A new star on the psychic circuit impressed the makers of TV3’s 20/20, but not the NZ Skeptics

A gushy piece of infotainment on what is claimed to be New Zealand’s premier showcase for investigative reporting has won 20/20 the 2004 Bent Spoon Award. Melanie Reid’s August 22 segment “Back from the Dead”, profiling Taranaki medium Jeanette Wilson, was judged by the NZ Skeptics to be the year’s most outstanding example of gullible or naive reporting in the paranormal or pseudoscience area.

We were looking forward to seeing a solid journalistic treatment of this growing industry, in much the same manner that 20/20 in the US exposed the dubious practices of medium James van Praagh. It was very disappointing to hear 20/20 describe similar techniques performed here in New Zealand as “astonishing”.

20/20 asked me to comment on Wilson’s performance, citing how impressed they had been with both Wilson’s presentation – they said she looked just like Lady Di – and her accuracy – they said she was coming up with specific names and relationships.

What I saw was the same collection of staple techniques used throughout the industry and well-documented in many books such as Peter Huston’s “Scams from the Great Beyond”. One example is that of fishing for names, where the medium will ask a client if a common name, such as John, “has any meaning for them”. Asking leading questions designed to elicit information or agreement is a common tactic aimed at building confidence in the performer, and making it appear as if they are revealing hidden knowledge. Telling a middle-aged audience member that their parent or grandparent is watching over them is playing simple demographics, as it is more than likely that such people will have older relatives who have died.

New Zealand Skeptics are always prepared to check such performers out, in case someone really is doing something astonishing, which would be very exciting, but that certainly wasn’t the case here, despite 20/20’s enthusiastic endorsement.

While 20/20 did include some footage of the critique in the first part of the programme, I was disappointed that the programme chose to focus extensively on one very emotional, but content-free reading in what they called a “test” of the medium’s ability. Real tests of such skills have to be carefully planned to avoid naïve or misleading interpretations. It’s not so much the testing as the marking that’s important. Take away the histrionics and it was a very poor performance as far as a demonstration of mediumship goes.

Of course these very powerful images were selected by 20/20 precisely because they make great entertainment. They didn’t screen very much of the unimpressive readings, the one where Wilson asked a lady twice if her father had died, the ones where she used the same names and stock phrases over and over again.

If, indeed, the medium had definitive proof of the after-life, this should have been world-shattering news. After all, with this sort of capability, it means there should be no unsolved murders, no missing children, no arguments over inheritance. There should be no innocent people in prison, no unidentified child molesters. The world would certainly be a better place, and that’s something about which there could be no doubt.

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