Michael Shermer

Dear Fellow Skeptics:

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Not to worry, I've not gone off the deep-end here. On Thursday I flew to Seattle for the ABC affiliate there who had Van Praagh a couple of weeks ago do a reading on a woman they picked from their office (just some secretary he would know nothing about). They wanted me to comment on the film but I couldn't figure out why they wanted to fly me up just for that, when we could have done a simple satellite feed from their sister affiliate in Los Angeles, as I have already done for two other stations. When I got there I found out why.

They asked ME to do a "reading" on the same woman, but she would know who I am, so, while they knew it would not "work" in the same sense as it does for Van Praagh (half of his success depends on the people believing in him), they just wanted to see if I could get as many hits as he did. I agreed to give it a go. It was much harder than I thought it would be, and it had nothing to do with her knowing who I am.

Van Praagh is an actor playing the part of a medium. Like all acting, it requires practice--a LOT of practice it turns out. Although I know all of his lines by now, I had not memorized them, nor did I have the deep reserve of backup lines for contingencies he frequently encounters in readings.

When we watch actors they make it look so easy it seems like anyone can do it. But of course not anyone can do it. Another good analogy is magic. Even if you know how the "trick" is done, doing it is another thing altogether. Penn and Teller show us how their "Look Simple" routine is done, but there is no way anyone in their audience could duplicate it without a couple thousand hours of practice.

Nevertheless, I GOT THE SAME NUMBER OF HITS AS VAN PRAAGH! (I got 7 hits and 12 misses; he got 7 hits and 29 misses). Granted, my reading was not nearly as smooth as his, and it was much, much shorter because I ran out of things to say, but I even one-uped him by getting who it was who died, while he demanded to be told before the reading.

They sat me down in the studio and brought in the woman named Della. She seemed to me to be around 30 years old, so I deduced that it was her father that died, with a secondary guess being a sister or brother. The producers said they would tell me exactly what they told Van Praagh, so I said, "wait, don't tell me anything, I think I know who died." They looked around at each other, so I blurted out "your father died when you were a little girl." BINGO! Her father died in 1971.

But then she inadvertantly gave me an additional clue, which I utilized, when she confirmed "yes, my father was killed." See the clue?

Of course you do, you're skeptics. So I then immediately moved away from cancer, heart attack, etc., and into the car crash/explosion/murder category. BINGO! But not completely It turns out it was a plane crash, which I didn't get because when I used Van Praagh's standard line about "I see smoke and flames," she gave me a "no" nod. I asked her about this later, because Van Praagh used the same line on her and she gave him the "no" nod also, and she said she didn't see the crash so she didn't know for sure if there were smoke and flames. So we both missed that because of the subject's response (of course, Van Praagh is supposed to be getting this psychicly, so at least I have an excuse).

Because one of my students at Occidental College had a father die when she was a little girl, and when the 20/20 crew was there filming me she talked about it in detail (see an earlier post of mine on this internet hotline and in my essay in the next issue Skeptic), I used a bunch of her statements, like how she really felt bad her dad never saw her graduate from High School, her dad never saw her play sports and meet her friends, etc. I also did the photograph in the bedroom routine ("I see a photograph with you and your dad in your bedroom"). BINGO, BINGO, BINGO.

So I was really on a roll here, but then I ran out of gas. I tried the name routine ("I'm getting a Michael, who is Michael please"), but she wouldn't bite, saying she didn't know anyone named Michael. I broadened it more, saying if there was anyone she knew or was related to named Michael, or even if THEY knew someone named Michael, but she just shook her nead no.

Then I couldn't remember the other things Van Praagh does, and with the cameras rolling and everyone watching, I got a little nervous, so I switched rolls and, on camera, gave my little speech about how no one really knows what happens when you die, how we have to all grieve in our own personal ways, and what a humanist/skeptic might say to someone grieving.

She actually got a little teary-eyed, but she didn't actually cry like she did for Van Praagh. I am certain that if I was presented as a psychic I could have generated the emotions as much as Van Praagh did. (I also noticed that for Van Praagh she came into the room with a wad of kleenex in her fist, but none with me. Also, she sat there in front of me with her legs and arms crossed. I noticed that and said something, and she pointed out that Van Praagh made her uncross her legs and arms but she preferred to keep them crossed with me -- interesting.)

The bottom line was that even in my first official fumbling attempt at doing a psychic mediumship reading, I still got as many hits as Van Praagh (but not as many misses by virtue of the fact that I abandoned the attempt much earlier whereas he kept ploughing along).

Added observations:

Without any prompting whatsoever, or the producer even mentioning my name, Van Praagh brought me up saying how he has "made my career" and that thanks to him I'm now making all this money from my book as well. Ya, right. I wish it were true, but according to my publisher, while all this media helps to keep the books on the shelves (less returns), there have been no big orders from the book buyers. The simple fact is that fantasy sells, reality doesn't.

As soon as his reading with Della was over, he turned to the producer (cameras still rolling) and said, "you know I'm an honest guy. I'm for real." This was really strange. These producers were as nice as can be to him. Della was crying and the whole bit. Yet he had this guilty look on his face and made that statement. I think Freud called this projection.

Van Praagh told these producers that he is furious about the 20/20 piece, that they "set him up," they only showed his misses, etc. And he is also mad about the Globe piece in which they sided with me in describing him as a fake.

Well, Van Praagh has more people to be mad at now. James Randi has once again debunked Van Praagh on CBS This Morning, this Friday morning, and it included a wonderful statement by Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller fame, about exactly WHY what Van Praagh is doing is so bad. It would obviously be fine if he were telling people he is a magician doing a stage act, but because he is deceiving people this is immoral. Penn also made a nice statement about how grief is properly dealt with through personal reflection, memories, and your own internal conversations with those memories.

Why on earth do you need some stranger like Van Praagh to get "in touch" with your lost loved one. Just close your eyes, bring them to memory, and let your imagination do the rest. It is a lot more real, more effective, more moral, and a hell of a lot cheaper.

Michael Shermer


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