Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Recognizing flaws in debunking of psychics

A week ago Shawn Hornbeck was found after having been kidnapped four years ago. That was a nice and touching story and my heart goes out to the kid and his abductor, the abductor has apparently been doing this gig for awhile and indicating a wounding inside himself which draws him to do this. May they all find peace.

What I want to write about is an interesting side story. The parents of Shawn Hornbeck, a month after his kidnapping, managed to get onto the Montel Williams show when Sylvia Brown was to appear and was able to ask her for his whereabouts. She reported bad news, oh, he's no longer with us, and went on to describe a location where his body was to be found. And of course Sylvia Brown read this incorrectly because Shawn has since been found.

First here's a couple videos about this:

Sylvia Brown Told Kidnapped Child's Parents He was Dead: Is some CNN reporters discussing the case.

CNN Sylvia Browne Fraud: Is an expose on Anderson Cooper's show about this story, including an appearance by Robert S. Lancaster, of stopsylviabrowne.com and James Randi the famous professional psychic debunker.

The subtext of this story is that psychics are obviously wrong, and that it's horrifying that psychics are preying on peoples fears and anxiety, and misleading people. I agree (to an extent) that this story and other occurrences of mistaken readings end up misleading some. I am sure there are fraudulent psychics in existance just as there are frauds in every field of endeavor. At the same time that is not the entire story.

I'm going to focus on the tail end of this clip where James Randi is explaining how the process works. His broad brush negation of all psychics just is not upheld by the truth as it has been shown in a number of studies that there are ways of perception in addition to the five senses, and sources of information other than what's in our brains. It's especially interesting how he describes the conduct of deceptive psychics.

The cold reading is a process he describes where the psychic is asked a given question, and then the psychic just starts rattling off whatever impressions they get. The impressions may be pictures, words, smells, etc, and it is those impressions which constitute the psychic reading. At least for those who use this process. James Randi goes on to explain that the person receiving the reading is left with a tape full of these impressions and afterward, in an attempt to get something of value from this, will string together their own story from those impressions.

What strikes me is how this is so much like the first stage or two of technical remote viewing. Technical Remote Viewing is a process developed by Hal Puthoff and Russ Targ in the 1960's to 1970's. They were researchers at SRI, and their job for awhile was to teach psychic operatives in the U.S. Defense Department and CIA how to be psychic so they could spy psychically upon the enemies of the U.S.A. They were hardnosed researchers who had previously done ground-breaking work in developing lasers, and somehow they got involved with psychic research. Over a course of over 20 years doing psychic research and training secret psychic spies they developed a body of teachings and research that constitute the most extensive scientific study of psychic phenomenon ever. Unfortunately most of it is hidden as Top Secret but I understand a study was conducted late in the program of the effectiveness, and it was found their psychic spies were 70% accurate. Now it's unfortunate that the military wanted 100% accuracy and the spies were "only" 70% accurate, but if you think about it 70% accuracy is much better than chance and is pretty darn good.

Technical Remote Viewing is a multi stage process where the psychically read information is improved step by step. In the first stage of the process the viewer is recording raw impressions of the sort exactly as James Randi described in the video on Anderson Cooper. But in Technical Remote Viewing the viewer is supposed to go further, with each of the raw impressions they are asked to connect deeper with them to get a clearer picture. In the final stage the viewer is asked to draw full pictures or perhaps model their target.

If you remember the movie Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind the hero of the film went through a process of receiving information that led him, psychically, to go to Devils Tower Wyoming. Coincidentally the process he went through was almost precisely Technical Remote Viewing.

So what I take from this is that what James Randi describes as a psychic who does cold readings is one who is only doing the first stage of technical remote viewing. Their success rate might be higher if they followed through to the later steps of TRV. The other thing I take from this is that part of James Randi's condemnation is rooted in his expectation of how psychics work. He expects that a psychic will be a perfect source of absolute truth, you ask a question and out pops an answer that is always correct. Hmm... that shows either an unawareness of the psychic process, or else he has an agenda to undermine all psychics everywhere and he doesn't care about spreading a little bit of false information if it helps his crusade against the paranormal.