Hunting down the predictions of (alleged) psychics and making a judgment call on whether they were accurate or not is considerably more time consuming and intellectually challenging than you might first think. The somewhat light-hearted, UK-based 2021 prediction results article I put together for The Skeptic was the result of 8-10 hours’ worth of research and evaluation. Same again for the pandemic predictions article.
Imagine then the magnitude of a project to evaluate over two decades’ worth of predictions, including television and print media, rather than just relying on what Google can dredge up for you. That’s exactly what Richard Saunders of Skeptic Zone podcast fame and his team of volunteer researchers have done with the Great Australian Psychic Prediction Project. With the permission of Richard and the Australian Skeptics, we are reprinting the report here in full, but first I caught up with Richard to get the lowdown on the project.
Brian: So, Richard. Can you kick things off by just giving us a quick overview of the project. If you want to give us some spoilers that’s fine!
Richard: [laughs] The Great Australian Psychic Prediction project was an undertaking to put our own opinions to the test. It’s very easy for skeptics to sit back and say “Psychics can’t tell the future”, and while I strongly suspected that was the case, I thought it would make an interesting project to try and catalog predictions, to get a better understanding, and if it happened that during the course of this undertaking we discovered that one or more people who call themself psychic or claim to be able to tell the future from the stars, and it looked like they could, then I’d want to know about it. I thought that was very important, and also to demonstrate to the world that we’re not just armchair skeptics. If we hold an opinion, it’s not just because we think it’s a nice opinion to hold, but we’ve got the data to back it up. I also noticed that there wasn’t a huge amount of research done on psychic predictions as such.
Originally, I was only going to get a year’s worth of good data. That grew to two, to three, to five, to seven, and at some stage probably about three or four years ago I sort of made the decision to make it a twenty year block, which is a huge undertaking. I thought surely that would give us a good statistical background to say we don’t think people can tell the future and here’s the evidence to back up why.
Brian: I was going to ask you what on earth possessed you to take on such a huge task, but you’ve kind of answered that already
Richard: Sheer madness!
Brian: [laughs] The lack of anything better to do. I imagine though you’re part way into the project and already seeing a trend start to appear. Was it not tempting just to close the door after perhaps five or ten years?
Richard: Yes and no. I got it in my head that we needed as much as we could in order to be able to stand up and say ‘here are the results’. I envisaged in my head finishing the project and speaking to reporters or psychics or somebody, saying “We’ve looked at over a hundred. No, not enough for you? How about over two hundred? No? How about a thousand, how does that sit with you? How about over three thousand? Almost four thousand”. Just overwhelming them with the actual amount of work that we’ve put into this. Trends can go up and down, data of a small sample size just isn’t good enough. So, we ended up with three thousand eight hundred and eleven data points, and I have to think that’s got to be a decent amount to draw conclusions from. We’re not skimping here.
Brian: For people who look at that number and think it’s not a lot for twenty years, perhaps you could talk a little bit about the process of finding and investigating some of those claims. I’ve done some of that myself, including a couple of roundups for The Skeptic (UK), and it’s so time consuming!
Richard: So, yes. It was far more time consuming and exhaustive than I could have anticipated. To gather all those predictions meant scouring archives of magazines in state libraries, going through twenty years of them page by page. That’s no small undertaking. It also means scouring online archived newspapers because a lot of predictions end up in local newspapers.
Brian: Was there any microfiche involved? All the movies you see where they’re at the library researching there’s microfiche. I’ve got a beautiful picture of it in my head.
Richard: Yes there was. I’ve certainly spent many many hours in that section of the library doing skeptical research. I could probably find that in the database actually.
Richard: It also meant using the wayback machine, the internet archive a lot. I’m not pointing fingers or anything, but it could be tempting to back and alter their predictions, so to be fair to everybody I wanted to get what they originally wrote. I’ve also got many, many hours of videos of psychics appearing on television to give their predictions, and radio interviews too. The criteria was that it had to be published in Australia in the years from 2000 to 2020. I think with one exception they’re all Australian psychics, seers, or astrologists. All the published predictions we could find. I acknowledge in the report that there’s a lot out there that I simply couldn’t find. Saying that, one of the conclusions I reach in the report is that even if I was to get every instance of every published prediction, I don’t think it would significantly change the results statistically. So, with nearly 4000 that’s a very good representation.
Brian: I agree. Tell me though Richard, have you attempted to reach out to any of the psychics mentioned at all in your report with the result? Or have they been made aware by other means?
Richard: If they have then I’m not aware of it. I’ve certainly got a lot of promotion here in Australia on radio and newspaper. I sort of suspect if the psychics have any wherewithal about them, they know that it’s a story that will interest the media for a short term, and then the next thing comes along. We got some nice publicity out of it, and it’s now there for skeptics to use forever. But, as (James) Randi said to me once about all the debunking (not that we were debunking – we were investigating) and all the negative results in the world won’t change the psychics and their believers. So, if they had any common sense, they would simply ignore it, and why would they even bother responding to the skeptics? They’ve learned over the years that their believers will keep believing anyway. It might happen. We might get a letter or something coming along, but they’re still going to be used by the television programmes and newspapers regardless.
Brian: You make the point well in the report about the disposable nature of these predictions. It does make good television – I won’t deny it. But don’t you think it would make better television if the next time they had one of those psychics on, to confront them with some of the results of their previous predictions? I think that would make great television.
Richard: I think so, but it would be an anomaly because the sort of TV programmes that have the psychics on aren’t very keen to have skeptics on unless they think they can get a bit of entertainment out of it. The psychics will be on week after week and month after month as a continuing thing because that’s what their audience wants, and if they have a skeptic on like me, which they have in the past, I’ll go on, then the next day the audience will forget about it, and they’ll have someone else on. It’s (the report) entertaining, it’s fun, it’s something I can use in the archives, but I think having this body of reference there for the future is more important.
Brian: One potential criticism there may be about the report is that it was only a group of like-minded skeptics who were evaluating the predictions. Was there ever any thought about having representatives from the paranormal community participate in your project at all?
Richard: No, it never crossed our mind because in a great many of the cases of analysing there wasn’t any need for judgment. Either something happened or it didn’t. This person won the election, or they didn’t. This football team won, or they didn’t. Where we had to think about it and debate and argue was when a prediction was vague. What do they mean by that? A lot of it was to do about love or celebrities or something like that, and many of them we simply had to put in the conclusion as ‘too vague’. It doesn’t actually make a prediction, it’s just waffly language used in a magazine.
It’s probably an interesting point you raise, but what I would say to that is that any group, be it psychics or skeptics or bricklayers from around the world, are welcome to repeat this project in their own country, maybe with a sample size of five years or whatever, and present their results. I would dare say if it was done by a group of psychics then I suspect their results would be a lot better than what we discovered [laughs].
One of the things about having a team work on it is that there were arguments. Someone said a prediction was too vague, someone would say it was correct, and we would have a discussion to come to a consensus. Not every prediction is cut and dry.
Brian: Could it just be the case that all Australian psychics are just rubbish? Maybe because they’re upside down, or a timezone thing, or maybe even the Coriolis effect?
Richard: You’re probably right [laughs], it must be because of the negative gravity or who knows what? I have to say though that if this was a worldwide project, I would not expect to have a significant variation in the results, for many reasons. In the report I talk about what if people could tell the future, and what effect that would have on the gambling and sporting industries. Things that rely on the result being unknown would fail. I also mention that casinos in particular keep detailed statistical data at every table. If something is off then they know. They can tell if it’s a good run of luck for a punter, or if it’s cheating, and that has never, ever been shown to be the case.
Brian: So now that you’ve finished this massive piece of work, you’ll have a lot of spare time on your hands. What’s your next big project?
Richard: [laughs] I seem to do something like this every ten years or so. My first big project for the skeptics was the great skeptic CD. This was one of the first times in the world that a magazine had been put into one place in a PDF and was searchable before the days of the internet. My next big project was the great water divining DVD, after which came the Vaccination Chronicles, which has stories about people who lost family members because they weren’t vaccinated in the old days. Now it’s the great Australian psychic prediction project. Next up, I don’t know. Something will occur to me.
Brian: I’m sure it will. So, if anyone has any great ideas for you how can they get hold of you?
Richard: The best thing they can do is listen to the Skeptic Zone podcast at skepticzone.tv and they can leave me a message at that site.
The full report from the Great Australian Psychic Prediction Project is available to read now, kindly reprinted with permission from The Skeptic (Australia), Volume 41, No 4, December 2021.