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Aug 16 2010

CFI Vancouver Skeptics ‘welcome’ John Edward

It was another big weekend for Vancouver skeptics. We hosted Dr. Christopher DiCarlo for a discussion of human origins in Africa, and we once again handed out flyers at a reading by self-proclaimed ‘psychic medium’ John Edward.

On Sunday, August 15th, our fair city of Vancouver played host to self-proclaimed psychic medium John Edward. Mr. Edward is perhaps most famous for his television show Crossing Over with John Edward, a half-hour show in which he claims to speak to the deceased relatives of audience members. In his show, he reveals intimate and personal information about those who have “passed to the other side”. Like other mediums, Mr. Edward claims to be a vessel through which information passes from the realm of the dead to the living.

The problem, of course, is that there is no evidence whatsoever that Mr. Edward can actually do what he claims. His approach is nearly indistinguishable from a well-known technique of manipulation called ‘cold reading‘. Basically, a ‘psychic’ cold reads a mark by initially using words or phrases that are so vague as to apply to anyone. Once a mark responds, the psychic hones in and sends progressively more specific probing phrases and words until the mark is completely convinced. At this point, the psychic can make claims about the feelings and wishes of the dead person with full buy-in from both the mark and the audience, who by this time are also staunch believers. A better explanation and illustration can be found here.

Why were we there?

A handful of volunteers from the Centre for Inquiry – Vancouver were present at the event to hand out some informative flyers to audience members (a pdf of the flyer can be seen here). As we have done previously with Deepak Chopra, we stood on the sidewalk outside the venue, and handed flyers to people as they came in. I must admit a bit of deception on my own part, as I asked people if they were here to see the John Edward show, and if they affirmed, I told them that we had flyers for them. While I did not lie (more on this in a bit), I didn’t dissuade them of the impression that I was working for the show.

Once again, we were not there to tell people they were stupid, or gullible, or uneducated. We weren’t there to feel smarter, or a smug sense of satisfaction at ‘educating the rubes’, nor were we there to ‘convert’ people to skepticism. It is my personal belief that most people are skeptical about some things, but seem to be readily willing to accept other things at face value.

We had two primary goals – first, to encourage people to be skeptical of claims by showing them some of the techniques ‘psychics’ use to trick people; and second, to engender a discussion of critical thinking and skepticism in a group of people who are likely not skeptics. We wanted people to be asking themselves ‘does this really make sense?’ We hoped that by showing people what the techniques were, we would prime them to ask real questions about what they were seeing.

How did it go?

Most people took a flyer and looked over it as they walked in. Some people asked for multiple flyers for their friends who were inside in line. We didn’t have a particular target for how many flyers we wanted to distribute, but we estimate our output at just under 100. The room in which the event was held has a 300-person capacity, meaning we missed more than we hit. We weren’t exactly thrilled that we didn’t get everyone, but we had a few hitches.

When we first arrived, we learned that many people had already gone inside the venue and were waiting in line for the doors to open. We ventured inside and up the stairs, and were suddenly face to face with 60-70 people, most of whom were much older than we were. A number of attendees were in wheelchairs and walkers. Standing there, faced with a group that outnumbered us 12:1, standing patiently waiting to speak to their dead relatives, we quickly lost courage and beat a hasty retreat to the Starbucks across the street to rethink our strategy.

We decided to stick to the sidewalk and get people coming in. This was decided for a few reasons. First, we felt a bit dickish going to people waiting in line and putting flyers in their hands. It felt opportunistic and mean. Second (and probably most importantly), it was scary. I kept having visions of a growing angry murmur going through the crowd, followed by a stampede of wheelchairs thirsting for our blood. On the sidewalk at least, we rationalized over frappuccinos, people had the opportunity to ignore us, or engage us, without having to face a giant crowd. Yes we’d miss the die-hards who showed up early, but they’d probably reject us out of hand anyway.

Overall, we walked away happy that at least we had done something, even if we didn’t shake up the world.

My personal experience

One woman offered us an extra ticket, and I jumped at the chance to get some intel from inside. When I went to talk to her, she asked me if I liked John Edward. I told her I’d never met him. The rest of the conversation went thusly:

Her: But do you like his work?

Me: No, not really.

Her: Why not?

Me: The world is a complicated place, and there are serious questions we have to ask ourselves. Whenever someone offers easy answers to difficult questions, I’m immediately skeptical. In the course of my skepticism, I’ve learned there are much better explanations for why John Edward can do what he does than believing he can talk to ghosts.

Her: Well then I’m afraid you can’t have the ticket.

Me: Oh, okay.

Her: If you bring negative energy in, it will prevent the spirits from speaking to him.

Me: Surely they wouldn’t be afraid of me. I’m just a guy.

Her: They aren’t afraid, they just require you to have an open mind.

I thanked her for the offer, and she thanked me for my honesty. I wasn’t about to take this woman’s money (tickets ran over $200) based on a lie. As much as I would have loved to get the inside scoop for you, there was no way I was going to do it through deception. She really believed in the supposed powers that Edward claims to have, so much so that the presence of even one person who didn’t believe would chase away all of the ghosts. This kind of insular environment allows Edward to prey on people, where not even one dissenting voice will be tolerated (although I suppose I could have just bought a ticket – even $25 would have been too much in my opinion).

The low point, of course, was high-tailing it out of the hotel at our first pass. I was amazed at how powerful the normative pressure was. Nobody was staring or being aggressive, yet as soon as we saw the line I could feel the pressure to run away. I’m not a shy person – I have no problem talking to strangers or approaching people in social settings; however, I was petrified by this situation. I have a bit more appreciation for people who are afraid of public speaking after failing in our first attempt.

The highlight for me was meeting Debbie, an attendee who came outside to ask us why we were there. Debbie felt that we were being uncharitable, and calling people stupid for not doing the research themselves. She told me that until you’ve had a supernatural experience, you have no right to criticize someone else’s search for truth. I told Debbie that I had indeed had several experiences that I attributed to supernatural causes, but once I had been exposed to better information and given the opportunity to make up my mind, I was grateful to have learned something. I also pointed out that we were no more calling people stupid than a public health campaign for hand-washing was calling people stupid – we are merely presenting people with information that we think could help them. She was not entirely swayed by my argument, although she did laud us on our non-confrontational style and general affability.

It is easy to dismiss the positions of those who disagree with you, especially when they are paying money to see a well-known fraud, but if we want to gain allies in the skeptical movement, we have to take criticism from all sides and evaluate it on its own merit. Debbie may have had a point – who were we to take away people’s false hope? My response to that as always is that the truth is important. We need to get as close to objective truth as we can in order to deal with each other honestly, and to allow humankind to progress. Permitting nonsense and charlatanry like John Edward to pass us by uncontested is an invitation for more deception, and a betrayal of the ideals of humanism. Things like this should be discussed and criticized, and people should not be allowed to defraud each other simply because “everyone is entitled to their opinion“. We have a duty to the truth, and ought to talk about it openly.

Hopefully our exercise in “skeptivism” encouraged a few people to think critically about what they were hearing. As we continue to do these events (James van Praagh, another ghoul who preys on the grief and credulousness of an non-skeptical public, will be in Richmond at the end of September), we invite members of the skeptical and non-skeptical community to give us commentary on how we can be more effective, and/or less offensive to those who buy in.

Welcome to all those here from Pharyngula!

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16 comments

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  1. 1
    Rick

    Well done. Hopefully you got a few people to think more critically, and those few will talk to others.

    I don’t fault you at all for walking out of the room full of early arrivals. That was probably a wise decision given the level of conviction you found outside. Indeed, $200 worth of conviction is quite a bit–I wouldn’t pay that for a rock concert ticket to my favorite band. But then again, I don’t believe they’ll allow me to talk to my dead grandparents.

  2. 2
    Lindsay

    You mean, the biggest douche in the universe graced our humble city with his presence and I didn’t know about it!?!?

  3. 3
    Crommunist

    My bad… I should start notifying you. Van Praagh is almost as bad, so you’ll have another chance.

  4. 4
    Marella

    It makes me very sad to think of all those poor old folks who’ve lost someone, prepared to pay $200 to hear something from ‘the other side’. What do they expect to hear? No-one ever gets told anything that matters, it’s always woolly nonsense. Never “look behind the wardrobe I put $50,000.00 there”, or “don’t go to the movies next Thursday it’s going to burn down”!

    As to your chickening out, it’s not easy to be the bearer of bad tidings, you did more than most people ever do. Be proud.

  5. 5
    Cedric Katesby

    You did the right thing.
    Well done.
    Keep up the good work.

  6. 6
    Jesse

    I really think sticking to the sidewalk was the ethical thing to do. Offering to engage with someone who has the ability to simply walk away is one thing, but someone stuck in a line with no escape from what they might see as aggression (whether or not it’s meant as such, it’s sure to be taken that way by some) is not a fair target. There was an element of apprehension and social awkwardness, but the ethical necessity was the best reason not to stick around inside. Makes us look better this way too. :P

  7. 7
    Micah

    Great skeptical activism! Thank you for writing the experience up.

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    I think we had good reasons aside from the awkwardness to be outside, but I don’t want to front as though we made a righteous, principled stand. I’d like to think that was PART of it, but the fear was real. It was also a big deal for me, as it was an unusual reaction for me.

    I’m hoping other groups start doing the same thing, and if they do I wanted to give them one person’s guide to what went right and what went wrong. I’m glad to hear that the consensus seems to be that we did the right thing.

  9. 9
    Peggy Knudtson

    I wonder however, if you had gone to the event and Edwards was still able to get “readings” if that would have any affect on the woman who offered you the ticket. According to her, your mere presence would have disallowed any readings. Would the fact that readings still occurred change her opinion any? Probably not – she would rationalize it away. -PegK

  10. 10
    Crommunist

    ‘Psychics’ put themselves in a no-lose situation – if they get things accurately, then it’s because of their amazing psychic power. If they are inaccurate, it’s because either the spirits are too vague, or (more likely) someone in the audience has negative energy.

    I’m sure when he got some stuff wrong at the reading on Sunday, he blamed it on us.

  11. 11
    jaranath

    As Myers suggested, I’d have notified the media. I know that could draw more attention than you seem comfortable with, but it would have reached a LOT more than 100 people, and your attitude is apparently nice enough that it’d be hard for you to be seen as aggressive meanies! :)

    I would have told the ticket lady that as a skeptic, seeing Edward work for myself was the most open-minded thing I could do. It isn’t as if I’d be sitting there “being negative;” I’d be evaluating what I saw and what possible explanations existed for it, including the possibility of it being real. I would make sure to point out that she seemed to be assuming in advance that Edward was genuine, which is not exactly an open-minded stance. I might have offered to sit through the show with her and discuss it afterward. I wouldn’t want to make her feel very uncomfortable giving me a ticket, of course, so I doubt I’d get it anyway.

  12. 12
    Crommunist

    Thanks for the comment!

    Yeah, we dropped the ball a bit on the media thing. We only found out that Edward was coming 3 days before the show, because someone Tweeted it. We had to scramble to get organized, which is why we didn’t really have the turnout we would have liked. Hopefully since we have generated the flyer (and people seem to like it), and we have a little over a month to get ready for the next thing, we’ll be able to generate some media buzz.

    I thought of using the “skepticism requires an open mind” thing, but the fact is that I am not open to John Edward being psychic. I’ve seen his spiel before, and there ain’t nothing psychic about it. Saying that I was going in to entertain the possibility of it being real would have been just as untrue as her being ‘open-minded’ by barely entertaining the possibility it was fake.

    Interestingly, Debbie thought that Sylvia Browne was a total faker. I goggled at the cognitive dissonance.

  13. 13
    jaranath

    I get what you’re saying, but that would have been part of my argument…that yes, I had already evaluated the evidence and concluded that Edward was bunk and indeed that psychics in general appear to be. But no skeptic refuses to consider new evidence fairly when they have already reached a conclusion. Sure, we may strongly suspect we know what we’re going to find, but technically we always leave the door open. If we didn’t do that we truly couldn’t be skeptics, not just definitionally but in practice. We’d gradually drift into outright crankery because we wouldn’t be able to form new opinions or revise existing ones.

    That doesn’t mean we have to bend over backwards to consider new evidence when our conclusion is already based on a mountain of the stuff, but sometimes a convenient opportunity presents itself, or the evidence is especially interesting or unusual.

    Anyway, yeah, I’d have told her I already had my opinion on Edward, but that I wouldn’t waste my time sitting through the show if I didn’t intend to evaluate him fairly. Unless it was for entertainment purposes only. :)

    It’d be fascinating to find out why she rejected Sylvia, whatever the reason. If it was some of her major public gaffes, that’d be an opening to encourage her to apply the same standard to Edward. If it was for emotional reasons (Sylvia not being the most likeable person…) it might be an opportunity to ask her to consider how she decides what’s true. Could there be a better (skeptical, scientific) standard to evaluate her by?

  14. 14
    Crommunist

    That’s true. If Edward did something that I couldn’t explain, I’d still be doubtful but I would be open to the possibility that he has some kind of abilities. It would just take a metric ass-load of evidence to convince me that he was actually a psychic, as I’d need to be convinced also of the existence of ghosts, souls, the afterlife, etc.

    It struck me as strange that Sylvia Browne wasn’t up to muster for Debbie, and I considered pressing her about it more, but she was really there to talk about US, not her own beliefs. Maybe I should have invited her to Skeptics in the Pub – I’d like to get some insight into her position and (hopefully) give her a better explanation of the skeptic philosophy than I was able to on the sidewalk, on the fly.

  15. 15
    jaranath

    Hehe. “Metric ass-load.” I gotta remember to use that.

  16. 16
    Random

    “Her: They aren’t afraid, they just require you to have an open mind.”

    Ah, the “open-mind” argument.
    I personally use this video as a reference for arguments to counter this, and demonstrate that I’m actually the one with an open mind (but since my opponent is closed-minded, it doesn’t work very often :) ).

  1. 17
    Show notes for Episode 76 « Radio Freethinker

    [...] at John Edward’s event – The Crommunist Manifesto, PZ Myers, PDF of the [...]

  2. 18
    John Edward: Skeptics take to the streets « InFlatus Veritas

    [...] anyone interested in a discussion.  A good, thorough report of how this went can be found at the Crommunist Manifesto. Briefly, we went early, but not quite early enough. Many attendees had already registered two [...]

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