Skeptivism: Van Praagh at the River Rock Casino

Last Saturday a handful of skeptics from CFI Vancouver went down to the River Rock Casino to protest their showcasing James Van Praagh, one of the big-name cold-reading vultures preying on people’s fears and grief, by pretending to hear from dead people.


And by “protest,” I mean that just as with Deepak Chopra in June and John Edwards in August, we politely handed out flyers to Van Praagh fans on their way to the show. Just a friendly smile, a “are you here to see Van Praagh? Here’s something to read while you’re in line!” capped off by a “Enjoy the show!” Some frowned, some gave the pamphlets back, one young woman told us she believed in psychics because she was psychic. We never did find out exactly what she believed about her psychicness, so we just parted on a note of “we all have our opinions and we’ll agree to disagree.” Because what else can you do? We weren’t here to make a scene.

But even so, security eventually asked us to leave. Fair enough, we were on private property, and the casino was completely within its rights to kick us out if we were bothering its customers. Most of us retreated to the Skytrain, while the two women in the gang continued to hand out pamphlets on the sidewalk in front of the casino. The guys debated joining them, but (a) I for one was kinda nervous about casino security keeping an eye on us, and I didn’t want to be arrested, however small the probability, and (b) the women seemed to be doing okay, and were probably less likely to be hassled by security, since they looked less threatening.

It was an interesting experience. Kind of anticlimactic, which I guess is a good thing. Doubly good because unlike the Edwards outing, we didn’t have to face any grieving people clinging to false hope. Yeah, i don’t think I could have handled that. Plus, I’m not too diplomatic even at the best of times, and I can’t think of a nice way to tell vulnerable people they’re being strung along by a con man.

So in the end, what did we accomplish? I don’t know. Some people read the pamphlets, sure, and that’s important. Planting seeds of doubt is never a bad thing, but there’s got to be a more efficient—not to mention legal—way to go about it. I think the saying “You don’t pray in my classroom and I won’t think in your church” applies here. As revolting as I find Van Praagh and his cohorts, the casino’s running a business and we can’t expect them to give us free access to their chumpscustomers.

What’s the solution? Obviously there’s no magic bullet to remove gullibility and ignorance, and some people will hang on to their beliefs in spite of all the evidence in the world. Skeptics just have to keep trying. This kind of skeptivism, Getting into people’s faces, does have a place, though we need to go at it a little more smartly, and there are other things CFI should do. Reach out to schools, get kids while they’re young! We’re talking about all those things and more. Stay tuned