Interlude 1 How do you explain that

I with was some friends the other day, and one of them told me about a psychic reading he once had. This happens to me quite often. I usually want to talk about the interesting things in life, such as guitars or the thankless quest to find truly excellent fajitas in London. But my friends, aware of my line of country, often prefer to discuss their tales from the psychic realm.

As occupational hazards go, it is not the worst I can think of. Besides, I am the first to admit that tales of psychic powers can be fun and intriguing. Nonetheless, I still wince inwardly whenever this happens. There are two reasons.

The first is that every such tale tends to be markedly similar to the last one I heard, and the one before that, and the two before that, and the ten before that... and so on. The second reason is that one particular phrase always crops up at the end of these stories. Let me share it with you.

My friend's story was about a psychic he saw early one year, before he had planned his holidays. During the reading, the psychic said my friend would go on holiday in October. Sure enough, October came round and he went on holiday. As far as my friend was concerned, this was evidence of uncanny psychic ability. Having finished his story, my friend sipped his drink and then said, "How do you explain that?".

And there you have it. That is the phrase. I can see it coming from miles away, and I quietly groan to myself whenever it looms on the horizon. May I take this opportunity to explain why.

Explaining things away

In the first place, I am not remotely interested in trying to 'explain things away', and nor is any other sceptic I have ever met. For me, being sceptical boils down to one thing: I like to believe in things that are true, and to avoid believing in things which turn out to be complete rubbish. As human beings, we are all prone to believing in rubbish, and life is not short of temptations and opportunities to do so. Fortunately, there are some good ways of reducing the likelihood of this happening. Asking good questions is one. Getting well-informed about things is another. Trying to learn about good and bad reasoning is yet another.

I have tried to learn a few of these methods, and to apply them in everyday life. This does not make life boring, or soul-less, or devoid of joy and excitement and warmth and fun (if anything, quite the reverse). It just means I do not make quite as many dumb mistakes as I probably would otherwise. This is what I think it means to be 'sceptical'.

A question of recall

In the second place, it is worth looking at this whole business of being asked to 'explain' things. Like anyone else, I can only explain something if I can get at the facts, and a story told over a drink or two at the bar is not a set of facts. It is a recollection. A view. An impression of what someone thinks happened. Of course, my friend felt sure he knew exactly what happened during the reading, and exactly what was said. Alas, his confidence was probably misplaced.

Accurate recall is prone to at least four kinds of contamination. Generally speaking:

- people are not very good at observing things very accurately

- what little they observe well, they are not very good at remembering very accurately

- what little they remember well, they are not very good at describing very accurately to others

- and what little they describe well, they tend to simplify greatly

If you doubt the above is true, have a look at the formal academic research which has been done in this area. There is a lot of it, and it all points the same way: the human mind is wonderful in countless ways, but next to hopeless at accurately describing past experience.

If you do not care to check out the research, and I do not blame you, just try out your friends and family. Ask them to recall the opening words of the TV sitcom they have just watched, and not one of them will be able to tell you. Ask them to close their eyes and then describe what you are wearing, and very few will be able to remember the details (although women will do better than men). Many people cannot even say with certainty whether the numerals on their own watch are regular 'Arabic' style (1, 2, 3) or Roman (I, II, III). Or which way the head faces on their country's coins and stamps. Try asking people to describe basic details of pictures which hang on their walls and which they see every day. Most people cannot even recall the opening words of this paragraph (no cheating!).

This is no great disgrace. Most of us have never developed great powers of accurate recall because we do not need to. Life is complicated enough, and we take in just enough details to get by. I do it myself, and you probably do too.

The fallibility of human recall is not the problem. The problem is the lack of awareness of this fallibility. When people adamantly insist that they can remember something very well, they are usually wrong, and this gives rise to difficulties. In relationships, it gives rise to rows about past conversations (the 'That's not what I said!' syndrome). In law, it gives rise to flawed eyewitness testimony. In many other fields, it causes all sorts of strife, conflicts and difficulties. All these problems would vanish if people were well aware that what they think happened may be seriously adrift of what actually did happen. This applies to sceptics just as much as to anyone else - although sceptics are probably more aware of the fact than most.

Trained observers?

In some instances, defenders of psychic phenomena contend that a particular witness is more credible than average, since he or she is professionally trained to be a good observer. This may be true, but only up to a point. Someone may have very good observational skills in their own field of expertise, but these skills do not necessarily translate to situations outside their professional domain. Doctors are trained to make good observations of patients and their symptoms. Police officers are trained to observe crime scenes accurately. However, in other contexts these people may be no more accurate than average, which is to say not very accurate at all.

Taped readings?

In the case of psychic readings, many clients these days come away with a tape recording of what took place (many psychics offer this service for a small extra fee). This merely relocates the problem, rather than eliminating it. A client may possess a tape of the reading. But how accurately does she recall and describe its contents when talking to her friends? There is no way of knowing.

Nor can an audio tape convey the many other factors which may have been involved in the reading - such as prior information, visual clues and non-verbal client feedback.

Summary

To recap, when we hear someone describing what happened to them, we are usually getting a simplified account, not very well described, of something not very well remembered, of something not very well observed in the first place.

So how did the psychic predict my friend's October holiday? The answer is that I do not know if she did, and if she did I have no idea how. Perhaps it was an astonishing demonstration of authentic psychic precognition. Then again, maybe the psychic was as genuine as a 7 dollar bill and my friend was suckered by a piece of stylish cold reading. I was not there, and I have no way of finding out the facts which would inform my judgement either way. More to the point, I cannot get at the facts by listening to my friend's recollection of what took place.

It is impossible to 'explain' an anecdote. Even if it were possible, it is not what scepticism is all about.

Time, I feel, to get down off my soapbox and back to the subject of cold reading.

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