George Claassen

The dead can't talk

2005-09-16 09:08

Psychic fever, superstition and unreason are again rife in South Africa with the return of fraudster Marietta Theunissen to South African shores.

Theunissen, well-known for purporting to talk to the dead on KykNet's programme Die Ander Kant, has arrived from New Zealand to present sessions to locals who want her to speak to their beloved deceased.

She doesn't come cheap (R650 per session, 15 persons per session, two sessions a day) and stands to make nearly R20 000 per day for her "work" between 11-27 October in Cape Town and Durbanville alone.

And until then she is presenting the same crossing the Styx-sessions in Johannesburg. In Cape Town alone she stands to make more than R270 000 if her sessions are fully booked, and even larger amounts could flow into her pocket in Johannesburg.

That she will have a full house I do not doubt for one moment, judging by the stream of uncritical people who phoned in to the radio stations 702 and Cape Talk last Sunday evening during Kate Turkington's outrageously uncritical interview with Theunissen on her programme, Believe It or Not.

And this is only because there are enough gullible people who don't know the basics of scientific reason. And don't use their baloney detectors, if they possess one.

Theunissen is cashing in on people's vulnerability. It is as simple as that. Harry Houdini, who was regarded as one of the greatest con-artists ever, spoke to the dead for years.

In his later years, he exposed psychics who said they could talk to the dead and called their fraud bordering on murder.

Science 'must bring proof'

Theunissen and other so-called psychics such as John Edward and James van Praagh in the US argue that science must bring proof that they do not indeed speak to the dead.

Houdini emphasised a very valid scientific argument that it "is not the duty of us as sceptics to prove that mediums are dishonest. They must bring proof that they are honest."

James Randi, an ex-master magician himself, has challenged Edward, Van Praagh and all other people making paranormal claims to allow their so-called powers to be tested and scrutinised under scientific conditions by independent scientific observers.

He put up $1m if their claims are found to be true. Other sceptic organisations in India and Australia added more than $250 000 to Randi's amount.

Not one psychic has taken up the challenge. I have put a challenge to Theo Erasmus, producer of Die Ander Kant, for Theunissen to accept Randi's offer and that it should be televised live. The offer was not accepted.

Why?

The astrophysicist Carl Sagan, one of the best debunkers of pseudoscientific nonsense, emphasised that science is a relentless taskmaster through its scientific method. Science is also the best knowledge filter, as Michael Shermer, director of the American Skeptics, wrote in his book, Why People Believe Weird Things.

How does Theunissen fool so many people, even the media?

The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (SCICOP) studied mediums and identified the following techniques:

A flood of words: These psychics all talk very fast, with the ultimate aim to confuse the listener. Van Praagh is as fast as a Ferrari, Edward drives an Indy-500 car, a scientist who analysed his show, Crossing Over With John Edward, for ABC-television emphasised. Theunissen also uses the fast rambling technique very effectively while her guests are crying their eyes out on the show.

Cold readings: Psychics look for clues in the actions, body language, clothes, colours, jewellery, and facial expressions of their victims. They are excellent observers. But their guess-work is still not very good. SCICOP found Edward was only 10% to 20% successful in the questions he puts to bereaved studio guests. In my own analysis of Theunissen on Die Ander Kant, she fares even worse, getting it right only 8% of the time. Shermer exposed Edward also on the programme Unsolved Mysteries and said anyone could learn cold reading techniques within half an hour. It works because the subjects want it to work.

Warm readings: Teams behind the scenes gather information about the victims beforehand and uses it in their shows. Interviewees have to fill in biographical details before the show that are analysed by the psychic's teams before taping of the show.

Manipulations and fraud: Edward was caught out by SCICOP that he used information thus gathered to make his readings. I don't have any doubt that Theunissen follows the same techniques.

The over-emphasis of successful readings: Failures by the mediums are often edited out of television programmes.

It is time that reasonable people make their voices heard loudly and clearly about this unrelenting grip superstition has on the gullible minds of vulnerable people.

"The message the public should take away is that it is not the psychics and fortune-tellers who can see into the future" (or speak to the dead), "it is the scientists," as Robert Park puts it so aptly in his wonderful book, Voodoo Science - The Road From Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford University Press).

  • George Claassen is science editor of Die Burger, South Africa's largest Afrikaans daily paper and teaches science journalism at Stellenbosch University.

  • Send your comments to George or discuss this column now in our debating forum.

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