A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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"Death is a part of life, and pretending that the dead are gathering in a television studio in New York to talk twaddle with a former ballroom-dance instructor is an insult to the intelligence and humanity of the living." --Michael Shermer

"...we [psychics] are here to heal people and to help people grow...skeptics...they're just here to destroy people. They're not here to encourage people, to enlighten people. They're here to destroy people." --James Van Praagh on "Larry King Live," March 6, 2001

"I've never heard of a skeptic helping anybody with their skepticism. To a large degree, they just want to shame somebody so they can feel greater than them. But they're not going to shame me. I'm very proud of what I do." --Allison DuBois in an interview with Allen Pierleoni

"...nearly all professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters who are more or less in league with one another." ---Richard Hodgson

In spiritualism, a medium is one with whom spirits communicate directly. In an earlier, simpler but more dramatic age, a good medium would produce voices or apports, ring bells, float or move things across a darkened room, produce automatic writing or ectoplasm, and, in short, provide good entertainment value for the money.

Today, a medium is likely to write bathetic inspirational books and say he or she is channeling, such as JZ Knight and the White Book of her Ramtha from Atlantis. Today’s most successful mediums, however, simply claim the dead communicate through them. Under a thin guise of doing “spiritual healing” and “grief counseling,” they use traditional cold reading techniques and sometimes surreptitiously gather information about their subjects to give the appearance of transmitting comforting messages from the dead. Subjective validation plays a key role in this kind of mediumship: The mediums rely upon the strong motivation of their clients to validate words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate. The clients' success at finding significance and meaning in the sounds made by the medium are taken as evidence of contact with the dead.

A rather pathetic example of how mediums rely on subjective validation to get credit for getting messages from the dead involves telling an audience you've received a message from "the grandmother of a woman in the audience" that the woman had been abused as a child and that the abuser is still loose. Patrick Hutchinson uses this trick. It's very safe. He doesn't mention the grandmother's name, so any woman in the audience who has lost a grandmother is a potential candidate to validate Hutchinson's statement. If nobody validates his claim, he can say that grandma says don't repress the abusive experience any longer. Thus, if nobody bites, Hutchinson can leave the audience with the impression that he really did get a message from the dead but the abused victim has a repressed memory of the event or is too embarrassed to come forth. Hutchinson knows that there are many women who have been abused but who have remained silent about it out of shame, fear, or for some other reason. He also knows that if he gets lucky and someone in the audience reveals that she's been abused, it will seem to many of them that the message really did come from beyond the grave. If a woman in the audience not only says she was abused but names the abuser, the media will pick up the story,*&*&* thereby spreading the illusion that mediums really do contact the dead. If the woman's revelation results in a conviction of the molester, the medium's reputation is enhanced. It's a win-win situation for the medium. He risks nothing by his claim, but stands to gain substantially if anybody can validate it.

The medium's main method of convincing the client that she is getting messages from a dead loved one involves getting information in rather worldly ways. The medium gets information by chatting up the client before the reading and by asking direct questions during the reading. In television studio sessions, the medium may eavesdrop on conversations, chat up potential "sitters" (those getting the readings), or even use electronic eavesdropping equipment. The messages that the medium claims to be passing on from the dead may be banal or trivial, such as “he forgives you.” Messages might also reveal things that are already known but which leave the client wondering how did the she know that? In the good old days of séances and elaborate trickery, a spiritualist fraud would be more likely to pass on the message “give more money to me and my group” (Keene 1997) than something homely like "your dog didn't like his dish." (Yes, today's mediums often claim to be contacted by dead pets.) These days, it is unnecessary to be so crude as to directly ask for money or prey on elderly persons who have lots of cash and little time. People are literally waiting for years to give money to those who give hope that a dead loved one will communicate with them. There is also a lucrative book business for those who have messages from the dead and there is good money to be made by doing live shows for hundreds or thousands of people, each of whom will pay $25 to $50 or more for the chance to connect with a lost child, spouse, or parent. There are also television opportunities for some mediums.

George Anderson, a former switchboard operatorGeorge Anderson and author of Lessons from the Light: Extraordinary Messages of Comfort and Hope from the Other Side (2000), got his own ABC special featuring celebrities who wanted to contact the dead. Some mediums even get their own syndicated television programs, such as John Edward and James Van Praagh, although the latter’s show was canned by Tribune Media Services after only a few episodes.

john edwardJohn Edward established himself as the first clairaudient to have his own show that featured deceased loved ones contacting audience members: "Crossing Over with John Edward"  on the Sci-Fi Channel. Edward has been described as a fraud by James Randi [Skeptic, v. 8, no. 3] and Leon Jaroff [Time, March 5, 2001] to no avail. He may be a fraud, but he is an attractive and impressive one. Edward’s show was syndicated and for some time he joined Xena the Warrior Princess and Jerry Springer on the USA Network. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated series South Park, named Edward the Biggest Douche in the Universe in episode 615.

James Van Praagh is a self-proclaimed medium who claimsJames Van Praagh goosed by an angel he has a gift that allows him to hear messages from just about anyone who is dead. According to Van Praagh, all the billions and billions and billions of dead people are just waiting for someone to give him their names. That's all it takes. Give Van Praagh a name, any name, and he will claim that some dead person going by that name is contacting him in words, fragments of sentences, or that he can feel their presence in a specific location. He has appeared on "Larry King Live," where he claimed he could feel the presence of Larry's dead parents. He even indicated where in the room this "presence" was coming from. He took phone calls on the air and, once given a name, started telling the audience what he was "hearing" or "feeling". Van Praagh plays a kind of twenty-questions game with his audience. He goes fishing, rapidly casting his baited questions one after the other until he gets a bite. Then he reels the fish in. Sometimes he falters, but most of the fish don’t get away. He just rebaits and goes after the fish again until he rehooks. The fish love it. They reward Van Praagh's hard work by giving him positive feedback. This makes it appear to some that he is being contacted by spirits who are telling him that being dead is good, that they love those they left behind, and that they are sorry and forgive them everything.

Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine calls Van Praagh "the master of cold-reading in the psychic world." Sociologist and student of anomalies, Marcello Truzzi of Eastern Michigan University, was less charitable. Truzzi studied characters like Van Praagh for more than 35 years and describes Van Praagh's demonstrations as "extremely unimpressive." ("A Spirited Debate," Dru Sefton, Knight Ridder News Service, The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 10, 1998, p. E1.) Truzzi said that most of what Van Praagh gives out is "twaddle," but it is good twaddle since "what people want is comfort, guilt assuagement. And they get that: Your parents love you; they forgive you; they look forward to seeing you; it's not your fault they're dead."

In Why People Believe Weird Things Shermer describes Van Praagh's success and how he wowed audiences on NBC's New Age talk show The Other Side. Shermer also tells us how he debunked Van Praagh on Unsolved Mysteries. Yet, no one in the audience was sympathetic to Shermer. One woman even told him that his behavior was "inappropriate" because he was destroying people's hopes in their time of grief.

Van Praagh has books out with can't-miss titles: Talking to Heaven and Reaching to Heaven, as well as Healing Grief. (Talking to God and Talking to Angels have already been taken, not that they couldn't be taken again and again and again.) His website keeps us informed of his books, tapes (e.g., Develop Your Psychic-Self), upcoming products (e.g., a series of meditation tapes), tours, and appearances. Van Praagh and mediums like him can expect that their success will continue as long as they never tell a client that his parents forgive him for torturing them while they were alive or that it’s time to admit to the murder. There is little chance of that happening, however.

In an interview with Dru Sefton, Van Praagh states that “there is no death, there is only life....every person is psychic or intuitive to a degree,” and most spirits end up in heaven (Sefton 1998). These claims seem to based on nothing more than the belief that this is what many people want to hear.

Another devotee of Van Praagh is Charles Grodin, whose talk show on CNBC was cancelled shortly after Van Praagh's second appearance.  Grodin demonstrated how open-minded, gullible, and devoted to his dead mother he is, as he fawned over the man who talks to heaven. Van Praagh's performance on Grodin's show was less than heavenly, but it was enough to satisfy Grodin and at least one couple in the audience who seemed to believe that their dead  daughter was talking to Van Praagh. The only skepticism shown by Grodin was in wondering whether Van Praagh wasn't really reading the minds of the audience and the callers, rather than getting his messages from "the other side". The only person on the show who stated her doubts about the authenticity of Van Praagh's contact was a woman who lost a daughter to murder by terrorist Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma City bombing. She stated that nothing Van Praagh said rang true about her daughter except some generalities. The woman also claimed that her daughter communicates to her directly.

When Van Praagh, Edward, Sylvia Browne or some other medium can’t get a good bite, they remind the audience that sometimes the message is in fragments, sometimes they don’t understand it, sometimes they misinterpret it, etc. If they're wrong, don’t blame them since they never claimed to be perfect. In fact, Browne can truthfully say that she's never been right, despite her being exposed many times as someone who just makes stuff up off the top of her head. In 2010, Ryan Shaffer and Agatha Jadwiszczok investigated 115 criminal cases that Browne allegedly worked on. Her accuracy rate? Zero. Van Praagh seemed particularly inept on the Grodin show. He was not very artful. He used his usual bait: questions about girls and grandmothers, changes in the home, unresolved feelings, etc. He claimed to get messages about the usual stuff: angels, cancer, the heart, newspapers. What saves him much of the time is shotgunning which ends with the ambiguous question “am I right?” and the client saying “yes,” though we have no idea what the “yes” is in response to.

Sylvia Busted Again!

Van Praagh’s shows are unimpressive to a skeptic, but to someone like Charles Grodin, who obviously is still deeply grieving his mother’s death, he is a saint. Grodin practically asked for Van Praagh’s blessing as he thanked him for his wonderful work. Let's hope that some in the audience were left wondering why there wasn’t more skepticism shown.

Currently, there is a three-year wait for a private session with Van Praagh. However, there may be some dissatisfaction in Heaven, as several others on Earth are now getting messages from the dead, too.

One of the more successful mediums is Allison DuBois, whose success multiplied when NBC showcased "Medium," a program said to be based on DuBois's psychic exploits. On her website, DuBois says

I call things like I see them and I am not afraid to push the boundaries of my abilities under university research conditions. I pride myself on accuracy, consistency and easing the pain of those who have lost loved ones.

In other words, she is cut from the same cloth as John Edward, George Anderson, Laurie Campbell, James Van Praagh, and a host of other "grief counselors" who offer their services to the grieving and the bewildered, for a fee of course. And like Edward, Anderson, and Campbell, DuBois has been tested by Gary Schwartz and declared by him to be a bona fide psychic.

One reason we should distrust Schwartz's evaluation of anyone's psychic ability is his persistent revelation that he has little or no understanding of how subjective validation works.  In a classic experiment that has been repeated many times in many different contexts, Bertran Forer gave a personality test to his students, ignored their answers, and gave each student an "evaluation" he had taken from a newsstand astrology column. He asked his students to evaluate the evaluation from 0 to 5, with "5" meaning the recipient felt the evaluation was an "excellent" assessment and "4" meaning the assessment was "good." The class average evaluation was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test has been repeated hundreds of time with psychology students and the average is still around 4.2. We might translate this to mean that it is quite common for people to be given strings of statements that are not based on any knowledge of the person and yet they commonly rate the statements as something like 80% accurate. Similar experiments have been done with phony biorhythm charts, graphology readings, astrological charts, and who knows what else.

According to Schwartz, when he tested DuBois she "always scored in the near-80 percent range. That clearly puts her among the best of the best" (McClain 2005).

However, without a control, Schwartz has no way of knowing whether DuBois's scores are extraordinarily high or just average. But even without the validation of someone of Schwartz's caliber, the motivation to make contact with departed loved ones is stronger by far than the drive to scrutinize the work of a scientist with a Ph.D. from Harvard University whose motto is Veritas.

I'll give the penultimate word to one who spent many years studying mediums when spiritualism was in its heyday:

"...most mediums ... seem to me clever charlatans of a vulgar and often avaricious type, and perhaps with a morbid passion for deception. In my view, they are almost all not only dishonest from the start, but the real explanation of their success is to be chiefly found in the abnormal development of an inveterate inborn propensity to lie and mislead, which gives them a titillating sense of superiority on the one hand, and on the other the overpowering will to believe on the part of the faithful who accept any suggestion and balk at no absurdity."--G. Stanley Hall,* in the introduction to Amy Tanner's classic on mediums and their methods: Studies in Spiritism (1910).

Things haven't changed much in the last century, despite the advancement of our understanding of deception, so strong is the impulse to live forever outside the body.

See also channeling, clairaudience, cold reading, electronic voice phenomenon, ghost, hot reading, mentalist, Ouija board, psychic, Ramtha, shotgunning, subjective validation, spiritualism, warm reading, and my review of Gary Schwartz's The Afterlife Experiments.

reader comments

further reading

My commentaries on various alleged psychics and psychic powers:

books and articles

Blackmore, Susan J., In Search of the Light: The Adventures of a Parapsychologist, (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1986).

Christopher, Milbourne. ESP, Seers & Psychics (Thomas Y. Crowell Co. 1970).

Christopher, Milbourne. (1975). Mediums, Mystics & the Occult. Thomas Y. Crowell Co.

Frazier, Kendrick  and James Randi, "Predictions After The Fact: Lessons Of The Tamara Rand Hoax," in Science Confronts The Paranormal, ed., Kendrick Frazier (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1986), first published in the Skeptical Inquirer 6, no.1 (Fall 1981): 4-7.

Gardner, Martin. How Not To Test a Psychic : Ten Years of Remarkable Experiments With Renowned Clairvoyant Pavel Stepanek (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).

Gordon, Henry. Extrasensory Deception: Esp, Psychics, Shirley MacLaine, Ghosts, Ufos  (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1987).

Hansen, George C. (2001). The Trickster and the Paranormal. Xlibris Corporation.

Keene, M. Lamar. The Psychic Mafia (Prometheus, 1997).

Marks, David and Richard Kammann. Psychology of the Psychic (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1979).

McClain, Carla. "Varied readings on Arizona psychic," Arizona Daily Star. January 17, 2005.

Nickell, Joe. Secrets of the supernatural : investigating the world's occult mysteries with John F. Fischer (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

Roach, Mary. (2005). Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. W.W. Norton.

Rowland, Ian. The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, 3rd. ed (2000).

Shaffer, Ryan and Agatha Jadwiszczok. “Psychic Defective: Sylvia Browne’s History of Failure,” Skeptical Inquirer 34, no. 2 (March/April 2010): 38-42.

Sefton, Dru. "A Spirited Debate," Knight Ridder News Service, The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 10, 1998, p. E1.

Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things : Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time (WH Freeman & Co.: 1997).  Review.

Stein, Gordon. "Spiritualism," in The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal edited by Gordon Stein (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1996).

Tanner, Amy. 1910. Studies in Spiritism. reprinted by Prometheus Books, Inc., 1994.

articles on the WWW

There's no good proof the real Medium, Allison DuBois, has ever cracked a case, but her fans don't care "Though she has many fans, she also has many people who have devoted their lives to debunking her. DuBois describes them as "angry, old white men with abandonment issues." And they, in turn, describe her as a "hypocritical asshole" and the "queen of questionable mediums," while her fans are "credulous ass-hats," loons, and nut bags."

ABC Has a Medium on Staff by Mark Edward
Indiana's News Center at Noon, an ABC affiliate in Fort Wayne, has a spiritual medium/remote viewer on staff. This is a "news" program; not an entertainment program. Is this the beginning of a trend? Mark Edward gave her a call. He was not impressed. Read his post to find out why.

Deconstructing the Dead "Crossing over" to expose the tricks of popular spirit mediums by Michael Shermer, Scientific American

Michael Shermer on James Van Praagh

Skeptico on John Edward / James van Praagh Bingo

Review of Psychic Medium Van Praagh on CNN's Larry King Live by Joe Nickell

John Edward: Hustling the Bereaved (2001) by Joe Nickell

John Edward: Spirit Huckster (2010) by Joe Nickell

Investigating Spirit Communications by Joe Nickell

Talking to the Living Loved Ones of the Dearly Departed
by Gary P. Posner

"Guide to Cold Reading" by Ray Hyman

John Edward / James van Praagh Bingo - Skeptico

Sean David Morton

news stories

Psychic to perform live demonstration today I love this headline. When psychics start performing dead, call me.

The psychic in question here is Suzane Northrop, one of Gary Schwartz's "validated" ladies. (She was one of his psychics in the HBO experiments, part of his afterlife experiments.) If you are one of those people who wants to believe you will not die, Northrop is your friend. I've never seen her perform, but reviews are mixed: true believers seem to get gratification from her cold reading, even if they have to work at it. Critics call her everthing from a fraud to a fraud.

Northop is performing at the Embassy Suites, so if you are put to sleep by her conversations with herself you can rent a room and watch Montel and Sylvia Browne on TV before you go to sleep and wait for a dead loved one to contact you in your dreams. I caught part of Montel's new show; it has turned into an infomercial for some sort of veggie-o-mat. He looks pretty healthy. I can't say the same for Sylvia.

KMOV NEWS Is Sylvia Browne Really a Psychic?: It must have been a slow news day, but this news story does have some good video of an interview with Browne's first husband.

A Canadian outfit called Palluxo claims James Van Praagh interviewed Michael Jackson shortly after the pop icon's death. According to the unsigned article, Jackson cried during the interview and said there was no foul play in his death. The article ends with the following ominous message: "More answers from dead Michael Jackson will be revealed on upcoming Oprah Show." In another article, Palluxo claims Sylvia Browne talked with the dead Michael.

"I asked him to identify himself by moving my desk. The desk started trembling, then it moved a feet [sic] or two away from me. He wrote his name on my desk," she said. "This was Michael's sign of life."

As believable as these stories are, the source lacks credibility. I hope they're a sick joke and that Van Praagh and Browne will wait until after the funeral before doing their interviews with Jackson.

Palluxo seems to be a cross between the National Enquirer and Weekly World News. The day after Jackson's death was announced Palluxo claimed he died of AIDS.

John Edward on Dateline with John Hockenberry

Van Praagh interviewed on VideoJug (he's from another world and he's here to help)

Psychic turns Justin Timberlake away

Van Praagh Lives With Dead - miniseries with Ted Danson playing Van Praagh (The show didn't last long.)

Last updated 13-Mar-2016

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