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Robert Todd Carroll


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Skeptic's Refuge



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March 13, 2003. The Hebrew God has announced the end of the world to a Hasidic fish-cutter in New York through a talking fish. According to Zalmen Rosen, the fish messenger said Tzaruch shemira. Hasof bah. The dead fish, a carp, claimed to be channeling the soul of a local Hasidic man who died last year and who was fond of buying carp at the shop for the Sabbath meals of poorer village residents. This nice story is brought to us by the New York Times. "Some people say the story is as credible as the Bible's account of the burning bush," writes Corey Kilgannon, the author of the Times piece.

February 25, 2003. Dorsey Griffith, the Sacramento Bee Medical Writer, gives naturopaths the thumbs up in an article on their push to be licensed as "healing arts practitioners" in California. This will give them the legal right to practice medicine here. (Only eleven other states license naturopaths to practice medicine. However, Nevada, Idaho, and Massachusetts may join California in adding to that list.) Anything that is natural and non-toxic is a potential therapy for these folks, including colonic irrigation and coffee enemas. Some of them do seem to keep up on the latest scientific research on nutrition, but like most "alternative" health care providers, their membership usually includes many who disdain science and work by intuition, sympathetic magic, and spirit guides. Their favorite cure for anything that ails you is a diet rich in vitamins and mineral supplements, often sold through their office.

The main "balance" in this article in the form of noting that licensure is opposed by the AMA and by chiropractors. Although, the headline writer (in the print edition) did us all a favor with the head over the continuation of the article, which reads: Bill: Most therapies harmless, a study by UCSF concluded

Now that's a real attraction: We use therapies, most of which are harmless! Come on Down!

January 8, 2003. While reading an article on Sylvia Browne's shortcomings as a psychic in today, I was led to another article in Salon (June 13, 2002) that raved about the talents of James Van Praagh and John Edward. The author, Laura Laughlin, obviously knows little about cold reading. She incorrectly notes that it involves "talking fast, making safe guesses, and picking up on unwittingly offered clues." A good cold reader does not have to talk fast, though some do. Nor do you have to make safe guesses. Picking up on unwittingly offered clues is a valuable asset in many areas, not just cold reading.

Laughlin attended a Van Praagh performance in Scottsdale, Arizona, where 1,900 people paid $45 each to see the show. (My guess is that Van Praagh commands about $50,000 a show and makes a lot more money from these shows than he could by doing private readings, which his colleague Sylvia Browne still does for about $700 by phone.) Laura Laughlin was quite impressed that, after a series of misses, Van Praagh didn't go with the flow when a woman offered him a free psychic "hit" with a question about a Chihuahua.

When one woman stood to ask a question, Van Praagh noted she was surrounded by invisible cats. Cats and animals. Did she have a lot of cats? No. Did she work with a lot of animals? No. Did she work at a veterinarian's office? No. Did she have a friend who was a vet? No. The woman asked, "Do you see a Chihuahua?"

"No," Van Praagh said.

Although he struck out miserably, I gave him points for resisting an easy hit. A "cold reading" psychic might have exclaimed, "No, wait! It is a Chihuahua!"

An amateur cold reader might have bitten on that one, but not a good cold reader, Laura. Van Praagh knew he was going nowhere with his cats and animals gambit. A good tactic is to admit your error and move on. As Ian Rowland writes in his Full Facts Book of Cold Reading:

In this way the psychic cuts her losses and moves on. She leaves the problem behind, where it will be quietly forgotten, and at the same time she comes across as extremely honest (p.104).

Laughlin summarizes her reasons for believing in the psychic powers of Van Praagh and John Edward (whose performance she saw in Tucson) as follows:

It occurred to me that if Van Praagh and Edward were fakes, their readings would have been more accurate. Each erred several times, sometimes saying their interpretation could be wrong or the person might not yet realize its accuracy. But their hits were so stunning, so personal and specific, that I had to believe in them.

The psychic can't lose. He or she is playing a Win-Win game. If you're accurate, I must believe you. If you're inaccurate I must believe you. For Laughlin, the only way a psychic could lose would be to do a performance with 100% accuracy or 100% inaccuracy. The chance of that happening with professionals like Van Praagh and Edward is about zero. The misses, which are bound to be many in this game, are mostly forgotten. But their presence is taken as a sign of honesty, the difficulty of the task, fallibility, and supportive of psychic ability. The hits are remembered and some of them seem inexplicable. How did he know that? And How can you explain that? are common questions that issue from both skeptics and people who find psychics believable. The skeptic, however, knows that there are several possibilities, one of which is that the hit was made possible by psychic power. Without further information, however, the skeptic can no more explain each anecdote of a psychic hit than the true believer can. However, believers tend to put unwarranted confidence in their recollection of the event and in their powers of recall and observation. They don't consider the possibility of anecdote contamination (See Rowland, p. 130). They don't try very hard to find naturalistic explanations for the hits, such as the psychic using plants in the audience or using information gained from newspapers, the Internet, or even cards that people sometimes fill out when they attend psychic seminars.

If Laughlin had read Rowland's book she would have identified some of the things she witnessed and writes about in her article, e.g., the Russian doll statement and the eleven ways to turn a miss into something positive (pp. 97-104). She would have noted that since most people who attend these shows are there to make contact with the dead that the most common theme would be health and well-being, and that once you've identified the dead person's gender and relationship to the sitter there are some causes of death more likely than others. Once you've gotten the sitter to give you enough information to reasonably infer that her teenage son has died, you do not need to guess wildly at the cause of death. A good cold reader has at his or her disposal a number of what Rowland calls "stat facts," data based on statistics and demographics. You don't guess that a teenager has Alzheimer's or that an elderly man died in mountain climbing accident, not because those things don't happen but because the odds are against it.

Laughlin should not have been impressed when Van Praagh told a woman her son had died in a car accident and that "he lost control of the car, a window was broken, and mom was asked to donate his organs." Most fatal car accidents will leave windows broken and it is common practice in many places to ask parents of auto-crash victims to donate their child's organs. Did he lose control of the car? It doesn't matter, but it's not a farfetched possibility with a young driver. In any case, the mother is probably sobbing uncontrollably by now so neither she nor the audience will worry about the details. For a young man who has died Van Praagh knows that a car accident is a high probability, but if he had been wrong, he would have just moved on. Remember this is a Win-Win game.

December 18, 2002. It's catch-up time. Two items have been on my desk for weeks now. One is the October 11-13 issue of USA Weekend with a cover story on John Edward. The other is the December 2nd issue of Newsweek with a cover that reads "The Science of Alternative Medicine" and whose contents give the impression that Harvard Medical School is the center of quackery in America. The only thing that ties these two things together is that they both promote probable nonsense as probable fact.

Lisa Ling wrote the USA Weekend story and admits up front that she is a fan of Edward's show "Crossing Over" on the Sci Fi channel. One thing is certain: Edward is a favorite of females. 60% of his audience is female (compared to 45% female for the overall Sci Fi viewership). I don't think James Van Praagh has quite the same effect on the ladies. Here is an e-mail I received recently that indicates how at least one female admirer of Edward compares the two:

My name is Amy. I live in Missouri and I am an avid watcher of John Edward on SCI FI. I find him truthful, but at the same time I watch people like James Van Praagh and I want to puke as he GUESSES at things and makes no REAL statements. For instance, I watched his show today and I wanted to throw something through the TV because he takes people's pain, anguish, and sadness, and he, like a fat cat, feeds off of those things that the guests project. I hate him for that because I know how it feels to be one of those people.

James Van Praagh is a fake, a phony, and I wish someone could expose him for all that he really is: a fraud. I have NO belief in him at all; he is worthless in my eyes and a real BAD actor to boot! He rubs his hands together like he's cold or something, but he is probably just doing that to waste time and pretend to be getting ready! Then spirits seem to TALK to him and he answers with a "uh huh I hear you, I know what your saying"....then he proceeds to tell the guest (the one being read) that their loved one is saying "they forgive them" well if that's not vague I don't know what is. Do you know how many things there could be that they could want forgiveness for??? What a jackass!

Also Van Praagh seems to focus on one spirit in particular so that he doesn't have to project all that info for multiple spirits!....He is such a bad person and I wish he would come clean, admit his fraud, and just get the hell off the air.

Despite Amy's and my wish to expose Van Praagh as a fraud, it can't be done since it is not possible to prove that he (or Edward, for that matter) isn't hearing things. So we might as well speculate about something we can get some evidence for. I'm sure many people feel as Amy does about astrologers, Tarot readers, palmists, graphologists, and so on. These folks have personalities and they are bound to mesh or clash with the personalities of potential clients. I'm sure there are many people who are disgusted with Edward's style but find Van Praagh's demeanor appealing.

Skeptics do get a mention by Ling. She writes that skeptics accuse Edward of editing his show to make him look more successful at being contacted by the dead than he really is. This criticism is trivial and to bring it up is a red herring. Who cares if he edits his show or not? Many people are willing to play the role required of them to make his performances successful. He doesn't need to edit anything to appear successful. All he needs are people willing to find significance in the words and ideas he presents them with. There will never be a lack of such people.

Nowhere in Ling's article does she analyze the method used by Edward and other alleged clairaudients. Edward says he just relays "facts." Actually, what he does is say words and other people turn them into facts. Anyone who wonders how a psychic could know things about you that "nobody knows" should read Ian Rowland's The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading.

As to the Newsweek paean to quackery at Harvard, Bob Park has already said it all:

The cover story in the Dec 2 issue of Newsweek is The Science of Alternative Medicine. That’s an oxymoron. If these alternatives had a basis in science, they would just be medicine. Newsweek calls it "The New Science." Only the new science turns out to be the old medicine thousands of years old in some cases, long before it was known that blood circulates or germs cause disease. The alternatives can be put on a scale that ranges from plausible to preposterous. The treatments discussed in Newsweek tend to be at the plausible end of the spectrum. They include such things as music therapy, as though anything that makes us feel better is now medicine. There is no mention of such absurd and fraudulent treatments as magnet therapy, homeopathy and touch therapy, which are among the most widely used alternatives. The report also talks about herbs and vitamins. Vitamins are alternative? The discovery of these essential molecules was a major advance in scientific medicine. Vitamins become alternative only when taken in wild excess. The report has boxes on alternative treatments for cancer, osteoarthritis, cardiac disease, back pain, etc. To give it credibility, each box is prominently labeled "Insights from Harvard Medical School." Is that where this stuff comes from?

I might add that nothing was mentioned in the article about the slaughter of endangered species to satisfy the irrational beliefs of Chinese traditional herbal medicine about black bear bile (more bile) and rhino horns. As one of my readers once wrote: When there's an emergency how come we never hear anyone shout "Let me through, I'm an aromatherapist!"





©copyright 2002
Robert Todd Carroll

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