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

From Abracadabra to Zombies

Mass Media Bunk

a commentary on news stories or articles in the mass media that provide false, misleading, or deceptive information regarding scientific matters or alleged paranormal or supernatural events.

Note: Mass Media Bunk is now Skeptimedia.


Oprah's 3-ring Psychic Circus

What's your frequency, baby?

February 16, 2007. Yesterday, ringmistress Oprah featured alleged medium John Edward in one ring, alleged psychic detective and medium Allison DuBois in another, and paranormal investigator Dean Radin in the third ring. The only skeptic in the audience, apparently, was a woman who was identified as "skeptic woman" and "science lady." [Her real name, Laura McMahon, was never used by Oprah, even though she was invited to be on the program.] Oprah wanted to know why the "science lady" didn't believe. Mrs. McMahon said, in effect, that she didn't believe because there were no peer reviewed scientific studies supporting belief in the paranormal. Oprah didn't ask any follow-up questions like "Well, how do you think these clowns perform so unbelievably well on my show, if they're not using psychic powers to connect to another dimension? Do you think they're pulling a con? doing a cold reading or something like that?" Instead, Dean Radin responded by asserting that the skeptic was wrong. In fact, he said, there have been over one thousand peer reviewed articles published in such journals as Science and Nature. Radin knows that only a few articles not disparaging the paranormal have appeared in those journals. The rest appear in journals like the Journal of Scientific Exploration, The Journal of Parapsychology, or The Noetic Journal. (Here's a review of a typical example of these studies.) Most scientists, he continued, don't know about them. Interesting. Let's ask a multiple choice question.

Most scientists don't know about the many peer reviewed articles in scientific journals that prove there is some paranormal ability because

(a) Scientists don't read scientific journals.
(b) There is a vast conspiracy to keep these articles out of the hands of scientists.
(c) Scientists really do know about these articles but pretend not to so that they don't have to deal with
cognitive dissonance.
(d) Radin's claim is misleading because almost all of these articles are published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration or other journals that specialize in stuff mainstream scientific journals won't touch.
(e) The scientists who need to know about these articles do know about them and they consider them of little value.

Knowledgeable people might think that (d) and (e) are both correct. However, the best answer is that Radin doesn't mean by "psychic" or "paranormal" what most people mean by it. When Radin speaks or writes about psychic phenomena, he means an anomalous process of information or energy transfer that is (a) currently unexplained in terms of known physical or biological mechanisms and (b) is identified by statistical analysis of data, especially meta-analysis.

Oprah showed clips of Edward and DuBois doing readings for people who have lost loved ones (known as "sitters" in the trade). She then interviewed some of the sitters and all but one asserted that he or she believed the medium made contact with spirits of people they had known when they were alive. (One person said that Edward got nothing from the spirit world in her reading. As expected, Oprah and others counted this not as a failure to communicate but as more proof that Edward is not conning them.) From what I have read by Dean Radin and from what I have heard in interviews he has done, I doubt that he would have validated the demonstrations by Edward and DuBois the way Gary Schwartz validated both of them in his lab at the University of Arizona. Radin is a much more cautious investigator than Schwartz and has a much better sense of what kinds of controls a scientific experiment requires. I think Radin would have sympathized with those who lost loved ones, as would I, but he would have recognized that they were strongly motivated to help their mediums succeed and their subjective validation of the readings is not strong scientific evidence for the paranormal or the supernatural. Radin would have noted the selective nature of the TV presentation of the readings—we don't know what was edited out—and the subjective nature of evaluation used in these demos. For example, Edward threw out the common name "Ann" in at least two of the readings and both times the sitters found significance there.

When asked by Oprah why the dead don't speak plain English and just say "This is your aunt Mary McGillacutty," Edward had an answer. Spirits are at a "high frequency" and we are at a "low frequency." He prays and meditates, which allows him to approach a gap between the high and low frequencies where the garbled messages are picked up as "feelings" by him. Sounds right to me! How he knows this was not discussed. Oprah was very polite and even offered support for Edward's theological musings by noting that ultimately we're all just vibrational energies, as was shown in "The Secret," another Oprah special interest. (In "The Secret" you learn about Universal Laws such as the "law of attraction" and other laws never studied by Dean Radin or any of the thousands of scientists who publish in peer reviewed journals like Nature, The Noetic Journal, or the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.)

DuBois was able to hoodwink Oprah into thinking she really is a psychic detective like the kind you see on Court TV or on "Medium," the show allegedly based on her real-life escapades. DuBois did reveal just how low her standards are when she told Oprah's audience that she was first validated as a psychic when she did three cold crime readings and sent her reports to three police departments. One cop in Texas responded in a letter that claimed she had revealed things in her report that had not been revealed to the public. That was it. DuBois says she now knew she was the real thing. DuBois has turned such anecdotes into tales of helping the Texas Rangers and other such things, but finding police departments that will say she has done anything of value for them has proved difficult. Ben Radford investigated her claims about helping the Glendale, Arizona, police and the Texas Rangers and found that both deny ever working with her.

As is often the case with alleged psychic detectives, DuBois and Edward were allowed to provide most of the evidence supporting their claims about the origins of their powers and about their talents. Nobody was contacted to verify that their claims are true. Not being challenged, their stories appear more solid than they would if anyone investigated them. The only evidence provided for their alleged psychic abilities were the readings—cold or hot, we have no way of knowing— they were shown doing on edited video clips and the subjective validation given to the readings by the grieving sitters.

DuBois made some claims about the body of Jackie Hartman, who is believed to have been murdered while out on a date. The body will be found within two weeks, she said. (She was right about this but she wasn't really going out on a limb here. That the murderer disposed of her bloody clothes in a dumpster indicates the crime was not thought out. The body was probably hastily disposed of, too.) DuBois said she was confident of this because, "I was shown a funeral and Jackie being laid to rest so she will be found and the parents will have that." (Too bad she wasn't shown somebody on an ATV* finding the body.*) She also said that the case involved a "date rape gone wrong" and a Hibachi barbeque. Don't expect any follow-up. (The police had good reason to believe Hartman was murdered, even before her body was discovered on February 18th. On January 29th, her torn shirt, soaked in blood and shot through with bullet holes, was recovered. Her date, Jonathan Burns, was arrested.* )

DuBois did claim in a vague way that one woman was not murdered but had committed suicide. She did not say the woman committed suicide; she said she got some sort of feeling toward herself and then put her hands in front of her gut and pulled in as if that was supposed to mean something important. When the woman's sister verified that the police had ruled it a suicide, DuBois seemed validated. She was also validated when doing a reading where she started with the head as a place she was getting some sort of feeling. Lucky for her, the person died of a head injury (she was on a bike when hit by a car). The deceased's husband took this as evidence his wife was communicating to him. What he probably doesn't know is that if she had gotten no feedback with the head, she would have moved to some other part of her body, probably the chest area. And so it goes.

DuBois lives in the Phoenix area and I think it is very telling of how important she is to law enforcement by noting that when two serial killers were murdering, shooting, raping, and robbing people for over a year in her hometown, she wasn't called in and didn't provide any leads, unless she provided one of the 2,000 anonymous tips that came in. Eleven people were murdered and sixteen were wounded during the crime sprees that began in May 2005. Two men were arrested for these crimes in August 2006 and no mention was made of DuBois or any other alleged psychic helping the police decide who to arrest.

A few months ago, Oprah did a show on critical thinking. She indicated that she'd like to see more of it in this country. I wrote about that episode:

Oprah Winfrey is the master of the good story, the anecdote that substitutes for serious analysis. In less than an hour, she can turn a minor tale of something like "road rage" into a candidate for admission into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

She is an entertainer, not an educator, and we shouldn't expect too much from her by way of enhancing whatever critical thinking is already going on by viewers of entertainment programs that feature people with paranormal or supernatural powers. Still, it would be nice if she did a follow-up program with some knowledgeable people who could clearly explain things like wishful thinking, deception, subjective validation, hot and cold reading, and the search for anomalous statistics as evidence of pathology not wisdom. She could educate herself and millions of others in the bargain. It could even be entertaining. But don't hold your breath. Oprah's website has a place where you can express your beliefs about the paranormal and the supernatural. You can even view the results (so far). Not surprisingly, almost all visitors to her website believe in both the paranormal and the supernatural. Only 5.8% are skeptical of the claim that mediums get messages from the dead. One of the related links listed on Oprah's web page for the "Do You Believe?" show takes you to a story about some people who are wiped off the road by an avalanche that totals their vehicle. They don't credit a higher power with knocking them off the road and destroying their car, but they do give a higher power credit for their survival of the crash. "There's definitely a greater power out there looking out for us," mused one of the survivors. Indeed; that higher power is called television producers looking for people to exploit. Not that the executives have to twist anybody's arm to get them to praise the Lord for not killing them when he sent tons of snow down the hill to blow them off the road.

Also on her website is a message inviting us to stay tuned because she is going to have medium Lisa Williams visit her studio and "diagnose" it for ghosts. That should be entertaining and raise the level of discourse about critical thinking several notches.

further reading

* AmeriCares *

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