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Skeptics are almost always at a disadvantage when doing major media appearances. Many talk shows seem to cater to heavily believer-based audiences, and seek to entertain more than to inform — despite presenting a façade of scientific or journalistic inquiry. Such was the case with my appearance on the Dr. Phil Show on May 25th.
Now let me preface my criticism below with a quick reality check. Around 80% of Dr. Phil’s studio audience (the day we shot the show) said they believe in psychic ability. While that high percentage of believers may or may not represent his at-home audience numbers, it clearly indicated which direction the fans in front of him were leaning. Dr. Phil was not likely to step on all those fans’ shoes.
Also, though Dr. Phil used language (like the word “experiment” in our demonstration of cold reading) that suggests serious inquiry, the show was clearly structured to entertain his audience, not to fairly present two sides of an argument. Viewed as entertainment trying to keep 80% of its audience happy, the Dr. Phil show is understandable.
The problem is, the show gives the appearance of a serious look at a question: “Do psychic powers really exist?”
It was not a serious look at that question. When the producers (who assured me that Dr. Phil was very much a skeptic) asked me about ways psychics could be put to the test, I offered several possibilities. (After all, our IIG has been testing these kinds of claims for 12 years.) Instead, they opted to have me “psychically” read a group of strangers, which I did successfully.
How do I know I was successful? Three of the ten participants cried because of things I said. I mention them crying not out of any sense of satisfaction, but only to underscore that they were believing in an ability – getting information from the spirits of dead people – I know I do not possess. (By the way, add a camera operator and a segment producer to those at the reading who responded positively and seemed to be impressed by guesses I made. Those were edited out.)
The point of doing that reading (my first ever) was to show that by merely using cold reading techniques, I could convince people I was in contact with the spiritual world. I was not claiming that I was better at cold reading than Rebecca Rosen, the psychic who did the second reading of the group. I’m sure the thousands of readings under her belt have honed her skills well beyond those of my rookie debut. (I’d love to compare her hit rate, and count her total number of guesses.)
All my reading was meant to show was that a fake could be convincing. Yet, this stunning revelation was completely glossed over on the show.
It should also be noted that people don’t generally see two psychics in a row and compare them, like in the show. People go to one psychic at a time.
Also, the ten participants in the reading were not typical clients seeking out and paying for psychic advice. Normally, psychics’ customers are hugely self-selecting believers. (How many skeptics would pay $500 for a reading?) This lowers the bar for any psychic because her client is wholly uncritical and predisposed to find success in a reading. I mention all this because the show testimonials comparing me and Rebecca are irrelevant. Even if people had been read by two professional psychics, one would have scored better than the other.
Lest anyone mistake this show for a fair fight, here are some of the ways the Dr. Phil show slanted the discussion toward the psychic side:
- Invite 4 psychics to the discussion and place them on stage front and center.
(I was the only skeptic, and was relegated to the front row of the audience — physically lower than the psychics. Of course, that wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been given opportunity to respond after each psychic spoke or attempted a reading.)
2. Introduce the psychics with great fanfare. The websites calls them “well-known experts.”
(My description on the Dr. Phil website uses scare quotes in calling me a “professional skeptic..”
3. Edit out psychics’ poor showing in the live audience reading. Edit out part of Dr. Phil’s criticism of Dougall’s aura read of his (Dr. Phil’s) colors. Edit out my responses to some of the participants’ comments. Edit out my criticism of Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell’s citing of the Stargate Project and to Daryl Bem’s experiments. Edit out my mention of Skeptical Inquirer magazine which addresses both those claims.
4. Edit out shots of two of the three sitters crying during my reading, one of whom later said he didn’t believe my ability. Edit out my reading hits on the camera operator and the segment producer.
5. Allow me to see only the severely edited footage of the Rebecca Rosen reading and the Colette Baron-Reid reading during the actual show, and allow little or no time (respectively) to respond to the techniques they used.
6. Give a vast majority of the show minutes to the psychics and to pro-psychic testimonials with little or no opportunity for rebuttal. (I’ll have specific numbers soon.)
Given the opportunity, I could have easily explained every bit of apparent success each of the psychics had as well as called attention to their misses during their live reads. As we’ve seen for years, people’s recollection of how well the psychics did does not jibe with how well they actually did.
(For example, when Rebecca Rosen said, “I’m supposed to talk about a hummingbird…” – which could mean any number of different things – a woman responded, “Oh my god, that’s my tattoo!” Phil reacts (see the clip) implying that Rebecca knew that this woman had a hummingbird tattoo. She did not. The woman told Rebecca she had a hummingbird tattoo. Throwing random thoughts out there and hoping they land on something is how psychics work. Psychics who talk fast and get a lot of guesses out score more points matching fragments of people’s lives. Hell, the hummingbird guess fits me! We have hummingbirds in our garden where I like to go to relax and smoke a cigar. Is that a hit?)
The bottom line is that the show was presented to me and the TV audience as a sincere examination of whether psychic ability exists. What it was was a biased, slanted presentation that gave huge advantages to the psychics, and short shrift to science and skepticism.
Look, if Dr. Phil wants to emulate Montel Williams and do silly shows full of wild claims and nonsense, he should knock himself out. But if he wants to be taken seriously as a reasonable person, he should reconsider how he presents (especially fringe) issues. Don’t whitewash an outhouse and call it a spa.
Maybe you’ve noticed that it’s pretty rare for those of us who appear in the media on behalf of skepticism or secular humanism to get equal time to represent our side.
There are exceptions.
I got a fair amount of time to speak and a friendly edit on Penn and Teller’s Bullshit (twice), the WGN Morning Show, and a few other TV shows. But the on-air ratio of us-to-them is usually some overwhelming amount of time on the side of Bigfoot or alien abductors to a few snippets of a skeptic’s detailed explanation.
So when the Dr. Phil Show called CFI looking for someone to represent the side skeptical of psychic claims, I was pleasantly surprised. John Edward, whom I’ve written about in Skeptical Inquirer, appeared on Dr. Phil this past January, and now they were doing another show with skepticism being represented. Great!
The producers described Dr. Phil as being very skeptical, and asked about how the psychics who would also appear on the show could be put to the test. I was overflowing with ideas.
Our Independent Investigations Group (IIG) has been testing these kinds of claims for over 12 years, and has lots of experience giving claimants a fair chance to shine. (None ever have, by the
Instead of me running a simple test, the producers preferred to have a skeptic “cold read” a group of strangers and then have a psychic – alleged psychic – read the same group. Both would be introduced as psychics. My first instinct was to let IIG member Mark Edward, an experienced mentalist, do the read. When I couldn’t reach Mark, I decided to do it myself.
I have witnessed (at least) dozens of cold readings and am very familiar with the technique. So I crammed the weekend before the Monday they taped the reading, and arrived at Paramount Studios that day walking with a cane. (The idea was to soften the sitters’ hearts so they would root for a positive reading. Buying into the psychic’s abilities is an important part of the perception of success.) I had to do something. I was nervous, and the psychic reading after me was younger, female, and very experienced.
By the end of my 40 minute session with 12 strangers, I had made 3 of them cry and gotten a fairly high percentage of “hits”, i.e. accurate guesses. I left much relieved, and my college friend Joe (who had witnessed the reading) and I both felt like my very first psychic reading (on national TV!) had been a great success. The strangers’ tears were testimony to their acceptance of me as a psychic.
When I arrived at Paramount the next day for the taping of the actual show, I learned that I, the lone skeptic, would be relegated to the audience while the psychics (billed on the Dr. Phil website as “well-known experts”) sat up on stage with Dr. Phil. I expected to be outnumbered, but thought the psychological disparity of sticking me in the audience was a low blow.
I’m not sure of the timing of when I was revealed as a fake (psychic), but those whom I read – even those who cried – now scoffed at my abilities. Even the psychics tried to pile on with one saying that I am a psychic, though a bitter one. Wow.
So you’re saying that I – a completely science-based skeptic, study a deceptive technique, employ that technique to the degree that believers tear-up at my words, and admit my fakery freely to make a point about how such deception
works – am actually a psychic? In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, “Oh you’re way off.”
Ok, I get that Dr. Phil’s audience (about 80% of those in studio, we learned) is mostly believers in psychic powers. Maybe the show is afraid of challenging the views of so many of their viewers. But it would have nice to have a fair
chance to do so.
Maybe the edit will favor science in a way I can’t predict.
To find out, tune in to Dr. Phil on Friday May 25th, 2012 to see how equally the skeptical Dr. Phil presents two sides to a question about skills the world of science is very unconvinced about.
U.S. Supreme Court
The L.A. Times article read like a blurb for a dystopian novel, or a story from a third-world country:
A death-row inmate is denied an appeal because his attorneys had switched law firms. A letter the court sent to the inmate’s lawyers’ old firm is returned, and the deadline to file an appeal expires before they can respond. The state and an appeals court ignore the clerical miscommunication by saying it’s the state’s prerogative to bar such appeals if the deadline has passed. The man may be executed before all his appeals are heard.
This is no Orwellian nightmare. It’s a real case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving an Alabama man named Corey Maples who’s in jail for murder. Maples is an admitted murderer whose appeal aims to avoid the death penalty, not prison. Even so, all prisoners in the U.S. criminal justice system should get hearings as far as their rights allow – especially when it comes to capital punishment. U.S Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia apparently disagrees.
There are at least three reasons this case should make you shudder. One is that Antonin Scalia, one of the nine U.S. citizens (presumably) hired to ensure some semblance of fairness in our legal system, responded to the draconian earlier rulings by saying (to Maples):
“You have a lawyer. It’s up to the lawyer to follow what goes on it court.”
So, Justice, a man’s life now rides on his lawyer’s diligence in monitoring his former employer’s clerical staff to ensure they forward mail in a timely fashion? I wonder how many people in the United States make regular contact with their former employers to insist they get their mail.
Hell, Alabama will still probably lethally inject the guy even if he does get a proper hearing. Alabama, although ranked only the 23rd most populous state, is ranked 6th in executions since 1976 with 54. (This is many times higher than all of Europe, Canada, Mexico, and Japan combined.) One must wonder why Alabama has such a high proclivity toward the highest punishment.
The third reason this case is problematic is the death penalty itself. It is sentenced unevenly throughout the U.S. – state by state, and racially, at least, and I’d bet by the economic status of the accused. (Are there many wealthy accused murderers executed?)
There are many reasons the death penalty has been outlawed in most of the civilized world. The callousness by which it is enforced is only one of them. Antonin Scalia, in opposition to other conservative Justices Roberts and Alito, is the embodiment of such callousness. Shame on him.
And shame on the 34 states who still hold the power of life and death over their inhabitants. This ancient, fatally flawed system must go.
p.s. A ray of hope appeared in an L.A. Times story across the page from the above. After serving 25 years for allegedly murdering his wife, a Texas man was freed after DNA evidence showed that another man was responsible. He’s lucky Antonin Scalia didn’t sentence him.
Gainesville Uber Alles!
I was watching my brain while it wrapped itself around the Koran-burning story in Florida. (Some pastor at a Gainesville church wants to have a booking-burning featuring the Koran as the main source of fuel.)
My first thought was…
What kind of a nut burns books in the modern age? Doesn’t this guy know that book-burning and Nazism are two peas in the same rotten pod? Or if not Nazis, some other group of extremists who can’t stomach living in a world where Catcher in the Rye is allowed to warp the minds of our cherubic youth?
But book-burners are usually too crazy or dense to see how crazy or dense they are.
Then I thought…
Technically, you should be able to burn a Koran – if you own it. Of course, same goes for bibles, Books of Mormon, Bhagavad-Gitas, and American flags for that matter. You’re probably not going to win any popularity contests, but publicly destroying an icon that is revered by large groups of enthusiasts should not be against the law – anywhere. It might be risky. It might be in bad taste. But against the law? No. That minority opinion must be allowed to be expressed is a hallmark of our constitutional democracy.
So…maybe we could have a bible-burning across the street. What a riot that would be – literally. (A guy once told me he smoked his bible. He said the thin pages made good rolling paper.)
But then I read that General David Petraeus, our top military man in Afghanistan, said that torching Korans might further motivate devout Muslims to kill our citizens — both here and in the Middle East…
That’s all our servicemen and women need – some fool over here trying to fill his contribution box in his cozy little church in Florida while they’re ducking extra bullets and IEDs because of him. Pastor Pyro gets all the press and they get all the heat from it. Thanks a lot pal.
Now I’m thinking…
It’s one thing to criticize a Koran (a bible, any sacred text). It’s another thing to burn it or piss on it. The former is born out of disagreeing with – even challenging – an idea, while the latter is just a provocation. In this (Florida) case, the guy doing the provoking is probably not the guy who’ll have to deal with the backlash.
Ultimately, burning Korans in Florida is just an act of bravado, and ultimately of cowardice. Destroying a book never refutes the ideas inside. It just exposes the person doing the burning as hate-filled, insecure, and short-sighted.
When I got a call recently to see a real live exorcism, I jumped at the chance. The movie The Exorcist came out in 1973 when I was a kid, and I still remember hearing stories about all the vomiting – and I’m talking about audience members vomiting in the theaters. (That movie scared the hell out of the Catholics I knew back then.)
In one scene Father Karras – the exorcist – throws some holy water on Regan, the possessed little girl. Have a listen here.
Ok I knew I wasn’t going to see any spinning heads or projected streams of pea soup (I did ask one of our crew if I should wear a raincoat), but it was hard to imagine modern day people taking exorcism seriously. But they do! Nowadays there are actually people who believe that evil spirits can invade a person and cause illness, pain, and even psychological problems. When these folks talk about battling their demons, they mean it literally, not metaphorically. They also believe that an exorcist can rid them of all that.
Well, we’ll just see about that.
I drove from Hollywood to a non-denominational Christian church in an industrial park in Sacramento, CA. The church was in the same kind of commercial space as the fiberglass shop a few doors down. Inside, a fifteen foot crucifix hung in front of a roll-up steel garage door. I sat with a dozen or so people on stackable chairs in this makeshift chapel waiting to see demons chased out of some poor woman’s body.
The woman to be exorcised – I’ll call her Mary – had lost a child, was fighting a drug problem and had been abused when she was younger. She saw her depression and unhappiness as the manifestation of evil spirits inside her. Evil spirits, apparently, can wreak all kinds of havoc in a person.
Enter the exorcist, a big South American I’ll call Brother Pablo, a self-styled preacher untrained by the church. But his lack of official sanction had no effect on his confidence that he could help this woman.
Pablo squares off with a possessed woman
He called Mary over to sit down and told her to look him in the eye. He asked her why she was here. When she told him about her hard times, I felt bad for her — she’s having a tough life — but when Brother Pablo started reading bible verses over her and chanting to the evil spirits “I command you to come out!”, I just took notes, snapped a few pictures, and thought about how she should be getting some real drug counseling and seeing a professional shrink. I had wondered if I would get caught up in the emotion immediately before me.
Pablo knelt bible in-hand next to Mary as she writhed on the floor screaming one minute and dry heaving the next. (People being exorcised really do dry heave, burp, cough and vomit, by the way. Who knew?)
Pablo and a helper chant over the woman
Pablo chanted and urged the spirits to leave Mary, but it looked to me like Mary was taking subtle cues from him. Pablo would say something like “Demons be gone from her neck!”, and Mary would stiffen her neck. Pablo mentioned her dead son and she began to cry. I’m not saying they were pretending, but the power of his suggestion was clearly steering her behavior. He spoke and she reacted.
This went on for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, and by the time it all ended, Mary was calmer and seemed relieved. Brother Pablo’s power of suggestion made Mary believe that the demons she thought were in her had now been exorcised.
So if Mary felt like she was cured – whether by suggestion or not – what’s the problem with exorcisms?
People suffer from real illnesses all the time. They get appendicitis, bladder infections and countless other treatable problems. But exorcisms are no substitute for appendectomies. You may get a few minutes of relief, but real cause of the problem may still be there.
If a guy is hearing voices he thinks are evil spirits, he might in fact have a treatable form of schizophrenia. But Brother Pablo doesn’t treat schizophrenia. Brother Pablo is unqualified to diagnose or treat any physical or mental illness. He has no medical or psychiatric training. Pablo might bring some temporary belief to the believers who seek him out, but he’s not curing people in any sense of the word.
In fact, a guy Pablo exorcised later that day had been hearing voices since he was in his 20s. When I asked him if he’d ever been to a psychiatrist or psychologist, he said no. I told him that I was morally obligated to strongly suggest that he seek professional help. His symptoms sounded like schizophrenia – not that I am qualified to diagnose him, but no one around him seemed to be steering him toward at least getting looked at by a professional.
Did I mention that this guy was on his 5th exorcism?
Oh, and let’s not forget that the very concept of demons and evil spirits is primitive as hell and not based in fact. Before you try to flush an imp out of some frightened woman, you ought to be able to detect the imp in the first place.
Science has never seen an imp.
Finally, blaming bad behavior on a demon is just skating past the responsibility for your actions. “The devil made me do it?” Ha. Tell it to the judge. If I see one more crying televangelist blaming his unethical or illegal behavior on Satan, I might be the one throwing up.
Exorcisms on the silver screen are great scary fun. But in real life, they’re a sad blast from our distant past.