By James Randi
This article originally appeard as "Observations on a Bizarre WorId: John Edward and the art of cold reading" in Skeptic [US], 8(3), 6, 2000. James Randi is a professional magician, author, and world-famous investigator of unusual claims. He has logged over 100,000 miles a year in his checks on pseudoscience. In 1976 he was a co-founder of CSICOP. In 1996 he founded JREF, the James Randi Educational Foundation for promoting rational and critical thinking in paranormal areas, see www.randi.org/
The James Randi Educational Foundation continues to receive lots of inquiries about "psychic" John Edward, who holds forth on the SciFi Channel, pretending to speak to dead people. The general technique is known as cold reading, sometimes helped along by warm reading when the opportunity arises to overhear or elicit information from the victims. As an illustration of this possibility, a member of Edward's audience sent me this comment:"I was on the John Edward show. He even had a multiple-guess hit on me that was featured on the show. However, it was edited so that my answer to another question was edited in after one of his questions. In other words, his question and my answer were deliberately mismatched. Only a fraction of what went on in the studio was actually seen in the final 30 minute show. He was wrong about a lot and was very aggressive when somebody failed to acknowledge something he said.
"Also, his production assistants were always around while we waited to get into the studio. They told us to keep very quiet, and they overheard a lot. I think that the whole place is bugged somehow. Also, once in the studio we had to wait around for almost two hours before the show began. Throughout that time everybody was talking about what dead relative of theirs might pop up.
"Remember that all this occurred under microphones and with cameras already set up. My guess is that he was backstage listening and looking at us all and noting certain readings. When he finally appeared, he looked at the audience as if he were trying to spot people he recognized. He also had ringers in the audience. I can tell because about 15 people arrived in a chartered van, and once inside they did not sit together."
Psychics employ a technique known as cold reading. They tell the subjects nothing, but make guesses, put out suggestions, and ask questions. This is a very deceptive art, and the unwary observer may come away believing that unknown data was developed by some wondrous means. Not so. For example, "I get an older man here" is simultaneously a question, a suggestion, and a guess by the reader, who expects some reaction from the subject, and usually gets it. That reaction may just be a nod, the actual name of a person, or an identification (brother, husband, grandfather), but it is supplied by the subject, not by the reader.
"They're saying Bob or Robert. Do you recognize this person?" is another question, suggestion, and guess. If there's a Bob or Robert, the subject will amplify the identification. But if there's no Bob or Robert immediately recognized, the reader passes right on, after commenting that Bob is there, but not recognized right now. If any Bob is remembered later, that is incorporated into the spiel. A good example of this comes from James Van Praagh, in a tape by the 48 Hours TV program. The reading lasted 60 minutes and we found only two actual statements made, and 260 questions asked. Both statements were wrong. Van Praagh was looking for the name of the woman's deceased husband, and he came up with it by asking, "Do you know anyone named Jack?" The woman answered, "Yes! Jack, my husband!" But Van Praagh didn't identify Jack at all. He asked her if she would identify him. By that time, Van Praagh had already tried 26 other men's names, all wrong.
The readers have a way of leading the subject to believe they know something the subject doesn't. Example:Reader: Did your husband linger on in the hospital, or did he pass quickly?.
Subject: Oh, he died almost immediately!
Reader: Yes, because he's saying to me, "I didn't suffer. I was spared any pain".
Readers often go out and interview the audience members when they're on line waiting to get into the studio or auditorium. That technique was employed by the very successful reader Doris Stokes. She would feed back any data she got as if she were refreshing her memory of what had been told her. "Are you the lady who has a passed-on sister, dearie?" would of course receive assent from the victim, and ahhhs from the audience. Also, a person who approaches the reader before the TV show or auditorium meeting and says she has a question about her deceased grandmother can then later be selected out of the audience when they're on-camera or during the live encounter, and then be asked, "Is your question about your grandmother?" and that appears like a hit.
Another subtle effect: People in the studio audience -- usually seated up front for best visibility -- are sometimes those who have already been to the psychic for a private reading, and have then been asked to show up later to occupy reserved seats at the public in-person gathering "to develop more information" using the "collective power of the assembled audience". The reader then repeats previously-gleaned data, and that appears miraculous both to the audience in the studio and at home, watching, or elsewhere in the auditorium audience.
We tested Sylvia Browne in 1989, on live TV, and she failed miserably. On that occasion, she was not allowed to speak to anyone in advance, or to be asked or told anything in advance. The audience was told to only answer "yes" or "no", when asked a direct question, and Sylvia bombed. She blamed it all on bad vibrations. Van Praagh and Edward have not responded to our offer to test them for the million-dollar prize.
The bottom line on cold reading is that it's our perception of what's actually being done, rather that the reality of the procedure, and our ignorance of other subtle dues and methods, that misleads people in their observations of so-called psychics.