“Death is a part of life, and pretending that the dead are gathering in a television studio in New York to talk twaddle with a former ballroom-dance instructor is an insult to the intelligence and humanity of the living.” –Michael Shermer
“…we [psychics] are here to heal people and to help people grow…skeptics…they’re just here to destroy people. They’re not here to encourage people, to enlighten people. They’re here to destroy people.” –James Van Praagh on “Larry King Live,” March 6, 2001
“I’ve never heard of a skeptic helping anybody with their skepticism. To a large degree, they just want to shame somebody so they can feel greater than them. But they’re not going to shame me. I’m very proud of what I do.” –Allison DuBois in an interview with Allen Pierleoni
“…nearly all professional mediums are a gang of vulgar tricksters who are more or less in league with one another.” —Richard Hodgson
In spiritualism, a medium is one with whom spirits communicate directly. In an earlier, simpler but more dramatic age, a good medium would produce voices or apports, ring bells, float or move things across a darkened room, produce automatic writing or ectoplasm, and, in short, provide good entertainment value for the money.
Today, a medium is likely to write bathetic inspirational books and say he or she is channeling, such as JZ Knight and the White Book of her Ramtha from Atlantis. Today’s most successful mediums, however, simply claim the dead communicate through them. Under a thin guise of doing “spiritual healing” and “grief counseling,” they use traditional cold reading techniques and sometimes surreptitiously gather information about their subjects to give the appearance of transmitting comforting messages from the dead. Subjective validation plays a key role in this kind of mediumship: The mediums rely upon the strong motivation of their clients to validate words, initials, statements, or signs as accurate. The clients’ success at finding significance and meaning in the sounds made by the medium are taken as evidence of contact with the dead.
George Anderson, a former switchboard operator and author of Lessons from the Light: Extraordinary Messages of Comfort and Hope from the Other Side (2000), got his own ABC special featuring celebrities who wanted to contact the dead. Some mediums even get their own syndicated television programs, such as John Edward and James Van Praagh, although the latter’s show was canned by Tribune Media Services after only a few episodes.
John Edward established himself as the first clairaudient to have his own show that featured deceased loved ones contacting audience members: “Crossing Over with John Edward” on the Sci-Fi Channel. Edward has been described as a fraud by James Randi [Skeptic, v. 8, no. 3] and Leon Jaroff [Time, March 5, 2001] to no avail. He may be a fraud, but he is an attractive and impressive one. Edward’s show was syndicated and for some time he joined Xena the Warrior Princess and Jerry Springer on the USA Network. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of the animated series South Park, named Edward the Biggest Douche in the Universe in episode 615.
James Van Praagh is a self-proclaimed medium who claims he has a gift that allows him to hear messages from just about anyone who is dead. According to Van Praagh, all the billions and billions and billions of dead people are just waiting for someone to give him their names. That’s all it takes. Give Van Praagh a name, any name, and he will claim that some dead person going by that name is contacting him in words, fragments of sentences, or that he can feel their presence in a specific location. He has appeared on “Larry King Live,” where he claimed he could feel the presence of Larry’s dead parents. He even indicated where in the room this “presence” was coming from. He took phone calls on the air and, once given a name, started telling the audience what he was “hearing” or “feeling”. Van Praagh plays a kind of twenty-questions game with his audience. He goes fishing, rapidly casting his baited questions one after the other until he gets a bite. Then he reels the fish in. Sometimes he falters, but most of the fish don’t get away. He just rebaits and goes after the fish again until he rehooks. The fish love it. They reward Van Praagh’s hard work by giving him positive feedback. This makes it appear to some that he is being contacted by spirits who are telling him that being dead is good, that they love those they left behind, and that they are sorry and forgive them everything.
Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine calls Van Praagh “the master of cold-reading in the psychic world.” Sociologist and student of anomalies, Marcello Truzzi of Eastern Michigan University, was less charitable. Truzzi studied characters like Van Praagh for more than 35 years and describes Van Praagh’s demonstrations as “extremely unimpressive.” (“A Spirited Debate,” Dru Sefton, Knight Ridder News Service, The San Diego Union-Tribune, July 10, 1998, p. E1.) Truzzi said that most of what Van Praagh gives out is “twaddle,” but it is good twaddle since “what people want is comfort, guilt assuagement. And they get that: Your parents love you; they forgive you; they look forward to seeing you; it’s not your fault they’re dead.”
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