Wednesday, October 31, 2007

He can't speak to dead people

Confidence man and huckster John Edward gets treated respectably despite being exposed as a fraud. He gets to appear on Larry King Live! and Oprah! and even The View.

John Edward claims to be able to speak to dead people, a "psychic medium." And he does it for a hefty fee, or you can buy tickets to sit in the audience of his show and hope you win the lottery of being picked to have your emotions played upon for other people's entertainment and his profit. Perhaps those that watched him on The View today might be interested in how he works.

Edward is a practitioner of both the "hot read" and the "cold read" technique. Here is how his method was described in Time Magazine:

But is he for real? Edward's critics claim his feats are merely illusions created by standard magicians' ploys--helped along, they charge, by a few tactics that are downright underhanded.

Like other mediums, Edward relies heavily on a technique known in the trade as "cold reading." It involves posing a series of questions and suggestions, each shaped by the subject's previous response. Practitioners often begin, for example, by uttering a generality: "I sense an older father figure here," eliciting a response that leads him to the next question. "I'm getting that his death resulted from a problem in his chest" is a statistically sound guess that could cover everything from lung cancer and emphysema to a heart attack. Should the subject answer no, the cold reader will often say, "Well, we'll get back to that," and quickly change tack. It's a sophisticated form of the game Twenty Questions, during which the subject, anxious to hear from the dead, seldom realizes that he, not the medium or the departed, is supplying the answers.

Michael O'Neill, a New York City marketing manager, had no preconceived notions about Edward but experienced what he is convinced was a "hot reading"--a variation on the cold reading in which the medium takes advantage of information surreptitiously gathered in advance. Given an extra ticket by family members hoping to hear from his deceased grandfather, O'Neill attended a performance and was singled out by Edward, who received what he claimed were communications sent directly from the dead grandfather.

While many of those messages seemed to O'Neill to be clearly off base, Edward made a few correct "hits," mystifying everyone by dropping family names and facts he could not possibly have known.

It was not until weeks after the performance, when O'Neill saw the show on TV, that he began to suspect chicanery. Clips of him nodding yes had been spliced into the videotape after statements with which he remembers disagreeing. In addition, says O'Neill, most of Edward's "misses," both on him and other audience members, had been edited out of the final tape.

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.

And what did most of the audience--drawn by the prospect of communicating with their departed relatives--talk about during the delays? Those departed relatives, of course. These conversations, O'Neill suspects, may have been picked up by the microphones strategically placed around the auditorium and then passed on to the medium. (A spokesperson for Crossing Over would say only that Edward does not respond to criticism.)
NBC's Dateline also caught John Edward in a "hot read" of one of the cameramen.
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.

Mr. EDWARD: OK.

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.)
Why does Edward seem so credible, even amazing, when he does his television shows? Part of it is the editing, and part of it is the format. Joe Nickell in Skeptical Inquirer mentioned in his article the example of the investigation by a writer for New York Times Magazine:
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).
The audience members at the show are hopeful Edward will connect with their lost loved-ones. They want to believe, and their belief feeds the home viewer's belief. He's good at what he does. Oh, his "hit range" in his patter is actually low, but the way he can pass off the misses and make his subject help him find a "hit" is actually pretty good. And then he sounds so caring, even as he's scored another sucker. As a showman, he's fun to watch, in the same way it's fun to watch the grifters in the movie Paper Moon. Unfortunately, the only thing fictional with John Edward is his psychic ability. The victims are real.

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