Channelling claims that spirit entities can speak by using the body of a person, the channeller. Some channelled spirits are said to be those of dead loved ones, others are more exotic folk such as Nepalese lamas, Native American shamans, Altantean priests or even Cro-magnon warriors!
Spirits of the dead
People channelling the spirits of the dead are simply a new version of the 18th-century spiritualist medium. In some cases, channellers have been discovered to have extensively researched people to be able to produce seemingly inexplicable details about them, allegedly provided by a recently departed loved one. In other cases, the channellers are practicing what stage magicians everywhere recognise as “cold reading”.
James van Praagh and John Edward both rely on rapid-fire delivery of generalised questions and statements which are typically used to “home in” on someone in a large audience. Thus throwing a line out such as “does anyone know a John?” is likely to elicit a response from someone (from most people in fact!). Using ambiguous statements such as “do you understand that?” or “does this have meaning for you?” helps provide a spurious sense of accuracy or detail. And people will invariably provide feedback, verbally or nonverbally, which is then built into the patter. There are many books available on “cold reading” which teach how to do this, and it can be very, very compelling and mystifying to those who don’t know the basic techniques involved.
Modern ancient spirits
An easier version of channelling which doesn’t rely on trying to elicit personal details, is where an allegedly ancient spirit – sometimes one from a different planet – provides pearls of wisdom to an audience seeking enlightenment.
Modern channelling made its first major appearance in 1972 with the publication of Seth Speaks by Jane Roberts and Robert Butts, which detailed the wisdom of Seth, an “unseen entity”. But the really big boost came in 1987, with the ABC mini-series based on actress Shirley MacLaine’s book Out on a Limb. This depicted her conversing with spirits through channeller Kevin Ryerson, who claimed to channel “John”, a contemporary of Jesus. Like many channelled entities, “John” was not able to speak the language of his own era, but instead sounded like a B-grade Elizabethan. And, like many channelled entities, John made outrageous, but affirming statements (he told MacLaine that she is co-creator of the world with God!).
One of the most famous channellers was J.Z. Knight, who succeeded in taking legal steps to lay claim to her 35,000-year-old Cro-magnon spirit “Ramtha”, preventing other channellers from tapping into this lucrative market. She has been able to charge patrons US$1,000 a seminar to receive such wisdom as “[we must] open our minds to new frontiers of potential”, and has sold tapes, books and accessories as part of the business. Ramtha, too, has a liking for Elizabethan-accented platitudes, despite having apparently lived in Lemuria and Atlantis. However, “he” fared badly in predicting a series of natural disasters that didn’t happen (California and Florida did not fall into the ocean, and acid rain did not poison New England’s water supply). Followers who had shifted house to be safe were not happy with him. Then Knight was served an injunction. She had been telling followers that Ramtha recommended they buy her Arabian horses, at up to US$250,000 each. Knight was discovered practicing Ramtha voices, and then Ramtha began making homophobic comments. Small wonder that Ramtha’s popularity has waned in recent years.
An example of how easy it is to fool people was the infamous 1988 Australian tour of “Carlos”, a 2,000-year-old spirit allegedly channelled by artist José Oliver. The tour was a hoax intended to demonstrate how easy it is to fool people and show how gullible and uncritical the mass media are when covering paranormal or supernatural topics. José was trained by his friend, master magician James “The Amazing” Randi, to perform as a channeller. Carlos developed a large following and, even when the hoax was revealed, many continued to believe in him.
As James Randi noted in an interview with Australia’s ABC:
“All [José] had to do was look at videotapes of other people speaking in strange voices, and he picked it up right away, and eventually we got it into the Sydney Opera House with a fair audience there, all handling crystals and beads and whatnot, and with charmed looks on their faces, attracted and enthralled by this man out on stage, José Oliver doing the Spirit of Carlos that was 35,000 years old.
“He felt like an awful fool doing it, especially since all of the material that we produced was spurious. In the press releases we invented magazines, we invented towns and cities and radio stations and TV channels and whatnot, that didn’t exist. And one phone call by the media back to the United States would have revealed the whole thing as a hoax.”
Cases like “Carlos” show how easy it can be to fool thousands of people, but are the “real” channellers perpetuating a similar kind of hoax? At face value, it’s hard to tell. There are always at least three basic hypotheses to explain any paranormal claim:
- the alleged phenomenon is genuine
- the claimant is perpetrating a deliberate deception
- the claimant is sincere but self-deceived
Skeptics concentrate on looking for evidence which will allow the first hypothesis to be rejected or accepted. Channellers have consistently failed to provide any evidence that can’t be more simply explained by mundane methods, such as cold reading. Their wise pronouncements are banal and commonplace. They have no knowledge that isn’t available to the person involved (i.e. no inexplicable language skills or answers to arcane questions). Some of their pronouncements are blatantly wrong.
Many channellers have made a good living out of their alleged abilities; some have become very wealthy indeed. For others, the attraction may be the sense of power inherent in gaining a devout following. Just whether deception is involved – intentional or self-deluding – is for you to decide, but it’s what the evidence points to…
Echinacea is one of the top selling herbal products in the USA, with sales worth more $US300 million dollars annually. A member of the daisy family, it is claimed to treat abscesses, burns, eczema, liver cancer, urinary tract infections, varicose leg ulcers, boils, and gingivitis, but mostly it is used to treat upper respiratory infections. It is:
- sold as capsules, pills, tinctures, teas, creams for topical use, and toothpaste, or in combination with other compounds
- marketed to children as fizzy tablets also containing vitamin C
- purported to support and promote the natural powers of resistance of the body, especially in infections of the nose and throat
- unproven in many clinical trials to prevent or ameliorate the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections
- unproven in its claimed immune-enhancing effects
- a known cause of asthma and anaphylaxis in allergic patients
Echinacea was used by American Indians to treat snake bite and relieve fever, and was incorporated into a 19th century wonder cure called Meyer’s Blood Purifier. With the advent of sulfa antibiotics, echinacea lost its popularity as an anti-infective agent. Most recent research has been carried out in Germany, where echinacea extracts are injected, a procedure not pursued in the US or elsewhere.
Echinacea is a member of the Asteraceae [Compositae] family, which includes sunflowers, daisies and the potent allergen, ragweed. Three species are used medicinally — E. angustifolia, E. pallida and E. purpurea, the latter being the most commonly used in New Zealand. These ‘coneflowers’ are perennial herbs, and production involves drying the roots or juicing the stems, flowers and roots, or ethanolic extraction of various compounds. The method of manufacture, the time of harvest and the part of the plant harvested are all variables that need to be taken into account when attributing clinical efficacy to echinacea. The root is said to contain the highest levels of active components and the stem to be less desirable. Claimed potency is said to depend on how long the herb is stored before use and how finely it is powdered and processed.
Studies show that there are indeed many potentially pharmacologically active compounds in echinacea, but whether there is sufficient present in crude extracts to be effective is debatable. Echinacoside is claimed to be a natural antibiotic comparable to penicillin, but its concentration is not likely to be sufficient to have any significant effect. Polysaccharides, such as heteroxylan and arabinoglycan, are touted as having major pharmacologic effects on the immune system, though these are likely to be digestively destroyed when taken orally. Echinacea has a pungent smell and taste caused by echinacein, an isobutylamide that is responsible for a tingling sensation if fresh stems are chewed. Echinacein is said to counteract the invasion of tissues by bacteria. This may be so if injected, but orally administered preparations are not so likely to function. Clinical trials are hampered by the fact that many of these products lack appropriate quality control and cannot be standardised because the active ingredient(s) has not been defined.
In a recent study of 40 healthy male volunteers who were administered the freshly expressed juice of E. purpurea or placebo, echinacea did not enhance the immune system as measured by the phagocytic activity of white blood cells and the production of cytokines. Researchers were surprised to find that echinacea decreased the levels of serum ferritin, as that had not been predicted. They concluded that the ‘immune stimulation’ does not result from oral intake. Pharmacies and health food shops in Wellington were found to recommend echinacea most commonly as a treatment for a patient presenting with obvious symptoms of asthma following a chest infection.
Lack of efficacy in preventing upper respiratory infection was reported in a trial of 302 volunteers in Germany. They received oral ethanolic extracts of echinacea roots, or placebo, for 12 weeks. The number of volunteers who became infected and the length of time until they became ill did not differ significantly between the two groups. Even if there is a relative risk reduction attributable to taking echinacea, there are dangers in taking it for any length of time. The recommended treatment period is less than 8 weeks because of the risk of liver poisoning. In fact, people who use other hepatotoxic drugs, such as anabolic steroids, methotrexate or ketoconazole, are warned not to take echinacea.
Several other trials back up these results, including one where 117 volunteers were treated with echinacea and then challenged with a rhinovirus. Similar numbers of people caught colds whether they took echinacea or placebo and the severity of symptoms did not differ.
A 2002 Australian study of adverse drug reactions found that 51 cases including examples of anaphylaxis, acute asthma and skin rashes were attributable to echinacea ingestion. Several patients required hospitalisation. Americans with known sensitivity to ragweed are warned not to take echinacea. Patients with immune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis or AIDs are likely to suffer adverse reactions to echinacea, though there are no warnings on containers available in supermarkets, pharmacies and health food shops.
Healey B, Burgess C, Siebers R, Beasley R, Weatherall M, Holt S. Do natural health food stores require regulation? NZMJ 13 September 2002;115 (1161)
Melchart D, Walther E, Linde K, Brandmaier R, Lersch C. Echinacea root extracts for upper respiratory infections. Arch Fam Med 1998;7(6):541-5
Mullins RJ, Heddle R. Adverse reactions associated with Echinacea: the Australian experience. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol 2002;88(1):42-51
Schwartz E, Metzler J, Diedrich JP, Freudenstein J, Bode C, Bode JC. Oral stimulation of freshly expressed juice of Echinacea purpurea herbs fail to stimulate the non-specific immune response in healthy young men: results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled crossover study.
J Immunother 2002;25(5):413-20 Turner RB, Riker DK, Gangemi JD. Ineffectiveness of Echinacea for prevention of experimental rhinovirus colds. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 2002;44(6):1708-9
Whenever a person, especially a child, goes missing, the psychics/mediums won’t be too far behind. Most of them no doubt believe sincerely in their special powers and that they are only there to help, but they can cause a great deal of harm — emotional, psychological, even economic — and interfere with the real investigation.
Every time a media outlet reports on a medium’s involvement approvingly, they provide more marketing material for this industry and more tacit approval for the psychological manipulation of desperate vulnerable people. Law Professor Christine Corcos, author of a book on the 1944 trial of psychic Helen Duncan, notes:
“Law enforcement officials who allow non-law enforcement trained personnel to participate…are putting both the cases and their jobs at risk. The fact is that few, if any, police departments actually admit to using psychics. Most officials [say] that psychics simply waste time predicting that bodies or missing persons will be found near water, or trees, or buildings with red roofs. Experienced detectives combing particular areas can do as well, and will not raise false hopes among the families and friends of the victims.”
I Sleuth Dead People
Few families are prepared to reject any possible chance of finding missing loved ones, or to publicly criticise. But those who don’t want to be manipulated have reported being badgered and tormented by people claiming to have useful information which turns out to be hurtful hype. The NZ Skeptics received this comment following celeb psychic Deb Webber commenting on a missing child case as part of a publicity tour:
“With regard to psychics, mediums and the like, I can tell you that in the months and years following my sister’s disappearance, my family was contacted by no less than 100 of these people. No two of them were able to agree on the location of my sister, alive or dead.”
And the police were obliged to follow up each and every one of them, on the chance that the information was real, i.e. someone pretending to be a psychic to convey something they knew about the case. So not only do these freaks inflict profound emotional harm, they are also an enormous waste of police resources.
Psychics Strike Out
A survey of the New Zealand police force concluded that, unlike practical shows like Crimewatch or public appeals for witnesses, there had never been any accurate, useful psychically derived information that was instrumental in leading to a successful conclusion.
In 1975, 18-year-old hitchhiker Mona Blades went missing. British psychic-medium Doris Stokes claimed to have assisted the New Zealand police to recover her body, but this is untrue as the body has never been found and the case remains open. In 1983, the Kirsa Jensen case saw over a hundred contacts from psychics and others. Ian Holyoake, the officer in charge, said:
“[It] did not advance the investigation one bit. Most of the information was not specific as to any area where a body might be located, but some was quite graphic in detail and disturbing by its very nature”.
In 1992, the disappearance of 2-year-old Amber-Lee Cruickshank brought “letters from clairvoyants, card readers, star watchers, prayer groups, crystal readers, palm readers, spiritualists, people who have visions, premonitions and total lunatics”. None of them assisted the search. Initial claims saw her being found “near water or trees”; a 2007 episode of Sensing Murder claimed she had been abducted.
In 1992, clairvoyants and a Spiritualist medium told the family of missing Wellington man Michael Kelly that he was still alive. They appealed to racist stereotypes by saying he had been assaulted and abducted by “rough-looking” tattooed Maoris, and dumped at various locations. Police received calls from people worried about Maoris, and private searches were made. Kelly’s body was eventually found at the bottom of a light shaft in central Wellington where he had fallen.
In 1998, Nelson clairvoyant Margaret Birkin and four other psychics went out on a boat to look for missing Blenheim friends Ben Smart and Olivia Hope. Birken stated that she knew where the pair was to be found. Despite additional searches with professional divers and support by the Holmes show, she failed to locate the pair, whose bodies remain undiscovered.
In December 2001, psychic Kathy Bartlett joined searchers looking for missing teenager Elon Oved. Her examination of the “aura” at the scene was of no help, and it was another anguishing couple of months for his family before his body was found by a search-and-rescue team member.
In March 2003, a $20,000 reward was offered for information on missing woman Sara Niethe. Several psychics called police saying that they had had visions of where she and her car could be found, but neither has ever been located.
Sensing Murder? Sensing Nonsense
The exploitainment TV show Sensing Murder titillates viewers with the idea that psychics can provide new information about unsolved cases, but not one murder has been solved and many grieving people have been exploited. What has been revealed are the usual tricks and techniques common in the psychic industry:
- extravagant claims with no supporting evidence In the episode “A Bump in the Dark”, about the rape and murder of Alicia O’Reilly, the psychics were said to have established “key facts” about the girl’s personality. One had said Alicia was a little shy, her mother described her as out-going.
- truisms touted as amazing revelations: Psychic Kelvin Cruickshank said “It sounds a little weird, but she must have been buried in a white coffin.” However, this is common for children.
- obvious cueing or spurious affirmations: Cruickshank, in looking at Alicia’s drawings, spots “her dog”. Off-camera someone says “a cat” (the film crew knew there was a pet cat). “O cat is it?” says Cruickshank, “oh it is too.”
- bare-faced errors going unchallenged: Cruickshank made much of Alicia talking about children’s TV show “What Now?”, a Saturday morning treat in the 80s. A dramatic voice-over noted that Alicia had been murdered in 1980, apparently supporting his claim. However, “What Now?” didn’t start on air until nine months after Alicia’s murder. Perhaps the implication there is that TVNZ shows are good enough to appeal to spirits in the after-life! What do you think?
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