The Un-Psychic Fair

I was toying with the idea of creating a presentation to help the average person identify and disprove the “abilities” of different methods that supposed psychics use to do their readings. Unfortunately, for every example of an “ability” I thought of that would be showcased at a psychic fair, those can be explained one or two ways.

First, divination by use of a pendulum. This works the same way dowsing does, by the body’s Ideomotor response. This is the unconscious or involuntary movement of muscles that start the pendulum in motion. As an example, Jeff Wagg did what he called the Gender ID Test. He had three people come up, two male and one female. He told the guy doing the gender test with the pendulum that it would swing one way for male and the other for female. That was exactly what happened when he ran the test. Then he was blindfolded and they ran the test again. The results were vastly different. The pendulum was completely incorrect when the tester couldn’t see the subjects.

Second, a “psychic” who does any type of reading, whether it’s palmistry, tarot cards or runes is usually doing a cold reading. A good example of cold reading can be found here along with an explanation by Michael Shermer of what you are seeing. A cold reading uses vague language to illicit information from the person being read. It is done in such a way that the person may not even remember giving the information.

There are also warm and hot readings. A warm reading occurs when the “psychic” already has some information about the person they are reading for. Perhaps the reader knows the person’s neighbor or has acquired information about them in some way. A hot reading occurs when the reader actually knows the person they are reading for or has in-depth knowledge of them.

Although I would love to have an Un-Psychic Fair, there wouldn’t be enough booths to justify it. If anyone can think of a so-called psychic ability that cannot be explained by ideomotor responses or cold/warm/hot reading, I would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.



  1. Anita Ikonen said,

    December 16, 2010 at 2:26 pm

    “If anyone can think of a so-called psychic ability that cannot be explained by ideomotor responses or cold/warm/hot reading, I would love to hear from you.”

    The time when I knew someone has Hepatitis C or when I identified that a kidney or a uterus was missing and other strange cases.

    A so-called psychic ability that cannot be explained by ideomotor responses or cold/warm/hot reading. I would love to have a booth to help figure this out.

    • December 18, 2010 at 2:07 am

      Is it possible that you got those conditions right by chance? Has anyone kept track of your “hits” ?(the number of times you were right as opposed to the times you “missed” or got the condition wrong?)

      • latsot said,

        December 18, 2010 at 6:10 am

        Exactly the right question. This could come under the heading of cold reading as I tried to explain in my rambling comment below. Cold reading isn’t something that’s done *to* you or even necessarily *by* you. It’s an interaction. It’s often more successful if both parties are fooling themselves.

        Known frauds like Sylvia Browne are astonishingly unconvincing to anyone who doesn’t believe in their nonsense to begin with, but we all know someone who seems remarkably perceptive. We very easily slide into trusting that person’s intuition. We play up the hits and play down the misses. We actively seek them out for opinions and predictions when we probably don’t ask anyone else, increasing by stealth their chances of getting hits and bolstering the legend. We all do all this even if there’s never the slightest suggestion of paranormal powers: it’s very hard to avoid.

        Another term for ‘cold reading’ might be ‘conversation’.

      • Anita Ikonen said,

        December 21, 2010 at 8:19 am

        Since Shermer is an expert in sources of woo I relied on him for an explanation and discussed the possible mechanism with him in great detail. At first Shermer suggests it was a lucky guess based on intuition. I ask how intuition or guess could lead to such a specific and unusual condition for which there in this case were no external symptoms. He then agrees that there must be a different explanation.

        He then suggests that a woo might memorize a small list of common ailments and go through that list in a reading. Yet, had I done so I would have mentioned several other prevalent ailments yet I did not, and surely something as rare and specific as Hepatitis C would not be on such a list of common things. Shermer then agreed that no, he would also not have listed such a specific viral condition on a list. Shermer fails to find a plausible explanation and so do I.

        The entire discussion between Shermer and I on this is available at, note there are two parts to the discussion.

        As for cold reading interaction, I specifically designed the reading for it to NOT allow ANY interaction, conversation, or feedback between me and him during the reading as well as when my findings were announced and checked. I agree that there are gullible people and convincing woos, but this is Shermer we’re talking about. And I don’t know about me, but I think Shermer is the person least capable of fooling himself in a woo situation.

        Detection of this condition does seem “paranormal”, in that it seems to lack a normal explanation.

        See how the reading took place at

      • latsot said,

        December 28, 2010 at 3:28 am


        You have carefully avoided Maria’s question about the ratio of hits to misses. I’m not at all surprised that you’ve had a few hits if you make a habit of going around making diagnoses. If every single diagnosis you’ve ever made has been entirely correct and accurate – in the sense that a doctor would regard it correct and accurate – then I’d agree that you have a record worth testing. But if some of your diagnoses have been wrong or vague, then your hits were probably luck.

        I appreciate your attempts to remove the possibility of cold reading. They are by no means perfect as an experimental setup, but it seems like an excellent start.

        However, I’m afraid you *are* employing cold reading techniques. For example, you’re claiming that you diagnosed Hepatitis C. You most certainly did not. From your own account, you diagnosed a virus. I have no idea how compatible your description is with HepC and I’ve no idea what other viruses would also be compatible with that description. Since I’m not a doctor, I have no way to judge whether your hit counts as impressive and – I suspect – neither have you. After you found out that Shermer has HepC you used the fact that you didn’t know anything about the disease as evidence that you correctly diagnosed it. This is circular reasoning at best and certainly isn’t evidence. I don’t expect you to be able to diagnose diseases you don’t know anything about, of course. However, the conditions of the test and in particular the criteria for success would need to be pinned down much more carefully before I was impressed.

        What you mustn’t do is equate Shermer’s supposed inability to explain your result as evidence that your abilities are real. It’s not evidence in any sense of the word. The conditions weren’t controlled so we’ve no way of knowing whether you have a genuine ability, whether you were lucky or whether you cheated. My personal suspicion is that you were lucky and then after the fact used the kinds of technique employed in cold reading to make the result seem more plausible. But that’s just my opinion and not worth very much. So test it further! If you really have this amazing ability, you could put it to excellent use, but surely you must first determine that it’s genuine and that you’re not fooling yourself.

        I think your reading of Shermer probably qualifies you to apply for the JREF prize. Have you done this? It would be an excellent test of your abilities. If you can fool the JREF, your ability is probably real.

  2. latsot said,

    December 17, 2010 at 10:27 am

    There are always conjoring tricks of the Geller type. For example, drawing something in a sealed envelope, various strangely limited acts of telekenesis and his most astounding ability of all: remaining on television after being thoroughly debunked and widely ridiculed.

    One suggestion is that “cold reading” is a very wide category. It covers lots of interesting things. Different performers use different mixes of possibly dozens of different elements. For example, fuzzy language, barnum statements, lucky guesses, bullying, leading, chasing… And these are just a few of the techniques employed: also to consider are the underlying reasons for the techniques’ success. For example, we’re all prone to various types of bias; we can’t help but do much of the work to fill in missing gaps and spotting patterns; we feel anxious when we can’t back up the psychic’s claims; we invest in our beliefs; we find it hard to believe we’re being conned and so on.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if someone could be fooled by a cold-reader and have the techniques used explained to them and then *still* go on and immediately be fooled by a different cold-reader using slightly different techniques, wrapped in different showmanship. Or if not fooled into believing that paranormal shenanegins are involved having being once bitten, at least not recognising how the trick was done.

    Could we imagine a series of stalls populated by increasingly skilled cold readers? This would be an interesting bit of theatre and possibly useful: the more examples one sees, especially if used in different contexts, the easier it gets to spot cold reading techniques and anticipate as yet unfamilar ones.

    I’ve been to a few psychic fairs. In my experience, the vast majority of the stalls in those places are peddling ‘tools’ of the ‘trade’ (mostly to amateurs) such as crystals, tarot cards and so on. These were mostly low-cost items, but there was a lot of upselling. I would torment a stallholder by looking at the shiny crystals. They’d use some obvious cold reading techniques intended to flatter me into buying a crystal I obviously already liked the look of…. then they’d explain ernestly that people with the kinds of problem that could be solved with a purple crystal usually needed a green one too. And those people tend to attract people who need orange crystals… And rest assured that they always had very high value items to offer me to. It was a fun way to waste half an hour of their time.

    But this kind of selling is possible only because lots of people don’t question the breathtakingly unsupported premise in the first place: crystals do magic stuff because they are undeniably cool.

    I have two suggestions, both very obvious (and somewhat vague) I’m afraid:

    1. Teach critical thinking by example. This is the route so beloved of magicians who seem so numerous in the skeptical community and I think it’s a good one. Fool me twice….. after all. It also appeals strongly to the scientist and the engineer in me. In my limited experience, when people are exposed to things like cold reading in an environment where they aren’t vulnerable (and don’t feel vulnerable), then they quite quickly learn to spot and anticipate when it’s being done. It might help to give examples of similar manipulation outside the world of obvious woo, such as the advertising of beauty products and – lately – (*cough* apple *cough*) technology. This might help people to keep an eye on their assumptions and police their bias: our skepticism shouldn’t be limited to woo, after all.

    2. Invite people to ask in very simple terms how the ability or product works. It’s easier with products than with services, since we end up with the supposedly magical product even after the magician has laughed his way to the bank. We feel more comfortable asking how a crystal makes us lucky than how the spirit world tells us that someone with a name beginning with b is tormented in hell. I mean blissful in heaven. We expect a physical explanation for physical products. Hence all the ‘quantum’ and ‘nano’ that pervades the psuedo-explanations. In my experience, the peddlers aren’t very skilled at this. They haven’t questioned it themselves. If anyone is even a little skeptical, then asking direct questions is a fairly effective smoking gun. It is the simplest and one of the most valuable techniques of critical thinking we can learn and is also hilarious.

    Sorry this is a bit of a ramble, but I hope it helps.


  3. sgerbic said,

    December 21, 2010 at 12:31 am

    In this blog Maria I talk about a woman I met named Margaret Downey who swirls water and dye in a vase then videos it swirling around. When done with that she stops each frame looking for a picture. I think this is a common way woo fools themselves Paradolia.

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