Clairovoyant Cabbie predicts pregnant passenger’s due date! Or ‘How basic cold reading can be used to monkey with strangers’

According to The Sun, a mysterious taxi driver has predicted the due date of a passenger’s unborn child, with a level of insight labeled ‘Spooky’ by the mum-to-be.  As the article explains:

“The cabbie said: “You’re expecting a baby” — and at that stage she was not even showing a bump.  He then said the tot was due on August 9 — which is the date she had just been given by her gynaecologist.  The mystic cabbie then went on to tell her the baby would be born five days late, at 11.10am on August 14.”  Source: The Sun: 01 June 2009

Quite the miracle, indeed. Or is it?  Let’s break the story down piece by piece.

First of all, the cabbie guessed the mum-to-be was pregnant.  Cool.  After having picked her up from her first ultrasound scan.  OK.  Which, unless I’m mistaken on these things (I’ve never been pregnant and have never had an ultrasound), takes place at a hospital.  Convenient. In an Obstetrics and Gynaecology ward.  Ah.  So a cabbie charged with picking a woman up from the Obs & Gynae entrance speculated she may be with child – perhaps not the greatest stab in the dark to have made.

What’s more, as anyone whose met someone who’s just had an ultrasound confirm their pregnancy will know, most new-parents-to-be take pretty much no prompting to share their joyous news – it’s more of a miracle if you manage to stop them spreading word of their good fortune to the very first people they meet.  Say, the taxi driver picking them up from the hospital, for example.  So a shrewd cabbie (are there any other types?) potentially need only throw a knowing ‘Good News?’ at his fare for the details to spill forth.  Possibly.  Or, just as likely, any cabbie who’s made the hospital run often might speculate to his happy, female fare that she’s potentially pregnant – it only has to come off once for it to seem remarkable.  Newsworthy, even.

So, the due date?  Let’s assume the cabbie has astounded the mum-to-be with his amazing intuition, and she confirms she is indeed pregnant, as her first ever ultrasound has just testified.  He knows she’s pregnant, he knows it’s her first scan, and he can see she’s not showing a bump yet – even I could figure out she must be roughly 3 months gone.  So you have your ball park for the due-date – another 6 months.  The article reports that he gave her the due date straight out – this would have been pretty impressive, sure.  Clients of psychics regularly report that they were told very accurately about ‘this event from their childhood where they did this that and the other’, only to listen back to a tape of the reading to learn the psychic’s offering was much more vague, and they had actually filled in the huge blanks themselves.  The memory is a funny thing, it turns a vague statement into something remarkable.  Such as turning ‘Early August’ into ‘August 9th’, for example.  I’m speculating here, but to anyone familiar with cold reading techniques and the workings of psychic readings, this will sound familiar.

The next prediction, the exact time and date on which the child was born, is indeed uncanny!  How did he know that, he must be psychic or something!  Of course, the baby hasn’t been born yet.  It’s not even overdue yet.  Predicting the future is easy, so long as you aren’t held to task when you’re incorrect.  For example, I can categorically state, based on my extensive knowledge <insert belief system of your choice>, that the baby will be born BEFORE the due date.  It will be born on August 8th, at 12:37pm.  When I’m right, remember you heard it here first. If I’m wrong, you’ll forget I ever made a prediction.  Win-win for me.  And for Clairovoyant Cabbie.  The same can be said for the sex of the child – and that’s only a 50-50 guess!  I say it will be a girl – that way at least one of us will prove to be psychic.

Another aspect worth bearing in mind for this story is the level at which the information is presented – it’s not a transcript of the cabbie’s prediction. It’s not even the mum-to-be’s immediate memory. It’s not even her memories a little while later, when time might have fuzzied things. This is an edited news report based on her recounting her fuzzy memories to a journalist, presumably having told and re-toled the tale to her friends and family first.  How many of the anecdotes you tell again and again happened exactly as you tell it?  Less than you think, I dare say.  The fallibility of memory provides another essential platform on which allows psychics and cold readers to operate.

You might wonder why I’m bothering with this – it’s a fluff piece, a silly story, and after all, it’s only The Sun.  ‘Super’ and ‘Soaraway’ it may be, but a trusted journalistic tome it ain’t.  Well, it’s simple – once you start accepting these silly, nonsense, fluff pieces that credulously tell you psychics exist, you create a world where psychics are taken seriously.  You create a world where widows pawn their wedding rings and re-mortgage their houses to have one more conversation with their departed husband.  You allow a world where charlatans and media-savvy ghouls pester police with their ‘psychic visions’ about missing children, wasting valuable time and resources with their fantasies, delusions or outright lies.  You create a world where lazy journalism and fuzzy logic is acceptable, and a half-decent sounding story matters more than what’s real.  And that’s not a world we should allow.

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