Alternative test for psychic ability

It’s quite admirable that two professional psychics recently volunteered to have their abilities tested by Merseyside Skeptics.

The test devised is interesting, it basically consists of each psychic having to do written ‘readings’ for five different ‘sitters’ who they can’t see or talk to. Each sitter then rates the five written readings out of ten for accuracy, and chooses the one they think is about them.

Only one sitter correctly identified her reading from one of the psychics, and gave it an accuracy rating of 8/10. So the test didn’t uncover any psychic ability overall.

A lot of the negative comments about the test focus on the fact that psychics do not normally ‘read’ for people they can’t see or talk to. This made me think of a potential alternative approach.

For each psychic, they get to see, say, 10 people. Five of them are instructed to treat it as a normal reading, give honest answers to the questions/observations, but saying only ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The other five are given detailed false ‘back stories’, don’t wear their own clothes (or dress everyone the same in nursing scrubs or something), and instructed to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the basis of those stories. Call these ones the Liars.

There would now be two different things you could measure.

Firstly you could ask the sitters to assess the accuracy of the ‘reading’ as before – but in the case of the five Liars, they would assess the statements in respect of their real selves. So every correct assertion, even if they replied ‘no’ during the test would count towards the accuracy rating.

Of course it might also be interesting to see how accurate the psychics were against the fake back story too. This might be suggestive of how psychic powers ‘work’.

Secondly you could test whether the psychics can identify who the Liars are. This would be similar to the measurement of confidence in their readings taken in the Merseyside experiment. Clearly there is a risk that they might be reading body language which can give away lies, so for that reason it might be necessary to employ actors to play the Liars.

Reading of body language or other non-psychic intuition would hopefully be mitigated by the fact that sitters would only say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – preventing a detailed interrogation. “Ah but where exactly is the bank you work in? Name all your co-workers, etc…”.

This approach would hopefully eliminate an element of cold reading. If psychic powers are real, and the individuals being tested really have them, then the accuracy of the information they receive shouldn’t be dependent on the feedback from the sitter.

If they could make accurate judgement about who was a Liar it would go some way to adding credibility to their claims about their abilities. After all, if someone tells me an orange is purple I don’t doubt my eyes. Shouldn’t psychic ability be the same?

Clearly the details of the experiment would need to be fleshed out. But I think it could mitigate the criticisms about lack of face to face contact, and introduce an interesting new variable.

Comments welcome.

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3 thoughts on “Alternative test for psychic ability

  1. Unfortunately your suggested experiment, while interesting, would not serve to prove the hypothesis (that these people actually have paranormal abilities). They could just be good as spotting liars: something that we already know that some people are better at than others. Even if we introduced a control group of non-“psychics” to take the test, and they did significantly worse at identifying the liars, this would not prove that the psychics had used any ability unknown to science (which is what is claimed). It would only prove that they can tell liars from truth-tellers significantly better than average: a feat which is far more-rationally explained using already-understood principles. Yet another alternative hypothesis is that people are less-convincing liars in the presence of “psychics” (for example, because they are more-intimidating people, or because some subjects believe that the “psychics” can see through lies).

    Scientific rigor requires scientific conditions. I’d be happy to see a test in which the alleged psychics could see the faces or hear the voices of their subjects, so long as this could not be expected to influence the test in any way.

    Telepathy has already been widely studied because it’s easier to apply rigorous principles to (show people pictures, test whether psychics can identify pictures previously seen by subject). [spoiler: we’ve not yet found any evidence of telepathy under laboratory conditions] The test done by Merseyside Skeptics is a more-wooly one, because it relies on people making subjective judgements about which of a set of descriptions are about them personally. There are naturally biases involved here, because of limitations in the subject group (for example, most of the subjects will have been British, white, and middle- or lower-class, because that’s who you get in volunteer groups for experiments like this, conducted in the UK). Still, the way that they laid out the test is still very good.

    So yeah – there are plenty more experiments that can be done. But I don’t think that better-than-average lie-detection-skills are a valid claim for psychic ability, even if they can be demonstrated in a lab.

    • Hmm. That was wordier than I intended. Here’s the tl;dr version –

      Testing lie-detection ability is not a test of supposed psychic ability. Even the Merseyside test is not without its faults, but it’s pretty damn good.

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