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Kathleen Donnelly

Walt Kelly said it best in Pogo 60 year ago, when he coined the phrase, "the confidence of ignorance"

Craig L

The single simplest Law of the Universe is: "It's never that simple."

Although if you try to apply it to itself, I think all reality will collapse. Or (to steal a joke from Douglas Adams) it already has.

My radio experience included a time as a phone wrangler for a talk show like yours, we had 'psychics' on a couple dozen times (because the host liked the 'entertainment value' and 'went along with the gag') but I never witnessed a single true OMG! incident like the one you described. I also do not recall ever having myself or anything of mine 'read' during that time, successfully or not. But several years later, I was just hanging out behind the scenes with some radio friends while a 'psychic' was doing his thing. I'd been going through a rough time and my mother was in the hospital with a stroke, and one of those friends 'dared' me to call from the office phone into the show. I did and mentioned my mother, and the 'psychic' made a very positive prognosis, with a "better than expected" recovery for her. She died from an embolism three days later.

After all my years I have become a very strong disbeliever, and I really appreciate what James Randi does in the service of rationality. I consider his 'stunt' to have been a very effective debunking of Astology PERIOD. And I am also fairly certain that most of the people who would contact him with a story such as yours were just plain lying, so I understand his reaction to you. And most of the rest would have had the story embellished in their own minds (especially after 'a few years'). I have a handful of favorite stories about my radio years (a lot of years ago), very few of which were committed to writing within a reasonable time, and I recently rediscovered a newspaper clipping about one of the events behind one of them. And you know what? I've been lying about it. But even if everything you described was accurate, we have all experienced incredibly unlikely coincidences, but the simple and undeniable Law of Averages ensure that they are going to happen, and a small number of them do occur in the presence of people's whose careers are dependent on them.

I usually agree with the opinions you express here, and even when I don't, I usually have no reason not to respect you. This is a rare exception. Like an incredibly unlikely coincidence.

Mike Peterson

I expected her to be easy to bust, and was particularly aware of not responding in ways that would direct her to a "correct" answer. As I said, that's why I was reluctant to book her -- because she was a friend of a co-worker and I didn't intend to play the fool. (BTW, I had a subscription to Skeptical Inquirer in those days)

I've got three witnesses to the keys-in-the-car incident, so I'm covered on that one.

And the details are even stranger -- her first surmise, and remember we were on the phone and she had never seen my house or anyone in my family. She said, "They're in her coat pocket." No, we said. "Yes, in the green coat by the back door." The wife had a green LL Bean anorak, so she checked it again, but they weren't there. "I'm sure they are," Phyllis said.

And I realized she meant the green down jacket. "No, those are my keys," I said.

"But it's her coat," Phyllis said.

"Yes, but it fits me and she never liked it, so I wear it."

Three witnesses. And this was on my mind because my son and I were talking about it last night. He was about 11 at the time, so his memory is his own, and our memories match.

Wish I had the radio show on tape.

But I'm pretty sure we'd still disagree. That was the point of telling the story. *shrug*

No harm done.


So...she was completely, entirely wrong at first but happened to guess right about there being a set of keys in the pocket (a common enough place for keys to be left) of a green coat (a common enough color for a coat) by the back door (a common enough place for people to leave their coats), then came up with a second guess that was also completely, entirely wrong (in what way is "wedged into the bench seat in the van" really all that much like "beneath the sofa cushions near the closet?" Did your VW van have a closet in it?) but led your son to an intuitive leap that turned out to be correct. There are plenty of interesting coincidences in your story, but not a single thing that can't be explained by anything other than genuine psychic powers.

If she could demonstrate these Phenomenal Psychic Powers under controlled, testable conditions, that self-same James Randi who you snidely dismiss would be very happy to hand over a million dollars to her. He's been offering it for many, many years now and while a great many psychics and spoon-benders have tried, but not a single one has earned the million dollars.

I agree that it's important to be open-minded, but it's also important to subject claims to rigorous interrogation. I try not to dismiss anything out of hand, but I'll happily dismiss anything that can't be observed, tested and repeated.


Isn't hard to find out that Kool-Aid might also have been used. Reports use Flavor Aid because they won't get into trouble for mentioning it.

Maybe we need to know that 51% was Flavor Aid before we call people completely wrong on this point?

"This factual error has even spawned the figure of speech "to drink the Kool-Aid". Film of Jonestown many months before the Massacre show stocks of both Flavor-Aid and its leading competitor within the commune's storehouses, so it is quite possible that both drinks were used as carriers for the poison."

Mike Peterson

What color is my coat and where is it right now?

I think the problem with the sofa/bench seat is that you're assuming she "sees" it sharply.

A long relatively padded seat could be either, if you don't have a firm picture, and a closet is still a closet.

If I were thinking of a long seat, with the keys tucked into the cushion near the closet, and I didn't know the person I was talking to owned a van, I think sofa is a likely way to express it.

More important is this: There was one set of keys in the green coat by the back door. There was another set in the cushion of the long seat near the closet. We owned no other sets of keys, nor did she indicate any other places.

(Also: She wasn't completely entirely wrong the first time. She said there was a set of keys in my wife's green coat. The problem was that, while she was right about who actually owned the coat, and that there was a set of keys in the pocket, they were my keys because I was the person who wore the coat. Which was my wife's. And, if it has any relevance, we each had a key ring with an identical Swiss Army knife, the only difference being that she also had an office key and a key to the front door of the office building on hers.)

Mike Peterson

As for the Flavor-Aid, Kool-Aid thing, I'm not gonna defend the purity of the beverage involved.

The point was that people use the expression loosely with no proof that it was Kool Aid -- and that remains unproven. But it seems likely, based on witness testimony, that it was at best a mix.

Maybe they were lying. ;-)


The fact remains that, by your description, there is nothing about either the radio show or the phone call that is impossible to explain by any other means besides psychic powers. If we accept Occam's Razor as an axiom, it seems far more reasonable to say that she played some hunches, made a couple of lucky guesses and there was a lot of coincidence involved than to say that she truly had paranormal abilities, at least to me.

As a magician (not by trade, but a devoted hobbyist), I can tell you for sure that the human brain is vastly more foolable than any of its myriad of owners would believe or care to admit, and that memory is vastly more malleable than most of us realize. People who have learned how to exploit these traits can and do laugh all the way to the bank on that ability. Maybe the woman in this case was truly psychic; it doesn't seem likely, but I can't with 100% certainty say it's truly impossible. But if Sylvia Browne or John Edward has ever genuinely pierced the veil and communed with the dead, then David Copperfield also genuinely and truly made the Statue of Liberty vanish before the eyes of an astonished crowd.

Mike Peterson

She may, indeed, have known exactly what kind of plain, wrought-iron key was used in an 19th century ice house in Pennsylvania.

And she had a 50/50 shot at which grandfather to associate it with, assuming it was a family heirloom and not something I found at an antique shop.

She may have also known that both Danish and Swedish men are known for having disproportionally short legs, and yet, despite being perfectly typical, the factor makes them self-conscious. Except that I don't think that's at all true.

Maybe. But that's not Occam's Razor.

Having seen a lot of David Copperfield-style magic tricks among phony psychics, I find the most common tricks are legerdemain (palming chicken guts to simulate "psychic surgery," knocking on tables, etc.), vagueness (in either personality readings or predictions), a confederate in the audience or on an earbud, and wheedling information from the subject.

I was watching for them, and none of them were possible (the ad salesperson was a coworker, but we knew nothing about each other -- I was only at the station for my show and she was usually on the road selling. She might have known I drove a camper, but then her pal would have used it on the radio, not two weeks later -- and not to any effect.).

The simplest explanation is this: There are things we can't explain yet. Not can't explain. Gotta have "yet."

But a True Believer is not a scientist -- a True Believer starts with the premise that "Yes, psychics are real" or "No, psychics are phonies" and goes from there.

"Skeptics," in the True Believer sense, assume that they are right, and -- like creationists or 17th century scientists who did not believe that little tiny animals we can't see could cause disease or Cinderella's toe-snipping sisters -- force the facts to fit their mold.

Incidentally, here's where solicitation of information allies with vagueness: Unlike Randi's extended Sun sign reading, a full horoscope (like a Tarot card reading) is a compilation of relatively specific declarations about the person. Where it falls apart as "science" is when you have to weigh how those sometimes conflicting factors interact.

But someone who is skeptical of psychiatry could level the same charges at batteries of tests in that field.

My own opinion is that astrology, tarot and ink blots and talk-therapy are somewhat under the same umbrella and differ thereby from, say, chemistry. And, while it doesn't prove tarot and astrology are true and real, I kind of doubt Jung or Freud could "prove" their science under the conditions laid out by Randi.

My application of Occam's Razor in Phyllis's case is that I don't know how it happened.

I also don't know how some autistics can do complex math in seconds or sketch in exquisite detail a scene they glimpsed only for a moment or tell you instantaneously on what day of the week a random date falls, but I'm pretty sure they aren't cleverly faking it.

I handed Phyllis a random object and she came up with startlingly specific facts, then repeated it with lost objects on the air several times, and once again at my bidding.

I brought it up because Randi's contemptuous dismissal shows the closed-minded attitude of the True Disbeliever.

I don't believe in psychics. But, then, I don't disbelieve in them, either.

But it's like that exercise at the start of sophomore metaphysics in which the prof holds out a pencil and asks, "If I let go, will it fall?"

The answer is, "I cannot predict with absolute certainty, but I'm not standing under any suspended pianos."

Which is why you should vaccinate your children.


It seems to me that most people find it easy to be absolutely sure something is bad/wrong/doesn't exist/etc. when they "observe from afar." (e.g., nobody serves macaroni and cheese at Thanksgiving dinner, homosexuality is wrong, earth is the only planet in the universe with life on it, paranormal activity doesn't exist, all psychics are frauds, witches float, etc.)

However, if a person has an experience with that which previously was absolutely wrong (they eat Thanksgiving dinner with a family that served mac & cheese, they have a child come out as gay, etc.), then that absolutism tends to at least soften somewhat, if not go away.

Then there's the "yet" portion, such as life on other planets? We may never know for sure, but statistically, it now feels to be a lot more likely than when we were in school.

I started writing with the intent of describing how my absolute skepticism about psychics has softened, but that's a complicated story, and it won't change anyone's mind anyway. (Kind of like the comments section on internet political comics.)

John Mara

I used to live near a storefront psychic who had a doorbell with an intercom.

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