John Edward, Psychic Medium, October 2009 performance at the Civic Center
[The following short essay was submitted to the Post-Standard newspaper. The Post-Standard did not print the piece, even though they often publish opinion pieces of this length, nor did they contact us to ask for editorial changes or to shorten the piece. We view our essay as more than just an opinion piece. We see the publishing of this piece in a mainstream community newspaper as a public service and a public good.]
For one weekend in October, the Mulroy Civic Center played host to John Edward, a self-styled “psychic medium.” Mr. Edward claims that he can use his “spirit guides” to communicate with those who have “crossed over” or “passed” into “the other side” and still wish to communicate with the living. In the past 20 years, Mr. Edward has made a name and career for himself, writing several best selling books, appearing regularly on TV shows, including “Larry King Live” and “Oprah,” and starring in his own show, “Crossing Over,” which ran for several years. We were curious enough to purchase tickets and attended with several friends his 8:00 PM Sunday, October 11th, performance. While we are skeptical of paranormal claims such as communication with the dead, we went with an open mind. Unfortunately, what we observed failed to impress us.
Mr. Edward’s performance is one in which he asks a member of his audience questions that he claims come from his “spirit guides,” and then reveals information regarding the audience member or their deceased relatives that would be unlikely for Mr. Edward to know. As far as we can tell, rather than having the ability to contact the dead, Mr. Edward uses an old technique, called “cold reading.” In “cold reading,” a performer starts out with no knowledge about the audience members. The performer begins by asking very general questions to a large number of audience members, such as a range of names starting with common letters like “C,” “K,” “L,” “M,” common health maladies or causes of death, types of pets they might own, etc. Once a member of the audience responds positively to one of these general questions, the performer moves on to ask more specific questions.
It goes something like this:
(This is a fictional but typical example.)
Psychic: In this section of the audience I’m getting a name that begins with C or K, like Carol, Karen, Chris. It might be Kelly, Carly.
(The psychic continues to address the audience in this way until someone responds, and it may end up being someone in a different section of the audience.)
Volunteer: My grandmother was Catherine.
Psychic: Has she passed?
(Note that the psychic will usually ask if the person is dead rather than assert it.)
Psychic: I’m getting something in the chest area or the head. Did she have a stroke?
Volunteer: No, but she had Alzheimer’s.
(Here you see the psychic making an incorrect guess, “stroke,” but the volunteer wants to help, and she offers the information that her grandmother had Alzheimer’s.)
Psychic: Ah, that’s why she’s showing me her head. Alzheimer’s affects the brain. And I see something like an amputation. Did she have a limb amputated?
Psychic: Are you sure?
(When the psychic asks “Are you sure?” it appears that the psychic actually has information that the volunteer doesn’t have or has forgotten.)
The performer continues to ask more questions, using further responses from the audience member to elicit more information and further tailor his questions. A performer may also turn “misses” into “hits” by skipping among different audience members when questions fail to yield the appropriate responses, or by asking questions very quickly and simply ignoring ones that fall flat, something that Mr. Edward is very skilled at.
A number of times Mr. Edward would offer specific information, such as, “There was a little black dog that had a thing for uniforms.” Most of the time these questions went nowhere, but occasionally he would get one right. Because of the pace of the show and the amount of information thrown out, it’s easy to forget the queries that go nowhere and remember only the ones that he gets right. But we think that a careful examination of the evening’s performance would show that his ratio of hits to misses would be no better than what chance would allow for.
“Cold reading” is made all the easier when the audience is already primed to believe the performer has supernatural powers, as was the case in Mr. Edward’s performance, evidenced by the ovation he received as he walked onto the stage, or when the performer is personable and self-deprecating, as Mr. Edward is.
While we did not observe an instance of cheating by Mr. Edward during his trip to Syracuse, in 2001 paranormal investigator Joe Nickell did an investigation of Edward for the NBC news program “Dateline” and did find strong evidence that on at least one occasion Mr. Edward attempted to pass off evidence that he had learned through normal means of communication regarding one of his subjects as coming from his “spirit guides.” When confronted on the program with this fact, Mr. Edward could not offer a real defense.
We could not agree on Mr. Edward’s sincerity. One thought that it was possible that he really believed he had a gift to share with others and was not knowingly fooling people. Another thought that Mr. Edward’s performance on Dateline was evidence that he was not sincere.
What is certain is that people we love die, and we grieve. We wish we could talk to them, tell them how much we love them, and, even, heal old emotional wounds. What the psychic offers is very poor compared to our own memories of our loved ones. Treasure those memories, and save your money because the best you will get from a psychic is that your deceased grandfather’s name started with an R, and he is very proud of you. Don’t you already know that?
David Harding, Vice President, and Lisa Goodlin, President and Founder
Paranormal investigator, Joe Nickell, attended the event with us to observe John Edward in person. The photo above was taken at L’Adour before the performance.