‘SF Weekly’ ‘Helps’ Readers Tell Real from Fake Psychics

October 1, 2020

Skeptics are known for warning the public about the perils of psychics (ranging from exploitation to fraud), but it may surprise to know that “real” psychics sometimes join in as well, offering advice about how to avoid those “fake psychics.” Sometimes they do it directly in books or during interviews; other times they do it in paid articles and blogs.

I recently saw just such an article on SF Weekly headlined “Are Psychics Real? The Real World Proof of Psychic Mediums’ Abilities and Powers.” A few things jumped out at me, but mainly the seeming journalistic assertion that the article would offer proof (real-world or otherwise) of psychic powers. I did note that that it was marked as sponsored, and the byline read simply “Sponsor.”

What followed was an interesting look at a pseudo-skeptical article on psychics. It offered a veneer of skepticism, going so far as to offer some bits of skeptical information on psychics and how they can appear to be correct when they are not—carefully couched inside a starkly pro-psychic piece. There’s plenty of non-sequiturs and flat-out false statements as well, creating a curious stew of pseudoscience.

Here are a few excerpts of particular interest: “When skeptics hear the word ‘psychic,’ they see a pre-set image of a woman wearing a spiritual head crown full of colorful jewelry sitting in a dark room gazing into a crystal ball, and giving a ‘cold reading’ with empty meanings.”

This of course is false; when skeptics hear the word psychic we think of a broad range of seers and sayers, from TV’s Tyler Henry and Theresa Caputo to storefront palm readers. The crystal gazer is stereotypical, of course, and likely more familiar to the general public than to skeptics specifically.

The piece goes on: “Fraudulent wannabees like fake Jamaican psychic scammer ‘Ms Cleo’ promote stereotypes that give all gifted mystics a bad name. However, people who got a genuine spiritual reading that foretold their future or gave them specific advice that worked out for the best know and appreciate the real power of a psychic. However, despite the high number of scammers in the world, most people generally believe in psychics. Late-night TV show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver broadcasted a segment in 2019 about psychics. The research revealed 4 out of 10 people believed in them. In this article, we will attempt to answer the burning question: are psychics real or not? And finally, put to rest and expose the real truth behind these spiritual guides.”

The reference to the John Oliver segment is particularly interesting, as it was a well- informed and pointed takedown of psychic techniques. It was widely praised and shared among skeptics, and the reference to it here—though notably without a link to easily allow readers to watch it themselves—seems to mark the writer as among them. 

The “skeptic” angle soon takes a curious turn into a decidedly non-skeptical conclusion: “The psychic phenomenon [sic] has left many skeptics wondering how spiritual guides arrive at a prediction or foretell the future. These people’s jaws drop when they have a personal experience with a real psychic because the guide has recalled accurate information that no one else could have known.”

In fact skeptics are not “left wondering how spiritual guides arrive at a prediction or foretell the future,” because they have researched exactly that topic in-depth, and John Oliver described some of the techniques on his show. But the pseudoskeptical psychic train wreck gets better: “I [presumably meaning “Sponsor”] read an article about 19th-century philosopher William James who quoted the ‘white crow’ theory. This theory states that people believe that all crows are black, but if you can find a white one then it’s possible there are more in the world. Therefore, when you apply the same principle to psychics, if you can find one person who exhibits real psychic power, then you can only assume there are many more in the world. And science has proven this is a reality.”

This is in fact a well-known philosophical question known as the Raven paradox, and in any event the writer has managed to mangle and misconstrue its meaning. The correct quote, attributed to James, is “If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black, you musn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.” A close reading reveals that the idea is not that “if you can find a white one then it’s possible there are more in the world,” but instead that the existence of a single case of X disproves a categorical statement that no X’s exist in the world. It has no implication for there being more than one. The idea that “if you can find one person who exhibits real psychic power, then you can only assume there are many more in the world” is not a logical conclusion from the James quote; it doesn’t imply that “where there’s one, there are others.” It’s certainly possible there are more than one, but this quote and principle don’t suggest it. By way of example, the existence of Usain Bolt, the fastest runner in the world, doesn’t logically imply that “we can only assume there are many others” who can run as fast as he can.

The piece briefly mentions a book by Gary Schwarz, the Afterlife Experiments, which claims to have proved psychic powers, though conspicuously omitting any skeptical commentary or rebuttals. The writer moves on: “If this all sounds like mumbo jumbo, then think for a moment about psychic experiments conducted by the US government. If a psychic phenomenon is real, then we can agree that the US government will have its hand in it and ultimately find a way to make it a weapon. The Pentagon allegedly spent millions studying the use of ESP and clairvoyance during wartime.” This leads to a short and fairly accurate overview of Project Stargate, which was a real program that tried to use psychics in the context of the Cold War—and was shut down when no evidence of its effectiveness was demonstrated.

The SF Weekly piece then moves on to trying to bolster the legitimacy of psychics by driving home the psychic detectives angle: “Detectives have used the power of psychics to help them close unsolved murders. Declassified documents discuss in detail how law enforcement used psychics.”

As someone who’s spent nearly 20 years researching and writing about psychic detectives, I’m pretty familiar with the claims surrounding them, and their routinely inflated (in some cases fabricated) “successes.” I was curious to see what documentation the article would marshal in an effort to prove the link. This last reference provides a link to an anonymous, undated, four-page typed section of what appears to be a memo titled “Use of Psychics in Law Enforcement.” It’s apparently a CIA document, though internal references mention the DOJ. A bit of digging reveals it’s the very first return on a Google search for “use of psychics in law enforcement,” suggesting that Sponsor—if that’s really his or her name—merely did a quick internet search and posted the link to bolster its credibility.

The article then goes on: “Some fake psychics might do what we call ‘cold readings.’ They consist of using bits and pieces of information about yourself like body language, birthday, and lifestyle choices to determine many things about you. These fake psychics might say something like, ‘I’m seeing pizza in your life.’ And then you might pop up and say ‘oh, yeah, I love pizza! How’d you know that?’ Duh. These pieces of information can be applied to anyone. This psychological phenomenon is known as the Branum effect [sic] where people love to accept vague personality trait descriptions about themselves that can apply to anyone, and they think it’s some type of psychics ability at play when it’s not. That’s one reason horoscopes are so popular. They are generalizations that can be applied to anyone under that zodiac sign. Mediums who use this method are usually lazy and inaccurate and will lead you down the wrong path.”

Aside from the (presumably unintentional) misspelling of “Barnum Effect,” this is some surprisingly insightful skeptical analysis, and more or less accurately describes how many psychics can appear to be right when they’re not.

Finally, after “debunking” techniques used by those other, fake psychics, the article offers a solution: “In the past, you had to travel down a dark alleyway in New Orleans or the deep jungle in Costa Rica to find a real psychic. And that’s only after wasting time and money with bogus ones who were handing out ‘cold readings’ for as little as $10.”

As it happens I’ve been down dark alleyways in New Orleans, and also deep in the jungle in Costa Rica, and I’ve never encountered “real psychics” there. In any event, fortunately SF Weekly has a solution for you: “Using online psychic websites like Kasamba makes finding a real psychic so much easier. Click on the Call or Chat buttons and you are instantly connected with a real psychic. Moreover, you can use the services for free if you are a skeptic and don’t want to dish out money just yet.”

Curious to know not only who thought that giving away services to anyone who self-identifies as a skeptic was a good business model but also who provided the sponsored content, I contacted SF Weekly, which did not respond to multiple requests for clarification. I did notice that Sponsor also wrote several other stories promoting Kasamba’s psychic services.

Telling ‘Real’ from ‘Fake’ Psychics

The idea of “real” psychics “debunking” the fake ones is not new. Sometimes well-known psychics make a point of helping “warn” the public against “fake” psychics. In 2011 police outside of Houston, Texas, surrounded a rural farmhouse with guns drawn. They were acting on a tip from a psychic who told them that the property was the scene of a grisly mass murder: dozens of dismembered bodies would be found there, she insisted—including those of children. It all turned out to be false, and the story made international news. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry was on the story almost immediately, getting the skeptical perspective out. I wrote a piece that appeared on MSNBC and the Christian Science Monitor, for example.

Within a day or two psychics were commenting about the skepticism and the whole fiasco—including a famous TV psychic named Carla Baron, who fumed on her blog. She wrote that the woman “falsely reported a crime. She falsely claimed she had ‘psychic’ ability. THIS is precisely the irresponsible behavior I have pointed out previously in my official blog. Those who wish to ‘help’ – those that feel they have some sort of intuitive ability, those that are just simply lunatics looking for a little attention. This ‘psychic’ who called in the false tips to law enforcement is, in fact, not a psychic at all….. This behavior threatens to tear at the very fabric of any credibility displayed by AUTHENTIC psychics, mediums, and psychic profilers such as myself.”

Baron then railed against journalists and skeptics—including myself—who mentioned her name in recent news articles about the failure of psychic detectives. She asks, “Why is it that most MEDIA outlets (and many lesser media – i.e., blogs, discussion forums, individual websites) find it necessary to use my famous name to promote their articles, commentary, and news pieces?”

The obvious answer is that if the subject of the news piece is psychic detectives who cannot solve cases and give false and useless information, then she is Exhibit A.

Baron was part of the TruTV show Haunting Evidence, in which she and two other investigators tackled real-life unsolved murders. The show was cancelled after 22 episodes without any of the cases having been solved; two were later closed through police work. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s Independent Investigations Group did an excellent analysis of Baron’s claims and found a near-spotless track record of failure. Baron’s question would be like Serena Williams wondering why he’s being mentioned in a news article on tennis.

Baron was concerned that all this negative publicity about psychic failures is leading to a modern witch hunt reminiscent of the Salem Witch Trials. No, seriously: “My mind is beseiged at the moment with images of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. From June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging…..Is history not only repeating itself, but mutating into ardent new ways of 
’witch burning’?”

Baron was apparently fearful that she and other “real psychics” may be abducted by angry mobs, put on mock trials, and possibly hung or pressed to death in a public place. It’s not clear whether Baron was worried about “fake psychics,” like the woman who led police to the Texas house. Presumably the best proof of psychic powers (or witchcraft) would be a track record of amazing success and accurate information; in that case I don’t think Baron has much to worry about.

In any event, consumers who are interested in engaging the services of psychics should check out actual skeptical resources instead of fake-skeptical ones. There are hundreds of articles, investigations, and blogs in Skeptical Inquirer magazine and elsewhere about evidence-based research into psychic claims, including some clever undercover work by investigators Susan Gerbic, Kenny Biddle, Mark Edward, and many others. On my podcast Squaring the Strange we have devoted several episodes to exposing psychics and discussing their techniques, including their failures in finding missing persons.