More Thoughts on John Edward

The first essay I ever posted on this site involved "psychic medium" John Edward, who says he can communicate with the dead. I gave paraphrases of Edward's readings with members of the studio audience on his show, Crossing Over, and indicated that I didn't see any obvious way that the trick - if it is a trick - could be done.

Since then, I've learned a lot more about psychic phenomena and about the mentalist techniques that can simulate such effects. I've thought of ways that Edward could fool his audience, but so far I've seen no good evidence that he is actually making use of these techniques. I've also reread The Afterlife Experiments by Gary Schwartz, a book that recounts a series of tests done with Edward and other mediums at the University of Arizona. Even after taking thorough precautions, Schwartz found that the mediums were able to come through with accurate, specific information. Some of their hits were dazzlingly on-target.

At the same time, there continues to be a great deal of criticism of Edward on countless Web sites and newsgroup message boards. These condemnations can be remarkably vehement. Here's an example from a Web site picked more or less at random and reproduced without editing:

"What would you call someone who capitalizes on the pain, agony, dreams, and hopes of innocent people? I call him a monster. John Edwards and his phony carnival sideshow 'Crossing Over' has preyed on his victims for far to long. He is a con-man, no more, no less. He is evil incarnate. He is, as 'South Park' has so aptly dubbed him: 'The Biggest Douche in the Universe'. "

At the conclusion of this heartfelt philippic, Edward is presented with the coveted "Rectum of the Month Award."

The reference to the animated series South Park concerns an episode that indeed bears this title, in which "John Edward" is unmasked as a phony. "Edward" is depicted using crudely obvious methods to fool an audience of morons. From the transcript:

"Edward: He's telling me ... oh well, he's saying that you two used to ... do things.

"Woman 1: [sobs and nods vigorously] Mmm-hmm.

"Edward: And that those things involved ... stuff?

"Woman 1: The things did involve stuff, yes. [cries. The audience is awed and gets somewhat boisterous]"

This episode has beome a huge favorite of Edward-bashers, some of whom even started a long-running thread called "The Biggest Douche in the Universe." The show's most pointed weapon is sarcasm - which, perhaps not coincidentally, also seems to be a favored mode of disputation among skeptics.

But South Park also tries to discredit Edward in more substantive ways. At one point, a character announces, "I found tons of testimonials on the Internet saying that John Edward has the entire studio wired to hear what people are talking about before the show. And, he pays actors to be plants in the audience."

Unfortunately for the credibility of this argument, the "tons of testimonials" seem to be a fantasy of the show's scriptwriters. If they exist, search engines (combing through Web sites and newsgroups) can't find them.

This is not to say there aren't "tons of testimonials on the Internet" about Edward. There are - but most of them seem to be in his favor. Here's an excerpt from a September 18, 2000, newsgroup post (all ellipses are in the original):

"I was very, very skeptical. Then I went on the show and now...... I'm confused. : ) I was 'one on one' on the show (the recent 'one-on-one' with the 2 doctors, Sept 7) and I don't know what I believe. There is no doubt he told us things only we knew, and some things that my brother and I didn't know but my mom confirmed when she came on the show at the end. Like what was in her purse. I think it's one of two things. 1) he has some gift reading our own minds, or contacting those who have died or 2) the ultimate con ......If it's a con, there has to be hidden cameras, hidden microphones, and x-ray machines throughout the studio (which I strongly doubt) because only he and my mother knew my mom was carrying 'something belonging to my brother in a small plastic pouch in her purse.' My brother and I didn't even know about that one! He mentioned my father's brother by his NAME not the first letter and said he was directly to his side. He mentioned my aunt 'Philomena' by her name (how many people have a Philomena in their family?)"

Here's another testimonial posted by someone responding to the argument that Edward reads the sitter's body language to make informed guesses, and recites vague, generic facts that apply to most people:

"Then how do you explain his coming up with so many specific facts about total strangers in the audience at the Theater at Madison Square Garden when I saw him ... Did the woman behind me give away the fact that her recently deceased uncle was a priest who had appeared on Broadway and considered himself the family star by her body language? Do you really consider that a generic fact about someone?"

Finally, a testimonial posted on a pro-Edward Web site, regarding a March, 2001, taping of the show:

"First off, there are no insidious 'Crossing Over' staff members descending on anybody, interrogating anybody or even being 'extremely chatty' (as I believe one negative article or post implied) with anyone. Everybody's really nice and really friendly but nobody asks you ANYTHING about anything other than to run you through a metal detector (cause you can't be too careful with those cynics, you know) get you to sign a STANDARD CONSENT form and to show a picture ID ....

"THERE WAS NO FAMILY TREE FORM ever given to anyone to fill out, nor was there anything but ordinary interaction between gallery members and John Edward staff (where's the bathroom, thanks.) ... The conversations of gallery members - outside waiting on line, inside waiting to enter studio and seated inside the studio - was of the most ordinary mundane nature and did NOT involve detailed (or even general) discussions of family members or history. (I should know because I was eavesdropping on everyone!)

"People were excited to be on a TV show, worried about the pigeons that were hovering over our heads as we waited outside, every manner of conversation OTHER THAN 'giving away' any information to the staff ...

"I can definitely verify that there are plenty of hits in person and that Edward doesn't need tricky editing to bring them about on the TV show ...

"I also happened to have lunch in the same place as a group who got a good reading and I eavesdropped on them too! They were definitely real people and totally freaked out by what they'd experienced."

Of course, these testimonials prove nothing in themselves - but then, anti-Edward testimonials wouldn't prove anything, either. Except, perhaps, to the people at South Park.

The more emotional criticisms, whether couched in terms of rage or irony, don't pack much of an intellectual punch. Other participants in the debate tackle the issue in a more substantive way by trying to expose Edward's tricks - or by claiming that his tricks have already been exposed. Some of these claims are based on misinformation, which, once published on the Web, can be endlessly perpetuated.

A common mistake, which I've seen repeated several times on message boards, involves confusing two different people: John Edward, star ofCrossing Over, and mentalist performer Mark Edward, who frequently debunks alleged psychics and is an editorial board member of Skeptic Magazine. He has appeared with Penn and Teller on a series they did for the Showtime cable network, the off-color title of which is, as Tom Wolfe once put it in a different context, "a common tauro-scatological epithet." He was also featured on the Fox TV special Psychic Secrets Revealed (the subject of another essay), in which he used a "hot reading" technique to fool a member of the audience.

Mark Edward, it appears, has patterned his act after that of the more famous John Edward, right down to the similarity of names. The result is that casual TV viewers sometimes get the two men mixed up. In fact, I can't help but think that the producers of these shows hire Mark Edward precisely because people will get him confused with the Crossing Over star.

I have seen newsgroup postings which insist that John Edward appeared on Psychic Secrets Revealed, when, in fact, he made no appearance on the show. The same postings claim that John Edward was shown to be cheating and exposed as a fraud - but again, it was Mark Edward who was cheating (quite openly, for educational purposes), and the technique showcased by Mark Edward, while clever, was unlikely to work often enough to explain John Edward's consistent performances.

But even if that particular trick can't explain it all, isn't it safe to assume that Mark Edward, using other ruses, could reproduce everything John Edward does?

No, it's not safe to make that assumption. Here's why.

In 1999, Mark Edward appeared on another Fox show called Exploring the Unknown, in which he used standard cold-reading tricks to fool people in a shopping mall. Gary Schwartz comments about this show, hosted by noted skeptic Michael Shermer, in The Afterlife Experiments:

"A producer ... said he was interested in addressing the possible truth of mediumship, and wanted to do a segment focused on [medium] Suzane Northrup ... We gave them access to the complete, unedited footage [of the experiments with Northrup] so they could make their own selections ... The producer let us know in advance that he had screened the entire ... footage. He had seen Suzane speaking virtually nonstop for over ten minutes, asking only five questions, yet producing more than 120 specific pieces of factual information with over 80 percent accuracy. But instead of using any of that footage ... Fox made arrangements on the side to film her at another time ... In between short clips of Suzane's statements, the program cut to the psychic magician [Mark Edward], who claimed that her statements were typical generalizations that could fit most people ... Our ... footage made it clear that she was doing nothing of the kind - so the program never used that footage."

Even so, Schwartz hoped to work with Mark Edward, in order to see if the mentalist could produce results in the laboratory, under the same controlled conditions that had been applied to John Edward, Suzane Northrup, and the other test subjects. "So we asked the network to put us in touch with [Mark Edward] ... And then we asked again. We asked repeatedly, and were stonewalled. Perhaps the network realized the show segment had been irresponsible, perhaps the magician thought we were angry and were trying to trap him somehow, perhaps he knew from the footage that Suzane was really doing things he could not and was simply embarrassed for accusing her of using the same tricks he was using. Whatever the reason, the network would not put us in touch with the magician, and we finally gave up trying."

If Mark Edward can do everything John Edward does, wouldn't he jump at the chance to prove it in the laboratory, undergoing the very same tests that John Edward submitted to, and destroying John Edward's credibility once and for all? That would be the ultimate vindication of the skeptical position he espouses. Yet, curiously, Mark Edward seems to have passed up the opportunity to be tested - while John Edward, with much more to lose if he were discredited, agreed to participate. One can only wonder why.

Then there are stories that circulate via email. Recently someone sent me word of the definitive debunking of John Edward. I was told that Edward had been exposed on a cable TV show, for which a member of the Crossing Over staff served as an informant. Supposedly, this informant got someone with a hidden camera to mingle with the studio audience. The resulting video showed how "ringers," hired by Crossing Over, engaged audience members in casual conversation, eliciting facts about their families and personal relationships, which were then fed to Edward. Later, staff members surreptitiously stuck colored decals on the seats where these particular audience members were sitting, in order to allow Edward to pick them out of the crowd. This trickery was also caught by the hidden camera. For John Edward, it appears, the jig is up!

Sounds pretty definitive, doesn't it? The problem is that no one else seems to have heard of this history-making show. I searched the Web in vain for any hint that the program actually exists. When I asked my email correspondent if he could supply me with details of the show - what network it was on, when it aired, and so forth - he wasn't able to provide any, and said only that he was "pretty sure" the show involved Edward.

In short, it doesn't seem as if this alleged debunking episode ever took place. No doubt my correspondent saw some kind of TV program that illustrated simple methods of fooling an audience. But did it have anything specifically to do with Edward, or involve an informant from theCrossing Over staff? There is no evidence of it. Those aspects of the story are probably embellishments - the sort of memory lapses that create most "urban legends."

Many Web pages and message-board posts say that Edward uses "cold reading" to accomplish his act. This term, "cold reading," is tossed around quite a lot - often, it seems, by people who don't really know what it means. They seem to think it is a general term of derision for any act put on by a fake psychic. Actually, cold reading is a specific term of art, referring to a mentalist's skill at asking leading questions and observing subtle reactions on the part of his subject - facial expressions and body language cues, for instance - which then direct him to ever more specific statements.

There have been a few attempts to analyze Edward's performances line by line in order to show how he is using cold reading techniques. One such effort purported to explain how Edward came up with the information that the young daughter of an audience member had picked up a "special" feather during a visit to Niagara Falls. The skeptic opined that Edward's reference to Niagara Falls was a lucky guess, and once he had scored a hit with it, he just naturally assumed the little girl found a feather there, since, after all, there are lots of birds at Niagara Falls and so there must be lots of feathers lying around, and kids are known to pick up feathers ...

Convincing? You be the judge.

Let's look at some other examples, from an essay called "So You Wanna Be A Psychic?" The author, identified as Franc, takes a look at transcripts of Edward's TV appearances to explain how the act is pulled off.

In what follows, material in square brackets is from the transcript:

"John Edward: They're either trying to tell me someone has a name like Celine [no reaction from the audience] ... or they want me to acknowledge a name like Celina... but they're telling me to say Celine [as he motions the letter 'C' with his index finger].

"Female Guest: I have an Aunt Zia Lina."

Franc calls this "perhaps the weirdest hit in history. How she got from Celina to Zia Lina, I have no idea. But no matter, someone took the bait ..."

Is it really so hard to see "how she got from Celina to Zia Lina"? The two names are both unusual and sound nearly identical.

Before we go on, please note that the female guest referred to Zia Lina as her aunt. The significance of this fact will be clear in a moment.

"Edward: They're making me feel like there's some type of mom vibration that's has passed because there's an older female coming through and I feel like [pause] ... is it your mom that's passed?

"Female Guest: Yeah."

Franc's comment: "... he re-feeds her the 'mom' answer she gave earlier."

Despite his undoubtedly painstaking analysis, Franc has overlooked a minor detail - namely, there was no "'mom' answer she gave earlier." The earlier reference was to the woman's aunt, not her mother.

Tallying up this reading, the skeptic awards "0 hits."

He then turns to a transcript of a Larry King Live show that aired on June 19, 1998. Notice that this was a live call-in show - no chance of finding out anything about the callers in advance, or reading their body language, or editing out "misses" to highlight hits.

"CALLER: Hello.

"KING: Go ahead.

"CALLER: Yes, my mother passed away, quite a while ago, and I'd like to get in touch with her.

"KING: What's your name?

"CALLER: My name is Karen.

"EDWARD: OK, Karen, the first thing that's coming through is not your mother, but I want to tell you that there's another female figure who is older than you, who's making you feel like she either helped raise you, or was around when you were growing up -- is coming through. And she tells me she either passed from breast cancer or lung cancer. I see blackness in the chest area, but I don't think that this is related to you. I think that this might be either a friend's mother or a mother-in-law -- I don't feel like there's a blood connection here.

"CALLER: My stepmother."

Franc's assessment? "Edward shotgun[ned] his way thru it, but basically he stated 1. the presence of a person without [a] blood connection who helped raise her or saw her grow up who 2. had 'blackness' in the chest area. That is exceedingly vague."

Not quite. First, it wasn't just "a person," but an older female. Second, it wasn't just someone "without [a] blood connection," but someone who "might be either a friend's mother or a mother-in-law." In other words, a mother-like figure who was not a blood relative and who was an important part of the caller's childhood. "My stepmother" fits these facts to a T.

And how did the stepmother die? Larry King asked that question.

"CALLER: Lung cancer."

Remember that Edward just said "she either passed from breast cancer or lung cancer."

Franc, unimpressed, points out that Edward's statement about the cause of death "comes true whenever [sic] or not the chest problem is really in the breasts or lungs. This way, he can take credit for more precise hits, but still retain a hit for the more vague phrase."

But Edward said "she either passed from breast cancer or lung cancer," and it turned out she died of lung cancer. Is this really so "vague"? Is Franc seriously arguing that there are so few ways for an older female to die that "either ... breast cancer or lung cancer" would be an easy guess? Couldn't the stepmother have died of a stroke, brain tumor, pancreatic cancer, leukemia, falling down the stairs, car accident, pneumonia, Alzheimer's, etc., etc.? Edward narrowed it down to "breast cancer or lung cancer" without asking any questions. And the skeptic calls it "vague."

The capstone of his analysis is priceless. "[Edward] did get one real, good hit during the hour: saying that a man was buried with cigarettes, and they were the wrong brand (unfortunately, the accent of the person is not specified - some other religions do bury cherished objects, and this may have influenced Edward)."

So if the caller spoke with an accent, then it would have been simplicity itself for Edward to guess that his loved one "was buried with cigarettes, and they were the wrong brand." Of course! After all, whenever I hear someone speak with an accent, I can immediately tell that their loved one was buried wearing rubber galoshes and mismatched socks.

Remember, the last two examples came from a live performance by Edward, taking random calls from all over the world. He couldn't see the callers, so he couldn't observe their facial expressions or body language. He had only seconds - a minute or two at most - to do his readings and had time for few, if any, questions.

Could Mark Edward, the skeptical mentalist, have come up with these hits? Doubtless he would say he could. Fine. Let's see him do it. Or let's see well-known skeptic and professional magician James Randi do it. (When Randi appeared on the June 5, 2001, edition of Larry King Live, King said, "Since James is skeptic, we will ask him to do some calls" to demonstrate cold reading. Randi conspicuously failed to follow up on this suggestion.) Let's see someone do it and show us gullible fools how stupid we really are.

Or is it possible that the mentalists and skeptics really can't duplicate what John Edward does, and they know it, and they are afraid to let us find out?

But in that case, they would be, well, just plain full of it, wouldn't they? Blustering, crowing, fulminating - and conning us the whole time? Pretending they have easy answers when actually they have no answers at all?

Say it ain't so.

At least those who render such analyses are attempting, however feebly, to address the evidence. Regrettably, many people who use the term "cold reading" do not seem even to have watched Crossing Over, let alone to have made any serious attempt to explain how the information is obtained. They seem to think that simply by using the term "cold reading ," they can explain everything. But jargon, in and of itself, has no explanatory power.

Imagine, for instance, that you ask me, "Why do birds fly south for the winter?"

I answer, "It's instinct."

You: "What's instinct?"

Me: "It's what makes birds fly south for the winter."

Clearly I have told you nothing of substance, but my use of the word "instinct" may create an impression that something meaningful has been said. "Cold reading" serves a similar function in many critiques of Crossing Over.

"John Edward is just doing a trick called cold reading."

"What is cold reading?"

"It's the trick John Edward does!"

Q.E.D.

There is also a popular method of analysis known as "being nibbled to death by ducks." It consists of finding the tiniest discrepancies in Edward's statements, which become the basis for a wholesale condemnation of his honesty. Here are a couple of examples from "The Many Contradictions of John Edward", by Instig8R (probably not her real name):

"On 1/5/97, John Edward told Newsday writer William Falk that the demand for contact with the dead is such that 'he could easily schedule 40 readings a week, instead of the 10 to 15 he feels comfortable doing' ... Does anyone know how many readings are given by John Edward per week? It's got to be more than 15!!! On the night that I saw John Edward at the Westbury seminar last May (2002), I think he did about 7 or 8 readings. I believe he appeared at Westbury for 4 nights in a row, so I guess it would be a conservative estimate for me to say that he did more than 20 readings over a four-day period, right?"

Even ducks can nibble better than this. When Edward said he could schedule forty readings a week, he obviously meant hour-long private readings. (Forty hour-long sessions would equal a standard forty-hour work week.) He was not referring to the much briefer readings done in groups, which may last only a few minutes each.

We're then shown another startling example of Edward's duplicity:

"Sometimes, John Edward says his psychic powers are possibly hereditary. Then, at other times he claims the powers are acquired skills. It just gets funnier and funnier."

My sense of humor may have atrophied, but I don't see anything funny or contradictory about these statements. What Edward seems to be saying is that everyone is born with latent psychic abilities, but these abilities must be honed through practice. How is this different from the truism that anyone can learn to draw (or sing or sew), but we must practice in order to do it well?

I've found it interesting to see how some skeptics' explanations for Crossing Over have changed over time. At first, there was much talk of hidden microphones in the TV studio, which monitored the audience and picked up conversations about departed relatives. In its March 5, 2001 issue,Time ran an article by well-known skeptic Leon Jaroff, who speculated about the use of such microphones, though it appears that Jaroff did not actually go to the studio, interview anyone on the show's staff, or do any investigating whatsoever.

Perhaps to combat such speculation, Crossing Over now sends out an information packet to prospective audience members telling them that, whether they are on line outside or seated in the studio, they should not talk about their relatives or any other personal matters.

With this line of argument somewhat defused, the skeptics next suggested that Edward was using cold reading in the classic carnival sideshow sense. Unfortunately, the specificity of information that Edward sometimes comes up with - often without much, if any, prompting of the audience member - has made this hypothesis pretty unconvincing. In addition, Edward occasionally relates information that the audience member is not even aware of, information verified later when the person talks with another member of the family. Cold reading techniques work only when eliciting facts that the subject himself already knows.

Perhaps sensing that their earlier explanations were inadequate, skeptics increasingly have turned to another proposition - that Edward does research on people long before they ever arrive at the studio. Of all the skeptical explanations offered, this one seems most plausible to me, though I still think it has serious defects. What makes the explanation at least superficially acceptable is the way in which Crossing Over selects its audience. From what I understand, people call the show's 800-number and leave their name and telephone number on the voicemail system. They are then placed on a waiting list. A long time passes, sometimes as much as a full year, before the show contacts them to say that seats are finally available.

Now, it is possible that somebody working with Edward could take these names and phone numbers, use a reverse directory to learn the callers' home addresses, and then cross-index this list with, let's say, the various family trees posted on the Internet, obituaries available through LEXIS-NEXIS, "blog sites" (in which people publish personal information about themselves on the Web), and so on. If the typical caller has to wait months before getting tickets, there would be plenty of time for research to be done. All that would be necessary is to match an obituary - preferably one that includes the cause of death and a lot of personal information about the deceased - to the family of someone on the waiting list. Then tickets can be sent out, and this person can be targeted for a reading.

I became particularly suspicious that this technique might be in play when, on one of the shows, an audience member mentioned that she had spent a year on the waiting list, and then, only a few days after a relative's funeral, tickets finally became available. The woman interpreted this as a "sign" that she was going to get a reading and "hear from" this particular relative on the show, as indeed she did. But it could just as easily be interpreted as evidence that whoever was monitoring the cross-indexed lists was waiting for an obituary to come up.

One Web essay illustrates this theory by trying to show how Edward obtained two "special hits" - i.e., unusually specific information. This essay, incidentally, is also by Instig8R.

In one case, the reading involved a young man who died in an auto accident. The skeptic found that by searching various databases, he could learn not only the details of the crash but certain facts about the victim - for instance, he had a "great love of sports" and had "completed his freshman year" at a certain college. Unfortunately, the essay doesn't provide any quotes or even paraphrases pf Edward's actual reading, so it's impossible to determine how closely the material Edward came up with matches the material found online.

In the second case, Edward talked with the owner of an Italian restaurant, Russ Brunelli. The reading, we are told, "was a close parallel to the data that I was able to find out about [Brunelli], his parents and their businesses. Just to illustrate the information that is available, John Edward stated that someone had a 'double name', and this was validated. One of the sitters present was Ignazio Leone, a cousin/partner/executive chef at Brunelli's restaurant. He is known as 'Yan-Yan'. If you would like to verify that Ignazio is called 'Yan-Yan', and read other information about the Brunelli family and their business, visit the following site on the internet: Italian Cooking & Living: Ignazio Leone "

The only problem here is that the Web site in question does not mention that Ignazio is called Yan-Yan, or give much information about the Brunellis at all, a fact you can verify by clicking on the above link. Possibly the Brunellis' site has been revamped since the "Many Contradictions" article was written. Or possibly not, since the author goes on to say, "I found the information that Chef Leone is called 'Yan-Yan' from an article inNY Newsday, written by Sylvia Carter, dated July 21, 1999 on Page B11 in the Food and Dining Section ..."

So apparently the Yan-Yan info was not on the Brunellis' site, after all. It's all rather, uh, "vague," to use a term we've encountered before. In any case, no quotes or paraphrases are provided for this reading, either, giving the reader little to work with.

Although these examples are less than compelling, I still think the cross-indexing hypothesis is the most convincing skeptical explanation I've heard. Still, it leaves key questions unanswered.

For one thing, it seems odd that none of the hundreds of people to get readings on Crossing Over have noticed that everything Edward told them had previously been printed in the newspaper. I realize that many people are gullible and have a desperate desire to believe, but you would expect at least a few of them to realize that Edward was parroting an obituary that they must have read and may even have written themselves. For folks like the South Park writers, this objection has no weight, because they regard Edward's audience as brain-dead idiots. I don't share this opinion.

For another thing, the laborious and time-consuming cross-indexing operation is unlikely to be done by Edward himself. Presumably he has assistants who do the grunt work for him. In an age of six-figure payoffs to anyone who can expose the dark secrets of a celebrity, you would think that one of these assistants would have gone public by now. Perhaps one of them will go public tomorrow, but as of this writing, no one has. It seems hard to believe that a low-paid computer operator would pass up the chance to make a couple of hundred thousand dollars and become a national celebrity, if he indeed had the goods on America's most famous psychic.

For yet another thing, while much of the information Edward presents probably could be obtained from obituaries or from memorials printed in a local newspaper or an alumni magazine, some of the information appears to be too personal, too specific, and, in some cases, too embarrassing to be derived from those sources. My previous essay on Edward gives examples of embarrassing revelations of this sort. In one case, Edward claimed that a woman's late husband was making a reference to handcuffs. The woman, obviously abashed, verified this reference without explaining it, though the audience drew the obvious inference. I think it most unlikely that the couple's penchant for handcuffs ever made it into the husband's obituary.

In other cases, Edward seems to be able to come up with detailed information about things that the audience member has done very recently - usually minor but specific things that would not attract attention in the press - or about private experiences that the person has shared with no one, not even close friends and relatives.

Then there is the matter of the experiments performed with Edward and other mediums at the University of Arizona. Some skeptics have argued that precautions against fraud were inadequate, but we must remember that skeptics always say that the precautions, no matter how stringent, are inadequate. Even when tests have been repeated thousands of times in labs all over the world - as is true of the "ganzfeld" ESP experiments, for example - skeptics still say that the data cannot be trusted for one reason or another. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the more die-hard skeptics can never be convinced. As the saying goes, "They'll see it when they believe it."

From my reading of The Afterlife Experiments, I would say that the precautions - especially in the later trials - were quite good. In fact, professional mentalists who have visited Gary Schwartz's laboratory report that they would not be able to perform under such tightly controlled conditions. And we have seen that mentalist Mark Edward was apparently not eager to exhibit his skills at the U. of A.

Skeptics sometimes counter this point either by insinuating that Schwartz and his colleagues are frauds or by saying openly that Schwartz is a weirdo and and therefore nothing he says can be taken seriously. (The redoubtable Leon Jaroff again comes to mind, having been quoted as declaring, "Gary Schwartz believes in the tooth fairy.")

Neither of these objections holds much water. Schwartz would have little to gain by faking these experiments. If the fakery came to light, his career would be ruined, his professional reputation destroyed. In fact, he has taken a considerable risk and alienated many members of the academic community by conducting the experiments in the first place.

As for the claim that Schwartz is flaky, I've read his book and interviews with him, and he doesn't come across that way to me. Nor do his books say anything about the tooth fairy, as far as I recall. At any rate, attacking somebody's character is not an argument - it is a logical fallacy, an ad hominem. Skeptics become very exercised when people launch personal attacks against them, and with good reason - such attacks are out of bounds and serve no useful purpose. But to be consistent, skeptics should not use these tactics, either.

So where do we stand? The skeptics remain certain that Edward is a fake, although they have not yet provided an adequate explanation of how he pulls off his trickery, and many of their more dramatic claims - reports of TV shows that unmasked Edward as a fraud, for instance - turn out to be without foundation. Even so, fakery can't be ruled out. It's possible that the cross-indexing method described above, perhaps combined with other methods, can explain the readings on Crossing Over. This still wouldn't explain the results of the University of Arizona experiments - results that mentalists like Mark Edward have so far been unable to match - but until those results have been replicated at other labs, they can't be considered conclusive.

As I see it, the truth remains up in the air. Those who insist that Edward is defrauding his audience and laughing all the way to the bank have no hard evidence and are making an unproven assumption, often backed up with nothing more than bluster. Those who insist with equal fervor that Edward is for real and could not possibly be guilty of trickery are leading with their hearts rather than their heads, substituting a will to believe for objective proof.

The reality is that we just don't know. I remain willing to give Edward the benefit of the doubt, but it's understandable if others are not.

In my first essay, I ended by saying that "something genuinely spooky is going on." I continue to think that this is likely - that there are genuine paranormal abilities on display on Crossing Over. But I chose the evasive phrase "something genuinely spooky" advisedly, because I was not ready to commit myself to the proposition that Edward is actually communicating with the dead. And I'm still not.

The fact is, even if Edward is using psychic abilities, he may not have any contact with "spirits" at all. He may be using some form of ESP (perhaps without consciously realizing it) to read information from the minds of audience members, which he then repeats back to them. ESP would not account for all the "hits" he gets, but it would account for a good many of them. Quite a few parapsychologists have speculated about "super-ESP," a faculty that would allow the psychic to pull information not only from people in the room with him but from other people miles away, or even from printed sources of information, such as birth records and family albums. The super-ESP hypothesis is far-fetched and difficult to test, but it may not be any more far-fetched than the idea of talking to the dead.

The bottom line is that even if we accept Edward as a genuine psychic, we need not accept the metaphysics that he offers as an explanation for his abilities.

There remain more questions than answers. I'm reasonably content with this state of affairs - after all, nobody ever promised that all of life's mysteries would be solved. But as I look at various Web sites and message boards, I get the impression that many people just can't tolerate uncertainty or ambiguity in this area. For them, there must be a final, definitive, black-and-white answer, either pro or con. Leaving the matter in suspense is unacceptable. And so, depending on their predilections and temperament, they leap either to a hard-core skeptical position or to an equally hard-core true-believer position. In this sense, the militant skeptics and the zealous believers are not so far apart. Each side insists that it has the incontrovertible truth, and that anyone who disagrees is a fool fit only to be pitied and ridiculed. Hence the harsh rhetoric, the name-calling, the bitter sarcasm, and the ongoing, often pointless debate.

In the end, I suspect that the truth will turn out to be more complicated and more interesting than either side expects.

Time will tell.

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