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 Post subject: Dr. Oz and John Edward
PostPosted: 14 Mar 2011, 16:24 
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r. Oz Says Psychic John Edward "Changed My Life"
Mar 14, 2011 11:13 AM ET
by Michael Logan6 Comments

Dr. Oz and John Edward
As a rule, the worlds of western medicine and psychic phenomena just don't mix, but that's not the case on Tuesday's installment of The Dr. Oz Show. Oprah discovery Mehmet Oz will welcome famed psychic medium John Edward, who claims to relay messages from the dead, and the two men will discuss how connecting with the afterlife can be therapeutic for those in grief. Edward also conducts readings for several members of Dr. Oz's studio audience, and offers advice on how to pick up signals your dead loved ones may be sending you — things you can do without the help of a psychic. TV Guide Magazine spoke by phone with Dr. Oz, who had quite a wild time watching Edward do his thing. In fact, the good doc says the experience changed his life!

TV Guide Magazine: The idea of you — one of western medicine's best known and respected figures — finding healing value in talking to the dead is intriguing. It's pretty monumental, really. What gives?
Oz: [Laughs] Trust me, I was probably the last person who ever thought we'd have John Edward on our show! But it turned out to be great and not at all what I expected. Let me tell you, it changed my life! It was the most bizarre experience I've ever had — and I've seen and done a lot!

TV Guide Magazine: What prompted you to book him?
Oz: It's funny. My wife and I had gone on vacation a while back with several friends — five couples — and I happened to ask how many of them believed in the afterlife. Seven of the people were believers — five women and two men — and I was very intrigued by that. It was much more than I expected. We also found out there's a Pew poll [from 2008] that says 74 percent of the American public believes there is an afterlife. So, basically, we had John on the show because I'm all about learning. I've always liked the guy. He seems authentic, not at all like a charlatan. I've learned in my career that there are times when science just hasn't caught up with things, and I think this may be one of them.

TV Guide Magazine: And you now consider what Edward does to be a legit form of grief therapy?
Oz: I can see how it could help people who are dealing with grief, and how it might bring closure to relationships, and help make people more comfortable with the idea of death. We've spoken with the American Psychological Association who say they don't know if this works or not. But if it helps with grief, why not? I'm open to the idea.

TV Guide Magazine: What specifically about Edward did you find so believable?
Oz: That's the exact word — he's specific. When he started [his readings] with our audience, I expected him to say things like, "I feel a white light behind you. A masculine light. Is there anyone in your family that might represent?" Well, of course! We all have someone male who died. But that's not what John did. He wasn't vague. He wasn't fuzzy. In one case he said, "Someone very near you had a loved one who died on Valentine's Day. I get the feeling they were run over by a car or a truck." At first John was saying this to one particular woman in the audience, and she kept insisting she didn't know anyone who died that way. It was really awkward. [Laughs] We must have sat there three or four minutes — which in TV time is an eternity — while John badgered this poor woman. He was so certain he was in the right part of the audience. But this woman just would not cop to it! Then all of a sudden, just to this woman's right, was this other young woman who whispered, "It's me." She was completely ashen and almost couldn't speak. It turns out, her best friend's brother was run over by a truck and killed on Valentine's Day. John had all the details absolutely right. And he didn't do this just once. He did it on our show, like, five times!

TV Guide Magazine: Did you try to explain it away?
Oz: I couldn't! I walked out of that studio thinking, "There's something here. It's bizarre. I don't know what exactly is happening. But it's definitely something." I'm a heart surgeon. I can explain a lot of weird things. I've seen people who should have died who didn't. Over the years I've had some pretty deep conversations with people who died and say they saw "the light" and came back with stories. I've heard many things that are not easy to reconcile with the western scientific mind, so you try to think of a reason for what's going on. Could it be synapses short-circuiting in the brain that make people think they're having an out-of-body experience? That's what a doctor does. He tries to find a rational explanation. But I can't make up an explanation for what John Edward does. And, again, what was most eerie was his level of detail, the concreteness of it all.

TV Guide Magazine: How do you think this will this affect your outlook in the future? Will we see more alternative ways of thinking and healing on The Dr. Oz Show?
Oz: This is understandably uncomfortable for me. Medicine isn't religion. It's science, and therefore you have very clear beliefs about what you expect to happen. If a doctor is honest with himself, he'll have to admit that he sometimes seeks out and believes data that supports his own beliefs. But our world is changing. I'm talking to you right now from the hospital — today's my operating day — and I was just speaking with one of our anesthesiologists who just got his certification in acupuncture. That would have been unheard of in western medicine 10 years ago! So, yes, the future is very open to new possibilities. [Laughs] Or, perhaps we should say old. In the case of eastern medicine, we're starting to embrace things that have worked for millennia across the world and are now making them accessible to people in this country. In that same way, what John Edward does can also open up a whole new vista of healing opportunities. Again, I don't understand it. It's completely weird to me. But it's also very, very exciting. And I want to know more.

Now, John Edward has been proven to use fraudulent methods... and even the people at Lily Dale dislike him...

and Skeptical Inquiry immediately linked that with ... _bereaved/
John Edward: Hustling the Bereaved


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Investigative Files
Joe Nickell
Volume 25.6, November / December 2001

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Superstar “psychic medium” John Edward is a stand-up guy. Unlike the spiritualists of yore, who typically plied their trade in dark-room séances, Edward and his ilk often perform before live audiences and even under the glare of TV lights. Indeed, Edward (a pseudonym: he was born John MaGee Jr.) has his own popular show on the SciFi channel called Crossing Over, which has gone into national syndication (Barrett 2001; Mui 2001). I was asked by television newsmagazine Dateline NBC to study Edward’s act: was he really talking to the dead?

The Old Spiritualism
Today’s spiritualism traces its roots to 1848 and the schoolgirl antics of the Fox sisters, Maggie and Katie. They seemed to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler by means of mysterious rapping sounds. Four decades later the foxy sisters confessed how they had produced the noises by trickery (Nickell 1994), but meanwhile others discovered they too could be “mediums” (those who supposedly communicate with the dead).

The “spiritualism” craze spread across the United States, Europe, and beyond. In darkened séance rooms, lecture halls, and theaters, various “spirit” phenomena occurred. The Davenport Brothers conjured up spirit entities to play musical instruments while the two mediums were, apparently, securely tied in a special “spirit cabinet.” Unfortunately the Davenports were exposed many times, once by a local printer. He visited their spook show and volunteered as part of an audience committee to help secure the two mediums. He took that opportunity to secretly place some printer’s ink on the neck of a violin, and after the séance one of the duo had his shoulder smeared with the black substance (Nickell 1999).

In Boston, while photographer William H. Mumler was recycling some glass photographic plates, he accidentally obtained faint images of previous sitters. He soon adapted the technique to producing “spirit extras” in photographs of his clients. But Mumler’s scam was revealed when some of his ethereal entities were recognized as living Boston residents (Nickell 1994).

The great magician Harry Houdini (1874-1926) crusaded against phony spiritualists, seeking out elderly mediums who taught him the tricks of the trade. For example, while sitters touched hands around the séance table, mediums had clever ways of gaining the use of one hand. (One method was to slowly move the hands close together so that the fingers of one could be substituted for those of the other.) This allowed the production of special effects, such as causing a tin trumpet to appear to be levitating. Houdini gave public demonstrations of the deceptions. “Do Spirits Return?” asked one of his posters. “Houdini Says No-and Proves It” (Gibson 1977, 157).

Continuing the tradition, I have investigated various mediums, sometimes attending séances undercover and once obtaining police warrants against a fraudulent medium from the notorious Camp Chesterfield spiritualist center in Indiana (Nickell 1998). The camp is the subject of the book The Psychic Mafia, written by a former medium who recanted and revealed the tricks of floating trumpets (with disembodied voices), ghostly apparitions, materializing “apports,” and other fake phenomena (Keene 1976)-some of which I have also witnessed firsthand.

Mental Mediumship
The new breed of spiritualists-like Edward, James Van Praagh, Rosemary Altea, Sylvia Browne, and George Anderson-avoid the physical approach with its risks of exposure and possible criminal charges. Instead they opt for the comparatively safe “mental mediumship” which involves the purported use of psychic ability to obtain messages from the spirit realm.

This is not a new approach, since mediums have long done readings for their credulous clients. In the early days they exhibited “the classic form of trance mediumship, as practiced by shamans and oracles,” giving spoken “'spirit messages’ that ranged all the way from personal (and sometimes strikingly accurate) trivia to hours-long public trance-lectures on subjects of the deepest philosophical and religious import” (McHargue 1972).

Some mediums produced “automatic” or “trance” or “spirit” writing, which the entities supposedly dictated to the medium or produced by guiding his or her hand. Such writings could be in flowery language indeed, as in this excerpt from one spirit writing in my collection:

Oh my Brother-I am so glad to be able to come here with you and hold sweet communion for it has been a long time since I have controlled this medium but I remember how well used I had become to her magnetism[,] but we will soon get accustomed to her again and then renew the pleasant times we used to have. I want to assure you that we are all here with you this afternoon[-]Father[,] Mother[,] little Alice[-]and so glad to find it so well with you and we hope and feel dear Brother that you have seen the darkest part of life and that times are not with you now as they have been . . . .

and so on in this talkative fashion.

“Cold Reading”
By contrast, today’s spirits-whom John Edward and his fellow mediums supposedly contact-seem to have poor memories and difficulty communicating. For example, in one of his on-air séances (on Larry King Live, June 19, 1998), Edward said: “I feel like there’s a J- or G-sounding name attached to this.” He also perceived “Linda or Lindy or Leslie; who’s this L name?” Again, he got a “Maggie or Margie, or some M-G-sounding name,” and yet again heard from “either Ellen or Helen, or Eleanore-it’s like an Ellen-sounding name.” Gone is the clear-speaking eloquence of yore; the dead now seem to mumble.

The spirits also seemingly communicate to Edward et al. as if they were engaging in pantomime. As Edward said of one alleged spirit communicant, in a Dateline “He’s pointing to his head; something had to affect the mind or the head, from what he’s showing me.” No longer, apparently, can the dead speak in flowing Victorian sentences, but instead are reduced to gestures, as if playing a game of charades.

One suspects, of course, that it is not the imagined spirits who have changed but rather the approach today’s mediums have chosen to employ. It is, indeed, a shrewd technique known as “cold reading"-so named because the subject walks in “cold"; that is, the medium lacks advance information about the person (Gresham 1953). It is an artful method of gleaning information from the sitter, then feeding it back as mystical revelation.

The “psychic” can obtain clues by observing dress and body language (noting expressions that indicate when one is on or off track), asking questions (which if correct will appear as “hits” but otherwise will seem innocent queries), and inviting the subject to interpret the vague statements offered. For example, nearly anyone can respond to the mention of a common object (like a ring or watch) with a personal recollection that can seem to transform the mention into a hit. (For more on cold reading see Gresham 1953; Hyman 1977; Nickell 2000.)

It should not be surprising that Edward is skilled at cold reading, an old fortunetelling technique. His mother was a “psychic junkie” who threw fortunetelling “house parties,” one of the alleged clairvoyants advising the then-fifteen-year-old that he had “wonderful psychic abilities.” He began doing card readings for friends and family, then progressed to psychic fairs where he soon learned that names and other “validating information” sometimes applied to the dead rather than the living. Eventually he changed his billing from “psychic” to “psychic medium” (Edward 1999). The revised approach set him on the road to stardom. In addition to his TV show, he now commands hundreds of dollars for a private reading and is booked two years in advance (Mui 2001).

“Hot Reading”
Although cold reading is the main technique of the new spiritualists, they can also employ “hot” reading on occasion. Houdini (1924) exposed many of these information-gathering techniques including using planted microphones to listen in on clients as they gathered in the mediums’ anterooms-a technique Houdini himself used to impress visitors with his “telepathy” (Gibson 1976, 13). Reformed medium M. Lamar Keene’s The Psychic Mafia (1976) describes such methods as conducting advance research on clients, sharing other mediums’ files (what Keene terms “mediumistic espionage”), noting casual remarks made in conversation before a reading, and so on.

An article in Time magazine suggested John Edward may have used just such chicanery. One subject, a marketing manager named Michael O'Neill had received apparent messages from his dead grandfather but, when his segment aired, he noted that it had been improved through editing. According to Time's Leon Jaroff (2001):

Now suspicious, O'Neill recalled that while the audience was waiting to be seated, Edward’s aides were scurrying about, striking up conversations and getting people to fill out cards with their name, family tree and other facts. Once inside the auditorium, where each family was directed to preassigned seats, more than an hour passed before show time while “technical difficulties” backstage were corrected.

Edward has a policy of not responding to criticism, but the executive producer of Crossing Over insists: “No information is given to John Edward about the members of the audience with whom he talks. There is no eavesdropping on gallery conversations, and there are no 'tricks’ to feed information to John.” He labeled the Time article “a mix of erroneous observations and baseless theories” (Nordlander 2001).

Very Hot
Be that as it may, on Dateline Edward was actually caught in an attempt to pass off previously gained knowledge as spirit revelation. During the session he said of the spirits, “They're telling me to acknowledge Anthony,” and when the cameraman signaled that was his name, Edward seemed surprised, asking “That’s you? Really?” He further queried: “Had you not seen Dad before he passed? Had you either been away or been distanced?” Later, playing the taped segment for me, Dateline reporter John Hockenberry challenged me with Edward’s apparent hit: “He got Anthony. That’s pretty good.” I agreed but added, “We've seen mediums who mill about before sessions and greet people and chat with them and pick up things.”

Indeed, it turned out that that is just what Edward had done. Hours before the group reading, Tony had been the cameraman on another Edward shoot (recording him at his hobby, ballroom dancing). Significantly, the two men had chatted and Edward had obtained useful bits of information that he afterward pretended had come from the spirits. In a follow-up interview Hockenberry revealed the fact and grilled an evasive Edward:

HOCKENBERRY: So were you aware that his dad had died before you did his reading?

Mr. EDWARD: I think he-I think earlier in the-in the day, he had said something.

HOCKENBERRY: It makes me feel like, you know, that that’s fairly significant. I mean, you knew that he had a dead relative and you knew it was the dad.


HOCKENBERRY: So that’s not some energy coming through, that’s something you knew going in. You knew his name was Tony and you knew that his dad had died and you knew that he was in the room, right? That gets you . . .

Mr. EDWARD: That’s a whole lot of thinking you got me doing, then. Like I said, I react to what’s coming through, what I see, hear and feel. I interpret what I'm seeing hearing and feeling, and I define it. He raised his hand, it made sense for him. Great.

HOCKENBERRY: But a cynic would look at that and go, 'Hey,' you know, 'He knows it’s the cameraman, he knows it’s DATELINE. You know, wouldn't that be impressive if he can get the cameraman to cry?'

Mr. EDWARD: Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Not at all.

But try to weasel out of it as he might, Edward had obviously been caught cheating: pretending that information he had gleaned earlier had just been revealed by spirits and feigning surprise that it applied to Tony the cameraman. (And that occurred long before Time had suggested that an Inside Edition program-February 27, 2001-was probably “the first nationally televised show to take a look at the Edward phenomenon.” That honor instead goes to Dateline NBC.)

In his new book Crossing Over, Edward tries to minimize the Dateline exposé, and in so doing breaks his own rule of not responding to criticism. He rebukes Hockenberry for “his big Gotcha! moment,” adding:

Hockenberry came down on the side of the professional skeptic they used as my foil. He was identified as Joe Nickell, a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which likes to simplify things and call itself CSICOP. He did the usual sound bites: that modern mediums are fast-talkers on fishing expeditions making money on people’s grief-"the same old dogs with new tricks,” in Hockenberry’s words.

Edward claims to ignore any advance information that he may get from those he reads, but concedes, “it’s futile to say this to a tough skeptic” (Edward 2001, 242-243).

Edward may have benefitted from actual information on another occasion, while undergoing a “scientific” test of his alleged powers (Schwartz et al. 2001). In video clips shown on Dateline, Edward was reading subjects-who were brought into the hotel room where he sat with his back to the door-when he impressed his tester with an atypical revelation. Edward stated he was “being shown the movie Pretty in Pink” and asked if there was “a pink connection.” Then he queried, “Are you, like, wearing all pink?” The unidentified man acknowledged that he was. Yet Edward had thought the subject was a woman, and I suspect that erroneous guess was because of the color of his attire; I further suspect Edward knew it was pink, that as the man entered the room Edward glimpsed a flash of the color as it was reflected off some shiny surface, such as the glass of a picture frame, the lens of the video camera, etc. I challenge Edward to demonstrate his reputed color-divining ability under suitably controlled conditions that I will set up.

Inflating “Hits”
In addition to shrewd cold reading and out-and-out cheating, “psychics” and “mediums” can also boost their apparent accuracy in other ways. They get something of a free ride from the tendency of credulous folk to count the apparent hits and ignore the misses. In the case of Edward, my analysis of 125 statements or pseudostatements (i.e., questions) he made on a Larry King Live program (June 19, 1998) showed that he was incorrect about as often as he was right and that his hits were mostly weak ones. (For example he mentioned “an older female” with “an M-sounding name,” either an aunt or grandmother, he stated, and the caller supplied “Mavis” without identifying the relationship; see Nickell 1998.)

Another session-for an episode of Crossing Over attended by a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, Chris Ballard (2001)-had Edward “hitting well below 50 percent for the day.” Indeed, he twice spent “upward of 20 minutes stuck on one person, shooting blanks but not accepting the negative responses.” This is a common technique: persisting in an attempt to redeem error, cajoling or even browbeating a sitter (as Sylvia Browne often does), or at least making the incorrect responses seem the person’s fault. “Do not not honor him!” Edward exclaimed at one point, then (according to Ballard) “staring down the bewildered man.”

When the taped episode actually aired, the two lengthy failed readings had been edited out, along with second-rate offerings. What remained were two of the best readings of the show (Ballard 2001). This seems to confirm the allegation in the Time article that episodes were edited to make Edward seem more accurate, even reportedly splicing in clips of one sitter nodding yes “after statements with which he remembers disagreeing” (Jaroff 2001).

Edited or not, sessions involving a group offer increased chances for success. By tossing out a statement and indicating a section of the audience rather than an individual, the performing “medium” makes it many times more likely that someone will “acknowledge” it as a “hit.” Sometimes multiple audience members will acknowledge an offering, whereupon the performer typically narrows the choice down to a single person and builds on the success. Edward uses just such a technique (Ballard 2001).

Still another ploy used by Edward and his fellow “psychic mediums” is to suggest that people who cannot acknowledge a hit may find a connection later. “Write this down,” an insistent Edward sometimes says, or in some other way suggests the person study the apparent miss. He may become even more insistent, the positive reinforcement diverting attention from the failure and giving the person an opportunity to find some adaptable meaning later (Nickell 1998).

Debunking Versus Investigation
Some skeptics believe the way to counter Edward and his ilk is to reproduce his effect, to demonstrate the cold-reading technique to radio and TV audiences. Of course that approach is unconvincing unless one actually poses as a medium and then-after seemingly making contact with subjects’ dead loved ones-reveals the deception. Although audiences typically fall for the trick (witness Inside Edition’s use of it), I deliberately avoid this approach for a variety of reasons, largely because of ethical concerns. I rather agree with Houdini (1924, xi) who had done spiritualistic stunts during his early career:

At the time I appreciated the fact that I surprised my clients, but while aware of the fact that I was deceiving them I did not see or understand the seriousness of trifling with such sacred sentimentality and the baneful result which inevitably followed. To me it was a lark. I was a mystifier and as such my ambition was being gratified and my love for a mild sensation satisfied. After delving deep I realized the seriousness of it all. As I advanced to riper years of experience I was brought to a realization of the seriousness of trifling with the hallowed reverence which the average human being bestows on the departed, and when I personally became afflicted with similar grief I was chagrined that I should ever have been guilty of such frivolity and for the first time realized that it bordered on crime.

Of course tricking people in order to educate them is not the same as deceiving them for crass personal gain, but to toy with their deepest emotions-however briefly and well intentioned-is to cross a line I prefer not to do. Besides, I believe it can be very counterproductive. It may not be the alleged medium but rather the debunker himself who is perceived as dishonest, and he may come across as arrogant, cynical, and manipulative-not heroic as he imagines.

As well, an apparent reproduction of an effect does not necessarily mean the cause was the same. (For example, I have seen several skeptical demonstrations of “weeping” icons that employed trickery more sophisticated than that used for “real” crying effigies.) Far better, I am convinced, is showing evidence of the actual methods employed, as I did in collaboration with Dateline NBC.

Although John Edward was among five “highly skilled mediums” who allegedly fared well on tests of their ability (Schwartz et al. 2001)-experiments critiqued elsewhere in this issue (Wiseman and O'Keeffe, see page 26)-he did not claim validation on Larry King Live. When King (2001) asked Edward if he thought there would ever be proof of spirit contact, Edward responded by suggesting proof was unattainable, that only belief matters: “. . . I think that to prove it is a personal thing. It is like saying, prove God. If you have a belief system and you have faith, then there is nothing really more than that.” But this is an attempt to insulate a position and to evade or shift the burden of proof, which is always on the claimant. As Houdini (1924, 270) emphatically stated, “It is not for us to prove the mediums are dishonest, it is for them to prove that they are honest.” In my opinion John Edward has already failed that test.

I appreciate the assistance of Tom Flynn who helped me analyze the video clips mentioned in the text and refine the hypothesis that Edward may have glimpsed a reflection. I am also grateful to Tim Binga, Barry Karr, Kevin Christopher, Ben Radford, and Ranjit Sandhu for other assistance.

Ballard, Chris. 2001. Oprah of the other side. The New York Times Magazine, July 29, 38-41.
Barrett, Greg. 2001. Can the living talk to the dead? Gannett News Service, published in USA Today, August 10.
Edward, John. 1999. One Last Time. New York: Berkley Books.
—. 2001. Crossing Over. San Diego: Jodere Group.
Gibson, Walter B. 1977. The Original Houdini Scrapbook. New York: Corwin/Sterling.
Gresham, William Lindsay. 1953. Monster Midway. New York: Rinehart, 113-136.
Houdini, Harry. 1924. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Hyman, Ray. 1977. Cold reading: how to convince strangers that you know all about them. Skeptical Inquirer 2(1), (Spring/Summer): 18-37.
Jaroff, Leon. 2001. Talking to the dead. Time, March 5, 52.
Keene, M. Lamar. 1976. The Psychic Mafia. Reprinted Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1997.
King, Larry. 2001. Are psychics for real? Larry King Live, March 6.
McHargue, Georgess. 1972. Facts, Frauds, and Phantasms: A Survey of the Spiritualist Movement. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 44-45.
Mui, Ylan Q. 2001. Bring me your dead. New York Post: TV Sunday, July 8, 105.
Nickell, Joe. 1994. Camera Clues. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 147-149.
—. 1998. Investigating spirit communications. Skeptical Briefs 8(3) (September): 5-6.
—. 1999. The Davenport Brothers: Religious practitioners, entertainers, or frauds? Skeptical Inquirer 23(4) (July/August): 14-17.
—. 2000. Hustling Heaven. Skeptical Briefs 10(3) (September): 1-3.
Nickell, Joe, with John F. Fischer. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 47-60.
Nordlander, Charles. 2001. Letter from executive producer of Crossing Over to Time, March 26.
Schwartz, Gary E.R., et al. 2001. Accuracy and replicability of anomalous after-death communication across highly skilled mediums. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, January: 1-25. ... t_huckster
John Edward: Spirit Huckster


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Investigative Files
Joe Nickell
Volume 34.2, March / April 2010

Joe Nickell
“Psychic medium” John Edward is reemerging from relative obscurity after his popular television show, Crossing Over with John Edward, ended in 2004. He appears on another cable show, gives tours, has a Web site (, and generally makes his living claiming to communicate with those who have “crossed over.”

I was invited by Central New York Skeptics to join them in Syracuse, New York, for an evening with Edward. (It was held at Mulroy Civic Center on Sunday, October 11, 2009. I was accompanied by CNY Skeptics president Lisa Goodlin, David Harding, and Brian Madigan, all of whom afterward shared insightful observations on what we had witnessed.) The glib Edward—real name John Edward McGee, Jr.—held forth for more than two hours. He began with a joke to the effect that although he is psychic, he nevertheless needed a GPS to get to the site. The highly credulous, adoring crowd found every gag hilarious, every platitude profound, and every lucky guess or shrewd deduction proof of communication with the dead.

Old ‘Spirits’ in New Bottles
Edward is part of the new breed of spiritualists (like Sylvia Browne and James Van Praagh) who avoid the risky physical mediumship of yore. During the heyday of Spiritualism, magicians such as Houdini and Maskelyne used to catch mediums at their dark-room séance deceptions, such as slate writing, floating spirit trumpets, and full-bodied “materializations.” The investigators gave public demonstrations of the trickery. “Do Spirits Return?” a Houdini poster asked. “Houdini says No—and Proves It” (Gibson 1977, 157).
The new “psychic mediums” opt in­stead for the simpler, safer mental mediumship, the supposed production of messages from the Great Beyond. This itself is nothing new, but now instead of the flowery language supposedly channeled from talkative Vic­torians, we get fragmented bits of data from spirits seeming to have diminished memories and limited speech: “I feel like there’s a J- or G-sounding name at­tached to this” is a typical Edward offering (Nickell 2004).
Styles change even in supposedly talking with the dead. Today’s mediums employ the old fortuneteller’s technique of “cold reading”—so named because the sensitive has no advance information about the sitter. He artfully fishes for information from the person, often asking a question which, if the answer is yes, will be treated as a “hit” but otherwise will become only part of the lead-up to a statement.
Not surprisingly, Edward has a background in fortunetelling. His mother, he acknowledges, was a “psychic junkie” who threw fortunetelling “house parties.” Advised by one visiting clairvoyant that he had “wonderful psychic abilities,” Edward began doing card readings for family and friends as a teenager. He progressed to giving readings at so-called psychic fairs. There he soon learned that names and other “validating information” could sometimes be better fitted to the dead than the living. Edward eventually changed his billing from “psychic” to “psychic medium” (Edward 1999), setting him on the road to financial success.
The Group Approach
Edward’s audiences typically find him accurate and convincing. However, a study I made of one television transcript1 revealed he was actually wrong about as often as not (Nickell 1998). In Syracuse, for example, no one seemed to relate to a cat named Smokey. Never­theless, in such cases Edward can still toss out something he “sees” or “feels,” and he may get lucky. Besides, the onus is on his listeners to somehow match his offerings to their lives, and if one person can’t oblige, someone else will give it a try. Thus, when no one seemed to be “going to Thailand,” Edward doubled his options, suggesting the trip was for adoption. Finally, one woman shouted out that she had adopted a child from Korea. When no one had experienced an Edward-visualized tattoo removal, a young lady helpfully supplied her adventure of an excised mole. Edward then looked for validation of an imagined spirit named Lily: She soon morphed into a cat of that name, still living!
Edward sometimes joked his way out of a dilemma. For instance, when one woman’s late husband had not had the envisioned “foot surgery,” Edward quipped, “Do you have any other husbands?”

Joking aside, this group approach has been a boon to modern mediums. On occasion, when multiple sitters acknowledge a particular offering, the medium can simply narrow the choice to a single person and then build on that success—a technique definitely employed by John Edward (Ballard 2001).
Getting Burned with ‘Hot’ Reading
According to respected journalists, epi­sodes of Crossing Over were edited to make Edward appear more accurate than he was (Ballard 2001), even to the point of apparently splicing in clips of one sitter nodding yes “after statements with which he remembers disagreeing” (Jaroff 2001).
Rarely, when the opportunity presents itself, Edward may turn from “cold reading” to the much more accurate “hot reading.” Although I have no evidence of him using that technique in Syracuse, he was caught cheating with it on a Dateline NBC episode for which I was both a behind-the-scenes advisor and an on-camera interviewee. Edward was exposed passing off knowledge he had gained from a Dateline cameraman during a shoot hours earlier as otherworldly revelation during a reading session. He feigned surprise that his alleged spirit gleanings applied to the cameraman. As Dateline’s John Hockenberry subsequently told an evasive Edward, “So that’s not some energy coming through, that’s something you knew going in” (Nickell 2001).
In his book, Crossing Over, Edward disparaged Hockenberry who, he said, “came down on the side of the professional skeptic they used as my foil . . . Joe Nickell” (2001, 243). Edward also referred to Hockenberry’s “big Gotcha! moment.” That’s right, John, we Gotcha! You were caught cheating. And your claimed psychic powers didn’t even let you see it coming.
Fast Talker
In his stand-up act, Edward keeps things going at such a pace that there is little time to critically analyze what is occurring. The average person is not much better equipped to avoid being fooled by John Edward’s sleight-of-tongue tricks than the artful illusions of a stage magician. Careful analysis of a recorded session by one knowledgeable of the techniques employed will prove more effective than the testimonials of someone fooled by the deceptions.
And so Edward’s Syracuse audience regarded their belief in otherworldly communication as fully vindicated. There appeared to be only about four skeptics in the audience. Ironically, Edward seemed not to know they were there—even though one has been a particular thorn in his side. Couldn’t he feel all those bad vibes coming from an area of the orchestra? l
In addition to those mentioned in the text, I am also grateful to Barry Karr, CSI executive director, for providing finances for my trip to Syracuse and to Timothy Binga, Center for Inquiry Libraries director, for research assistance.
This was the June 19, 1998, Larry King Live show on CNN.
Ballard, Chris. 2001. Oprah of the other side. The New York Times Magazine, July 29, 38–41.
Edward, John. 1999. One Last Time. New York: Berkeley Books.
———. 2001. Crossing Over: The Stories Behind the Stories. San Diego, CA: Jodere Group.
Gibson, Walter B. 1977. The Original Houdini Scrapbook. New York: Corwin/Sterling.
Jaroff, Leon. 2001. Talking to the dead. Time, March 5, 52.
Nickell, Joe. 1998. Investigating spirit communications. Skeptical Briefs 8:3 (September), 5–6.
———. 2001. John Edward: Hustling the be­reaved. SKEPTICAL INQUIRER 25:6 (November/December), 19–22. ... nications/
Investigating Spirit Communications


Get back issues, subscriptions, and merchandise at the CSI store.
Investigative Files
Joe Nickell
Volume 8.3, September 1998

Thanks to modern mass media, old-fashioned spiritualism is undergoing something of a revival. Witness James Van Praagh’s bestselling Talking to Heaven (1997) and the talk-show popularity of Van Praagh and other mediums like Rosemary Altea, George Anderson, and John Edward.

Like Van Praagh before him, Edward was featured on the Larry King Live television show. King promoted Edward’s forthcoming video and book, both titled One Last Time — “meaning,” King explained, “saying good-bye to someone who is gone.”

Although purported communication with spirits of the dead is ancient (for example, the biblical Witch of Endor conjured up the ghost of Samuel at the request of King Saul [1 Sam. 28:7-20]), modern spiritualism began in 1848 at Hydesville, New York. Two young girls, Maggie and Katie Fox, pretended to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler. Although four decades later they confessed how their “spirit rappings” had been faked, in the meantime spiritualism had spread like wildfire across the United States and beyond. The great magician and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) spent the last years of his life crusading against phony spirit mediums and exposing their bogus “materializations” and other physical phenomena such as spirit photography.

A case I investigated in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1985 illustrates the dangers that fake mediums risk in producing such phenomena. Laboratory analyses of certain “spirit precipitations” (Figure 1) revealed the presence of solvent stains, and a recipe for such “productions” from the book The Psychic Mafia (Keene 1976) — utilizing a solvent to transfer images from printed photos — enabled me to create similar spirit pictures (Figure 2). With this evidence, as well as affidavits from a few sëance victims, I was able to obtain police warrants against the medium, who operated from the notorious Indiana spiritualist center Camp Chesterfield (Nickell with Fischer 1988).

Figure 1: Alleged “spirit precipitations” on cloth, produced at a 1985 sëance.

Figure 2: Images produced experimentally by author.
Today’s mediums — whether charlatans, fantasy-prone personalities, or a bit of both — tend to eschew such physical phenomena. On my visits to New York’s spiritualist community, Lily Dale, I have been told that all such productions are now effectively prohibited there due to fakery in the past. Anyone claiming to produce authentic physical phenomena — like floating trumpets, slate writing, or apports (objects allegedly transported by spirits) — must pass the scrutiny of a committee. As a consequence, the dark-room sëance is becoming a thing of the past.

Like the mediums at Lily Dale (Figure 3), Van Praagh, Edward, and most others now limit themselves to the other major category of spiritualist offerings: “mental phenomena,” the purported use of “psychic ability” such as clairvoyance (inner sight), clairaudience (perceived voices), and clairsentience (extrasensory feelings) to obtain messages from the spirit realm.

Because such mediums avoid the tricks of producing physical phenomena, it is more difficult to expose spiritualist charlatans — that is, to distinguish between mediums who practice intentional deception and those who may be self-deceived (believing they really communicate with the dead). What can be done, however, is to focus not on the medium’s motives but on his or her ability, such as by setting up suitable scientific tests (e.g. to measure supposed clairvoyance) or by analyzing a medium’s readings.

Figure 3: A medium giving readings at an outdoor service at Lily Dale, the western New York spiritualist colony. (photo by Joe Nickell)
When I appeared on radio programs to debate James Van Praagh (on “The Stacy Taylor Show,” San Diego, May 19) and Dorothy Altea (on “The Gil Gross Show,” New York, June 15), I began by inviting each to contact a deceased relative whom I named. Both declined my very open-minded invitation, saying they had nothing to prove to skeptics. (At one point I remarked to Van Praagh that I believed I could contact spirits as well as he — meaning not at all. He missed my point and challenged me to do a reading for him! I responded that I visualized the spirit of Abraham Lincoln who was telling me that Van Praagh had never contacted anyone “over there.” Van Praagh did not think this was funny.)

I did obtain a transcript of John Edward’s “spirit” pronouncements on Larry King Live (June 19, 1998), and the results are revealing. They suggest that if Edward really does communicate with the dead, the spirit world must be populated with entities who have little to do but heed the call of self-promoting mystics. And while they seem able to appear virtually on demand, irrespective of distance, they must have lost many of their other faculties — being plagued with poor vision, impaired speech, and faulty memory.

Consider the reading Edward gave to the very first caller on Larry King Live, a woman who wanted to contact her mother. “O.K., Linda,” says the glib Edward, “the first thing I want to talk about is, I know you’re looking for your mom, but I'm getting an older male who’s also there on the other side. I feel like this is somebody who would be above you, which means it’s like a father figure, or an uncle, and he passes from either lung cancer or emphysema, tuberculosis; it’s all problems in the chest area.” Edward continues: “O.K., that’s the first thing. And I feel like there’s a J- or a G-sounding name attached to this.”

Happily for Edward, Linda responds, “That’s my mother.” Unfortunately, despite the “hits” the woman is willing to credit, Edward is wrong on both counts, since he was not talking about the mother but some “father figure” Linda is unable to recognize. Edward does not correct the error, but proceeds. “She’s got a very dominant personality” (as most mothers are no doubt perceived by their offspring), and again Linda offers, “That’s my mother. Her first name starts with ‘G’ and she had emphysema.” Thus far, Linda’s persistent credulity notwithstanding, Edward has scored only one very weak hit but two clear misses, a foreshadowing of his overall performance.

Edward frequently asks questions — a ploy used by other self-styled mediums and psychics. By the information being provided in interrogative form it may, if correct, be considered a hit but otherwise will seem an innocent query. Questioning also keeps the reader from proceeding very far down a wrong path. And so Edward asks, “Does the month of August have a meaning for her, or the eighth of a month?” When Linda replies, “Not that I know of,” Edward uses another standard ploy, telling her to “write this down” and becoming even more insistent. This positive reinforcement diverts attention from the failure and gives the caller (or sitter) an opportunity to discover a meaning later.

Repeatedly, Edward offers data that is subject to many interpretations. With Linda, he returns to an earlier point, insisting that her mother’s spirit “is telling me that there’s a father figure that’s there, so I don’t know if your father’s passed [emphasis added] but there’s a father-type figure.” Still, Linda is unable to make the connection, replying, “No, my father — I just spoke to him on my son’s phone . . . . ” Edward helpfully suggests “a father-in-law” or at least “a male figure who’s there” but Linda still doesn't seem able to verify the claim.

Edward is bailed out of his dilemma by Larry King, who interrupts: “But the important thing is, how is she doing?” This gives Edward the opportunity to tell Linda, “Your mom is fine” — offering what I call a “moot statement” (one that cannot be proved or disproved).

In all, Edward gave eighteen brief readings on the show, offering (apart from a few ramblings) some 125 statements or pseudostatements (i.e. questions). As I score them, there were four instances of Edwards being unable to make contact or supply an answer and twenty-four unverified and sixteen moot statements. I counted forty-one misses. There were about the same number of hits, forty-two (only 33.6 percent of the total). Or perhaps I should say apparent hits: most, thirty-four, of these were weak hits (as when Edward envisioned “an older female,” with “an M-sounding name,” either an aunt or grandmother, he said, and the caller supplied “Mavis” without identifying the relationship).

Just six of the statements seemed worthy of being termed moderate hits. (For example, Edward told a caller, “there’s a dog who’s passed also,” and she responded by saying her mother “had a dog that passed.” I rated this only a moderate hit since dogs are common pets.) And there were just two statements I felt might be deserving of the unqualified label “hit.” (Edward asked a caller, who was seeking her husband, “Did you bury him with cigarettes?” and when she responded in the affirmative, queried, “Was this the wrong brand?” The information does seem rather distinctive, but in both instances was phrased as a question and the second one was, of course, a follow-up.)

As these results indicate, John Edward was incorrect about as often as he was right. And considering the weaknesses of his ostensible hits, his success seems little better than might be obtained from guessing. By taking advantage of human nature, simple probabilities, the opportunities for multiple interpretations, and the technique of asking questions as a means of directing the reading, among other techniques, mediums like John Edward may give the impression they are communicating with the dead. The evidence, however, indicates otherwise.

Keene, M. Lamar (as told to Allen Spraggett). 1976. The Psychic Mafia. New York: St. Martin.
Nickell, Joe, with John F. Fischer. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, pp. 47-60.
Van Praagh, James. 1997. Talking to Heaven. New York: Dutton.

Chloride and Sodium: Two terribly dangerous substances that taste great together!

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