• Star

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

Q+A

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

ANSWER: You shouldn't listen to Michael Shermer, or anyone else for that matter. The first principle of skepticism is to check it out yourself, and remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Of course, I cannot prove that it is impossible that psychics can talk to the dead, any more than I can prove that the pet psychic doesn't really talk to pet hamsters. One cannot prove a negative, as it is said. Nevertheless, we can estimate the probability of claims being true or false, and to that extent, from the evidence I have seen, it is highly probable that dead people cannot talk to us.

Q: How do you explain the live shows, like the ones he does on Larry King, or the pay-per-view ones. He doesn't see these people and it's live. I don't hear him rattling off hundreds of names, he usually gets names pretty close. Lots of times he says things no one else would know such as … "What happened to your arm, or someone you know's arm, did it get burned?" Yes, her sister's did! OR...Are holding something of your mom's in your hand right now? Yes she was. How do you explain that? — Shawna

A: "He usually gets names pretty close." Usually? Exactly how usual? Herein lies the problem in testing the validity of psychics. What constitutes a hit? How many total statements and/or questions were made? How many misses? What was the ratio of hits to misses? How many hits would be expected by chance? These are the sorts of questions that scientists and skeptics ask. The only way to really know is to run the test I proposed at the top of this document.

Q: About a year or so ago, I think it was on a late night show like Jay Leno or Letterman, another man who did the exact same thing as John Edward was on. He was obviously working off of the popularity that Edward was receiving. But he was just as "accurate", he even rubbed his hands like Edward does, and had the same vocal inflection, style of presentation, like an exact duplicate!! Physically and personality wise, he was different: he was on the chubby side and talked about his wife and family. I was flabbergasted when I saw this guy on TV, because the obvious deduction one arrived at was that whatever John Edward was "doing", so was this guy! I thought at the time, "This will destroy the J. Edward Illusion!" — and I never heard of him after that! It would have been different if his style was unique, but he was a carbon copy of John Edward. It made John Edward's "show" appear to be a complete hoax — even though it remained unclear how he gets away with it. — Laci Meszaros

A: I too have noticed that the psychics, like comedians and magicians, pick up each other's lines, patter, moves, and tricks. This is because talking to the dead is an act, and like any stage act it can be improved through practice and watching what other people do.

Q: Does Mr. Shermer still believe that the Earth is flat and that it is the center of the universe? — Helen Vasquez

A: What? It isn't?

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

A: I can honestly answer Yes. We have become so accustomed to biased reporting in the media these days that it is difficult to recognize truly "fair and balanced" reporting when it is actually done correctly. The ABC News department is first-rate in this regard. Larry King, by contrast, is in the entertainment department, not the news department, of CNN, and the difference in the quality of the reportage shows.

Q: I'd like to know how Shermer can discredit someone without knowing anything about how the paranormal works. I find it to be such a shame that someone who doesn't understand the paranormal is the first to criticize it. Shermer has no clue as to how something works or why it works, so I guess the best thing to do is discredit it and call it baloney. I listen to the skeptics, but most of the time I just roll my eyes at their close-mindedness. — Dusty Vestal

A: Please go to www.skeptic.com and read the numerous articles I have written on the subject, the readings I have received and given, the research I have been conducting on the subject over the past decade, etc.

Q: People like [John Edward] should be taken with a "grain of salt." But a part of me does hope that my Dad is watching over me. — Debby

A: A whole shaker of salt is more like it, but I concur with your sentiment. I often wish the same thing about my dad and mom.

Q: I think you stink. John Edward is my hero, idol and I believe him all the way. He doesn't care who believes him. — Judy Case

A: He doesn't need to when acolytes such as yourself will believe him regardless of how clearly we can demonstrate that it is all a fake. That is the power of belief, and, as Ritter noted in the show, with a base of 60 million believers he doesn't need to care about skeptics.

Q: A couple of years ago I watched a show on Discovery about a scientific experiment done with a group of the major psychics to test whether they really had psychic powers. John Edward was part of that experiment which did show definite positive findings. Have your skeptic watch that and redo the show about that particular aspect of Mr. Edward's ability. Would make for an interesting show if you can find that research video. I think he deserves the other side shown since you presented this negative side only. — Darlene

A: I am very familiar with that test. The problem with it is that it was unclear what constitutes a "hit" or "miss" with Edward's statements. There was far too much wiggle room in allowing what looked to me to be misses to count as hits. That is why I devised the simple male/female binary test. No ambiguity there!

Q: I was one of the biggest skeptics in the whole world — I questioned everything — always. I taught my kids that we didn't know for sure whether there was a heaven so they had just better live their lives like this Earth was their heaven — then if there is one later that would just be a bonus! Then my 20-year-old son was killed in a car accident, and I can no longer be a skeptic — I HAVE TO BELIEVE!! My question to you is: Have you ever lost someone you loved more than life itself? It's much harder not to believe if you have. Does John make me feel better — NO — nothing makes me feel better, but I feel as if I NEED to BELIEVE — in him?? — not really — it's really that I need to believe the dead can be around us and can communicate with someone {yes, I always think: if him, why not me?}. John Edward allows me to believe — makes it all right to believe. Whether he is a fake or "the real deal", do you really think that allowing me, or others like me, to believe is so immoral? — Judy Morrow

A: I am so very sorry that you lost your son. I have lost my parents, which was extremely painful, but as a parent I can only imagine how much more painful it would be to lose a child. I completely understand why you "have to believe," as you so poignantly said. Sadly, tragically, John Edward and the other media psychics know this and count on it. In another way, however, your son still lives in the beautiful memories of the time you did have together. That can never be enough, of course, nor replace the real thing, but it is all any of us has once our loved ones are gone.

Q: Do you believe in god, creator, or higher power? How and why do you think we are here on earth? Are you an agnostic? — Julie Molnar

A: I do not believe in God. I was once a born-again Christian, but when I really examined the reasons for my belief, and for belief in God in general, I realized that the evidence was too slim to make that belief commitment. I wrote a book about this entitled How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God.

Q: I wanted to thank you for opening up my eyes. I guess there is a part of people that want it to be true. But as I heard your thoughts on it, I understood that this is not true. I again want to thank you for opening up my eyes when it comes to John Edward. And I will not be one of those people to pay hundreds of dollars to have someone guess and play off of my emotions.

A: Thanks. We're trying to save souls — one mind at a time.

Q: If all Edward's apparent hits can be explained by guesswork, body language, prior knowledge, etc, how does Shermer explain highly specific hits when the medium has no visual, auditory or other sensory means of communication, e.g. when sitters are proxy or when readings are double-blind, as in some of the experiments conducted with Edward and others by Professor Gary Schwartz of Arizona University? Is Shermer not aware that such tests have been conducted since the 1880s, and that there is a vast accumulation of written evidence inconsistent with his explanation? — Montague Keen

A: Indeed, I wrote a column about this very subject in Scientific American ("Psychic Drift") in which I bemoaned the fact that serious psychic researchers have now had well over a century to put ESP to the test, and out of tens of thousands of experiments run there are only a couple significant ones, and even these fall apart under close scrutiny. By now it should be obvious if there were really something to psychic power. There isn't, and it isn't likely that there will ever be with that failure rate.

Q: Why can't you let this go, What does it matter to you if he can realy talk/see the dead. As a person who has lost her parents and too many other family members to mention, HE GIVES US HOPE, AND SOME CLOSURE. I don't care realy if it is true.. ALL I care about is that he/they John Edward, James Van Praagh and Sylvia Browne all give us a hope that we will see our long lost loved ones again. Also how can them making people feel so good about such a huge lost in theier lives, be so wrong ??? Do you know of any ways to help the pain of a lost loved one??? — Pamela Nicholson

A: Yes, grief counselors. These are trained professionals who deal in loss, death and grief. They tell me that the reason the psychics are harmful is that pretending that one's lost loved one is not really gone keeps one in a state of denial, making it impossible to ever work through the grieving process.

Q: Dear Mr. Shermer, What do you belive happens to us when we die? Second, what is your religion? Why do you choose to be a skeptic? How long have you been a skeptic? When we die, do you believe we go into the ground and that's it? — Susan Bowen

A: Nothing happens when we die. We just quit living. You can't even experience death, because all experience requires a functioning brain. If you are dead, your brain is not functioning, by definition. I am not religious. My world view is scientific and rational. Not everyone goes into the ground upon death. Some go into the sea. A couple have even gone into space (the ashes of Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, were allegedly launched in a tiny capsule). As for our "souls" (which is what I presume you mean), there is not a shred of evidence that anything survives the death of the physical body.

Q: I have a question for Mr. Shermer. It is a little off the subject of psychics talking to the dead but it involves one of America's greatest psychics. What is your opinion about the psychic abilities of the late Edgar Cayce? His psychic readings are well-documented and his sincerity and honesty seem above reproach. — Glen Culp

A: I wrote about Edgar Cayce and my experiences at the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia in my book Why People Believe Weird Things. His psychic readings are indeed well-documented, and leather-bound and stored in a beautiful library. And I have never questioned the sincerity of the man. But that's not what is at issue. The question is, could he actually diagnose medical conditions beyond chance? No. Could he really return to previous lives he claims he lived in ancient Egypt and Atlantis? No.

Q: If you can communicate with the afterlife, is there a Heaven, a Hell, and a purgatory? Do you have communication with a superior being (God)? — Richard Gatto

A: No. No. No. And definitely no.

Q: Is there any kind of legal statute that would allow someone to prosecute those who participate in this type of activity? I believe John Edward and people like him inflict unnecessary emotional harm on people who have, most probably, already had a significant trauma in their lives. — Lori McCurdy

A: For the most part, no. Since it is next to impossible to prove fraud in such cases the law has a difficult time prosecuting psychics.

Q: Dear Mr. Shermer, Have you heard of "psychics" using audience ticket and mailing lists to obtain information and family histories so they already know about some of the people watching that day? I was surprised this wasn't mentioned in the story. — Kevin Hughes

A: It is quite possible that John Edward gets information on his subjects, but I doubt that he actually needs to. As you saw in the show, his hit rate is embarrassingly low, yet he is hugely successful nonetheless, so why bother to cheat and risk getting caught when people will believe you anyway?

A: Nicely said. And, while we're at it, why aren't there any psychics living in Las Vegas and scoring big at the casinos, or at Santa Anita race track betting on the ponies? And, while we are on the subject, why didn't one psychic foresee the demise of the Psychic Friends Network? Or Princess Di's death? Or 9/11? The psychics always seem to know when some celebrity is going to get divorced, but they somehow miss things like terrorist attacks and earthquakes.

Q: Where can teachers access lesson plans and resource materials to help provide students with the skills to separate baloney from reality? It seems a majority of Americans hold beliefs in impossible things and are credulous enough to be ripe for hucksters such as Edward. — Edmund Smith

A: Thanks for asking! We have a Baloney Detection Kit and Jr. Skeptic magazine (which comes with a subscription to Skeptic magazine) just for teachers and students. You can get those at www.skeptic.com. The Baloney Detection Kit includes course syllabi and materials on how to teach a course on this subject.

Q: Why don't you ask John Edward to do a reading for you? It may open up your heart and soul. — P. Mason

A: I would love to get a reading from John, but I seriously doubt he would entertain (if you will) the idea.

Q: What makes you think he's a phoney? Could you come any where near as close to a name or a sickness as he does? I would bet not. — Brett

A: I can do much better than John Edward, and I have! See my article "Psychic for a Day" at www.skeptic.com, which discusses my psychic abilities on a television show.

Q: Mr. Shermer, I have noticed your Skeptic Society around the Web with such unscientific theories as that an "out-of-body" experience that was obtained during weird psychosurgery disproves the existance of the soul (according to the article, you were the author of that whacked idea) and another by the Skeptics Society that claims there were no concentration camps in Germany. I am wondering why you purport such Nazi ideology and are so hell-bent on making unscientific assertions as to the nonexistance of the soul? A subject of LSD experimentation who "leaves his body" equally neither proves nor disproves the existence of the soul, of course. Also I wonder if you are brazen enough to agree that your group supports Nazi ideology. — Ross Rice

A: Actually, we debunked the Holocaust deniers. I even wrote a book on the subject, entitled Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It (University of California Press).

Q: If John Edward and his kind are legitimate then they should assemble a group of relatives of victims of unsolved murders. Then they could solve these murders. — Mike

A: Yeah, how come John Edward doesn't tell us where Jimmy Hoffa's body is buried? Or who killed Nicole Brown Simpson?

Q: Hi Michael, Way to go! Keep after these disgusting phonies wherever they raise their money-grubbing heads. To prey on people's losses the way this scum does is despicable and should be a punishable offense. Dirtballs like Edward encourage the kind of brainless gullibility that has police departments paying "psychics" to investigate crimes, or idiot hand-wavers to make hospitals even more expensive by charging for so-called "healing touch" that involves no touching! Edward, you belong in the mythical hell along with San Diego's own blathering fruitcake, Deepak Chopra, who wouldn't know a quantum if it bit him on his aura! LOL — Jeff Wells

Q: About 10 years ago I dreamt one of my clerical workers would die in a car accident en route to Mexico the coming weekend. I told her of my dream, she told her mother (who locked her in her room Sat. night). Her boyfriend opened her bedroom window, they went to a dance in Mexico and were killed in an accident that night. Just coincidence? 8 months ago I turned off the freeway and arrived at a green light but found myself afraid to go through it, so I sat there for 8 seconds. A hugh tractor trailer "moving van" I had not seen went through the red light and crossed the intersection where I should have been. The trailer saw his mistake and slammed on his brakes several yards after going through the red light emitting tire smoke everywhere. Coincidence? — Joseph Sanchez

A: Yup, coincidink. The law of large numbers explains this one, or as I like to say, million to one odds happen 280 times a day in America. With enough people and even things happening to those people, a handful of really weird things are going to happen every day, and this is what gets reported in the news ("film at 11"). We remember the hits and forget the misses.

Q: Are you an atheist? If so, where can other atheists talk to others who have the same beliefs? — Tim Young

A: Go to www.the-brights.com where you will find lots of us nonbelievers.

Q: Thanks. You perform a valuable service. I am a Christian but also disturbed by this superstitious chicanery. I constantly encourage people not to swallow things whole when they are suggestion-based scams. I assume that you're not "against" anything in particular, just trying to debunk such scams. — Dan

A: Correct. Skepticism is not a position you take about claims, but an approach, a scientific, naturalistic approach to trying to understand what is really going on. Ideally one never goes into an investigation with one's mind already made up.