Quoting ‘Psychics’ Like Experts: How Low Can News Judgment Go?


Arizona Republic (10/09/2009): More turning to psychics for economic advice. When the going gets tough, Valley residents apparently go in search of the metaphysical. Local psychics and astrologers say that while they’re seeing some decline in business as longtime clients cut back on discretionary spending, the recession is bringing them many new customers.

Even though it’s shrinking along with all metropolitan newspapers in America, the Arizona Republic remains by far the biggest news organization in Phoenix and the state of Arizona. It still helps set the agenda for public discourse, and claims to be a responsible operation.

The story quoted above, which ran on the front of its local/state section, demonstrates serious irresponsibility on the part of the newspaper. It’s a textbook example of why smart readers are tuning out the press.

Consider the way the story starts. The word “apparently” is a tip-off that the piece is based on no actual data. Who’s the source for this alleged mini-flood of new customers? Why, the people selling the product. Makes sense to me: In I-can-see-into-the-future territory, we can just take their word for it.

Not a single customer is quoted. We hear only from the people who are claiming to be getting this influx of new customers. Can’t the newspaper find even one client?

Look. Newspapers run astrology columns — something I’d ban if I ran a paper, because I’m old-fashioned — with no disclaimers that there is no scientific basis for what these planet- and star-gazers tell us. But the astrology columns run, typically, near the comics, which is the fiction section of the daily paper.

No newspaper, as far as I know, gives its pages over to self-described psychics. Yet the Republic’s story quotes several, along with the astrologers, with a straight face.

It even provides a helpful sidebar explaining the difference between psychics, astrologers, fortune-tellers and mediums (in each case with the same level of “here’s what they say, never mind what science says” logic). For example, we learn that a psychic is “sensitive to non-physical or supernatural forces and influences, able to see into the future and into the events in a person’s life. Often uses tools such as tarot cards, crystals or tea leaves.” Gosh, thanks the the deeper insight.

I have to note that journalists spent much of the last decade quoting with a straight face the people from the financial and real estate industries who sold inflated goods to suckers, pulling big fees from the transactions. (Note: I do not indict the entire industry. I have a financial advisor who works for one of the big banks, an old and close friend who’s never, ever steered me toward something that was aimed at enriching him, and someone who’s comfortable with my tendency to buy and hold.)

The peddlers got rich, and then disclaimed culpability for the bubble or the financial catastrophe it spawned for those average folks (many of whom, we should noted, played the markets like insane gamblers who lose their kids’ college money at Las Vegas casinos). Maybe a responsible story would have contrasted the slimy advice from the past with the advice people now seek — foolishly, in my view — from the self-professed seers.

Had this story appeared on April 1, I’d have applauded the piece as droll satire. Running with scarcely a hint of reality, it only satirizes the condition of the newspaper industry, or at least this corner of the trade.

(Note: The updates to this include some or all of the 3rd, 4th 7th and 8th paragraphs. Also please understand that the post update will make some of the earlier comments feel out of place. This is my doing, not the commenters’. Anyone who commented early on and wants the comment removed, please email me.)

33 thoughts on “Quoting ‘Psychics’ Like Experts: How Low Can News Judgment Go?”

  1. I have to disagree. I got a completely different vibe from the story than you apparently did. The bulk of the story isn’t about psychics’ financial predictions, but rather about the fact that more people are turning to psychics due to the recession, which is a legitimate story. In this 682-word story, only the last 180 words were actually about what psychics think about the economy, and even that part comes off as “well, we are writing about people going to psychics, so let’s have a little bit about what psychics are telling them”. It’s a huge stretch to put this on par with irresponsibly quoting people in the real estate and financial sectors. I doubt anyone reading this story would read it as “Here’s serious financial advice”. You are ok with astrology columns running without disclaimers b/c they are in the “fiction” section of the paper. But I question that logic. Do readers realize that astrology columns are not “scientific” or “reliable” because of where it appears in the paper, or because it’s astrology? I believe it to be the latter, and for that reason, I don’t see any need for a disclaimer with this story. Give the readers a bit more credit: They know Ms. Cleo isn’t reliable, without needing the newspaper to print it in big red letters.

    1. Actually I think astrology columns should not run in newspapers, but that’s a different issue.

      The story is flatly irresponsible.

    2. For folks just dropping in, I’ve updated the post (see end), which will affect the way the comments should be interpreted given that they were posted before the update…

  2. So you really think readers would react the same way to a psychic’s predictions about the economy as they would to quotes from a “financial expert”?

  3. My question is whether supposed journalists have any obligation to reality. I look forward to the follow-up on financial advice from birthers. Geez.

  4. The media is desperately filling up its pages with press releases slightly rewritten to sound like news. I wrote about a similar <a href=”http://www.purplepawn.com/2009/08/tri-cross/”>article about a board game</a> in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

  5. Of course journalists have an obligation to reality. There’s no question about that. But what I take issue with is what you seem to be saying: That if journalists don’t say “Psychics’ predictions are not scientifically reliable”, then people might think what the psychics are saying is legitimate financial advice, and therefore the journalist’s failure to include a warning label is irresponsible. I simply don’t see anyone actually seriously believing that. Regardless of whether the journalist points it out, people in general already know that psychics are not reliable financial advisers. Prove me wrong; otherwise your outrage has no grounds because reality would not be at stake in this case.
    If a reporter writes a story about someone who’s suffered from the economic crisis, and the person says something like, “God will guide us through this,” would you be outraged if the reporter didn’t write “There is no scientific basis to support the belief that human existence is overseen and guided by a higher supreme being and therefore one should not plan their finances with that expectation”? For me, that’s what the psychic quotes are on par with. The fact that psychics are not reliable are so well-established and generally accepted that a story quoting psychics doesn’t need that warning label. On the other hand, if we’re talking about a story on the origin of life quoting an intelligent design advocate, I would say such a disclaimer would be necessary since half the people in this country don’t believe in evolution.

  6. (deadpan)
    See, that’s what’s wrong with relying on bloggers instead of bold, responsible print journalists. You’d be too timid to seek out the judgments of those who — if they turn out to be right — saw the future clearly all along. Meanwhile, these courageous newsbreakers are looking so far ahead that they let us know about developments that beyond mere facts, to groundless guesswork, some of whichmay turn out to hit the target. And then won’t they look clever!

  7. You shouldn’t be too surprised about ‘How Low Can News Judgement Go?’. Surely you’ve heard of William Randolph Hearst, ‘Yellow’ journalism (named for the colour of the printing paper I believe), Rupert Murdoch, Fox News etc. etc.. This is small potatoes compared to wars incited by newspapers, revolutions fostered, dictators coddled. Stories that mangle and misinterpret facts. Journalists who manifestly don’t understand statistics report on ‘studies’ and (self serving) crime numbers issued by parties who stand to gain by the misinterpretation of them.
    Don’t get me started on science reporting. I don’t call it journalism because too many reporters haven’t the slightest idea of the science behind the stories they report, and are just as happy to write a piece about a perpetual motion machine as about the Large Hadron Collider.
    I completely agree about astrology sections, ‘your lucky numbers for today’, and credulous stories about ‘psychics’. The appropriate response to charlatans of any stripe is to pillory them. Reporters have no trouble going after other stories of con artists and cheats. Why are they not just denying space in the paper to these people, but wholeheartedly chasing them as victimizers of distraught and financially devastated people?
    Here’s a story to investigate: what happened to the ‘fortune teller’ laws enacted around the early part of the last century? Are they still around and just not being enforced, or have they been repealed? Might be time to renew them. Used to be, claiming arcane knowledge of the future, and getting money for it would land you in jail – I think this is still the appropriate response of society.

  8. Jesus. What a bunch of tightasses. It’s a human interest story. It doesn’t purport to speak on the truth or lack thereof of the interviewees’ stories. It’s not boosting the businesses of psychics. It doesn’t claim that they have answers to life’s problems. It merely lets them describe what they do in their own words. It’s a rather lightly written piece, a diversion from a newspaper full of depressing stuff, another angle.
    Three indisputable facts: 1) There are psychics out there, and/or people who claim to be psychics. 2)  They make various predictions about this and that. 3)  People pay money for their services – “Psychic Services/Astrologers”  is one small aspect of the real economy.
    I don’t see anything whatsoever irresponsible about this reporting. If you are looking for good examples of why the mainstream media is being abandoned in droves, I am sure you can do better than this.
    How abut the predictions from the leading economists and academics in 2006/2007 about how the real estate market was all roses?
    Shit, I’ll take the psychics.

  9. No, a large percentage of newspaper readers readers don’t know that Ms. Cleo isn’t reliable, they don’t know that astrology is claptrap, they aren’t aware that “psychics” aren’t reliable financial advisors.  The media takes advantage of these naifs, not caring whether they damage them, simply to “make the numbers” in circulation or ratings.  Montel Williams, who made a media star of “psychic” Sylvia Browne by promoting her shamelessly, has admitted that he himself does not believe in psychic powers, yet he endorsed Browne to attract sponsors – thus money.  Williams is what’s known in the profession as a “media whore,” one who will do anything to get the dollars rolling in.  My foundation – http://www.randi.org – offers a million-dollar prize to anyone who can produce any evidence of psychic abilities; why are there no eager woo-woos standing impatiently outside my door?

  10. I really fail to see exactly why astrology columns should merit a “disclaimer” and financial advice columns shouldn’t. Financial advisors use entirely unscientific methodologies. Have you ever studied for example technical analysis? It consists of a bunch of entirely arbitrary calculations and statistical meassures which have never been “scientifically proven” to have any more predictive power than i.e. astrology. In fact there is nothing (no methodology) which has ever been proven to be sound investment advice… if there were any one methodology which had a significant statistical predictive component and were proven to have such with some “scientific” causality, everyone would jump on it (since it can make money) which would immediately begin to distort the markets, neutralizing its value.

    The truth is, there is no science in finance, and hardly any in economics. So anything that sounds even vaguely like financial advice should have a big disclaimer that it is unscientific, right?

    Frankly, I think that economists and financial advisors are bigger crooks than psychics, because of the lie they perpetrate that what they are doing is somehow “science” and therefor reliable and trustworthy.

  11. There is a news story here, but not the one the Arizona Republic ran. If people who never consulted psychics before are now going to them, that’s news. If the reporter talked to some of those people and then interviewed some psychologists about why people might turn to magical solutions in the face of this economic crisis, you’d have an interesting human interest story. It could include a comment from someone (like Mr. Randi above in the comments) about why such advice is worthless. Perhaps it could even include some comments about the failure of many supposedly legitimate financial advisors. It would be nice if there were some actual statistics showing an increase in new users of psychics, though that might be hard to get. But interviews with a few psychics who say they have more business is just free advertising for psychics, not news.

  12. If it were an article on the economy, and they quote a harvard economist, an IMF statistician, and a psychic – yeah, that would be pretty ridicululous.  But it’s an article about psychics, asking what sort of things people ask them about. It’s not an economics article, it’s a sociology article. The headline you chose is completely misleading.

  13. Mr. Randi,   I couldn’t agree more.  Thank you for the fine work you are doing in debunking fraudulent claims.  I hope that at least a few of the credulous public learn some skepticism from you (although I have to admit I’m not optimistic).  You can see my opinion on the subject from my post above.  When my son was growing up I used to play a game with him called ‘is it reasonable’  which challenged amazing claims with simple analysis.  We would talk through the ideas while we drove in the car.   I wish such analytical thinking was taught in schools.

  14. I already agreed with Dan, but then James Randi weighed in and that ALWAYS seals the deal!
    I also agree with Juergen Botz, and I will add this: At least psychics don’t have the widespread ability to shape the future through their fortune-telling. Financial prognosticators use their pseudo-abilities to move markets, harm innocent people, and cash in.  That makes it as bad or worse.

  15. This is a terrible article – the writer didn’t try even to test the ‘psychics’, or even to talk to anyone who’d been burned by them – I’m sure if she checked court records or the better business bureau she would have been able to find local people who’d been conned by psychics.
    Is the guy in the photograph hanging on the wall behind the client and psychic Carlos Santana???

  16. Are you not aware that there are people that believe in astrology….and that the potential exists for real world consequences from a belief in absurdity?  Take a minute to google Nancy Reagan and astrologer.

  17. “No, a large percentage of newspaper readers readers don’t know…”
    What possible evidence do you have to make that assertion? Sounds a bit paranoid. Myself, I’d venture that even people who believe in psychic abilities are well aware that it’s unproven territory. I base that conjecture in the “Science & Engineering Indicators” annual surveys, which have reliably noted that belief in psychic ability is higher among college graduates than among people with less education; that is, people with fine critical thinking skills accept that there’s the possibility.
    As for why there are no eager “woo-woos” applying for that million, just google the article “The Myth of James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge” which suggests it is little more than a publicity stunt; a talking point for a media pundit.

  18. One can expect little more from a state that once elected racist used-car salesman Governor, and who <i>keep</i> re-electing a corrupt racist as Maricopa County Sheriff.  Not exactly the sharpest tools in the shed.  We’ll beat Florida yet…

  19. On the contrary – many readers would pay more attention to a psychic’s predictions about the economy!
    Add to that unfortunate propensity the fact that the psychic’s prediction would very likely be phrased in a much more understandable way than anything from a so-called financial expert.

  20. Legitimate story. Now, would I have liked more facts? Yes. But asking the questions — are more people going to psychics for financial advice? — is in bounds. It’s not like they are doing a story on “here is what psychics say about where to invest.”
    There are many more good examples of bad journalism where you can hang your hat on the death of newspapers, than this simple story.
    Have a hair-trigger much?

  21. Dear Dan,
    Of all the horrible inaccuracies perpetrated by the the press in the last years  this is what gets you up in arms? God help protect from people like you who wish to protect us.
    Joe Capp

    1. Joe, apparently you haven’t been reading any of my work these last few years, or you’d know that I’ve been a fairly persistent critic of bad journalism.

      By the way, you need to protect yourself. No one else can do it for you.

  22. Dan, I think you’re misreading the story. If it were saying “Loan Sharks and Get-Rich-Quick scammers are seeing more new customers coming in because of the economic downturn”, you probably wouldn’t have a problem with that (other than the questionable statistical methodology of extrapolating from the few scammers and loan sharks the reporter knows into a purported trend.)

    The article isn’t saying that genuine psychics are foreseeing more business, it’s saying that people in the non-scientific-advice business are getting more suckers.

    1. Bill, they would never in a million years write a story with the headline you describe and then a) take the word of the loan sharks and scammers that they were getting more customers; b) blandly quote those people; and c) fail to have a comment or two from law enforcement. In fact, the story would be framed as a warning, starting with law enforcement folks saying that more people were turning to the wrong people for help. I’m not calling the “psychics” the same as loan sharks, btw, but this story begged for editorial (as in an editor or two who had time to think about it, something editors have much less of these days) supervision.

  23. To Mr. Randi’s point: Yep, a large percentage of the readers don’t knoew that astrology is claptrap, but y’all are confusing readers with customers! The purpose of the newspaper is to deliver ads to easily swayed consumers. If I were selling stuff on the consumer level, darn right I’d want more readers who buy into astrology and aren’t much on critical thinking.
    And how many ads do you figure that article sold to those psychics? As the classified section is waning, the small display section towards the back that has the personal services in it is probably still profitable.
    Maybe it’s that I’m old and cynical, but for as long as I’ve been reading newspapers I’ve seen that their purpose is to deliver eyeballs in the appropriate demographic to advertisers. This sort of article is completely consistent with that mission.

  24. Remember – no one ever went broke overestimating the lack of intelligence of the American public.

  25. “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance–that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” – Herbert Spencer
    I agree with the posts that “journalists” in both print and digital media often neglect to research their pieces. (This reflects their personal and professional bias.) There is an organization endeavoring to inform the public: the National Council for Geocosmic Research (NCGR) — of which I remain a long-standing member (reflecting my personal and professional bias).

  26. Fifteen years ago I was at a fair where I decided to have a tarot card reading. It was unplanned and I had no advance appointment. There were several psychics there, and I chose one at random. This was not something I had ever done before, and I was skeptical. The psychic’s cards were so worn that the ink was gone, and she said it didn’t matter because she could still read them. Then she predicted things that left me completely astonished. She said I would have a new job soon, which seemed impossible to me at the time because I had a job and wasn’t looking. She said that this time, I needed to negotiate my salary carefully. She couldn’t possibly know this, but I tended to not be good at negotiating my salary. She also said some very specific and useful things about my family life. Three months later, I had a new job and had successfully negotiated a higher salary. I didn’t tell her anything more than my name and date of birth. There is no possible way that someone could have fed her any of the information that she shared with me. I paid a small fee and we never had contact again. Was it all a good guess? Did she get this information by sizing me up? Did she simply plant suggestions which might have been helpful to most people? I wouldn’t call myself ignorant, uneducated or naive, but to this day the incident remains a mystery.

    Since that time, I have had a few rare tarot card readings by professional psychics. It’s always been for entertainment purposes, and not real advise on important matters. Not one of these psychics had been nearly as helpful, perceptive or accurate as that first one.

    Obviously some of these people are hucksters. Certainly their abilities cannot be proven. But I like to keep an open mind, and would enjoy reading articles about psychics. I think Mr. Gillmore sounds hostile to the topic rather than the way it was covered.

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