observation and recounted his tale of woe. The audience was stunned. Oprah was silenced. Altea pumped out more details and predictions. After the taping, one woman stood up and announced that she had come to the studio to debunk Altea but was now a believer.
Enter the skeptic. Three days before the taping of the show, one of Oprah's producers called me. Shocked that the publisher of Skeptic magazine had never heard of Rosemary Altea, the producer was preparing to call someone else to do the show when I told her, sight unseen, exactly how Altea operated. The producer mailed me an airline ticket. In my allotted few minutes, I explained that what the audience had just witnessed could be seen at the Magic Castle in Hollywood on any night that a mentalist who knows how to work a crowd is appearing. By "work," I mean the time-proven technique of cold-reading, where the mentalist asks general questions until he or she finds someone who gives generous doses of feedback. Continued questioning eventually finds targets. "Was it lung cancer? Because I'm getting a pain here in the chest." Subject says, "It was a heart attack." "Heart attack? Yes, that explains the chest pains." Or, "I'm sensing a drowning. Was there a boat involved? I'm seeing a boat of some kind on a body of water, maybe a lake or river." And so on. In an audience of two hundred fifty people; every major cause of death will be represented.
The principles of cold-reading are simple: start general (car accidents, drownings, heart attacks, cancer), keep it positive ("He wants you to know he loves you very much," "She says to tell you that she is no longer suffering," "His pain is gone now"), and know that your audience will remember the hits and forget the misses ("How did she know it was cancer?" "How did he get her name?"). But how did Rosemary Altea, without asking, know that the woman's mother had died of cancer and that her son was having doubts about his career? For Oprah, two hundred fifty studio eyewitnesses, and millions of television viewers, Altea appeared to have a direct line to the spirit world.
The explanation is very much of this world, however. Mentalists call this a hot reading where you actually obtain information on your subject ahead of time. Earlier that day, I had shared a limousine from the hotel to the studio with several guests on the show, two of whom were this woman and her son. During the drive, they mentioned that they had met with Altea before and had been invited by Oprah's producers to share their experience with the television audience. Since almost no one knew this little fact, Altea could use her prior knowledge of the woman and her son to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Naturally I pointed out this fact but, incredibly, the woman denied having previously met with Altea and the exchange was simply edited out of the show.
I doubt that Altea deliberately deceives her audiences by consciously using cold-reading techniques. Rather, I believe she innocently developed a belief in her own "psychic powers" and innocently learned cold-reading by trial and error. She says it all began in November 1981, when "I woke early one morning to find him standing by the bed, looking down at me. Although I was still half asleep, I knew he was no apparition, no specter in the night" (1995, p. 56). From there, as her book reveals, it was a long process of becoming open to the possibility of a spirit world through what psychologists call hypnopompic hallucinations—visions of ghosts, aliens, or loved ones that occur as one emerges from deep sleep—and mystical interpretations of unusual experiences.
But whether we are talking about rats pressing a bar to get food or humans playing a Las Vegas slot machine, it only takes an occasional hit to keep them coming back for more. Altea's belief and behavior were shaped by operant conditioning on a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement—lots of misses but just enough hits to shape and maintain the behavior. Positive feedback in the form of happy customers paying up to $200 per session was a mechanism sufficient to reinforce her own belief in her powers and to encourage her to hone her mentalist skills.
The same explanation probably holds for the master of cold-reading in the psychic world—James Van Praagh—who wowed audiences for months on NBC's New Age talk show The Other Side, until he was debunked on Unsolved Mysteries. Here's how. I was asked to sit in a room with nine other people. Van Praagh was asked to do a reading on each of us, all of whom had lost a loved one. I worked closely with the producers to ensure that Van Praagh would have no prior knowledge of any of us. (In addition to subscribing to demographic marketing journals so that they can make statistically educated guesses about subjects based on age, gender, race, and residence, mentalists have been known to go as far as running a name through a detective agency.) His readings would have to be "cold" indeed. The session lasted eleven hours and included several snack breaks, an extended lunch break, and numerous pauses in the filming while technicians reloaded the cameras. Van Praagh opened with a half-hour of New Age music and astrological mumbo jumbo to "prepare" us for our journey to the other side. His mannerisms were somewhat effeminate, and he came off as quite empathic, as if he could "feel our pain."
With most of us, Van Praagh figured out the cause of death through a technique I had not seen before. He would rub either his chest or his head and say "I'm getting a pain here," watching the subject's face for feedback. After the third time, it suddenly struck me why: most people die from heart, lung, or brain failure, regardless of the specific cause (such as, heart attack, stroke, lung cancer, drowning, falling, or automobile accident). With several subjects, he got nothing and said so. "I'm not getting anything. I'm sorry. If it's not there, it's not there." For most of us, however, he got many details as well as the specific cause of death—but not without lots and lots of misses. For the first two hours, I kept track of the number of "no's" and negative head shakes. There were well over a hundred misses for only a dozen or so hits. Given time and enough questions, anyone with a little training could become sensitive enough to do exactly what Van Praagh does.
I also noticed that during the film-changing breaks, Van Praagh would make small talk with the people in the room. "Who are you here for?" he asked one woman. She told him it was her mother. Several readings later, Van Praagh turned to the woman and said, "I see a woman standing behind you. Is that your mother?" At all times he kept it positive. There was redemption for all—our loved ones forgive us for any wrongdoing; they still love us; they suffer no more; they want us to be happy. What else would he say? "Your father wants you to know that he will never forgive you for wrecking his car"? One young woman's husband had been run over by a car. Van Praagh told her, "He wants you to know you will be married again." It turned out that she was engaged to be married, and, of course, she credited Van Praagh with a hit. But, as I explained on camera, Van Praagh said nothing of the sort. He gave his usual positive generalization with no specifics. He did not tell her she was presently engaged to be married. He just said that someday she would marry again. So what? His alternative was to tell the young lady that she would be a lonely widow the rest of her life, which is both statistically unlikely and depressing.
The most dramatic moment of the day came when Van Praagh got the name of a couple's son who had been killed in a drive-by shooting. "I'm seeing the letter K," he proclaimed. "Is it Kevin or Ken?" The mother responded tearfully in a cracking voice, "Yes, Kevin." We were all astonished. Then I noticed around the mother's neck a large, heavy ring with the letter "K" inscribed in diamonds on a black background. Van Praagh denied having seen the ring when I pointed it out on camera. In eleven hours of taping and small talk during breaks, surely he saw the ring. I did, and he's the professional.
The reactions of the audience members I found even more intriguing than the mentalist techniques of Altea and Van Praagh. Anyone can learn cold-reading techniques in half an hour. They work because subjects want them to work. Every person at the Unsolved Mysteries taping except me wanted Van Praagh to be successful. They came there to speak with their loved ones. In the post-session interviews, all nine subjects gave Van Praagh a positive evaluation, even the few for whom he obviously missed. One woman's daughter had been raped and murdered many years ago, and the police still have no clues to the perpetrator or even to how the crime was committed. The mother had been making the rounds on talk shows, desperately seeking help in finding her daughter's killer. Van Praagh went to her heart like salt into a wound. He reconstructed the murder scene, describing a man on top of the young woman raping her and stabbing her with a knife, and left this grieving mother in tears. (Van Praagh was credited by all with getting this cause of death correct, but earlier, in the morning session, while he was fishing around by rubbing his chest and head, the mother slashed her fingers across her throat, indicating that her daughter's throat had been cut. Everyone but me had forgotten this clue by the time Van Praagh used it.)
After the Unsolved Mysteries taping, it became clear that everyone but me was impressed with Van Praagh. The others challenged me to explain all his amazing hits. When I finally told them who I am, what I was doing there, and how cold-reading works, most were uninterested but several walked away. One woman glared at me and told me it was "inappropriate" to destroy these people's hopes during their time of grief.
Herein lies the key to understanding this phenomenon. Life is contingent and filled with uncertainties, the most frightening of which is the manner, time, and place of our own demise. For a parent, an even worse fear is the death of one's child, which makes those who have suffered such a loss especially vulnerable to what "psychics" offer. Under the pressure of reality, we become credulous. We seek reassuring certainties from fortune-tellers and palm-readers, astrologers and psychics. Our critical faculties break down under the onslaught of promises and hopes offered to assuage life's great anxieties. Wouldn't it be marvelous if we did not really die? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could speak with our lost loved ones again? Of course it would. Skeptics are no different from believers when it comes to such desires. This is an ancient human drive. In a world where one's life was as uncertain as the next meal, our ancestors all over the globe developed beliefs in an afterlife and spirit world. So, when we are vulnerable and afraid, the provider of hope has only to make the promise of an afterlife and offer the flimsiest of proofs. Human credulity will do the rest, as poet Alexander Pope observed in his 1733 Essay on Man (Epistle I, 1. 95):
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest. The soul, uneasy, and confin 'd from home, Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
This hope is what drives all of us—skeptics and believers alike—to be compelled by unsolved mysteries, to seek spiritual meaning in a physical universe, desire immortality, and wish that our hopes for eternity may be fulfilled. It is what pushes many people to spiritualists, New Age gurus, and television psychics, who offer a Faustian bargain: eternity in exchange for the willing suspension of disbelief (and usually a contribution to the provider's coffers).
But hope springs eternal for scientists and skeptics as well. We are fascinated by mysteries and awed by the universe and the ability of humans to achieve so much in so little time. We seek immortality through our cumulative efforts and lasting achievements; we too wish that our hopes for eternity might be fulfilled.
This book is about people who share similar beliefs and hopes yet pursue them by very dissimilar methods. It is about the distinction between science and pseudoscience, history and pseudohistory, and the difference it makes. Although each chapter can be read independently, cumulatively they show the allure of psychic power and extrasensory perception, UFOs and alien abductions, ghosts and haunted houses. But more than this, the book deals with controversies not necessarily on the margins of society which may have pernicious social consequences: creation-science and biblical literalism, Holocaust denial and freedom of speech, race and IQ, political extremism and the radical right, modern witch crazes prompted by moral panics and mass hysterias, including the recovered memory movement, Satanic ritual abuse, and facilitated communication. Here the difference in thinking makes all the difference.
But more than this—much more—the book is a celebration of the scientific spirit and of the joy inherent in exploring the world's great mysteries even when final answers are not forthcoming. The intellectual journey matters, not the destination. We live in the age of science. It is the reason pseudosciences flourish—pseudoscientists know that their ideas must at least appear scientific because science is the touchstone of truth in our culture. Most of us harbor a type of faith in science, a confidence that somehow science will solve our major problems—AIDS, overpopulation, cancer, pollution, heart disease, and so on. Some even entertain scientistic visions of a future without aging, where we will ingest nanotechnological computers that will repair cells and organs, eradicate life-threatening diseases, and maintain us at our chosen age.
So hope springs eternal not just for spiritualists, religionists, New Agers, and psychics, but for materialists, atheists, scientists, and, yes, even skeptics. The difference is in where we find hope. The first group uses science and rationality when convenient, and dumps them when they are not. For this group, any thinking will do, as long as it fulfills that deeply rooted human need for certainty. Why?
Humans evolved the ability to seek and find connections between things and events in the environment (snakes with rattles should be avoided), and those who made the best connections left behind the most offspring. We are their descendants. The problem is that causal thinking is not infallible. We make connections whether they are there or not. These misidentifications come in two varieties: false negatives get you killed (snakes with rattles are okay); false positives merely waste time and energy (a rain dance will end a drought). We are left with a legacy of false positives—hypnopompic hallucinations become ghosts or aliens; knocking noises in an empty house indicate spirits and poltergeists; shadows and lights in a tree become the Virgin Mary; random mountain shadows on Mars are seen as a face constructed by aliens. The belief influences the perception. "Missing" fossils in geological strata become evidence of divine creation. The lack of a written order by Hitler to exterminate the Jews means that perhaps there was no such order ... or no such extermination. Coincidental configurations of subatomic particles and astronomical structures indicate an intelligent designer of the universe. Vague feelings and memories evoked through hypnosis and guided-imagery in therapy evolve into crystal-clear memories of childhood sexual abuse, even when no corroborating evidence exists.
Scientists have their false positives—but the methods of science were specifically designed to weed them out. Had the cold fusion findings, to take a recent spectacular example of a false positive, not been made so public before corroboration from other scientists, they would have been nothing out of the ordinary. This is precisely how science progresses— countless identified false negatives and false positives. The public, however, does not usually hear about them because negative findings are not usually published. That silicon breast implants might cause serious health problems was big news; that there has been no corroborative and replicable scientific evidence that they do has gone almost unnoticed.
What, then, you may ask, does it mean to be a skeptic? Some people believe that skepticism is rejection of new ideas or, worse, they confuse skeptic with cynic and think that skeptics are a bunch of grumpy curmudgeons unwilling to accept any claim that challenges the status quo. This is wrong. Skepticism is a provisional approach to claims. Skepticism is a method, not a position. Ideally, skeptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true. For example, when I investigated the claims of the Holocaust deniers, I ended up being skeptical of these skeptics (see chapters 13 and 14). In the case of recovered memories, I came down on the side of the skeptics (see chapter 7). One may be skeptical of a belief or of those who challenge it.
The analyses in this book explain in three tiers why people believe weird things: (1) because hope springs eternal; (2) because thinking can go wrong in general ways; (3) because thinking can go wrong in particular ways. I mix specific examples of "weird beliefs" with general principles about what we can learn from examining such beliefs. To this end, I have taken Stephen Jay Gould's style as a model for a healthy blend of the particular and the universal, the details and the big picture; and as inspiration James Randi's mission to understand some of the more perplexing mysteries of our age and ages past.
In the five years since we founded the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine, my partner, friend, and wife, Kim Ziel Shermer, has provided countless hours of feedback during meals, while driving in the car and riding bikes, and on our daily jaunt up the mountain with the dogs and our daughter, Devin. My other Skeptic partner, Pat Linse, has proved to be far more than just a brilliant art director. She is one of a rare species, an artistic and scientific polymath, whose prolific reading (she doesn't own a television) enables her not only to converse on virtually any subject but to make original and constructive contributions to the skeptic movement.
I also wish to acknowledge those who have been most helpful in producing Skeptic magazine and putting on our lecture series at Caltech, without which this book would not exist. Jaime Botero has been there with me since I taught the evening course in introductory psychology at Glendale College a decade ago. Diane Knudtson has worked nearly every Skeptics Society lecture at Caltech for nothing more than a meal and food for thought. Brad Davies has produced videos of every lecture and provided valuable feedback on the speakers' many and diverse ideas. Jerry Friedman constructed our database, organized the Skeptics Society survey, and provided valuable information on the animal rights movement. Terry Kirker continues to contribute to the promotion of science and skepticism in her own unique way.
Most of the chapters began as essays originally published in Skeptic magazine, which I edit. Skeptical readers may then reasonably ask, Who edits the editor? Who is skeptical of the skeptic? Every essay in this volume has been read and edited by my publisher's editors, Elizabeth Knoll, Mary Louise Byrd, and Michelle Bonnice; by my partners, Kim and Pat; by one or more of Skeptic magazine's contributing editors; and, where appropriate, by a member of Skeptic magazine's editorial board or by an expert in the field. For this, I heartily thank David Alexander, Clay Drees, Gene Friedman, Alex Grobman, Diane Halpern, Steve Harris, Gerald Larue, Jim Lippard, Betty McCollister, Tom McDonough, Paul McDowell, Tom Mclver, Sara Meric, John Mosley, Richard Olson, D'art Phares, Donald Prothero, Rick Shaffer, Elie Shneour, Brian Siano, Jay Snelson, Carol Tavris, Kurt Wochholtz, and especially Richard Hardison, Bernard Leikind, Frank Miele, and Frank Sulloway, for not allowing friendship to get in the way of brutal honesty when editing my essays. At W. H. Freeman I wish to thank Simone Cooper who brilliantly organized my national book tour and made it a joy rather than a chore; Peter McGuigan for bringing the book to audio so people can hear it as well as read it; John Michel for his critical feedback on this and the transition to my next book, Why People Believe in God. A special thanks to Sloane Lederer who maintained the progress of the publishing and promotion of this book throughout numerous personnel changes at the publisher, as well as for understanding the deeper importance of what we skeptics are trying to accomplish through writing books such as this. Thanks to my agents Katinka Matson and John Brockman, and their foreign rights director Linda Wollenberger, for helping to bring about the book in this and other languages. Finally, Bruce Mazet has made it possible for the Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine, and Millennium Press to battle ignorance and misunderstanding; he has pushed us well beyond what I ever dreamed we were capable of accomplishing.
In his 1958 masterpiece, The Philosophy of Physical Science, physicist and astronomer Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington asked about observations made by scientists, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?—Who will observe the observers?" "The epistemologist," answered Eddington. "He watches them to see what they really observe, which is often quite different from what they say they observe. He examines their procedure and the essential limitations of the equipment they bring to their task, and by so doing becomes aware beforehand of limitations to which the results they obtain will have to conform" (1958, p. 21). Today the observers' observers are the skeptics. But who will observe the skeptics? You. So have at it and have fun.
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