Skeptics lose ground as we embrace the paranormal

Montreal Gazette/October 19, 2007

Montreal -- I didn't want my fortune told. The only time I'd seen a clairvoyant, it was all good and I didn't want to mess things up.

But when interviewing a psychic, it's hard not to want to know. Just a few things, for the sake of integrity. So I asked her to tell me something about myself, something not so obvious.

She could have had me checked out. You can Google anyone nowadays. Instead, she asked me why my knees hurt.

Which they did. Having just spent the morning at the computer, I'd been sitting on my knees since breakfast, the way I usually do when I write. Even people who know me very well don't know that.

Mandy Horton never saw me walk and she never saw me sit, though. We were talking by phone. So how did she know about my knees?

From an early age, Horton knew she was different. Not just a black sheep, but "very out of this world."

She says she could sense spirits around her, see accidents before they happened and knew when others were going to die.

Mediums, ghost whisperers, diviners, fortune tellers. Call them what you will, but since long before Nostradamus came on the scene five centuries ago, there have been people who claim to see things others cannot.

Back in the 1960s, when Horton was growing up, people thought folk who could do that sort of thing were downright peculiar -- or evil -- and nobody dared really talk about it.

Now they do.

Hit TV series (Medium, Ghost Whisperer) and movies ("I see dead people") explore the topic, and psychic expos are common.

Plenty of people are still skeptical, though the naysayers are losing ground.

Back in 2002, a public-opinion poll found just 40 per cent of Canadians believed in extra-sensory perception of some sort (and 30 per cent of us had consulted a psychic at least once).

But now, according to research by University of Lethbridge sociologist Reginald W. Bibby, almost 60 per cent believe and 31 per cent think it possible to communicate with the dead.

Which is good, because two-thirds also believe in life after death.

James Randi of the James Randi Education Foundation in the U.S. is not one of them. The Toronto-born magician has offered a $1-million "paranormal challenge" to anyone who can prove they possess supernatural powers.

The catch? He gets to control the setting. He says that if one is truly psychic, test conditions shouldn't matter. No applicant has agreed to his conditions.

"Belief in such obvious flummeries as astrology or fortune-telling can appear -- quite incorrectly -- to give confirmatory results, and that can lead to the victim pursuing more dangerous, expensive, and often health-related scams," Randi says on his website to explain why he believes psychics are dangerous. "Blind belief can be comforting, but it can easily cripple reason and productivity, and stop intellectual progress."

Why are we so willing to believe?

Well, according to Richard Wiseman, we just want to.

The British psychologist well known for his research into the paranormal, told the BBC that humans, especially in times of stress or bereavement, often take what is said by psychics, no matter how general, and make it fit.

"I think the mediums are fairly sincere, but the person is reading a lot into what are fairly ambiguous comments," he says.

"We want to believe that a statement is true, that it applies to us. So we tend to buy into it."

After more than a century of research carried out in all corners of the world, not one organization has proven the existence -- or non-existence -- of the paranormal.

It used to bother Horton, but not now. "I'm not here to change anybody's opinion," says the 48-year-old mother of two.

Sharon Cheney feels the same. She not only trusts in her own psychic ability but feels we are all capable and it's just a matter of plugging into it.

Growing up in St. Laurent, Que., Cheney knew early on she saw and felt things other people didn't. And like with Horton a decade or so later, it wasn't discussed -- not even with her mother, who used to talk to her dead grandmother.

As she became better able to master her abilities, people came to her for guidance often enough that she decided to make a living from it. To cover all bases, she earned a degree in applied social science and has a masters in counselling psychology.

In addition to doing psychic readings and public speaking engagements, she is an author, trained hypnotherapist and life coach and also practises animal communication, business forecasting, dream interpretation, past-life regressions and energy healing. And like Horton, she takes messages from beyond.

It's an iffy business.

Despite the Hollywood star treatment, psychics get a whole lot more bad press than good. They can claim a third eye or second sight but most can't seem to stop the bad stuff from happening to them any more than the rest of us. And none has come up with one of those great predictions that rocks the world -- and comes true.

Yet man has toyed with the notion of a sixth sense for centuries. Common sense tells us it's absurd. But we continue to believe -- in growing numbers.

We can't quite shake it. I can't quite shake it. Even my mother doesn't know about my knees.

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