Once one of the authors went to a spiritualist meeting. The spiritualist, or medium, referred to a middle-aged man sitting near the side, who looked a little sad and not at all well. ‘Your mother is in spirit’ she ventured, ‘or perhaps your grandmother?’ The poor fellow was almost in spirit himself, and yet he nodded expectantly and looked impressed by this piece of insight.

‘I can feel the presence of a Sarah, Sheila…’ Pause for half a second. ‘Or is it a Sue or a Susan?’ (This was addressed to the whole audience) Yes! An elderly woman sitting next to the man had had a sister-in-law called Sue who was sorely missed. The medium now forgot about the man’s grandmother who was in spirit, and homed in on the elderly woman and ‘Sue’. Within a short time the medium had the woman in the palm of her hand and hanging upon her every word.

There were a few blanks but no-one seemed to mind. The medium simply took another stab, or tried a different tack. She would rarely make a cut and dried statement about anything, but rather a probe, a kind of implied question. For example: ‘I can sense a little dog now, yes?’ So if it’s wrong, no problem - simply move on.

‘Cold Reading’
This is a technique used by the medium or psychic where a number of general, vague or ambiguous statements are made that have a good chance of fitting most individuals. The psychic closely watches the reaction of the client and moves on to more and more specific information, depending on the reaction.

Michael Shermer puts the same point a little differently: ‘The way ‘cold reading’ works is that a psychic just throws out a whole lot of different statements [about a person], very rapid fire. There are a couple of things that will happen then. One, the psychic is bound to get some lucky ‘hits’ and two, people will find ways to fit what he’s said into their lives.’ (1) Then of course, as with astrological predictions, we tend to remember the hits and forget the misses. (It should be borne in mind that some psychics, though they may delude themselves, genuinely believe in their own powers and do not set out to deceive people.)


"I can feel the presence of a Sarah, Sheila ... or is it a Sue or a Susan?"

Hot Reading
If there’s a ‘cold reading’ technique, then there must be a ‘hot reading’ one! Using this technique the psychic finds out information about the clients beforehand, often given by the clients themselves. The method was favoured by Doris Stokes, a prominent British psychic. The author I. Wilson investigated Stokes’ methods and found that some people for whom she produced messages had contacted her in advance of the show, had given her information, and then been invited to attend the meeting. She then gave the information back to them, embellishing upon it. (2)

Caught in the act: “psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)”

This is another good example of ‘hot reading’. In 2011 psychic Sally Morgan had a sell-out show in Dublin. In an article in the Guardian (20th September, 2011) Chris French described what happened.

The Barnum effect - Something for Everyone
We have already touched on this trick. One of the mottos of P. T. Barnum, who owned a circus, was Something for Everyone. Cater for all interests and make sure that there is something entertaining for all. Thus psychics and astrologers try to make a number of general and vague statements which could apply to most people.

For example:

  • ‘You have nagging doubts about whether you’ve made the right choice, or given the right advice to someone you care for.’
  • ‘You are not making the most of your potential / you have a talent you haven’t followed up / are under-using your capacity, etc’.
  • ‘Sometimes you would like to break away and do your own thing / you become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions, etc'.
  • ‘You put on a brave face, but you sometimes feel vulnerable and insecure…’ (This is a fairly safe bet - most people who visit psychics do feel vulnerable.)

The psychics have a few other tricks up their sleeves when addressing their audience. For example they may say that they can’t distinguish between past, present and future events and relationships, so that there are many more possibilities for ‘hits’. Or else they may blame errors on the ‘poor spiritual wavelengths’.

They may also blame sceptics for disrupting their link with the spirit world with their ‘negative thoughts’!

Several members of the audience were sitting near the back, and reported hearing a man’s voice coming from a small room behind them. “Everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later”. The man had presumably mingled with the crowd before the show began, finding out anything he could about the audience - names, problems, what they hoped to get from the show and so on, and then feeding this electronically to Morgan. The man had evidently left a small window open by mistake. When it was realised that the people sitting at the back had noticed what was going on, the window was quietly closed.
(For a fuller description of the ‘tricks of the trade’ please consult James Randi or Michael Shermer.) (See also Randi’s rules for successful prophesying further down this page.)    

"The organisers apologise that the psychic meeting at Bletherington-on-Sea is cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances."

[Apologies to ‘Quote-Unquote’ on Radio Four.]

Bats and extra-sensory perception
In the 1970s some researchers thought that bats must have some sort of extra-sensory perception (ESP). This was because they could fly around in total darkness avoiding all obstacles. Two of the possible explanations were a very acute sense of smell, and some sort of sensors in the wings. So scientists sealed the bats noses and coated their wings, but still the (blind) bats appeared to be able to see in the dark. Then echo-location was discovered. This is the ability to detect the presence of objects by giving off sounds and picking up the sound waves which are reflected off those objects. So the ESP theory was abandoned.
In the ‘70s and early ’80s the hunt was on in Britain for the Yorkshire Ripper. There were many attempts by many psychics to say what he looked like, where he lived, where he worked, his name etc. The police followed up some of the leads.

One of the better known psychics was Nella Jones. In fact she became quite a celebrity thanks to some favourable newspaper reports and television programmes. Articles with headlines such as ‘Psychic Detectives’ or ‘Psychic Crime-busters’ praised Nella for her accuracy and for helping the police. But how well do the claims stand up to examination? (The other psychics were so far off the mark that they featured less in the media.) The first thing to bear in mind is that some newspapers often take the ‘hit’ claims of the psychics (after the event) at face value, without matching them up with the actual predictions made before the event.





‘Stop him at the city centre. Go to Chapel Street….the number 6 flashed across my mind, the name Joyce…a grey house with a wrought iron gate in front…a small garage nearby but I didn’t know if it belonged to the house or was a separate business.’   Sutcliffe’s house was at 6 Garden Lane, and the house did have a garage. The number was certainly right. However, to tell the police that the killer’s home was near a small garage (which could have been a ‘separate business’) was not at all useful. She was wrong about the city centre and about the name Joyce.
‘I described…. where he worked’.   She did predict the first letter of the company the Ripper worked for: ‘All I could see was the first letter, a ‘C’’. Sutcliffe was indeed a driver for a company called T. & W.H. Clark, but there was not a lot the police could do with the solitary letter ‘C’.
‘I had drawn the Killer’s face’   Her drawing of the killer bore no resemblance to Sutcliffe.
(Daily Mirror, 21 Nov. 1980) - ‘It’s tragic, but I feel he will strike again almost immediately’ (Psychic News, 29 Nov. 1981, quoting from the daily Star) - ‘…the Ripper might already have struck again, and left his victim undiscovered.’   There were no more victims. Sutcliffe had struck for the last time. As above - there were no more victims.
‘The killer was disguised as a woman’   Highly unlikely, especially with the bushy beard!
The next murder would take place in Leeds.   A hit - the last murder occurred in Leeds. But 4 of the last 11 had also been in Leeds.
It would take place on a small patch of wasteland (but she didn’t say where).   The murder may have taken place on wasteland, but this prediction she had also made before, wrongly.
It would take place at night.   A hit, but then at least 11 and probably all of the murders took place at night.
She stated (after Sutcliffe’s arrest) that she had predicted that it would take place at 9.30pm.   No-one has any record of her making this prediction. Unfortunately, people tend to believe such post-hoc (after the event) claims, and she was not challenged in the press reports.
She mentioned the initials JH.   The last victim (17.11.1980) was Jacqueline Hill. But the prediction was made in October 1979, before an earlier murder and two further attacks.
There were other wrong and dubious predictions. The problem is that we don’t know exactly how many, or what they were. The trick is to ‘cast your net wide and you’re bound to catch a few’. It should also be emphasised that only one of Nella’s claims appeared in print before Sutcliffe’s arrest (the one that he would strike again after Jacqui Hill). Nevertheless Nella Jones’ record of ‘hits’ appears to be better that any of the other psychics. Does she have genuine powers, or was she just cleverer or luckier?

The question remains, however, as to why none of the psychics could provide any useful information - information that could lead to Sutcliffe’s arrest?


Psychics always win
A great many pictures of the Ripper’s face (given by psychics) were in fact printed in the newspapers, but none came near the mark. The fact that most of the psychics’ information was way off the mark doesn’t prove anything. Perhaps they were just off form. What is more interesting I think is that we, the public, do not remember the failed predictions. We did not say to ourselves: ‘These particular psychics are a bit useless’; and there were no headlines in the newspapers saying ‘Psychics waste valuable police time’, or ‘Psychics lead police up blind alleys!’

But if by chance, just one of the pictures of the Ripper had been a good likeness (there was a good chance of this given the number of attempts), it would have confirmed many people’s belief in the power of psychics, and the tabloids would have had a field day. Again, we take the hits as evidence in favour, but do not see the misses as evidence against - so the psychics win every time.


The Psychic Mafia - a long standing psychic confesses all
M Lamar Keene was a highly successful psychic for thirteen years in America, until he started to feel guilty about deceiving gullible and vulnerable people. In his book, The Psychic Mafia, he exposes the trickery and dishonesty of many psychics, including himself. [Also Google Camp Chesterfield]

Halloween challenge
In October 2012 Chris French, Simon Singh and Michael Marshall carried out a test on two volunteer psychics, with negative results. (Sally Morgan and Derek Acorah declined to take part). To find out how the test was done Google “Halloween Challenge: psychics submit their powers to scientific trial, Simon Singh, Chris French” etc.

In 1991 Nella Jones’ psychic powers were put to the test on television by James Randi. She was presented with six objects and told that any or all of them had been involved in a serious crime resulting in loss of life. After about four and a half minutes (she didn’t want any more time) she settled on a corkscrew-come-bottle opener, which she said might have been used to open a lock, a hammer which she connected to broken glass, and a fireman’s axe which brought a vision of a ‘heavy vehicle tyre’. The corkscrew and the hammer were new and had been bought specially for the show. The fireman’s axe had been involved in an extremely brutal murder. (3)


Someone who foretells the future, a diviner, a seer, a 'sayer of truth'.


Old English for truth

How to make a living from prophecy-making

The ubiquitous and irrepressible James Randi(4) gives would be soothsayers a few useful tips if they would like to make a good living from prophecy-making:

  • Use the scatter-gun technique: the more predictions you make the more hits you’ll have.
  • Be vague. Use words like ‘I sense…’, ‘I feel…’ or ‘I see…’ This makes it easier to interpret the prophecies in a way to make them fit the events, and makes it easier for the prophet to avoid mistakes.
  • Use metaphors and symbolic language: ‘I sense the eagle is falling from the sky’. This could apply to any problem in any country with an eagle as a symbol, such as the US or Germany, or a company with eagle in its name, and so on.
  • Make contradictory predictions at different times where possible. Declare that party X will win the next election, then find another outlet to declare that you see party Y ‘coming up fast on the inside track’, or ‘possibly overtaking party X at the post’. When the election is over loudly proclaim your correct prediction. (You may be sure that newspapers like to dwell upon your successes and not the failures.)
  • Give people what they like to hear: in their personal lives people want mainly good news, but for world events they like to hear or read about predicted disasters, assassinations and upheavals.
The 945 verses or quatrains...   ...predicting everything and nothing
Prophesy-makers over the centuries have honed these and other tricks into a fine art. Most famous of all was Michelle de Notredame, a 16th Century French doctor. (He changed his name to the Latin form of Nostradamus.) His major work, written over 13 years, was titled Centuries, and consisted of about 945 four-line verses, and he wrote a number of almanacs as well. All these verses, or quatrains, were supposed to prophesy future events. He lived a comfortable life under the protection of Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France.

At the same time it is very difficult to find a verse or a prophesy and say ‘Ah…this one is wrong; this or that particular event did not happen.’ The wording is simply too ambiguous and obscure. This means that you can’t pin it down. Simply interpret it how you like.

To take just one example, possibly the most famous, quatrain 51 of Century II is interpreted by many as referring to the Great Fire of London in 1666 (Translated from the early French):

‘The blood of the just in London will be lacking,

Burnt by thunderbolts of twenty-three the six(es),

The ancient woman shall fall from high place,

Of the same sect many shall be slain.’

Perhaps ‘twenty-three the six(es)’ could refer to 1666 (3 twenties and a 6 = 66), but perhaps it could also refer to 1066 or 1966?

And why ‘thunderbolts’ instead of ‘fire’, and why only the ‘just’ to be affected by the fire?

‘The Ancient Woman’ is thought to be St. Paul’s Cathedral, but there is no evidence of it ever being called ‘The Old Lady’ or ‘The Ancient Woman’. (‘Antique’ in any case meant ‘dotty’ rather than ‘ancient’ in French at that time - same root as our word ‘antics’.)

  The two most striking features of Nostradamus’s work were its great size and its ambiguity. There is so much material that almost anything you care to think of can be predicted. Pick a verse at random and you’ll probably be able to match it to some historical event.
A more convincing explanation?
A different explanation of the quatrain has been suggested by James Randi. Instead of being an unlikely prediction of the Fire of London 111 years in the future, it could rather be a coded or veiled attack on the Catholic Mary Queen of England (‘Bloody Mary’).

Although Nostradamus was obliged to declare himself a Catholic in order to preserve his favoured position in the French royal court, he is thought to have had secret leanings towards Protestantism. Mary was having Protestants burned at the stake, in groups of six (which could explain ‘the sixes’), often with gunpowder tied to them to make their deaths more sudden (which could explain the ‘thunderbolts’). Mary was also known to be going insane, so the fall of the ‘dotty’ woman could be the anticipated fall of Queen Mary. This could also explain better ‘the blood of the just’ and the slaying of many ‘of the same sect’. (5)



is someone who claims to be able to reveal information about other people, or foretell their future, by paranormal means alone.


is mind-to-mind communication without any verbal or nonverbal assistance.



occurs when you perceive an event that is happening somewhere else at the present moment.


is a person who claims to be a kind of link with the spirit world through whom the spirits can communicate with the material world.