It was another big weekend for Vancouver skeptics. We hosted Dr. Christopher DiCarlo for a discussion of human origins in Africa, and we once again handed out flyers at a reading by self-proclaimed ‘psychic medium’ John Edward.
On Sunday, August 15th, our fair city of Vancouver played host to self-proclaimed psychic medium John Edward. Mr. Edward is perhaps most famous for his television show Crossing Over with John Edward, a half-hour show in which he claims to speak to the deceased relatives of audience members. In his show, he reveals intimate and personal information about those who have “passed to the other side”. Like other mediums, Mr. Edward claims to be a vessel through which information passes from the realm of the dead to the living.
The problem, of course, is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Edward can actually do what he claims. His approach is nearly indistinguishable from a well-known technique of manipulation called ‘cold reading‘. Basically, a ‘psychic’ cold reads a mark by initially using words or phrases that are so vague as to apply to anyone. Once a mark responds, the psychic hones in and sends progressively more specific probing phrases and words until the mark is completely convinced. At this point, the psychic can make claims about the feelings and wishes of the dead person with full buy-in from both the mark and the audience, who by this time are also staunch believers. A better explanation and illustration can be found here.
Why were we there?
A handful of volunteers from the Centre for Inquiry – Vancouver were present at the event to hand out some informative flyers to audience members (a pdf of the flyer can be seen here). As we have done previously with Deepak Chopra, we stood on the sidewalk outside the venue, and handed flyers to people as they came in. I must admit a bit of deception on my own part, as I asked people if they were here to see the John Edward show, and if they affirmed, I told them that we had flyers for them. While I did not lie (more on this in a bit), I didn’t dissuade them of the impression that I was working for the show.
Once again, we were not there to tell people they were stupid, or gullible, or uneducated. We weren’t there to feel smarter, or a smug sense of satisfaction at ‘educating the rubes’, nor were we there to ‘convert’ people to skepticism. It is my personal belief that most people are skeptical about some things, but seem to be readily willing to accept other things at face value.
We had two primary goals – first, to encourage people to be skeptical of claims by showing them some of the techniques ‘psychics’ use to trick people; and second, to engender a discussion of critical thinking and skepticism in a group of people who are likely not skeptics. We wanted people to be asking themselves ‘does this really make sense?’ We hoped that by showing people what the techniques were, we would prime them to ask real questions about what they were seeing.
How did it go?
Most people took a flyer and looked over it as they walked in. Some people asked for multiple flyers for their friends who were inside in line. We didn’t have a particular target for how many flyers we wanted to distribute, but we estimate our output at just under 100. The room in which the event was held has a 300-person capacity, meaning we missed more than we hit. We weren’t exactly thrilled that we didn’t get everyone, but we had a few hitches.
When we first arrived, we learned that many people had already gone inside the venue and were waiting in line for the doors to open. We ventured inside and up the stairs, and were suddenly face to face with 60-70 people, most of whom were much older than we were. A number of attendees were in wheelchairs and walkers. Standing there, faced with a group that outnumbered us 12:1, standing patiently waiting to speak to their dead relatives, we quickly lost courage and beat a hasty retreat to the Starbucks across the street to rethink our strategy.
We decided to stick to the sidewalk and get people coming in. This was decided for a few reasons. First, we felt a bit dickish going to people waiting in line and putting flyers in their hands. It felt opportunistic and mean. Second (and probably most importantly), it was scary. I kept having visions of a growing angry murmur going through the crowd, followed by a stampede of wheelchairs thirsting for our blood. On the sidewalk at least, we rationalized over frappuccinos, people had the opportunity to ignore us, or engage us, without having to face a giant crowd. Yes we’d miss the die-hards who showed up early, but they’d probably reject us out of hand anyway.
Overall, we walked away happy that at least we had done something, even if we didn’t shake up the world.
My personal experience
One woman offered us an extra ticket, and I jumped at the chance to get some intel from inside. When I went to talk to her, she asked me if I liked John Edward. I told her I’d never met him. The rest of the conversation went thusly:
Her: But do you like his work?
Me: No, not really.
Her: Why not?
Me: The world is a complicated place, and there are serious questions we have to ask ourselves. Whenever someone offers easy answers to difficult questions, I’m immediately skeptical. In the course of my skepticism, I’ve learned there are much better explanations for why John Edward can do what he does than believing he can talk to ghosts.
Her: Well then I’m afraid you can’t have the ticket.
Me: Oh, okay.
Her: If you bring negative energy in, it will prevent the spirits from speaking to him.
Me: Surely they wouldn’t be afraid of me. I’m just a guy.
Her: They aren’t afraid, they just require you to have an open mind.
I thanked her for the offer, and she thanked me for my honesty. I wasn’t about to take this woman’s money (tickets ran over $200) based on a lie. As much as I would have loved to get the inside scoop for you, there was no way I was going to do it through deception. She really believed in the supposed powers that Edward claims to have, so much so that the presence of even one person who didn’t believe would chase away all of the ghosts. This kind of insular environment allows Edward to prey on people, where not even one dissenting voice will be tolerated (although I suppose I could have just bought a ticket – even $25 would have been too much in my opinion).
The low point, of course, was high-tailing it out of the hotel at our first pass. I was amazed at how powerful the normative pressure was. Nobody was staring or being aggressive, yet as soon as we saw the line I could feel the pressure to run away. I’m not a shy person – I have no problem talking to strangers or approaching people in social settings; however, I was petrified by this situation. I have a bit more appreciation for people who are afraid of public speaking after failing in our first attempt.
The highlight for me was meeting Debbie, an attendee who came outside to ask us why we were there. Debbie felt that we were being uncharitable, and calling people stupid for not doing the research themselves. She told me that until you’ve had a supernatural experience, you have no right to criticize someone else’s search for truth. I told Debbie that I had indeed had several experiences that I attributed to supernatural causes, but once I had been exposed to better information and given the opportunity to make up my mind, I was grateful to have learned something. I also pointed out that we were no more calling people stupid than a public health campaign for hand-washing was calling people stupid – we are merely presenting people with information that we think could help them. She was not entirely swayed by my argument, although she did laud us on our non-confrontational style and general affability.
It is easy to dismiss the positions of those who disagree with you, especially when they are paying money to see a well-known fraud, but if we want to gain allies in the skeptical movement, we have to take criticism from all sides and evaluate it on its own merit. Debbie may have had a point – who were we to take away people’s false hope? My response to that as always is that the truth is important. We need to get as close to objective truth as we can in order to deal with each other honestly, and to allow humankind to progress. Permitting nonsense and charlatanry like John Edward to pass us by uncontested is an invitation for more deception, and a betrayal of the ideals of humanism. Things like this should be discussed and criticized, and people should not be allowed to defraud each other simply because “everyone is entitled to their opinion“. We have a duty to the truth, and ought to talk about it openly.
Hopefully our exercise in “skeptivism” encouraged a few people to think critically about what they were hearing. As we continue to do these events (James van Praagh, another ghoul who preys on the grief and credulousness of an non-skeptical public, will be in Richmond at the end of September), we invite members of the skeptical and non-skeptical community to give us commentary on how we can be more effective, and/or less offensive to those who buy in.
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