The credibility of psychics took a huge hit in February and March of 2019 thanks to skeptical activists. Veteran skeptics Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward went undercover, posing as a couple, to see a psychic named Thomas John. They were given the outlines of a fictional backstory—some details of which they themselves didn’t know but had been posted by others posing as them on fake social media profiles in a clever double-blind experiment. Around the same time, Kenny Biddle and others conducted another undercover investigation into a different psychic named Matt Fraser, who was appearing at a resort in Pennsylvania. Taken together, they offer an in-depth look at both hot and cold reading and other techniques that modern performers use to fool the public.
The details of these investigations can be found on the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website. See Susan Gerbic’s February 21 online article “Operation Pizza Roll: Thomas John” at http://tinyurl.com/y3hy3vjn and Kenny Biddle’s February 25 article “Undercover at a Psychic Group Reading” at http://tinyurl.com/y3qs6w4e.
Skeptical investigations of psychic claims are nothing new, of course, and have filled the pages of this magazine for decades. However, these were among the highest-profile successes in years, perhaps going back to James Randi’s exposure on The Tonight Show. These operations got widespread publicity with the publication of an article in The New York Times Magazine on March 3 by Jack Hitt titled “Inside the Secret Sting Operations to Expose Celebrity Psychics” (and even more when the story was posted online and then was adapted and republished in the April 5 The Week magazine). As skeptics, it’s easy to focus on the negative, on the seeming cornucopia of woo and deception in the world, but now and then skepticism gets some well-deserved success and limelight.