Paranormal Pseudoscience Religion Skepticism/critical thinking

Sean Hannity: Skeptic about “psychic medium” John Edward (not)


Last night, I was sitting on the couch, my laptop, appropriately enough, on my lap creating my paean to Homeopathy Awareness Week in which I had a little fun discussing homeopathic plutonium. Because Homeopathy Awareness week is not yet over, I’ll probably have one more bit of fun at the expense of The One Woo To Rule Them All before it’s over. However, while I was getting into the possibilities suggested to me by diluting and succussing plutonium in order to treat all sorts of “Pluto-y” illnesses, I happened to flip through the channels, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a commercial for last night’s Hannity that actually caught my eye.

Sean Hannity was going to interview that psychic fraud, John Edward. Yes, that John Edward, the guy who has taken cold reading to new levels of popularity by claiming he can speak with the dead. I was intrigued.

Now, dear readers, many are the depredations of pseudoscience, quackery, and paranormal bullshit that I have endured for you, all in order to bring you nearly each and every day (some weekends excepted) only the finest in Insolence, both Respectful and not-so-Respectful. I’ve watched Jenny McCarthy. I’ve delved into the anti-vaccine lunacy that is Generation Rescue and Age of Autism and the quackery promotion that is Mike Adams’ I’ve read Vox Day. I’ve even delved into the deepest depths of mighty white power ranger racist sites to the point where I felt like I needed a shower–nay, a hosing down with a firehose–afterward. That’s why I momentarily thought about actually–shudder–watching Hannity, all the better to report to do a blog post about it last night and serve up the skepticism hot and fresh. I thought better of it, though. The reason is that there are some things that I won’t do even for my readers, and suffering through Sean Hannity’s smug, self-righteous, Limbaugh wannabe schtick is not one of them. I’ll listen to Rush occasionally if there’s a reason to do so. Believe it or not, Rush is sometimes entertaining, his idiocy on many matters notwithstanding. Hannity, however, is Limbaugh, only without any of the wit or talent.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t read the transcript of John Edward’s appearance and have a little fun with it, both for my amusement and (hopefully) yours.

Before I start, let me just preface my post by saying that I really despise self-proclaimed “psychics” like John Edward or Sylvia Browne. They are dishonest ghouls who prey upon credulous people who have experienced a tragedy. No amount of opprobrium is too much to heap upon such crooks. That being said, you can tell immediately that Sean Hannity is clueless (what else is new?) by how he introduces the piece:

Psychic medium John Edward is well known for his ability to connect the dead with the loved ones they have left behind, and while sometimes the connection could be upsetting, it’s not always the case.

Sean, Sean, Sean. Let me fix that statement for you: “Con man John Edward is well known for his ability to use cold reading to convince the credulous that he can speak with the dead.”

There, that’s much better.

Not surprisingly, Sean thinks himself a “skeptic”:

HANNITY: All right. I’m a bit of a skeptic. But you’re saying in articles and stuff you don’t answer skeptics that much. You’re not trying to convince people to buy into what you’re doing.

EDWARD: Right.

HANNITY: Why? Why don’t you feel a need to defend what is a controversial practice?

EDWARD: That’s the reason, right there. Because as soon as — as soon as you have to defend something, then you’re admitting that something needs defense. So I kind of, like — I come from a place of I’m a spiritual person. I believe in God. I would never defend my belief in God. People either do believe or they don’t believe, and that’s OK. That’s their choice.

So I feel the same way about this. As soon as I go to a place I have to defend it, I feel like you immediately lose. I have no problem explaining it, though, or trying to teach about it.

Like wow, man. I’m so…like…awed by the profundity. I mean, really. Think about it. As soon as you have to defend something, like, maaaaan, it means it’s something that needs defending. Whoa (channeling Keanu Reeves in The Matrix). Of course, this is a lovely (and remarkably lazy) excuse for not defending his claim that he can communicate with the dead. Indeed, the reason John Edward feels that he “immediately loses” when he has to defend himself is because, well, what he does is indefensible and vile. He really does lose each and every any time he’s forced to defend his woo, mainly because he comes across as the slick con man that he is. However, even assuming that what Edward does were not indefensible and vile, if he can really do what he says he can do, why not defend it? Why not prove it? Fame and riches could be his. Oh, wait. Fame and riches are already his. Trying to prove his ability scientifically can only hurt him. Refusing to “defend” himself keeps the gravy train rolling.

Now, let’s see what our resident “skeptic” Sean Hannity has to say:

HANNITY: That’s fine. I’ve read a lot about you, and I think — and I’ve watched you a number of times. I really don’t have an opinion one way or the other about what you do. I really don’t. And I’ve watched and observed.

But I have seen people in your industry, just like in, you know, religious evangelicals. And I’m a Christian. I was born and raised a Catholic. I’m a Christian. But I think there are people that are frauds that are ministers.

Do you see people in your industry that you think are frauds and hucksters and phonies and harmful?

It was very, very hard to restrain myself from laughing out loud uproariously at this. Frauds and hucksters among psychic mediums? Being a fraud and a huckster is the sine qua non of being a “psychic medium.” Well, maybe not in every case; a lot of psychics honestly believe they have the ability to speak to the dead or read minds, or whatever. Indeed, many such hapless souls who agree to be tested under controlled conditions in, for example, James Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge, are honestly chagrined when they fail the test. They really thought they had something, a talent that no one else (or only very few) had, but the cold light of science and reality show them that they don’t. Almost inevitably, though, the self-delusion of such people is so great that they usually find excuses to justify why they failed, most often involving something lame like not being able to function under the conditions they had agreed to beforehand.

I also really like Hannity’s insistence that he has “no opinion one way or the other” about what Edward and other “psychic mediums” do. Really? That would explain a lot about how day after day Hannity can dish out right wing talking points so idiotic that they make any intelligent conservative cringe in embarrassment. Of course, it’s also fairly amusing in that Hannity virtually always has an opinion about pretty much everything he ever talks about. Why no opinion here? Maybe it’s because he’s promoting Edward’s latest endeavor. Whatever the reason, John Edward’s reply is a tour de force of, well, pure bullshit. (There’s just no other word for it.) Showing that he has absolutely no sense of irony (or perhaps such a finely developed sense of irony that he puts us all to shame), John Edward has a reply that almost made my head explode when I read it:

EDWARD: I absolutely think that there are individuals. I mean, I think there are people who actually seek an opportunity, and they can do that. And that’s one of the reasons why it’s important for people to empower themselves with information, so that they know what’s real, what’s not real. Like, I don’t believe, personally, that all these gifted psychics would be sitting at home waiting for you to call them on a 900 line. I don’t see that.

HANNITY: That’s what I mean. That’s fair.

Ah, skepticism! (Kind of like “Ah, Venice!” but without Harrison Ford and the sex.) That’s right, folks. Edward is telling you to arm yourself with information and watch out for those nasty fake psychics. Be “empowered,” just like Jenny McCarthy “empowers” parents and Hulda Clark “empowers” cancer patients. Personally, my retort would be that I don’t believe personally that a truly gifted psychic (if such a person existed) would be scamming the credulous on TV and on the Internet, as John Edward does. But that’s just me.

Hannity does try to demonstrate some actual skepticism later in the interview. The problem is, he’s doing it wrong:

HANNITY: It’s a great book. And it talks about — and I, when I read this book about how he had literally been, you know, declared dead, went to heaven, describes the scene in the book, and it’s very believable to me.

Hypnosis I believe is real. The only problem I guess I have is that, you know, if God or somebody who passed on in my life wanted to talk to me, why wouldn’t they come directly to me? Why would I need you?

Shockingly, despite all the mystical nonsense about a near-death experience and description of heaven that preceded it, that’s actually not that bad a question. If he exists and wanted to pass on a message to me (or anyone else), why would God need a huckster like Edward as a messenger? If there really was life after death, and the deceased wanted to get a message to the living, why would they need someone like Edward? Naturally, Edward has a response:

EDWARD: I think they do. That’s a great question. I think they do. And one of my — one of my things, you know, when I was a kid, and I started doing this 25 years ago, my grandmother would hear me say to my clients, you know, “You don’t need me. If you pay attention to the energy that’s around you, you’ll be able to recognize the signs and symbols of how your family communicates with you.”

And then these people leave, and my grandmother would go, “What are you telling people stuff like that for? You’re not going to have any business.”

And I’m like, “Listen, it’s not about business. It’s about teaching.” And I said, “And if I can, you know, raise somebody’s awareness to recognize that they’re family’s OK.”

Such a generous human being that John Edward. A regular humanitarian, that guy. Everyone can speak with God or the dead. They just don’t know how, and Edward, benevolent and caring soul that he is, just wants to teach them. Still, Hannity tries on his skeptic shoes one more time. He does it poorly, but at least he tries. Sort of. He asks Edward if he uses cold reading or microphones:

HANNITY: Do you actually hear voices? Because as — look, I’ve read all your critics. I read the New York Times magazine. I read the whole dateline thing. TIME accusing you of using these very — you know, cold read, where you can read people.

I’ve been able to read people my entire life, because I’ve interviewed people now for 20-some-odd years. So you can read people that way.

Or Houdini used to have microphones, and he’d pick up stories, and then he’d seem like a genius: “I know exactly what you’re thinking.” But meanwhile, they’d picked that up earlier. So there are techniques that hucksters and fraud people use. You’re saying you never use that?

EDWARD: Never. No, actually…

HANNITY: Never? Do you use open-ended questions?


HANNITY: Never? I’ve watched your show. You seem to ask, like…

EDWARD: I’ll ask questions to help people validate the information, so that if I’m getting information, I want to know that I’m actually saying that.

But one of the things that I — I call that lazy mediumship, actually. And when I say “lazy mediumship,” it’s like I can say to you, “Is your dad passed?” And you can say yes or no.

Or I can say, “Your dad has passed, yes?” I’m basically giving you the same information and I’m asking you to validate, because I don’t know…

Of course, open-ended questions are not really a necessary part of cold reading. At least, they don’t have to be. Cold reading tends to involve asking questions for which the expected answer would be common, often throwing out so many questions and options, the answer to the vast majority of which is “no.” However, when the cold reader asks enough questions, sooner or later he gets a “hit” that allows him to hone in more on what he wants to learn. This is known in the psychic scammer biz as “fishing for details.” Bob Carroll elaborates:

Fishing is a real art and a good mentalist carries a variety of bait in his memory. For example, professional mentalist and author of one of the best books on cold reading, Ian Rowland (2002), says that he has committed to memory such things as the most common male and female names and a list of items likely to be lying about the house such as an old calendar, a photo album, newspaper clippings, and so on. Rowland also works on certain themes that are likely to resonate with most people who consult psychics: love, money, career, health, and travel.

Also, human nature being what it is the mark and audience generally remember the few hits and forget the many, many misses. Clearly (and not surprisingly), Hannity is easily snookered because he simply doesn’t understand what cold reading is. It also doesn’t help that Edward lies like a rug, as demonstrated here when he denies editing his show in order to eliminate most of the “misses” of cold reading:

HANNITY: Let me ask you this. Did you — in your show do you edit out parts that doesn’t make you look good, as TIME magazine?

EDWARD: You can literally — you can speak to every…

HANNITY: You read the piece that said that you do?

EDWARD: Absolutely.

HANNITY: You don’t do that?

EDWARD: They edit it for time. People edit for time. But if they took out things that were inaccurate, they took out things that were more accurate, I tell them all the time, if you see this work done live, it’s better than what you would see on TV.

Actually, maybe Edward is not actually lying. Notice how he never actually denied editing out parts that make him look bad. He never actually said, “No, I don’t do that.” Instead, he moved on to editing for time. Very clever. Well, not really, but it was enough for Hannity, who concluded with this gem:

And I hope you use it for good. And not like some of these hucksters. These people in New York are nuts, you know, that supposedly do this for a living.

Because, you know, to Sean Hannity all those other psychics other than John Edward are hucksters. There really are “real” psychics, and John Edward is one of them. Not only that, but John Edward is using his talent for good. Good for John Edward, that is, particularly his bank statement and investment portfolio. Also good for promoting his unbelievably woo-filled new website, Infinite Quest, which requires a membership (both free and paid, of course). It’s all there: Astrology, Tarot, numerology, reincarnation, alternative medicine. And I’m sure it will make John Edward lots of money.

No wonder Hannity was able to parrot so dutifully Bush Administration talking points all those years.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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