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Long Island Medium

Long Island Medium is a television program on The (so-called) Learning Channel featuring Theresa Caputo doing readings as a Theresa Caputopsychic medium in the tradition of Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh, John Edward, and thousands of other men and women claiming to get messages from dead people. What are the odds that Caputo is not deluded or a fraud? I'd say they're about the same as those for Gordon Smith or Allison DuBois or Char Margolis or Noreen Renier or Sylvia Browne or Rosemary Althea or Lynn Ann Maker or Greta Alexander or Phil Jordan or James Van Praagh or John Edward or George Anderson or Dorothy Allison.

Theresa Caputo is just one of many unsinkable rubber duckies, as James Randi calls them. No matter how many of these characters skeptics expose, dozens more will pop up to replace or join them. Why? Not because they really get messages from the dead or have special powers, but because people want to believe in them, people are easily deceived, and most people don't understand subjective validation and how it works. For more on how subjective validation works see "Gary Schwartz's Subjective Validation of Mediums."

It is understandable that many people want to reconnect with loved ones who have died. Belief in the afterlife and in spirit communication seems natural to many people. People who are skeptical of life after death seem to be in a minority, so there is little reason to distrust such beliefs when there is substantial communal reinforcement for them.

Another reason these rubber duckies remain unsinkable is that they are playing a win-win game. Skeptics don't have a chance against them. Even when caught in egregious falsehoods--as Sylvia Browne has been several times--support for their work increases rather than suffers. When Sylvia Browne appeared on the Montel Williams show and told the parents of a missing 10-year-old boy that their son was dead, she did not lose any followers when four years later Shawn Hornbeck was found alive. Browne had also claimed that the man who took Shawn was a "dark-skinned man, he wasn't black -- more like Hispanic." She said he had long black hair in dreadlocks and was "really tall." She was wrong on all counts. She Michael J. Devlin, kidnapperwas also wrong about the vehicle driven by Michael J. Devlin, the man convicted of kidnapping and child molestation in the case. Another alleged psychic, James Van Praagh, said that two people were involved in the abduction and that a person who worked in a railroad car plant was involved and the body might be concealed in a railway car. He was wrong on all counts.

A look at Van Praagh's message board will reveal why such errors do little to destroy people's faith in characters like Browne or Van Praagh. To the devoted believer, the psychic can do no wrong. If there was an error, it wasn't the psychic's fault. What may appear to be an error may not really be an error. It's possible the psychic got his or her wires crossed and mistook one spirit for another. And so on. And, as Van Praagh and Browne have often said, they're not gods and not infallible. When you're validated you're right and when you're wrong your fallibility is validated. For the alleged psychic it is always a win-win with your devoted followers.

I'll conclude this entry on Long Island Medium with an e-mail from a reader of The Skeptic's Dictionary and my comments on the reader's concerns:

For the love of all that is holy, please do something to show what the Long Island Medium is all about. I saw her on Dr. Oz (very disappointed in him) recently and of course she is cold reading but can't you get the goods on her some way and let the public know this is all a show and the bottom line is INCOME!

I saw woman after woman sit in his audience and give her leads all the time saying she was wonderful and they were believers in her powers!

I know intelligent people, successful business women who are buying this tripe. Please write something about her or do a book or article or program about her. I found very little on the website about her and would like to see more of an expose.


A Non-believer

Oz is an entertainer and he knows what his audiences want. They Dr. Oz and Oprahwant what Oprah's audiences wanted: something to believe in, preferably reinforcement of what they already believe in. They don't want somebody to make them uncomfortable by challenging them. It is understandable that they want to reconnect with loved ones who have died and are prone to be uncritical of mediums who can scratch that itch.

Of course Caputo is cold reading, among other things, e.g., her tape recorder stops and then starts again and she uses this as a teaching moment: that's how spirits let us know they're around! There may be no goods to get on her. I mean, she can say whatever comes into her head and the clients can either make sense out of it or not. If they do, she can continue. If they don't, she can shift attention to something else. She can do this longer than you or I could pay attention to the trivial drivel that is likely to be spewing forth.

mule doesn't want a drink of waterI don't begrudge Caputo or Oz their incomes. Nor do I begrudge The (so-called) Learning Channel for making a buck off of people's gullibility and desires. As for the intelligent businesswomen who fall all over themselves to make Caputo's day, what can I say? You can lead a mule to water but if you try to make her think, she might try to kick you in the face.

Exposing one more person claiming to be getting messages from spirits isn't likely to have much effect on those who think they are dealing with reality when watching so-called reality TV.

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

further reading

reader comments

Is Caputo Kaputo Yet? by Mark Edward

Long Island Medium: A Tall Story by Dr. Karen Stollznow

My commentaries on various alleged psychics and psychic powers:

Char Margolis

ABC Television: Put to the Test II - Billed as a test of psychic powers

Court TV's "Psychic Detectives"

How F.B.I. profiling resembles psychic cold reading by Robert T. Carroll

"Psychic Detectives on TV: how do they affect paranormal beliefs?"

"Allison Dubois, Gary Schwartz, and 'Medium'"

Gary Schwartz's Subjective Evaluation of Mediums: Veritas or Wishful Thinking?

"It's All in the Framing"

Noreen Renier

Noreen Renier

Sylvia Browne

Sylvia Browne

Sylvia Browne

Lynn Ann Maker

Greta Alexander

Phil Jordan

Phil Jordan

James Van Praagh

James Van Praagh

James Van Praagh

James Van Praagh

James Van Praagh, John Edward, and Sylvia Browne

John Edward

Miss Cleo

George Anderson

Allison DuBois

Dorothy Allison

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 P. (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. The BadPsychics site has closed down. Here's a copy of the message left behind: "In recent months I have been the subject of blackmail attempts, constant abuse, threats and much more. ---- To quote my favourite barman. "I'm getting too old for this shit" ---- Therefore I have decided to close down the site. ----- Hopefully I will be back one day, but if not I would like to say a big thank you to all the fans and followers of BadPsychics, its been one hell of a 6 year run. ----- So from me, your host I would like to say thank you and good bye. ----- BadPsychics lives on through the forum which is now run by my faithful admin team. ----- http://moh2005.proboards78.com"

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

ABC Has a Medium on Staff by Mark Edward Indiana's News Center at Noon, an ABC affiliate in joeyFort 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.

Michael Shermer on James Van Praagh

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

Talking to Heaven? Like Hell! The Spirited Trickery of James Van Praaghby D. Trull

James Van Praagh: Medium, or Conman?

John Edward / James van Praagh Bingo - Skeptico

news stories

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.

Northrop 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.

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: Hustling the Bereaved

Laws targeting mediums spot on

Mystics see trouble ahead over new EU law

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

Psychic turns Justin Timberlake away

New Zealand Skeptics - Guide to Scoring a Medium/Psychic

Shirley Ghostman

Shooting crap - Alleged psychic John Edward actually gambles on hope and basic laws of statistics. By Shari Waxman Salon.com

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

Last updated 29-Dec-2013

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