"Thinking Skeptically" at the PACC Conference

by David Bloomberg

Professionals Against Confidence Crime (PACC) is a police organization that fights all manners of con games, scams, and swindles. Investigator Bruce Walstad, a longstanding friend of REALL, is the president, and he invited me to speak at the conference last month. I gave a presentation, "Thinking Skeptically," similar to the one I gave for REALL in October but geared a bit more towards police officers.

The ThinkerPACC members often have dealings with people who claim to be psychic — whether in terms of fortune telling swindlers or "psychic detectives" who claim to be able to solve crimes or find missing people. Most of the members are extremely skeptical, which I would expect from people who deal routinely with con-men. So I was a bit surprised to find that one of the speakers on Thursday (I spoke Friday) was a parapsychologist!

That talk was actually given tag-team style, with Anna Lascurain, a New Jersey Deputy Attorney General, giving the first part and Joanne McMahon, the aforementioned parapsychologist, giving the second. The talk, "Psychic Frauds," was about a case Lascurain had worked on and through which she met McMahon.

The case began when a number of senior citizens received letters from "psychics" claiming they would win money, but they had to send in some money first. Lascurain wanted to prosecute this as a con game, but the "psychics" claimed freedom of speech. She had to show that fraudulent promises were involved — not just a general "vision" or something similar.

First she said she had to set aside all issues of belief (she indicated that she was on the fence when it came to these matters and said that she tells people that if they are going to go to a psychic, do it as entertainment — don’t base your life on it) and find out what "real psychics" are supposed to be able to do. She was going to compare this to what these psychics said they did, such as leaving their physical bodies for a spirit meeting over Tibet so they could go over mailing lists. She tried to find some "real psychics," but only found more fakes and phonies instead. Finally, she hooked up with McMahon, who helped her out. She ended up winning the civil case and getting huge judgments against the guy who sent out all these letters, so the good guys won.

Joanne McMahon works for the Parapsychology Foundation. Frankly, from her talk, she and I would probably agree on 90-95% of these types of issues, but she does believe there are "real psychics" who have actual psychic power (she is not one of them). She indicated that there are very few of these real psychics, but then went on to make a remark indicating she thought that Greta Alexander might have been one of them — which lowered my opinion of her judgment on these matters. One point on which I generally agree with her is that most "psychics" don’t know they are using cold reading but think they have real power. While I don’t know that "most" of them are this way, I certainly agree that a lot are fooling themselves and not necessarily fooling others intentionally.

Of the calls her group gets, she said they fall into three groups. The first are people looking for a "good psychic." These she refers to counselors or other reputable people. The second group contains people who claim to be psychic and want to enhance their powers. She says that it’s pretty certain that none of these people actually are psychic. The last group calls to say they are having psychic episodes and they want it to go away. Of these, she thinks a large percentage are truly psychic, but a large percentage are truly psychotic, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

So how does she know who is a valid psychic? She said that research done over the years has proven to her that psychics do exist. Unfortunately, some of the citations she gave are less than convincing. One of these, the U.S. government remote viewing work, has been criticized because of the poor controls and results, among other things. But she used this as a good example. (For more information on some of these studies, see "REALLity Check," Vol. 3, #12, December 1995 and "REALLity Check," Vol. 5, #1, January 1997.)

In another example, she talked about a Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who did reincarnation studies. She said he had a group of children who talked about "other" or previous lives with some good evidence that it was true. She noted that all were geographically near where those "other" lives had occurred. Now, I was immediately a bit skeptical, since if the children were that near, perhaps they had information that Dr. Stevenson thought they could not have had. But that’s not the way McMahon read it — she said this was evidence for psychometry — the ability to hold an object and talk about its past (this is the ability psychic detectives supposedly use when they hold a murder weapon, for example). She said psychometry also applies to buildings and the environment and that these children were probably reading the environment. This also explains hauntings and the like. Personally, I see no need to use one unproven claim instead of another unproven claim.

The real fun started when I gave my presentation. Most of it wasn’t terribly controversial for this audience. They are used to dealing with cons and tend to be fairly skeptical. But, as I noted, people can partition their thinking and are often skeptical in one area but not in others.

The talk went well, and then the questions started. Lascurain began by playing Devil’s advocate and asking about psychics in police work. I did my best to answer her questions, but at some point I completely lost control of the situation. Others started jumping in on both the anti-psychic and the "but they might work" sides and I abruptly became a bystander. I tried to get a few answers in, but I was cut off so quickly that I wasn’t able to formulate and state good responses. One point I did manage to make was that there has never been a case in which psychics have been proven to have helped the police. The main guy on the "but they might help" side responded that he had such a case, and referred to a case in New Jersey where some psychic helped some department find some body (or something to that effect). I managed to stop the debate long enough to point out what he had said: someplace, somebody, something – no details, which was my point. McMahon spoke up and asked if I wanted those details, and I told her that I would be very interested in them. To date I have not received them.

Unfortunately, we were running late and the debate had to be ended while several other people who had questions perhaps unrelated to the heated discussion were unable to speak up. But overall, from the comments to me afterwards, I’d consider the presentation to be a success.

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