Psychics leave me in shambles

By Phil Plait | October 27, 2011 12:00 pm

You know what really eats me up? People who claim they can talk to the dead, when it is far, far more likely they are simply using psychological tricks (like cold reading) and random guesses, making it seem like they have some supernatural power.

A while back, the James Randi Educational Foundation publicly challenged so-called "psychic" James van Praagh to take their Million Dollar Challenge and prove he can do what he claims. It’s been weeks, and he hasn’t replied. I can’t imagine why, can you? It’s almost as if he’s afraid of being tested in a controlled environment.

The JREF decided to follow up on their challenge to van Praagh, to see if they could make sure he got the message. And this time, they brought some friends…

Man, I would’ve given an arm and a leg to be there for that. But c’mon, do you really think van Praagh will ever respond?


Related posts:

Cold guessing
D.J. Grothe: skepticism and humanism
A: Ghouls. Q: What do you call psychic mediums?
Blastr: I was a zombie for science


Comments (59)

  1. Trebuchet

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Van Pragh, Sylvia Browne, and others of their ilk will be claiming to talk to Randi when he “goes to the other side.” Which hopefully will be a long, long, time. I wonder if he’s got a code word like Houdini?

  2. Most psychics/mediums etc. will claim that testing in controlled environment creates some sort of “disturbance in the force” and this is why their “powers” can’t be tested.
    How convenient…

  3. CraterJoe

    Anyone can speak to the dead–it’s easy…just don’t expect any sort of response. :)

  4. RobT

    I am not sure what is so surprising about being able to talk to dead people. I have that ability and do it all the time. The only problem is they never reply…

  5. Nanobot101

    Awesome! Simply, Awesome! “Why won’t he talk to us?” “UGHHUH?”

  6. My guess is that he’s not going to accept before Sylvia Browne follows through with her acceptance. 10 years, and counting….

  7. Jim Saul

    And wouldn’t you know it… the ad feeder is telling me that “World Class Psychic Norah has shocking results for you!”

    If you wrote an article about child predators, would DoubleClick feed ads for… I don’t even want to guess.

    I have been glad to see the shows The Mentalist and Psych relentlessly debunking these things as a side note to the stories. I just hope there’s never an episode that gives into the temptation to pump ratings by finally showing a “real” supernatural event befalling the sleuths.

  8. Chris

    What would have been better is for them to go in the audience, stand up and face to face offer him the million dollars. Also even if he talked to the “zombies” they weren’t really dead, so I don’t think that would have counted.

  9. Josh

    I’m sure he never would have accepted the challenge to begin with, but publicly behaving like jerks just gives him a reasonable excuse for ignoring the challenge. I don’t see what this accomplishes, other than amusing people who already think the guy is a jackass.

  10. Jim

    I hear dead people. they say that they want…. brains?

  11. David

    And what exactly was the purpose of this?
    This is ridiculous (as is van Praagh but c’mon… this is childish…)

  12. Mick


  13. Robin Byron

    This two-bit grifter leaves me feeling extremely angry and vengeful. Next in line would be airheads who want to tell me the death of my wife is all part of god’s plan. Anyway, I hope there will be an entertaining end to James van Praagh’s scam; something along the line of extreme public humiliation and resentment.

  14. Heh. Clever and fun!

    Good luck, though.

  15. Kyle

    SCORE: Randi 1 Van Poopie head 0

  16. Infinite123Lifer

    Physics usually leaves me in shambles. :) Though for a million dollars I might hire a tutor!

  17. Smitty

    And who says that Skeptics are unfunny stuffed shirts?

    That is probably one of the funniest things I’ve seen in quite a while.
    In line with the CDC Zombie preparedness PR campaign, not wholly serious but got a lot of attention no doubt.

  18. Gary

    On our “Campus Corner” there was for many years a “head shop” which advertised without fail every year “Psychic Fair – (date,time,location)” on a big easel in front of their shop during football weekends. And, without fail, I would stick my head in the door and ask “If it’s a “Psychic Fair”, why do you need to advertise? Wouldn’t everyone just “know”? And, without fail, I would always get the deer-in-the-headlights look as I walked away.

    It entertained me regardless.

  19. Harry

    I can talk to dead people! Watch:
    “Hey Lincoln, nice top hat!”
    “Hey Darwin, nice theory!”
    “Hey Columbus, nice boat!”
    Gimme my million bucks.

  20. tacitus

    I don’t know — it just seemed silly to me (bah humbug?), and more about getting an amusing video than any serious effort to convince anybody that Praagh’s a fraud. They were never going to achieve anything but get thrown out of the hotel.

  21. while-e

    Taciturn, they got a lot of press out of it according to their website. Which I think was the point.

  22. Keith Bowden

    Wait a minute! “Zombies don’t exist” but “Pyschic powers probably don’t, either”? Hmph. Mr. Grothe is obviously a Zombie denier.

  23. CraterJoe

    @Gary #13 They were trying to respond to you telepathically. Sheesh, you obviously weren’t paying attention. Next just stare at them next for awhile. When they ask “May I help you?” Just tell them “Wow, some psychics you are.” and storm off.
    @Smitty #12: It was an evil ploy to get people thinking about disaster preparedness. Zombies are far more fun than earthquakes and floods.
    @Jim #6. Yes, but it’s not like we’re going to eat your eyes. (Apologies to Jonathan Coultan)

  24. Patricia


  25. Chief

    There is something seriously wrong with the universe if a person who defrauds others by claiming to hear dead people can force the eviction of those who have the truth and the intent to protect those being taken.

    How about a business permit and proof of qualifications from a university or college in order to permit you the right to collect from others at an seminar.

  26. #14 Gary:
    In similar vein; years ago, a young lady, whom I knew at work, told us all that she had been to see a so-called “clairvoyant”. She had been taken in by this woman, and claimed that she had known things about her which she couldn’t possibly have known, etc.
    One guy asked the girl, “Did you have to make an appointment?” The rest of us sniggered, realising what was coming, but she just looked puzzled, and said, “Yes.” Naturally, the reply was, “Why? She should have known you were coming!”

  27. Naomi

    Hey, guys, I’m psychic! If he does reply, I know exactly what he’ll say!

    “I don’t need your FACTS and your SCIENCE and your REALITY to prove that I have special powers, because I ~know~ it in my ~heart~. NO REALLY I HAVE POWERS. PAY ATTENTION TO ME.”*

    Give me my million dollars, Randi! 😉

    * Possibly paraphrased.

  28. Infinite123Lifer

    Anagram for “psychic James van Praagh”

    Sham Chaps Gap An Cry Jive

  29. Smitty

    @CraterJoe #19,

    But of course. Derek @Skepticality interviewed David Daigle on that very subject this week. If you are prepared for a Zombie Apocalypse, you are prepared for pretty much anything.

  30. @Trebuchet,

    They never contacted Houdini…

  31. I predict Dr. Plait will write blog posts in the next seven days.

  32. Pete Jackson

    Harry Houdini here, at long last I have found the way back from the Great Beyond by picking up the emanations from Pete Jackson’s poorly safeguarded calculating machine. Thank you, Al Gore, for inventing the internet so that we passed ones can finally communicate with the ephemeral living.

    Yes, James van Praagh keeps calling to us but his limited senses cannot receive us. Tell him to leave his computer on at night, and we’ll see…

    Rosabelle believe

  33. Infinite123Lifer

    Man the world is really backwards.

    Once I click on “Psychics leave me in shambles” the big add at the top of the screen for Discover on this page instantly turns to “free psychic readings 3 free minutes”.

    I wish the money spent on advertising hocus pocus could go to science and to the scientist’s and their contributions to humanity.

    To whom it may concern at Discover:

  34. jimbob

    Maybe they should ask the dead to get in touch and offer the challenge.

  35. alfaniner

    Silly rabbit. Everybody knows that zombies are either Undead or Living Dead. Phenomenal Psychic Powers only work with the not only merely dead, but the really most sincerely dead.

    Or not.

  36. Awesome reason for a zombie walk. This gave me a good laugh at the end of a long, hard day. Thanks.

    Also, as someone who has lost a child, these %$#&!s really piss me off. Had any approached me after losing my son I most certainly would have gone to jail.

  37. kurt_eh

    Does he talk to the mostly dead or the all dead?

    Because with all dead, there’s usually only one thing that you can do.

    Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

  38. Wes

    I appreciate that “probably” was added to the comment about psychic powers. I’m skeptical about much, most even, but everything is possible.

  39. Nigel Depledge

    @ Kurt (32) –
    Wow, it took 32 comments before there was a Princess Bride reference.


  40. Peter B

    VinceRN @ #31 said: “Also, as someone who has lost a child, these %$#&!s really piss me off. Had any approached me after losing my son I most certainly would have gone to jail.”

    You have my sympathies.

    My wife and I lost a son at 37 weeks gestation. Does Mr van Praagh claim to be able to talk to such people? What about at earlier stages of gestation?

  41. Anon

    So the way to prove Mr. Van Praagh wrong is to send fake zombies and make fun of him? I thought the point of skepticism was to be more mature than the thieves you’re debunking. What a disappointment.

  42. Joseph G

    @#1 Trebuchet: I wouldn’t be surprised if Van Pragh, Sylvia Browne, and others of their ilk will be claiming to talk to Randi when he “goes to the other side.” Which hopefully will be a long, long, time. I wonder if he’s got a code word like Houdini?

    ‘Ghettimonster, but I can imagine how that will go.

    JVP: “James says ‘banana’.”

    JREF: “Nope.”

    JVP: “No, I mean, er, ‘password’.”

    JREF: “Not even close.”

    JVP: “Er, I mean, ‘Rumplestiltskin’. Yeah, that’s what he’s saying.”

    JREF: “We’ll be going now.”

    JVP: “password01?”

  43. RobT

    I keep laughing at the commenters who said they were disappointed in the immaturity of the stunt. First, you need a sense of humour to enjoy this, if this doesn’t appeal to you fine but don’t act superior about it. Second, I feel they were trying to show that science can be fun and isn’t solely the purview of humourless stuffed shirts. Plus, why not make fun of fraudsters when you get a chance?

  44. Daniel J. Andrews

    Randi definitely needs some sort of password because someone is going to claim they’re talking to him just to irk skeptics. They’ll try and claim he’s saying he was wrong. It is like the ultimate deathbed confession (fake confession that is, like Darwin’s deathbed confession about evolution).

    btw, Gore didn’t claim he invented the internet–that’s an urban legend.

    “If it’s a “Psychic Fair”, why do you need to advertise? Wouldn’t everyone just “know”?

    The Psychics know, but they want non-psychics to know—there aren’t enough psychics to fill the coffers so they need ‘norms’ (or should that read ‘suckers’?). Besides, there are many flavours of psychics, most of them can’t foresee events. That deer-in-the-headlights look you get is probably the type of look biologists get when someone asks them, If man evolved from monkeys, why do we still have monkeys? :)

  45. Infinite123Lifer

    For 43:

    I am not sure if “fun” is the ultimate reason that the video was made. As I sit here and think about my neighbors and my family and society in general and about what they truly believe to be part of reality I think the JREF probably thinks the same thing. . . its sad, truly truly sad.
    I think when up against such fraud one has to become creative. Creative to stay sane and creative to reach the target audience, everyone who believes JVP is for real. Whether the video “is” good for that cause I cannot say but I believe it is.

    For the ones who think its not a good way to fight insanity; what the video does do is bring attention, whether good or bad again I cannot say, but I can say that in this world today bad/good attention sometimes does not matter, it is purely the attention which matters.

    They would’ve had to have some gumption to go in there. It looked like there was a room full of people expecting something supernatural and possibly looking for some sort of closure that must be paid for with cash. That’s a tough tough room & even if JREF was there for JVP you cant tell me that they weren’t trying to get a point across to more than just him.

    I don’t know how much money JVP makes, if any, but fraud needs to be challenged on all fronts in a myriad of ways. There is no “one perfect way” to persuade the masses. After all the people skeptics are trying to convince of the truth are not particularly scientific, and this method might appeal to them as crazy and therefore maybe understandable.

    I think a good serious challenge and debunking should come first, but after awhile if the people are still being tricked. . . anything is game and in this case helpfully so IMO.

  46. Georgijs P

    I almost choked with a cooky watching this. Good stuff.

  47. CB

    Can’t see the video at work… anyway…

    Personally, while it would obviously be the correct way to validate/invalidate psychic claims scientifically, I don’t think that trying to get psychics to subject themselves to study is the best way to demonstrate their fraudulence. As James Randi himself has said, the non-delusional “psychics” who know they are frauds — who are also the most successful at convincing others of their “power” — will never go anywhere near his foundation. And their refusal doesn’t really do anything to help, since a lot of these charlatans don’t need the money and can make whatever claims they want about why it wouldn’t work anyway (Randi’s a gay atheist which everyone knows nullifies psychic powers).

    To me, the best way to demonstrate what frauds these people are is for people who have the same real-life skills, like James Randi or Penn & Teller, to demonstrate “psychic” powers to people and then explain how they did it. While some people will always believe that sure maybe Penn isn’t really psychic but James van Praagh is, others are really just being bamboozled by something amazing with no other apparent explanation than what the psychic is claiming — something highly improbable, but maybe not impossible. But when I saw Penn in a live show perform an amazing act of “mind reading”, which he then explained away as some simple cold reading tricks and the improbable but mundane ability to memorize the contents of about a dozen joke books, I thought this has to convince some people. It’s a trick, maybe a complicated and cunning one, but a trick anyway. It only seems like magic if you don’t know that.

    Maybe I’m overestimating the number of people who respond, but I’m sure it’s going to get to more people than an unanswered challenge.

  48. icewings

    @VinceRN – After our son died I joined an online support group for bereaved parents and there were a few people there who had paid upwards of $1000 for a psychic to “talk” to their dead children. It made me sick. I tried to talk a couple of them out of it, to no avail.

    What kind of sick greedy bastard preys on grieving parents? For MONEY!

    Psychics do not exist. No “probably” about it.

  49. Bill

    @CraterJoe (23)

    just stare at them next for awhile. When they ask “May I help you?” Just tell them “Wow, some psychics you are.” and storm off.

    There are no words in the English language to adequately convey how much I love this idea.

  50. Tom

    I am not sure if everyone gets the same videos choices at the end of that video, but the first video offered was a debate between Randi against Van Praagh, and Edwards! Van Praagh even requested a psychiatrist to help defend:-) Randi takes them all on! I never knew that Randi had taken them on. very cool

  51. JB of Brisbane

    Bad news, everyone – the new series of “The One” has just started up on the Seven Network in Australia. This is a show that pits Aussie psychics off against each other in various challenges until they find out who is “Austraila’s Most Accurate Psychic”, as if it’s all real. Shows like this not only encourage people like that, it gives them legitimacy they wouldn’t otherwise have.

  52. brett

    Maybe a bit off-topic with my question, but not too far:

    What is the official skeptics’ answer to Edgar Caycee? I know that his Doomsday predictions were wrong, but how is the channeling part, in which he describes surgical procedures, and how they should be performed explained? And predict horse race results?
    Not a believer, just wonderin’ about that one thing…or two.

  53. flip

    Actually, I think a stunt like this would do more damage than good. It certainly won’t encourage healthy dialogue, which is the starting point for changing minds. I agree with David, #7 and tacitus #16, and CB #47. Whereas Gary #14 has both funny and trapping people in good logic. Much more effective in getting people to think.

    Agitprop like in the video would work better as a visible public event, rather than presented to a small and already-convinced group of people.

    I have a sense of humour RobT (#43), I just didn’t think it was funny. I work in the entertainment industry and I just found it a bit … high school-ish. As a PR stunt it might work on a local/small level; as entertainment it’s amateur night. I’ve seen plenty of great satire on science/educational topics that is more fun than this. (Maybe I have high standards, but then I’ve seen a lot of crap being passed off as ‘good’ entertainment.)

    JB #51,

    I have dispaired of “Gem”. This is the channel where psychic shows, paranormal crap, and other such things, continue to live on. It’s like Channel Nine is deliberately putting all the woo in one place. If you look at the rest of the content, it’s clear their target audience is young women, which says a lot about why they’d put the woo there.

    Oddly enough, a recent Green Guide had a review of “The One” which certainly poked fun at the whole idea; although also making it sound like it came with a “for entertainment purposes” disclaimer like astrology.

  54. MKS

    It’s a publicity stunt by JREF. Science & scientists should resist being Stalinized.

  55. Ann

    Quit picking on Deepak. I like him. The others – have at it.

  56. Joseph G

    Oooh! “Shambles”. Hah! I just got that.
    Yeah, I’m slow on the uptake sometimes.

  57. Joseph G

    @56 Ann: Just because the man is likable doesn’t mean he’s any less full of male bovine excrement than the other guys. Some of what he says may sound reasonable at first, but when you really look at it all in toto, a lot of it is the same unprovable woo couched in scientific (especially “quantum”) terms.

  58. Peter B

    Brett @ #53 asked: “What is the official skeptics’ answer to Edgar Caycee? I know that his Doomsday predictions were wrong, but how is the channeling part, in which he describes surgical procedures, and how they should be performed explained? And predict horse race results?”

    Can you give us a few specific examples?

    As for horse race results, I know how to “predict” the winners of all but one race at a race meeting, and possibly all of them…


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar