Cold Reading, Talking to the Dead

Methods of Cold Reading

Orson Welles on Cold Reading

There are people, known as mediums, who claim to be able to communicate with the dead. They say that they can talk with the spirits and relay for us. This is not new; mediums were in business 100 years ago and earlier. The technology changes but the basic idea doesn't. Highly recommended: The Skeptical Inquirer for March and April 2003, "William S. Marriott's Gambols with the Ghosts." Read about a magician exposing phoney mediums nearly 100 years ago. The story is a great read.

Video: South Park Episode 615 - from the South Park Scriptorium

    We watched a video parody of John Edward. It explained the technique of cold reading, which is the method psychics use. It is an art and requires practice and the memorization of a large number of facts. For example, the medium might say, "I'm getting J or G. There's somebody important to you whose name begins with J or G." The subject usually is surprised, and names the person. What you didn't know is that J and G are VERY common initials.

    Another example has the medium looking at someone who is obviously over 60 years of age and saying "Your father has passed." If someone is over 60, that is very likely to be true! If the medium guesses this, the odds of being right are good. Another guess was "Your father passed before your mother." Also highly likely to be true. Not always, but the odds are good.

Video: Crossing Over with John Edward

Analyzing a Medium

    We watched a medium at work. It is instructive to analyze the performance. Everyone got a sheet of paper and divided it into three columns: "right," "wrong," and "question." The procedure is to watch the video and note every time the medium makes a correct guess, a wrong guess, or asks a question. At the end, the wrong and question columns were full. Once you are aware of the methods of cold reading, you can spot them quickly.

    An Important Point

    This is very important. When you come up against a claim that someone can read your mind, talk to the dead, read a person from a photograph, or other psychic stunt, think carefully about it. Here's how to do it.

    1. Consider the claim. What does it imply? Imagine what someone who could REALLY do what they claim would actually do. You might even write down a description of what you would expect if the claim were true.
    2. Observe what actually happens. Watch and listen carefully.
    3. Compare the claim to the performance. Do this carefully. If the actual performance is far short of what the claim implies, you are absolutely on solid ground if you conclude that the claim is false.
    A "psychic" who asks questions, makes guesses (often wrong) and fishes for information is NOT doing what a true psychic would do. Think about it!

Video: James Randi from "The Search for the Chimera" SMU Collegium da Vinci talk (1:34:30)

Video: James Randi from Princeton University Trask Lecture 2012 (2:10:46)

    We started with a piece of the James Randi lecture in which he talked about these mediums. He described the process of cold reading. Randi also described the psychology of the situation. The people who go to these mediums have a deep psychological need for the medium to be right. They WANT him to be right, to succeed. They will forgive and ignore some extremely bad performances if a few shrewd guesses actually work.

    If you are interested in cold reading, magician's suppliers sell how-to books. We have provided a link to one below.

    Our goal is simple: You will be able to recognize cold reading when you see it, and therefore not be fooled into thinking that the practitioner is "psychic."

Sylvia Browne Ooooopsie!

  • Sylvia Shakedown Pt. 1

  • Psychic Defective: Sylvia Browne.s History of Failure

    Video: Kathlyn Rhea

      Rhea is the psychic who claims that she helped solve the Polly Klass disappearance case. Police reported that she was actually of no help whatever and that they finally solved the mystery with good old-fashioned police work.

    • The FBI says that no psychic has EVER helped to solve a crime. Psychic testimony is not admissible in court. The CourtTV channel has a show called "Psychic Detectives". Is it a good idea to schedule nonsense on a channel devoted to justice?

    Video: Sonya Fitzpatrick, the Pet Psychic (with guest John Edward!)

      We note the uncritical acceptance by most media (there are some exceptions) of the various psychics. There is no follow-up checking to see if there is any validity to it. See "How Pet Psychics Work" in HowStuffWorks.

    Video: family murder with John Edward and Char Margolis.

    A seemingly unedited cold read of two psychics and one person in an audience. Count the questions/fishing statements, the hits, and the misses. Think about the hits. Edward says "poison" - but the victim already said the family *suspected* murder - that suggests the death looked normal . . . so no knife or gun wounds! Poison is the obvious go-to ad hoc excuse then. See if you can spot more obvious guesses.

    Skeptical Reporter John Stossel - One of the Exceptions

      ABC News 20/20 did a segment called "More Myth-Busting" dated March 22. John Stossel investigates 10 modern myths. Myth #7 concerns psychics and the location of missing persons. Check this one out - it's good.
      ABC Myth-Busting

    TV "Psychic" Noreen Renier

    • Skeptical Articles on "Psychic Detective" Noreen Renier by Gary Posner
    • A Mind for Murdergate: "psychic clues" audaciously altered in new edition of Renier memoir by Gary Posner, Skeptical Inquirer 32.6 (Nov-Dec 2008): p61(2).
    • These files may be 'real-life'--but is she really 'psychic'?(A Mind for Murder: The Real-Life Files of a Psychic Investigator) - Gary Posner reviews Noreen Reiner's "book"

    Some Resources

    CSICOP (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal) Publishes the Skeptical Inquirer, an EXCELLENT magazine containing articles that investigate all kinds of pseudo-science. They have an excellent on-line site. Here are some references.

    Here are some more varied references.

    In addition to the above web sites, also look at The Skeptical inquirer for September and October 2003. Read the article "They See Dead People - Or Do They?" for a description of a first-hand investigation of John Edward. (Now in our course pack!)

    Here's that article.