Interviews summarizes Alex Tsakiris’s experience investigating psychic mediums, and the skeptical claims made against them.
Join host Alex Tsakiris for a summation of research demonstration of psychic medium communication. Tsakiris also discusses his plans for a book exploring why skeptical arguments often stand in contrast to the best available research:
Alex Tsakiris: One of the questions I get asked a lot is, am I going to write a book based on what I’ve learned while doing Skeptiko. I’ve always said no, but recently I’ve started to change my mind. Maybe a book that chronicles my journey thru all the craziness I’ve encountered with Skeptics, Atheists, wacky scientism believers and fundamentalist religious types would be a good idea. I’ve always approached Skeptiko as my personal journey of discovery, shared with others, but I’ve also come to realize that by sharing these interviews with you I’ve created a feedback loop that is just as much a part of what Skeptiko is about as the shows themselves. So, I hoping this book, will give you and I a chance to re-examine what we’ve discovered and what it means.
So, here goes… Every book needs a title… here’s mine: Why Skeptics Are Wrong… About Almost Everything…
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode we’re going to start a new project. You know, one of the questions that I get asked a lot is if I am going to write a book based on my experience on Skeptiko, what I’ve learned, and some of the crazy stories that have come up over the years. And I have always said no, but recently I’ve started to change my mind. Maybe a book that chronicles my journey, all the craziness that I have encountered with Skeptics, atheists, wacky scientism believers and all the fundamentalist religious types I have talked to – maybe that would be a good idea. I have always approached Skeptiko as my personal journey shared with others. But as you know, and I have said this so many times, in this process I have realized that really sharing these interviews with you, the listener, has been an important part of the whole thing because it has created this feedback loop that has really propelled me forward. You have suggested so many ideas for shows, you have also changed my thinking about shows and the way that I approach things, and that interaction has been an important part of this process for me.
So when I started thinking about this book, I started thinking about two things along those lines. One, I started thinking it might be good to write a book because I might get that interaction and feedback and have an opportunity to reformulate what I really think about these topics. And number two, I thought why don’t I write the book in a way that promotes that feedback, promotes that interaction with you, the Skeptiko audience. And I think I came up with a pretty cool, interesting way of doing this – at least, I have never heard anyone do it this way before. So let me tell you a little bit about that and then also tell you about the topic that we’re going to start with today – Skeptics and mediums.
So here goes, here is the book. Every book needs a title, here is mine: Why Skeptics Are Wrong… About Almost Everything. Here then is how I am going to write it, and I just alluded to this, but I am going to go through the topics that we have covered on Skeptiko, these big topics that science and no one else ever seems to tackle completely. And I am going to re-examine them, primarily focused on this idea of how Skeptics look at it. And from what I have experienced, and you know this if you listen to the show, how hopelessly flawed the skeptical take on these things invariably turns out to be. Of course, I am not saying that the Skeptics are always wrong by definition, I am just saying they have a really, really bad batting average, at least from my experience. And there is a reason for that. There is a reason why this skeptical nonsense is engineered to fail. And that is something I would like to talk about as well. Spoiler alert – it’s because they got the consciousness science thing all wrong. But we will get to that in a minute.
One thing I would like to emphasize from the beginning is I don’t have a lot of answers, at least not anything that is firmed up. But I think, as you will appreciate, on a lot of these big question areas just being able to say, ‘That’s probably not the answer,’ is a huge paradigm-shifting step forward. So that’s what this book is going to try to do. It’s a book that is going to look at the best evidence that I have discovered on topics like consciousness, near-death experience, telepathy, psychics, UFOs, and a lot of other stuff. And then in particular I am going to focus on whether the skeptical party line – and there is always a skeptical party line – will look at how that stacks up against the evidence that I have discovered on Skeptiko. So I plan to tackle one topic in each chapter of the book. For example, in this show and in this chapter I am going to talk about why Skeptics are wrong about psychics and mediums. So I am going to go over some of the basics and then I am going to explain why we might want to look past some of the debunking shenanigans and wholesale dismissal of these phenomena that we hear constantly from Skeptics. The chapter of this episode and what you’re going to hear is going to draw from the shows and the many interviews I have done with psychics and mediums and, of course, researchers in the field.
Now, as you know because you are listening to this right now, I am going to publish an audio version of each chapter on the Skeptiko show and after I publish it I am going to ask for your help in suggesting any additions, deletions, or other edits that I might want to make to this chapter. I then plan on rolling those changes into the transcript and handing it off to my writer/editor/co-author to whip into shape and voila! Hopefully I will have a book out of this. Oh yeah, speaking of writer/editor/co-author, I am looking for someone. So if you are out there and you are a good fit for this gig and can live with the very modest advance that I am offering, then drop me an email and let’s chat about that. Finally, just to mention as an aside, as with all the “products” on Skeptiko, the book will be free or as close to free as is practical given the realities of Amazon book publishing and the need to kind of get this thing out there. At any rate, it is not a money making proposition, it is just a way to further explore these very underexplored areas of skepticism and science.
So let’s get going with the chapter on why Skeptics are wrong about psychics and mediums. By the way, this isn’t necessarily going to be the first episode in the book it is just the first episode I am publishing and I picked it because I realized I haven’t touched on this topic in quite a while and I thought it would be good to dive back in. And as a matter of fact, as I got into it I am really glad that I did because what I realized is how many interviews and how much work I did on this topic. I counted them up and I found at least 25 interviews. And that doesn’t include all the private interviews I did with mediums as part of this research demonstration project that you will hear about.
So before I get into all that let me start with the big picture. I want to answer that question that I asked right off the bat. So why are Skeptics wrong about psychics and mediums? And this is an important reframing – why do Skeptics believe that no one in recorded history has ever had some form of strange, unexplainable communication with a deceased loved one? Three reasons: number one, they are willfully ignorant of the research; number two, they never properly investigated the topic themselves; and number three, they life in a constructed world view that doesn’t allow this stuff to happen. So first off let me go back and talk a little bit about my framing of the skeptical assertion. No one ever has had any form of anomalous communication in any form – auditory, or a smell that came up that couldn’t be explained, any of the things that you hear about in all these things – that has never happened, ever in history, in any form, with any deceased loved one. That’s the skeptical claim. Now, as we will see in a minute, Skeptics like to focus on psychic scams, overblown claims of mediums, and all this other stuff in order to ridicule anyone associated with the topic. So they want to focus on some of the fraud and deception that we know of because that’s a pretty effective technique to get people distracted. If someone focuses on a grieving parent who got ripped off by some psychic scam artist, well then you’re well on your way to derailing any serious consideration of this topic. But that’s not what I wanted to do when I investigated, and that’s not what I want to do here in this episode. If we can manage to side step that bit of skeptical sleight of hand that wants you to focus on the psychic scams, we can take a step back and really look at the scientific claim they’re making – no one, ever, in any way, right? That’s the claim. Because if anyone ever got a single bit of information from some non-physical, spiritual, whatever that means, kind of being, then the Skeptics are wrong. And more importantly, the scientific paradigm that we have built upon that idea, that it can never happen, well then that falls too.
Let me take you back, then, to the beginning of my exploration of this topic on Skeptiko. It began when I contacted Dr. Gary Schwartz in 2006. Now, as some of you know, Dr. Gary Schwartz is a professor of psychology and medicine at the University of Arizona and he really became associated with this topic and caused quite a stir back in the early 2000s, at least for a little bit he did. And I say a little bit because as you are going to see or hear, the story of Dr. Schwartz in addition to offering some fascinating research in psychics and mediums also provides some interesting insights into how the whole skeptical academia status quo power structure really operates. More on that in a minute.
First a little bit about Gary who, as it turns out, is an incredibly smart guy with a PhD in psychology from Harvard University, then became an assistant professor at Harvard for five years – which if you know anything about academia is unheard of, that you get a PhD and they respect you so much that they immediately put you on the faculty. Later he was the chair of the department of psychology and psychiatry at Yale University. I mean, this is a stellar academic background. And then believe it or not, because he has the cred, he received a $2 million grant from NIH to study this kind of fringe medium, frontier of science consciousness stuff. Unheard of that he could get money for this. So anyway, he has all this academic credibility and he becomes really interested in psychics and mediums and he starts investigating them. He has these amazing findings and starts publishing these books so then he becomes the whack-a-mole that sticks his head up and he becomes a huge target.
So the first attack on Gary Schwartz is that his research is crap. And one of the reasons I want to go over his academic credentials and one of the reasons they are so interesting in this case is because the claim made against Dr. Schwartz and his research into mediumistic communication – and it’s the same claim that’s repeated with mantra-like repetitiveness against all researchers in this area – was that he hadn’t implemented proper controls in his experiments. Now mind you, we’re not talking about sophisticated controls here. I mean, they are somewhat sophisticated but not really. And you will hear much more about this later in the show. But the basic proposition here is that the medium needs to be blinded from outside information. Very basic, common sense stuff. So look, the whole idea that a guy like Gary Schwartz with a stellar academic background, a guy who has published over 400 scientific papers including six in the journal Science – the idea that he is stumbling over basic, common sense blinding problems, the kind of mistakes that a freshman psychology student would make, it’s just a silly claim. It’s an outrageous claim. But it still gets a lot of traction, especially for folks who are looking to take down Gary Schwartz and this research. Because these are debunkers and they are just looking for anything to attack. So they attacked his research and then they circled the wagons and then they really got him. In 2007 they got a sensationalized, Geraldo Rivera story – literally Geraldo Rivera on TV – about Dr. Schwartz’s fundraising and they called that into question and they had the grieving parent on there and the whole thing. You can go read about all that, I am not going to go into the whole story here, but Dr. Schwartz being a sharp guy and a smart guy realized it was time to pull the plug on the medium research, at least at the University of Arizona. He backed off of all of that and he has a lot of other research that he has continued to do. He didn’t lose his job or anything like that. But I am sure the powers that be at Arizona said, ‘Hey, we don’t need that kind of attention.’ And Dr. Schwartz moved on.
Fortunately for me, that’s where the story really begins because while I had talked to Gary a couple of times I had never managed to get a full interview out of him. But what I did manage to get was an introduction to his research associate who, as it turns out, is really the person who is doing the heavy lifting when it came to medium research, setting up protocols, doing analysis, all of that stuff. And her name is Dr. Julie Beischel, who is quite a delightful person – really smart, PhD in pharmacology, expert on really setting up protocols to test medicine, pharmacology and getting stuff past the FDA – and really smart about research and testing protocols. So I met Julie several times in person. If you have listened to the show you would know I have had her on the show several times as well and what I wanted to do for this chapter is share with you an interview I did with Julie back in August of 2008. This is when I had just started my own research into psychics and mediums and it is back when I naively thought that all it took to convince Skeptics was some good solid research. So in this interview you will hear me reference Ben Radford, who is a science writer and a skeptic who came on Skeptiko with all these reasons why this research should be ignored, all these criticisms of Gary Schwartz’s research and the research in general. Turns out, of course, he didn’t have a clue of what he was talking about but that doesn’t matter. You will hear all of that. You will also hear reference to my old frenemy, Dr. Steven Novella, who is a neurologist at Yale, professor, and the skeptic who hosts a popular weekly skeptical podcast.
Now one of the things that I did way back in this research was to challenge Steve to take part in a research demonstration project with psychics and mediums. So I was on his show and I said, ‘Look, you guys don’t believe psychics and mediums are real – let’s do a demonstration. We’ll do a medium reading for you on the air and then we’ll rate it and see if anything comes out of that.’ Well, he initially agreed to this but he never really followed through, he didn’t respond to emails, the whole thing dragged down and fizzled out. But since he initially agreed to this, he sent me down this path of doing this project. I did the project, I did the medium research demonstration project and that’s why I have so many shows on psychics and mediums. I interviewed all these interesting people, all sorts of folks including hardcore skeptic Lynne Kelly. I did a show with her and she came on and claimed that you could demonstrate how cold reading techniques could explain everything you would ever want to know about psychic medium readings, which is a totally silly idea that you can dismiss after hearing about five minutes of what Julie has to say. But that’s just to give you an idea of the skeptical nonsense that I had to wade through to really cover this topic the way that I wanted to.
I also had some interesting interviews with Steven Novella, which you can go back and listen to. I am not going to include them in this chapter but if you want that kind of background it is kind of interesting to see how the whole project evolved in that way. But right now what I want to get to is this long clip – it’s actually most of the whole episode – from this interview that I had with Dr. Julie Beischel back in 2008.
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris. Okay, now on today’s show we’re going to dig into the nuts and bolts of psychic medium research. We’re going to look back on some of what’s been done in the past and the criticisms of it, and we’re going to look forward to the kind of research we might do in the future in collaboration with open-minded skeptics like Ben Radford from the Skeptical Inquirer and Steve Novella from theSkeptics Guide to the Universe. And there’s no better person to join us and help us in this than Julie Beischel from the Windbridge Institute in Tucson. Julie, as many of you know from our previous interview with her, is researching medium communication as a way of answering or at least examining the bigger question of whether our consciousness survives death. So Julie, thanks for joining us again on Skeptiko.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Thanks for having me.
Alex Tsakiris: As you know, from the email dialogue that we’ve had back and forth we had Ben Radford on the last episode and we wound up kind of wading into this whole issue of medium communication. The work that you did with Gary Schwartz came up. I think what I’d like to do is start with a quote from Ben that kind of summarizes his feelings about that research, and then I want you to respond in general and I also want you to, and I think this will be interesting both to me and to our listeners, I want to work with you and go through the real timeline of what we’re talking about in terms of Gary’s publication of the afterlife experiment books, then the response by Ray Hyman, Gary’s response and then you joining the team at University of Arizona and what all of you went through, some of the changes you made and then your latest research. So, let’s kick that off by going back and listening again to what Ben had to say when he was on our show on the last episode.
Ben Radford: Let me give you another example, Gary Schwartz’s afterlife experiment. Gary Schwartz has published a couple of books and studies in which he’s claiming that there’s strong evidence for communication with the afterlife. Ray Hyman, whom I sure you know, the psychologist of the University of Oregon, an incredible statistician went through and looked at Schwartz’s claims. He found serious methodological flaws in the analysis and methodology.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so general response to that?
Dr. Julie Beischel: That book was published before I started performing mediumship research at the U of A, in fact, before I even knew what a medium was so I really can’t comment on his content because I wasn’t involved at all. Like you said there are several published critiques and responses if people are interested.
Alex Tsakiris: Here’s what I was trying to get at, Julie. It sounds to me like the chronology that we’re laying out here is this book comes out, Gary’s getting some criticism, and as you’ve related to us in the previous interview your meeting with Gary or the chance meeting that you had was really coincidental, and Gary saw in you the ability to maybe tighten up some protocols that he had and was developing and maybe wasn’t spending as much time on as he should have. Certainly your background would be something someone in Gary’s position would immediately see the value of in terms of what he’s doing. Tell me if that’s correct and how your background does fit with the kind of research that Gary was doing.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Well, I can’t really speak to what he was thinking when he met me, but what was conveyed to me because I had a strong background in methodological design in a “hard science,” Gary and the donor thought that would be helpful in the continuation of the research into yes, tighter protocols.
Alex Tsakiris: Because again, your background is pharmacology where you’re basically being trained to take new drugs and see if they’re safe and effective, right?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Yes, in essence that’s what pharmacology is.
Alex Tsakiris: So you and Gary started working together. When did you actually begin your research with Gary? When did you start developing a new protocol and then looking for participants and actually starting trials?
Dr. Julie Beischel: When I first came on board, I wasn’t very familiar with the field at all. He was sort of already in the process of asking questions like: Does the sitter need to be there for a reading to be successful or can a proxy sitter serve in place of the sitter? Does that work? Can you ask the medium specific questions about this carnate or does it need to be free form? So we did some of those sorts of studies at the beginning and then once I was learning more and more about the field, it became my goal to statistically establish the existence of the phenomenon of mediumship itself in a contemporary laboratory with modern mental mediums. I felt like that we had sort of skipped a couple of steps ahead, so we needed to back up to what we call the primary hypothesis which is can mediums do what they say they are doing? That’s when we performed, designed and recruited subjects and performed the study of that then went on to be published in the triple blind study. We nicknamed that the Primary Hypothesis Study, but we also call it the AIR which stands for Anomalous Information Reception which is what we call the phenomenon of process of mediumship.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so let’s deconstruct that a little bit. You felt and Gary felt obviously that maybe what needed to be done is to back up and look at the underlying hypothesis which is … how would you state the underlying hypothesis in kind of layman’s terms?
Dr. Julie Beischel: I could probably say this in my sleep. So the primary hypothesis is this: Skilled mediums can report accurate and specific information about the deceased loved one, termed discarnates, of living people termed sitters, without any prior knowledge about the discarnates or the sitters and in the complete absence of any sensory feedback.
Alex Tsakiris: So how do you think the works that had been done prior was not directly addressing that kind of underlying hypothesis? Where had we kind of ventured away from that a little bit?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Again, I wasn’t around for that. That book came out in 2002 so the current research is well beyond those methods. In our lab and other works that’s being done by, for instance, Archie Roy and Trisha Robertson in Scotland and Emily Kelly and Diane Archangel at the University of Virginia, so I don’t think it’s useful to sort of nitpick at that because we’re so far beyond it that it’s like saying, “Why did we think the earth was flat?” Well, it doesn’t matter because now we know that it’s not.
Alex Tsakiris: Maybe, but I think the part that I disagree with that is that the history of it I don’t think we have to run from and again, I think the historical context that I would add to it is that so if Gary Schwartz is the first one to, and he’s not the first one because there’s a hundred year history of this, but if he stumbles across this himself and is blown away by these readings and he goes in and he does what he does in afterlife experiments, I think it’s useful to look back and say, “Okay, objectively where was that maybe stretching the boundaries of what we really thought we know and where do we need to kind of pull in our ranks a little bit and go back to kind of the primary hypothesis that we’re looking at?” So, I’m not really asking you to comment on the research per se, but more why did you feel there was this need to, and we can move past this, but why was there a need to more tightly define the research hypothesis?
Dr. Julie Beischel: How about we can look at it like you said. It’s a hundred years of research so we can look at it in sort of a historical perspective: How did it used to be done and what we’re the problems and then how is the current research addressing those problems? Do you want to list those issues to me again and I’ll address those?
Alex Tsakiris: Sure, fair enough. I guess just to push that point a little bit further, I think the way that you described it and the way that you described your process of going back and saying, “Okay, what is the primary hypothesis?” I think it’s outstanding and if you’re recalling the interview that I had with Ben Radford last week, it’s a mistake that skeptics make as well. So you’re kind of saying, “Hey, I felt like maybe the lab was pushing the boundaries a little bit further than we needed to. We needed to take a step back.” Well, the same thing happens when you listen to skeptics and what they’ll do is when they get some data in that’s uncomfortable that pushes their boundaries like, “Hey, maybe I’m not in solid ground,” then they jump ahead and start asking hypothetical questions, “Well, then why isn’t the communication this way? Why can’t they answer this? Why can’t they answer this?” What I want to really make clear is how important it is to be crystal clear and focused in the research hypothesis and I think that’s something that you and Gary did to your credit on this second round or whatever round you want to call it, but you did. So again, let’s get back to the primary objection of that initial research from the University of Arizona was 1) a judging bias, 2) a controlled-group bias, and 3) the one that everyone really kind of grabs a hold of right off the bat is sensory leakage. Do you want to go through those?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Yeah, let’s go from the back and work backwards, so sensory leakage, yeah, if the medium and the sitter are in the same room obviously there’s sensory leakage even if you use a partition because the medium can as soon as the sitter says anything, the tone of voice, even if the sitter just says yes or no, like you can say yes or you can say, “Yes!” it’s very different and that gives a lot of information to the medium. So, you can’t have the medium and the sitter in the same room. There’s always going to be sensory leakage. Even on the telephone there’s sensory leakage for those same reasons where a lot of information comes through the sitter’s voice. So in the current research the sitter is not on the phone with the medium. It’s just a proxy sitter so I serve as a proxy sitter and it’s just the medium and I on the phone. I don’t know anything about the sitter or the deceased person. Then just the medium and I do everything.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s great and I want to make that crystal clear. On the readings that you are doing now, the medium never talks to the person they’re doing the reading for. Is that correct?
Dr. Julie Beischel: That’s correct.
Alex Tsakiris: So that part is totally out of the equation, and I want to just backtrack for a minute and point out that you’re talking about it in very tight scientifically-controlled terms, which is great. But the counter-claim to that has never been proven either, as far as I know, and that’s that sensory leakage, non-verbal cues, tone of voice can explain all the information that we know is passed between a reading. I’m not saying it is; I’m not saying it’s not. But sometimes when we hear that skeptical counter-claim, we have to keep in mind that that is an equally unproven scientific claim. In fact, cold reading demonstrations using the same kind of even lax controls that were used at the University of Arizona back in 2002 have never been done showing that you can get names of deceased relatives and be able to put all those together in a way that makes a meaningful reading. Now there’s no reason to go back and try to recreate kind of flawed protocol and see if it generates a good control to counter the work that was done, but I just feel a need to kind of point that out because sometimes when we see that we need to improve something it’s needed conceding that the counter-claim has really been established and I think in this case it hasn’t.
Dr. Julie Beischel: I would agree with that.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s move on and talk about controlled-group bias.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Let’s go to the other one because this same idea controls for rater bias, doesn’t hear the reading as it takes place, then we can give the sitter two different readings to score without knowing which is which. So that controls for reader bias because the sitter doesn’t know which reading is theirs and they score one that’s theirs and one that isn’t with the same, I don’t know how you want to say it, amount of bias or level of bias and it sort of washes it out then.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s break that down a little bit, because I think it slipped past me the first time I ran across your research. I’m trying to think what’s the best way to do this because we’re kind of talking about the end, the judging bias. Maybe at this point it would be more useful to go through and very quickly go over your protocol and then it just becomes crystal clear to anyone who’s objective that there cannot be any judging bias and there cannot be any controlled-group bias. So why don’t we start with going over how the protocol works?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Our current protocol uses a quintuple-blind methodology so there are five levels of blinding. How we do it is we start with a group of sitters and we screen them and they describe the one person they wish to hear from most that’s deceased. Then we take those descriptions and we find pairs of deceased people who are the most opposite and that creates a pair of sitters. Then each medium reads a pair of sitters and a pair of discarnates.
Alex Tsakiris: Now, hold on before you lose me and lose everybody else. So you start with all these potential people that would like to get a reading. One of the things that’s different from the prior research that was done at the University of Arizona is you narrow it down and say, “Okay, I want you just to select one person that you specifically want to talk to on the other side, if you will, one deceased person.” So this prevents the kind of fishing around that makes everyone uncomfortable both skeptics and believers where the medium goes, “It’s maybe aunt or maybe grandmother or a friend,” and all this because now the medium’s going to be tasked with just targeting in on just one specific deceased person. Is that correct?
Dr. Julie Beischel: That’s correct.
Alex Tsakiris: And the other thing that you do here that I think is really, really significant and it’s brought up or kind of, Ben Radford last week had a similar kind of thought without realizing that you had already done this in the research that you published more than a year and a half ago, and that’s you actually pre-select pairs of people based on how different the person that they’re trying to connect with is.
Dr. Julie Beishcel: Right, I wrote down a quote and I think this is close to what he said. He said, “Enough variation between subjects should exist so that meaningful distinctions between subjects can be made.” That’s exactly what we do.
Alex Tsakiris: So take us through an example of how that would work.
Dr. Julie Beischel: We pair the people to most opposite in age, physical description, personality description, hobbies, and cause of death.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so I come along and I’m a potential research participant and I say, “Gee Julie, I’d really like to connect with my grandmother who passed away. She passed away when she was 95 and she was a small woman in stature, five foot one, and she had olive skin and her hobbies were going to church and knitting.”
Dr. Julie Beischel: Okay, we would find another sitter who had a discarnate that was young and active and blonde and had died of an accident rather than like your grandmother who died of old age. We pair the person to be most different on a variety. It’s hair coloring and build and height and cause of death would be part of the body that was affected fast or slow, natural or unnatural. Then hobbies are inside or outside.
Alex Tsakiris: We had a little bit of technical difficulty and I think what you were going over was all the different factors that you consider in a reading anyway and those are the ones that you kind of match for the maximum disparity possible. The reason that you do that is because … tell us.
Dr. Julie Beischel: We pair up pairs of discarnates to be most opposite. They’re the same in gender but most opposite in everything else. Then the same medium reads both people in the pair. If you said you wanted a reading from your grandmother and I wanted a reading from my sister, then a medium would do a reading for your grandmother and from sister. Then I would score both readings and you would score both readings, but we wouldn’t know which one was which because we weren’t there when the readings took place. So that controls for reader bias and then we give a score. I give a score to each reading and you give a score to each reading in addition to item by item scoring. There’s a very complicated scoring process. So my score of your reading serves as a control and your score of my reading serves as a control. Then we statistically compare the scores given by the intended sitter to the intended reading and two of the scores given by the controlled sitter to the controlled reading.
Alex Tsakiris: Awesome. Now let’s back up because actually, and I know you’re trying to make it as simple as possible, but there’s a couple of other steps that you go through there that are also interesting and noteworthy. So we’ll put you in the place of the person who’s talking to the medium. The first thing you say to the medium is you give the first name of the person you’re trying to connect with, right?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Yes, so during the reading all the medium and I have is the first name of the discarnate. We start the reading and I give the first name.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, and that’s a good point, too. That’s all you have, so you don’t have any information because we’re substituting you here as we said as a pronoun but it’s not really you. You end up being a person who decided who the two participants or who the two deceased people that we’re trying to connect with. You would be blind to that.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Right. A different experimenter does the pairing and screens the sitters. It’s my research assistant, Michael. So Michael gets on the phone with all the sitters. He gathers all the information. He does all the pairing and then I say, “Okay, I’m ready to do two readings,” and he gives me a first name.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. So you sit down there and you say, “Medium, I don’t know anything else other than I have a person here who wants to connect with someone named Sarah. Ready, go.” They go, so you’re blind to it. They’re blind to it. The reading happens. Now tell us a little bit about what happens after the reading has occurred, the transcribing and the reporting on that.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Let’s back up even a little more. During the reading, I give the medium the first name and they’re allowed to just give some general information for about ten minutes and then I ask those same four specific questions: Describe the physical appearance of the discarnate, describe their personalities, what were their hobbies or how did they spend their time, and what was their cause of death?
Alex Tsakiris: Good point. So even in that part though, for ten minutes you go, “Okay, medium. Go ahead, what are you getting? Sarah.” They can just say anything and then you take them through a very targeted process, which is also a very important difference with the way the prior medium research at the University of Arizona was done. One big difference that we pointed out at the beginning is now we’ve targeted one specific deceased person. We’re really not interested in information that comes through other deceased people. And number two, we’re targeting in on certain specific bits of information that we want. What did they look like – build, height, hair? What was their personality – introvert, extrovert? Hobbies, cause of death. These are really specific things that you are now asking without knowing what the answer should be or could be. You’re just asking the medium for responses to those, right?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Correct.
Alex Tsakiris: Now the reading ends. What happens next?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Then I’m still blinded. I still don’t know anything, so I take the recording of the reading and I turn it into a list of single individual items of the information that the medium provided. So part of that formatting process is if the medium makes any reference to the name that I have then I pull out all of those references. I pull out all of the maybes and the could bes. So if the medium says, “I think maybe, I’m sort of getting that she might have had red hair,” my item is she had red hair because you can’t say whether she maybe had red hair if that’s true or not and we’re asking the sitter if this is true or not. I’m not totally versed in every single mediumship study that ever existed on the planet, but I think that’s relatively uncommon. I think that’s a newer protocol.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. So now you’re formatting a transcript. First you get it all transcribed and then you’re formatting it down to these single declarative kind of statements of facts. A couple of things that you mentioned, just to be clear, if I said you’re doing a reading for Sarah you would take obviously any references to the name Sarah because that would tip off that that’s who the reading is for.
Dr. Julie Beischel: That’s exactly right.
Alex Tsakiris: And then you have these number of other things like you said. You make the statements clear. You take any kind of medium speak of … give me an example of some of the medium speak.
Dr. Julie Beischel: I wrote a paper about all this methodology that came out in the Journal of Parapsychology and I think the example that I used in that paper is a medium might say, “I’m getting that Sarah is below you, below the sitter, pardon me,” then that means that they’re in a younger generation. If they said that they’re to the side of that means they’re in the same generation or above is a generation older. I put brackets and I sort of define what the medium speak means to the sitter.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, and this isn’t something you came up with. This is just something, a shorthand way of talking that the medium has that you’re translating for the benefit of the sitter.
Dr. Julie Beischel: It is language that mediums use naturally and then I define it for the sitter.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, great. So now let’s get down to the payoff. Now you’ve done a couple of readings with you being the intermediary. You’ve transcribed them, broken them down into single list of kind of declarative statements, “Her hair is red. She passed away this way. She was introverted. She liked this, blah, blah, blah.” Now what happens?
Dr. Julie Beischel: So now I send those two readings, and they’re just numbered Reading 1 and 2, I send those to a third experimenter, Mark, and then Mark and I say, “These two readings for these two discarnates.” We’ll name them in groups so Michael says, “Here are two names in Group A.” Then we do the readings and then I send the two blind readings to Mark and I say, “These are the two readings from Group A,” but he doesn’t know which one is for which name and he sends them to the sitters for scoring. So now none of us can accidentally convey anything to anybody because we don’t know anything to convey.
Alex Tsakiris: So now the next person in this chain who you said is Mark. Mark gets the two readings and he sits down with me and says, “Okay, Alex, you wanted to connect with your grandmother, Sarah. Here are two readings. I don’t know which one is for your grandmother Sarah, but one of them is and one is for another person.” Then I’m asked to do what?
Dr. Julie Beischel: He doesn’t sit down with you. He emails the readings to you and Michael has previously trained you on how to do the scoring. So Mark sends you two readings. You already know how to do the scoring and by yourself you score each of the readings and you email back your scores.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, basically how am I scoring these?
Dr. Julie Beischel: You have the list of items, so you score each item for how we say, “Think to yourself, how well does this piece of information fit?” So you can give it a numerical score and there are not five isn’t one better than four. They’re just named zero through five. Five is obvious fit. It’s a concrete hit. Four is fit requiring minimal interpretation to fit, like they almost got it; that’s pretty close. Three is a fit requiring maximum interpretation like, “Ah, I guess if you really squinted your eyes that might be right.” Then two is it doesn’t fit the person whose name the reading was for, but it fits somebody else. One is no fit; that’s totally wrong. Zero is “I don’t know. I don’t have the information to know whether that’s right or wrong.” Then when we do the analysis, we use scores as four or five as hits and all the rest of them we consider misses. You also give the whole reading a score from zero to six, which is a different scale. That scale is based on the work of Russell Targ, the scoring they developed for remote viewing, like how you would score a remote viewer’s picture or response. The third way of “scoring” is we say, “Pick which reading you think is yours.” So you have this item by item percent of accurate items data, and then you have a whole reading zero to six score of the reading. Then you have a binary yes or no “Is this your reading?” so you can do statistics on each one of those pieces of data.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. The reason you can, again, is because the whole process we went through is just like me sitting down with these random facts that I have no idea where they came from and I have to pick whether they fit, whether they match, rate them on a scale on how well they fit and then come up with an overall evaluation. So at this point we’ve kind of addressed, I think, now let’s go back to the points we were talking about a few minutes ago, the judging bias now in the controlled-group bias are both addressed. What was the complaint or the criticism, and there was some validity to it, of the previous objection to the judging bias?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Well, if you know the reading is yours, rater biases, if you know the reading is yours you have a tendency to score it as either more or less accurate than it is in reality. But if you don’t which one is yours, then you’ll score them with the same amount of bias.
Alex Tsakiris: So if this is the reading that I got back, I might want to please either the medium or the experimenter or I might want to displease either the medium or the experimenter. Or, it might just be human nature that I want to cooperate. I want to get along so I start seeing things in certain ways. That’s kind of out of the equation now because I now have no knowledge which one of these readings pertain to me and there’s no way I could have any knowledge of them.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Right. If you score a bunch of things as right, you’ll score a bunch of things as right in both of the readings so statistically that will cancel out and if you score both things low, statistically that will cancel out. What the statistic looks for is the difference between the two not, “She got 77 percent right.” It doesn’t matter. It’s what the difference is between the scores given by the sitters to their own readings and the scores that they gave to someone else’s readings without knowing which is which.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, and what about the medium who is giving a lot of generalities to their answers and are just kind of fishing around? How does that not affect this process?
Dr. Julie Beischel: Well, we’re asking for specific information, so they can’t just give general because we’re asking for specific pieces of information. If they just give general, “He’s kind of short but kind of tall,” that’s two items now. He’s kind of short and he’s kind of tall. So a medium that just provided general information, one would have a low accuracy percentage and the sitter would have a lot of trouble discerning between the two readings and they probably would have a low record of the sitter’s choice.
Alex Tsakiris: And what you’d wind up with at the end of the day is chance, sitters picking readings and basically picking them at chance levels – 50/50 kind of scores. Or if you’re saying how “What score would you give it – one through six?” everyone’s going to be at the three kind of middle ground. That’s not in the published research that you’ve done published back in 2006, 2007, I’m sorry. But you did it in 2006, published it in January 2007, correct?
Dr. Julie Beischel: I think we probably did it in 2005, but go ahead.
Alex Tsakiris: I think the chronology is really important and I want to get back to this later, but this is work that has been out there for a while. So you published it in January 2006, it’s not like we’re springing something on people here.
Dr. Julie Beischel: January 2007, so it’s almost two years old now.
Alex Tsakiris: So in that published study, I think you had sixteen times where people had to choose “which reading is mine.” What percentage of time did they choose the correct reading?
Dr. Julie Beischel: 81 percent. So thirteen of those sixteen people.
Alex Tsakiris: And that’s a pretty impressive, I assume that was statistically significant if I remember correctly from the paper.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Yes, it’s quite significant like you’re looking for a P value of less than .05 and I think that P was .001.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, with that in mind now we’ve gone back and I hope that isn’t too detailed and exhausting for people, but I just think that’s fascinating. I think the whole process is extremely tight in my opinion and I’m certainly open to, I’m not a scientist, and I’m open to other people who are critical of your work to come forward and say where the gaping flaws and holes are. But it sure seems to me like it’s addressed the main issues. With that in mind, let me go back and play a couple more clips from Ben’s interview on the last episode and then in light of what we now know and have talked about, let’s hear what you might have to say about a couple of these.
Ben Radford: I do know about the research and one of the problems, one of the issues it doesn’t address is that in many of these cases the verification of the information is provided by the sitter. That is this not information that is supposedly coming from the great beyond that is verified by a third party person. Much of this was information where the medium will say, “I’m getting information from your husband or grandfather or whoever else,” and the information is judged either accurate or inaccurate by the sitter and there is an inherent problem right now that has not been addressed.
Alex Tsakiris: I just want to remind people that I specifically said, “Julie Beischel is on this show and she’s done this new research,” and he responded, “Yeah, I’m familiar with that research.” So just as a grounding that’s where we’re all coming from on that. What are your thoughts on that?
Dr. Julie Beischel: I’m going to use that, our current peer review methods, to address that. He’s listing as a criticism the fact that the sitter is the person that judges the information as accurate or inaccurate. So it’s important to keep in mind the scope and the goal of the research. The goal isn’t to prove the existence of an afterlife are inaccurate. Anyone on my team would say we’re not trying to prove an afterlife. That is not the goal. What we’re doing is examining the processes of mediumship in its natural environment with the proper controls, so normal readings between a medium and a sitter. Again, the general hypothesis we’re testing is can mediums report accurate and specific information without any prior knowledge and in the absence of any sensory feedback. So with that being the goal, the sitter has to be the person that is the judge because the information was intended for the sitter. We don’t ask the hypothesized discarnate. I’m just going to put an asterisk there. Every time I say “discarnate” I mean hypothesized discarnate. I’m not implying we have established that the medium is talking to a dead person because we haven’t. So the hypothesized discarnate, we don’t ask the hypothesized discarnate to take an algebra exam and provide information a third party could determine is accurate. That’s not what a mediumship reading is. We’re asking them to communicate with their friends and family, the only people who can determine if the information is correct and applicable.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, that’s a good, very, very good point and to just declare from where I think Ben was coming from one of the criticisms of the prior research done at the University of Arizona is that if a person comes through and says, “I think I’m connecting with an aunt figure and her name is Dolly,” then the person who is accepting the reading can say, “Yeah, yeah that’s right.” Then there isn’t the independent verification of whether that’s right or wrong but that was troubling to some skeptics.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Right, because how could you verify whether or not something was wrong about my entire life? I couldn’t tell you everything you would need to know to do that. I don’t know how that’s even possible.
Alex Tsakiris: You’ve gotten around that whole issue by how? How have you specifically kind of addressed this issue that there is someone there who’s making these subjective judgments about the accuracy of the data?
Dr. Julie Beischel: We’re controlling for reader bias by having the person score two blinded readings and we’re comparing their score of a reading intended for them to their score of a reading not intended for them.
Alex Tsakiris: So the big problem before is the skeptics will point out, and in some cases very correctly, is that the reading could pile up like positive points like, “That’s a hit. That’s another hit. That’s another hit. Oh, your percent is going up and up and up.” Now what you’ve done is kind of taken that out of the equation because it really doesn’t matter how high or how accurate any particular reading is, it’s more of a comparison. How does this reading compare with the other reading? That’s how you’ve really, I think, in very novel way controlled for this whole idea of rater bias. They can be biased one way or another way but it’s going to wash out with the controlled reading that they have.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Right. They’ll be the same bias for each reading because they won’t know which is theirs.
Alex Tsakiris: Here’s the next quote from Ben.
Ben Radford: Part of the problem here that those descriptions that you just gave, those can still be vague. Someone says, “You know the person who’s coming through is a tall man with gray hair.” Well, it turns out that when the person died, he was bald. This gets back to the problem of having a sitter verify the information because the sitter says, “Yes, he had gray hair,” then that’s a hit. That’s good information, but the medium could also say he was bald in which case the sitter would say, “Well, he had gray hair but in his last years he was bald.” So you can have a medium giving two contradictory pieces of information, both of which would be considered a hit by the sitter.
Alex Tsakiris: I think we’ve probably covered that, but go ahead.
Dr. Julie Beischel: I think this is important just to address and then I’ll get to that specifically. Ideally laboratory-based mediumship research has to include two things: 1) an environment that optimizes the process for everyone involved, the medium, the hypothesized discarnate, the sitter in order to increase the probability of capturing the phenomenon if it exists, and 2) methods that maximize the blinding to control for any conventional explanations for the information. So together those two factors optimize the possibility of achieving positive results while also controlling for experimental artifacts.
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on! Hold on, wait.
Dr. Julie Beischel: I have a real world example that will make that much more understandable.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, go.
Dr. Julie Beischel: We use this metaphor: You can’t study football on a basketball court using baseball players and the rules for hockey because if you get negative results you can’t say, “I’ve disproven the phenomenon of football” in that case because you’re on a basketball court using baseball players and the rules for hockey. That’s not a proper experiment. Similarly, it’s not appropriate to claim that Jason Elim could kick a 95-yard field goal if you give him a Nerf football, an empty stadium and no defensive line. That’s not real football either. In order to study football appropriately only trained skilled participants and the regulation equipment, environment and regulations can be used. The same thing is true for mediumship. So, negative results from a study using methods that didn’t optimize the environment and positive maximized blinding are equally ineffective at establishing new knowledge.
Alex Tsakiris: And this goes back to what you’ve been calling a naturalistic or a natural setting that tries to put everyone in the position that they are when people report these fantastic readings and I think that’s so common sense and yet it get so mixed up in the minds of skeptics so many times when I hear it. It goes back to your initial research hypothesis or proposition. If we’re going to study if medium communication is real, shouldn’t we do everything possible to let the medium and the sitter have at it in the way that they feel most comfortable with the only caveat being that we want to put the proper experimental controls on it? That just seems like common sense to me.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Yeah, and some people call that, “Oh, you’re cheating then!” because you’re optimizing. But it’s the same thing as saying, “If you give the football player a football instead of a watermelon…” or you know. It’s not cheating. It’s optimizing so you can watch the process as it takes place take place. I think people fail to understand that proper research design includes optimizing the possibility of achieving positive results. If you wanted to study plant growth, you don’t put a dry seed on the bench top in the lab and then say, “Plants can’t grow.” You use soil and water and sunlight, and then you study the growth of the seed.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Do everything possible. Once you put the proper controls in place, why not do everything possible to recreate the phenomena? I completely agree. Now, what about Ben’s point about the information being vague? Maybe I say, “The hair was black, but I was bald older.”
Dr. Julie Beischel: Okay, I think his main point was that two pieces of contradictory information can be judged as hits by the sitter. Again, we have to keep in mind the process of mediumship. So first, the medium is interpreting images, symbols, sounds, whatever so she actually may receive two items that appear contradictory but we instruct them to say what they see. That’s the process and we’re studying the process so we can’t mess with the process. Second, as is often the case, as anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest communication between people is not black and white. Things can be contradictory and accurate at the same time.
Alex Tsakiris: So then let’s follow that piece of information or those seemingly contradictory pieces of information through your protocol and see what happens at the end and see if they do create this mix up in the final judging of the data. So the person says, “Black hair, bald.” Two things that are contradictory. Older in life they were bald. Earlier in life they had black hair. How do you score it? How do you report it? And then how does the sitter score it?
Dr. Julie Beischel: We’re not asking the medium to describe a photo of the discarnate. We’re asking them to describe aspects of the whole entire dynamic lifespan of the person. Just like that’s entirely accurate for the person to be bald at some points in their life and dark hair in some points of their life and the discarnate may present themselves to the medium in each of those ways. It’s accurate for the sitter to score each of those items as accurate because they are both accurate. During scoring, again we’re not ranking up the number of hits. We’re comparing the number of hits to the number of hits in a controlled reading. So if the medium always, if the one reading says, “Oh, he was bald at some point and he had dark hair at some point,” and the other reading said, “Well, he was bald at some point but he was blond at some point,” then those two times that she said bald cancel each other out because they’re counted as hits in the control group and in the intended group.
Alex Tsakiris: Great, which is really the important distinction that we want to make. Okay, next clip from Ben Radford’s critique of your work.
Ben Radford: I’ll tell you what, use subjects who are do not fit what most people would consider to be a normal profile, to have a subject who maybe lost his legs in an accident during the war.
Alex Tsakiris: I think we’ve hit this.
Dr. Julie Beischel: I did actually want to address that specifically. Again, we have to keep in mind the scope of the research. We’re not setting up a condition where the discarnate has to prove something. We’re interested in studying mediumship under conditions that exist normally so that is where the medium provides information along with the sitter to identify the discarnate.
Alex Tsakiris: I think where he was going was just to say, “Let’s get people that are different so that those differences are highlighted in the reading,” and that’s the first thing that you do. I just want to bring us back to that and make it clear.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Yeah, and then another issue with that is that even if we did that it would be very difficult because there aren’t a whole lot of people in the world who have lost their legs or have a birth defect so it’s a very small percentage of people. And, even if you did that experiment where all the people had something special about them, then all you could conclude at the end of day was mediums can report specific and accurate information that is special to these people. Well, we’re not interested in that study. We’re interested in how does mediumship work in its natural environment?
Alex Tsakiris: Let me go ahead and really go out on a limb here and speak for Ben Radford. I think where he was going was just taking the mundane out of it which is kind of the next quote that I wanted to play for you and I think they’re related. I think he’s saying, “Let’s look at people who are different,” because I think incorrectly on his part he had this vision that all these readings are being done for 80-year-old grandmothers who passed away. You’re doing just the opposite of that. So let me play this next quote because I think it relates back to exactly what we’re talking about.
Dr. Julie Beischel: Okay.
Ben Radford: Well, part of my problem with the whole notion of medium communication is that a lot of the stuff is so mundane.
Dr. Julie Beischel: I have one word – football. That’s like saying, “Oh, I don’t like watching football because the players don’t fly.” Well, that’s not how football works so we have to keep in mind how the process works. We’ve actually found mediums most often report three kinds of information: information that allows the sitter to identify the discarnate so I call that, “It’s me! It’s me!”; events that have occurred since the discarnate’s passing, “I’m here! I’m here! I’m still here. I saw you at that birthday party or I saw that you got married or whatever. I’m still in your life even though I’ve died”; and then three, messages of an emotional nature, “I love you.” So we also have to keep in mind the scope of the research. We’re not looking to prove the existence of an afterlife. We’re interested in the phenomenon of mediumship. Mundane or not, the information is meaningful to the sitter and that’s what we’re studying. I think it’s also important to recognize that the majority of all human communication isn’t mundane. I like to say we study human communication. One of the people just happens to be dead. You don’t study normal human communication by asking people to talk about quantum physics. You just ask them to talk to each other and that’s what we’re doing.
Alex Tsakiris: And of course, what’s mundane for one person or another or a third observer is incredibly relevant to an individual. I can say from my own personal experience with a reading using just kind of a very basic of controls so it’s not like a scientific reading, some information that I would tell that I could report to you about that reading would seem incredibly mundane and to me it was deeply, deeply meaningful, almost to the point of bringing me to tears in terms of how relevant that was to me on an emotional level.
Dr. Julie Beischel: I think that brings up another point. I think Mr. Radford said something about, like he was saying, “Oh well to me this means the discarnate says, ‘He loves you,’ and he literally said, ‘What value is that?’” Again, let’s remember what we’re studying. It’s a deceased person communicating with the people that they love who are grieving and suffering and missing him, not a graduate student defending their dissertation. So what would you say to your family if you had died and you could witness their mourning? I would say, “I love you.” I think the mistake here again is that we’re trying to prove an afterlife and we’re not. We want to look at a mediumship reading with normal people receiving normal messages from their normal deceased relatives. That’s what we study. And I think critics think mediumship readings contain life-altering or extraordinary pieces of information, but that’s like expecting those types of information to show up in phone calls or letters or emails from someone that you haven’t been able to talk to for awhile. To an outsider like you said, the information may seem mundane but it’s really meaningful to the person receiving it. And I actually want to correct something you said in that interview, Alex. You said we don’t score “I love you” as accurate, but after we have the medium answer those four specific questions about the discarnate’s physical life, we honor the sitter and the discarnate by asking the medium, “Does the discarnate have any messages for the sitter?” This provides motivation for the sitter to participate and the discarnate to participate, not just to have to jump through our hoops, “Hey, dead person, show up for our study and answer these questions and then go away.” This may be the only opportunity they have to convey important messages to their living relatives, so those messages items are scored in the same way that the other items are. But again, we compare the controls so if they always said, “I love you,” it would be right in the control reading and in the intended reading and it would wash out but I also want to make the point that “I love you” is not an automatic hit. If the medium said that my mom was saying, “I love you,” I would score it as wrong because we never said that in my family. I would say you must be talking to the wrong person because my mom would never say that. So it’s not like when someone says, “I love you,” that’s an automatic hit because not everybody would say that.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, good point. Thanks for that clarification. In wrapping up all of the comments that Ben had about your research, we have one more that we’ve touched on but let me play it one more time and have you address it directly.
Ben Radford: I have yet, and if you can point me to an example of this I’ll be happy to follow up and write it down and say that I was wrong, but I have yet to find a case either in psi research generally or in Gary Schwartz’s experiments specifically that have information that neither medium nor the sitter knew.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, so the final clip. Thoughts on that?
Dr. Julie Beischel: I think I did address that. Again, we’re not trying to prove an afterlife. We want to study mediumship under its normal condition. There have been cases where the medium often, I’ve heard mediums say, “A reading doesn’t happen without the discarnate providing information that the sitter didn’t know because it’s the most evidential for the sitter,” but it’s not evidential in the lab because it doesn’t separate telepathy from survival as an explanation. So it’s not ideal. It’s not something we would look to collect because it doesn’t answer any question.
Alex Tsakiris: What would be the best way for Skeptiko to put together some examples for Ben to see where this has occurred? Taking out the survival issue and just saying, “Is another person able to connect with information that the receiving person didn’t know about?”
Dr. Julie Beischel: I think when you do your demonstration you can specifically … We did a small pilot study where we specifically used the question, “Please provide information that is unknown to the sitter, medium, or experimenter and can be verified later.” A lot of the mediums said they do that every time anyway, so you can specifically ask for that type of information and then specifically follow up with the sitter. I would suggest that because again, we haven’t done it officially in a controlled way so I don’t have data on that.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. We’ll do that.
Dr. Julie Beischel: I just can tell you it happens. I’ve seen it. I don’t have any specific examples because we haven’t looked at it specifically.
Alex Tsakiris: So that was August 2008, I had just started this research demonstration project with Dr. Steven Novella and his skeptical buddies. I keep calling it a research demonstration project because as you can appreciate from just listening to Julie there is quite a difference between doing the kind of demonstration I was just talking about and serious academic-quality, peer-reviewed research that Julie was doing. At the same time though it should be obvious that you can get pretty darn close with a well-run demonstration that implements some of the basic controls that Julie was just talking about. Let’s get real here – Skeptics claim that mediums succeed through cold reading techniques. The go fishing for information like, ‘Hey, I see a name that starts with an M or maybe a W in your past or future.’ And then they rely on the person jumping in there and blurting out, ‘That’s my uncle Will!’ That’s the skeptical claim, that’s what cold reading is supposed to be. Well, if you just insert a proxy sitter into the mix, that is you don’t really let the person who wants the reading talk directly with the medium, well then all that stuff goes away, right? Because you can control as a proxy whether you blurt out anything, whether you say anything at all, which Julie doesn’t right?
And the same goes with the claim that mediums read someone’s body language or facial expressions or whatever. Again, with a proxy sitter you just put them in the middle and there is none of that. There is nothing to read, especially if the proxy sitter is blinded from or doesn’t know anything about the sitter, the person asking for the reading. Then they can’t pass any information because they don’t know it. So that is a very simple control that really tackles 99% of all this nonsense about cold reason. So it doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t, take much to satisfy the Skeptics in this case. A simple, fair-minded demonstration with basic controls really should put the whole matter to rest. It should, anyway. So that’s what I set out to do. I wanted to do a simple demonstration along the lines of Julie’s research, informed by Julie’s research and some of the control techniques that she had implemented. I wanted to bring those into my research project so I began recruiting mediums. It’s really not that hard to find out who the good mediums are and call them up, ask them if they want to do the project. I began recruiting sitters again. It’s not hard to find people who want to get a free reading and connect with their dearly departed. I ran ads on Craigslist, and people responded. Now, at first I had in mind this semi-automated questionnaire kind of thing but I ran into problems with that. And one of the problems I ran into is what Julie mentions there, that I wasn’t really serving anyone’s needs and I wasn’t really giving people a reading that they could use and I ran into other problems as well in terms of this blinding and control – do names matter, all this kind of stuff.
The point is I spent months and a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a little bit of money really trying to get this thing right. And all the while I was trying to get Dr. Steven Novella and his Skeptics Guide to the Universe buddies to join in. But it kept getting harder and harder to engage these guys as time went on. They were moving on to other stuff and they never came right out and said they didn’t want to do this project anymore but they stopped responding to email and they made themselves unavailable and it was clear that project with them was stalling. But I was still interested in this and I had evolved into doing readings where I was serving as the proxy. So I would have someone who wanted to connect with someone on the other side and I would get just basic information from them, the name of the person they were trying to connect with, and the date of their passing. I think those are the two pieces of information that I took. And then I would do the reading with the medium and say I just have this information, can you tell me anything? It was an interesting experience and I did a number of these and then sharing with the person who was trying to connect was a fascinating experience. Some of them were incredibly accurate and incredibly meaningful, and others not so much. But that’s kind of the nature of this kind of anomalous communication. But along the way I was also question the purpose of this – what I was really trying to do, who I was really trying to convince of this truth. And in that process, as they say, fate intervened.
It was in June of 2009 after months of working on this project that I decided to take one more stab at making it public. And I published a rather amazing medium demonstration I did with Marilynn Hughes and a mother from Austin, Texas, who had lost her daughter. And as you will hear in a minute, when I published this I told everyone a little bit about the journey that I had been on and how this experience had not only further convinced me of the reality of all of this but had shown me the deeper purpose in this work. I think you will understand what I mean when you listen to this interview.
Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode we’re going to look at the psychic medium experiment that we’re doing. I haven’t spoken much about it in the last few episodes but there has been a lot going on for the last few months. So let me take everyone back to the beginning, at least the Skeptiko beginning. Let’s start by maybe defining terms a little bit. I think everyone who is listening to this show is probably familiar with psychic medium communication, where someone has lost a loved one and they go in and talk to a psychic or a medium and they try to connect with that loved one through some anomalous means that we don’t fully understand. Now, keep in mind that the skeptical take on psychic medium communication, and this is certainly the position of mainstream science as well, is no way, no how. It’s never been proven and you get a lot of this 100 years of nothing stuff.
So once again, and I really feel a need to point this out, we are faced with this absolutely insane disconnect between what science is investigating and what people care most deeply about. I mean, let’s face it. What happens to us after we die is something we all think about and we all care deeply about. So in terms of this experiment, it really started about 18 months ago when I appeared on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe Show with Dr. Steve Novella. And I challenged those folks to do a public demonstration of psychic medium work to show that it really does happen. And you may recall that we had a lot of communication about that but it never really came to pass, at least for a year it didn’t. Then near the end of last year in 2008 I decided to tackle this project on my own, or at least to dig into it. And that’s what I have been doing. I have updated you several times on the progress that we have made but this is going to be a little bit of a different update because the project has personally taken a couple turns for me that I couldn’t have expected but have been wonderfully enlightening. And I want to share a little bit of that with you.
First, this whole thing has been terrific. I mean, it has been fascinating to speak with so many psychics, medium, and out-of-body travelers. One thing that you run into right away when you get into this is you find that the labels that we sometimes throw around don’t sit well with the folks doing the work and I want to respect that. So that has been amazing. It has also been amazing to connect with so many folks who are dealing with the death of someone close to them. It hasn’t always been pleasant and fun but it has been rewarding on a different level. So in the last few months as I have been running these trials I have learned a lot and I have certainly made a lot of mistakes and then I have kind of come back and learned some more. Then a couple of months ago I reached a little bit of a turning point. I had run about three trials on the medium experiment and the way that I was doing it I had achieved some mixed results. Some of the experiments were showing extraordinary results, a million to one above chance levels. Others were not. Some of the readings were personally transformative for the people who were grieving, others were not.
Now, along the way, all along the way, I kept asking our mediums how we could improve the experiment and how we could make it better. And the answer that I got, and I got this a number of different ways, but ultimately the way that I came to understand it is that I have to slow down and do these experiments, these trials, one at a time. And it is funny because I came to appreciate at a deeper level something Julie Beischel said a while back and it is something that I initially kind of bristled against. That is that you have to serve everyone involved, the living and the dead. I know that sounds a little bit strange but hang in there with me because that is what this show is all about. It is about one reading, one gifted person who is somehow able to connect with people who have died. It is also about one grieving mother and it is about one young adult who tragically decided to take her own life.
The story starts back in January of this year, 2009, when I was in the process of recruiting mediums for this experiment, and I ran in to Marilynn Hughes, of the – get this, Skeptics, you’re going to love this – the Out-of-Body Travel Foundation at outofbodytravel.org. Now, if you’re one to snicker at the name just wait until you dig in to what Marilynn has to say. For many of us, even believer is the idea of God sending people on a journey through countless levels of spiritual realms in order to aid lost souls. All a little hard to take. But two things that drove me forward with Marilynn were one, I am no longer put off by folks who believe in strange things that I don’t have any experience with. Heck, if Skeptiko has taught me anything it is that a lot of very down-to-earth people like Skeptics believe in all sorts of things that they don’t have any experience with. The second thing that drove me forward was that there was something just very engaging about Marilynn. I don’t know – I just really liked her almost immediately. I was really thrilled when Marilynn agreed to do an interview. But when we first started talking about the experiment and what we might be able to do together scientifically I had some real doubts it was going to work out. I think you will see what I mean from this first clip.
Marilynn Hughes: Well, it’s an interesting question and I have been thinking about what I would say to you in terms of how I think it could be done and I think a thing that I would share is that from what I have experienced this is where the challenge lies for science. When we leave our bodies and we go into different spiritual states we enter worlds that have different laws that third-dimensional reality. So in order to take science into that study somehow we have to integrate and include those different laws of existence.
Alex Tsakiris: Different laws of existence – isn’t this the kind of woo-woo stuff that just drives Skeptics crazy? But you have to ask yourself one question – what if it’s real? And that’s the question that I asked. So I pushed forward with Marilynn. I told her about the trials we had already done. I told her about some of the other out-of-body experience research that had been published. So my dialogue with Marilynn continued and we started to kind of hone in on something that we might be able to do. Here’s Marilynn again:
Marilynn Hughes: You know, the one thing that I think is more likely to be workable in terms of what my situation is would be utilizing out-of-body experiences for messages for people and I don’t know how far we can take it. I do receive in out-of-body travel. I don’t have the medium shift thing like a John Edward or someone like that. I receive messages and people come visit me in out-of-body experiences. That sort of thing is actually fairly common. And it is so common that I don’t even really document it. There are a few people that I could bring forward that could share some of the things I have told them that I could remember or that I still have contact with. Because a lot of times it is someone who randomly comes across my site and asks for help, and I will just tell them I will pray and if I get permission I will let them know what I hear. And I will tell them what happened and they are happy and they move on. I don’t keep track of them but I could start keeping track of them. Then you are talking about probably doing it in a controlled environment. I think ironically one of the things that is much more powerful with these experiences is that personal contact. So if you are doing it in a university setting or something and you have a pool of people who have some kind of needs or whatever that I can actually face, talk to, touch, and just see them it is much more likely to happen that way. Does that make sense?
Alex Tsakiris: That’s awesome. So let me make sure I understand what you’re saying. You, generally because you attract so many people with your message and through other ways, people come to you and say, ‘Marilynn, could you please help me with connecting with so-and-so?’ And then in your experience a lot of times those messages are answered and then you pass those along to the folks.
Marilynn Hughes: Right, and see what happens is it is not just that though. And that is why I am saying I am not sure how far we can go with it in a situation like that because it is God-directed rather than me-directed. It can happen in a number of ways. Somebody might want to have contact with a relative who has passed on but yet it might be one of their guardian angels who comes to me and says, ‘This is what they actually need to know, so we’re not sending Dad to see them today. I am coming to tell you this.’ Then there are other times too when they have problems or issues that are going on in their life that will be shown to me in some way, shape, or form and how they might best handle it. So it can be in a variety of ways that it would happen.
Alex Tsakiris: So at this point I was starting to get a pretty clear idea of how we might run an experiment with Marilynn. And I was really impressed with her openness and her willingness to do this. I have spoken with a number of mediums and when you really get down to brass tacks about doing a public experiment and really putting them on the spot they sometimes get reluctant. And I understand that. It can be a real setup to take something that is this extraordinary and try to put it under a spotlight and say, “Do it now.” It just doesn’t happen that way. But that wasn’t where Marilynn was coming from. She just wanted to push forward and find the best way to do it. So I started asking her how we might refine it and how we might find the best possible candidates.
Marilynn Hughes: I don’t know why I didn’t think of mentioning this before but I work at the Catholic church so we do two or three funerals a week, on average. One of the things that seems to happen, and this can even sometimes happen while I am awake, where the person will just all of a sudden be with me. And all of a sudden they are just talking, talking, talking. And sometimes I will do this without even letting the people know that I feel their presence because not everyone is open to this, but it still helps them when you tell them these things because the deceased person knows what the family members believed beforehand and they present it to me in a way that they know the family can hear and listen to. And so what I have found is that it is the unresolved ones that are more likely to come through. That is part of the reason I will pick these people up, just driving down the street. If you drive by a car accident, there are some souls that are still there and they have this unresolved stuff. There can be a lot of things – murder, suicide, accidental overdoses.
Alex Tsakiris: This was a good little twist. A good little insight into Marilynn’s process and I wanted to follow through with that. So I took some of the other points that Marilynn had mentioned and we talked a little bit further. We nailed down the particulars on how we were going to run this trial and I set off on finding us a participant. Now, I have been running an ad in Craigslist looking for participants for the last several months so I have a pretty good database of potential sitters to choose from. And when I sorted these people by the criteria that Marilynn and I had talked about I had four or five people that I thought would be pretty good. But I would up picking Michelle, and I am not going to reveal her last name because it is really not necessary.
Michelle had lost a daughter to suicide at age 20 and she was looking to connect and had volunteered for the experiment. So I emailed Michelle and eventually wound up talking to her on the phone and asked her if she wanted to not only participate in the medium experiment but participate in this more in-depth public trial. And she agreed. So here is the protocol we set up. I asked Michelle to send me an article of clothing that her daughter had worn. And she did – she sent me a hat that was very special to her. I also asked me to send me some photographs and she did that as well. Then I collected some general information about her daughter – first name, date of birth, and date of passing. This was all information Marilynn had said that she would like to have during the reading. I was acting as the proxy. All information would be sent to me and then I would send that information along to Marilynn. Then I would receive the reading from Marilynn and I would pass it along to Michelle.
Now, since all the readings came through an email this was an easy thing to do as far as controlling exactly the amount of information that went through to Marilynn. So here’s what happened, and this is the amazing part of the story number one. While Michelle was in the process of sending me the hat and the photos, I passed along a little bit of information to Marilynn. Now I want you to put yourself in Marilynn’s position for a minute. Here is the information that you have received. You don’t know who I have selected, you have no idea. Here is the information you receive – first name, Megan. Then I am going to give you the month and day and not the year that she was born, and I am going to give you the date that she passed. So that’s all you have. You have that information. Now I was going to send her the rest. I was going to send her the hat and I was going to send her the photo but I hadn’t done that yet. I had just passed along that information that I gave you.
So next, I want to share with you the first email reading I received from Marilynn based on that limited amount of information. Marilynn starts out, ‘Megan is a soul who definitely wishes to make contact with her family and apparently has some level of permission from God to do so. I have some random things to share that she showed me. I don’t know what they mean. Let the family see if they mean anything.’
Let me interject that even though she gives me this information and I pass it along to the family, I never give Marilynn on any of that information. I never tell her what is a hit and what isn’t. So here are some of the things that she has to say. ‘First, she showed me what appeared to be a college environment.’ This is, in fact, correct. Megan was in college right before she committed suicide and she was about 20 years old when she died. Again, she had no way of knowing that. The next part was definitely not what I was expecting. ‘I don’t know what this means, but I watched her begin on campus and then somehow get lost. She ended up not being on campus but I didn’t feel like she was that far away. She wandered off with a woman who was definitely very clearly lesbian. It seems that Megan wasn’t sure for a very, very short time of her identity, but she soon realized that she was not a lesbian and my sense was that she was definitely showing me a time in the late teens, early twenties. I will find out when the pictures arrive. This is an appropriate at which she died, or not.’
Well, it did turn out to be an appropriate age. It was the exact time when she died, and the university angle does play into this as well because Megan was raised in a major university town and this kind of interplay comes back and forth in the reading over and over again. So these couple of facts were really, really important. And they became even more important after Marilynn received the photos and Megan’s hat and then continued with her second reading. I will share with you some of that – ‘Megan told me that her death was very, very hard on her mom and that she really loved her mom and had a close relationship with her.’ Now, before you scoff at this I have to tell you I have done a bunch of readings at this point and it is certainly not a given that there is a strong bond between a daughter and a mother. Sometimes there is a lot of animosity there, so this is also a hit. It’s a minor hit, but it is a hit. And also, since I hadn’t revealed to Michelle that it was Megan’s mother that was trying to connect or even the name of the person who was trying to connect, whether it was a male or a female, it makes it even more interesting. So before you kind of dismiss some of these things and go, ‘Of course, of course,’ because you already know the end story, think back and remember the information that you had. You didn’t have any of that information.
Next, we have a couple of points that turn out to be very, very significant to the family in terms of understanding Megan’s death. First, is Marilynn reports that Megan experienced a returning home to her faith, like she had been somewhere else for a while. Marilynn’s reading says, ‘It was like she had been somewhere else for a while, maybe off to college or a different location. Maybe she just went away from the church, and she came back. And she was very happy to be back.’ But she goes on to say, ‘It was kind of a calm before the storm.’ This is Marilynn again. ‘Yes, I am hearing from her a calm before the storm. She had thought she had found her way back home but something else was going to happen.’ Then she said, ‘The woman told me a different story. Something she told me wasn’t true.’ She emphasized this again and now writes, ‘Now, I know all that might sound a little bit cryptic but it is very important and very relevant to the story because as it turns out this is exactly the kind of spiritual crisis, if you will, that Megan was going through.’ And it doesn’t matter what you think about a spiritual crisis, it is her experience and it is what her mother recalls her going through. So she had somehow drifted away from her spiritual tradition and then she had found her way back. She was back reading the Bible and in a Christian group, because that was what was important to her. But then that was the calm before the storm. And the storm, of course, is her eventual suicide. I don’t think that is reading too much into it, that is what the reading says. And as you will soon hear Megan’s mom confirms this is actually what happens.
Back to Marilynn’s reading. Marilynn writes that this case reminds her of another case she worked on where a family member came and said that a family had come to her and said that they had lost someone through an accident but the police had never figured out if this had been an accident or a suicide or a murder and it caused a lot of pain in the family. She goes on to say that Megan’s case sounds something like this to me. There is something about Megan that the family does not fully know. But based on the way she has presented this to me I am not sure the family knows that there was something they don’t know yet. This part of the reading turns out to be very significant to Megan’s mom. In fact, it was the primary reason she contacted me although I didn’t know it at the time. I only knew it after I revealed this reading to her and she came back and said, ‘I have to tell you, Megan’s death has caused a major divide in my family. Her death was clearly a suicide but there is a part of my family that isn’t willing to accept that she really killed herself and they think that there are other reasons behind it. She was on anti-depression medication, she had gone through a car accident and was on pain medication. And they want to believe that there are other reasons behind it. And it has caused a real divide in our family.’ So that is certainly a very, very unusual set of circumstances and I have no way of explaining how Marilynn could possibly tune into that.
Marilynn provided three more email readings for the family. Two of them were very brief and one of them was pretty long. The amount of factual, verifiable data in them is relatively small. But they altogether had a very, very profound effect on the family. But there is one other little verifiable fact that came through that I think is amazing in the way that so many of these readings are amazing. It is a very, very small point but it had great significance to the family. It is in the last reading that Marilynn provides and she says, ‘I see Megan, and she is smiling. There are these flowers all around her face. It is a strange symbol.’ Then she goes on to say, ‘I think these flowers are peonies.’ The only reason this point is important, and the only person that this point is important to, is Megan’s mom. Right around the time that she had received this message she had been talking to her husband about planting a garden specifically for Megan, to honor Megan. And she was asking her husband what kind of flowers she thinks she should plant in there. And just about this time she gets this message. Coincidence, synchronicity? Who knows. Just another point to add to the whole story. And you will hear more about that a little later when we talk to Megan’s mom. First, I want to go back to my second interview with Marilynn. This is the follow-up, the trial is basically over, and I am ready to share the results with Marilynn. And I also want to talk about the process that she went through in arriving at this rather remarkable data.
Alex Tsakiris: So what was your process in terms of connecting with Megan?
Marilynn Hughes: With Megan it was almost instantaneous. You had given me, I think it was via email – I don’t know if we spoke on the phone, but I think you had given it to me via email. And then I just asked for the date of death because sometimes it is very important and helpful when you know how long someone has been crossed over because there are different stages in death. So different types of timing you are going to be more likely to reach them in different locations. But with Megan as soon as I got her name and you gave me those dates I could feel her. She was just all over me. And it was like wow, this girl wants to talk to her family. And then it was that very night. The process is really not something that I control but it is a process where when I go to bed at night I have these out-of-body experiences. And then the person who is deceased will show me things. And a lot of times they show you – and I believe I experienced based on what you just shared with me, her moment of death. In the last reading I think that is when she had probably died. I had woken up bone-cold. I don’t know if you recall this, but she was in a room and I woke up bone-cold and felt like oh, she must have died then. So the process is you go out-of-body and the person takes you on a visual where you almost experience it with them. It is almost like you become them in the experience, where you are experiencing part of their life as them. So you can feel their emotions, their feelings, everything that is going through their mind. And that is part of the process that is very important, usually for the remaining family members. Because a lot of times in a situation like this the difference is exactly what was it that this person was confused about? Because the families always blame themselves and it is always helpful for them to know, if it is possible, what was it that led them to the moment of their death? What were they thinking? How did that come about? Who were the people that led them there? And a lot of times too it is about taking that personal responsibility, which they always do after death. We all have to take the personal responsibility for our own decisions and stuff. But then there are so many things involved in it but it is primarily something that is led by – I believe it is led by God. And he allows people to do this when it is helpful for their spirit and for someone who might be left behind. If you recall in our first conversation I said the one factor I have no control over is whether or not it is allowed. And a lot of times in a situation because I don’t control it and I don’t just conjure it up and stuff, it either comes to me or it doesn’t. Generally, in a situation where someone has some unfinished business after crossing over there is more likely a chance that they will be allowed to do this and to share this kind of experience and come back through someone who has a gift like this than if there is not any major unfinished business.
Alex Tsakiris: So that’s interesting and it is also interesting that you are talking about God and the religious mysticism aspect of it. It is particularly interesting in this case and this is going to be very controversial and very challenging for a lot of folks, but these are just the facts of this case. One of the things that you reported in your reading was this struggle that Megan was having and how she had gone and drifted away from her spiritual path and had run into some pretty bad people along the way and then she had found her way back on her spiritual path. And I don’t know if you said specifically that she was reading the Bible or not –
Marilynn Hughes: She was back in a church and was back in a group, a religious group of some kind. The way she presented it to me it was the faith of her youth.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, this is exactly what happened in Megan’s case. While she was at university she had befriended this woman who was really kind of a bad news person. This woman was somewhat of a psychic and was running a psychic scam and had a bank of phones. This woman also had a Wicca background, whether that is good or bad.
Marilynn Hughes: That explains a lot, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: And this relationship was quite troubling to Megan and to her family, but her mother reports that near the end she had come back to her Christian faith and was trying to get back into that and was reading the Bible regularly and that. So again, these are just the facts and they match perfectly with the reading that you gave and there really isn’t a good or reasonable explanation for why you would connect any of that up or why you would provide any of that information. Now, Marilynn and I went over a number of other points about her reading. I am going to skip ahead a little bit in our conversation.
Alex Tsakiris: I mean, you have given a lot of information here. It is not like talking on a phone.
Marilynn Hughes: Right.
Alex Tsakiris: I mean, it certainly isn’t for you in terms of the information you are giving. Some of it is allegorical and has other kinds of meaning that has to be kind of teased out of it and some of it is very specific. So you are probably giving a summation. I will tell you one specific thing that you gave that had tremendous meaning for Megan’s mom was the flowers.
Marilynn Hughes: Really? She made a big deal about the flowers and I was almost hesitant to even write it because I was like how can this even mean something? I thought okay, I will just say it. So that’s interesting. What meaning did that have?
Alex Tsakiris: Megan’s mom was in the process of building a flower bed specifically for Megan, to kind of celebrate Megan. She had been talking to her husband about, ‘You know, I really want to start a little flower garden.’
Marilynn Hughes: Now I’m getting slammed. Now I understand because she had the flowers around her head and it didn’t quite make sense. But now it makes perfect sense that the flowers would be surrounding her.
Alex Tsakiris: And those specific flowers that you said – I can’t pronounce them.
Marilynn Hughes: Peonies. Were they peonies?
Alex Tsakiris: I can’t remember but Megan’s mom was so moved by this that she went and researched these flowers and found that they were exactly the kind that she was looking for, they were indigenous to Texas and they met all the criteria that she had laid out in her mind in terms of how to construct this flower bed to honor her daughter.
Marilynn Hughes: Wow, that’s so exciting to hear that. One of the interesting things about doing an experiment like this is that most of the time when this sort of thing is happening I know a little bit about the family. Sometimes I don’t know a whole lot, like in that particular instance I mentioned where it reminded me of where they didn’t know if it was an accident, suicide, or murder, but I didn’t know that until the deceased person had come and told me, ‘Tell my brother it was an accident.’ And he said, ‘Wow, that’s really great because we didn’t know if it was an accident, a murder, or a suicide. The police could never figure it out.’ But most of the time I know a little bit about the people or they have written to me and they have information so I have a little bit to go on, and then they give me feedback. So this was actually very interesting for me to do as well because of the fact that there was the no feedback rule. So it was kind of running blind and just hoping that you are catching what she is saying correctly and seeing things correctly and translating it correctly. So that’s really exciting to hear that so many of the things that she had shared with me that I got them right and that it was helpful, you know what I mean?
Alex Tsakiris: And you can tell me if this is typical or not, and this is also going to be very, very challenging for a lot of folks who aren’t comfortable with this whole idea. But beyond the specific data that was evidential, and there was a lot of it, there were a lot of just uncanny coincidences that happened with Megan’s mom during this process. In terms of emails she got, in terms of lights going on and off, completely in a way that she had associated in the past with Megan’s presence being close to her, and in terms of her just knowing and feeling Megan’s presence and feeling resolution to these things. So I don’t know if that is typical but it sounds like to me, from talking to Megan’s mom, that this process that you went through and working with you without even knowing your name or who you were, the process was very transformative for her.
Marilynn Hughes: A lot of times it does happen like that. Not necessarily always like lights going on and off where there is physical phenomenon, but a lot of times people will actually have – and of course this will happen more with people who may have been to my website and they know what I look like – they will see me in dreams and I will tell them things or things like that. There will be kind of a mutual – where there is information that is kind of moving through both parties at the same time. And of course I think in Megan’s case it was obviously so strong and it was interesting because just yesterday I was meeting with somebody who really wants to make contact with a daughter who had died about 16 years ago. And I didn’t feel a thing. And it might be something where it comes up in a week or two, because I mentioned to you in our first conversations that sometimes it happens immediately and sometimes it takes three months, sometimes it takes six months, and sometimes it never happens. It is all up to the will of God, not me. And it was very interesting with Megan because she was just immediate. She really wanted to communicate with her mother and she made a lot of effort to do so. And it was almost difficult to keep up with her because there were so many interesting twists in her story. And knowing nothing about the story you are like okay, well – I think I might have mentioned in my first email – this is either really right on or just really crazy stuff. I had no idea about all these interesting twists and turns, but that is kind of ironically what makes doing an experiment like this very interesting too. She had a case where it would be highly difficult to guess all the circumstances around it. And actually when she was showing it to me it was a little bit – this is kind of far out there. It was kind of difficult just receiving it. And even with the issue of questioning her sexuality and the woman who was a lesbian, you don’t want to make things worse with the family if this is something they don’t know about or if it is not correct. So this was actually probably a very interesting case to utilize because it had so many interesting facets to it.
Alex Tsakiris: I think we stayed very true to our original goal of keeping it blinded and scientific.
Marilynn Hughes: Totally blinded.
Alex Tsakiris: And it has been a learning process for me too as far as how to do these experiments. And I think so many things came out of this process for me and one of the big things that came out is just how important this work is for the people involved. I want to make sure that going forward I really honor that and I really respect that and do that work from that. We do this experiment, which is important, and the scientific part of is it important. But going forward I really want to make sure that we do this from that place, from that place of honor and respect. There is some kind of higher meaning to all of this and we have to honor that while we discover it.
Marilynn Hughes: It is really important that people know – a lot of people who hear about the people who will say they connect with the dead for random purposes. But it is real important for people to know that when this kind of contact is actually allowed it is for what I would call an eternal purpose. And you are absolutely right, it has to be respected and honored because the purpose of it has to do with that family and that soul who have something they need to communicate to one another. And it is very important that be the primary target, so to speak. One of the things that is part of my process, and you asked earlier, is every night as I was getting ready to go to bed and prepare to have out-of-body experiences and stuff I would ask Megan, ‘Okay Megan, what does your mother need to hear from you? What do you need to say to her for her to be okay and for you to be okay? You need to be real specific with me here so we can get right to what she needs from you and what you need from her.’ And I would try to focus her in also and say, ‘Okay, now this is going to be real hard for me to keep track of all these details for your life because it is very complicated. We need to make sure we get what she needs to know.’ You know what I mean?
And sometimes, like in that one instance, it was simple. It was an accident, not suicide or murder. And in this case it was a lot more complicated so that kind of made it interesting.
Alex Tsakiris: Very complicated. And even that is evidential, right? Because this is a very, very complicated situation. I am just giving you kind of a thumbnail sketch of everything that went on, but it was very complicated. Well, Marilynn, I am going to be in touch with you and I am hoping we can collaborate and do some other things in the future. I think your work is wonderful and I encourage everyone to check out even though you may have those initial reservations and doubts of whether it is okay to go to something called the outofbodytravelfoundation.org, please do so and stretch your mind a little bit and you never know what you might discover.
Marilynn Hughes: Well the web address is actually outofbodytravel.org but it is called the Out-of-Body Travel Foundation.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, I tell you that you have quite a presence on the web. If someone Googles ‘out-of-body travel’ they are going to find you. I have no doubt about that.
Marilynn Hughes: That’s true, it is number one on all the search engines. So they should be able to find it if you just look up ‘out-of-body travel’ you will find it, the Out-of-Body Travel Foundation website. And there are all sorts of resources on it, including a special video section called Science and Research that has a lot of video footage and a lot of the science that is being done around out-of-body travel and near-death experiences and reincarnation. So there are a lot of resources even for those who want to look into the science of it.
Alex Tsakiris: Well thanks so much for joining me today and we will be in touch.
Marilynn Hughes: Thank you, Alex. It has been a great experience.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, well the last interview I wanted to share with you is with Megan’s mom, Michelle. Here are some clips from that interview.
Michelle: Another of the most profound facets of the information that Marilynn sent was immediately where she conveyed that Megan was conveying to her that she had been seeking and searching spiritually before her death and that she had been confused. She had been misled and she had been confused and then now that she was communicating through Marilynn that she was on the right track now. And that was profound to me because Megan was spiritually seeking. And she had stumbled into some wrong paths. And right before she died she was reading the Bible every day and praying and she just – she felt like that was where she needed to be. That is where she was finding her answers. And I thought that was so profound that Marilynn was able to interpret that through Megan. And she knew nothing about that. I don’t feel like it was just irony. I think that Megan was saying, ‘This is the real answer, Mom. This is what I was seeking and this is the truth.’ So I felt that was really amazing that Megan felt it important to even communicate that part.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I thought it was pretty remarkable too. It is kind of hard objectively to pick out that kind of information and say that is some general information that someone would give. And again, through the whole process suicide was never mentioned to Marilynn. She never knew until half an hour ago when I spoke to her on the phone.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, she never knew that. That was never disclosed to her. And she never knew the exact conflict that was surrounding the issue of Megan’s passing until I just told it to her. And she was like, wow, that really makes a lot of sense in terms of what she was getting from Megan. So it is has been a very interesting experience and a great experience and an opening experience for me too. You know, I mentioned to Marilynn this has helped me understand how I need to go forward in doing this work in the future and how we do need to really, really respect the work that is being done from the other side and the work that is being done with the people who are still here and all that. So I really appreciate your openness, Michelle, and your willingness to share this story and participate in this. It has been really great.
Michelle: Well you know I have been so grateful and I can tell you, Alex, that there has been a huge healing component in all of this. There really has. And as sad and as traumatic and all of that it has been, if there can be good there has been good from it. And this has been huge. And it just was a reminder that we really are just spiritual beings having a human experience. And I know that she is still here with me. And you did mention the lights going on and off, and yeah, that has been a very, very real phenomenon ever since she died. And more so in the beginning but it did happen the other day when I was specifically communicating over the phone to my husband. I was in tears and I had just received this email, this answer that I had been looking for all this time, and I was very emotional. And my husband said – he had read the email from Marilynn – and he said, ‘Marilynn said that Megan said that she is going through this process of healing and understanding where she is, which is different from where you are. But it is still a process. And she is going through it just like you are, trying to understand and seeking answers.’ And when he said that and I started crying the electricity in the whole entire house went out. I have lived here two years and that has never happened. When she died in the apartment that I had for the two years after she died that happened all the time. And it was just in amazing, amazing, miraculous ways. But it had not happened here. And for it to happen at that moment – that was confirmation that Megan was listening in on that conversation. Megan knew exactly what we were talking about and that was her way of communicating, ‘Right on. That’s exactly right.’ You know?
Alex Tsakiris: So what do you think? Are we to believe everything that Marilynn Hughes has us say about the spiritual realm just because she gave some pretty accurate information on this reading? Well, I don’t know but I can tell you this: A couple months ago Dr. Julie Beischel from the Windbridge Institute, one of the foremost researchers in this area was out here in San Diego and gave a very excellent public presentation. She also, with the help of a very hard-working volunteer named David Jasperson, was able to set up some very interesting meetings with hospice workers on one hand and grief counselors on the other. And as Julie was recounting what had transpired during her trip and what she had learned it became clear to me just how outrageously out of balance our intellectual perspective is on this topic. Consider for a minute, whether you believe everything that Marilynn Hughes has to say or not, just consider for a minute that we are training thousands of grief counselors across the United States and we are sending them out in the field and we are not exposing them to any of this information. And the reason we’re not is because we don’t know if it is real. And the reason we don’t know if it is real is because we haven’t bothered to look. I mean, if I can sit here and in a couple months put together a demonstration like this, a demonstration that is highly suggestive of some kind of anomalous communication and is at the very least very suggestive that the process can be very beneficial to the grieving, how can we ignore it? And if you are a Skeptic how can you possibly justify standing in the way of this research going forward? I am not talking about taking sides, I am not talking about converting you to the believing, I am talking about why would you want to be an impediment to finding out whether this works? Whether it works in terms of communicating with the dead or whether it works with comforting the grieving. That is the exact situation we are in. We have allowed our “mainstream scientists” and the skeptical community to create a huge barrier, a barrier that has been impossible for most researchers to overcome and hence this research just doesn’t get done.
[end of clip]
So I started this episode/chapter by stating that there were three reasons why skeptics believe that no one in recorded history has ever had some form of strange, unexplainable, anomalous communication with a deceased loved one. And those three reasons, again, are number one, they are willfully ignorant of the research. And I think when you listen to Julie Beischel you can get a pretty good sense of just the kind of solid scientific research that they continue to be willfully ignorant of, continue to intentionally ignore, and continue to distort and misrepresent. The second reason I mentioned was that they never properly investigated the subject for themselves. Hey, so many times on this show I have implored people to just get a reading. Be your own proxy sitter, find a medium, and tell them, ‘Look, what would be most useful for me is confirmation of the reality of this phenomena and I am therefore not going to say anything during this reading. I am only going to give you the name and the date of the deceased and I am not going to say anything else.’ Mediums will agree to this. I know they will because I have done it over and over myself. You might not have a successful reading the first time out. I had to go out the first time I did this for myself and go through three mediums. Interestingly enough, the first two refunded my money. Something you would never expect a medium to do, but they said, ‘Hey, I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be effective for you, I wasn’t able to give you what you need, so I am going to give you your money back.’ I can’t guarantee that every medium will do that but that was my experience. But the third reading I had was incredibly evidential and I think anyone who tries themselves to confirm this and just uses some basic blinding controls like I just talked about can prove this for themselves.
But skeptics never do, they never try. So that leaves us with only reason, reason number three – the big reason. Skeptics, including anyone who doesn’t call themselves a skeptic but is really a skeptic, the big reason they believe what they do about psychics and mediums, that they live in a constructed world view that doesn’t allow it. It’s not true because it can’t be true, because it would challenge some of their fundamental beliefs and cause them to rethink who they are. It’s not about science after all and all these questions, it’s about who am I? What is my relationship to the world? And changing that understanding of who I am is really, really scary.
Okay, so that’s the first chapter of my upcoming book Why Skeptics Are Wrong About Almost Everything. What do you think? What did I miss? What did I get wrong? How can I do it better? Really, how can I do this better. Please pop over to the Skeptiko forum, which you will find through the Skeptiko website at Skeptiko.com if you don’t know so already. So go there and tell me what you think. Better yet, help me edit this. Don’t forget, if you are a writer out there and you want the fame and prestige of co-authoring this book, not to mention the meager advance I am offering, then let me know about that as well. So that’s about it. I am going to do more shows and chapters like this but I am going to intersperse them with some new interesting interviews I have coming up. All that is down the road. So until next time do take care, and bye for now.