Sunday, 18 January 2009

Investigating the impossible: A skeptical approach (Updated)

Richard Wiseman, CFI London, Weird Science, Conway Hall 17th January 2009 11am-12am


For over 20 years, psychologist Richard Wiseman has delved deep into the mysterious world of the paranormal, carrying out high profile, and often controversial, investigations into the impossible. In this talk, Wiseman describes some of his more colourful adventures, presenting a scientific look at a range of seemingly paranormal phenomenon, including fire-walking, ghostly encounters, and ESP. Discover whether such phenomena really exist, what the future holds for parapsychology, and why we are all attracted by the lure of strange stuff. Free packet of peanuts for the best question.

About Richard Wiseman

Psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman started his working life as a professional magician and currently holds Britain’s only Professorship in the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. He frequently appears on the media, and has written over 60 academic articles and several books, including The Luck Factor and Quirkology.

Richard Wiseman Websites

Wikipedia Entry

Youtube Channel



Richard started by looking at the psychology of magic, noting that we are not very good at perceiving the world around us, so that is why we need science. Richard presented a number of amusing optical illusions to demonstrate this. Behind these there are systematic methods and a kind of logic. Magicians, of which Richard used to be a professional one, are experts at these to`produce tricks, slights of mind as well as slights of hand. Behind these are methods of psychology, that magicians use for misdirection. We have hard wired heuristics and biases in our brain and it is these that magicians take advantage of. For example, the audience look where the magician looks, even if the audience knows to look elsewhere, the follow-the-eyes heuristic keeps us looking at where the magician wants us to look. These biases and heuristics are so automatic that even if your are a magician, you can still be fooled, even knowing the perception tricks being used. Magicians use these techniques to trip up the mind, so do psychics and their ilk.


Richard tried to see if the same techniques were used by mediums. He staged seances (for the Equinox TV program). The simple techniques work very well, many get fooled - especially being subjected to these in darkness.

Haunted Houses

Richard has also investigated haunted locations. He examined ghost photographs capturing spirit energy - which turned out to be bad photographs - one was capturing the end of a pair of spectacles the photographer took off to take the photograph! Still Richard insists, this does deny that paranormal phenomena do not exist, just that one still needs to test them and see.

Fire Walkers

On a Tomorrow's World show Richard tested walking on hot coals.Now physicists know that walking 12 to 15 feet across coals will not harm your feet. No supernatural skills required. So how about test claimants to see if they could walk more than 15 feet? The show presented a world fire-walking record attempt. Can you guess what happened? Did the claimants mumbo jumbo help them? Just as well the were first aid workers available. Bizarre excuses were presented for failure, such as a claimant's guardian angel vanishing at the crucial moment!

Psychic Dogs

JayTee - the dog beloved by Rupert Sheldrake - was tested by Richard to see if it could tell when its owner arrived home. Other TV shows they did not test this properly and did not monitor the dog whilst the owner was far away. Can you guess what really happened? Unfortunately the dog was waiting by the door when the owner was still 8 miles away! The dog went in one test went to door 13 times, on a second test the dog went 12 times. The usual ad hoc explanations were made made by the owner Pam, that it was the summer, the dog was looking for the post man and so on ps please come back in the winter!

Testing normal people not psychics

The argument here is that everyone has these powers and so one should test the general population for small effects rather than a few special people - the "psychics" with purported strong effects (which have not been demonstrated, at least under the Richard's diligent eyes). The Ganzfeld Effect is the best known of these tests. Charles Honorton claimed that using a meta-analysis showed that this had a statistically significant effect. Ray Hyman criticised this meta-study that with more stringent control criteria filtering out "poor studies" there was no effect.. Richard performed another meta-study to see if these effects worked across labs. The answer was again a resounding NO. The problem is that there is much selection over the studies used to claim effects. Richard still thinks there is some interesting statistical data here that he is curious about but it just is not remotely as convincing as believers claim.

The Luck Factor

This book examined the psychology of exceptionally lucky and unlucky people. Test were designed with hugely blatant clues to help pass the test and unlucky people kept on missing these cues, causing much hilarity from the film makers.


This asked, amongst others, such questions as "Why do incompetent politicians win elections"? Not an issue to be laughed at, as amusing as the whole of Richard's talk is! In one demonstration of quirkology Richard used YouTube to present his infamous Colour Changing Card Trick.

Look at the above video and check out Richard's Youtube channel for the explanation video and other tricks.


There is no evidence for the claims of mediums of psychics, whereas it is still worth pursing experimental work on the general population. Richard is a highly entertaining, amusing and visual presenter. It really is worth seeing him giving a talk live.