I recently saw a whack job on psychic mediums performed on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (It’s on YouTube, at least for now, here.)
In this episode, John (and his invisible writing and production staff) took a volley of shots at the estimated $2.2 billion psychic medium industry. The show took comedic delight in exploiting apparent cases of mediums getting it wrong, while simultaneously making the case that these mediums were predators and the grief-stricken were their prey.
In this show, little effort was made to be “fair and balanced.” Impartiality wasn’t even on the menu. “I am not going to be litigating whether psychics are real in this piece. For one, they’re not. See? No litigation required.”
At that point, alarm bells went off in my head. John the Ripper was going to attempt to assassinate the afterlife with insult humor.
Fast forward. A review written about the show also set the agenda in its headline “John Oliver Exposes Psychics, Shares Hilarious Footage Of Readings Gone Wrong”
It also added this sub-head: “’Last Week Tonight’ reveals the tricks mediums use to manipulate vulnerable people.”
In some ways, the show was performing a public service by exposing certain techniques shady mediums have employed. One is cold reading—a psychological tactic (and magicians trick) aimed at sneakily getting those being read (known as sitters) to telegraph information that a skilled observer could use. Cold readers often ask a lot of questions in the hopes of inspiring a positive response from one of them.
Another technique is hot reading, which is researching sitters before a reading (as well-portrayed in Leap of Faith, Steve Martin’s movie.)
The LWT show also featured clips of psychics claiming that someone missing was dead when in fact they were alive. This included a couple of TV ambush confrontations where a person a psychic claimed was dead faces the medium while very much alive. Oops!
But then the show performed a disservice by leaving it at that, implying that any medium is a fraud and anyone who patronizes a medium is a sucker. And you don’t want to be a sucker, do you?
Ultimately, the show ignored evidence being collected by researchers about survival of consciousness after bodily death.
When skeptics attempt to assassinate the afterlife, I first ask myself about the skeptic’s apparent intent. What’s in it for them when they do what they do? Are they themselves profiteering or are they seeking truth for the betterment of humankind?
Skepticism comes in different varieties. Now it usually means critical disbeliever, often with a warrior mentality.
Unlike afterlife researchers, media skeptics often act as if they are immune to any burden of proof that death actually kills consciousness along with the body. They must figure that materialist science has their back, so why bother?
Militant skeptics seem more excited about the fight than the truth. They seem to gloat when delivering what they see as a rhetorical death blow. Have you ever watched people arguing and come away thinking that they’re more interested in winning the fight than reaching accord? When skeptics display this kind of behavior, my first reaction is to doubt their integrity, largely because they entirely ignore massive amounts of data serious afterlife researchers have collected over the years.
Some militant skeptics are paid professionals. They are hired as antagonists to mediums. They specialize in debating, which often comes across like character assassination.
I call myself an optimistic skeptic.
I got my idea of healthy skepticism during a talk I attended presented by Dr. Raymond Moody, known best for his near-death experience research work. He said that healthy skeptics ask a lot of questions and consider alternative explanations for any given phenomena. They don’t just take the first theory or explanation that sounds good. They also don’t diss everything without due diligence.
For myself, I think the world would be a million times more interesting if consciousness survives death and that there is a purpose for our lives on earth. I am clearly biased in that way. However, knowing that I can be gullible to good-sounding ideas, I ask tons of questions and search for alternative explanations. I am not setting out to disprove what mediums do; I ask questions to refine my understanding.
As disappointed as I was with the use of insult humor to make blanket condemnations of mediums, I found myself heartily agreeing with one theme Oliver expressed. After showing shocking examples of mediums proven wrong for saying deeply outlandish things, he blamed pop culture:
“This surprisingly large, often predatory industry relies on popular culture to lend it credence and validity. To put it another way, every time a psychic makes a grieving widow cry on Dr. Oz, ten con artists get their wings. And that is a problem because there will always be people who feel an urge to reach out to psychics in their time of need.”
Over the years, I have become increasingly disappointed in the growth of the rock star medium culture. I strongly dislike when a medium is perceived as more important than the message, when show business is more important than research. Popular culture nurtures narcissism among some mediums in the fame and fortune pipeline. When I sense that something is being done for the sake of higher profits, when the afterlife is being portrayed for entertainment purposes only, it’s time for me to bow out.
Not long before Sylvia Browne died, I saw an ad promoting her engagement at a casino. (Pause for a moment to think of the symbolism of that!) I don’t like psychics or mediums as entertainers who put on woo-woo shows that seem more like a demonstration of magic tricks than sincere communication with the so-called dead.
Afterlife research potentially reveals revolutionary cosmic discoveries about the true nature of humankind. In my book, a cocktail show just doesn’t cut it.
This could be a preview of a media culture that the SoulPhone may encounter down the road. One could predict that ridicule from skeptics would be on the front lines. Sappy shows highlighting reunions of living people and ‘dead’ people are also likely.
Scientific demonstration will also be in the mix, the SoulPhone Foundation promises. This would intend to provide a much higher threshold of scientific insight than what follows psychic mediums around today.
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