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Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers

Section II: Arguments Against Specific Paranormal Claims


Argument # 16: Psychics and mediums use cold reading tricks and general guesses, not psychic powers.


Skeptics claim that psychics and mediums use cold reading to pick up clues about clients and amaze them.  First, let me explain what cold reading is, then I’ll explain why it does not account for all psychic readings.  Cold reading is an umbrella term for a series of techniques used by magicians and mentalists (specialists in mind reading tricks) to employ a variety of methods to gain information and clues about a client for a reading.  These methods include but are not limited to: fishing for clues by asking questions, listening to everything a client says to get clues, making general or vague statements that most people interpret as hits, observing facial expressions and body language as you make statements, analyzing clues from a person’s dress and demeanor, and other mentalist tricks, etc. (despite what politically correct people say, it is a fact that there are many things you can tell about a person based on their looks, even from a photograph)  Even the smallest things can give a trained cold reader important clues about you.  In conjunction with cold reading, another technique known as “hot reading” can also be used.  Hot reading is the technique of investigating a person’s background and records prior to a psychic reading to obtain specific information about them.  Mentalists performing in stage shows often use hot reading to obtain prior information about audience members beforehand, such as maiden names, former addresses, etc.  Cold reading can be used both consciously and unconsciously.  Some cold readers knowingly use and develop their cold reading techniques like a skill or art.  Others may subconsciously use cold reading techniques, attributing it to intuition or psychic abilities, thus deluding themselves as well as their clients.


Although it is true that there are many frauds out there who use cold reading the way mentalists and magicians do, it doesn’t mean that every psychic is a fraud.  That would be like finding some counterfeit money and concluding that all money was counterfeit.  Magic tricks and genuine psychic abilities are two separate fields, rather than the same as skeptics like Randi would have you believe.  Of course, frauds and con artists are part of every kind of business, not just in the psychic medium field.  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.  If the clues they gave could not have been gained from anything in your appearance, then that would rule out the “visual clues” technique as well.  For instance, if you were told the location you grew up in, your former last name, or an event in your past that doesn’t show in your appearance, then the visual clues technique could not account for it.  In addition, if the psychic who told you these things didn’t know you were coming beforehand, as in a walk-in psychic fair, then that would rule out hot reading too.  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.  However, if it was a past event, it is impossible to prove either way unless you could travel back in time, so the skeptic has their excuse to deny once again.  


Let me give some examples of psychic readings that I know of where cold reading was either impossible or too unlikely to be a valid explanation:


1)   One of my own examples is from a psychic reading I got from my acting teacher’s mom about a year and a half ago.  During rehearsals one time, I heard that my teacher’s mom, Pearl, did psychic readings as a personal favor to people.  A fellow student mentioned that she was amazed because Pearl told her that she had a certain tragedy when she was 5 years old.  Curious myself, I decided to go up and ask for a reading too just for fun to see what would happen.  Up until then, none of the psychics I went to before impressed me with anything specific.  And since she was not a professional psychic, I didn’t think she would have any incentive to use any fradulent  cold reading tricks.  Pearl agreed to it and we sat down.  All she asked me for was my birth date (a common question by psychics to supposedly open up the Akashic records that contain your karmic history), then she looked at my palm for a while.  She did NOT ask any leading questions or fish for clues. 


      To my astonishment, she said that she sensed that I had a tragic period in my life when I was 9 years old.  Somehow she could feel the emotional scars there, not from my palm lines she said, but from the vibrations she felt.  This was very true because that year was the worst year of my life, besides the year that I was 16.  Random guessing, although possible, was unlikely because if she had guessed any other year beside 9 and 16, she would have been wrong.  By guessing, she would have had a 2/25 chance of being right.  Furthermore, guessing was even more unlikely since she guessed the tragic year of the girl before me correctly too.  Generalized guessing was also unlikely because if Pearl had guessed the age of 5 like she did for the girl before me, it would have been wrong.  The day after this occurred, I wrote an account of it on a message board post, asking the skeptics to explain this.  They insisted that either cold reading or chance guessing was used. 


      When I mentioned that all I was asked was my birth date, they insisted that facial expressions and body language were part of cold reading too.  But when I challenged them to explain how my facial expressions or body language told her that I had a tragedy at 9 years old, they had no explanation except to repeat the same thing again and dodge the question.  They were stumped!  What the odds that Pearl gained such hits from guessing for both me and the girl before me? 


      Later, when I brought this up to a skeptic, he suggested that since this occurred a year and a half ago, my memory of the events might not be accurate.  However, I debunked his false memory theory on the spot by stating that I still had the message board post I wrote right after the event, which contained the SAME details that I remember now.  After his case was blown, he suggested that if they were a school, they would have records of my past.  When I told him that it was not an actual school, but a community theater acting class that had no records on me, (and didn’t need them either) he was at a loss for explanations and challenged me to prove that I had an accurate memory of every detail that happened, including the color of the drapes, chairs, etc. and that I had a detailed transcript of the whole thing, or else I could not rule out that all other possible non-psychic explanations.  This was of course ridiculous because it would be like asking someone to remember the license plate number of every car that they drove by this morning, or what they did 257 days ago at 3:15pm, for instance.  He was obviously getting desperate for explanations here and to go so far as to challenge me to prove trivial things to put the burden of proof on me.  This was obviously the work of a closed and biased mind.  Besides, Pearl was the kind sincere simple next door granny type and anyone who met her would laugh if they heard the claim that she was a cold reader.


2)   These next two accounts were recently related to me from my dad.  The first one involves a psychic that he, my mom, and her friend met a long time ago back in Taiwan (I think it was during the early 70's, before I was born)  While they were passing through a city that they rarely visited, they came upon a line of people waiting for a reading from this blind psychic who gave readings based on voices he heard.  My mom decided on the spur of the moment to get a reading from him.  Without fishing for any clues, one of the first things that he told her was that when she was a child, her mom tried to give her away for adoption to another family, but she later ran back home, which was TRUE!  My mom was very amazed at the time, and her friend was so amazed that she tried to push my mom aside to get a reading too.  He also told her other things that were true too. 


      Now, being given away for adoption and then running back home is not a generalized guess that would fit anybody, only a few people.  Both my parents and my mom's friend can confirm this story, so it’s not like it was made up out of obscurity.  Furthermore, since this reading was on the spot and not prearranged, there was no possibility of hot reading or background checking.  And since this was in a city where she rarely visited, there wouldn’t have been people who knew her there that could have told the psychic about her beforehand.  The skeptics I related this to tried to claim that since this occurred decades ago, the memories of the three people involved can’t be counted on to be reliable.  However, as mentioned in the rebuttal to Argument # 6, since this was a shocking event, the memory of it is the same it was at the time it happened (as in my own example above).  Furthermore, since these type of amazing psychic readings already occur in modern times anyway, why couldn’t they have occurred back then as well?


3)   Here's the second story that happened more recently.  A few years ago, my dad and a coworker, Eileen, went to a psychic fair.  They picked one of the psychics there for a reading and sat down.  Immediately the psychic told Eileen that “You are in the process of moving” which was true because Eileen had already sold her house and was in fact in the process of moving.  Struck with amazement, they arranged for a personal reading later on with the psychic.  Skeptics I told this to claimed that the phrase “You are in the process of moving” was vague and could be interpreted in many ways related to changes in life.  However, whenever I’ve heard that phrase used, it usually referred to moving residence.  In either case, even if it was a general phrase, that still doesn’t mean that it was just a guess.  


4)   This case I heard on my email discussion list is a very extraordinary one.  Edith, whom has a history of giving good spiritual advice, related this story:


“I went to a Psychic fair in Chicago, all by myself, on the spur of the moment, then looked around and saw a little old man sitting all by himself, a bit away from all others. I walked over to him, asked him how much he charges, and sat down.  He did not even ask my birth date or any other question, and began to talk about my children.


He said I had two children, a boy and a girl. I told him that this is not true, that I have two girls.  He said that he knows different, which really upset me.  He went on saying that the boy died right after his birth, and that my girl had died a few years back in a tragic incident, and that the second girl is not my own girl, but is adopted.  He was right, because I had to admit that I no longer thought of my little boy any longer as a son.

( he was born 37 years earlier, prematurely in the 6th month of pregnancy, and had only lived 25 minutes.) 


He then told me that I am writing a Novel, and began to outline the story, naming the character in the Novel by name, their roles, and how they related to each other, and the time frame of the story. He was right in the smallest detail, better than I could describe myself, having written it.


He told me that I would be teaching many people, and that people will come to my house to ask for lessons, but it would be out of the State, in the South.

(The South was the last place on earth I would want to live at that time.  Neither would I want to leave my job, or my dream house that I had purchased only a short time before.   It was months later that my husband was suddenly transferred to Georgia.  Here I had an Art exhibition in Atlanta, and people had approached me to teach Art, especially oil painting.)


There were many other events he told me from my childhood, early adulthood, my former marriage, all accurate in every aspect and every little detail. He described the house I was born in, a house I had never again seen in over 46 years, and I had to look on an old photograph to check the details he described, of which I was no longer aware of.

He was correct.  He took a pen and wrote my father's name, in my father's handwriting. (The old German script, which is no longer in use, called: Hohe Stolze.)


Now, I don't expect you to believe me, and I don't care one way or another, whatever explanation you come up with for all that, it does not change one tittle.


Just remember one thing:  I had never been in Chicago before, other than driving through. Chicago was 45 miles from where I lived, and I knew NO ONE in that city, nor did anyone know that I would be going to Chicago that day, and I had no idea that there was a Psychic Fair to begin with, but rather stumbled on it in one of the Malls.

But most of all, that it was I who chose this particular Psychic among all others.  


I had been to other Psychics, at different times, in different States and different countries, all without appointments, and without recommendations by anyone I knew, who had been most accurate in everything they said, three of which described the same Novel I spoke of earlier, one spoke of a book I had written many years earlier, even how many pages the manuscript was, how many chapters, and the general contents of it.”


5)   Besides using professional human psychics, one can use divination to obtain information from beyond the 5 senses, as in this case:


“I was indirectly at a Ouija board sitting once when was 11 years old without any doubt it predicted the future accurately of myself my sisters and my brother. It spelled out whom we would marry and at what age and in what order. Even how many kids we would each have? I was extremely good at remembering all the information, as it was not the sort of thing we ever did as a family and it intrigued me. Of course did not realise how profound that experience was and how it has made me question all sorts of theories and concepts. I did not dwell on it too much at the time not really thinking there could be any truth in it. In my twenties we tried for the third baby and found had developed endometriosis had an emergency hysterectomy. I didn't believe it at all would never have 3 kids and recall thinking when I was 11 how sad it felt, as would only have two kids and the rest of my sisters and my brother would have more than me? They had what it predicted? The information it gave was accurate.

The things happened in the order it I got married when it said and before my sister who was a year older than me. Which at the time I joked about most eleven-year-old girls just automatically think an older sister will marry before them?  I also recall its predicted I would marry just before my 22nd birthday that happened. It stated our future husbands surnames? (No it’s not false memory syndrome or us deliberately searching out folk with those names (believe me have gone through a long list of 'how's & why's and where's and when?)

Believe me was too busy working to give it too much thought to any of it and RING is not by any means a common surname. (Neither is 'Ashby' my sister’s surname.) At the time I thought RING when asked about whom I would marry was referring to a 'ring' as one being placed in marriage on the finger never realising until years later after was married sometime that it predicted my future name? I even recall it predicting my sisters future surnames now I am sure we all lead far to busy lives to be subliminally searching for names mentioned? The sequence of events date’s surnames the order of events actually occurred as it stated? There's a lot of things have thought about here 'where did that information come from'? Did we ourselves produce it and how? It predicted my brother would be shot (we asked where? It said 'trunk') that is the only thing that’s not transpired to date.

If it does occur I won't panic as it stated he would not die.

This is one of many very strange things that have experienced. If the information was correct for one of us then

perhaps it could have been coincidence or subliminal brain - consciousness processes in operation? Who knows?

The fact (and it is fact sorry you have to take my word for that) (if you can't then 'postulate' the concept for a moment

 and try to focus on explanations?

We only ever did this once it was not a usual occurrence (hence why was so intrigued). I must admit

Have no intention of ever doing it again either.

I very cheekily asked (being poor as you do) when would we win the Football Pools and it just kept going to XXXXXXX

although I did not count them so am lost as to that particular answer? This occurred in 1974 and it has since made me

question many things.

This is one of many experiences that have kept me focused on gathering answers that could possibly account for

how these things occur? It’s most interesting.”


As you can see, the facts in these incidents don’t suggest in any way that cold/hot reading was involved.  Psychic reading accounts like this are abundant and come from people of all walks of life.  Anyone who does a little research could come up with accounts like these.


In 2000, famous mediums were tested under controlled conditions by Dr. Gary Schwartz of the Human Energy Systems Laboratory at the University of Arizona, which revealed some astonishing results.  The experiments involved a group of mediums and sitters who were not told each other’s identities beforehand.  Separated by a cloth screen, the mediums were only allowed to ask a few yes or no questions before giving their readings.  Their readings turned out to average between a 70 to 90 percent accuracy rate, far above the chance level of 33 percent!  The odds of this happening by chance, according to Dr. Gary Schwartz, were one in trillions! 


Even more astonishing, in the second experiment involving a different group of mediums and sitters, the mediums were not allowed to ask anything at all, yet they STILL retained the same level of accuracy as the mediums in the first experiment!  A report on these experiments was published in the January 2001 issue of the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.  The report, Accuracy and Replicability of Anomalous After-Death Communication Across Highly Skilled Mediums contains the following key excerpts: 


“In a replication and extension experiment, medium’s average accuracy an initial ten minute period that did not allow yes-no questioning was 77%."


"The data suggest that highly skilled mediums are able to obtain accurate (p less than one in ten million) and replicable information.   Since factors of fraud, error, and statistical coincidence can not explain the present findings, other possible mechanisms should be considered in future research.  These include telepathy, super psi, and survival of consciousness after-death."


"It can be seen that the mediums varied in the number of total items they obtained and the number of questions they asked.   Medium 1, in particular, generated over 130 specific pieces of information yet asked only 5 questions, 4 of which (80%) were answered yes."


"Medium 1, who obtained the lowest score (80%), only asked a total of five questions.   Hence, it is impossible to claim that medium 1’s percent accuracy ratings (see below) were due to "cold reading" and "fishing for information."" 


"Though names were rated least accurately, the magnitude of the accuracy was still surprisingly high (67% for sitter one and 76% for sitter two).   Initials received higher percent accuracy scores (90% for sitter one and 100% for sitter two).    Personal temperament information was very accurately reported (95% for sitter one and 93% for sitter two)."


"For the first ten minutes, the mediums were instructed to receive whatever information they could about the deceased and share this information out loud.   They were not allowed to ask any questions of the sitters.  The sitters were instructed to remain silent... The content of these two readings was dramatic.   Information about the deceased son and dog were again replicated by both mediums.   However, both mediums also received information about the recently deceased husband.  Medium 2 reported being confused, saying "I keep hearing Michael times two, Michael times two."     The father’s name was Michael, the son’s name was Michael, Jr."


"The  two right bars display the percent + accuracy ratings for the silent and questioning periods, combining the data for mediums 1 and 2. The average accuracy for the silent periods was 77% and for the questioning period, 85%. The total number of items received during the silent period was 64, the total during the questioning period was 157. The difference between the silent and questioning periods in percent accuracy was not statistically significant." 


"The accuracy of mediums 1 and 2 was replicated, including during a ten minute silent period when no questioning was allowed. New information about the deceased husband was received by both mediums.   More information was obtained during the questioning period than the silent period, and the accuracy ratings were somewhat higher. However, detailed information was obtained during the silent periods when no "cold reading" was possible."  


"These two experiments provide quantitative data that are consistent with the hypothesis that some form of anomalous information retrieval was occurring in these skilled mediums.   Traditional hypotheses of fraud, subtle cueing, and statistical coincidence, are improbable explanations of the total set of observations reported here."


"The present findings do not speak directly to the mechanism (s) of anomalous information retrieval observed.   However, the apparent desynchrony of the medium’s ECG’s with the sitter’s ECG during the reading periods compared to the baseline periods is inconsistent with a "telepathy with the sitter" interpretation of the findings."


"...However, it is important to mention that the mediums spoke remarkably quickly and generated a surprisingly large number of specific facts."   


"For the first sitter, all five mediums obtained information about a deceased son. Three of the five mediums heard the initial M for the son, one said the name Michael.  None gave a false initial or name for the  son.   Also, none obtained information about a deceased daughter (her son did die, her daughter was alive)."


"Qualitative Example II:  Receiving accurate information days before the readings


One of the mediums purportedly received communication from the deceased mother of one of the sitters a few days before traveling to Tucson.   The mother purportedly conveyed to the medium a favorite prayer that she had regularly recited to her daughter as a child.  Moreover, according to the deceased mother, the daughter was secretly continuing to offer this prayer for her.  An assistant to the medium was instructed to locate the prayer, have it laminated, and gift wrapped.


When the reading was about to begin with the sitter, the medium unexpectedly reported to the experimenters that he had forgotten to bring into the laboratory a present he had brought for this sitter from her deceased mother.   Surprised by the claim of such a gift, we instructed the medium that he could have his assistant bring it in after the reading had officially ended and the formal data had been collected.  


The gift was brought into the laboratory at the end of the session and passed around the screen to the sitter.  Upon opening the present, the sitter, in tears, confirmed that this was a special prayer her mother had taught her as a child.  Moreover, she shared that she silently continued to say this prayer for her deceased mother. 


Since the medium purportedly did not know who the sitters were ahead of time, and also did not know who was behind the screen, the observation of the medium receiving anomalous communication three days before the experiment and giving this particular sitter this particular gift raises challenging questions..."


Since they were published in the Jan 2001 issue of Journal of Parapsychology, more experiments have been done and can now be read about in Dr. Schwartz's book The Afterlife Experiments : Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death.

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