Here's a post from 2009, which refers back to John Edward's old show, Crossing Over, which even then was off the air. Although the specific content is dated, the basic point remains valid: any evidence, no matter how good, can be rationalized away.
I've updated the link to my essay on Edward. The original link to SkepticReport still works.
Today I happened to look at an essay about medium John Edward that I posted on my Web site back in 2003. I found it interesting on two levels. First, I seem to have been a lot snarkier back then! Second, I was much less convinced of the reality of mediumship than I am now.
The other thing I noticed was that in '03 it was still necessary to explain what a "blog site" is.
The reason I reread this old essay was that I remembered a particularly weak skeptical argument used to debunk one of Edward's more impressive televised "hits." The argument was made in an article called "Birds of a Feather" that appeared on the Web site SkepticReport in 2002.
Here is the relevant part of the transcript, as reproduced by SkepticReport:
John: Why is Niagara Falls significant?
Lady 1: We was just there.
John: You were just at Niagara Falls, ok.
Lady 1: Me and my daughter.
John: Did you find a feather there?
Lady 1: Yes, and my daughter…
John: Did you tell your daughter that was from daddy?
Lady 1: Yes.
John: Ok, this is a validation that he was there for you, ok? ‘Cause he’s showing me the feather. Lucky for you that’s my mother’s symbol when she communicates with me. I find feathers. So it was a very easy symbol for me to get. But I need to validate for you that is was definitely, definitely him there for her.
Lady 1: Thank you.
So Edward told the woman that he was getting "Niagara Falls," and in fact the woman had just been there. He then asked if she had found a feather there, and the woman said yes. He then asked if she'd told her daughter that the feather was "from daddy" (deceased). The woman confirmed this, too.
Sounds pretty good to me. But SkepticReport will have none of it. Here is their explanation:
But what of the feather? Isn’t that a fantastic piece of evidence?
Not really. According to the 35th Annual Niagara Falls Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 29th, 2001, a total of 101 species of birds were found, and a total of 49,744 birds in Niagara Falls, NY.
There are also quite a few photos on the web from Niagara Falls with birds in them:
[Links to bird photos are given.]
Tons of birds on these ones.
I think we can safely say that it would not be uncommon to find a feather at Niagara Falls.
OK, then: What about Niagara Falls itself?
What does John Edward actually say about Niagara Falls? “Did you tell your daughter that the feather she found at Niagara Falls was from her Daddy?”
No. Previously in the reading, we have learned that Catherine has lost her husband. First, John Edward asks: “Why is Niagara Falls significant?” He doesn’t say anything about the nature of the significance. He asks Catherine!
From there, she tells John Edward that she was there with her daughter. Since birds are commonplace there, it would be likely if the daughter found a feather – it is fun for kids to find feathers.
Immediately after, Catherine – tearfully – begins to tell John Edward that “her daughter” – and then John Edward breaks in and asks about the father.
It takes three steps, and after each, John Edward asks a crucial question. It doesn’t take a genius to see what is happening here.
According to this argument, Edward's references to a) Niagara Falls, b) finding a feather there, and c) the mom telling the daughter that the feather was a gift from her departed father were all lucky guesses or obvious logical inferences. Money quote: "Since birds are commonplace there, it would be likely if the daughter found a feather – it is fun for kids to find feathers."
Now, really. I mean, come on. (Hey, I just found some of my missing snark.)
I have no doubt that there are many birds at Niagara Falls, and it was hardly necessary for SkepticReport to cite bird counts and bird photos to establish this uncontroversial point. (I'd guess that these citations were added to make the article look more "scientific.")
As a matter of fact, there are lots of birds everywhere, except maybe Death Valley. I've lived in several different parts of the country, in widely differing climate zones, and have never found any shortage of birds, even in urban areas.
Even so, I have rarely noticed any feathers on the ground, and to the best of my recollection I have never seen a kid pick up a feather. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it's not the sort of thing you see every day. ("Hey, look, there's another kid picking up a feather. Third time today.")
Moreover, I have never heard anyone tell a child that a feather was a gift from a deceased parent, or anything of the kind. Actually, I don't think I've ever heard been part of a conversation about picking up bird feathers in any context.
The whole "explanation" is an obvious example of rationalizing after the fact. If Edward had said that the woman's husband was run over by a dump truck in Newark, maybe SkepticReport would cite statistics and photos proving that there are many dump trucks in Newark. When you think of Newark, aren't dump trucks the first thing that come to mind? And since people sometimes get run over by dump trucks, it was easy for Edward to guess that the husband had died this way. Why, when you think about it, it's just common sense!
SkepticReport also points out a minor and debatable discrepancy between the show's transcript and the way it's written up in Edward's book Crossing Over. Here's how part of the exchange is described in the book:
“Did you find a feather there?” I asked her.
“Yes, and…” Catherine was crying.
“Did your tell your daughter that was from Daddy?”
“Yes.” She buried her face in her hands.
SkepticReport makes much of the fact that Catherine's words "Yes, and my daughter ..." were shortened to "Yes, and ..." in the book. Is this significant?
I don't think so. First, I saw a rerun of this episode of Crossing Over after reading the SkepticReport article, so I was paying close attention. If my memory is correct, there was crosstalk at this point, and Edward, talking very fast as usual, actually said, "Did you tell your daughter ..." at the very same moment when Catherine was saying, "... and my daughter." In other words, he was not reacting to her statement, but talking over it and partly drowning it out.
Second, and more important, the mere fact that Catherine said "and my daughter" would not lead most people to infer that Catherine told her daughter that the feather "was from Daddy." There are countless ways the statement "and my daughter" could have concluded.
It's probably silly to spend this much time on a trivial and foolish debunking exercise from seven years ago. The SkepticReport article, however, does illustrate an important point: No matter what kind of hits are obtained, no matter how specific they are or how unlikely or how meaningful to the sitter, they can still be rationalized away by a determined doubter.