regarding nightline's beyond belief

I just watched ABC's Primetime Nightline special, Beyond Belief. The special was about as close to a skeptical look at psychic ability as we skeptics could hope for. Would that be considered cynical? The special looked into psychic claims and they enlisted the help of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). That enlistment was promising, so I had high hopes. Well, guarded high hopes, this is the news/entertainment media after all.

ABC got some things right. First, they did have the JREF involved. And they featured skeptics in more than the typical two minute segment edited to make the skeptic look like an angry, dismissive cynic. So, I was happy that Banachek (skeptic) was given time to demonstrate or explain some of the tricks and to give the skeptical perspective without being edited to look like a jerk.

James Randi was also featured. His segment was decidedly short and I'm sure folks might not warm to his explanation as to why people continue to believe they are psychic despite the evidence indicating they aren't. His reason? They are stubborn. I dig Randi. I admire him and his cause, but that didn't help. True though it might be, it would have been better to have a psychologist explaining how people deal with cognitive dissonance. How people will cling to their belief in their psychic abilities, despite being shown that simple controls thwart those abilities.

In fact, there wasn't a science based psychologist involved in the show at all. The only psychologist consulted seemed more like a parapyschologist (she was introduced as a psychologist, so I am making an assumption here) who attempted to convince us that the paranormal program Psychic Kids is not child abuse. I wasn't convinced.

One of the good parts was the opening report where the reporter wasn't convinced by James van Praagh's alleged psychic abilities. The reporter rightly explained that what van Praagh does is more likely cold reading than tapping into the beyond. It was also pointed out that the information delivered could have been acquired by a Google search. Kudos.

Also good was the demonstration of the JREF's Million Dollar Challenge. Three "psychics" were tested, none passed. No surprise. This always happens when people are tested under controlled conditions that they agree to, they fail. They are unable to perform the paranormal feats that they confidently perform anywhere else once simple controls are put in place to prevent cheating or trickery. That fact was addressed in the report. Good job.

But then came the final report with the psychic mommies. The reporter of that segment claimed to be skeptical, but... It appeared the psychics got so much right using what looked to me to be, you guessed it, cold reading that the reporter's skepticism waned. Unlike the van Praagh segment, this reporter stated that the info given couldn't be found on Google. But the segment didn't show how long the readings were, how many questions were asked, how many times the wrong guesses were edited out, or if perhaps the psychic may have asked someone the reporter's wife's name off camera prior to the reading, etc. And to top it off a "predicted" rainbow showed up after a reading. The reporter marveled, skeptics rolled their eyes.

Correlation does not mean causation.

And was that an ad for a new series exploring the paranormal coming soon to ABC that I saw in an ad break late in the show? Doesn't look like it will be very skeptical. Shame.

I give credit to ABC for what they got right and for the attempt, but the news media's obsession with reporting both sides of the issue for the sake of balance, just had to have them leave the viewer with the impression that maybe there's something to this. All the properly controlled, scientifically gathered evidence says otherwise.

"Two steps forward, six steps back! six steps back! six steps back!"
- Gang Of Four


  1. The cynic in me is whispering in my ear that the new ABC series was the cause of the way this special ended.

  2. And the cynic in me has me thinking that, maybe, the new series is the reason ABC did this special in the first place.