Thursday, July 23, 2009

Congratulations, you may be psychic!

Weekly World News, that bastion of scientific credibility, has reported that 53% of people are psychic, based on a study done at the University of Virginia on the townspeople and students of Charlottesville.

Say what now?

This study was published by the "parapsychology division of the University of Virginia School of Medicine" in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. Although the article does not name specific researchers from the study, the division of which they speak is most likely the Division of Perceptual Studies, founded by Ian Stevenson in 1967. Dr. Stevenson was a psychiatrist and researcher who devoted decades of work to collecting past-life experiences and evidence of reincarnation. Unfortunately, though he carried out this work all over the globe until his retirement in 2002, he did not produce scientifically compelling evidence to back claims of such experiences. I encourage you to read his entry in Bob Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary, which is fascinating and quite thoroughly researched. He also co-founded the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is deserving of a separate post, already in the works and long overdue. (I've been busy... yadda yadda...)

Naturally, the UVa library has a subscription to the journal, so I look forward to finding it in the Alderman stacks later this week when I get a chance. Unfortunately, I can't find a version online, or even an abstract at the moment. According to the article, however, the study was a self-reported survey of 622 participants. Until I get a look at how the participants were selected, it's hard to say whether this is an accurate cross-section of the American population, as is claimed. (Maybe we are just special?) One researcher is quoted in the article as saying,
50% of America is psychic – the results of this survey confirm this fact.
I'm skeptical that any researcher into the paranormal would make such a sweeping and incorrect statement, especially if they expect to be taken seriously. The lack of a name attached to the quote only encourages my notion that this was made up whole cloth by a "reporter". At any rate, a self-reporting survey is no way to prove that a phenomenon exists. Serious scientific studies need to be double-blinded and carefully controlled before a claim can be shown to have validity. Participants in this survey report such paranormal experiences as déjà vu, out of body experiences, apparitions, hauntings, and more. Although these may be terrifying to a person in the moment, a more rational explanation is often to be found. A few years ago, a team of neuroscientists reported that they may have found a biological cause for that eerie feeling of déjà vu. Paranormal investigators such as Joe Nickell have found rational explanations for many hauntings and paranormal claims over the decades. Many psychics have stepped up to take James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge, and none have passed preliminary testing. If half of us were psychic, someone would have noticed by now.

So, this article was published in a cheesy tabloid with a screaming, Vulcan-ish child on the logo. So what? Most people running across this article will snicker and move on. A small percentage, no doubt, will add it to the pile of "evidence" for their already-cherished beliefs in the paranormal. I'm more interested, personally, in what the survey-study itself has to say, and how much more widely it is reported, especially locally.

Muchas gracias to for the link! Also, kudos to them on the clever title.
Cross posted at One Astronomer's Noise


  1. Ahhh. The Weekly World News. Gotta love 'em. WWW (note the similarity to that other paragon of trustworthy information?) reporters even got US senators to say that they (the senators) had been taken up by aliens, right?

    I doubt the study's available. The WWW story cuts just enough corners to make me think it's another of their send ups.

    However, I suspect we could design a survey that would show that ~50% of people say they have psychic powers. Let's see... define "psychic powers" broadly, interview people coming out of particular places of business, create demand for certain responses, reinforce certain answers early in the survey, encourage respondents who have certain characteristics to refuse the survey....

    Teehee. Mayhaps we could get it published in Journal of spirituality and paranormal studies.

  2. Sounds good, I always wanted to be more psychic . Be good if this was indeed possible.