The April, 1999 issue of FATE magazine came out today, with a feature on my good buddie James Van Fraaud. Imagine my surprise, given the slant of this publication, as I flipped open to the article to see, in addition to the standard black-and-white publicity photo of Van Praagh, a photo of the cover of MY book (Van Praagh has a new book out now called REACHING TO HEAVEN, conspicuously absent in the article). The author, Scott Smith, starts off quite reasonable, explaining that "it can be valuable to listen to critics: Friends rarely see your weaknesses, but enemies are only too happy to point them out. That is why I always consult the skeptics when I research a paranormal subject." (Smith's author bio reads: "Scott Smith is a frequent FATE contributor on various subjects and the author of THE SOUL OF YOUR PET: EVIDENCE FOR THE SURVIVAL OF ANIMALS IN THE AFTERLIFE." And that would be what? Barking Twaddle?) So he read my book, studied the video tapes of Van Praagh's appearances on various television programs in which James Randi or myself explained how Van Praagh gets hits, then went to see Van Praagh perform.

Although Smith does a nice job of summarizing my explanation of how Van Praagh gets hits (cold reading--lots and lots of statements; warm reading--statements that are true about everyone; hot reading--getting information about guests from television producers, asking the subjects about their lost loved ones before the filming or during a break as when we caught him cheating on 20/20 when he thought the cameras were off, etc.), he quotes Van Praagh as explaining: "The skeptics seem to think that I have the world's most sophisticated computer data bank, but the truth is that I couldn't possibly know most of the people I meet." Of course, and he has cleverly dodged the true explantion and honed in on one statement I made on one show years ago in which I said it is possible that if he knows who his subject is ahead of time he can get info on him or her (usually a her) through a PI (because a psychic entertainer friend told me that this, along with plants in the audience, are occasionally done by psychics).

I have no doubt that this almost never happens, and certainly cannot happen in live performances on such shows as Larry King Live. But that's missing the point entirely, which Smith does in making THAT the rebuttal to my explanation. The reason Van Praagh does not address my other points is, of course, because that is PRECISELY what he does, and everyone knows it. My psychic entertainer friend who has been in the business for over a decade, tells me that they all know what Van Praagh is up to and their only point in paying attention to him is to pick up pointers on how better to improve their own routine, not unlike magicians studying each other to learn new techniques. (We had a mentalist come do a show for the skeptics at Caltech a few years back. I was able to figure out how he did everything in the show with one exception: toward the end, just as he was wrapping things up, he got an inspiration and had some guy in the audience stand up. He then said that he had something in his pocket that was sort of cylindrical, yada, yada, yada, "is it a pocket knife?" YES! It was an amazing hit. I couldn't believe it. Then he told me privately that the guy was a friend planted in the audience!)

Smith's article quickly unravels in his summary of all the "hits" Van Praagh got at the reading he went to. As Smith says: "Without time to provide a full account of each statement, I wrote down a key word and whether the statement was judged to be accurate by the individual." Right, THAT'S the problem and that's why Van Praagh gets away with what he does. No one (but us skeptics) keeps track of the MISSES! When Smith says Van Praagh got "Family was outside when she died (hit)" we are not told what he said BEFORE he got this hit, like possibly "Family was INSIDE when she died." Or: "She liked to swim (hit)." Okay, but how long did it take Van Praagh to get swim? "She liked horses, dancing, tennis, bla, bla, bla . . . swimming." ALWAYS when I see an entire session, especially on tape where we can stop, rewind, and play back, of a Van Praagh reading, there is NOTHING AT ALL surprising.

Finally, Smith concludes: "I was impressed not only with Van Praagh's accuracy and how articulate he is, but with the fact that he understands the skeptics, tries to answer their criticisms, and is good-natured about them." Hardly, on the latter. He has called me a rat-fink and equated me with the devil. I don't mind, of course, except it would be nice if the media would show even a modicum of skepticism about Van Praagh (with the exception of 20/20, who did a very nice job). Larry King wouldn't dream of doing a program on Clinton without having two or three opposing commentators to balance one another so that his program is fair; yet he has now had Van Praagh on three times unopposed, asking innane questions about whether we can eat and play tennis in heaven (turns out we CAN -- YIPEE!).

The reading line for FATE magazine, by the way, is: "True Reports of the Strange & Unknown." I would drop the modifier.



Leading Cosmologists, Philosophers To Discuss Origin Of Cosmos

AAAS Conference to Explore Cosmology Questions and Religious Implications

WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 /PRNewswire/ -- Cosmologists, philosophers, and religious scholars will gather in Washington, D.C., for a three-day exploration of the origin and nature of the cosmos and the religious implications of scientific discovery in the universe.

The AAAS conference, Cosmic Questions, will explore three of the most provocative questions in contemporary cosmology and astronomy: What came before the Big Bang? Is the universe designed? And are we alone in the cosmos?

Recent discoveries, including distant galaxies in the early stages of formation, evidence that neutrinos have mass and probable liquid water on moons of Jupiter and planets outside the solar system, have enhanced our understanding of the evolution of stellar and planetary systems and life in the universe. At the same time, these discoveries have raised questions that have modern-day religious significance.

WHAT: Cosmic Questions Conference
WHEN: Wednesday - Friday, April 14 - 16, 1999
WHERE: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
Baird Auditorium
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington, DC

Speakers will include:
* Stephen Hawking, Cambridge University (invited)
* Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate, University of Texas-Austin
* Owen Gingerich, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
* Joel Primack, University of California-Santa Cruz
* Rocky Kolb, Fermi National Laboratory
* Jill Tartar, The SETI Institute
* John Polkinghorne, former President, Queens College, England
* Margaret Kidwell, University of Arizona

Each day of the conference will offer two sessions that address cosmic questions; topics will include the history of scientific cosmology, the beginning of time, cosmic evolution and design, and intelligent life in the universe. The IMAX film "Cosmic Voyage" will also be shown. The conference is being organized by the AAAS Program of Dialogue Between Science and Religion with support from the John Templeton Foundation, the North American Montessori Teachers Association, and individual gifts. For more information, call 202-326-7044, fax 202-289-4950, or visit the Web site at http://www.aaas.org/spp/dspp/dbsr/events/cosmo/.


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