Guest Post — Nov. 6, 2013
Note from Dan: Here’s something completely different for the morning after an election!
By Dusty Wallace
Mediums have been around for a long time. Too long. Saul consults a medium in the First Book of Samuel. Harry Houdini spent much of his life challenging those who claimed to communicate with the dead.
While I can’t speculate on the authenticity of biblical characters, every medium active today is a fraud. They do have one special ability; separating the grief-stricken from their money. The recent Roanoke performance from Theresa Caputo showcased this skill. The upcoming visit by Suzane Northrop plans to as well.
Now for a few questions:
Has someone close to you passed? A woman? Her name starts with an ‘M’? For most of you reading this that’s a yes.
Did she pass of cancer? Okay, a few hands went down. But cancer is a common cause of death. There’s a good chance plenty of readers still fit the bill.
Did they love cats? Yes? Oh, that’s narrowed the field.
Wait, I’m getting a clear picture of your dead loved-one now. She’s telling me, “Don’t believe in mediums!”
The Q&As above are a very basic example of cold-reading. One aspect of this method is simply playing the odds. If there’s 20 audience members, chances are one of them has a deceased relative whose name starts with a ‘M’, or several other letters of the alphabet.
It’s also important to note that the medium never, NEVER, provides unprompted information. They ask questions and the victims provide the answers. When the audience member says, “Yes, my grandma Margaret died of lung cancer,” the medium nods as if they new that fact all along. But if so, why ask in the first place?
One reason this method works involves a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. It’s an especially active mechanism among those seeking a spiritual encounter. Here’s how it works: The medium asks if your deceased aunt liked knitting. No? Well, it was something to do with needles. She was diabetic? So it was the insulin shots. In this situation our medium has made two guesses, one right one wrong. But the believer won’t remember that the medium claimed their diabetic aunt loved knitting. They remember the hits, but not the misses. And a 50% hit-rate is not typical for a cold-reader. The rate is invariably much lower when someone’s keeping track.
On TV, mediums like John Edwards and James Van Praagh seem to have astonishingly high hit-to-miss ratios. But that’s a little TV magic. The one-hour episode you see on TV is a multi-hour affair for those in the audience. Later the misses are edited out while the hits are kept for the show. And those who attend are asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement so the truth of what’s left on the cutting-room floor is never revealed.
Another way to get very high hit-to-miss ratios is through a method called hot-reading. This method involves some pre-meditation on the part of the performer. They might have audience members fill out questionnaires before they attend or while they’re waiting to be seated. That information can then be passed on to the reader so that they know without a doubt that your grandmother Katherine was an Appalachian painter who died in a car crash.
In some cases hot-readers have used wireless systems that connect to an earpiece so that someone can feed them information from a secret location. James Randi exposed Rev. Peter Popoff using this method on a 1986 episode of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” And while Popoff wasn’t technically a medium, he was certainly using a version of hot-reading to wow his audiences into donating their money.
When confronted with truth of fraudulent mediums, people often ask, “What’s the harm?” And, taken at a glance, they seem to have a point. Many people feel better after a medium pretends to put them in contact with their deceased loved ones. But what kind of human exploits grief to the tune of millions of dollars? A medium must either be greedy and without conscience, or simply deluded. A combination of both is not out of the question. Swindling people is wrong, doubly so when they are grieving and vulnerable.
Psychics and mediums like to add fine print to their advertisements, always some variation of “for entertainment purposes only.” It’s a way for them to avoid fraud charges should someone be unhappy with their services. Or, in those cases in which a skeptic plant exposes
the fraud. In the aforementioned case of Peter Popoff, James Randi put people in the audience who’d filled out questionnaires with fake information. It was pretty easy to see the veil fall away when that information was called out under the pretense of divine communication.
The internet is full of useful information about mediums. The James Randi Educational Foundation’s website, Randi.org, is a good place to start. You might also look up the Skeptic’s Dictionary at SkepDic.com for a great rundown of prominent mediums.
If you’re thinking about buying a ticket to go see a medium, my suggestion is to keep that money. Spend it on seeing a therapist or grief counselor. If there’s a spiritual leader you trust, go visit them for counseling and spend the money on something nice for yourself.
If you do spend the money on a ticket you’ll be making a rich person even richer based on a fraud. I guarantee that Theresa Caputo and Suzane Northrop won’t hesitate to buy themselves something with the money you spend on tickets.