Skeptic Answers Your Questions on Psychics

20/20 recently profiled John Edward, a popular with psychic with a hit television show, Crossing Over, and several best-selling books to his credit. Dr. Michael Shermer, Editor and Publisher of Skeptic magazine and a monthly columnist and contributing editor to Scientific American, answers viewers' questions about psychics and the paranormal below.

Introduction From Skeptic Michael Shermer

Thanks to ABC for posting this Internet dialogue. I wish that I could answer all 350+ letters that viewers sent, but time constraints prohibit it. I have selected a couple of dozen letters, some friendly and supportive, most negative and critical. It was roughly one-third positive, two-thirds negative, better than I expected, actually.

A number of viewers inquired how I would test John Edward scientifically. Here's how: Edward, along with Sylvia Brown, James Van Praagh, Rosemary Altea and others, claim that they can tell whether it is a man or woman coming through from the other side. Male or female gives us a simple binary choice and coin-flip model for a test. Get 50 people, each of whom writes down before the reading whether it is a man or woman in their life who passed over. Without asking questions of each subject, the psychic then determines whether it is a man or woman coming through for each of the 50 subjects. Through pure guessing, or flipping a coin, we would expect a 50% hit rate, or 25 correct out of the 50 subjects. Of course, some psychics, by chance, will get 26 or 27 right, others 23 or 24 right. The hit rate, in fact, will vary around a bell curve, or probability distribution curve. By chance some may even get 30 right or only 20 right. But how many does the psychic need to get right for science to conclude that their hit rate was not due to chance but to some other effect (such as genuine psychic power). The answer, at the 95 percent confidence level, is 37. If John Edward could get 37 hits out of 50 in this simple test, he could legitimately claim that he had passed a scientific test of his powers.

Finally, let me note in general that I am sensitive to and empathetic with the emotions evoked by loss, death, and grief — the emotions that underlie most of the responses from participants and viewers of Crossing Over. I have lost both of my biological parents (I have two surviving step-parents), and most recently assisted my mother through a nearly-decade-long battle with brain cancer (my most recent column in Scientific American, "What's the Harm?" discusses this). I think of my mom often, wishing I could talk to her so that she could help me through some troubled times. Alas, wishing it were so does not make it so, and my mom has never spoken to me despite the fact that she knew how much I loved and needed her. Such is the nature of life, and death.

— Michael Shermer


QUESTION: How do you know that people cannot connect with those who have crossed over? There have been many who have written books on the subject over hundreds of years. So my question is why should I listen to Michael Shermer? As far as I can see he has proven NOTHING. Mr. Shermer in his own words is Baloney. — Carla Smith

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