Friday, January 28, 2005

Mediumship and science

UPDATE: After extensive discussion in our forum, I've conceded that eight of the nine items of information listed below are too ambiguous or too pedestrian to qualify as solid hits. The other item (no. 7; the blinds/curtains) still strikes me as evidential if no one involved in the experiment knew about it by any normal means. Hopefully this post gives you an idea of how hard it is to evaluate psychics and mediums objectively. An example of how not to evaluate this research is found in a very hostile and factually challenged article by "Luke T." at MP

Some folks might be interested in the kind of debate that surrounds the subject of mediumship and the scientific investigation of same. (Yes, there is serious study of this phenomenon, though you might not know it from the tabloid-style coverage the topic receives in the media.)

In an online forum in which I participate, a session conducted by medium Allison DuBois has been the focus of some debate. Allison has recently become quite well known as the person whose life is dramatized in the NBC series Medium (Monday nights, 10:00 Eastern Time). A transcript of one part of this session is printed in a paper by Gary E. Schwartz and Julie Beischel - a paper that can be found at .

Essentially, Allison was asked to read (by proxy) a lady named Veronica. What she produced was detailed information about Veronica's late husband. Allison was not told Veronica's last name, but in fact she was Veronica Keen, wife of the British parapsychology researcher Montague Keen.

Objections to the procedure have centered on the possibility that Allison, upon hearing the name Veronica, jumped to the conclusion that it must be Mrs. Keen. Allegedly she could then have drawn on knowledge of Montague Keen's life and work in order to produce various seemingly evidential details.

Allison had never met either of the Keens, but their names were known to many who are interested in paranormal phenomena.

So is the session an example of legitimate mediumship or clever duplicity on Allison's part?

What follows is my own modest contribution to the discussion, which may give you a feel for the issues and concerns raised in this field of study. Naturally, these remarks make a lot more sense if you read the transcript first!

[Update, March 26, '05: Comments in square brackets have been added to indicate why I am no longer persuaded that eight of the nine items are evidential.]


Peter's comments [i.e., a skeptical rejoinder by Dr. Peter Hayes] at the end of the paper are a good digest of objections that a skeptical reader might lodge. Most of them occurred to me, too, as I read the transcript. In particular, Allison's mention of the name Levine seemed like a spectacular hit - until the commentary revealed that the name Levin figured in both the dedication and the acknowledgments of Gary Schwartz and Linda Russek's book The Living Energy Universe. For the hit to be significant, we have to assume that Allison did not read this book. Similarly, her "white crow" reference is significant only if she is really unfamiliar with this term. Most people who are seriously interested in this field know the William James quote in question.

Above all, hearing the name Veronica could have tipped her off to the identity of the deceased. I never met Montague Keen or his wife, but I knew that her name was Veronica, because this fact was mentioned more than once in Internet articles reporting on Keen's research. Not too long before his death, Keen got into an Internet dust-up with James Randi over an insult Randi allegedly delivered to Mrs. Keen (although Randi has a different, and to my mind rather unconvincing, version of the affair). The two conflicting accounts of this altercation were widely available on the Web.

Nevertheless, there are some details in the transcript that are hard to explain even if we assume (for the sake of argument) that the medium was being deceptive.

1. Allison implies that Montague Keen (hereafter MK) recalled lying on the grass and watching the clouds as a boy. MK did grow up on a farm. This fact was probably mentioned in some of his obituaries, but I don't think it was widely reported.

[It turns out that this information was incorrect. According to Veronica Keen, Montague did not, in fact, grow up on a farm. He grew up in the city and did not purchase a farm until he was nearly fifty years old. In any case, Allison did not say MK grew up on a farm, only that he watched the clouds go by. Most children have done this.]

2. She suggests that MK used to be worried about deadlines and about what other people thought of him. Apparently this was true, but it would not have been apparent from publicly available information. (I would have assumed he didn't care at all what other people thought of him, given his combative stance on controversial matters.)

[The obvious objection is that almost everybody cares about deadlines and other people's opinions, at least some of the time.]

3. She says MK has appeared to his wife since his death. This fact was eventually reported in a British newspaper, but was the British article printed before or after this session?

[Many grieving widows or widowers feel that their spouse has appeared to them after death in some form, perhaps in a dream or as a "sign." Statement #3 could, therefore, apply to many people.]

4. She mentions airplanes in a military formation. This detail came up in Laurie Campbell's reading of MK years earlier. Was Allison present at this meeting, or did she read a transcript or talk to Laurie about it? If not, it's hard to explain this as "hot reading."

[The airplanes were said to be in a V formation, which of course could have been suggested by the name Veronica.]

5. She mentions Veronica Keen's phone ringing and nobody on the line. This apparently happened. Again, unless reported in the press or on the Web before this session, could Allison have known it?

[An interesting detail, but "phantom phone calls" are fairly common, and usually are attributable to telemarketers whose computers dial several numbers simultaneously.]

6. She says MK made Laurie Campbell mad. He did, in the public reading.

[If Allison knew that she was speaking to MK's widow, she might have known about the public reading.]

7. She says that Veronica Keen just got new curtains for her house. Actually, she had just bought new blinds, but the association between curtains and blinds is very close. This information was certainly not publicly broadcast.

8. She implies that Veronica Keen was more of a believer in the afterlife than was MK. Apparently this is true, but I would not have guessed it. I would have assumed they both held similiar views on the subject.

[A matter of interpretation. MK did believe in the afterlife but adopted a somewhat skeptical approach in order to weed out frauds and fakery.]

9. She says there was a banner at the meeting where MK collapsed. This turns out to be true, but I don't recall it being mentioned in any accounts of the event, and I have seen no photos of the incident.

[If Allison knew that she was talking to Veronica Keen, she could easily have known the circumstances of MK's death, which took place at a public debate. Banners or signs are usually displayed at such gatherings.]

There are possible explanations for all of these things. Allison could have read that MK was raised on a farm (1). [As noted above, this information was false anyway.] She could have talked to people who knew MK and learned something of his personality (2). She might have been aware of reports or rumors that MK was "appearing" to his wife or that the phone had been behaving strangely (3, 5). She might have been in contact with a friend or neighbor of Mrs. Keen who knew about the curtains and about Mrs. Keen's views on the afterlife versus her husband's views(7, 8). She might have gained access to the Laurie Campbell reading and learned about the airplanes and Laurie's frustration with MK (4, 6). She might have spoken to someone who was present at the meeting and saw the banner (9).

These explanations would require a great deal of work on Allison's part. She (or an assistant) would have to

- read MK's obituaries and news accounts of his death
- talk to people who knew MK without raising their suspicions
- keep abreast of reports or rumors of odd goings-on after MK's passing
- learn details of the Keen household from someone with inside information
- review the Laurie Campbell reading or talk to Laurie herself or bring in Laurie as a conspirator
- find someone who had attended the meeting and talk to him about it.

If she had known in advance that she would be reading Veronica Keen, she might have had a motive to do these things. But if she had no idea that Veronica Keen was to be the sitter, why would she invest the time and effort in learning so much about MK and his wife?

One other point (hold on while I don my skeptic's hat): There is one place in the transcript's commentary where I think we see the danger of over-interpreting. This is when Allison mentions bagels and lox in connection with MK. The commentary offers four possible explanations: a) it was a reference to Levin, who called himself "the hole in the bagel"; b) it was a reference to Mrs. Keen's custom of buying bagels for MK; c) it was a reference to bagels served at MK's wake; d) it was a reference to MK's brother-in-law, who sold lox, which MK used to eat whenever he visited.

Four explanations (or three if you count b and c as one concept). When this many interpretations are possible, I think it is safe to say that the reference is not sufficiently clear to warrant any conclusions. (I note that the "lox" item was scored as a miss, though the "bagels" were not.)

Overall, though, I think the onus of proof is on the skeptics to explain the more obscure items of information listed as 1 - 9 above.

[Now I would say that while the reading is certainly of interest, most of the statements are too general to prove much. See how frustrating it is to do this sort of work? It's like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall!]

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Pal Joey

It's Thursday night, and time to wonder why the Friends spinoff Joey doesn't quite work.

Oh yes, it has its moments. But it falls short. Part of the problem may be the supporting characters. Joey's sister, for instance, is depicted as being one (very short) step above the level of a hooker. She's too skanky and scuzzy to be really likable. Joey's nephew is supposed to be a computer genius who's too geeky to get a date, but the actor who plays him looks like he stepped out of a Gap ad. This guy can't get a date? Hey, I've been a dateless geek, and I've known dateless geeks, and this kid, my friends, is not a dateless geek.

The only supporting character who is genuinely funny is Joey's agent. She livens up the show whenever she's around. The guy in the apartment complex who wants to be Joey's pal has potential but hasn't been used much. The blonde, wholesome apartment manager is pretty but blah, or maybe she's just pretty blah.

I thought the show would improve once Joey got a regular acting gig, but his role in a prime-time soap (the fictional series Deep Powder) hasn't sparked many laughs. The writers don't seem to get it. Yes, Joey was in a soap opera before, and it was funny. But it wasn't funny because it was a soap opera. It was funny because Joey, who is an idiot, played the role of a brilliant, world-famous neurosurgeon. In Deep Powder, he plays ... well, I'm not sure what he's supposed to be. The guy who owns the ski lodge? Whatever it is, it's not funny.

I'm still rooting for this show to succeed. I was a big fan of Friends and would like to see this spinoff work. The producers are planning to bring in new characters and cast members, presumably to make Joey's world seem a little less underpopulated.

Right now, though, Joey is looking more like AfterM*A*S*H than Frasier. And that's no joke.

The end of paperbacks?

It's hard to imagine a world without paperback books. Then again, twenty years ago it was hard to imagine a world without typewriters, yet how many of today's kids have ever seen a Smith-Corona or know what a platen is? Things change - even in the publishing business, which is notoriously resistant to institutional changes of all kinds.

What's changing now is the paperback end of the industry. To be blunt, mass-market paperbacks - the pocket-size editions sold for anywhere from $6 to $8.50 - are gradually becoming extinct.

You might not know this if you limit your book-buying excursions to your local Barnes & Noble superstore, where you will still find row after row of mass-market paperbacks. Trouble is, the majority of paperbacks have always been sold in venues outside book stores. Most paperbacks are sold in places like supermarkets, pharmacies, and newsstands. The folks who deliver books to those outlets are the same folks who deliver magazines. They are called "jobbers" or, in fancier language, "independent distributors."

And today the independent distribution network is collapsing.

It's a slow-motion collapse which has been going on for seven or eight years. A trenchant summary of the problem from an insider's perspective can be read here: Backspace - The Writer's Place .

But you don't need to know all the inside details to see what's happening. Just pay a visit to your local Safeway or Walgreen's. Where once there might have been fifty or a hundred different titles on display in the paperback section, now there are probably only a dozen or so. And those dozen are almost all Big Names - "brand name" authors - Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Nora Roberts, etc. Lesser known authors are represented sparingly, if at all.

The reason? As the number of independent distributors dropped from 600 to six, the remaining companies chose to concentrate on only the top titles and top authors. The result is less of a choice for the consumer and less of a chance for the up-and-coming writer.

The situation has been getting worse for a while, and is now reaching the critical stage. Unless some way is found to revive the distribution network, there simply will not be any profit in publishing the average mass-market paperback. Which means that such paperbacks, increasingly, will not be published.

In five years, could we face the prospect of a book business in which paperbacks are a rarity? In which only the Kings and Koontzes of the world get into softcover, and the rest of us poor scriveners don't? If so, then a midlist writer's only hope will be a hardcover deal - and hardcover deals aren't easy to get.

How many writers will be put out business and out of print if this trend continues? I don't want to think about it. Unfortunately, I guess I have to.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Psychic Detectives

As some readers may know, I've posted some essays on my Web site detailing the evidence for psychic phenomena (they can be found at ). Some folks get pretty exercised when they hear anyone speak in support of such claims. A while ago, one outraged emailer - saying that if ESP were real, it would be used in crime solving - challenged me to name a single psychic who ever worked for law enforcement. Having never studied this aspect of the subject, I had no ready answer.

If only Court TV's documentary series Psychic Detectives had been airing back then! It's a serious, levelheaded look at real cases in which psychics provided key information that led to the solution of major crimes. And it's a hit, as it deserves to be.

Psychic Detectives airs on Wednesday nights at 9:30 PM, Eastern Time. Check your local listings for the time in your area.

Intelligent, groundbreaking shows like this one are putting skeptics on the defensive - and I say it's about time.

M. Night Shyamalan's "The Village"

If you, like me, are among the millions - well, dozens - who got suckered into paying good money to see M. Night Shyamalan's astoundingly inept "thriller" The Village, I think this news item from speaks for all of us: Audiences Recoil at the Unbridled Horror of M. Night Shyamalan's "Crap"

Numbers are evil

Some people allegedly have a love affair with numbers. I'm the opposite. I have a hate affair with them. Long ago I came to the conclusion that numbers are evil.

Think about it. When are there ever any good numbers? Numbers only depress us. "Oh, God, I've turned forty." "The stock market is down ten percent." "I just got a bill for $300!" "My sales figures are off by 25%." "My car has 100,000 miles on it - how much longer can it last?" "The federal deficit is four hundred billion!"

I say again: NUMBERS ARE EVIL. The Bible is wrong in saying that money (or the love of it) is the root of all evil. Numbers are the root of all evil.

I hate numbers.

What a pleasant world it would be without numbers. "How many books did I sell? Enough." "How old am I? As old as I feel." "The stock market? What's that?" "The deficit? What's a deficit?" "A bill? You mean like on a duck?"

A numberless world - that's the place for me!

Now you might say, "But wait. What if the stock market goes up? Or your sales improve? Or we're running a surplus? Then numbers are good!"

But if you were to say such a foolish thing (which I very much doubt you would), you would be very wrong. Because "good" numbers are the most evil of all!

When the stock market goes up, all that happens is we get a false sense of security and a puffed-up ego. Same with sales figures or the deficit. "Good" numbers make us focus on the wrong stuff - money, prestige, success, our own cleverness and goodness, as contrasted with the stupidity and vileness of others.

"Good" numbers inflate our ego - which is bad. So good numbers are bad. And bad numbers are bad. Therefore, all numbers are bad. Bad things are evil. Numbers are evil. Q.E.D.

There is nothing good about numbers.

Additional proof: Mathematical types are irritating dweebs.

And a final, clenching argument: In a world without numbers, you would never have to balance your checkbook.

We would all be better off without numbers.

I rest my case.

Humility is a virtue, or at least it had better be

Okay, so here's the thing. People don't mean to humiliate writers. It just happens. And it happens a lot.

Case in point: Recently I agreed to do an online discussion with a small group of mystery readers. The leader of the forum asked, and I said yes. It wasn't for the publicity; the group consists of only 18 members. But I figured they were nice enough to ask ...

To participate in the chat, I had to join the group, which means I receive the emails they send back and forth. Now we come to the humiliation part. When the forum's moderator announced that they would be reading and discussing my newest book, Dangerous Games, the response was, um, less than enthusiastic. One member said she was having so much fun reading and discussing J.A. Jance's mysteries that she didn't want to stop. Another opined that she already had so many books to read, she really didn't need to "try a new author." Someone else grumbled that she wouldn't actually go out and buy my book, but she would see if they had it at the library. (Hey, you know, it's a paperback - costs slightly more than a Value Meal at McD's. And it only represents a year of my life ...)

Overall, the attitude seems to be, "We were having so much fun talking about (and to) J.A." - they all call her J.A. like they're pals with her - "and now we have to read some other book by some guy we've never heard of."

The moderator, no doubt embarrassed for me, kindly stepped in and said that while she appreciated everyone's love of "J.A.," this Prescott fellow is pretty good, too. Which was nice, in a pitying sort of way.

Ah, well. The writer's life - it has a way of keeping us humble, and that, as
Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.