Are Skeptics Psychic?
April 27, 2015
It might seem odd to choose a hotel full of skeptics to be the subject of a test of psychic ability, but then again, who’s to say that skeptics themselves aren’t endowed with such talent—one perhaps they would themselves be loath to acknowledge?
So we at the Independent Investigations Group chose a large skeptics conference, the 2014 The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas, Nevada, to see what sort of predictive skills, if any, the crowd of visiting doubters possessed.
At our display table (that we shared with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry) sat a simple wheel of chance—a spinning disc that was divided into sixteen equal pie slices.
Photos of well-known “psychic mediums” (Sylvia Browne, Teresa Caputo, John Edward, and James Van Praagh) populated the sixteen slices of the wheel four times each, and each always on the same color (John Edward is always pink, Sylvia is always yellow, etc.). We pre-tested the wheel to make sure it was true (it was), and solicited random passers-by to try their luck at guessing which “psychic” would land under the wheel’s pointer. The incentive to participate was that one could win a 100 Grand candy bar if he or she guessed the correct name.
We scored exactly 200 spins of the wheel, which is a little fortunate because it makes analyzing the results a bit easier to understand. We encouraged people to give it a “good spin,” i.e., to make the wheel rotate at least once or twice around to better ensure the randomness of the results.
Let’s start with what probability predicts. Since there were essentially four equally-likely results for each spin, over the course of 200 spins we expected each result (name/color) to come up or “hit” somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty times. (Fifty is one-fourth, or 25 percent of 200.) While 200 is not a huge number of trials, it was sufficient for our tongue-in-cheek experiment. (In this sort of test that uses probability as a baseline for determining if results are exceptional, the more trials the better. The mathematical concept of the “law of large numbers” says that getting three or four right in ten trials on our wheel is much more likely—or easier—than getting 300 or 400 right out of 1000 trials. Short term streaks and statistical imbalance tend to even out over greater numbers of trials.)
So how did the skeptics do?
The skeptics at the 2014 TAM got forty-seven correct out of the 200 attempts, or very close to the fifty that probability says they should have gotten. That number is so close to random chance that we say that there is no “effect”—positive or negative—present. The skeptics at the conference are neither exceptionally good at or poor at predicting which “psychics” would come up next on the wheel.
There were a few other fun statistics that did come up.
Sylvia Browne (on the yellow slices) was the most popular guess (sixty chose her) of the skeptics. Was it because Sylvia had passed over to the “other side” less than a year before the experiment? Is yellow more popular a color? (We didn’t ask.) James Van Praagh was least popular at forty guesses.
The John Edward slices actually came up the most times—fifty-seven—and Van Praagh came up the least at forty-four, but the fewer number Van Praagh guesses didn’t line-up with the spin results in any significant way, so the success rate remained unremarkable.
The longest “hit” streak was five people in a row, which would have been exceptional (one in 1024) if players predicted correctly in only five attempts instead of during 200 attempts. The longest miss streak was twenty-one in a row.
Amazingly, skeptics did no better than chance at guessing which of four alleged “psychics” would come up on the wheel of chance. Another way to look at that is that they did no worse than chance either.
Can we conclude, therefore, that the old psychic refrain that “skeptics’ negative energy ruins psychic ability” has been debunked?
We think so.