Kula Kid #35: “Charlatan’s Web”

During a live radio panel discussion [in 1964], James Randi was challenged by a parapsychologist to “put [his] money where [his] mouth is”, and Randi responded by offering to pay $1,000 to anyone who could demonstrate paranormal powers in a controlled test. When the word got out, donors began stepping forward to help, and soon the prize had grown to one million dollars.

Between 1964 and 1982, Randi declared that over 650 people had applied. Between 1997 and February 15, 2005, there had been a total of 360 official, notarized applications. Applications continue to pour in.

No one has ever gotten past the preliminary test.” – www.randi.org

“Charlatan’s Web”

MauiTime — March 3, 2011 — Volume 14, Issue 37

by Anu Yagi

Surely John Edward is a chronic insomniac. How else can a man who bilks the bereaved sleep at night?

To create the illusion of having otherworldly abilities, self-titled psychic mediums like Edward (who was on Maui last Saturday) employ high-probability guessing and subjective validation in a technique called “cold reading.” Before a large audience of “sitters” (the industry term for subjects), a cold-reader like Edward will rapidly say generic names and blanket personality traits, hoping one of these statements will resonate with someone in the crowd.

“It’s up to somebody to pick up on it and turn it into what they want it to be,” explained master illusionist Derren Brown, in an interview with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. “It’s not really about forensic body reading… it’s not even that clever. There are linguistic tricks that, unless you’re aware of them, are very easy to fall for.”

But more than fall for these tricks, people pay—a lot. Though fools are easily parted from their money, I have sympathy for these mourning saps. I mean, think about your dearly departed, the ones for whom your stomach still turns and your eyes still well with grief. What if they could transmit messages to you from the great beyond? What would that experience be worth? Priceless, right?

For the over 400 attendees at Edward’s Maui Theatre show, the price was $85 to $125 apiece. I suppose there’s some strategy in that—it certainly curates the crowd to the credulous only.

Well, not credulous only. I was there, too.

Though my non-belief is in full form, I can’t help but be fascinated. What makes these swindlers successful—and what makes the rest of us so gullible? Edward is the psychic world’s poster boy—he’s authored a bunch of best-selling books including Crossing Over and After Life, and thanks to exposure on Oprah has a syndicated television series called John Edward Cross Country, broadcast on SyFy. So I at least assumed I’d be in for an interesting show.

“I think you’ll find it disappointingly transparent,” Brown said to Dawkins. “With any sort of skepticism, you’ll see through everything.” Sure enough, Edward was veritably, disappointingly transparent. Try as I might to suspend disbelief, Edward’s few, loose hits—amidst his numerous glaring misses—made the experience almost unbearable.

For example, apparently, there are two spirits haunting the Maui Theatre who desperately want to communicate to someone (anyone!) about Burt Landcaster and Sophia Loren. “Does anyone have any connection to Burt Landcaster? A father or grandfather or uncle who’s passed who really liked Burt Landcaster, or somehow who knew Burt Landcaster?” asked Edward.

After a long, awkward pause, a man raised his hand. “Um, I once had an uncle Burt,” he offered.

“No, no. That’s not it,” replied Edward, hanging onto the dead-end thread for far too long. Still, crickets. So, Edward abandoned Burt (and later Loren, when that failed, too) for something else more sweeping (losing a mother to breast cancer or a father to emphysema—which, somewhat surprisingly, also failed).

I had a half-hatched plan to raise my hand and bite one of Edward’s hooks. I figured if he didn’t see through my ruse, it’d be further proof he’s no psychic. But every time I had the opportunity, I simply couldn’t bring myself to do it. Partly I didn’t feel comfortable lying, but mostly I felt I would be robbing someone else of the comfort they so desperately desired.

Edward offers something many people want, but that’s impossible to give. Yet for the crying woman who believes she connected with her murdered brother, or the trio of sisters who supposedly received loving sentiments from their dead dad, the experience was powerful. I spoke with these women afterward and, between sobs, each said, “I really needed that.”

Is that enough to make Edward’s act forgivable? Do the ends justify the means (and the price)? Let’s turn again to Brown: “If they’re lies, who are you to decide that your lies are what people need to hear to feel comfort? It’s a twisted logic… In the bigger picture, I think it’s crueler to be taken in by that deception.” ■

CLICK HERE for Derren Brown interview (3/6) with Richard Dawkins.



  • Bkimjoe4evr

    Aloha Anu….This is KIM and I just wanted to apologize for my nephews language! I need to make clear that I wasn’t expecting this c–p to happen after the event but I guess I need to set a few things straight!
    I feel that you have singled me out, by using me as your tell-all to get your point across and that you cater to only the atheist crowd. I would’ve appreciated, you identifying yourself and letting me know that you were writing an article in the first place…maybe then I would’ve given you a proper interview, that was very unethical.
    You as a “writer” went into the show with a premeditated notion and no intention of seeking any truth to John’s ability. IF you wanted to confirm the possibility of any facts to what was said, then why didn’t you IDENTIFY yourself to ME and make an effort to speak with other audience members as well, following the show on our PERSONAL readings? Would that not be what a good writer wants? To offer her readers ALL the facts verses her own harsh bias opinion? You also stated that you had so many chances to prove him a fake….then WHY didn’t you. Who cares if you ’d be a liar, wouldn’t you have the satisfaction of proving him a FAKE. To expose John Edward!!!
    So much was validated…you saw with your own eyes and maybe, just maybe that’s why you couldn’t bring yourself to expose him. Just maybe he would have proved you wrong and make you a believer. Or maybe he would have seen right through you . How would he have known my name when the tickets weren’t purchased under my name. Just a lucky guess? He even got my brother’s personality! He said about the baby? My Aunty? The events about his murder? Relationship between us and our Dad? Me using him as a servant from the other-side? Also if you only knew, My whole life…My brother always called me his pain in his @$$. Here is a portion of my list of validations. That is enough proof for you, your followers, those who believe, my Ohana and ME.
    I am a local girl and a lot of people know me on this island….you now belittled me in front of them by judging me with what I do with my money. If you only knew how much this has helped me…I was sitting in this deep black hole of depression for the last four years, and now everyone knows what they didn’t really need to know. I didn’t need to advertise my life story or my Pain but thank you for that . I hope my response can now bring some comfort, hope and relief from what they really need to those that believe JOHN EDWARD, like me! I know that there are fakes out there and don’t believe in very many of them so called psychics but I have to believe when its my brother….you don’t know my whole story, you don’t know my brother, you don’t know our relationship we had and how tight it was to even make a judgment and say if its true or not.
    TRUST me I’ve had many visits before from others that have passed away and know that there is some thing better out there after our time here in this world. I feel very sorry for you …when its your time to go what will you believe and where will you be?
    I say what I should do with my money for my family…trust me that these beautiful kids are well taken cared of and provided for. I could never put a price tag on the love I have for my family. My ticket was a gift from my Mom in the hopes that any help would bring me out of this depression and make life better for the whole family. We would pay this money again knowing how much it has helped me and healed me. AND trust me, if I wanted financial advice, I would’ve seeked it from my MOM, Not You!!! Thanks for making a comment about the $400 dollars that I didn’t take away from the children… do you know that it actually benefited the kids because I am no longer depressed. We all have peace! Mahalo to John Edward for helping!
    Did you not understand when John said, “It is for YOU to make what YOU want of it?”
    So now if you don’t mind…..PLEASE let my brother Rest In Peace!!! Leave his living children with the knowledge of their father and that their baby brother are together once again.

  • justwokeup

    I think it’s very disrespectful to call folks attending the event “fools” and “mourning saps.” You might want to think about the impact of your words.
    OK so you don’t believe in this stuff, fine, others do. Their experience is just as valid as yours. Pretty much all Native cultures connect with their ancestor spirits. To deny their existence is so reductionist. There’s a big world out there and it’s not all that we can see.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment.

      Sure, “fools” and “saps” are pejoratives, but strong language is useful when talking about topics that effect people strongly (and about which you have strong opinions). Besides, the former was used idiomatically and latter was (admittedly a little loosely) alliterating to the word “sympathy.” That is, it was in a sentence expressing sympathy for who are being emotionally moved by Mr. Edward, despite the fact I think Mr. Edward is a con artist (and hell, I was prepared to give him allowances if he was at least good at it).

      That said, I’m bummed that folks like you and Lahaina1997 are so focused on me vs. the audience. My intent is only to attack Mr. Edward (again, not the audience) because what I think he’s doing is wrong. As I said in my recent reply to Lahaina1997, I only mention the audience to illustrate two things: 1) where I’m conflicted about what “good” Mr. Edward accomplishes (again, the sympathy thing), and 2) to say it really isn’t my business how people spend their money (but god damn it, I wish it wasn’t on John Edward). By having paid Mr. Edward myself and seen his act for myself, I feel all the more entitled to share (as you point out) my equally valid opinion about my experience.

      Ironically, I think it’s “so reductionist” to think that they ways our complex, misunderstood brains perceive this “big world” has anything to do with floating spirits of our former selves. To expand on that, I’ll quote the late great Carl Sagan, from his book “Pale Blue Dot” (with due compliments to Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion” … and to the first commenter Jodybro, this one’s for you, too :)

      “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander and more subtle and more elegant’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

  • Jodybro

    Great column. It is particularly timely for me because I just finished reading “Why People Believe Weird Things” by Michael Shermer, the founder of The Skeptics Society. I love reading Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins and I’m always puzzled by the pervasive irrationality in our society. Anyway, thanks for offering sound, thoughtful reasons people can use as ammunition against frauds, fakes and pseudoscientists. Is debunking religion on your list? I know, that’s a biggie.

    • Anonymous

      Aloha, Jodybro! I figured since I was engaging with the dissenters so much, I ought to reply and thank you for your kind comment, too. I’d tried earlier, but it sounded all gushy and awkward.

      Anyway, I mentioned you in my reply to commenter justwokeup, below. I hope that quote is in some way a reply to your question about if “debunking religion is on (my) list.”

      Though I’d love to one day be well-versed enough to be a proponent of post-race, post-religion ideals, I’m simply content with being an admirer of John Safran, Richard Dawkins and Derren Brown, among others, who are doing a smashing job at their jobs. Whatever meager emulation I can achieve is more than I deserve.

      Again, thanks for your encouragement. It means more than you know.

  • Lahaina1997

    anu means cold. ur just a cold hearted bitch with no feelings. :)

  • Lahaina1997

    ur such a dumb bitch. “poor lady” with the murdered brother is my aunty. mr. edwards touched on too many personal issues to not have been making a connection with her brother.

    • Rationalranger

      I’d like to see a list of these personal issues. I would wager that every one of them could be explained by mundane facts, including cold-reading techniques and mere coincidence. Even liars and scammers sometimes guess correctly. UR a pathetic fool and a sucker for con-artists. And very rude too. People like you keep the scams going.

      • Lahaina1997

        The only list you’re gonna get is the one taped to the back of my hand if you don’t stop trying to be such know it all with your “technique” and “coincidence”, because we know what is true and real, and John Edwards ability to contact the deceased is true and real.

        And before I finish, don’t you dare go on calling me a pathetic fool. “UR” the fool for helping this woman pick on the family of a deceased man, and then tell me I’m a fool for keeping this scam going. Screw you!

        • Rationalranger

          Who picked on the family of the deceased man? That cruel charlatan John Edwards, not Anu and not me.

          It is so like irrational people to threaten violence when their foolishness is exposed.

    • Anonymous

      I’m sorry to have hurt your feelings, Lahaina1997. Truly. I think your aunty is a very sweet woman who clearly cares for her brother deeply. If only all relationships could be so love-filled and enduring!

      I’m glad your aunty and your family have found comfort, even if from Mr. Edward. We all need and deserve comfort after having lost someone dear to us. But, I wholeheartedly wish that comfort was reality-based — and did not come with such a hefty price tag.

      Why line a liar’s pockets when that money could be used in better ways? Your aunty attended Mr. Edward’s show with at least three other women, and in so doing spent at least $400. Your aunty also said that she adopted her brother’s children after his passing. I hope you’d agree that a $400 deposit into those kids’ college funds would better serve her brother’s memory than financing Mr. Edward’s vacation.

      In this week’s paper, I also interviewed Dave Wakeling of The English Beat, and I would like to share with you a quote that (due to space limitations) did not make it into the story. I think it reflects a healthy understanding of love and loss.

      “The song “The Love You Give Lasts Forever,” came from me and my sister’s meditations together after our mom had died. We could still feel a sense of our mom. We knew it wasn’t protoplasm or ghosts or anything like that, yet there was still a sense of our mom that was still there. It dawned upon us that it was the love that we shared with her that was that strand of immortality that we could feel. When we remembered those moments it was as if she was still with us, and that was quite a relief to us at time. Sitting and ruminating on your mom’s death has got to be one of the quietest time a boy goes through, but out of that came a really happy, cheerful, loving song about the spirit of life.”

      • Lahaina1997

        I’m sorry for calling you a bitch, however, what gives you the nerve to interview someone for your column, especially while she’s crying after having been contacted by her brother that has been gone for such a long time from her. I myself find it very un-classy to do such a thing, and you should be very ashamed of yourself.

        We know there will always be skeptics like you, but we stick firmly to our beliefs and won’t change them for someone who feels otherwise. Keep your opinion to yourself and stop publically embarrasing other people just to gain popularity for your column.

        Also, I agree with the quote in your last paragraph, however like I said, we find it possible to contact loved ones after they have passed. And to us, we find it to be a better way of finding comfort after a loss.

        ps: Stop trying to kiss ass with the whole, “I think your aunty is a very sweet woman who clearly cares for her brother deeply. If only all relationships could be so love-filled and enduring!” bullshit keh? Mahalo.

        • Anonymous

          You don’t have to apologize for calling me a bitch, but I appreciate it. You’re as entitled to say what you think and feel as I am. That said, I respectfully decline your recommendation to keep my opinion to myself.

          But listen, it was absolutely not my intent to “publically embarras” your aunty — nor did I expressly interview her (I simply asked several people who interacted with Mr. Edward how they felt about their experience). In fact, the only reason I brought up ther audience members (and without necessarily identifying them in any way) at all is because I wanted to illustrate an important point about Mr. Edward: To me, the only shred of redemption about what Mr. Edward does is that he provides comfort to people. And as I asked in my column, does the fact he consoles those who want consolation forgive what he does? It’s an issue over which I’m still conflicted.

          See, I don’t really care if we disagree about the validity of Mr. Edward’s ability. You and your family find comfort and consolation in what he purports to do, and I respect that because it brings you happiness. But because this rich jerk has swooped onto our little island and swiped $40,000 from us, I am offended. And I’m offended on your behalf — especially because I believe (and like you, I’d like to firmly stick to my beliefs) what Mr. Edward is doing is lying.

          Gosh, what $40,000 could do in our community! That kind of money could transform lives, or landscapes, or both!

          I don’t write this column to “gain popularity,” as you say. Frankly (and obviously, as in this case) some of the things I say are unpopular with some people. I write this column to talk about topics that are important to me (and hopefully resonate somewhat universally). And hopefully, these topics spark discussion. Because I don’t want that discussion to be one-sided, I love it when people who believe differently than I do (i.e. you!) are willing to vocalize their thoughts.

          We’re taught not to talk about tough topics like religion, race, sexuality, etc. But these tough topics govern our lives! Without discourse, we’ll never explore — and then get past — what makes those topics “tough.” So, thank you for participating.

          P.S. I have no desire or motivation to kiss your ass. “Bullshit” though you think it may be, I really do mean what I say when I say that I love how your aunty loves her brother and wish more people loved like that. I have a brother and love him very much, too. So, in this week’s column, I wrote about him — with your aunty in mind all the while. (For whatever that’s worth.)

          • Kalaheo

            What about Elton John, UB40, Bruno Mars, the Eagles as just a few examples? Do you think they give a shit for playing some instrument for you for an hour or so, giving you a moment of memories and walking off with your money as well, You complain about John Edward when he actually gave people some much needed healing that they longed for and deserved. Either way people got what they wanted, Right?
            On another note….
            You do….getting attention!!! Aren’t you an Attention Seeker? Posting about your leukemia on your Facebook….what is that about? You lack attention and are in desperate need of attention!!!! Looking for PITY?
            How old you? You think you know everything and you only about 25 years old!!! You gotta be kidding me…One puppy trying for act like one old timer.
            What going happen to you when you pass away? No go to John trying to reconnect with the living! Hahaha….goodluck!

          • Rationalranger

            Entertaining people with music is far different from deceiving people with lies.

  • Rationalranger

    Bravo and mega-kudos for your article on that disgusting and cruel charlatan John Edward. I have long despaired about the lack of intelligence on this island, but you have given me reason to hope. All is not lost after all, though it is discouraging that 400 sad fools paid so much to be hoaxed and apparently would do it again.

    Now, if you could just persuade your editor to get rid of the idiotic astrology column I believe I’d throw a party. Why do almost all newspaper editors and publishers believe their publication is incomplete without a large dollop of medieval peasant superstition? Come on! This is the 21st Century, not the 14th! At the very least the column could carry a disclaimer such as the following: Astrology makes no sense, none of its tenants has ever been proved to be true and most have been disproved. We include this column in the paper because we understand that many of our readers are dunces who cannot reason beyond the second grade level and astrology gives them a dose of anti-intellectualism they seem to need.

    • Lahaina1997

      lack of intelligence on this island? you calling hawaiians stupid?

      • Rationalranger

        Do only Hawaiians live here? In fact, I was thinking mostly about the new age nuts who have come to Maui by the tens of thousands in the last couple decades because it is supposedly a “mystical, magical” place with “energy vortices” like Sedona, Taos, etc. It isn’t Hawaiians who believe in and promote every kind of half-baked hogwash and quackery dreamed up by clever scammers. It isn’t Hawaiians who get phony degrees from diploma mills, call themselves “Doctor” on the basis of these scraps of paper, and proceed to sell miracle-cure snake oils and play with peoples’ lives. Incidentally, “Hawaiian” should be capitalized.

    • Anonymous

      Aloha, Rationalranger!

      So, a reply I wrote — but was too embarrassed to press “Post” — simply said “I <3 you, Rationalranger." Like I replied to Jodybro above, supportive words from a rationalist like you makes me happier than you can imagine!

      But listen, I have no beef with Cariel Crestin's back page horoscopes because, frankly, I think it's the primary reason people manage to wander back there and read my column in the first place! He's proved a good platonic spooning buddy 😉

      P.S. Your use of the word "dollop" (further "dollop of medieval peasant superstition") is delightful. Thank you, again.