Maybe you’ve noticed that it’s pretty rare for those of us who appear in the media on behalf of skepticism or secular humanism to get equal time to represent our side. There are exceptions.
I got a fair amount of time to speak and a friendly edit on Penn and Teller’s Bullshit (twice), the WGN Morning Show, and a few other TV shows. But the on-air ratio of us-to-them is usually some overwhelming amount of time on the side of Bigfoot or alien abductors to a few snippets of a skeptic’s detailed explanation.
So when the Dr. Phil Show called CFI looking for someone to represent the side skeptical of psychic claims, I was pleasantly surprised. John Edward, whom I’ve written about in Skeptical Inquirer, appeared on Dr. Phil this past January, and now they were doing another show with skepticism being represented. Great! The producers described Dr. Phil as being very skeptical, and asked about how the psychics who would also appear on the show could be put to the test. I was overflowing with ideas.
Our Independent Investigations Group (IIG) has been testing these kinds of claims for over 12 years, and has lots of experience giving claimants a fair chance to shine. (None ever have, by the way.)
Instead of me running a simple test, the producers preferred to have a skeptic “cold read” a group of strangers and then have a psychic – alleged psychic – read the same group. Both would be introduced as psychics. My first instinct was to let IIG member Mark Edward, an experienced mentalist, do the read. When I couldn’t reach Mark, I decided to do it myself.
I have witnessed (at least) dozens of cold readings and am very familiar with the technique. So I crammed the weekend before the Monday they taped the reading, and arrived at Paramount Studios that day walking with a cane. (The idea was to soften the sitters’ hearts so they would root for a positive reading. Buying into the psychic’s abilities is an important part of the perception of success.) I had to do something. I was nervous, and the psychic reading after me was younger, female, and very experienced.
By the end of my 40 minute session with 12 strangers, I had made 3 of them cry and gotten a fairly high percentage of “hits”, i.e. accurate guesses. I left much relieved, and my college friend Joe (who had witnessed the reading) and I both felt like my very first psychic reading (on national TV!) had been a great success. The strangers’ tears were testimony to their acceptance of me as a psychic.
When I arrived at Paramount the next day for the taping of the actual show, I learned that I, the lone skeptic, would be relegated to the audience while the psychics (billed on the Dr. Phil website as “well-known experts”) sat up on stage with Dr. Phil. I expected to be outnumbered, but thought the psychological disparity of sticking me in the audience was a low blow.
I’m not sure of the timing of when I was revealed as a fake (psychic), but those whom I read – even those who cried – now scoffed at my abilities. Even the psychics tried to pile on with one saying that I am a psychic, though a bitter one. Wow.
So you’re saying that I – a completely science-based skeptic, study a deceptive technique, employ that technique to the degree that believers tear-up at my words, and admit my fakery freely to make a point about how such deception works – am actually a psychic? In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, “Oh you’re way off.”
Ok, I get that Dr. Phil’s audience (about 80% of those in studio, we learned) is mostly believers in psychic powers. Maybe the show is afraid of challenging the views of so many of their viewers. But it would have nice to have a fair chance to do so.
Maybe the edit will favor science in a way I can’t predict.
To find out, tune in to Dr. Phil on Friday May 25th, 2012 to see how equally the skeptical Dr. Phil presents two sides to a question about skills the world of science is very unconvinced about.