Philosopher’s Corner: why people continue to see underwhelming psychics,Julian Baggini,The Skeptic

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 18, Issue 4, from 2005.

My local pub recently held a psychic night. Between 4 o’clock and 11, punters paid £20 each for half an hour with a psychic they had never heard of, but whose posters said he had been on television and that he would not tell you anything bad. It was an irresistible sales pitch. Almost every session was sold.

The landlady of the pub, who had organised the whole thing, didn’t seem that impressed by him. She told me how the first time he did this at another pub she used to run, she asked everyone coming out what he had said to them. The answer was always the same: there would be a wedding and a baby in the offing.

Not only that, but she also revealed that every time he came he gave her and her husband a reading, and so far nothing he had said to them had come true. For example, they were supposed to have come into a life changing amount of money, but many lottery tickets later, nothing had happened. Her sister was supposed to have got herself a man, but she remained resolutely single. A new woman was due to enter her son’s life, but he already had a prodigious turnover of female companions anyway. Once he even gave her husband some specific lottery numbers which didn’t win.

I assumed, therefore, that the landlady had him down as a fraud or incompetent. And yet, that night the same failed psychic had told her she would come into money with another woman. And straight after telling me of his terrible record, she was on the phone to her sister telling her to send her some money so they could buy a lottery ticket together. “We’ve got nothing to lose, except 50p,” she says.

Of course, if the psychic is seeing the future, the windfall would happen whatever she did. So there was no need for her to buy a lottery ticket. But set that aside for one minute and think about her “we’ve got nothing to lose” attitude. How can we explain this, without simply dismissing the landlady as a stupid idiot who needs a good slap and a lesson in inductive reasoning? Well, just consider how close her reasoning is to two highly respectable arguments.

The first is the use of the precautionary principle. This roughly states that you should refrain from doing something with a potentially disastrous outcome unless, and until, you have enough evidence to conclude that the bad outcome is almost certain not to happen, or that the risks, though high, are outweighed by the benefits.

There are big questions about how exactly this rough definition should be filled out. But some kind of version of it is accepted by many sensible folk, including government scientific advisors and the Prime Minister Tony Blair, who back in 2002 said “Responsible science and responsible policymaking operate on the precautionary principle.”

Now go back to our landlady. The potential misfortune she was faced with was missing out on a large cash windfall. So she had a great deal to lose if the psychic was somehow right in a way that was conditional on her putting herself in a position where he could be right. What seemed to motivate her was therefore something rather similar to the precautionary principle: she should refrain from doing something that would rule her out of a potentially wonderful outcome because she did not have enough evidence to conclude that this good outcome was almost certain not going to happen; or that the cost of entering the lottery was outweighed by the potential benefits of winning it.

Of course I’m not saying this line of reasoning stands up, not least because the psychic’s track record would seem to you and I to provide all the evidence she needed that the cash dividend was not going to appear. All I’m saying is that you can see how a bit of wishful thinking, added to a lack of basic logic skills, which people are rarely taught, can lead someone to follow a perfectly reasonable principle in a misguided way.

Consider also the case of Pascal’s Wager. This is the famous argument that you ought to believe in God, because you can’t be sure if he exists; and if you believe and are wrong the price you pay is much less than if you don’t believe and are wrong, in which case you end up in hell.

It’s a bad argument, but many have been and still are persuaded by it, including very intelligent people like Blaise Pascal himself. And again, you can see how the landlady’s own thoughts pretty much echo his: entering the lottery costs me little and could earn me much, and not entering saves me little and could cost me enormously.

All this suggests to me that superstition and nonsense exert a grip on people in part because the reasoning that makes them think there may just be something in it is of a form which is both natural and, used properly, perfectly rational. And because there are also psychological reasons for wanting to reason in these fallacious ways, it can be very hard to show people they are just mistaken.

If I’m right then we can predict in an utterly non-supernatural way that in the battle against irrationality, many people who are not completely stupid will find our opponents much more seductive than us.

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From the archives, Julian Baggini explains that even when people gain nothing from seeing a psychic, the instinct that they’ve nothing to lose by trying it is one that’s hard to overcome
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