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Punked! (But who was punked, the skeptics or the psychics?)

by Michael Shermer, Jun 16 2009

Last week Brian Dunning blogged about his experience being filmed testing psychics for a Showtime series called “Versus,” that he strongly suspected was a set up to punk the skeptics. I waited a week to blog about my experience to confirm that this was, indeed, a set up. The verdict is in. We were punked. Or were we? You be the judge. Either way, fortunately Brian and I were both skeptical from the get go so they didn’t “catch us” in any Borat-like socially embarrassing moments.

Here’s what happened: Months ago I got a call from “Stephen Cardozo,” a “Field Producer” for “Little Duke Productions,” to do a talking-heads interview on psychics and how to test them — the usual stuff, so I didn’t think twice about it. I didn’t check up on the production company because I have never been burned and there were no signals of distrust for me to notice. I drove down to “Occidental Studios” in Los Angeles, where I was greeted by Cardozo, who was polite, loquacious, and jovial, and we sat in the green room for two hours talking. I suppose I should have been skeptical by the fact that I was not allowed on the set for the ongoing taping when I found out that it was Brian Dunning (whose skeptical abilities I trust) who was performing the tests of the psychics. I wanted to observe Brian’s protocols, but I was told that no one was “allowed on the set” because it was small and the cameras might see people standing around in the background. When I got on the set I noticed that this was not true, and in fact there were people standing around all over the place. The make-up woman spent about 15 seconds on me, which was also unusual, but it was the end of a long day so I figured she was just burned out.

Brian and I began a conversation about how science works and how to test psychics when one of the psychics he had tested earlier — improbably named “Shirley Ghostman” — burst into the studio wheeling a body bag on a cart and screaming about how he had Lee Majors in it because he predicted earlier that day that the “Six Million Dollar Man” had died, and he wanted Brian to pay up the $50,000 prize money for psychic powers. I unzipped the bag and there was this fat ugly balding guy with electronic gadgets duct-taped to his body (a calculator on his bicep, a computer keyboard on his hairy chest), about which I had a good laugh (not even close to a Lee Majors look alike!) I told him that Lee Majors had not died, at which point “Ghostman” said that Gandhi had lied to him. Right … Just before that I turned to Brian and said “we’re being punked!” But the spectacle went on for a while longer, growing more inane by the minute, so I played along waiting for everyone to break character and burst out laughing. That never happened, and as I was leaving Cardozo wanted to know if I wanted “security” to escort me to my car. I said “sure, why not?” and some little guy who was hanging around walked me out, as if he was going to protect me from a crazed psychic!

Out in the parking lot Brian told me that he thought the entire day was a set up, including phony cameramen, phony directors, phony make-up artist, etc. He was right. I initially thought that it was just Ghostman punking the Showtime people, but it turns out there is no show called “Versus,” the psychic’s real name is Marc Wootton (a British comedian and wannabe Borat character), and that Showtime has a show under production called “Untitled Marc Wootton Project.” (See the IMDB page.)

Here is Wootton’s “Shirley Ghostman” website.

Here are some other Ghostman punkings.

And here are some British skeptics catching on to Wootton’s antics fairly quickly.

Weirdly, I found this guy in real estate who had a similar experience (punking real estate brokers? — only in a housing crisis I suppose): Beware: Little Duke Productions for Showtime. Duping Realtors on camera while actors cause havoc in LA area homes.

The funniest story of all, however, was the punking of the actress and environmental activist Daryl Hannah, who explained in a Guardian article how she was punked by the same people. I have to admit that the image of a miniskirted “research scientist” in a lab coat who told Daryl how she had been fed by condors in the wild is a hellova lot funnier than Lee Majors in a body bag! Here’s the Daryl Hannah punking article.

From the story:

It turns out that, a little way off, Hannah was introduced to a “director” who looked to her to be far too Central Casting to be true. There were three cameras and 15 crew members, which she knew to be too many for a nature documentary. The “director” then took her to meet a “research scientist”, a woman in a miniskirt and lab coat who was peering from under too much blue eye shadow into the distance, supposedly looking for the perfect “condor release spot”. The scientist told Hannah that she herself had been fed by condors in the wild for three days, at which point Hannah started to laugh, and pretended she needed to use the bathroom.

She calls her manager. “I’m telling you, that was a full-on Punk’d-Borat situation,” she says. “The whole thing was a big ‘let’s make fun of celebrities’ show.” (Later, when I Google the production company named on the release forms, Little Duke Productions, all I can find is a random warning on someone’s Twitter feed: “Beware of Little Duke Productions for Showtime. May be dangerous. Please RT.”) The manager promises to look into it.

Now, here’s the other shoe falling: Brian and I figured out it was all a hoax, so I asked Cardozo in several voice mails and emails point blank: “this was a punking, right?” He didn’t return my calls and his only email answer was this generic statement:

“I did get your messages, but I’ve been in and out of the office, so I apologize for the late reply. Thank you again for participating in the show. The segment we filmed with you, the versus segment may or may not make it into the eventual show for Showtime. We obviously film more than we actually use in the series. Like you, we are interested in looking at all the methods and practices of the self-proclaimed psychics including those who participated in the versus segment. We also appreciated your participation in the segment as it goes to show how skeptics approach all types of people who claim to have psychic abilities. Feel free to contact me with any additional thoughts you may have. Best, Stephen”

So, naturally I concluded that it was the skeptics being punked, and I ranted and released the hounds (think Mr. Burns pressing the button) to go disrupt their show (since retracted!). But then the producer of the show, Misha Manson-Smith (whom I initially thought was a pseudonymic play on Sasha Baron-Cohen, the Borat actor/comedian), contacted Brian and explained: “Shirley Ghostman is a satirical dig at psychics” and “In case you and Michael are concerned about how you might appear on the show, I just wanted to let you know that I think you both came across very well and were excellent foils to Shirley’s idiotic outbursts” and that I shouldn’t be upset because “our show so clearly endorses his [the skeptics] position.”

Wow! So it is the psychics being punked, not the skeptics!! That’s a relief. It seems funnier now, of course, because it isn’t my goose being plucked. But since we’re on the topic of punks and hoaxes, I’m really not sure what the point of these Borat-like events are, other than getting a cheap laugh at someone else’s expense. Although Daryl Hannah’s environmental politics are not mine, what was the point of tricking her out to a condor sighting? Had she fallen for the mini-skirted scientist, I suppose, it would be an indictment of her politics beclouding her critical faculties. But she didn’t. So…

In my opinion, a hoax is only interesting if those who are hoaxed should have seen it coming, if they were blinded by their prejudices and presuppositions, and who were given clues but ignored them. In James Randi’s “Alpha Project” hoax he instructed his magician charges to fess up to using magic tricks (to simulate psychic power) if anyone ever asked them; but no one ever did, despite obvious clues they left behind. Alan Sokal’s “deconstruction” hoax of the lit-crit journal was beautiful because he submitted an article that was complete nonsense and was so chockablock full of the sort of jargon that lit-crit folks love to read that the editors of the journal who accepted it just assumed that it must mean something. But if you simply lie to someone and deceive them so well that they could not possibly have known you were setting them up, it only proves that you are a clever liar.

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18 Responses to “Punked! (But who was punked, the skeptics or the psychics?)

  1. Kimbo Jones says:

    “I didn’t check up on the production company because I have never been burned…”

    Um…really?

    • GG says:

      Yes, Expelled is a CLASSIC example of how everyone involved got fooled, including Shermer, Dawkins and the rest.

      There was also the ‘Door To The Dead’ TV show that had SAPS Alison Smith coming across as if she endorsed the paranormal. LOTS of negative comments over on the JREF Swift blog about the wisdom of taking part!

      So far – Expelled, Shirley Ghostman, Door To The Dead – just how many decent opportunities are there for skeptics to actually get a positive skeptical message out there?

  2. BillDarryl says:

    Thanks for this, Michael, especially the last paragraph. Is this really “satirizing” psychics?

    People commented on the other threads that Wootten’s “Shirley Ghostman” bits really do a great job showcasing how ridiculous psychics are. I disagree. I checked out a few of the Ghostmans on youtube, and although it borrows the “TV show psychic” format for its skits, it doesn’t really “satirize” by shining any light on the inanities of psychics in general. It’s just about Ghostman being silly.

    Think if it used a doctor’s office format instead, and the comic played an arrogant, defensive, over the top doctor to unwitting suspects. You wouldn’t think he’s parodying the healthcare industry, all doctors, or even a typical doctor. You’d just laugh at the outrageous character and the awkward hidden-camera situation. Same deal. Viewers aren’t laughing at psychics – they’re laughing specifically at Ghostman’s antics.

    So yeah, despite the producers’ claim, I don’t see this as effectively “satirizing” or “punking” anyone, just using the format as a jumping off point to do some exaggerated comedy.

  3. Max says:

    Brian Dunning admitted “that it never occurred to me that the show was a setup, and I could not possibly have been given more obvious hints.”

    A skeptic being punked is almost as ironic as the author of “Annals of Gullibility” losing his savings in Madoff’s pyramid scheme.

    Wow! So it is the psychics being punked, not the skeptics!!

    Because Misha Manson-Smith said so, and you believe him? Gee, I wonder what he told the psychics. Come on, you have to be a little cynical.

    • Tuffgong says:

      Being a skeptic doesn’t mean you have to discount everyone at all times. Besides, it only makes sense given the evidence afterward, regardless of how much trust Shermer put in the email.

  4. flowbot says:

    “In my opinion, a hoax is only interesting if those who are hoaxed should have seen it coming, if they were blinded by their prejudices and presuppositions, and who were given clues but ignored them.”

    In other words – this was an interesting hoax. Very interesting. Still, I don’t think the producers expected it to be “interesting” in this way. After the first post about this episode, I watched a handful of shirley’s stuff on YouTube … well, any doubts that Brian may have had about the intent of the taping were cleared up for me. It was painfully obvious that he is a comedian of the Ali G mode, not as funny perhaps, but still entertaining. All of the skeptics I saw being “punk’d” on the youtube videos were really under no illusions about the nature of the skit. They even seemed to find it entertaining. But you guys … you guys seem to be utterly confused and defensive about this. And, well, you should be. How ironic this little tale is.

    I started reading this blog after listening to the podcasts – which covered pretty much all the topics that an old polish friend of mine is into and believes in. I got great pleasure from playing them to him, expecting his outlandish beliefs to be shattered by the unforgiving fist of skepticism. It didn’t work, though, because he actually listened to those podcasts and researched the debunking in them and found a number of factual inaccuracies, and not quite universally-accepted claims. This was enough for him to blow it all off as a bunch of eggheads who couldn’t see past the mainstream version of reality.

    Since then, I’ve been reading this blog and have been dissapointed by the so-called skepticism. It seems that the only thing you guys are skeptical of are the usual fringe stuff – homeopathy, mediums, ufos, crop circles, alternative lifestyles, etc. That’s easy, and not really beneficial to the skeptical mindset. It seems so long as the claim comes from the mainstream, you guys are all for it, and will accept everything at face value. Just like you did with this television production. Skepticism isn’t something that you wield against your prejudices and pre-conceived notions only – it is something you wield against ANY claim to reality and truth.

    Yes, a very interesting hoax indeed.

    • X-man says:

      FlowBot: Wow, that’s pretty harsh…

      Are you suggesting that “True” skeptics are immune from being fooled?

      One is less likely to be fooled by something for which substantial information is available beforhand. As such, one can read up on a subject such as homeopathy, mediums, ufos and the like based on evidence, and take the necessary time to weigh that evidence and form an opinion. Hence, it is easier to be well prepared to face the claims of homeopathic quacks than it is to face a seemingly honest person making a pitch for something that resides in the domain of the legitimate. Our evidence thresholds are based on our understanding of human relations and our experience. Considering the variance in motivations and behaviours from person to person, it is much easier to make a bad judgement call on a person’s intentions than it is to make on an independent concept such as homeopathy.

      In the current case, as in the case of Expelled, the hoaxers intentionally mis-represented themselves to achieve a goal opposite to what was advertized, and they did so in a way that was intended to mislead. If someone does it in a convincing manner, it can be difficult to avoid. Michael and Brian were lured in because, based on their experience, they know that most people out there are not trying to dupe them. The original contact did not deviate too much from their general experience to create alarm.

      The basic fact is that most people are not trying to fool you. That leaves us open to being fooled once in a while because intentions can be difficult to decipher. I would rather be fooled once or twice in my life than go around being wary of everyone’s intentions.

      It is possible to be overly skeptical. We will never hear about those legitimate enterprises that were immediately discounted as hoaxes based on a person’s alarm bells going off. Is it better to be too cautious at the risk of missing out on some legitimate enterprises?

      Finally, the fact that Michael and Brian are Skeptic celebrities makes them tempting targets for hoaxsters. As such, they will likely meet more hoaxsters in one year than you will in your entire life, and these hoaxes are likely to be publicized….especially if succesful. By that very fact, you are less likely to be punked then they will, and if you are…no one is likely to hear about it…so one should be careful of excess criticism.

  5. Amy A says:

    There’s finally some financial news that will put a smile on most people’s face – Al Qaeda is broke. The reports that Al Qaeda is broke came straight from the well on this one. Al Qaeda’s head in Afghanistan, Sheikh Mustafa Abu Al Yazid sent out a communicae that they were almost bankrupt, financially. (They are definitely morally bankrupt.) They won’t likely get any fast cash either, as funding sources for them are monitored. Osama bin Laden was wealthy at one point, and has vast land holdings, but the jihad is evidently very expensive, and they can’t get enough to equip the mujahidin with. No payday loans are going to be made, as many benefit when Al Qaeda is broke.

  6. Alan Kellogg says:

    What we see from this episode is that anybody can be fooled.

  7. What stuff these for skeptics!
    Frogs in the deep well: No idea about what is outside: You guys.

  8. olimar says:

    fascinating! A very side-note: I do not consider the Sokal episode a “hoax.” I’m sorry to say that I might consider a juvenile prank however. If the editors did their due diligence, they should have followed proper protocols before publishing the article; however, it is also not uncoomon for journals to be glad to publish material from established academics, even when they don’t agree with it, et cetera. Tho i do fault the editors, as I said before, I also fault Sokal for trading on his good name in a manner that did precious little to advance the cause of knowledge, other than tweaking some lit crit dudes. I do concur that there are extensions of post modernism that brink on pseudoscience and are worthy of criticism on those grounds; I just don’t agree that Sokal accomplished anything more glorious than tp-ing someone’s house.

  9. Cambias says:

    The “Borat” school of humor is funny for about a minute. If the victim is someone you disagree with or dislike, maybe two minutes (schadenfreude, after all).

  10. Roy Edmunds says:

    Its using people without paying them in a production which will make culinary profit for the producers. Its dishonest business thats all.Just another version of “reality Television” which appears very mundane. It will be sold cheap because it was made cheap. Ho, hum.

  11. Um, unless I misread, didn’t Brian and Shermer olfactorily detect a rodent from the gitgo? This seems less a punking than an attempted punking.

  12. I think it’s rather depressing to read that the Brian and Michael were willing to ‘unleash the hounds’ if a comedy programme made jokes at their expense and only become slightly more reasonable when they hear that the show mainly pokes fun at psychics.

    I don’t think Shirley Ghostman is particularly funny but I think the reactions of Brian & Michael give the impression that skeptics can’t take a joke unless it’s aimed at something they don’t like.

    Penn & Teller do similar sorts of stunts to folks on Bullshit! and although they seem to inform the unwitting participants afterwards it’s note worthy that most of the people take it in good humour and have no problem with being made to look foolish. Also, Mark Edward has recently been advocating on this very blog pranks against believers that are no less dishonest than this stunt.

    Overall I think it’s silly to get so worked up over a comedy show and speaking personally it has left me with the impression that Brian and Michael could do with chilling out a bit more.

    • RJ says:

      You’re kidding, right?

      Maybe “you’re” looking at “their” reaction to seriously?

      I think you are. Chill…baby…chill.

  13. Joe L. says:

    i guess we know what this little stunt was for now
    http://www.salon.com/ent/tv/iltw/2010/01/23/la_la_land
    See you on Showtime!