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Steve Terbot hoax

In 1984, Mark Plummer, former president of the Australian Skeptics and former executive director of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and Dick Smith, a patron of the Australian Skeptics, invited magician/mentalist/author Bob Steiner to come to Australia to perform as a psychic. They hoped that once the media and the people saw how easy it is to fake being psychic, they would see the error of their ways and become more skeptical. Plummer and Smith were concerned that Australia had seen a large influx of foreign psychics who were welcomed and accepted with very little skepticism being shown either by the people or the media.

Steiner is an accountant by day, a former presidentBob Steiner of The Society of American Magicians, and the author of Don’t Get Taken, a book about how to avoid being conned. He’s also the author of the entry on “cold reading” in the Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience and the entry on “fortune telling” in the Encyclopedia of the Paranormal. In 1986, Steiner assisted James Randi in his futile exposure of the (expletive deleted) faith healer Peter Popoff (Randi 1989: ch. 9).

In his mentalist act, Steiner pretends he’s an astrologer, a tarot card reader, a palm reader, or a psychic. After his performance, he reveals that he is not really psychic but uses trickery and deceit to make it look as if he has paranormal powers.

Steiner accepted the invitation/challenge of the Australians and for two weeks he hoaxed Australia as Steve Terbot. He appeared on television programs, gave performances at cultural centers, and in a very short time became a hit. He appeared on Tonight with Bert Newton three times (similar to the Tonight Show in the U.S.). In his first two appearances he played the role of the psychic but in his last appearance he revealed the hoax, explaining that he uses cold reading techniques and other tricks to deceive people into thinking he's psychic. The purpose of the hoax, he told them, was to “warn the people of Australia to beware of people claiming to be psychics" (Steiner 1989: 23).

So, when the hoax was revealed did the warning do any good? Was there recognition that perhaps the belief in psychics is unwarranted? Did the public or the press learn to be more skeptical of the claims of alleged psychics?

According to Steiner, his hoax worked extremely well and effectively put an end to the influx of foreign psychics. Mark Plummer agreed. When asked whether he thought the hoax did any good, Plummer replied:

Yes. Before then Australia was regularly visited by 'internationally known' psychics. Since then we have only had a couple. Also the organisers are terrified that if they promote someone that person will turn out to be a skeptic. (Personal correspondence).

One of the more interesting aspects of the Steve Terbot hoax was how most of the mass media didn’t bother to check Steiner's credentials or the claims being made by Steve Terbot. The media took it for granted he was who he said he was and did what he said he did. One exception was Phillip Adams, a well known Australian journalist, writer, and media personality. Adams was unique in that he was writing scathing articles condemning the phony psychics plaguing the land during the time Bob Steiner was gathering his flock as Steve Terbot. When asked if he thought that either the Steve Terbot or the Carlos hoax was successful in increasing skepticism, Adams (through his assistant, Amanda Bilson) said  that

he was not convinced [they were] entirely successful. Perhaps the media learned to be a little more sceptical – but they soon returned to their old standards of gullibility. And many people blame the messenger for the message, turning their anger on the Sceptics rather than the charlatans. [Adams] thought [they were] great fun but, given the attention span of public and media alike, of little long term significance. (Personal correspondence).

While on his Australian tour, Steiner exposed alleged psychic John Fitzsimons as a fraud, paving the way for a $64,000 judgment on behalf of one of Fitzsimons’ clients. Seventeen years later, however, I found Fitzsimons on the Internet. He runs a New Age group called Aspects headquartered in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton. He leads discussions on such topics as past lives, karma, out-of-body experiences, spirit guides, prayer, healing, White Eagle (a being channeled by Grace Hook), multiple personality disorder, mediumship, cults, psychic protection, night terrors, spiritualism, psychic readings, exorcism, ouija, channeling, Seth, aliens, Atlantis, UFOs, and—it seems only fitting—chronic fatigue syndrome.

See also Aztec UFO hoax, Carlos hoax, Cottingly fairy hoax, Arthur Ford hoax, Mary Toft hoax, Piltdown hoax, Pufedorf hoax, and the Sokal hoax.

further reading

Carroll, Robert (2004). "Pranks, Frauds, and Hoaxes from Around the World." Skeptical Inquirer. volume 28, No. 4. July/August, pp. 41-46.

Randi, James (1989). The Faith Healers.  Prometheus Books.

Steiner, Robert A. (1989). Don't Get Taken! - Bunco and Bunkum Exposed - How to Protect Yourself  Wide-Awake Books.(See also my review of Don't Get Taken!)

Last updated 09-Jan-2013

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