Back in 2000, when “psychic” John Edward was a hot media number, an editor at TV Guide sent me a 2-hour videotape of some of his shows, with the request that I examine them to find examples of his “cold reading” techniques. This was to provide input for an article they were doing on him. Now, this was a task of considerable difficulty for me, since what actually got to be broadcast was of course the edited version of any audience session, and subtleties of technique – not to mention omission – are easily lost in editing. My contact at TV Guide suggested I look over the entire tape to find examples I could use. As I told him, that could possibly lead to data-searching, a trap into which so many parapsychologists have fallen; I said that I would take the very first episode on the tape, and analyze that. And I did.
Let’s examine this item, the “Crossing Over” show of December 19th, 2000. Edward began the session with a warning to the audience that he couldn’t meet their specific expectations, a technique that excused in advance what actually turned out to be a rather bad guessing game. Remember, every member of his audience, self-selected to consist of persons who sincerely want to make a connection with the spirit of a deceased relative or friend, sits and waits for a comment from Edward, an initial, name, suggestion, relationship, or situation that they can in some way relate either to their lives or to the life of the deceased. They search frantically for that connection which Edward is constantly urging them to make. Here are the first 50 seconds of that show:
John Edward: The person that’s coming through back here, they’re telling me to acknowledge I have a male figure who’s coming through and he’s coming through with a younger male. So I have a father figure who’s coming through, coming through with a person that would be below him and it’s like there’s some sort of connection between October, or the 10th of a month having some type of meaning, and there’s a feeling of somebody either working in transit, being involved with busses or trains, there’s something like “transit” feeling that comes up with that, because they’re showing me somebody with a transit connection, so I don’t know exactly where this goes. [He points into the audience.] It’s like I’m in the back, two rows back there. Do you understand this? [He points to a man, 70 years or so in age, who has indicated his interest.]
Just to bring a bit of clarity to this drivel, here it is again, the redundancies and the “stuffing” removed. It’s about a quarter of the original size, and much clearer:
A male father figure with a younger male, a connection between October, or the 10th of a month, and somebody working in transit, involved with busses or trains. [He points into the audience.] Two rows back. Do you understand?
This was delivered rapidly, with no pauses, not providing any opportunity for a denial. The question, “Do you understand this?” is a cold-reading technique; of course these simple words are understood, but affirmation of that fact can – and does – appear to indicate that all the items in this rambling sequence are being accepted by the victim, not just “understood.”
The chap “two rows back” indicated that he wanted to hear more of this:
JE: Okay. Your dad passed?
JE: Okay. And is there a younger male for him who’s crossed over, like his son or a younger brother?
Man: My son.
JE: Okay. Your dad and your son are coming through together. There’s a “D” connection that comes up around this, that either means that your dad is the “D,” your son is the “D,” there’s someone with a “D” connection around this. You understand that?
Again, the “Do you understand” ploy, even though the victim denies any suggested connection. And the identification of the father with “his son or a younger brother” is wrong. It turns out to be the victim’s son.
Man: Not a “D.”
JE: Okay, keep thinking about it.
We have here another common cold-reading move, in which the victim is told to continue to try to come up with a connection, and the implication is that Edward will return to the guess and further develop it. And he does, though the victim’s wife supplies the connection, as someone frequently does, trying to help the scam artist:
Man: [interrupts when his wife whispers to him]… mother-in-law.
JE: Who’s passed?
Man: [nods yes.]
JE: That’s a “D”!
Next, following this clutch-at-a-straw, Edward reminded the man, in a quick re-cap, what he’d told him. He said he’d “brought through” his dad, and a “younger male,” plus the month of October, and the 10th of any month (either of which he then suggested to the man might mark a birthday or anniversary, but neither did), and insisted that at least the number “10" was “marking” something or someone, extending the field now to include “an uncle or uncle-in-law.” Still no connection. He then asked if the family consisted of three children, or perhaps one child “and two others.” Both those guesses were also met with a blank stare and denial.
But remember, in the case of his “bringing through” the father, Edward didn’t give a name or even a correct initial, though he tried! The “younger man” he had introduced, he guessed was either the man’s brother or his uncle, but it wasn’t; it was his son. Note, too, the gimmick of instant correction used by Edward: he guessed the wrong relationship here, but as soon as the man corrected his guess for him, he incorporated it immediately by saying, “Your dad and your son...” All that long attempt to connect the transit industry with the man or with the deceased – 9 seconds out of the 20 seconds of “fishing,” – also failed, and though Edward, before leaving the man and moving on, tried the “transit” reference once more, it was a total washout and was then ignored. The month of October, or the 10th of any month – giving him 42 days out of the year! – didn’t fit any angle, and Edward didn’t find anyone with a “D” name until the man’s wife suggested her own mother, who up until then had not even been mentioned. Edward accepted it eagerly as fitting the “D” guess.
This was a resounding failure as a reading, but the subject of all this guesswork was reduced to sobs and tears by the experience, and the audience was impressed.
Here are the total guesses made for the first subject of the Oct. 19/00 “Crossing Over” show. Edward tries to get him to identify with these 23 guesses, all rattled off inside of 50 seconds, about one guess every two seconds:
|(1) There is a male figure?
(2) There is also a younger male figure?
(3) There is significance to the month of October?
(4) There is significance to the 10th of any month?
(5) There is a transit industry connection?
(6) Busses are involved?
(7) Trains are involved?
(8) Your father is deceased ?
(9) The younger man is your brother?
(10) The younger man is your uncle?
(11) There is a “D” connection?
(12) Your son is the “D”?
(13) Your father is the “D”?
(14) Can you identify with any “D” person in your life?
(15) The 10th of a month — any month — is a birthday?
(16) The 10th of a month — any month — is an anniversary?
(17) There’s a birthday — of anyone — in October?
(18) There’s an anniversary — of anyone — in October?
(19) The number 10 “marks something”? Anything?
(20) An uncle is “connected” with the number 10?
(21) An uncle-in-law is “connected” with the number 10?
(22) Your family has three children?
(23) Your family consists of one child and two others?
3 right 20 wrong
Guess #1 has a 50/50 chance of being right. But notice: the way that Edward conducts these sessions, he can also apply any and all guesses to anyone in the audience – there were about 40 persons – who might choose to indicate a “hit” for them, by a gesture. Friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances, living and dead, all are eligible to fit any guess. Guesses #1 and #2 are definite hits. Then it goes downhill.
Guesses #3 & #4 ask the subject to identify with some 42 days out of 365, to connect with any and all birthdays, anniversaries, or dates of decease – any event – of anyone, since Edward only says “There is significance” to one of these dates.
Guesses #5, #6 & #7 are very wide, involving all possibilities in commuting, vacations, accidents, daily routine, the neighborhood, or occupation, and again, everyone in the audience is also eligible to identify with this guess.
Guess #8 is asked as a question, though Edward – and everyone else – is quite safe in this guess, since nonagenarians are very, very, rare.
Guesses #9 & #10 are simply the usual rapid stabs at correlation, and are immediately ignored by the audience as trivial – when they miss. But they’re not trivial, since if they’d been correct, they would have amplified the value of this otherwise dismal reading.
Guesses #11, #12, #13, & #14 are “stabs” at a letter that could represent anything. A person (living or dead), friends, family, acquaintances, a first or last name or initial, a city or town, a company, a title, an object, would all be eligible. But Edward misses. It’s astonishing that he receives a “no” on #14!
Guesses #15, #16, #17 & #18 offer very wide possibilities. From all the persons this man knows of, it’s inescapable that one or more of them have to have something that can be identified with one of these guesses. But the victim fails to think of any.
Guess #19 is also very wide, for the same reasons. The number 10 must be related to “something”... #20 and #21 are wild stabs which simply fail.
Guesses #22 & #23 are two more “stabs” made in hopes of salvaging this fiasco, but they fail to hit. When #22 is denied, Edward modifies it to a wider scope in #23 (note: as he does with guesses #20 and #21, too) but he still misses. He says,
I don’t know if this is your son… being either one of three, or three people in the family, where there’s two of them, then there’s one.
This could have been a “hit” in several different ways, if (1) there were three people at one time, (2) there are now three people, or (3) there once were two people, and one of them died or simply moved away, and (4) it might also apply to anyone other than the son. The statement presents many possible scenarios for the subject to choose from. All fail. Note, too, the “I don’t know if…” approach, which is quite true, because he doesn’t know! This form of address also invites a response from the victim, a hint that a choice, a correction, or a clarification should be made so the statement will "fit."
At this point, Edward gives up and switches quickly to another subject.
What struck me about this reading was that at the conclusion, the victim was smiling through his tears in evident satisfaction, thanking Edward for the revelations he’d received. There were only 3 of 23 guesses that emerged as correct, and each was less than spectacular, yet this man was not fazed or disappointed one bit. How can Edward ever fail, when he has such victims to feed on?
Sanal Edamaruku of India is the President of Rationalist International, and he edits the Internet publication of Rationalist International, which appears in English, French, German, Spanish and Finnish. He is also a well-known investigator of claims of miracles and the paranormal, and has exposed hundreds of “godmen” and charlatans. Refer to www.rationalistinternational.net for details.
Here is an article by Mr. Edamaruku on the popular delusion of reincarnation, a subject that has a firm grip on the population – over one billion, at present – of the Indian continent.
The belief in reincarnation is widespread and deep-rooted in India. It is inspired by Hindu religious beliefs and fueled by the wish that there should be some kind of escape route from pressing social realities into another, better life. Tales of rebirth are catching people's imagination and get fast currency, especially among the poor in rural India.
In cooperation with Star TV, one of the big channels in the Hindi language with nation-wide outreach, I was able to expose two reincarnation cases within a few weeks, encouraging and enabling millions of viewers all over India to confront this superstition with reality, wherever they meet it.
In a live program on 30th March 2006, Star TV introduced a reincarnation case in Bagpat village in the north Indian state of Haryana. Villagers were thronging in a courtyard, where one of them, a man in his thirties, presented his four-year old son to the TV cameras. Some months ago, he said, the boy had expressed fear upon seeing a tractor. Strangely, he soon started insisting that his name was Pavithra – the name of a well-off farmer in a neighboring village who had been killed by robbers five years ago. They had shot at him when he was driving his tractor. The bullet hit his neck and he died on the spot.
To prove that his son was Pavithra's reincarnation, the father held the boy towards the cameras and quizzed him repeatedly: “What is your name?” “What is your father's, mother's sister's name?” And “Where did the bullet hit you?” The boy answered in accordance with his father's tale. Without any hesitation, he gave his name as Pavitra and the names of his relatives as those of Pavitra's. When asked about the bullet, he pointed to his own neck: here! The villagers were impressed and completely convinced that the boy was Pavithra's reincarnation. And so was the dead man's family, who had already taken the child into their house and thought about adopting him.
I indicated some flaws and discrepancies in the case. The dates of Pavithra's death and the boy's birth, for example, did not match. There was a gap of two years between the two, where the "soul" wouldn't have had a body. Most disturbing, however, was that the boy's answers were obviously tutored. After he reacted several times "correctly" to his father's never-changing sequence of five questions, the reporter put the same questions in a different order, and the child gave his monotonous set of answers like a parrot: “What is your father's name?” “Here!” (He pointed to his own neck.) Strangely, nobody was disturbed by this fact, before it was pointed out.
Since the farmer's fate had been on everyone's lips some years back, there was also nothing special or even miraculous about a child being aware of names and details. Reincarnation claims usually start as a child's fantasy in an age, when dream and reality are not yet distinguished, I explained. By repeating their fantasies again and again, children used to grow and modify them according to the reactions of their surroundings into perfect stories and are convinced they are reality. In this case, the fantasy was obviously taken up by the boy's father, who became the operator of the claim.
Interestingly, nearly all reincarnation stories are – knowingly or unknowingly – suitable to serve social uplift. It is always a child from a poor family that claims – mostly supported by its parents and well-wishers – to be a re-born member of a comparatively richer family, never the other way round. That explains how such stories are quite resistant. They offer benefits to all those involved. For the child and its parents, the story is a ticket into a better future; the other family finds consolation in the idea that their ill-fated kin has allegedly returned as a child. And the audience finds relief in the belief that there could be a better life waiting for them after death.
Yes, and this account explains why such stories get accepted and then amplified and finally established as fact. People are so willing – even eager – to embrace such ideas, that they do so without second thoughts. Also, the fact that such tales support and reinforce their cultural beliefs, cannot be ignored.
We thank Mr. Edamaruku for his contribution to SWIFT, and hope to hear more from him.
We read recently that a senior Australian Federal Police [AFP] officer was suspended for consulting a “clairvoyant” over a threat to assassinate Prime Minister John Howard. The basic problem was not just that this was a hare-brained action, but that the officer had disclosed classified information about Mr. Howard and the death threats. No surprise there. These scam-artists always tell their prospective victims that they must share all data with them to “guide” their magical efforts toward a solution. Duh!
The AFP officer turned to a small-town psychic he knew socially, Elizabeth Walker, a Scottish-born “medium” based in the NSW Snowy Mountains town of Cooma who reads "auras" and "past-life energies." Asked for her reaction to the fuss, she said, “I can't comment because in my profession client confidentiality is paramount. I don't divulge any of the stuff I do. I've done lots of people. I've done political people, famous people, but I don't talk about who's been in." Or simply “done”….
An official AFP statement, refreshingly, was that “The AFP… does not condone the use of psychics in security matters." The AFP’s spokesman for homeland security said he would be greatly concerned if the AFP was using clairvoyants. Said he, "I think, perhaps, this fellow has watched a few too many of the US detective shows," he said. Hold on, sir! I’ve seen a few Aussie TV productions that pander to the woo-woo crowd, and the US programs are eagerly imported to your shores because there is a hunger for nonsense on your continent, too.
Of course, what makes this even worse, if you can imagine, is the fact that Mrs. Walker is not even registered on a database of clairvoyants held by the Australian Psychics Association! Well, come to think of it, that wouldn’t help one bit…
The main opposition party in the parliament had a party with this scene. The Labor Party’s security spokesman, Arch Bevis, commented: "This does make you wonder… if the vetting of recruits is as thorough as it should be, and whether officers are receiving adequate training… The government must now investigate how this B-grade movie script could have played out in real life.”
We in the USA must admit that we’ve contributed to this madness, and perhaps served as a poor model for other governments. The United States engaged "psychics" during the Cold War – Project Stargate – to spy on the Soviet Union but abandoned the program after the expenditure of $20,000,000 and ten years of sitting about scribbling on pads trying to come up with anything useful.
Our good friend Barry Williams, of Australian Skeptics, said he "would be very worried" if he were John Howard. "I know security and intelligence gathering can be a very hard job at times," he said. "But if your critical faculties are intact and you are going to a psychic to ask for help on something like this, then I think you should be looking for another job." As usual, Barry is succinct and to the point.
If you’ve ever had any doubt that otherwise responsible media persons can and will kowtow to the public taste for miracles, click on http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4902332.stm and learn how it’s done. That an otherwise responsible person can so purposely distort reality to suit his and his readers comfort level, is unbelievable to me.
A simple examination of the record of the Lourdes “healings” shows that the phenomena don’t exist, yet this Roger Bolton – who actually refers to himself as a skeptic! – finds miracles in this seedy little town where desperate people drink highly questionable water and abase themselves in response to a legend that has no validation nor affirmation.
While we’re on that subject, I must tell you that the UK’s Channel 4 recently broadcast a two-part program with Richard Dawkins that exceeds all expectation. The first two episodes of the series – “The Root of All Evil” – are titled, “The Virus of Faith” and “The God Delusion.” I have played a DVD of the shows to several audiences, and the comments that follow have been enthusiastic. Richard “hits the nail” in every scene, expressing himself eloquently and directly. Editing and content are flawless. The camera clearly shows Richard’s barely suppressed rage as he’s patronized by an American evangelist and by an American Jew-turned-fundamentalist-Muslim who clearly states that he wants Islam to take over the civilized world. These are really frightening people, and Richard shows them for what they are: rabid activists who will never retreat from their delusions. This is a strong attack on unreason and blind belief, a blow for rationality – which we will never see represented on American TV simply because it might – and would – offend people who live in a pretend world and buy products that are touted to them by carefully “correct” advertisers.
From reader Paul Mundy in Belfast, Northern Ireland:
On 16 March I received a marketing email from my bank First Direct, one of the major four banks in the UK, offering a health plan. It looked fairly interesting until I examined the benefits offered, full details of which can be seen here: www.firstdirect.com/insure/health.shtml?WT.mc_id=emailHCP1_INSH1
The thing that appalled me was the following paragraph:
First Direct's Health Cash Plan is a cheap and easy way to help pay for your essential healthcare, and includes treatments: physiotherapy, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy and chiropody.
After picking myself up off the floor I immediately fired off the following email to the bank:
Dear Sir: I recently received an email from yourselves titled "a cheap and easy way to pay for your essential health care..." detailing the benefits of a health plan. The treatments offered through this plan are "physiotherapy, acupuncture, osteopathy, chiropractic, homeopathy and chiropody."
I was extremely dismayed and concerned to see such a reputable company as First Direct, a subsidiary of HSBC, offering the medically unproven "treatments" of homeopathy and acupuncture. In test after test where proper double blind controls are in place, homeopathy has repeatedly been shown to be no more effective than placebo.
Whilst acupuncture has been shown to be effective in certain circumstances, similar results have also been repeated where the needles are inserted into the body in the "wrong" place (sham acupuncture), therefore calling into doubt its real effectiveness. Regarding chiropractic, some of its practitioners have dubious methods, including unnecessary and prolonged treatments.
I cannot believe that your company has not researched the reputable literature before offering these "treatments". Any objective reading will show them to be ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. I would be interested in your response. I have been a First Direct customer for 10 years. My continued custom is now under review after receiving the email.
I eventually received the following reply from Caroline Brown in their marketing department:
Thank you for your recent message regarding details of the benefits we offer through our health plan.
First Direct endeavors to ensure that our Health Cash Plan offers benefits which our customers can actively make use of and which provide reimbursement towards costs for highly recognized treatments. We have undertaken market research to investigate customer needs, which highlighted that osteopathy, physiotherapy, homoeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractic treatments are now widely used, appreciated and beneficial within our modern culture.
In order to protect our customers we require our customers GPs [General Practitioners] to be aware of the treatments and to provide written proof from their GP to advocate any extended course of treatment. We require all treatments claimed for under the complimentary benefits to be carried out by a practitioner with a professional qualification recognized by UK legislation.
We hope your concerns have now been answered but please contact us again if you require any further information.
When it comes to homeopathy at least, the words "highly recognized treatment" and "beneficial within our modern culture" aren't the first phrases that immediately spring to my mind. First Direct, in the person of Ms Brown, appear to think that all is OK and they are fulfilling a customer need, provided the patient's doctor gives the nod, and the treatment is carried out by a professionally recognized practitioner. Never mind that it doesn't actually work! Sadly, more and more GP's in the UK are offering these services to their patients.
I have had good service from this bank but am now seriously considering moving my account. However I might be hard pressed these days to find an institution that does not offer similar woo-woo "benefits."
Once again thanks for all your work. I attended your lecture at the RDS in Dublin in October 2004 and enjoyed it immensely. It was wonderful to meet you in the flesh.
This is a good example of how a business will take advice from their legal eagles, merely fulfilling the letter-of-the-law requirements, knowing that they’re thus safe from litigation. “But we had a licensed blood-letter treat the patient, your honor!” As Paul points out, whether what they offer is legitimate or not, doesn’t enter into the equation.
Note: The bank referred to has adopted a vanity of printing their name in lower case: first direct. I just refused to go along with this, to avoid confusion.
You know, I’m told that Gary Schwartz – see last week’s item at www.randi.org/jr/2006-04/041406schwartz.html#i1 – may have been taking a hint from the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, who created the juvenile “blue octopus” scenario for his religion. Hubbard was a science fiction author; Schwartz is not, strictly speaking. However, he may have taken his fanciful “cellular memory” notion from Hubbard, who in 1938 seized upon a notion that had started in 1930 – that memory could be passed from the consumed body of a victim to the consumer. All sorts of spurious research was performed with simple life forms like flatworms – Platyhelminthes – a phylum of simple soft-bodied invertebrates. A worm would be “taught” avoidance of an unpleasant stimulus; when that trained worm was then macerated in a blender and the goo fed to other worms, the fear of the stimulus would – they claimed – be passed on. It all fell by the wayside, but nothing’s too ridiculous for Gary Schwartz.
Ain’t science grand?
To see what appears to be real magic without having to leave your keyboard, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNcAqDADb-g&search=cyril and be astounded by Japanese conjuror Cyril Takayama. This is just a reminder that you can be fooled by someone who admits it’s “all a trick.” And no, we won’t enter into discussions of how Cyril did it….!
Several readers from Australia have assured me that the “towed iceberg” story I ran last week was only an April Fools Day joke from the irrepressible Dick Smith – not another of his madcap stunts. Checking up, I find this is true. Mea culpa. Smith’s life is so jammed with fabulous events and wonderful accomplishments, that we can easily give up this one. All I can look forward to is the next wonder he’ll perform – and it can’t be far away…!
A very nicely autographed poster from TAM 4 is now available at eBay. The auction ends April 25, so please investigate for yourself here.
I continue to make gradual progress in my recovery, attending rehabilitation sessions three times a week at the excellent Broward Medical Center. We’ve re-commenced several of the JREF functions, and I’ve been able to receive guests without frightening them… Most of my walking is now done without a cane. I’m sticking to the rules of diet – if it tastes like paper, it’s safe to eat – and my insomnia is well under control without dope. Hallelujah!
Love ya all…!