By Vincenzo Ravina
Chip Coffey, a TV “psychic,” is coming to Halifax on Thursday to peddle his snake oil. He claims to be able to speak to the dead. He can’t. Like Sylvia Browne and John Edward and every other “psychic” you’ve heard of, Coffey performs “cold reading,” a technique known to and used by many magicians and mentalists the world over to simulate psychic powers. The difference between mentalists and people like Coffey is that mentalists are not trying to pass off their tricks as legitimate psychic abilities.
When you go to see a magic show, you’re going for the entertainment. People like Coffey don’t have the skills to entertain and subsist on the desperation of vulnerable people, exploiting their emotions and finances.
Coffey regularly takes money from grieving parents, and in his A&E show, Psychic Kids, he indulged the delusions of children who think - or whose parents think - they are psychic. His behaviour is reprehensible and he is a disgusting person. Parents who have lost children would do anything to be in contact with them again. Chip Coffey is there to take their $500 (per telephone reading) and bullshit them into bankruptcy. A person who does this to other people, I can only conclude, is the lowest of the low, without one shred of decency or empathy or conscience. Chip Coffey is a con artist.
Cold reading, if you’ve never heard of it, is a technique in which the “reader” makes guesses, asks questions of you, and lies. The key is confidence and a sociopathic lack of shame. A cold reader will begin with something vague, like, “I see an S. Does that mean anything to you?” or “I see an older woman.”
The subject will says, “Yes, an S! My aunt Sylvia!” or, “Yes, an older woman! My aunt Sylvia!” Or perhaps there is no aunt Sylvia. Perhaps there’s no one with an S. Perhaps the subject says, “I don’t know anything about an S,” and the cold reader will say, “Oh, it’s hazy, it’s not an S. It’s an F.” They’ll go from vague descriptions to more specific statements as they slowly figure out what you want.
Chip Coffey, very wisely, hasn’t put any of his work on YouTube, but here are a few typical examples of cold reading from famous scam artists Theresa Caputo and James Van Praagh:
Based on suggestions and guesses, and hits and misses, the cold reader will pounce upon every hit and dismiss every miss. Have you ever read a fortune cookie or a horoscope that you felt applied to your life? That’s called cold reading. That’s called a hit.
As you can tell by the above clips, most people who claim to be psychics aren’t actually very good at it. If you want to see a really good cold reading, you go to a magician like Derren Brown:
In person, cold readers can seize upon facial expressions and body language. They can pull from what you say to them, what you’re wearing and your manner. “Hot readers” will investigate their subjects before doing a reading. At a performance with an audience, for instance, there may be an employee of the reader talking to people in line or in the audience, asking them why they are there and who they hope to contact.
If you believe in psychics, go to a psychic. Don’t respond to their suggestions. Sit in silence and allow them to suss out why you’re there and what your aunt’s name is. You’ll soon find that the spirits aren’t talking that day.
Lest you think that this kind of charlatanry is benign, observe as Sylvia Browne tells a grandparent that her missing grandchild has been sold into slavery (at 2:52):
For reports on Chip Coffey’s fakery, see this link.
Here’s a look why his Psychic Kids TV show is so harmful.
Finally, the James Randi Educational Foundation has had a $1-million prize available to anyone in the world who can demonstrate any form of observable paranormal activity. There have been hundreds of applicants since 1964, and none have claimed the prize.
For a more thorough examination of cold reading, see James Randi’s primer on it, or the Wikipedia article.