years: Most people would probably agree that 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022, and 2023 are “around” 2020. Using this range we see that Browne’s spread is over seven (or more) years—well over half a decade.
So what did Browne predict would happen sometime during those years? “A severe pneumonia-like illness.” Covid-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness,” though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia. Most of those infected (about 80%) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2% and 4%. There are two types of coronaviruses—Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—that “can cause severe respiratory infections,” but Covid-19 is not among them; both SARS and MERS are far more deadly.
Where will it go, according to Browne? It “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes.” Covid-19 has now indeed spread throughout the globe, though the phrase “attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes” isn’t a prediction but merely restates any “pneumonia-like illness.”
But Browne also offers another specific characteristic of this disease, that of “resisting all known treatments.” This also does not describe Covid-19, which doesn’t “resist all known treatments”; in fact doctors know exactly how to treat (though not effectively vaccinate or quarantine, which are very different measures) the disease, and it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. There’s nothing unique about Covid-19’s resistance to treatment.
In the second sentence she further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false, at least as of now. Covid-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.” Infectious diseases (especially ones such as respiratory illnesses) have predictable patterns, and modeling outbreaks is a whole branch of public health. Given a normal distribution (bell curve) of cases, it would not necessarily be “baffling” if the disease subsided as quickly as it arose. In fact what would be astonishing is if it did not; in other words if over the course of a week or two, the infection rates plummeted inexplicably as no new infections were reported at all. That would be an amazing psychic prediction. Furthermore note that the prediction couldn’t even be mostly validated until 2030, since it references a recurrence of the disease ten years later—a neat trick for a prediction made (or at least made public) nearly a quarter-century earlier. And as to whether it would “then disappear completely,” I suppose that could be determined true or false at some point around the end of time, so expect a follow-up piece from me then.
So we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. Half of the prediction (the second sentence) have demonstrably not happened. The other half of the prophecy describes an infectious respiratory illness that does not resemble Covid-19 in its particulars and that would happen within a few years of 2020. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions. Anyone who finds this prediction to be astonishingly accurate should contact me for information on a bridge I happen to have for sale. Keep in mind that in her books, television appearances, interviews, and elsewhere over the course of her career, Browne has made many thousands of predictions; the fact that this one happened to possibly, maybe, be partly right is meaningless. People love a mystery, and retrofitting vague predictions (whether from Browne, Nostradamus, or anyone else).
In recent weeks there’s been many rumors, myths, and misinformation about the current coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19. One of the most curious is the recent resurrection of a posthumous prediction by psychic Sylvia Browne.
In her 2008 book End of Days, Browne predicted that “In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
This led to many on social media assuming that Browne had accurately predicted the Covid-19 outbreak, and Kim Kardashian among others shared such posts, causing the book to become a best-seller once again.
There’s a lot packed into these two sentences, and I recently did a deep dive into it. First, we have an indefinite date range (“in around 2020”), which depends on how loosely you interpret the word “around,” but plausibly covers seven (or more) years. Browne predicted “A severe pneumonia-like illness,” but Covid-19 is not “a severe pneumonia-like illness” (though it can in some cases lead to pneumonia). Most of those infected (about 80 percent) have mild symptoms and recover just fine, and the disease has a mortality rate of between 2 percent and 4 percent. Browne claims it “will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes,” and Covid-19 has indeed spread throughout the globe, but Browne also says the disease she’s describing “resists all known treatments.” This does not describe Covid-19; in fact, doctors know how to treat the disease—it’s essentially the same for influenza or other similar respiratory infections. This coronavirus is not “resisting” all (or any) known treatments.
She further describes the illness: “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” This is false; Covid-19 has not “suddenly vanished as quickly as it arrived,” and even if it eventually does, its emergence pattern would have to be compared with other typical epidemiology data to know whether it’s “baffling.”
You can read my full piece at the link above, but basically we have a two-sentence prediction written in 2008 by a convicted felon with a long track record of failures. Half of the prediction has demonstrably not happened. The other half of the prophecy describes an infectious respiratory illness that does not resemble Covid-19 in its particulars that would supposedly happen within a few years of 2020. At best, maybe one-sixth of what she said is accurate, depending again on how much latitude you’re willing to give her in terms of dates and vague descriptions.
But there’s more to the story, because as it turns out Browne made at least one other similar prediction with some significant differences. I discovered this a few days ago. I have several books by Browne in my library (mostly bought at Goodwill and library sales), among them Browne’s 2004 book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You (written with Lindsay Harrison, from Dutton Publishing).
On p. 214, I found an earlier, somewhat different version of this same prophecy. Details and exact words matter, so here’s her 2004 prediction verbatim: “By 2020 we’ll see more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public, inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment. This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.”
Comparing this to her later 2008 version (“In around 2020 a severe pneumonia-like illness will spread throughout the globe, attacking the lungs and the bronchial tubes and resisting all known treatments. Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely”) we can see a few differences.
It’s not uncommon for writers to revise and republish their work in different forms, sometimes changing or summarizing material for different formats and purposes. But in the case of predictions, it also serves an important, albeit unrecognized, purpose: It greatly increases the chances of a prediction—or, more accurately, some version of that prediction—being retroactively “right.” It’s one thing to make a single (seemingly specific) prediction about a future event; it’s another to make several different versions of that prediction so that your followers can pick and choose which details they think better fit the situation.
Note that the earlier prediction—which said “By 2020” (a limited, much more specific date than “In around 2020,” which as I noted spans several years)—focused on “more people than ever wearing surgical masks and rubber gloves in public,” which was “inspired by an outbreak of a severe pneumonia-like illness that attacks both the lungs and the bronchial tubes and is ruthlessly resistant to treatment.”
It’s certainly true that surgical masks (and, to a much lesser extent, gloves) are much more common today than, say, in 2019, but that’s an obvious and predictable reaction—as Browne herself admits—to the outbreak she mentions. Had Browne predicted any respiratory disease outbreak and specified that more people would not react by wearing masks and gloves, that would itself be an amazing (if nonsensical) prophecy. While we’re on the topic of self-evident revelations, note that Browne’s phrase “Both the lungs and the bronchial tubes” is redundant and nonsensical, providing only the illusion of specificity, since bronchial tubes are inside the lungs; saying “both … and” is meaningless, like saying “both the face and the nose will be affected,” or “both the West Coast and California will be affected.” Either Browne doesn’t know where bronchial tubes are, or she assumes her readers don’t.
Note that “This illness will be particularly baffling in that, after causing a winter of absolute panic, it will seem to vanish completely until ten years later, making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious” was changed to “Almost more baffling than the illness itself will be the fact that it will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.”
Note that the qualifier “after causing a winter of absolute panic” was dropped from the earlier version—which is convenient for Browne, because the widespread panic surrounding Covid-19 didn’t begin in winter but instead in mid-March. (Of course, I’m not suggesting that Browne predicted in 2008 that her 2004 prediction would be wrong and changed the phrasing!)
Another noteworthy prediction dropped in the later edition was that the disease would seem to vanish completely after ten years, “making both its source and its cure that much more mysterious.” But “seeming to vanish completely” for a decade has nothing to do with whether “its source and its cure” are mysterious. The source of the outbreak has been pretty well established: Likely a meat market in Wuhan, China. The exact source, the specific name of the very first person that first had it (and where he or she got it from), the so-called Patient Zero, may never be known—not because it’s inherently “mysterious” but merely because epidemiology is a difficult task.
It’s not clear what Browne means by a “cure” because viruses themselves can’t be “cured,” though the diseases they lead to can be prevented with vaccination. Like the common cold, influenza, and most other contagious respiratory illnesses, people are “cured” of Covid-19 when they recover from it. In any event, neither the source nor the “cure” (whatever that would mean the context of Covid-19) are “mysterious” by medical and epidemiological standards.
After I wrote a piece about Browne’s failed predictions, I soon received hate mail from many of her fans who defended the accuracy of her prophecy and demanded that I take a closer look at her predictions. So I did; many of her predictions are set far in the future, but I did find a few dozen in her book Prophecy: What the Future Holds for You that referred to events between the time the book was published (2004) and this year. Here’s a sampling, in chronological order:
• “There will be a significant vaccine against HIV/AIDS in 2005” (p. 211).
• “The common cold will be over with by about 2009 or 2010” (p. 204)
• “By around 2010, law enforcement’s use of psychics will ‘come out of the closet’ and be a commonplace, widely accepted collaboration” (p. 180).
• “By around 2010, it will be mandated that a DNA sample of every infant born in the United States is taken and recorded at the time of the baby’s birth” (p. 182).
• “In about 2011, home security systems start becoming common … The windows are unbreakable glass, able to be opened only by the homeowner … Doors and windows will no longer have visible, traditional locks that can be picked or tampered with. Instead the security system allows access … by ‘eyeprints’” (p. 169).
• “There won’t be a successful manned exploration of Mars until around 2012” (p. 128).
• “In around 2012 or 2013 a coalition of five major international corporations … will combine their almost limitless resources and mobilize a vast, worldwide, ultimately successful movement to revitalize the rainforests” (p. 105).
• “By around 2014, pills, capsules, and even most liquid medicine will be replaced by readily accessible vaporized heat and oxygen chambers that can infuse every pore of the body with the recommended medications” (p. 209).
• “By the year 2015 invasive surgery involving cutting and scalpels and stitches and scars will be virtually unheard of” (p. 205).
• “Telemarketers will have long since vanished by 2015” (p. 171).
• “To give law enforcement one more added edge, by 2015 their custom-designed high-speed vehicles will be atomically powered and capable of becoming airborne enough to fly several feet above other traffic” (p. 190).
• “The search for extraterrestrials will ultimately end in around 2018 … because they begin stepping forward and identifying themselves to various international organizations and heads of state, particularly the United Nations, NATO, Scotland Yard, NASA, and a summit being held at Camp David” (p. 127).
• “By the year 2020 researchers will have created a wonderful material … able to perfectly duplicate the eardrum and will be routinely implanted, to restore hearing to countless thousands … Long before 2020, blindness will become a thing of the past” (p. 203).
• “By 2020 we’re going to see an end to the institution of marriage as we know it” (p. 255).
• “By about 2020 we’ll see the end of the one-man presidency and the costly, seemingly perpetual cycle of presidential campaigns and elections” (p. 135).
• “The year 2020 will spark an amazing resurgence in the popularity of the barter system throughout the United States, with goods and services almost becoming a more common form of payment than cash” (p. 140–141).
There’s more—oh, so much more—but you get the idea. Hundreds of predictions, mostly wrong, vague, unverifiable, in the distant future, some right, and so on. On p. 97 of Prophecy: What the Future Holds For You Browne claims that “my accuracy rate is somewhere between 87 and 90 percent if I’m recalling correctly.” Yet another failed prediction.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is now out, for those who want a break from virus bad news. Celestia, Kenny Biddle, and I tracked psychic detectives’s involvement in current cases. In this part 2 of the show, I talk about my examination of a 14-year-old Ohio boy who went missing last Christmas and the psychic detectives involved. Details of the case might be disturbing to some, but it’s an important topic.
Please check it out, you can listen HERE!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! The first of a two-parter, in this episode Celestia and Kenny Biddle each examined recent (then-current) missing person cases and closely examined how psychic detectives “helped” (or interfered) with each. A sobering topic but we think you’ll find it enlightening. Please check it out HERE!
When families of missing people are desperate they often listen to psychics.
Here’s a new article on the topic:
“The psychic, Juanita Szafranski, led a search effort focused on a five-mile area surrounding the East Rock neighborhood. Peter Recchia, 59, went missing seven weeks ago, and was last seen in the area where Szafranski led the search. Szafranski says she got a strong feeling Peter, who suffers from mental illness, may no longer be alive, and she gave police specific areas to search in the coming days.”
I hope her information is accurate (it’s obvious to search near where he was last seen), but psychic detective success rates are at chance levels. I’ll keep tabs on this case to see what comes of it. I’ve previously followed real-time searches for missing persons, such as in the Holly Bobo case; we discussed it on a recent episode of Squaring the Strange…
I was recently on the Skeptic Zone podcast with the great Richard Saunders! you can hear the show here!
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo, and please check out my podcast Squaring the Strange!
In 2011 I had just written an article for Discovery News about a bogus psychic in Long Island when a young woman named Holly Bobo went missing in Tennessee. Her abduction made national news, and I decided to monitor psychic predictions and information about her disappearance in real time (instead of the more-common after-the-fact analysis). It was revealing research that provided fodder for another article–and prompted a legal threat from a psychic!
You can hear the whole story exclusively on the Squaring the Strange, out now!
A friend of mine made this, and it’s worth sharing…
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed:
This week, we look into the nature of curses and what it takes to break a curse. From the cultural aspects to the practical applications, we take the listener through a journey into the weird and scary world of superstition.
You can listen HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed:
This week, our boys look into the nature of curses and what it takes to break a curse. From the cultural aspects to the practical applications, Ben’s expertise in curses takes the listener through a journey into the weird and scary world of superstition.
You can hear the show HERE.
In the latest in a series highlighting past episodes and archives of Squaring the Strange, here’s a look back at a show you might have missed:
While Pascual tends to his offspring, Ben and Celestia discuss a recent story about a waitress being allegedly stiffed due to her pride tattoo. They go through numerous similar stories, some hoaxed, and discuss whether this is becoming a modern-day folk tale. Faked stories undercut and blur real issues, and writing a story around a mere Facebook post has become a recurring journalistic failure. Pascual steps back in for our main topic, a lively discussion on “alleged psychic” John Edward, as Ben and Celestia recount what they observed at a live performance. We go through cold reading and pivoting techniques Edward used as well as how the audience eagerly does much of the work for him, making connections and turning obvious misses into hits. There are many layers to the topic: the psychology of why people are motivated to believe, what possible benefits and harms come along with this type of ad-hoc spiritualistic life coaching, and even the sense of power a psychic feels as they sway a person or a room. Celestia confesses to a moment in college where she pretended to have psychic powers, and what she learned from that.
You can hear it HERE.
As we approach our one-year anniversary Squaring the Strange, the podcast I co-host with Pascual Romero and Celestia Ward, I wanted to review early episodes you may have missed!
Episode 3: Psychics
Ben and Pascual have a lively discussion about psychics this week, with an eye to how psychics have intersected with the law. Disingenuous nature of psychics as “entertainment” and the ethics of lying/performing as a psychic; claims about psychic “detectives”; psychics who have manipulated people into sexual exploitation; the undemocratic nature of a magical worldview; falsifiability and false advertising; Sylvia Browne’s well-documented wrongness; the altruistic desire to help people, even if not really helping; light sentencing psychics typically receive (case involving Lacoste heiress); shoutout to show “Shut Eye”; Gypsy and Romani curses, history, reputation; victim-blaming in psychic cases and underreporting due to embarrassment. Quick quiz, review of social media arms and Patreon.
As a professional skeptic (I know, that phrase sounds weird to me too—even after all these years—but you know what I mean) I deal with all manner of believer. Some are respectful, some are not, but the one constant is that we are approaching the topic from different viewpoints, including different standards of evidence and different ideas about what constitutes good evidence in the first place (the canard “the plural of anecdote is not evidence” often comes up). Since the general public, like the casual skeptic, doesn’t often engage in these run-of-the-mill interactions, it is useful to review them, as they provide insight into the differing worldviews.
I thought about this recently when I received the following e-mail from a woman named Julia (verbatim throughout):
“After watching a documentary about psychics, I really must comment on the fact that your skepticism is not only naive, but also arrogant, and actually quite rude, when clearly there is evidence for this phenomenon. Not all science has the answers; this has been proved in history, when science thought they knew everything; even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb. This is just one example. Please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box, so that we can move forward. I have experienced Clairaudient, and can honestly tell you that I know more than you do. I am of normal mind, but I am not naive, arrogant, know all, or ignorant to the possiblity that just because we cannot see, smell, hear, touch something, that it does not exist. We have a physical body, and etheric body, spiritual body. If you, or any other orthodox sceptic refuse to understand this, then it is sad- for you at least. More and more scientists, psychologists- to name a few: Robert Lanza, Raymond Moody, Stuart Hameroff, have been studying this for many years, and have very interesting facts. Orthodox science will be proved wrong, even if they do not like it. The world is changing; there will be a shift in consciousness, and mindsets like yours will be left behind. I hope that you see this message, because you need to know that you do not have the answers to this Universe. Have a nice day.”
I couldn’t tell if the closing pleasantry was sincere, sarcastic, or merely a polite formality, but in any event I felt compelled to reply:
“Hello Julia, and thanks for reaching out to me, good to hear from you. You don’t state which documentary you recently saw about psychics, or whether I was featured in it, so I can’t know exactly what information you’re referring to.
In any event I’m not sure why you consider my skepticism about psychic powers to be “arrogant” or “rude.” I would never suggest that you (or anyone else) is arrogant or rude merely because you believe something different than I do. I celebrate the beautiful diversity of opinions and do not feel that others must believe the same things I do (or share my opinions on) science, religion, life, or anything else. We may disagree about whether there is evidence for a given proposition or claim, but I don’t feel that you are “naive, arrogant, and rude” for not sharing my beliefs. I find such intolerance disappointing but of course I respect your opinion.
I quite agree that science does not have all the answers; indeed that’s a hallmark of science! Scientists keep trying to learn about our world and use scientific methods to experiment and test hypotheses. But I’m puzzled by the example you give: “even calling Edison a lunatic when he invented the lightbulb.” I was not aware that scientists called Edison a lunatic for inventing the lightbulb; from my understanding scientists such as Humphry Davy had been developing incandescent lights since the late 1700s, and the idea of an electric lightbulb was widely accepted by scientists throughout the world in the 1800s, including by many of Edison’s contemporaries. Edison’s problem was not that scientists thought he was crazy for using electric current to light homes, but instead that the existing filaments burned out too quickly to be useful. Of course I may be mistaken, and as you have asked me to “please educate yourself,” I would appreciate any correction or clarification you can offer about the example you gave.
The same goes for evidence for psychics; you claim to hear voices and while that may be true it is of course not something that I can research. When you ask me to educate myself, what specifically would you suggest I educate myself about? Are there certain scientific studies you believe prove that psychic powers exist?
I’m familiar with claims made by Moody (I’ve read several of his books, including Life After Life, about near-death experience and reincarnation), but I’m not aware of any research or published works by him about psychic abilities. I’m less familiar with Robert Lanza, but a quick internet search reveals no experiments or research testing or proving the existence of psychic powers. However I am more familiar with Stuart Hameroff, who appeared in the widely-discredited New Age film What the Bleep Do We Know, along with several other scientists who stated that their comments were taken of context. Like Lanza, Hameroff has not offered, and has never claimed to offer, evidence of psychic powers that I can find.
So when you write “please educate yourself, and come out of your little insular box,” I am willing to do so, but I need to know what it is you believe I should educate myself about. You cited three people, none of whom are (or even claim to be) experts on the validity of psychic powers. I can’t educate myself about your personal experience or beliefs/opinions (everyone’s are different, subjective, and equally valid), so I’ll need to know what education you have that I don’t, that would clarify the issue.
I’m also curious why you believe that my desire for scientific evidence for psychics is preventing progress; you wrote “Please educate yourself… so that we can move forward.” How is my lack of belief in psychic powers preventing people (or society) from moving forward? Does psychic power require universal belief in its efficacy, or the assent of skeptics? I don’t understand what you mean, so if you could clarify that would be helpful.
It’s always struck me as odd (and a bit sad and cynical) that when someone disagrees with me about a topic I’ve researched and written about, I’m often accused of being ignorant, arrogant, and (often wilfully) misinformed. In contrast, I don’t assume that about other people when I’m exposed to new ideas or different opinions. I don’t assume that the other person is stupid, ignorant, or intentionally spreading misinformation.
Instead I believe that perhaps we simply have different information, or spoke to different people, or had different experiences. No one can know everything about everything, and inevitably some people are better informed about some topics than others. Experts are one example, but writers and researchers, as well, tend to be better informed about the topic on which they’re writing than laypersons, if for no other reason that they’ve spent considerable time (certainly hours, but often days or weeks) specifically looking into it, seeing the various claims, contacting experts on both sides, etc.
Instead of taking such a hostile, “us versus them” position, I believe people can have an honest difference of opinion without one or the other necessarily being stupid or arrogant. But that’s just my approach.”
Julia wrote back a day or two later:
“Hello Ben- thank you for your insightful message, and apologies for the name calling. Not something I make a habit of. Please do not take it personally. I just hope that more and more people become enlightened, and a shift in consciousness will take place- as has been predicted. Those who have experienced something spiritual; who have a faith (not talking about religion), and like me, who have had a profuound, tangible experience- which, by the way, I do actually question still, purely because we(experiencers) also tend to try and rationalise everything, but cannot because our experience was so real- both visually, and audibly, are the ones with the truth, I feel. Surely those who have really seen, heard something beyond our five senses, are the ones who know the truth. Scientists studying consciousness/life after death, have now ben able to prove that consciousness does in fact continue for 3 minutes after the brain has shut down: LIFE after death has been “confirmed” by scientists who have discovered consciousness continues even once a person has died.
We all have Auras- including animals. We all have a soul. The outer layers beyond the physical body. Intuition, a knowing. Prayers being answered time and time again. Coincidence is one thing, but what I am taliking about it something different. It can be difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced anything, and I do respect your opinion, and what you say, but all I am saying is that those who have experienced something beyond the physical senses is proof surely.
Animals (cats and dogs for sure) are definately in tune with something beyond the physical. If someone is highly sensitive/empathetic they tend to be on a higher vibration meaning that they are more likely to experience something spiritual. The consistancy in NDE’s, and other phenomena is interesting also. I do not believe everything I hear from others, so I guess I do have some scepticism, or to put in better words, I am not gullible, because there are alot of crazy people out there, but one can normally distinguish between what sounds realistic or not. I do look for consistancy in peoples experiences, and prohecies etc about afterlife, and it is nice when there is a consistant explanation as with NDE’s. Anyway, I hope I make some sense, and even though I may not have answered all your questions, hopefully I’ve covered some of it. Take care.”
I appreciated the apology but noted that she ignored most of what I’d asked and discussed with her. She made a claim about Thomas Edison, and when I politely asked her for evidence or to explain what she meant, she chose not to (I assume because she realized she was wrong and had misunderstood or misapplied the Edison anecdote). I was neither offended nor surprised, but it seemed to demonstrate a tacit disregard for the truth, or at least an unwillingness to admit error. There was also no engagement with my ready admission that science doesn’t have all the answers, and other points. I was engaging with her respectfully and on her own terms.
In replying to her request to educate myself, I asked her—quite sincerely—what specifically I should educate myself about, what topics or research or experts I should consult in order to understand her position or be better informed, since the ones she mentioned had little or nothing to do with the topic. Once again I got no response; instead of directing me to a book, journal article, or other resources that had apparently informed her opinion, she referred vaguely to auras, prayers, personal experience, and so on.
In sum, I had politely asked a firm believer—who’d specifically requested that I educate myself—for information and sources upon which to do so, and was ignored. Sensing that the fruitfulness of the dialogue had reached the point of diminishing returns, I replied:
Yes, I’m aware that a new age of global enlightenment has been predicted and promised for decades (most prominently in the 1970s and 1980s) and earlier (with Edgar Cayce and even the Spiritualists, if I’m not mistaken). It’s a common belief, that the Truth will be revealed just around the corner. I’ve seen it written by UFO experts in magazines from the 1950s and 1960s, who say that any day now our space brothers will come down from the stars and usher in an age of peace (or that the global UFO government coverup is about to end). I’ve heard it from apocalyptic and Biblical End Times authors who for decades have assured their followers (and anyone else who will listen) that Judgment Day is imminent. I’ve seen it in psi researchers, Bigfoot believers, and in countless other paranormal, occult, or “unexplained” subjects, that there’s so much clear evidence that surely any day now the general public will just understand what they understand and we’ll all be on the same page. You (and they) may be right, but so far they’ve all been wrong.
You wrote that “LIFE after death has been ‘confirmed’ by scientists who have discovered consciousness continues even once a person has died,” and you asked me to do some research and educate myself. I would respectfully suggest to you that I have educated myself on the topic: I’ve read several books on the topic (pro and con, skeptic and believer), and spoken with or interviewed several people who have researched it including Gary Schwartz. I’ve read books by Kenneth Ring, Raymond Moody, Ian Stevenson, Chris Carter, etc. on their claims for reincarnation and life after death. To get a balanced view I’ve also read books by G.M. Woerlee, Susan Blackmore, and Paul Edwards on their analyses/criticisms of NDE and reincarnation claims and research. My skepticism is borne not of ignorance about the subject, but knowledge of it.
Let me ask you this: Have you educated yourself about the topic? Have you read any books that critically examine or analyze the claims, or have you limited your research to only one side of the story? Critical thinking (and determining what’s true about the world) often requires that we be open minded and engage in ideas, evidence, and opinions that are contrary to ours. We don’t have to, of course, but a willingness and tolerance for different ideas is important, I believe.
We clearly have different approaches to evidence and different opinions on these topics. I’m certainly not going to talk you out of your beliefs, and would not even try. However I can tell you with certainty that there is a whole world of open-minded, legitimate, and evidence-based analysis of auras, life after death, NDEs, ghosts, psychic powers, and so on. Whether you choose to seek them out or engage with them with an open mind and open heart is another matter, but the material is available. If you’d like more information there’s an excellent free resource online called the Skeptics Dictionary; you can find it at http://www.skepdic.com/. It has short, readable entries and a good bibliography for further reading or research. If you have specific areas you’re interested in, let me know and I’d be happy to select a few of the most credible sources of information.”
That’s all I could do.
As a teenager I was fascinated by books about the strange and mysterious world around us. In the summer I’d walk to the local used bookstore and pull out a handful of crumpled allowance dollars to scoop up some old paperbacks from the Fifties. Along with Doc Savage and Tom Swift pulp novels, I’d pick up some “true mystery” books. In particular I recall buying several books by Frank Edwards, with titles like Stranger Than Science. Inside I found a banquet of odd and mysterious stories and phenomena, spilling from page after yellowed page.
These weren’t ghost stories, or silly pulp fiction novels; these were, as the cover blurb read, “Astounding stories of strange events! All authentic —all absolutely true!” I loved these snippets of mystery, of supernatural coincidences, prophecy, terrifying creatures, and all other manner of oddity. They had titles like, “The Invisible Fangs” and “The Girl Who Lived Twice” and “A Voice From The Dead?” A blurb on the cover from the Colorado Springs Free Press called it a “fascinating collection of weird, fully-documented stories taken from life that modern science is powerless to explain!”
Yet the assertion that the stories were “fully documented” was perhaps the strangest claim in the book, since none of Edwards’ stories cited sources, references, or in fact any documentation whatsoever! The “science cannot explain” line was quite popular, and also appeared on many other similar books, such as Rupert T. Gould’s 1965 book Oddities, subtitled “Mysterious, true events science cannot explain!” I pictured worried scientists—imagined as balding men in horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats—huddled together chain-smoking and fretting about the mysteries they couldn’t explain.
A few years ago when researching the famous Coral Castle in Florida I came across this claim repeatedly. In Homestead, not far from Miami and off the South Dixie Highway, sits the world-famous structure. Though not really a castle—and not really made of coral—it is nonetheless an amazing achievement. More than 1,000 tons of the sedimentary rock was quarried and sculpted into a variety of shapes, including slab walls, tables, chairs, a crescent moon, a water fountain and a sundial.
“You are about to see an engineering marvel that has been compared with Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Egypt,” touts an information sheet available at the site. Many sources claim that the castle, originally called Rock Gate Park, is scientifically inexplicable. According to the attraction’s website, “Coral Castle has baffled scientists, engineers and scholars since its opening in 1923.”
Despite researching information about the site, I was unable to find any references to all the baffled scientists. Who were they? When were they there? What were their credentials? What exactly did they test or examine that left them perplexed? When I put these questions to the staff at the Coral Castle I got baffled if bemused shrugs. How can you boldly claim that scientists can’t explain it, if you have no record of any scientists actually trying to explain it? They may or may not be able to, but unless they have made a sincere effort you can’t honestly claim that they failed.
I was recently reminded of this when I was contacted via Twitter by someone with the handle “Ninel Kulagina Fans.” They wrote “In 50 years, no magician has replicated the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions.”
I promptly and politely replied: “Which magicians tried, where, and when?” It was a sincere and simple request: I was told unequivocally that “no magician has replicated the telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions,” and in order to determine the validity of that claim I’d need to know more about the times that magicians had tried and failed to replicate said experiments. The afternoon came and went without a reply, so the next day I repeated my request: “So: Which magicians tried, where, and when? Still waiting for a response.”
Eventually the fan (or fans) of Ninel Kulagina realized that I was serious and asking for evidence of their claim. Instead of the names of one or more magicians who had tried to “replicate the filmed 1967 Kulagina/Naumpv macro telekinesis demonstrations under the same observer conditions” (along with the dates, published research on the topic describing the experimental conditions, etc.) I got the following reply: “Doesn’t say ‘tried.’ A success by a magician would require a famous parapsychologist, science film crew. No reports in 50 years of success.”
This answer—and its tacit admission—was quite revealing: The person admitted up front that no magicians had even attempted to replicate those telekinesis demonstrations under the same conditions (or any other, for that matter).
It certainly is true that skeptical magicians (most prominently my colleague James Randi, as well as other including Ray Hyman, Banachek, and Dan Korem) have tried to replicate alleged claims of telekinesis by performers such as Uri Geller, James Hydrick, and others; the magicians were successful in those attempts—but only because they tried in the first place!
Kulagina’s claims have been analyzed and discussed by many skeptical researchers including Randi, Martin Gardner, and Massimo Polidoro. Stating that no magician has replicated a specific telekinesis performance is only meaningful if one has attempted to do so but failed—which is the false conclusion implied in the tweet by Ninel Kulagina Fans. We don’t know whether or not a professional magician could replicate Kulagina’s performance because it hasn’t been done, and there’s no reason to think that the magician would fail.
I responded with a final reply: “So you’re claiming that X has never happened, yet acknowledge that X has never been attempted. Do you see the faulty logic there?” Fans of Ninel Kulagina responded, “I see a red herring or avoiding the issue fallacy or both. As you know, Randi et al have simulated, but not under same conditions. Thanks.”
The red herring claim was especially rich, but at any rate I’m still waiting for any Kulagina supporters to provide the name(s) of the professional magician(s) who tried to replicate Kulagina’s effects, where and when these attempted replications took place, under what conditions or controls, under whose supervision, etc. If and when those are provided (and validated) I’ll be happy to concede that no magician has replicated the Kulagina demonstrations under the same conditions.
When it comes to claims of baffled scientists and skeptics, there’s a simple lesson to remember: “Can’t” isn’t the same as “didn’t try.”
On Squaring the Strange, Celestia and I discuss a recent story about a waitress being allegedly stiffed due to her pride tattoo. We go through numerous similar stories, some hoaxed, and discuss whether this is becoming a modern-day folk tale. Pascual joins for our main topic, a lively discussion on “psychic” John Edward, as we recount what we observed at a live performance. We go through cold reading and pivoting techniques Edward used as well as how the audience eagerly does much of the work for him… Check it out!
You can listen HERE.
A psychic tells a TV show where to find the remains of a young mother who went missing four years ago; they go to where her psychic visions claimed the victim was and found bones. The police were called and the psychic claimed victory… until the bones were identified by scientists as non-human. If I had time/energy I’d contact the “psychic” and ask for an explanation, why she cruelly raised the hopes of the missing woman’s family members to gain publicity for herself.
Tonight I will be giving a presentation to the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society titled “Contacting the Dead: Séances From the Victorian Era To Modern Times.” It is the same talk I gave to wide acclaim at this year’s packed Bubonicon conference:
“Though TV shows like Ghost Hunters have raised the profile of ghost hunting, there’s nothing new about seeking out spirits of the dead. For millennia people have tried to communicate with the deceased, using everything from chalkboards to Ouija boards to EVP (electronic voice phenomena). Focusing on the 1800s through today—including early mediums, the Spiritualist movement, and files from England’s Society for Psychical Research—writer and investigator Ben Radford discusses the theories and techniques behind attempts to speak to the dead. Fans of SF, fantasy, horror, and occult history will enjoy this informative and entertaining historical look at a century and a half of attempts to contact the afterlife.”
The event will be held at 7:30 at the St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 5301 Ponderosa Ave NE in Albuquerque, off of San Mateo. There’s a $2 fee for non-members. If you’re in the area, come on out for this fun and informative talk!
Bought a used book on magic for my library, noticed the previous owner’s attempt at writing a spell on the last page….
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.
In my over 15 years of investigations I’ve covered many dozens of claims of psychics and psychic detectives. Of those, about a half-dozen stand out as being particularly interesting or intriguing–not just yet another psychic making dubious claims, but some novel twist that at least suggests a closer look is needed to understand what’s going on. You can read about one of those cases HERE in my blog.
Good science requires good data, and to get valid results scientists must consider all of the evidence. If a researcher chooses to exclude some of the information available in an experiment, for example, he or she should offer a rationale for doing so. When researchers only present to the public or peers data that supports their conclusions, that’s called bad science (at best) or outright fraud (at worst).
Agenda-driven pseudoscience, by contrast, often involves cherry-picking and careful selection of evidence. This happens, for example, when a psychic offers a client a list of a dozen impressive predictions but carefully omits hundreds of spectacular failures. Any psychic who makes enough predictions (especially ones of a general nature) will be correct some of the time by simple random chance. What’s needed when examining the evidence for psychic powers is the entire data set—all the predictions made, whether they turned out to be right, wrong, somewhere in the middle, or inconclusive—and establishing a success ratio. If the selection criteria are valid and the rate is significantly above random chance then it may indeed be evidence for psychic powers.
I was reminded of this recently when I saw a new book by Skeptiko podcast host Alex Tsakiris with the bold and red-flag-raising title Why Science Is Wrong…About Almost Everything. In it he devotes a whole chapter to a case I researched as part of a challenge to explain the best case he could find for psychic detectives, one he’d seen on TV. I expected Alex to continue to be wrong about the case, but I didn’t expect him to tout it as a victory in his book.
The case involved a psychic named Nancy Weber and her claims that she helped catch a serial killer named James Koedatich by giving police officers Jim Moore and Bill Hughes biographical details about the killer long before he was caught—details which Weber claims, and Tsakiris believes, turned out to be amazingly accurate. Koedatich killed a woman named Aimee Hoffman (at which time Weber entered the case) and later another woman.
Tsakiris writes that “the investigation was quite extensive. It spanned months of work and included multiple transcribed interviews with all the key players. The conclusion was self-evident—the police detectives repeatedly corroborated psychic detective Nancy Weber’s amazing account…. Amazingly, Radford still denies this fact” (p. 90). It’s easy to mislead people through selective quotation and cherry picking evidence; even the most reasonable and sensible person can seem like an unreasonable fool if you simply omit contrary information and present one side of the story.
A Bit of Skepticism
When the project began I was somewhat surprised that Tsakiris assumed that “reality” TV shows such as Psychic Detectives were factually accurate (despite ads touting the show as “Not just based on a true story. It is a true story”). Having written several books about the mass media, having debunked many “based on a true story” claims made in sensational TV shows and films, and having participated on dozens of television shows, I began the case with a healthy skepticism about the truth of “reality” TV shows. Television show writers, producers, and editors routinely twist and manufacture “facts” to make a more sensational story; the goal is entertainment, not truth. I had assumed that Tsakiris was media savvy enough to realize that not everything on TV is true, but I later realized that I was mistaken.
No one, including Tsakiris, Weber, Moore, or Hughes, offered any evidence whatsoever supporting their claims. The police officers’ notes are long gone and there are no other records of what Nancy Weber claims she told police. Not a single piece of paper was offered by Tsakiris or anyone else as evidence in this case. This “amazing” case rests entirely on the contradictory memories of three people from a third of a century ago, yet Tsakiris boldly offers it as an example of Why Science Is Wrong.
The case is far too complex to discuss in any detail here, and my in-depth research can be found in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries and in Skeptical Inquirer. However I can summarize my findings and I encourage interested readers to seek the original sources to decide for themselves where the truth lies.
In contrast to Tsakiris’s claim that “the police detectives repeatedly corroborated psychic detective Nancy Weber’s amazing account,” a close review of their statements reveals that they contradicted virtually every specific claim Weber made about what she told them regarding Koedatich. I consulted transcripts from both the Psychic Investigators TV show and the Skeptiko podcasts, and interviewed all the principals at least once. As I reviewed the information from Sgt. Bill Hughes and Capt. Jim Moore, it became clear that their accounts differ dramatically from those of the psychic. For example:
1) Weber claims she specified that Koedatich, Aimee Hoffman’s killer, had served prison time in Florida: “He came up from Florida where he had been imprisoned for murder.” Moore agreed with Weber; Sgt. Hughes originally disputed this claim, and later changed his mind.
2) Weber claims that she specified of the killer that “his last name… begins with a K.” Both Moore and Hughes dispute her claim.
3) Weber claims that she specified that the killer’s “last name… ends in an ‘ish’[or –ich].” Neither Hughes nor Moore confirm that Weber gave them this information.
4) Weber claims that she specified that Hoffman’s killer was of Polish descent, and that “his last name is Polish.” Both Moore and Hughes dispute her claim.
5) Weber claims that she specified that “the man who did this, his first name is James.” Moore agrees with Weber, but Sgt. Hughes stated, “She didn’t have complete names for us… I do not remember the first name at all.”
As mightily as Tsakiris strains to revise the police officers’ testimony to his liking, even Nancy Weber herself acknowledged that Moore and Hughes did not corroborate key points of her story. The psychic’s explanation is that the officers—whose memory Tsakiris repeatedly defends, since his entire case rests on it—simply didn’t remember what she told them: “Yes, [Sgt. Hughes] does not recall it but… it does not mean I did not say it.”
Sgt. Hughes admitted that “No information she gave led to his arrest…the case was solved by good police work.” I was also surprised that Tsakiris—despite his touted investigative thoroughness researching this case—repeatedly (and somewhat disrespectfully) managed to misspell both of the names of Koedatich’s victims.
Who’s telling the truth, me or Alex? This isn’t a matter of subjective interpretation; the transcripts are available for anyone to review, and I have posted excerpts of the audio online so people can hear for themselves what the police said:
In his chapter on the case Tsakiris chooses to not only hide that fact that the police contradicted most of Weber’s statements, but he also did not reveal to his readers that in my research I found Koedatich in the phone book using only information that Weber claimed to have given Moore and Hughes at the time. If Tsakiris is correct and Weber is telling the truth, it is baffling that despite the police having so many specific, accurate, identifying details about Koedatich—including his first name, the first and last parts of his last name, his ethnicity, criminal record (including where he served time and for what crime) and his hometown—they were somehow unable to find and arrest him before he killed again. If I could do it with the information Weber claims she gave the police, why couldn’t Moore and Hughes? Neither Weber nor Tsakiris have offered an explanation for the apparent incompetence of their star witnesses.
Tsakiris also neglects to tell his readers that I discovered Nancy Weber falsely claimed to have psychically known unpublished details about Aimee Hoffman’s murder when in fact those details had been reported on the front page of the local newspaper and in the New York Times the day after Hoffman’s body was found. This is irrefutable evidence that Weber either lied about or badly misremembered key details of the case. Tsakiris and Weber have been unable or unwilling to explain this serious lapse in her credibility.
The Brave Mavericky of Alex Tsakiris
Several prominent Forteans have commented on the book. Jerome Clark has a long and distinguished history of interesting research into the paranormal—his early apparent endorsement of the Cottingley Fairies hoax photograph notwithstanding—and I’ve quoted from his three-volume series Strange and Unusual Happenings several times. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake, well known for his claims about psi phenomena, including psychic dogs, contributed to the book.
In his foreword to the book Rupert Sheldrake noted that “When Alex started his enquiries, he expected that the leaders of organized skepticism would have strong and persuasive arguments, but he soon found they did not… a strong ideological commitment forces them to deny all evidence that does not fit into their worldview.” Out of the thirteen chapters in the book, Sheldrake then singled out my case as an example of Tsakiris’s keen investigative skills: “I particularly enjoy the way Alex followed his enquiries wherever they led, including working with skeptic Ben Radford on an enquiry into information from psychics that helped solve crimes. When Ben questioned some of the evidence, Alex called the detectives who had been handling the cases, so that he and Ben could together clear the point up by speaking to them directly” (p. xi). Sheldrake goes on to marvel at Tsakiris’s “investigative skills, and his bravery and commitment to truth.”
Jerome Clark reviewed the book in Fortean Times magazine. Of Tsakiris’s podcast—which Clark misspells as “Skeptico”— he states that “the skeptics who appear on his show are wont to complain of being ‘sandbagged’. Translated, that means they found themselves up against an interviewer who had done his homework.” Clark notes that among the big-name skeptics whose sloppy scholarship and ideological blinkers have been exposed by the wily Tsakiris is “the prominent debunker who goes to comic lengths to salvage a ‘skeptical’ claim in the face of assertions from informants (in this case law-enforcement officers) whose patience he tries as he seeks to revise their testimony to his liking.” With mixture of bemusement and mild surprise I realized that he was referring to me.
I take no particular pleasure when friends—or even those I disagree with—fall for hoaxes or repeat demonstrable misinformation. I make an effort not to endorse dubious or false claims; before I reference something in an article or book I make an effort to verify its accuracy. That’s one reason why, for example, I rarely share news stories on social media unless I either have researched it myself or have taken at least some due diligence steps to affirm to my satisfaction that the claims or information contained therein are accurate.
I feel badly for Sheldrake and Clark because sooner or later at least some of the people who read their comments will—out of curiosity or a desire to seek out original sources and not merely accept Tsakiris’s selective portrayal of the research—find my published work on this case and see that this pair have been misled into endorsing a one-sided and intellectually dishonest take on that investigation by a person they exalted as fair-minded and committed to truth. I was more bemused than annoyed by Tsakiris’s chapter (and Sheldrake and Clark’s explicit endorsements of it) because for those who wish to do a bit of research and consult easily-available resources to verify the facts, the harm is to their reputations, not mine. Sheldrake and Clark will be the ones who, years from now, may be asked in an interview, book signing, talk, or other public event how they could have endorsed such a manifestly biased book chapter. Had they not done any research? How do they explain Tsakiris’s decision to omit the voluminous examples in which the detectives refuted Weber’s claims, and even that the psychic had been caught claiming information she read in a newspaper as having come through psychic abilities?
I haven’t spoken with either Rupert Sheldrake or Jerome Clark about the matter but given that we’ve been on more or less opposite sides of the fence on many Fortean subjects for going on two decades, it seems certain that they have long ago painted me as a stubborn, closed-minded skeptic who refuses to look at evidence, and when Tsakiris offered an example supporting that assumption they were quite happy to assume it was true and highlight it as a clear example of my position.
Because of cognitive biases including anchoring bias and confirmation bias, when people give us information that fits our preconceived notions and worldview, we often accept it uncritically. Those who tell us things that challenge our assumptions tend to be subjected to extra scrutiny or dismissed outright. As Sheldrake himself states on page 87 of the book, “I think there’s a tendency for people to see what they want to believe, to believe what they want to believe, to only notice evidence that fits their dogmatic point of view or their belief system. He himself is a perfect example of that.” (Here Sheldrake mistakenly refers to psychologist Richard Wiseman instead of Alex Tsakiris.)
There’s irony in the daisy chain echo chamber of misinformation: this case began when Alex Tsakiris assumed, with little or no research or verification, that the Psychic Detectives TV show he saw was an accurate account of Nancy Weber’s psychic claims. Six years later Sheldrake and Clark assumed, with little or no research or verification, that Alex Tsakiris’s book chapter on the case (essentially little more than interview transcriptions) was an accurate account of Weber’s claims and the resulting investigation. The accusations against me by these three of sloppy scholarship and investigative ineptitude resulting from an ideological blindness to contrary evidence is especially rich.
The conspiracy-minded among Skeptiko’s listeners may wonder if Tsakiris is not actually an undercover hardcore skeptic seeking to discredit people like Sheldrake and Clark by publishing false information to see which prominent critics endorse it without having done any research, and then exposing the deception and embarrassing them into admitting they were gullible and should have checked their facts. This double-agent scenario occurred to me, but Occam’s Razor suggests it’s unlikely. It seems more likely that Tsakiris genuinely does not understand why his “best case” for psychic detectives is a spectacular failure by any reasonable standard of evidence. Perhaps he should revisit his online boards where even many of his supporters voiced their concerns over his total reliance on the accuracy of decades-old contradictory memories.
Tsakiris casts himself as a maverick groundbreaker daring to ask tough questions of pompous skeptics and puncturing the pretensions of science. He is instead following a well-trod path using a tried and true formula: Speak quickly, act confidently, attack critics, and refuse to acknowledge even obvious errors in your evidence and arguments. That’s not how science works, but it will help you fool some of the people some of the time. Science may indeed be wrong some of the time—its self-correcting mechanism is perhaps its greatest strength—but it’s Alex Tsakiris who is wrong in this case. His “best case” for psychic detectives is in fact astonishingly weak and if that is one of his marquee examples of how Science Is Wrong, then science is in far better shape than anyone dared imagine.
This piece is adapted from an earlier article on the CSI website.
You can find more on me and my work with a search for “Benjamin Radford” (not “Ben Radford”) on Vimeo.
It occurred to me the other night that if psychics were real and their powers proven, there would no need to torture anyone, since whatever information the torturer wants to know could be easily obtained by asking a psychic…
I was recently a guest on the badass show 16Miles2Hell, talking about skepticism and investigations. You can hear the show HERE.
My new article about the logic and claims that a dream-recording app might be able to prove precognitive psychic powers is now up at Discovery News, you can read it HERE.
“Real” psychic Sharina Star helpfully explains how to spot all those dangerous, scamming “fake psychics.” From the article: “‘Beware of someone who is out there that you’ve never heard of and they make all of these ridiculous claims,’ Star advises.” Now searching for a new Irony Meter, as mine seems to have exploded into powdery fragments across my desk. You can read it HERE.
On television and in films when paranormal investigators or ghost hunters are depicted, they often are seen using all sorts of high-tech gadgetry in the search for the unknown. HERE is a look at what’s in my investigation kit!
My new CFI blog examines some of the historical figures behind Woody Allen’s new film “Magic in the Moonlight.” You can read it HERE.