ESP - A sceptical viewpoint

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'Keeping an open mind is a virtue...but it shouldn't be so open that your brains fall out.'

The field of parapsychology is a wide and varied one. Many claims for phenomena outside of the norm are made, from the ability to predict the future, read minds, affect objects through the power of telekinesis and speak to the dead. In most cases however these claims fail to stand up to scrutiny, being explainable by other, less controversial means or else the scrutiny itself inhibits the effect being measured. The history of the field has seen a large number of exponents of various powers which have subsequently been found to be fraudulent. For other cases, definite proof is less easily found.

This entry will not attempt to prove that these phenomena do not exist. After all, it is impossible to prove that the tooth-fairy doesn't exist either. However, it will attempt to cover how various parapsychological effects can be explained in a scientific manner and suggest that if a scientific explanation is available then it should be preferred over one postulating theories unknown to science. Here the principle of Occam's Razor is often cited, but must be applied with care. After all, many magic tricks rely on the assumption that a magician couldn't possibly have gone to all that much effort to achieve a simple illusion. The simpler explanation may seem to be that they read your mind. However, in the case of parapsychological experimentation if this explanation requires the overthrow of large chunks of scientific thinking then it may be less simple than previously thought.

In general, scientific advancement is said to follow the Popperian model of falsification, where theories hold until disproved. Here many ESP experiments already fail at the first hurdle. Failure is dismissed as being due to negative vibrations or un-cooperative spirits, indeed is even lauded as proof that the phenomenon is genuine. After all, if it was faked then the practitioners would be able to do it every time, right? Realistically, in order for ESP to become accepted over more traditional scientific theories any experimental demonstrations will have to be watertight. As has often been remarked, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.


The field of precognition may well have been around for the longest of all parapsychological phenomenon. The myths and legends of many civilisations are full of tales of soothsayers, wizards and prophets, predicting the future in anything from entrails to flickering flames. From Shakespeare's witches to Merlin, they provide a symbolic version of fate in literature the world over, predicting future kings, the results of battles and the end of the world. However, their real-world equivalent predictions tend to be less accurate and certainly less specific than their fictional counterparts.

Nostradamus (1503 - 1566)

Michel de Notredame, aka Nostradamus, was a 16th century French physician and subsequent astrologer to the Queen of France. He is most famous for writing a series of one thousand four line poems, known as quatrains, contained in his work, the Centuries. These poems, written in early modern French combined with a mix of archaic Latin and Greek, claim to be a series of predictions of events from Nostradamus' time until the year 3797. This, nevertheless has not prevented his supporters from claiming predictions of the end of the world before this date of course.

His verses are typically highly obscure and so can be twisted to predict any number of events according to their interpretation. Nostradamus was fond of the use of allegory, symbolism, anagrams and many other linguistic tricks to obscure his meaning. This has the (un)fortunate side-effect of allowing his predictions to be twisted to fit many potential events, usually only becoming understandable after the event has occurred. Several hundred years of world history allows for a large pool of potential targets after all. Fortunately for us, Nostradamus has managed to clarify his meaning more recently through the works of Dolores Cannon, a regression hypnotist who has tracked down the current incarnation of one of Nortradamus' past students, Dionysis, allowing the quatrains to be unscrambled. Conveniently this also allows the predictions to be brought up to date to better match modern events, rather than being seen as a commentary and critique on the activities of the Catholic church who were busy burning heretics at the time.

As an example of Nostradamus' work, here's a quatrain taken at random from the Nostradamus Repository.

Le dard du ciel fera son estendue,
Mors en parlant, grande execution:
La pierre en larbre la fiere gent rendue,
Bruit humain monstre, purge expiration.

The dart from the sky will make its extension,
deaths in speaking: great execution.
The stone in the tree, the proud nation restored,
noise, human monster, purge expiation.

Your guess is as good as mine, but as an example of how the quatrains have been used to explain events such as the Great Fire of London, here is a typical example:

Le sang du juste à Londres fera faulte,

Bruslés par fouldres de vingttrois les six:
La dame antique cherra de place haulte,
De mesme secte plusieurs seront occis.

The blood of the just will commit a fault at London,
Burnt through thunderbolts of twenty threes the six(es):
The ancient lady will fall from her high place,
Several of the same sect will be killed.

Here, the sixes is interpreted to mean 66, and therefore 1666, the 'ancient lady' to be St Paul's Cathedral and 'Several of the same sect' to describe the other churches which were also lost in the fire. There is, however, no record of St Paul's ever being known as the 'ancient lady' and it's not in any particularly 'high place'.
However, the quatrain could also be interpreted to refer to an event taking place during Nostradamus' lifetime, the burning of Protestant heretics by Queen Mary I of England, in London. These heretics were burnt in groups of six and gunpower was often hung round their necks in an act of mercy, to hasten their deaths. Subsequently, in 1555, Mary fell into insanity and eventually from the throne, following the departure of her consort, Prince Philip of Spain.
These facts, which incidentally could well have been known to Nostradamus prior to the publication of the first edition of his works (dated May 1555), could lead to a different translation of this quatrain:

The blood of the innocent will be an error at London

Burned by thunderbolts, of twenty-three, the six(es)
The senile lady will lose her high position,
Many more of the same sect will be slain.

- An Encyclopedia of claims, frauds and hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. James Randi

As can be seen, the same quatrain can be general enough to be potentially matched to several different events.


Nostradamus, in common with many other oracles, makes sure his predictions are as vague as possible and over as large a time period as possible, allowing many potential events to be declared as hits. Incorrect predictions in this case are impossible, the event described just hasn't happened yet. More specific predictions are less common and may be a result of analysing the balance of probabilities (a prediction that the favourite will win a horse-race for example) or, to put it bluntly, by cheating.

The Toronto Evening Telegram August 28th 1950 reported the case of Randell Zwinge who, a week before the US World Series started, placed a forecast which was signed, countersigned and witnessed by a notary, in a lawyers safe. The day after the series had ended the envelope was opened, outside of Mr Zwinge's presence. He had correctly named the day of the final game, the winning and losing teams and the correct score.

The following year he made a recording predicting the number of attendees of the Canadian National Exhibition, again a week before it opened. This recording was signed by a reporter for the newspaper, sealed inside an envelope with a wax seal and locked in the newspaper's safe. Following the final day of the exhibit, the record was removed by the same reporter and played to around 1,500 people at the Canadian National Exhibition centre. Mr Zwinge's prediction was for an attendance of 107,506 on the first day of the exhibit. The actual announced figure was 107,500, which may have been rounded to the nearest 100. The record is still in the possession of the reporter involved and still predicts 107,506. Is Mr Zwinge a psychic?

Well, actually, no. Randell Zwinge is the well-known magician and sceptic, The Amazing Randi. However, the above events were reported in the press as the activities of a genuine psychic and the people concerned were under the impression there were witnessing someone who could actually predict the future. Randi makes no claims for psychic ability.

Documented and professional predictions aside, many people have reported having strange intuitions about certain events which have subsequently occurred in the future or experienced a feeling of déjà vu at some point. Obviously these experiences are unique to particular people and so much harder to explain or prove. However, they should be considered in the light of the following pieces of information:

The brain has a tendency to remember the unusual and dismiss the commonplace, so if someone has a bad feeling about a certain person and they are subsequently found to have been in an accident then that is a memorable event. If the same feeling had been present however and they had turned out to be fine, the event would be quickly forgotten. These results may then be equivalent to an experiment where all the failed results are thrown away and a judgement made solely on the successes.
The feeling may have also been subconsciously brought on by an external event. Cases have been reported of people suddenly receiving a phone call from someone they hadn’t spoken to in years after they had just been thinking about them. This might be caused by an external event, like say a TV news story about your old school, seen by both parties, triggering identical thought processes. Both participants see the program, get to thinking about their schooldays, wonder what their previous best friend at school is doing today and resolve to call them, leading to a 'spooky' coincidence.

The causes of déjà vu, occurring as it does in an unpredictable manner, are again difficult to prove. However, some theories have been advanced towards a possible explanation.
One theory hypothesises the feeling is due to the different neural pathways which exist to our eyes. Anything we see is processed independently by both our eyes and then combined into a 3-dimensional image in the brain. Presumably these routes normally work at about the same speed, with information arriving from both eyes simultaneously and being interpreted as the same scene. However, if the signal from one eye should be delayed for some reason, then perhaps the brain might get confused. This new data seems familiar (we've already processed it with one eye milliseconds before) but has arrived too late to be the same scene, hence the feeling of déjà vu.

Spirit Reading

Perhaps almost as old as precognition, the field of spirit reading, or mediumship, has been around for hundreds of years. However, the modern vision of spiritualism began with the activities of the Fox Sisters in 1848, when they reported hearing strange knockings in their bedroom. These 'knockings' were described as being communications from the spirit world and a series of public seances followed. These lasted until 1888 when two of the sisters confessed that they had produced the knocking by cracking their toe joints. However, their believers continued to support them and they subsequently retracted their confessions, returning to the lecture circuit until 1889.

Mediumship probably reached its hayday in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when mediums such as Mary Showers and Florence Cook regularly amazed sitters by producing 'full-form metarializations' of various spirits. These spirits were often uncannily similar to the mediums themselves, except for various articles of period clothing. These metarilizations occured while the mediums reclined, out of sight, suppossedly in a trancelike state. Despite the fairly obvious possibility for fraud, they still managed to convince many of their clients that they were truly conversing with spirits. It is typical however, that the clients of mediums are usually so anxious to recieve communications from their relatives beyond the grave that almost any fraudalent behaviour is excused. Many famous personages of the time regularly consulted mediums. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a firm believer in their powers.

Many of these 19th and early 20th Century mediums were exposed by Harry Houdini, who, in addition to his famous escapology and magic performances, specialised in exposing frauds. This fervour may have been driven from an attempt to contact his mother, a task which the many mediums he exposed singularly failed to accomplish. Houdini frequently sat on committees set up to investigate mediums and testified before congress on more than one occasion in an attempt to make many of their activities illegal. Houdini himself commented:

'I am not an irretrievable sceptic. I am not hopelessly prejudiced. I am perfectly willing to believe, and my mind is wide open; but I have, as yet, to be convinced. I am perfectly willing but the evidence must be sane and conclusive.'

- Houdini on Magic Ed. W. Gibson, M. Young 1953

More recently, the trend has been for mediums to perform in an open setting, with performers such as James Van Praagh and John Edward performing either before large crowds of people in studios or via phone-in shows on the radio and television. This allows for a much wider pool of targets for their readings of course, increasing their chances for success.


The effects demonstrated by mediums can be achieved through a combination of
three styles of reading (assuming, of course, they are taking the easy approach
rather than actually speaking to the dead):

  • Cold
    When faced with an entirely unknown audience, the technique of
    cold reading can be employed by the medium in an attempt to gain
    information from sitters, using their responses to narrow predictions until very
    vague initial 'feelings' are transformed into more specific readings. A cold
    reading would typically begin with the medium articulating a very general
    feeling in the hope of finding an inital response. This may be a name, like
    John for example. A comment like, "I'm getting a man's name, John, Joe,
    Jonathan? Does this connect with anyone?" is very likely to get an initial
    response, particularly from a large audience who, as was mentioned earlier, are
    likely to be very anxious to believe in the medium. Further questions can then
    narrow the response. "I want to put John close to you. Was he a family
    member?". Here the sitter may respond, "My father" for example and the medium
    is already well on his or her way. Even if the recognised 'John' wasn't a
    family member, this can be covered merely by saying, "Ah, but he sometimes felt
    as if he was a member of the family?". Almost any response at this stage can be
    taken and adapted to steer the reading. Phrases like "I think..", "I want to
    say..", "It feels as though..", "Does that connect with you?" can phrase vague
    statements as questions, again in the hope of drawing more information from the
    sitter. Any information volunteered can then be fed back into the reading,
    improving its accuracy and may even be phrased as being divined from the spirit
    world, rather than just told to the medium. Even in the event of no matches
    being found, mediums often claim to be unable to distinguish between the past,
    present and future, so perhaps 'John' is someone you haven't met yet! Some
    mediums can become quite hostile in forcing sitters to acknowledge predictions,
    portraying a failure to find a match to be their mistake, not the mediums.

  • Warm Reading: Here the medium takes advantage of psychological principles which apply to nearly everyone. People with family members who have recently died often keep items of jewellery which belonged to them, or have a photograph by their bed or on their person. This can form the basis of a reading. Statements like, "I'm feeling an item of jewellery, something personal that you've kept close to you", where close might mean the sitter has the item with them, somewhere close to their bed at home or even that they've kept 'spiritually' close. Any of these events may be counted as a 'hit'. Depending on the age of the deceased, the cause of death is also likely to be the result of a head or chest injury. Picking one of these areas can allow for more probing questions to be asked. "I'm getting an upper body injury, is that right?" may lead to a indication of a chest or head. The choice then becomes 'heart attack', 'stroke' or 'cancer' and careful questioning can lead the medium to the correct response.

  • Hot Reading: Here the medium makes use of information gained about the sitters in advance. This may be from questionnaires filled in at the start of a TV show, background research where the sitter is known in advance or stooges in the crowd, listening in to conversations prior to a show. Lamar Keen, a former medium, in her book, The Psychic Medium also describes the existence of a 'Blue Book'. A database of information about regular sitters which is exchanged between mediums to aid their performances.

In all these cases it should be remembered that in most cases the sitter is extremely anxious for the reading to go well, being more than willing to help the medium out with any details which might be required to improve their accuracy. Spirits are also usually described as being content and helping out the living, something which sitters are unlikely to disagree with.

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