Correlations, Fraud, And Mediums

20 Jun

Humans are hard-wired for survival reasons to be alert to correlations, or apparent connections between events. For example, we observe Harry eat some red berries, following which Harry groans, falls down, and dies. Because of the observed correlation between red berries and death, we don’t eat red berries.

However, the consumption of red berries and death may have been just a coincidence, and not a true connection. Harry may have had a heart attack after consuming perfectly nutritious red berries. Or perhaps Harry washed down the berries with some tainted water. In fact, there are innumerable other possible explanations that do not lead to the conclusion that red berries = death.

To guard against faulty conclusions, engineers are careful in evaluating correlations. In other words, we have learned to be skeptical. But do we need to be so picky in everyday life? Yes, we do.

If we automatically assume that every correlation is indicative of a cause, we have closed our minds. And once our minds are closed, we close off the path to exploring alternatives, of gaining insights that may prove to be of great benefit.

In addition, the strong human tendency to interpret correlations as indicative of a true connection between events has another significant down-side: unscrupulous humans exploit this tendency in various schemes to enhance their wealth. As one who practiced magic for fun (and not much profit) as a youth, I can attest to the fact that there are dozens of methods by which a dishonest person, with knowledge of the magician’s art, can dupe the unwary.

For example, have you ever seen that show featuring a “medium,” someone with the supposed ability to hear messages from the dearly departed, who conveys the messages to a grieving relative? It is but one of many examples of immoral people exploiting our natural inborn tendency to accept correlations at face value. Fortunately, engineering thinking can be used to identify and squelch these scams.

If the medium were not a fraud, they could simply provide a specific verifiable message, such as, “Harry said to tell you to look for a key in his right middle desk drawer; it is for safe deposit box number 14764 at the First Third Bank. You’ll find $12,550 there; his winnings from a lottery ticket he never told you about.”

Of course, such specifics are never provided by the medium. Instead, the medium begins by talking in generalities, trying to elicit a response from the grieving person, and then builds to more specific comments based on what he learns. During this process the medium will often pause, and let the griever fill in the blanks:

“When you were first married, Sarah, I can feel a negative presence; it was your, … your, …”

“It was my mother-in-law.”

“Yes, it was your mother-in-law; and she was always, … always, …”

“Taking my husband’s side.”

“Yes, taking your husband’s side …”

And so on. At the end of this process, Sarah is not aware of all of the information she has provided, directly as illustrated above, or indirectly (by facial expressions or body language), that allows the medium to “read” her mind to the extent required to construct a plausible conversation with the deceased. The medium has thus deceptively constructed a false but believable connection between the medium’s “readings” and the facts presumably known only by the bereaved. (The same techniques are used by fortune tellers, mind readers, and other supposed psychics.)

In more advanced frauds, the medium will research the “mark” (usually a wealthy grieving person) well in advance of the seance, and be able to provide details of the mark’s prior life sufficient to overcome their hardiest skepticism. “How could you possibly know that he died from eating berries?” she will think. “You must indeed be talking to my dear departed Harry.” The medium, of course, will have scoured the public records prior to the seance, including Harry’s obituary.

The great magician Harry Houdini spent much time and effort exposing mediums of his day for the frauds that they were. For a somewhat more modern-day account, The Psychic Mafia provides a fascinating look at the inside of the seedy business of mediums and psychics.

I should point out that it is my belief that not all self-proclaimed psychics are deliberate frauds. Some of them, I think, have sincerely come to the conclusion that they are psychic because they have experienced one or more significant correlations (e.g. “I dreamed my friend would get into a car accident, and she did”), and do not have a science background sufficient to immunize them to the beguiling yet misleading power of coincidence.

Yet, even among this group, I have severe misgivings. Those who believe they are simply offering comfort to the grieving, or providing other forms of psychological advice, may inadvertently do great damage.

While on a vacation out west, my wife Barbara and I attended a session at the resort that was presented by a “life coach.” A grieving issue was posed by another lady in attendance, to which the life coach advised, in essence, “Get over it.” Barb tactfully intervened (Barb is a mental health counselor with appropriate training and credentials for such issues), and provided a compassionate but science-based response. After the meeting, Barb was approached by the lady who had asked the question and was profusely thanked, saying how upset she had been by the life coach’s remarks.

The Engineering Thinking bottom line: If you want advice on grieving, or any of the myriad psychological issues which afflict the human race, your odds of obtaining useful guidance are much better if you avoid the psychics, and go to a pro.

Next post: An engineer writes a novel.

-Ed Walker


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