This Saturday I was watching a repeat of the Larry King Live with Criss Angel – the one where Angel says he doesn’t think people have psychic powers or can talk to the dead. The one where he says he will bust anyone on live TV if they claim psychic powers. (And of course, a few days later he did bust Jim Callahan for doing just that.) I had missed this interview originally. Anyway – irony time – it was immediately followed by a repeat of the November 16th Larry King with all the phony psychics, mediums, ghost hunters etc. The one that was advertised as “taking your calls” but in fact didn’t. (So we couldn’t play Cold Reader Bingo. Maybe next time.)
And what a waste of an hour that was.
The star of the show was celebrity nutter Shirley MacLaine, who was given a whole segment to espouse her made-up nonsense about reincarnation and the afterlife. It also featured cold reader James Van Praagh, cold reader Lisa Williams, professional twit Jason Hawes (an investigator on the Sci-Fi program "Ghost Hunters", who believes for no rational reason I can think of that EMF signals are ghosts), someone called Chris Fleming at the site of the filming of the fictional film "The Shining", (again for no rational reason I could ascertain), plus Mary Ann Winkowski, upon whose life the TV show "The Ghost Whisperer" is supposedly “loosely” based. Very loosely actually, since the TV “Ghost Whisperer" has detailed conversations with dead people where names of murderers etc are clearly given. (No “I’m getting an R”.)
It’s not worth deconstructing the drivel from this show line by line, but here are a few samples to give you an idea (full transcript):
VAN PRAAGH: There is no such thing as death. There is no such thing as death.
VAN PRAAGH: The spirit. You're first and foremost a spirit. The spirit doesn't die. You're a spirit encased in a physical body. The physical body will shut down, break down and be, you know, decompose. But the spirit will not. The spirit remains -- lives on.
WINKOWSKI: OK. All children can do this. Children are so innocent. Their imagery friends are not imaginary.
MACLAINE: The whole question is the question of consciousness, to me. That's why science exists. That's why people like Steven Hawking and the Dalai Lama agree with each other -- that energy never dies, it just changes form. So when someone, so-called, dies and the soul leaves the body -- which is not to say the mind. The mind is different from the soul in my studies.
I think we're suffering now with the confusion of the paradigm blindness. I mean once we understand the paradigm of this other dimensional reality, we won't be so blind to what's happening.
MACLAINE: I'll tell you what it means mostly to me. You don't kill when you kill somebody. The mind dies. The body dies. War is stupid, because nobody gets killed. The souls get all screwed up and karma is incurred. So war is stupid.
MACLAINE: I see -- not like these other gifted people you have. I see, every now and then, out of the corner of my eye I see, oh, and that's a spirit.
MACLAINE: Karma. And it maybe not happened in one lifetime because remember, there's no time.
Einstein wrote about that, Hawking writes about that. So all time is happening concurrently now.
MACLAINE: Stephen Hawking came to his presence and to this place of proof and said, I know there is an afterlife and the soul never dies because I understand energy. What would he say?
I’ll just point out again that this stuff is made-up by these people. You should also note the misuse of science: the huge leaps made from what the actual science says to the unwarranted metaphysical conclusions they want to foist on us.
And then there was the token skeptic. Once again it was Dr. Bryan Farha, the guy who in May 2003 actually managed to get in a call on Larry King, to Sylvia Browne, to ask her why she was avoiding taking Randi’s million dollar challenge as she had promised. On this week’s show he was one against many, and was only given a few minutes to express doubt at all the extraordinary (and frankly absurd) claims being made by everyone else. And for part of those few minutes, it has to be said, the camera panned to the smug grins on the faces of the frauds sitting around the table. It’s at times like this when I wonder if there really is any value to skeptics appearing on such a show. In a written forum (such as the JREF forum, or comments posted to skeptical blogs), the woomeisters have nowhere to hide: their rhetorical tricks and lack of evidence for their claims can be easily exposed. On Larry King, they can get away with smug comments about closed-mindedness etc, before Larry moves on to his next credulous question.
Also, I was a little disappointed in Farha. I don’t want to criticize him too much, because at least he is prepared to put himself on the line on TV (something I’ve never done), and I’m sure it’s more difficult than it looks. And without him there would have been no voice expressing any doubt at all. However, I wished he had not talked so much about needing “proof”. Scientists don’t usually talk about “proof” – they usually ask for “evidence”, for the very good reason that you can’t really “prove” anything outside of math. Asking for proof opens you up to all sorts of rhetorical counter-attacks. Fortunately, none of the twits in the studio were smart enough to take advantage of that, and van Praagh even said he had proof of life after death. Still, you can’t rely on that every time.
I was also a little disappointed in Farha’s reasons why skepticism here is important:
KING: Do you see any harm in believing it?
FARHA: Well, there's harm in believing anything that could fall into the category of being hocus pocus. If you don't think critically -- this is about critical thinking. This is not about ghosts and haunted houses.
If you don't learn to think critically, you might wind up suffering in all kinds of other areas. You might not send your kids to the best school if you don't think critically. You might find a love interest that is a wife-beater, a batterer. You have to think critically in order to get along in the world, and this doesn't lend itself to critical thinking.
Which is all very well in general, but not a specific reason to be against cold readers like van Praagh. And, probably not a very convincing reason for anyone watching the show. I would have said that these so-called psychics waste a lot of police time chasing false leads in missing child and murder cases. Time that could have been spent following up legitimate leads. Also, I would have said that people can be falsely accused of crimes. And finally, I would have said that parents of missing children are manipulated and taken advantage of at their most vulnerable time. To understand what I mean, you should read what Mark Klass has to say. Tragically, his daughter Polly was abducted and murdered in 1993, and numerous “psychics” took this as a cue for their moment of fame. Klass writes:
In truth, that psychic detectives contribution to the case was counter productive. As always seems to be the case with psychic predictions, her interference created distraction. Law enforcement resources are diverted toward useless endeavors as phantom leads disappear into thin air. One cold and dark November evening many of us were lurking around somebody’s property because the psychic said that it held the key to my daughter’s disappearance. With the heightened sense of paranoia that already existed in the community that property owner would have been well within his rights to blow us away on the spot for trespassing. We were very fortunate that night, because although he did angrily confront us, he had absolutely nothing to do with the crime we were investigating.
In the end, and despite their protests, there is not even one case of a psychic truly assisting or solving a missing child case. It’s just smoke and mirrors. Their references do not support their claims and law enforcement cannot acknowledge their existence. Instead, their wishful thinking collides with your desperate hope and leaves you diminished.
Unfortunately, the next time a little child is kidnapped and mom and dad reach the end of their emotional string the vague, empty promises of the psychic detective will rebound off the stark walls of the missing child’s bedroom and a photo or toy will be palmed as the negotiations are engaged.
That’s the real problem with these frauds. And it’s this admittedly more emotional argument that I believe might get through to those on the fence, rather than Farha’s rather dubious concern about sending kids to the wrong school. It’s really quite a simple response that we should all have ready when asked such a question.
I want to end with a comment on skeptics, from the “Ghost Hunters” guy:
HAWES: Well, I think what the skeptics need to do is stop throwing insults at the self-proclaimed sensitives or the people investigating claims of the paranormal and really meet in the middle, start trying to figure this out together. If we work together, we can come to an answer, but if we're going to spend all our time attacking each other, we're not going to get ahead
Wrong, jackass. It’s not the job of skeptics or anyone else to “meet you in the middle”. That’s not how science works. If you want us to accept your “hypothesis” (in scare quotes, because I don’t really believe he has one), you need to support it with evidence. To be clear – that’s your job, not ours. Then (and this is the bit you want to avoid), you need to let other people examine your evidence for holes, to try to prove it false. What’s left standing after this process has a reasonable chance of being true. That’s how real scientists do it. That’s what Einstein did and that’s what Hawking did. In fact, Hawking had to change his views at least once after others proved him wrong. Einstein was also shown to be wrong on some things. They didn’t whine about being “attacked”. (Hey, if woos can invoke these intellectual giants, so can I.) Until you do this Hawes, you’re just a whiner who wants special treatment for his silly claims. That may be good enough for the Science Fiction channel, but it’s not how science works in fact.