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'Exploitainment' joins entertainment with exploitation and can be applied in several distinct contexts. A parent of a sexy young celebrity might be said to be using her daughter for exploitainment. A film featuring dope smoking and gratuitous sex and violence might be called exploitainment since it exploits a craving of a certain market (young men).
"Exploitainment" is also the name of a single by British band Pitchshifter.
The term has also been applied by New Zealand skeptic Vicki Hyde* to television programs that use alleged psychics to take advantage of grieving families whose loved ones are missing or dead. Psychic performers often lead police on a wild-goose chase, while taking the grieving on an emotional roller coaster. Sometimes these performers get paid, and paid well, but often their only reward is the deluded satisfaction that comes with thinking one has special powers and is really helping people.
The alleged psychics on these shows use ordinary means of making guesses, like running through the woods and following footprints, and rely on cold reading, hot reading, and subjective validation to deceive others (and themselves, at times) into thinking they are receiving information in a paranormal fashion.
Programs featuring alleged psychics who get messages from the dead or who solve crimes by claiming to have the ability to "sense" information from physical objects associated with a missing person (psychometry, a form of magical thinking) are popular in many countries. Belief in the paranormal powers of so-called psychic detectives is aided by poor journalism and ignorance of the psychology of belief. The claims of the psychics are usually retroactively validated, allowing just about anything claimed by the psychic to look like a hit. The psychics themselves are usually the first to blow their own horns and no matter how many crimes they claim to have solved, neither the media nor the police are likely to investigate their claims. If they did, they might be surprised, even when the psychic is a high-profile celebrity like Sylvia Browne or Allison DuBois.
When Joseph Gomes investigated 35 of Sylvia Browne's alleged monumental triumphs, he found: "in 21, the details were too vague to be verified. Of the remaining 14, law-enforcement officials or family members involved in the investigations say that Browne had played no useful role."
Allison DuBois claims to have been consulted by the Glendale, Arizona, Police Department and the Texas Rangers, among others, in homicide and missing person investigations. Ben Radford found, however: "The Texas Rangers have never used psychics and have no plans to do so" and the Glendale police couldn't recall using her in any case. Despite her claims to have helped find many missing persons and to have sent people to death row, DuBois offered no useful assistance when a series of murders occurred in her hometown of Phoenix over a two-year period. Carla Baron (Court TV's "official psychic spokeswoman") proclaimed more than three years ago that she would solve the case of missing district attorney Ray Gricar, whose disappearance remains a mystery. And Noreen Renier, featured in numerous episodes of Court TV’s "Psychic Detectives" series, has proved under investigation to be less than forthright and not nearly as prophetic as she would have the public believe.
Exploitainment programs that feature alleged psychics helping police are especially pernicious because they encourage belief in the paranormal powers of deluded or phony psychics. The media feeds into the inability of many people to distinguish fact from fiction with its many television shows and movies that portray fantastic feats by psychics. They thus encourage both the public and the police to bring on the psychics, which then encourages the press to write about it, which encourages the media to produce more exploitainment. It's a vicious circle, with the blind leading the blind.
Hyde said of the program "Sensing Murder," which features alleged psychics assisting police in solving murders:
It exploits grieving and vulnerable families and adds to the psychic's marketing potential. It's ethically distasteful.
"Sensing Murder" attracts more than 600,000 viewers. Neither it nor its overseas clones have ever led to a murder being solved. But even if one of the psychics did offer some meaningful assistance, it would not follow that any information was produced paranormally. The New Zealand Skeptics have offered New Zealand "Sensing Murder psychics" Kelvin Cruickshank, Sue Nicholson, and Deb Webber, NZ$20,000 each if they can successfully demonstrate their psychic ability in a simple test.
In the United States, Montel Williams has often featured Sylvia Browne on his program in the role of alleged psychic who gets messages about lost loved ones. She is often wrong, but this fact seem to embarrass neither Browne nor the celebrities who allow her to promote herself while causing untold harm to people by her confabulations and fantasies.
A few months after eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck went missing from his home in Richwood, Missouri, on October 6, 2002, Browne appeared with Shawn's parents on Montel's show. Browne told the world that Shawn had been kidnapped and killed by a "really tall" dark-skinned man with long brown hair in dreadlocks, and that his body had been dumped between two large, jagged boulders. She was making it all up. Shawn was found alive on January 12, 2007, living with a large white man, Michael J. Devlin, and another boy. Devlin will be spending the rest of his life in prison for kidnapping the two boys and sexually molesting them over a period of several years. Browne thinks she should get partial credit because she guessed that someone named "Michael" was involved.
Shawn's parents also did television segments with alleged psychic James Van Praagh. He told them that he was seeing a person who worked in a railroad car plant and that the body might be concealed in a railway car. Devlin worked in a pizza parlor and lived in an apartment with his victims.
Pretending to be psychic is the perfect con. As long as you refuse to be tested under controlled conditions, you can never be proven to be a fraud. Whatever claims you make—true, false, or unknown—nobody can prove that you didn't get your thoughts or clips of messages from the dead. It doesn't matter that the probability that dead people are sending messages to TV psychics is negligible. As long as people believe that the dead exist after death and that such things as spirits can communicate with the living, the exploitation of the grieving will continue not only by unscrupulous religious con artists like the faith healers, but also by those in the entertainment industry who don't care who they hurt (the families of the grieving) or help (the alleged psychics), as long as the show gets good ratings and advertisers are willing to pony up the money for the programming.
Should exploitainment that depicts people as having psychic power that allows them to get messages from the dead, find missing persons, or solve murders be banned? Of course not! Should producers of such programs, some of whom (like Kelsey Grammer) seem to believe in psychic ability, not be allowed to put forth their improbable beliefs as if they were established truths? Of course not! Should exploitainment programs contain a warning that explicitly states that psychics use ordinary means to do whatever they do? No!
Should there be more critics of these programs? Yes! Should our police be better educated in the arts of deception, cold reading, and subjective validation? Yes! Should journalists be more skeptical and less pandering? Yes! Should skeptics pretend that since there might be one genuine psychic somewhere, we ought to keep searching for psychics and keep testing the ability to get messages from the dead or to solve crimes psychically? NO! Of course we should keep an open mind, but let's not abandon more than one hundred fifty years of scientific investigation and evidence—or rather, lack of evidence—that has demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that there is always a more reasonable explanation for any psychic claim than that a person received information in a paranormal way. The mere possibility of psychic ability is not a good enough reason to pretend we need to test every psychic claim made anywhere on the planet just in case one of them is real. If there were any genuine psychic power, we'd all know it. The demonstration would be incontrovertible and this discussion wouldn't be necessary.
See also Akashic record, Edgar Cayce, Jeanne Dixon, ESP, clairaudience, clairvoyance, Forer effect, mentalist, Raymond Moody, precognition, psi, psychic photography, psychic surgery, psychokinesis, remote viewing, retrocognition, sixth sense, séance, shotgunning, Charles Tart, telepathy, and warm reading.
My commentaries on various alleged psychics and psychic powers:
Prophet Motive by Joseph Gomes in Brill's Content -(Larry King and Montel Williams routinely feature psychic Sylvia Browne, who claims to have solved hundreds of missing person cases. They get ratings, she sells books -- and the cases remain unsolved)
Bad Journalism Encourages Psychic Detectives by Benjamin Radford
Despite Popularity, Psychic Detectives Fail to Perform by Benjamin Radford
The Sketchy Skills of a Psychic Sleuth by Joe Nickell
How Psychic Sleuths Waste Police Resources by Joe Nickell
The Case of the ‘Psychic Detectives’ by Joe Nickell
Psychic Experiences: Psychic Illusions by Susan Blackmore, 1992, in Skeptical Inquirer 16 367-376.
"A Guide to Cold Reading" by Ray Hyman
Psychic Sophistry by Tony Youens
Secrets of a Telephone Psychic by Jane Louise Boursaw
- Slate's Human Guinea Pig: Telepsychic by Alex Chadwick
- Articles on Florida "psychic detective" Noreen Renier by Gary P. Posner