About three weeks ago I was contacted by “The Numbers Game,” a program sponsored by the National Geographic Channel. As in the usual cases these days, I was called upon by the show’s producers to speak on psychic readings and how they work. At first I was delighted to be asked, but as you will see, what came out of this situation speaks volumes for where we are in the continuing battle to get critical thinking backed by scientific facts on television.
The show is described on National Geographic’s website as:
“Money. Sex. Marriage. Mortality. In each episode, data scientist Jake Porway tackles one of life’s most daunting topics revealing the surprising science behind them. From mind-bending stats, hilarious man on the street experiments, and interactive game play, this show delivers the answers to life’s mysteries and gives you the tools to help take charge of your destiny and change your life forever.”
After a very brief discussion by phone with their Associate Producer, (I assume this means he associates with the Producer) I offered what I could and suggested several ways to show exactly what happens, how psychic readings work and more importantly, my experience in finding about why they are so inherently dishonest and manipulative. I wanted to make it clear that I did not think any sort of “reading” was beneficial, and that in fact in many instances, they can cause real harm. I mentioned my book “Psychic Blues” and suggested that the crew working on the show might give it a casual skimming before proceeding.
Soon it was determined that I would “teach” their nerdy host “data scientist” Jake Porway “how to be a psychic” in the fashion that I had already demonstrated successfully on “The Jeff Probst Show” last Halloween. They thought it would be fun to use the earpiece information angle with their host getting pre-show from me off-camera. At this point I balked, telling them this technique is grossly manipulative and not how general psychic readings are conducted. I made it clear that using this sort of “hot read” wasn’t a fair “numbers game” and would skew any numbers by being too accurate and not in the realm of what a cold reading is at all. They insisted that was what they wanted to do. It made no sense to me. They also asked me to state that a psychic reading can actually help people. I reluctantly admitted to them that in some very rare situations, as when someone really has no family to talk to and little or no financial resources to obtain professional help, it is possible that a one-on-one reading might be marginally helpful, but stressed that the odds or “numbers” tell science the vast majority of clients who go to psychics get their pockets cleaned and can lose everything by trusting a psychic for any degree of happiness or friendship. I told them I did not want to be seen as soft on psychics and that was my stand after nearly 35 years of serious investigation.
“Numbers” replied with this email:
“_________, _________ and I have been talking about your request to appear tough on psychics. Without a doubt people who charge money to talk to passed spirits are predatory. Everyone on this side of the camera is in complete agreement and we would never want you to say otherwise. We never claim that psychics are real and go so far as to call them con artist. We are crystal clear on this point. Psychics are fake. However, science clearly shows that people who visit “psychics” feel better. I think its fair to say that some healers, even if may be the minority, are honest, have good intentions and actually help people. As a science show it is our job to acknowledge this. _____________, ______and I talked about it and it makes perfect sense for Jake to say the line “AND ACCORDING TO ONE STUDY, 61% OF VISITORS TO PARANORMAL HEALERS REPORT IMPROVEMENT.” However, we feel for story and authenticity reasons we need our expert to acknowledge the positives as well. We need our expert to say something along the lines of “IT’S ALL ABOUT GIVING PEOPLE ENTERTAINMENT, ADVICE, AND MAKING THEM FEEL BETTER ABOUT THEIR TROUBLES. THAT’S RIGHT – IT CAN ACTUALLY HELP PEOPLE.” The line doesn’t need to be exactly that, but the spirit of the line is important to us. It is of the utmost importance to us that our experts express themselves honestly and knowledgeably. We don’t want you to lie. But we need to shoot the segment with the truth as we see it. Thanks for your time. Please let me know how you feel about this area of concern.”
The “spirit of the line” bugged me. And that “truth as we see it” bit really irked me. I let them know in this response:
And please do remember: the whole time when I worked as a “professional psychic” I was never a believer and was scamming the scammers to see how far I could get. That’s what “Blues” is all about. The bottom line is that any psychic act is something that can be taught and therefore nothing supernatural.”
“Numbers Game” soon after emailed a very concise “script” for me to okay. I read it over and found a few things that bothered me. I was being reffered to as a “former psychic,” and while this tag may in some sense unfortunately remain true, I had made it clear I would not be happy with that title and made mention of the term “reformed con artist” that was unfairly coined by Penn Jillette on the Bullshit epsiode I appeared in. This is not a true statement. I have always been and remain a skeptic. Any underground work I did to discover the hows and whys of what was going on in the psychic market was used to observe and evaluate psychics in order to spill the beans on the whole mess. Under the present circumstances, “psychic investigator” was more where I was headed. I sent this email in response:
- “The JSE, while presented as neutral and objective, appears to hold a hidden agenda. They seem to be interested in promoting fringe topics as real mysteries and they tend to ignore most evidence to the contrary. They publish ‘scholarly’ articles promoting the reality of dowsing, neo-astrology, ESP, and psychokinesis. Most of the prominent and active members are strong believers in the reality of such phenomena.”
A little more reading up on Sybol Schouten left me with even less encouragement and I was beginning to get that creepy feeling I was once again about to become the two second sound bite of reason on yet another shout out for the paranormal. But remembering the Associate Producer’s words; …As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns…”
Okay, so I sent the following: