Cold reading 6: Building upon generalisations

All of the generalisations mentioned previously are used by cynical charlatans to convey the idea that the reader really does have hidden powers and esoteric knowledge. They use these techniques to dupe gullible ‘believers’ and to prey on the desperate and bereft. However that’s only the beginning.

As the person being read becomes more and more convinced that the reader is genuine they will allow their guard to drop. By asking for confirmation regularly (“Is that right?”) the reader engages the subject in the reading and gets them used to providing information.
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By asking open ended questions (“What does that mean to you?” “How does that relate to your life?”) you can encourage the subject to provide all sorts of information that you can then feed back to them as though the cards had revealed it.

It’s also useful to used ‘paired’ information (see the post on ‘shotgunning’ for a few examples). For example if the subject says that they have few friends it’s a safe guess that they’re often lonely and bored. So when the cards tell you this and you pass that information on they’ll be even more convinced.

Cold readers don’t worry about the odd miss – people tend to remember the hits. And if they throw in plenty of future predictions (vague but statistically probable) that cannot immediately be verified they’ll be on to a winner. Charlatan ‘psychics’ can also make predictions based upon their victim’s own actions using simple cause and effect principles, For example


If you work hard at it you will succeed in time – but don’t give up.
You need to get out of the house to find your true love.
Spend enough time planning your future and you’ll do much better.

If these predictions don’t come true the subject will think they just didn’t do what they had to do well enough.

Notice also the way the subject appears:

Are they dressed for comfort or style (especially notice ladies’ shoes)?
Are their clothes good quality and new or shabby and cheap?
Do they look the world in the eye or look down nervously?
Are they with a partner (same sex or heterosexual)?
Do they appear to be embarrassed by anything?
Are they well mannered or more lassiez faire?
Do others appear to defer to them or are they lower down the pecking order in this particular group?
Are they the butt of others’ jokes or do they ridicule/protect others?
Do their clothes fit well (IE have they lost weight recently)?
Does their pallor, demeanour, level of energy, perspiration (or lack of it), respiration suggest health or illness?
Do others value their opinions or are they constantly interrupted?
Do they talk too much or make concise but pithy comments?
Are they a listener or a brash interrupter?

All of these things and other, similar observations can also provide some very real cues about the subject’s personality and status within society. They’re obvious when you look for them but most people don’t (and they won’t realise how much they reveal to charlatans either). All the ‘psychic’ con artist need to do is practice.

Voila – you’re a psychic charlatan!
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You can download the entire series as an A5 PDF and other free downloads from here

Cold reading 5: Perspectives

One of the problems unpracticed cold-readers often face is how to put their generalisations into words that will appeal to the person being conned. Many memorize short descriptions from the point of view of different people that tend to describe just a few personality traits in ways that are acceptable to a wide range of victims.

As part of my project to expose the scam of cold-reading I’ve developed some of these myself. You can read them below. Bear in mind that these are not meant to be particularly accurate descriptions of the individual from any particular standpoint – rather they are intended simply to flatter the person by mirroring their own probable self-justifications. There’s nothing particularly insightful about any of this – in fact it’s really just an exercise in patronising people. Unfortunately – that very patronisation is effective which is why so many cold readers use just this sort of stock phrase to reel in their gullible marks.
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Nationalist

You’re concerned with what’s going on around you and especially the idea that those you care most about May be getting a raw deal. I also sense some frustration that not everyone shares your concerns. You’re also worried that sometimes people misunderstand your motives, even seeing you as the problem when really all you want is to be part of the solution.

You put great store by friendship, trust and loyalty but the other side of that is that once lost, you take a long time to trust again – even if you don’t show it. Once bitten, twice shy – or at least twice wary

Racist

You’re concerned with what’s going on around you and especially the idea that those you care most about May be getting a raw deal. I also sense some frustration that not everyone shares your concerns. You’re also worried that sometimes people misunderstand your motives, even seeing you as the problem when really all you want is to be part of the solution.

Religious

You have your opinions and they really matter to you. But sometimes you get frustrated when other people try to ridicule your beliefs, as though they know all there is to know. You understand that not everything can be explained in simple terms.

Spiritual

You’re a bit of a free spirit in some ways. You don’t like being told what to think, even if you’re not sure of all the answers to life, the universe and everything, you don’t need others to give you their ready-made (& often fairly silly) solutions.

Unthinking

You live life spontaneously. You like to seize the moment rather than worry about too much endless navel gazing. You know what you need to and you don’t suffer fools gladly but you really don’t have the time to spend hours worrying about things that don’t actually matter in the real world.

Conservative

You’ve been around long enough to know that there is no Santa Claus and that we all have to work for what we want. It’s not that you like to see inequality in the world, it’s just that you understand that opportunity tends to come through diligent hard work and that not everybody is prepared to do that work themselves.

Socialist

You value fairness and you sometimes get frustrated at the world’s injustices. Above all you believe that we should all have a fair crack of the whip and you have a hard time understanding why others can justify unfairness.

Far right

You don’t suffer fools gladly and you have little patience for wishy washy people who live life as though everything is lovely in the world. You’ve lived enough to know that it isn’t all rosy in the garden.

Smug

You’re no fool. But you’ve learned that it’s sometimes a good idea to keep your mouth shut and leave others to it – even when you know they’re wrong. After all not everyone is prepared to hear hard truths. Sometimes you wish that was different but you also know that wishful thinking doesn’t cut much ice in the real world.

Workshy

You value your creature comforts and you don’t really like being bossed around. You have a lot of unused potential and you know that you have a lot to offer but sometimes you procrastinate and put things off. Sometimes others get on your case about that but most of the time you don’t worry too much about it.

Selfish

It’s a hard world and you know it. You’re no soft touch. You sometimes take a bit of flack for that but that’s OK.

Thief

It’s a hard world and you know it. You’re no soft touch. You sometimes take a bit of flack for that but that’s OK.

Considers self a failure

You’ve had your share of ups and downs and sometimes those downs hit you hard. Sometimes you find it hard to pick yourself up again but please remember that it’s never really over until you stop trying.

Polyamorous man

You enjoy company – especially female company but – correct me please if this is wrong – you tend to have fairly short relationships. It’s not that you don’t like to be intimate but you really haven’t found the woman to curb your wanderings yet. So you keep looking and you don’t see any reason to limit your explorations as you go.

Polyamorous woman

You enjoy company – especially male company but – correct me please if this is wrong – you tend to have fairly short relationships. It’s not that you don’t like to be intimate but you really haven’t found the man to curb your wanderings yet. It may be that one man will never be enough. So you keep looking.

Needy woman

I sense a fear in you. It’s not so much a specific thing you’re scared about but rather a general sense that – I don’t know. It’s as though you’re worried that you might have to face the world alone and that scares you. You prefer to be around others and to have safety in numbers, whether that number is many or just two. It’s not that you’re especially ‘needy’ (although others might interpret you that way) – you just know what it’s like to be lonely and you really don’t like that feeling.

Needy man

I sense a fear in you. It’s not so much a specific thing you’re scared about but rather a general sense that – I don’t know. It’s as though you’re worried that you might have to face the world alone and that scares you. You prefer to be around others and to have safety in numbers, whether that number is many or just two. It’s not that you’re especially ‘needy’ (although others might interpret you that way) – you just know what it’s like to be lonely and you really don’t like that feeling.

Marginalised sexuality or LGBT

You’ve had your ups and downs and it took you a while to feel comfortable in your own skin – to be OK with yourself but that’s getting/got easier over time. Sometimes you like just to get away and be yourself.

Hard man

It’s a hard world and you tend to face it head on. You put great store by friendship, trust and loyalty but the other side of that is that once lost, you take a long time to trust again – even if you don’t show it. Once bitten, twice shy – or at least twice wary.

You are well respected and that means a lot to you. It was hard won.

Neurotic

You don’t always show it but you’re not always as confident as you would like to be. You tend to like to know what’s going to happen next and you can be unsettled if plans change unexpectedly. You are a thoughtful person but sometimes you overthink things and that can cause you problems. You don’t have many close friends but those close friends you do have are important to you. You’re a bit of a ‘people watcher’ & you often know if someone else has a problem long before other people notice. It takes you a long time to trust other people but once you do you are able to trust them quite deeply for as long as they remain worthy of that trust.

Chip on their shoulder

You’re quite frustrated for much of the time. You dislike injustice and you’re very aware that the world is full of unfairness. You don’t like being boxed in or being bossed around and you can be extremely passionate about the things you believe in. You can be just as passionate with people once you trust them but they have to share your ideals or they won’t really get that close to you.

You have far more to offer than most people will ever realise. You can be a good friend but you have no time for superficial people or those who betray their own ideals just because it’s easier.

Traditionalist

You like order. You know who you are and you know where you come from. You can be a very moral person and you have very real standards that you set yourself. You wish others would live up to the same standards and, although you’re not always surprised when they don’t, you are sometimes disappointed.

Burned out

You used to be much more passionate than you are now – a man/woman on a mission. But now you worry that you’ve lost something – some part of yourself and you miss it. Of course you’re older and wiser now than you were then but that’s not all of it. It’s as though you’ve been in a war – a quiet, personal struggle and you’ve grown weary somewhere along the way.

Middle manager

When I look at you I feel like the pig in the middle. It’s as though whatever you do someone will find a reason to blame you. That may not be everyone and it doesn’t happen all the time but it’s common enough to get in the way.

Sometimes you find yourself forced into a corner. You take the flak for someone else’s stupidity. You tell yourself that THAt’s just part of life but still you can get resentful of it.

Non managerial worker

When I look at you I see untapped resources. You have much more to offer than others realise – perhaps more than you yet realise yourself. And yet you know that nothing happens just because you would like it to. If you are to realise your potential you need to pay the price, in time and in effort. I know that the potential is there to achieve remarkable things. What I don’t know is whether or not it’s worth the sacrifice to you.

Young and ambitious

You’re going places. You’re aware of that already though, aren’t you? You have a lot of work ahead of you though – but so long as you keep at it you’ll go far.

Always remember though that the more you kid yourself the harder your journey will be. It’s important that you discipline yourself very diligently to see the world as it really is – not as you would like it to be.

Trust to evidence and keep your emotions in check. And never close the door on any honest ally. You’ll find they crop up in the unlikeliest places.

Middle aged and ambitious

You’ve had your share of hard knocks, haven’t you? A lesser man would’ve given up and, in fact I see that there have been moments when you’ve felt like throwing in the towel. You remind me of the horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Do you know it? The horse faced every setback with a determination to work harder – I think there’s a lot of that in you.

But commendable as that is it’s also a warning. You need to work smarter too. Does that make sense to you?

No ambition

You’re undervalued and you know it. Is that right?
You may not want to rule the world but that’s OK. A little appreciation would go a long way.
Sometimes you get a bit resentful, a bit irritated or frustrated at the way others seem to treat you like a doormat. I understand that. But you know, whatever others might think you deserve respect and you deserve to be happy.
Does that mean something to you?

Low intelligence

Wow. You put up with a lot of stick – and you deal with stuff that others wouldn’t be able to cope with at all.

You’re in touch with your feelings and you have a lot of love to give. You may not be the best educated person you know but you have a form of emotional intelligence – you’re in touch with your feelings and you know what it means to be alive. And you could teach others a thing or two about being honest with your heart. Not that many people would listen.

Artistic

You’re a deep soul. You have an imagination to die for and you know how to express yourself. But you need to stop criticising yourself – especially when you’re alone. Whether you show it or not you do sometimes judge yourself far too harshly. Does that make sense to you?

Creative problem solver

You’re a problem solver. You’re the one that knows how to plan, to strategize and you’re much more valuable than people realise. The problem you haven’t quite solved yet is how to get proper credit for all you do. Does that make sense to you? Turn your attention to solving that and you’ll reap dividends.

Flamboyant

You have a strong sense of self and you’re certainly not afraid. To be different – at least not all the time. But then there are times when you’re less confident, whether you show it or not. The opinions and approval of others matters to you more than many other people might realise.

Attention seeker (sublimated)

You’re no stranger to being the centre of attention and you have been known to put yourself in situations where you’ll be noticed. But then there are times when you prefer to take a back seat and watch. You can appear confident even when you don’t feel it.

Attention seeker (unsophisticated)

You might appear confident and in control to others but you have a strong need for approval and you often find yourself the centre of attention. You like to be liked. The thing you dislike most is to be forgotten or for others to think of you as insignificant.

Con artist

It’s a hard world and you know it. You’re no soft touch. You sometimes take a bit of flack for that but that’s OK.

You live by your wits a lot of the time and usually that works for you although sometimes you find yourself alone and that can be difficult to deal with. You’re no stranger to conflict and you’ve precious little time for those people who keep pretending that life is easy. You know a different world.

Bully

It’s a hard world and you know it. You’re no soft touch. You sometimes take a bit of flack for that but that’s OK. You know how to get what you need and you understand that there’s no point in needless sentimentality.

Control freak

You like order. You know who you are and you know where you come from. You can be a very moral person and you have very real standards that you set yourself. You wish others would live up to the same standards and, although you’re not always surprised when they don’t, you are sometimes disappointed.

You try to get others to stay safe by doing the right things but that doesn’t always work. Even when it does they sometimes resent you and misunderstand what you’re trying to do. You can get cross easily and sometimes you worry that you might be a bit of a control freak. Deep down all you really want is for things to go smoothly.

Victim

Deep down you get scared sometimes. It’s a tough world and you really don’t like the thought of facing it alone. You’re fundamentally a nice person although not everyone sees that or treats you with respect.

Provider

You’re a provider and you know exactly what that means don’t you. You know how hard it can be and you sometimes get frustrated when others seem to take all your efforts for granted. Sometimes you wonder what things might be like if they were different – if your situation was different but mainly you just get on with it. There’s not much of an option. Is that right?

Dependent

Life isn’t always as you’d like it to be. You do know at some level that you’re capable of so much more but there’s something preventing you from taking action. I can’t yet see whether that’s mainly circumstance or something within yourself that gets in the way but you definitely have more to offer. Does that make sense? So what’s the block? What’s standing in your way?

True believer

You have something. The cards show it and I can sense it. But I also sense a blockage. You really haven’t used your full potential yet, have you? Actually I’m not convinced you even know what that potential is.
Sometimes you sense things that other people don’t. You make connections and you have a keen INTUITION – develop that. Trust that INTUITION – but learn to recognise the real intuition and ignore the part that’s merely wishful thinking. That makes you gullible.

Are you psychic? Do you find yourself thinking about someone and then the ‘phone rings? Nurture that. You have a gift – whether you know it or not.

Critical thinker

You’re a sceptic and that’s fine by me. To be honest, so am I. In fact I wouldn’t believe me either if I didn’t know better because it’s me.

I’m not going to try to convince you of anything. On the contrary – Karl Popper’s ideas about the difference between science and nonsense suggest that true inquiry is all about looking for contradictions rather than just accepting blindly. That’s what the null hypothesis is there for. It’s all about falsifiability. We know what’s true only if repeated attempts to falsify it fail. If we succeed in falsifying it we refine the theory and try to falsify the new theory or hypothesis.
So that’s my invitation to you. Look for the contradictions. Falsify, if you can. But please be fair in the spirit of true inquiry too – acknowledge the consistencies. My belief is that you’ll see plenty of those if you’re honest with yourself.

Ultimately though – make up your own mind.

Recently hurt

You’re hurting. In many ways you’re hurting more than you show. In fact in some ways, in your darkest moments, you’re worried that this upset – this pain might never go away. Know that it will. You may never forget entirely but you will be able to get past this in time. But you will need to let healing happen. You will need to let go of the pain, if not the memory. You will need to see beyond the pain and keep on moving forward. Don’t give in. Ask yourself this… how much suffering is enough? Only when you can answer that question will you find the strength to grow beyond the pain you feel.

Depressed

I sense that you have something of a problem getting motivated. It’s not that you don’t know what you need to do – you just can’t seem to get yourself going sometimes. It’s as though you don’t have enough energy and things seem much harder to achieve than they used to. Is that right?

Anxious

Safety is important to you. The world is a dangerous place and you really value those places and people that help you to feel safe.

Psychotic (hallucinations & delusions)

I’m sorry. I’m not getting anything. (DON’T get into this with people with psychosis. It’s too easy to buy into their delusions or to cause confirmatory harm).

Manic

I’m sorry – I’m not getting anything.

Obsessive/compulsive

You spend a lot of your time thinking about or doing things that you don’t actually believe in. But it’s easier to do this stuff than to not do it. Deep down you’d like it to be different but it feels really difficult to change things.

It’s ironic that other people seem to think you need to be taught about their point of view but that’s not right. You understand their point of view perfectly well – it’s just that things are different for you.

Wary of me/Testing me/Hostile to me

You’re a sceptic and that’s fine by me. To be honest, so am I. In fact I wouldn’t believe me either if I didn’t know better because it’s me.

I’m not going to try to convince you of anything. On the contrary – Karl Popper’s ideas about the difference between science and nonsense suggest that true inquiry is all about looking for contradictions rather than just accepting blindly. That’s what the null hypothesis is there for. It’s all about falsifiability. We know what’s true only if repeated attempts to falsify it fail. If we succeed in falsifying it we refine the theory and try to falsify the new theory or hypothesis.

So that’s my invitation to you. Look for the contradictions. Falsify, if you can. But please be fair in the spirit of true inquiry too – acknowledge the consistencies. My belief is that you’ll see plenty of those if you’re honest with yourself.

Ultimately though – make up your own mind.

Into current affairs and politics

You’re no fool and you do like to be kept informed and up to date. You recognise and understand the importance of current knowledge and opinion. That’s how you know what you think and it’s why you’re able to talk about a fair few of the things that really matter with quite some authority.

You can download this entire series as an A5 PDF along with various other free downloads here.

Cold reading 4: Rainbow statements and shotgunning

Rainbow statements (a skeptic’s guide)

Rainbow statements are key weapons in the charlatan psychic’s arsenal. They’re designed to take in the whole spectrum of possibilities. Rainbow statements include all possible variations along a continuum of characteristics so that everyone can find themselves within the statement.

Rainbow statements are easy to construct. Simply think of a personality trait and its direct opposite and then include both in a sentence about the person being read. These statements are used to imply that the reader has greater specific understanding than they actually have. They have the added advantage that they relax the person, making them more likely to give the charlatan information that they can repeat back later as though they’d just seen it in the cards.

Rainbow statements include….

You can be very generous but there are times when you need to keep your resources to yourself.
You enjoy company but you also value quiet times and the space to just be yourself.
You know what you believe but you are also given to self-doubt on occasion.
You have a lot of love to give in the right circumstances but when the situation isn’t right you can withdraw into yourself.
You believe in fairness and justice but there are times when you can be stubborn, especially when challenged aggressively or unfairly.

Like Forer statements, rainbow statements tend to apply to just about everyone but they’re not perceived that way. Instead people tend to believe that the ‘reader’ has specific insight into their unique personalities.
Most people don’t realise just how similar we all are underneath.

Shotgunning
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Shotgunning is a simple technique used before large groups of people such as a TV audience. Just as a shotgun cartridge scatters pellets across a wide area, some of which ‘hit’ and some ‘miss’ their target, so the charlatan ‘psychic’ employs the same strategy with his gullible victims.

Shotgun statements might include what appear to be very specific references to individuals such as
“I see a man in uniform”
but statistically there will be several people in the audience for whom ‘a man in uniform’ has significance.

When one of the audience exclaims
“It’s uncle Arthur”
it’s a safe bet that ‘Uncle Arthur’ is dead and it’s an equally safe bet that his death involves some sort of problem in his chest or abdomen (most deaths do).

So the psychic says

“Arthur – yes – I’m getting a strange sensation in my chest and abdomen. Is that right?”

Without realising that most deaths involve some problem in the chest or abdomen (the site of the vital organs and most cancers) the ‘mark’ exclaims

“Why yes – Arthur had a chest infection that killed him”.

This information means that we can assume several things with a fair likelihood of accuracy…

Arthur was quite old when he died (chest infections tend not to kill people in UK unless they’re frail, very old or very young). We can further assume, given his age that the uniform related to an occupation and there’s a reasonable chance that it was military (either during wartime or national service).
In any event we know that uniforms tend to be worn by people with a particular group identity and that they have rules to follow. So the charlatan says..

“Ah yes – it’s getting clearer now – A long life and quite a meticulous life – Arthur lived by a code or a book of rules.

This will apply to all sorts of things so if the military guess is wrong it will still work in terms of morality, religion, professional life and a whole array of other possibilities that the mark will almost certainly supply to rapturous applause from the audience.

Then the shotgunner can focus in on whatever the new situation is and talk in equally vague terms to ‘prove’ their link to the dead before finally offering reassuring platitudes such as…

“Arthur wants you to know that he’s at peace now – all the distress has gone and he’s enjoying his eternity.”

The ‘distress’ may relate to a painful life or the laboured breathing of someone dying from a chest infection/heart attack/physical complications from dementia or a host of other very common causes of death. Of course the gullible victim doesn’t realise that – they just assume that these facts apply specifically to Uncle Arthur and their credible confirmation of the accuracy of the charlatan serves as evidence for the rest of the audience. Job done!

You can download this entire series as an A5 PDF from here.

Cold reading 3: Some basic tricks

Exposing the scam of cold-reading

Very generalized but instantly noticeable demographics

Women

Interested in fulfilling social relationships
Like to talk
Happy to deal in emotions
Value intelligence and kindness

Men

Interested in status
Like to solve problems and fix stuff
Prefer to deal in process
Value looks and sexuality

Almost All people

Believe they could do more/have more to offer
Feel misunderstood from time to time
Like to protect what they already have
Have the potential to hurt others (physically or emotionally) and sometimes need to control it
Dislike being hemmed in or pushed around

Intelligent or specialist people

Sometimes feel frustrated that others don’t understand
Feel pressure at times to hide their insights
Sometimes reveal things they think are obvious but that others didn’t (& don’t want to) know.

Parents

Feel hemmed in by lack of opportunity
Feel guilty at times when they do or buy stuff for themselves rather than their kids
Worry that their parenting may not be the best
Sometimes keep their thoughts to themselves for fear of public disapproval

Teenagers

Black and white thinking. Rebellion is their ‘job’ at this developmental stage.
They will have strong need to conform to an identity that they may consider (ironically) to be non-conformist. In reality it’s just different from the older generation’s conformity.
May well feel personal responsibility for world problems. Easily flattered with talk of compassion and determination – passionate support for a cause etc.
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FORER STATEMENTS

These statements were developed as part of a psychological experiment in the 1940s. Almost all people when given these statements as though they are individual assessments of their personality rate them as very highly accurate. You can find various versions of them (along with a number of ‘rainbow statements’ in daily horoscopes and other published ‘fortune-telling’ scams.

“You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.”

You can download this and many other series and Ebooks in PDF format here.

Cold reading 1: Introduction and contents

wpid-images-5.jpegAnyone who knows me also knows that I loathe charlatanism with a passion – especially when it’s used for profit or other exploitative gain by those who prey on the vulnerable, the desperate or the bereft. In my view those who engage in this particular form of deception are the lowest of the low. They consciously employ deceitful tricks and ploys to dupe others out of their savings or to profit from them in other equally disreputable ways.

One of the key skills used by these loathesome individuals is cold-reading. That’s the technique used to give the impression that you have secret, esoteric knowledge about a specific person or situation, even if you have never met them before (although in truth many so called ‘psychics’ spend a lot of time researching individuals and even employ others to feed them information before and even during their ‘readings’).

I have long believed that knowledge is power and that one of the most effective ways to develop knowledge is to develop a system to use the skill you’re trying to learn. This is exactly what I’ve done with cold-reading. I’ve developed my own system and made it available in the hope that others may come to recognise just what this ‘psychic medium’ nonsense really is – an elaborate scam intended to separate the gullible from their hard-earned cash.
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This short blog series then represents the result of my self-directed study project into cold reading. I’ve already memorised it and tried it out with several friends and colleagues (as well as willing strangers) to ‘test the system’ and I can attest to its efficiency. Please feel free to use it and then explain it to others as a way to demonstrate to them just how easy it is to fool people with an air of confidence and a few stock phrases.

The series will include:

The system
The Red deck
The Black deck
Specific issues spread
Obvious, generalized demographics
Forer statements
Rainbow statements
Shotgunning
Perspectives
Building upon generalisations
A heartfelt plea

You can download the entire series in the form of an A5 PDF here.

Fallacies 18: Appeal to authority

In the last ‘Fallacies’ entry we considered the appeal to popularity. In this entry we’ll look at a similar tactic known as the appeal to authority. This is a common argument used to shortcut any analysis of the issues and jump straight to the conclusion:
“Professor such-and-such thinks this is right so who are we to argue?”

There is some merit in this line of argument, especially when discussing complex issues about which most people know very little. We need to rely upon the judgement and opinions of experts simply because nobody has the time to study everything in enough depth to make informed decisions on all the topics that come up in modern society.

But if we don’t know enough to make our own decisions then we need some way to judge which expert does. This is no easy task.

It’s an old question that was first discussed (to the best of my knowledge) by Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher who covered it in his ‘Discourses’. Plato came to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion. He argued that the only way to judge the value of expert opinion is to become an expert yourself.

As we have seen this isn’t really an option. But if we want to make sense of the world we have to try because let’s face it – even experts can be fallible.

We have several basic problems here…

Expert in the right field

An expert in one field isn’t necessarily an expert in another. Indeed – the time and effort required to become an expert in any field means that it’s very unlikely that most people will be able to do it in more than one area of study. But it’s not enough to have a Ph.D. – you need to have the right Ph.D.

For example it is not uncommon for creationists to argue that some (admittedly not all that many) leading scientists deny evolution. But you’d be hard pushed to find an evolutionary biologist (or even a general biologist) to take their claims seriously. This was the crux of the problem with the 2005 school curriculum trial in Dover, Pennsylvania.

Although some members of the community and the school board wanted ‘Intelligent Design’ (the new incarnation of creationism) to be pushed on to the vulnerable minds of children in science classes, those who understood the issues (the teachers) refused. The case went to Court and (of course) the teachers won.

Is your expert authority skilled in the right field?

Is your expert authority skilled in the right field?

It’s not enough to cite an expert – it must be an expert in the appropriate area of study because nobody knows everything.

This was the problem with Bjorn Lomborg’s controversial work on climate change (The Skeptical Environmentalist, 2001 and Cool it, 2007). Lomborg is not a climate scientist, he has a Ph.D. in political science. The overwhelming majority of actual climatologists (those who understand climate science) reject his work out of hand and it’s not hard for even a layman to understand why.

His arguments contradict themselves (he can’t even make up his mind whether or not global warming is a good thing) and the evidence he uses to uphold one argument is conveniently ignored when he tries to make a different point without the merest hint of explanation.

None the less climate change deniers and right wing politicians regularly cite his work as an ‘appeal to authority’. This would be like asking someone with a Ph.D. in theology to recommend treatments for psychiatric patients, a ridiculous situation indeed. It isn’t reasonable to expect someone with no knowledge of the relevant field to be taken seriously when they make recommendations. None the less this is precisely what Archbishop John Sentamu did when he suggested in the UK’s House of Lords that exorcism should be available to psychiatric patients on the National Health Service.

Archbishop Jphn Sentamu thinks people with mental health problems should be subjected to (NHS funded) exorcism

Archbishop Jphn Sentamu thinks people with mental health problems should be subjected to (NHS funded) exorcism

Authority in the organisation

There are other types of authority to be wary of though. There’s the authority that comes from organisational structure – the boss.

As we all know people rise through the ranks in organisations for a variety of reasons and they’re not always the best person for the promotion. Managers are promoted because someone owes them a favour, because nobody else wants the job, because they have a good relationship with powerful outside funders or supporters or sometimes even because they know stuff.

Often though they are just in the right place at the right time. That’s not exactly a qualification for the status of expert. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has worked for incompetent managers and spent significant amounts of my time sorting out the messes they created.

The Peter Principle is the phenomenon of promoting people to the level of their own incompetence. The fact that John is a good technician doesn’t mean he will be able to manage other technicians or run a departmental budget. But he gets promoted (because of his technical ability) into a job that requires a completely different skillset – and John just can’t cut it.

But he doesn’t get sacked or demoted back to his former position. He just stays where he is. He’ll never climb any higher because he’s not good at his lower management job so he just stays there – perhaps for decades – making poor decisions and holding back his department’s progress. That’s the Peter principle at work. You’d be a fool to trust John’s judgement about anything to do with management. He’d be great at answering technical questions though. That’s his real area of expertise.

Experts are fallible

Even true experts are fallible. That’s why Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of the theory of evolution) was suckered by spiritism and spent much of his life vociferously supporting fraudulent mediums. He was good at what he did but he was far from perfect – just like the rest of us.

Whenever we try to assess the credibility of experts we come up against these sorts of problems and it’s genuinely difficult to know who to trust. It’s almost impossible to make that decision with absolute certainty. But there are some questions we can ask ourselves that may help:

Is this expert skilled in this particular area?
What do the majority of similairly trained experts think?
What does the evidence say?
How often has this person been right/wrong in the past?
If they’ve been wrong before have they been prepared to admit it?
Is this person ideologically driven?
Is this person financially driven to say this stuff?
Are there any other forms of bias you are aware of?
Does the expert use real data as evidence or just rely on stories and anecdote (you can make any point you like in a story)?
If you follow them and they are wrong – will there be a cost?
If you don’t follow them and they are right – will there be a cost?
What research could you do to check out their assumptions?

You see there’s much more to being right than merely being an expert or a boss.

The appeal to authority has merit – in fact it would be impossible to function in the modern world without trusting someone but it’s always a good idea to think carefully about which authority you choose to follow.

Endnote

We have now reached the end of this blog series as originally planned. However I’ve enjoyed writing it so much I’m sure I’ll be adding to the ‘Fallacies’ blog category as time progresses.

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

Fallacies 17: The appeal to popularity

Appeal to popularity
It’s truly remarkable how many different tactics people will use to persuade us of their point of view. One of the most common is the ‘appeal to popularity’ in which we are encouraged to agree simply because a significant number of other people do. It’s an appeal to herd mentality in which reason is seen as less important than populism. This is the argument that would have us believe the Nazis were correct simply because so many people attended the Nuremberg Rally.

Of course that doesn’t mean that popular opinion is always wrong – far from it. But when popular opinion is reasonable it is because, coincidentally it matches the available evidence, not merely because it is popular.

Columbus disagreed with the majority view

Columbus disagreed with the majority view

An interesting aspect of this argument is that it relies solely upon a statistical analysis, an opinion poll if you will, and such statistical perspectives are notoriously misleading. Different populations give different results. Different cultural groups often have predictable opinions and different views are prevalent at different periods in history.

Unless we believe that modern society is infallible we need to be open to the possibility that popular opinion today may be wrong just as it was when most people believed that:

The earth is flat;
The earth is the centre of the universe;
Iron ships can never float;
Erupting volcanoes, failing harvests, infertility and disabilities are the judgements of the Gods.

And then there is the problem of sampling. For example I know a number of people who proudly insist that most people in the world believe in a God or Gods. They’re not usually quite so keen to report that most people the world over do not believe in their particular deity of choice. Nor do they generally like to acknowledge that (with the curious exception of the United States), the more advanced the nation the smaller the percentage of believers.

You see the question you ask about statistics of any kind can easily be used to manipulate the results to make whatever case you like. But that really just makes the very idea of the ‘appeal to popularity’ both meaningless and obsolete.

So what if most people in rural Kenya believe that unprotected sex with a virgin will cure AIDS? Most people who have studied the disease understand how tragic and dangerous such a very popular misconception really is. It results in the widespread rape of young girls who often go on to develop AIDS themselves as a direct consequence. So which statistic matters most?

The reality is that every major advancement in human understanding involved an individual or minority group disagreeing with the majority. This is how we develop as a society.

Will you follow the herd or will you think for yourself?

Will you follow the herd or will you think for yourself?

If the ‘appeal to popularity’ argument had held sway Eddison would never have developed electric lighting, Darwin would never have developed his theory of evolution and Columbus wouldn’t have rediscovered the Americas several centuries after Leif Erikson’s forgotten expedition to ‘Vineland’ (modern Newfoundland).

Dismissing the minority view simply because it is the minority view stymies growth and prevents improvement. It’s far better to judge an idea on its merits than worry about the numbers of supporters it may have. Every good idea was outside the mainstream once upon a time.

Instead of counting heads, ask what the evidence is for new ideas and beliefs. Who cares what the herd thinks? Unless, of course, you’re a sheep.

About the ‘Fallacies’ series

The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com

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