OK, this is weird.
Today I was invited to host an episode of a new series for a major cable network in which I was to interview and administer a test to three professional psychics. This was the first episode they’d shot, and the producers and director were really nice and cool and it had all the makings of a fun and productive day. They had located three psychics who were all game, and were fully willing to undergo the tests under controlled conditions. Moreover, the show had even secured a $50,000 prize that any psychics who passed today’s tests would be qualified to try for. I arrived fully prepared, with some detailed protocols, and a raft of properly controlled materials.
Here’s the rub. The entire day was a setup. It was a gag, with Michael Shermer and myself as the unwitting victims.
The psychics and I began each interview with a discussion of each psychic’s personal history, what they knew about their abilities, and what they were able to tell us about them. Two of them, a pair of very friendly and positive ladies named Sylvie and Austyn, gave very fair descriptions of what they believed they could do, and sportingly undertook the tests. You can probably guess the results. But those tests were certainly not what the day ended up being about…
The third psychic was, unfortunately, not a psychic at all, but a young comedian who used to have a show on the BBC, and now appears to be trying to make a name for himself with a new character who is a wannabe nemesis of skeptics. He’s going to find this an uphill battle, as he’s neither clever, funny, particularly talented in any apparent way, nor does he seem to know much about psychics or criticism of psychics.
He goes by the moniker “Shirley”, and looks like a televangelist in a gaudy white suit with colored piping, and either the world’s worst hair or a gauche orange wig, I couldn’t quite tell which. When it was his turn to come out, Shirley came up to me, took his seat, refused to return my friendly greeting, and launched into what he seemed to think was a clever attempt to “get into my head” – insulting my parents, my wife, and “revealing” to all my terrible guilt at how I’ve treated people. Essentially, his routine was to ignore the reason [that I believed] he was supposed to be there, and try to establish himself as – well, I can’t even think what. He refused to participate in the arranged tests, instead throwing tantrums about each, constantly demanding that he be paid his $50,000.
At one point, Shirley inexplicably stopped the production, and fiddled with his iPhone for a few minutes. He then announced that his spirit guide, Sheba, informed him that my background was as an Irish flute player (perhaps not so coincidentally, this is just what a quick Google search of my name reveals. There’s also a third Brian Dunning who is an Elvis impersonator, and doubtless many more.) He then demanded his $50,000 again for “correctly” reading my background. When I then informed him that he was duped by careless Googling, he begged for that segment to be edited out. It was just one more thing that was weird: Was this part of his gag? Shirley, hire a new writer.
For one test, I’d drawn something and sealed it in an envelope. Each psychic was supposed to duplicate my drawing. When I finally persuaded Shirley to open his envelope to reveal what he’d drawn, he pulled out a poster sized sheet with at least 100 small doodles — anything and everything he could think of that I might possibly had drawn (he still missed it). He demanded his $50,000 again.
And then he went into his channeling act. A mysterious power overwhelmed him, and he began channeling Lee Majors, of The Six Million Dollar Man fame. Lee Majors began telling us what heaven is like. By now I’d given up, as we were clearly wasting everyone’s time, and wasn’t even standing on the set any more. Some of the crew informed Shirley that Lee Majors is not dead, and something in his brain seemed to snap. He became belligerent, had to be restrained by some of the crew, and strangely the director asked me to play along for three minutes — why, I have no idea. Shirley then set his phone down on speakerphone, ran to the opposite side of the room, and took out a second cell phone and called his first one, saying “This is Lee Majors’ agent, and he died today.”
If this was a comedy routine, it left something to be desired.
Eventually Shirley was muscled out of the studio, and we proceeded with a test of one of the other psychics, which brought back some semblance of normalcy. For the final segment, Michael Shermer came on and he and I discussed the results of what had happened with my tests. But we didn’t get very far.
For that was when the real weirdness happened.
Michael Twittered a description of this afterwards, which included a very apt reference to Andy Kaufman (except Kaufman truly was a comic genius), and promised to write it up on his own upcoming blog. So I will allow him to pick up the story from that point. You won’t want to miss it. It includes bodybags, and made me wish to hell I’d brought my camera.
So, I’m sorry to report that there is no new TV show on critical thinking. From a deeper study of Shirley Ghostman’s web site, it looks like he hasn’t had a BBC show for some years, but maybe we’ll get to see some of this action on YouTube. Kudos to the set crew who played along for so many hours, let’s hope it was worth someone’s while.