Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Polite Skeptic Interview: Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith has done a lot to help the world understand paranormal belief. He got his PhD studying the psychology of luck, and has looked into a wide range of different aspects of parapsychology, including the Ganzfield, psychic pets, the psychology of deception, and a number of other things. His research has, so far, supported a skeptical outlook. But, in a new experiment, he's decided to take his research to another level.

I've always been a proponent of a hands-on approach. Whether you're talking about The Oregon Vortex or cow-tipping, I'm more likely to trust someone who's been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt. Matthew Smith is taking this to what is, as far as I know, an unprecedented place, at least as far as the skeptical community is concerned.

His new project doesn't involve talking to psychics, or measuring statistics. He's decided that, to really get to the bottom of this psychic business, he's going to have to see it from the inside. He's going to try to become a psychic. This may bring a few questions to mind, and it definitely did for me, so a couple of weeks ago I emailed Matthew for an interview. His reply was quick, jovial and affirmative. The interview follows.


The Polite Skeptic: How should one go about becoming psychic? Could you give a general description of the methods involved, and how they've changed your day-to-day life?
Matthew Smith: This is a good question.  At the moment I am trying a whole range of methods to see what, if anything, seems to work. Remember, I'm quite sceptical about much that is written about psychic development, so I need convincing that there is anything to any of this. At a general level, it seems to involve allowing yourself to be open to viewing the world in a very different way. This can include noticing coincidences when they happen, paying attention to 'gut' feelings, that kind of thing. Also, I'm trying to be more open to ideas that my rational, sceptical, mind wants to question or dismiss out of hand. More specifically, meditation seems to be important but again I am finding it hard make it a priority... to me it feels like I am just sitting there doing nothing! I am also attending a regular development 'circle', attending workshops, talking to psychics and mediums about their experiences, and reading their books.

At the moment it doesn't feel that it has changed my day-to-day life too much (apart from the fact that I have left a full-time academic post to do this!), which may mean it's time to step things up a gear!

How much does a suspension of disbelief play a role in your project? Do you ever get a bit of information from a book or a mentor, and then get the feeling of, "Oh, I've got to accept this, too?"

Suspension of disbelief plays a huge part. Recently I have been exploring 'chakras' and the idea of the 'aura', which some people can supposedly see. But do these things really exist? They seem to be based on well established concepts and are discussed in many ancient spiritual texts, but Western science has a hard time accepting them. And that includes me.

Mediums talk about a 'spirit' world that is all around us and something we can experience if we open ourselves to it. Again, this idea just doesn't sit with me, but this whole project is about challenging my own preconceptions!

Would you describe your close family and friends as being supportive in your new endeavor?
Completely. Everyone has been very supportive. Most importantly, Rachel, my partner, is 100% with me in this. In fact, there is no way that I would even think of doing something like this if it wasn't for her. It was through meeting Rachel that I began to be less rigid in how I made sense of things. She taught me that a 'scientific' and 'rational' approach to everything was only one way to view the world, and that I should open up to other ways. I have generally become much less dismissive of 'alternative' ideas since being with her.

Ironically, as I become more and more open to 'alternative' ideas, Rachel is becoming more and more sceptical! This tends to balance things out nicely.

If ESP is real, then science has a vast undiscovered country to explore, that includes not only the abilities, but the natural systems that would have to exist to support such abilities. I guess what I'm asking is, if you in fact proved this to yourself, how interested would you be in trying to usher in the inevitable scientific (for lack of a better word) revolution?
The bulk of my academic career as a psychologist and parapsychologist was, I guess, part of the scientific endeavour to establish whether psychic phenomena really exist, and whether they can be studied scientifically. I eventually became a little disillusioned with this approach as progress was so slow, and I don't think I ever really found p-values (no matter how small) that compelling!

I'm hoping that this project will at least give me some experiences that are far more compelling and not so easy to dismiss. I can't see this ushering in a scientific revolution (!) but by having the million dollar challenge as a backdrop then it shows that I am interested in the extent to which these experiences can be 'validated' by science. Of course, some people dismiss the challenge as unscientific, so I'm keen to examine the challenge itself, it's history, how it is viewed by others, and so on. If anyone ever did pass the challenge (assuming it is pass-able), would mainstream science pay any notice?

How would you respond to people who say that this is a big publicity stunt?
I'm not sure what to make of those claims... It's a publicity stunt in as much as any book or project is a publicity stunt! If you want people to buy the book then you want people to know about it. The project is a genuine attempt to see if I can develop my 'psychic' abilities and go for the million dollar challenge. The great thing is, as more people learn about the project, the more opportunities that arise for offers of help and advice. And let's be honest, I'm going to need all the help I can get!

Do you feel that, if you opened yourself up too much, you may become gullible? Is there any fear of this affecting your critical thinking skills?
I guess there is that risk, but it is one I am willing to take! However, I don't think it is a big risk. There may be a need to suspend disbelief, but that isn't the same as abandoning scepticism and critical thinking altogether. The whole point is for me to make sense of any experiences that I may have. I will draw on my background in psychology and parapsychology to help me with this, but I'm also open to other ways of interpreting and explaining these experiences. If it turns out that I eventually come to the conclusion that any experiences I have can, in fact, be explained in conventional (i.e. non-paranormal) terms then so be it. Either way, we get to find out!

Are you including, in your research, the more scientific/pseudoscientific ideas, like Kirilian Photography, or theories about what an aura might be composed of? Or is your reading more "practical," as in more centered around the how-to?
I am prepared to explore all the variety of phenomena that might come under the 'psychic' banner. The idea of 'auras' I find fascinating, especially the claim that it is possible to 'see' auras, and that this is something you can supposedly learn to do. So, yes, Kirlian Photography might be relevant here if that can at least demonstrate there is 'something' there that can be detected. However, the backbone to the project is effectively can psychic abilities be learned or developed and, indeed, demonstrated.

I've stated in my blog that I think the out-of-body experience is achievable through practice, even though it is, in my mind, a very specific kind of dream. Is the out-of-body experience a part of your repertoire?
Potentially! I guess this is where the 'practical' aspect of the project comes in. If it becomes apparent that in order to develop psychic abilities (if they exist) then I need to develop the ability to have an OBE then that is what I will focus on. I know there individuals in the past who have been able to (allegedly) have an OBE at will and took part in research to assess whether their 'astral body' (for want of a better term) could be detected in another room. The name Keith Harary springs to mind.

You can find out more about the project at milliondollarpsychic.com and find us on facebook under 'Million Dollar Psychic'!


So, where is this going? Matthew's goal, after building up his psychic ability (if it turns out that it is even possible) is to take James Randi and the JREF for a million dollars. Even if all this ends up being a waste of time, I wish Matthew luck, and I will be following his efforts on his blog.

Matthew Smith's: Homepage, Facebook


  1. "Matthew Smith is taking this to what is, as far as I know, an unprecedented place, at least as far as the skeptical community is concerned."

    You should read The Skeptic magazine from last year.

    About 5 years ago I did this EXACT project.
    7 page spread in the magazine reveals my findings.

    Infact when Matthew was starting out on this, we spent many hours over email discussing what I went through, my experiences and so on.

    I am surprised you never asked Matthew during your interview if he had ever heard of anyone else trying this.

  2. Jondonnis, very interesting. I will try to find that. It's true, I definitely haven't perfected the interview process.