Dr. Phil, Meet Bitter Psychic

May 30, 2012

Part II

Skeptics are almost always at a disadvantage when doing major media appearances. Many talk shows seem to cater to heavily believer-based audiences, and seek to entertain more than to inform — despite presenting a façade of scientific or journalistic inquiry. Such was the case with my appearance on the Dr. Phil Show on May 25th.

Now let me preface my criticism below with a quick reality check. Around 80% of Dr. Phil’s studio audience (the day we shot the show) said they believe in psychic ability. While that high percentage of believers may or may not represent his at-home audience numbers, it clearly indicated which direction the fans in front of him were leaning. Dr. Phil was not likely to step on all those fans’ shoes.

Also, though Dr. Phil used language (like the word “experiment” in our demonstration of cold reading) that suggests serious inquiry, the show was clearly structured to entertain his audience, not to fairly present two sides of an argument. Viewed as entertainment trying to keep 80% of its audience happy, the Dr. Phil show is understandable.

The problem is, the show gives the appearance of a serious look at a question: “Do psychic powers really exist?”

It was not a serious look at that question. When the producers (who assured me that Dr. Phil was very much a skeptic) asked me about ways psychics could be put to the test, I offered several possibilities. (After all, our IIG has been testing these kinds of claims for 12 years.) Instead, they opted to have me “psychically” read a group of strangers, which I did successfully.

How do I know I was successful? Three of the ten participants cried because of things I said. I mention them crying not out of any sense of satisfaction, but only to underscore that they were believing in an ability – getting information from the spirits of dead people – I know I do not possess. (By the way, add a camera operator and a segment producer to those at the reading who responded positively and seemed to be impressed by guesses I made. Those were edited out.)

The point of doing that reading (my first ever) was to show that by merely using cold reading techniques, I could convince people I was in contact with the spiritual world. I was not claiming that I was better at cold reading than Rebecca Rosen, the psychic who did the second reading of the group. I’m sure the thousands of readings under her belt have honed her skills well beyond those of my rookie debut. (I’d love to compare her hit rate, and count her total number of guesses.)

All my reading was meant to show was that a fake could be convincing. Yet, this stunning revelation was completely glossed over on the show.

It should be noted that people don’t generally see two psychics in a row and compare them, like in the show. People go to one psychic at a time. Also, the ten participants in the reading were not typical clients seeking out and paying for psychic advice. Normally, psychics’ customers are hugely self-selecting believers. (How many skeptics would pay $500 for a reading?) This lowers the bar for any psychic because her client is wholly uncritical and predisposed to find success in a reading.

I mention all this because the show testimonials comparing me and Rebecca are irrelevant. Even if people had been read by two professional psychics, one would have scored better than the other.

Lest anyone mistake this show for a fair fight, here are some of the ways the Dr. Phil show slanted the discussion toward the psychic side:

1. Invite 4 psychics to the discussion and place them on stage front and center.

(I was the only skeptic, and was relegated to the front row of the audience — physically lower than the psychics. Of course, that wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been given opportunity to respond after each psychic spoke or attempted a reading.)

2. Introduce the psychics with great fanfare. The websites calls them “well-known experts.”

(My description on the Dr. Phil website uses scare quotes in calling me a “professional skeptic..”

3. Edit out psychics’ poor showing in the live audience reading. Edit out part of Dr. Phil’s criticism of Dougall’s aura read of his (Dr. Phil’s) colors. Edit out my responses to some of the participants’ comments. Edit out my criticism of Dr. Diane Hennacy Powell’s citing of the Stargate Project and to Daryl Bem’s experiments. Edit out my mention of Skeptical Inquirer magazine which addresses both those claims.

4. Edit out shots of two of the three sitters crying during my reading, one of whom later said he didn’t believe my ability. Edit out my reading hits on the camera operator and the segment producer.

5. Allow me to see only the severely edited footage of the Rebecca Rosen reading and the Colette Baron-Reid reading during the actual show, and allow little or no time (respectively) to respond to the techniques they used.

6. Give a vast majority of the show minutes to the psychics and to pro-psychic testimonials with little or no opportunity for rebuttal. (I’ll have specific numbers soon.)

Given the opportunity, I could have easily explained every bit of apparent success each of the psychics had as well as called attention to their misses during their live reads. As we’ve seen for years, people’s recollection of how well the psychics did does not jibe with how well they actually did.

(For example, when Rebecca Rosen said, “I’m supposed to talk about a hummingbird…” – which could mean any number of different things – a woman responded, “Oh my god, that’s my tattoo!” Phil reacts (see the clip) implying that Rebecca knew that this woman had a hummingbird tattoo. She did not. The woman told Rebecca she had a hummingbird tattoo. Throwing random thoughts out there and hoping they land on something is how psychics work. Psychics who talk fast and get a lot of guesses out score more points matching fragments of people’s lives. Hell, the hummingbird guess fits me! We have hummingbirds in our garden where I like to go to relax and smoke a cigar. Is that a hit?)

The bottom line is that the show was presented to me and the TV audience as a sincere examination of whether psychic ability exists. What it was was a biased, slanted presentation that gave huge advantages to the psychics, and short shrift to science and skepticism.

Look, if Dr. Phil wants to emulate Montel Williams and do silly shows full of wild claims and nonsense, he should knock himself out. But if he wants to be taken seriously as a reasonable person, he should reconsider how he presents (especially fringe) issues.

Don’t whitewash an outhouse and call it a spa. 


#1 lff on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 3:47am

Well Dr. Phil wasn’t very fair.  But what did you really expect?  Had you never seen his show before?

I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt that you thought you could accomplish something by going on the show but I find it difficult to understand how you allowed yourself to be so thoroughly conned.

I don’t know where else you posted this rebuttal but isn’t posting it here playing to your best audience - sort of like psychics playing to those that are already convinced?


#2 Dorion on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 7:52am

I didn’t get the impression that Underdown was surprised in any way by how the show was handled—it WAS what he expected. But he has a responsibility to report on his entire experience, don’t you think? And Underdown further takes it as a matter of activism to show up at these things when he’s invited, to represent the skeptical point of view, regardless of the (expected) slant.

Whether “preaching to the choir” or not, he’s gone on record. Which is the right—not to mention interesting—thing to do.

#3 lff on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 10:28am

Look, if you go on a show like Dr. Phil and you let him set up the whole scenario you are just a patsy.  Under these circumstances it seems highly unlikely to me that you can advance critical thinking very much and perhaps you are just going to set it back.

I would expect pro’s like Underdown to know better and his report would have been more informative if he had been specific as to why he allowed it to be done the way it was and how he expected to be able to make his point.


#4 Jim Underdown on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 11:30am

lff seems to think that ignoring public discussions where we are in the minority (or lack contol of the final product)is a waste of time. There are those who also agree that debating believers gets us nowhere.

I disagree for two reasons. First, most people live in a world so narrow they don’t even know certain information exists. If they only get their information from the likes of Dr. Phil, then let’s use Dr. Phil to get to them. I have been contacted many times by people who’ve seen me in hostile environments and then thanked me for making them think.

Second, most people probably don’t know that there are institutions like CFI that deal with skeptical and humanist issues all the time. These appearances help raise awareness that we exist and that besieged skeptics and humanists are not alone.

Leaving Dr. Phil to discuss such issues without experienced analysts only serves the world of ignorance.

I understand your anger and frustration, but it should be directed at Dr. Phil and his staff.

#5 Dorion on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 12:10pm

Agreed. Not being able to dictate all the parameters doesn’t mean he should refuse the invitation. The topic was not presented in favor of Underdown’s POV, which is all the more reason for him to have been there.

Aside from that, I thought the show was dumb. But they always are.

#6 lff on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 12:25pm

Jim,  You have answered my question about what you were trying to accomplish and I accept that your goals were worthy.  You have considerably more experience and are able to gauge your success better than I so I can accept that there are good reasons to participate.

What I still fail to understand is why you accepted a format that put you at such an enormous disadvantage?  Was there no negotiating?  I realize you don’t have a lot of leverage in a situation like this but surely you have some input. 

Psychologist skeptics on shows with psychologist entertainers being taken advantage of by the very psychological tricks they are trying to expose is sometimes hard to accept as a way forward.


#7 Jim Underdown on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 2:31pm

Will Ferrell might have some say about a particular show’s format, but I generally don’t. They passed on my several suggestions about how to fairly test psychics—objective ways that would have made the point clearer to the audience.

On top of that, the producers were being very coy to both sides about what was happening.

Anyway, much of the disservice happened in the editing, not the format.

A fair amount of criticism from me AND Dr. Phil was deleted. What aired does not accurately reflect what happened.

#8 lff on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 5:59pm

Jim,  Thanks.  This gives me a better understanding of the problems.  It is good to have someone fighting the fight.  If you get through to a few I suppose it is worth it.


#9 Julie Jaehnig (Guest) on Thursday May 31, 2012 at 9:26pm

I did see that show Jim, and thought you did a great job of “reading” the group. 

I was disappointed overall, in the direction the show went.  I normally really like Dr Phil, but he seemed to be more than willing to allow himself to be convinced, by giving the self professed psychics a platform to their advantage. 

I kept waiting for him to choose 10 people, put them all in separate rooms, and then have each psychic deal with them on an individual basis, and then show us the results.  Of course, that would never happen because it would not work.  Their methods depend on having a group there. 

Thank you for being on the show, and giving a great demo on how to work the crowd. 

Julie Jaehnig

#10 stan kohls (Guest) on Friday June 01, 2012 at 3:52am

Dr. Phil is a fraud from beginning to end.  He is not a doctor of psychology (which is implied by the format), and is purely an entertainer.

#11 Thomas B (Guest) on Friday June 01, 2012 at 7:25am

“People go to one psychic at a time. Also, the ten participants in the reading were not typical clients seeking out and paying for psychic advice. Normally, psychics’ customers are hugely self-selecting believers.”

Exactly!  Why turn you both loose on the SAME group?  The impression I got was that they had been told in advance something like, “You’re about to meet a real psychic and a fraud.  Your job is to tell which is which.”  If that’s the case, it’s pretty easy.  Most “psychics” are women.  As soon as the woman came out, they immediately reclassified everything Jim had said as “fraud”.

#12 lff on Friday June 01, 2012 at 11:07am

But, but, but….aren’t “Real Psychics” the frauds!  Now I am really confused.


#13 Dorion on Friday June 01, 2012 at 12:00pm

Reminds me of Penn telling the story about why he and Teller stopped doing fake readings—they could NOT get people to believe it was fake.

My point is, I’m going to have Jim read me next chance I get.

#14 Jim Underdown on Friday June 01, 2012 at 1:00pm

I’m getting a “D” word…

#15 Carol Annette (Guest) on Friday June 01, 2012 at 7:23pm

Shame on Dr. Phil for even hinting that there might be anything more than a grain of truth to what so-called psychics say !  Even entertainers should have some sense of responsibility against promoting hucksterism.  Jim, you did just fine under the circumstances .... it’s obvious that you were set up.

#16 Steve Page (Guest) on Monday June 04, 2012 at 1:06pm

@Stan Kohls: Dr Phil has a doctorate in clinical psych, but he no longer practices. He’s certainly less of a fraud than not-a-real-doctor Dr Gillian McKeith, but the ethics of his general methodology is hugely questionable and the fact that his show was distributed by and developed under the supervision of Harpo Productions (aka woo-believer/promoter Oprah Winfrey’s production company) should set a few alarm bells ringing.

#17 Dorion on Monday June 04, 2012 at 1:14pm

I don’t think it’s a valid argument to suggest that anything from the production company of a “woo-believer” is automatically going to promote pseudoscience… on the other hand, anything on daytime TV, probably a safer bet than not.

#18 MikeMercede on Monday June 04, 2012 at 1:45pm

Well, it comes down to being put in a situation where nothing tested was falsifiable. You were in a no win contest. I give you credit for fighting the good fight, though. Except for one point. Saying that Rebecca did better because she is better at cold reading is NOT falsifiable. If she had done poorly, she is not a psychic. If she does well, she is not a psychic, just a better cold reader. Would you agree?

#19 Jim Underdown on Monday June 04, 2012 at 5:16pm

Mike makes a good point in that we have to be careful to frame what’s happening properly.

Cold reading and psychic reading are not the same. A better way to put it would be to say that cold reading is an art unto itself that does not necessarily indicate or involve psychic ability. 

Falsifiability is slippery with psychics and depends on what the individual psychic says she can do—which is usually sufficiently vague as to elude being scored objectively.

We’re working on ways to test psychics and mediums so that cold reading skills do not come into play. We think we can make a compelling case for a more scientific explanation than talking to the dead.

#20 stan kohls (Guest) on Tuesday June 05, 2012 at 4:58am

To Steve Page:
many thanks for the correction, I was incorrect.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.