Skeptics are almost always at a disadvantage when doing major media appearances. Many talk shows seem to cater to heavily believer-based audiences, and seek to entertain more than to inform — despite presenting a façade of scientific or journalistic inquiry. Such was the case with my appearance on the Dr. Phil Show on May 25th.
Now let me preface my criticism below with a quick reality check. Around 80% of Dr. Phil’s studio audience (the day we shot the show) said they believe in psychic ability. While that high percentage of believers may or may not represent his at-home audience numbers, it clearly indicated which direction the fans in front of him were leaning. Dr. Phil was not likely to step on all those fans’ shoes.
Also, though Dr. Phil used language (like the word “experiment” in our demonstration of cold reading) that suggests serious inquiry, the show was clearly structured to entertain his audience, not to fairly present two sides of an argument. Viewed as entertainment trying to keep 80% of its audience happy, the Dr. Phil show is understandable.
The problem is, the show gives the appearance of a serious look at a question: “Do psychic powers really exist?”
It was not a serious look at that question. When the producers (who assured me that Dr. Phil was very much a skeptic) asked me about ways psychics could be put to the test, I offered several possibilities. (After all, our IIG has been testing these kinds of claims for 12 years.) Instead, they opted to have me “psychically” read a group of strangers, which I did successfully.
How do I know I was successful? Three of the ten participants cried because of things I said. I mention them crying not out of any sense of satisfaction, but only to underscore that they were believing in an ability – getting information from the spirits of dead people – I know I do not possess. (By the way, add a camera operator and a segment producer to those at the reading who responded positively and seemed to be impressed by guesses I made. Those were edited out.)
The point of doing that reading (my first ever) was to show that by merely using cold reading techniques, I could convince people I was in contact with the spiritual world. I was not claiming that I was better at cold reading than Rebecca Rosen, the psychic who did the second reading of the group. I’m sure the thousands of readings under her belt have honed her skills well beyond those of my rookie debut. (I’d love to compare her hit rate, and count her total number of guesses.)
All my reading was meant to show was that a fake could be convincing. Yet, this stunning revelation was completely glossed over on the show.
It should be noted that people don’t generally see two psychics in a row and compare them, like in the show. People go to one psychic at a time. Also, the ten participants in the reading were not typical clients seeking out and paying for psychic advice. Normally, psychics’ customers are hugely self-selecting believers. (How many skeptics would pay $500 for a reading?) This lowers the bar for any psychic because her client is wholly uncritical and predisposed to find success in a reading.
I mention all this because the show testimonials comparing me and Rebecca are irrelevant. Even if people had been read by two professional psychics, one would have scored better than the other.
Lest anyone mistake this show for a fair fight, here are some of the ways the Dr. Phil show slanted the discussion toward the psychic side:
1. Invite 4 psychics to the discussion and place them on stage front and center.
(I was the only skeptic, and was relegated to the front row of the audience — physically lower than the psychics. Of course, that wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been given opportunity to respond after each psychic spoke or attempted a reading.)
2. Introduce the psychics with great fanfare. The websites calls them “well-known experts.”
(My description on the Dr. Phil website uses scare quotes in calling me a “professional skeptic..”
3. Edit out psychics’ poor showing in the live audience reading. Edit out part of Dr. Phil’s criticism of Dougall’s aura read of his (Dr. Phil’s) colors. Edit out my responses to some of the participants’ comments. Edit out my criticism of Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell’s citing of the Stargate Project and to Daryl Bem’s experiments. Edit out my mention of Skeptical Inquirer magazine which addresses both those claims.
4. Edit out shots of two of the three sitters crying during my reading, one of whom later said he didn’t believe my ability. Edit out my reading hits on the camera operator and the segment producer.
5. Allow me to see only the severely edited footage of the Rebecca Rosen reading and the Colette Baron-Reid reading during the actual show, and allow little or no time (respectively) to respond to the techniques they used.
6. Give a vast majority of the show minutes to the psychics and to pro-psychic testimonials with little or no opportunity for rebuttal. (I’ll have specific numbers soon.)
Given the opportunity, I could have easily explained every bit of apparent success each of the psychics had as well as called attention to their misses during their live reads. As we’ve seen for years, people’s recollection of how well the psychics did does not jibe with how well they actually did.
(For example, when Rebecca Rosen said, “I’m supposed to talk about a hummingbird…” – which could mean any number of different things – a woman responded, “Oh my god, that’s my tattoo!” Phil reacts (see the clip) implying that Rebecca knew that this woman had a hummingbird tattoo. She did not. The woman told Rebecca she had a hummingbird tattoo. Throwing random thoughts out there and hoping they land on something is how psychics work. Psychics who talk fast and get a lot of guesses out score more points matching fragments of people’s lives. Hell, the hummingbird guess fits me! We have hummingbirds in our garden where I like to go to relax and smoke a cigar. Is that a hit?)
The bottom line is that the show was presented to me and the TV audience as a sincere examination of whether psychic ability exists. What it was was a biased, slanted presentation that gave huge advantages to the psychics, and short shrift to science and skepticism.
Look, if Dr. Phil wants to emulate Montel Williams and do silly shows full of wild claims and nonsense, he should knock himself out. But if he wants to be taken seriously as a reasonable person, he should reconsider how he presents (especially fringe) issues.
Don’t whitewash an outhouse and call it a spa.