Testing psychic claims: - suggestions for the media.

by Tony Youens

The motivation for writing this article was after seeing and hearing psychics appear in both television and radio and being allowed to promote their dubious claims without so much as a hint of an adequate test. Too often presenters simply ‘ooh’ and ‘ahhh’ at the claims and/or demonstrations given by psychics that even the simplest of controls would have probably exposed as mere trickery.

Remember: "A demonstration is not a test."

Introduction
Many supposed psychic powers are actually no more than conjuring tricks but because magicians have always jealously guarded the secrets of their craft (and, as a part-time magician myself I naturally agree with them) this can make testing psychics very difficult. However there is no real merit in exposing the methods behind the tricks anyway because if one technique is exposed it can be quickly replaced by another. In fact most ‘effects’ (how people perceive the trick) can be achieved by a variety of methods and the risk is that having successfully guarded against one type of subterfuge people entirely miss another and thus make the mistake of thinking this time it’s for real.

There is a branch of conjuring known as ‘mentalism’ which specializes in psychic/mental effects. A mentalist performs to entertain and mystify and my own view is that you should just sit back and enjoy the experience. Magic, particularly close-up magic can be very entertaining and through watching TV shows like David Blaine’s ‘Street Magic’ from America and Paul Xenon’s in-your-face approach in the U.K., people are rediscovering the fun and mystery of magic.

Therefore these guidelines are designed to be used when someone does not present themselves as a magician but instead insist they are psychic – the real thing. It would be fairly easy to ruin most conjuring tricks but sabotaging an entertainer is not what I’m trying to do here. Remember when I say guidelines I mean guidelines, they are all fairly informal and do not pretend to be proper scientific tests. This is just so you don’t fall for anything obvious. Let’s not make it too easy for them.

If you intend testing a psychic, perhaps for a TV or radio show, then I suggest you find out specifically what powers are to be demonstrated and then check with an experienced magician. If want properly conducted scientific experiments then I can give you the names of experienced scientists. However just to start you off here are a few useful tips.

Spoon-bending
Curiously I have bent spoons twice on radio. It was very easy! One each occasion I picked up the spoon (supplied by the radio station), rubbed it and it started to ‘melt’ eventually falling apart. If these guidelines had been followed I can assure you I would have failed.

You supply the spoon and make sure it is clearly identified as yours. Some kind of distinctive mark (maybe even a number engraved on it) is required.

Make sure it is reasonably strong.
Do not let the psychic anywhere near it beforehand.

Find out if they need to handle the spoon to bend it or whether they will just need to stare at it and concentrate. If they only need to look then why not seal it in a glass box (cover it with a fish tank?) so that they are able to resist any sudden temptation to pick it up.If they do need to handle it (and if it’s mind power I wonder why) then this can be tricky. The best thing is to make sure you hold the spoon at each end and just allow the psychic to rub the middle. If you let go of the spoon then this might be all the time our psychic needs. In such a case I suggest you start again with a second spoon (1,2 and 3 above apply to this spoon also).

Keep the camera on the spoon at all times.

Do not allow the psychic to take control of the situation by grabbing the spoon and hiding it, however briefly, from the camera. Suggesting that taking it near other metal (like a radiator) would help is only a ruse and a fairly obvious one at that. If it needs to be near more metal then you take it – not the psychic.

Make sure that the protocols are understood and agreed to by the psychic beforehand.

If these conditions are rigorously enforced then our ‘psychic’ is going to have a very difficult time if they are intending to use trickery. On the other hand if they have psychic powers it should still be a cinch.If they refuse to appear unless you give them carte blanche to do what ever they damn well please, and you are prepared to go along with deceiving the viewing or listening public, then just go right ahead and let them do what they want. It all depends how important the concept of truth is to your programme.

Reproducing a drawing
I can’t begin to tell you how many ways there are to do this. I myself use a variety of methods (for entertainment or demonstration only) depending on the situation and the effect I’m trying to put over. Nonetheless there are ways to avoid most common forms of trickery.

You must do the drawing alone. If the psychic insists they are with you when the drawing is done then you risk them seeing what you’ve drawn. Remember the idea is that they can read your mind. The purpose of the drawing is presumably to help you focus on the picture and to later verify the psychic’s impression so that the two pictures can be compared. What does it matter if you do the drawing on your own? Why not do the drawing prior to actually meeting the psychic? When they suggest you try this little experiment in telepathy you can helpfully explain that you’ve already done a drawing. I bet they will want you to do it again.

Do not tell anyone else what you drew.

Try not to make the subject too obvious. People often draw houses, tree, sailing boats, etc. so try and introduce a bit of originality. Do not allow the psychic to limit your choice in any way.

When you do the drawing on your own then rest the paper on a hard surface such as a desk.

Do not rest it on anything provided by the psychic.Before sealing the drawing in an envelope wrap it in aluminium foil so that it cannot simply be held up to the light and seen. There are other reasons for using the foil so just trust me on this one, eh!Seal the envelope and sign across the flap.

Do not allow yourself and the drawing to be separated. Keep it on your person the whole time. If you want to be sneaky then have a separate drawing (of a nice little house maybe?) left lying around and then destroy it before beginning the test.

If you follow these steps then, once again, unless they really can read your mind they stand a good chance of failing to come up with the goods. Of course that might ruin your programme and you want to be as helpful as possible don’t you? Well not to worry just explain to your audience that the test was sloppily designed and that any competent conjuror could have done it just as well if not better. On the other hand please feel free to distort everyone’s world view and if you’re really lucky you will convince a scientist as well and ruin an otherwise promising career.

Spiritualist and other types of psychic reading
Well first of all you should read Before you see a psychic'. This was originally written as a pamphlet that could be read by people considering a visit to a psychic reader - what used to be called a fortune teller. It has to be said that methods just like those outlined in the pamphlet are also used by magicians - particularly mentalists. My own view is that something like a quick palm reading in which the reader gives a brief character sketch is pretty harmless and hopefully is given, and taken, in a spirit of fun. It's when this is taken a stage further that I consider it to be misleading and no longer within the realm of entertainment. Some people take this kind of thing very seriously and can make life changing decisions on the basis of advice given by a psychic reader; advice that is not necessarily well founded or in their own best interest.

Analyzing and controlling readings is notoriously difficult, mainly because it’s always full of ambiguous half truths; but assuming you’ve now read Before you see a psychic' I suggest the steps listed below when testing psychic readers.

General points
Subjects, whether in a TV studio or phoning in, should not be required to give any information until the reading is over - that includes ‘yes or no’ responses. All such feedback is of great assistance to the experienced reader. Ask them to provide detailed information not generalities; we want specifics and not woolly talk about the some vague happening in the future. Can the psychic tell you anything significant and specific that has happened within the last week maybe?

Ask the psychic to clarify any ambiguities before confirming or denying (at the end of the reading remember!) anything. What does, "I see someone close to you is experiencing financial difficulties." actually mean? Define ‘someone close’ is it a friend, a neighbour or a relative? Are the financial difficulties serious or trivial? What sort of financial difficulties? Dukes and Earls have financial difficulties but they aren’t remotely like the ones I have. Check with the psychic beforehand how much detail they can provide and when they tell you glowingly of their staggering accuracy ask for examples of what accurate information they would expect to provide; names, surnames, dates of birth, type of relationship (wife, husband or lover)? When they tell you how precise they are make them stick to it.

Try this as an experiment. Choose six subjects, exclusively men or women, of roughly the same age, dress them the same and select one of them to be the chosen subject by any suitable random process (roll a die if you like) and ask the psychic to give them a reading. Here’s the catch. Whilst the reader knows who was selected the six subjects do not. They all listen to the reading at the same time (preferably the other side of a two-way mirror) whilst unaware which one of them is actually having the reading. None of the subjects should give any response. After the reading is over each of them should be interviewed separately to see how much the reading applied to them. They can be asked if they felt it was accurate enough for them to consider that they were probably the subject of the reading. One key point though the person doing the post reading interview should not know which one of them was chosen. In itself this would not present conclusive proof of psychic ability but it would be light years ahead of anything I’ve seen on television to date.

Spiritualists
These are in touch with dead people via some kind of communication, presumably visual or audible. Without them having any prior information about their subject ask them to list by name (including surname) which of the subject’s relatives are alive and which ones are dead. Now be careful here. If the spiritualist can determine the person’s age then they will stand a much better chance of being accurate with statements like, "Your Grandmother has passed over." that’s why we want to know Granny’s name, including their surname (I had two grannies how about you?). Most spiritualists are unlikely to accept this challenge, instead they will fall back on get out clauses such as they can only relate what their spirit guides tell them. You can also apply the test indicated in the previous paragraph.

Telekinesis
This refers to moving things by mental power alone. Metal bending comes under this category (see above) as does moving the needle of a compass but it doesn’t have to be that specific. Some have claimed to move ping pong balls and other fairly light objects.

Moving a compass needle.
As any school child will tell you, to move a compass needle you just need a magnet. The secret is where you hide it. You will usually notice that the psychic moves slightly nearer to the compass just as the needle moves. Basically sit the person down in front of the compass having checked them for magnets already (move a compass around their body), dress them in shorts and ‘T’ shirt and do not allow them to move any closer. Put a physical barrier such as glass or plastic to prevent them from moving too close if you have to. The glass shouldn’t inhibit their psychic ability as compasses are usually protected by glass or plastic anyway.

Moving a small object placed on a table top.
Believe it or not there are a variety of different ways to achieve this and they are not as obvious as you might think. To test this you must, like any test, retain full control of the situation and not be persuaded by the psychic to relax the protocol. You should provide the object to be moved and the psychic should not be allowed to handle it prior to the test. Take the chosen object and seal it in a glass tank. Place the tank on top of a sturdy table which is itself stood on a solid, flat floor (not on top of a rug for example). Determine how close the psychic needs to be and allow them to get no closer. Obviously they must not be able to touch either the table or the container. Preferably they should stand on a mark on the floor that has been tested to make sure floor movement isn’t the reason that the object moves. Lastly try and get them to specify in which direction they will move the object.

I and other members of ASKE will be more than happy to suggest ways to test psychic claimants.