I've mentioned the James Randi Educational Foundation before. It's one of the places online at which I can hang out for hours (along with Google Earth, National Geographic, NASA, etc. I'm a geek.)
If you've read the "about me" page here, you'll know that I belong to a fairly exotic (as in "different", not as in "dancing") church called the House of Netjer. It's an attempt to reconstruct Ancient Egyptian religious practices, though of course is has, at points, taken on some current-time "flavorings" (after all, we are not Ancient Egyptians), such as extensive use of the Internet for communications, services, etc.
One of the tenets of the House of Netjer is that those who are led to the church are children of individual Names of God (or "Netjer") -- the "gods" of Ancient Egypt are not separate gods, but rather aspects of one infinite and unknowable divinity (which is Netjer). I'm a Yinepu (Anubis) kid. I go into all of this by way of explaning why I have a strong, visceral reaction to things involving dead people: I think that funeral and memorial rites are important for the living and the dead, and I think there is a sacredness about the relationship between the living and the dead that is profound.
So it drives me up the wall when people like John Edward and Sylvia Browne claim to be able to talk to dead people when what they are really doing is nothing more than cold reading, a technique in which someone throws out some very vague "feelers" and a willing participant, wanting to believe, then grabs onto those "feelers" and gives the cold reader all the additional information they need.
I know that this is a valid technique, not just because I have read, over and over, about people who do it and how it is done, but because I have done it. When I was in college, I got into Tarot reading. I was taught by some friends who believed, very deeply, that they were psychic and that this stuff worked. I did Tarot reading and generally was regarded as being extremely accurate. But the first thing I noticed was that someone would come to the table with a specific question, and we'd almost always end up talking about something else with stunning precision.
Initially I said that the Tarot/God/whatever answers what's most pressing in a person's life, not necessarily the question they thought was most pressing. Then I thought about it some more. I realized that what was going on was that the Tarot cards present a set of architypal characters and situations that apply to everyone's life in some form. So I'd tell people that. I'd even tell them that I was going to give them some very vague information and it was up to them to fit it into something applicable to them. I didn't know what "cold reading" was, but I knew I was doing it, and I told people I was doing it, and still they loved it.
I don't do Tarot readings any more, but I don't slam people for it either, as long as they don't claim they're psychic. There's nothing psychic about it, and taken as a tool for exploring one's own beliefs, thoughts, or as an aid to thinking something through, I think it's good (as long as one is actually thinking, of course). It's useful because it might help a person do some intuitive pattern finding.
Human beings are innately "pattern-seeky". I use "pattern-seeky" after Neal Stephenson, who in his book Cryptonomicon has one character describing another as "morphine seeky". He says that he prefers this term to "addict" because it is not a label; "seeky", an adjective, is better because it describes a tendency.
Pattern-seekiness is a tremendously useful ability: for example, babies who can recognize a smile, or people who can (say) recognize developing weather, are more likely to survive. It is something that humans do so incredibly well. Hell, as Scott McCloud points out in "Understanding Comics", we can recognize a face in practically any shape as long as there's a "dot" somewhere (i.e., the eye). So we are particularly primed to be able to look at, say, Tarot readings or other forms of cold reading and pull meaning out of it. We do it instinctively, probably better than any form of life on the planet. But it also makes us vulnerable.
And that is what drives me up the proverbial pyramid about "mediums", those folks who claim to speak to the dead. I think that Penn & Teller put it best when they talked about how people who are cold reading are effectively replacing real, important memories of departed loved ones with (usually) saccharine pablum. It doesn't matter if it makes the victim feel better (a common justification); it's not true and it is an insult to the memory of the departed person, which to me is sacred in all its entirety, the good and the bad.
Penn gets really upset about it, and says some bad words. I agree wholeheartedly. So do a lot of people at the James Randi Educational Forum, including an excellent man named Robert S. Lancaster. Driven by concern over someone with extraordinary claims who'd come to his mother's church, he did some research about "Dr. Kaz", who among other things claimed to have been trapped in the WTC during 9/11 and to have been "miraculously saved. It turns out that she's a globe-trotting charlatain. It's a fascinating read.
Now Rob has turned his eye towards Sylvia Browne. I can't wait to see what he puts together. I can't wait to see this because as as angry as I am about those who give people sickly-sweet touchy-feely "messages" from their departed, though, I'm absolutely lividly furious about people who claim to be able to find missing persons through their "psychic abilities". Sylvia Browne is one of those evil creatures, and you can read the experience of several families with her and other "psychics" by checking out Project Jason: Sylvia and Friends, Part I.
Okay, you might ask: as a so-called "daughter" of one of the Names of Netjer with a very powerful connection to the dead and as a member of a church which claims communication with the dead through ritual and prayer, how can you point the finger at people like this and denounce them?
Well, how about this: 1) I don't say that I know for sure that whom I'm talking to is actually a dead person. I'm completely open to the point of view that it might be one of my own interior voices. So 2) I would never, ever, claim to speak to someone else's dead person or give someone advice/comfort/whatever on that basis. Not unless some dead person actually said something completely specific to me. It wouldn't be me talking about my own vague "senses" or "impressions". It would have to be something like "Uncle Dave just knocked me on the back of the head and told me about your episode with the dryer lint in late 1988. He wants me to tell you that the photograph he took of that is in the white envelope taped to the underside of the left-hand drawer of his antique roll-top desk and that he wants you to have it. He also wants me to tell you that he's dismayed about your forays into Amway, and..."
I also won't believe people who claim that they're psychic, at least those who follow along the current lines of what psychics typically do. I'll tell you why: because I have a good imagination, and I can imagine what it would be like to be truly psychic.
If I were telepathic, and if I could somehow maintain an excellent "self-boundary" and not go mad by having other people's thoughts and experiences inside my head, I would not be charging $700 for a phone call reading helping them feel self-fulfillment and filling them with hope that they'll finally find The True Love of Their Life. I'd be showing up in court and looking at the murderers on the bench who think they're going to get away with pleading insanity and telling, in graphic and brutal detail, exactly what they did, why they did it, what they were thinking at the time, in such detail that their blood supply would rush to their feet and they'll confess in full just to get away from me before I say anything more. God help the Janjaweed in Darfur if I were telekenetic in any kind of strength: I'd be a mass murderer.
So although most of the people in my church are extremely open to the idea of psychicness, and although I have an open mind (I really do), I will view any claims with extreme skepticism until I see people doing what I'd do. And until then, I will continue to be infuriated by people who make large amounts of money by telling people that Mommy Says It's Okay; She's In Heaven Now.