From Abracadabra to Zombies
The good, the bad, and the ugly in ABC's Nightline show on psychics
18 August 2011. Nightline bills itself as a news program but if it didn't entertain, it wouldn't get an audience or advertisers. Doing a skeptical but entertaining program on psychics isn't that hard since there are many entertaining people who think they're psychic and are willing to strut their psychic stuff, no matter how inept, for the chance to be on television. Even the big names will do it. James Van Praagh and Alison Dubois tried to take ABC for a ride. Van Praagh fell flat, I thought, but Dubois totally duped ABC news correspondent David Wright.
For the better part of an hour, the Nightline folks did a respectable job of reporting on their investigations of Van Praagh, a psychic stockbroker, people who promote psychic kids, a Tarot card reader, a palm reader, and a few psychic detectives.
Josh Elliott was not taken in by Van Praagh's shtick. He showed copies of Google reports that had everything in them that Van Praagh had hit on. Also, Van Praagh gave himself away when he said he was too tired to do a reading of an ABC producer he didn't know anything about or have any time to google. However, when Van Praagh claimed that we live in several dimensions and explained that he was tapping into some "interdimensional" or "intradimensional" plane to get his mesages from the dead, Elliot didn't even blink much less ask him why science knows nothing about these alleged realities.
Banachek was given a good amount of air time to lash out at famed psychics such as Sylvia Browne who claim they are getting messages from the dead. He also was given air time to conduct tests on the alleged psychic powers of three people trying to wrestle $1,000,000 away from James Randi. Of course they all failed. Two blamed the test. The psychic stockbroker agreed he didn't have the ability to psychically detect what's in a closed envelope, but he did not agree that he wasn't psychic.
Lisa Miller, associate professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, cut off her interview when the tone got skeptical. (I've criticized Miller before for her promotion of psychic abilities in kids.)
Gary Schwartz was interviewed and said that he tested Van Praagh at 91% accurate. I've tested Schwartz and his accuracy is about zero on the credibility scale when it comes to evaluating mediums.
The segment on the Berkeley Psychic Institute was pretty straightforward in its depiction of "ordinary" people trying to find something extraordinary to spice up their lives. They were taking the "psychic kindergarten" class. Yes, you too can tap into your hidden psychic abilities A few of these prayerful psychics tried to "cleanse" a house that was for sale in nearby Oakland. It wasn't clear what they were cleansing but they said the place felt like some negative energy had been left behind by previous occupants. The real estate agent trying to sell the negative house tells the camera that the former owners fought a lot and couldn't make the mortgage payments. We the Stupid were supposed to infer from that the source of the negative energy had been identified. The Nightline folks noted that despite the cleansing, the house was still on the market. Maybe the negative energy wouldn't leave.
The psychic detectives segment showed nothing positive about people who come out of the woodwork to offer their psychic services to police departments around the country. The negative theme line was given by a former law enforcement officer: none of these characters have helped solve any crimes with their psychic abilities. The ABC website on this segment is thoroughly negative: psychic detectives waste time and cause harm. Maybe the ABC journalists picked up some negative energy from the house in Oakland.
All the skepticism was for naught, however. The last segment on the "Beyond Belief" program made it clear that even though many psychics are frauds and many are deluded, there are some who are the real thing. Rebecca Rosen and Alison Dubois were gifted with one of the most naive interviews of alleged psychics I've ever seen. David Wright is an ABC news correspondent with many years of experience, but he is a tyro when it comes to cold reading ("I see roses") and hot reading. What is shocking is that neither he nor anyone else at ABC bothered to google the stuff spewed out by Rosen and Dubois that he thought was amazing. In this day and age, however, somebody more competent and with more motivation will do the job for you. The bloggers at Negative Entropy did ABC's job for them. There was nothing of interest that Rosen and Dubois brought up that couldn't be found on Google or in any primer on cold reading. Unfortunately, millions of viewers were left with the impression that Rosen and Dubois are really good psychics. Here's what the folks at Negative Entropy wrote:
Rebecca Rosen begins by saying she is getting an Ann or Anna, at which point David Wright feeds her that Deanna is his mother. Rebecca knows she has passed away and that David Wright is a father. She then goes on to say there is a connection between his child and his mother. At this point David says over the video that he has a daughter named Deanna after his mom. Next she says she is supposed to talk about a four leaf clover. Surprise, David’s wife is Irish. She also talks about the name Victor, and David jumps in that his wife’s name is Victoria.
So is any of this stuff found on Google? Why yes, yes it is. I found within 10 minutes of searching this New York Times article featuring David Wright's marriage to Victoria Brannigan. Almost everything is in this article. His mother’s name, his wife’s name, her being Irish. But how did she know about his children and a connection, well this article gives his first daughter's name. I spent 15 minutes this morning searching and found all this information. So in conclusion, ABC, feel free to hire me. It seems I can do basic Google searches way better than your journalists.
Most people who watch Nightline's "Beyond Belief" will be left with the impression that some psychics are real. David Wright's fawning over Allison Dubois and Rebecca Rosen will ensure that. He's a news journalist. He couldn't be taken in by a couple of innocent, charming ladies, could he? No, and Banachek couldn't fool a physicist for four years that he had psychokinetic abilities, could he? Well, actually, he and Mike Edwards did just that. They were tutored by none other than James Randi. It is only fitting that Randi take advantage of the situation and invite Dubois and Rosen to take the million dollar paranormal challenge. I'm not psychic, but I can predict with 100% accuracy that the ladies will decline. They know they can dupe scientists like Gary Schwartz and journalists like David Wright. They don't need to be psychic to know that they won't be able to dupe Randi or Banachek. You can take that to the bank.
update: The first big name medium to turn down Randi's offer is James "the munchkin" Van Praagh. Even so, Van Praagh wins with a heap of free publicity.