I Was a High School Skeptic
By Max Fagin
This article originally appeared as "Psychic vs Skeptical Predictions" in Skeptical Briefs 16(2), 3 & 9, June 2006. The author is a senior high-school student in Colorado Springs CO.
What do you do with a high-school student who thinks she bas paranormal abilities? (1) Ignore her. (2) Argue with her. (3) Try to explain rationally why she is incorrect. (4) Put her in a room with a rolling video camera, and ask her to show you. The answer is all of the above, in sequential order.
I'm a high-school senior in Colorado Springs, Colorado. During my ten years here I have earned a reputation for being argumentative and skeptical, often to the point of irritating people. One of my peers has pointed out that if someone taped a sign to a brick wall that read "Telekinesis is Real", I would argue with the wall until one of us collapsed.
I became devoted to debunking the paranormal five years ago. The Metaphysics Fair was in town, and my mother decided it might be an entertaining experience. For five dollars I got to spend two hours exploring vendors who sold everything from meditation music to ionized water. I even coughed up a few more bucks to have my personality read with tarot cards. Even at the age of twelve, my humbug detectors were up and running, so I gave very explicit instructions to the medium. I didn't want to know my future -- I wanted to know my past, since that was the only way I could confirm her accuracy.
She then went through her complex card shuffling act, and I wrote down each of her comments with the intention of checking them later. The results? There were none. You see, she didn't make any statements that were concrete enough to be testable. She merely made vague predictions about my social and academic life, and watched my face to see if she was on the right track. The medium promised an enlightening experience, and l was enlightened. I vowed never to give money to people like that again.
After the Metaphysics Fair, my exposure to the paranormal broadened to include the television series, Penn and Teller: Bullshit, a subscription to the Skeptical Inquirer, and a series of books by one of my favorite writers, James Randi. l even got a chance to meet Joe Nickell. Seeing how good they were, I shifted to debating political and economic issues, and left the paranormal to these guys. But then, earlier this year, a new student came to my school. She jarred me out of my anti-paranormal paralysis.
At her request, I won't reveal her name, but I can tell you she was a high-school freshman, a tarot-card reader, a crystalologist, and a witch in training. Put the two of us together for five minutes, and you will have a heated debate about the paranormal. Our debates would range over such New Age topics as reincarnation, telekinesis, crystalology, Armageddon, and even the lost continent of Atlantis. I learned quickly that debating a paranormalist is nothing like debating a political idealist. I had to continually pull out arguments back to their original topics. And she forced me to debunk increasingly larger and larger ideas. For example, I recall one of our first debates:Her: The world will suffer a cataclysmic event in 2012.
Me; Why do you say that?
Her: Because the Mayans predicted it.
Me: And how do you know the Mayans are correct?'
Her: Because they were colonized by the Atlanteans.
Met And how do you know that?
Her: You can tell by comparative palmistry.
See what I mean? I would ask her to accept James Randi's One Million Dollar Challenge. I even went so far as to tape an application to the inside of her locker. Predictably, my efforts came to no avail. Somehow, she doubted the prize's authenticity. If, she reasoned, it was a genuine test, someone like her would have already claimed it. She went on asserting that tarot cards, herbology, and reincarnation were all scientific and had passed a number of scientific investigations.
Eventually, I grew tired of engaging in these dead-end debates. I had discovered, like so many skeptics before me, that the devotion of a paranormalist is almost absolute. Finally, I challenged her to demonstrate, under controlled circumstances, any of the paranormal powers she claimed to control. To my surprise she said yes.
The most testable talent she could readily demonstrate was tarot card reading. But I vividly remembered my experience at the fair. I had since learned that tarot reading was nothing more than an elaborate form of cold reading. And I didn't have the experience to tackle the vague and often universal claims of a cold reader. But eventually, I got it out of her that she could "sense" the suit of a tarot card through an opaque barrier. That was testable enough. We agreed on a time and location for the experiment.
Later that week, we met in the physics lab (how appropriate) of our high school. While I set up the video camera, she laid out a set of colored stones and crystals. I was going to ask her what these crystals were for, but she had already placed one on her forehead, and was sitting on the floor in a lotus position. I'd spent the previous night setting up the standards for the test. I consulted several of James Randi's books on testing claims of the paranormal but was unable to find a setup that suited all of her requirements. So I took a risk and designed the test on my own.
Earlier that day, I had placed forty of her tarot cards in opaque envelopes: It was her job to determine the correct suit without opening them. Since there are four suits, we expected a 25% hit rate by chance, so we agreed that 50% and above would be evidence of ESP. But even before the test began, things started going downhill for her. While I was setting up, she commented that my aura was very green. I'd had a picture of my aura taken at the metaphysics fair. If I have an aura at all, it is a very a bright shade of blue. She shrugged that off when I told her.
To be honest, I suspected that the only reason she was being so cooperative was because she had an effective means of cheating. After looking at the video of the experiment, I can catch a dozen places where she had this chance. But I've reviewed that video at least a dozen times, and I can very confidently say that she never cheated. I should also mention that I gave her a small envelope at the beginning of the proceedings. This will be important later on.
Apparently, I couldn't be in the room when she was examining an envelope. My green/blue aura was somehow distracting. But she did permit me to watch through a window. Just before starting, and keeping with a practice adopted by Randi, I asked her to promise one thing. I wanted her word that she would not make excuses if her results were less than she expected. She agreed.
I won't relate every detail of the test, but it was a very elaborate ritual. I brought the envelopes in one at a time, then left the room. She would wrinkle her brow in concentration, wave her bands over the envelope, tap it with a crystal, write her answer on a sheet of paper, and ask for the next one. After about an hour and a half, we finished all forty envelopes.
She commented that she thought the test went very well. She felt that she had correctly guessed the suit of the concealed card between 40 and 70 percent of thi time. We then opened the envelopes and compared the results: Out of the forty cards, she correctly guessed the suit on only six of them. A 15% hit rate. This, by any standards, counted as a failure. I asked her what went wrong. "I don't dispute the results," she said, "but the people in the hall outside were talking very loud and they may have interfered".
I rolled my eyes and asked her to open the small envelope that I had given her at the beginning of the test and read the enclosed note. "At the beginning of this test," she read, "you promised not to make excuses if the results didn't validate your claims. You have just made an excuse. I have just demonstrated the power of precognition and should be awarded the Randi Prize".
Thanks, Mr Randi! His articles had taught me to prepare for just this situation. She promptly shook hands with me and left the room.
Two weeks later, I confronted her and again asked why she had failed. She told me that her selfishness and her desire to prove her abilities had inhibited her powers. She said that often karma would prevent a tarot-card reader from using her power to its full extent. (She never explained what karma had to do with anything.) Furthermore, she stated that tarot-card reading was not meant to be scientifically testable. What? Wait, wait, wait -- slow down. Only a month ago, she had insisted that talents like hers had stood up to intense scientific scrutiny! She had stated up front that tarot-card reading was a statistically testable skill! Two days later, I overheard her discussing the powers of rubies and crystals with one of her friends. While the power of the tarot failed, the power of Randi's prediction has stood the test of time.