Are Psychics the New Therapists?

The scrubs mean that I’m right.

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?“.

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 evidence-based grief counseling?
  • Fourth, even if psychics are real, can John Edward – 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. ???

A degree is apparently worth its weight in cold/hot readings.

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 don’t practice critical thinking.

*Cross-posted at Science-Based Therapy.

8 Responses to “Are Psychics the New Therapists?”

  1. daijiyobu says:

    Is someone like Oz deprofessionalizing medicine? Physicians have a fiduciary relationship with their patients (and the public by extension), whose needs are placed foremost. The legal-ethical lingo is credat emptor, let the buyer have faith. It would seem that Oz must be less trusted than that with his credulity and all, more like the level of trust for someone selling a car on a used car lot — caveat emptor, let the buyer beware.

    -r.c.

  2. Ethan Clow says:

    In my opinion, Dr. Oz is being profoundly irresponsible. What I don’t understand is how having a TV show lifts any burden of professional standards or regulations.

    If I was a doctor and advised people to drink paint to cure something on TV, wouldn’t I be subject to malpractice? Even if I phrased my recommendation as purely opinion…”in my opinion, drinking paint is an effective way of dealing with grief” doesn’t my role as a DOCTOR make what I say constitute medical advice?

    Doctor Oz is the Vice-Chair and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University. He directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. Perhaps some letters directed at these institutions might clear up my questions.

    • Karen Kalpin says:

      I SO AGREE WITH EVERYTHING YOU POSTED! Absolutely irresponsible and in my opinion having a TV show which millions of people watch increases his responsibility as a doctor. Ridiculous!

  3. Kim Hebert says:

    There is definitely an element of authority at play. Dr. Oz has a show *because* he is a doctor – he even wears scrubs for no reason, which is obvious branding – so apparently people are supposed to expect him to have a certain expertise. I get the feeling that they want to be higher brow than, say, paternity tests and chair fights, but it is still afternoon TV so they run the same gambit of typical afternoon TV staples, from exploitative tearjerkers to relaxed infotainment.

    Dr. Oz is put in a position to be taken seriously as a professional in an environment that’s neither serious, nor professional. He has authority over his guests just by virtue of his title, but the TV environment disarms viewers from that perception. Viewers get to say these shows are just for fun, but health advice has more weight coming from a doctor – that’s why the producers bothered to get one. They get to have their cake and eat it.

  4. Jeff Orchard says:

    I hate it when doctors say stuff like, “as a heart surgeon I have seen things about life and death that I just cannot explain and that science can’t study.” At least he said that HE could not explain it. But saying that “science can’t study [it]” is tantamount to admitting belief in magic.

    Way to go, doc!

  5. daijiyobu says:

    When Oz accepted an honorary degree from Bastyr University (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jzPdcVqcj3Q ) — which he called a “high-quality approach”; with a quite weird speech about his new naturopathic family, even with, perhaps, a Freudian slip about his own nuclear family!!! — I realized that he’s truly with his peeps / the naturopaths / the naturopaTHICK. He calls modern medicine “allopathic”, after all. And he loves them. I glean a desire to simultaneously put on the medical white lab coat and the ministry’s black. The black and white of his robes! The authority of ‘self-righteousness’! Too much irony, really. After all, it’s at Bastyr wherein they claim science contains what is HUGELY science-ejected, particularly the supernatural and vitalistic. Listen to the cultural relativization of knowledge that he advocates as “globalization”, as if reality / objectivity is a private matter! I am not impressed: this is a reversal of values. It’s actually rather sad, tragic really — he has degraded into a preEnlightenment knowledge basis. Bought: yes, “getting people to think very differently.” Truly. He states it’s an “honor”. Sadly.

    -r.c.

  6. Kim Hebert says:

    Update: It seems that their token skeptic, Katherine Nordal, was none too happy with how they edited her comments about John Edwards. See here for a summary. And get a load of the classiness:

    “His next victim (patient?) was a middle-aged man who rose to his feet when Edward suggested someone had lost a son. As the reading continued, Edward informed the grief-stricken parent that the car accident that claimed his son’s life was in fact a suicide. “I’ve never known that he committed suicide for sure,” said the grieving father, “but I believe it.”"

    No evidence WHATSOEVER to make that statement that may now forever alter this man’s memory of his son. Thanks, Dr. Oz.

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.