The New York Times has published an article, which will appear in Sunday’s print magazine, about Susan Gerbic and her team of Guerrilla Skeptics. They update Wikipedia with articles related to pseudoscience and religion and, relevant here, do a lot of work to expose so-called “psychics.” She’s especially eager to expose “mediums” like James Van Praagh and John Edward — the “grief vampires” who prey on those who have lost loved ones by claiming to “connect” with them beyond the grave.
Reporter Jack Hitt was there during the development and execution of one sting memorably called “Operation Peach Pit.” Gerbic’s team essentially created fake Facebook profiles for people who bought tickets to a show featuring “medium” Matt Fraser. Those fake profiles would include a lot of very specific, very false, details about their lives. If the sting worked, Fraser would “recall” those fake details during the main event… suggesting that his ability to “connect” with dead people was really the result of some quick Googling and Facebook searching. I won’t give away how that sting turned out, though you can read the participants’ writeup here.
At a different event, Hitt (sitting separate from Gerbic’s team in the crowd) pointed out why these types of events seem so real for people gullible enough to fall for the ruse:
Suddenly, the real sorrow of this stranger’s loss was here, near me, on my row. And then the whole room felt it. “Your mom says I am taking responsibility for that.” I could barely look up. This little moment felt so intimate and private. Grief is one of those emotions that doesn’t happen publicly too often, and so when it does, the mood easily dominates the room. With each reading, Fraser was, in fact, summoning the dead because all these middle-aged people had lived lives. We all knew death, family death, deeply felt. One by one, everyone in the room was reliving some loss. Helplessly, I thought of my own father, who died when I was 11, and those old emotions, stored away but never far off, took hold of me as if I were graveside.
The audience was with her; our grief held her. We were all wrapped in rich, old memories of aching pain. Maybe dead spirits aren’t real. But these emotions were. My exhausted father waking up early on his Saturday off to watch cartoons with his little kid. Decades disappeared. I squeezed back a little boy’s confused tears. “Sonny boy,” my mom said one morning, “I have something sad to tell you.” I so miss him.
This is what skeptics understand. We know the power of grief. We understand the finality of death. And Gerbic’s team hates how some people are willing to manipulate that grief, and toy with people’s emotions, to make themselves rich. It’s truly despicable. It’s even worse when they realize they have no special powers but play the game anyway.
This is the sort of debunking James Randi was a master of during his heyday. He pulled apart the curtain so anyone with a hint of curiosity could see how the trick was accomplished. Not everyone will want to know, of course, but for those who do, he gave away the exact details that people like Thomas John use when they’re giving readings. Gerbic is doing the same. As she suggests in the article, she knows she won’t convince everybody that psychic mediums aren’t real, but she hopes she can lay the groundwork for that revelation through her operations. After that, it’s up to individuals to do their own research into these “psychic” performers.
I was curious if Gerbic worried that exposing her own tricks online would allow these performers to catch on — perhaps they’d be more careful before the next live show, or they would know where to look before selecting audience members. She told me, “I hope they see Gerbics in their audience every time they look out and wonder if we might be there.” She added that all the Facebook characters mentioned in the article would be changed before any future stings.
If this article makes mediums more hesitant or spooked about what they find online before an event, good. Make them squirm, right?
(Image via Shutterstock)