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Bitter Psychic, Meet Dr. Phil

§ May 31st, 2012 § Filed under Mad Mad Mad World, Uncategorized, Wacky New Age Crap § Tagged , , , , § No Comments

Part II

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:

  1. 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.

Bitter Psychic?

§ May 24th, 2012 § Filed under Mad Mad Mad World, Uncategorized § Tagged , , , , , , § 7 Comments

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.