net.wars: Skeptics 48, Marc Wooton 0

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 17 December 2004

Fans of TV comedy should probably stop reading right here. You might learn more than you need to learn about the sense of humour of our favourite columnist ...

Wendy M Grossman

On Tuesday afternoon, four skeptics went along, one at a time, to a lab at University College London, where we were each filmed talking to and testing an extremely bizarre psychic. On Tuesday evening, I blogged the details at vast length

On Thursday afternoon, I phoned the production assistant we had been dealing with and said, "So. This filming we participated in on Tuesday. Was it for the Marc Wooton Project?"

"How did you figure it out? You didn't use psychic means?"

I feel we lived up to our billing as good skeptics. The four skeptics were: me, in my other life role as founder and former editor of the UK magazine The Skeptic; Chris French, an increasingly distinguished professor and head of the head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College; Nick Pullar, who runs the popular and successful Skeptics in the pub series; and Paul Taylor. The ivory-suited psychic we met was the most hostile psychic I've ever met, and suggested the most unsavory hidden secrets.

I, as well as Nick and Paul, did a test, in which he had to reproduce exactly five facts about ourselves that we had written down, and reproduce a drawing we'd made. These were supposed to be preliminary tests, with a view to doing something more comprehensive early next year. Our psychic's guesses were wildly off-base, a problem he tried to cover by coming up with even wilder interpretations to link what we'd written to what he'd written.

I'd written, "I have two old tennis balls in my dryer." After confusing dryer with drawer - even psychics have trouble with my handwriting - he explained that the connection to what he'd written, "JESUS", was that there was also a picture of Jesus inside my dryer.

"How do you know," a recent house guest said, "that I didn't draw a picture of Jesus on one of those tennis balls, hmm?"

Throughout, the director kept trying to keep the discussion on some kind of track while our psychic kept interrupting and shouting at him to go away because he was on "their" side. At one point, a detail not in the blog, I turned to the director and said, "Has he been like this all day?"

"Don't talk about me like I'm not here!" the psychic barked. [Hey, you accused me of lying.]

Asked to sum up, I said, "I think you are delusional."

It would be, of course, much cooler if I could say we all stood up one by one and said, "Oh, come on, you've got to be kidding, no one could take this guy seriously as a psychic." Although Nick did say to him, "You ought to be in stand-up", and Paul wished him good luck in his future life in cabaret (in return for which he got a two-fingered salute.)

That we didn't erupt in disbelief comes down to several things. First of all, you're there expensively filming, representing skepticism. Second of all, you're not worrying that the production is trying to fool you but that the psychic is. Of course he's acting at least a bit: he's performing in public, isn't he? If he's delusional, not a problem. But if he can pass this very specific test under good observing conditions, he's the most extraordinary psychic in the history of paranormal claims. He must not get away with any magic tricks. Putting one over on us has a much deeper meaning to us than being made to look like fools. Our agenda is not to look dignified, but to champion truth, a minor principle we happen to be passionate about.

The third reason we didn't leap right up and say, "Aha!" is that although his behaviour was way over the top in all directions, the rationalisation process was still familiar. "Psychic 7, skeptic 0," he kept shouting at me. And while I've never seen a real fake psychic do that, it's not impossible; some will sit there and claim a 100 percent success rate even after missing every single time. Skeptics meet strange people who claim incredible things and justify themselves all the time. Although: I've never had someone suggest I was incontinent before. I think most would be too embarrassed.

Chris, the psychologist, gets the credit for spotting that our psychic was a fake fake psychic. "I am 99 per cent plus certain it was a spoof," he wrote early on Thursday morning. He proposed Matt Lucas as the spoofer.

I couldn't rule Lucas out on the basis of photos, even of his hands (which I remember better than faces), or on a clip of his voice publicising his last BBC show, Little Britain. But I couldn't definitively rule him in, either, and research turned up only a 1999 bit part for Tiger Aspect Productions, the company we knew was producing the show. Plus, he looked kind of young.

Ah, the power of the Net when you combine it with traditional networking among friends who watch a lot of television. Even before I had accepted the idea of a spoof - heck, we skeptics are too obscure to make fun of! - Wooton's name had come up as a possibility. We needed a comedian with links to Tiger Aspect; who plays outlandish characters; who is doing a BBC show. The description of his upcoming BBC project fit. His last show was produced by Tiger Aspect. The photos were possible. I made the call.

By the way, subscriptions to The Skeptic make a wonderful Christmas gift ...

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).