Category: Skepticism

Following on from my previous two breakdowns of the methods of mediums and the benefits of editing my next few posts will be dedicated to watching this Buzzfeed video with Hollywood Medium Tyler Henry and breaking down what I think is going on. In the video, Tyler Henry appears alongside the Try Guys four comedians/video creators working for Buzzfeed called: Zach Kornfeld, Eugene Lee Yang, Ned Fulmer, and Keith Habersberger.

Settle in, get comfortable and fire up your skeptical goggles. Here we go.

Early Skepticism

Near the start of the video two of the Try Guys offer some great skeptical points:

The goofy (and lovable) Try Guy Keith cautions: “There’s been hundreds and hundreds of years of people claiming they can talk to the dead [but] there is no one actual physical piece of proof.” I agree. This video doesn’t change that.

Meanwhile, Ned (the Try Guy with a wife) says: “Do you guys know what confirmation bias is? Like, if I go in thinking this guy can talk to dead people, the one thing that is like a little bit close, I’ll be like, yes! Yes, Tyler!” Sadly, his level of skepticism towards confirmation bias did not survive his encounter with Tyler.

Eugene, (the Try Guy all the girls love) introduces Tyler by saying:

“He’s not even just a regular medium, like, celebrities go to him. Which means, I guess, he’s better?” Nope, not really. As Ian Rowland author of The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading writes: “The ability to earn a living as an actor or TV presenter does not make one especially well-qualified to assess psychic ability.” Having celebrity clients just means the medium has a better agent or marketing team.

Even if a psychic were to read only Nobel prize winning scientists… this would not mean they are (necessarily) better because as Rowland cautions: “Expertise in one field does not automatically transfer to another.” Being able to detect new particles or cure cancer does not alone make a person better at spotting fraudulent mediums.

Tyler actively seeks out celebrities to read which further helps boost his profile while most ordinary members of the public end up on long waiting lists. On his Twitter, he claims that he reads only two to three fans a day when he’s not filming.

Tyler claims that he never knows who he is reading or where he’s going. I can’t dispute the veracity of that statement but I will say that celebrities make perfect targets for mediums because their lives can be researched in painstaking detail (this is an example of hot reading).

Scribbles

Tyler spends some time scribbling on a piece of paper throughout the readings – he claims it helps him “tune out” but it also gives him an excuse to take his time to craft a better cold reading.

He also says: “Oftentimes, if you’ve seen the show, you know that I work with an object. An object can help make a more direct connection to a loved one, but anybody can come through from an object.”

An object can also provide a rich treasure trove of information to a dishonest medium. For example, on his show, Tyler reads Matt Lauer who brings a pocket knife with him. This provides Tyler with several clues. As Joan Moore points out on nickiswift.com “an old pocket knife is probably going to belong to someone older who has passed.” It’s also more likely that it will have belonged to a male figure.

Does anyone in your family have a torso?

With introductions out of the way, the actual reading finally begins. First up to be read is Eugene. After a moment of contemplation Tyler explains that the spirits are having him bring up “this feeling of like, a filtration system, liver, kidney, pancreas, that area” I don’t think he could have gotten vaguer. Bringing up problems in the torso is like throwing a dart at a dartboard with a diameter of 100 feet from two yards away – you’re all but guaranteed a hit.

“That area” could apply to literally any area on a person’s torso. Even if Tyler had specifically mentioned just one organ I’d need serious convincing that he wasn’t just making a good chance guess as (I would argue) he is doing here.

Almost everyone will know at least one person who has at some point had an issue with an organ or biological filtration system at some point. This is hardly a very specific sign from the spirits. Maybe the spirits are just old but I’d expect better from them.

In response to Tyler’s totally ultra-specific comment, Eugene jokes that he drinks a lot and this seems to satisfy Tyler. If this counts as a hit then I really don’t want to imagine what a miss would constitute.

And on that note, I’ll leave you for now. Part two will be out soon.

Debunking Pop culture Psychics Reviews Skepticism TV Tyler Henry

TL:DR:  A Redditor on a Trump supporting subreddit tries to prove that Obama and the Globalists (great band name by the way) wanted to use net neutrality to censor conservatives. The only problem is the Redditor forgot to fact-check.

Introduction

The Trump hype camp that is the /r/The_Donald subreddit is hardly a bastion of intellectual prowess though they sometimes pretend to be. Getting banned or having a comment removed from the subreddit is laughably easy – I know from experience.

It is rare for a post on /r/The_Donald to seriously make me reconsider my position on… well anything really so imagine my surprise when I came across a post that after a first read left me thinking “ok maybe there is a nugget of truth here?”

This is the post in question and with a title like “[DISTURBING REDPILL] The Day Obama Nationalized the Internet… and you didn’t even notice” you’d expect it to be filled with angry fear-mongering, conspiracy theories and several barely disguised anti-semitic dog whistles… and it is. But if you leave that aside for a moment the overall story that emerges seems at least a little compelling. Therefore, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that the post is also so full of bullshit and misinformation that my original draft of this post came to over 6000 words.

In this post, I will be debunking some of the key aspects of the post that serve as its foundations, however, I’ll also add a link to a far more thorough (though still not exhaustive) debunking I did too.

Because I don’t want to use the guys Reddit name in this post I’ll refer to him as ‘Vladimir.’ Not because I actually think he’s Russian or Russian sponsored but because it was in my draft.

Vladimirs Argument Summarised

I’ve tried to summarise the argument the post makes as fairly as possible. Here it is:

  1. Obama and the FCC fought for net neutrality so that the FCC could revoke ISPs broadcasting licenses if the ISPs didn’t remove Conservative content.
  2. The globalists used the ‘Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016’ and ‘National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017’ to create legislation allowing the president to classify anything he wanted as propaganda and then censor this content (which would have impacted the right/anti-globalists the most).
  3. The Global Engagement Center was a ploy to gain absolute power over the internet and help the globalists to promote propaganda and lies to the American people while crushing the right.
  4. Trump and the current FCC helped save America from the evil globalists.

The FCC Can’t Revoke a License That Doesn’t Exist

One of the key arguments Vladimir makes is that the FCC can be forced to revoke an ISPs broadcasting license at the whims of the president. As he says:

Net Neutrality invokes Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to require all ISPs and any company that provides internet service to register for Broadcasting Licenses from the government and regularly renew them.

What’s interesting is that in the Reddit post Vladimir quotes the above text as if it’s taken from somewhere other than his imagination. The FCC has never issued broadcast licenses to ISPs. Why? Well because they’re not broadcasting over airwaves. Don’t believe me? I didn’t at first so I went online and checked and then just to be certain I called and wrote to the FCC. They politely informed me that: “an individual broadcaster license is not required to operate as an ISP.”

An ISP cannot be censored by having its license revoked for the simple reason that it doesn’t have a license to be revoked. If the FCC didn’t renew an ISPs broadcast license they would be breaking the very fabric of reality in which case we would have far greater problems. So consider that point thoroughly debunked.

Senator Rob Portman – An Inconvenient Truth

Vladimir makes several pointed references to the spookily named ‘Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016‘ he makes it sound like some sort of liberal plot to kickstart the process of silencing conservative voices. His argument relies on the fact that the bill will be effective at silencing conservatives because with (and only with) net neutrality the FCC can revoke ISPs licenses. As we’ve established that argument is meritless.

There’s another flaw with Vladimirs argument and it’s big enough to drive a Trump train through.  You see Vladimir quotes parts of the bills “mission statement” without linking to the statement. The statement is not part of the bill in fact it’s from the website of the bills main sponsor. Why doesn’t Vladimir link to the website? Perhaps because it might upset the narrative. You see the main sponsor of the bill is a Mr Rob Portman a senator from Ohio. Why is this a problem?” I hear you ask: well it’s because Rob Portman is both a Republican and an opponent of net neutrality.

Portman has accepted $421,058 in funding from the telecommunications industry and in a 2015 letter (before net neutrality was enacted) he wrote to a constituent saying:

A free and open internet has flourished for decades with limited government intervention, creating an environment for technological innovation that has impacted lives for the better in countless ways. I am committed to ensuring that the internet remains free.

Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s one of the standard Conservative talking points. Awkward right?

Need I mention that Portman was a huge proponent of Trump’s tax bill? Or that he “has a 100% rating from National Right to Life and has voted 77-0 in favor of the pro-life position on National Right to Life Committee key votes” or that he has voted in line with Trump’s position 92.7% of the time – the same as Ted Cruz. Portman – though a moderate when it comes to marriage equality also opposes Obamacare and has voted against extending unemployment benefits.

Portman is clearly a conservative so why would he write a bill that threatens him and the people he supports? Also even if we pretend for a moment that he does want to censor conservatives why was he such a firm opponent of net neutrality? He could easily have supported it without too much political damage – after all, even 73% of Republican voters favour net neutrality and conservative organisations such as the ‘Christian Coalition of America’ have supported net neutrality vigorously since at least 2006. Anyone with a brain has to admit that Portman is clearly no Democrat/Globalist in disguise.

So, to sum up: the main sponsor of the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 is a pro-Trump Republican who is against net neutrality and dislikes government regulation. Even Vladimir must admit that this significantly weakens his argument. Perhaps fatally so when we remember the FCC doesn’t actually grant ISPs broadcasting licenses.

 The GLOBAL Engagement Center

Finally, we approach the one topic where I express some agreement with Vladimir even though his argument is still dumb. Vladimir notes that the original bill ‘Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016′ went nowhere but then Obama snuck it into the ‘National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017‘ and Vladimir is sort of right – though I should note that this bill went through a Republican-controlled Congress. And hey, I agree it is wrong to bundle several things into one bill. Can we get that message to the GOP too? However, in the case of the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016, I can sort of see how it’s relevant to US interests. The bill basically sets up the Global Engagement Center (GEC).

According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, the Global Engagement Center is the most recent of several similar initiatives such as The Counterterrorism Communication Center (2006), The Global Strategic Engagement Center (2008) and Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (2011). To quote the report initially the Global Engagement Center was:

Similar to the structure and purpose of the CSCC [Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication], the GEC was tasked with leading interagency efforts to carry out U.S.-government-sponsored counterterrorism communications to foreign publics, […] The GEC was designed to lead a whole-of-government approach to countering terrorist messaging, violent extremism, and ideological support to terrorism; better integrating advanced technologies and analysis into U.S. government counterterrorism communications efforts; and leveraging private sector and local foreign communicators, all aided by greater budgetary authority than had been afforded its predecessors.

A quick note: a “whole-of-government” approach does not mean an approach that the whole of the government engages in rather it means that different areas of the government can work together more efficiently.

Basically, the Center was initially envisioned to battle ISIS propaganda which I’m sure we can all agree is a good idea – at least in principle. Vladimir is shocked that the bill also has provisions to “train local journalists” and yeah that’s not ideal if we’re talking US-based journalists but the GEC has helped set up a radio station in East Africa which airs:

youth-produced programming that pushes back against the rising volume of violent extremist propaganda in the region. In particular, the content is aimed at local youth living in neighborhoods where violent extremists are known to recruit.

Later, after the alleged Russian interference in the US election and proven propaganda attempts (through the Internet Research Agency) and the growing Chinese threat, the final bill did broaden the remit of the GEC to analyse (not censor) the propaganda from foreign state and non-state entities. The bill also gives the GEC powers to offer a “fact-based” counter-message (not censorship) however it is made clear in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 that:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to carry out  this section shall be used for purposes other than countering foreign propaganda and misinformation that threatens United States national security.” Pg. 1404 (or 1446 on the PDF)

The word foreign is used 11 times in the bill in fact, “foreign” is the 6th most used word in the whole section and makes up 2% of the words coming after only: Center, united, states, secretary and shall. The center is not designed to look at American “non-state” entities or publish propaganda there.

Having made that clear I do want to say one thing: the US government has never said they won’t/aren’t using the GEC to target the American public and that is reprehensible. The US government should not be trying to propagandise its own people and any attempts to do this must be condemned – the government has already abused its powers enough and we must restrict its power to spy on us.

Conclusion

Although Vladimir’s post is a good exercise in speculative fiction it fails to stick close enough to reality to be deemed noteworthy. It is a decent attempt at promulgating obfuscation but ultimately it is too flawed to succeed in red pilling anyone.

The way language is deployed throughout the post is nothing short of masterful – the author has the misdirection of a master illusionist. If you don’t give the post your full attention and read it with a critical eye you’ll miss crucial details that are quietly glossed over.

Vladimir attempts to increase the legitimacy of the post by adding links to copious sources to confer some of the validity of a well-sourced news article or scientific paper to his writing, (no need to point out the irony). Although linking to sources is admirable it doesn’t increase the validity of an argument if your argument doesn’t stay based in reality.  The links Vladimir chooses to include are far less telling than the ones he chooses to leave out.

In my view, Vladimir’s post is a red herring designed to stoke fear and confirm biases – when we’re scared we find it difficult to think clearly so I don’t blame people for upvoting it. Debunking the whole post has taken me the better part of three days and the lesson I’ve learnt is clear: don’t believe everything you read online, there be dragons lurking everywhere.


For a less readable but more extensive debunking of Vladimirs case you can go here: http://theseventhdegree.com/red-pill-or-red-herring-the-full-debunk/

Debunking News & Media Politicis Skepticism

If you’re reading this you probably ended up here by mistake. This is the extended edition of this much shorter post and unlike the extended edition of the Lord of the Rings, this post isn’t better than the other one just three times as long. It’s still not a complete debunking of the r/the_donald post because I didn’t have the time or energy to cover everything but it is pretty thorough.

I’ll say something here that I don’t say anywhere else: I honestly still don’t know if the author of the post was trying to mislead people but he certainly ended up doing so.

Debunking Politicis Skepticism

I was skeptical before I ever knew there was such a thing as skepticism. I haven’t always been right – far from it in fact –  but I have always tried to look for truth wherever that took me.

My earliest memory is my first experiment. I can’t have been older than three and my parents had warned me not to ring the front doorbell because it annoyed my poor dog. Not satisfied with this statement I decided to drag a garden chair to our front door. The journey was only two or three metres but at the time it felt nearer two miles. I then bravely stood on the chair and rang the doorbell erupting into laughter when my dog let out a howl of dissatisfaction at the sound. I had successfully tested my hypothesis. I’m sure I later successfully replicated the experiment but I have no memory of this.

Not my childhood dog (RIP) but still very cute.

From the ages of about five to nine, whenever I asked my parents if I could add pepper to my meal I was told: “no you can’t have it, it’s not good for you.” When pressed they explained that it’s because the peppercorns stay in your stomach for seven years.

Where’s the pepper meant to stay?

Now I don’t know about you but as a child seven years sounds like an eternity. I’m not sure I even grasped how long that was but I thought the claim was fishy. How would the pepper stay inside me? How would my body even know what was pepper and what wasn’t? Wouldn’t the build-up of pepper block everything else at some point? My parents couldn’t answer all the questions I had and perhaps I didn’t even ask all of them out loud.

When I finally Googled the peppercorn claim in my early teens it turned out to be false just as I had predicted. Pepper does not stay in your intestine for seven years. In fact, black pepper may even aid digestion.  I also learned that the body does, in fact, retain some substances such as heavy metals and that our digestive system is actually pretty ‘clever’ – clever enough to tell different substances from each other.  Of course, to be scientifically accurate it’s not the digestive itself per se but the enzymes and cell membranes and all that but let’s not get bogged down with those details right now. Let’s look at what I learned.

Through finding out the truth about pepper I learned that trusting those with authority blindly isn’t always a good idea – especially if they haven’t done their own research.  Asking simple questions like “does this sound plausible?” or “is this even possible?” are vital and can help avoid many later problems.  Equally, through the doorbell experiment with my poor pup,  I learned that sometimes people with more experience are actually right and that I shouldn’t just dismiss their claims without consideration. They’re not just being controlled by Big Dog, (was that subtle enough?).

These early experiences were just some of the events that showed me the use and the beauty of skepticism. Not only did I end up believing something closer to reality I also learnt new information and for me, that’s one of the wonderful things about skepticism –  even if you’re wrong you learn something new.

One of my pictures from QEDcon 2017

With skepticism, you can learn about all manner of topics. Just last month at QEDcon in Manchester I learned how to fold a t-shirt in less than 5 seconds, explored some of my own and others cognitive biases and heard all about the cover-up of the Hillsborough disaster among much else. Skepticism has helped me see where I’m wrong and where I can and should do better. Skepticism is not something to be afraid of. It’s something to be embraced, enjoyed and shared.

Personal Stories Skepticism

I recently caused quite a stir on /r/dankmemes when I tried to argue that Buzzfeed News isn’t as bad as many think. At the time of writing, I’ve earned myself 130 downvotes and one (Reddit) gold. I was called names and made fun of but my favourite moment was when I was accused of being a marketing team paid by Buzzfeed. The reason that was so exciting is because it was my first accusation of being a shill. Hopefully, the readers of this blog will give me a fair hearing while I restate the case for why I think Buzzfeed News isn’t actually awful.

Let’s for a moment leave aside all our biases towards Buzzfeed’s lazy quizzes and top ten lists. That crap hides the fact that BuzzFeed News is actually a pretty good news company. If you leave this post disagreeing with me that’s fine but at least consider my arguments.

You might notice I said Buzzfeed News and not just Buzzfeed. That’s because Buzzfeed News is Buzzfeed’s newsgathering wing and is what I am defending here. I am not trying to defend the website or company as a whole.

Reason One

Most of us expect to get all our news for free and that’s not an environment in which good journalism thrives. The big giants like the Post and the NY Times still manage to do fairly well but everyone else is limping along.

The best journalism doesn’t always attract the most money. That’s where Buzzfeed comes in. It posts quizzes asking “What Pizza Topping Are You” or publishes a list of the “22 Times Ryan Gosling Made Me Horny In 2016” Those articles probably take 20 minutes to make, cost almost nothing and draw clicks. Buzzfeed also sells sponsored articles (known as native advertising) like “Which Donut Are You?” sponsored by Dunkin’ Donuts. All the ad/sponsorship revenue a from those stories can then be spent on more worthwhile reporting. Such as investigative work uncovering the hidden corporate world that helps executives convicted of crimes escape punishment and a look into how psychiatric hospitals are turning patients into profits.

Reason Two

You may be surprised to learn that not only does Buzzfeed News have six Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists on its staff but one Buzzfeed journalist almost won a Pulitzer last year for one of his pieces. Chris Hamby, the journalist who was nominated went through quite a lot to get the story, he:

travelled to three continents, interviewed more than 200 people, and navigated unprecedented legal complexity to uncover a story of vast global import,

Does that sound like the sort of lazy journalism and low effort content you normally associate with Buzzfeed?

Additionally, Buzzfeed also has at least 20 investigative journalists between it’s US and UK offices. From the most recent figures I could find this is comparable to the number the New York Times and Washington Post has. The UK Buzzfeed investigations team has been described as “one of the best-resourced investigative units in British journalism.” They’ve also teamed up with the BBC in the past to do a couple investigations and got some big scoops.

Reason Three

The Buzzfeed politics team in the UK is also great. They don’t always report on the stories that the other outlets are reporting – but that’s strength. For example, Buzzfeed UK’s politics editor Jim Waterson (one of the most interesting people I follow on twitter) recently looked into one of the twitter accounts being used as a source by the mainstream media in its Zimbabwe reporting and found the account to be incredibly dubious.

Not only does Buzzfeed do great investigations and interesting political coverage but they also do some great long-form work. Like one article about the potential dangers of killer robots or another about how a homelessness crisis can drive prisoners to re-offend.

Finally, and to cement my reputation as a Buzzfeed shill I’ve heard that they offer one of the best starting rates to their UK journalists. So there’s that too.

So yes, I get that Buzzfeed is easy to make fun of. They certainly do some wacky stuff over in their video department and on their website but don’t let that stuff blind you to some of the really incredible work they’re doing.


I have to give credit to the great folks over at Skeptics With A K whose episode about native advertising from May gave me the ideas for this post. Thanks for all the great work you do!

News & Media Skepticism

Trusting first impressions isn’t always a good idea.  Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear and mediums who claim to be talking to the dead are probably just lying. In fact, when looking at the scientific evidence it is unlikely that any sort of genuine medium exists.

The psychic industry is worth billions and mediums can be very convincing. Below I’m going to list some common methods mediums use to con people so you can avoid frauds.

Cold Reading

Cold reading is the main technique that your garden variety medium will use. Wikipedia defines it as:

[A] set of techniques used by mentalists, psychics, fortune-tellers, mediums and illusionists (readers) to imply that the reader knows much more about the person than the reader actually does.

Cold reading doesn’t require any prior knowledge of a person and is therefore very useful for mediums. Performer and author Derren Brown describes it as “fascinating, powerful and hugely manipulative.”

This is a topic so large I couldn’t hope to cover it all in one blog post or even ten. One of the best books on the subject is the Full Facts Book of Cold Reading by Ian Rowland. I’ll draw a lot from his book for this post.

Rowland writes that within Cold Reading there are four major themes mediums draw on. These are: love, money, career, and health.  He also offers 38 elements that can go into a cold reading. These include elements about: character, events and facts, extracting information, and the future. Below I’ll go through seven of the 38 elements.

Seven Cold Reading Elements

1) Using greener grass statements that prey on our thoughts of “what if.” For example: “I sense that from time to time you find yourself contemplating your more domestic instincts, and wondering if they could perhaps be allowed more room to flourish.”

2) Using some fine flattery that dresses up a compliment with forays into excessive verbosity. For example: “The feeling I’m getting is that you are the sort of person who is often more caring than many people. You slip up sometimes, and you’re not perfect. However, on the whole, looking at the big picture, you care about the people around you and want what is best for them.” This is just a round about way of saying “you’re a caring person.”

3) Making good chance guesses such as “I sense some connection with the number 2, do you happen to live in a house with a 2 in the number?” Bear in mind that on a street with 100 houses this would apply to 19 of them. If the psychic is wrong they can always expand the search by saying “oh perhaps it is the house next door or across the street then” which brings us to 47 of the houses.

4) Using the rainbow ruse. This is when you make a statement about someone which contains “a personality trait and its opposite.” An example is “Most of the time you are positive and cheerful, but there are times  when you can feel quite upset.”

5) Using Barnum statements. These are statements that most people would say apply to them. An example would be “You are sometimes awkward around people you don’t know very well.” When mediums make Barnum statements they are a little like those ‘relatable’ twitter accounts which post (or steal) relatable jokes and content. The difference is that mediums pretend that what they’re saying isn’t relatable and only applies to you. If you agree with a Barnum statement mediums can use that as the spring board to further ‘insights.’

6) Using veiled questions such as saying adding a slight rising tone at the end of a statement such as “I see a connection with industry and finance.” On face value, this is a statement but with the rising tone, it can also sound like a question which a client may confirm or deny. Using incidental questions by ending sentences with ““… now why would that be?” or  “… is this making sense to you?” is also a strategy medium’s employ.

7) When making predictions about the future there are several tricks mediums use. For example telling a client what they want to hear or using what Ian Rowland calls “Pollyanna pearls”. He defines Pollyanna pearls as statements that “focus on one area of the client’s life, and say that things that may have been difficult lately will improve soon.”

This list is very far from exhaustive but it gives a flavour of the techniques used.

Mediums will also sometimes use shotgunning which involves a rapid fire of statements. For example “I sense a father figure – it might not be your father per se – who has had some trouble with pulmonary issues or something to do with his stomach area, he ended up in hospital for something” This statement contains so many pieces of potentially accurate information that it could apply to a wide range of people.  It is important to note that shotgunning isn’t necessary for mediums. There are far better techniques.

Mediums also use our memories against us by summarising readings. In the summaries, mediums can avoid all their misses and add power to their hits. This can be very effective if done right.

A further thing to note is that mediums will nearly always try to avoid quantifiable characteristics when performing a reading. Mediums trap themselves the moment they say things like:”you’re always late for work” instead of “sometimes you struggle with time management.”  If they leave their statements undefined they can later wiggle out of any mistakes by re-interpreting the words they used, saying they meant something metaphorically or suggesting they were talking subjectively, etc..

Hot Reading

Hot reading is cold readings cousin and it is even more useful despite seeing less use. Hot reading is the use of information about the mediums client that the client is not aware the medium has. The more famous the client the easier this is.

Mediums can gain information by “trawling the Internet or government records, overhearing conversations, or even lifting your wallet for a quick peek,” (Sleight of Mind, 2011). They can also collaborate with other mediums or get their assistants to go through your stuff while you’re in another room and then feed them the information.

Demographic Data

Taking advantage of the wealth of demographic data available can elevate a chance guess to an (almost) statistically certain likelihood.

Saying things like there was a problem in a deceased person’s “chest area” or that they had “breathing difficulty” already covers a lot of ground. Problems in the chest area are the cause for most non-accidental deaths.  Pulmonary and heart disease are top 5 killers in both the US and UK. Mentioning these problems almost guarantees a hit.

Additionally, as this booklet points out, even if a person “died of ingrowing toenail the psychic can point out that ultimately their heart stopped beating – hence the chest.”

Mediums also commonly say they can sense the first letter in a name. Names starting with M, R (including Bob from Robert), S or J (or G as it’s so close) are common and therefore mediums will often throw out these letters knowing just about everyone will know a deceased person whose name began with these letters. Knowing which car colours are popular may also offer some useful fodder for a medium.

To illustrate this point when I was nine my parents took me to an event marking Halloween. One of the people present was a palm reader (who uses many of the same techniques as a medium).  I left the reading convinced in psychic abilities; the woman knew I loved animals, stories and toys. Knowing your demographic can make you look like a miracle worker!

The combination of all these techniques along with a healthy dose of confirmation bias in clients can make for a very effective medium.


Bonus: Some of the things mediums say are so common that they have led to psychic medium bingo sheets. Check one out here.

Note: This is the second post in a series of post debunking ‘Hollywood Medium’ Tyler Henry. Here is the first post.

Pop culture Psychics Skepticism Tyler Henry

Tyler Henry is a real life superhero or at least he plays one on TV. The charming 21-year-old ‘Hollywood Medium’ hosts a TV show now in its second season imaginatively titled “Hollywood Medium with Tyler Henry” in which he pays visits to the rich and famous and speaks to their dead relatives who can apparently see into the future and offer comfort to living relatives.

Hollywood Medium TV show logo featuring the man himself Tyler Henry

Although it has been established that teleportation is the best superpower, speaking to dead people and predicting the future has got to be pretty high up there too… If only those powers were real.

In the interests of not getting sued, I’m not going to tell you that Tyler Henry is a fake, a liar or a fraud but I will be taking a closer look at his recent appearance on Buzzfeed with the Try Guys.

In the video, Tyler gives a reading to the four Try Guys some of whom appear sceptical at the beginning of the video but end up in tears by the end.

In my next series of blog posts, I’ll be going through the video (practically) scene by scene to cover some of the issues it raises. I’ll also be providing a very brief summary of some of the methods used by mediums.

In Tricks of the Mind the performer and author Derren Brown writes:

A television programme that shows edited highlights of a medium or psychic giving readings to a tearful audience has far more visceral impact than a debunker on another show deconstructing the techniques of such performance.

So, I can only imagine how helpful this dry blog series will be in changing minds….

If you join me in this journey over the next few weeks or months you’ll hopefully leave more informed and better able to spot frauds and charlatans. I’m using this Buzzfeed video as a case study because it is easily accessible and not hugely long.

Today we’ll start off defining a couple terms and I’ll give a little background, more terms will be covered at a later date. I don’t want to overburden you.

Definitions

Medium: A person who claims to be able to communicate with the dead.
Hit: When a medium makes a statement that turns out to be true or accurate
Miss: When a medium makes a statement that is untrue, inaccurate or misleading
(Psychic) Reading: The name of the consultation a medium has with their clients.
Client: The person being read.

Anyone can look impressive with enough editing.

Most people will have seen examples of a video genre known as “trick shots.” Captain Disillusion defines them as “Videos of people throwing objects at seemingly impossible targets and hitting them.” One of the best examples of a channel that actually does real trick shots is the YouTube channel Dude Perfect. Their videos are mind-blowing but they disguise a secret. The secret is the incredibly hard work they put into each and every scene.

What trick shot channels rarely if ever show is that to pull off the stunts that they do they require tens if not hundreds of tries. They just don’t include those shots in the final edit. The same goes for many television mediums. If they spend an hour with a person they will likely make hundreds of misses but the final episode of their show will only feature the 10-15 hits they make and maybe one or two misses. You’re not seeing true reality, you’re seeing the best version of reality.

To be a good medium you need a good video editor.

The same goes for this Buzzfeed video. I obviously can’t know exactly how long Tyler spent shooting with the Try Guys but I’d wager it’s at least double the runtime of the video unless he used hot reading (more on that in a future post). In the final video, the editors over at Buzzfeed put in the highlights, best hits and most impressive moments. Knowing this we can already mental discount some of the impressiveness of what we’re watching because we’re not seeing the full picture.

Not only this but we don’t know what happened before the camera’s started rolling. While the preparation for each scene was done there was likely time to have a brief conversation. The clues from this may not have meant much to the Try Guys but they could be significant. If he was so inclined Tyler would have been able to gain a huge amount of information out of the Try guys during the moments the cameras, microphones and lights were being set up and while makeup was being retouched etc.. The initial off camera meeting between Tyler and the Try Guys would likely also be a good time to do some subtle digging.

In Tricks of the Mind, Derren Brown recounts a story he was told by a friend who worked on the team for a television medium. Before the main shooting began the medium did a dress rehearsal with one of the people she read getting a lot of information wrong along the way. When it was time for the proper shoot the medium now had all the information she needed to make 100% hits by feeding back what she had just learnt during the rehearsal.

With enough editing, anyone can look like a psychic genius.

So, to clarify: we’re not seeing the full picture only an extended highlights reel. This is likely even more pronounced in Tylers TV show. No producer or editor would allow their ‘talent’ to look bad on camera particularly if they gain monetarily from the show. Buzzfeed motion pictures will have slightly different priorities but in the end, they’ll also be wanting to make Tyler look his best in this video otherwise they may lose out on future interviews with him or anyone his agent or team represents.

When it comes to mediums your starting position must be one of scepticism. What is more likely: a person who has paranormal powers is speaking to the dead or a person without powers is pretending to have paranormal powers and is pretending to talk to the dead for monetary gain? Considering no medium has ever been shown to have genuine powers the answer must be the latter until further evidence is brought to the table.

Next time we’ll be taking a dive into the methods psychics use to fool us.

Skepticism TV Tyler Henry