Psychic Kids at DragonCon: A Report

Psychic Kids at DragonCon: A Report

The following report comes from Mark Stewart, a reader who braved Chris Fleming’s Psychic Kids DragonCon panel while Amy and I were staffing the Surly and Skepchick tables:

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In this intense journey, the experts draw on their own personal experiences, training and unique outlook on life to bring troubled kids together to show them how to harness their abilities and, ultimately, show them that they’re not alone in this world.

–Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal web site

When I read the Skepchick call to attend the Psychic Kids panel at Dragon*Con, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never seen the show or heard of Chris Fleming before, but it sounded like the Q&A might provide an interesting conversation. So, at 10am on Sunday, I made my first-ever visit to the Dragon*Con paranormal track.

Chris Fleming, the presenter, was one of the featured psychics on Psychic Kids. After having sat through the entire presentation, talked to him afterward with the other skeptics who attended, and exchanged a couple of e-mails with him, I have to say I’ve been underwhelmed by his attempts to address skeptics’ concerns about his show, including not only the ethics of Psychic Kids but also his own psychic abilities.

Fleming’s evidence of the paranormal was standard fare, including anomalous blurry moving objects, inapplicable analogies to real science (Carl Sagan’s thoughts on a fourth dimension were referenced, for example), EVPs, and vague predictions. Most of the phenomena cited were easily attributable to nothing more than pareidolia. According to skeptics who had attended his talks before, he at least mentioned pareidolia this year, however, when he presented us with EVPs of ghostly voices, he nonetheless still prompted the audience with phrases on the projection screen that we were supposed to hear. (During the Q&A, one audience member said that when he deliberately looked away from the screen, he heard nothing resembling a voice.)

To his credit, Mr. Fleming did spend a portion of his presentation addressing skeptics. Unfortunately, he spent that time addressing straw men. Addressing Skeptics Time focused largely on challenging skeptics who think that all of the children on the show are mentally ill and should be on medication. Skeptical readers will be unsurprised to learn that none of the skeptics in attendance subscribed to this view. Most of us were of the opinion that children who think they can interact with paranormal beings ought to be evaluated for mental disorders, because this would be consistent with the symptoms of, for example, schizophrenia. None of us were of the opinion that anyone ought to assume without reservation that all of the children on the show had schizophrenia. That would be absurd. For instance, it might be mental illness, or they could be seeing “imaginary friends,” or they may be faking like the Fox sisters, or they may be simply picking up cues from their parents and other adults. The point is, it’s impossible to know which without an independent evaluation.

Yet Fleming spent his slides addressing the imaginary skeptical objection, and addressing the equally vacuous claim that skeptics think that all such children should be on medication by spending his time elaborating on the risks and side effects of medication. Unfortunately he did not discuss the side effects of possible untreated, undiagnosed mental disorders.

One gem from this part of the conversation stood out from the others, when Fleming drew the following analogy: although 97% of schizophrenics are smokers, you wouldn’t say that all smokers are schizophrenic, therefore you can’t say that all psychic kids are mentally ill. (I can’t tell if this is a false analogy or a non sequitor. It seems to be an entirely new species of logical fallacy. We’ll call it the “false sequitor.”)

At this point I would like to issue a plea to anyone attempting to argue with skeptics on issues like this: there is a huge gap between thinking that children who think they can interact with paranormal beings could potentially be mentally ill and claiming that every child who thinks they can interact with paranormal beings is mentally ill. This type of exaggeration of skeptics’ arguments is depressingly common, and it never strengthens your case.

The only (slightly) bright point in the presentation for skeptics was learning that the show does employ a psychologist, Edy Nathan, whose role ostensibly includes screening out cases where the childrens’ apparent supernatural powers are instances of mental disorder. Unfortunately, she is neither independent (she is a presenter) nor is she sufficiently skeptical, as a visit to her IMBD biography attests:

Her studies have introduced her to many points of view about the afterlife which are tempered by her academic teachings. She is dedicated to helping psychic children and their families learn how to overcome the fears that are holding them back from their full potential.

After the presentation ended, there were questions, and another skeptic in the audience, Bob Blaskiewicz, presented Mr. Fleming with Atlanta’s Independent Investigation Group’s $50,000 challenge, which would qualify Fleming to test for the JREF’s one million dollar test. Fleming expressed some skepticism about the terms of the JREF contract, and asked to be able to review IIG’s contract in detail. Blaskiewicz encouraged this, as he said that if there were problems with the contract that might compromise the results, IIG wanted to eliminate them. For my part, I asked about a 1983 physics paper Fleming had cited as evidence of the existence of “biofields” that didn’t, upon inspection (hooray for iPhones), mention biofields. I’ve since exchanged e-mails with Fleming about this, and while he has provided me a large number of “related” sources, none of them have bridged the gap between “biofields” as described by new-age practitioners and the electromagnetic fields known to scientists.

I applaud Chris Fleming for his willingness to engage with skeptics. He answered questions directly, and stayed after the panel for quite some time to discuss some of the finer points. However, I found the presentation and the answers demonstrated unfamiliarity with our positions. He portrayed skeptics as believing that all children who believe they have psychic abilities are mentally disordered and should be on meds, which we do not. He criticized skeptics for asking for definitive proof of phenomena that will not permit scientific control, when we were actually asking for a preponderance of evidence of phenomena some of which are fairly simple to study in a scientifically controlled way (e.g. claims about paranormal insight into the locations of the subjects or victims of criminal investigations). He didn’t seem to understand, either in discussions after the panel or in subsequent e-mail conversations, the problems with anecdotal evidence. He promised scientific evidence of biofields claims, but produced none that corroborated a connection between biofields as a new-age healing paradigm and biological magnetic fields as an actual science. He promised that he would stop by the IIG $50,000 challenge table, but he did not.

In summary, another case not made.

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Mark Stewart is a skeptical college student, and an intellectual discussion addict. He spends his free time looking for his next fix by debating religion and woo in freethought and inquiry groups, but finds that progressively stronger doses no longer produce the same buzz. When desperate, he self-treats with YouTube videos of Richard Feynman.

Avatar of Rebecca Watson
Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. 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+.

15 Comments

  1. Avatar of scribe999

    Great job, Mark!

  2. Avatar of mrmisconception

    Thanks Mark.
    This is what they have to bring?
    This is all they have?
    And people wonder why we want to move beyond the paranormal.
    Geesh.

  3. Avatar of jpgoldberg

    I remember looking to see if there was interest in a Meet-Up group for parants of gifted children in my area. Most of those who showed interest were parents of “Indigo Kids” (a term I had not heard before). I kept my mouth shut and quietly backed away.

    Cheers,

    -j

  4. Avatar of BeardofPants

    Thanks for the write up. It’s always (read: never) surprising to see how disingenuous creeps like this are.

  5. Avatar of fosterdisbelief

    The “all psychic children are mentally ill” strawman always gets under my skin.

    I haven’t always been a skeptic. From 12 to 20ish I was heavily involved in Wicca and other new age forms of witchcraft. If this show existed then, I could have been on it.

    Was I mentally ill? Not at all. Part of it was rebellion. I wasn’t indoctrinated into a religion until 11 when my mom decided to return to Catholicism and force it into me. Part of it was the time period. In my backwater town, Wicca and the like had just began hitting the bookstore shelves in force and I would read anything. And a large part of it was just feeling broken and searching for anything to believe in. Every member of my family, all my friends, everyone my young mind knew at the time all believed in some form of God.

    I believed because my extensive pagan library told me what I was doing was real. My mind would seek coincidences and attribute them to spells. My experiences were filtered through the lens of pagan belief. And of course, my circle of close friends all either believed as I did, or weren’t confident enough in their own beliefs to question mine.

    Belief in magic, witchcraft, psychic ability, etc, is set up to defy any proof against. Spell didn’t work? Sometimes they don’t. Couldn’t connect with a spirit? Sometimes they don’t want to connect. Asked to prove it? Sorry, nothing will work if a non-believer is around. Bending reality is hard enough work as it is…..

    My first year in college, I would sit in the off campus coffee house and read the Tarot for spending money. My accuracy amazed not only those I read, but myself as well. At first I’d maybe do a reading a day; after the first month I had to turn people away. I thought I had proof finally.

    Then I took my first Psych class and my entire worldview shattered. I didn’t know the term “cold reading” yet, but I knew why my readings were so accurate, and it had nothing to do with the cards or the paranormal. I was using what I had picked up of human psych on the streets to read people for clues. I would start with classic general cold reading statements, stopping at each card until the client recorded a hit no matter how many different avenues I had to travel to get the hit, and gradually forcing them to give me enough information to supply a stunningly specific hit on the last cards.

    I spent the next 4 years examining every other paranormal belief I held without the assumption that they were true, while still clinging to any shred of belief I could muster.

    Then came the self-destruction as I could no longer be the person I had been for the last 12 or so years.

    All kids who claim to have “powers” aren’t mentally ill. I’ve never even seen any of us make that claim. Some are to be sure, some are attention seeking, some are suggestible, and some just have a perfect storm of causes surrounding them.

    I can not even begin to imagine how much worse off I would have been with a tv show and adults I respected confirming my beliefs at every turn. Could I have ever escaped? And, perhaps more importantly, how much worse would it have been if the beliefs did crash around me?

    These people are sick, and I don’t mean the kids. Some of these kids will become the next generation of TV psychics, and some of them will get out relatively unscathed.

    But some of them are going to watch their entire lives crumble around them. Watch the persona this show helped to create disappear leaving them alone to try to figure out who they are and how to make sense of the past how many years.

    And some of them are not going to be able to get through the fallout.

    Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I’m convinced this show is going to have a body count. If not from outright suicide, then from drug abuse or other self destructive behaviors.

    I tried it all without a TV show.

    I hope in 15 years or so when we can do actual follow-ups on these kids that I am proven wrong.

    (Sorry for the length, this show just pushes all the wrong buttons for me.)

  6. Avatar of lactosefermenter

    There is a simple test to determine whether someone who claims to be psychic is telling the truth…

    Ask them to tell you how many fingers you’re holding up behind your back.

    A simple task for someone who is truely psychic.

    Keep in mind there is a 10% chance they would get it right just by guessing so they should have to repeat the test should they give a correct answer. :)

    • Avatar of oolon

      Fingers behind the back wouldn’t work, I quite like Derren Brown here in the UK (Dunno if he is known in the states but he is a well known skeptic/atheist here) – he is a stage ‘psychic’ who feely admits, even insists, that all his ‘powers’ are easily explained psychological tricks like cold reading and he seems to be a master of neurolinguistic programming.

      I’m sure he would beat your number of fingers behind the back test with little trouble. He takes on so called real psychics and is a lot more impressive, presumably because he is a professional and actually understands the processes behind the techniques. Most psychics I think really believe they have special powers and do not necessarily consciously cheat whereas he does.

      So my test is can they do anything more than any stage magician or acknowledged fake psychic like Derren can do. And the answer is a definite no!

  7. Avatar of rasmur

    Well done, skeptics! That made my day.

  8. Avatar of fosterdisbelief

    @Lactosefermenter

    Problem is, at least in my experience, any “psychic” would not only refuse your test, but deny it had any meaning.

    I personally never claimed I could perform on cue like that. That would be a “vulgar display of power” and cost me in the long run. Not that I would have tried, but if I did attempt to guess, no amount of wrong answers would have convinced me.

    The key is listening to the “psychic” explaining exactly what he/she is going to do, watching/examining while they perform, and then explaining to them exactly how they did what ever trick they happened to do. Even then, cognitive dissonance is going to wall them off from your explanations a good bit of the time.

    My beliefs didn’t shatter until I realized exactly how I was performing the “paranormal” ability. Even then it wasn’t easy.

    It isn’t about coming up with a test that you feel is valid. It is about confronting the exact claim the “psychic” is making and showing them exactly how they are doing it. Until that moment, I could have rationalized anything.

  9. Avatar of Buzz Parsec

    Great job, Mark!

    I’m going to attempt to lead a discussion of a similar situation I was involved in (a talk by Andrew Wakefield last spring) tomorrow at the Granite State SkeptiCamp. I’m going to try to steer the conversation towards what skeptics should do in general to prepare for and to report on such incidents, rather than focusing closely on Wakefield, vaccinations and autism, and my total lack of interaction with him. :-)

    It’s not that I really know how to deal with this kind of encounter, it’s more of trying to compare notes and reach some kind of consensus about what to do, what works and what doesn’t work, how and when to ask questions, and so forth.

    I’ll definitely mention this post.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. Avatar of mark

    Thanks, everybody!

  11. Avatar of lactosefermenter

    Just to be clear, my “fingers behind the back” test was completely TIC. I didn’t mean for that post to be taken seriously.

    I mean, any true psychic wouldn’t waste their time taking inane tests to verify their claims anyway. They would be too busy counting all the money they won by picking the correct lottery numbers…

    Here again, TIC.

  12. Avatar of klasbo

    I think “non analogy” is more descriptive than “false sequitor”, since “false” and “non” have similar meaning. A “non analogy” would be an analogy that has no metaphorical connection or otherwise, aka an analogy that just doesn’t work.

    Which reminds me: Saying that something is “like comparing apples and oranges”, is – in itself – like comparing apples and oranges. Yay, recursive analogy!

  13. Avatar of rjblaskiewicz

    klasbo: you just totally ruined my mind!

    By way of update, Chris has not followed up with the IIG-Atlanta challenge, though it was by-in-large a good conversation with him at Dragon*Con. Mark had been waiting for the powerpoint/slide presentation that Chris used, but it never arrived.

    Oh well.

    RJB

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