Psychic Mediums and
Life After Death

by Gary P. Posner

The October 5, 1999, edition of MSNBC's Crosstalk  (a live, one-hour discussion program) dealt with "Life after Death." Hosted by NBC News correspondent David Gregory, the guests included, among others, "medium" George Anderson, Linda Ellerbee, and myself.

The show promoted that evening's 90-minute HBO documentary entitled Life Afterlife, the product of Ellerbee's production company. Lisa Jackson, who produced and directed the film, was on the Crosstalk  panel as well, as was New York writer and journalist Lynn Darling, who participated in the film by allowing another "medium," John Edward, to attempt to get her in touch with her deceased husband. Absent from the documentary was James Van Praagh, the most famous of the current crop of superstar "psychic mediums" and about whom I have written previously.

Jackson said that going into the project, "We didn't have an agenda. I think it's just more interesting to ask the question, 'What if?' than to say it doesn't exist, so that's what we set out to do. And the more stories we heard, the more we were convinced that there was something here that was worth a documentary. And it was gutsy of HBO to take it on." Ellerbee, the film's executive producer and host, explained that as a result of what she learned, her opinion went from "I don't believe any of this" to "There may be more to [this] than I understand."

During the discussion, Gregory played several clips from the documentary. When I pointed out that magicians and psychologists are able to perform readings that are just as convincing as the supposedly genuine ones, Anderson did not disagree: "Skepticism is healthy. The doctor [Posner] has a very valid point. It means you're thinking."

Darling decided to have a reading for the film because, as a journalist and suffering from grief herself, she was "very concerned about the amount of attention mediums get [and] angry at the idea that these emotions can be milked [during] people's most vulnerable moments." She said she was struck by "how much I wanted it to be true. . . . Part of me was helping, urging him along, being happy whenever he got something right and kind of ignoring the things he got wrong. . . . He did get some things right [but] I don't think that means my [deceased] husband was in the room." She did come away, however, no longer believing that they are all "charlatans," but rather "very impressed with the sincerity" of the mediums in the documentary.

Ellerbee, after again proclaiming her skeptical bent, directed a question to me: "Do you ever wonder if maybe your [Tampa Bay Skeptics] society will end up being like the Flat Earth Society?" I then explained that while believers are generally close-minded to the possibility that they could be wrong (no matter how much negative evidence is presented), we "skeptics" (I thought Ellerbee was one!) are open-minded and capable of being persuaded that the phenomenon in question is genuine, if sufficient proof is offered. I repeatedly mentioned TBS's $1,000 -- and Randi's $1,000,000 -- enticements for claimants to step forward for proper scientific testing.

Ellerbee apologized for the "Flat Earth" remark, and I later apologized to her (and Jackson) for this off-the-cuff comment: When confronted with a scene from the film in which Anderson appears to score a perfect reading, I blurted out that, unlike in a properly controlled scientific study, I couldn't "know" with certainty in this instance that Anderson had no advance knowledge of who he would be reading, since the session occurred while filming "a documentary that I think they wanted to be sort of pro-paranormal because, after all, those are the TV shows that get the highest ratings." Great umbrage was taken that I was implying a "setup" (I should have instead simply enumerated some other ways in which a person could have obtained information). But all was soon nice-nice once again as the program came to an end.