Science or Superstition ...

BY JOSEPH LITMAN
Daily Arts Writer
Published January 16, 2003

Joan St. John, a psychic and director of a metaphysical and spiritual consulting service ReadersNet.com, specializing in clairvoyance, is an affable and pleasant woman, easily engaged in conversation and very accepting.

Yet she has no tolerance for, as she says, "unscrupulous imposters" who she believes sully the reputation of her profession. "I'm not trying to play with anyone's head or pocketbook," St. John says indignantly, clearly perturbed by the exploitative group she's labeled as dishonest. Unfortunately for her, those charlatans are perhaps the best-recognized faces of the industry.

St. John's dissatisfaction is founded in the ubiquity of commercials advertising "fake" psychics like Ms. Cleo, a notorious imposter who appears, though not deliberately, as a caricature of the authentic seers she claims to rival. The struggle for purportedly legitimate psychics like St. John to improve upon this disingenuous image among the mass public - potential customers, of course - is an arduous one, chronically complicated by a generally cynical population that perceives psychic insight as a sham industry harboring con artists who are content to feign precognitive ability while charging healthy fees.

Indeed, even in Michigan, many people seem to live by the creed popularized in Missouri, where citizens assert that only upon seeing can there exist believing.

"I think that (psychic readings are) just a bunch of hoopla that people made up to explain things that they couldn't understand," said LSA senior Katherine Porter. "I'd see a psychic if someone else paid for (the visit), but otherwise, it seems like a bunch of bullshit."

Porter kept going, denying the ability of others to foresee future events and characterizing various theoretically predictive measures - interpreting astrological signs, consulting tarot cards and reading palms - as purely means of entertainment.

Porter is not alone in her suspicion. When asked if he believes that others could predict what was to come, LSA senior Jon Beyer responded, "Personally, I haven't had any experience with psychic powers. I'm not saying that they don't exist for sure, but I haven't witnessed them. I wouldn't rule it out as a possibility, but I have some doubts and am skeptical about it in general."

Asked to explain his feelings, Beyer continued, "I'm skeptical because I haven't witnessed it, and the general stereotype of a psychic is what you see on TV, with the 900-numbers and crazy old ladies who don't come off as very credible."

The issue of credibility is one that St. John takes seriously. She says that when assessing a psychic in general - and particularly when deciding if he or she is the right psychic for one's needs - perspective clients must be aware that many faux prescients will act in a manner that the public expects, both perpetuating misconceptions and betraying their own merit.

"You don't need to be seen face-to-face in order to receive psychic counseling," St John, a phone psychic, asserts. "If [some psychic] says that you have dark energy around you, that you have been hexed, get up and walk out. They don't know what they're talking about. Bad luck is ridiculous."

Given the misgivings held by people like Porter and Beyer, distinguishing the ridiculous from the legitimate seems a monumental task. However, St. John is determined to try her best. What, then, are the skills and capabilities of a real psychic?

"Positive thinking gains positive results," she says. "I specialize in clairvoyance, psychic medium shift and earth channel readings."

All of those abilities revolve around summoning and focusing what St. John terms "positive energy" - intangible forces which are supposed to be cross dimensional.

"I don't tell people what to do. I help them understand what they should see and what they should concentrate on," St. John said.

The prophesizing - of which she is capable - should not be misinterpreted as an accurate means of forecasting the lottery. Rather, St. John can help clients better understand themselves and their tendencies, equipping them with a mode of thought that can reap positive results in the future.

Someone lonely and desperate for a date should not expect instructions for which color flowers to bring, but instead how to be more successful overall, oftentimes requiring sustained comfort with oneself.

Psychic medium shift and channeling are both based on St. John's ability to communicate with higher spirits that may exist on different plains of being, obscured in the regular, physical word. This technique has been popularized on television by psychic Jonathan Edwards, who summons past spirits to mollify and assuage their remaining relatives and friends.

"I've never seen him myself, but I have friends who think that he's fantastic. He has a lot more positive effect than a fake like Ms. Cleo," said St. John.

This critical difference between what St. John actually does as a psychic and what the public perceives hints at a larger issue concerning various levels of belief and the distinctions made when deciding what is and isn't possible, what does and doesn't exist.

Various opinions - distinguished by direction, degree, and intensity - are held concerning the presence of the supernatural.

People willing to accede both that entities like those summoned by St. John can exist and that they can be found and engaged by psychics prefaced such concessions with caveats about mainstream culture and willingness to believe.

LSA senior Louisa Kennedy said, "When I was on Semester at Sea last year, I took a course on cross cultural psychology and it (addressed) different spirits in various cultures, and in a lot of different cultures - in places like Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil - there are people who can channel spirits and go to altered states of consciousness.

"While that's not part of American culture, for the most part, I think that in other places where it is accepted as legitimate, spirits can indeed be channeled. I think that's true."

She was also able to relate to psycics based on personal experience.

"After some people that I know died, I've gotten signs from their spirits, and I think it's comforting that spirits can do that."

Kennedy was less accepting of other possibly predictive elements, like horoscopes and tarot cards. "I like reading my horoscope and I like eating fortune cookies, but I don't take that stuff to heart."

Another LSA senior, Stacey Saling, added a unique story concerning a spirit. "I believe in supernatural powers. At my home in Waterford last year, I was in the backroom, my room, which was an addition to my house. Usually when I was in there, I was seeing a lot of black and white things kind of going by in my peripheral vision. And, I was hearing a lot of weird noises, plus my dog would never go back in there.

"At night once, I was sleeping and my cell phone rang and my mom came into my room. I thought that it had been ringing for a while and that she must have gotten mad because I hadn't answered it. I said 'No mom, I got it.' But when I looked, she wasn't there, but the door had opened and I know someone had come into the room because I had closed to door to go to bed.

"The next day, I told my mom about it and she said that the family who had previously owned our home had built that room in the back for the father who was dying of AIDS.

"I wrote about the (episode) in my journal and a psychic who read the entry said that she could talk to ghosts and believed that it really was the ghost of this man because people who have died of AIDS generally stick around because they're afraid to transcend, afraid of judgment in the afterlife."

Saling, though not wholly dismissive, was, like Kennedy, less inclined to believe in the predictive power of other means of foresight like astrology and tarot cards. "I think that astrological charts help explain some of the little coincidences in life."

Notions that astrology has any predictive or scientific merit are completely anathema to astronomy Prof. Philip Hughes.

"No robust statistical analysis has ever shown that astrology can be reliably predictive before the fact," said Hughes.

Commenting on the unfortunately-too-common confusion of astronomy with astrology, Hughes continued, "It perplexes me why that occurs. It tends not to happen elsewhere. I've never heard anyone say 'My daughter is a successful psychopath' when they meant to say psychologist. No one says that they are interested in pornography when they mean photography. I would assume that most scientifically lay people also regard this confusion between astronomy and astrology to be silly."

Hughes' comments are a sharp rebuttal of Joan St. John's ideas concerning the reading of the planets. "In my field, astrology is considered a science, and a good astrologist and a good psychic are the same. So is a good tarot reader. They don't need the cards because they already are able to feel the energy and see things. The cards are just (an interpretive aid)."

John Schoolmeester, a Business student and affirmed Catholic, offered yet another perspective. When asked if psychics could predict the future, he responded, "As far as educated guesses go, yes, but in a sense that they just know what's going to happen by sitting there and meditating, no."

Asked about the existence of spirits, Schoolmeester, continued, "I believe in them in a religious sense, not as terrorizing ghosts. I believe that spirits exist in purgatory and other such places, like hell or heaven. The only way to communicate with them is probably through prayer, not like s