Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science Skeptic: Examining Extraordinary Claims and Promoting Science

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Wednesday, March 16th, 2011 | ISSN 1556-5696

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elk wallow

The Skookum cast explained as an elk wallow

Is The Skookum Fair Dinkum?

In the year 2000 startling claims of a body cast of a Bigfoot emerged from the deep woods of Washington State. More than a decade later, MonsterTalk interviews Bigfoot researcher Daniel Perez about the facts behind this contentious artifact — which some still claim to be one of the best pieces of evidence for the existence of Bigfoot.


About this week’s feature article

In this week’s eSkeptic, in a spin on David Letterman’s “Stupid Pet Tricks,” psychologist Bryan Farha examines the very real world of stupid pet psychic tricks—people who think their pets have psychic power. Farha not only debunks the claims of psychic pet owners but reveals how the tricks are done through a series of techniques based on natural (not supernatural) powers. (From Skeptic magazine volume 10, number 1, 2003.)

Bryan Farha is a professor and director of Applied Behavioural Studies at Oklahoma City University and a licensed professional Counselor and editor of Paranormal Claims: A Critical Analysis.

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Stupid “Pet Psychic” Tricks
Crossing Over with Fifi and Fido
on the Animal Planet Network

by Bryan Farha

If David Letterman wants to expand his “Stupid Pet Tricks” segment on the Late Show to include stupid pet psychic tricks, I believe we have a winner. Move over James Van Praagh and John Edward, there’s a new television show in town. The Animal Planet cable network has launched Pet Psychic, which is hosted by England-born Sonya Fitzpatrick. During Sonya’s introductory bio on each telecast, she claims to be able to “hear the thoughts” of all animals in her vicinity. On the show, Sonya “reads” the thoughts of a variety of animals, asking the pets questions, and claiming to get answers from the critters. She then communicates the answer to the pet owner, who feels comforted after the alleged telepathic communication. Sometimes questions are requested by animal owners, who are often interested in finding out reasons for peculiar pet behaviors. And she’s multi-talented, also “crossing over” to communicate with pets that have died.

illustration by Pat Linse

Further, Sonya also professes ability to function as a pet psychic detective. For example, there is a $4,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the person or persons who abused a cat named “TLC.” The abused cat “told” Sonya that the guilty person was a thin male with dark hair who didn’t like cats. One member of the veterinary staff who treated TLC said of Sonya’s psychic detective work that the staff was “shocked” at her accuracy and that “any kind of skepticism fades away.” Excuse me, but this is where skepticism enters.

Let’s look at some “Stupid Pet Psychic Tricks” used by Sonya Fitzpatrick to make her appear psychic. All are taken from a single program, which aired on July 1, 2002.

Prediction Based on Prior Knowledge

“Tony” the Llama. Sonya made a house call to a ranch outside her current residence of Houston for this alleged telepathic experience. She accurately pointed out that Tony had some behavioral issues and that he was a problem llama. The fact that the owner confirmed this made the statements seem very impressive.

Stupid Pet Psychic Trick: Immediately before her psychic vision of the llama’s behavioral problems, Tony jerked and flailed noticeably while being observed by Sonya and the owner. After seeing this unruly behavior, just how psychic was it to predict that the llama had disciplinary problems? Anyone could have had the same psychic vision after observing a child who misbehaved like this, even before being told of such a problem. Yet the owner seemed impressed, and probably many in the television audience as well.

Percy and Bogie. It was never established which one was which, but referring to one of the dogs, this dialog took place between Sonya and the pet’s owner:

Sonya: When did he have some medication?
Owner: He’s had an ear infection.
Sonya: Yah — he [dog] says that was bad. He says he’s had that on and off.

Stupid Pet Psychic Trick: Notice Sonya only makes this last comment after already hearing the owner say the dog had an ear infection. If Sonya can communicate with animals, why didn’t she just ask the dog initially what the medication was for and report the answer to us before the owner did? But she asked a general question about medication and got a specific answer from the pet’s owner, and wants us to believe that the dog told her the experience was bad?

“Bonnie” the Dog. This dog kept growling and snarling before Sonya said anything. Therefore, Sonya’s first comment about the dog’s behavior was, “she’s a talker.”

Stupid Pet Psychic Trick: How hard is it to convince an owner of this given the free prior knowledge of snarling and growling?

illustration by Pat Linse
Making the Obvious Seem Telepathic

Two Cats: Sonya asked the owner if one of the cats crawls under things. The amazed owner confirmed this and said they both go under the covers with her.

Stupid Pet Psychic Trick: What’s amazing about this? What cat doesn’t crawl under things? And it didn’t have to be the covers. Don’t most cats crawl under desks, tables, sofas, beds, and any other available space? The owner was impressed enough to believe one of the cats told Sonya she’d prefer it if the owner would buy a second litter box — one for each cat.

“Bonnie” Again: Sonya states, “she’s [Bonnie] asking me why is it that you [owner] don’t want her on you sometimes?”

Stupid Pet Psychic Trick: The owner’s answer is the same that most of us would give — because sometimes we’ve got other things we need to do like cook, work on the computer, etc. Maybe this category should have been labeled, “Duh.”

Crossing Over Willie: Willie was a diseased Golden Retriever. His owner had arranged to have him euthanatized by a veterinarian. Sonya had a vision — which the owner confirmed — that Willie used to scratch behind his ears. Really? A dog scratching behind his ears? Shocking.

Making it Fit

“Joy” Who Crossed Over. Joy is a cat who ran away without apparent cause and supposedly died. In an effort to find out why Joy ran away, this dialog ensued:

Sonya: When did you [owner] change a floor in your house? [no response]. Or a carpet?
Owner: We just cleaned our carpet.

Sonya goes on to say that Joy ran away because they cleaned the carpet. But if Sonya can communicate with dead animals, why didn’t she just ask the departed cat the question and provide the answer before asking the owner about changing the floor? More important, wasn’t Sonya’s question really implying that a different floor was installed? When people are asked if they’ve changed a floor, aren’t they assuming a new floor was installed? Yet the owner had no problem adjusting what Sonya had said. People who want to believe are going to make any statement fit.

illustration by Pat Linse
Comforting Themes

Recall the old rule of fortune telling — “tell ‘em what they want to hear.” Pet owners want to hear things that will make them feel good about their animals. It’s especially important for grieving owners to feel comfort when the pet has “crossed over.” Sonya made the following comments, all during a single July 1, 2002 show about various pets that had died and were “telepathically” communicating their thoughts to her: “He loves you;” “He’s with you all the time;” “He comes around you a lot;” “She’s around you, darling;” “She didn’t suffer;” “She’s with you all the time.” Sonya told Felicia, the pet owner who was feeling guilty about putting her dog Willie to sleep, that the departed Willie reassured her, “I was ready to go…you did the right thing.”

Concluding Remarks

Obviously, Sonya is using old rehashed fortune telling and psychic “tricks” that only appear new when done under the guise of communicating with animals. It’s difficult enough for skeptics to verify human psychic claims because of the vagueness of the readings. Since animals don’t speak our tongue (sorry, Sonya), verifiability would be even more difficult with pet psychics. But some of her claims do lend themselves to controlled testing — Sonya needs to ask the animals direct and specific questions and then let the owners verify the answers.

I would like to challenge Sonya to take the Million Dollar Psychic Challenge from the James Randi Educational Foundation. If she’s not interested in the money, she can donate the earnings to her favorite animal charity. Television is about money, too, and surely this type of programming sells. It just doesn’t seem as if it belongs on the Animal Planet — an otherwise good network. If Sonya won’t contact James Randi, maybe she’ll contact David Letterman.


Skeptical perspectives on psychics…
cover Guidelines for Testing Psychic Claimants
by Richard Wiseman and Robert L. Morris (hardcover $24)

What proof do we have that any of these claims are real? Richard Wiseman and Robbert Morris provide helpful and professional guidelines to help health professionals, law enforcement agencies, cult investigators, scientists, and the public at large assess those who make psychic claims.
READ more and order the book.

cover An ESP Demonstration
by Bob Steiner (CD $15.95)

Magician and skeptical author Bob Steiner has convinced millions of people that he is psychic, yet he has never taken one penny from believers. Steiner demonstrates what passes for ESP, then reveals the secrets behind ESP—cold reading and manipulative psychology.
READ more and order the book.

cover Mind Power: Fact, Fiction and Fakery
by Ian Rowland (CD $15.95 DVD $23.95)

Rowland demonstrates a wide range of seemingly psychic and impossible effects (no magician secrets revealed!) while outlining what he refers to as ‘real’ mind power. A very funny, entertaining, and educational show.
READ more and order the lecture.

Browse our other lectures on psychics, ESP & magic.

Follow Michael Shermer on Twitter, Facebook, and Skepticblog

NEW ON SKEPTICBLOG.ORG
Egypt, Watson & the Future of Civilization

What does the democratic uprising in Egypt and other Arab nations have to do with IBM’s Jeopardy champion Watson in determining the fate of civilization? Think bottom up, not top down; think exponential growth, not linear change; think crowd sourcing, not elite commanding; and think open access and transparency, not closed entree and secrecy. Under the influence of these four forces, such seemingly unconnected events are, in fact, connected at a deeper level when we pull back and examine the overall trajectory of the history of civilization.

CONTINUE READING

FOLLOW MICHAEL SHERMER ON TWITTER Facebook SKEPTICBLOG

Lecture this Sunday at Caltech

Why We Get Fat and
What to Do About It

with Gary Taubes
Sunday, March 20, 2011 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

AN EYE-OPENING, MYTH-SHATTERING EXAMINATION of what makes us fat. Acclaimed science writer Gary Taubes argues that our diet’s overemphasis on certain kinds of carbohydrates — not fats and not simply excess calories — has led directly to the obesity epidemic we face today. Taubes explores the urgent question of what’s making us fat — and how we can change, and reveals the bad nutritional science of the last century, none more damaging or misguided than the “calories-in, calories-out” model of why we get fat, and the good science that has been ignored, especially regarding insulin’s regulation of our fat tissue. He also answers the most persistent questions: Why are some people thin and others fat? What roles do exercise and genetics play in our weight? What foods should we eat, and what foods should we avoid? Order the book on which this lecture is based from Amazon.com.

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Mystery Photo
Mystery Photo

This week’s Mystery Photo (detail)
Click to see full image.

The solution to the Mystery Photo from March 2 is Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, a life-size diorama at the Kentucky Creationism Museum. Eve’s hair is artfully combed to cover anything that might tempt Adam to fulfill his Godly command to go forth and multiply, but not to worry because she is offering him a piece of fruit (a small berry actually) from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; so he’s about to get a boost of testosterone and oxytocin from that fruit (who knew?).

This week’s photo

Where is this parking sign located (hint: a famous Christian college)? The car with the bumper sticker—one of my favorite slogans—was parked there intentionally during my visit to this historic location in the history of the evolution-creation wars.

We will reveal the answer to this week’s Mystery Photo in next week’s eSkeptic.

4 Comments »

4 Comments

  1. Monty Phister says:

    Not long ago in Seattle I saw a sign like the above which read “No parking north of here”.

  2. Curmudgeon says:

    When you provide the answer to the mystery photo you need to also provide information as to the source of the bumper sticker.

  3. Wesley Sulek says:

    Re: Adam & Eve comments

    I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them. — Baruch Spinoza

  4. John Hatlestad says:

    My favorite parking sign:

    Witch Parking Only.

    All Others Will Be Toad.

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