Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Psychic Investigations and Money

Tomorrow, I am going to go visit a psychic.

I don’t know which psychic. I’m just going to get up and walk out the door, pick a direction and the first one I find, I will go to. (A real psychic might already have my name penciled in!)

There are at least 20 psychic shops set up within a five mile radius of my house so one won’t be hard to find. In fact, every new age and alternative practice is well represented in Hollywood. Some you may never even have heard of. Fantasy and faith runs deep in this town. It is after-all, the city were dreams are literally made into a reality every day.

I plan on visiting a few psychics.

Then, I plan on investigating some alternative health practices. I’m going to go get a ‘healing’ massage and have my palm read and my feet analyzed by a reflexologist and who knows what else. Maybe I’ll go talk to someone about all the mystery toxins that are apparently, everywhere and for some reason, concentrated in my body. I will take photos and report on my experiences.

Do I think it’s all unsubstantiated charlatanism? For the most part, yes. Am I going in with a skeptical mindset? Obviously. But I think I will be a better and more educated skeptic if I take the time to personally investigate these practices and the people involved, so that I can better understand the appeal and the techniques for grabbing peoples attention and their wallets. Honestly, I’m curious.

And that brings me to the main concern I have heard voiced again and again when I mention this project:

“Oh but you can’t give them your money. Then you are supporting them.”

Do you think it is better in this day and age to be an armchair skeptic? Is investigation a waste of time because it’s been done before and it is funneling  money into a corrupt business? Can any good come out of paranormal investigating and reporting?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. When a tornado is on the way, I know to go in to the storm cellar. When there’s a psychic on the corner, I kinow not to give them money. Some things you need to research and some things you can pretty much take on faith.

  2. I think that if I want to be an effective communicator of skeptical topics I should at the very least explore the topics I want to discuss. A good journalist should investigate. No?

  3. Hi there!

    I feel like I’m constantly fighting AGAINST the idea of taking money from people for my “psychic gifts”. Back when I was a believer, I was convinced that my psychic powers “weren’t good enough” for me to set myself as a “real psychic”. Now that I’m a skeptic, I’ve discovered that my powers were exactly as real as the psychics making BIG MONEY. (which is to say, “not at all real”) In this economy, the idea of “free money” just sounds appealing to me.

    For a minute, I even considered being a “rogue psychic”. Setting myself up in an affluent neigborhood and ONLY taking money from rich heiresses and giving it back to the poor. But even for such a noble cause, I’d never sink to that level. :(

    As for giving money to these people? Ehhhh, I probably wouldn’t just for my own edification. Now, if I were working on a good solid research project, possibly submitting it for publication? Well, I’d just chalk it up to “the cost of doing business”. [shrugs]

    (just don’t go bankrupt for these people)

    — Craig

  4. I view my skepticism as something as a public service (to my friends and family) so, if I knew someone that was being suckered by psychics, and wouldn’t listen to me because I had no experience/not an open mind, then I would gladly spend cash on one so that I could better understand how to help others.
    If a wrote and spoke on the subject then I would consider it something of a requirement to have actually experienced their world a little, if I could afford it and it wouldn’t be dangerous (this method wouldn’t be advisable when it comes to things like “alternative medicine”, hehe). It gives you insight, at the very least. And maybe a few funny stories.

  5. It’s an economic question. Do you cost them more money by exposing them than you give them directly? Do you cost them more in time they could have spent reeling in a gullible victim (opportunity cost?) Will the knowledge you gain be useful in the future to help expose other charlatans? If any of these is true, then it’s not a waste of time or money.

    Since you have a web presence (and a rabid fan base ;-) ), the equation is different for you than it would be to most of us.

    Think of it as a research investment, so when I Ask Surly Amy what if anything I should do about the new acupuncture and chi gong school that opened (complete with “testimonials”) in my neighborhood last month, you’ll have a better answer.

  6. It’s good to know what it is you are actually criticizing after all. We know as much as we do about the inner workings of Scientology (not a cheap organization to infiltrate) because of reporters with the backing of their editors shelling out the cash to discover the truth behind the PR and the asserted claims. I wouldn’t do it for a lark, but either personal education or journalistic project seem to be pretty good reasons. Just keep an eye on your wallet!

  7. If you are writing about it, people read it and take it more seriously if you include real experiences that you had, so I think you do more good than harm by going and then blogging about it.

    That said, I would concentrate on things that are more controversial and/or more potentially harmful, rather than handing money to random tarot card readers or palmists. Go for the reiki and crystal healing and alt med stuff!


  8. @Amy: I don’t think it’s a bad idea, particularly since the psychic racket is so reliant on human psychology. It’s very easy for all of us to read what psychic’s do, pin it down for what it is, and then declare that we would never fall for such things. It’s another thing entirely to be in the midst of it and to expose ourselves to the environment and the act. We forget how easy it is to be swept away by its appeal, and why.

    I agree with Buzz. You’re one of the representatives of the skeptic community here on Skepchick. I’d be very interested to hear your perspective on the experience.

  9. But wait.

    If you’re Fraternizing with The Enemy, doesn’t that mean that you will have your True Skeptic™ membership card revoked?

    Say it ain’t so!


  10. For $50 I’ll give you a personalized scientific prediction of your future base on the quantum vibrations. As you know psychic are fake but I use proven physics that I developed doing my Phd work at P.T. Barnum school of science.

    Dr Ed

  11. On the first date with my wife-to-be we went into Manhattan on a cold December 26th (1988). Making our way north from the Wall Street area we wound up at Washington Park. Where we were approached by a guy who offered to read our palms.

    Now since astrology and psychics are a load of crap I don’t know how to describe palm reading. What’s worse than crap?

    Anyway, as a palm reader the guy was just awful. For one thing he kept pulling out his little palm readers manual. However his patter and presentation was fantastic. I was laughing the whole time. Worth every cent of the $10 I gave him.


  12. Yes, I think you can speak with more experience if you do it. If you can aford it. The small amount of money they make off just you isn’t going to make a difference to them, sadly.

    However, you can spend a great deal of time and money and still not see everything, even if we’re just talking about psychics, much less all the other new age stuff. And you’ll never get away from hearing “Well all those other psychics may be fake, but mines real”.

    And don’t forget to send a picture of your butt to Sylvester Stalones mom.

  13. The first thing that popped into my head for some reason was a couple of recent interviews that I heard from Joe Nickell in which he basically said that investigation is fine and well as long as you do it correctly. I agree with that, but he went on to say that the people who are currently investigating on-site aren’t doing it right (because they don’t have his exact credentials) and that armchair skeptics are wasting their time (because they aren’t on-site).

    It just bugged me, I guess we can’t all be Joe Nickell.

    So, according to Joe you are not doing it right, might as well not bother. I, on the other hand, commend you for actually being able to keep a straight face. More than I could do.

  14. @Amy and @weatherwax
    And don’t forget to send a picture of your butt to Sylvester Stalones mom.

    Or better yet just post it here, I’m sure there are plenty of “willing pychics” that will tell you are sorts of things about your future. (among other things :) )

  15. I think it’s altruistic and even kinda brave to go out there and expose yourself to the fraudsters. I wouldn’t do it for my own edification, but it would be good to have the experiences of another sensible person to draw on. It’s not a waste of time, because while others may have done similar things, nobody will have done what you’re doing with the mindset, experience, observational and reporting skills that you have. It might even be worthwhile to do it just for your own edification if it helps you to better evaluate similar scams or helps you bring the authority of experience to bear in the future.

  16. No need to give them any money. The scam is already known.

    The only way it would be worth it is if you go to one of the ‘better’ physics. There scams might be better down and more worth the read.

  17. If you’re going to appeal to the “open minded” people, then it really helps your credibility if you actually go out into the field. It’s too easy to dismiss if they’re preceived as an “arm chair skeptic.”

    Plus it can be fun. I learned a lot when I investigated an alleged UFO base in South Elgin, IL. Sure I knew it wasn’t real, but going out in to the field, I learned where the producer went wrong, and learned about the history of a bridge in the process.

  18. By investing your time and money in this practice you may prevent others from wasting their hard earned paychecks. How else would you investigate these practices anyway? They aren’t free

  19. I frequently do this with churches. I like to go to different religious services to better understand who the people are, what they believe, and why. One thing I do, is if they ask what church I belong to I’m honest about everything.

    Are you going to let people in on your skepticism if they inquire? I wonder if it’ll be any harder than what I’ve experienced walking into churches.

  20. My first thought is that I know there are Mormons in their temples on any given Sunday. I feel no need to go and plunk a few bucks in their collection plate and listen to a sermon to gain a better understanding. I’m happy to hear from former LDS members and the research of others when it comes to that particular brand of irrational belief. And I suspect (no facts or research) that most psychics and palm readers are fully aware they are con artists so I couldn’t justify giving them a dime, let alone the substantial amount I’m sure they’d charge for a reading.

  21. It seems that to be psychic one must make their own social enforcement. That is to say that being psychic is empowering one’s self to make things happen.

    In nature, I think that porcupines are natural psychics. The porcupine touches his temple with its front two fingers and says, “I predict that all who touch me will get a quill jammed into them.” As skeptics, we see this statement as a vaugery that has no teeth.

    As a psychic, I am merely reminded of my ability to enforce social rules. This does NOT mean MY rules. A horoscope may easily tell me, “It seems you must maneuver carefully, but that may not be the best tactic.” This is suggesting that I still play by social rules, it’s just empowering me to make those rules more predictable to me by showing me how I can act within them.

    In short, some people need to be told “you’re a porcupine. If anyone messes with you, then quill ’em.” Empowering others to make the future is a great way to ‘know’ the future.

  22. @Amy: At least the massage might feel good and release some muscle tension…you know, like any other massage would. Maybe you won’t we wuite as surly afterwards for awhile. ;-)

  23. @Amy: The “don’t give money to them, you’re just supporting them” is kinda silly and shortsighted.

    So, Amy gives someone $20 for a psychic reading. She then thoroughly reports on what they did, and how she could see that they did it, and maybe journals about how her predicted future matches up with what happened. This provides evidence that psychics ain’t got nuthin’, and perhaps convinces another few people not to give (any more) money to psychics.

  24. Your poster image says it all. Truth is free, lies usually start around $20.

    My personal experience is there is much unknown we have not quantified, particularly about what happens when a conscious mind believes something. There’s something I think most of us skeptics find abhorrent about how some individuals and organizations manipulate belief for financial gain.

    My opinion is the problem with psychics (and quack medicines, as well as most of the entire medical research & pharmaceutical industry) is that they charge money.

    I would ask you do a rigorous study… Compare psychics that charge money, vs those that will not accept payment… if you can find them.

    Or pay a couple of them and ask them question: “Where will I find a real psychic who does not accept payment”

  25. @Mr Ed: If a psychic client were to give me $50, I could accurately predict, with 100% certainty, that their financial situation will be…fifty bucks lighter.

    @Amy – That painting certainly looks familiar :)

  26. I think that investigation is always merited but I am not sure that simply frequenting an establishment can really qualify as an investigation. At the end of the trip, your anecdote will carry as much weight as any other anecdote. What criteria are you using to avoid introducing your own bias into this investigation? What criteria are you setting to determine success or failure? Are you testing the individual or the “craft” (for lack of a better word)? If it’s the individual what are you comparing them against? If it’s the craft, then how can a sample of one be sufficient.

    I read every word or every Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptic Magazine I get and I love the investigations, but their value is in their efforts to investigate scientifically, not in the fact that they can simply supply another anecdote.

  27. @Amy: @Mark Hall: I’d thought I’d heard that a psychic reading was usually a lot more than $20.00 and after some looking around it appears a psychic reading is usually charged by the minute and they start at $1.00 and go up to $5.00 a minute. So $20.00 won’t even get you a short conversation let alone a discussion of substance that would equate to some research. It seems to me a psychic gets to have their victim’s cake and eat it to every time they get paid.

  28. If you are looking to have a conversation with someone who will tell you what you wish to hear but change your situation in no real way I would suggest you go talk to a priest or rabbi instead. It will be a lot cheaper (although there is usually less eyeliner involved ;) ).

  29. Hmm, I dunno. If it were a relatively unknown scam, then I guess I’d agree with your approach. But this type of scam has been well-covered before, no?

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