The View From Here

One psychic offered the "client" five candles to burn for pounds 150, while another could lift the curse for pounds 900. None of the psychics detecte d the subterfuge
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The Independent Online
It's that time of the year again. We have all braced ourselves for the new year, and the psychics have made their predictions. Prince Charles will be run over by a bus, the new Severn Crossing will collapse (those are mine, by the way), a giant asteroid will crash into the earth and Michael Jackson will have a sex-change operation (those were two of last year's). The sceptics' magazines are delighting in their yearly round- up showing that only the most obvious of last year's predictions came true. It's the same every year.

In a world full of psychic beliefs I want to tell people about this, but then comes the question: How much should I push my own views on to my students? You may say, "not at all". Yet all my students know that I know that they know that I am pretty sceptical about all things paranormal.

My solution is to be quite straight about it. I tell them what I think. I think paranormal phenomena almost certainly don't exist. I think the self is only a mental construct invented by a clever brain. I think ... well - whatever it is. Then I make it as clear as I possibly can that their marks do not depend on their agreeing. You will get good marks for a well-argued essay that proves me wrong, and bad marks for a poor essay that agrees with me. This doesn't stop me cringing when I read their exams liberally sprinkled with "Blackmore says ..." but it's the best I can do.

And it leaves me free to tell them the latest horrific scams. Richard Wiseman at Hertfordshire University recently investigated half a dozen local psychics who claimed to be able to remove curses. He hired two actresses to be "clients" with tales of troubled lives. One psychic offered the "client" five candles to burn for pounds 150 each, while another could lift the curse for a mere pounds 900. None of the psychics detected the subterfuge.

So I do tell my students about all this, and hope they are by now learning enough thinking skills to form their own opinions.

A similar issue appears over third-year projects. All psychology students throughout the country do a final-year research project that counts heavily towards their degree. This trains them in research methods and, if you are lucky, provides real life research findings. I personally hope that the experience will inspire them with curiosity and teach them that only research can provide meaningful answers. The question is, should the lecturers tell the students what to do, or let them invent their own projects? Our own department veers heavily towards the "let them ..." end.

Back in October, one of my group came to me positively frightened. She had little confidence in her work and no ideas of her own, and feared that she just wouldn't be able to complete a project at all. With some trepidation, I concluded this was a case for "lecturer tells student ...".

Are people really affected by their horoscopes? I mean, when people read their star signs in the papers do they just think it's a bit of a laugh - as newspaper editors insist? Or do they really stay indoors that day for fear of Mars in Aquarius or a bad alignment with the moon? No one knows. I tend to say, when a camera is pointed at me, that I fear they do - and that astrology is therefore dangerous But is it? Could she design a project to find out?

Lee got stuck in, and created the project with increasing enthusiasm. This week she has given false horoscopes to 62 people. They believe these have been "drawn up personally for you". In fact, they are allocated at random, with some saying things like: "With lucky Leo entering Pisces, it looks as though you are on to a winning streak. So take those chances ..." and others: "When Venus squares unlucky Uranus early this year, don't waste any of that hard-earned cash." The rest say nothing about money and chance. The question is, will the horoscopes affect how much they spend on the lottery? Next week, phase two of the project will find out.

I'm glad I pushed my views on to the students, for they're learning that my beliefs don't matter; only the truth does. Astrology either is or isn't affecting people, and we may find out by doing the research. The truth is out there. If I find out what it is, I'll let you know.

The author is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England. Her most recent book, an autobiography, 'In Search of the Light: the Adventures of a Parapsychologist', is published by Prometheus, pounds 14.50.