Last Wednesday night Larry King hosted a show entitled “Are Psychics for Real?” (Transcript.) After watching the show I can say for certain they are real – real morons. Sorry, but after a couple of day’s reflection that’s the only conclusion a sane person could come reading their lame half-assed justifications for what they do.
Rockstar wrote about this on Friday – his report should give you an idea of the general inanity involved. I reported on just one of the more stupid fallacious arguments presented, on Thursday. This is a more detailed reflection.
Here’s the set-up. It was billed as a debate of psychics v skeptics, except that there were three psychics and only two skeptics, so not quite even. Actually there was really only one skeptic, but more on that later.
The three “psychics” were Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh and Char Margolis – three cold readers who have bluffed their way through Larry’s show before. The two skeptics were Dr. Bryan Farha and Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Farha is the guy who got through to the Larry King show on the phone 18 months ago and managed to ask Brown why she hadn’t made good on her promise to be tested for Randi’s million dollars.
There were many problems with the way this show was set up and run. First, it was a really badly adjudicated by King, who allowed the psychics constantly to interrupt each other and the skeptics, and thus avoid answering questions. For example, there was one point where Farha got to question Browne about her no show for Randi’s test. Brown made the usual excuses about Randi cheating, refusing to pay out etc. She mentioned the Yellow Bamboo incident, and “Zerbrowski”. I don’t know what Zerbrowski is but I do know the Yellow Bamboo people cheated (they used a stun gun) – Randi certainly did not “run away”. Farha may have been going to explain all this, but we will never know because King never gave him a chance – the psychics all piled in interrupting each other with their dopey rationalizations until the Rabbi got in again. (January 13, 2006 – Edited to add: Randi commented on this today. He essentially confirmed my comments.) Van Praagh was the worst of the lot. Worst in that he was undoubtedly the most stupid, which is quite an achievement in this company. Don’t believe me? Try this for size (my bold):
VAN PRAAGH: The skeptics … use this thing about taking a test and proving it, the emphasis should be on them to prove it to us this is not real …
KING: You're making the claim. They're not making the claim. You're making the claim.
VAN PRAAGH: Prove that we're wrong though. Prove that we are wrong. The things we get people understand.
KING: You can't prove a negative.
Wow! Out-argued and out-skepticed by Larry King! You might as well give up and go home after that. (Except he didn’t.)
But Van Praagh was also the worse in the way he constantly butted in with a diversion whenever a skeptic would ask Browne a good question. Ah what the hell – they all did it. King, of course, was useless. And he wouldn’t shut up. Why didn’t he get Farha to ask some more questions instead of trying to ask some dumb supposed “skeptical” questions himself?
A major problem I had with the program was the Rabbi. No Rabbi, priest, mullah or any other religious person has a right to call themselves a skeptic. Oh sure, the Rabbi was skeptical of the three psychics’ brand of woo. But in reality he was just annoyed they were interfering with his brand of woo. This allowed Margolis what I thought was actually a valid point:
MARGOLIS: even in the Jewish faith just because you can't prove it...it doesn't mean it doesn't exist. You know how do you know that God exists? Now, I believe that during Passover the Angel of Death came and protected the Jewish boys from being slaughtered. Do you believe that? Do you believe there was a real angel?
The Rabbi followed with some rationalizations about why his brand of woo was better. But Margolis was right – the Rabbi also believes in stupid crap although he has no evidence for it, so how can he criticize these three psychics? Why are his fairy tales any better? It is moronic beyond belief to have set up the show allowing the psychics such an easy and valid out. Was there really no one else available? What about Michael Shermer, Penn Jillette or Randi? Weren’t any of these available?
And to make matters worse the Rabbi then tried a bit of cold reading on a caller. Bad idea, doomed to fail. For one, the three professional cold readers have had years to hone their skills – they make millions out of this scam, how is an amateur going to compete? More importantly, the callers are going to give the “psychics” more leeway – they’re going to look for hits and “help” the psychic when they guess wrong. That is the psychology of the cold reading game – if the “psychic” guesses wrong the mark thinks it’s his fault for not understanding the psychic’s message, rather than the more parsimonious conclusion that the psychic just guessed wrong. But they’re not going to play that game for a debunker who has admitted he is guessing. He just ended up looking stupid.
The lone skeptic
Farha was the only good guy there. I liked that he called Browne on not taking Randi’s test – he had a copy of the notarized document showing Randi’s $1million really exists. That was the highlight of the show. But he seemed generally inexperienced in how to present himself on TV and at times looked thoroughly bored by the whole thing. He missed a lot of tricks – for example Margolis’ failed cold reading demonstration that Larry declared a hit. But he was at a major disadvantage not being in the same studio. There seemed to be a time delay before he heard what was being said, and several times he obviously wanted to say something but with the time delay and the three babbling morons interrupting he didn’t stand a chance.
I suppose King deserves some credit for at least having some skeptics on the show, but with one Rabbi and an inexperienced guy with a bad link, they were set up to fail. A better setup would be for Larry to have Michael Shermer, Ian Rowland or even Banachek on for a full hour by themselves. Or Randi. Certainly the skeptical movement has to get its act together and train people how to present themselves on TV before they go up against professional fraudsters like Browne, Van Praagh and Margolis. These people make millions out of this kind of thing. There is a reason they are able to do that – they’re professionals. The skeptics who go up against them are already smarter. They need to be as polished.
Stupid Psychic Tricks
I’ll finish with a few of the more inane remarks from the "psychics". I offer no extra comment except to say they remind me of some of the oldest and lamest arguments put forward by believers on places like JREF and the comments sections of this blog. Read this lot and consider these are the best arguments these best selling psychics can think of. Breathtaking. Possibly the most inane is “you can’t prove air”, but it is a tough call.
Here you go:
VAN PRAAGH: To a certain degree and it has been tested there are certain percentages of it that have been proven to a certain degree in percentage certainly but there are certain scientific methods which also have not been invented yet or come up with a method that they can actually measure something like this.
BROWNE: Well, I don't think anybody really cares what's going to necessarily happen tomorrow.
VAN PRAAGH: Two- thirds of Americans have had experiences where, telepathic experiences where they thought about someone. Five minutes later the phone rings and it's that person. This is a sense that every single person has experienced. Then they cannot negate that and they (INAUDIBLE).
VAN PRAAGH: Just because things cannot be proven scientifically in the scientific method or the way you choose it to be in your paradigm, your way of thinking, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
VAN PRAAGH: If that was the way it is germs, bacteria they wouldn't have existed if we didn't find them and prove them. Look at the planet Pluto. Pluto, we would not have known it existed until we discovered it. That does not mean it does not exist.
KING: What about his point about the tsunami? Why didn't you feel it? BROWNE: But I -- but I did predict a terrible, terrible hurricane and everything else that was going to hit… And in India and that is documented. If the other gentleman would have looked up my -- I said it was going to be.
VAN PRAAGH: I also said it's a way of thinking. It's a way of living. It's a way of knowing this. It's another language. So you can't again, he's applying three-dimensional laws, third dimensional laws into energy which is different.
BROWNE: Why is it you have such a, pardon the expression, hard on for me? I mean what is it with you and I when we're both Jewish people.
MARGOLIS: You know I agree with James. Just because you can't prove something it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
BROWNE: You can't prove air.
VAN PRAAGH: The skeptics … use this thing about taking a test and proving it, the emphasis should be on them to prove it to us this is not real
VAN PRAAGH: Can I just say that a tactic of skeptics, which is evident right here, is that they will use one example like that, very general. What about the other examples? Like I did a reading for Florence Henderson the other day on "E.T. Insider" and her brother Joe came through and said she has a prayer card in her purse. And that was there since 1958. Does that mean -- yes, is that general? I don't think so.
VAN PRAAGH: I think it's been tested, Larry, that thoughts are real things. That thought is energy.
BROWNE: I know, because I've worked with 300 doctors. Do you want their names and addresses and telephone numbers?
VAN PRAAGH: If there's a blockage in the energy in a certain part of the body, she'll intuit that. She'll see that and she'll give out what she sees.
BROWNE: What a miserable life you must have.