Or he put his knowledge on hold for this show.
After all these years, it still surprises me that people have the same old fake psychic cold readers on their TV shows. From Orac, I learned last week that Dr. Phil was going to have John Edward and Char Marglois on his show January 10. Can the producers of this show not have heard of the lame cold reading tricks these people use to fool their marks? It’s not as if they couldn’t have contacted the JREF for a detailed explanation of how it’s done (along with the information that Edward and others refuse to be tested for Randi’s million dollar prize, under controlled conditions). It’s also not as if there aren’t a number of skeptical web sites that have also explained this in some detail. Six years ago, I wrote John Edward Re-revisited - a detailed analysis of one of John Edward’s appearances on Larry King. In it I explained the psychology of the scam – for example, how the mark will feel the need to “help” the fake psychic, by suggesting answers and accepting misses as hits. And yet this is Dr. Phil. Isn’t he supposed to be some sort of psychologist? Surely, of all people, Dr. Phil should recognize the psychology of the shell game being played. Shouldn’t Dr. Phil, with his expertize in psychology, be the one to expose this racket rather than promote it? Well, except that his wife is obviously a credulous believer (more of that later). And ratings were also a factor – he showed a huge pile of emails from people wanting to get on the show. (Note to the producers – you don’t have to print out emails.)
Still, this would be an opportunity to play Cold Reader Bingo – to see how many regular cold reader tricks are used in a short period of time. Now, I’m sad to report that I didn’t get a complete line with the chart I randomly chose to use, but I did get hits on 12 out of 25 squares – not bad. And although the bingo card is obviously meant to make fun of these cold readers, its purpose is also serious – it exposes the lame tricks that they use again and again to fool their marks. Click on the Cold Reader Bingo link. In addition to the (randomizable) card, each of the cold reader tricks are explained in more detail in that post.
Against my better judgment, I decided to watch the show with a view to breaking down the techniques used. Doing this, I realized how much I miss Larry King. Yes, he would have these bozos on his show but at least CNN would publish a transcript so you could easily compare the guesses with what the mark actually agreed to. Well, there is no transcript that I could find, so I had to transcribe my own version – not word perfect, but good enough to demonstrate what was going on.
I’m going to focus on just three segments in the show:
- Three sisters who were on first
- Reading for Dr. Phil
- Several reading by Edward on the whole audience (although we were only shown readings on two groups of people).
I’m not going to comment on the readings on Dr. Phil’s wife, or the reading on the producer – there was only so much I was prepared to watch, and Dr. Phil’s wife was, well I’ll be polite and say credulous. Also, there was also a numerologist, for some reason, and I didn’t watch that.
In the sections below I bolded the cold reader guesses, transcribed by me – not blockquoted as they’re not exact quotes (I only have so much time to waste on this nonsense, and as it is I had to watch each section at least five or six times to be sure I caught everything), but they are accurate in principle, if not verbatim. My summary of the marks’ answers and analysis, follow the bolded cold reader quotes.
Three similarly looking, and similarly dressed women who want a reading, are called up to the front.
Margolis: Your Mother is with you, she says you brought something of hers (with Margolis holding out her hands to mime the thing that was being brought). This is a standard cold reader guess. Most people bring some jewelry, or a watch. One of the women says “yes” and shows a tattoo of her Mother. So this was a MISS, since a tattoo is not something of her mother’s. However the woman accepts this as a hit. Standard cold reader / mark relationship, where the mark will accept a miss as a hit.
Margolis guesses they came together, and they confirm they are sisters.
Margolis (staring at the woman, trying hard to read a reaction): Did she die in an accident… [pause to look for response] a car accident or impact… [pause to look for response] er, er, er, er, er… I did write that piece down verbatim. Watched it five or six times to count the “er”s. Interesting to see the concentration in Margolis’s face as she stares at the woman and tries to guess what happened, expecting the mark to fill in the details. Unusually, the woman just shakes her head, but doesn’t say what happened.
Margolis Who else is Joseph [pause to look for response], Joe.. [pause to look for response], or John? [pause to look for response], John? Straight in with the “J” bingo square. Any name beginning with a J would count as a hit here. Woman confirms John is their step father. Note that the first guess, “Joe” is wrong. (As before, Margolis looking hard at woman to try to read any response.) The important thing to remember here is that any J name would have been accepted by the mark as a hit, and they had forgotten the initial wrong “Joe” guess. (HELLO – psychology 101, Dr. Phil.)
Margolis: He’s living, right? WRONG – he’s dead. (How can they constantly get this basic fact wrong and still have people believe them?)
Margolis: I get the feeling, he is looking up, while she is looking down. Interpreted later to mean that he is in hell, she in heaven. And yet it’s funny how Margolis would know he was in hell, when 10 seconds before, she thought he was alive. Either way, impossible to verify.
Here Edward jumps in and says is there a murder suicide connection? Strange wording. A “connection”? Why not just say, “was it a murder suicide? Lucky Edward: this is a hit.
Edward: Did she get you out of the house? Another MISS. One of the sisters was outside giving horse riding lessons, but the mother did not “get her out of the house.”
Edward: I don’t know if he shot himself, but I’m getting an impact, a blunt impact. Very WRONG. He actually slit his wife’s throat, and (hard to believe, but this what the woman said) slit his own. You don’t slit someone’s throat with a blunt instrument – you need something sharp. Edward was unlucky here – gunshot would probably have been the most likely thing.
Edward: Did you have an intervention to try to get him out? Another MISS. The sisters had moved out a year before, but there had been no intervention.
At Dr. Phil’s prompting, the sisters then explained in detail what had actually happened (ie the bits that Edward and Margolis couldn’t guess, which was most of it).
Summary of hits versus misses:
- You brought something of hers – WRONG
- Who is Joe – WRONG
- He’s living, right? – WRONG
- Did he die in an accident… a car accident or impact… er, er, er, er, er – WRONG, WRONG, WRONG, and five “er”s also WRONG
- Murder suicide? – CORRECT a HIT!
- Got you out of the house first – WRONG
- Gunshot – WRONG
- Blunt force – couldn’t be more WRONG – very sharp force, actually
- You had an intervention – WRONG
Eight wrong and only one right.
Now, I understand that many people will be impressed by the murder-suicide guess. “How could he have guessed that?” they would say. But you have to understand that Edward frequently makes outlandish guesses, for example who died in a plane or car crash? / who has a leg or arm missing? / who committed suicide? / who was shot in a robbery? – I’ve heard all of those and more. It’s always presented as a question (as it was this time), so when no one fits the bill (and it often does not fit) 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 real. This is why “Wild Ass Guess” is a bingo card square. But you have to compare these lucky guesses with the more numerous completely wrong ones, to see the pattern of what is really happening. Initially I was quite impressed with the murder/suicide guess; it was only after watching this section about 10 times (I’m not kidding – Edward speaks very quickly) that I realized that everything else they guessed was wrong. Confirmation bias in action: remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.
Dr Phil reading
Char Magolis’s reading of Dr. Phil consisted of names from Phil’s Wikipedia page and a few other articles you can find online, plus a few wrong guesses accepted as hits by Phil and his wife Robin.
First, we have the “hits” that can all be found on Wikipedia:
Do you have a J, Joseph or John connection? Phil confirms his father's name was Joseph. Information available on Wikipedia.
Is there a Steve? Phil confirms Stevens is his mother’s maiden name. Information available on Wikipedia. Although Margolis said Steve, not Stevens. And why would his mother would refer to herself using her maiden name? Would your mother, if she wanted you to know it was her, call herself by her maiden name? Has your mother ever referred to herself, when speaking to you, using her maiden name? Mine never did. Why would Dr. Phil’s mother do that? Why not just say “it’s your Mom, Jerry”? Or some other means of identification only Phil would know?
Who is Jerry or Gerald? Er, that’s his mom too – Jerry. Information also available on Wikipedia. But why does Margolis not know that this is also his mother? Wasn’t she just talking to her? (There’s a lot of mumbling by Phil about his mother’s brother, who was also Gerry, or something. Not sure why, since it was already a hit with Jerry.)
Who worked with tools? Apparently no one. Although later Robin (Dr. Phil’s wife) is determined to make this obvious miss a hit, by reminding Phil that his father used to be a butcher. “Worked with tools” means a butcher? Quite a stretch. (Note again the psychology of cold reading – the mark is determined to convert the misses to hits. Again Dr. Phil HELLO, are you a psychologist or not?) Also, why would Phil’s father communicate with his son that he worked with tools (meaning he used to be a butcher), rather than just say, “hey, remember I used to be a butcher?” MISS.
Were you in an airplane and there was an engine problem? Phil confirms a hit, but then we can easily know this would be a hit from this interview:
Dr. Phil has been a pilot since he was 16 years old. He has been through a number of instances on airplanes where his life was in jeopardy... [My bold]
Did you make a go-kart as a child? Robin later confirms this as a hit, because their son had an accident in his go cart. But this is actually a miss, because the question was “did you make a go-kart as a child,” not “did your son have a go-kart accident?” Also we know that Phil and his family used go-karts from this article:
“[Dr. Phil] showed the audience some pictures of his family enjoying ATVs and go-karts…
There is a guess about a cemetery that is a hit, and another one about railroads that is a miss, although Dr. Phil desperately tries to link to someone in his family who might have worked on the railroad.
- Hits from Wikipedia – 3
- Hits from other online articles – 2 (being generous)
- Real hits – 1
- Misses - 1
Useful information – zero.
John Edward read two groups of women.
Is there a male energy who has passed? Note that “male energy” has now replaced the “father figure” from the bingo card, that he used to use. And of course, someone has a male who passed.
Sagittarius connection? Well, Sagittarius is one star sign out of 12. Edward was talking to three women together, so I in 4 chance of a hit with just these three. Add all their friends, parents, children, almost a racing certainty someone knows a Sag. Turns out, a hit for one of the women. But, why did this woman’s dead husband ask about Sagittarius? Unless he was an astrologer, a strange thing to mention right up front. Why not just say, “I’ve got a message for Judy”? (Or whatever her name was.) The vague “Sagittarius” is preferred by the cold reader because it can fit so many more “hits” than a specific name would.
They tell me to talk about Robert or Michael, or “R” “M”? LOL – two bingo squares in one sentence.
Brain tumor, or something “brain related.” Do you understand? Edward’s favorite trick. He calls on his “Do you understand?” bingo square to get a confirmation (she understands what he said) when it was actually a miss (there is no Brain tumor, or anything “brain related.”) The woman responds with “I am a Sagittarius,” therefore making this section a hit, although Edward has missed completely with “brain related” which is now forgotten.
I repeat – the “brain related” miss is now forgotten by everyone. Only the “Sag” hit is remembered.
“You have my liver.” This is accepted as a hit, as “a cousin of my husband” donated his liver to someone. Actually it’s a miss, since Edward was talking to the woman’s father. He said “my liver” remember? (A “cousin of my husband”? That’s not “my” liver.) Also, he said “you” have my liver. “You,” while talking to the two women being read (wife and daughter of the dead guy). Edward was trying another wild ass guess. Imagine if the dead guy had actually donated part of his liver to his wife or daughter – wouldn’t that look completely convincing, just like the “murder suicide” wild ass guess of earlier? Of course it would. But when it turns out wrong, Edward salvages it by saying that her father is now with this cousin of her husband. Edward, as always, the expert in turning misses into hits.
Edward talks about the dead guy having left a crucifix down the back of the chair he used to sit in at their home. On Dr. Phil’s website it says they checked when they got home and found a pen under the cushion. The miss of “pen” is accepted as a hit for “crucifix.”
Someone passed during open heart surgery, or in reaction to a surgical procedure.
The mark confirms her grandmother died during kidney surgery – actually a miss for “heart surgery” although he had left open the “a surgical procedure” to make sure he covered all options.
Is there a Sam, Sammy, something “S”. I actually did laugh out loud at this bingo square. Please note two things here:
- We have now had all four bingo squares for initials: R, M, J and S
- No other initials (or names, apart from Wikipedia ones) have been called, just the bingo square initials.
This is really so obvious – how can anyone think this anything but just guessing the most statistically common initials?
Something about month of May, or 5th. Bingo again – number 1 to 12. The mark confirms her daughter is Samantha and was born in May. To which I ask, so what? What is the point, why would this woman’s grandmother draw attention to her daughter and her birth month?
Hits on bingo squares (in no particular order):
- J name
- Male Energy (now used in place of “father figure”)
- S name
- Wild Ass Guess
- Any number from 1 to 12 (“5”)
- R name
- Accepts miss as a hit (several of these)
- M name
- Multiple fishing questions
- Head Area (I’m counting “brain related” – it’s funny how Edward has evolved different phrasings of these questions. It’s almost as if he has seen the bingo card.)
- Dead relative is “OK”
- Do you understand?
Plus numerous wrong guesses. Many accepted as hits; the rest forgotten. Dr. Phil, you need to go back to psychology school.