Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Keeping an open mind

Oops, my brain fell out!

The Sacramento Bee runs entertainment and lifestyle articles in its Scene section. It's obviously not a venue for hard news. Nevertheless, you might hope that something approximating journalistic standards would still apply to its contents. On June 19, 2006, however, The Bee dispensed with such niceties as balance or fact-checking and published The medium has a message, a credulous puff piece by staff writer Allen Pierleoni The article took the form of an interview with self-styled medium Allison DuBois, the woman on whose supposed exploits the NBC drama Medium is based. The interview could have been written by Dubois's publicist, taking at face value any claim—no matter how far-fetched—that DuBois cared to make:

These days, the nationally known medium donates most of her time to helping locate missing children, conducting readings for people who have lost loved ones (“I'm not teaching people about death, I'm teaching them how to live”) and working with law-enforcement agencies as a profiler. Until she became famous for “Medium,” she also worked as a jury consultant for district attorneys' offices.

Many professional psychics claim they work with law enforcement and say they can use their powers to find missing children, but the documented record is extremely sparse. Most of the time we hear post hoc justifications that try to reconcile the circumstances of the recovery of a child (or the child's body) with whatever the psychic said beforehand. Law officers are nearly unanimous in disdaining the help of psychics, since they are more of a distraction than anything else.

You can judge the seriousness of Pierleoni's interview by the softball questions that he lobs at DuBois, some of which don't even bother taking the form of a question:

In your late 20s, you spent four years, on and off, at the University of Arizona in Tucson as part of a program that studied psychic phenomena. Afterward, the head researcher emphatically stated that you're the real deal.

Why do the dead contact the living through you?

Where do you believe your ability comes from?

Sometimes you have uncontrollable mental flashes, such as seeing a woman murdered while you're grocery shopping. And you constantly get mental impressions from people around you. I can see where your ability might be a day-to-day hassle.

In your first book, you predicted your father's death.

While the kid-glove handling of the subject is apparent, at least the item concerning the University of Arizona looks promising. Unfortunately, we get nothing of substance there either. DuBois trots out the common “I was a skeptic, too” gambit in response:

I was skeptical of myself, which is why I went to the laboratory and let scientists make me jump through hoops. I wanted to prove to myself that I really wasn't doing what I was doing—communicating with the dead and seeing the future. If I was only mediocre, I wanted to return to law school. But I ended up testing to where the scientists' jaws dropped. I was hoping it would have been the other way.

Since then, I don't question (my abilities). I decided that some things are not meant to be fully understood—not yet, anyway—but to be embraced.

I did a little searching (it wasn't difficult) and quickly established the identity of the scientist in question. Professor Gary Schwartz is the author of The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life after Death. While one might expect “breakthrough scientific evidence” to have a major impact, Schwartz's work has been persuasive only to those who are already believers. His methodologies and conclusions have been roundly criticized. While DuBois speaks as if she astonished an entire team of research scientists, the reality is that Dr. Schwartz is her only significant science-trained advocate. Even Schwartz admits that substandard experimental controls were in place during his investigation of DuBois's abilities, but he dismisses those shortcomings as unimportant. They are, in fact, crucial, since the absence of rigorous controls renders his experiments meaningless. The Bee does not see fit to report any of this, as it would tend to undermine the credibility of the celebrity being profiling. The implication to the contrary notwithstanding, Allison DuBois has not been thoroughly scientifically vetted and she does not have the support of the scientific community.

She seems to be doing fine, however, with more mystical forms of validation.

I'm lucky. I love talking to (the spirits) who come through. They make me feel how much they love the (living) person sitting in front of me.

Dubois was given an opportunity in the interview to address her critics, an opportunity she seized with relish:

Q: How do you answer the skeptics?

A:I can agree to disagree with people and respect their beliefs. I just ask them to respect mine.

There are different kinds of skeptics. There are those who haven't lost anybody and have no reason to believe, and there are people who are strictly academic-minded.

Then there are the angry skeptics who turn red in the face. I'm like, ”Yeah, don't ask me to bring you through when you die.”

Many skeptics like to yell and hear themselves talk, and I don't have time for that. I've never heard of a skeptic helping anybody with their skepticism. To a large degree, they just want to shame somebody so they can feel greater than them. But they're not going to shame me. I'm very proud of what I do.

Did you notice her “reason to believe” argument? This is a tiresome but common ploy among superstitious people of all kinds. Don't you want to communicate with departed loved ones? Then you must believe a medium can help you do it. Don't you want to live forever in eternal bliss? Then you must believe in one of the life-after-death cults—preferably one of the more popular ones, like Christianity. She also dismisses the “academic-minded,” although she doesn't hesitate to cite the University of Arizona in support of her awesome psychic powers.

Reading the Dubois interview in The Bee was a pretty disappointing experience. I'm obviously not the only one who felt that way. This critical missive appeared in The Bee's Letters to Scene, June 23, 2006:

‘Medium’ a miss

Wow. When I started reading The Bee this morning, I thought someone had pulled a fast one and inserted a copy of the National Enquirer instead of the Scene section (“The medium has a message,” June 19).

How can any reporter write such an article without checking the facts? Allison DuBois claims a lot of things—being tested by scientists, working with law enforcement agencies—but confirming these statements is yet another thing. There are lots of places to start looking at what skeptics have compiled about her supposed abilities, but you could start with

Yes, lots of people believe in mediums. But it's another thing for The Bee to suggest that people like Allison DuBois actually possess such abilities. This is The Sacramento Bee, after all, not Fox News. I expect fair and balanced reporting from my newspaper.

Jim Eaton, Davis

While I did not write my own letter to The Bee, I did take the trouble to write an e-mail message to Allen Pierleoni, the staff writer responsible for the DuBois article. In it I made some of the same points noted in Eaton's letter and specifically cited the reputation of Dr. Schwartz as something that would have been included in a more responsible story. Pierleoni replied very promptly and very politely to my message:

Thanks for taking the time to read the piece, Anthony, and share your thoughts.

That's it. His entire response. I bet he says that to all his readers.

Note: I updated the URL in Eaton's letter so that the link to The Two Percent Company works.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


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