This is part of an ongoing series of reviews here at GPS. These will be (to the best of my ability) spoiler-free, so as not to ruin the fiction ones I do, as well as relatively brief. I won’t just be reviewing “skeptical” works, but instead a large portion of what I read. I’m a voracious reader, even when I am swamped with other work (it’s what I tend to do instead of watch television), so I’ll probably put out one a week or so. If you’re interested, I’ve actually been tracking exactly what I’ve read (book and GN-wise, anyway) for almost the past four years on LibraryThing.
GPS Review: Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium by Mark Edward
As I have written about, I had the very distinct pleasure of attending The Amazing Meeting 2013 in Las Vegas. One of the many people I got to meet was Mark Edward, well known psychic entertainer and skeptic. Well, he’s well known to me at least, and likely others who enjoyed Penn & Teller’s Bullshit series, as he was a major player in the first episode, all about contacting the dead.
As can be seen, Edward initially acts as if he is a medium, able to contact and talk to the dead, but them pulls back the curtain (as it were) to reveal himself as a cold reader without psychic powers at all. I show this entire episode to my General Psychology and Science vs. Pseudoscience courses, and it always gets a great response. With that background (and not much else), I was quite excited to see Edward at the speaker’s reception at TAM and be able to talk to him a bit. During the converstation he mentioned that he had a book come out, so I subsequently purchased and read it, expecting it would have a similar flavor as the P&T episode.
I was wrong.
In all fairness to Edward, he told me during our conversation that the publishers of his book weren’t really interested in a “debunking” book, but more of a “life on the wrong side of the tracks” type story.And then, during the TAM2013 panel “Magicians vs. Psychics,” Edward was fiercely chastised by Jamy Ian Swiss for posing as a psychic, both in the past and currently, and allowing people to “come to their own conclusions.” I was afterwards quite eager to read the book, especially given what I knew of Edward’s long-standing relationship with the Independent Investigations Group, a particularly fine skeptical organization, as well as the Skeptics Society.
While I found the book to be highly readable, well-written, and entertaining, as a scientific skeptic and a psychologist I was a bit disappointed. If this book was my only exposure to Edward, I honestly do not know if I would have come away thinking a) he believes he is actually psychic or b) he is a gifted performer who has the ability to make people think he is psychic. Because I was very much on the lookout for “disclaimers” about the supernatural nature of his abilities, I took note of them. In the entire book, I found a few, including these:
There’s nothing there in the dark, although I have frequently found myself wanting to believe there are supernatural elements to converse with and take refuge in. (p. xxii)
There are no supernatural powers at work in my psychic supply-and-demand universe of instant gratification. (p. 220)
…I had been in this psychic racket for over ten years now. (p. 171)
As much as I would like to stop and educate each audience member as to what is truly going on in this whole psychic business, that’s usually not included in the job description. (p. 80)
In response to the last statement, I can only say “Um, you’ve got a whole book to do this now, so…?” These skeptical sentences are overwhelmed in the book by the stories of readings given and people interacted with, meaning that if you aren’t looking for them and paying attention, you could easily skim over them. It’s that old friend of ours, the confirmation bias, once again at play. For those who have a different set of confirmations they are seeking, the book is liberally peppered with quotes like this:
Draw your own conclusions as to the symbolism or deeper meaning of this anomaly. (p. 214)
There are too many variables for the idea of “psychic” to be dissected, quantified, and scientifically defined. (p. 214)
Being psychic is a natural part of being human, and being human is a natural part of being a psychic. (p. 220)
All in all, this makes for a confusing read and gives the book very much the “you decide for yourself!” type of feel that Edward seems to thrive on, rather than a more traditional skeptical book. I mean, his official website biography even dithers on the subject:
Claims of psychic phenomena challenge even the most rational thinker. Mark neither declares himself as a genuine psychic nor gives any disclaimers, preferring to let his work stand on its own merit and allow each individual to arrive at their own personal conclusions.
I can’t decide if he wants to make the readers or himself feel better about his deception of hundreds or thousands of people. His response to some reviews of the book, though, seems to make it pretty clear that he considers himself on the side of the angels…er, I mean skeptics.
DJ Grothe, current president of the JREF, said at a conference we spoke at that “Psychics are pretend therapists,” and I definitely saw that playing out in the pages of this book. Maybe, being a clinical psychologist and having spent years training to help people with both everyday struggles and severe mental illness, I am oversensitized to seeing people as needing professional help, but many of the people Edward described in his book could have easily come through my clinic. He, and the other “psychics” described seem to really get an ego boost from doling out fake therapy under the guise of readings and fortune-telling. One story (starting on p. 161) he tells of a woman with (based on his description) very poor self-esteem, low assertiveness, and a history of being taken advantage of in relationships even seems to show how he considers himself better (or of a higher moral standing) than a trained mental health clinician when it comes to helping people:
There is a turning point that is never achieved with many professional psychics. It can evolve into a manipulative and highly destructive pattern. After five or six readings, warnings, or admonishments, it’s up to a higher power to convince people like Danielle to clean up her act….. A psychiatrist might have kept reeling someone like Danielle in, repeating, “We will take up where we left off next week,” but doing something like that wasn’t in me.
This theme of “I know what’s best for these people, and I’m telling them things they really need to do/hear” is quite prominent in the book, and reinforces for me some of the frustration expressed by Jamy Ian Swiss towards Edward: namely, that he is playing both sides of the fence. On one hand, Edward is working as a “psychic,” not telling people it’s all bullshit and cold reading and perhaps guiding them towards more appropriate ways to get the help they need. On the other, he frequently speaks about how psychic powers aren’t real in front of skeptical audiences (who already know these things). Rather than informing, he’s taking (or has taken) many people’s money because they believe he is a psychic. As he writes about a particular incident that seemed to deeply move a man, “Call me a fraud or label me a trickster, these are the moments I live for.” It’s a bit hard not to see someone as potentially fraudulent when he tells these types of stories.
My only stylistic complaint is that I think the book would have flowed much better if the stories in it had been arranged chronologically. Rather than that, though, the tales of Edward’s psychic escapades are lumped together somewhat thematically. For me, a more year by year account would have been more interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it could have been leveraged to provide more of a “I wasn’t all that conflicted at the start, but here are some key moments that moved me from ‘psychic’ to ‘skeptic'” but that was not to be. As it was, Edward just seemed to be jumping back and forth from year to year (and even decade to decade), which really did not give me a chance to see him change and mature as he went from Psychic Friends hotline to television to a former church turned New Age hot spot to Hollywood parties. Second, such a chronological look could have also been used to show what he was doing skeptically during the same time as he was doing Psychic Friends and what not. That, I think, may have been a very powerful way of showing the “conflict” hinted at in the title.
Overall, then, I both liked and disliked this book. I would not necessarily recommend it as a read for believers in the paranormal, as I think they are likely to miss the subtle skepticism herein and instead just have their woo reinforced. At the same time, it is quite interesting to hear some tales from someone in the “psychic trenches,” as it were. I do wish that we could have seen something a bit more positively skeptical in nature, especially from someone who is (at times, anyway) such a great skeptic.