Saturday, February 20, 2010

Psychic Frauds and the Denver Post

Months ago, if I’d had a little more focus and determination, I would have cobbled together a few words to say about the regrettable decline of newspapers in the United States of America. As the saying goes, a stupid country is a shitty country,1 and I believe that newspapers, while far from perfect, overall have a net positive contribution to the public good, and do an admirable if basic and occasionally spotty job of informing their readers and providing them with a voice against the corrupt, the powerful, the greedy, and the dishonest.

Or at least that’s what I would have wanted to write, had I done so a few months ago. Lately, though, thanks in part to the Denver Post, I’m starting to wonder if they’re really on our side after all. Please don’t take my word for it, though; check it out for yourself: the article that has me second-guessing myself—and, more importantly, the Post—was published on February 1, 2010, and I’ve linked to it here. If memory serves, the headline was “Malicious, Conniving Fraud Exploits the Vulnerable.”

(Please take your time reading; we’ll enjoy some pleasantly upbeat intermission music2—click below if you want to join in—and we’ll be here waiting for you when you get back.)

Let me be clear on this: I’m not going to tell you there’s no such thing as psychic abilities, and I’m definitely not going to tell you that they do exist, either. To make either statement would require a lot more proof than I have on hand. I am prepared to say, though, that I’m pretty sure that no self-proclaimed psychic has ever given a scrap of indisputable evidence to back it up—not one—and countless numbers of them3 have been exposed (some by good folks such as Harry Houdini and James Randi, others by their own incompetence or arrogance, or regrettable twinges of honesty and conscience)4 as swindlers and con artists.

Which is what, by all appearances, we have here with Rebecca Rosen. My problem is not that the Post decided to cover this story; my problem is with the wide-eyed credulity with which the reporter treated what, to me, appears to be an obvious fraud. Keep in mind, I’m no James Randi—I’m not a professional (or even amateur) debunker—but nothing in that article gave me reason to believe that Rosen is even remotely supernatural. Some examples:
Vicky and Charles Dinges believe they have somebody up there with lots to say. Their son, Jason, died in 2007 of hantavirus. He was 20 years old, an aerospace-engineering student at the University of Colorado, Vicky Dinges said.
. . . A friend suggested that she contact Rosen. About eight months later, the parents went to see Rosen at a public appearance.

If—as the article and Rosen’s own website both state—Rosen has a three-year waiting period for appointments, it’s safe to assume that Vicky and Charles Dinges contacted Rosen (and would have given her, among other things, their names) long before meeting her at the public appearance. Now, even the least clever of us can find out a lot about somebody in eight months, especially if you start with (1) their names and (2) the assumption that, if you claim you can speak to the dead, most people who contact you will have lost somebody close to them. If right now you’re saying “well, duh, it doesn’t take a mind reader to figure that one out,” that’s exactly my point.

One acting on that assumption could, for example, take almost six seconds to type “Vicky Dinges” into a search engine and come up with this article. That’s just what I did, and I’m not even psychic.
Minutes into the event, Rosen was standing in front of the couple, saying she was getting a message. . . . “She looked at me and said: ‘This was your son. He died close to your birthday, and he is sorry about it being so close to your birthday,’ ” Dinges said. Jason died two days after her birthday, Dinges said.

You can find the date of Jason Dinges’ death in the article linked above. And if I’m not mistaken, birth dates and dates of death have been parts of public record in this country for several years now. Is it easier to look something like this up in easily accessible public records, or get the answers from beyond the grave?5
“Then she said, ‘Who is Chris?’” Dinges said. . . . Chris is the couple's older son; Jason had plenty to say to Chris as well, Dinges said.

The trick of knowing Jason Dinges had a brother is significantly less mind-blowing if you remember what you just read mere seconds ago and conclude that his birth, just like his brother’s and mother’s, is part of the public record—for con artists and regular folks alike, far more easily accessible than the netherworld.
Rosen said she initially had to be convinced too. During a bout of depression in college—where she was majoring in advertising—Rosen recalled praying for help. One night, as she was writing in her journal, a spirit she believes was her grandmother took over the writing. Her grandmother comforted Rosen, helped pull her out of her depression and even told her whom she would marry. The hint, Rosen said, was, “Ryan will give you a rose.” Grandma was two letters off—she married Brian Rosen.

Even without addressing the fact that Rosen majored in advertising—where one’s job is, in short, to convince people to believe things that aren’t necessarily true, and then spend money on it6—it strikes me as more than a little telling that the foundation of Rosen’s psychic abilities is an utterly unverifiable story, with no apparent witnesses, from years and years ago. I’m not going to say this is absolutely impossible, mind you, but it’s considerably less believable than several other options that spring quickly to mind:
  1. “I think I’m telling the truth, because I am insane, but it’s that kind of benevolent insanity found only in movies like The Fisher King or K-Pax that allows me to help gullible and grief-stricken people . . . and, incidentally, get them to pay me $500 an hour for it.”
  2. “I made it all up to make myself feel important, and to make a shitload of money.”
  3. “I’m lying, but I've found that desecrating the memories of dead people I've never met is a good way of making their vulnerable, mourning loved ones feel vaguely better at least long enough to finish writing me a check.”
  4. “I remember it vividly. I was standing on the edge of my toilet hanging a clock, the porcelain was wet, I slipped, hit my head on the sink, and when I came to I had a revelation! A vision! A picture in my head! A picture of this! This is what makes time travel possible: the flux capacitor!”
Call me a skeptic if you must, but all of these options—all of them—are more likely than “I received a psychic message from my dead grandmother. Oh, and you’re never going to believe this, but my dead grandmother—despite being only human and, of course, dead, can also predict the future. How awesome is that?” The Post’s article goes on to say that “the human appetite for psychic phenomena, and the desire of many to believe in them, is storied and constant.” That’s certainly true. But it’s also true that the human appetite to make an easy buck is at least as constant and far more storied, and it’s not always accompanied by the ethical guidelines that, in the general population, tend to prevent people from bullshitting one another. Don’t just take my word for it. The magicians Penn & Teller make a healthy living off of tricking people, but the difference is that you know it’s a trick beforehand—and in case you forget that, they even tell you it’s a trick even as they’re tricking you, and half the time they’ll explain how they did it after it’s done. Better yet, they explain how other people do it, like in this scene taken (probably without permission) from their entertaining and spectacularly vulgar Showtime Series Bullshit!:

While it troubles me that con artists and fakers continue to separate credulous people from their money with ease, more disappointing to me is that the Denver Post not only lets it happen but even publicizes it, essentially providing a free thousand-word advertisement for someone who, to the best of my ability to tell, has no supernatural ability whatsoever. Rebecca Rosen makes $500 an hour (an astounding figure that I may have mentioned once or twice already) by supposedly speaking to the dead. And rather than realizing and pointing out that thousands if not hundreds of thousands of con artists who have preyed on vulnerable people since time immemorial have claimed to do just that very thing, the Post decided to hop right up onto Rosen’s wagon and start selling snake oil right beside her. But don’t just take my word for it. Her own grandmother told me just the other day that Rebecca Rosen is full of shit.8

Prove me wrong.9  

1. I’m not sure if anybody actually says that, but I think we should start. You go first! 
2. Courtesy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, used without permission. 
3. By “countless” I mean that somebody may have bothered to count them, but I sure haven’t, and I doubt I ever will. If you can find evidence that contradicts the statement, though, I’d be happy to learn about it. 
4. In the mid-1800s, sisters Margaret and Kate Fox claimed that spirits communicated with them through strange “rapping” sounds, and made a living off of this for several years. Later in life, Margaret confessed—and showed—that the rapping was simply the sound her feet (and possibly knee) joints made when she popped them, and she combined this sound with the power of suggestion and shrewd but very natural observation of her marks to fool a lot of people. And people didn’t believe her when she claimed to not be a medium. 
5. If you’re actually debating the answer to this, please slap yourself really fucking hard right now. 
6. I really do need a Swiffer! Pepsi really is the choice of a new generation! Bud Light tastes slightly better than cold urine! You speak to dead people! Do you take cash? 
7. Yeah, yeah, I know. “There goes Some Guy again, doing his Carl Sagan bullshit.” 
8. For purposes of avoiding a libel suit, I’d like to state for the record that I did not write, think, or publish any of the above article, and I have no idea who did. But Rebecca Rosen’s grandmother really did tell me that her granddaughter was full of shit. 
9. My sincere apologies to the Dinges family not only for dredging up their loss, but for trying to use them as an illustration of the unbelievability of something they apparently genuinely believe. In my defense, I'm not charging them an obscene amount of money to dredge up their loss.


  1. Maybe you should send a link to BITD to the editor of the Denver Post....

    The Squid Bandit has never studied journalism or been a reporter (except for the high school yearbook!), so take this question with a grain of salt, Some Guy: Is it a reporter's job to pass judgment on a phenomenon that has, at least arguably, caught the public's attention?

    If you say yes, then that's good enough for me.

  2. That’s a really good question. Better yet, it’s an important one, and I’m not sure I even know what I think about it.

    Sure, the psychic medium phenomenon has, as you said, caught the public’s attention, and it’s fair to report on it for that reason . . . but I think that to report on it in such an unquestioning way—especially given the long and inglorious history of con artists who’ve pretended to be psychics—is irresponsible. The Post (or, at least, this particular author) was willing to accept Rebecca Rosen’s very-apparent scam at face value, and didn’t bother to get any sort of balancing statement from somebody willing to point out that Rosen is a fraud, or show how the con works . . . and I think that’s inexcusable.

    But here’s where I get myself kinda tangled up, the more I think about it: I’m not convinced that every subject requires, or deserves, a balanced viewpoint.

    In my opinion, an article on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, for example, absolutely does not deserve a counter-statement from a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t believe the moon landings happened—it’d be not only unnecessary, but ridiculous. An article on some aspect of religion (pick pretty much any religion, and any aspect) doesn’t need a counterbalancing statement from an opposing religion, or an atheist, saying that what Religion X thinks is actually a load of bunk—that’d be not only unnecessary, but also offensive and insulting to both the readers and the subject matter itself. An article commemorating Charles Darwin’s birthdate doesn’t need a statement from a creationist who thinks that comparing evolutionists to Hitler is actually an effective argument—Kirk Cameron, who apparently learned a lot more biology from Growing Pains than the rest of us did, already has that covered.

    So, in short, I’m criticizing the Post for publishing an article that provides an unquestioning account of something that I think is total bunk . . . but I think that in the instances above, it’d be wrong to do otherwise, even though there are plenty of folks out there (moon hoax people, atheists/anybody from the “true religion,” creationists) who consider the subject matter in question to be just as much bunk as I see the “psychic phenomenon.”

    Does that sound as inconsistent to you as it does to me? Is there a loophole here that I can use to weasel out of this conundrum? What gives my understanding of bunk vs. truth precedence over somebody else’s, other than the fact that I’m actually right?

    (Incidentally, I went to the Denver Post website and posted a comment on that article, basically taking them to task for publishing it, but given how long ago the article appeared, I wouldn’t be surprised if few people notice or react to it.)

  3. "Rebecca Rosen" is about to come out with a new book. Since her first book, she has dumped her husband "Ryan Rose" and moved in with his former friend and neighbor. If "Ryan Rose" was truly her pre-determined partner and what her dead grandmother supposedly told her is accurate, does that mean she suddenly had a revelation that RR would lead her to his best friend so she could shack up with him and cause him to end his marriage and ruin two families? Maybe it was the Kabbalistic forces which she now claims to believe in. The 3 year wait list thing is also false. She actually has availability within a month or two. Just wants to create a sense of scarcity.

    1. We hadn't heard this news about Rebecca Rosen, although it just goes to show that the old saying is true: "lying to people to take their money doesn't always make you a good person."

      That is an old saying, we're almost sure of it—our grandmother used to say it to us a lot, years after she died.

      Thanks for reading!