I was rather dismayed, though not entirely surprised, to see a South African publication uncritically promoting the views of psychics to describe the coming year. This was particularly frustrating as it came just after hearing about how the UK’s The Guardian has recently been promoting the pseudoscience of astrology (see accounts here and here). At least in the case of The Guardian they published a letter from John Zarnecki, former president of the Royal Astronomical Society, which is clear that astrology should not be taken seriously. Just as with astrology, there is little to no scientific evidence to support the existence of psychic powers nor any supernatural ability to predict the future.
Claims of psychic powers are often debunked, particularly by magicians who are well aware of how to fool people, but more keep popping up all the time. The video below is of the late James Randi showing that James Hydrick‘s alleged telekinesis is not a psychic power but merely a simple trick.
Other psychics claim to be able to read minds or converse with spirits to give them knowledge that they would otherwise not posses. This is also untrue and the result of tricks that take no psychic powers to perform; a group of techniques known as cold reading. In cold reading you rely on your audience to provide clues to what they are responding to and to refine your guesses. You don’t even have to be particularly accurate because people want to believe and will interpret your vague suggestions in the most generous way they can. Thanks to this, you can give many people exactly the same, generic information and they will see it as being unique to them. This is demonstrated below by magician Derren Brown.
We can see the same story as we continue to look into other alleged psychic powers. A recent study of psychics who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead did not perform better than those who did not claim psychic powers. It’s not just that these people do not have any sort of supernatural power but that they mislead people. A notable case was Sylvia Browne, a so-called psychic, who, among other failed predictions, told Louwana Miller that her kidnapped daughter was dead. It’s not hard to realise the trauma that must have caused and it’s tragic that Miller died seven years before her daughter was found alive. To make it worse, that’s not the only time Browne falsely told parents that their child was dead.
There was a high-profile paper several years which purported to show extrasensory perception but which failed to replicate and, in fact, was a major factor in the start of the replication crisis in science. The predictions in articles like the one by City Press are no more than a few wildcards, general statements and guesses based on what we see happening in the present; guesses that anyone can make. There’s a reason why, if you look back at past psychic predictions of what would happen in 2020, there’s nothing in them about a major, worldwide pandemic. “Psychics.” Can. Not. See. The future.
While it is not completely impossible for psychic powers to exist, there is currently little to no evidence to support their existence. Alleged psychics do not perform above chance and, in the few cases where they do, their feats can easily be replicated, without supernatural powers, using just a bit of psychology or stage magic. There is no reason to give psychics attention in the pages of a respectable publication and certainly not in such a credulous way. In fact, given that South Africa is an incredibly superstitious country, I think it is highly irresponsible for City Press, or any other outlet, to promote such content.