Cold Reading Techniques, A Threat Answered Effectively, People in Flames, Those Gemini Rascals Again, A Puzzling Tennessee Constitution, Florida Scolds Miss Cleo, A Tragic Help! Letter, and a Teacher's Aid.....
On the subject of "cold reading," as used by such "psychics/sensitives" as John Edward, Sylvia Browne (who may now have died, for all we're able to find out), and James Van Praagh, the three currently popular "readers," I recall very well the work of the late Doris Stokes, who was very big in the UK and particularly in Australia, where I saw several of her performances. Cold reading, the "sleight of tongue" procedure that these fast-talking artists use, has many methods whereby they can get out of simply wrong guesses so fast that few will notice, unless they listen very carefully, or get to study a transcript of what was actually said during the show.
Simon Hoggart, the well-known British writer, radio/TV commentator, and reporter who in 1995, with co-author Michael Hutchinson, produced the excellent book, "Bizarre Beliefs," provides us with an excellent example of Stokes trying to salvage blatant errors. The following is transcribed from a BBC television program, "40 Minutes," of some years back, a performance done before a sizeable studio audience. Stokes, as usual throwing out names, initials, suggestions, clues, anything that might evoke a response from her audience, tried, "Little Daniel." This is an almost guaranteed "carrot" to dangle for such an audience, and it got an immediate bite. I will break in on this exchange frequently to point out what has occurred, and to anticipate what the performer must do at that point:
Young Woman: I've got a Daniel.
This response, in the present tense, would indicate to Stokes that (a) "Daniel" is alive, and (b) that Daniel "belongs" to this woman.
Doris Stokes: Little Daniel?
The victim volunteers this information that Daniel is "very" little freely, and Stokes takes it correctly to mean that Daniel is an infant, something she did not know until the woman gave her that fact. Remember that the victims of this process are expected to provide help to the "reader," and since they want the reading to be successful, they eagerly provide clues. Stokes re-issues that finding to her, quite safely:
DS: You know, a baby Daniel. Did he have to go back into hospital, love?
This last sentence is a question, not a revelation. Had the answer been "no," Stokes could have had a partial win here because she had at least guessed that he'd been in a hospital previously. The probability that he was born in a hospital, is high.
YW: Yes, he had to go back into hospital.
This is both a question and a statement. A question because it can be taken to inquire about the status of the infant, a statement because if it's true, it's a "hit." In this instance, it backfires on Stokes, though the woman quickly tries to save it for her. This victim has been to this sort of meeting before!
YW: No. Well, he might be all right on your [the spirit] side, but we've lost him.
Fast talking from Stokes is called for here, and it happens:
DS: Yes, that's what they're saying, he'll be all right now, love.
The "they" quoted is the spirit population on "the other side." "They" are often blamed for giving out wrong information, which "they" do sometimes, as a prank. Here Stokes has quickly repaired her gaff, by dropping into the favorite view held by spiritualists, that we all go on living on The Other Side, and Daniel's doing just fine "over there." But the statement, "we've lost him," is not "what they're saying"! "They" gave Stokes the wrong information, or so it might appear to the skeptical mind.
DS: And they said, "We've brought little Daniel, and he went home and then he had to go back into the hospital."
There it is, the very most favorite ploy of all those used by the "readers." Stokes is repeating exactly what the victim has just helped her to develop, as if "they" have just told her this! I offer here an example of this very same technique in one of James Van Praagh's readings, which often far too often contain this sort of sequence, in which he asks questions because he doesn't know the answers! and then immediately reconstructs the answers as if he'd just had them revealed to him by The Other Side. Here's the sequence, in which Van Praagh has "contacted" a spirit for a victim:
VP: Is this your husband?
You can see how this rather obvious gimmick, used in the heat of an exchange, can easily get past the observer. And notice that these were three questions from Van Praagh, not statements, each one reworked into a statement from the deceased! But back to the Stokes event:
DS: And he never went home again, but they said, "He's all right now." And he's about three now, lovey?
Of course he "never went home again! He died! And again, here's that premise that no one ever dies. Daniel is living in Heaven, and is now three years old. A comforting thought to the bereaved.
DS: I can see him. He's got auburn hair, love.
We must wonder, what if this guess had been wrong? No problem! I've heard these artists simply insist that the deceased now has hair of the guessed color, or now plays this sport, or now is tall and thin, now that they're in Heaven. The victims of the scam are supposed to accept anything, if the medium can invent any sort of an excuse for being simply wrong.
Let's go back for a moment to 1925, and another s�ance, when Harry Houdini's dead mother was contacted by a medium. The spirit of Mrs. Cecilia Weiss spoke English fluently, which was a big surprise to Harry, who informed the medium that his mother had spoken Yiddish all her life, but not a word of English. Undaunted, and in the true tradition of the breed, the medium snapped back, "Well, in Heaven, everyone speaks English!" Harry was not convinced by this assertion, especially since his mother appeared not to know anything about her former life, when she was on "this side." Back to Stokes:
DS: Yes, he's here [the child], looking at the flowers. Yes, Daniel, you can, love. He says, "Can I have some flowers for my mum?" [Audience sighs.] So when you go tonight, lovey, will you take some flowers?
Drat! Wrong again! Stokes had assumed, likely enough, that this woman was Daniel's mother. She had to put an instant repair on this boo-boo. And she did:
DS: No, but you know his Mum?
The "no" here is delivered as if Stokes already knew that, rather than being an "oh!" and an admission of the error. She was a pro far better than John Edward, in my professional opinion, though using exactly the same methods. Maybe John should contact her, now that she's in Summerland, and get some pointers...?
DS: No, I didn't say to you... he said, "Can I have some flowers for my Mum, 'cos she'll never believe I'm here," and he's a beautiful child...
Stokes has here expanded Daniel's statement to make it accommodate her gaff, and has immediately tossed in the expected, and accepted, compliment on the beauty of the child. The alternate observation, that the kid was a brat, never seems to be offered....
DS: Just a minute, Daniel... He had a defect with his heart, darling, [Young Woman nods assent], and they tried to repair it, and it didn't work, but he's growing up and he's nearly three, he said, and he's talking away....
Just a tad defensive, Stokes here repeats something she's already found to be true, that Daniel died three years ago, after trying for and getting a correct shot at the cause of death. Not an unlikely possibility, and it worked. What if there'd been no heart operation? I've heard Stokes and other readers insist that there was some procedure carried out of which the parent or relative was unaware. In one instance, a man who died of a stroke was said to have died of heart failure, but Stokes rationalized her gaff by "explaining" that "it was his heart that carried him off, lovey."
As Simon Hoggart pointed out in his discussion of this excerpt, Stokes was right about the child's age, and about his hair color, though neither of these is particularly surprising. The young woman had told her that Daniel was very little, and the description "auburn" reddish or golden brown could apply to almost any hair color except blonde or jet black.
Yes, Stokes was a real "pro" when it came to her calling.
Reader Barry Moyle informs me:
You may be aware of the website www.phantomorfraud.com. I sent an e-mail to these people questioning their statement: "Dowsing works, that has been proven time & again." "Dowsing" is listed as a topic on left hand side of their home page. I also suggested they should apply for your million dollar prize & forwarded a copy of your "The matter of Dowsing" from Swift, vol.2 no 3/4. January 1999.
Barry, you must recognize that the million-dollar challenge is probably the single most-feared element in the belief system these people have constructed. They can't respond to it, because they know they can't perform as they fantasize they can. This delusion is so cherished, so important to them, that they will invent, distort, and lie in order to avoid facing the truth. Indeed, truth is their greatest enemy, and it is brought up to them by the JREF challenge, every day.
Ross Hemsworth has written me only once on an entirely different matter but I am certainly not "in daily contact" with him. He makes such claims because he is alarmed, but understandably so, because he sees the great threat that is offered to his self-delusion, if he is in any way called upon to face reality.
Reader Dan Blum observes, re our piece on the seemingly high incidence of auto accidents among Australians who are "Geminis." Dan refers to this as, "only a thought," but it's the kind of thought that we welcome:
As you note, there's no way to know without seeing the raw data just how significant the results are in a statistical sense. However, even if they are significant, there's at least one quite reasonable way I can think of in which accident rates could be tied to birthdate. Teenagers who have just gotten their licenses are more likely to have accidents, on average, than other drivers (at least, so I'm told, and it certainly seems plausible). Many teenagers are anxious to get their licenses and will do so as soon as possible after the relevant birthday. Weather varies with some predictability by month and plays a large role in the incidence of auto accidents. So, we should expect to see people born in months in which Australia typically experiences poor driving weather to have slightly higher accident rates than others, because of the new drivers bringing up the average. I know nothing about Australian weather, but late April to late June (Gemini and Taurus together) is late fall and early winter, and even if they don't have much snow I'd expect them to see a lot of rain, maybe some sleet, etc.
Reader Nigel Dowrick tells us:
Re: the Australian insurance company that has carried out a "star sign" (shouldn't that be "Sun sign"?) survey of car drivers, I remember reading something similar in a British newspaper several years ago. A search in the archives of the Daily Telegraph brought up an article which reveals that the worst drivers are born under Libra and Pisces, while the best are born under Sagittarius, Aquarius, Leo and Capricorn (best of all). On the other hand, there's an article in the Telegraph dated 27th March, 1997, (not in the Telegraph's archives, however) in which the order of drivers, worst to best, is 1: Aries, 2: Pisces, 3: Virgo, 4: Aquarius, 5: Libra, 6: Gemini, 7: Scorpio, 8: Leo, 9: Taurus, 10: Cancer, 11: Capricorn, and 12: Sagittarius.
(Note that Gemini occurs half-way along the scale here, unlike the Australian Insurance company survey....)
These surveys by different insurance companies aren't striking for their consistency. The only point of interest is that Capricorn seems to be consistently at or near the bottom of the list. Could this possibly be connected with the fact that Capricorn covers a period of only 29 days, while the other signs range from 30-32 days? This might seem like an uncharitable suggestion, but the articles aren't definite enough to rule it out.
Well, Nigel, if the Capricorn numbers are about six percent toward the observed results, that would be an excellent possibility! I'm excited to see that the items I post here are stimulating not only discussion, but also basic thoughts about probable answers!
While we're revisiting this part of the world, the following article is reprinted courtesy of The Skeptic, official Journal of The Australian Skeptics. Barry Williams is Executive Director of the organization. He's an old and valued friend of mine, and a powerful foe of the irrational and pseudoscientific forces Down Under. A handsome beard, too, please note. Look in on the group at www.skeptics.com.au.
Cold Water on a Hot Topic By Barry Williams
Of course, there must be many other cases that start in similar circumstances, in which other parts of the room do catch alight, and then vou have a classic house fire. But no one has ever suggested that there is anything mysterious about houses catching fire and the occupants being burnt to death careless cigarette smoking in bed, electrical faults, arson all have plenty of substantiated cases. Only in very rare cases have physical circumstances allowed the fire to remain localized and has there been sufficient time for the body to have been reduced to ashes in almost every case where SHC has been offered as an explanation, the victim has been alone in the house.
This was a classic example of good science; making an hypothesis and testing it. And this test showed exactly what the hypothesis had predicted, and so should set at rest at least one of the myths that has exercised the minds of some who would invest the world with unexplainable energies or other mysterious factors.
Thank you, Barry. Ever since I first heard of the claimed SHC phenomenon, I've offered the compelling observation made above, that when a house fire occurs in which the entire place is consumed, there is essentially no great mystery, but when the fire remains localized and the peculiar circumstances prevail that seem to defy expectations, a mystery promptly develops. This unanticipated situation occurs in only the tiniest percentage of fires which are often due to elements of carelessness, some cited by Mr. Williams, thus the mystery is accentuated. Bear in mind, too, that evidence usually shows that the victim (a) is a smoker, (b) was drinking alcohol, and (c) was confined and isolated, as by a bed or wheelchair. All these facts give support to the non-paranormal explanation that Barry so well puts forth here.
Being a realist par excellence, Barry Williams provides, in his last paragraph above, his astute, perceptive, conclusion one based on long experience in this field. I suggest that you re-read it....
Barry also provides this news item about a correspondent who uses the name "Herc Ules" (brilliant!) in his posts to me, which are virulent, vague, and just plain weird. (So what else is new, Randi?) Judging from this news, I may be spared some nasty stuff, at least for a while. Says Barry:
I believe you also heard from this chap. He wouldn't be put off but kept pestering us with incomprehensible claims. I tried to let him down gently, but when he started making threats, I had to let the police know and they took it very seriously and quickly tracked him down. I doubt he would have carried out his threat, but you can't be sure. How would I have felt if I had just shrugged him off and next week heard of someone being poisoned after eating Dick Smith peanut butter.
Dick Smith, very well-known in Australia, is a leading supporter of the skeptical (pardon me, sceptical!) movement there, and one of his business interests is producing food products.
Australian Broadcasting News: A man charged with threatening to poison food produced by Dick Smith has been refused bail in the Rockhampton Magistrates Court in central Queensland. Graham Andrew Cooper, 30, is charged with trying extort $100,000 from the Australian Sceptics Association. Cooper appeared in court this morning charged with stalking, extortion and sending threatening e-mails. The court was told Cooper sent e-mails to Barry Williams from the Australian Sceptics Association, which has offered $100,000 to anyone who can prove psychic powers. The police prosecutor said Cooper claimed the association refused to test him. It is alleged the e-mails said that Dick Smith owed him $100,000 and that he would put rat sack into as much Dick Smith food as he could lay his hands on. The court was told Cooper is a paranoid schizophrenic and police said the threats were not carried out. Cooper will be held in custody until his next court appearance in May.
The term "rat sack" refers to rat poison. These colorful Aussie expressions....!
You should know: Article IX, Section 2, of the Constitution of the State of Tennessee says that atheists and people who do not believe in heaven and/or hell cannot hold office in that state. Really! I quote, from "Disqualifications":
No atheist shall hold a civil office. No person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments, shall hold any office in the civil department of this State.
But hold on a bit. I see, listed earlier in that same Constitution, Article VIII, Sections 4 & 5, that:
No religious or political test. That no political or religious test, other than an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and this State, shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under this State.
Freedom of worship. . . . that no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect, or support any place of worship, or to maintain any minister against his consent; that no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship.
Now, being a simple soul, I find these statements/laws contradictory. Both cannot apply! But looking further, also under Article IX, Section 1, "Disqualifications":
Ineligibility of ministers and priests to seats in legislature. Whereas Ministers of the Gospel are by their profession, dedicated to God and the care of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions; therefore, no Minister of the Gospel, or priest of any denomination whatever, shall be eligible to a seat in either House of the Legislature.,
Okay, but isn't this an obvious "religious test," in itself? Of course it is!
Almost as if to prove the point that someone has dropped the ball here, since this worthy document was put in place after numerous periodic re-workings back in 1953, we also find, under Section 3:
Duelists shall hold no office. Any person who shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, fight a duel, or knowingly be the bearer of a challenge to fight a duel, or send or accept a challenge for that purpose, or be an aider or abettor in fighting a duel, shall be deprived of the right to hold any office of honor or profit in this State, and shall be punished otherwise, in such manner as the Legislature may prescribe.
How often, we must wonder, is this provision invoked....?
All this is still in effect, it's on the books, and legally speaking, under IX-2, anyone in office in Tennessee would have to defend themselves if charged with denying the medieval notions that a deity exists or that heaven or hell are real places. This thinking, for state officials in the 21st-century United States of America, is against the law!
Astonishing? Do you remember a woman named Rosa Parks? On December 5th, 1955, she broke the law of the State of Alabama by sitting down in a bus. That act was against the law! A Congressional Gold Medal is only one way in which we have honored this woman, who acted for all rational people when she saw that it was something that someone had to do. Talking is all well and good, but acting is the magic.
We grow up slowly....
From a news item here in Florida dealing with the very popular and thriving "Miss Cleo" industry that takes in millions a year nationwide via a $5-a-minute "psychic hotline" telephone service....
. . . the attorney general's staffers just want to know whether Miss Cleo who bills herself as a Jamaican shaman is even from Jamaica. They suspect she's nothing more than a paid actress. The matter of her supernatural abilities, they'll just leave to the imagination, one staffer said. "We're not going down the road of 'What is a psychic,'" said Assistant Attorney General David Aronberg. "We're not concerned whether she can bend spoons or read minds."
Thank you, Mr. Aronberg, for that facetious comment. Not what we might expect from a senior state official playing for laughs but maybe the best we can get. Why are you not concerned? Isn't lying to, and deceiving, the public, something that should get your attention? Is it not in your job description? Yes, it involves taking money under false pretenses, promising results that are not delivered, false advertising, stealing. But you'd rather just find out whether Miss Cleo is really from Jamaica? Who the hell cares, sir? You can only have two possibilities: one, she's not from Jamaica, and the State of Florida attorney general's office can officially demand that Cleo stop saying that she's a Jamaican. There! The people of Florida have been served! Two, Cleo is actually from Jamaica, and all's well in the State of Florida, right? No, wrong. In both scenarios, the people of Florida have gained nothing, and yet you can now turn the page on this episode with great satisfaction, and get on with similarly useless tasks?
Mr. Aronberg, you embarrass me.
As we "go to press," this exciting development: it�s been discovered by determined research and the desire to see justice done, that Miss Cleo was born in Los Angeles, and not even her parents are Jamaican. But again, who cares?
I will share with my readers the partial contents of an unfortunately typical sort of letter. These are regularly received both on e-mail and by post, at the JREF. My usual response is to suggest that the writer should be seeking professional medical advice but that almost always leads to vituperative responses that fill our mailboxes for weeks afterward. I really don't know what to do about these missives. They depress us at the JREF, and they indicate that the senders really require and deserve proper assistance, but we feel helpless. What follows is a plea for help, a cry of despair. Read as much of this letter from the U.K. as you can, and you'll see how desperate, uninformed, and muddled these folks are. I've made substantial clarifications in spelling and sentence construction, and this is only about one-quarter of the total text we received from this poor woman....
Dear Sir, I have come across an electronic device, which is called a perpetual motion machine. I have been hit by it from two places. About 7 years ago I came across this machine, when a factory near my house changed its air-conditioning system. It made me very ill, the frequencies it gave off made me see its energy fields.
Is it any surprise that so many people can be sold irrational ideas, systems, devices, and philosophies? While this sort of thinking is rare among a given population, it is there, and it is a potential market for charlatans. Without a basic awareness of how the real world works, inundated through the media with information that can confuse and mislead them, having little or no support from agencies that might be expected to help them cope, these sufferers flail about helplessly. They deserve better.
Get those Pigasus Award nominations in, friends! April 1st approaches! It's a rich field you have to choose from, for 2001....
My good friend James McGaha, Director,of the Grasslands Observatory in Arizona, comments on the following item, "It says a great deal about the world we live in, that the astronomy community has to produce and distribute such a document!" I agree, Jim. In response to the fundamentalist claim that the Earth is only 6,000 years old, that the dinosaurs lived 4,000 years ago, and all that other drivel, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) said:
Material for Teachers About How We Know the Age of the Universe Is Now On Line
Please, if you know of teachers who could use this information, pass it on....
Everyone who believes in telekinesis, raise my hand....