Why People Believe Weird Things

Prologue

Next on Oprah n Monday, October 2, 1995, for the first time in its ten-year his-■ ■ tory, the Oprah Winfrey Show offered a psychic as the featured guest. She was Rosemary Altea (a nom de plume), who claims to communicate with the dead. Her book about this extraordinary assertion— The Eagle and the Rose: A Remarkable True Story——had been on the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal best-seller lists for several weeks. ("The eagle" is a Native American Indian—Altea's spirit guide—and Altea is "the rose.") Oprah began with the disclaimer that she was doing this show only because several trusted friends had described Altea as the class act of the psychic world. Next, the producers rolled several minutes of video, taped the previous day, that showed Altea working a small audience in a Chicago flat, asking countless questions, making numerous generalizations, and providing occasional specifics about their dearly departed. Altea then began working the audience in the studio. "Did someone here lose a loved one in a drowning accident?" "I see a man standing behind you." "Was there a boat involved?" And so on.

Unlike most psychics I have seen, Altea was bombing. The audience was not feeding her the cues she needed to "divine" her information. Finally, well into the program, she struck pay dirt. Calling out to a middle-aged woman partially hidden behind a studio camera, Altea said the woman had lost her mother to cancer. The woman screamed and started crying. Furthermore, Altea noted, the young man next to the woman was her son, who was troubled by school and career decisions. He acknowledged the

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