From Abracadabra to Zombies
is a commentary on
mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the
paranormal, and the supernatural.
Skeptimedia replaces Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.
Is Gordon Smith Psychic?
20 April 2009. Most days don't start with pleasant surprises around here, but today was different. I began my work day by googling "Gordon Smith psychic." The first item that came up was this annotated video of a reading by Smith for the parents of a son who was killed:
This is a classic example of cold reading and subjective validation. Some of the tricks of the trade are noted on the video; others you'll have to figure out for yourself. They're not too difficult to spot. The mother claims that Smith gave them information that was "spot on" and that "he couldn't possibly have known." Interpretations of the accuracy and precision of psychics by people unfamiliar with cold and hot reading and subjective validation are common. I've dealt with this issue on many occasions, so I won't repeat myself here except to remind the reader that shotgunning and selective memory are usually involved: you say many things and people remember those that they can find significant, and they forget the rest. The parents in this case seem to have forgotten that they arrived for the reading with a newspaper article about their son's death in a hit-and-run that they had showed to the TV crew that was there to film the reading and validate Smith's powers. No wonder Smith appeared so knowledgeable and had no trouble gulling the parents into thinking that he must be genuine. This response is all too common and of no special interest to anyone familiar with the cognitive biases that hinder critical thinking.
It gets better. YouTube lists related videos to the one you are watching. The first listed related video for the one posted above was entitled "Psychiatrist exposes immoral tactics of medium Gordon Smith." Unless you understand Greek, don't bother trying to find it. Greek psychiatrist Dr. Daskalopoulos confronts Gordon Smith live on ANT1 TV ("Tatiana Stefanidou"). Being psychic, I suppose, means Smith doesn't have to understand Greek to get the point that he is being accused of being an immoral slimeball.
Who is Gordon Smith and why am I bothering with him? Gordon Smith is listed as one of Britain's "celebrity psychics."
Seventh son of a seventh son, Gordon Smith - known as the "psychic barber" - is a British medium renowned for his ability to give exact names of people, places, and even streets in his public demonstrations. He has written several books, including "Spirit Messenger" and "The Unbelievable Truth".
He's a specialist! His talent could come in handy if you ever forget where you live. A look at his bookings schedule indicates that he's a very popular guy. There must be a lot of lost souls out there. Anyway, I am bothering with him because I was asked by a reader to comment on a news article and two YouTube videos. The article appeared in NewsMonster, which I'd never heard of, and the videos show the master at work and being tested by some paranormal investigators.
The news story is about the discovery of the remains of a British soldier who disappeared in France several years ago 40 miles upstream from where his alleged remains were found. (There is no mention in the story about how the remains were identified.) The soldier's mother, Sally Perrin, is reported as saying that Gordon Smith told her that her son, Blake Hartley, "was dead and his remains were in the river about 60 kilometers south of Chamonix." He told her this a few years before the remains were found. Perrin claims that Smith gave her information that was "bang on" and that "he couldn't possibly have known." Hmm. Sounds familiar. Perrin also is reported as saying that "before I was skeptical of such things but now I'm a believer." After all, if the psychic is so knowledgeable, the gulled convert thinks, his credentials must be genuine. Is this getting repetitive?
The story of Blake Hartley's disappearance is both tragic and comic. He's described as "an intelligent, charismatic and super-fit 24-year-old his superiors expected...to become a fine leader." Yet, when sent to lead his first training expedition in the French Alps, after a night of celebrating with "fine French food and wine in the local bars and restaurants," he led his group into the mountains, separated from them, and was never seen alive again. He was last seen "wandering towards a raging tributary of the river L’Arve."
It wouldn't take a psychic to predict that trying to cross that raging tributary was the young man's last mistake and that his body would be found downstream.
Anyway, despite the fact that Smith did not predict an exact place where the body would be found, nor did he mention that the body would be in parts—most of which would remain missing—and that the first thing found would be a leg bone. Blake's mother asserts that the "body was found...in exactly the area described by Gordon." I find it interesting that Smith claims to have gotten his information from the spirit of the dead man, yet the spirit didn't tell him where his remains would be scattered. Instead, the spirit told him that his body would be found some years later downstream. Maybe there was too much noise in the line from heaven that day to get a clear communication.
The journalist in this sordid story is not blameless, of course. Danny Penman asserts that "the fact that Gordon was able to pinpoint where and when Blake would be found is extraordinary." Penman didn't notice that Blake wasn't found. His leg bone and a couple of other parts were found. Nor did Penman notice that Gordon didn't pinpoint anything except the willingness of some people to suspend their critical thinking skills when a story is to their liking. Penman is apparently not psychic himself:
Sceptics will no doubt claim that Gordon simply got lucky. Throw enough details at someone and some of it is bound to appear superficially accurate. That may be true but some psychics have an amazing track record and Gordon Smith is one of those.
Smith didn't get lucky. He depends on the willingness of his victims to cooperate by finding meaning and giving significance to some of his statements, and ignoring and forgetting those they can't make sense of. He depends on their retrofitting and distorting facts that make the cold reader seem psychic. He is a performer who depends on the cooperation of his grieving and desperate clients in order for him to succeed. These performers are a dime a dozen, unfortunately, and their art does not require much finesse, but it does require a willingness to take advantage of distressed human beings. Anyone who has watched James Van Praagh or Sylvia Browne in action knows what I'm talking about.
If one looks at the videos on YouTube (mentioned above) of Gordon Smith at work, you will see a familiar set of techniques. He does mostly cold reading and maybe some hot reading as well. Is he a fraud? Probably, but I couldn't prove it without doing a thorough investigation, which I have neither the means nor the inclination to do. Watching him reminded me of John Edward, Van Praagh, Peter Popoff, and dozens of other scumbags who take advantage of the emotions of grieving and suffering people while pretending to be providing counsel or healing.
Some might find part two of the YouTube video challenging for the skeptic, since Smith is tested. The video doesn't give all the details of the test, but he appears to be psychic in his saying something about living in a "Christmas house" and selecting his victim out of a room full of potential victims before giving his reading. The victim, we are told by the paranormal investigator, listed "Christmas house" on her list of interesting things for the psychic to identify. And she did this before Smith did his reading.
One of the more obvious flaws in the test was that the investigators allowed Smith to enter the room with the potential victims (excuse me, subjects) to select who he would do the reading for. We see him throwing out all kinds of words, including some describing statues of Buddha and Asian something or other. We don't know how many items he put forth in his shotgunning, nor do we know what percentage his victim identified as correct. Still the precision of "Christmas house" seems like a "dazzle shot" (as Gary Schwartz might say). This could have been a lucky guess, but I'm leaning toward thinking that Smith got this information either by eavesdropping, prior knowledge of the victim (he's done thousands of readings), or collusion with the victim. In any case, the test was not very well designed. The history of psi research reveals that nothing psychic has yet been established with compelling evidence, but the methods of testing psychic ability have improved over the past one hundred and fifty years. The makers of this video should consult that history.
To do a proper test of a psychic, it must be established without a doubt that the psychic and the subject have never met. The psychic must not do the reading in the presence of the subject. No information about the gender, age, nationality, or background of the subject should be given to the psychic. Clear criteria as to what data is going to be collected and how it will be evaluated must be established before the test begins. If the psychic is going to list items that come to her mind, a recording of the process should be made so that an accurate transcription can be delivered for evaluation. The subject should list the names of several people (at least five or six names should be given) who have passed that she'd like the psychic to contact. Specific items about each name on the list should be provided before the test begins. The subject should not be allowed to retrofit items not on her list should she find meaning or significance with such items provided by the psychic. The subject should not be given just one transcript to evaluate for accuracy. She should be given several transcripts, and neither she nor the investigator who gives her the transcripts should know which is the one provided by the one being tested. The subject should be offered the option of saying that none or more than one of the transcripts are accurate. Some arbitrary but fair standard should be set establishing what will count as accurate: say a 90% hit rate. We already know from many experiments that subjects evaluate random readings (from psychics, astrologers, personality tests, and biorhythms) that are not done for them personally at 80-85% accurate. Several independent investigators, including at least one skeptic, should also compare the medium's transcript with the list of names and details provided by the subject before the test began.
My commentaries on various alleged psychics and psychic powers:
books and articles
Frazier, Kendrick and James Randi, "Predictions After The Fact: Lessons Of The Tamara Rand Hoax," in Science Confronts The Paranormal, ed., Kendrick Frazier (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986), first published in the Skeptical Inquirer 6, no.1 (Fall 1981): 4-7.
Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982), especially chapter 13, "Put Up or Shut Up," where he gives accounts of tests done on several psychics who have tried to collect the $10,000 Randi used to offer to anyone demonstrating a psychic power. So far, no one has collected, even though the offer is now over $1,000,000!
Psychic Scams by May Chow
Psychic Experiences: Psychic Illusions by Susan Blackmore, 1992, in Skeptical Inquirer 16 367-376.
"A Guide to Cold Reading" by Ray Hyman
Psychic Sophistry by Tony Youens
Psychic Deb blast from the past by Debbie Nathan
Secrets of a Telephone Psychic by Jane Louise Boursaw
The Research With B.D. and the Legacy of Magical Ignorance by George P. Hansen
Deception by Subjects in Psi Research by George P. Hansen
* AmeriCares *