Bad Astronomy

Cold guessing

I won’t say that all self-proclaimed psychic “speakers to the dead” are blood-sucking ghouls who mercilessly and coldly prey on those in our society who are at their emotional weakest: people who have lost someone they loved.

I won’t even be briefer and call them all ghouls.

But golly, you have to wonder, just a little bit, about some of them who are just so freakin’ bad at it. Take James van Praagh. He claims he can talk to the dead, but they never seem to give him any information he can actually use. Or maybe they just tease him, constantly changing what they say, giving him ambiguous clues, only supplying the first letter in someone’s name, and so on.

But why take my word for it? My friend, the skeptic Jose Alvarez, put together this intreresting video about van Praagh, which he showed me at TAM 7. I suggest not eating anything while watching it.

There’s a technique, called cold reading, where you basically just start making guesses about what someone is thinking. You then use their body language, their responses, to narrow down your guesses until you get close enough to what they’re thinking that they actually think you’re correct. I’ve seen it done, and someone who is even mildly talented at it can hone in on an “answer” in just a few seconds. I suppose van Praagh might be an unusually inept cold reader, or perhaps he is just being toyed with by capricious spirits.

But if it’s that latter case, then he would be the victim, and I’m having a hard time buying that. It looks to me that the real victim is on the other side of the guesswork, the grieving people who are just looking desperately for some closure.

Arm yourself with skepticism because, sadly, not all ghouls are fictional. As long as people are emotionally vulnerable and not thinking critically, cold readers will never be out of work.