Anti-Science

America's Next Pile of Crap. From the UK!

And no, I don’t mean Coupling.

Jeffrey writes:

There is a new show on Lifetime called “America’s Psychic Challenge.” According to the creators “America’s Psychic Challenge pits amateur psychic from around the country against each other in a series of challenges to see who will be America’s #1 Psychic.” They also say that this is a show for believers and skeptics, however, a quick view of the show reveals that the challenge is not of the psychics’ legitimacy, only of their quality.

Since shows like this would seem to only give legitimacy to horrible people like Sylvia Brown and John Edward I would like to hear your options on this new show.

Thanks for your time. Your show is awesome.

Jeff

Thanks for writing, Jeff! I haven’t seen an episode of this show yet, because it doesn’t premiere until this Friday. BUT, I do have a very special psychic prediction: it’s going to be a giant, steaming load of bull hooey. Unlike anything that will come from the mouths of the “psychics” on this show, my divinely-inspired prediction is actually backed up by evidence.

First things first. I found a press release from Lifetime about the new show. It’s all pretty straightforward — silly reality show, psychics competing, getting eliminated, et cetera. This bit caught my eye:

In the premiere episode, contestants include Karyn, from Buffalo, NY; Silvana, from Beverly Hills, CA; Joseph, from Staten Island, NY; and Jackie, from Manhattan. Individually, each are challenged to prove their claims in carefully designed experiments, including: searching for a man hidden in the trunk of one of 50 cars lined up at auto dealership, picking out a person’s soul mate by correctly matching up five brides and five grooms, and precisely identifying a series of specific details of a police investigation at a brutal murder scene.

The challenges immediately struck a chord — I remembered hearing about those exact same tests on another TV show. With help from my good friend and eternal crush Sid Rodrigues of UK Skeptics, I found that it was called Britain’s Psychic Challenge. Tony Youens wrote a great summary of the series’ major problems on his web site, including this bit about the “soul mate” matching:

The possible outcomes are 0/5 (achieved by open-minded Dennis) 1/5, 2/5, 3/5, and 5/5 (you can’t get 4/5). The odds of getting 5 out of 5 correct are 120 to 1 and this was achieved by Diane Lazarus. I concede this was an impressive result, but why only 5 couples? This means even 100% success doesn’t prove very much. It certainly isn’t enough to start rewriting current scientific theory (by which I mean real science not 10% brain nonsense). If it had been 6 couples the odds would have shot up to 720 to 1 . . .

. . . staff serving drinks, etc. mingled freely between the couples and the psychics. This does give the possibility of an off hand comment or worse still deliberate cheating, thus stacking the deck somewhat. I don’t say this is what happened but those controlling such conditions owe it to the psychics to prevent even the possibility otherwise people like me will harp on about it. Even finding information on one couple reduces the odds to a mere 1 in 24.

Tony found that the tests that weren’t poorly controlled guess-a-thons like the above were just the kind of subjective “tests” that allow plenty of room for cold reading. For those just joining us, cold reading is a technique used by wannabe psychics to make generalities while digging around for more information from a victim. For example, “I’m getting a J, like a John or Jim, or perhaps Jamie or . . . Jamiroquai? Yes, definitely someone who is a fan of that crazy video they did in the ’90s with the moving room and the crow that flies into the camera and the guy with the funny hat. Or I suppose he’s just referencing funny hats, did your grandfather once wear a silly hat? Maybe on Halloween?”

The major difference between the US and UK versions, that I can tell, is that the US commercials do not appear to mention any kind of token skeptic on set. At the very least, Britain’s had two capable skeptics on hand to provide rational explanations for things, while it seems as though the US version will be setting rationality aside in order to wade into the muck of pseudoscience unencumbered.

If that’s the case, I can’t say I’m surprised. This is Lifetime, we’re talking about, home to John Edward and Lisa Williams: Life Among the Dead, the lead-in to this new “reality” show (I mentioned Lisa a while back). It’s so good that the channel for women is dedicated to promoting jerks and bamboozlers. What happened to Lifetime’s policy of Golden Girls reruns and late night softcore porn (I mean, “erotica”)?

Anyway. To prepare for the upcoming premiere, I had hoped to research the first four contestants. Lifetime’s site has links for each of them, but only one link actually worked. Note to Lifetime: if I wanted to get all my information by slicing open my cats and reading their entrails, I wouldn’t bother having this wireless card. Fix your web site. Thanks.

So, the lucky contestant whose bio I can access is: Karyn Reese! Karyn lists her age as “30 something,” apparently assuming that none of the other contestants is psychic enough to deduce that she’s past her prime.

Karyn goes on to say that she likes science and James Van Praagh. Um. Okay. That’s like saying you like babies, and also that you like tossing babies in blenders. Which is it, Karyn? Babies? Or finely chopped baby pieces?

Then there’s this:

What are your sentiments toward skeptics? It’s not my job to convince them. Unless they experience something paranormal then they aren’t going to believe. But I always ask people “What color is a radio wave?” The usual reply is “I don’t know.” My next question is “Then how do you know that it exists?” One cannot conclude that just because you can’t prove something in your frame of reference it means that it doesn’t exist. History has proven this repeatedly.

How do I know a radio wave exists? Seriously, Karyn? I turn on the god damned radio. Nobody has a show on Lifetime where they turn on a radio and channel Don’t Fear the Reaper for a live audience. Nobody wonders if maybe Blue Oyster Cult has shrunk down to a very small size and is playing from inside the magical box. 150 years ago, someone came up with a theory about radio waves. Twenty years after that, someone else took that theory and produced actual radio waves in a lab. Ten years after that, Marconi was broadcasting away. It only took thirty years! If psychic powers were as real and obvious as radio waves, by now we’d have overturned the laws of physics and done away with roaming charges altogether. Seriously, Karyn. Science?

You know, I’m actually really glad I don’t have access to the other bios. One more of these and my brain might just explode. I wonder what color it would be?

Thanks again for the letter, Jeffrey! As an added bonus, please enjoy this YouTube video of a similar British psychic reality show.

As is the new Tuesday tradition, this has been cross-posted at the SGU Blog!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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13 Comments

  1. …picking out a person’s soul mate by correctly matching up five brides and five grooms…

    So, how do the testers know that the couples are soul mates? Surely it's not unreasonable that some of the couples have not married their "soul mate". Goodness gracious, some might even divorce some time in the future. So maybe the misses by the supposed psychics are really hits, i.e., the couple are not soul mates so correctly wouldn't be identified as soul mates.

    “What color is a radio wave?”

    Well, that obviously depends on the frequency of a particular radio wave. How stupid is she? :-P

    And that video link: hilarious! Surely it must be a parody, no? What, it's not? Oh, my.

  2. With the couple-matching, unless some serious steps have been taken to remove visual cues, or to find some very similar-looking people, matching up couples might be hugely aided by educated guesswork based on things like clothing and hairstyles, which could carry all kinds of social/wealth/class/whatever distinctions.
    There's also the distinct possibility of people of similar levels of 'attractiveness' pairing up, and maybe even people choosing other people that have some partial similarity in looks to them.
    It would be very easy for someone looking for couples to take part in a programme to deliberately or subconsciously select couples that seem like soulmates, which might tend to be more likely in people who *look* like a couple.

    With all these possible factors, one might wonder how a reasonably people-aware non-psychic might perform on the same people?

    If someone was actually going to use *psychic* skills to do their matching, that should be just as easy even if couples are deliberately chosen to be very hard to match by more mundane means.

  3. You know what would be really funny? If some of those couple wound up in on-set affairs… either cuing or being cued by the "psychics"' evaluations….

  4. I saw it on iTunes and I was thinking, cool a bunch of failures. Then I saw Lifetime and didn't see anything about Randi and I was like this is shit, I don't care if it is free. I also saw an ad for something called the Next Phenomenon with Criss Angel and Uri Gellar. I think we need to form a militant skeptics group to crash these things and expose the people for what they are, losers. Or alternatively run counter programming possibly through podcasts, blogs, or other media. I hope the final act of the Next Phenomenon is a battle to the death.

  5. I suppose shows like Big Brother or temptation island already proved that just because they have a cross-Atlantic remake of a show/movie, doesnt mean the original was actually any good. Although generally, the original is still the better version.

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