A clairvoyant is a person who can see things beyond the limits of ordinary vision, including things that haven’t taken place yet (precognition) or things that have occurred already (retrocognition). One might say that he clairvoyant is blessed with phenomenal foresight and hindsight. These powers are said to derive from psychic abilities, except when they are given to one by the devil, and are (except in the devil-made-me-do-it instances), as such, paranormal, rather than supernatural, in nature.
In its’ Voice of Reason series, Live Science’s “Choosing Psychic Detectives Over Real Ones,” by Joe Nickell, discusses the remote viewing capabilities that psychic detectives allegedly have. According to the article, psychic detectives use a variety of once “discredited techniques” to acquire their visions of tomorrow, yesterday, and far away, including “astrology. . . spirit guides. . . dowsing rods and pendulums . . . psychometry,” or the use of “psychic impressions from objects connected with a particular person,” and “auras,” noting that neither “such disparity of approach” nor “specific tests” offer “a credible basis for psychic sleuthing.”
Clairvoyants are regarded as having been successful by naïve law enforcement officers on occasion because they fall for a technique known as retrofitting:
. . . this after-the-fact matching -- known as "retrofitting" -- is the secret behind most alleged psychic successes. For example, the statement, "I see water and the number seven," would be a safe offering in almost any case. After all the facts are in, it will be unusual if there is not some stream, body of water, or other source that cannot somehow be associated with the case. As to the number seven, that can later be associated with a distance, a highway, the number of people in a search party, part of a license plate number, or any of countless other possible interpretations. . . . Many experienced police officers have fallen for the retrofitting trick.In addition, psychic detectives, Nickell, maintains, rely on a number of other simple, but sometimes-successful ploys:
Psychics may also enhance their reputations by exaggerating their successes, minimizing their failures, passing off secretly gleaned information as psychically acquired, and other means, including relying on others to misremember what was actually said.Your horror story’s skeptical character may also critique claims of the paranormal and supernatural nature of clairvoyance by debunking the sources that clairvoyants claim for their powers: “astrology. . . spirit guides. . . dowsing rods and pendulums . . . psychometry,” or the use of “psychic impressions from objects connected with a particular person,” and “auras.” If the underlying source for clairvoyance can be shown to be false, any powers that are said to derive from these sources must also be seen as false or non-existent.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary gives a succinct definition of “astrology”:
Astrology, in its traditional form, is a type of divination based on the theory that the positions and movements of celestial bodies (stars, planets, sun, and moon) at the time of birth profoundly influence a person's life. In its psychological form, astrology is a type of New Age therapy used for self-understanding and personality analysis (astrotherapy). In both forms, it is a manifestation of magical thinking.Even in William Shakespeare’s time, it was difficult for educated people to believe that the movements of heavenly bodies had any cause-and-effect on people. “The fault. . . lies in ourselves, not in the stars,” he has Julius Caesar tell Brutus.
Astrology is an ancient and complex system, and, as such, it cannot be completely debunked here, but some critical notes that your horror story’s skeptical character could address to the clairvoyant who maintains that his or her power to see past, future, or distant events include these, which appear in The Skeptic’s Dictionary’s essay concerning “astrology”:
Astrologers emphasize the importance of the positions of the sun, moon, planets, etc., at the time of birth. However, the birthing process isn’t instantaneous. There is no single moment that a person is born. The fact that some official somewhere writes down a time of birth is irrelevant. . . . Why are the initial conditions more important than all subsequent conditions for one’s personality and traits? Why is the moment of birth chosen as the significant moment rather than the moment of conception? Why aren’t other initial conditions such as one’s mother’s health, the delivery place conditions, forceps, bright lights, dim room, back seat of a car, etc., more important than whether Mars is ascending, descending, culminating, or fulminating?. . . . Why isn’t the planet Earth—the closest large object to us in our solar system--considered a major influence on who we are and what we become? Other than the sun and the moon and an occasional passing comet or asteroid, most planetary objects are so distant from us that any influences they might have on anything on our planet are likely to be wiped out by the influences of other things here on earth. . . . Initial conditions are less important than present conditions to understanding current effects on rivers and vegetables. If this is true for the tides and plants, why wouldn’t it be true for people?
Clairvoyance of a type, known as remote viewing, was once popular with the U. S. federal government, which has way too much taxpayer money on its hands. Supposedly, remote viewing clairvoyants, supplied with nothing more than paper, pencils, and map coordinates of distant points of military or intelligence interest could sketch whatever actually existed on these sites. The Federation of American Scientists published the findings of a study of remote viewing’s effectiveness. The study concluded that the remote viewers’ sketches were sometimes interpreted according to the researchers’ own familiarity with the targets, which made them believe that the drawings were more detailed and accurate than they were; that results that included information supplied by historical sources were always ,ore accurate than results that required predictions on the part of the remote viewers themselves; and that sketches were too vague and general to be of any use to the military or intelligence agencies. The agencies underwriting these experiments in remote viewing--at taxpayer--meaning your and my--expense discontinued them as unworthy of continued research.
The same conclusions might well be reached with regard to the efficacy of clairvoyance in general, since remote viewing is a specific type of the same activity.
Although the use of spirit guides need not include channeling, the criticisms against channeling may be directed against the idea of spirit guides as well. The language and dialect that spirit guides use is often at odds with the time period from which they are alleged to hail. The Skeptic’s Dictionary offers an example:
1987, ABC showed a mini-series based on [Shirley] MacLaine's book Out on a
Limb, which depicts MacLaine conversing with spirits through channeler
Kevin Ryerson. One of the spirits who speaks through Ryerson is a contemporary
of Jesus called "John." "John" doesn't speak Aramaic--the language of Jesus--but
a kind of Elizabethan English.
The banality of spirit guides is also susceptible to doubt:
One of MacLaine's favorite channelers is J. Z. Knight who claims to channel a
35,000 year-old Cromagnon warrior called Ramtha. . . . Some of her patrons pay
as much as $1,000 to attend her seminars where she dispenses such wisdom as "[we
must] open our minds to new frontiers of potential."
Shouldn’t spirits who have gone on to enlightenment utter proverbs equal in wisdom to those of Buddha and Christ?
Dowsing rods and pendulums--what would such dubious devices have to do with clairvoyants’ supposed abilities to see past, present, and remote events? Nothing, other than the use of dowsing rods is supposed to help their users detect subterranean substances such as oil, water, and metal. According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary:
In 1949, an experiment was conducted in Maine by the American Society for
Psychical Research. Twenty-seven dowsers "failed completely to estimate either
the depth or the amount of water to be found in a field free of surface clues to
water, whereas a geologist and an engineer successfully predicted the depth at
which water would be found in 16 sites in the same field."
The same article also recounts an experiment in which
James Randi tested some dowsers using a protocol they all agreed upon. If they could locate water in underground pipes at an 80% success rate they would get $10,000 (now the prize is over $1,000,000). All the dowsers failed the test, though each claimed to be highly successful in finding water using a variety of non-scientific instruments, including a pendulum. Says Randi, "the sad fact is that dowsers are no better at finding water than anyone else. Drill a well almost anywhere in an area where water is geologically possible, and you will find it.
It seems clear that dowsing is a highly dubious enterprise, but, even if it works, what has it to do with seeing future, past, or future events? None that many can detect.
Not to be deterred, if astrology, spirit guides, and the use of dowsing rods and pendulums can’t explain how clairvoyants can do what they claim they do, maybe clairvoyance is the result of psychometry. According to psychometry, by handling objects associated with a person, the handler can discern facts about the property’s owner, often by seeing the owner’s aura, the “a colored outline or set of contiguous outlines, allegedly emanating from the surface of an object.”
Most critics--including your horror story’s skeptical character, perhaps--associate psychometry with magical thinking, selective thinking, cold reading, subjective evaluation, and shot gunning, all of which themselves have fatal logical and scientific flaws. Like many paranormal and supernatural beliefs, clairvoyance is interlinked with a complex of other such ideas and attitudes, which makes debunking it in a space less than that of a large volume difficult, if not impossible.
Therefore, the reader must take upon him- or herself the task of researching these lesser, but related, topics. To assist the aspiring horror writer in this task, we list these sources:
The Skeptic’s Dictionary
Federation of American Scientists
In Part III of “Alternative Explanations,” we’ll consider how your horror story’s skeptical character might debunk claims about other paranormal and supernatural phenomena.