After decades of research and controversy, there is still no significant evidence that anyone possesses so-called “psychic” powers. There's a lot of evidence, however, that I don't.
When I complained to Allen Pierleoni about his puff-piece interview on Allison DuBois, a professional medium and “profiler” who is currently reaping the rewards of a book tour and the dramatization of her life by the NBC series Medium, I hoped to get something better than the curt acknowledgment he sent me. (“Thanks for taking the time to read the piece, Anthony, and share your thoughts.”) Well, given that Pierleoni had been the author of the credulous article in the first place, perhaps it was unrealistic to expect him to take seriously the disappointment of a skeptic.
I sent a copy of my comments to Armando Acuña, the public editor of The Bee (a position that used to be called “ombudsman”). It's the public editor's job to provide a view of The Bee's journalistic endeavors that is professionally informed (the public editor is a newspaperman, after all) and independent of editorial oversight (his column is officially off-limits to The Bee's editorial staff and management). No doubt Acuña would share some of our concern over the use of the newspaper's Scene section for the irresponsible promotion of charlantry.
Boy, was I wrong! From the June 25, 2006, installment of The Public Editor:
Yeah, we're talking about ghosts. And seeing dead people. And problems while grocery shopping. Acuña thinks it's all kind of silly—and I do, in fact, agree— but he does not see that there is a problem in the way his newspaper is treating the story. To me, this is the comment that exposes Acuña's real blind spot:
And reader Anthony Barcellos of Davis asked: “Does a feature writer have responsibilities different from those of a news reporter? I know that the Scene section … is devoted to entertainment rather than hard news, but I think even entertainment articles should be scrupulously factual.”
Here's what I think. Yes, the story could have been more skeptical, though there is a deliberate element of tongue-in-cheek to some of the “serious” questions that are laugh-out-loud funny.
Like this one: “Isn't seeing dead people sometimes frightening?” Or this one: “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.”
Mainly, though, I think people should lighten up. We're talking about ghosts after all.
You see, folks—just between smart people like you and me—only idiots take this sort of thing seriously. So it's okay to give it a “straightforward” presentation in the entertainment section of the newspaper, because the only folks who will be fooled by it are already imbeciles. In a follow-up comment to Acuña, I explained why I thought this was a really bad excuse:
It's a straightforward discussion with a successful author peddling a new book on a subject most people find ludicrous.
There's no mystery about DuBois's claims or intent by the paper to portray her as something more than she is. Writing about her in this way doesn't give her more credibility, despite the criticism.
If you believe in this stuff, you will continue to believe. If you don't, you still won't.
Acuña wrapped up his column on the DuBois controversy by contacting staff writer Pierleoni and giving him the opportunity to respond to the criticisms:
What continues to bother me is the notion that The Bee is dishing out goo for its more gullible readers while giving a sly wink to those who aren't as credulous. “If you believe in this stuff, you will continue to believe. If you don't, you still won't.” The “this stuff” believers are beyond reach anyway, you say, so I guess it's okay to pander to their delusions about yet another financially successful psychic. What's the harm? We can ask that question again when the ill-informed go to thin-credentialed psychics instead of board-certified physicians for healing, but since we've given up on them, it's their own hard luck.
Hmm. Well, that sounds sort of fair. We should read her books with an open mind and then decide. Except that I prefer not to waste the time. Her supposed validation in a university's parapsychology lab has been thoroughly shot down. Why should we buy her books and enrich her purse when she and others like her (I'm looking at you, John Edward!) have never produced any reliable evidence of their abilities? I'm afraid that Acuña has a point when he says believers suck this up without question—but we doubters have ample reason for our doubts.
“The point of the piece was to interview an author who was touring for her new book,” explained Pierleoni....
“The critics want me to do an investigative piece to show that is a fraud or for me to challenge her and accuse her of being a fraud,” Pierleoni said. “But that's not the point of the piece.”
Pierleoni talked to DuBois for about 40 minutes and did a quick turnaround on the story. He said he was well aware of the skepticism about her claims and asked her in his story how she responds to the skeptics.
“She says I am what I am ... accept me for what I am or not,” he said. “I never said I believed or disbelieved. My concern was interviewing a woman who has made a good living doing what she does.” ...
“Skeptics,” he said, “they jump all over this stuff. And I wonder how many of the letter-writers have actually read the books.”
On the Friday after The Bee's publication of Acuña's column, I attended my usual end-of-week lunch group. It includes a number of retired Bee journalists, who teased me about getting blown off by their paper's public editor. The Bee's former book editor also contributed a telling observation: “Oh, Pierleoni? I know him. He's a believer!”
Hey, even without psychic powers I was picking up those vibes!