Skeptic Answers Your Questions on Psychics

Q: Don't you think the biggest factors in accounting for the rise in belief in the paranormal are the many television shows which promote it? Especially egregious are the so-called Learning Channel, History Channel, Larry King, and network shows such as all the crop circle, UFO, alien autopsy, etc. programs — not to mention the sci-fi channel, Discovery, and Crossing Over. People are drowning in the promotion of paranormal & superstitious beliefs. The level of incredulity is not only astounding, it is a shameful national disgrace! What can unbelievers and skeptics do against the veritable ocean of cultural clap-trap promoting such beliefs? — Sharon Nichols

A: I agree. Mass media — particularly the proliferation of cable channel shows, which run these episodes because they get good ratings — accentuatesbelief in the paranormal. Far too many people think that what they see on television must be real. I cannot tell you how many letters I received after Fox aired a purported documentary about how we never went to the moon! "I saw this documentary on television!" Don't believe everything you see and only half of what you hear.

Q: My question is what do you think of James Von Praagh? I have compared him to this John Edward guy and find that James is more precise with his answers and goes into more detail and overall more accurate. — Parm Hundal

A: In 1994 I spent 11 hours with James Van Praagh for an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. This is how I learned how the psychics do their tricks. After that long, Van Praagh was repeating himself and giving away his secrets that would not have been apparent had I seen only one session. I think Van Praagh is better than Edward is at making it look like the dead are talking to him. But they are both just actors in a cruel psychodrama, in my opinion.

Q: Mr. Shermer and Mr. Ritter,

After you watched the piece on 20/20 do you really feel it followed the principles of good journalism — i.e. was balanced and fair? Personally, I think the readings (and commentary) were edited in a way so that they would support and illustrate Mr. Shermer's points. Edward had no opportunity to respond to any of them (except one question like, "Are you really self-deluded AND preying on grieving people?") The readings were all chopped up into little negative sound bites (again, illustrating the negative "spin" of Shermer and Ritter — i.e. "the swagger of a rock star" — how slanted a characterization is THAT?) And who evaluated the "40 out of 41" misses for your producer, using what criteria? Couldn't we have seen more of that reading and his comments of how nothing fit for him? (And it would only have been fair to contrast a dissatisfied sitter with a satisfied one, and perhaps get both people to talk about their different perception of the experience). It also would have been FAIRER and more BALANCED to have shown more of the readings themselves, and to have talked with some of the people who felt he got excellent information for them (and why, even if later you debunked it.) AT LEAST, you would have presented a balanced view!!!! But no. This wasn't investigative journalism. More like a (deceptively UNlabelled) op/ed piece. My question is: Do you both think it was actually a fair and balanced piece of reporting? I'll be extremely surprised if you both can honestly say, "Yes". — Julie

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