Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How Psychics Sleep At Night

Recently, I’ve been giving thought to psychic phenomena and paranormal events. By that, I mean what people often attribute to things like the ghosts of the dearly departed. There are people who claim to be able to serve as a medium by which a person can communicate with their dear loved ones. There are a couple of things that interest me about these things, one is the technique by which people think they can achieve results and two is that they are attributing their results to something without having a means to verify it.

Let’s look at the second one first. Let’s suppose a person walks into a house and sees a rocking chair moving on its own. As he is watching the chair, suppose the front door swings shut without him touching it. What is the cause of these things? It could be the wind, but let’s suppose it isn’t. Let’s suppose it isn’t anything we would normally check for. Can we now say that it must be a ghost? Some people would say we can, but there’s a problem with that. Until we have some means of knowing the abilities of a ghost, we can’t accept that as more than a theory. It could just as easily be a time traveler who went back where he came from when he heard the door open. Or it could be something we’ve never thought of. The lack of evidence for it to be something else is not proof of the existence of ghosts.

The first one gets even more interesting. I’ve watched videos of psychics on talkshows and such. They are either very good liars and performers, or they really believe what they are saying. Most of them don’t seem demon possessed, which is what some of the psychics in the Bible were (not that I would recognize demon possession if I saw it). How can it be that these people believe what they say? The answer is in the technique. Psychics seem to base their operation on one simple, but flawed, assumption; any event that seems to have a pattern where one isn’t expected must be caused by an external force.

One technique that is used is the use of white noise generators. A noisy fan is turned on, presumably because ghosts are able to manipulate existing noise, but they can’t actually speak. A person then records that white noise, listening for anything that sounds like words. When words are found, they are enhanced to make it easier to understand what is being said. These words are then interpreted to mean something. In this case, rather than following Occam’s Razor and accepting that these words are probably from the random combination of sound, the psychic attributes them to a ghost who is struggling to communicate. From that point of view, I think I can understand why they have convinced themselves that it is true.

But can we apply the same to mediums? Why do they believe? The way mediums work is that they begin say words and phrases that come to mind. “I’m seeing the color blue. This may have been a favorite color or it may have been something this person wore. I’m also hearing a letter. It could be the letter G or maybe J. And there’s something about the chest. Could this person have died from a heart attack or maybe had lung cancer?” Before long, the person who has asked for help is thinking about a friend or relative who liked the color blue, was named Jim, and smoked all his life. On the surface, it looks like simple flimflam, but these mediums seem to think they are helping people. If we assume they are sincere, I think we have to consider that these psychics believe that what seems to us to be random words actually came through from the other side. They believe this because those words had some connection to the person for whom they were doing a reading. They know that a ghost may not come through every time (who can control a ghost?), so a failed reading doesn’t bother them any more than a missed sale bothers a salesman. But when the words that come to mind have meaning to someone in the room, they call it a success.

So how do we know they aren’t right? Actually, we don’t have proof that they aren’t right, though the evidence seems to make it highly probable that they aren’t right. Either they are wrong or anyone can talk to the dead. The real problem with their thinking is that it is circular logic; ghosts can communicate through the first thing that comes to mind, therefore when I throw out those things that come to mind and it seems to be communication, it must be a ghost that is doing it. While I can see how mediums can follow that logic and be able to sleep at night, circular logic never proves anything.