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.