Debunking Denialism

Fighting pseudoscience and quackery with reason and evidence.

Category Archives: Alleged Psychics

CIA Releases Declassified Documents on Alleged Psychic Experiments

CIA Stargate

Stories of secret government conspiracies and paranormal encounters have captured the imagination of generations of readers as well as movie and television fans all across the world. Meanwhile, in the real world, pseudoscientific movements that involve various conspiracy theories have cropped up in parallel on everything from building collapses and biomedical research to the shape of the earth and the moon landing. They posit highly efficient and competent conspirators and the total absence of leaks but can only present extremely poor arguments often in the face of strongly contradictory evidence.

Read more of this post

Alleged Spoon Bender Anastasia Kutt Resigns from University of Alberta

Spoon Bender Anstasia Kutt resigns

According to her blog, Anastasia Kutt describes herself as an “energy healing therapist”, a “registered Reiki Master/Teacher”, a “certified Trilotherapist” and a “Yuen Method practitioner”. Until very recently, she was also a “workshop facilitator” associated with the University of Alberta. She appears to offer both spoon bending and tantric sex workshops, but her major focus appears to be on providing various Reiki courses to people that include topics such as “psychic surgery”, “aura cleansing”, “chakra cleaning”, “removing specific energy blockages” etc. for the cheap price of 350 USD for the first two levels and 500 USD for the final third level so that you can become a full-fledged “Reiki Master Practitioner”. If you do not mind being fooled into giving away more money, there is even a course to become a “Usui Reiki Master Teacher” for another 800 USD, making it a grand total of 1650 USD. In addition, there is a 100 USD deposit to register for the different courses.

Recently, she organized a workshop at the University of Alberta. Not any workshop, but a workshop that involved the promotion of “energy healing therapies” and spoon bending. Yes, you read that correctly. Spoon bending. A great overview of this issue can be found in this article written by Orac on Respectful Insolence. At least two articles have been published by CBC. Now, it seems that this workshop has been cancelled and that she has resigned from her position at the University of Alberta. This article looks at these recent developments.

Read more of this post

In Defense of Paranormal Debunking – Part IV: Psychic Powers

Note: This is the fourth installment of an article series refuting claims made by the online book “Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers” written by Winston Wu. For all posts in this series, see the index post here.

Winston Wu's website

So far, we have seen how paranormalist Winston Wu misunderstands core skeptic principles such as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, parsimony, burden of evidence, the perils and pitfalls of anecdotal evidence, and the fallibility of human memory. We have also investigated the difference between the unexplained and the unexplainable, the nature of beliefs, the methods of scientific skepticism, irrationality and the scope and influence of pseudoscience.

In this fourth installment of this articles series, we move onto examining specific paranormalist claims, such as psychics that claim to be able to talk to the dead, the value of controls and replication in psi research, the nature of the placebo effect and the alleged existence of miracles.

Misunderstood principle #16: Psychological techniques of alleged psychics

Alleged psychics use a wide range of psychological techniques (reviewed here) to persuade people that they have supernatural powers that allows them to supposedly communicate with the dead or gain important insights about the past: cold reading, warm reading, hot reading, time-shifting, inflating probabilistic resources, shotgunning, covering all bases, vanishing negative, escape hatch, changing the subject, spreading the net wider, retrofitting, post hoc rationalizations and so on.

Wu apparently do not recognize the breadth of psychological techniques because he only brings up cold and hot reading:

The problem with the cold reading/hot reading explanation is that for many accounts of psychic readings (including some of my own) the techniques do not account for the specific information attained. For example, some psychic can tell you very specific things about you without asking you any questions, which rules out the “fishing for clues” technique. If neither they nor any of their accomplices talked to you beforehand, then that would also rule out the same technique. […[ Unfortunately for skeptics, there are many cases of psychic readings where all of the above were ruled out. Therefore, cold/hot reading cannot account for every case. In such cases, the skeptic is left without explanations, but often continue to insist that the client must have given away some kind of clue, and demand that this be disproved first before imposing any claim of genuine psychic ability at work.

Because there are dozens and dozens of other techniques besides cold and hot reading, this is a very weak argument for the existence of psychic powers. Although Wu does acknowledge that there are many frauds out there, Wu has denied himself the opportunity to fully investigate alternatives to his hypothesis that alleged psychics have genuine supernatural powers.

The next part of the section contains anecdotes about visits to psychics that he and various people have done. However, as was explored in a previous installment, the plural of anecdote is not data. Also, many of them are second or third-hand accounts, taken from email list discussions or an anonymous story about remembering playing with an Ouija board at age 11. Thus, they contain information that can be considerably different from the actual events and Wu even acknowledge that at least some of the alleged examples are examples of cold reading. Because of that, this installment focus on examining Wu’s own experience.

Read more of this post

Turning Tides: Fraudulent Psychics Brought to Justice

Sylvia Browne

Psychics are people who pretend to have various supernatural powers such as extrasensory perception (ESP), the ability to move objects with their mind or being able to talk to the dead. They typically deceive grieving and unsuspecting victims by telling them what they want to hear in exchange for large sums of money. Some alleged psychics have built massive careers (including popular television programs) and fortunes by exploiting vulnerable people. Although most scientific skeptics can see through the dishonest smokescreens deployed by these individuals, it is enormously frustrating that the belief in psychics is so widespread. According to a Gallup poll from 2005, 41% of Americans believe in ESP, 26% believe in clairvoyance and 21% believe that people can communicate with the dead.

Yet, the light of reason is starting to break through the clouds of unreason. Several alleged psychics have been convicted, jailed and forced to pay back money to their victims in recent years. Here are a few examples:

Cynthia Miller: claimed to be able to communicate with spirits and remove curses from her clients. She even conned a man with psychotic symptoms into giving her gold coins worth almost half a million dollars to treat his problems. She also exploited a woman for another half a million dollars who went through multiple brain surgeries against cancer. That woman is now losing her home due to not being able to pay her loans. Miller was sentence to three years and five months and prison and forced to pay 1.2 million dollars to her victims (source, webcite).

Read more of this post

Uncloaking the Deceptive Tactics Used by Alleged Psychics

Sylvia Browne

Alleged psychics who claim to have supernatural powers to communicate with the “spirit realm” have been around for centuries, from the priestesses of the Oracle in Delphi to Sylvia Browne (who has been debunked several times on this blog, such as here, here, here and here). Alleged psychics may seem very convincing at first, but that is a cognitive illusion created by the fact that these supposed psychics use psychological tools and techniques to attempt to create such beliefs in the brain of their unsuspecting victims.

This article goes into detail and examines the nature of some of these tricks. Although no division is going to be perfect, they can be divided into three categories (with some overlap): basic techniques that almost all psychics use, techniques used to increase the probability of getting a hit and techniques used to salvage a miss. When combined, they constitute a powerful method for deception, especially if the victim is in an emotionally vulnerable state or if he or she already has an inclination to believe.

Basic Techniques

There are certain techniques that are used by almost all alleged psychics that the deserved to be called basic techniques. This involves cold reading (making guesses and getting information from the victim), warm reading (making barnum statements that apply to almost everyone), hot reading (gotten information from researching the victim) and time-shifting (asking a question and claiming that the information was gotten from the spirit world when the victim tells the alleged psychic the information).

Cold reading: cold reading is perhaps one of the most common and well-known tactic used by alleged psychics. It is a technique designed to get the victim to give the alleged psychic the information, and then the alleged psychic takes credit for it and makes it appear that he or she got that information from the deceased loved one. The alleged psychic typically employ estimates and guesses that have a high prior probability of being true about the person, often informed by body language, manner of speech, outward appearance and so on. If a guess is confirmed, the alleged psychic pushes forward in that direction, hoping that confirmation bias will make the victim remember the hits and forget the misses.

Warm reading: there is a related technique referred to as warm reading. Some skeptics consider it a type of cold reading, whereas others conceptualize it as an independent technique. Warm reading occurs when the alleged psychic uses statements that apply to almost anyone (barnum statements) instead of using cold reading to get the victim to give them information. Examples include guessing for a common case of death (such as heart condition or cancer). If this technique is combined with inflating probabilistic resources, the supposed psychic has a very high probability of scoring a hit.

Hot reading: hot reading occurs when the alleged psychic has actually gotten information about the victim beforehand, either from a Google search or probing other people close the victim (such as relatives, friends, TV producers and so on). Then, when they present that information to their victims, it seems like a miraculous discovery and evidence that the alleged psychic can really talk to the dead. In reality, they have just gathered that information from living or electronic sources without you knowing it. With the popularity of social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, this is becoming an increasingly powerful technique.

Time-shifting: time-shifting is a technique that begins with the alleged psychic asking a question. If the victim gives an informative response, the alleged psychic replies that the dead loved one just told him or her that. To credulous victims, it may appear that the deceased loved one provided the information before the question was asked. In reality, it was the victim that gave that information to the supposed psychic and the supposed psychic tried to make it look like he or she was actually communicating with the dead. Read more of this post

Fraud Psychic Sylvia Browne Promotes Anti-Psychiatry

This blog post continues the skeptical investigation of the unscientific and wildly inaccurate claims that the alleged psychic Sylvia Browne makes on her Facebook page. Previous installments include her denial of the germ theory of disease, her public failure regarding the prediction that Amanda Berry was dead and an analysis of some of the tactics Browne and her true believers use in their promotion and support.

This time, Browne blindly charges into the field of psychiatry and makes the following ignorant claims about the origin of specific phobias (and another case of germ theory denialism as an added bonus):

Sylvia Browne talk nonsense on specific phobias

The number of scientific errors and unsubstantiated claims in these three sentences is gigantic.

The existence of supernatural entities

Throughout her facebook post, Sylvia Browne asserts the existence of a number of supernatural entities such as a creator deity, a holy spirit, a soul. She also makes implicit claims that reincarnation occurs, that deities respond to human prayer and that prayer is an effective treatment of many illnesses and specific phobias.

She provides no evidence whatsoever for any of these and there is therefore no reason to take any of those claims seriously.

Continued germ theory denialism

Brown repeats her germ theory denialism that was refuted in a previous post. Before, she asserted that most illnesses starts in the mind of the individual, but now she apparently thinks that illnesses are the result of cellular memories or subconscious memories from a past life. These two positions are deeply contradictory: do illnesses start in the mind of individuals in this life, or the result of cellular memories from a past life?

Rejection of the mainstream scientific view on specific phobias

Mainstream psychology indicate that factors that influence specific phobias and other anxiety conditions include evolutionary preparedness, genetic risk factors, highly reactive autonomic nervous system, conditioning (both classical and operant), learning by observation and so on (Passer et. al. 2009).

Instead of accepting the science behind phobias, Browne asserts that phobias are the result of subconscious or cellular memories from a past life. However, she provides no evidence that past lives exists in the first place. Read more of this post

Fraud Psychic Sylvia Browne Promotes Germ Theory Denialism

Related: Fraud Psychic Sylvia Browne Proven Wrong Yet Again, Fraud Psychic Sylvia Browne is Back on Facebook.

Browsing through the facebook page of alleged psychic Sylvia Browne is like entering into another universe where reality is distorted so much that it is hard to separate up from down, left from right and reality from fantasy. Desperate and half-baked rationalizations are mixed with the promotion of various forms of pseudoscience, including anti-psychiatry, energy woo and even germ theory denialism. Here is what Sylvia Browne has to say about the origin of diseases and their treatments:

Sylvia Browne and germ theory denialism

So instead of being the result of disease-causing microorganisms or environmental causes, most diseases are caused by your mind? Presumably, this is some version of the pseudoscientific garbage known as “the secret”, which asserts that good things come to those who think positively and bad things happen to those that have a negative state of mind. So if you get cancer, it is not because of genetic risk factors or environment, it is because you were being so damn negative. It is a deadly mix of absurdity, scientific falsehoods, ignorance and emotional exploitation. Read more of this post

Fraud Psychic Sylvia Browne is Back on Facebook

In a previous blog post called Fraud Psychic Sylvia Browne Proven Wrong Yet Again, I explored the recent failure of alleged psychic Sylvia Browne where she claimed that Amanda Berry, a kidnap victim recently found alive after being held captive for around a decade, was dead. In the wake of the huge backlash Browne got (both on Twitter and Facebook, as well as from Anderson Cooper at CNN), she inactivated both her Facebook and Twitter account. Here is skeptic Michael Shermer’s reaction:

Shermer's reaction

I could not have agreed more. The fact that she inactivated her Facebook and Twitter accounts as a result of the backlash gave me a lot of comfort. First, the events might have been enough to make her face the reality of her failure (a misbegotten hope, as we shall see below) but also because, for a time, she was unable to spread her vile nonsense on those social media sites.

Unfortunately, Browne reactivated her Facebook account a few days ago. Did she finally acknowledge to herself and the world that she does not have psychic powers? Far from it. Here is what she now writes:

Browne returns

Notice how Sylvia Browne calls her financial exploitation of human greed a dedication “to helping others as a spiritual psychic and guide”. Notice how she claims that she has helped the police solve high-profile criminal investigations, yet fails to provide a single shred of evidence for this extraordinary claim. Notice how she quotes herself and claims that she is more often right than wrong (hardly an achievement for someone who practices common “psychic techniques” such as cold reading) without any evidence whatsoever. Notice how she attempts to sway readers by presenting her own rationalizations and the rationalizations of Berry’s family Read more of this post

%d bloggers like this: