We atheists may pride ourselves on being rational about religion, but we don’t necessarily apply those same critical thinking skills to other subjects. There are plenty of atheists who still believe in various unfounded conspiracy theories, paranormal activities, and pseudoscience.
David G. McAfee, a frequent contributor to this site, has now written a book going after all forms of nonsense. It’s called No Sacred Cows: Investigating Myths, Cults, and the Supernatural (Pitchstone Publishing).
In the excerpt below, McAfee explains the tricks used by so-called “psychics” to convince people they know more than they ever possibly could.
There isn’t a single recorded instance of a psychic phenomenon or force being demonstrated under observable and repeatable conditions. If psychics are real, this means every single one of them goes to extensive lengths to hide their extraordinary abilities, dismissing any and all opportunities to test, record, and prove them to be true despite the fact that any person who succeeds in this type of groundbreaking study would fundamentally revolutionize the way we understand the world, and the very laws of physics themselves. That person would also benefit humanity in an unimaginable number of ways, make a lasting impression on the scientific community, and even earn large cash rewards from organizations dedicated to testing such claims. It’s possible that these supersensory powers exist, but until someone steps forward with scientifically tested proof, psychic abilities can and should be treated the same way as every other allegedly prophetic (yet often conveniently nonprovable) assertion.
So, if “real” seers have never been shown to exist, then why do people continue to believe in psychic powers that have been claimed, investigated, and debunked more times than I can count? In many cases, belief in psychics is linked to the Forer effect, which was named after psychologist Bertram R. Forer and describes how individuals will rate vague and generalized personality tests as highly descriptive of themselves. In 1948, Forer gave such an assignment to his students, claiming that the statements they received were individualized personality analyses. Although each student received the same paragraph descriptor, which he had compiled from various horoscopes, the average rating was 4.26 on a scale from 0 to 5. Forer’s study further noted that “similarities between the demonstration and the activities of charlatans were pointed out” by the students once the deception was revealed. The fact is that psychics, astrologers, and other pseudoscientific fraudsters have taken advantage of this simple, evolutionary human trait for most of human history. Our earliest ancestors were practicing the art of fortunetelling, and people continue to do so today — often with disastrous (and pro table) results.
You’re Getting Colder
For so-called mind readers, the primary process by which they administer Forer’s personality test is called cold reading. During a cold read, the alleged psychic uses vague guesses based on common concerns and personal traits to create the illusion of deeper knowledge. But that’s not the only tool in their arsenal. Most psychics use a combination of cold readings and hot readings — guesses based on visual cues or background research — to convince their customers that they have otherworldly powers.
Not all people who purport to be psychics need to use cold or hot reading — or even the Forer effect. Some take the gambit one step further, eliminating all liability for their false conclusions by servicing only pets that can’t communicate right or wrong answers whatsoever. Melissa Bacelar, for example, is a well-known “celebrity pet psychic” who promises to be able to “connect to pets, living and dead.” She has had a lot of success in convincing people that she can speak to animals on earth and from beyond the grave, but not everyone is so sure of her abilities. In October 2015, Bacelar, who has appeared on TMZ and Anderson Cooper Live, and was even said to have been hired by Miley Cyrus, was sued by three former customers who accused her of fraud and unfair, unlawful business practices that led to the death of at least two puppies.
No Sacred Cows is now available online and in bookstores.