To set the record straight....

James Randi --- Wizard (
21 Nov 1997 05:53:11 -0000

Tonight, CBS-TV broadcast a "48 Minutes" show featuring a "reading" by
a prominent "psychic." I was brought to New York some weeks back to
see the segment and to comment on it. The viewing audience saw a
sanitized version of the session that omitted many important factors.
Here is an account of what actually took place during 60 minutes of a
very weak attempt at psychic flummery....


(Figures in parentheses indicate the elapsed time in a one-hour-long

Van Praag began with a prayer designed to establish that this is
a religious exercise, and he established that interruptions or doubts
are not encouraged. Next, he provided loopholes for his failures to
guess correctly: he said that he might "get" a message from any of a
multitude of entities out there -- he said there were hundreds -- and
he often just can't sort them out. (0:47) He said that they all "come
through" at once, and confuse him. He warned (01.20) that skepticism
slows things down, makes things difficult. He said that he would only
"get" what "they" would give him, so he should not be blamed for
errors, and that if he is wrong, he will ask the spirits to "refine"
the facts for him.
This reader is typical of the profession. He works with
stereotypes and generalizations. Expressions like "Who is....?" are
used frequently and are very general, and require the victim to fill
in the details. They can be narrowed down quickly and then they
appear to be specific. Heart disease and cancer are the two
predominate causes of death in middle-aged or older persons. He tried
and hit on both these, in this reading. Glaringly obvious and quite
safe scenarios were offered: "Many times you've felt that you're
alone." (4.45) "Are there stairs in the house?" (16.20) Quoting the
spirit of the husband, after the woman said her husband sometimes gave
her jewelry, and that she was pleased by this act: "She used to love
it when I gave her jewelry." (22.10)
He tentatively suggested something many times, and when he got a
"no," he passed right on. But if it was a "yes," he quickly invented
a clear, direct word-for-word quote from the spirit that expresses
this "hit," and delivers it: (9.06) "He's very strong, and I'm not
sure what.... Is this your husband?" "Yes" "Cause he just said,
'Husband, I'm her husband, I'm her husband.' Okay?" And, (21.10)
"Was he in the hospital before he passed over, please? "Yes."
"Because he's talking about being in the hospital before he passed
over." "Did he die in a hospital?" "Yes." "It's like, I'm waiting
for him to come through with this.....Yeah! I died there! He says he
died there."
As with all these operators, he constantly asked questions,
requiring the victim to establish a connection between what he said,
and something in her life. It's her failure to find a connection that
made the "misses."

When he got a direct, unequivocal "no," he told the victim to "Keep
that," as if the connection would later become evident, which it never
did. (5.45) "She's mentioning something about the head area, here.
Have there been headaches, problems with headaches? Do you know about
that?" "No." "Okay. Who had trouble with the head? Ah... head
problem, or past the head condition? Like a quick head problem?" "I
don't know." "You're not aware of that. Keep that, please." And he
rushed on, never coming back to this bad guess.
Typically, in these scams, the victim is portrayed as a person of
virtue, and the reader used that ploy, too. (9.45) "You've always
been there for everyone else. And you're not there for yourself.
You're very good at helping other people, and taking care of people's
problems. And always there for other people but not for yourself."
He offered very common names or simply initials, as well as
expected events, and the victim tried to make them fit. In this
reading, he tried 25 common names, in less than 60 minutes:
(Alphabetically: Ben. Bernie. Betty. Bob. Fran. Frank. Frankie.
Howard. Howie. Jack. Jackie. Joe. Joey. John. Joseph. Lillian.
Lilly. Linda. Liz. Lizzie. Lynn. Marie. Mary. Rob. Robert.
This fact, that he guessed so badly, was not introduced on the "48
Hours" show.
Other can't-lose guesses he threw out were: New York City,
Brooklyn, birthday, anniversary, reading newspapers in the morning,
glasses, cooking, then the initials H, J, and L, which could be for
names of people, cities, anything.
A common technique which he used is to give the victim back
material that was already developed or already known. For example, 30
minutes into the reading, he gave her "Long Island," which he was
already told about before the session started.
His specific guesses missed badly. (18.20) He tried for a
Cadillac, any Cadillac, belonging to anyone, past, present, or future,
and missed. (18.00) He guessed she has a son; she doesn't. (20.20)
He tried for legal problems with the husband's will, and failed.
(34.00) He assured her she'll have a message waiting for her at home
from a Lynn or a Linda. It didn't happen. She didn't find the watch
set at 3 o'clock in that second drawer that he assured her she'd find.
He's obviously experienced in his trade. When the victim slipped
and mentioned her husband's name, Jack, he wisely saved it until
later, at which point, eleven minutes later, he suddenly "got" a large
letter "J" and then "Jack" fifteen minutes later.
He tried standard ploys. Female persons of this age range are
very likely to have inherited a piece of jewelry from a deceased
relative. As soon as he learned that the victim's mother was dead
(she told him this), he tried for that jewelry "hit," but it was
denied. Even though he came back to it later, he still didn't get it
accepted. And knowing that the victim's mother was dead, he naturally
threw in the grandmother, too. A person of this age is unlikely to
have a living grandmother. The fact that he says the two women were
"close," is hardly miraculous.
Another common gimmick in this scam: he quickly followed a guess
with the question "Do you understand?" all in one fluid sentence,
getting a "yes" response. The "yes" will always follow such an
attempt, but it's an answer that says, "Yes, I understand what you've
said or what you're talking about." However, the strong impression is
that it's an affirmation of the guess, not of the understanding.
When we can't see the face of the victim continuously as in this
taping we can't know how much nodding (affirming or denying) is taking
place. This subject, when we did see her face, appeared to give such
clues freely; it's polite and quite natural to do so, especially when
the reader is always asking for a response by his inflection or by his
non-verbal facial expressions. Usually, the victim will tend to give
a blank reaction if the reader is not going in the right direction,
and a "yes" nod or actual verbal agreement, when he is. Thus, we can
get many more "yes" responses than are really evidential.
There were two predictions made by the "psychic." He said,
"There was a watch....oh, the watch. He's saying it's a
watch.... something to do with 3 o'clock.....There's a box at your
house that has a watch of his in it.... second drawer down. Pull it
out." He said she'd find this watch when she went home. This did not
happen, but we were not told this. He also said there would be a
message from a Linda or a Lillian awaiting her when she got home.
There was no such message waiting, but we were not told that, either.

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