Can the living talk to the dead?

USA Today/June 20, 2001
By Greg Barrett

If Cyndi Wallace is a psychic as she claims, why does she include this on her voice-mail greeting: "Leave me your name, area code and phone number ..." Shouldn't she know?

Wallace, a $95-an-hour medium who says she can read the future and channel the dead, knows she is an easy mark for the cheap shot. It's tempting, perhaps comforting, to dismiss psychics as a sideshow, the gypsy cousins to three-card monte. To do so maintains our tactile boundaries and some sense of control.

But regardless of whether spirits are attempting to communicate with us, we are trying to communicate with them: parents to deceased children; children to deceased parents; spouses to deceased spouses. Skeptics and believers alike say it is this love - and love lost - that drives our undying desire to talk to the dead.

Twenty-eight percent of Americans (up 10% from 1990) believe that people can hear from or communicate mentally with the dead, a new Gallup poll reports. Another 26% aren't sure, but won't rule it out. Half of all Americans believe in extrasensory perception. And everyone from Hillary Clinton to Nancy Reagan to Adolf Hitler are known to have consulted with psychics, famous and obscure.

"These are not the Shirley MacLaines of the world channeling 3,000-year-old Assyrian warriors," says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, which reports that roughly one in three Americans believe that they have personally communicated with the dead. "Clearly this is a phenomenon that is fairly common, and particularly common to those who have lost someone very significant to them."

"People not only want it to be true, they need it to be true. It's the feel-good syndrome," says longtime skeptic and magician James Randi, 72, whose standing offer of $1 million to psychics who can independently verify their "magic" has gone unclaimed for four years. "Everyone wants to be reassured about loved ones who have passed. Just once I want to find a spiritualist who says, 'Oh, well, sorry. She went to hell and I can't reach her.' "

TV psychic John Edward tells viewers of his popular cable show Crossing Over with John Edward that the "love bonds" created on Earth "stay with us after we cross over." Since its debut last summer on the Sci Fi Channel, Edward, who claims to talk to dead people, has seen his show grow from an audience of 275,000 U.S. households to 614,000 and move from late night to prime time, Sundays through Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET. His personal appearances nationwide are typically sold out weeks in advance, and the current wait for a $300 consultation at his Huntington, N.Y., office is two years. It's no wonder he uses a pseudonym.

"The amount of requests coming in here is absolutely overwhelming," says Edward, 31, born John MaGee Jr., a fast-talking, broad-shouldered son of a New York City cop. It is helping "to satisfy a curiosity, a desire, a need for more knowledge of spirituality."

Government doubts

Perhaps unbeknownst to most people, you, too, have invested in psychics. U.S. taxpayers between 1972 and 1995 quietly supported the paranormal profession - be it genuine or fake. Prior to severing its ties to psychics in 1996, the CIA and various U.S. Defense Department intelligence agencies spent $20 million in an effort to turn psychics into spy satellites. Particulars about the program are being reviewed for declassification and could be made public this year, says CIA spokeswoman Anya Guilsher.

The government's conclusion: "It was unpromising," Guilsher says. Never mind that in 1981 psychic Noreen Renier was lecturing on ESP at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., when she warned that President Reagan would soon receive an injury to the upper chest. Two months later, the name John Hinckley was notorious.

After investigators interrogated Renier and cleared her of any involvement in the assassination attempt, she says they had one final question: "Do you see any other danger for the president?" She didn't.

Some are gullible

If Deborah DePolo is a psychic as she claims, why can't she afford her own studio instead of borrowing the Washington, D.C., office of environmental lobbyist Ronald Sykes? Shouldn't she just channel some winning lottery numbers?

DePolo soon might not need the lottery. Three months into her part-time job of "spiritual consulting," she says she averages 10 clients each week who pay $60 an hour. Her business card reads Danielle Armstrong, a pseudonym, a deception common in her profession.

"I didn't want to use my real name because the whole thing is still sort of taboo," says DePolo, 42, the stepdaughter of a West Virginia coal miner and a self-proclaimed psychic with intense gray eyes and claims of foreseeing the deaths of two of her fiancés and NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt. In a word, says Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, all this medium stuff is "nincompoopery."

"But for whatever reason, it's all the rage. ... Certain members of the public are just gullible," says Kurtz, whose Skeptical Inquirer magazine attempts to play foil to the voodoo. "What John Edward and others are claiming to do is a miracle. Such an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence."

Tea bags and tears

Nebraska's Maxine Weaver believes her evidence, if not extraordinary, is extrasensory. Ten years after her daughter, Lindy, shot herself in the head, Wallace, a Maryland psychic, described her perfectly to Weaver and said Lindy was attempting to talk to her. "Do you remember the tea bags?" Wallace asked Weaver, who then began to cry. Six months after Lindy's 1974 suicide, Weaver had found a note penned by her that read, "I love you, Mommy." It was buried in a canister that held Weaver's tea bags.

"No one else knew about that other than my husband. How can it be fake?" asks Weaver, 77, a faithful Methodist who attends her childhood church in Humboldt, Neb. "Now when I go to church and hear the minister talk about some things, I realize we agree on a lot, but my thoughts at this moment go just a step further."

Harvard-educated Gary Schwartz also thinks he has the evidence. His University of Arizona Human Energy Systems Laboratory is a psychic testing ground. Two years ago, five mediums Schwartz refers to as the "Dream Team" (Edward among them) were flown to Tucson and put through a battery of tightly monitored tests. On average, the psychics scored 83% in revealing personal details about others (when asking yes or no questions), a score that was nearly double Michael Jordan's lifetime shooting percentage, says Schwartz, who favors the basketball metaphor.

"If mediums are willing to stand up and be counted, scientists should be willing to stand up and count them," Schwartz says. "If it is real it will be revealed, and if it is fake we'll catch the mistake."

Many questions

If Dream Team psychic Laurie Campbell is all that she says, why do ghosts reveal mostly mundane information to her and speak in shards of sentences? And why does Campbell ask as many questions as she answers? Shouldn't she know? "Is there a person in the family with a name like Francis or Frank or Fred?" she asks. "Is there an Adam, an A-name, an Albert or an Andrew?"

Skeptics call this sort of questioning "cold reading," a hunt-and-peck Q&A that encourages people to author their own dialogue with the dead. The theory is that people who want to believe, or "need to believe," as Randi says, will grasp onto the accuracy and forget the inaccuracy.

In tapes of Crossing Over with John Edward scrutinized by Randi, he says Edward had an accuracy of 13%. In one 45-second interrogation of a TV guest, Randi counted 23 questions by Edward with three correct answers. "James Randi would record Michael Jordan's air balls but not count his numerous dazzle shots," Schwartz says. "On rare occasions John Edward might get below 20%, but on the average his percentages are extremely high, sometimes above 90%."

None of Schwartz's Dream Team will challenge for Randi's $1 million prize, a sum given by an anonymous U.S. donor which generates $50,000 to $60,000 in interest annually for Randi's paranormal education foundation. Randi is an eternal skeptic who will never convert, Schwartz says.

"We will not jump through hoops for him," says Campbell, who is on Schwartz's staff at the University of Arizona. Randi "will never let anyone win the prize. If he did, his house of cards would fall." Yes, it would, Randi agrees. "Let's do it then," he says, laughing. "Blow down my house, Laurie."

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