I'm a 'Debunker.' We've Been Embarrassingly Wrong About Mediums All Along.
In my first RedStringSociety.com post, I explained how I'd gone from materialist/atheist to "atheist who understands consciousness survives death."
In that post, I also mentioned my career and work -- ironically, as a professional skeptic, a fact-checker, and a "debunker." From my late teens I'd been immersed in that culture, certain of self-evident truths like "there is no cabal" and, most primarily, that all mediums are brazenly fraudulent "grief vampires." (I met my husband on the Snopes forums, and we shared those views.)
In holding that belief for more than half my life, I exercised discretion never to expose that belief to anyone grieving, who had taken comfort in the idea consciousness survived death. That would have been cruel and unnecessary, and nothing I'd say would make their lives better.
But when it came to entertainment, I had no qualms about rattling off the laundry list of ways we skeptics and debunkers were certain that mediums were knowingly faking it. (We'll get to that in a minute.)
Part of this juxtaposition might be the fact that I have lived most of my life on Long Island (save for stints in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Ireland), and Long Island is awash in not only mediums, but well-known mediums. In addition to John Edward, Theresa Caputo and George Anderson are also locals.
Instead of growing up taking these demonstrations seriously, I marveled at Long Island's attachment to superstition.
Let me tell you, it has been a short but bizarre path from "there is no afterlife" to "wow ... John Edward is the real thing."
The first time I reconsidered John Edward was during a regular phone call with the medium who changed my mind (Carolyn Clapper). We discussed the seemingly high concentration of mediums on Long Island, and she opined she believed Edward was legitimate.
It didn't really make much of an impression on me, but months later I was researching ayahuasca and watching YouTube videos. One such video on the channel of the user "Shaman Oaks" autoplayed a second video next, titled "Proof Psychic John Edward Isn't Cold Reading."
Shaman Oaks' video appeared a few months before an earnest but inaccurate and far more widely viewed effort by comedian John Oliver. Oliver excerpted Edwards' readings and implied they were fraudulent (something I too had always believed). But the earlier video, below, is definitely worth watching and does a good concise job of explaining a lot of what I'm going to say:
Often, when a skeptic is using video clips to "debunk" a medium, they've already said that mediums "use deceptive editing" to give the impression they score more "hits" than they actually do. That may be a clever bit of projection (perhaps unknowingly), because those same example clips are often stopped at a misleading point.
At this point I'll add that judgment passed on whether any particular "hit" was accurate is purely subjective. No third-party watching who is unacquainted with the person being "read" is any more qualified to rate its accuracy than any other.
From here, I want to discuss the myths I previously believed, and you can watch hundreds of clips of mediums like John Edward on YouTube and make your own mind up about these things. My own statements are based on experiences I've had, which again the first time was as a practiced debunker well, well aware of how to unmask all the tricks and "flim-flammery" purportedly used by mediums. Again, I was wrong.
Myth #1: Mediums get their hooks in by saying the deceased has a "J name" or an "M name," the two most common initials.
Go watch some mediums on YouTube, good ones, with high view counts.
It is definitely true mediums -- like Edward -- reference initials, sometimes common ones like "J" or "M." But just as commonly, they ask about a complete first name -- Rita, or Bob, or Bill, or Anthony. For years, my fellow skeptics had convinced me the clever use of initials was a key trick in the arsenals of mediums, but that isn't what you'll see on YouTube.
And it isn't what happened to me. In my first reading as a firm skeptic, I was consistently given entire names, names you couldn't find online -- itself a part of the next myth.
Myth #2: Mediums employ hot reading, obtaining most of their detailed information through Google searches.
No one would expect you to take anyone's firsthand word for it, but the information provided by mediums in private readings is not only in my experience not Googleable, it's not anything you'd ever put on Facebook or anywhere else.
It's very private, very intimate information that you can barely even relay to your closest friends. It's possible but difficult to give examples of how sensitive this information is, because of its nature. (As an aside, I suspect that television readings lack these details due to discretion on the part of parties involved -- mediums don't want to say "your wife said she's wearing her red teddy" on the Today show.) Which leads into the next myth.
Myth #3: Mediums leverage people's grief, providing only very vague details which could apply to almost anyone. Grief-addled victims are more than happy to make these vague claims "fit" their deceased loved one.
An interesting thing about the common accusations levied at mediums is how these claims often contradict one another -- mediums are vague and say things that can apply to anyone supposedly, while also using Google to dredge up highly specific details. All at the same time, apparently.
Anyway, if we put aside the hot reading claim and look at the vague one, that's not really something I feel is apparent in many videos of audience readings. In addition to names, family secrets, details about the insides of homes, tales of long-forgotten childhood memories, and myriad other things, a ton of highly specific things come out of mediums mouths.
Of note is that "who crashed a black car last month?" or "you found a ticket in your dad's pocket the night of his funeral" are extremely confident and extremely specific things to "guess" -- things that would presumably embarrass the medium if they were wrong. But very frequently, the person being read becomes visibly emotional and affirms the very specific "guess" was completely accurate.
Myth #4: Mediums carefully extract information from the people they're reading, allowing those people to fill in answers and then repeating them back. The person being read (who often possesses a recording of the event) "forgets" having provided the information, and the medium dupes people into believing they discovered information which was actually provided by the person being read.
Again, this particular claim sort of beggars belief. We're talking about mediums on live television, mediums who offer unedited recordings to clients, and mediums who are reading in front of a gallery or audience. Unless the entire room is invested in the one client's reading, others would certainly think "the medium didn't say that, the person said it." But that doesn't happen.
Conversely, if you watch videos of readings, you might notice that mediums constantly "SHH!" people they're reading, insisting that they don't want to become confused about the source of information. They repeatedly tell clients or those being read to be quiet, not say more, or sometimes, to "shut up."
In my experience, this misconception is one on which poorly done debunkings often hinge -- and it's a complete lie. I myself have been shushed hundreds of times in just a handful of readings, prevented from speaking at all beyond "yes" or "no."
Myth #5: If mediums were authentic, they wouldn't play "charades." They'd just say people's names and details and not engage in this sort of guessing game.
Admittedly, I strongly believed this to be an iron-clad proof mediums were fake. Of course there was no afterlife, but if there was, ghosts or whatever would just come out and say stuff. They wouldn't need to play "hot or cold."
This is probably one of the slipperiest myths with which to dispense. The answer really boils down to what mediums are supposedly doing, and how they're doing it.
Personally, I can't access information the way they do, but I understand it's not a phone call. But also from my own experience, I understand mediums are often seeing places, people, and events they've never seen. Ever try to describe details or conversations from a dream to someone?
Imagine if someone handed you a folder of photographs, names, pictures of houses and their rooms, and pets, and asked you to describe them to a person without showing them the folder's contents. You don't know how these things are connected to the person, but you have to get them to figure out what those things are.
In the folder is a backyard party in 1977, a living room from the 1990s, an office desk, a beach with very clear water, and just a photograph of a wall as if you're staring at it. By your descriptions, the person is eventually able to identify their fifth birthday, the setting of their first child's first steps, a work day that defined their life, a trip to a specific country, and what they did in the moments immediately after learning a parent had died.
Now try to imagine how mediums might get information from a discarnate person, assuming such a thing is possible. They often can't hear speaking, and are only shown images like snapshots. These snapshots are of strangers and places they've never been, and they have to find a way to get the person they're reading to recognize those things.
On top of that, the medium might look at the image and see "red overalls" or "chocolate cake," details you don't remember well. In contrast, you might remember the shoes you wore or the pizza that was served. But together, you have to figure out which impression is which.
Now think about all the memories you and your close friends or families have to remind one another of, and how often one party remembers something differently than the other.
Myth #6: Mediums skillfully turn anything into a hit, to create the illusion of accuracy when they're not reeling the victim in hard enough.
This is just flat-out false. You'll see this all the time, particularly with John Edward. I too experienced this.
I've spent 15-20 minutes with a medium telling me "no, not that ... no, it's not that. Keep thinking." Mediums can take a "hit" in all these scenarios, but this is one of the most egregiously mischaracterized claims about mediumship. Mediums constantly reject hits, and tell the person being read that they're not identifying the information correctly.
An example of this is in the video embedded above.
All of this is not to say anyone should change their mind about whether consciousness survives death, or whether John Edward is for real, or even whether Long Island mediums are grating (John Oliver made a huge point of mocking Theresa Caputo's accent and hair). The point is about how critical thinking when it comes to mediums has, among self-styled skeptics, been incredibly lazy and faulty for quite some time.
Unfortunately, mediums are not incredibly well-regulated, and there are likely frauds. However, there are organizations like Helping Parents Heal or the Forever Family Foundation which recommend mediums based on real people's experiences, so it's not impossible to get a good start.
And skepticism is a great thing, always be skeptical. Never be easy to convince. Always listen to your instinct about being misled. But that goes both ways -- listen for a ring of truth. If you feel like something is trustworthy, that's also valid.
Debunkings of mediums are often poorly done -- after my experience, I returned to the work of people in my field to reorient my perspective. None were convincing based on what I experienced, and a great many were misleading or inaccurate. Not one applied to what I had seen and heard, not one was ten percent as convincing as the evidence I witnessed.
Again, this is all a very personal matter. My overarching point is that even as a very skilled "debunker," I remained wholly and entirely ignorant about mediums for 20 years. I stupidly relied on the word of my contemporaries as the final word on the subject. And having been proven wrong so resoundingly, I feel honor-bound to honestly describe these things to people who may be on the fence.
Although I was certain I was right about mediums being frauds, I now know I was very, very wrong. This being true alongside me knowing how to assess and debunk things means the average person might be even more confused. Much of the information to read about the topic hews firmly to materialist talking points, points which may be well-intended, but are misinformed.