Popular Delusions II: Talking to the Dead

One of the most widespread delusions of our society is the belief in self-proclaimed psychic mediums who assert that they can speak to the spirits of the dead. John Edward, Sylvia Browne, James van Praagh, and Allison Dubois are some of the most popular, and command considerable fame and wealth for their alleged abilities, attracting attention such as prime-time TV shows, best-selling books, and personal consultations for which they charge hundreds or thousands of dollars per hour.

However, so far no medium has ever submitted to scientific validation of their powers in a controlled setting, and indeed most of them studiously avoid any circumstance in which they might genuinely be put to the test. This is only to be expected, as the facts suggest that they cannot actually talk to the dead, but are deceiving their followers by using an old magician’s technique called cold reading.

The fundamental tactic of cold reading is to ask vague and open-ended questions and let the subject fill in the details. The cold reader may ask, for example, “What significance does the month of May have to you?” Almost anything will do; May could be the subject’s own birthday, the birthday of a relative or friend (living or dead), the subject’s wedding anniversary, the birth month of someone the subject knows, the month when the subject’s deceased loved one passed away, the month when anyone else known to the subject died, the date of a holiday particularly meaningful to the subject, or the date of any other special occasion at all that the subject remembers. Given such a broad scope, and given that there are only 12 months to choose from, it would be surprising if the average person could not find some connection to May.

Guessing letters is another common tactic in this area. If the medium asks a subject, “Does the letter R mean anything to you?” and the subject responds, “My grandmother’s name was Rosemary!”, in their excitement they will often misremember the episode and come away convinced that the psychic knew their grandmother’s name, even though the psychic “knew” nothing of the sort; they merely provided a vague guess and the subject filled in the details themself. To encourage this to happen, cold readers will often take the information the subject has just volunteered and repeat it back to them as if they knew it all along.

Relying on generalities is another time-tested psychic technique. Most elderly people have poor eyesight, occasional back pain and limited mobility; all married couples fight from time to time, often over money; very many bereaved people keep a photo of their departed loved one on their nightstand or carry an item of jewelry that once belonged to them; and statistically speaking, there is only a handful of ways in which an average person dies. A psychic can say with virtually no fear of contradiction that they see “problems in the chest area”, which can encompass cancer, heart attacks, pneumonia, respiratory problems, diabetes, and so on. (The chest, after all, is where almost all of our vital organs are. How many people die from ailments of the arms and legs?) If the subject does not take the bait, the psychic can assume the cause of death was a stroke and quickly shift to the head. And if all else fails, there are always excuses that can be used to explain away any failure; one of the more common tactics is to insist that there is a connection but the subject does not remember it, and advise them to look into the matter later. Another is to broaden the scope of the guess: if the psychic suggests that the deceased person liked sailing and the subject demurs, the medium can widen the guess to ask about fishing, swimming, going on cruises, traveling to islands, or almost any other activity that has anything at all to do with water.

A daring psychic can even intersperse these generalities with a few very specific guesses. If they fail to pan out, most subjects will simply forget them due to the common human tendency to count the hits and forget the misses; if they happen to hit on something, the psychic can be sure that they have made a convert for life. (The possibility of “hot reading”, where the reader does specific research on the subject’s background in advance, also should not be ruled out, especially in prearranged one-on-one consultations.)

Finally, the skillful cold reader will ladle a generous dose of mawkish sentimentality and sappy religious references into their spiel. It is a safe bet that anyone who goes to see a self-proclaimed psychic is seeking comfort and solace, and most cold readers do not disappoint, providing endless reassurances that the departed loved one is with God now, and free from pain, and happy to be in Heaven, and watching over their loved ones, and so on. People who receive this often come away convinced that their reading was a success even if the medium could offer no specific details. In general, people pay psychics because they want to believe, and are eager to believe; and this alone will lead them to overlook all but the most glaringly obvious of cold-reading failures. (Sylvia Browne supplies an example. In the Sago Mine disaster, when initial reports erroneously claimed that 12 of the 13 trapped miners had been found alive, Browne claimed in a live radio show that she “knew they were going to be found”, only to have the news arrive later that same hour that in reality 12 of the 13 had died. This would seem to be a failure so catastrophic that not even a true believer could overlook it.)

Even if one is not convinced that these mediums are simply using cold reading, there is another line of argument that strongly indicates that their alleged powers are fictitious. Namely, why are they confining their gifts to such mundane cases? If these mediums can really do what they claim they can do, then it is a stunning waste of their powers to aspire to no greater heights than assuring wealthy suburbanites that their dear departed Aunt Millie is doing just fine in Heaven, and thanks for asking. Counseling the bereaved is well and good, but there are issues of far greater significance for which such a gift could be used.

For example, why do mediums, if they are for real, not speak to the spirits of people of great significance, such as famous scientists, authors, philosophers or statesmen? Imagine how much progress we could make in physics, biology, medicine or virtually any other scientific field if the greatest minds throughout history were brought together to collaborate through a psychic-mediated conference call! Imagine how much war and strife could be prevented if history’s greatest diplomats were brought in to negotiate! Imagine the effects on people’s lives worldwide if we could read new plays by Shakespeare, new fables by Aesop, new scientific treatises by Leonardo da Vinci, new satires by Mark Twain, or anything else by the world’s most renowned thinkers, poets and writers. Why do mediums not ask Fermat what the “remarkable proof” of his last theorem was?

But we do not see this. Instead, if you believe the claims of mediums, the only things the dead have to say to us are trivial banalities and cliched expressions of vapid good will. They never impart any genuinely new or useful information, much less anything that only the dead person could know. Have you ever heard of a psychic telling a client, “Your grandfather says to tell you that his will which you’ve been looking for is in a safe hidden behind the painting in the hall closet, and by the way the combination is 6-13-84″?

Indeed, why do mediums not effortlessly crack murder cases by contacting the victim to ask who their killer was? For someone who can truly speak to the dead, this should be the easiest possible task. But despite innumerable claims, no psychic has ever offered any proof that they provided any concrete assistance to the police in any murder case. Again, they are completely unable to provide any knowledge or information that only someone genuinely in contact with the dead would know.

While other popular delusions may do more genuine harm, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is one of the most despicable. Although some alleged mediums may be self-deluded and genuinely convinced of the reality of their powers, I strongly suspect that most of them know exactly what they are doing. Many of the people who consult mediums, I am certain, do so because they are grieving and desperate; and the psychic pretenders are amassing fame and wealth by exploiting that grief. A more cynical and callous way of promoting oneself could hardly be imagined. We can only hope that, if there is any justice, these scam artists will soon be relegated to the obscurity they so richly deserve.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • SpeirM

    “We can only hope that, if there is any justice, these scam artists will soon be relegated to the obscurity they so richly deserve.”

    Sadly, the trend seems to be going in the other direction. From what I’ve heard, anyway. I’m convinced belief is an act of the will and people will find a way to believe what makes them feel good.

  • tobe38

    Another point of evidence against Mediums which I think is always worth mentioning, is the apparent ease with which mentalists like Derren Brown can mimic their work, while making no claim to supernatural powers. Once you’ve seen someone who admits that they’re cheating achieve the same results, Occam’s Razor indicates that the likes of Edwards and Browne are using the same methods.

  • lpetrich

    This reminds me of how a century ago, physicist R.W. Wood took on a medium who had been channeling the ghost of physicist Lord Rayleigh, asking some questions about mathematical physics. The ghost was silent.

    Someone also tried that with someone who had channeled the ghost of physicist Albert Einstein, but the channeler explained that the death experience had wiped AE’s soul clean of any memories of mathematical physics.

    I think a clear giveaway would be what language(s) the ghosts would speak. It’s doubtful that they’d speak the exact same language as their channelers, accent, vocabulary, grammar, idioms, slang, and all. So if someone channels William Shakespeare or Thomas Jefferson or Mark Twain and they use the term “bullshit” a lot, one has to be suspicious, because the term “bullshit” is first recorded around 1915 and came into common use during World War II (source: this Wikipedia article).

    And it gets even worse for people who originally spoke foreign languages, especially long-ago ones. If someone channels Julius Caesar and he sounds like he’s speaking high-school Latin with a Church Latin pronunciation… Or someone channels Socrates and he sounds like he’s speaking Modern Greek…

  • http://www.gibsonian.blogspot.com Ian B Gibson

    For example, why do mediums, if they are for real, not speak to the spirits of people of great significance, such as famous scientists, authors, philosophers or statesmen? Imagine how much progress we could make in physics, biology, medicine or virtually any other scientific field if the greatest minds throughout history were brought together to collaborate through a psychic-mediated conference call!

    Surely you jest? Do you not realise how vague the information coming from the ‘other side’ is? It’s hard enough for these poor mediums to discern the first letter of someone’s name, so how could they possibly facilitate scientific discourse or transpose unwritten literary masterpieces?

    ‘Okay, Mr Einstein. Mr Schrodinger is saying something about an animal, possibly his pet. I’m getting a feline, but I think it’s locked in some kind of container, and it might have some health problems. Possibly related to the chest area, I’m not sure. Does this mean anything to you…?’

    That would be one hell of a laborious way to progress human knowledge!

  • Rowan

    (on tobe38′s comment, and similar to talking to the deas:)
    As James Randi said: “If Uri Geller really is bending spoons with his mind, then he’s doing it the hard way.”
    Thanks, Adam. I also like Penn and Teller’s Bullshit episode, and Skeptico:
    http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2006/05/john_edward_rer.html

  • Mikidu

    I’ve often wondered why the dear departed can only remember the first letter of their names. Could it be due to the operation of some law of supernatural physics that the remaining letters become erased from memory on passing over?

  • tobe38

    Just another thought occured to me. When you see a medium like John Edwards giving a reading, the communication is entirely one way. I’d love, and I mean really LOVE to see a subject say something along the lines of,

    “and now, since my loved one is standing right next to you and talking in your ear, perhaps I could ask them some specific questions I’ve always wanted to ask and they could tell you the answers?”

    It would never be broadcast, but the look on his face would be priceless.

    By the way, has anyone seen that episode of Family Guy where they take the mickey out of John Edwards? It’s brilliant!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    An excellent idea. I’ve always wondered why people who attend these shows seem content to sit down again after being provided with a few meaningless generalities and standard trite platitudes about their departed loved one. Don’t they come because they have something important to them to say?

  • Rowan

    The South Park episode on Edwards is good too!

  • tobe38

    I think many people go to these mediums not to say something, but to hear something. You Americans have a word for it – closure. I’ve been through a bereavement and anyone else who has will tell you, you always feel guilty about something. I could have done this, or I shouldn’t have said that. I wish I could have a quid for every time I’ve heard John Edwards say “the thing you’re feeling guilty about? He/she forgives you”. To which the subject smiles with a tear in their eye. It’s a winner everytime.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Excellent point, tobe. That hadn’t occurred to me, but now that I think about it, that almost certainly is the answer to my question. I think you nailed it.

  • MissCherryPi

    Sylvia Browne is the worst ever. Montell Williams gives her a whole hour of his show every damn Wednesday, and I don’t know why. Someone in my family watches it and it’s like a train wreck for me. Today there was a woman on saying she had bruises on her body and didn’t know why and she saw demons in her house every night and they talked to her. She said the demons also haunted her father. I know everyone wasn’t a psychology major like me, but HELLO?? This woman has schizophrenia and needs to go to a hospital, and no one helped her today. She had a little boy to take care of, for goodness sakes. It was sickening. Call your tv station and complain or something. Psychics for “entertainment” are one thing, but this is morally wrong.

  • Danikajaye

    My birthday is in May and I also got engaged in May to my partner Ric (the “R” name) who loves his sailing and fishing. No shit, Ebon how did you know!? You MUST be psychic!