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SWIFT July 11, 2008 PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by James Randi   

A Premiere Report, The Opposition Revealed, Dr. Tyson Again, Same Old Routine, A Pleasant Surprise, and In Closing…

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Reader Robert Matic of Melbourne, Australia, reports to us on the Tuesday, 8 July, 2008, premiere of what has been advertised there as “a search for Australia’s most gifted psychic.” That’s much like saying, “a search for the least incompetent guesser,” in my opinion. It’s titled “The One,” and has now emerged on prime-time commercial television. This is the show we mentioned at tinyurl.com/5uuq52. Robert writes:

We were promised from the outset, by host Andrew Daddo, to receive a balanced program with one of the two judges being a believer (Stacey Demarco – Witch) and the other a skeptic (Richard Saunders – Australian Skeptics). Although the judges were given equal time to comment on the results of the tests – approximately ten seconds each per test! – the editing of the show heavily and predictably leaned towards the believer’s point of view. After introducing the seven psychics competing for the title – with loads of anecdotal evidence from clients, of course – the first episode went through one “controlled” test and, later, an open display of the psychics’ powers in front of the live studio audience.

Table of Contents
  1. A Premiere Report

  2. The Opposition Revealed

  3. Dr. Tyson Again

  4. Same Old Routine

  5. A Pleasant Surprise

  6. In Closing…



A PREMIERE REPORT

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Reader Robert Matic of Melbourne, Australia, reports to us on the Tuesday, 8 July, 2008, premiere of what has been advertised there as “a search for Australia’s most gifted psychic.” That’s much like saying, “a search for the least incompetent guesser,” in my opinion. It’s titled “The One,” and has now emerged on prime-time commercial television. This is the show we mentioned at tinyurl.com/5uuq52. Robert writes:

We were promised from the outset, by host Andrew Daddo, to receive a balanced program with one of the two judges being a believer (Stacey Demarco – Witch) and the other a skeptic (Richard Saunders – Australian Skeptics). Although the judges were given equal time to comment on the results of the tests – approximately ten seconds each per test! – the editing of the show heavily and predictably leaned towards the believer’s point of view. After introducing the seven psychics competing for the title – with loads of anecdotal evidence from clients, of course – the first episode went through one “controlled” test and, later, an open display of the psychics’ powers in front of the live studio audience.

Randi comments: Robert correctly emphasizes the strangely short commentary time given the judges; one would expect that two experts included for purposes of valaidation, could be able to express their expertise more thoroughly. Though I’d like to have a more accurate figure than “approximately ten seconds,” it is evident that the editors have a simple task to perform if they wish to slant the responses to their desired effect, in that short period of time. Robert continues:

The test: Host Andrew Daddo explained that the “controlled test” was devised by Richard Saunders and involved a young boy lying down in a forested area covered in a blanket. It took the psychics approximately six or seven minutes to walk from one end of the forested area to the other and they each had fifteen minutes to find the lost boy. Of the seven psychics, two found the boy: one psychic found the boy only a few minutes before the fifteen-minute time limit ran out and another found the boy in an impressive three minutes. Three of the other psychics came quite close to the boy, but ran out of time and the other two were way off.

Randi comments: I see a glaring weakness here, one of which I’m sure Saunders would be aware, and that Robert spotted: the process of concealing the target would have been already videoed, so the camera operator would be aware of that detail. When Andrew Harter and I did a test of the “Quadro Locator” dowsing rod here in Fort Lauderdale, the process was recorded by a local TV station, and the cameraman – well aware of the target location – kept positioning himself so that when the “discovery” was made, he would have a good shot to take. When we had the procedure properly double-blinded, the tests failed. And, note, the item was not broadcast because it was what TV editors call, a “non-event,” while it actually was an event which showed that the claims of the Quadro Locator device were not supported. Robert again:

Unfortunately, the controls for the test were not revealed to the viewer, making it very difficult to identify any possible loopholes in the protocol or whether Richard Saunders was limited in the controls he could impose. I have a sneaking suspicion that the camera crew filming the psychics was aware of the location of the boy all along. If this were the case, the test would not be double-blind and the camera crew could unknowingly provide subtle clues to the psychics by the style of filming or reactions to the psychics’ movements. For example, although I may be data-searching, it seemed to me that when the psychics were way off the mark the camera would circle them frequently and quite often film them from the front, however when they came close to the location of the boy, the camera would be focused on the psychic with the area of the boy in shot – almost pointing the way. However, not knowing the controls of the test means all of this is mere supposition.

Randi comments: Hallelujah! Robert spotted the flaw, and analyzed it properly!

Secondly, the psychics were shown looking for the boy and discussing their thoughts out loud and then we would be shown a map with a red spot at the location of the boy and an arrow showing the location of the psychic and the direction he or she was headed. The area had a forked path, giving the psychics the choice of heading slightly to the left or sharply to the right. The psychic who found the boy in just over three minutes was the only one of the seven who chose the right path. The other six chose the left path heading almost all the way to the end of the forested area before having a sudden “psychic flash” and heading back down towards the boy. Unfortunately, the map did not include a line behind the arrow showing all the places the psychic had been before approaching the boy. If the line had been super-imposed onto the map, it would, no doubt, be evident that the psychics merely looked everywhere and one of the six happened to come across the boy’s location.

Randi comments: And remember that there were seven guesses being made here. Chances are that at least one guess would be impressive. As we’ll see, those who missed were allowed to make excuses. And bear in mind that a camera operator – knowing this was going in the right direction – would be hot to cover this one and ignore the others. All these factors lead to the psychics’ apparent success...

Thirdly, the psychics were able to comment on their thought processes after their results were revealed, which was then edited together with the footage of them searching for the boy. Obviously, the psychics who went the wrong way for a good seven or eight minutes before coming back towards the boy and coming fairly close in the last few minutes talked of “psychic flashes” and “knowing they were close” or “knowing they had to turn around.” One psychic came out with the win-win situation: “My head said the left path and my heart said the right path, I should have listened to my heart instead of my head.” I can tell her what she would have heard if she listened to her heart. Ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom – approximately sixty to seventy times per second, when at rest.

Finally, it would have been interesting to have had a control group involved in the test. Seven non-psychics who could also be given the test and the results could be compared. Would one of the non-psychics find the boy almost immediately? Would another find the boy after searching almost everywhere for fifteen minutes? Would some of the others get close – perhaps reading the actions and reactions of the camera crew?

Exactly, Robert! Good analysis! Go to the head of the class!

In the end, the one impressive result was the psychic who found the boy in three minutes. Having described her actions afterwards as being immediately drawn to the boy through a “psychic string” attached to her chest, it would be interesting to repeat the experiment with the boy in a different location and see if the three-minute wonder could be repeated. I doubt it.

For the open display of powers, each psychic was brought out and formally introduced and the viewers were given some background information. Most of the psychics performed in front of the audience while others relied on anecdotal evidence from clients to get them through this segment. We were shown the work of a Reiki healer on one of his patients. We heard calls pronouncing the accuracy of a radio psychic: “You said I’d get a green car and I got a green car,” “You said we’d have twins and we had twins,” etc. I can’t imagine too many people would have called in and said, “You said we’d have a boy and we had a girl.” Interestingly, the radio psychic did not perform in front of the live studio audience.

The psychics who did perform in front of the audience used the same old cold reading methods familiar to the skeptic. “I feel trouble around the chest area,” “You get headaches,” “I’m getting the number two,” etc. The most remarkable rewarding of a “hit” was when one of the psychics – after getting several hits with an audience member – said, “You’re on fire!” That audience member later said, “He knew there was a fire in our house!” What?!?

There were some indications of “hot reading” taking place as well, which would not be impossible, of course. Did the psychics spend any time with the audience before filming? Obviously, members of the audience would have bought tickets for the show. Did some of the psychics’ previous clients – or current clients – come to the filming of the show? Who knows?

All in all, I was disappointed in the editing of the show leaning so strongly towards belief and would have liked to have heard more than ten-second snippets from the judges. Cold reading techniques were not even discussed, or may have been edited out. How many misses were edited out of the second segment of the show? I will keep watching to see where the show eventually heads, but I’m not holding much hope.

Folks, Robert Matic has shown us a remarkably good understanding of how to analyze events of this nature, video records that may have been subject to editing, selection, and bias. While Richard Saunders has been restrained – by contractual limitations – from expressing his concerns, I can assure you that he is aware of these problems as much as Mr. Matic is. We await further analysis of programs in this series, with great interest!




THE OPPOSITION REVEALED

To see more clearly just what we’re up against, go to californiajudgment2008.citymax.com/page/page/4415990.htm and simply scroll down through the 5,000 words of drivel that you’ll encounter there, in various colors, masses of exclamation points, and endless quotations from extinct mythological books. This website provides us with an excellent example of just how confused and juvenile these people are. I find it hard to believe that such individuals were ever exposed to any education at all, or that they can function in a real world, or that they ever have a rational thought enter their minds. This site scares me because it means that there are a huge number of citizens of the USA who will be lined up on November 4th to register their decisions based on superstition, delusion, and misinformation on the basics of how the world works; we will have to outnumber them, and be aware that our presence in that same line-up before the voting machines, is vitally important.

Please, get out and vote in November!




DR. TYSON AGAIN

If you go to tinyurl.com/68d5q8 you’ll find a 38-minute video excerpt from a talk by our TAM6 keynote speaker, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, though from a different appearance. You’ll also find references there to “related videos” that I figure will keep you heavily occupied for a few days… Dr. Tyson was a great guest indeed, very approachable, gracious, and informative. I hope to get to know him much better in the coming years, I assure you.

Tyson

For those of you who missed out on buying one of the Tyson books we had for sale at TAM6 simply because we ran out of them, please note that we now have a new supply of “The Sky Is Not The Limit,” “Origins,” and “Death By Black Hole,” the last one a New York Times “Bestseller” selection. Go to www.randi.org/joom/jref-store/260.html and make your selections.

You’ll also see there the excellent book “Skeptoid” by Brian Dunning, as well as Sharon Begley’s “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain,” which I find valuable despite a foreword by the Dalai Lama – who I look upon as a rather necessarily dedicated woo-woo.

TAM6 was outstanding and satisfying in many other ways. We continued to break ground in respect to the percentage of women who attended, the variety of ethnic types we attracted, and – especially – the number of young folks who showed up. This is a matter of great pride to me personally, breaking the grumpy-old-Caucasian-guys view of the skeptical movement that has so long been in place. Yes, TAM6 demanded a lot from us in the way of hard work and long hours, but the reception it has received made it all worth while.

My assistant Sean has prepared an analysis of the audience makeup. He finds that five continents were represented, and seventeen countries, which were: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Denmark, France, Ireland, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, UK, and the USA. And of the 940 persons registered, 271 were women; that’s 29%, folks! We’d sure like to see that number improve…!




SAME OLD ROUTINE

Tyson

It always astonishes us that the same old thoroughly exposed methods are still used to bring in the suckers, and the public readily – eagerly – snaps it all up as if it were news. Much of that acceptance is deliberately created by the media who have little or no interest in the truth or in what negative impact this might have on their consumers; their only concern is with turning out a sensational story. SWIFT reader Alexander Grimwade refers us to an article appearing in what he refers to as “the once-respectable Philadelphia Inquirer” about a new star in the medium world named Joseph Tittel – who has been endorsed by none other than James van Praagh, which I’m sure has him all a-twitter. At tinyurl.com/6jsn8e you can see the whole story. Says reader Grimwade:

The long article at www.philly.com/inquirer/magazine/24057794.html was printed in a prominent position – complete with color photographs – on July 8. [Tittel’s] act was described extensively and in glowing detail with only one tiny quote from a skeptic.

Tittel adds a new wrinkle to the tired old act. When he guesses wrong with a client he tells them brusquely, "Write it down...it will make sense later." I wrote a letter of rebuttal, a section of which was published today – philly.com/inquirer/opinion/24167344.html – about 1/2 way down, but I fear that my 2 column inches will not compete with the article's 60 inches plus two large color photos. This is a new low for the Inquirer, which used to be one of America's better newspapers.

A note to Mr. Grimwade: The “it will make sense later” ploy is hardly new; it’s been used by cold readers since the art was first developed by early mountebanks. John Edward and James Van Praagh use it frequently.

The Inquirer article – as reader Grimwade says – is uncritical. No doubt at all is expressed, except for a brief quote from Eric Krieg, who heads the Philadelphia Association for Critical Thinking. He’s allowed a total of 26 words, then the gushing acceptance of reporter David Hiltbrand continues on. Hiltbrand is impressed when Tittel guesses that someone in his audience of 30 might know about, be connected with, or recognizes “a passing with lung cancer,” and then expresses his suspicion that someone “is pregnant and don't [sic] even know they are." He tells one woman that her deceased father wants her to go to Sears to buy a lawnmower. Wow. But half of the crowd – all of whom paid $45 to attend – didn’t get stunning news like this, and left without any otherworldly guidance.

Tittel told Hiltbrand the standard alibi for his inaccuracy. A “vision” of a cuckoo clock, for example, suggests to him “a link to Germany.” Or it might just be an evaluation of his or his victims’ general state of mind. Or a lost watch. Perhaps a vacation in Bavaria? You can see just how tough this guessing game is, though it has little chance of failing to impress, given the naivety of his audience, and the hefty admission charge they paid to receive nothing…

Tittel’s home in Levittown sports a bunch of garden gnomes in the front yard, and in his kitchen is a shrine to Elvis. No surprises there. He even admits to his warm-and-fuzzy attitude – typical of these purveyors of pap, saying,

It's all love, positive energy, peace and happiness on the other side. There is no negativity over there. When we're going through hard times, they're with us. And every holiday, special occasion, they're always there. They wouldn't miss anything – the birth of a baby, a wedding – they attend all them [sic] events.

But it appears that Mr. Tittel is willing to be tested, and perhaps would be interested in applying for the JREF prize. He says:

The change in prices keeps out the cynical people but not the skeptical people, and there's a big difference. With the cynics, I could tell them what they had for breakfast, lunch and dinner and they'd still tell me I'm a liar. Skeptical people have an [sic] open mind. And they always get the best readings. It drives me nuts. Here's a woman who is so receptive and eager and so wants to hear the messages. And there's Mr. Skeptic over there and he's getting the best details. That's the spirits. They want to make sure that he leaves knowing he made a connection.

Tell me what I ate, and you’re halfway there, Mr. Tittel. A million bucks, sir. I’ll await your application, but I won’t hold my breath…

Reader Alexander Grimwade sent this letter to the Inquirer:

It is quite astonishing to see the Inquirer devote so much space to David Hiltbrand's sycophantic and credulous portrayal of so-called medium Joseph Tittel ("Medium gains a following," July 8). The article describes a classic "cold reader" – a performer who sprays out dozens or even hundreds of factoids to a large audience and counts as "hits" those that roughly fit someone in the audience. The process is rife with confirmation bias. Everyone remembers the hits and no one remembers the misses.

No "medium" has ever managed to perform positively in anything remotely like a scientific test. These people are preying on the gullibility of the public to take their money and give them manufactured hope based on guesswork. Shame on The Inquirer for treating such a performance by a paid entertainer as the real deal.

We await a response – which may arrive simultaneously with Joseph Tittel’s application for the JREF million-dollar challenge.

That means, never…




A PLEASANT SURPRISE

Notes

At TAM6 last month, I was presented with a huge sort of cup-trophy containing hundreds of small envelopes. This was intended to be a surprise to me, and it was. All 900-plus attendees had written short notes expressing how the JREF had brought changes to their lives. After all, that’s what it was always intended to do, and now that I have a little more time, I’m able to dip into these notes and see the thoughts of JREF-ers in this respect. I sampled them, found them interesting, and decided to take a few each week – selected at random so that all opinions can be represented – to share with SWIFT readers. Most were unsigned, and we’ll publish them all that way. This week, the first five:

You showed me I was not alone in thinking the way I do. Also, thank you for much knowledge and entertainment.

Thank you for bringing us together and letting us know that we are not alone.

Your effect on my life has manifested itself in the form of my boyfriend. Your love for science, truth, and critical thinking helped shape and mold him into the curious, open-minded, and passionate person he is. Today I honor your contribution to the world of science and mystery. Thank you.

Thank you for your devotion to reality.

At about age 12 or 13, I read “Flim-Flam!” Right away I was engrossed. It did not exactly introduce me to skepticism and critical thinking, but it was an epiphany. It showed me the enormous effect of that way of thinking, and I never looked back. Thank you!

So far, so good. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to know that we’ve had a real effect – though that was really quite evident from the enthusiastic response we’ve experienced ever since we got started back in 1996. To change people’s lives is a heavy responsibility, and I assure you that I think of that with every SWIFT I put up and every video or podcast with which I’m associated. Truth matters a lot to me and to the JREF; it runs our lives and shapes our actions. The vultures we see out there preying on the vulnerable remind us that our battle is engaged every time we sit down to a keyboard, handle a phone call, address a microphone or face the unblinking electronic eye of a camera. These notes of encouragement that we see stacked in a cup, keep us moving ahead enthusiastically…




IN CLOSING…

Todd

Our good friend Todd Robbins – see www.toddrobbins.com – will be premiering a new show up at the “Just For Laughs” festival in Montreal, July 13th to 17th. The show is called “Hoodwinked” and it includes Todd – in his character as a sideshow operator, card sharp Richard Turner, pickpocket Bob Arno, and our very own psychic entertainer, the inimitable Banachek. If you’re in the area, go. Anything Todd presents, is top-notch stuff…


Todd For those of you that were not in attendance at TAM 6 we'd like to share with you a video which was done by our good friend Professor Richard Wiseman in which all attendees at TAM participated in the largest-ever mass-spoon-bending demonstration, which just may have set a record. You can read about it and watch the video at www.spoonscience.com. We are glad that Prof Wiseman choose TAM for this record setting event.


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