Detecting psychic scams & debunking mediums is easier when you know how psychic methods like cold reading work. Don’t be fooled by psychic misdirection. Cold reading tricks are used by psychics to convince an audience that they know things that they don’t – using high probability guesses, generalized statements, and linguistic techniques. Stay skeptical, dare to be curious, but don’t fall for this bullshit, and don’t drink the koolaid.
After my father died suddenly five years ago, I found myself sitting in the upstairs alcove of a high ranch in Kings Park that was decorated in gaudy crucifixes and adorable cherubs. Across from me sat the medium a friend had sworn by. A medium who had told my husband the day before that she’d been visited by my father and that he wanted to talk to me.
She wasn’t the first psychic medium I’d been to. And most certainly wasn’t the last. She described my father as a veteran (he was), who liked to cook (he did). She gave details about how he died, and described how he’d lived. The message she said he wished to relay to me resonated, quite deeply, but it was what she said to me as we were talking about my budding writing career that turned me into a believer.
“She gets it from me,” the medium told me my father had said. As a joke.
A wiseass even in the afterlife? That was what cemented the unbelievable truth to me that my dead father was right there in the room with me.
And so it was with an open mind that I attended Theresa Caputo Live! The Experience at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on December 17. The packed house was rife with nervous laughter and quiet murmurs as the audience filed in an hour before she came onto Westbury’s iconic round stage, set with a high table draped in white cloth, holding lit white candles and a white floral bouquet.
Caputo finally walked out in sky-high sparkly Christian Louboutins and a flouncy dress to thunderous applause. She briefed the audience about what to expect, counseling us to please accept anything we could connect to our lives as messages to us from our departed loved ones from “beyond the physical world.” She said she couldn’t stress it enough, and she was true to her word, as she continuously reminded the audience throughout the next two and a half hours to interpret her words as direct messages, especially if she failed to address each of us individually.
“It’s so nice to be home,” the Hicksville mom told the Westbury audience. “Everybody understands my accent!”
The audience laughed in recognition as she enunciated words like “feather’ and “father” as “feath-ah” and “fath-ah.”
Some People Certainly Think So
Every show on TLC really knows how to tug at your heartstrings, but The Long Island Medium does it pretty much better than anyone else. That is because the Long Island Medium herself, Theresa Caputo, has an amazing ability to connect strangers with their loved ones who have passed away. By communicating through “spirit,” Caputo can learn how someone died, his or her nickname, and even deliver a message to the living. Her readings are so spot-on, it’s freaky.
Maybe even a little too freaky for some people. When a person has a supernatural ability like this, there are of course going to be skeptics. Caputo encounters them all the time on her show, like when one self-proclaimed skeptic, Brian, started to believe after Caputo’s tape recorder magically stopped without any prompting. Like with most issues in our society, the debate has mainly been alive and well on the Internet, the trolliest of troll-y places, since the show premiered back in 2011. Whether it’s through opinion pieces, blog posts, or videos, there are plenty of people online who make it their mission to debunk Caputo’s ability. So who are these people, and why do they think Caputo is not for real?
Caputo’s main opponent is James Randi, a former magician and escape artist who now spends his days “as the world’s most tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims,” according to his website. Randi is famous for his “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge,” where anyone who can prove “evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event” will be awarded $1 million.
Randi claims Caputo uses a technique that many mediums employ called “cold reading,” where it may look like Caputo is simply chatting with the person, but she’s actually picking up information that she’ll use to make what she says seem very specific to the person she’s reading. He says Caputo’s questions about initials and life events are basically just guesses that she hopes turn out to be true. Randi, who has also taken on the famous mediums John Edward and James Van Praagh, awarded Caputo a 2012 Pigasus Award, which is awarded to parapsychological frauds who are most harmful to society.
Inside Edition performed an entire investigation on Caputo in 2012, which found that she was much less accurate in her live readings than she is shown to be on her TV show, as she would “strike out time and again.” Inside Edition had former psychic Mark Edward perform the “cold reading” techniques he believed Caputo uses, and the audience believed him.
In a trifecta of pseudoscience, Dr. Oz calls upon Dr. Amen to demonstrate (live on TV) how the Long Island Medium is real.
Where do I begin?
Dr. Oz has long ago abandoned any scientific legitimacy, not to mention self-respect. He has gone from giving basic medical advice, to promoting alternative quackery, and now he is just another daytime TV sellout, gushing over psychics. With Dr. Oz, however, it is all done with a patina of science.
Theresa Caputo is just another fake psychic doing bad cold readings before audiences that have more of a desire to believe than apparent critical thinking skills. Her performance on Dr. Oz is fairly typical – she fishes with vague and high probability guesses, working multiple people at once, who then struggle to find some connection to what she is saying.
For example, she tells one mark who is trying to connect with her father, “Your father wants to talk about the coin collection?” This is a great vague statement. First, it is one of those statements that seems very specific, but in actuality is a high probability vague statement. Anything to do with coins can seem to be a hit, and in the fairly good chance that an older gentleman had a literal coin collection it will seem like a fantastic hit.
In this case, however, the target found a nice face-saving hit. Apparently another psychic told the same person that her father sends her “pennies from heaven.” There you go.
In another segment with Caputo she demonstrates almost a parody of terrible cold reading. She senses a father figure and a daughter figure. She says to an entire audience that someone lost a father and someone lost a daughter. She also goes out on a limb and says – something to do with the chest. Shockingly, someone from the audience steps forward. Caputo then makes two clear misses. She says that she senses the person was lost suddenly. The target clearly indicates this was not the case, at which time Caputo tries to recover by saying that – even when someone is ill, we did not expect to lose them at that exact moment. Right. She then goes for the daughter, which is also a clear miss, leading to that awkward moment when an alleged psychic so thoroughly fails that they struggle to find an escape hatch.
I also found it interesting that when asked about the brain scan test she was about to have, Caputo responded by saying that no matter what the tests show, she just wants to help people. She was seemingly pre-rationalizing for possible failure. Infer from that what you will.
Dr. Daniel Amen
Dr. Amen as made millions of dollars proving SPECT scans for a long list of diagnoses. SPECT scans use a radioisotope to track blood flow in the brain, which can be used to infer brain activity. The problem with SPECT scan is that there is a tremendous amount of noise in brain activity so you need to be very careful about interpreting the results. There is some utility in looking for dead areas of the brain following a stroke, for example. SPECT has also been used to localize seizures (increased activity during a seizure and then decreased activity following the seizure).
Clinical use of SPECT, however, has been very limited because it is just too noisy. The test often does not have good specificity. Amen is using SPECT for a wide range of indications for which it has not been validated – we do not have data to show that the results of the test can be used to predict confirming diagnostic tests or response to treatment. But SPECT is very useful for generating pretty pictures that seem scientific and can be used to imagine any result you wish.
- Brain Scans and Psychics (theness.com)
- Dr. Oz. Performs LIVE Brain Scan On Medium Theresa Caputo & Turns From A Skeptic Into 100% Believer (feelguide.com)
- Brain Scans and Psychics (skepticblog.org)
- Loving my Inner Child (amomentwithgod.com)
- Gluten, psychology, and your brain. (thehybridhuman.wordpress.com)
- My first psychic reading (besttarotcardreader.wordpress.com)
Is Dr. Oz a fraud or a fool? I can’t know for sure, and I don’t care.
I do know this: He sure doesn’t seem like much of a scientist to me.
And I am also pretty damned sure that he is a hazard to America’s health. And probably the greatest hazard on network television today. And that’s saying something.
When was the last time that a revolutionary, historic, scientific breakthrough was first demonstrated and announced on an afternoon television talk show?
The correct answer: NEVER.
One of the signature signs of “pathological science” is when scientists operate outside of their areas of special expertise. Another is when they skirt peer review and go directly to the media or the public. One textbook example is the pseudoscientific claims of cold fusion made in 1989 by the chemists Pons and Fleischman, and quickly discarded by the legitimate scientific community, following repeated failures to replicate their claims and results.
These attributes apply to this past Thursday’s episode of “The Dr. Oz Show” – all the more so, in fact, since Dr. Mehmet Oz is not a scientist. He’s a heart surgeon.
Oz seems to be an accomplished surgeon, which means he’s good with scalpels and sutures. But beyond that, I wouldn’t let him near me or any loved one I know. Dr. Mehmet Oz is a truly dangerous man.
On Thursday’s show (May 9, 2013), Dr. Oz presented Theresa Caputo, the so-called Long Island Medium, in a repeat appearance on his program. He also brought on the best-selling author and psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Amen, who operates the Amen Clinics. Dr. Amen has made a name for himself in books and frequent television appearances, particularly for his promotion of SPECT brain imaging as a supposed tool in psychiatric diagnosis for conditions ranging from ADHD to depression. The scientific evidence for such claims appears to border between questionable and nonexistent. (For a skeptical look at some of Dr. Amen’s claims, see this article by Dr. Harriet Hall: and more here.
Dr. Oz, insisting that the events presented on Thursday’s show were “historic” and “ground-breaking,” then had Dr. Amen hook up Ms. Caputo to a SPECT scanner, and then give a reading to a studio audience member.
According to the Mayo Clinic website:
A single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT) scan lets your doctor analyze the function of some of your internal organs. A SPECT scan is a type of nuclear imaging test, which means it uses a radioactive substance and a special camera to create 3-D pictures.
While imaging tests such as X-rays can show what the structures inside your body look like, a SPECT scan produces images that show how your organs work. For instance, a SPECT scan can show how blood flows to your heart or what areas of your brain are more active or less active.
Notice that last part – it tells you what parts of your brain are “active.” There is no evidence it can tell you if that brain is psychic. Before it could do that, you would need to determine, it seems to me, that such a thing as “psychic” exists. Parapsychology has been working on that for about 150 years. Results to date: zip, zilch, zero.
Ms. Caputo, the self-styled psychic, was asked to “remain very still,” but to hold up one finger to indicate when she was receiving the voice “of spirit,” while Dr. Amen observed the brain scan activity.
I’m not a scientist, but it doesn’t take a PhD to notice that this demonstration – regardless of whether a SPECT scan can tell us anything remotely relevant about what is going on in a psychic’s brain – is not only not double-blinded, it’s not even single-blinded. The subject indicates when she claims something is happening, and the observer looks to find a match. This isn’t science. It’s non-science and nonsense.
Not to mention that nagging little question about what a SPECT scan can actually tell you about the brain.
Not to mention that if you want to test a psychic, one should probably start with testing what a psychic claims to be able to do.
Not to mention that the JREF has a million dollars for any psychic who can demonstrate their abilities under test conditions.
As for that, Ms. Caputo – although she seems to have impressed the hell out of Dr. Oz, albeit based on his record this doesn’t seem to take much – didn’t seem to be able to do much of anything. She began her first reading (a demonstration prior to the “experiment”) by looking for something from a “father or a daughter.” She managed to find someone in the audience who had lost their father, but as soon as she asked who the daughter was – who was the “female spirit” – the subject drew a dead blank.
Ms. Caputo had to extend out to the studio audience, fishing for a “hit.” Finally she found one. Sort of.
But she had a bucket of bullshit to cover her tracks . . .