The Skeptics Society & Skeptic magazine

Sovereign Insanity

Is it true that the Sixteenth Amendment—empowering Congress to levy an income tax—was never legally ratified? In Michael Shermer’s November 2013 ‘Skeptic’ column for Scientific American, he recounts his experience appearing as an expert witness on the psychology of why people fall for such schemes, in a Portland, Oregon court in the case of USA v. Miles J. Julison.



Make a Connection

Many of us who are science-minded, or are champions of rational thought, may lament the fact that our messages often fall upon the deaf ears of a populace seemingly without the patience, nor care, for science literacy. Past Skepticality guest, Randy Olson, has spent his time working on ways to help people to understand and communicate information to a broad audience. Teaming with actors Dorie Barton and Brian Palermo, he has formed a well-proven storytelling methodology, which anyone can learn to use, to engage an audience and help people better understand complex information. In this episode of Skepticality, Derek sits down with Randy, Brian and Dorie to discuss their work, its origins, and how anyone can learn to become a better storyteller.

Connection Storymaker
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The Connection Storymaker app is a powerful yet simple storytelling tool for writing and organizing stories based on easy-to-use templates. Elegant, useful, fun — this app will help you make stories that are concise and universally appealing to connect with a broad audience. It’s useful to everyone – writers, students, lawyers, scientists, politicians, public health workers, educators, activists – anyone who has a story to tell.

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Alfred Russel Wallace Centenary:
Natural Selection and Beyond

with Sir David Attenborough
at the American Museum of Natural History, NYC

Alfred Russel Walace

This year marks the centenary of the death of naturalist-explorer Alfred Russel Wallace (1823–1913), the co-founder, with Charles Darwin, of evolutionary biology. A special all-day program on TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City features a diverse roster of speakers on many facets of Wallace’s life and work.

There will be ten short lectures from 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM, featuring, among other top scholars, Harvard’s Andrew Berry, ecologist James Costa, Wallace historian Charles H. Smith, prize-winning author David (“Song of the Dodo”) Quammen, and the legendary field biologist Biruté Galdikas, who spent 30 years studying orangutans in the jungles of Borneo. The program is free to the public; register for seating by phoning 212-769-5200.

To cap off the Wallace Centenary Celebration a special evening lecture features internationally celebrated wildlife filmmaker Sir David Attenborough, speaking on “Alfred Russel Wallace and the Birds of Paradise,” illustrated by film clips of the birds in their spectacular courtship displays. Attenborough shares a passion for the birds of paradise with Wallace, who spent eight years seeking them in his travels through the Malay Archipelago. He will speak in the LeFrak Imax Theater at the museum at 7:30. Tickets ($15) may be purchased by calling the museum’s Ticket Central at 212-769-5200. Ticket holders should arrive at the museum by 7:00 pm.

Following the lecture, Sir David and co-author Errol Fuller will sign copies of their book Drawn from Paradise.

The Wallace Centenary Celebration is co-produced by the Ornithology Department at the American Museum of Natural History and by Richard Milner, historian of science and Associate in the Museum’s Division of Anthropology, and is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

Learn more, and reserve…

About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Ryan L.A. Shaffer reviews How to Get Rich in Your Own Psychic Business, by Herb Dewey and Marc Sky. Dewy and Sky. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine 15.3 (2010), which is available digitally with the Skeptic Magazine App.

Ryan Shaffer is pursuing a Ph.D. in modern British history at State University of New York, Stony Brook. He has an M.A. in history and B.A. in philosophy. His academic research explores radical social movements.

The Psychic Industry
Selling the Trade of Trickery
to the Next Generation

by Ryan L.A. Shaffer

One day, while browsing in my local bookstore, I came across a new book titled How to Get Rich in Your Own Psychic Business, by Herb Dewey and Marc Sky, self-described psychics who have taking credit for predicting everything from finding missing children to “causing” earthquakes. While it is common for psychics to write books filled with anecdotes about their amazing psychic feats, this one was different. By describing their feats as “cold reading,” the authors were admitting they used a technique whereby information is gained from a client by non-paranormal means and is fed back as new information. It is even rarer for psychics to admit that they’re in it for the money. Yet, that is precisely what Dewey and Sky do.

How to Get Rich in Your Own Psychic Business includes chapters such as “historical and genealogical societies,” “singles organizations,” “your press kit,” and “more money making ideas.” Dewey, who is now deceased, worked as a psychic for the Globe and claimed to have “discovered missing children and the bodies of murdered people.”1 Sky is an active psychic in New Jersey, whose website includes press clippings claiming that he “caused” an earthquake and can predict the outcome of court cases.2 According to his website, Sky is hosting adult classes for $30–$49: “Renown psychic Marc Sky will do group and individual readings in this enlightening and entertaining class.”3 It won’t surprise Skeptic magazine readers to learn that the book is self-published at the same address as Sky’s psychic business in Marlboro, New Jersey.

Actually, Dewey has several books to his credit, including: Red Hot Cold Readings: The Professional Pseudo-Psychic, King of The Cold Readers (co-authored by Thomas K. Seville, in which they explored the methodology of the psychic trade), and Mind-Blowing Psychic Readings: Complete Scripts for Specific and Generic, edited by Dewey and Sky that includes cold reading scripts categorized by gender, age, and other visual characteristics.4 The book’s cover suggests, “use it for one-on-one readings, phone readings, written readings, and more.” The book’s purpose is to give the would-be psychic a general set of issues that most clients are interested in, how to extract information from the subject, and how to feed it back to them as new information.

In his preface to Mind-Blowing Psychic Readings, Sky wrote about how psychics develop comparable routines to match various personality types: “In talking to Herb, he too had a specific type of reading he would offer to that same type of person.”5 Sky explained the use of scripts “to fill gaps in your own readings.” The book contains 32 “types of readings” based on gender, age, weight, attractiveness, race, and sexual orientation. For example, one reading for a “physically attractive female” notes that such women will be receptive to hear that: “In dealing with men it would be very difficult for a man to work with you or have you as a coworker without that man attempting to cross the line to make the relationship closer than perhaps what it would be.”6 The book demonstrates that Sky and other psychics who use this type of material know that they are not being fully honest with their clients about where their information really comes from. They know they are using the physical appearance of people, as well as other physical clues to give the appearance of knowledge about a stranger’s past, present, and future.

Yet, in How to Get Rich in Your Own Psychic Business, the authors warn, “this booklet is not for the con-artist or charlatan, but rather for the person who has a sincere desire to help others, while at the same time attaining financial success.”7 Despite this disclaimer, the book seems to have been precisely designed for someone who intends to pass off mentalist skills as genuine paranormal ability. It includes a lengthy discussion on legal issues and advises the reader to advertise their skills as “entertainment” for legal protection.8 A sample advertisement in the book suggests wording to create the impression of real abilities, “your true secrets revealed by psychic Marc Sky.”9 In chapters on libraries, adult schools, singles organizations, and things to sell, the authors explain how to exploit people during times of uncertainty and desperation. They advise, “singles organizations offer a lucrative way to promote your readings. Most people who have readings usually want to know about relationships…single people are usually involved in more relationships than married people, they are more prone to visit psychics to find out about their relationships…libraries and adult schools are another very lucrative way to expand your business.”10, 11 The authors note, “The pay is not exceptional, but you will make most of your money on related sales and when the students call you for private readings, etc, at a later date.”12 It’s refreshing in a way to hear psychics admit doing what skeptics have known all along about their techniques and morals.

Psychics use other tools of deception for producing convincing readings. Sky and Dewey give advice on obtaining information in a real, non-psychic ways. The authors write, “I have found that not a week goes by that someone comes to me with a question of their heritage. ‘Who was my real father? How can I find them’?” If your psychic powers are weak for dead-beat dads, the authors provide a list of genealogical and historical societies in every U.S. state. While the authors recommend the psychic “advise” their clients of the list, perhaps this is a canard like the “entertainment warning.”

When psychics claim they “help” their clients (and so who cares what methods they use?), one must examine what they actually do for their clients. As Herb Dewey and Thomas K. Seville explain in King of the Cold Readers, “Each of us likes to think of ourselves as unique with problems and needs…that set us apart from all the others. We’re not. Although we may mistrust generalities, whether we like it or not, there is a commonality about our fears, wants, and aspirations that make them predictable…. Psychic readers recognize this, and use it to their advantage.”13 Indeed, if each person is not “unique” and the psychic is simply generalizing from elicited information, then the “help” cannot be specifically useful. In order to help someone the psychic must actually produce a form of aid, but generalizations from a cold reading cannot supply anything a client’s friend cannot do. In that case, the friend is more likely attuned with the person’s needs and can give better advice (without charging for it).

Dewey and Sky explain that it is generalizations and knowledge of human nature that gives them their ability to read their clients and play off the feedback they receive. In light of the widespread use of these mentalist techniques, it should be clear why psychics have not been able to demonstrate paranormal ability in a double-blinded test. Perhaps this is also why famous psychics do not apply to the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Million Dollar Challenge for demonstrating a paranormal claim in observable conditions.

Finally, there is an important distinction to be made between magicians and psychics. The audience is aware by common definition of “magic” that there is nothing paranormal about such performances. In fact, many magicians make a point of informing their audience that they are performing illusions. The famed mentalist Banachek, for example, tells his audience that he “uses his five senses to create the illusion of a sixth sense.” Psychics, on the other hand, do nothing of the kind, even if they call their readings “entertainment” for legal purposes. The final sentence in Dewey and Sky’s book tells the prospective psychic “to be as good as your advertising.” Indeed that is what the psychics seem concerned with. They are not concerned about the lives they may change if people following their advice, nor about the emotional dependency they may create. They cross the ethical line between performance and fakery. A mentalist uses natural processes to create an illusion of transcending reality. A psychic uses similar techniques, but claims to be transcending reality by supernatural means. This is fraud, pure and simple. END

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  1. Angela Gambill, “Psychic Envisions Bright Future for Friends, Newcomers Organization Offers Members Camaraderie,” The Sun, 16 January 1992, p. 5.
  2. Marc Sky, “Press Articles” accessed 21 August 2009.
  3. Marc Sky, “NJ Adult Schools,” accessed 21 August 2009; “Millstone Township Community Education Offers Classes,” Allentown Examiner, 23 April 2009 accessed 21 August 2009.
  4. Herb Dewey, Mind-Blowing Psychic Readings: Complete Scripts for Specific and Generic ed. by Marc Sky. (Woodbridge, NY: Mindreaders, 1997)
  5. Ibid., 1.
  6. Ibid., 63.
  7. Herb Dewy and Marc Sky, How to Get Rich in Your Own Psychic Business (Marlboro, NJ: Mindreaders, 1992), p. 5.
  8. Ibid., 8.
  9. Ibid., 48.
  10. Ibid., 45.
  11. Ibid., 44.
  12. Ibid., 44.
  13. Dewey and Thomas K. Seville, King of the Cold Readers (unknown), p. 8.
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