The business of psychics

My high school buddy James Grimmelmann unleashes on Newsweek:

Tony Dokoupil manages to write 1,200 words in Newsweek about professional psychics without once telling his readers the single most relevant fact: Psychic powers don?t exist. Would Newsweek run an interview with the Easter Bunny? Would it let Jane Bryant Quinn suggest investing in perpetual motion machine startups? Would it print travel tips for hitching a ride on a flying saucer to Neptune? But here it is, an article whose sum and substance is that hiring a psychic could do wonders for your business.

This article is professional malpractice. No competent journalist would ever write something this brazenly, obviously, mendaciously misleading. If Dokoupil?s editors are responsible for the credulity, he should have taken his byline off of the article. By putting his name to it, he told the world, I, Tony Dokoupil, am unfit to commit acts of journalism. If this is what passes for professional reporting, what right does anyone have to complain about the quality of blog-based reporting?

The disturbing thing about this is that reporters are supposed to be naturally skeptical, and usually pride themselves on that personality trait. Editors pride themselves on the notion that they’d tell reporters: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” But how often do they really do so.

Dokoupil certainly deserves some blame here. But his editor should bear blame, too. The story that businesses are willing to shell out big bucks to hire a psychic is legitimate news, so the failure wasn’t in commissioning the story. It may be that the editor chose the wrong reporter, or failed to edit the story in a serious way.

For instance, this passage should never have been put on paper in a serious news outlet:

It’s impossible to objectively judge psychic powers. Are psychics just good listeners who pick up enough clues from their clients to provide seemingly insightful answers? Are they making lucky guesses?

The first sentence is simply false. Ask Ms. Day where Osama bin Laden is, or what tomorrow’s winning lotto numbers will be, or how many dollars I have in my wallet right now. Have her do some standard task 100 times (predict the results of a dice roll), and see how often she’s right, relative to the chances that she’d be right by random chance. Objective evaluation of psychic powers.

The thing is, based on the way psychics actually work, there often is no way to objectively measure accuracy. They deal in one-off-events, like selecting a jury, or greenlighting a movie. In other cases, they are dealing with experts who have a gut instinct that she may be able to echo back at them, for instance in picking models to represent or making stock market choices. For instance, here is what Dokoupil describes as “a typical call” from a client:

a prominent Wall Street money manager asked whether he should pull out of a risky, multimillion-dollar energy deal or let his money ride. “My gut,” Day recalls saying, “is that you’re not going to get your return.” The money manager listened and yanked his investment, she says, just before the deal nose-dived.

It’s one thing to present Day with a list of 100 stocks, and ask her to mark which ones she thinks will tank in the next week. That would be an objective test. But that’s not what happened in this case; the high-roller wanted Day’s advice because he had some reason to get hinky about the deal. She heard it in his voice that he wanted out of the deal, and told him so. He was saved, and credited her for the success.

She could be wrong a dozen other times, but that miraculous save would stick with the guy for years, and she’d keep earning, just for telling him what he already knows.

The ultimate irony, which Dokoupil buries on the second page of the web story, is this: Day turned to a career as a psychic because “Her marriage had ended.” Given that she’s sure that she can “see what [her teenaged son] did with that girl until 2 a.m.,” one presumes she could also have predicted that her marriage wouldn’t work out, and either call off the wedding, or at least get her finances in order first, so the divorce wouldn’t “leav[e] her strapped for cash.” If this irony struck Dokoupil or his editor, there’s no evidence of that in the piece, nor any sense that there’s more to it than prejudice when a Hollywood executive worries that “‘The hedge funds would freak out'” if they knew he consulted a psychic.” If I were relying on his decisions, I’d freak out, too.

Below the fold, my handy-dandy replacement for psychics (if it works for you, please send $10,000/month to me via the PayPal link in the sidebar):


i-8dd5bf862cbe986e85b2e372d16ae785-aquarter.jpgA quarter is the perfect tool for making decisions. If you have to decide whether, for instance, to pull out of an elaborate energy deal, begin by deciding that you’ll sell if the coin comes up heads, and that you’ll stick with it if it comes up tales. Or vice versa, it doesn’t matter.

Then flip the coin in the air, catch it in one hand, and flip in over onto the back of your other hand. Take a deep breath, and look at the coin.

Now you have a new choice. You can decide that the coin toss got it right, and do what the magic coin told you, or you can decide that maybe you should have made it best-of-five. In which case, you probably should do the opposite of what the coin told you. Flip it a few more times if it makes you feel better.

What this reveals is not the power of random chance, but the power of random chance to reveal underlying preferences. If you wanted to pull out of the deal, and the coin says you should do that, you’ll accept the toss. If the coin told you to stick with it, you’d resist that, which would tell you something useful about yourself. Since you’re smarter than a coin, you ought to override its bad advice.

And if you really don’t know and don’t care what you do, flipping a coin is as good a way as any to make a decision. It also costs a lot less than a psychic, since you get to keep the quarter.

Comments

  1. #1 CRM-114
    June 26, 2008

    Ronald Reagan and Nancy (“Mommie”) consulted an astrologer while he was ‘Rawhide’, and the press kept it all secret.

    I keep saying, journalism ended when Edward R Murrow retired.

  2. #2 Prashant
    June 26, 2008

    Hotel room reading has never gone down well with me.

  3. #3 Angela Thomas
    June 27, 2008

    Touche� to Tony Dokiupil for bringing up the topic of professional psychics in Newsweek. Professional psychics exists, yet they continue their good works despite hard line skeptics such as James Grimmelmann. Apparently Grimmelmann has failed to do his own research on true psychic abilities. After all, he would have found that top scientists and medical professionals have results to back up their research and discoveries on psychic abilities. Such professionals as Dr. Gary Schwartz (Yale and Harvard degrees), and Dr. Vernon Neppe (Noted as one of the greatest minds of the 21st Century) have provided proof of this natural ability.

    This natural ability has been developed by individuals all over the world, and their abilities have assisted others in areas such as business and law enforcement. If one believed the words of Grimmelmann, he would have one believe that his or her abilities amounts to nothing more than a circus performance. Although there are some �bad apples� among true, professional psychics who would take advantage of others, the falsehoods that they perpetuate is not to be compared to those whose gifts and work are real and effective.

    As a professional psychic, I have volunteered my time to missing children�s cases, as well as, hosted private sessions with clients all over the world. Since the majority of my client�s are geographically located in areas other than my own; it is impossible to give a �cold, face reading,� or make assumptions based on their emotional expressions or physical, body movements. I do not ask clients questions throughout the session, but rather encourage them to listen to the information that is being provided. I always recommend that the session is recorded for future reference and documentation. I have an incredible amount of testimonials from individuals, and predictions which have been documented with date and time stamps from outside sources. My professional psychic peers can claim the same.

    Perhaps we should give credit where credit is due, and praise Tony Dokiupil for bringing up the topic in the first place. As soon as we learn to recognize the enormous contributions psychics make in this world, the better off we shall be.

    Angela Thomas

  4. #4 ringo
    June 27, 2008

    It seems odd to tout the value of skepticism and then go on to spout the party line on psychic ability.

    Most psychics learn to not examine their own relationships, much the same way that most psychologists do. To do otherwise is to invite misery.

    And you do know the difference between a newspaper article and an editorial, right?

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    June 29, 2008

    “Most psychics learn to not examine their own relationships, To do otherwise is to invite misery.”

    While divorce is good fun?

  6. #6 Modusoperandi
    July 2, 2008

    Angela Thomas “This natural ability has been developed by individuals all over the world, and their abilities have assisted others in areas such as business and law enforcement.”
    Colour me skeptical. There’s a million bucks from Randi if you can prove this.

    “As a professional psychic, I have volunteered my time to missing children�s cases, as well as, hosted private sessions with clients all over the world.”
    Did your psychic powers tell you to use at least one too many commas?

    I have an incredible amount of testimonials from individuals, and predictions which have been documented with date and time stamps from outside sources.”
    Me too! I totally predicted that Canada Day would fall on the first of July this year! Also, when someone went missing and the polices asked me for help, I told them that the person was in the woods. I was sooo right! Woo!

    “My professional psychic peers can claim the same.”
    If you’re an actual psychic with real psychical powers, then you have no peers. Kudos!

    “As soon as we learn to recognize the enormous contributions psychics make in this world, the better off we shall be.”
    Yes, because what we need is more people getting credit for being vague or cryptic or wrong or statistically average in predictive power.

    (Note: I may be cranky this morning)

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