One of our members (who was supposed to be teaching carbon chemistry at the time and wishes to remain nameless!) used Jeanette Wilson’s TV performances as a resource for teaching critical thinking to her year ten class. The results were encouraging, and very educational.

An email from our illustrious chair-entity advised of an upcoming 20/20 piece on a medium, Jeanette Wilson. It also had a list of five tactics to watch for, and examples (see Five Tips, page 5). Despite some misgivings, I decided to mention the programme and some of the tips to my fourth form (year 10) science class. They are not a top academic class, but have always been keen to ask questions and accept answers with “I don’t know” or “best evidence we have gives this model of what is happening”. On the other hand, I’ve found boys of that age often believe in the ideas of Erich von Däniken (thankfully, that fad seems to be dying out), alien abduction, and assorted conspiracy theories, and if so, they love to argue just for the fun of arguing or being their normal, rebellious selves against anything seen as authority.

The class was told about the TV show and that I had a list from the Skeptics of tactics to watch for. They listened to my description of the money charged by psychic hotlines, the amount to be made in one night if a large auditorium in the US could be filled, and tactics from Vicki’s tip sheet, then put up with some very bad acting out of some tactics. Their main response was to ask why we weren’t making lots of money by running our own hotline! (A hint on fundraising?) And would I tape the show for them (a good way to get out of class work for at least part of a period – boys are very pragmatic…).

Just by chance, I noticed a TV1 ad after the late news that night about a psychic being on the breakfast show on Friday and taking calls from the public, and slapped in a tape to try and get that, too. With big gaps for other things like cooking and Red Seal health products, it provided three unedited “readings” by Wilson.

Due to the vagaries of the old machine I have to use in my prefab lab at school, I started the tape at the second of the three readings, which backed straight onto the 20/20 clip I had promised to tape for them. I reminded my class of Vicki’s tips, and also pointed out that certain age groups tend to have “most popular names”, and some names are always popular. (In the class, 19 out of 22 knew someone named Scott, a third could think of some friend or relative who could be associated with needles, or had an old watch from a relative at home, and half knew someone involved in a serious or fatal accident.) I also asked the boys to judge the age of the people phoning in by their name and voice before hearing Wilson’s response, as this was what she would be doing. They picked Kylie as mid-30s and Suzanne as late 20s. I also asked the boys to tally the number of hits, misses, excuses, and pauses or delays. They were very enthusiastic to call out what they spotted, and on the two calls, came up with a total of four hits, 15 misses, three excuses, and one pause. A ripple of laughter followed the “Jack/sometimes called John or Jonathan” that Vicki had in her tip sheet (and given to them before either programme had aired on TV), and burst out laughing when she tried exactly the same thing on 20/20, and also went through “Bill or William or maybe it’s a last name”. Similar hilarity and incredulity greeted the excuse of a “spirit brother” to excuse the miss on a guess at a dead sibling. As Wilson rapidly moved on to more fertile ground, one boy exclaimed “what happened to the baby?” which had suddenly disappeared from her reading. They also pointed out the excuse “check your family tree” when one name drew no response and later noticed that she used the same tactic when we eventually saw the 20/20 item. As Wilson fished for information about one senior citizen’s mother, a final derisive comment came from one boy who summed up their reaction – “Bet you couldn’t tell me what my mother looks like!” Of course, a very limited use of genetics would indicate his mother is blonde and blue-eyed… but he’ll learn more about that next year in science.

Based on their good observation on just a first viewing, I decided to continue the next period and see how much we could get through of the rest of the 20/20 item. Before we started, I briefly reminded them of Vicki’s tips, and said Vicki would like to have them see if they could spot how Wilson was operating. Instead of calling out when they spotted something, I gave out sheets of paper and asked for individual tallies or comments to be recorded, and for permission to use their responses and pass them on to Vicki and the Skeptics. Most agreed to this. We still did not get through the entire 20/20 item, even though I fast-forwarded through most of the “at home on the farm” bio after a derisive comment greeted the idea that her husband had been drawn across the globe by a psychic pull to meet his ideal partner.

Most boys concentrated on comments rather than tallies, but one boy gave her eight hits, but also 13 misses, six excuses, and three pauses.
Some boys did not want their comments used, but made similar comments to a selection of comments from the other boys, which follows (sometimes with spelling or grammar corrected, but a copy of the originals will go to our chair-entity). Some boys made just a few comments , but two filled the page.

  1. Asked lots of questions and made a lot of excuses.
  2. Patterns repeating. Most old men have been to the war and so have their friends. And they would be hard of hearing because of gunfire. She picks obvious names and the most common. She changes the point a lot, changes the subject.
  3. Use of common names making it obvious.Asking elderly people if their parents are dead. Obviously they would be. (We had mentioned this point the previous period when discussing the tip about things common to people or age groups.) BAD ACTING! Using the same names on each person. (Remember, the boys saw two separate “performances” on two different stations, so had a better sample than some people in order to judge this.)
  4. She isn’t telling them anything, she’s asking. A lot of grandparents been in war. Excuses about hard hearing. She asks obvious questions. Asks names then says it can be another.
  5. These people have a few lucky stabs and then lead on from there. When they fail a few times, they start making up things and using excuses. She also questions and does not actually tell people what they want to hear. They make up a few common names from their parents and keep guessing.
  6. What a nice trick! Wide range of questions. Anyone can do that with some skills. She’s nothing better than weather tellers. (A comment on the poor weather forecasting lately?!)
  7. Isn’t it unlikely for an elderly person to be sick or unwell just before death? (I think he meant likely, or is being ironic). This lady is not telling people things, she is only asking. She asks for relations to the most common names possible. It’s all a bit suspicious how she happens to ask different age groups for information or names relating to their generation. How can people fall for this? Why … would a spirit say to this lady, “My name is either Bill or William, possibly Will or Willy”? She uses humour to lighten up a situation and maybe change the subject. She happens to only feel disturbed when she is going off track, ” I’m wrong, this is too much, I can’t go on.” (The class hasn’t yet seen the first TV1 interview where she ends up in tears again….) With the blood on the hands topic, the only thing she said was something about blood on hands, the rest was informed to her. It is being made out like she guessed the whole situation photographically. The whole breaking down performance was a good trick. (I haven’t had time to review this myself, but just on a once over, Wilson was fishing for something since the “blood on the hands” can be taken so many ways symbolically – if someone causes, or can’t prevent an accident, which she seemed to be fishing for with her questions, but these seemed to be about a child’s death.)
  8. (ESOL student) I think she is a very bad faker. Her trick is used repeatedly and they’re not even good trick. I think her trick work only because people want to believe, think that are not real because it help them. I believe medium isn’t so bad if they don’t ask for so much money. I think it okay to comfort other people and make them come to an understanding with their loved one. I believe she is fake because if she is real then why didn’t she always get it right. I am skeptic about the 20/20 trial. If she really saw did what on TV with the last person, I believe she is real, but I doubt that. You can see that she stumble on her “question” I mean what kind of medium ask not answer!! And the final comment goes to Ben:
  9. I think she would make a better career as an actor.

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