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(Photo: Flickr/biomedical_scraps)

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

• August 27, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Flickr/biomedical_scraps)

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.

The office is in a converted Victorian. The walls are painted a deep blue, the windows framed in white. A folding screen sits in one corner. In the middle of the carpet are two comfy chairs, separated by a table. One wall is covered in lush, green plants that grow from cloth pockets heavy with soil. The day’s last bright rays of sunshine bathe the room. Like most therapists’ offices, this one treads that fine line between cozy and professional.

Except, this is not a therapist’s office. It’s a psychic’s office, and I’m about to have my fortune told for the first time ever.

You might say that I’m a “hopeful skeptic.” I have a Google alert set for “Loch Ness Monster” but I get that she probably isn’t there. (If you are reading this Nessie, I am sorry.) And I’ve never been one to try and divine what the future holds. While friends went through phases of obsession with tarot cards, astrologer charts, and Ouija boards, I didn’t even bother to learn what it meant to be a Taurus. However, with age (in my case, the ancient age of 33) comes impatience. “I’ll figure it out later,” feels more like a jail sentence than a possibility. Predicting the future—that’s starting to sound a lot more appealing.

LONG BEFORE THE BACHELOR, humans longed for spoilers. In Mesopotamia, diviners examined drops of water in oil to try and get a glimpse of the future. In medieval Europe, the curious consulted prognostic “dream alphabets” that assigned each letter a prediction that could be used to interpret dreams. During China’s Shang Dynasty, fortune-tellers used turtle shells to counsel rulers on what lay ahead.

These days, fortune-tellers, psychics, and clairvoyants remain popular worldwide. It’s hard to pin down the exact value of the psychic industry, but in the U.S. it’s not unusual for psychics to charge $100 or more an hour for readings. There are psychic fairs, where customers plunk down an entry fee and can then pay again to visit a cadre of soothsayers, all over the country.

“We uncover the greatest possibilities. We bring perspective that that person never thought of. We bring perspective to issues and circumstances that they may not have ever seen—greater, positive solutions.”

Perhaps only skeptics match the fervor of believers. Some academics have made a point of debunking the existence of such phenomena—all of which falls under the umbrella of parapsychology. Magician and skeptic James Randi has famously offered a yet-unclaimed prize of one million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal skills.

John Kruth is no stranger to skeptics, be they hopeful or hostile. Kruth is the executive director of the Rhine Research Center, a non-profit dedicated to the study of parapsychology. The center began at Duke University as the Duke Parapsychology Labratory in the 1930s. When the lab and school ended their formal relationship in the 1960s, the Rhine was born, still located in Durham, not far from the college.

Kruth may have sensed the X-Files fan in me, because he was quick to note that the field of parapsychology does not encompass UFOs and Bigfoot. Rather, he studies things like clairvoyance, telepathy, and near-death experiences.

“Most of the people I read and many of the people I speak to who consider themselves skeptics are approaching life from a materialistic perspective—that everything begins and ends at our fingertips, that everything arrives from the brain,” Kruth says. “And that’s a theory, not a fact.”

Kruth says there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the body reacts to events before they occur and that all people express some form of precognition. There are limits, of course. Kruth cautions that even the “world’s best psychics” are only right about 35 or 40 percent of the time. He warns those who visit a psychic to be on the look out for leading questions, and he even suggest that phone readings tend to be more scam-proof because the psychic can’t make any inferences from a person’s appearance.

And yet, Kruth says, “I have met a number of people who display precognitive abilities on a regular basis.”

I PICKED MY PSYCHIC the way I pick everything: from Yelp. Terry Yoder has good write-ups on the review site, and, more importantly, he fit in my budget, offering a 30-minute reading for $65. I met him on a Friday evening after work.

Yoder has an open, friendly face. He started calling me “sweetie” almost immediately. I felt at ease—and I’m the kind of person who feels awkward making small talk with an optometrist. I told him I had a vision of a psychic’s office as a dusty portal decorated with beaded curtains, and Yoder joked that I’d have to come to his home office if I wanted to see some dust.

Yoder uses tarot cards to guide his readings, so after the initial chatter he handed me a well-used deck and told me to shuffle them as many times as I liked. Yoder arranged several cards before me and asked what I wanted to know about. I chose the Big Two: Career and Love.

Over the course of the reading, Yoder told me a mix of things that were weirdly accurate and, well, things that were not. He said that I was feeling “blocked,” that thoughts were racing around in my head, and that he supposed I had trouble sleeping. All true at the time—I was having one of my occasional bouts of insomnia, the adult equivalent of being afraid of the dark. “I see you being interested in writing about women’s issues,” he surmised, in one of his more specific statements. Ding, ding, ding. He was also concerned that my partner didn’t get enough exercise, needed a vacation more than I did, and was also my anchor to the West Coast. Again: Ding, ding, ding.

The biggest miss was a bit about my mom. Yoder predicted there was a big milestone coming up for her. Nope: Not to my knowledge, or hers. “If you got married, that would be a milestone,” she offered.

He also made a few predictions more akin to the stereotype of a psychic reading in a movie: He said he saw a young blonde girl around me and that I would meet a “vivacious redhead” in the future with whom I would collaborate on projects. Occasionally he would pause and listen, as if a voice were whispering in his ear.

When I left, I felt weirdly high, floating down the street to a cocktail date with a friend. Was Yoder psychic? I couldn’t say for sure. But even if he was simply intuiting things about me from my bland outfit (leopard print shirt, jeans), body movement, and answers to simple questions (as skeptics, and even psychics, say can be done), then he was much more intuitive than I am.

YODER SAYS, WHEN I called him a week after our appointment, that his psychic abilities really kicked in after a near-death experience at 14. Shortly after that, he discovered tarot cards and taught himself how to read them. His first big prediction was a scary one: He says he accurately predicted the death of high school classmate in his small hometown where “nothing ever happens.” He then started reading cards professionally in 1985 and eventually became a full-time psychic. The visions and premonitions arrive in different ways, he says; sometimes he hears a voice and sometimes he sees things clearly in his mind, like a movie’s playing.

I then asked Yoder if he felt more prepared to deal with life’s curveballs then us normals, who do not receive special messages about the future.

“I wish,” he says, laughing. Yoder claims that it is easier for him to have premonitions about strangers than himself because, frankly, he isn’t attached to those lives. In fact, he has, on occasion, ignored premonitions about himself. Once, a voice told him not to go to Fresno because he would get in a car accident on the way. He went anyway and got in an accident that landed him in the hospital for four months. Why did he ignore his own premonition?

“I wanted to go to Fresno,” he says.

Yoder also believes humans have free will, and that makes predictions tough because we can all change anything at any moment.

So what, I asked, was the point of a psychic reading?

“We uncover the greatest possibilities,” he says. “We bring perspective that that person never thought of. We bring perspective to issues and circumstances that they may not have ever seen—greater, positive solutions.”

It was not the answer I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear that psychics could tell me, definitively, what my future held. Names. Address. Bank balances. Everything.

So I called up a second psychic, Kathe Martin, and asked her the same questions. Martin works as a psychic in North Carolina and has made several appearances at the Rhine Center. She said she too has more luck seeing into the future of strangers’ lives than her own. Although she does occasionally receive messages about herself, often while in the shower. And sometimes she has minor premonitions—like that the phone is about to ring, as if her psychic skills are a kind of otherworldly secretary.

“I don’t know that I feel better prepared,” Martin says. “I just feel grateful for those little heads-ups I get every now and then.”

So far, Yoder and Martin had done a great job of squashing my fantasy, which was: Psychics (unlike me) were more prepared to deal with the random things in life, because what can be random when you can see the future?

“The vast majority of people who come for readings,” Martin says, “they really know this stuff already. They just need someone to validate it.”

And come to think of it, when Yoder wasn’t squinting at the tarot cards or listening carefully to a voice I couldn’t hear, he was doling out some solid advice. Sure, all of it was stuff my friends, even I, had said in the past. But that’s the thing: We (I) don’t always listen to friends. We don’t listen to ourselves. Sometimes an outsider has to step in. And, according to psychics, that outsider might be way outside. Like on the other side.

I may have wanted to extract something magical, something weird and strange from my foray into the psychic world. But the truth turned out to be much more mundane. What Yoder and Martin seemed to be telling me was that there is no magic bullet, that you can do your very best to predict the future, but you can never really be sure. All you can do is try to make smart decisions—and listen to the voices.

Andy Wright
When Andy Wright isn't busy visiting psychics she's the senior editor at Modern Farmer. She has written about missing art, cryptozoology, and drought technology, among other things. When she's not busy writing, she likes to read young adult novels, eat cheese, and draw. Follow her on Twitter @andyjeanius.

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