Are Psychics the New Therapists?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer:

Psychics/mediums are people who claim to predict the future and/or talk to the dead using paranormal powers. There is no evidence (despite years of investigation) that people have these abilities. There is evidence that psychics/mediums use a technique called “cold reading” – even when they aren’t aware of it - which is a technique that allows psychics to gather information from their client/mark using body language, other cues, and a clever tongue. This allows the psychic to appear very accurate in their information, requiring no supernatural ability. Anyone can learn to do this.

People’s self-ignorance of using a trick may seem odd, but most people haven’t tested their “abilities” under controlled conditions. This allows them to¬†legitimately believe that they have supernatural powers through thinking errors, like one called confirmation bias (remembering hits more than misses). Unfortunately, as with most things, there are also people who are downright frauds, using cold reading with intentionally-practiced skill. They may even go so far as to use “hot reading”, where the psychic cheats by surreptitiously gathering information about their mark before their reading. Examples of psychics and their techniques can be seen in Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! episode about psychics here.

Psychics operate on a scale from small local shops to vast phone networks to a much grander scale: national TV. One example of the latter is John Edward (previously busted using both cold and hot reading techniques on his former show Crossing Over), who was recently featured on the Dr. Oz show in a segment entitled “Are Psychics the New Therapists?“, hence this topic coming to the attention of a¬† health blog.

Edwards and Oz essentially present the argument that grief is like a cancer that, if left “untreated”, will metastasize, and psychics/mediums are helpful in this regard. But even this one claim contains several assumptions:

  • First, as discussed above, there is no respectable evidence that psychics can talk to the dead.
  • Second, even if we assume that psychics abilities are real (or at least non-harmful), there is no evidence that they are helpful.
  • Third, in relation to the segment title, can psychics be so helpful as to replace professionally-trained therapists with evidence-based skills in grief counseling?
  • Fourth, even if psychics are real, can John Edwards – specifically – really talk to the dead? Does he deserve to be featured on this show given his history using (intentionally or not) known reading tricks?

Their “yes” arguments are less than compelling, with Dr. Oz stating:

“as a heart surgeon I have seen things about life and death that I just cannot explain and that science can’t study.”

And later:

“I can’t make up an explanation for what John Edward does. And, again, what was most eerie was his level of detail, the concreteness of it all.”

In other words, “I’ve never heard of cold reading and I assume science can’t study some things, therefore I assume psychics are real/helpful.” Dr. Oz’s ignorance about the topic and his allowance that psychics abilities “can’t be studied” (they have – psychics just don’t like the results) allows him to imply to his trusting audience that psychics are a valid form of grief treatment.

So put down your psychology textbooks and peer-reviewed clinical research, young health students, the “new therapists” are helpful because we can’t explain how it might work. ???

Forget your degree, learn cold/hot reading.

The position of critical thinkers, as with anything, is that evidence comes first. There’s no evidence that John Edward or any other psychic/medium has the capability to provide consistent therapeutic benefit for grief, let alone as much benefit as a trained professional.

Psychics/mediums are not a health profession, they have no standards of practice or code of ethics (which are required of any legitimate health provider to protect people), and they have no oversight to ensure their customers that they are legitimate (which is impossible, due to lack of supporting evidence) or that they are effective in providing their services. They likely have no training in psychology and therefore no appreciation for the harm that may be done by (intentionally or not) implanting false memories or altering existing memories of dead loved ones with their claims.

It’s unfortunate that a doctor, particularly one with such a large reach, would devalue therapeutic professions and lend authoritative “legitimacy” to the claims of unproven psychics/mediums, particularly when actual people’s lives, emotions, and personal well-being are on the line. It just goes to show how easily anyone can buy into unproven claims, no matter what their degree, if they do not practice critical thinking.

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