Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknownby Michael Shermer
Bestselling author Michael Shermer delves into the unknown, from heretical ideas about the boundaries of the universe to Star Trek's lessons about chance and time
A scientist pretends to be a psychic for a day-and fools everyone. An athlete discovers that good-luck rituals and getting into "the zone" may, or may not, improve his performance. A/p>/b>
Bestselling author Michael Shermer delves into the unknown, from heretical ideas about the boundaries of the universe to Star Trek's lessons about chance and time
A scientist pretends to be a psychic for a day-and fools everyone. An athlete discovers that good-luck rituals and getting into "the zone" may, or may not, improve his performance. A historian decides to analyze the data to see who was truly responsible for the Bounty mutiny. A son explores the possiblities of alternative and experimental medicine for his cancer-ravaged mother. And a skeptic realizes that it is time to turn the skeptical lens onto science itself.
In each of the fourteen essays in Science Friction, psychologist and science historian Michael Shermer explores the very personal barriers and biases that plague and propel science, especially when scientists push against the unknown. What do we know and what do we not know? How does science respond to controversy, attack, and uncertainty? When does theory become accepted fact? As always, Shermer delivers a thought-provoking, fascinating, and entertaining view of life in the scientific age.
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Where the Known Meets the Unknown
By Michael Shermer
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2005 Michael Shermer
All rights reserved.
Psychic for a Day
Or, How I Learned Tarot Cards, Palm Reading, Astrology, and Mediumship in Twenty-four Hours
ON WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 15, 2003, I filmed a television show with Bill Nye in Seattle, Washington, for a new PBS science series entitled Eye on Nye. This series is an adult-oriented version of Bill's wildly successful hundred-episode children's series Bill Nye the Science Guy. This thirty-minute segment was on psychics and talking to the dead. Although I have analyzed the process and written about it extensively in Skeptic, Scientific American, and How We Believe, and on www.skeptic.com, I have had very little experience in actually doing psychic readings. Bill and I thought it would be a good test of the effectiveness of the technique and the receptivity of people to it to see how well I could do it armed with just a little knowledge.
Although the day of the taping was set weeks in advance, I did absolutely nothing to prepare until the day before. This made me especially nervous because psychic readings are a form of acting, and good acting takes talent and practice. And I made matters even harder on myself by convincing Bill and the producers that if we were going to do this we should use a number of different psychic modalities, including tarot cards, palm reading, astrology, and psychic mediumship, under the theory that these are all "props" used to stage a psychodrama called cold reading (reading someone "cold" without any prior knowledge). I am convinced more than ever that cheating (getting information ahead of time on subjects) is not a necessary part of a successful reading.
I read five different people, all women that the production staff had selected and about whom I was told absolutely nothing other than the date and time of their births (in order to prepare an astrological chart). I had no contact with any of the subjects until they sat down in front of me for the taping, and there was no conversation between us until the cameras were rolling. The setting was a soundstage at KCTS, the PBS affiliate station in Seattle. Since soundstages can have a rather cold feel to them, and because the setup for a successful psychic reading is vital to generating receptivity in subjects, I instructed the production staff to set up two comfortable chairs with a small table between them, with a lace cloth covering the table and candles on and around the table, all sitting on a beautiful Persian rug. Soft colored lighting and incense provided a "spiritual" backdrop.
The Partial Facts of Cold Reading
My primary source for all of the readings was Ian Rowland's insightful and encyclopedic The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading (now in a third edition available at www.ian-rowland.com). There is much more to the cold reading process than I previously understood before undertaking to read this book carefully with an eye on performing rather than just analyzing. (Please keep in mind that what I'm describing here is only a small sampling from this comprehensive compendium by a professional cold reader who is arguably one of the best in the world.)
Rowland stresses the importance of the prereading setup to prime the subject into being sympathetic to the cold reading. He suggests — and I took him up on these suggestions — adopting a soft voice, a calm demeanor, and sympathetic and nonconfrontational body language: a pleasant smile, constant eye contact, head tilted to one side while listening, and facing the subject with legs together (not crossed) and arms unfolded. I opened each reading by introducing myself as Michael from Hollywood, calling myself a "psychic intuitor." I explained that my "clients" come to see me about various things that might be weighing heavy on their hearts (the heart being the preferred organ of New Age spirituality), and that as an intuitor it was my job to use my special gift of intuition. I added that everyone has this gift, but that I have improved mine through practice. I said that we would start general and then get more focused, beginning with the present, then glancing back to the past, and finally taking a glimpse of the future.
I also noted that we psychics cannot predict the future perfectly — setting up the preemptive excuse for later misses — by explaining how we look for general trends and "inclinations" (an astrological buzzword). I built on the disclaimer by adding a touch of self-effacing humor meant also to initiate a bond between us: "While it would be wonderful if I was a hundred percent accurate, you know, no one is perfect. After all, if I could psychically divine the numbers to next week's winning lottery I would keep them for myself!" Finally, I explained that there are many forms of psychic readings, including tarot cards, palm reading, astrology, and the like, and that my specialty was ... whatever modality I was about to do with that particular subject.
Since I do not do psychic readings for a living, I do not have a deep backlog of dialogue, questions, and commentary from which to draw, so I outlined the reading into the following themata that are easy to remember (that is, these are the main subject areas that people want to talk about when they go to a psychic): love, health, money, career, travel, education, ambitions. I also added a personality component, since most people want to hear something about their inner selves. I didn't have time to memorize all the trite and trivial personality traits that psychics serve their marks, so I used the Five Factor Model of personality, also known as the "Big Five," that has an easy acronym of OCEAN:openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Since I have been conducting personality research with my colleague Frank Sulloway (primarily through a method we pioneered of assessing the personality traits of historical personages such as Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Carl Sagan through the use of expert raters), it was easy for me to riffle through the various adjectives used by psychologists to describe these five personality traits. For example: openness to experience (fantasy, feelings, likes to travel), conscientiousness (competence, order, dutifulness), agreeableness (tender-minded versus tough-minded), extroversion (gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking), and neuroticism (anxiety, anger, depression). Since there is sound experimental research validating these traits, and I have learned through Sulloway's research how they are influenced by family dynamics and birth order, I was able to employ this knowledge to my advantage in the readings, including (with great effect) nailing the correct birth order (firstborn, middle-born, or later-born) of each of my subjects!
I began with what Rowland calls the "Rainbow Ruse" and "Fine Flattery," and what other mentalists more generally call a Barnum reading (offering something for everyone, as P.T. always did). The components of the following reading come from various sources; the particular sequential arrangement is my own. I opened my readings with this general statement:
You can be a very considerate person, very quick to provide for others, but there are times, if you are honest, when you recognize a selfish streak in yourself. I would say that on the whole you can be a rather quiet, self-effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life of the party if the mood strikes you.
Sometimes you are too honest about your feelings and you reveal too much of yourself. You are good at thinking things through and you like to see proof before you change your mind about anything. When you find yourself in a new situation you are very cautious until you find out what's going on, and then you begin to act with confidence.
What I get here is that you are someone who can generally be trusted. Not a saint, not perfect, but let's just say that when it really matters this is someone who does understand the importance of being trustworthy. You know how to be a good friend.
You are able to discipline yourself so that you seem in control to others, but actually you sometimes feel somewhat insecure. You wish you could be a little more popular and at ease in your interpersonal relationships than you are now.
You are wise in the ways of the world, a wisdom gained through hard experience rather than book learning.
According to Rowland — and he was spot-on with this one — the statement "You are wise in the ways of the world, a wisdom gained through hard experience rather than book learning" was flattery gold. Every one of my subjects nodded furiously in agreement, emphasizing that this statement summed them up to a tee.
After the general statement and personality assessment, I went for specific comments lifted straight from Rowland's list of high probability guesses. These include items found in the subject's home:
A box of old photographs, some in albums, most not in albums
Old medicine or medical supplies out of date
Toys, books, mementos from childhood
Jewelry from a deceased family member
Pack of cards, maybe a card missing
Electronic gizmo or gadget that no longer works
Notepad or message board with missing matching pen
Out-of-date note on fridge or near the phone
Booksabout a hobby no longer pursued
Drawer that is stuck or doesn't slide properly
Keys that you can't remember what they go to
Watch or clock that no longer works
And peculiarities about the person:
Scar on knee
Number 2 in the home address
Childhood accident involving water
Clothing never worn
Photos of loved ones in purse
Wore hair long as a child, then shorter haircut
One earring with a missing match
I added one of my own to great effect: "I see a white car." All of my subjects were able to find a meaningful connection to a white car. As I was reading this list on the flight to Seattle the morning of the reading, I was amazed to discover how many flight attendants and people around me validated them.
Finally, Rowland reminds his ersatz psychics that if the setup is done properly people are only too willing to offer information, especially if you ask the right questions. Here are a few winners:
"Tell me, are you currently in a long-term relationship, or not?"
"Are you satisfied in terms of your career, or is there a problem?"
"What is it about your health that concerns you?"
"Who is the person who has passed over that you want to try to contact today?"
While going through the Barnum reading I remembered to pepper the commentary with what Rowland calls "incidental questions," such as:
"Now why would that be?"
"Is this making sense to you?"
"Does this sound right?"
"Would you say this is along the right lines for you?"
"This is significant to you, isn't it?"
"You can connect with this, can't you?"
"So who might this refer to please?"
"What might this link to in your life?"
"What period of your life, please, might this relate to?"
"So tell me, how might this be significant to you?"
"Can you see why this might be the impression I'm getting?"
With this background, all gleaned from a single day of intense reading and note taking, I was set.
The Tarot Card Reading
My first subject was a twenty-one-year-old woman, for whom I was to do a tarot card reading. To prepare myself I bought a "Haindl Tarot Deck," created by Hermann Haindl and produced by U.S. Games Systems ($16) in Stamford, Connecticut, at the Alexandria II New Age Bookstore in Pasadena, California, and read through the little pamphlet that comes with it (itself glossed from a two-volume narrative that presumably gives an expanded explanation of each card). It is a sleek, elegantly illustrated deck, each card of which is replete with an astrological symbol, a rune sign, a Hebrew letter, I Ching symbols, and lots of mythic characters from history. For example, the Wheel of Fortune card description reads:
The wheel is set against a field of stars symbolizing the cosmos. Below, looking upward, is the Mother, the Earth. At the upper left is the Sky Father, Zeus. At the upper right is an androgynous child. The child, with its wizened face, represents humanity and our ancestors. Inside the Wheel, the mushrooms symbolize luck, the snake, rebirth, the eye, time, the dinosaur, all things lost in the turning of time. Divinatory meanings: Change of circumstances. Taking hold of ones life. Grabbing hold of fate. Time to take what life has given you.
For dramatic effect I added the Death card (figure 1.1) to my presentation.
The image of the boat belongs to birth as well as to death; the baby's cradle originally symbolized a boat. The trees and grass signify plants, the bones, minerals, the birds, the animal world, and the ferryman, the human world. The peacock's eye in the center signifies looking at the truth in regard to death. The bird also symbolizes the soul and the divine potential of a person. Divinatory meanings: The Death card rarely refers to physical death. Rather, it has to do with one's feelings about death. Psychologically, letting go. New opportunities.
At a total of seventy-eight cards there was no way I was going to memorize all the "real" meanings and symbols, so the night before I sat down with my family and read through the instruction manual and we did a reading together, going through what each of the ten cards we used is suppose to mean. My eleven-year-old daughter, Devin, then quizzed me on them until I had them down cold. (This was, I think, done not just out of Devin's desire to help her dad; it also had the distinct advantage of getting her out of doing her homework for the evening, plus gave me a taste of my own medicine of repetitive learning.) I used what is called the Hagall Spread (no explanation given as to who or what a Hagall is), where you initially lay out four cards in a diamond shape, then put three cards on top and three more on the bottom (figure 1.2). This is what the spread is supposed to indicate:
1. The general situation
2. Something you've done, or an experience you've had that has helped create the current situation
3. Your beliefs, impressions, and expectations, conscious or subconscious, of the situation
4. The likely result of the situation as things stand now
5. Spiritual history, how you've behaved, what you've learned
6. Spiritual task at this time, challenges and opportunities in the current situation
7. Metamorphosis, how the situation will change, and the spiritual tasks that will come to you as a result
8. The Helper. Visualize the actual person. This person gives you support
9. Yourself. You are expressing the qualities of the person shown on the card
10. The Teacher. This figure can indicate the demands of the situation, and also the knowledge that you can gain from the situation
By the time of the reading I forgot all of this, so I made up a story about how the center four cards represent the present, the top three cards represent the future, and the bottom three cards are the characters thatare going to help you gel: to that future. It turns out that it doesn't matter what story you make up, as long as it sounds convincing. I was glad, however, that I had memorized the meanings of the symbols and characters on the cards I used because my subject had previously done tarot card reading herself. (Since you are supposed to have the client shuffle the tarot cards ahead of time to put her influence into the deck, I palmed my memorized cards and then put them on top of the newly shuffled deck.)
Since this subject was my first reading I was a little stiff and nervous, so I did not stray far from the standard Barnum reading, worked my way through the Big Five personality traits fairly successfully (and from which I correctly guessed that she was a middle child between firstborn and last-born siblings), and did not hazard any of the high-probability guesses. Since she was a student I figured she was indecisive about her life, so I offered lots of trite generalities that would have applied to almost anyone: "you are uncertain about your future but excited about the possibilities," "you are confident in your talents yet you still harbor some insecurities," "I see travel in your immediate future," "you strike a healthy balance between head and heart," and so forth.
Excerpted from Science Friction by Michael Shermer. Copyright © 2005 Michael Shermer. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Meet the Author
Michael Shermer is the author of The Believing Brain, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Science of Good and Evil, The Mind Of The Market, Why Darwin Matters, Science Friction, How We Believe and other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University. He lives in Southern California.
Michael Shermer is the author of The Moral Arc, Why People Believe Weird Things, The Believing Brain, and several other books on the evolution of human beliefs and behavior. He is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, the editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He lives in Southern California.
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