Review of Psychic Medium Van Praagh on CNN's Larry King Live (1999)
Joe Nickell[This article is exerpted from the June 8, 1999 Skeptical Inquirer Electronic Digest. Permission is granted by CSICOP to reprint this on the web.]
On-air seances are nothing new. Thirty years ago I arranged one in a dimly lit radio studio in Toronto for a CBC documentary, "Houdini in Canada." (Despite the spiritualist medium's pronouncements, Houdini--so far as I could discern--was a no-show.) However, the "Larry King Live" presentation of alleged "psychic medium" James Van Praagh on February 26, 1999, was a study in crassness.
The occasion was to pitch the sequel to Van Praagh's bestseller, Talking to Heaven. Titled Reaching to Heaven, it elaborates on his professed belief in that, as he tells Larry King, "There is no such thing as death." Reaching is a touted elixir, composed of such metaphysical ingredients as "auras," "the astral world," and "reincarnation," all stirred into a syrupy pabulum about "the Higher Life" (Van Praagh 1999).
For his part, the famous talk-show host offered a critical note, asking Van Praagh how much of his apparent success is due to people's strong desire to believe him. "So when there are all the skeptics who accuse you of being a charlatan, one of the edges any charlatan has is, they want to believe." Van Praagh scarcely missed a beat, replying glibly:
That's right. That's right. Well, it all comes down to a matter of belief, and everyone's truth, because skeptics have their truth. They have their right to express themselves the way they choose. And everyone has an awareness; that's their awareness. And my work isn't necessarily for everyone, and it's not meant to be. It resonates with those who it's meant to resonate with. And thousands of people that it's helped and transformed their lives, that's what it's about. It's not about the skeptics.
Skeptics, however, rightly observe that the burden is on Van Praagh and his fellow spiritualists to prove they can genuinely talk with the dead. It is a significant burden, made all the more imperative by the fact that the history of spiritualism has been a history of charlatanism (Keene 1997, 115-129).
Of course the spirit contacts by "mediums" like Van Praagh and John Edward (who has also been promoted on "Larry King Live") have been streamlined for the modern media. Gone is the necessity of turning out the lights--a common earlier practice so that mediums could perform "levitations," spirit "materializations," and other trickery. Gone too are the feigned trance states, spirit writing, and other trappings of old-fashioned mediumistic phenomena (Nickell 1998).
Instead, the modern celebrity spiritualist opts for purely "mental" mediumship--one advantage being a lowered risk of caught. For who can say, lacking evidence of trick devices or overt acts of legerdemain, whether or not a given medium is sincere?
It is possible, however, to carefully analyze recorded readings to assess their credibility. In no instance on the "Larry King Live" show did the purported medium reveal anything of a substantive, convincing nature. Instead he appeared to be practicing "cold reading"--a fortuneteller's technique of cleverly fishing for information from someone while giving that person the impression it comes from a mystical source (Hyman 1977; Gresham 1953). Here is a look at some of the stock techniques as employed by James Van Praagh.
1. He Asks Questions. In twelve of fifteen readings, Van Praagh led off with a query. He continued asking questions throughout. With this ploy it is the sitter, not the reader, who actually supplies the information.
VAN PRAAGH: O.K., who was the drinker, or someone with alcohol, please?
CALLER [No. 5]: It was my father.
2. He Follows Up By Treating a Positive Response to a Question as Verification He Had Made a Statement.
VAN PRAAGH [continuing with caller 5]: Because I feel like it was something he had to get over, the alcohol condition, when he passed over.
3. In Case of a Negative Response, He Avoids Admitting Error, Instead Persisting in an Attempt to Redeem His Point.
VAN PRAAGH: O.K. Was there a problem in his head area as well?
CALLER [No. 1]: Pardon?
VAN PRAAGH: I feel like there's some problem with headaches with this man, too.
VAN PRAAGH: No? I feel he had head problems with him. Who's having headaches? Because I'm feeling a head problem here, too.
(Unfortunately, the caller still responded, "No, no, I've no idea.")
4. When Completely on a Wrong Track, He May Shift the Focus to the Future.
VAN PRAAGH [continuing with caller 1]: O.K. Well, I keep on getting head stuff, so be careful of that. I just see it.
CALLER: Right. Thank you.
Again (in the case of caller 10):
VAN PRAAGH: She's also giving me a number of 29. I don't know why she's giving me 29, but she is.
VAN PRAAGH: So see with 29. It's like a date for a month.
CALLER: O.K., the 29th. I don't know.
VAN PRAAGH: It's the 29th. So keep that; that's later [shifting to a question].
Still again (with caller 11):
VAN PRAAGH: I also am being told that someone has been looking at a map.
CALLER: I don't know. It could be my mother-in-law.
VAN PRAAGH: Well, ask her would you please?
5. He Makes Widely Applicable Statements. Nearly everyone will have some connection to a pet, photographs, antiques, or other familiar imagery.
VAN PRAAGH: I'm also picking up something on a dog. So, I don't know why, but I'm picking up a dog around you.
CALLER [No. 1]: Oh, my dog died two years ago.
6. He Often Employs a Scatter-Shot Technique with Multiple Variables that Enhance the Opportunity for a "Hit".
VAN PRAAGH: Also, does your mother have any trouble with her lungs or does Velma [the caller's grandmother] have trouble with her lungs, breathing?
CALLER [No. 10]: I think she did have trouble breathing at the very end.
Again (to caller 12):
VAN PRAAGH: She's talking about the family reunion, so I don't know if she was talking in spirit, or she was talking here on the earth--but a family reunion.
7. He Draws Additional, Obvious Inferences Once a Fact is Known. For example, after caller 11 mentions her father-in-law was working on the house and doing other construction projects (in response to Van Praagh's mention of "seeing a ladder for some strange reason"), there is this revelation:
VAN PRAAGH: O.K., I see calloused hands, also.
As another example, after caller 3 told him her daughter had had a lengthy illness, the medium extrapolates:
VAN PRAAGH: . . . I want to tell you, did they give her IV's?
VAN PRAAGH: Because I'm being shown IV's a lot, with this girl. I'm also shown a lot of medication, and I'm feeling very ill with medication, a lot of drug medication.
Now on a roll, he continues, though apparently going too far, and cuts off a negative response:
VAN PRAAGH: O.K., I also feel, before this girl passes over, there's a fogginess in her head, and she doesn't know what's going on. A little bit of--she's out of it. Do you understand?
CALLER: Yes, but...
VAN PRAAGH: She's kind of conscious. She's out of it. I also want to ask you...
As still another example of expounding on the obvious, after caller 5 has confirmed her father had a drinking problem, there is this offering:
VAN PRAAGH: . . . And I feel this man was very saddened. The impression I get is he was very saddened.
VAN PRAAGH: And he was saddened with life at the end, O.K.?
VAN PRAAGH: I also feel like he was in a situation, maybe it was the marriage, or a family situation he did not want to be in. Do you understand that?
8. He Takes Advantage of the Sitter's Hesitation or Negative Feedback to Adjust Course. For example, he may broaden the possibilities:
VAN PRAAGH: O.K., who had the heart trouble? [Caller hesitates.] There's something with the chest I am picking up very strong here.
CALLER [No. 2]: Lung cancer, my father.
Or he may subtly alter the focus, as in this reading for caller 8 who lost her best friend:
VAN PRAAGH: Don't you have multiple pictures of his lady?
CALLER: Yes I do.
VAN PRAAGH: In a scrapbook or a photograph album, and then elsewhere?
CALLER: Just several pictures [negating the album].
VAN PRAAGH: O.K., and I'm also being shown an envelope with pictures in it.
CALLER: Yes, that's right.
9. He Invites the Caller to Interpret Vague Offerings.
VAN PRAAGH: I feel someone--here, again, I'm getting something with cancer; I don't know why.
CALLER [No. 5]: My brother died of lung cancer.
He uses words like "some," "someone," or "something" no fewer than 65 times, and on at least 27 occasions says "I don't know why" or "I don't know what that means" or a similar statement, thus inviting the caller to make a connection, offer some interpretation, or simply accept the vague pronouncement. Over and over--at least 21 times--he asks the reader to acknowledge that there is a possible interpretation by inviting, "Do you understand?" or "O.K.?" or similar query.
10. He Uses 'Weasel' Words and Phrases To Provide Extra Wiggle Room.
VAN PRAAGH [to caller 7]: . . . I feel he was a loner too, in certain ways... [emphasis added].
He frequently says "I'm feeling," "the impression I get," "it feels like," "I get a sense," and so on. He often adds a fuzzy phrase like "in certain ways," "this sort of thing," "something to do with," "a little bit," and similar ambiguities.
11. He Benefits From Many Sitters' Helpfulness in Converting a "Miss" to a "Hit".
VAN PRAAGH: Was she [the deceased] found in bed?
CALLER [No. 8]: Yes. She was found in the bathroom floor; [but] she had been sick in the bed.
VAN PRAAGH: O.K., was this a quick passing with her?
CALLER [No. 3]: Yes. I mean, she had a long illness but it went quickly.
VAN PRAAGH: O.K., is there an anniversary of a birthday coming up?
CALLER: Yes, it was just his birthday.
Such techniques and maneuvers by Van Praagh do not inspire confidence in the genuineness of his readings. Neither does his refusal--when we appeared together on a San Diego radio program--to contact a deceased relative whom I named. He said he had nothing to prove to skeptics (Nickell 1998), but he gave me the impression he feared a trap.
During the readings, Larry King provided an occasional skeptical note, once querying Van Praagh as to why a spirit--which the medium describes as a nonphysical entity--would continue to have a "leg problem" or chest pains, as Van Praagh represented to callers. But King did not challenge the spiritualist's nimble response: "It's a memory--it's a memory, but that might seem very real, because they're in the earthly mind set, again. They re-experience that earthly mind set." Indeed, King showed his approval on one occasion by exclaiming "Wow!" and on another by boasting of Van Praagh, "We brought him to the world."
If spirit communications are not genuine, I am often asked, nevertheless what harm is there in the pretense, in giving people the solace of apparent contact with their deceased loved ones? My short answer is that the truth should matter. Not only is it unethical to perpetrate a falsehood for personal gain, but falsehoods have consequences.
Houdini (1924, 180) cataloged many of these--"the suffering, losses, misfortunes, crimes and atrocities"--of spiritualistic fraud. I have personally counseled victims of phony spiritualism who were bilked not only of money but along with it some of their self-respect. I saw a marriage severely strained when one spouse awoke to the deception while the other continued to be beguiled. Even apart from these demonstrable harms, as reformed spiritualistic con man M. Lamar Keene observed in his classic expose, The Psychic Mafia (1997, 140), "...[T]he services of the phony medium do not help the sitter--they hinder him or her in developing the inner resources to face life realistically." If spiritualists and their media front-men really want to help the grieving, they will quit preying on them in their most vulnerable aspect, and instead allow them to find a measure of honest acceptance.
Gresham, William Lindsay. 1953. Monster Midway. New York: Rinehart & Co., 113-136.
Houdini, Harry. 1924. A Magician Among the Spirits. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Hyman, Ray. 1977. "Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers that You Know All About Them", Skeptical Inquirer 1:2 (Spring/Summer), 18-37.
Keene, M. Lamar (as told to Allen Spraggett). 1997. The Psychic Mafia. 1976; reprinted Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.
Nickell, Joe. 1998. "Investigating Spirit Communications", Skeptical Briefs, September, 5-6.
Van Praagh, James. 1999. Reaching to Heaven: A Spiritual Journey Through Life and Death. New York: Dutton.