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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.

An Atheist is Invited to Church

§ August 4th, 2011 § Filed under Religion, Uncategorized § Tagged , , , , , , , § 1 Comment

My Evening Behind the Orange Curtain

 When I got a call from a woman named Lindsey inviting me to appear at the Moment Church during their Sunday evening service, some warning bells went off in my head. She sounded like a nice enough person, but why would they want me, a career atheist, to even be at their church, much less have a voice there?

This ain’t no UU Church, by the way. Moment’s  “what we believe” statement of faith on their website represents what I would call pretty hardcore Christianity – God is the ubiquitous, all-knowing creator of the universe; the bible is inerrant; you get to heaven through Jesus; marriage is between one man and one woman. You get the picture.

I’ve always been an experience junkie, so I said yes. My friend Spencer, an ex-cop, half-jokingly asked me if I wanted to borrow an old Kevlar vest. I laughed and said no… thought about  lunatics with guns for a second, and said no again. Was I missing something here? Could these people be for real? I asked them if I could bring some other secular types along and shoot our own video — just in case something memorable happened. They said yes to both. That eased my mind a bit, but I still wondered if there was something up their sleeve.

Moment’s Pastor Tony Wood called on the Wednesday before to talk about how he’d like the service to go. He emphasized that he didn’t want this to turn into a debate or argument. It would be more of a chat that might build some bridges between our very different communities. That sounded fine to me. It meant less preparation and less stress.

I’ve accompanied CFI L.A. Chairman Eddie Tabash many times deep into the hinterlands of fundamentalist Christianity for his formal debates, and have been in lots of heated theological discussions with red-faced, veins-a-bulging Christians incensed at the idea of someone so casually blaspheming before them. That’s an evening you have to be in the mood for.

The ride down to Orange County from CFI  in Hollywood was full of speculation about what might happen. Karl and Craig, two CFI members keen to experience this encounter, ran through a litany of arguments our side has been using on apologists for ages – just in case it turned out to be an ambush. I was like a boxer going through a pre-bout warm-up.

The church itself is in an industrial park in Irvine, which immediately brought back memories of a double exorcism I once attended at a church in Sacramento – also in an industrial park. Location’s where the similarities  ended, though. Moment Church sublets from a larger church that has many of the bells and whistles that mega churches have – live, big-screen overhead projection, a slick P.A. system featuring light-show elements and a smoke machine, and streaming video.

When we finally found the front door (there were a couple of Spinal Tap tries) we were all greeted warmly and I was allowed into the pre-service briefing. They run their Sunday services pretty tightly, and I told them their script reminded me of the Oprah Show, which I had been a guest on. Tony seemed impressed by this, but neglected to ask me what the show topic was. (The topic, incidentally, was “Should you have sex before marriage?” As a Chicagoan in my mid 20s at the time, I felt it an obligation to represent the Ayes.)

Pastor Tony and James Underdown

The crowd of 200 (250?) seemed young – lots of teens and twenties – which explained the band opening the service with some (Christian) rock and roll, the big screens, and the text-in-your-questions format.

As Pastor Tony prayed before inviting me up to the stage, it occurred to me that they were taking a bit of a chance on me being there. I was largely an unknown element to them. But I saw no reason to change the warm and fuzzy tone of the service by going off on a rant —  maybe with examples of the gospels contradicting each other, or by explaining how free will can’t exist if God is omniscient. These people really did sound sincere, and I had been listening hard for ulterior motives in the tone of their voices! So I relaxed and had a good time.

The interview went well, I thought. Tony seemed genuinely interested, and I don’t think I offended too many of those in attendance.  I threw one bone to the non-believers in the crowd when I said “You (Christians) stole Christmas from us (non-Christians who celebrate the winter solstice).” Whether Tony knew what I was talking about or not, he didn’t bite, and we rolled respectfully onward.

Pastor Tony and Executive Director Jim

After the interview, the dozen or so atheists in the crowd politely sat through a heartfelt sermon about prayer that used background music for added effect, and then retired to the lobby for a few post-service pics and some abbreviated theological discussion.

Both camps went to the same restaurant afterward, ate amongst their own (we had beer, thank goodness), then reconvened for more discussion. Some of the kids that I spoke to wanted to know about paranormal investigations I’d been involved with and actually seemed fairly skeptically minded. I tried to underscore for them the similarity between belief in the paranormal and belief in the supernatural. (See my ReasonFest talk here)  I’m not sure if they saw the connection, but the conversation was enjoyable in any case.

I never did pick up on any sinister ulterior motives they might have had for inviting me there. Maybe they just wanted to pray for someone as outwardly hell-bound as me. It’s hard to take offense at that, even if I do think praying is a waste of time.

It seemed to me that these young evangelists are less angry, more tolerant, and more open to interacting with their secular neighbors than their parents’ generation. Time will tell if those qualities will ever find their way to elections, school board meetings, and their treatment of good people who don’t share their views. It’s a start, though. It is a start.