I watched Dr. Phil today. I'm not a regular Dr. Phil veiwer but I've been seeing promos featuring James Van Pragg, "celebrity psychic", and the skeptic in me was curious. Was Dr. Phil going to pander to this guy or expose him?
I should have guessed.
Mr. Van Praagh styles himself as a medium, someone who communicates with the dead. I think he's someone skilled at cold reading who's managed to constuct a mythology around that skill that he can then turn around and sell to people. And today Dr. Phil helped him do it.
Van Praagh prattled on about dead people beng attracted to life energy (really James? You've done the studies?) and about auras and Dr. Phil sat there and smiled and took it all in and even had the gall to call Van Praagh fantasies (detailed in his new book that y'all have just got to read) theories.
The next guest was a women who was hearing voices and getting electrical shocks. She maintained it was a ten year old boy. Dr. Phil said a little bit on possible issues regarding mental illness and then turned the poor woman over to Van Praagh who, in the matter of a sentence, had her thinking that instead it was a man named Dave. He then went on a fishing expedition for information to lend his claim credence. Dr. Phil looked on and smiled.
To close the show Van Praagh got to do a cold reading of a few audience members. As cold readings go it was actually pretty bad. He kept trying ("I feel music was a part of his life?" "I see piles of paper, lots of books.") but his targets seemed a little unresponsive. Nevermind, a good cold reader pushes on and soon enough the targets managed to dredge up some memories that offered a shaky connection to what Van Praagh was casting out. Human nature being what it is his targets won't remember all the clumsy fumbling that actually happened. They'll only remember what they think he got right.
The real laugh for me was when Dr. Phil went off about scam artists in relation to one woman's addiction to phone psychics. What the hell did he think he'd just spent the hour showcasing? Here's a man who's supposed to be well versed in how the human mind works and yet he lets a cold reader on the show who manipulates his audience and pretends his skill is supernatural. Is Dr. Phil unprincipled or willfully ignorant?
Anyhow, it was an embarrassing episode and I sincerely hopes he loses some sleep over what he did.
More info on the skill and art (but not the supernatural power) of cold reading:
The Australian Skeptic's 13 point how-to guide to cold reading.
The Cold Reading Technique
And a bit of information on James Van Praagh:
Series of critical articles about Van Praagh by Michael Shermer