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Zombies to James Van Praagh: Talk to Us!

Previously posted on Skepchick

The James Randi Educational Foundation has repeatedly offered “psychic” James Van Praagh a million dollars if he can demonstrate under scientific controls that he has the ability to speak to the dead. They have been ignored. Repeatedly. So, they tried something new:

I had the chance to ask Sadie Crabtree, JREF’s Communications Director, a few questions about the stunt:

You’ve offered James Van Praagh a million dollars if he can scientifically demonstrate his ability to speak with the dead. Prior to hiring zombies, how did you attempt to communicate with him about the test?

Well, we didn’t actually hire zombies. They were all enthusiastic volunteers from around Los Angeles and Orange County. We tried reaching Van Praagh this way because no one else seems to be able to get an answer from him. We sent him a certified letter, which we confirmed was received. We’ve sent him emails, and we even tried Twitter. D.J. Grothe published an open letter to him on The Huffington Post. The news media has tried to reach him about it. No one’s been able to get an answer from him.

Now, we haven’t been hounding the guy, we’re just trying to reach him to offer him the opportunity to back up the claims he’s making, and maybe win a million dollars. His performances look to us just like the same old psychological tricks that other psychic performers use, and if he’s faking psychic powers to take advantage of people, that’s harmful.

What kind of test did you have in mind for Van Praagh’s Million Dollar Challenge?

We’re open to any suggestions from Van Praagh as to what the test would look like. All of our tests are mutually agreed upon by the JREF and by the applicant for the Million Dollar Challenge. Van Praagh’s claim, as we understand it, is that he can receive messages from people’s dearly departed relatives. One question that needs to be answered is, do these messages he claims to receive actually contain any substantive information that could be verified independently? Or are they just vague “Barnum statements” and educated guesses that are likely to apply to anyone, and which don’t mean anything until the gaps are filled in by the person being “read?” If Van Praagh would agree to fair conditions in which he couldn’t ask questions of a living subject who knew the deceased, it should be pretty easy to determine if he’s getting real information from the dead.

The video shows what appears to be an upset stage manager asking the horde of zombies to leave. Did you manage to get any face time with Van Praagh? Did you get any reaction from the audience at the seance?

Van Praagh’s people seemed to know who we were. They told us they’d get someone to come talk to us, but then they just had us removed by security, so we didn’t get any face time with Van Praagh. The paid attendees—who we think James Van Praagh is taking advantage of—may have been a bit confused by the situation, but they were respectful and calm. They seemed to understand that we weren’t there to make fun of them, but to confront James Van Praagh himself.

I think a lot of skeptics will really love the zombie horde, but what do you think – or what are you hoping – will be the reaction of people who are unfamiliar with organized skepticism or those who are believers in psychics?

True believers in Van Praagh’s powers will probably be unimpressed, but there’s not always a lot we can do to win those folks over. For people who aren’t sure what they think of psychics, and might be swayed by Van Praagh’s TV performances, we want to draw attention to the fact that this guy is a performer who is unable to demonstrate ‘psychic’ abilities without cheating, and he refuses to even talk about it—to the media or to anyone else—even for a million dollars. Hopefully, more people will think twice before giving their money to people like this.

Since some consider zombies to be more “undead” than dead, have you considered that they might be out of Van Praagh’s area of expertise? Might he be more amenable to speaking with, say, a possessed doll or a disembodied spirit captured in a magical jam jar?

We actually brought several dozen of the silent-and-invisible kind of disembodied spirits that I guess are the sort Van Praagh normally talks to, but they were less helpful carrying the signs and Van Praagh wouldn’t talk to them either.

Will the JREF’s horde of zombies be visiting any other famous psychics’ events?

You’ll have to pry that secret from our cold, dead hands.

For those out there who are interested in more creative ways to take action against so-called “psychics” and con artists, do you have any advice for how they can get involved?

Folks who are interested in skeptical activism and local organizing should get in touch with JREF’s field director, Brian Thompson, at brian@randi.org. We’re pulling together a kit of grassroots organizing materials to help local groups plan their actions and outreach, in ways that go beyond rabble-rousing and that continue to help build a skeptical movement and shine a light on the harm done by paranormal and pseudo-scientific scams. We think James Van Praagh should be ashamed of what he’s doing, and that the media should stop giving an uncritical platform to those who use blatant trickery to prey on people’s feelings of guilt and grief. Anyone who wants to join our efforts can go to Randi.org and get involved.

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For more info, here’s the JREF’s press release on the event.

Photo courtesy of JREF and Eduard Pastor.

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