One of our SKEPTIC MAG INTERNET HOTLINE readers, a sociologist who has studied psychics for decades, wondered whether it might be possible that Van Praagh is self-deceiving instead of, or in addition to deceiving. He also wondered if I wasn't being too black and white in my assessment of him as a cheater and liar. In response, I have added the following two paragraphs that I originally had in the essay, then deleted. And I rewrote the subsequent section (below) so that it is clear that Van Praagh accuses himself of cheating, then denies it. It is very interesting to see how that unfolded. Michael Shermer

P.S. Oh, on the CBS Unsolved Mysteries piece, a disappointment compared to 20/20, I gave them specific examples of skip-code messages in Moby Dick and other works, but they chose not to use them, and instead allow Drosnin to slam me by saying he looked and couldn't find any. I also pointed out that in this process the vowels are added AFTER the skip search program is run, where you subjectively look at letter and add vowels where you want to. They also chose to leave out this bit of damning information.

Deception or Self-Deception?

When I first began following Van Praagh I thought perhaps there was a certain element of self-deception on his part where, giving him the benefit of the doubt (he does seem a likable character), he developed his cold- and warm- reading techniques through a gradual developmental process of subject feedback and reinforcement, much like the operant conditioning of a rat through "shaping," where one rewards partial behaviors until the target goal is reached. And it is true that gurus come to believe in their own divinity when enough of their followers tell them they are divine. We skeptics are only too aware of the power of self-deception in areas involving memory.

Human behavior is enormously complex, so I suppose it is possible that Van Praagh is _both_ deceiving and self-deceiving, but over the years I have observed much more of the former than the latter. During the Unsolved Mysteries shoot, which lasted 10 hours and was filled with numerous breaks, Van Praagh would routinely make small talk with us, asking lots of questions and obtaining information, which he then used to his advantage when the cameras were rolling.

Is it possible he does not consciously realize that he is doing this? I contacted numerous mentalists about Van Praagh and they all assure me, without reservation, that it would be impossible for him to be self-deceiving because these are techniques that they all use and do so consciously and purposefully. I was told that I was being naive in trying to give Van Praagh the benefit of the doubt. I even talked to someone I know who works a 900-psychic hotline, who is a skeptic but believes there might be something to "some" psychic abilities. It turns out he knows James Van Praagh, and many of the people who work with him in that industry (unfortunately he will not speak out for the record), and he assures me that Van Praagh is not self-deceived. The psychic industry consensus, this source tells me, is that James Van Praagh knows exactly what he is doing.

Caught Cheating

Even for seasoned observers it is remarkable how Van Praagh appears to get hits, even though a closer look reveals that he does not. When we were filming the 20/20 piece, I was told that though overall he had not done well the night before, he did get a couple of startling hits including the name of a woman's family dog. But when we reviewed the videotape, here is what actually happened.

Van Praagh was bombing in his reading of a gentleman named Peter, who was poker-faced and obviously skeptical (without feedback Van Praagh's hit rate drops by half). After dozens of misses, Van Praagh queried, "Who is Charlie?" Peter sat there dumbfounded, unable to recall if he knew anyone of significance named Charlie, when suddenly the woman sitting in back of him a complete stranger blurted out "Charlie was our family dog." Van Praagh seized the moment and proclaimed that he could see Charlie and Dad taking walks in heaven together.

The highlight of the 20/20 piece, however, was a case of hot reading that Van Praagh denied having done. On a break, with the video camera rolling, while relaxing and sipping a glass of water, he suddenly called out to a young woman named Mary Jo: "Did your mother pass on?" Mary Jo nodded negatively, but volunteered "Grandmother." A full 54 minutes later Van Praagh turned to her and said: "I want to tell you, there is a lady sitting behind you. She feels like a grandmother to me."

Van Praagh suspects he might have been set up by 20/20. I can assure you he was not. In this particular incident, for example, neither he nor the producers were aware that the camera was on during the break. When I was there they asked me about the grandmother hit, and I explained that I would have guessed that myself because of the woman's age it would more likely be a grandparent than a parent, and from there you have a 50/50 shot. Just then one of the line producers said, "you know, I think he got that on the break.

Too bad we don't have it on film. After checking they discovered they did, so Van Praagh was caught red-handed. But when confronted by 20/20 correspondent Bill Ritter with the video clip, he proclaimed: "I don'2t cheat. I don't have to prove.... I don't cheat. I don't cheat. I mean, come on." Interesting. No one said anything about cheating. Van Praagh is denying his self-imposed charge.

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