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Heaven sent

Can spirit mediums still hack it in the 21st century?

I do love a good psychic. When the tooth fairy stopped coming, I was inconsolable and the awful truth about Father Christmas was almost more than I could bear as a teenager. Psychics tap into that yearning for mystery and magic that seems to be missing from adult life. But as TV viewers discovered recently, the award-winning investigative programme 20/20 is prepared to go a lot further. After putting Taranaki psychic Jeanette Wilson to the test, it suggested that psychics may be the real deal. As I'm a literal type of person, the subtleties of spirit communication escaped me, so I didn't pick up on the fact that she had been so accurate about the subject's mother being found in a pool of blood. Reporter Melanie Reid, though, was obviously so blown away by the "extraordinary" event that I felt I'd missed something. But where was comment by arch sceptic Vicki Hyde, who had been interviewed earlier in the programme? Her absence left viewers with the impression that she had been, in schoolyard lingo, bummed out and perhaps refused to comment to save face?

Not so, said Hyde, when I rang her the next day. She hadn't been given the opportunity to comment on the Wilson test and what she had seen later on TV hardly seemed convincing when you analysed the actual words and ignored the histrionics. Without Hyde's counterbalancing comment, the 20/20 programme was little more than a promo for Wilson's book and national tour. Indeed, when Wilson asked at the Wellington show I attended who had seen her on 20/20, most hands shot up.

What's fascinating about psychics is not their claimed communication with a spirit world but the demonstration of the innate human capacity for bias and self-deception. At the beginning of her show, Wilson scoffs at the stage mediums that she had encountered in the past. "It is easy for someone to read your body language and tell you general information that would fit anyone," she says. "So, when I work I ask my guides to give information that I could not possibly know and which is unique to the individual." Then she assures us that there are no "plants" in the audience. It's all about creating expectation. In the US, a similar show, she says, would cost $US500 in the first three rows and $95 in the back: "$175,000 a night - that's a lot of money. We do what we can to keep the fees modest." To enhance credibility, she tells us that profits from the book and the shows go to the Dharmic Trust, a charity that she set up for the betterment of humankind. (However, as Brian Tamaki, God's CEO in South Auckland, would attest, even when you're working for a higher purpose, it can still be a nice little earner.)

Wilson may be sincere in the belief that the names and images that pop into her head come from another dimension because they are occasionally validated by her subjects, but she must know from her training in neurolinguistic programming how easily people can be manipulated, intentionally or otherwise. We are hardwired to find pattern and meaning, to make sense of the world, so when Wilson throws out a statement like, "She's shaking her head about something", the subject, anxious to help, will try to make sense of it. When she asks the daughter of a deceased man, "Have you got a watch of his, because he showed me a watch?", it would hardly be unusual if she said yes. In fact, neither of these statements elicited a positive response and Wilson quickly moved on. The skill in mediumship is not so much in scoring hits as in glossing over the many misses.

As Hyde points out, when Wilson mistakenly claimed in the TV test that the mother's death had been between five and 10 years ago, rather than the two years it actually was, she slickly recovered with the statement that "she feels she's been there longer". In his definitive book The Full Facts of Cold Reading, British mentalist Ian Rowland describes what he calls the "Vanishing Negative", a negative question of ambiguous tone and phrasing that, regardless of the subject's answer, can be seen as a hit. Example: "You don't work with children, do you? "No I don't." "No, I thought not. That's not really your role." Alternatively, if the subject says, "I do actually, part-time." The answer might be: "Yes, I thought so. There's a strong affinity with children indicated ..." The Vanishing Negative is just one of 38 techniques identified by Rowland to convince people that mediums know more than they really do.

Rowland is one of a growing number of stage magicians who are using applied psychology not only to duplicate the so-called supernatural readings of psychics, astrologers and clairvoyants but also to perform feats that baffle even the shrewdest observers. Cold reading, says Rowland, is not about reading body language - he is dubious about the value of that - or making wild guesses. You need to convince the client of your sincerity and honesty, establish your credentials and get them to play by the rules, ie, not expect too much precision.

As Wilson told her Wellington audience, spirits need to learn to communicate, too. Then it's a question of throwing out statement after statement until you get a hit, confident in the knowledge that the misses will mostly be forgotten. Occasionally, Rowland says he will ask about something very specific like an out-of-date calendar or a boxes of photos or appliances that don't work and haven't been discarded - things that he has found click with a lot of people. These strategies work well in one-to-one readings, but are even more effective in a theatre. Even in a small audience, there will always be somebody who can connect, for example, with "an elderly man in some sort of uniform, possibly military". Once the connection has been made, the cold reader will ask lots of questions in a sympathetic way, present some more vague images that allow plenty of scope for interpretation and wait for the subject to connect the dots.

A classic technique to appear uncannily insightful is to use a Barnum statement: "An artfully generalised character statement which a majority of people, if asked, will consider to be a reasonably accurate description of themselves." For example, "You have your own beliefs, but you still like to keep an open mind; you're an independent thinker and just don't accept what people tell you."

So, should we keep an open mind about psychics who claim that they communicate with the dead? Rowland thinks not. "An open mind is appropriate where we have no good evidence one way or the other," he says. More than a century of research into psychic phenomena, in some cases extremely well-funded military studies, has failed to turn up a shred of evidence that psychic readings are genuine. "This does not amount to proof that psychic beliefs are bogus remnants of outmoded irrational and superstitious models of the world we live in," says Rowland. "But it does amount to good reason to abandon an 'open mind' and to say instead that if believers want us to acknowledge the reality of psychic ability, the onus is on them to prove their case. Whatever proof they provide, it will have to consist of something that cannot equally be attributed to the effectiveness of cold reading."