Skeptic magazine has a report on a John Edwards performance (and that’s exactly what it is) in front of a wildly enthusiastic crowd of 2500 people who had paid $45 each to have him talk to their dead relatives. But the crowd included three skeptics, one a psychologist. They describe his transparent con job.
Edward appeared to rely largely, if not exclusively, on cold reading techniques—a fishing expedition. “I’m getting a Joe … Joseph … Jack … or a J-word and this is from a father … father-in-law … or a father figure to someone up there [in the balcony]. I am seeing this in connection with a maimed arm or possibly amputated arm from being caught in some type of machinery, possibly farm machinery. It could also be that the arm was run over by a tire.” When the individual he addressed could not make a connection, Edward repeatedly asked, “Who is near you? Who else is with you?” The audience, of course, wanted Edward to succeed, so they were willing participants in the deception. One individual, for example, volunteered that he had a grandfather who had a finger amputated. “No,” Edward replied, that was not what he was seeing. After three or four audience members could not make a connection, Edward jokingly threatened “Don’t make me come up there…” and he rationalized that maybe his thick “New Yawk” accent prevented the audience from understanding his references. Eventually Edward instructed the entire section to go home and think about it to see if the name of the father-figure came to them. It could also be some event that would happen in their future, he concluded. Well that pretty much covers everything, doesn’t it?More than once Edward explained that he couldn’t see differences between a son, son-in-law, daughter or daughter-in-law and so forth—blood relations couldn’t be distinguished from legal ones as long as the relationship was loving. Then Edward went fishin’ again in the balcony: “I’m getting a name that sounds like Blackie … Block y… or Biloxi or maybe just a b-l-k sounding name….” No one responded. He again tried to get an association from several individuals sitting together in another section, but without success. More than one person was told “I am getting a message from your mother who has passed…” only to be told the that loved one was still in the land of the living.
For another audience member, Edward claimed that he saw her dead son or son-in-law, unnamed. She volunteered that it was a son who had died. Edward then made the cover-all statement, “I see that he died from some event or impact upon his body” to which the woman replied that her son had shot himself. “Oh, that must be the impact I saw,” he claimed. Rationalization, generalization, and after-the-fact reasoning are effective tools of the medium.
None of the people who send this man gobs of money ever asks why it is that their dead relatives can communicate with him but are apparently unable to just say a name. Why do the dead have to keep him guessing, giving him just letters (always the most commonly used ones, by the way) and vague descriptions of what happened? The answer, obviously, is that he’s just using the very old technique of cold reading. He’s a con man, a fraud, a huckster. It really is that simple.