A Field Guide to Quackery and Pseudoscience – Part Four
Psychics are an interesting breed, especially since it is clear that they are either consciously deceiving their “clients” or are frankly delusional. Their claims to “see” the future, to “see” into other people’s minds or to “see” hidden objects or events are not simple misinterpretations of the data before them, as is the case with most “well-meaning” pseudoscientists and quacks.
People claiming to be psychics either do or do not “see” what they claim to see. If they do not, then they are simply charlatans making a buck off of a gullible populace, no better or worse than thousands of other frauds. If, on the other hand, they do “see” what they claim, then they need to explain their extremely low accuracy. Given an accuracy of less than one “correct” prediction per thousand “wrong” predictions, a rational person would conclude that they are no better than guesses. A psychic who truly believes that their one “hit” among thousands of “misses” constitutes a unique ability is either incapable or unwilling to face reality.
Psychic “abilities” come in three general types:
[a] The ability to see what is hidden in the future.
[b] The ability to see what is hidden in the present or past.
[c] The ability to cause physical actions by direct action of the mind (i.e. not through the action of muscles).
The last of these – “c” – is the basis of claims like Uri Geller’s – who claims to be able to deform silverware with his mind – as well as those who claim to be able to heal with mind power (e.g. “Therapeutic Touch”, “Thought-field therapy”, etc.). Those who claim to do “psychic healing” - in any of its incarnations – may be simply misinterpreting data before them, as many quacks do (see below). The rest of the psychics are either deluded or lying.
Among the dozens of people claiming to have psychokinetic abilities, few have submitted their claims to rigorous testing. Those that have submitted their “powers” to legitimate testing have all failed, although they usually claim that “skeptical vibrations” (or other similar maladies) have interfered with their powers. The James Randi million dollar prize remains unclaimed – the best proof that psychokinesis is bunk.
But back to the predictive arm of “psychic abilities”. These range from predicting the future to “remote viewing” to finding abducted children and missing objects – all of which are eagerly promoted by a largely uncritical mass media. Witness the burgeoning number of television programs featuring “psychic detectives” – all evidence of our collective fascination with the idea of “mind powers”.
Left out of most of the media frenzy over “mind powers” are those mind powers that we know exist, one of which gives us the ability – if we use it – to see that “psychic abilities” are baloney. I refer, of course, to our rational intellect.
“Predictive” psychics are basically detectives. Using purely normal (i.e. not “paranormal”) powers of observation – powers possessed by most, if not all, humans, they assess their “target” and make some purely normal (vide supra) predictions about them. For the fraudulent variety of psychic, these observations may be “augmented” by more deliberate detective work, even something as simple as having a “chat” with the target prior to the “reading” – just to “put them at ease”, of course. Details uncovered during these investigations will then be put to use “proving” the psychic’s abilities.
It is a bit ironic that psychics universally begin their “routine”, not by revealing what we don’t know, but by “revealing” what we do. By this I mean the sometimes casual “dropping” of personal details that the target thought the psychic did not know. Once they have convinced their target that they truly have “psychic abilities”, they are then free to employ their imagination to tell the target what they want to hear.
The detective game that psychics play is amazing to watch. The best way to see it is to view an uncut videotape of a session – something most psychics absolutely refuse to allow, usually claiming that it “disrupts the ether”, “introduces skeptic energy”, blah, blah, blah. What it really does is provide unimpeachable documentation of their inability to get the right answers from their “psychic abilities”.
If you dispassionately watch a psychic at work, you will see the strategies they use. They usually begin with general statements, which are voiced as questions but phrased as statements, to get “hits” and fool the target into giving them more information. These will be broad, ambiguous characteristics that could apply to a number of people.
For example, if the target is interested in contacting someone who is “no longer with us”, the psychic might start out with, “I get the sense that your loved one died without completing something important.” (who doesn’t?), to which the target is supposed to reply (and usually does), “Oh yes! Fred always wanted to learn to play the piano, but he died before he got the chance.” Believe it or not, this will be counted as a “hit” by the psychic and their supporters.
Now, the psychic knows the name of the person the target wants to “contact” and some details about him. The probing will continue in a general fashion for a while; “I sense that Fred was a happy man, who loved children.” – and the target may reply, “Well, he loved to tease children, and he was happy doing that, so I suppose that’s right.” Another “hit”.
This will go on for a period of time, with “hits” being followed up and “misses” being explained away; “When I said that Fred loved the sea, I meant that he loved your Aunt May, who was lost at sea.” Once the psychic gets the sense that the target (and other members of the audience, if there is one) are convinced of their “powers”, then the baloney gets sliced a lot thicker. “Fred says that he’s sorry about teasing all of you as kids and wants you to know that he’s happy where he is.” Of course, it is extremely unlikely that Fred will be contradicting the psychic, unless “where he is” happens to be Pennsylvania.
The key to making it as a psychic is to emphasize the “hits” and explain away (or, better yet, ignore) the “misses”. The big-time psychics are the ones who have mastered this art. Sylvia Brown(e), for instance, was not the slightest bit ruffled when the coal miners she had confidently predicted to be alive (just hours after all major news outlets had announced the same news, by the way) turned out to be dead (she was right about one of the twelve, so that should count as 1/12th of a “hit”). Her other predictions have been no more accurate than that one.
Now, psychics and their defenders will often claim that any “inaccuracies” (like predicting someone will have a long and successful career the week before they die) are due to the inherent difficulties of translating their “visions” into concrete predictions. Or, they might claim that an event was of insufficient gravitas to create a psychic “impression”. All of which fail to explain why no psychic was able to predict the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001. Of course, several of them later claimed to have “felt” it coming, but you don’t have to be a psychic to predict the past.
The same process of emphasizing “hits” and minimizing (or ignoring) “misses” is at work when psychics descend on a crime scene or appear during the search for a missing person. No psychic has ever given an unambiguous answer in a crime or missing person case. Their “information” is either dead wrong or so vague as to be useless. It is little help to say that a missing person (or body) is “near a lake” in rural
One final note about psychic predictions. Any claim to be able to “see the future” has to address the issues of quantum physics, chaos theory and foreordination. The quantum physics problem is that certain events – such as radioactive decay – are purely random, an idea that even Einstein struggled with. Now, while quantum randomness is usually “smoothed out” at the macroscopic level (where we live), chaos theory tells us that there are certain physical phenomena – the weather, for instance – that are exquisitely sensitive to the starting conditions and may be affected significantly by quantum randomness.This means that psychic “predictions” – if they are real – should get less accurate the further they project into the future, just like weather predictions. In fact, we find that psychic “predictions” are just as inaccurate for tomorrow as they are for a decade from now – which is to say, very inaccurate.
The foreordination question, however, is the thorniest for the psychic “future-tellers”. Simply stated, if psychics were able to predict the future, that would imply that the future is already – to at least some extent – already fixed. To some extent, the future of most matter is foreordained, since it is primarily under the control of gravity. However, in the realm of human events – which is where the psychics concentrate – there is a great deal of randomness and unpredictability introduced by human “free will”. So, if the psychics are right and they can predict the future – however dimly – that would imply that human free will is an illusion and that we are “fated” to do whatever we do.
And if we are unable to alter our actions, if the future has already been set, then what is the purpose of having a psychic “predict” the future? We couldn’t alter it. We couldn’t even prepare ourselves for it because whatever we did – even going to a psychic – was already foreordained. If the future is set, then there is no reason to predict it.
Quacks come in a dizzying variety, almost too many to count. And they are certainly propagating too quickly to count. So, rather than give an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of the types and varieties of quack, I will try to acquaint you with the Family of Quack.
The major division in the Quack Family is between deliberate and inattentive quacks. Deliberate quacks are aware that they are peddling nonsense and don’t care – inattentive quacks think that their remedies actually work and don’t care to find out the truth. As a result, this division is largely a cosmetic one, since the effects and actions of the two groups are largely the same. It can therefor be nearly impossible to differentiate between the two groups in the field, since the distinguishing characteristic is intent, rather than action.
Curiously, both groups react similarly when presented with incontrovertible evidence that their remedies are useless. Both respond with vigorous denial and claims of bias, corruption and incompetence against those who would attempt to introduce facts into their fantasy-based world.
This brings us to one of the key features of the Quack Family – fantasy. Real medicine, like real science, aspires to base its practices on data and rational analysis. And like real science, real medicine often falls short of perfection in this goal. However, quackery never truly aspires to be reality-based, since its founding principles are purely fantasy-oriented:
 It is possible to know the “truth” without testing the hypotheses.
 All evidence contrary to the “truth” is the result of lies or incompetence.
 The Quack practitioner is the recipient of “special” knowledge, powers or intellectual abilities.
 All “cures” are solely due to the skill of the Quack practitioner.
 All failures are solely the fault of the Patient.
You will notice that  and  form a logical tautology of sorts: the “truth” is knowable without data and any data contradicting the “truth” is – by definition – false. This logical loop forms the core of most large-scale quackeries, one of the latest being the “mercury-causes-autism” tautology. This fantasy loop was launched by the assertion that children with autism are the result of mercury poisoning from vaccines. Since about 95 – 99% of children in the US prior to 2000 had received at least one mercury-containing vaccine, it was predictable that almost all autistic children would have, as well.
Continuing the loop, data showing that some of the features of mercury poisoning are described using the same words as some of the features of autism was taken as further “proof” – data that the major features of mercury poisoning and autism were completely different was ignored. Highly inaccurate “epidemiological” data from education and social service departments was used to show autism prevalence rising, while the fact that the amount of mercury-containing vaccinations had been steady for years (decades, in the UK and Denmark) during that rise was ignored or denounced as heretical (“biased”, “corrupted”, “flawed”).
Similar scenarios have played out in other quackeries – only the names change.
Continuing in the fantasy-based mode, many sub-types of the Quack Family have taken to accusing their detractors – who are often practitioners of real medicine – of having base, commercial motives. In short, they claim that real medicine is only interested in keeping people sick, in giving them expensive medicines, etc. etc… and that quackeries are an economic threat to real medicine.
On a purely commercial basis, quackeries are a boon to real medicine. People who take their imaginary ailments to quack practitioners are doing doctors a favor – all the real medicine practitioners I have spoken to have no interest in trying to cure the “worried well”, as they call these people. And people who take real ailments to practitioners of imaginary medicine will either get better on their own or will eventually show up to be treated by practitioners of real medicine – in the office, the emergency room or the morgue. With real, non-self-limited ailments, you can either see the doctor now or you can see them later. Either way, you end up getting real medicine eventually. If you are lucky, it won’t be too late.
So why do so many doctors (MD/DO) practice quackery, encourage it or condone it? The reasons are varied and complex. Those who practice quackery have often found that it is less stressful than real medicine. Quackery isn’t covered by insurance plans (or most government health programs), so the paperwork and reimbursement hassles associated with insurance disappear. And quackery is generally a more restful, non-confrontational practice than real medicine. People who visit the quack are generally more motivated to try what the doctor recommends – no matter how silly it may seem. Finally, quackery is a way for an otherwise undistinguished doctor – perhaps one who just isn’t that good at diagnosis and treatment – to find a niche where they can make a name for themselves and not have to bother with the tedium of actually finding out what is wrong with their patients.
The final question, and one that the quacks often use in their own defense, is “Why do people keep going to quacks if the treatments don’t work?” This is really quite simple. People go to quacks because they have “lost faith” in real medicine. It may be that real medicine doesn’t have a good treatment for their ailment – which is especially true if that ailment isn’t real. Or it may be that the available treatments are unpleasant, uncomfortable, or frightening. Or they may be one of the “worried well” who are convinced that the aches and pains of mortal life are signs of some dread ailment. And, in many cases, the quackeries appear to “work” for the following reasons:
 The natural course of the disease: Fully 95% of the ailments for which people seek medical attention are self-limited – meaning that they will get better without treatment. The classic example is the “common cold”, for which there have been quack remedies since the dawn of human history. Left untreated, the average “cold” will resolve in about seven days. Vigorously treated by either quack remedies or real medicine (antibiotics, steroids, etc.), the average “cold” will resolve in about a week.
Also, some disorders are more severe at the outset than they are later - a good example being stroke. Quack practitioners have been making a living for years by treating recent stroke victims with vitamins, herbs, hyperbaric oxygen and the like and then taking credit for their improvement. Of course, even if you don't do anything, most stroke victims are much better a month or two after their stroke than they are the day it happens. The same is true of certain childhood developmental disorders, where quacks eagerly take credit for the natural progression of the disorder as the child gets older.
It's a wonder that someone hasn't promoted giving typical kids mega-vitamins, minerals or chelation in order to improve their verbal skills, coordination and social interaction. After all, if you give high-dose vitamin B6 to one year-olds, they'll have better language, social and physical skills when they're five. Of course, so will the kids that don't get the treatment. It's the natural progression of childhood - even in developmentally delayed children. Developmental delay does not mean developmental stasis.
 Regression to the mean: Most chronic or long-term ailments have a cyclic or fluctuating course – getting worse and then getting better and then repeating the cycle. Generally, people will seek medical attention for these ailments when they are at or near their worst. As a result, any treatment given – even an ineffective one – will usually be followed by improvement as the natural course of the disease takes it toward milder symptoms, potentially fooling the patient into believing that the remedy “worked”.
 Self-fulfilling Prophesy: Often called the “placebo effect”, which is a gross misnomer. The placebo is not having an effect – it is, in fact, completely inert. What is happening is that the patient, having been examined, given a diagnosis and prescribed a treatment, is expecting to get better. This expectation will cause them to unconsciously emphasize any feeling that their symptoms are improving and ignore or minimize any feeling that the symptoms are staying the same or worsening. In fact, since worry and feeling helpless have repeatedly been shown to increase pain, it is not surprising that a sense of hope – even false hope – will improve bothersome symptoms.
 Sense of Empowerment: The one thing that quackeries do that real medicine would do well to emulate is the way they involve the patient in the treatment. Modern medicine has largely tried to cut the patient “out of the loop” as much as possible – with implanted devices, long-acting medications, transdermal patches, etc. – because patient compliance is a huge variable in any treatment regimen. By eliminating this variable as much as possible, real medicine manages to attain more predictable and uniform results. This is all well and good, but it has the undesired effect of making the patient feel like a passive recipient of treatment, rather than an active participant. By giving the patient complex, arcane rituals to perform, the quack gives their patient a sense of control over this aspect of their life.
Well, that’s all for now. Next time: Quantum Noise