There was a piece yesterday in Times 2 or Times Life or Times modern or whatever it’s called these days by Carol Midgley. I can’t link to it because it’s behind a paywall so you’ll just have to take my word for it. What’s so interesting about this article? Well it’s about a psychic who claims to be able to tell you what your pet thinks. Now I think I’m getting a bit of the psychic gift as well and I know what you’re thinking, surely your dog is only thinking “woof woof”. But apparently not.
The Merseyside Skeptics have covered a pet psychic in the past, and when I saw the little strapline on the front page of the paper I wondered how this woman was possibly getting even more publicity, but no, it’s a different one. Let me introduce you to Michelle Childerley, “Sky 1 Pet Nation featured Animal Communication Expert, Pet Psychic and Behaviour Specialist”, to quote her website. The article itself is actually pretty well written from a purely analytical point of view; lots of wordplay, a recognition that it’s all a bit daft, a bit of comedy here and there. But the writer is so credulous that I have to wonder if she’s being serious or not.
“Well, here my journalist’s mask of cynicism slips a bit. You see, I’m in no doubt that animals are telepathic. Steven knows the difference between when I’m putting my coat on to take him out or leaving him behind. He seems to know when I’m thinking quite a lot of the time, actually [should that be 'what I'm thinking'? - Mike]. And since I’m not convinced that some humans aren’t telepathic, too, then why shouldn’t man and beast be able to communicate? It seems kind of arrogant to rule it out.”
Wow, that’s amazing. It hasn’t been proven that some humans aren’t telepathic, therefore all (non-human) animals are telepathic, and can communicate with humans. Anecdotal evidence, check. Argument from… idiocy? Check. “Science is arrogant”, check.
“Besides, a surprisingly large number of people use animal communicators of which there are about 20 in this country.”
Well that’s just dandy then. Argument from popularity, check. But what exactly is happening when you communicate with animals? Fortunately, Michelle gives us the science.
Michelle believes that everyone is capable of animal communication if they allow their brains to “slow down” and let the animals’ thoughts “come in”. Animals are on an alpha brainwave frequency, and we are on a beta frequency, she says. “Theirs is slower than ours, they don’t have as much to think about. So to communicate with them we have to slow our frequency down, clear out our thoughts, and become more right-brained than left-brained, the left being our analytical side.”
Mangling of a science most people don’t understand, check. Pop-psychology, check. WOO BINGO!! Do I win? No, we all lose. But of course Michelle doesn’t even stick to her own twisted version of the science, as we’ll see in a second. The reporter Carol is having a reading done for her dog, Steven, and also for her editor’s imaginatively-named cat, Kitty. So Michelle will have to be there and meet Steven and Kitty to match up her brainwave frequency with theirs, right?
Michelle explains. “I don’t need to meet the animal in person,” she says. “I just need you to send me a photograph of it.”
Oh, no, apparently she can read the “energy” off the photograph. What was that earlier about alpha waves? Do animals leave alpha waves on photographs taken of them, and do alpha waves get transmitted on these photographs through email? Oh that’s right, no they don’t.
So let’s look at the results of this reading. For Kitty, Michelle says she was shown the words Smartie, Twinkle (or Tinkerbell), a set of curtains hooked back either side, people in the house who wear a lot of blue and someone swimming fast, possibly doing the butterfly stroke, and that she’s a happy cat, because of course if nothing else, fall back on something noone can check. Smartie, Twinkle/Tinkerbell and the hook-back curtains turn up nothing (Emma the editor tries to retro-actively fit “Naughty” into Smartie, and the curtains aren’t tie-back but Kitty does curl up on a curtain sometimes, and Twinkle gets conveniently forgotten about) but her kids wear blue blazers for school (who doesn’t wear blue?) and her son does swim the butterfly. How would Kitty know about that though?
Michelle says that she would read it in the thoughts of the people in the house. She would “hear” them thinking about swimming, getting ready for swimming and be aware of the swimming itself through telepathy. “Animals pick up on what we think all the time,” she says.
Hold on, so for animals it’s just that easy, they can just pick up on what we’re thinking, even though they use alpha waves and we use beta waves? Why don’t they have to “speed up” their brains? And if humans all operate on beta waves, then how come we can’t read each others’ minds? I’m glad Michelle knows what she’s doing, this is all going over my head…
Onto Steven’s reading, Steven has apparently dug a hole which is quite deep, he mentioned a new dress and gave the names Lucky, Poppy and Sarah, and a male name beginning with S, possibly Simon (nice and specific, like it). There was also ‘tomato’, ‘coffee’, and the word ‘card’, which could be playing cards but maybe not, as well as an itchy right ear, the fact that he loves to eat ham, and a long dark tunnel with an arched roof which was outside with plants. 2 things about the reports of these readings; first of all they’re being relayed by the reporter, Carol, so they’re subject to recall bias – maybe she’s saying Michelle read something that she actually said afterwards. Secondly there is an awful lot more with Steven’s reading than with Kitty’s reading, were some things taken out of Kitty’s reading for the printed version? Who knows?
Anyway the results. No Sarah, no Poppy, no Simon, tomato means nothing. No Lucky, but her daughter’s called Lucy, could that be it? Yes, because your dog spelt out the word and got it a bit wrong. He did dig a hole about a year ago which Carol sometimes nearly breaks her ankle in (which implies to me that it’s not that big – I suppose ‘big’ is a subjective term, so it becomes ‘dog digs hole’ – big deal). He does drink coffee out of people’s cups. She did have a new dress (not an altogether rare thing) and she was wearing it when she took the photo (she places the significance onto it). She later recognises the dark tunnel as the area in her garden where the trampoline is (really? You have a long dark tunnel with an arched roof in your garden?), and Steven did have a bit of an infection, but in the other ear. Ham gets conveniently forgotten. Not that impressive to be honest.
Of course like all the mediums and cold readers, Michelle tries to play down the misses and turn them into hits. She says the names could be other animals or their owners, sometimes animals pick up on things that we don’t. And they’re all psychic. Clever these pets, aren’t they? Makes you wonder why we own them.
Carol justifies her article with the following:
I’m sure some of you reading won’t believe in animal communication, or that what Michelle does is real, but I want to believe it mainly because I want to live in a world where my dog notices that I’ve got a new dress and possibly disapproves of this spendthriftery.
Now this is fair enough but I’ve said it a hundred times with regards to other pieces of pseudoscience. I use the scientific method because I want my beliefs to reflect reality as closely as possible, and the scientific method has shown itself time and time again to be the best way of achieving that. If you don’t care whether your beliefs are true or not, or if you believe what you want to believe rather than what is true, then that’s your choice. But don’t think that’s a good reason to convince anyone else of what you believe, and don’t think that’s a good reason to give publicity to people who are making money from other credulous fools like you.
I took a look on Michelle’s website, and there are a few comments. Most of them are just obvious spambots (well, obvious to me), but one of them is quite distressed, trying to find their lost pet and looking for advice from a pet psychic. You might think that debunking pet psychics is a waste of time and if people want to believe it then let them, but when people’s emotions are involved it’s a different game. Pet psychics can sometimes make money from trampling on people’s emotions, just like spiritualist mediums make money from trampling on the memory of dead loved ones.