As we hope most of you know by now, on August 17, 2011, ABC's Primetime Nightline aired an episode of “Beyond Belief,” what is intended to be, according to the website, “a special 5-part series that delves into paranormal and unexplained phenomena.” In case you missed some or even all of it, the entire Nightline episode is available online, and you can readily email links of particular segments to your friends and colleagues, both skeptics and not-so-skeptic alike.
It’s been almost a month since, and a busy month at that. More than a dozen stories have broken about the Million Dollar Challenge in the weeks since the story aired. For examples, here’s our media roundup as of September 2.
Meanwhile, there’s been a solid burst of radio interviews with Randi, D.J. Grothe, and myself, and there are links available to some of mine for ready listening. We’ve received nice blog coverage around the skeptic sphere, natch. And the story of the MDC has been picked up by some mainstream journalism, including multiple stories now in Canada, particularly via CBC News. (See my previous blog post about “Psychic” Nikki.)
As we all know, skeptics and the skeptical position don’t often fare well on television. Thus, when a Nightline producer first approached us about cooperating with them for a story, we were wary; we became even more skeptical when that producer claimed to be skeptical of psychic claims himself, and expressed the desire to give us a fair shake and some balanced media coverage of the Million Dollar Challenge.
Nevertheless, the Million Dollar Challenge sub-committee (including Banachek, myself, JREF President D.J. Grothe, Chip Denman, and Grace Denman) prepared for the program on remarkably short notice. Historically, the foundation has waited for paranormal claimants to come to us regarding the MDC, whereupon test protocols are designed on a case-by-case basis to meet the requirements of both the claimants and the challenge. But when Nightline approached us with interest in shooting a number of actual Million Dollar Challenge tests in New York City, we felt we had been presented with an opportunity to put into practice ideas that Randi and his colleagues have been discussing for some time now: namely, bringing the Challenge to the “psychics.”
So that’s what we did. Nightline wanted to approach “store-front” “psychics” in Manhattan and invite them to take the Challenge. We weren’t sure anyone would show up, but we created a small catalog of tests that would reflect that standard repertoire of the typical professional “psychic,” including palmistry, psychometry, clairvoyance, Tarot reading, and mediumship – and for which we were willing to stake the million dollars for a one-shot procedure – that is, a single round of testing without the preliminary trials that are part of the standard challenge protocol.
Banachek has written a detailed account of how the new tests were devised and what they were comprised of, along with a thorough backstage report on the two days of intense shooting with him, D.J. Grothe, and myself in New York City. His excellent reportage will appear soon, and you'll be engaged and entertained by his tales of our behind-the-scene adventures. Meanwhile, however, since it is coming up on a month since the show aired, I thought I would pause and consider:
How’d we do? And… how did Nightline do?
My short answer: I think we did well -- and that’s not just to pat ourselves on the back for a difficult job done well. But the fact is, we are pretty pleased with how the segments featuring the JREF turned out – and take it from this television veteran (and like my colleague Banachek, from both sides of the camera), no matter what you think or what you’re told, you really never know how it’s going to turn out until the actual final cut airs.
The complete episode can be found here, and contained five segments:
- Can Psychics Really Talk to the Dead?
- The $1M “Psychic” Challenge
- Psychic Kindergarten For Beginners
- Psychic Detectives: Doing More Harm Than Good?
- Mom Psychics Raise Kids, Talk With Dead
So, let’s take a look at how each segment turned out.
SEGMENT 1: Can Psychics Really Talk to the Dead?
This first segment is about mediumship, and poses the question, "can psychics really talk to the dead?" I am reminded of Todd Robbins – my friend, skeptical colleague, and star off the Off-Broadway show, “Play Dead” – who says, “I believe that mediums do talk to the dead....but it's just that the dead don't talk back to them.”
The segment features high profile medium James Van Praagh. That best-selling author and rabid self-promoter does a “psychic” reading for the reporter, Josh Elliott, who is clearly startled and emotionally affected by some of Van Praagh’s apparent accuracy about some elements of Elliott’s personal life and losses. Further on, we see Van Praagh outdoors doing quick readings for random passersby, filled with his typical guesswork and the standard cold-reading techniques of emphasizing the hits and ignoring the misses; the reporter, appropriately skeptical, recognizes that the subjects seem to be helping Van Praagh out by way of their own belief and wishful thinking.
The reporter remains skeptical throughout the piece, which includes clips of Van Praagh’s repeated failures while the subject of a previous ABC “20/20” story, and footage of his working for a large group, about which the reporter observes that Van Praagh repeatedly uses general statements and questions “likely to resonate with at least one person in a large group.”
It always seems pathetically transparent to me that while a self-proclaimed “psychic” supposedly achieves countless thousands of “successful” demonstrations of his abilities, suddenly when they’re asked about scientific testing, if they are lucky they will find one paltry example to reference. For Uri Geller it was Puthoff and Targ at SRI; for Van Praagh it’s apparently Professor Gary Schwartz, a gullible and self-promoting professor of psychology and psychiatry at Yale University (Oh, the humanities!). Prof. Schwartz claims to have scientifically tested a number of psychics whose powers he has verified, but his “research” has yet to be published in a serious refereed journal, and he has previously declined to have his work submitted for the Million Dollar Challenge. Nevertheless, the Nightline production visits him and submits one of their staff members to a reading by a psychic who Mr. Schwartz is studying; her results are deemed by the reporter to be “underwhelming.”
Van Praagh has the obviously deliberate habit of referring to skeptics as cynics, trying to portray those of us interested in discovering scientific truth as close-minded and negative. But doesn’t it seem odd that if Van Praagh likes the idea of being scientifically validated, why would he refuse to be considered by more than one true-believer PhD? Following the airing of the Nightline episode, James Randi issued a public challenge to Van Praagh, and subsequently, on September 9th, JREF President DJ Grothe followed up in like manner with this message to the suddenly but not surprisingly silent “psychic.”
In the end, Nightline reporter Josh Elliott is to be commended for providing a rare voice of rationality and skepticism, and conducting himself as a genuine and responsible journalist. At the conclusion of the story, Elliott returns to the personal reading he received from Van Praagh, which he found understandably moving – who wouldn’t be moved by a moment of imagining one’s dead parent reaching out from beyond the grave? But it is that very vulnerability that exposes such practitioners as the appalling lowlife predators they are. At the conclusion of his story, Mr. Elliott realizes that every bit of personal information provided by Van Praagh – albeit dragged out and revealed piecemeal in standard “psychic” procedure – could be found in an interview Elliott gave two years ago. His mother’s name, the fact that he’s adopted, the fact of his recent stepfather’s death, and even that stepfather’s name – the revelation of which had first taken him by surprise – all of it was found in a single online source – “able to be exploited with all the rest.” Armed with this knowledge, I strongly encourage viewers to go back and review how Van Praagh deliberately drags out the revelation of scant information in small doses – the first letter of a name before the actual name, for example – which serves to make it seem as if he is providing a greater quantity of information than he actually possesses, and at the same time enables him to “fish” for guiding feedback from the subject. At one point, Van Praagh says, “When I look at you as a little boy … there’s a sense of being wanted.” Please go find me a person who would say to that, “No, as a child, I rejected the desire to feel wanted.” Van Praagh’s vile methods are transparent.
I’ve provided some focus on this first segment because while the JREF was not involved with it in any way, it’s an example of television journalism examining paranormal claims with at least some semblance of skepticism and rationality, and it focuses on one of the most visible and successful celebrity “psychics,” James Van Praagh. Mr. Van Praagh has probably made millions preying on people’s grief and loss; if he really had something to give to the world, rather than merely to take from it for himself, he would subject himself to a simple test that, if passed, would forever change the world, transform even his carnival huckster career, and hand him a million dollars to do with as he pleases – even offer it to charity, perhaps the first truly generous act of a professional self-promoter’s life. But instead, he’d rather take money from people so he can tell them their dead relatives love them.
I give Nightline an A for this segment. Van Praagh gets an F.
SEGMENT 2: The $1M Psychic Challenge
This was about the Million Dollar Challenge, and I think we came off rather well here – certainly a lot better than the psychics who came to be tested! The original producer who first contacted us about this piece was sincere and genuinely rational (almost a paranormal event in itself!) and was trying to do a story that would include the JREF in a responsible way, and perhaps even lead to an on-air Million Dollar Challenge. Thanks to his capable efforts, and a lot of hard work on the part of the MDC subcommittee members in general and Banachek in particular, everyone’s goals were reasonably achieved, and Nightline got to air some “good television” as they say in that biz.
I won’t recount all the details here, as the segment does a decent job of speaking for itself, and eventually I look forward to all of us reading Banachek’s behind-the-scenes accounting. Suffice to say that we tested a Tarot reader, a palm reader, and three mediums (one of whom was shown on the air), and none of them were successful. Most did no better than matching the results predicted by chance alone.
However, one point does have to be made, and which I consider the one legitimate criticism to lie at the feet of the Nightline story editors. We knew, without doubt, that every psychic, upon failing the test, would immediately offer a litany of excuses, including claiming that the test was unfair or inappropriate. To protect ourselves as best as possible under the circumstances – and this is, by the way, one of the chief risks of bringing tests to the psychics rather than designing tests when they come to us – we asked each and every test subject, prior to the test and on camera, if, upon describing the test to them, they considered it a fair representation of their abilities, and how confident they were of success. In every case the psychic affirmed that the test was fair and reasonable, and that they were confident – indeed, extremely confident – that they would be successful.
Unfortunately, Nightline chose not to include any of these a priori statements by the "psychics" in the broadcast, and instead chose to provide air time for their standard alibis and excuses. Nevertheless, all in all, I think the story came out well, and we owe some thanks to a producer at Nightline who had a clear vision of the subject matter and tried to present a fair and reasonable report about psychic claims and the Million Dollar Challenge. And I should add that we offered every psychic the chance to come and propose their own test, to be taken at a later time. So far, none have come forward. We won’t be holding our breath.
SEGMENT 3: Psychic Kindergarten For Beginners
This was a story about people taking classes to learn to be psychic, psychics providing “house cleansing” services to psychically clean a house for a real estate agent who was trying to sell it (the reporter notes that the house is still for sale), and other psychic services like aura cleansing. The psychic realm must be a pretty grimy joint, considering the amount of cleansing it seems to constantly be in need of. When crossing over, please wipe your feet at the door.
I consider this story weak, since there was really next to no investigatory or critical inquiry, but it could have been much worse, since it certainly didn’t make the psychics look like much more than people desperate to make themselves a little more important in the drama of their own lives, without having to work too hard for it. Imagine if all that time, energy, and money could be spent on something real. Then what benefits might accrue – for the individuals in particular, and the world as a whole?
I’ll give this segment a C. As for the psychics trying to accomplish anything specifically claimed in the piece, they seem to come up empty. Mark them with a grade of F.
SEGMENT 4: Psychic Detectives: Doing More Harm Than Good?
Well, if that title is a question, then these stories might well be about paranormal claims, but they’re sure as hell not “unexplainable.” So let me save you a lot of time here. The correct answer to the question is: YES: Psychic detectives do more harm than good, because they not only do plenty of harm, they do no good at all.
Remarkably, this segment actually did a pretty decent job of demonstrating that simple fact. One “psychic,” Georgia O’Connor, appeared on camera claiming to have helped police solve crimes, finding missing persons, and all the usual unsupported claims we’ve seen countless times before among this ugly mob of predators and self-promoters. But instead of the usual pandering and uncritical free press, reporter JuJu Chang did an extremely commendable job of challenging two guests to consider the genuine and indeed awful implications of their work. O’Connor, one of the bottom feeders who routinely seeks the spotlight in missing persons cases, was questioned by Chang about her prognostications concerning missing persons, and the impact on the families. “But what if you’re wrong?” Chang asks. “I can’t let my ego get in the way, I can’t let fear get in the way,” is O’Connor’s substance-free response; perhaps she means she can’t let the fear of wanting to be famous stop her from invading the tragedy of strangers with the overpowering hunger of her own ego.
Banachek shines in this segment, speaking directly to Chang about the nature of such people and the harm they do. Watch the footage of a couple whose child is missing, who tell of some twenty “psychics” showing up with vague prognostications about “water, trees, dirt” and the like, and I defy you not to be moved by your empathy for these wounded folks, and not to share Banachek’s outrage when he asks, “What could be worse … than when this person, because of fame and money, steps in and tries to act like an authority? .. They are taking advantage of these people.”
Further into the story, retired FBI agent Brad Garrett says that in 30 years on the job he’s “never seen a psychic solve a mystery.” Why don’t we hear that simple truth more often in the news? The story goes on to show footage of the horrible Sylvia Brown and her infamous case of telling the parents of Shawn Hornbeck, to their faces and on national television, that their son was dead—four years later every prediction turned out to be wrong when he was discovered alive and returned to his parents. Banachek judges this predatory behavior “horrible, disgusting,” and rightly so, when one considers not only the emotional cruelty inflicted on the family, but the fact that personal and public resources, from the family to law enforcement, can readily be demotivated and distracted by such dire predictions. Sylvia Brown is a moral cretin, and Banachek is an inspiring spokesman as he shows his passion and empathy for the victims.
The story includes footage from Randi and Banachek’s legendary Project Alpha as well, discussing Banachek’s career as a “crusader,” explaining that “People base life-and-death decisions based upon what a psychic tells them.” The reporter mentions the steady flow of “psychics” who are routinely arrested for defrauding victims out of tremendous sums of money, where particularly the elderly are typically victimized and can end up losing their life savings. Sadly, this is a common occurrence, not a rare one.
Van Praagh, asked about skeptics, says “I could care less.” But don’t we think a man who claims to help people with his abilities should care about the risks and dangers of so many being deceived and taken advantage of? This is one case, however, where we will take him at his word: He couldn’t care less about those who get hurt while his bank account fills. Banachek pronounces about psychic predators: “I think they’re scum.” Kicking dirt in the face of the benign fallback that psychics claim to make people feel better by pretending to let them talk to their dead relatives, Banachek proclaims, “I can give crack to a junkie. That may make him feel better – it doesn’t mean that it’s good for them.”
And the story doesn’t end there. Reporter Juju Chang mentions the A&E network program, “Psychic Kids,” commenting that Banachek considers that the show “borders on child abuse.” On camera, Banachek continues, “I think it’s a horrific show. I think they’re taking advantage of children.”
And sure enough, Chang tracks down a university psychologist who served as a consultant to the show, Lisa Miller, a psychology professor at Columbia University. Pressing the psychologist for answers about the dangerous implications of “Psychic Kids” and its impact on the children involved, the psychologist, unable to provide substantive responses, eventually bails out and runs for cover. “I’m finding it hard to relate to this discussion” is her only eventual response to JuJu’s tough questions, and there Miller ends the interview. Of course the kids on that show are in fact terrified of their own homes – because they’re being terrified by incompetents (or worse) like Lisa Miller, amoral television producers and networks, and gullible (or worse still, perhaps fame hungry) parents. Can you imagine that this woman is not only a psychologist, but a university professor? (Oh, the humanities!) My recommendation to the parents of children on that show: take your kids home and then file criminal charges against such vicious manipulators and cold-blooded exploitation mongers.
Nightline and Juju each get an A from me—we need more like her. The psychics get an F. Lisa Miller earns little more than our collective disgust. This segment is unarguably a refreshing win for skeptics in general, and for JREF in particular. Kudos to Juju Chang for demonstrating what real investigation and courageous interrogation should really look like.
SEGMENT 5: Mom Psychics Raise Kids, Talk With Dead
Well, you know what they say in the retail biz: “Give the lady what she wants.” And television is first and last a business, counting heads and selling them to advertisers. If you need further evidence of this, tune into the final segment, a typical human interest piece intended to produce warm fuzzies rather than crisp facts. “Reporter” (and I use the word advisedly) David Wright looks at two professional “psychic” mothers, who have more or less normal domestic lives, while one, Allison Dubois, has a television career, and the other, Rebecca Rosen, charges $500 an hour for readings.
Wright gets readings from both, who each include impossible-to-obtain facts like the name of his mother (Susan), and his wife’s name, Victoria (“I’m getting a V,” says the “psychic” – why is every psychic reading like a game of charades? Two syllables? First letter? Bigger than a breadbox?). She says she sees a four-leaf clover, and the wife is Irish. The reporter is amazed by this; he should have watched the first segment and learned something (like the word, “Google,” dude!) from his journalistic colleague Josh Elliott (a former ESPN sports reporter, for crying out loud!). Turns out that a quick internet search brought me to this—Mr. Wright’s ABC biography. Oddly enough, it says there that “He and his wife, Victoria, live in Washington, D.C., with their daughter, Deanna.” Sorry, that’s not enough to get you our million dollars, ladies. But we’re here and waiting for Mrs. Dubois and Mrs. Rosen to step up and apply for the million dollar prize. Hey, you could redecorate the wreck room, or buy the kids a science kit.
Segment 5: Fail. Mrs. Rosen, Mrs. Dubois, and Mr. Wright, all get an F. Hey, they can’t all be winners, can they?
I count three out of five wins for the program, plus 1 draw, and 1 fail. It could have been worse. It could always be worse. We’ll be out there trying to do even better next time. Meanwhile, as I said when I phoned Randi the moment our 11-hour day of psychic testing was completed, “The million is intact!”
Jamy Ian Swiss is a spokesperson for the James Randi Educational Foundation and a professional magician and author. A long-time skeptical activist, he is a founder of National Capital Area Skeptics, Bay Area Skeptics, and New York City Skeptics.