2016-06-30
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.

Watching James Van Praagh work a crowd or do a one-on-one reading is an educational experience in human psychology. Make no mistake about it, this is one clever man. Van Praagh masterfully uses his ability and learned skills in three basic techniques he uses to "talk" to the dead:

1. Cold Reading. Most of what Van Praagh does is what is known in the mentalism trade as cold reading, where you literally "read" someone "cold," knowing nothing about them. He asks lots of questions and make numerous statements, some general and some specific, and sees what sticks. Most of the time he is wrong. His subjects visibly nod their heads "no." But he only needs an occasional strike to convince his clientele he is genuine.

2. Warm Reading. This is utilizing known principles of psychology that apply to nearly everyone. For example, most grieving people will wear a piece of jewelry that has a connection to their loved one. Katie Couric on The Today Show, for example, after her husband died, wore his ring on a necklace when she returned to the show. Van Praagh knows this about mourning people and will say something like "do you have a ring or a piece of jewelry on you, please?" His subject cannot believe her ears and nods enthusiastically in the affirmative. He says "thank you," and moves on as if he had just divined this from heaven. Most people also keep a photograph of their loved one either on them or near their bed, and Van Praagh will take credit for this specific hit that actually applies to most people.

Van Praagh is facile at determining the cause of death by focusing either on the chest or head areas, and then exploring whether it was a slow or sudden end. He works his way down through these possibilities as if he were following a computer flow chart and then fills in the blanks. "I'm feeling a pain in the chest." If he gets a positive nod, he continues. "Did he have cancer, please? Because I'm seeing a slow death here." If he gets the nod, he takes the hit. If the subject hesitates at all, he will quickly shift to heart attack. If it is the head, he goes for stroke or head injury from an automobile accident or fall. Statistically speaking there are only half a dozen ways most of us die, so with just a little probing, and the verbal and nonverbal cues of his subject, he can appear to get far more hits than he is really getting.

3. Hot Reading. Mentalist Max Maven informs me that some mentalists and psychics also do "hot" readings, where they obtain information on a subject ahead of time. I do not know if Van Praagh does research or uses private detectives to get information on people, but I have discovered from numerous television producers that he consciously and deliberately pumps them for information about his subjects ahead of time, then uses that information to deceive the viewing public that he got it from heaven.

Even for seasoned observers it is remarkable how Van Praagh appears to get hits, even though a closer look reveals how he does it. When we were filming [a] 20/20 piece for ABC, I was told that overall he had not done well the night before, but that he did get a couple of startling hits--including the name of a woman's family dog. But when we reviewed the videotape, here is what actually happened. Van Praagh was failing in his reading of a gentleman named Peter, who was poker-faced and obviously skeptical (without feedback Van Praagh's hit rate drops significantly). After dozens of misses Van Praagh queried, "Who is Charlie?" Peter sat there dumfounded, unable to recall if he knew anyone of significance named Charlie, when suddenly the woman sitting in back of him--a complete stranger--blurted out "Charlie was our family dog." Van Praagh seized the moment and proclaimed that he could see Charlie and this woman's Dad taking walks in heaven together. Apparently Van Praagh's psychic abilities are not fine-tuned enough to tell the difference between a human and a dog.

The highlight of the 20/20 piece, however, was a case of hot reading. On a break, with a camera rolling, while relaxing and sipping a glass of water, Van Praagh suddenly called out to a young woman named Mary Jo: "Did your mother pass on?" Mary Jo nodded negatively, and then volunteered "Grandmother." Fifty-four minutes later Van Praagh turned to her and said: "I want to tell you, there is a lady sitting behind you. She feels like a grandmother to me." The next day, when I was shown this clip, one of the line producers said, "you know, I think he got that on the break. Too bad we don't have it on film." After checking they discovered they did, so Van Praagh was caught red-handed.

Where have we heard all this before? A hundred years ago, when mediums, seances, and spiritualism were all the rage in England and America, Thomas Henry Huxley concluded, as only he could in his biting wit, that as nonsensical as it was, spiritual manifestations might at least reduce suicides: "Better live a crossing-sweeper than die and be made to talk twaddle by a 'medium' hired at a guinea a seance."

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