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How to Protest a ‘Psychic’

Caleb W. Lack

October 1, 2012

Caleb W. Lack

Last fall, it was brought to my attention that John Edward, author of several books, host of SyFy’s Crossing Over with John Edward and alleged psychic medium, was scheduled to appear in downtown Oklahoma City for two seminars on March 9, 2012. I brought this information to the campus group that I advise, the UCO Skeptics, and suggested we plan a protest to help educate people on exactly what John Edward would be doing, and that it was in no way related to supernatural abilities.

The UCO Skeptics are a campus group located at the University of Central Oklahoma, in Edmond (just north of Oklahoma City). Our purpose is to promote an evidence-based outlook on the world, especially toward claims that involve supernatural, paranormal, and pseudoscientific elements. We actively promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason to examine such claims through on-campus programs and speakers, informational booths, and the like. As a group, we maintain a scientifically skeptical mindset, examining claims based on evidence and not a priori assumptions, while avoiding cynicism. Compared to similar groups, I think that we represent a more diverse set of worldviews, including atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists, deists, and the liberally religious among our number. We welcome and encourage free discussion of often taboo and off-limits subjects and challenge beliefs that are held even by our own members.

While we avoid cynicism whenever possible, there are a few things that just rile us up, making us want to shake people and scream data at them. On that list are so-called psychics, especially those who prey on the bereaved by claiming they can communicate with the dead. All of their “powers” are easily duplicated using sleight of hand or cold reading techniques, and this has been well documented for decades by skeptical icons like James Randi and Ray Hyman. Unfortunately, the average person on the street is unaware of this information, as evidenced by the fact that Edward can charge $150 per person for a seminar where he “talks” to the dead...and draw hundreds of people even in a state as conservatively religious as Oklahoma.

Our protest was intended to be more educational than radical, more informative than angry, more entertaining than upsetting. We knew that we had to appeal to not only those going to the event but also the high foot traffic we would have coming by us, as there were both pro-basketball (Thunder Up!) and hockey (go Barons!) games that night near the hotel holding Edward’s event. To that end, we planned a two-pronged approach, described below. First, though, you need to know the down-and-dirty details of being able to properly pull off a protest.

First, you need a permit. “But it’s my right to protest!” you might say. True, but you still need to follow the rules. Almost all cities and townships require you to file that you will be holding a protest, including how many people are expected to be there and where you will be. They cannot deny you a permit based on what you are protesting, and you do not have to tell them in most cases what you are protesting (but if you do, you might get a “Well good for you, honey!” like we received from the clerk). Second, make sure your protestors know what is and is not okay to do (blocking traffic or impeding the flow of the public are no-nos, for instance). Third, take a physical copy of your permit with you on the big day, in case anyone tries to hassle you about not being able to be there. Next, just to be polite, we informed the general management of the hotel holding the event that we would be outside, what we would be doing, and why we were doing it. After they were assured that we would be a) non-violent and b) not blocking entry into the hotel, they were completely fine with us protesting, and even said how much they appreciated us informing them in such a polite manner. Finally, in the week leading up to the protest, I called the news desk of every television station in the Oklahoma City metro area, letting them know what we were doing, when we were doing it, and giving them our contact information (it helps if you have some contacts in the media, which I do).

Now, on to the main event! For the first prong of our protest, we made the “standard protest” items of flyers and big signs. We focused on having both informative and funny signs that would draw attention and perhaps start a conversation. I designed the handouts to be a single sheet of paper, folded in half so it resembled something fancier than what it was. We included several pieces of information in the handouts. Our name and a catchy title for the handout filled the front cover, in order to let people know exactly what they were getting into. When they opened it up, they found a brief explanation of what cold-reading is and typical ways “psychics” use those skills to make it appear they have supernatural powers. We also included a “cold-reading bingo” card (shamelessly borrowed from this site) so that people could play along either at the show or at home later. On the back side, we included a list of further resources on cold-reading, a brief statement about who we (the UCO Skeptics) are, and how to get into contact with us (including a QR code that linked to our website).

The protest signs were designed to complement our handouts. As such, they said things like

We also called out to various passersby with “Free psychic readings...from a non-psychic!” and “Learn the truth about psychics!” (among other things, all tasteful and non-slanderous). Again, our purpose was to challenge but inform. We didn’t want to come off as a bunch of party poopers just here to ruin a good time for everyone. Hopefully the humor in our signs and handouts helped out.

The second piece to our protest was the inclusion of someone (me) who was skilled at performing cold-readings. As such, we could offer individuals or small groups their own “psychic” reading, and then explain to them how it works. I gave probably five individuals and three groups a reading, and over half of them turned out very well (actually higher than the “hit” rates seen in many live shows by the professionals). My favorite one was on the news reporter who came by to tape our protest for a segment. I managed to tell her the name of both grandfathers, how they died, and what one of them looked like (unfortunately they cut that out of the story they aired).

Overall, things went really, really well both at the protest and afterward. We protested for about two and a half hours (from an hour before the first show started until an hour before the second show was supposed to start), handed out close to two hundred flyers, got a large number of supportive shouts from the people on the street, and were able to directly engage a number of people in one-on-one conversations about scientific skepticism. This isn’t to say, though, that we didn’t have a few terse confrontations with people. Several people (who apparently did not pay much attention to our signs) misconstrued what we were doing, thinking we were actually promoting psychics as real and yelling things like “JESUS is MY psychic!” (honestly, that happened several times from different people). A couple of other people did understand what we were protesting and told us to go home or just leave people alone.

In the next few days, the news story that we were featured in was shown three times on two different channels and was in the “Top Ten” most viewed stories for about ten days. It was even picked up on by a couple of blogs, resulting in several of the skeptics featured in the story getting recognized by strangers while we were out and about. A poster presentation at the American Democracy Project’s annual conference won third place in the student poster competition. I even got asked to write a story about it for some fantastic website...I can’t remember which one, but I’m sure it will come to me before I finish writing this story.

Even with how well things went, I do feel there were areas we could improve (and will, for the next one!). For example, having agreed-upon things to chant or say to pedestrians (rather than everyone just saying their own thing) would have made us more cohesive in getting out a specific message. Our signs may have benefited from larger font sizes, and a smaller number of sayings (again, to improve cohesiveness of the message). I also would have everyone dress business casual attire, rather than wearing just t-shirts or hoodies, so that we can appear more professional. (One thing we learned was that people seem to automatically associate holding up a sign downtown with “crazy,” based on the large number of people who wouldn’t even make eye contact with us.) Alternatively, wearing matching shirts with your organization’s logo can help to get your name out there and show a unified front. Finally, I neglected to contact the local newspapers, which could have increased the number of people made aware of the event.

For all of those who participated in it, the John Edward protest was highly rewarding. Not only were we bringing skepticism and science to the community at large, but we were building our sense of unity as a group by coming together to accomplish something worthwhile. Sure, it takes a bit of planning and effort, but protesting a pseudoscientific event (New Age fair, anyone?) or establishment (alternative medicine providers, perhaps?) can bring attention to your group and critical thinking to the public. We are already planning our next one!

Caleb W. Lack

Caleb W. Lack, Ph.D. is a psychologist and professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. The author of more than three dozen scientific publications relating to the assessment and treatment of psychological problems, as well as a frequent speaker at international conferences and workshops, Dr. Lack is committed to spreading the practice of evidence-based psychology. For more information on his work in teaching, research, and skepticism, please visit his website at www.caleblack.com