One of the most prominent talk-to-the-dead psychic media, John Edward, recently performed a ‘group reading’ here in Vancouver. Tickets to this 2 hour, 300 seat performance cost $175 plus service fees ($52,500 total, for those keeping track) . Not exactly a Sunday matinee.
John Edward is best known as the host of Crossing Over, a television show where he supposedly communicates with the dead relatives of audience members, and imparts banal and generic messages from the other side. This is pretty much what a live ‘group reading’ looks like as well. The techniques that allow someone to appear to deliver extremely personal, startlingly accurate, and seemingly unknowable messages to another are well understood. Together, they are known as Cold Reading, and are employed to great effect by mentalists, mind readers, psychics, and astrologers. When presented as genuine and marketed to grieving relatives of the recently dead, cold reading is a profoundly immoral practice, prompting Penn Jillette to say, ”Because my mom and dad died a couple of years ago, and knowing how overwhelming that grief can be … it just seems almost inhuman to exploit that grief … and make money off of it.”‘
You can read a specific analysis of John Edward here.
The members of the Centre for Inquiry, Vancouver’s premier skeptical group, took it upon ourselves to respond to John Edward’s performance by handing out informative flyers (PDF) to attendees on their way in, and to explain the methods of cold reading to anyone interested in a discussion. A good, thorough report of how this went can be found at the Crommunist Manifesto. Briefly, we went early, but not quite early enough. Many attendees had already registered two hours before the start of the performance and were lined up inside the conference centre. We considered handing our flyers to those waiting in line, but decided against it, as it would be inappropriate to approach a captive audience, and there was a general uncomfortable feeling about the whole thing. We stood outside and offered our material to those just arriving, most of whom took it, some of whom kindly spoke to us, and one of whom got mad and called security. That wasn’t a big deal, we just had to move a few feet further from the entrance. All told, we handed out roughly 100 flyers, and felt we put in a good day’s skeptical work. We plan to continue and expand such efforts in the future (next up: James Van Praagh), hopefully getting some press attention.
I had a short conversation with an Edward fan that I would like to talk about. I’ve transcribed the entire conversation below, to the best of my memory. I had a number of brief exchanges with others that all began more or less the same, but ended just before the ‘aspersions’ line.
Me: Excuse me, are you going to see John Edward today?
Her: Yes, I am.
Me: Would you like a flyer?
Her: Sure, what’s in it?
Me: Just some information to think about while you’re watching the show.
Her: What kind of information?
Me: It talks about some of the possible techniques John Edward might be using, rather than the methods he claims to use.
Her: Do you work for John Edward?
Me: No, I’m with an independent skeptical group.
Her: …Are you casting aspersions?
Me: Not exactly. I’m skeptical of the claims he makes about what he’s able to do. There are plenty of performers who can create similar effects who don’t claim to have the powers that John does, and I think it’s likely that he’s using those same techniques.
Her: So do you think these powers don’t exist at all, or they do and John just isn’t the right one?
Me: I haven’t seen any good evidence to suggest that they exist at all.
Her: Have you heard of the Harvard study on John Edward?
Me: No, I haven’t, but I would be interested in the details.
Her: They did a study on John Edward at Harvard and found out he has different brain waves, so he has some sort of gift.
Me: And are brain waves involved in speaking to the dead?
Her: Well I don’t know about that. All I know is I have a question I want answered today, and if I get my answer I’ll let you know.
Me: Okay. Good luck and enjoy the show.
When I got home I had a look for the study she mentioned. I found no reference to a Harvard study, but I did locate a study performed by Harvard educated Dr. Gary Schwartz, PhD. Dr. Schwartz is the director of the VERITAS Research program, which endeavours “to test the hypothesis that the consciousness (or personality or identity) of a person survives physical death.” Already I get the feeling that this VERITAS is a bit InFlatus… Sorry.
Schwartz is certainly a highly qualified scientist, but an analysis of his research methodology reveals some problems. In essence, the protocol for psychic tests performed by VERITAS is as follows: They select an individual volunteer to receive a psychic reading, and identify a specific target (i.e. deceased acquaintance) that the volunteer wants to contact. They then provide the psychic with relevant personal details of the volunteer and their target while ensuring no contact or specific identification can be made between the two (living) parties. The psychic records a reading which is then sent back to the recipient, again with no direct contact. If the recipient is able to interpret details in the reading that they feel are relevant to either him/herself, or to the deceased, and which were not initially given to the psychic, the reading is deemed a success and the psychic verified as genuine by VERITAS. I have, of course, left out details in the above, but as a general overview I believe it to be accurate.
Dr. Schwartz seems to have gone to sincere efforts to eliminate the possible use of many common cold reading techniques. The psychic is not able to modify their reading based on verbal or non-verbal cues from the volunteer, and there is no chance of a ‘hot reading’ where research is done by the psychic prior to any reading taking place. However, these are only part of what makes cold reading such a convincing set of techniques. The majority of the perceived effect takes place entirely within the subject, in the form of subjective validation. If there are no clearly defined criteria for the accuracy of details given in the reading, then it is purely up to the subjects to fit the often vague reading to some part of their expansive set of personality traits, memories, and relationships. If they can find any way to justify the reading in the context of their own lives, or the lives of their desired targets, then they are very likely to count the reading as a hit. This is known as a the Forer effect and is well documented in practices such as astrology, where the relationship between reader and subject is similar to Schwartz’s experiments.
Does this disprove the existence of psychic powers of the type claimed by John Edward? No, it does not. But with no attempt to measure or account for the Forer effect in his studies, Dr. Schwartz is in no position to conclude that there is any positive evidence for such powers. Until all possible natural phenomena can be controlled for and eliminated as explanations for perceived psychic effects, it is unreasonable to appeal to supernatural explanations which, if true, would require a complete restructuring of our broader understanding of the universe.
I don’t know whether the woman I spoke to ended up reading our flyer, or if her question was answered to her satisfaction. I don’t even know if the study she cited was the one performed by Dr. Schwartz; there was no mention of brain waves that I could find. I feel as though I’ve made good on my end of the discussion by looking into her arguments with as open a mind as I can muster on the topic. Perhaps somebody will find it useful!
Stay tuned for the next instalment of ‘Skeptics Take to the Street’, with James Van Praaaagh…