Skeptics: Anecdote *is* Evidence!

For years those interested in anomalous phenomena have had to put up with a string of platitudes from self-labeled skeptics, not least among them the phrases "anecdotes are not evidence", and "the plural of anecdote is not data". But it appears that things have changed, because a story overnight suggests that skeptics are now more than willing to accept anecdotes as validating evidence when it comes to mediumship.

Chris French is a well-known skeptic in the United Kingdom, a Professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, and editor-in-chief of the UK magazine The Skeptic. I have a lot of time for Chris, because he's willing to get in and do experiments on anomalistic claims. However, in this case I find it hard to give him a pass mark.

Last week, a number of skeptics on Twitter began discussing a radio call-in show in Ireland in which someone said they had witnessed fakery at a show given by British 'psychic' Sally Morgan (you can listen to audio at YouTube). It remained a relatively low-key news item however, until yesterday when Professor French published an article in the Guardian with the rather definitive title, "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)". Here's how he sums up the train of events:

Let me describe what happened so that you can make up your own mind. On Monday 12 September, a caller named Sue phoned the Liveline show on RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station. Psychic Sally MorganSue said that she had attended Morgan's show the previous night at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin and had been impressed by the accuracy of the readings she made in the first half of the show.

But then something odd happened. Sue was sitting in the back row on the fourth level of the theatre and there was a small room behind her ("like a projection room") with a window open. Sue and her companions became aware of a man's voice and "everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later."

Sue believes, not unreasonably, that the man was feeding information to Sally through an earpiece attached to her microphone. For example, the voice would say something like "David, pain in the back, passed quickly" and a few seconds later Sally would claim to have the spirit of a "David" on stage who – you'll never guess – suffered from back pain and passed quickly.

A member of staff realised that several people near the back of the theatre were aware of the mystery voice and the window was gently closed. The voice was not heard again.

Sue speculated, again not unreasonably given the history of psychic frauds, that the man was feeding Sally information that had been gathered by engaging members of the audience in conversation in the foyer before the show began. This is a technique widely used by psychic fraudsters, as audience members will naturally discuss with each other who they are hoping to hear from "on the other side", how their loved one died, and so on.

...Sadly, however, history suggests that most of Sally's followers will continue to adore her and pay the high prices demanded to see her in action.

So, on the basis of one person's testimony (given that the following caller on the radio show seemed to 'follow' her lead...e.g. she begins by saying she thought the voice was actually a heckler), and going against the direct testimony of the theatre manager, Chris French has written an article in a national news outlet claiming that Sally Morgan is an outright fraud who uses an ear-piece to receive information.

Now, fair play to him, French has come out on Twitter and said that he did not write the headline, which should be taken on board. However, while he may not make a direct accusation within his article, the tone and framing is rather obvious, just with the addition of legalese/weasel words - see for example his ending sentence "sadly, however". I also note that @TheSkepticMag twitter account happily tweeted the story under it's rather precise headline.

That's not to say that Sally Morgan is innocent - caller Sue may well be on the money with her accusation. Personally, I don't know 'psychic Sally' and her act from a bar of soap, just as much as I don't know "Sue". Given that Sally Morgan has psychic phone lines and the like running from her website, she certainly doesn't endear herself to me on first viewing. But that's not the point I'm trying to make here - which is that skeptics are the first to dismiss anecdotes about reports of anomalous experiences, and yet here embrace it when it validates their belief system, to the extent that they will shout it from the rooftops.

What would have been the correct course of action, given the seriousness of the allegations, is to investigate further. Try to talk to Sue in person, look for corroborating witnesses, and probably crucially, talk to the two people who were said to be in the box behind Sue (given that the theatre manager has already stated that nothing untoward was happening). That would offer a far better basis for allegations or quashing the story than going off the testimony of a caller to a radio show.

So you can be sure that other skeptics were quick to urge caution, right? Wrong, the 'fact' of Sally Morgan's guilt went viral. Phil Plait (138,000 followers): "You'd think a real psychic would know if their methods were about to be exposed." Derren Brown (855,000 followers): "Sally Morgan caught proper cheating. Connecting you with dead loved ones via earpiece." Andy Nyman (20,000 followers): "Sally Morgan isn't Psychic - she's been caught using an earpiece. Another disgusting fake psychic" (followed by a later 'correction'). The JREF (10,000 followers): "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)". Shameful behaviour from so-called "rationalists" - I'm sure we all hope that each of our own reputations could not be smeared so quickly and easily to millions of people...

Interestingly, the suggestion most heard from skeptics when it was pointed out to them that there was very little supporting evidence for such a big claim? "Well, if she's innocent I guess she can sue." So, apparently, skeptics now think that it's okay to smear anyone, and the innocent can just prove themselves so through litigation. Which, given this kerfuffle over the last few years, is rather ironic...

On the flipside, this case also brings attention to the fact that people claiming mediumistic or psychic powers have no formal qualification system or standards governing them. If Sally is truly psychic, it would be nice to see her hook up with some open-minded scientists and set about showing her abilities under scientific testing, given the emotional impact her 'performances' can have on people:

In the end, if you read the comments to the Guardian article, and news spreading across Twitter, it all comes down to believers vs believers, shouting quotations from their particular gospel and/or at their particular flock. Somewhere in the middle, let's hope a few people with common sense and scientific curiosity remain...

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daydreamer's picture
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21 February 2009
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Another well observed point about hypocrisy in skepticism.

Stepping back though I would prefer to use this as an example of the difficulties of using your mind properly to assess data, not that I am saying Greg is making an argument for anecdote as the same quality of evidence as an experiment.

If we can all learn from the mistakes as well as come to understand how easy it is to make them then I think we will have done good.

Since I accept that a good portion of our mental fallacies occur entirely naturally, and are not 'mistakes' in anything other than logic - i.e. they are not 'mistakes' evolutionarily and have served us well - they are there as adaptive shortcuts in reasoning that have served us in one environment or another (such as the action of believing the first returned answer to a question from our memory as the most probable one - something that i'm sure catches us all out pretty much daily). So I don't expect perfection in human behaviour - I just like an attempt to do the best we can in analysis of data and compartmentalisation of the competence of data relative to other data sets. But I don't expect perfection in any group.

Your right to call it as it is though. This looks like hypocrisy to me.

Philosophically I slightly minded towards the fact that invisible things are impossible to disprove. In a sense hypocrisy like this is philosophically unavoidable. Imagine a hypothetical test conducted on a medium that extended over every piece of data they gave and over their entire lifetime. If the results were negative would you have disproven mediumship - of course not. If you performed the experiment on the entire global population you would still not have conclusively disproved the possibility of mediumship - not even if you ran it for 10,000 years. Philosophy rejects complete proof or disproof of anything.

Would you be hypocritical to jump up and down after 10,000 years of results? I think under one philosophical standard you would be. The question is whether that philosophical standard is itself right, which we cannot know. In the end we are talking about the degree of hypocrisy - an idea like the degree of uncertainty. Perhaps if we can minimise that type of philosophical hypocrisy to it's minimum then we have done our best. Perhaps that philosophical hypocrasy is best thought of as tracking uncertainty. I don't know. Since philosophy eventually breaks everything into value statements maybe that is the best we can do.

The skeptics hypocrisy is much larger than that philosophical minimum here though. This was not even performed under test conditions.

However, if I just throw my skeptical hat on for a second and stop worrying about the philosophy...

Let me frame a hypothesis. Sally Morgan is not psychic and is running a stage show. How would she do this? One possibility would be what magicians use to fake mediumship for fun, i.e while not claiming they are mediums. How do we design a test to test our hypothesis? 1. Passively. 2. Actively. Passively might mean listen for any evidence that members of the audience have picked up on deception at some point. Is there any claimed evidence of this? Apparently so.

Next step - use this lead to conclusively prove my hypothesis - since the anecdote isn't fully reliable. I.e if she is using electronic equipment then get hold of some scanners and try and find the band she is using. Especially knowing that she is not going to be doing it illegally. If she wants to operate in a public arena or venue she will need a license and must use the publicly available airspace - or she risks fines and imprisonment. Given the very limited bandwidth available it shouldn't be too hard to find her - even if she is using encryption it is likely to be commercially available and we might still be able to detect the signal just from its power increase correlating with her sentence structure - i.e a gain in signal stength correlating with a few seconds before she moves on to a new person or gives a new piece of information.

This also leaves me pondering whether there is a difference for the requirements to be skeptical over different claims. Say my wife comes back from a walk and says she has seen a tree fallen on the path. Skeptical rating 0/10. That she has seen a dinosaur chasing a child. Skeptical rating bloody hell/10 lets either go and see or run for our lives. Though is may well contain hypocritical features, I can't see that it is entirely as hypercritical in function to be skeptical of a car breaking down as it is of a unicorn in the road. There still needs to be some sort of functional tolerance for the difference between different data under different circumstances. I.e the LHC see's a quark - big deal, we've seen them before all over the place - the LHC see's the Higgs - wait a year for the entire physics community to assess it and try and disprove it. Philosophically we still need to be able to treat different data different, and I guess in terms of survival we do too. I suspect it is a sliding scale with a grey area in the middle though so it isn't likely to be black and white by its nature - hence our problems categorising.

Greg's picture
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daydreamer wrote:

Another well observed point about hypocrisy in skepticism.

I'd like to make a quick point, as this is something that I mentally argue with myself over often. I certainly could take to task a multitude of people on the other side of the coin, from religious people to conspiracy theorists - and I do at times, though my criticism of skepticism I think is certainly disproportional to the amount of rubbish in New Age/Fortean circles.

The reason I do this is not a hate of skepticism or skeptics - I actually feel a lot closer philosophically to a number of skeptics than many here would think. I do it mainly because quite often the criticism of skepticism is due, but nobody else seems to do it. I think skepticism, as an organisation, could use more internal criticism, as this a failure to correct bad logic/assumptions leads such groups to look a lot more like just another religious group, with their own belief system.

Critical thinking is a wonderful tool. Close-minded cynicism based on a core belief system is not. And I'm happy to point out the latter where I see it. ;)

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

daydreamer's picture
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I agree.

What is most important to me about skepticism and critical thinking is that it be a role model for us all. We don't have to do it perfectly or all the time, we just have to respect ideas for what they are - not so that we can't have fun with them on the daily grail or in the pub, or so that it is considered mental to investigate the paranormal, but so that the serious issues of statehood and our interaction with the planet can be handled as best as we can and as safely as we can.

I hold that there is little more honest than the simple question 'show me'.

SeanDraoi's picture
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Hi Readers,

I am an Irish resident and I heard all the radio show 'Joe Duffy Liveline' on RTE. Anyone wishing to hear this for themselves may access the Radio Telifis Eireann and locate a live download of the radio show.

While the initial objection was raised by one individual caller, several other callers followed. All these callers were at the back of the hall and all on air confirmed the first callers story. Most people who attend these events are either believers or people who would like to believe Sally's mediumship.

As may be appreciated the callers to the Radio Show were annoyed to the point of indignation and anger at what they had experienced on the night. All were adamant that a person in the projection booth at the back of the Hall was making statements about certain members of the audience and that these statements were then repeated verbatim by Sally on stage.

For the record I believe in mediumship. I came from a remote community where as a child most families were three generational and I was quite accustomed to visiting dying neighbors and their wakes when the funerals were a three day event involving the whole surrounding populace.

There was a firm belief that 'The Other Side' i.e. dead relatives and friends came to help with the 'cross over' This happened for some hours of occasionally for a whole day prior to death. In these circumstances the dying person acted as a medium and a bridge between the living and the dead. The living could ask questions of the 'unseen gathered departed' and the dying person conveyed the answers.

While such exchanges were serious and took place in a respectful atmosphere, the information exchanges were in the main about mundane family matters and things that concerned the community. There was a convention as to what could be discussed and what was taboo. While the phenomena did not always happen with every death, the occurrence never the less was so frequent as not not to be considered extraordinary when it happened.

Many of the radio audience were like this writer, while now living in an urban environment in a modern electronic age, were only a few decades or a generation removed from the experiences of death rituals I described. Accordingly while there was a very sympathetic audience for Sally in the hall and in Ireland any chicanery such as described by those in the audience who heard the apparent rigging of the show left a very bad feeling indeed.

In Ireland this is still regarded as a Sacral area and Sally's antics were seen as a 'rip off' of the living and disrespectful to the dead. Mediumship as a rule requires, peace, quite and an intimate setting. A large noisy hall is far from an idea environment and it is easy to see where a medium who has a little capacity in special circumstances, may be tempted to 'enhance' theri talent and make it go a long way especially where showbusiness financial earnings potentials are involved.

If instead of genuine mediumship there is a polished music hall routine with the same practices as 'mind reader acts' use, then the same Sally should be confronted and exposed for the fraud that she is.A distinction should be made between Sally's activities and 'mediumship' however : the latter is not on trial here, Sally's antics and practices are.

As Abraham Lincon said " you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time" Perhaps the RTE audience feedback is the start of the process that will expose Sally's sharp practice?.

" Those who would give up essencial Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety " ........( Benjamin Franklin)

Greg's picture
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SeanDraoi wrote:

Perhaps the RTE audience feedback is the start of the process that will expose Sally's sharp practice?.

I agree wholeheartedly with this summation - if there is chicanery going on, then it would be good to expose it. My emphasis though is, as you say, that it should be "the start" of the process, in which final judgements are based on a fair set of accumulated evidence.

That is: anecdote *is* evidence, it offers a starting point for further investigation and the posing of hypotheses. It just doesn't offer conclusive evidence.

In this particular case: the callers may well be all giving excellent evidence of chicanery; someone may have heard what they thought was chicanery, and from there it escalated through Chinese whispers outside in the foyer, and on radio; it could even be a concerted attempt by a skeptical group to 'bring down' a well-known psychic (so-called Guerilla Skepticism). I'd personally put the odds at around 45-45-10 for those three options, but I offer it to show that care should be taken in bold pronouncements on very little evidence.

The more interesting question: do you know of any sources discussing these Irish mediumship traditions? Sounds absolutely fascinating!

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

SeanDraoi's picture
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Hi Greg & Co.

I actually started a detailed reply for you but there are so many intersections that need explanation that a satisfactory reply is outside the scope of a brief response.

I am now in my early sixties and have spend over four decades discussing these matters will all kinds of people. Many of these areas interface with areas of study here which is why this is one of my daily 'must visit' sites whenever possible.

To digress for a moment, Masonic matters figure prominently here and I have made direct contact with several Masonic scholars over the years but got little real engagement. There are both Irish manuscripts and Irish stone carvings from the last decade of the first Millennium that display positions and stances....... now claimed exclusively by the Masonic traditions, yet here they are an integrated functioning part of the Celtic Church.

I can suggest a very credible line from there to first references of Scottish Masonry and into the Jacobite Tradition, but in my experience far from welcoming these linkages, Masonic researchers are at first bemused and then embarrassed at the inescapable conclusions.

All these sub rosa things need to be set out anyway : some years back I was all Ireland Champion Poet For Live Performance Poetry and I have hundreds of my own and other poems that I can perform 'off the top of my head'. Quite a few of my own poems have never been written down. ( I cannot however give you the reg no of my current car or the last one either: I am hopeless with telephone No. it works selectively! )

If you think there is sufficient interest in these things, I will do a series of blogs on the subject and not only share these things on a scholarly basis but also open them up for appreciation and discussion. While I am a poet in the Bardic Sacral Traditions, I have also some awards for mainstream poetry and in recent years following cardiac problems and forced early retirement, I have studied for a History MA to give the Academic world it's due and present what I write in scholarly way that others can build on.

So Greg, over to you and others for comment and observations: if the interest is there it would take a half dozen to ten blog articles to cover the areas concerned. I would also welcome advice as to the areas to explore and the format.

Suggested headings..1) prehistoric and megalithic Ireland. 2) The Coming of the Celts. 3) Celtic Sacral beliefs and philosophy. 4) Ireland and the teachings of 'The Carpenter' Son ( 1500 year old Gaelic Title), 5 ) Integrating Druidic and Patrician / Jamesian Church Practices 6) Colmcille to Ceile De ( Culdees) 7) Synod of Rath Brazil, Southern Ireland, Celtic and other Churches agreement with Roman Church, 1111AD. 8) Sub Rosa Celtic Church and practices in Scotland and final Celtic Church suppression. 9) Ceile De to Mason Movement ? 10) The real Jacobite Tradition ?

By in large Greg all of these areas are not discusses objectively or sympathetically if at all. yet the areas you ask me for information on cannot really be discussed in abstract from the given background headings. It will probably be necessary to add a few more headings having got through the first lot. Is there patience and interest for that detail and overview?

There is an irish State radio station serving the scattered Gaelic Communities. One service they operate is to give the daily deaths in the various communities and the funeral arrangements. This station do not say a person has died..... the term they use literally translated states.... 'Gone In The Way ( Journey) Of Truth' last night is Paddy Kelly etc.... Death is seen as both the end of corporeal life and the start of the freed spirit journeying into full awareness.

It is in that context that your question to me needs to be answered but without the suggested background, much of what is in one of Europe's oldest Cultures next to Rome and Ancient Greece, will remain unknown, unappreciated and sub rosa.

" Those who would give up essencial Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety " ........( Benjamin Franklin)

red pill junkie's picture
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I'd definitely be interested in those blogs :)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

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I hope Greg says "Yes", as what you suggest sounds very interesting. Look forward to hearing more from you.

Regards, Kathrinn

Greg's picture
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SeanDraoi wrote:

If you think there is sufficient interest in these things, I will do a series of blogs on the subject and not only share these things on a scholarly basis but also open them up for appreciation and discussion.

Hi,

I for one am very interested in seeing this material, and I'm sure many Grail readers are as well. However, I should emphasise that posting blogs of your material should be self-motivated. All the Grail admins will tell you it has to be that way, because many times we have worked long and hard on posts that we thought were done brilliantly/contained great material, and they don't get a single comment. So it has to come from your own desire to pass on this material (though knowing a number of us would love to hear it) regardless of response, because sometimes feedback levels can be rather underwhelming.

Mediumship in different cultures around the world is fascinating to me (and stay tuned for a Daily Grail Publishing book on this topic in the not-to-distant future).

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

Grail-seeker's picture
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Quote:

sometimes feedback levels can be rather underwhelming

I'm sure such a blog series would spark a great deal of interest. I look forward to your posts Sean - take all the time you need!

Grail-seeker (a.k.a. Perceval)

@grailseeker

SeanDraoi's picture
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Greg & Co.

Greg, I take your point about motivation but most blog communities have a far wider readership than those who post. I personally am a good example of this, because of other commitments and limited time, it is usually read only for me, but I do have an appreciation of the Grail Community and the pool of talents we have here regarding esoteric matters.

Since I have got a lot of enjoyment from this site and I can make this possibly unique contribution, it is only right that I should. As you rightly point out Greg and to quote an old Gaelic Folk saying ' The boon is in the Deed'!

As I set out, there are so many intersecting lines here in what are usually regarded as as separate and apart things, which yet are and can be presented as a unified whole, as indeed they were in Celtic Traditions and philosophy. The inputs from some of the other special interests here should make the exercise very worth while indeed for all concerned.

Not going to happen to-tomorrow, but as of now I am mentally engaged with the essays, so fairly soon. Meanwhile using the areas set out as a intended heads, if anyone would like any special orientation under any of them, let me know and I will try to incorporate these aspects.

Cheers folks ! Sean Draoi

" Those who would give up essencial Liberty to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety " ........( Benjamin Franklin)

manyteachers's picture
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"anecdote *is* evidence, it offers a starting point for further investigation and the posing of hypotheses. It just doesn't offer conclusive evidence."

This is the most important lesson to be taken from here. Thanks for saying it.

daydreamer's picture
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I think this relies on a little word play.

Doesn't stop it being valid as a direction of research though, and as you say, we can always just add qualifiers to the word 'evidence' to suggest how good it is.

Given the fact that none of us have the time to learn everything using no separate identifiers for different qualities of evidence, but just using words like 'weak', 'strong' or 'conclusive' to modify the word 'evidence' seems to invite misinterpretation.

Actually it reminds me of the relativistic nature of language and our brains - how we, even in important matters, use inaccuracy to convey meaning. Like when a doctor writes 'temperature seems a little high' on your notes. So it might suit our language better, but it also seems to convey an inaccuracy.

In terms of the philosophy we must grapple with the fact that 'evidences' also point towards the incorrect answer as well as the correct one. We must deal with the cultural notion that evidences only indicate accuracy - they do not.

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I heard about this on the radio this morning where the host had a sceptic (I didn't catch the name) and Uri Geller 'discussing' it. The starting position of the presenter was that anything vaguely 'supernatural' was clearly nonsense, thus Sally must be a fraud. The sceptic was arguing for scientific testing ("in Dr. French's lab") which is not unreasonable, but he shot himself in the foot by stating at the outset that there was no such thing as psychic abilities and "all proper studies undertaken have shown this" - so he was both closed-minded AND ignorant of those studies that have had 'anomalous' results. Oh, and he referenced Randi and his challenge as a 'scientific test'.

Old Uri didn't really help matters by arguing that everyone was obviously in some way psychic because most people had experienced deja vu.

I didn't hear the end of the discussion, but one cannot help but think that if Sally were tested and 'passed', the quality of the tests would be questioned, and if all else failed the sceptic position would be that they could not explain the results but it was not evidence of psychic ability. (Actually, Greg, I'm with you - in Sally's case I can't help but find the commercialism distasteful and - typically sceptically closed-minded - I tend to assume underhand methods).

I'm aware that I'm diving into a pool of hypocracy here...

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For what it's worth I have seen Sally Morgan live.I wasn't all that impressed so if she was being "fed" information it wasn't being done very well ! I did like her -she was warm and engaging but there was only one really impressive reading right at the start. At one point she started to give a message from a spirit who she said was beside her until the audience member pointed out that the person wasn't yet dead.
I do think she probably has some ablity but I remember saying at the time she would do better in a small venue.
She has a TV programme called Psychic Sally On The Road which I do enjoy watching.She gives some private readings to "celebrities".For some, nearly everything she says is easily googled, but for others she has said some things which shocked them.
One thing she does do is ask for questions to be written on a card before the show . They go into a bowl which she dips into during the evening . The "questions " often give a way a lot and she can pick out the ones she wants to answer.

She claims to have been tested by D Gary Schwartz but I don't know what the results were. I have heard him mention her name so she has spent some time with him.
A statement on her website denies any wrong doing . She says two young men who were unknown to her were in the box having a conversation. An usherette closed the window.

Her husband and son in law travel with her and have appeared on the TV show .They are very recognisable. It would be interesting to hear a description of the mystery man /men. If there is a simple explanation it should be easy to find out.
Her "fans" are unlikely to be affected by all this because they are convinced she is the genuine article.
The only medium I have been really impressed by is John Edward . No one else comes close.

Inannawhimsey's picture
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It's simple tribalism: the metrics that one applies to that which is of one's own tribe are different from the metrics one applies to that which isn't of one's tribe.

Thus, we have evangelical Christians putting down Wiccans whilst accepting their Bible and Scientists putting down 'Psi' powahs whilst accepting all of the book of The Grand Design as actual science.

Bless people like Greg who are able (and patient enough) to wade through the bafflegab and communicate "Hey, umm, something's not right here and this is what it is."

---------
All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake