ABC Nightline’s 2011 Test of Professional Psychics

Psychic stockbroker shocked that he can't connect to dead people when tested.

A “psychic stockbroker” and medium is shocked that he can’t connect to dead people when tested.  The magician Banachek conducts the test.

ABC’s news program Nightline worked with magician-skeptics James Randi and Banachek as part of its series “Beyond Belief,” in a fascinating episode called “Psychic Powers” on August 16, 2011. It focused on the James Randi Educational Foundation’s (JREF) Million Dollar Challenge, which would award a million dollars to anyone who could prove their paranormal claim.

The segment did not receive nearly the coverage and discussion it deserved, in my opinion, considering how rare such broadcast tests are due to the extreme difficulty of putting them together.  I’ve combed through blogs and podcasts to assemble a more detailed description than has been published so far.  Check out the video, then continue reading for an even more interesting look behind the scenes.

A JREF advisor to the show, well-known magician Jamy Ian Swiss, wrote in summary:

[W]e tested a Tarot reader, a palm reader, and three mediums (one of whom was shown on the air), and none of them were successful. Most did no better than matching the results predicted by chance alone.

However, one point does have to be made, and which I consider the one legitimate criticism to lie at the feet of the Nightline story editors. We knew, without doubt, that every psychic, upon failing the test, would immediately offer a litany of excuses, including claiming that the test was unfair or inappropriate. To protect ourselves as best as possible under the circumstances – and this is, by the way, one of the chief risks of bringing tests to the psychics rather than designing tests when they come to us – we asked each and every test subject, prior to the test and on camera, if, upon describing the test to them, they considered it a fair representation of their abilities, and how confident they were of success.  In every case the psychic affirmed that the test was fair and reasonable, and that they were confident – indeed, extremely confident – that they would be successful.

Unfortunately, Nightline chose not to include any of these a priori statements by the “psychics” in the broadcast, and instead chose to provide air time for their standard alibis and excuses.

Nevertheless, all in all, I think the story came out well, and we owe some thanks to a producer at Nightline who had a clear vision of the subject matter and tried to present a fair and reasonable report about psychic claims and the Million Dollar Challenge. And I should add that we offered every psychic the chance to come and propose their own test, to be taken at a later time. So far, none have come forward.

Discussion of Nightline episode by JREF’s project consultants

In a 12/5/2011 interview, JREF staffer D.J. Grothe discusses the segment, with some further comments on psychics, with Jamy Ian Swiss. The full podcast can be heard at iTunes: For Good Reason. Below is a partial and lightly paraphrased transcript of the podcast.

Celebrity psychics

Swiss: Celebrity psychics are not interested in being tested. If someone of any standing, especially scientific, endorses them, they will parade that for years and years, but they don’t come back to that well to pursue scientific testing. For example, when Uri Geller touted for years the Stanford Research Institute embraced him, but he’s never agreed to be tested again. Similarly, John Edward touts that he was endorsed by Dr. Oz, but will never say “It’s my intention to establish myself scientifically, bring it all on.” James Van Praagh continually touts this one psychiatrist who supports him, but as soon as skeptics say, “Why don’t you come in and take a test?” he says, “Oh no, I’m not interested in “cynics.”” They’re desperate for that kind of legitimacy, but they’re also desperately afraid to actually submit themselves to any serious scientific examination.

Grothe: They want something that appears like credibility, but they won’t do the simple thing that would give them all the credibility in the world. Which is to pass the James Rand Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge, a challenge we make available to anyone who can prove, under mutually agreed-upon scientific conditions, that their paranormal claims are real.

Swiss: They want the gloss of science, but they’re not willing to do the actual work.

The Nightline “Beyond Belief” Million Dollar Challenge

Grothe: We recently turned our attention to psychics who aren’t celebrities. For the first time on the national stage, we tested a number of working psychics in New York City on primetime TV, before 4.5 million people. They were sincere, well-meaning, kind-hearted people that we liked. I don’t think any of them, with one exception, were knowing fakes.

Swiss: The one exception is the one who went home. Not everybody made it on camera, somebody walked out.

Swiss: For the Nightline version of the Million Dollar Challenge, we had a tarot reader, a palm reader, several mediums, and an astrologer. I think it’s fair to assume that they were all sincere. They are using a combination of techniques; they think they’re using the skillset of going by the charts, or by the books. I always remember that story by Ray Hyman, one of the founders of CSICOP and a great friend. He was a magician in college and he got interested in palm reading. He was amazed at how successful his palm reading was and it was convincing him that there was something there. He shared this with a professor, who said “That’s interesting. Why don’t you go out next week and when you do it, reverse the readings. Say the opposite of what the charts tell you you’re supposed to say.” So that’s what he did and he got the exact same amount of feedback of how everything was right. And this is because the material is so universal and so generalized, plus you’re mixing it with your own intuition about people. The big skill of a psychic is using the intuition we all have about other people, but what we’re not accustomed to is verbalize it, to articulate it, to turn it into conscious language. That’s part of the skill of being a psychic.

Grothe: It was interesting some of the comments these psychics we tested on Nightline made. In the category of “reading” someone… they weren’t allowed to read the facial expressions of the subjects during the test, and one psychic actually said matter-of-factly, not realizing what it meant: “Well, I don’t think I did as well as I normally would do, because I wasn’t able to get the validation, the feedback.” She didn’t realize what she was admitting.

Swiss: She also explicitly said: “I wasn’t allowed to ask questions.” If you’re psychic, what do you need answers to questions for? Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to provide them?

We had 12 live subjects, and I had done pre-interviews with each of them. I asked them each about a half-dozen questions, about their job, their personality, their family, and we created little biographical sketches, that the psychics were to attempt to match with their reading. This frustrated the hell out of the psychics because they’re accustomed to asking questions, and getting answers and constant feedback -yes, no, you’re getting warmer or colder, the head nods.

What you’re really seeing at work here is a laboratory of cognitive dissonance at work. It’s a paradigmatic, replicable experiment. Each one of these people was absolutely certain of their confidence beforehand, immediately in the aftermath of each trial, one failed trial after another, they immediately have a story, an excuse, why it didn’t happen, what went wrong. One medium gave me an elaborate explanation – she had to find the image of a dead celebrity among eleven random living people. And each time, she had a story: “I didn’t get Elvis, because Elvis doesn’t like to think of himself as dead, and his legend lives.” This sounds disingenuous, but it’s not. It’s this programmed function of the mind to resolve the dissonance of when we’re wrong about something.

Grothe: My two favorite moments in the exit interviews: One where a psychic was asked by Juju Chang, the Nightline correspondent, “So you didn’t do as well as you thought you would.” And the psychic answered, “I really thought I was going to win, and I didn’t. Maybe I don’t have these abilities.” That was a big deal to me; it is very rare to hear something like that.

The other was where a psychic looked in the camera and with bright eyes and a lot of enthusiasm, said “I am really glad I failed this test. Because if I won this test, it would have distracted me from the work the spirit wanted me to do.” I think she was sincere; it was a self-lie that you don’t know you’re telling.

Swiss: The first you mentioned, the charming stockbroker psychic that we all liked so much… by the end of that interview, he was not really entertaining the idea that he didn’t have ability, but somehow the test was not fair, it was too different from what he normally does. We were very strong in inviting him to come back and arrange a more suitable test… we haven’t heard back from him.

Grothe: And in a fact a standing offer is open to any of the people we tested on Nightline. If they feel the tests we put together didn’t adequately get to their claimed abilities, we’d love to work with them to develop a new test that could maybe uncover their claimed abilities.

Swiss: One of the things we want to do in the regular Million Dollar Challenge is to lower the requirements in the preliminary stages. We want people to get through those tests and to engage in the process.

Storefront psychics and organized crime

Swiss: It’s fair to say that the majority of storefront psychics in big cities are criminal enterprises. There’s an abundance of evidence for this. There are charges filed all the time of them bilking people out of life savings. When you walk in for that quick $5 reading, what they are doing is fishing for the big fish. They only need to land a couple big fish to make the time worthwhile. Lonely widowers, who are convinced they’re under some curse or evildoing that the psychic can rescue them from. Those happen all the time. There is a criminal subculture often in large cities where the men specialize in home invasion – roofing scams, things like that, and the women run the storefront psychic operations. There’s a notorious history of this.

The mediums from Nightline are professionals, usually part-time, working through the New Age shops, psychic fairs, the New Age culture – I wouldn’t say there are no frauds there, there are plenty – but that’s where you find the believers.

Grothe: But you’re not going to find some family-run storefront business where they actually believe what they do is real. It’s a moneymaking scam, like the Marks family in Florida, that has stolen $40 million from their clients. Randi has been working to expose them for years.

But what’s the harm in psychics?

Grothe: There are people with anxieties, or they’re grieving, and they need to turn to someone for a little help. A justification you often hear is this is the poor man’s psychotherapist.

Swiss: It’s inarguable that studies show it’s beneficial to talk to someone. It’s incredibly valuable to someone who is troubled to talk to someone. The problem with talking to a psychic, albeit the rates are cheaper, is the client goes out in the world more convinced that such things area real, and is far more vulnerable to the predator in the shop next door, waiting to take their money.

Grothe: That’s one of two big reasons not to go to a psychic. It opens the door to being deceived by other people. The other reason is, Why in the world would you give some nonexpert power in your finances, or homebuying, or is your husband cheating on you? She could be the sweetest little old lady in the world, but still not be competent or qualified to give you advice. It’s a pretending to expertise she doesn’t have.


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