Penn & Teller gained their fame by putting fresh twists on the ancient art of magic. They followed this by becoming skeptic leaders, most prominently with Showtime’s “Bullshit!” and also appearing at most Skepticons. Despite this being their side gig, they are probably the second and third most prominent skeptics behind James Randi.
When their Showtime program debuted, a few people found it hypocritical that two guys who made their money fooling people would be going after mediums, faith healers, and astrologers for doing the same. This necessitated that Penn state the obvious: That the duo were admitting their performance was bogus, while those they were exposing as frauds presented themselves as authentic. These days, most people who pull rabbits from hats use the term illusionist instead of magician to eliminate any confusion about what they claim to be doing.
While there is a key difference between magicians/illusionists and psychics, there’s also a big difference in the people they are performing for. While an illusionist’s audience wants to be impressed, they are trying to figure out how it’s done and maybe even hoping for a screw-up. By contrast, those who comprise a psychic’s audience have no concern with how it’s being done and greatly want it to work. This desire to experience psychic ability is even more pronounced when there are emotions involving death, loss, and grief. That is why when a reading on an audience member is going nowhere, the member will lead the psychic back to fertile ground.
This difference between audience expectations for illusionists and psychics was starkly demonstrated when my cousin returned from a show that had featured both types of performers. She told me, “The illusionist wasn’t much, but he psychic was incredible! She knew I drove a Lumina and worked at Dillard’s! And she did the same thing for four other people, and got them all right! She knew one had a beagle and another was expecting her first grandchild. She did ten facts and got them all exactly right!”
I talked later with her wife, who revealed that the neighbor had filled out a card with precise information about her place of employment and her mode of transportation for getting there. So this was a hot read where the facts were fed to the psychic by one of her handlers. This is usually done by having the selected member and their pertinent information pointed out backstage, or by using a wireless earpiece, as Peter Popoff had done before being taken down by James Randi.
Mark Edwards of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry said of this method, “This is called ‘pre-show’ in the spook racket. Nobody seems to even consider that a psychic would be acting and using information they already knew. They take it on faith that everything they hear is coming from some divine source.”
But the psychic my cousin saw relied on cold reading as well, using incredibly vague language. “She told me, ‘I see a marriage.’” Most people are either married, used to be married, or figure they will be some day. And even if none of those fit, it could be a marriage involving someone besides the audience member. This lack of focus and specificity helps the charade.
The glowing report continued with, “She knew there was an anniversary.” A statement this general could be filled in with anything. In this case, the void was plugged in with, “Our child was born on the eighth anniversary of our first date.”
And there’s one more. “Then she said she was sensing a name that started with C. Of course she meant Connie!” No, she meant C which is why she said C. If she had meant Connie, she would have said Connie. She didn’t mean Connie, nor did she need to since my cousin filled in the rest. Her thinking the psychic knew her wife’s name was typical of someone who wants so much to believe that they will fill in the holes or the gaping canyons. A psychic saying, “Someone here works in customer service and I’m seeing the number 34,” becomes “He knew I worked at Lowe’s and that my boss was 34 years old!”
Edwards related how he performed for a mostly credulous audience using cold reading techniques. He threw out usual generalities such as a dog dying or someone having car trouble. Then he decided to go for something weird and more specific. “I’m seeing a clown standing in a graveyard and he’s putting flowers on the graves. Does that mean anything to anyone? And I see the name Stanley.”
He was startled when someone shouted, “There’s no way you could have known that! There was an old man in my hometown who used to dress-up in a clown costume and put flowers on the graves in the cemetery. My name is Cindy but for some reason that guy always called me Stanley.”
Edwards thought it might be a ruse, but learned the speaker was genuine, and it took an intense 30 minutes after the show to get Cindy calmed down and convinced that Edwards had made it up. It was a somewhat crazy coincidence, but the Law of Truly Large Numbers comes into play.
Also, despite the specific nature of his fabricated vision, Edwards hadn’t singled out Cindy. “If I had looked straight at her then delivered the clown in a graveyard line directly to her, that’s a whole lot different than saying, ‘Does that mean anything to anyone?’ or ‘Does that make sense to anyone?’ Watch and listen carefully to the medium next time, and you will see how easily this works.”
In the heyday of telephone psychics, a classic magazine advertisement pronounced, “If they were really psychic, they’d call you.”
This is not a minor point because it drives home the fact that someone with genuine psychic ability wouldn’t need to ask anything. Yet in live shows, it’s almost all questions from the psychic, rather than them stating facts. Except for hot reads, it’s never, “You in the third row with the yellow hat. Your sister died of lung cancer six years ago and you regret that you saw her just twice in her last six months.” Instead it’s, “I feel someone here has lost a family member they wish they had been closer to.”
If you ever find yourself at a live psychic show, I suggest the NBA shot clock game, where you see how often a psychic can go 24 seconds without asking a question.
Had Edwards had been a neophyte psychic instead of a veteran skeptic, he might have thought he had the Gift. That’s probably how a few of them get started. Sure they miss a lot more than they hit, but so batters with a .300 average. They reassure themselves with, “I don’t know where this is coming from,” or, “I don’t control this, I go where it leads me.” This enables them to justify any excuse or whiff, perhaps even to themselves, and certainly to audience members who want to believe that, “I see someone in business for themselves” means, “He knew I owned a bakery.”