The following is a review I wrote waaay back in August 2005 after a show by local “psychic” Jeanette Wilson. I didn’t have my own blog at the time, so a fellow member of the NZ Skeptics Yahoo! mailing list posted it on his blog, where it has attracted a number of comments. Cheers, Robin.
I’ve decided to repost it here because, well, I still stand by what I wrote, and I think it serves as a good example of cold reading techniques in practice.
Also, it’s revealing of how much bogus jargon these people churn out as it’s next-to-impossible to write about them without resorting to a preponderance of “scare quotes”.
Since then, the likes of Jeanette have been superseded in the popular media by a new breed of TV huckster, such as Kelvin Cruickshank and “metaphysical researcher” (snigger) Deb Webber, courtesy of sensational info-tainment show Sensing Murder. There is an eviscerating analysis of this twaddle over at sillybeliefs.com. Not to mention Jeremy Wells’ superb Sensing Bullshit.
“An Evening With Jeanette Wilson” reviewed.
First published August 2005
When my girlfriend [update 2010 — she’s now my wife] first asked me whether I’d like to accompany her and her work colleagues to a show with flavour-of-the-month TV “medium” Jeanette Wilson, my first reaction was “Hell, no!”. I had no intention of parting with forty bucks to someone who extols gullibility and naïveté as virtues (Dare to Believe? Wow, you’re so brave!).
On reflection, however, and, it must be said, a bit of put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is ribbing, I reconsidered. After all, I should really take the opportunity to assess for myself whether her claims of supernatural communication are up to snuff rather than simply taking it on faith that it’s just some cold-reading racket, comfortable in my unchallenged scepticism.
So off we went…
I had an uneasy sense of anticipation, as I considered the possibility that maybe, just maybe, I might see something I couldn’t explain and have to begin the painful task of re-evaluating my understanding of the natural world. At the very least, I thought that there was a good chance that I would see one or two reasonably impressive pieces of performance that would give me pause for subsequent contemplation about what was going on. Not so.
What I saw that night at Takapuna’s Bruce Mason Theatre was a horrendous display of the worst clichés of cold-reading and manipulation, but coated in a very attractive veneer of compassion, warmth, good-humour and charm, which Jeanette Wilson exudes so effortlessly. Unfortunately, most of the audience only saw the latter.
The show began with Jeanette laying down the groundwork for the excitement to come. She quickly got everyone relaxed with a combination of friendly chit-chat and some new-age pseudo-scientific exercises for clearing the “negative energies” and getting everyone in the right mood. Seriously, with the amount of reality-defying twaddle expounded in that ten-minute crapologue, she couldn’t have been more insulting to the memories of the great men and women of science who devoted their lives to discovering how the world really works if she had defecated on their graves. We were then warned that when she made contact with a certain spirit that the audience member in question would feel the “energy”, and those around them would too. What I took this to actually mean is that if she’s coming near you with a microphone about to talk to you about personal matters in front of a large audience of strangers then you’re probably going to feel nervous. Duh!
Then came a glimmer of hope. She explained that, unlike all those other crazy two-bit psychics who just chuck out “Does the name John mean anything to anyone in this section of the audience”, she would be specifically drawn to individuals and ask “Is your father passed on and is his name Brian?’. Well, that’s a pretty specific claim, I thought. If she can get that right 4 or 5 times out of ten, I might be impressed. Now, if only she’d stuck to her own rules!
What she actually did was drift around the audience, “guided by the spirits”, and ask individuals some kind of trivial question such as “Have you had a problem with your washing machine?” Who hasn’t? Often it would take 3 or 4 attempts to find the right mark with this technique, and it was so tedious that I was willing her to just yell out “Anyone got a J?” and get on with it.
The first reading was a bit of a disaster, as she flapped and fussed around a stream of incorrect guesses before settling into something banal that she could home in on, but with so much hand-waving and obfuscation that it’d be hard to figure out exactly who said what to whom without poring over a transcript with a fine-toothed comb. But even this didn’t go spectacularly well, and I do believe I detected a tiny crack of hostility in her otherwise charming demeanour as she coolly ushered her guest offstage. No hugs and tears like you see on TV!
Luckily, with her next guest she struck pay-dirt. The guy was so quick to expound huge swathes of information about his deceased father that all Jeanette needed to do was throw in the odd reassuring tidbit (“he’s really pleased with your choice of partner” to an obviously chuffed wife next to him) and let the audience be wowed.
The next guest provided a classic lesson in a broad guess being made to look more specific than it really was. After establishing that a woman’s husband had died “with much pain” she was escorted on stage and we all waited with bated breath to find out how he had died. Jeanette proceeded to ask if “a major pain in his chest and arm” meant anything, to which the woman explained that yes, he had had a nasty accident in which he suffered injuries there (and no doubt elsewhere, but who cares about that). What most people conveniently failed to realise is that a “pain in the chest and arm” would also nicely cover heart attacks (and numerous other things), a major cause of death. Of course Jeanette proceeded to carry on as though she had “seen” the accident, to the astonishment of the audience who didn’t seem to notice that she had just had that information given to her.
Pretty soon after that I started to get quite bored and largely tuned out. I realised that the chances of seeing something remotely challenging were getting pretty slim. The latter sections, with some interactive exercises involving all closing our eyes and imagining (sorry, “sensing”) the presence of our “spirit-side” loved ones, along with some colours, which she then interpreted for us (green means you are a healer — who needs Medical School, huh?), were about as impressive as a horoscope from the Woman’s Weekly.
It is stunning to me that with so many flawed and downright incorrect guesses that so many people could continue to believe in this nonsense. But every time she gets something considerably wrong, Jeanette is ready with a quick, warm smile, and a self-deprecating comment about the spirits sometimes being difficult to read, or even messing about with her, quickly followed up with a distracting anecdote about a far more successful and powerful encounter on another occasion. Oh, and a mad scramble to pounce on any juicy hints dropped by the subject so she could re-interpret her original statements with a that-was-what-the-spirits-meant-all-along after-the-fact rationalisation.
It is apparent to me that it is Jeanette’s winning personality and apparent sincerity that people are caught up in, letting their guard down (if they had any to begin with!) to be sucked into her blissful world where everyone can be happy, everything will be OK, and no one really dies.