More Options

Skeptical Activism of the Investigation Network

William M. London

Skeptical Briefs Volume 25.3, Fall 2015

On September 13 and 27, 2014, a group of advocates for skeptical inquiry met in Hollywood, California, to launch a grassroots skeptics group. Participants decided to name the group the Investigation Network and set as its mission: “to promote scientific skepticism to the public through education, investigation, community service and social activities in Southern California.” True to its mission, this is not a group that merely discusses skepticism; it’s a group focused on the intellectual stimulation and fun of skeptical activism in education and investigation.

The Haunted Red Line Tour

For their first activity, the group went on “The Haunted Red Line [Subway] Tour” provided by the Ghost Hunters of Urban Los Angeles (GHOULA) in October. The 
president of GHOULA is Richard Carra­dine, who according to his blog site has investigated over 200 “haunted” locations all over the world, but locations in Los Angeles are his favorites.

The description of his approach reveals that while he isn’t interested in skeptical inquiry, he isn’t necessarily credulous about ghosts either. According to the GHOULA blog: “His approach to each case is academic. Proving or disproving the spiritual activity of a certain spot isn’t what motivates this ghost hunter. Instead, he is more interested in collecting the stories and eyewitness accounts, and archiving them, as a means of recording them for future studies into these unusual phenomena that clearly affect so many seemingly unconnected people.”

I’m not sure I could have had the patience to sit through a tour led by someone more interested in good stories and eyewitness accounts than in finding out (the typically mundane) explanations for alleged hauntings. Perhaps Carradine’s non-judgmental approach can be described as academic, but I think attempting to separate fact from fiction would be more illuminating and at least as much fun.

I give the participants from the Investigation Network credit for tolerating and even enjoying the tour. If they had found strong evidence of ghost activity, I think we would have heard an announcement by now. Nevertheless, they engaged in some potentially fruitful networking.

On November 25, the Investigation Network distributed educational flyers and free books on skepticism at its “Ask a Skeptic” table at the Pseudoscience Fair put on by the Skeptics Club at Santa Monica College. The Skeptics Club has put on a variety of interesting events, including talks by James Underdown of Center for Inquiry–Los Angeles, Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com, Mick West of contrailscience.com, and Barbara Drescher of ICBS Everywhere and http://www.skeptic.com/insight/.

Theresa Caputo

On November 6, members of the Investigation Network gathered outside the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills to promote critical thinking to those lined up for a performance by Theresa Caputo, who is best known from her title role in Long Island Medium, her TLC (un)reality TV series. They distributed free flyers about “Spotting a Genuine Psychic” and engaged Caputo’s customers in friendly, thought-provoking conversations. They pointed out that while Caputo might talk to dead relatives of people in her audiences, it doesn’t mean that the dead receive her messages or communicate back to her.

Not surprisingly, some of Caputo’s admirers thought the distribution of flyers was inappropriate despite the friendliness of the Investigation Network protesters. Emery Emery, who cohosts the Skeptically Yours and Ardent Atheists podcasts with Heather Henderson, came prepared with an ACLU information pamphlet that explains the rights of protesters. When a manager asked the group to leave the area and threatened to call the police, the Investigation Network knew they had the right to peacefully protest on public property outside the theater and stood their ground. A video summary of the protest is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XnS5jn4VXA.

On April Fool’s Day 2012, the James Randi Educational Foundation’s media Pigasus Award, given annually to the media outlet that reported as fact the most outrageous paranormal claim, was bestowed upon TLC for its “collection of shows that promote belief in paranormal folderol” such as Caputo’s show. Caputo was singled out for the performance Pigasus Award, which is given to the “psychic” performer who fools the greatest number of people with the least effort.

James Randi—who was a magician of international fame long before his skeptical work—noted: “Caputo does what’s known in my trade as ‘cold reading.’ The very best practitioners can pick up enough information in what seems like innocent, idle conversation to convince you that they know very specific things about you. The scientific phenomenon is called the Forer effect—giving credence to vague observations that seem personal.” How successful would Caputo be if people who want to receive communications from dead loved ones recognized how convincing cold readings can be when performed by skilled magicians?

John Edward

On January 3, members of the Investigation Network carried out an educational protest outside the Pasadena Convention Center before a performance by John Edward, another “psychic medium” who claims to be able to receive communications from the dead loved ones of audience members. Edward gained fame for his claimed abilities on his television shows Crossing Over with John Edward and John Edward Cross Country. Critics have observed that he uses common cold reading techniques. Joe Nickell, PhD, senior research fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) noted that Edward may sometimes also perform “hot” readings, which amount to obtaining personal information through non-psychic means such as forms people fill out in advance of performances (Nickell 2010).

The ACLU information pamphlet came in handy during the John Edward protest. Emery Emery knew that the group was rightfully protesting in a public area rather than trespassing on private property. As shown in an entertaining short video available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh2FH
2hB9RA, the police showed up, but Emery was able to convince the officers that they were not in violation of the law.

Cold Reading Workshops

On January 3, the Investigation Network organized a training workshop for its members on cold reading techniques. Micah Cover, a magician, provided the training. If Caputo and Edward had received such training, maybe they wouldn’t make so many gaffes in their own fake psychic readings.

On February 7, the Investigation Network held a workshop at Santa Monica College on cold reading to be led by Mark Edward (not to be confused with John), author of Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium and an Investigation Network participant. Joe Nickell has cautioned against using cold reading techniques on people seeking contact with the dearly departed and then revealing the trickery to show people their vulnerability to deception. He wrote: “. . . to toy with their deepest emotions—however briefly and well intentioned—is to cross a line I prefer not to do. Besides, I believe it can be very counterproductive. It may not be the alleged medium but rather the debunker himself who is perceived as dishonest, and he may come across as arrogant, cynical, and manipulative—not heroic as he imagines” (Nickell 2001, 22).

Learning cold reading techniques in order to demonstrate to the desperate and vulnerable their susceptibility to trickery raises ethical questions. In contrast, learning cold reading techniques in order to become a better investigator of alleged psychic performances is clearly not ethically problematic.

Potential Impact

The activities of the Investigation Network and similar grassroots skeptics groups are important for several reasons. For example, they create enjoyable social activities related to skepticism, provide learning opportunities for serious skeptics and others interested in developing critical thinking skills, and generate publicity for skeptical activism and the importance of critical thinking.

I doubt that the Investigation Network had much impact on people in line to see the psychic mediums. It’s difficult to encourage people who have strongly held beliefs developed through wishful thinking to think carefully and critically. Most people who take “psychics” seriously are much more interested in seeking comfort rather than enlightenment. Isaac Asimov famously wrote: “Inspect every piece of pseudoscience and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold. What does the scientist have to offer in exchange? Uncertainty! Insecurity!” (Asimov 1987, 65).

However, if the popularity of grassroots groups such as the Investigation Network can grow significantly over time, their activism may have a significant potential impact in shifting social norms toward the greater tolerance of uncertainty and insecurity that comes with embracing skeptical inquiry. I see participants in Investigation Network activities as trailblazers for ongoing skeptical activism.

[Disclosure: While I have not been involved in any of the educational activities of the Investigation Network I have discussed, I served as facilitator for the group’s September 13 planning meeting, wrote the first draft of its mission statement, and attended its September 27 planning meeting.

References

William M. London

William M. London's photo

William M. London is a professor of public health at Cal State LA, associate editor of Consumer Health Digest, and a consultant to the Committee on Skeptical Inquiry.