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Robert Todd Carroll

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The Skeptic's Refuge

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November 20, 2002. Scott Craven's article on Chet Snow's crop circle theory appears in today's Arizona Republic. I was interviewed by Mr. Craven for his article and was pleased to see that he is quite skeptical of Mr. Snow's belief that the circles are the work of an interdimensional intelligence that is using low bandwidth code to warn us of something.
[thanks to Jared Bodnar]

Also, tomorrow night on WGN-Chicago at 9 pm, Larry Potash interviews Andrew Skolnick on James Van Praagh.

Finally, What would Jesus drive? will be the focus of a new auto sales campaign. I wish I was kidding. Check it out on CNN.
[thanks to Jeff Fuller]

November 18, 2002. Judge Myron H. Thompson of Federal District Court in Montgomery, Alabama, has ruled against Roy Moore, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who had installed a 5,000 lb. monument of the Ten Commandments in his courthouse (New York Times). "This court holds that the evidence is overwhelming and the law is clear that the chief justice violated the Establishment Clause [of the first amendment]," wrote Judge Thompson. He added that the monument is "nothing less than an obtrusive year-round religious display intended to proselytize on behalf of a particular religion, the chief justice's religion." Even if Moore loses his monument, he'll still have his plaque of the commandments hanging in his office.

November 16, 2002. The 3rd edition of Ian Rowland's The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading is now available for purchase from his Web site.


Cable TV's SCI FI Channel sent a team of archeologists to conduct an in-depth study of the alleged Roswell alien crash site. With professionalism and humility, the SCI FI Channel will reveal the results of the investigation on Nov. 22 in a show called "The Roswell Crash: Startling New Evidence." Network representatives have leaked out the news that their show will present a "smoking gun bombshell" . . . now there's an image for the kids to think about. Thomas Vitale, a senior vice president of programming at the SCI FI Channel, claims that the program is "going to raise a lot of questions afterwards." I'm sure it will.

Bill Doleman of the University of New Mexico led the team of three other archaeologists and six volunteers. He signed a confidentiality agreement not to reveal what is in the smoking gun bombshell before the program airs on the 22nd, but he did have one cryptic remark for the press: "We found things -- some things I still don't know what they are -- but they surprised me." Excellent. He also said that they were directed to use purely scientific methods, such as "geophysical prospecting and archeological testing of anomalies," to find evidence of a crash. Who knows, after this they may have to change their name to the SCI channel . . . or the FI channel. Time will tell.
[thanks to Keldon McFarland]

November 15, 2002. The Rev. Alex Orbito, psychic surgeon from the Philippines, has been arrested in Italy on charges of aggravated fraud, deception of incompetent people, and medical malpractice. The arrest was thanks to the intervention of CICAP, the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims on the Paranormal. Orbito is the healer who removed "negative energy clots" and "negative stress clots" from Shirley MacLaine's body. He did it without instruments, she says.
[thanks to Dario Ventra]

November 10, 2002. A few years ago Robert Bigelow, a wealthy Las Vegas businessman, endowed the Chair of Consciousness Studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He gave nearly $4 million to UNLV to teach courses on such subjects as dreams, meditation, hypnosis, out-of-body experiences, telepathy, and the ever-popular subject among college students, drug-induced altered states of consciousness. Charles Tart was hired as the first director of the program. Raymond Moody was his successor in 1998. At that time Moody said

I am thrilled to have the opportunity to teach again, and believe that UNLV should be applauded for it’s determination to adhere to the strictest standards of scientific rigor regarding claims of rational ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’ of the continuation of consciousness upon bodily death....the extraordinary states of consciousness commonly deemed paranormal are an enduring human concern that will not go away, and I have been hopeful that students with a serious interest in these topics would have a setting within which they could learn about paranormal phenomena from a non-ideological perspective.

After five years of proving nothing of scientific merit, the program has been axed.

The program has been closed since last July, but it was only recently that the university removed all references to it on their Web site. Whatever is left of Bigelow's endowment after the futile search for "scientific" proof of life-after-death will be transferred to a scholarship program. The shift in funding was apparently at Bigelow's request and the university was happy to comply. Bigelow is a great benefactor of UNLV, but his penchant for UFOs and longing for proof of post-mortem existence have been somewhat of an embarrassment to many of the faculty and staff at UNLV. (He is president and founder of the National Institute for Discovery Science, an outfit that focuses on UFOs, aliens, cattle mutilations, and other anomalous phenomena.)

In 1997, when the Consciousness Studies program was initiated, former UNLV sciences Dean Warren Burggren said, "This area of study is really commanding a lot of interest and excitement. We're starting to see more interest in the scientific and philosophical sides of understanding human consciousness. Some very serious universities are engaged in the scientific study of consciousness, but not many, so the Bigelows have presented our students with a unique opportunity. It is definitely a prize for UNLV." But the point wasn't really to study consciousness, which everyone should applaud, but to study life after life, as Moody calls it. It was about trying to find proof that consciousness survives death. Maybe Mr. Bigelow came to the realization that such proof is beyond the reach of science. Maybe not.

November 1, 2002. Last night, ABC's Primetime had a segment featuring an experiment with Ian Rowland using cold reading techniques with 20 volunteers. He was to try to duplicate the results of spirit mediums by getting messages from the dead. In a teaser on their Web page, noted that

Communicating with the dead has found a growing television audience in recent years, with nationally syndicated shows like Crossing Over With John Edward and Beyond With James Van Praagh. The show's hosts claim to be able to connect with the deceased relatives or friends of audience members, and often reveal family stories and details with startling accuracy. In many cases, the audience members believe they have just received a message from their loved one beyond the grave.

Diane Sawyer introduced the TV segment. Video clips of  John Edward and James Van Praagh doing their "dead people are giving me messages" routines were shown, and then she asked: "How do they convince people they can contact the dead?" She didn't ask: how do they contact the dead. She asked how do they convince people they contact the dead. The viewer was primed for the answer. They convince people by using cold reading techniques.  

 According to,

Rowland says he can produce a similar effect to the TV mediums' shows by using a technique known as "cold reading." He shows how the technique works in a demonstration he has performed around the world.

To test Rowland's claims, Primetime hired him to give his demonstration to an audience of 20 volunteers who had indicated they were open to the possibility of communication with the dead. The volunteers were told it was an experiment to test Rowland's psychic abilities.

The volunteers did not know that Rowland is a mentalist. Furthermore, on the TV show no mention was made of testing Rowland's psychic abilities. What was being tested was whether he could replicate the results of spirit mediums by using cold reading techniques. It truly was an experiment. Rowland wrote me that

Prior to 'Primetime', I'd tried cold reading as a tarot reader, as an astrologer, and as a clairvoyant, and in all these cases cold reading had proved remarkably successful in producing results very similar to those produced by so-called genuine psychics....However, before 'Primetime', I had never been given the chance to try cold reading as a spirit medium, to apparently communicate with the dead in the currently vogue-ish 'hotline to heaven' manner.

Rowland tells Primetime that "we should be able to show things which people connect with, which seem to describe people who have died and moved on to the afterlife." The segment shown lasted about ten minutes and showed at least two people in the audience who thought they'd made a connection with the other side during the session. Even those who didn't make a direct connection were obviously moved by the experience. (Rowland informed me that he made a connection for 7 of the participants within about 30 minutes.) It seemed to give them hope for an afterlife and for possible communication with the dead. This hope was not affected by revealing to them, as Rowland did after the session, that the experience was not real for him and that he was using cold reading techniques to elicit their responses. At least some of the participants stated that even if he was using cold reading to do what he did, the experience was real to them. One fellow said that it didn't matter whether Rowland was using cold reading or was really talking to the other side, the session gave him a sign that it was real and, he said, "my hope that it is real will make it real." Rowland himself said to the participants "if ... a link was achieved, I think that's real for you. And I'm not going to say otherwise....I'm not sure it was real for me."

Despite the fact that ABC framed the experiment with the opening shots of Edward and Van Praagh, and with Sawyer's question about how they convince people they communicate with the dead, Rowland never explicitly states that he thinks others like Edward or Van Praagh use cold reading. He has done a review of some of Edward's work ("Crassing Over with John Edward") and indicates that if he uses cold reading, he's not very good at it, and if he's getting messages from the dead, they don't have much of interest to say. He also says: "I offer no judgement as to whether John Edward possesses authentic gifts of mediumship. He says he does, and I can’t prove any different, so that’s that." Rowland also clearly states in that review that he thinks skepticism is pointless. "Belief in psychic stuff has always been with us," he says, "and is likely to flourish in the fertile soil of uncritical mass media attention. There is no way of combating this." In a personal correspondence, Rowland expanded on this sentiment. I'm growing weary, he said,

of the polarised [British spelling] conflict between skeptics and believers, and the tedious, pointless, go-nowhere and learn-nothing litany of their clichéd exchanges. Dialogue, connection and exchange interest me. Monologue, disconnection and conflict do not. If I meet someone who believes in John Edward, or in spoon-bending, or UFOs, what's interesting to me is not having an argument with them, but learning about how that person has come to arrive at that view. The greater the distance between my view and theirs, the more interesting I find it to learn how we have managed to arrive at such divergent positions! My sincere belief is that by learning more about the other person, and the journey they have been on, the more I learn about people in general and therefore about myself. I think this is growth, and I hope to keep growing until I die.

So, if Rowland was not duplicating the work of spirit mediums by using cold reading techniques in order to strongly suggest that people like Edward and Van Praagh are using cold reading techniques and are not really connected to the dead, then what was he trying to accomplish? On the program, Rowland says something to the effect that people are going to consult so-called psychics and will make up their own minds about them. If they have knowledge of cold reading, he says, it "just might change their whole view of this psychic industry." This may sound contradictory to what he says in his piece on John Edward. However, it is vague and taken out of context. Rowland is not on a crusade to debunk psychics. People are going to consult psychics regardless of what he or anyone else thinks about the practice. Knowledge of cold reading provides information they can use when deciding which psychic, if any, to trust.

The effect he had on the twenty volunteers seems to support his approach. He gave them and millions of viewers about as clear a demonstration that spirit mediums don't appear to work any differently than those who use cold reading, and yet none of the volunteers seemed to have changed his or her mind about psychics or about contact with the dead. I imagine not too many viewers changed their minds, either.

Even though Rowland's purpose in doing the experiment was to see if he could replicate a spirit medium using cold reading, it was hard, after reading the teaser and watching Sawyer's intro, not to see the show as an experiment to see if Rowland could duplicate the work of Edward and Van Praagh by convincing people he can contact the dead. If she had not used the expression "convince people," then maybe I and other viewers would have seen the experiment differently, but she framed the question so as to imply that people were being convinced of something that was, at the very least, questionable. I don't think it is unreasonable to interpret her intro as suggesting that people were being convinced of something that isn't true. After that, it was made clear by the early editing with Rowland and Primetime interviewer Chris Cuomo that the deal was to see if he could replicate what we see on TV with mediums, but why he was doing it was left vague; no mention was made of convincing anyone of anything. Rowland says

I am disappointed at the invoked comparisons with Edward, Van Prague and so on, which I tried to avoid in any of my own comments or contributions. I think it's a shame that something like this, an interesting experiment into what cold reading can do, and how and why it works, is only seen as legitimate if it is applied to the work of TV psychics and mediums. They don't go on TV talking about me, and so I don't see why I should go on TV talking about them.

I think Rowland is right to be disappointed. He was doing something nobody has done before. He showed how powerful cold reading can be, that it can make people believe they have been contacted by the dead. Heretofore, there have only been charges that this psychic or that one is using cold reading, but nobody, including the greatest skeptics amongst us, have done what Rowland did. For Rowland, this was not about Edward and Van Praagh. This was about the power of cold reading. After that, draw whatever conclusion you want.

Rowland himself puts the experiment in perspective:

1. [ABC was] willing to undertake the enormous task of handling the whole thing responsibly and ethically, with as much care and tact towards people's feelings as possible. In an industry where time is money, it's hard to find a team willing to take care over people's feelings. ABC did, which is why all 20 people signed their release waivers AFTER they knew I was a cold reader.

2. They were willing to shoot it properly. They found a nice location and committed a very good director and a large 5 camera crew to the job.

3. They were willing to take the experiment seriously,. and to observe the relevant protocols. If you have ever been involved with a large-scale location shoot, you can imagine the problems of trying to get an audience of 20 people ready, and at the same time make sure that I, while in the same building, have NO information whatsoever about any of them (not even what any of them look like).

4. They were willing to negotiate the legal and ethical issues involved.

5. They were willing to do all this knowing, as I told them from the start, that I could not guarantee it would work or that I would get any results. And we had NO contingency plan. If it failed, it failed.

So there you have it. I had a chance to see whether cold reading works in this way, and under these conditions, and I took it (personal correspondence, reprinted with permission).

I don't think ABC played up the risks enough. Not only was there the risk that Rowland would fail, but there was the risk of emotional damage to some of the participants. There was no way to predict how people would respond when they found out that he was using cold reading techniques and did not believe that he really was in contact with the dead. The fact that they signed their waivers after the experiment, indicates that though they may have been deceived they were not extremely angry or upset. As noted above, some of the volunteers still felt the experience was real for them.

.   .   .

Only fragments of  the experiment were shown, but for those who are familiar with the work of Van Praagh, Rowland appeared to be doing a the same kind of thing Van Praagh does, with the same kind of results. He seemed to be fishing with names like "Michael" or "Karen, " or for affirmation about areas of pain or some detail or other. At times, he seemed to be playing 20 questions ('Is Michael the name of the one who's passed or ...'). He even occasionally asked about something that seemed too specific to be coincidental (in this case, an outdated calendar).

After the session, the volunteers were told that Rowland was using cold reading techniques. He revealed that when he throws out a name, such as "Michael" or "Karen," he has not chosen these names willy-nilly. He has memorized the 18 most popular male and female names in North America over the past 45 years or so. He revealed that throwing out a name like "Michael" is a "Russian doll statement." It has lots of layers. Someone in the audience will be named Michael, or have a deceased loved one by that name, or have a friend by that name, or know a friend of a deceased person with the name, etc. ("Karen," for example, was the name of a volunteer's cousin's granddaughter. When Rowland asked about somebody moving, she identified her sister as moving.) He also revealed that when he says he is getting a message about a certain area of the body where an ailment is to be located, he is using his knowledge of the main areas (chest, stomach, head) where serious ailments usually occur. He noted that he does not worry too much if he doesn't get any bites on his first pitch. He'll just move on to another and eventually people will focus on the hits and ignore the misses. When he made the hit about the out-of-date calendar that evoked tears from one woman, he revealed that  this was just one of a list of things he has memorized that are likely to resonate with many people. Other things on the list include boxes of photos and appliances that don't work but haven't been discarded. He explained that he asks lots of questions, gets into a meaningful dialogue, maintains control, sets the pace and the agenda. He gives the client "scope for interpretation" and lets her make the plausible connections. He just gives her material to deal with. She connects the dots.

.   .   .

I first heard of Rowland while doing research on cold reading. Several authors cited his book on the subject (very favorably), but to my dismay the book was unavailable. It's apparently self-published and was out-of-print. I found his Web site, however, and discovered that a 3rd edition is in the works. If interested, go to his Web site and get on his mailing list. He'll notify you when it is available.

.   .   .

One conclusion we might draw from this performance is that maybe we skeptics should send out an army of adepts at cold reading. If thousands of us started doing sessions with the same kinds of results as the stars like Van Praagh and Edward, it might become evident to everybody that the whole thing is a con. We could even teach participants to do it, in a kind of psychic pyramid scheme, until everybody on earth becomes adept at cold reading. We might be criticized for playing with people's emotions, but that's already happening and apparently it is happening voluntarily. We might be criticized for being frauds, but that's already happening and nobody seems to care, least of all the grief-stricken desperately looking for signs. We don't even have to pretend to be psychic. We can admit up front that we don't believe we have any psychic abilities. We can probably even admit up front that we don't believe in spirits, and it wouldn't matter to many of our clients. I don't know. It just might work. Rational argument and empirical demonstration don't seem too effective. Maybe we've been using the wrong tactics all these years. If we can't beat them, maybe we should join them. Or at least pretend to join them. Where's the harm? Besides, as Rowland suggests, maybe we'll learn something about the believers and ourselves in the bargain.






©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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