Those of you who saw 20/20 Friday night saw James Van Praagh busted for cheating and caught in a bald-faced lie. Here is my report, lifted from two sections from my next essay in Skeptic magazine, entitled "TALKING TWADDLE WITH THE DEAD."

There is additional information I got from a producer at NBC's THE OTHER SIDE, of how Van Praagh cheated on that show as well. It follows some biographical material on Van Praagh.

Michael Shermer

How to Talk to the Dead

Watching James Van Praagh work a crowd or do a one-on-one reading is an educational experience in human psychology. Make no mistake about it, this is one clever man. We skeptics may see him as morally reprehensible at best, but we should not underestimate his talents at understanding what touches off human emotions. He employs three basic techniques to "talk" to the dead:

1. Cold Reading. Most of what Van Praagh does is what is known in the mentalism trade as cold reading, where you literally "read" someone "cold,"--knowing nothing about them. He asks lots of questions and makes numerous statements, some general and some specific, and sees what sticks.

Most of the time he is wrong. His subjects visibly nod their heads "no." But, as noted above, he only needs an occasional hit to convince his clientele he is genuine. Sometimes he gets lucky, and as mentalists note, you always take credit for lucky hits.

2. Warm Reading. This is utilizing known principles of psychology that apply to nearly everyone. For example, most grieving women will wear a piece of jewelry that has a connection to their loved one. Katie Curic on The Today Show, for example, after her husband died wore his ring on a necklace when she returned to the show. Van Praagh knows this about mouning people and will say something like "do you have a ring or a piece of jewelry on you, please?" His subject cannot believe her ears and nods enthusiastically in the affirmative.

He says "thank you," and moves on like he just divined this from heaven. Most people also keep a photograph of their loved one either on them or near their bed, and Van Praagh will take credit for this specific hit that actually applies to most people. He is clever at determining the cause of death by focusing either on the chest or head areas, and then exploring whether it was a slow or sudden end.

Like a computer flow chart, he moves through the possibilities, then fills in the blanks. "I'm feeling a pain in the chest." If he gets a positive nod, he continues. "Did he have cancer, please? Because I'm seeing a slow death here." If he gets the nod, he takes the hit. If the subject hesitates at all, he will quickly shift to heart attack. If it is the head, he goes for stroke or head injury from an automobile accident or fall.

Statistically speaking there are only half a dozen ways 90% of us die, so with just a little probing, and the verbal and nonverbal cues of his subject, he can appear to get far more hits here than he is really getting.

3. Hot Reading. Mentalist Max Maven clarified for me that some mentalists and psychics also do "hot" readings, where they obtain information on a subject ahead of time. I do not know if Van Praagh uses private detectives to get information on people, but I have discovered from numerous television producers who were less than impressed by the medium, that Van Praagh consciously and deliberately pumps them for information about his subjects ahead of time, then uses that information to deceive the viewing public that he got it from the spirit world.

Leah Haines, for example, a producer and researcher for NBC's The Other Side, explained to me how Van Praagh used her during his numerous appearances on the show in 1994 (in an interview on April 3, 1998):

I can't say I think James Van Praagh is a total fraud, because he came up with things I hadn't told him, but there were moments on the show when he appeared to coming up with fresh information that he got from myself and other researchers.

For example, I recall him asking about the profession of the deceased loved one of one of our guests, and I told him he was a fireman. Then, when the show began, he said something to the effect, "I see a uniform. Was he a policeman or fireman please?" Everyone was stunned at his psychic powers, but he got that directly from me.

Haines also noted that any notion of Van Praagh not doing it for the money were quickly erased as his fame grew. "We had him on the show a bunch of times that first year. At the beginning he would drive himself to the studio and we just paid him a token fee like all the other guests. But in time he wanted us to send over a limo and he kept cranking up his appearance fee. It really irked us because we knew that we were the ones who made him."

Caught Cheating

Even for seasoned observers it is remarkable how Van Praagh appears to get hits, even when he doesn't. When we were filming the 20/20 piece, I was told that he had not done all that well the night before, but that he got a couple of startling hits--including the name of a woman's family dog. But when we reviewed the videotape, here is what actually happened. Van Praagh was bombing in his reading of a gentleman named Peter, who was poker-faced and obviously skeptical (without feedback Van Praagh's hit rate drops by half).

After dozens of misses, Van Praagh queried, "Who is Charlie?" Peter sat there dumbfounded, unable to connect to anyone named Charlie, when suddenly the woman sitting next to Peter (and a complete stranger), blurted out "Charlie was our family dog." Van Praagh seized the moment and proclaimed that he could see Charlie and Dad taking walks in heaven together.

The highlight of the 20/20 piece, however, was the blatant exposure of Van Praagh cheating, and then caught in a bald-faced lie. On a break, with the video camera rolling, he turned to a woman named Mary Jo and asked: "Did your mother pass on?" Mary Jo nodded in the negative and said "Grandmother." A full 54 minutes later Van Praagh turned to her and said: "I want to tell you, there is a lady sitting behind you. She feels like a grandmother to me.

He was caught cheating red-handed but when confronted by the 20/20 correspondent Bill Ritter, he lied, insisting that he got the grandmother without cheating. When they showed him the video clip, he proclaimed: "I don't cheat. I don't have to prove... I don't cheat. I don't cheat. I mean, come on." As if repeating it enough times would make it go away.

Yet, even after we busted Van Praagh for both cheating and lying, Barbara Walters concluded in the wrap-up discussion:

I was skeptical. I still am But I met James Van Praagh. He didn't expect to meet me. He knew that my father's name was Lew--Lewis he said and he knew that my father had a glass eye. People don't know that.

Ritter, doing his homework on this piece to the bitter end, replied:

You told me the story yesterday and I told you I would look and see what I could find out. Within a few minutes I found out that your father' name wasn't Lew and that he was very well known in show business. And this morning I was looking in a book and found a passage that says he was blind in one eye -- accidental -- and he had a glass eye. If I found that out, then he could have.

While Walters flustered in frustration, seemingly groping for some vestige of hope, Hugh Downs declared without qualification: "I don't believe him."

Where have we heard all this before? A hundred years ago, when mediums, seances, and spiritualism were all the rage in England and America, Thomas Henry Huxley concluded, as only he could in his biting wit, that as nonsensical as it was, spiritual manifestations might at least reduce suicides: "Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a 'medium' hired at a guinea a seance."

Strange that this phenomenon would repeat a century later. Perhaps Marx was right when he wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire that "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce." In this case, death is the tragedy, Van Praagh is the farce.

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