Cold guessing

By Phil Plait | July 15, 2009 7:06 am

I won’t say that all self-proclaimed psychic "speakers to the dead" are blood-sucking ghouls who mercilessly and coldly prey on those in our society who are at their emotional weakest: people who have lost someone they loved.

I won’t even be briefer and call them all ghouls.

But golly, you have to wonder, just a little bit, about some of them who are just so freakin’ bad at it. Take James van Praagh. He claims he can talk to the dead, but they never seem to give him any information he can actually use. Or maybe they just tease him, constantly changing what they say, giving him ambiguous clues, only supplying the first letter in someone’s name, and so on.

But why take my word for it? My friend, the skeptic Jose Alvarez, put together this intreresting video about van Praagh, which he showed me at TAM 7. I suggest not eating anything while watching it.

There’s a technique, called cold reading, where you basically just start making guesses about what someone is thinking. You then use their body language, their responses, to narrow down your guesses until you get close enough to what they’re thinking that they actually think you’re correct. I’ve seen it done, and someone who is even mildly talented at it can hone in on an "answer" in just a few seconds. I suppose van Praagh might be an unusually inept cold reader, or perhaps he is just being toyed with by capricious spirits.

But if it’s that latter case, then he would be the victim, and I’m having a hard time buying that. It looks to me that the real victim is on the other side of the guesswork, the grieving people who are just looking desperately for some closure.

Arm yourself with skepticism because, sadly, not all ghouls are fictional. As long as people are emotionally vulnerable and not thinking critically, cold readers will never be out of work.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Debunking, Skepticism

Comments (65)

  1. Guysmiley

    LOL @ around 1:40. “What it Rob or Bob or Bob or Bob or Rob or Bob or Robert or Bob? Is it Bob? Bob? Is it Bob? …Bob?”

  2. eleventy

    It was funny/sad, until the end, it was just disgusting. What kind of person could ask a couple if they put toys in their daughters coffin?

  3. What, speaking to the dead isn’t real? Oh no, my entire life savings Ahhhhhhhhhhh!

  4. Cindy

    I could only watch the first segment, but I noticed that the woman sitting there was great because she really didn’t show any response and was pretty neutral. No wonder he was flinging names out.

    I also noticed that he was using common names. Now I would be really impressed if anyone had done a reading for my grandmother and nailed her brother’s name on the first try. My great-uncle’s name was Lycurgus Van Zandt Brown.

  5. FC

    Off-Topic…or on Topic depending on your point of view. I found this interesting:

  6. Stone Age Scientist

    So he hears voices that no one hears, and sees things that no one sees. I’m not at all familiar with the workings of Western psychics, but seeing the video was like watching a game of charade; only this time, the pantomime is immediately replaced by vocal words that eerily seem to lead the audience on.

    Here, the psychics (through spirits and/or dieties) will tell you the “cause” of your ailments and/or problems. At least for a friend of mine, who seems to have an ailment every other day, she needs to go pray at certain temples, some of them in faraway places, in order to be rid of the troubles the spirits are giving her. Suffice it to say, I don’t believe any of it. But that is life for some people here.

  7. Dan I.

    @ 3. Cindy

    If someone gets THAT name you need to send them to JREF to claim their prize. Phil, I think even you’d agree that no further testing would be necessary.

  8. angel

    WOW, he named all my aunts and uncles, and most of my childhood friends. And a couple childhood enemies.

    The most common English names are what again? John and Mary??

    I HATE people who mispronounce “jewelry” as “jewlery”!! idiot!

    Oh my god! the thing with the parents of the dead child. This bastard makes me wish I believed in hell.

  9. Name me somebody who DOESN’T have “jewlery” given to them by or inherited from a relative or loved one? Wow, talk about your psychic powers!

    Is it Robert? Bob? Rob? Ron? Ronald? Donald? Daniel? Dan? Danny? Franny? Fran? Francis? Frank?…..Weisenheimer? Is there a Heironymus Hellzapoppin Weisenheimer somewhere in your family tree? Thank you.

  10. “Cold reading” is just a diversion to make you think there aren’t psychic powers. It’s all part of a conspiracy of Argentinian dictators, Zionists, the Illuminati, Big Pharma, and NASA! Even Hollywood got in the diversionary tactic conspiracy with The Wizard of Oz!


  11. ZERO
  12. Initial H? If that’s a middle initial, I know exactly who he’s thinking of! ūüėõ

    Showing an incompetent cold reader is actually quite useful in exposing how these charlatans work. Of course, even John Edward–a good cold reader–doesn’t look as impressive live as he does on his highly edited television show.

  13. Photos in an album? In a scrapbook? On a mantle?

    ZOMG! That’s where I keep my photos too!!!

    And a husband that gives his wife jewelry on special occasions! How did he get something so specific?

    And you’re right! I WAS just looking at those photos before I came on national television to talk about the person in the photos.

    Effing fraud. What a joke.

  14. Tim G

    Cold, indeed.

  15. Jeff

    I , for some reason, never understood why these quacks even existed. Now I understand the concept of a “market” or “audience”. I misunderstood how many people were in the world. (Just take 5 minutes, and force yourself to page through your local white pages phone book, and try to read a few names on each page, you’ll be amazed how many). There is always a certain small percent that are gullible in every subject, and multiple that small % by a great number of people multiplied by the number of dollars a “psychic” book can sell, and you probably come up with a liveable salary for each of these type of con men. And it is even worse today, because of the mass markets like coast to coast which promote these types. For example, Kent Hovind, originally a science teacher, took his science knowledge and twisted it around into semi-believable sounding creation “science”. He made so much money, to the extent that he served time for tax evasion.

    I just worry to the extent that when you add these small % up , they add up to what could be described as a “main stream”. But if the center of gravity of society is fragmented up into this nonsense, it’ll probably spread into other aspects of life, because if they can’t critically think in these areas, chances are, they can’t critically think in any other area.

  16. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    Cold guessing works like this: I see a tree in your yard. See, I am already telling you about your self. “Wow! I have a tree!” If you don’t have a tree, then I may be seeing your grandfathers yard. Or, I will talk to the person next to you that nodded yes. I also see a driveway, a sidewalk , and a mail box. You have a telephone…..a cell phone? Damn, I’m good! Of course I am not always correct. Some of you have I phones. After I have you starting to believe, I see your Aunt…no, your uncle, no….your brother, no…….your wife…….no. You are blocking me.

  17. Robin

    I’m ill. The way he says “Thank you” after he “gets” a right answer. So smarmy. I hate that.

  18. I can’t even watch that garbage for a laugh. Disgusting.

  19. DLC

    Then there was the “Televangelist” whom Randi caught using his wife to radio information to him while he was onstage. Don’t remember who that was now. but I thought them rather evil.

  20. I worked at a bookstore where we had a big party for the release of Harry Potter 6. One of my co-workers played Madame Trelawney (in full regailia) and gave “precognitive” cold readings to kids as part of the show. I don’t know if she could have fooled an adult, but she had those kids astounded.

    I remember her telling the story of a middle school boy ‘client’. She looked into her crystal ball and told him that he’d “learn to stick that ollie by the end of the summer”. The kids jaw dropped. How did she know he was a skater!?How did she know he was trying to learn to ollie!?

    Easy, she told us: he had a cast on his forearm and an Independent shirt on. And since she was also a very good judge of people, she guess his ability level and that was that.

    She would never use her powers for evil, only for awesome.

  21. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    Now on the subject of possibly real seeing. I am 62. I have only had 4 possible events of “seeing”. At age 5 I slept in my grandfathers bed and dreamed that he came up stairs laid down in bed and died right next to me. Ten years later, he said he was tired. Went upstairs to that bed and died, just as I saw it while sleeping in his bed. Now, my mother has appeared in my dreams to talk 3 times and I awaken comforted by the fact that I may have actually been able to communicate with her. No lotto numbers, no race picks, just a little comfort. My mother could have been merely done by my mind, but I can’t explain how I witnessed my grandfathers death ten years before he died as I slept in his bed. I awoke and went downstairs and asked my father if grandpa had died. He told me to be quiet so as not to upset him. All of these”seeings” occurred in dreams. Only the one seems unexplainable, because it was right on.

  22. John Keller

    Law & Order: Special Victims Unit had an episode on this topic. It had Martin Short as the cold reader. Season 6 Episode 18.

    It is quite easy to find the most popular names from any decade (or year). The Social Security Administration has a list on their website. I’ve done cold readings on my own children and friends and they are astounded with my skills. I usually tell them that most people have dozens of dead relatives and friends and so it is simple statistics that picking a common letter for a first name will usually give the right answer the first or second time. (This is the John Edward approach). In this United States, most people have a dead relative that starts with “J” – John, James, Joseph and all the varients that go with those names.

  23. UmTutSut

    You don’t think the dead speak to us?

    Haven’t you ever watched a Keanu Reeves movie…? ;-P

  24. I’m sorry, where is the astronomy here?

  25. Chris

    The best is to watch the South Park episode “The Biggest Douche in the Universe” They rip on John Edward, the other TV psychic.

  26. Daffy

    Anyone who has spent time with carnies (I have) knows how bogus this is. And (as Phil points out) this nimrod isn’t even very good at it!

    Where is Buzz Aldrin when you need him? This guy really needs a punch in the kisser…

  27. Joe Bogus

    I’m about to drop this feed — as #24 pointed out, WHERE’S THE ASTRONOMY? If you want to continually bag on the religious and other weak-brained rubes, then GO START ANOTHER BLOG! Get back to the stars and leave this crap alone.

  28. Pieter Kok

    Charles, how do you know that he died just the way you dreamt it, were you there the “second” time? I’m sorry to be blunt, but “predicting” old people dying in their sleep is not very impressive. If he had died any other way, your dream would have been just another nightmare and you would have forgotten it.

  29. Rob Lee

    @Charles J. Slavis:

    “At age 5 I slept in my grandfathers bed and dreamed that he came up stairs laid down in bed and died right next to me. Ten years later, he said he was tired. Went upstairs to that bed and died, just as I saw it while sleeping in his bed…but I can‚Äôt explain how I witnessed my grandfathers death ten years before he died as I slept in his bed.”

    I fail to see how there is anything unexplainable here — old people die all the time. You “witnessed” this event 10 years before it happened. He died in an extremely common way. Maybe if you had “witnessed” your grandfather being killed by a flying dildo and that happened the next day, then that would be weird. Nothing you have presented, however, presents anything even remotely near convincing.

  30. Bruce Almighty

    Cindy @ #4 – what’s so uncommon about the name “Brown?”

    Hey, somebody had to say it…

  31. Charles:

    All of these‚ÄĚseeings‚ÄĚ occurred in dreams. Only the one seems unexplainable, because it was right on.

    I’m glad that dreams you have of your mother bring you comfort, but…

    How many dreams have you had during your 62 years? How many of them never “came true”? The fact that one of those thousands of dreams closely matches a relatively common event that took place 10 years later doesn’t on its own make it a premonition.

    Years ago, I had several dreams about a space shuttle blowing up on the launch pad, but I’d hardly call them “premonitions” of Challenger, but rather my mind combining those films of the early space program with the then-current shuttle program.

  32. Rob Lee

    And as for this video — it would be hilarious if it weren’t so odious…

  33. Hey, numbers 24 and 27, here’s a thought: if you don’t like the blog that I write, go away. But please, read this first. After that, go away.

  34. Gary Ansorge

    21. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.:
    Yeah, I had a dream in which “unknown nations” nuked the hell out of various cities around the globe, in 2019,,,to stamp out a wide spread plague,,,
    That’s ten years down the line, so send your money to me now and I’ll guarantee your entry to heaven when the nukes start dropping,,,

    As far as predictive ability goes, I expect anyone with highly developed prefrontal lobes(big lobes) and a wealth of information at their disposal can make some pretty good prognostications(see the 14 “hits’ from David Brins 1990 novel Earth)(He even got the collapse of the New Orleans dikes correct).

    Lie to Me is a pretty cool look at how humans transmit all kinds of real info to each other in a subliminal way. All we have to do is pay attention and know what to look for,,,

    GAry 7

  35. msmith40

    Phil, you’re being much too nice.

    James van Praagh is an out-and-out scumbag.

    And there’s never a ‘miss’… least a miss that he acknowledges.
    He simply keeps plugging away…..and simply moves on until his ‘psychic’ talents spring forth.

    “Thank-you!”, and “…..Yes….That’s what they’re telling me….”

    ………as if to say: “See? I AM a psychic!”

    (The story about a ‘blind squirrel and an acorn’ comes to mind….)

  36. dre

    I think we should take a moment to thank Larry King for all of the insightful and informative programming he’s been bringing us every night for the last sixty years or whatever.

  37. rob

    i can read all your minds!

    okay, pick a number 1 through 10.

    now multiply that number by 9.

    now add up the digits of your number. (for 32, 3+2=5. for 07, 0+7=7)

    take that result and subtract 5.

    now we are going to assign a letter to that number. for instance a=1, b=2, c=3, d=4 etc.

    got your letter?

    now think of a counrtry that starts with your letter.

    write it down so you don’t forget!

    now take the second letter of the country name and think of an animal that starts with that letter.

    write the animal down too.

    now read your country and animal and think about them. i will pick up your brain waves and reveal your answer below!

  38. rob

    hmmm…how many elephants are there in denmark?

    (for you smarty pants, how many jaguars are there in djibouti?)

  39. Jeeves

    I was expecting a couple of counters on the screen, one tallying the hits, the other the misses. And at the end an analysis of how many hits you would expect to get purely by guessing.

  40. Rob Lee

    @Jeeves — “I was expecting a couple of counters on the screen, one tallying the hits, the other the misses. And at the end an analysis of how many hits you would expect to get purely by guessing.”

    That would be great! My only reservation is that for a skilled cold reader, this number would be much higher than straight guessing as cold reading really is a highly developed skill, but this clown seems like he is probably scoring less than chance somehow.

  41. It was vile the way he mimed having trouble breathing to grieving relatives, knowing that the vast majority of dead people will have had some sort of breathing problem before they died.

  42. TheBlackCat

    for you smarty pants, how many jaguars are there in djibouti?

    No clue, but I’m sure there are plenty of jerboas ūüėõ

  43. Rob Lee

    for you smarty pants, how many jaguars are there in djibouti?

    There are also plenty of orangutans, ocelots, and oxen in the Dominican Republic ūüėõ

  44. Jay

    Ghouls. I like that, Phil. I think that’s how I’ll start referencing psychics.

    Once you’ve seen cold reading exposed for what it is, it’s amazing how many folks get taken in by it. There are a few practitioners of it that are pretty skilled, but most of them go by the term “magician”.

    When I was in Gatlinburg a couple of weeks ago, I was amused at how many psychics, palm readers, and astrologers have set up shop in the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge area. They tend to have storefronts near the “romantic toy and novelty” shops…

  45. Mark Hansen

    Rob (39), my daughter tried a variation of that one on me. You use the last letter instead of the second. I did pick Denmark but then selected Kaka (a bird from N.Z.) as the animal and thereby threw the rest of the joke. The best part was that I wasn’t consciously trying to spoil it.

  46. rob

    Rob Lee (44), didn’t you know that the Dominican Republic has been renamed “Denmark”.


  47. I would thoroughly enjoy secretly recording an elaborate sting employing even a “really good psychic” with a person who is trained to give absolutely no positive feedback whatsoever and yet the person begs in tears for information. Should we feel bad for pranking the psychic? Not at all, my friends; not at all. For not only does he not feel bad about it, but he gets paid to do it.

    What hurts me personally is that my own wife believes in all this bunk. And out of respect to her, I will never correct her directly. Our love is more important than her knowing the truth about these things.

  48. 19. DLC Says:

    Then there was the ‚ÄúTelevangelist‚ÄĚ whom Randi caught using his wife to radio information to him while he was onstage. Don‚Äôt remember who that was now. but I thought them rather evil.

    Peter Popoff, who, in the 1970’s-80’s pushed to ‘send Bibles to the Soviets/Russians’. I remember him well from my years working in ‘Religious Broadcasting’.


  49. Azam

    Something I would like to point out. I do not mean to a racist here but something I have always noticed in these videos is that these “psychics” always cold read someone of their own race. Hence, it is ALWAYS easy to throw out random names that you KNOW they will have encountered at some point or another. I am of a middel eastern decent. Put me in a room with this guy and see if I know anyone named “joe, joey, john, jack, jill, james”. Even better I dare him to say does the name “Akkkhhmed” ring a bell? That is probably the ONLY name he knows. These “psychics” get away a lot using these techniques. Fooling people in to believing they are real by getting a lucky guess name like “john” and cold reading people of the same race/culture as them. It would be awesome to test them using cross cultural cold readings and expose them for the frauds they are.

  50. doofus

    The dead seem a rather boring bunch.

    They never seem to come back and say, “oh, and by the way, Aunt Betty and I carried on a three-way affair for years with the crazy cat lady across the street”.

  51. Chayanov

    M… I’m seeing an M… somebody you know with an M. Now I’m seeing winter… You used to do something with M during the winter… I see M giving you something in the winter… a gift of some kind…

  52. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    I am not claiming any power. I just said in 62 years I only had one unexplainable happening. Five year old children in the 50’s didn’t often dream that a grand parent lies down next to them and dies. At 5 you are thinking of games and toys. We didn’t even have a tv till later. After my grandfather died, I recalled asking my father about the dream, and realized that it was accurate. Seeing my mother can easily be a fabrication of my own mind. Watching my grandfather die 10 years before it happened, and being told that he went up to bed tired and never got up was exactly what I saw. I had another grand father drop dead at the top of a stair case and fall to the bottom. I didn’t dream about that happening. But I wasn’t sleeping in his bed either.

  53. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    What do you expect? I’m also one of those who actually thought we landed on the moon.

  54. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    The multi-verse just might be.

  55. Charles J. Slavis,Jr.

    And for those skeptics, I will now future project for you. I am visualizing myself going to the store. Do you notice that my writing is beginning to fade out? Look closely! Before you know it, I will be gone. And, you will think, “Damn! He really did it!” Look closely! If you try too hard to future project you will push yourself right back to square one. That usually happens when you are standing at a time clock waiting to punch out. Before you know it you are back punching in again. I am almost gone. Look closely!

  56. Brigid

    Hmm, I’ll reserve judgment about calling all psychics ghouls–but the cold reading thing DOES happen more often that not. The funniest story I heard about it was from a woman I knew who was staying at a hotel that had a psychic fair. One of the psychics approached her and said she’d read her palm for 5 dollars. She decided to play along. The thing was–this woman had been a professional actor, and knew how to make and keep a completely expressionless poker face. She did that through the whole reading. Frustrated, the “psychic” told her “there’s something negative over you, I can’t read you!” More like, something negative looking at your hand…

  57. Jo

    #24 and #27 — Bad Astronomy (the website) was focused on debunking the moon hoax (amongst other things). It was a skeptical site. Bad Astronomy (the blog) was spun off of the original website. Phil IS being on topic.

    And quit whining. No one forces you to read anything here. And no one will miss you when you’re gone. I hear Carl Zimmer has a blog called The Loom, and it has NOTHING to do with textiles! You should go leave a comment there, too.

  58. emk

    Holy mackerel. I just made a deal with my husband that if he dies before me, he will NOT talk to me about the (lovely and greatly appreciated) jewELry he’s given me over the years. (I just quizzed him about the photos, and he’s completely unaware of the pictures I have on my nightstand – but he knows how I feel about having pictures on my nightstand, so that one’s a non-starter.)

    Instead, he will mention at least one of our favorite mutual activities (no winking or nudging, please) and describe, in detail, the place I recently proposed to him as my preferred final resting place.

    Alas, the million dollar prize won’t be around by then (I hope), but I’ll be able to make my millions telling the tale, you betcha.

  59. That video needs a voice-over of what the spirits were saying to Van Praagh. “No, not ‘Rob,’ Ron! Tell her Ron is with her! Ron! Tell her about the jewelry, the jewelry I gave her on special occasions. Does she remember the jewelry? Because… just checking.”

  60. Zar


    Actually, Sylvia Browne did once tell someone that their mother was trying to explain, on her deathbed, that “Your father is not your father.” Sylvia went on to reassure the horrified woman, saying in her cigarette hag rasp, “But who cares? Ya love who ya love.”

    The Soup had a clip of it.

  61. Anne V

    I love the idea of a counter running at the bottom of the screen! If I have time, I might try annotating the YouTube…

  62. Kent Hovind was never a real teacher. Mister Hovind is not a doctor. He bought a degree by mail. He was always a fraud and always will be.


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