‘Pet psychics’ get a boost

The flourishing pet psychic industry has received free publicity from an Australian article reprinted in the NZ Herald (23 January). I guess it was the silly season, that time of year when papers are scratching to fill their pages.

Featured most prominently was Melita, a West Australian who has been ‘reading animals’ for four years, and who gets about four calls a week for her animal psychic skills.

One client wanted her to shed light on the aggression issues of a dog that had attacked a kangaroo – it was like a teenager that needed booundaries, Melita said.

“I do know that people are more sceptical about animals than human beings because animals can’t talk and so they find it a bit scary,” she added.

Leonora, from Tasmania, said people were starting to understand that animals have souls.

Kersti Seksel, a Sydney-based specialist in animal behaviour, said she was sceptical about animal psychics, but there was no harm if they provided comfort for owners who were concerned about their pets’ behaviour or mourning their loss.

“I would like to see scientific proof that it works,” she said.

In a sidebar, an owner spoke of the comfort she gained from a message via a psychic from her dead Burmese, Max.

“I didn’t have anything not to be peaceful about,” Max reportedly told the psychic. “I had a complete life. When I was hurt, I was helped right away.”

Gambia gripped by witch-hunt

Sometimes I have to think we’ve got it good in New Zealand. According to Amnesty International, authorities in Gambia recently rounded up 1000 people, forced them to drink hallucinogens, and to confess to being witches, in a campaign that is terrorising the West African country (Waikato Times, 19 March).

The human rights group called on President Yahya Jammeh, who came to power in a 1994 coup and has claimed he can cure Aids, to halt the campaign and bring those responsible to justice.

Authorities began inviting ‘witch doctors’ who combat witches to come from nearby Guinea soon after the death this year of the president’s aunt. Jammeh reportedly believes that witchcraft was used in her death.

Mediums get job creation grant

Ana Samways, in her Sideswipe column (NZ Herald, 30 March), notes that the Daily Telegraph reports two Welsh psychics have been given a British Government business grant to teach people how to “communicate with the dead”. Paul and Deborah Rees have been given £4500 ($11,300) under the Want2Work job creation scheme.

The couple will use it to instruct people on how to contact friends and relatives “on the other side” at their centre, the Accolade Academy of Psychic and Mediumistic Studies. Mr Rees said the couple had to negotiate “a lot of red tape” to secure the grant: “They hadn’t invested in psychics before, so we really had to prove ourselves.” Good to know they don’t hand out money to just anyone.

Art Instinct grabs attention

Well-known local skeptic Denis Dutton is riding a wave of publicity following the release of his latest book, reports the Otago Daily Times (21 February).

He’s “getting the kind of exposure for which his fellow academics would wrestle sabre-toothed tigers,” the paper says. The highlight was a spot on the top-rating satirical US television show, The Colbert Report (www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/217078/january-28-2009/denis-dutton).

According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, “marks out the future of the humanities – connecting aesthetics and criticism to an understanding of human nature from the cognitive and biological sciences”.

But that’s not why the book has gained the profile it has, according to the ODT. “When it comes to the Darwinian competition that is book marketing, Dutton actually has two secrets: sex and the Internet.”

The sex part comes from Darwin’s theory of sexual selection. The arts can be seen as the human equivalent of a peacock’s tail, a form of display to attract the opposite sex. The internet is represented by the website Dutton founded, Arts & Letters Daily, “beloved of academics and media types around the world, where an ad for The Art Instinct flashed prominently on-screen for weeks.”

Says Denis Dutton, “The hand of a certain view of the arts has had its clammy grip on all thinking”.

That view is the ‘blank slate’ concept of human nature, in which the art we humans produce is seen as being entirely shaped or ‘constructed’ by culture, not genes.

Dutton rejects this notion. Culture is only part of the equation, he believes. The problem has been that philosophy “doesn’t ask where the intuitions come from … let’s face it, a lot of it is uninformed armchair speculation by people who just happen to be geniuses: Hobbes, Mill, Kant. It’s time to go over to the psychology department and see what they’re up to.”

Dutton wants to explain “how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves, from children’s games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens”.

To take just a couple of examples – Why do people, when polled about their artistic preferences, seem drawn to realist paintings of a certain kind?

“What everybody wanted was the Pleistocene savanna landscape.” The preference was ingrained in us during the Pleistocene era, during which our ancestors evolved into human beings, he argues.

And why is creative storytelling something humans everywhere value and understand? Well, for one thing, stories offer “low-cost surrogate experiences” that help us play out different possible scenarios.

The ability to imagine “states of affairs not present in direct consciousness” must have had “a huge adaptive power in human prehistory”.

Business booming for kiwi psychics too

The economic boom for psychics in the US noted in last issue’s Newsfront seems to be occurring in this country as well. (Newstalk ZB, 31 March)

With more people seeking reassurance in the face of the economic downturn, clairvoyants are experiencing a surge of new clients, it seems. They say since the start of the year, there has been an influx of people asking about the financial outlook.

Psychic Rose Goodliffe says most people are asking questions about their second source of income, such as the housing market. She says she is seeing far more property investors and people who own small businesses, but generally people want reassurance rather than specific advice.

Ms Goodliffe says her schedule is overflowing with bookings and for the first time she has had to introduce late night and weekend sessions.

New Zealand ‘just as weird’

The Fortean Times is TV3 Nightline host David Farrier’s favourite read, which his co-host says explains a lot. On a recent visit to London he visited the founding editor, Paul Sieveking (TV3, 27 March, available on Farrier’s TV3 web page).

Named after paranormal enthusiast Charles Fort, the Fortean Times is a distinctly British magazine, but has more than 80 international correspondents.

“I have a carpet salesman in Turkey who translates the Turkish press,” says Sieveking, “and it’s teeming with UFO cases, and sorcery, and all sorts of Fortean stuff which the rest of the world is unfamiliar with because they don’t read Turkish.”

There’s also quite a bit of material from New Zealand, which shows this country stacks up quite well “on the weird scale”.

“You’ve got plenty of UFO cases, strange cryptozoological stories, strange corpses washed up on the beach, archaeological anomalies – stone walls that are pre-Maori.”

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