Psychic for a Day: Or How I Learned Tarot Cards, Palm Reading, Astrology and Mediumship in 24 Hours
Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
ON WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 15, 2003, I FILMED a television show with Bill Nye in Seattle, Washington, for a new PBS science series entitled Eyes of Nye. This series is an adult-oriented version of Bill's wildly successful 100-episode children's series Bill Nye the Science Guy. This 30-minute segment focused on psychics and talking to the dead. Although I have analyzed the process and written about it extensively in SKEPTIC, Scientific American, How We Believe, and on www.skeptic.com, I have had little experience actually doing psychic readings. Bill and I thought it would be a good test of the effectiveness of the technique and the receptivity of people to it to see if an inexperienced person could do it armed with just a little knowledge.
Although the day of the taping was set weeks in advance, I did absolutely nothing to prepare until the day before. This made me especially nervous because psychic readings are a form of improvisational acting, which takes both talent and practice. And I made matters even harder on myself by convincing Bill and the producers that if we were going to do this we should use a number of different psychic techniques, including Tarot cards, palm reading, astrology, and psychic mediumship, under the theory that these are all "props" used to stage a psychodrama called cold reading (reading someone "cold" without any prior knowledge). I am now more convinced than ever that cheating (getting information ahead of time on subjects) is not a necessary part of a successful reading.
I read five different people, all women that the production staff had selected and about whom I was told absolutely nothing other than the date and time of their births (in order to prepare an astrological chart). I had no contact with any of the subjects until they sat down in front of me for the taping. There was no conversation between us until the cameras started roiling. The setting was a sound stage at KCTS, the PBS member station in Seattle. Since sound stages can have a rather cold feel to them, and because the environment in which a reading is done is a key factor in generating a receptive mindset, I instructed the production staff to set up two comfortable chairs with a small table between them, with a lace cloth covering the table and candles on and around the table, all sitting on a beautiful Persian rug. Soft colored lighting and incense increased the "spiritual" ambiance.
The Partial Facts of Cold Reading
My primary source for all of the readings was Ian Rowland's insightful and encyclopedic The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading (now in a 3rd edition available at www.ian-rowland.com). There is much more to the cold reading process than I previously understood before undertaking to read this book carefully with an eye on performing rather than just analyzing. (Please keep in mind that what I'm describing here is only a small sampling from this comprehensive compendium by a professional cold reader who is arguably one of the best in the business. If you want to fully understand the techiniuqe of cold reading it is essential that you read the book and not just rely on my gloss on it.)
Rowland stresses the importance of the pre-reading set-up to prime the subject into being sympathetic to the cold reading. He suggests--and I took him up on these suggestions--adopting a soft voice, a calm demeanor, and sympathetic and non-confrontational body language: a pleasant smile, constant eye contact, head tilted to one side while listening, and facing the subject with legs together (not crossed) and arms unfolded. I opened each reading by introducing myself as Michael from Hollywood, calling myself a "Psychic Intuitor." (This was Bill's clever derivative from my original version "Psychic Intuitive," which was grammatically incorrect--we needed a noun, not an adjective.) I explained that my "clients" come to see me about various matters that might be weighing heavy on their hearts (the heart being the preferred organ of new age nonsense), and that as an intuitor it was my job to use my special gift of intuition--a gift, I added, that everyone has but that I have just developed through practice--to hel p them find their way through the vagaries of life. …