Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Medium well-done

This morning I got an email from the Omega Institute, of Rhinebeck, New York, inviting me to a workshop in New York City with James van Praagh, a prominent spiritualist medium.

It is probably a coincidence that the workshop begins on April Fool's Day, but it still made me happy.  The email states, "Do you want to understand more about spirit communication or better interpret messages from loved ones?  In this experiential workshop guided by renowned spiritual medium James Van Praagh, you learn to blend your mind with the spirit world and read the signs from loved ones who are guiding your journey daily...  Van Praagh, one of the world’s most respected spiritual mediums working today, offers extensive messages and readings throughout the workshop to help you unlock the greater depth of your spiritual self.  Novice as well as experienced mediums are welcome."

My initial reaction upon receiving this email was, "Boy, are they barking up the wrong tree."  But then I decided to make use of the opportunity, to look into van Praagh's claims a little, and find out who he is and what the workshop is actually claiming to accomplish.

The title of the workshop is, "What the Dead Can Teach Us About Life."  So far, I have no problem; there are many things the dead can teach us about life.  Among them are "Don't drink and drive," "Smoking is stupid," and "Exercise more and eat less."  But I don't think that's really what van Praagh is saying.  According to his website, he "is a survival evidence medium, meaning that he is able to bridge the gap between two planes of existence, that of the living and that of the dead, by providing evidential proof of life after death via detailed messages."  He claims, basically, that he is able to get a hold of your dead relatives, and bring messages from them to you.

It's not as if this wouldn't be cool if it were true.  I, for example, would love to ask my Aunt Florence for her chocolate-almond fudge recipe, which I have never been able to replicate.  Unfortunately, however, van Praagh is clearly a fraud, and in fact got caught cheating in what was supposed to be a cold reading he did on Larry King Live.  (He claimed to have clairvoyantly picked up on the fact a subject's grandmother had died -- and it turned out that he had talked to the subject earlier, and she had mentioned it to him, along with other information he was then able to use.)

This, of course, has not stopped him from writing a number of books, including Ghosts Among Us: Uncovering the Truth About the Other Side; Heaven and Earth: Making the Psychic Connection; and Talking to Heaven: A Medium's Message About Life After Death.  Amazingly, they sell brilliantly well, and in fact, Ghosts Among Us made the New York Times' bestseller list.

And despite his public failure on Larry King, his success has not diminished.  Millions are hoodwinked by his act every year.  He has, apparently, a three-year waiting list for a twenty-minute reading via telephone, for which he charges $700. 

Encouragingly, though, he has many critics.  Marcello Truzzi, a sociologist at Eastern Michigan University, has studied van Praagh and others like him for many years, and has compared his hit rate when he is identifying generalities (e.g. someone in your family has died, it was an elderly woman, and so on) and when he is identifying specifics (Grandma Bertha died at age 93 of congestive heart failure).  With generalities, he does okay; with specifics, his hit rate drops to zero.  Of course, he almost always avoids specifics, and when he hits one it is usually because there has been an extensive leadup during which he fishes for clues, often very subtly, and uses feedback (including head gestures and body language) to guide him in the right direction.  When he is deprived of feedback from the subject -- when they don't respond, or maintain a poker face -- his miss rate climbs to nearly 100%.  Michael Shermer, a prominent skeptic, calls van Praagh "the master of cold reading in the psychic world."

Van Praagh, for his part, hates Shermer and his ilk.  On Larry King Live in 2001, van Praagh said, "... we (psychics) are here to heal people and to help people grow... skeptics... they're just here to destroy people.  They're not here to encourage people, to enlighten people.  They're here to destroy people."

As you might expect, I take serious issue with that statement.   Skeptics do encourage people; we encourage them to use their rational faculties to see frauds like van Praagh for what they are.  Grief is a painful, and unavoidable, part of life; and lining van Praagh's pockets to the tune of $2,100 per hour to hear that Grandma Bertha is happily in heaven and wishes you well isn't healing you, it is taking advantage of your anguish to turn a profit. 

So, sorry, James, but you won't see me at your mediumship workshop.  I will work on unlocking the greater depth of my spiritual self right here at home.  And for anyone planning on attending -- enjoy April Fool's Day.

1 comment:

  1. He even had a film made about him which is a definite curiosity - Talking to Heaven, billed of course as a true story, with the strapline "James Van Praagh: the man who opened the door between life and death". It stars Ted Danson (surprisingly good) and Mary Steenburgen. It's a pretty dramatic storyline which needless to say does not rely on cold reading for results.