13.5.09

PSYCHIC TOURIST

William Little. The Psychic Tourist: A Voyage into the Curious World of Predicting the Future. Icon Books, 2009.

Astrology is one of those slightly batty but essentially harmless activities which members of CSICOP (now CSI-not jumping on the bandwagon, honestly mate) tend to get too het up about, or so the conventional wisdom goes. Freelance journalist William Little will tell you that's not the case at all. As a birthday gift he gave his sister birth charts for herself and her young daughter, and as a result of hints in these about the dangers of water, she has become phobic about going anywhere near streaches of water, it is beginning to seriously constrict her life.

This sets Little off on a quest to see if there is anything in claims to be able to foresee the future, and for psychic claims in general. He visits mediums and celebrity psychics, researchers and sceptics (even the notorious Richard Dawkins), witches and astrologers. Like many who have gone before him he finds that the truth in this field very hard to pin down, and that often dramatic-seeming claims tend to evaporate on close critical analysis. There is the 'psychic detective' who was the subject of a glowing report in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, promoted by the late Montague Keen. Sceptic Tony Youens came to very different conclusions, and nicely sums up Keen as "someone who would believe anything as long as it was paranormal". We squirm as he read of this 'psychic detective' leading some poor grieving mother the most un-merry dance imaginable.

There can be disagreement among the sceptics of course, Derren Brown believes that psychics operate by understanding psychology and watching out for subtle clues, but Richard Wiseman thinks that this gives them too much credit, many 'psychics' are not very empathic, have poor people skills, and work by a process of non-stop chatter and rather bullying people into agreeing with them.

The more scientific believers such as Brian Josephson and Dean Radin invoke quantum entanglement as explanations for their mysterious effects, but other physicists are more than rather sceptical, arguing that quantum entanglement requires very special laboratory conditions, such as complete isolation from the environment, not likely to be found in the 'hot and wet' human. These critics are not al the classical establishment yes-men, they include Ronald Mallett who is trying to build a time machine in his lab, and David Deutsch who believes there are vast numbers of parallel universes.

Though believers may have a point if they argue that just as some bereaved people might be strongly motivated to believe in the paranormal, Little's own predicament might mean he is strongly motivated not to, they face one big problem. Precognition is a testable hypothesis, and it has failed the test time and again. Of course after the event there are always people who claim that they or someone they knew predicted this, that or the other, but there were no unambiguous before the event predictions of such dramatic events as the election of the Polish Pope, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Europe, 9/11, the Asian tsunami, the election of President Obama, the current financial crisis and so on and so on. The psychic literature on the other hand simply groans under the weight of wrong predictions

This is a light-hearted book, rather than a scientific one, but it is one with a serious message: your future is in your own hands rather than in the stars or the messages of a psychic. Read it before you consult one, or better still instead. -- Peter Rogerson

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