One thing that makes the Righteous Indignation podcast stand out – at least among the other stuff I listen to – is the regularity of the interviews they get with non-skeptical types. They’re always friendly discussions, where the hosts mostly just ask questions to establish what their guests believe, and why, and how they respond to some of the common skeptical criticisms.
They don’t hide the fact that they’re skeptics and don’t really believe in any of it themselves, and they don’t hold back from dissecting a ludicrous idea as fully as it deserves. But they manage to keep the chat friendly when somebody’s taken the time to answer their questions.
A great example of this is the recent interview with Vicki Monroe, a psychic medium and “cold case investigator” who’s worked with the police on a number of occasions in this capacity.
Her website is full of the kind of sparkly sappy nonsense you’d expect, and there’s an unpleasant surprise waiting for anyone familiar with James van Praagh if you scroll down a way. But on the show, she was really hard to dislike, and I quickly gave up trying.
For about the first half-hour of the interview, I could only support and approve of just about everything she says. She was warm, she was friendly, she was open, and given that she believes she has this particular power (obviously I don’t believe she does, but simply being mistaken is no crime), she was virtually beyond reproach in the way she operates. She talked, for instance, about how important it is for her not to inject herself into an ongoing police investigation of, say, a missing person, except at the express request of the family or somebody else directly involved.
She specifically referred to the case of Madeleine McCann, the British child who disappeared a couple of years ago in Portugal and got a particular storm of media attention. Vicki’s stayed out of that whole case, because she hasn’t been invited in, and knows the potential that someone in her position has to make things worse for the family, if she were to butt in with her ideas uninvited. Numerous examples of other “psychics” with no such scruples are not heard to find.
She talked about other “psychics” who she felt didn’t respect these kinds of important ethical standards, and recognised the capacity for cons to be pulled on innocent people eager to believe. She even named names, and was barely less scathing about Sylvia Browne than you’d expect from any discussion on a skeptics’ message-board.
And she singled out the skeptical community for praise in their attitude toward psychics, and the importance of skepticism in a subject where fakery and being conned is such a danger.
You have to be skeptical. You have to be!
That’s a direct quote from Vicki Monroe, psychic medium. Not a sentiment you can expect to hear from Joe Power any time soon.
So, I like her. She seems like good people. Of course, on some level it all falls down when you get to that whole pesky psychic powers thing. But that doesn’t stop me from basically liking her.
It’s just fascinatingly bizarre, seeing how it goes wrong.
Because she gave a psychic reading, as part of the interview, to Hayley and Marsh.
And it was terrible.
I have no doubts about her sincerity. I fully believe that she means well, cares about people, and wants to help. I think if you’re a good person, and believe as Vicki does in your own psychic powers, then her behaviour is close to being a solid guideline for how to behave. But the actual efficacy of her abilities, and what constitutes evidence which should be taken seriously, seems to be a massive blind spot for her.
Let’s look at the things she said, when she tried to provide a reading for both the hosts of the interview, Hayley and Marsh, [whose questions and comments will go in square brackets].
I don’t know who has this terrier, it’s a little terrier-type dog… it’s a terrier of some sort, and it’s crossed over…
I’m looking at a dog right now. And I don’t know who it belongs to. Either you, or it belonged to someone in the family… there’s a woman who’s holding it.
This didn’t go anywhere. Nobody seemed to have had a terrier who died. That’ll be a miss.
Michael, did you lose your grandmother on your mother’s side?
Not exactly a stretch to imagine Marsh’s grandmother might be dead, but this was another miss. She mused that the woman she was seeing could be a great-grandmother, and she agreed that guessing that his great-grandparents might have died was hardly a powerful psychic feat.
I’m trying to figure out who Ann is. Or Anna.
[Is it someone who’s alive, or someone who’s dead?]
Hayley and Marsh both know someone called Ann or Anna. A modest hit, but Vicki’s admirably quick to avoid taking credit hastily.
She asks at this point, “I mean, who doesn’t know a Catherine or an Elizabeth?”, which I think was to highlight her acknowledgment that simply guessing they might know someone with a fairly common name isn’t a huge deal. (I mention this because, when Marsh was recapping things later in the interview, it sounded like he’d taken her mention of those names as a further psychic guess. I think she was just picking other common names to illustrate a point, and that’s not really a miss.)
I have… somebody saying the name Rebecca for Hayley…
Hayley, do you know who that is?
Hayley says no at first. Marsh mentions that he knows a Rebecca, and then Hayley admits that she also does, distantly. So, if that’s a hit, it’s pretty weak. There are far more prominent people in both their lives which these spirits could be mentioning, if they wanted to be taken seriously.
As Marsh is just about to elaborate on his Rebecca, though, Vicki jumps in again with a question directed at Marsh.
You date a lot, don’t you?
[*laughing* I absolutely don’t.]
Yeah, but she’s right around the corner!
[I think my girlfriend of two years would be quite annoyed if I was dating a lot.]
After these two clear misses, she moves back to the Rebecca connection. Marsh gently suggests that, with all these vague names being thrown out and only occasionally sort of going anywhere, it doesn’t seem to be going that well.
Vicki disagrees. The fact that she’s been able to provide no useful information about the people she’s performing a psychic reading for takes a back seat to the fact that she knows it’s happening. One way or another, she has these spirits talking to her, and she knows she’s not just making this stuff up, so whatever they’re saying must be meaningful in some way.
She’s allowing her subjective evidence to confirm its own validity. It reminded me of something which I’ve heard called the “toupee fallacy”. This is when someone claims to be able to spot when someone’s wearing a toupee, but never checks how accurate they are against any other objective measure. They just sometimes say “Oh, that’s a toupee,” and sometimes don’t, and consider that proof of their ability – ignoring the fact that they might be missing plenty of toupees that aren’t obvious enough for them to spot, and they’d never know it.
Vicki seems to be like that. She’s said nothing close to being specific or accurate enough to mean anything. Testing her spirits against external sources of information – like checking if someone’s really wearing a toupee – is returning almost nothing supportive. But she’s not deterred. Because that’s not how she’s measuring her success.
[Is that the great-grandmother on my mother’s side?]
…The one that I am talking to is the one that says “the one you liked”.
[What’s her name?]
She hasn’t given me her name yet.
[If you were able to get her name, that’d be really clear then.]
…Who’s Evelyn, or Ethel?
Note that she didn’t say that Evelyn or Ethel was the name she had for the great-grandmother in question, so she could technically wiggle out of this one being a miss. But it’s not a name that means anything to Marsh, so I’m calling that one a miss anyway. It was supposed to be important enough for one of these spirits to mention it, and it meant nothing.
Then Vicki spends quite a while seeming to regroup, listening to the spirits and muttering the occasional “okay” or similar. It seemed to me at the time like her confidence had been shaken as she realised this wasn’t exactly going well, and she needed a moment to pull herself together. I wouldn’t begrudge her that, but I could be wrong anyway. Her next guess doesn’t sound any more certain:
I’m not sure, because all I keep hearing is “Rita”, or “Anita”… or “Lida”. Something like that. I’m not sure.
She clarifies that this is an elderly relative who’s passed on to the other side, but doesn’t wait to see if this hits home with anyone. Straight away:
Helen, who’s that?
[Again, I know several Helens…]
They’re naming people that you know, because they watch you. They name people that you seem to be around a bit.
Another negligible hit. Anyone could pluck a series of female names out of the air like this, and be sure that a few of them would match up with the social circle of anyone who’s not a total recluse.
Lucille, do you know who that is?
Marsh doesn’t. Miss. He guides her back to Helen, though, who he knows “a bit”. This is Vicki’s idea of “a good validation”.
If there are spirits watching over Marsh, and monitoring his loose relationship with Helen, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask whether they might be aware of Helen’s surname, middle name, birthday, age, star sign, hair colour, home town, relationship to Marsh, favourite colour, or shoe size. If Vicki could provide any of these, or any of a number of other things actually about Helen, then this might validate something. But the fact that her subject has an acquaintance whose name matches one of half a dozen or so she’s put out there is totally meaningless.
Mary? Who’s Mary? That’s a deceased person.
She breaks off in the middle of a sentence here, in which she’d been explaining how it all works and why Helen was such a good validation, to move straight onto the next one. Hayley knew a Mary who is now deceased.
Cancer? Hayley, this was cancer?
Okay, but she says a sickness.
Yes, Hayley confirms that Mary did die of a sickness. There are other ways to die than by sickness, so let’s generously call that another weak hit.
It feels like it’s a blood sickness, though.
Hayley says no. Miss.
…an infection of some sort.
[Yes, there was an infection.]
Yeah, but it came from a wound, or some kind of a… surgery or something… She’s saying that she developed either a septicemia or a staph infection…
[I don’t think so, no.]
…or a haematoma, or a blood clot. But it was very quick in the end.
[I didn’t know her very well, but I don’t believe it was an infection like that.]
It was a blood infection. You can check that out.
So a sort of hit on the infection, before she started trying to pin down the details. Then suddenly she’s entirely confident that she’s got this one absolutely right, and that any further research Hayley does into Mary’s past will vindicate Vicki’s prediction.
Which seems an odd point at which to start being unshakably confident. Given how much trouble she’s had so far in getting either Hayley or Marsh to recognise any of the names she’s thrown at them, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for the idea that this Mary is definitely the spirit of the first person of that name who Hayley happened to think of.
To her credit, she specifically asks for feedback on this if they ever do look into it further. I have my doubts, though, as to how regularly Vicki adjusts her view of her abilities, based on people coming back to her later with things that didn’t quite pan out.
Who the heck has a pig? That’s what I want to know.
Now we’re getting somewhere. That’s kind of unusual. Most people don’t own pigs. Hayley knows someone who owns a pot-bellied pig. A hit!
And they live in the house? That’s what I’m hearing.
D’oh. Miss. And you were doing so well.
I keep hearing the name Jennifer or Jenna. I feel like that would have been somebody who somebody would have known as a young child.
Yet another common female name. She should’ve followed up with the pig thing. Marsh vaguely thinks he might have gone to school with a Jennifer, but no-one he really remembers. I went to school with a lot of people, including at least one Jennifer, and I’m not alone in this. Another very general guess, and a miss.
Whose grandfather, or great-grandfather, smells like Old Spice?
About four seconds later she kinda answers her own question, when she says: “Back then it was what everybody wore”. Neither Marsh nor Hayley can confirm nor deny that any of their elderly male relatives favoured this particular brand.
And one of them smoked a pipe, I know that.
[Yeah, he did.]
And that has a vanilla scent to it.
[No, I think he just went for straight tobacco.]
No, but to me it smells like vanilla.
I’m not letting her claw it back there at the end. That’s one unimpressive hit, one specific miss.
And he has a pocket-watch.
A likely hit, but Vicki freely offers that this would also have been common for men of that era.
Hayley, you’ve lost grandparents, right?
Okay, because there’s a grandmother here… And she says she left you some jewellery?
And that… do you wear it on a necklace?
Or do you wear it on your finger?
Same pattern again. A hit on the vague stuff that probably applies to a lot of people, but a complete failure to get any of the details right. Vicki then starts talking about the jewellery in question, asking the spirit what it was (apparently not getting a straight answer) and then describing it, as if she can see it and is trying to think of the name for that type of jewellery.
Is it like a rosary, or something?
“Rosary” was the word she was searching for, while muttering to herself about beads, and it’s a miss. She says it’s very nice, whatever it is, and that the spirit is wearing the same thing.
So she can see this item of jewellery being worn… but can’t tell whether it’s got beads, or whether it’s worn on the neck or the wrist or somewhere else? I don’t understand.
She moves on then to the fact that Hayley likes chocolate, but describes it as “not a psychic thing”, so we can leave that one.
And… that’s it. This section of the interview lasted about 15 minutes, and I’ve listed everything that she got remotely correct. They have another quick chat about how important it is to call out the fake psychics who fool people and take their money, and Vicki agrees that what the skeptics are doing is important stuff.
And although it’s admirable that she can be this self-aware about something that means a lot to her, and recognise that skeptics’ doubt and questioning is often coming from a positive place, it’s so odd seeing the disconnect with her assessment of her own performance. “They think that was pretty good,” she says of the spirits she was talking to, and all the information they provided here.
It depends on quite how you’re counting, but I think my tally gives her 7 very weak hits on things like common names, 1 more specific hit on somebody knowing somebody who owns a pig, 1 not-that-impressive hit on the jewellery, and 14 misses in between.
And the dead relatives, we’re told, are proud of how much they managed to communicate.
Are these visions being obscured by a dry ice machine that the spirits don’t know how to switch off? Are they having to talk through the speaker system from a drive-thru? Why wouldn’t they be able to pass on some information that makes sense, that’s more easily understood, and that refers to something sufficiently specific to the people involved to be impressive?
Right to the end, I found Vicki Monroe to be friendly and likeable. I’m quite bewildered by her belief in herself, and the impermeable field of woo in which her usual appreciation for critical thinking doesn’t seem to apply. But you have to do worse than just be wrong or a bit confused to entirely lose my affection, and Vicki displayed none of the malice or reckless stupidity that’s often evident in her profession.
She genuinely seems interested in the truth more than any self-aggrandising or pushing her own abilities. When Marsh was recapping the list of names she’d gone through, she helpfully reminded him of a couple of the times she’d completely missed. She insists that anyone who has a session with her also makes a recording, so that they can refer back to it later. This helpfully allows her to pass off a lot of apparent misses as “future hits”, in a sense, but I really feel she’s genuinely interested in helping to make as much of a real connection as she can.
These are things that are worth remembering when dealing with somebody devoting their life to something you consider fictitious or illusory. You might be well aware of all the reasons why belief in psychic powers can’t be justified based on the available evidence, but if you forget that other people don’t always see that, then you’re left facing the awkward question of what terrible people they must be to persist in something so obviously bogus. But this is the same fallacy we’re much better at recognising when it’s turned on us.
Religious people often accuse atheists of being angry or resentful or rebellious toward God, missing the point that we don’t believe he’s real. Some psychics or other supernaturalists seem to think that skeptics are just out to ruin everyone’s fun, as if we knew as well as they did that paranormal phenomena exist but for some reason seek to deny it anyway. And for us to assume that every professed psychic is a shameless cynic cashing in on bullshit is exactly the same mistake.
So I make no apologies for saying I still like Vicki Monroe.
Or for saying that she’s utterly unconvincing and tragically deluded.