Bitter Psychic?

May 24, 2012

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 way.)

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.


#1 Susan Gerbic (Guest) on Thursday May 24, 2012 at 1:30pm

Super excited to see the show. 

Wanted to point people to this Huffington Blog that one of the psychics wrote about his experience on the show. 

#2 Bill Haines (Guest) on Thursday May 24, 2012 at 2:14pm

I don’t know why any skeptic would bother to show up on McGraw’s show.  His only interests are self-aggrandizement and money.

#3 Esser on Thursday May 24, 2012 at 2:28pm

When entering the Sisterhood of A-ha one must always expect the worse.

#4 David Diskin (Guest) on Thursday May 24, 2012 at 3:26pm

You’re making me record Dr. Phil on my DVR.

So many… mixed… emotions.

#5 Elizabeth K on Thursday May 24, 2012 at 4:18pm

I can hardly wait to see how it is edited. DVR programmed to go!

#6 Robert Simpson (Guest) on Thursday May 24, 2012 at 9:45pm

In fairness, the technique of having an expert sit in the audience is a regular arrangement on Dr Phil, but I would have to see the show to see how you were addressed or presented.

#7 Pieter B on Friday May 25, 2012 at 12:41am

As soon as I saw that you were seated in the audience, Jim, with the psychics onstage, I flashed on a similar experience I read about on JREF a few years ago.

“The producers seated Laura in the first row of the audience, directly across from Oprah.  The first guest to join Oprah on the stage was John Edward, a popular self-proclaimed psychic. Each time he either related a “supernatural” experience from his past or a videotaped segment of one of his “readings” was shown, Oprah would immediately look at Laura, and rather than address her by name, would make remarks such as “What do you say to that, science lady?” or “Any response, skeptic woman?” and on one occasion, “Skeptico?” directed at her with a questioning look.”

Oprah is the person who gave Dr Phil his start.

#8 Brian Hart (Guest) on Saturday May 26, 2012 at 12:06am

It will be repeated on Mon May 28 7:00 PM KCAL9

#9 Thomas B (Guest) on Saturday May 26, 2012 at 6:58am

I watched the show yesterday, and any unbiased person would clearly see the only difference between Jim and the “psychic” is that the “psychic” has had years more experience.  And more important, she was a more sympathetic figure.  Over and over they said, “the second she came in the room, I liked her.”  It’s not about what’s real, it’s about what people WANT to be real.  As long as people want psychic powers to be real, evidence is not going to convince them.  And as long as 80% of his audience believes it, Dr. Phil is not going to shoot himself in the foot by telling them the truth.

The one I really feel sorry for is the “Harvard neuroscientist” who thinks ESP has been clinically proven!  There she was babbling about Charles Honorton’s experiments as if they were the latest cutting edge science!

#10 Milt Timmons (Guest) on Saturday May 26, 2012 at 7:21pm

The one piece of business that annoyed me most was the drawing of the mobile crane on the Soviet base that supposedly was done by remote viewing. They mentioned that the CIA had spent millions of dollars investigating this technique. But what they deliberately failed to mention was that after years of investigation and millions of dollars, the CIA concluded that there was nothing to it. It was all just guesswork.


#11 Jim Underdown on Wednesday May 30, 2012 at 2:16pm

One quick correction: I read 10 strangers, not 12.

Re Milt’s comment:

I said during the taping that the CIA program was a bust. They edited it out!

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