People Still Believe in Psychic Powers Despite the Evidence

Man with psychic powers

As a child, I found myself fascinated with the topic of psychic phenomena. The sort of fortune-teller psychics many people pay to visit today held no interest. My focus was on things like telepathy, telekinesis, and remote viewing. I spent countless hours in our local public library researching the topic. I didn't realize it at the time, but this would be an important introduction to science.

I hoped psychic powers were real, but I didn't assume they were real. I wasn't sure. My goal was to find out whether there was any truth to the claims. What I found in the library helped me achieve this goal.

Testing Psychic Phenomena

The books I read were all non-fiction. Most of them were reports of research coming out of parapsychology labs. The typical format was that the author would present the claims of psychic powers first. Who were these psychics? What did they say they could do? I marveled at the powers they described.

Next, the author would invite the reader to consider the challenge of testing such claims. What kind of research design would work best? I learned about sampling methods, experimental design, controls, and experimenter bias. I realized how complicated it could be to test claimed psychic powers. More important than that, I learned why these measures were necessary.

Most authors then provided a detailed description and rationale for the research methods. These often included diagrams or photos of the lab and the materials used. I read about the process a test subject went through in the lab.

Once I understood the methods, it was time for the results. What had they found? The answer was the same in study after study from book after book. They found no evidence that claimed psychic powers were real. They found no evidence that anybody had psychic powers, whether they claimed them or not. In fact, they found that people performed as well as one would expect based on chance. Their claimed psychic powers provided no measurable advantage.

Facing Reality

I'll admit that my first reaction was one of disappointment. It would have been so cool if they had found something different! I wanted to believe that some people might have psychic powers.

But I could not ignore the clear scientific consensus on the topic. It wasn't like we didn't know. There had been many studies, and they all found the same thing. I couldn't ignore this. I didn't understand how others could.

How did the "psychics" respond? Some said the tests were unfair. Others claimed that their powers didn't work in the lab but worked everywhere except the lab. I recognized how absurd this was. And so, I accepted the scientific findings. There was no evidence of psychic powers. This did not mean they were impossible; it meant there was no reason to believe they were real.

I thought about the scientists who had conducted all these studies. The scientific community disparaged their work and viewed them as hacks. But what they were doing was science. They were testing claims in well-controlled lab studies. It occurred to me that we needed more of this. People make all sorts of wild claims that are never tested. Accepting some of them at face value seems harmful.

Lifelong Lessons in Skepticism

There are three things about this experience that stand out to me today. The first has to do with the importance of asking ourselves how we would test a particular claim. Accepting claims without evidence opens us up to exploitation. It is important that we test them. But how? This is why science education is so important. We need some scientific literacy to be able to answer this question.

Next is the importance of guarding against confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. We are prone to remember information consistent with our preconceived notions. We tend to forget inconsistent information. If we test something 10 times and it works one of those times, that's the one we remember. We don't follow the evidence where it leads. Instead, we start with our beliefs and seek confirming evidence. Guarding against these tendencies is vital. At least, it is vital if we care about knowing what is true.

Finally, many people continue to believe in psychic powers despite the evidence. This didn't make any sense to me at the time, but it prepared me for life in a religious country. Despite many studies finding similar results with intercessory prayer, people still believe. They believe because they want to believe.

I didn't realize it at the time, but this early foray into science sparked an interest that is still with me today. I'm not content to believe what I want to believe. I recognize that much of what I'd like to believe is false. I prefer knowledge to belief. Our knowledge has limits, and I am comfortable with that. I won't pretend that the limits of our knowledge are evidence of the supernatural.

Image by author via NightCafe