The "woo" gets heavy: Steve Pavlina "Being Psychic" podcast

21 Jul 2008

You may know of blogger and podcaster Steve Pavlina. One of many writers on the topic of "personal development", Steve is ahead of the blogging crowd on name recognition, and is frequently mentioned among the elite of "Internet celebrities".

I've paid attention to his work on and off; there's often some good inspirational or practical content in there, along with some feel-good fluffiness that doesn't speak to me (though I begrudge neither the appeal it may have to others, nor Steve's success in gaining fans).

The thing that dropped Steve from my must-listen podcast list was a positive mention by him, many months ago, of his wife Erin's work as a "psychic medium". "Great, Steve", I thought, "your wife is a charlatan and you're happy with that. Bravo." It lowered the fellow a few notches in my book (though in all fairness to him, I know that brutal objectivity about one's better half is a perilous path to tread : ).

In early June, a new entry appeared in iTunes: Steve Pavlina podcast #021, "Being Pyschic". I let it sit ignored for a long time, but my eye hit it repeatedly. "Being psychic? I know his wife has something going on with the woo - but is Steve serious about this too?" Finally, I gave it a listen.

The Pavlinas are beyond serious - way beyond. Maybe I'm just not experienced enough in what transpires out there in the woo industry, but I found it pretty jaw-dropping. Get ready:

Smacked in the head by fate

Erin is a "psychic medium". She claims to have developed her ESP "skills" in a "catalyzing incident" at age 4, when she got a good whack in the head "right on the third eye". (That lies between the eyebrows and is a "center of clairvoyance", Erin explains for those of us with limited knowledge of woo anatomy.) As a teen, she became "accomplished and advanced" at lucid dreaming, able to "program" her own dreams. After that came "astral projection" - at least until "negative experiences" with "the other side". (What kind of negative experiences? Ones involving "negative energies", of course. Sorry, that's as detailed as it gets.) As Erin's "skills" improved, she gained the "ability to contact deceased entities". (Rest assured that "synchronicity" and "vibrations" also come into play later; no buzzword left behind!)

Around this time, Steve joins in and owns up to being a no-questions-asked believer in it all. The two relate how their lives are influenced by "spirit guides" and "the higher self". Not even their home electronics escape unscathed: the Pavlinas believe that a "very strong spirit" was responsible for instances of light bulbs burning out and WiFi interference. (Hmm, I have similar WiFi troubles at times; it's interesting that my visitations by "very strong spirits" coincide perfectly with my use of the microwave. Must be "synchronicity" linking the astral plane with my burritos!)

So, what does Erin do with her "powers"? Paid "readings", as you might guess, for "sitters" (which apparently means "those with more money in wallet than sense in head"). While a price list isn't quoted in the podcast, several comments suggest that Erin's price for a full "reading" is several hundred dollars. What does she do for that fee? Well, she'll "raise vibrations, open up chakras and energy centers" to become a "conduit", then welcome the "guide" that "boosts the signal". She'll call upon her ability to not only "see angels", but even "pick up angelic energy" from sitters. She can "raise their vibrations", or let the "angels... use their energy to boost the person". Clients even ask her to "read" not just people but businesses, she says, as she can "read the business's energy".

(Let's make clear that she doesn't claim power to do everything. She can't hear physical, disembodied voices; it's "not one of my modalities", she says. Hmm, why do I want to read that as "I admit the voices are all in my head"?)

The proof is in the fluff

Throughout it all, anything suggestive of empirical proof is in very short supply. Erin claims to have begun "predicting" phone calls (a disappointingly mundane ability that "psychics" place so much importance on), and once insisted that her brother wear a seat belt just before he had a car accident. Yet were the phone call "predictions" demonstrably more accurate than chance would predict? Did Erin actually define success and failure in phone call foresight (including the critical time-lag factor), then record and analyze the data? The same with that seat belt warning: did she also urge buckling up on days when no accident subsequently occurred? How many accidents (assuming some definition of "accident" were established) in the lives of those around her occurred without an observed warning from her Spidey sense?

Nothing is presented as empirical evidence; claims are couched in the fluffy diversions of "I felt" or "I experienced". There's nothing to distinguish the couple's claims from mundane experiences that people think are "supernatural" simply because there's no measurement involved. For example, Steve and Erin excitedly relate how, with their twin attuned psychic powers, one of the two will report positive or negative "feelings" about working with a potential new business partner, after which the other one will agree to having reached the same conclusion. Such yes-no judgements about people are something we all do every day, based on countless clues relating to personality and compatibility, yet these two see this jejune decision-making as evidence of psychic abilities!

From the whole hour-plus recanting of psychic adventures, precisely one incident comes across as "whoa, freaky": Erin claims to have seen a ghostly projection of a football player pass through her room one night in childhood (after which she went back to sleep!); in the morning, her brother in the next room reported seeing it as well. Now that's at least a good ghost story! It's sad, though, that in the recounting of a lifetime of "psychic experiences", the only reported incident that's even interesting is one that we have to accept on the say-so of two kids. Or, rather, the alleged say-so of two kids, as reported by the one of them who also believes in "the third eye" and unproven phone-call prediction.

Don't question, just believe

From the duo's comments, it appears that they do receive lots of feedback from proper skeptics. To the Pavlinas' credit, they took time to address whether their claims are "total bunk". Unfortunately, time, and not critical thinking, was all they gave it. Steve begins: "Skepticism is a belief system of doubt. You doubt something until it's proven." But that skepticism creates doubt... yet is not skeptical enough, because it doesn't "doubt doubt"... Er, to be honest, I couldn't follow along here. Something about an "intention manifestation process", and how doubt "creates the problem you're trying to solve"...

The podcast's purported goal is to help listeners develop their own psychic powers. Hence the Pavlinas advise us to lose critical thinking: skepticism "adds fuzziness" and makes you "lose talent when you start to doubt". Steve is "skeptical of skepticism"; when he dropped doubt, he found his "psychic powers got stronger". The skeptics need to "turn doubt on itself", we're told.  

If a person is a non-believer – which the Pavlinas define as someone who is certain that psychic claims are bunk, as opposed to the skeptic who only doubts – then that turns off psychic abilities completely. Steve and Erin say non-believers who don't see the evidence are like those who are blind and thus claim that no one else can see either. They urge us to "open the belief system up", after which we'll start getting "too much validation" to doubt.

So what is it like to "read" for people with different degrees of skepticism? Skepticism "blocks the signal" and makes it hard to "tune into the energy" of people: "I can't read anyone without their permission", Erin says, adding that it's like "an interference pattern". On the other hand, reading for those "with psychic abilities" is easy; the information "flows strongly".

How does Erin know whether the received info is genuinely psychic in nature, and not "feelings and emotions" or "imagination"? She tries to answer that: "It's a hard question, as they feel similar." The distinction is drawn via "experience" and "testing". No details on what "testing" consists of, though its very mention is at least a pointer in a positive direction - but then we're quickly off that topic, and onto something about received messages coming from "a discarnate entity from the ether".

The inevitable conclusion (or, What other choice do they leave us?)

Even the most fervent believer will agree that not all psychic claims are true; there most certainly are frauds, whether openly deceitful or well-meaning but deluded. Words like "angelic energies" and "discarnate entities" and "opening up the belief system" build the patter of fakes who take money for "readings" and provide nothing real in return.

Let's be clear, though: The existence of such untrue claimants does not automatically place the Pavlinas in the category of fakers! However, it does require that we ask them: How do we distinguish them from the fakes? What sets their claims apart from imagined or deceitful claims?  

The answer, of course, is evidence: measurable proof that the abilities and results they claim are true. Evidence is the one thing that would exonerate the Pavlinas' claims, pushing away the frauds to reveal a true instance of amazing abilities. Yet our natural request to see this evidence – i.e., our skepticism – is the very thing that they tell us we must not employ in judging their claims!

"Don't be skeptical; don't ask questions. Just believe", they implore. Does that make the Pavlinas frauds? Technically, we can't say that it does – though we can say unequivocally that it makes them indistinguishable from the frauds.

Really, what other conclusion could they expect a thinking person to come to?


Somebody's certainly grouchy. I just found this article - haven't seen the rest of your site yet, but do you get this defensive about a lot of things that don't fit into your ontology?

defaithed's picture

Some return questions come to mind:

Does "a discarnate entity from the ether" fit your ontology? 

If so, why?

If not, wouldn't you shake a finger at people peddling such silliness to the gullible?

If not, why not?

I too get grouchy when I see stuff like this.  When will people learn to THINK?

defaithed's picture

I do think people in general – the woo "customers" in this case – deserve a little slack, in that so many have been brought up to believe this nonsense, and are still too young, or still too busy with jobs and kids and what not, to have explored sensible counterarguments. Or just haven't yet been challenged to explore their beliefs.

I have to remember that my own "believer" past lasted a good long time before I took the effort to... well, THINK. 

That said, it's not as easy to give the woo "sellers" a break. I've been given the argument "well, it's not outright deceit if they really believe it", and I understand the point. I understand that there may be people who are genuinely willing to believe the truth but have limited access to critical info and just haven't had their eyes opened yet. Similar to a small businessperson who is willing to pay correct taxes and thinks he's doing so, but honestly misunderstands some arcane rule on accelerated depreciation.

But the woo sellers who are well aware of the criticisms of their practices, and have access to all the info they could desire... that's another matter. They're either dishonest, or they're simply refusing to critically examine their beliefs so they can claim "I see no reason to reject this". That's no different from a business that's been told its accounting is funny, but refuses to check the regulations so it can claim "gosh, we didn't know we were underpaying". The IRS doesn't buy that one, and we shouldn't either.

This is one giant adult-fantasy. Quite dreamy. Maybe she should get whacked in the head again.

In my opinion, as of this moment, nothing about this stuff is proved. We can't blame some people to believe in phsychic powers and stuff, as someone who knows the real thing about it, we have the responsibility to enlighten them.

I have had experiences with psychics, some on, that were surprisingly accurate, and these people are usually nowhere near as expensive as Erin is. Many are basically no more than counselors, not psychics, and that pisses me off-I have encountered a few of them, for sure. BUT there are several who have nailed some things about me that they could not have possible know, including one woman who predicted something that, months in advance when she said it, I never in my wildest dreams would have thought would be going on with my ex until I found out what it was-these events have convinced me that there are some real psychics out there. After I knew about it, and my ex revealed it to me, it all started to make sense (and it helped us heal a part of our life, at least for that time)...

So: I have not tried Erin yet, and may be finally ready for someone of her caliber, but what kept coming to me as I read this blog is this: Why have you, 'defaithed', not actually tried a session with her to see if its the real deal? How else will you ever REALLY know? You can sit there smug with all the stuff you wrote above, which I actually thought was quite good and detailed, but until you try her (or another) you wont ever really know. Wouldn't it be a lot better to 'disprove' her powers if you had actually tried them and found them lacking? What if she truly did open, say, a 'hidden' part of your life that you have long been missing/aware of, but it was in the dark, etc, etc,,and allowed you to, FINALLY, move forward...

Its like dissing a book in detail you have never read, only heard certain things about. Go on, give it a try-that would be a fascinating blog for sure to see what actually happens! And all you need to do is the 15 minute get at taste for what she is about....Yes they are (too?) expensive, but so is doubt/fear/mis-information get the picture...! Cant wait to hear on this one...Seriously!


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