Note to new readers: this post is about the pretend-psychic and cold reader John Edward (pictured right), and not anyone with a similar name who is currently was running for President of The United States. It’s also about James van Praagh (pictured below left). This coming Friday November 16, the credulous Larry King (CNN) is featuring “psychics (sic) John Edward and James van Praagh”. No doubt they will be playing their usual guessing game with callers.
My ID Creationist Bingo card proved popular, so I decided to produce a John Edward / James van Praagh Bingo card. It’s based on the numerous times I’ve seen Edward perform his lame cold reading act, as well as my detailed analysis of the transcript of an earlier Edward appearance on Larry King. Although it’s based on Edward’s technique, most of the bingo squares will apply to van Praagh too. If you want an analysis of Edward’s cold reading technique, then read my earlier post John Edward Re-revisited. That’s a long post, so I’ve summarized below, the meanings behind the different bingo squares. If you have any friends or family members who believe in this nonsense, I suggest you watch the show with them and play the bingo game. It will help if you explain in advance what the squares mean, and how Edward and van Praagh will manipulate the callers to believe they are really talking to dead people. From personal experience in doing this, I can say that saying in advance what Edward and van Praagh are going to do, is a powerful persuader. Playing Bingo just adds to the fun. Here’s the Bingo Card:
Both Edward and van Praagh use a technique called Cold Reading – where the “psychic” makes a series of guesses and the caller tries to make them fit his or her situation. The following is an explanation of the different squares, and a summary of the main cold reading techniques:
J, M, R and S names
Why the dead can only remember their initials, and not their full names, is never adequately explained. Anyway, guessing initials is the bread and butter of the cold reader. J, M, R and S are common initials in America. (For crying out loud, both these cold-readers’ names are “J” names.) And they’re flexible - for example R includes Bob as well as Robert. A “G” will count as a hit for the “J” guess, and so on . M is common especially among older women. Also Mike is a fairly common male name. “M” can also be “Mom”. Notice how often (ie not very often) they guess other initials.
“Yes You Do!” or “Write This Down” or "Keep That"
"Yes you do" is a specific Edward technique. When he guesses wrong, he will insist the caller, not he (Edward), is wrong. The caller just doesn’t realize he had the older brother that Edward incorrectly guessed he had. Edward’s technique is to be very aggressive and supremely confident – so much so that the callers often think their knowledge of their own family is incorrect.
The instruction to “Write This Down” will also give the impression that Edward is right and the caller wrong, since Edward is obviously so sure he is right, he wants the caller to write it down to verify it later. Of course, no one ever follows up to see if what the caller wrote down was actually true.
Van Praagh version of this will be to say "Keep That" - to imply the caller will eventually recall what van Praagh has guessed. Again, no one can check to see if the missing connection is ever recalled.
The thing to note is that “Yes You Do!”, “Write This Down” and "Keep That" are just techniques to recover from the completely wrong guess.
Father Figure / Older Male and Mother Figure / Older Female
This is sufficiently vague that it covers a multitude of possible dead people, including older brothers/sisters, aunts/uncles as well as parents and grandparents. The caller will supply the actual answer that Edward can then pretend he got. This approach is so much more likely to produce a hit than, say, “I can see your Father” (who might not actually be dead).
Larry King goes “Wow!”
Not strictly an cold reading technique – but notice how Larry will credulously accept even bad guesses as a hit. It’ll happen at least once during the one hour show, and serves as additional validation.
Chest Area / Head Area / Cancer
Most deaths can be assigned to either the “head area” or the “chest area”, so either of these guesses has good chance of being correct for somebody the caller knows. “Chest area” covers all heart disease as well as lung cancer. Either head or chest could include car accidents and the like. Also asking about "Breathing Trouble" will usually result in a hit - what person didn't have "breathing trouble" when they were dying?
Also, there will be several guesses of “Cancer”, because who doesn’t know someone who died from cancer?
Birthday / Wedding / Dog or Cat / Child / Toys
Questions such as “who had a birthday recently” will usually result in a hit – who doesn’t know someone who recently had (or soon will have) a birthday? Likewise, “Wedding” is likely to be a correct guess for someone the caller knows.
Most families had a loved pet that died, sometime, and so asking about the dog is a reliable standby.
Asking about a dead “Child” may be less reliable, but will be an strongly emotional hit if the guess is correct. If not, Edward may claim he is right anyway (see “Yes You Do!”, above).
Van Praagh often asks about "Toys". This is really the same as asking about the child, but is in my view much more emotionally manipulative in that it conjures up an image of a child "on the other side" still playing with her toys. It also allows him to pretend he knows more that he initially did, as in this example:
VAN PRAAGH: Did she have a toy that she loved so much, she nearly wore it out?
CALLER: Yes! She had a stuffed Pink Panther that she carried with her everywhere!
VAN PRAAGH: Because she's showing me a Pink Panther.
Edward or van Praagh will ask, is someone moving? And lets face it, who doesn’t know someone who just moved or is about to? (Think about your own friends. I moved recently and two of my friends did also.) If this is a good guess, Edward will always say something like “I thought so because they’re showing me boxes”. It’s his way of claiming this rather obvious guess was told to him by the dead people. "Boxes can also be a hit for any other kind of gift, such as a birthday (coming soon or just gone).
Occasionally Edward will make an outlandish guess – who died in a plane or car crash? / who has a leg or arm missing? / suicide? / shot in a robbery? – you name it. It’s always presented as a question, so when no one fits the bill he can quickly move on to the next guess. And the mark will rarely remember the wrong guess. But on the rare occasions he is correct it will look as though he must be the real deal. “How could he know my grandfather lost his arm in the war?” Of course, you need to carefully count the number of guesses he gets wrong that the callers forget. Which can be difficult at the speed that Edward spits out guesses.
Numbers from 1 to 12
As well as initials, they will at some point guess a number. The number chosen will usually be from 1 to 12. That way, if the number is (say) the actual date the relative died, (or was born, graduated – anything will do), he can claim a great hit – he got the date right. If not, then someone will have a birthday, death (etc) in the numbered month. So when the number guessed is between 1 and 12, there is always the fallback to claim it relates to a month. The guess is therefore much more likely to be a “hit” than a number over 12. In fact, see if either of them ever guess a number over 12. And see how many times they guess a number from 1 to 12.
Van Praagh will often ask about "Jewelry" - because most elderly relatives will have left some jewelry, or perhaps a watch to their children or grandchildren. The caller will supply the details. This is, of course very manipulative, emotionally, to remind the caller of precious items their dead relatives left them.
Caller Accepts a Miss as a Hit
These can sometimes be hard to spot at the time, and frequently they only become clear when looking at the transcript. For example, see this exchange from the reading I linked above:
EDWARD: OK, Linda, the first thing I want talk about is, I know you're looking for your mom but I'm getting an older male who's also there on the other side. I feel like this is somebody who would be above you, which means it's like a father-figure, or an uncle, and he passes from either lung cancer or emphysema, tuberculosis; it's all problems in the chest area. OK, that's the first thing. And I feel like there's a J or a G-sounding name attached to this.
CALLER: That's my mother.
EDWARD: She's got a very dominant personality.
CALLER: That's my mother. Her first name starts with G and she had emphysema.
Edward had said the “chest area” person was the “older male”. Caller recollects this ailment is her Mother. The caller has accepted this obvious (wrong) guess as a “hit”.
This one is more obvious:
EDWARD: Is there a Katherine or Kathleen connected to you?
CALLER: My brother's name was Keith.
This is a big part of the psychology of cold reading – the caller feels it is his or her fault if Edward guesses wrong and so the caller, if possible, will try to turn Edward’s miss into a hit.
Multiple Fishing Questions
Edward especially relies on speaking very quickly and on multiple rapid-fire fishing questions. From the transcript again:
What is coming through is a younger male figure, who is passed over, and I feel like he passes because of a car accident, or because of an impact to his body-something that impacts his body. He's telling me, "He's connected to R"-like Rich or Richie or Robbie; and he's connected to somebody beneath you. So I don't know if you have a son, and this is a son's friend who's trying to come through to his family. But there's somebody younger coming through like this; and it's in your area, it's not out-of-state. It's not far away-
It’s hard from just reading the above, to appreciate the speed that Edward can get through something like that. I’m pretty sure the idea is that with enough guesses, something is likely to be right, and with the speed that Edward whizzes through them, the caller will forget all the wrong guesses.
Complete Miss on All Guesses
Despite all the above techniques, Edward or van Praagh will sometimes miss completely on every guess for a caller. When this happens, they will simply say that the reading (ie the dead person he was talking to) was for a different caller. It’s the perfect “out” – when he’s right he’s right; when he’s wrong he’s still right (but for a different caller). Of course, this result is indistinguishable from someone just making guesses.
Badge / Flag
Edward will sometimes ask about the “Badge”. This is an over riding guess that can work for a dead relative in the military, police force, fire department, etc. It will normally go along these lines:
EDWARD: I see a badge. Who wore a badge?
CALLER: My Dad was in the police!
EDWARD: Yes, because they’re telling me he was in the police.
Edward claims specific knowledge although his guess was initially much more vague. The caller supplied the details that Edward pretended he got.
A similar guess is “Flag”. Edward sees them waving a flag – that can mean someone patriotic (in the military), or someone born (or died, etc) around the fourth of July, or a warning sign – the caller supplies the answer.
Dead Relative is “OK”
The sum total of most of these validating guesses is usually that the dead relative is “OK”. There’s never any useful actual information given – “the gold coins are buried _________”, or “the number of the Swiss bank account that you didn't know I had is ____________”, or “the name and address of the person who murdered me is __________”. Instead we always hear that the dead people are “OK”. Worthless. And, most importantly, totally unverifiable.
Do you understand?
Edward’s favorite. After a series of guesses that are clearly wrong (the caller hasn’t agreed with any), Edward will ask, aggressively “do you understand?” The caller will usually reply “yes” – ie they do understand what Edward is saying. But “I understand” is not the same as “you are correct”. It can appear that even just a nod here can mean verification.
That covers all the squares. If anyone knows any of van Praagh’s specials, please add them to the comments. And have fun playing bingo. Usually the game is to get a straight line marked out. With these two bozos I think it should be possible to get the whole card marked off.
Thanks to The Amazing Randi for supplying the van Praagh techniques I included above . Also thanks to members of the JREF Forum, and especially Rob Lancaster for the "Pink Panther" example. And a huge thanks to Brett who built the randomized bingo card you see above.
Update - Friday November 16, 2007
The show was a total let down - no cold reading despite the promise that the psychics would "take your calls" - just a load of vapid claims from a bunch of dopes that included Shirley MacLaine. I'll leave the post up so that it's there for the next time they actually do have Edward doing his cold reading act.
26 November 07 - Edited to add:
I just posted about the actual program (which was not as advertised) - From The Sublime to The Ridiculous.