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.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Communicating with the sort-of dead

In a move that left me saying, "Why didn't I think of doing that?", an organized flash mob of zombies recently showed up at one of James van Praagh's psychic medium shows.

Van Praagh, in case you haven't heard of him, is one of the folks who claims to bring messages from the dead to living relatives, and has become filthy rich doing so.  I've always found it interesting that van Praagh's messages to survivors are universally positive -- the deceased are, one and all, in a "place of peace and light and love" and tell the living how wonderful heaven is.  You'd think, statistically speaking, that at least a few folks would end up in hell, and deliver messages such as "it sure is hot down here" or "when you come join me, could you please bring along a fan and a bucket of ice?"

Interestingly, van Praagh's "evidence" that he's actually able to do all this hocus-pocus seems to depend largely on the excellent research abilities of him and his staff.  In a recent appearance on ABC's Primetime Nightline: Beyond Belief, van Praagh wowed Good Morning America's anchor Josh Elliott with information about his life and background -- until it turned out that everything van Praagh said had appeared in a two-year-old interview with Elliott that was available online.

So anyway, you can see why the zombies were pissed off.  If anyone would have a perspective on the whole subject of talking to the deceased, it would be zombies.

Carrying signs that said, "Talk To Us, We Won't Bite" and "Zombies Against Fake Mediums," the zombies demanded that van Praagh come out and chat with them about how he communicates with the dead.  "We'd like to pick his brain," one zombie told reporters.

It probably will come as no surprise that the whole thing was organized by the JREF, the James Randi Educational Foundation, and in fact the head zombie at the demonstration was D. J. Grothe, the president of JREF.  JREF has repeatedly invited van Praagh to give the famous million-dollar challenge a try -- a long-standing JREF offer to the first person who can demonstrate any kind of psychic ability in a controlled, scientifically-monitored setting.  Van Praagh has thus far refused even to respond to JREF's requests.

As far as the zombie attack, JREF claims that they weren't just trying to be obnoxious.  "We're not rabble rousing," Grothe told reporters.  "This is a guy who is taking advantage of people's grief.  He's not performing for entertainment, he's claiming he's giving messages from dead relatives.  He gets people when they are at their lowest and sees them as his target market."

"A magician or psychic entertainer tells you in one way or another that they are going to play a trick on you," he said.  "But Van Praagh looks people straight in the eye and says 'I am honestly communicating with your deceased loved ones, getting messages from them.'  Reasonable people may say, 'You can't talk to the dead,' but others believe this stuff hook, line and sinker.  Thinking that some opportunistic huckster is giving you a message from beyond keeps you from experiencing the natural stages of grief, from dealing with the loss in a healthy way.  It is offensive that he seems to be bilking the bereaved."

"If James Van Praagh is making his living by faking psychic powers and pretending to speak to people's deceased family members, that's truly shameful," Grothe said.

To which I say, "hear, hear."  I would have gladly participated in such an event, and in fact think that while they're at it, the zombies should pay a visit to Sylvia Browne, John Edward, and "Psychic Sally" Morgan.  After all, you're only undead once, you might as well make it count.

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