The Myth of the 'Medium'

Debunking the three techniques of 'talking to the dead.'

BY: Michael Shermer

Excerpted with permission from Michael Shermer, "How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science." New York: W. H. Freeman, from Chapter 3. The Belief Engine.

Throughout much of 1998 and 1999, the best-selling book in America was by a man who says he can talk to the dead (and so can you, if you buy his book). It turns out that our loved ones who have passed over are not really dead, just on another spiritual plane.

I am referring to James Van Praagh, the famous medium. According to

his own web page

, "Van Praagh is a survival evidence medium, meaning that he is able to bridge the gap between two planes of existence, that of the living and that of the dead, by providing evidential proof of life after death via detailed messages." Van Praagh calls himself a "clairsentient," or "clear feeling," where he can allegedly "feel the emotions and personalities of the deceased." He claims that the "spirits communicate by their emotions," and even though they do not speak English or any other language, they can tell you, for example, "that you changed your pants because of a hole in the left seam or that you couldn't mail letters today because the stamps weren't in the bottom right desk drawer."

He readily admits that he makes mistakes in his readings (there are so many he could hardly deny it), rationalizing it this way: "If I convey recognizable evidence along with even a fraction of the loving energy behind the message, I consider the reading successful."

I once sat in on a day of readings with Van Praagh and kept a running tally of his ratio of hits and misses for each of ten subjects (one of whom was me, all filmed for NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries"). Being generous with what kind of information counted as a "hit," Van Praagh averaged 5-10 hits for every 30 questions/statements, or 16-33 percent. But because Van Praagh's payoff is the hope of life after death and a chance to speak with a lost loved one, people are exceptionally forgiving of his many misses.

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