The Radford Files
Convincing Yourself—and Others—You Talk to the Dead [extended web version]
On Jan. 31, 2008, I woke up bleary-eyed. My beauty sleep had already been interrupted several hours earlier by my aborted appearance on a live radio morning show in Kingston, Jamaica, which had been scheduled at the unfortunate hour of 4:30 a.m. Albuquerque time. I won’t go into the details, but the point is I was kind of fuzzy-headed when my radio alarm woke me up at 7:30 that Thursday morning and I heard 94 Rock’s TJ Trout talking about how he would soon be having a guest in the studio who could talk to the dead.
I have studied psychics and the techniques they use for many years, and so I kept listening. After a while a man named Robert Baca came on, and at first I thought I had misunderstood, because Baca sounded less like a psychic medium than an impressionist: He was doing a dead-on impersonation of “psychic” John Edward that would put Rich Little to shame. (Edward used to have a TV show in which he claimed to talk to the dead called "Crossing Over with John Edward," and on Baca’s website he credits Edward and "Larry King Live" regular/psychic/convicted felon Sylvia Browne as inspirations.)
Baca did a dozen or so readings for the 94 Rock crew and their callers. He claimed to contact the dead and offered what sometimes seemed to be “amazingly accurate” information from beyond the grave. I listened carefully to see if (other than his uncanny mimicry of John Edward), Baca was bringing anything new to the table. Unfortunately (and despite apparently impressing some subjects), it was the same old schtick: He did not demonstrate anything that would come close to being real evidence that he can talk to departed spirits.
Here’s a sample of Baca’s reading, for a caller named Jennifer:
Baca: "I'm getting two females … Do you understand, please?"
Jennifer: (clearly hesitating) "Umm …"
Baca: (impatiently) "Yes or no?"
Jennifer: "I … I don't know … "
Baca: "OK … she's saying something about a name ... you share a name with her, a middle or first name. Do you understand this?"
Baca: "That's fine … she's saying she was at the funeral, do you understand this, please?"
Jennifer: "Um, yeah …"
Baca: "I'm also sensing a male energy, someone you know … he needs to get his head out of his ass, do you understand?"
Jennifer: "Um, maybe."
Baca: "I'll take that as a confirmation … " (Of course he will! He's bombing and will take a maybe as a yes!)
"Also, I'm sensing something in April, a decision or event that will turn out in your favor. Do you understand?"
Jennifer: "OK …"
Note that Baca asks, "Do you understand?" after nearly all his comments (as does John Edward). Often the person he is reading for will say yes. While he (and perhaps many of his listeners) interpret that to mean, "Yes, I'm confirming what you're saying is true" (i.e. verifying his accuracy), it's more likely that an affirmative answer simply means, "Yes, I understood what you just said" (i.e. they understand—but don't necessarily confirm—his statement). This happened in the conversation with Jennifer, above. There's no way she could "confirm" that a decision would turn out in her favor two months from now. These are very different interpretations, and Baca blurs the line between the two, much to his advantage.
My favorite example was when I saw a “psychic” tell an obese Black woman her spirit guide was warning her about getting diabetes.
How They Do It
Psychic mediums have been scientifically tested, and when they turn out to be right it is often because they either guessed correctly, gave vague information open to later interpretation (“retrofitting”), used information already available through normal means or made so many different guesses that some had to be right. In fact, their successes can be far better explained using psychology than psychic powers. Here are some of the most common techniques:
1) Cold reading: Basically, making good guesses or logical conclusions that seem to be specific. My favorite example was when I saw a “psychic” tell an obese Black woman her spirit guide was warning her about getting diabetes.
2) Retrofitting: This is the most important psychological tool in convincing people that psychics are real. It is very powerful for both the psychic and the subject, and often neither is aware of it. It is important to understand that just because a subject can “make it fit” (i.e. make some connection between a dead person and what the psychic said about him or her), it does not mean the information is correct. For example, if Baca tells a subject, “I’m seeing your grandmother, she’s holding her hands by her ches t… Do you understand this?” the subject can probably think of dozens or even hundreds of reasons why that might be “correct”: Maybe she prayed a lot; maybe she had arthritis and often warmed her hands by a fire; maybe she died of throat (or lung) cancer and is signaling that by motioning to her throat (or lung); maybe she worked as a manicurist and is signaling that. The only limit is the subject’s imagination. If just one of these many interpretations or memories “matches,” the subject may be convinced the psychic has made some sort of contact and gave accurate information, when in fact all the work was done by the psychic's and subject’s imagination and creativity.
3) “Shotgun effect”: If you make enough guesses, you will be right eventually. Baca was clearly a careful study and picked up many of the techniques Edward uses to make it appear that he’s communicating with departed spirits--especially Edward’s near-auctioneer rapid-fire delivery, in which he will throw out a dozen or more statements in the space of 30 seconds, hoping at least some of them are right. While the subject is searching his or her mind trying to make sense of what he said, there will be many more guesses and statements coming. The medium (and often the audience and subject) will ignore all the mistakes and focus on the statements he gets a positive response on. Nobody (except skeptics) go back and say, “Hey, what about the other 90 percent of things you got wrong?”
4) Delayed confirmation: This is common among mediums when their information is wrong or not understood. If Baca says something the subject cannot confirm, he does not admit he is wrong but instead insists he is correct: “You will understand it later.” Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but on the air or at the moment it’s an easy way to make failure look like success. That way the psychic is never wrong! Neat trick, huh? Usually, given enough time and thought, most people can make some connection (using the subconscious retrofitting described above).
Most psychic mediums use these techniques, often without knowing it. Of course, you don’t need to understand (or be able to identify) these psychological processes to use them effectively, just as you don’t need to know what a verb is to write a sentence.
Many psychics also have strong, charismatic and self-assured personalities. They believe (and can make their subjects believe) they can communicate with spirits, and of course the subject often has good reason to give psychics the benefit of the doubt, since they want to believe they are in touch with a loved one--and are paying for the psychic’s services.
Can Baca speak to the dead? It’s possible, though I didn’t hear anything during his appearance on the 94 Rock Morning Show that can’t be explained by ordinary means. His techniques have been around for decades and are familiar to most people with a good background in psychology (which happens to be my undergrad degree).
In fact, if you listen carefully to Baca’s readings, there is good evidence that he is not getting information from the Afterlife. He--like all psychic mediums examined so far-- is not producing any information the subject does not already know: Every single "accurate" statement Baca made (such as that a "father figure" to the subject died suddenly) is already known by at least one of the two people involved; there is no new information in the conversation, no evidence that a third party spirit is telling the psychic medium anything. This is the best the dead can do? Why would the spirit, contacting a loved one for the first time, basically tell the subject (through the psychic), "As you know, you have my ring," or "As you know, I died suddenly of a problem in my chest area."
Real evidence of communication with the dead would be verifiable information only the dead person would know and that neither the medium nor the subject knows. For example, if the medium gave an accurate answer for a subject who asks the spirit, "Grandma, we're looking for your will, where is it?" or, “Spirit of Steve Fossett, please tell us where your plane crashed.” Think about it.
It's even possible the mediums are indeed psychic, and they are not communicating with the dead but instead somehow reading their subject's minds. Though there's no real scientific evidence for this; if this theory is true it might explain why the psychic could pick out information the subject already knows, but not unique information that the dead person knew.
While, of course, there are some frauds, most psychic mediums are caring, compassionate people who genuinely believe they are helping others with their gifts. They sincerely believe they have the power to communicate with the dead and are simply unaware of the psychological principles that make them appear to be accurate in their information. Even though personal experience is a deeply flawed guide to the truth, that’s enough for most psychics and mediums--“I just know what I can do, and that’s it!” They are usually not interested in being scientifically tested, though they should--not because they have anything to prove to skeptics, but because they should test themselves to make sure they can do what they think they can. They should seek out objective, scientific testing to make sure they are not mistaking ordinary psychological processes for speaking to the dead.
Objective tests are how we determine abilities in nearly all other professions. Nearly every job--doctors, lawyers, plumbers, mechanics, accountants, editors, engineers, etc.--can’t just claim to be able to do their job, they must take and pass objective, standardized tests to see if they really know as much as they claim to know, really can do what they claim to do. There is no such standardized testing for psychics or psychic mediums, but they can be (and have been) tested under controlled, objective, scientific conditions.
Given Baca’s hectic media appearance schedule, he’s probably too busy to verify his powers.
Benjamin Radford is a scientific paranormal investigator and author of several books and hundreds of articles on critical thinking and science literacy. His Web site is www.RadfordBooks.com.