Many readers of this blog may recall Dr. Matthew Smith as the genial sceptic from the British television series Most Haunted; other may know him from his academic papers on parapsychology, or his time lecturing at Liverpool Hope University. On Tuesday, April 12th 2011 he is coming to Cheltenham to talk to the local group PARASOC about his latest experiment. I hope many of you will join us at The Fiery Angel pub, Hewlett Road, Cheltenham, GL52 6AJ at 7.30pm for what should prove a fascinating (and free, though donations welcome) talk, and a chance to participate in testing Dr Smith’s powers of psychometry, that is “object reading”, a psychic ability he is trying to develop. Yes you did read that right — one of Dr Richard Wiseman’s former PhD students is trying to become psychic…
Matthew has decided to take seriously the idea that psychic abilities are not conducive to laboratory testing, and go out in to the field, and spend a year trying to become psychic himself. Even more ambitious, he plans to try and win the million dollar prize offered for decades now by famous American skeptic James Randi, and his organisation the JREF (the James Randi Educational Foundation). When I saw Prof. Chris French in Cheltenham last week he confirmed that he and probably Prof Wiseman will participate in the preliminary test of Dr Smith’s psychic powers, if he manages to develop any, and the psychometry test will be a first chance to see how Matthew is getting on with becoming a “million dollar psychic”.
I caught up with Matthew this morning, and interviewed him…
CJ: So Matthew, why on earth did you decide to do this?
Matthew: I was getting a little bored of the same old skeptic vs. believer debates. I think the psychics on the whole are being very welcoming and supportive, which is of course what I want. I want them to realise I am not there to debunk, I am genuinely wanting to discover what is going on. Skeptics have also been generally supportive although understandably skeptical that I will be successful in any way!
CJ: So what made you decide to go for James Randi’s million dollar prize?
Matthew: It seemed like a good idea at the time… Seriously… I saw that the Million Dollar Challenge (MDC) was going to be withdrawn. And as I was wanting to spend some time ‘learning’ to see if there was anything to the idea of psychic development, I thought that would provide a good goal to aim for (there’s nothing like aiming high!) Luckily the JREF decided not to withdraw the prize, as otherwise this would now all be rather academic!
The original aim was to spend a year ‘learning’ and go for the Million Dollar Challenge before it was withdrawn. I wanted to become the first, and last, million dollar psychic! Like I say, it seemed like a good idea at the time 🙂
CJ: Yes, and it leads to an interesting question: assuming, just for argument psychism is real, can one learn it? Or is it something innate, a gift from the gods? Do psychics even agree on this question?
Matthew: There does seem to be divided opinion on this… Some say that it is a ‘gift’ and therefore you can’t learn it This is especially often said when people are talking about ‘mediumship’ as opposed common or garden ‘psychic’ ability. Others suggest you can develop your hidden abilities… and there is plenty of literature out there that builds on that assumption. In the past I would have just been fairly dismissive of such literature, but for this project I am wanting to try it out for myself!
CJ: Yes I added my own (fake) contribution with this years April Fool’s joke on my blog. Even if it is possible, the path to developing psychic ability is said to be long and arduous? Is a year long enough?
Matthew: No it isn’t. It’s taking me a year to kind of get things going… And when you’re also trying to find ways of earning money (note to self: don’t leave perfectly good salaried post without an alternate source of income!) things have to take their time. But the original ‘year’ thing was because the Million Dollar Challenge was to be withdrawn. That gave it a definite deadline. Now that they aren’t withdrawing it then it gives us longer
CJ : I won’t be leaving a salaried post soon, unless someone give me one. Anyone want to employ a maverick failed psi researcher CJ? Thought not!
Matthew: The main question I am exploring is can a ‘skeptic’ become a ‘psychic’… and win a million dollars? Whether it takes a year or more! Some psychics would argue, yes you can develop but we are talking many years… and I suppose they would suggest you never stop developing!
CJ: So how have the JREF taken it? With a wry smile?
Matthew: I contacted DJ Grothe (the JREF President) and Banachek (currently in charge of the MDC) last year to sound them out on the idea and they were both encouraging in that they would be happy to work with me to develop protocols, etc. They were taking me seriously at least! Banachek was particularly keen to clarify what the claim would be, which is one of the first challenges as I don’t know what the claim would be yet! It depends if I seem to show any ‘promise’ at anything! I want to try a range of things!
CJ: Absolutely, Which leads to an obvious question — given the best replicable effect appears to be the ganzfeld, could you not run a ganzfeld test? Of course the last one you did was non-significant?
Matthew: This raises the question of whether a ‘successful’ ganzfeld study would meet the MDC criteria. I’m not sure it would. If it did, I imagine you would have to achieve a hit-rate well beyond the best effect-sizes reported in the literature. I And I don’t want to just conduct a study on other people. I want to try this for myself! I think a few psi researchers in the past have tried to approach Randi in the past to submit their experimental data for the Challenge but I think discussions have tended to tail off as the different sides have been unable to agree.
CJ: Right, and the unique thing about your application is it is YOU doing this, not some star lab subject. OK, so what psychic abilities do you show promise in?
Matthew says: I really hope I can get in to the position of being able to submit an application. It would be kind of surreal to be the one undergoing tests and being in the position of the ‘psychic’. What areas do I show promise in? Now you’re asking…! I’m plugging away at psychometry at the moment as that is something that typically forms part of psychic development. A few sporadic ‘hits’ but my skeptical mind could easily say they were no more that coincidences. The reason I like it is that if I can get some at least anecdotal evidence that something might be going on is that it lends itself quite easily to controlled testing
CJ: Yes we plan to test you on this on the 12th!
Matthew: I’ve also been trying reading tarot as a way to develop abilities, but that doesn’t seem to work for me. I can sometimes give people readings that they say are good, but to me it is all vague stuff that would apply to most people! Yes a test on the 12th would be good… IT will be a great opportunity for me to practice!
But make it clear I’m not making any claims at this stage!!
CJ: I’ll ask the members of Skeptic in the Pub Cheltenham who come if they want to offer a million as an incentive — or maybe a packet of crisps!?!
Matthew: Smoky Bacon please!
CJ: So, you mention coincidence. I recall a phase in my life when I appeared plagued by synchronicity, meaningful coincidences, and it seemed very real to me. At the time i was experimenting with occult ideas and practices; have you noticed any increase in coincidences in your life?
Matthew: There have definitely been times when meaningful coincidences, or synchronicities, seem to occur more often. As my PhD research was on the psychology of luck these kinds of experiences interest me. I do think a part of this relates to the mindset you’re in. If you are looking for coincidences then you see them… that’s no big surprise. But there may be something to be said to encourage this way of looking at things so as to increase the chances of serendipitous occurrences. For many of us, I am sure we miss coincidences that occur around us and maybe at our cost. We miss those chance opportunities to take our lives in a whole new direction! Offers of jobs, relationships, and so on!
CJ: I read Wiseman’s The Luck Factor, and saw his research on the psychology of Luck. Was your PhD under Richard Wiseman???
Matthew: It was indeed. I am mentioned in the acknowledgements!
CJ: I always saw Wiseman’s book as a response to Broughton’s suggestion that psi may look a lot like luck..
Matthew: Richard’s luck research began in around 1992, and I worked as his Research Assistant from 1993 to 1997. During that time I also did a PhD with him on the luck project. Since then he did a load more research which came together for the Luck Factor book. I think it is a great little book and possibly only scrapes the surface of how we might be able to ‘control our luck’. Maybe there is a book called ‘Beyond The Luck Factor’ that is waiting to be written!
CJ: It’s amusing that the two phrases from my college days that were used to describe me were “CJ has an unusual relationship with probability” and “CJ: the usual rules do not apply”. I always assumed it was something to do with my open minded and playful approach to life, but I do seem to have weird experiences, though not of the paranormal type, a lot.
Matthew: Maybe it’s about time you wrote a book!
CJ: Er,not on my life, lol! Yes, I have enjoyed all of Wiseman’s books, though I was highly critical of the marketing for Parnormality as you may have seen on my blog. Have you encountered any resistance from people to the Million Dollar Psychic plan?
Matthew: No I don’t think so. At the beginning there were a few comments on forums, etc. saying it is just a PR stunt, etc. But seeing as I was wanting to write about the project for a book then yes I wanted to raise awareness of it. But I genuinely want to find out if this stuff is possible! Also, by telling people what you are trying to do, then you create opportunities for people to offer help, suggestions, and so on! It’s the Luck Factor again…! If I am going to be able to do this, I definitely can’t do it on my own… I need all the support I can get!
CJ: David Sivier memorably summed up your project as “an ethnomethodological enquiry in to Derek Acorah and co.” David felt the project was extremely interesting,, and could not think of anyone attempting it before as a participant observer. Is there naything similar in the literature?
Matthew: If we want to get technical, I believe we could call it an autoethnography! A few folks have done similar things. Charles Emmons a sociologist has written a book called Guided By Spirit in which he discusses his experiences as he develops as a medium. And Jon Donnis, of BadPsychics fame, has attended psychic development and wrote about his experiences in The Skeptic magazine.
CJ: OK, when I first heard of you leaving Liverpool Hope the project I immediately thought of a line from the film Ghostbusters. Can you guess which one? I hope it does not prove prophetic, but it certainly was in my life…
Matthew: Something about in the real world they want results?
CJ: Yes, the line I was thinking of was “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*!” See, you are psychic!
Matthew: ‘Tis true. The academic environment can be quite constraining though, and HE is changing rapidly and even more so over the next few years as fees increase, etc. I am hoping that there will be other ways to earn an income!
CJ: So how did you get involved in parapsychology in the first place, given your scepticism?
Matthew: I was interested in the paranormal, etc. as a teen and I think it was my interest in parapsychology that led me to study psychology at undergrad level. While a student at Liverpool Polytechnic I became involved with the Liverpool University Society for Psychical Research that had been set up by Carl Williams who was a student there at the time. When he left I became president and visited the Koestler Unit at Edinburgh. That was when I ‘decided’ that I really wanted to do a PhD in this area. That was when I also met Richard Wiseman who was just finshing his PhD at the Koestler Unit. On graduating I moved to Edinburgh in the hope of beginning a PhD there but then got offered a job to work with Richard who had just taken up a post at the Uni of Hertfordshire!
CJ: Have you ever had an anomalous experience yourself?
Matthew: I have experienced meaningful coincidences, and recently had experiences that some would describe as possible experiences of ‘ghosts’ (as in being convinced someone has just walked down a corridor but nobody there)… but my mind immediately assumes I have misinterpreted a noise or something I’ve seen out of the corner of my eye
CJ: Thank you Matthew, and look forward to seeing you on April 12th!
There was actually rather a lot more, but I have edited out much of the more technical discussion which might not excite a non-parapsychological audience. Still if you have questions for Matthew and can make April 12th in Cheltenham you are very welcome and can ask them yourself. You can follow Matthew’s attempt to become a psychic here on the Million Dollar Psychic blog, or “like” the Million Dollar Psychic page on Facebook.
Finally one last plug for Becky’s PhD research —
Have you seen a ghost???
Have you ever had a weird possibly “paranormal” or otherwise deeply strange experience, while healthy not under the influence of drugs or alcohol? Rebecca Smith still needs more responses for her PhD study. Please help, both by publicizing her research by telling friends you know have had this kind of experience (it’s grounded theory so does not need a random sample) or by sharing her questionnaire address on your Facebook or similar. So if you can help, the address is www.strangesurvey.com