What to make of the comprehensive failure of Patricia Putt in psychic testing recently?
I hadn't heard of Putt before, but she is apparently well established as a professional psychic, aka Ankhara. She has had media exposure, turns up at hauntings, exorcises, and does readings for £25 a go. She decided to go in for Randi's million-dollar challenge, and Richard Wiseman and Chris French were deputed to carry out the preliminary tests.
The experiment involved ten young women in turns sitting in front of her for a reading. They were all white, same gender and age-group to keep any identifying characteristics to a minimum, uniformly dressed in gowns, features concealed by wrap-around dark glasses and ski-masks, and facing away from her. There was no verbal interaction; Putt wrote her thoughts down. The ten transcripts were then handed to the subjects who each attempted to identify the reading that applied to her. Not a single one did so correctly.
This is a pretty comprehensive failure. One can make various excuses: the test doesn't prove that Putt isn't psychic (she might just have been having a bad day, and it doesn't prove that nobody is psychic. But although both these are logically true, it doesn't look good.
You can also argue that people who go for readings aren't heavily disguised, as the subjects were here, so Putt wasn't working in the conditions she was used to. But this is exactly what tests like this aim to do, to prevent any opening for cold reading. And, just as important, Putt was quite happy to go ahead on that basis. According to French, she felt that she had been treated fairly, and it was only afterwards, having scored zero, and having thought about it a bit, that she identified that as the problem.
It interests me that although this comes under the heading of Randi's million dollar challenge, it wasn't actually Randi who carried out this preliminary test, but French and Wiseman, who unlike him take a moderate approach to debunking parapsychology, and can't really be accused of setting Putt up for a fail. Curiously - and correct me if I'm wrong - there are rather few well-documented cases of psychics actually failing the challenge - we're just told that they are all kooks who never got past the preliminaries. The only other one I can think of was also quite recent, the case of Derek Ogilvie, whose failure in tests by both French and Randi was pretty total. But if it's so easy to demonstrate that psychism is a mirage, one wonders why, in the many years the challenge has been going, there aren't many more cases like Putt and Ogilvie.
One possibility is that psychics are too canny to let themselves be tested in highly unnatural circumstances, ie giving readings to people facing in the opposite direction and swaddled up like mummies. But apparently some of them, like Putt and Ogilvie, are naïve. They have boundless confidence in their own abilities and willingly walk into what others might see as a trap, agreeing to work in circumstances that they have never tried before.
Randi's million dollar challenge has always been vulnerable to the argument that there isn't any proper testing going on at all - it's just an opportunistic debunking ploy. But when people like Wiseman and French start to carry out very public and transparent testing like this, it can start to be taken seriously by people who might otherwise have given psychics the benefit of the doubt. It's difficult to think of anything more helpful for the sceptics' cause, and it's interesting that this should only happen when the challenge itself is about to be withdrawn.
Apart from the matter of influencing public perceptions, I'm interested in the science here. I take psychism to be real not on the basis of single tests like this, but on the accumulated data of psychical research. So I'm wondering why Putt failed. Some possibilities: she's not psychic at all, but just thinks she is; she is psychic, but needs to have a normal interaction with her sitters; as Greg Taylor at the Daily Grail suggests, the sitters might be sceptics who deliberately chose the wrong reading (unlikely, as Greg acknowledges, but potentially an experimental flaw); or that somehow French and Wiseman inhibited psi from manifesting - the experimenter effect.
If any of these, or a combination of them, is correct, it's worth following up. I'm thinking of the famous remote viewing experiments in which Marilyn Schlitz got significant results while Wiseman, using exactly the same setup and subjects, did not. So let's get Putt back and have her work in the same circumstances with sceptics and parapsychologists, and compare the results. Or get them working with mediums of the first rank, like Colin Fry, for instance, or John Edward, who worked under controlled conditions in Gary Schwartz's first experiments, with sitters concealed behind a curtain and not speaking.
I suppose the conclusion is that we can't rule out psi unless we at least give it a chance to appear. Once we've seen it in action, we can fiddle with the parameters and see what's required to make it appear or disappear. Then we can argue about it. One-off tests aren't a way of establishing anything conclusively.
Could this sort of co-operation ever occur? I think both French and Wiseman might be up for it, if there was the organisation and the funds. But that's a big 'if'. I can't see it happening unless someone has the incentive to make it happen, and there's not much of that around at the moment.