Can John Edward Stand Up to a Skeptic?

ByABC News

Dec. 5, 2003 -- He's got the swagger of a rock star, and the marquee value of one as well. John Edward has become the hottest psychic in the country by tapping into America's fascination with the afterlife and bringing talking to the dead into the mainstream.

At 34, Edward's life as a medium has him living large. He's got his fourth best seller in bookstores, and his TV show, Crossing Over is so popular, there's a yearlong waiting list to get a seat in the audience.

How good is he? Stringing together some of his "hits," he appears to be pretty impressive.

Validating His Audiences’ ‘Energies’

He talks to total strangers, bringing up random items from their personal lives, and he says he's getting his tips from their relatives who've passed away. He tells his audiences that he is here to validate their energies, and assure them that their loved ones and friends are still connected to them.

"She wants to know if you still play the accordion," he tells one of his show guests.

"Don't you have a fur hat that's your dad's?" he asks another.

"You want to know that your brother is watching over your son? I gotta let you know that he does," he tells yet another.

Given the success of Crossing Over, it seems his audiences are pretty impressed.

Edward says he wasn't always a believer. In fact, growing up in New York, the son of a cop, he was a skeptic, not a psychic. Then one day, when he was a teenager, a friend of his mother's gave him a reading.

"She launched into this whole monologue about I'm psychic. I'm going to be doing this work. I'm going to be a teacher in this field. I'm going to write books," Edward said. "And I'm sitting there looking at this woman, thinking this woman has to be on drugs."

But soon after, Edward went into the business. This medium had gotten the message.

Accuracy Isn’t Everything

So how does Edward do what he does? Well, he tells his audience up front that he's often wrong.

But Edward says it doesn't bother him if he gets things wrong now and then.

He doesn't actually see the dead. Edward says he feels the energy of the dearly departed.

"I get a sense. I get thoughts in my head, feelings, and then I interpret what it is," he said. "It's like having a daydream and I have to relay back to you what I'm daydreaming about."

But why would someone's Aunt Sadie come to her nephew Bobby through John Edward?

"I think it's the same for anybody, why somebody would come through," Edward said. "It's out of love for their family, to let them know that there's something else."

Reading Our Audience

Whether you believe him or not, wouldn't it be great if we really could talk to the dead? To see how he works, 20/20 got together a random group of people who had never met Edward.

When he met the group, he included a warning that anyone in the room might get sucked into this process. Even the 20/20 crew.

"There's no spectators to this," Edward said. "Anybody's that's in the room becomes part of the process for me."

He then rubbed his hands together, closed his eyes and meditated before launching into a nearly 90-minute barrage of random names and numbers.

Edward's first subjects in the group were Chris and Jill, who were bombarded by names and initials. "I know there's a James connected to you, but there's another 'J' name besides James. So, I don't know if there's like a Joseph or there's like a Jack, but there's another 'J' connection that comes up over here."

Throughout the session with our sample group, Edward made references to older relatives who had died, to diseases, to "two younger energies" of two children who had died.

Facing a Skeptic’s Challenge

He made some connections during the session. But some are not impressed and say we should be challenging Edward and other psychics like him.

"Somebody's got to stand up and say, 'This is baloney.' And that's what I'm doing," said Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and author of Why People Believe Weird Things.

Shermer analyzed the video of Edward reading 20/20's volunteer group and believes Edward has a strategy. He says he simply rattles off a lot of names until an audience member tells him the right one.

"He also offers up an assortment of common diseases," Shermer said.

"All of us are gonna go, and we're gonna go from something pretty standard — cancer, heart disease. You can't go wrong with that," he said.

There's no shortage of numbers and dates as well in Edward's readings.

"There's something about February, or the second of the month that I feel like I need to tie into this family or to this," Edward told audience member Joanne, who's been trying to contact her longtime boyfriend, who died in a car crash four years ago.

"There's a connection again to 11, or November, or something 11-related," Edward added.

Joanne felt Edward has got her number, literally. "That's me," she said.

Shermer says it's easy for anyone to make connections just throwing out numbers — and confusing, fuzzy references.

"He's sort of what I would say is the John McLaughlin of psychics. 'You're wrong! Stick with what I'm doing. I'm right. You're wrong.' … And he drills them until they finally either cave in and give up or they find some connection," Shermer said.

One hour into 20/20's session with Edward, he turned to the side, toward the 20/20 crew and producer Michael Pressman.

"Is there a joke about somebody supposed to be a doctor?" Edward asked.

Pressman told Edward he has a daughter who's a pre-med student.

For more than 35 minutes, Edward quizzed Pressman with dozens of questions and observations and names. Only a handful turned out to be vaguely relevant; only one thing he mentioned was a concrete "hit."

He guessed Pressman's wife's name. One good hit — out of 41 tries.

One-third of our session was directed at the 20/20 crew, which left our volunteer participants a bit frustrated. Some in the group criticized Edward for throwing out too much generic information.

One audience member, Nick, said he could associate most of the things Edward said. "I have an 'A' in my family. I have cancer in my family. I have drunks in my family," he said.

Immoral Entertainment?

So what's the harm of Edward's work, if it makes people feel good? Shermer thinks Edward is encouraging self-delusion and avoiding difficult feelings. "It's a way of, I think, avoiding the grieving process," he said.

Shermer said he doesn't like what Edward does for a simple reason: "It's immoral, that's why."

Edward says he is not deceiving anyone, and does not play on people's emotions.

"That doesn't even enter into the realm of my world," he said. "When somebody can't see past the potential that the love that we have in the physical world transcends to the other side, I always wonder where they're lacking, or where they were lacking love in their life."

The truth about John Edward is he doesn't care if you believe him, and he doesn't have to. According to a recent Gallup poll, 28 percent of Americans believe that some people can hear from or talk to the dead. That's about 60 million people — a pretty good customer base.

Edward said he isn't very concerned about accuracy in his line of work. "I don't care how it looks, because my job is not to be right. My job is to be a medium and to pass on the information. As soon as I care about batting averages, and getting it right and percentages, then I shouldn't be doing it."

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