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:
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.
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.