Control group outperforms mediums in psychic test

Magician and renowned skeptic James Randi passed away in October. In 1996, he famously offered $1,000 to anyone that could prove they had paranormal abilities. Over time, the prize money grew to $1,000,000. Even with that kind of money on the table, no entrant ever made it past the preliminary tests. A public list of the thousands of contestants lives on his foundation’s site.

A recent study by researchers in Petumula and La Jolla assessed whether mediums could tell what had caused a person’s death. The short of it: a control group of non-psychics performed better than self-professed mediums.


Not only did the control group do better than the psychics, they did significantly better. Clearly, the psychics do have to ability to know the cause of death and are deliberately choosing the wrong cause to mislead researchers.


Can someone explain to me why the correct plural for, say, “growth medium,” media, just doesn’t sound correct when referring to people?

I would suggest reasons for why we

(1) We tend to think of the role of a medium as a solitary one. Think of every movie and TV scene involving a visit to a medium. It was always a “singular” experience—as long as one doesn’t count the accomplice in the closet who was pulling the wires and producing the sound effects.

(2) The plural of medium which relates to people is basically already assigned in our brains to journalists et al who constitute the media. Thus, if someone told you that they were going to attend a “media convention”, you’d probably not imagine a bunch of hucksters carrying their mystical crystal globes in what look like bowling ball travel bags. Instead, you would imagine a bunch of hucksters who work for Rupert Murdoch and cable TV channels. [Sorry. Was that too political?]

Of course, the has-been linguist in me will risk offending those who hate etymologies and morpheme studies by pointing out that 2nd declension neuter nouns in Latin end in -um in the nominative singular and -a in the nominate plural. Sometimes our ears rebel (at least a little) when neuter inflections are assigned to people. Yes, a little big of agar in a petri dish constitutes a growth medium but no people are involved so the neuter sounds just fine. But there’s something almost strange about medium and media applied to an animate human. With the singular medium, we’ve grown to accept its assignment to a human thanks to repeated exposure to the concept—but not so much with the plural media (as in plural of fortune-tellers and necromancers.)

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Could this be a Nocebo effect? Perhaps humans are innately psychic, but someone who professes to have special abilities may be biased against their own innate abilities they share with others. In other words, they psyche themselves out of picking the right answer.

[Do I need to include sarcasm tags?]

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Of course not – we all read your mind.


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