Starting on May 10th, your blogger presents 3 documentaries on C4 under the title ‘Derren Brown Investigates‘ (a title I’m slightly unconvinced by but I couldn’t think of a better one). In each, I spend time with someone making paranormal claims, observing their world, looking at the weight of evidence for and against.

There are three documentaries: one with a British psychic medium, another with a ghosthunter from the US, and a third concerns a Russian system of human development that claims to ‘cure’ blindness. Each has quite a different feel.

I have approached these documentaries quite openly: as a magician, and someone steeped in the world of the paranormal, I would love to find something that I can’t explain. I remember a friend at University showing me an apparent demonstration of ‘Chi’ that got me giggly and excited for days: he folded a five pound note so that it could stand on its side on the table, then pointed his fingers at it rapidly, ‘willing’ it to move. It skittered across the table, and it did the same when I willed it to move too. When I didn’t want it to move, it didn’t. I was astounded, and it was only when I started showing it to other people that I realised (as did they, only more quickly than I did), that the movement was caused by the rapid air propulsion that accompanied the short, quick, two-handed pointing gesture. When I didn’t do it with ‘intention’ (as I was instructed) my movement was of course slacker and the note didn’t budge. I had been fooled (innocently, by someone who had clearly believed the ‘Chi’ explanation), and had fooled myself. Interestingly, it was probably because my friends knew me as a magician that they saw through it immediately: they were on the lookout for other possible explanations, and this mindset provided the correct answer pretty quickly. My desire to believe, and my sheer excitement at finding something that seemed to be ‘real’, had stopped me from taking a step back and reconsidering.

I approached each of these situations with a balance: of a hope to be convinced, and an understanding of how easily we can be duped. It was a fascinating journey. One curious point is the way that scepticism is absolutely seen as the enemy by many of these practitioners. Possibly this is a point of confusion on their part: scepticism is only about reserving judgement until the evidence is weighed, as opposed to cynicism, which is blinkered by pre-supposing falsehood. One would like to think that paranormal practitioners would have faith in their evidence and would then welcome a ‘sceptical’ approach. I think that most well-meaning practitioners, who genuinely believe that they have real evidence, do welcome such an approach. Many see some sort of intellectual rigour as an important component of discernment. Many welcome tests, others mock them (in the same way, I imagine, that many religious believers approach the question of God with a desire to understand intellectually the theological issues at hand, whereas others would find such things largely irrelevant to the question of living in their faith). Plenty of practitioners would call themselves ‘sceptical’, for to profess no scepticism at all is to suggest that one will simply believe anything.

As the spotlight falls on the importance of evidence, many people who mock believers imply that those who work with the ‘paranormal’ are not interested in the importance of evidence, as if it were something only the ‘rational’ side of the argument is capable of understanding. I think this is patronising and unfair. We all form our beliefs based on evidence and according to some private rationale: the question is more about the type of evidence being used. The ghost-hunter with whom I spent a week had a basement full of tens of thousands of spirit photographs and EVPs (audio recordings of ghosts). He knew what to look for to pick out a real one, or a fake, and knew when to reserve judgement. His life has centered around collecting evidence. Of course, someone else may put their hand up and say ‘But isn’t it all the same kind of evidence? Just a great collection?’ Here is an important difference between the way that a scientist and a believer classically approach evidence: the ‘true’ scientist tries to disprove what he believes, whereas the ‘true’ believer tends to look for evidence that confirms it. This allows us to be comfortable that the scientist’s conclusions are based on more solid ground.

If the scientific approach seems lifeless to many, that’s because the natural human tendency is to do the opposite and look for things that confirm what we already believe: it takes discipline to test against what we think might be true. There’s a great test where two groups of people are asked to interview person X one at a time to find out if he’s introvert,or extrovert, depending on the group. People routinely ask only questions that support what they’re looking for: the group checking for introversion ask ‘Do you like sitting at home reading?’, ‘Do you enjoy being on your own?’, whereas the group looking for extroversion ask questions like, ‘Do you like going to parties?’. The result? The first group come out deciding that yes, X is an introvert. The second group come out convinced the same person is an extrovert. It’s meaningless on both counts! Everyone has looked for confirmation and found it, within the complex personality of person X (which will contain both introvert and extrovert elements). No-one thinks of asking the only useful questions: the ones that test against what they think might be true. Only when the people looking for introversion start asking questions like, ‘Do you like going to parties?’, or when the ‘extrovert’ group ask to what extent X enjoys sitting at home reading, can they really start drawing a fair conclusion regarding his personality. Otherwise it’s a given they’ll just confirm what they already suspect is true. It’s called ‘confirmation bias’ and is something we all have hard-wired into us. It’s the shortest and most reliable way to finding meaningless but comforting evidence.

There is the Wason Card Problem, which works on a similar principle. Four cards are laid out in front of you, labeled A, B, 1, 2. It is suggested that ‘every card with a vowel on one side has an even number on the other side’. You have to see if this is true by flipping over as few cards as possible. Which ones do you turn over? Have a think.

Most people would flip over the even number 2 and the vowel A to see if it’s true. This seems to make sense, surely? But turning these cards does not give you the answer. By flipping over these two cards you are only looking for what you think is already true. And you don’t learn anything. To find out if it’s true, you have to try to disprove the statement. So you have to flip the A (to see if it has an even number) but then you have to flip the 1, because if this has a vowel on the other side you’ll know the statement is wrong. This is the counter-intuitive leap that people miss. They flip the 2 instead of the 1, even though nothing has been said about an even number having to have a vowel on the back. To find out if something is true, you have to look for the existence of contrary evidence, not just look for confirmation. Helpful evidence comes in the form of events that challenge and shake us: not in the endless things we can find to support what we already believe.

To be truly open minded is the equivalent of asking person X both the introvert and extrovert questions. The trouble is, when you’re dealing with areas of belief, it’s wearying and annoying to people to ask them questions which do not support their belief. Some find it downright offensive. It can feel rather like someone asking you for evidence that your partner does NOT love you, I’d imagine. It must seem like the worst sort of negative nit-picking, and not surprisingly leads to a frustrated cry of ‘Why over-analyse? Why can’t you just accept it?’ This is a (perfectly understandable) response from someone being asked endless questions they find annoyingly pedantic. But if you step out of the immediate personal situation, it is sometimes important to ask those questions. It would be stupid and annoying to be asked that about your partner if you had no reason to suspect that he or she didn’t love you, but it might be rather useful if you had every reason to suspect the relationship was a sham. Equally, a person might deeply hold the belief that he can fly, but it would make sense to make him look at evidence to the contrary before he jumps out of his bedroom window, regardless of how annoying such ‘nit-picking’ might be to him.

Likewise, it is sometimes important to ask questions that are going to seem nit-picky to practitioners of the paranormal. While a psychic undoubtedly brings huge comfort to many people, the picture is not always so rosy. Many clients get quite hooked on the process, often being charged more and more for private readings, and if it was the case that the psychic was a fraud, it would be worth knowing about. A friend of mine related that he went to see a psychic for many months as a teenager, with fees increasing from £40 to £150 a time (a huge amount for him to pay), and was one day asked to jot down some questions in a pad the psychic provided. He flipped the page and saw carbon paper a couple of pages down. Heartbroken but intrigued, he continued with the session, and later watched the psychic pretend to divine the information she was secretly reading from the carbon copy. This ploy may be unusually brazen, or quite common in that world, it’s impossible to quantify. In other cases a medium may be well-meaning but self-deluded and not really in touch with your relatives, or the ghost hunter may deeply but mistakenly believe that the symptoms of a person’s schizophrenia are demonic, or that night-terrors are caused by visiting spirits. Here it is trickier: is not ‘false’ hope still hope and ‘false’ comfort still comfort? Some take the hard line: rid the world of this rubbish and everyone will benefit. It can only ever be better to deal with the fact your loved ones are gone, than to believe false information. And what decent person decides that their lies are what people need to hear to feel better? I understand this reasoning, and I find it hard to argue against it. Perhaps it is just my indecisive nature, but something in its lack of sensitivity bothers me. I even understand where the harshness comes from: to be outspoken and sceptical is to relentlessly bang your head against a brick wall. The world will always prefer the emotional shiver of the paranormal to what seems like nit-picking from the rationalists, even though the science may point to a level of understanding of this world and each other far more fascinating than a psychic’s strange, loose pronouncements about distant realms.

The now well-known line ‘Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence’ should be a mantra for those interested in the paranormal: if I believe in Father Christmas and you do not, it is I that must come up with the evidence, not you. You do not need to prove that Father Christmas does not exist in order to fairly presume that he does not. Our beliefs are NOT equally weighted in terms of the need for evidence to back them up. The same goes for any paranormal or religious belief: if you expect your big claim to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, you will need big evidence. To provide flimsy evidence (normally based on confirmation bias) is not good enough, and to point at the non-believer and claim he’s just as ‘blinkered’ in his non-belief is nonsense: as daft as my accusation to you that you are blinkered in not believing in Father Christmas, and smugly pointing out that you can’t prove he doesn’t exist. It’s worth being clear on that: it’s up to those making the ‘supernatural’ or extraordinary claims to provide the evidence.

This, again, is balanced with my innate urge as a magician to discover real magic. I am approaching each of the subjects with a wish for it all to be true, and for my reservations to be proved ungrounded. ‘Show me the evidence, please convince me’, is my attitude: not because I am some arbiter of truth and falsehood, or that my opinion matters much in the world, but because I know how we can fake and be fooled, what level and type of evidence is needed, and because to many, these are deeply important matters.

True, I would hope that our loved ones in the Happy Summerland could be coaxed into imparting more useful insights than the fumbling non-sequiturs and platitudes they tend to offer through mediums, but how amazing if it could be, or was being, done for real. Or to really see a ghost: plenty of bright and solid people have tales of encounters, how wonderful that would be. I really don’t know what I would make of it. I imagine I would feel the excitement I felt as a student, at seeing a five pound note shoot across a table because I willed it to.