The one certainty in life is that you will die. Not even taxes are as certain as the fact that you will, at some point in the future, cease to exist. That is a hard fact to face. Death is not just fodder for philosophy but also a source of income for undertakers, priests, and mediums.
The latter group is a natural focus for skeptics. Claiming to be able to contact your dead loved ones is, if true, one of the biggest discoveries of mankind. If false, it is a cruel exploitation of the bereaved. Thus, the stakes are high – we could face a fundamental change in our perception of the world or find yet another con artist had been exposed.
The latter happened, when Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward went to a reading by Thomas John, an up-and-coming mediumistic star with his own tv show, “The Seatbelt Psychic”. If you can communicate with the dead, you can charge pretty much what you want: A reading by Thomas John can cost you up to US$800 for one hour, and he is booked a year in advance. Fortunately, you can get an hour’s emergency reading for the paltry sum of US$1,275, or just below what a Site Manager at Burger King makes a month – before taxes.
Susan Gerbic is a skeptical activist, a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), a columnist for Skeptical Inquirer, and widely known as the Wikipediatrician, as she runs the group Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW). In a previous article for Skeptical Inquirer, “Buckle Up – Seatbelt Psychic”, she had described how Thomas John was getting hits from people he supposedly knew nothing about. The people being read by Thomas John turned out to be hired by the production company of the tv show. As damaging to the medium’s reputation as that is, the better part was to come. In fact, it had been underway for two years.
In 2017, together with professional mentalist and author Mark Edward and a group of skeptics, she set up Operation Pizza Roll, to see if Thomas John could be caught red-handed at hot reading. Susan and Mark would pose as a married couple, seeking to contact dearly departed family members. But if Thomas John were hot reading, how could he do it? The answer is brutally simple: When buying tickets, you also provide personal information about yourself, which can easily be combined with information found on social media. When Mark does séances (for fun and education), he does exactly that: Get a few pieces of information from search engines and social media and present it as spirit communication.
In order to prove that Thomas John was hot reading, the group behind Operation Pizza Roll set up fake social media accounts, peppering those with fake information, but not informing Susan and Mark about the content. This way, Thomas John could not be claiming to be reading the minds of Susan and Mark at the séance. If Thomas John got anything that only existed on the fake accounts, it would be proof that he had gleaned the information from there.
As it turned out, not only was Thomas John hot reading, he was only hot reading. All the information he was passing on to Susan and Mark came from the fake social media accounts describing the imaginary lives of the two. Thomas John did not cold read at all, using the usual patter of spirit mumbo-jumbo. By not cold reading, Thomas John was avoiding the possibility of missed guesses altogether, thereby increasing his hit rate tremendously, suspiciously so. The mediumistic scene is ripe with poor cold readers, but their victims are so keen on the mediums being right that the former are willing to forgive often gross misses. At the séance, Mark noticed that Thomas John was spot on, also for other audience members. That points to a medium who has thrown caution to the wind, banking on a fast way to fame.
When skeptics bust a con artist, the story gets spread to other skeptics, but rarely does it reach a wider audience. Sadly, the media too often seem more interested in building up mediums than applying the critical thinking they are perfectly willing to apply to politicians, business leaders, and other people with power.
This time was different. Not only did Operation Pizza Roll get coverage from skeptic outlets such as CSI, Holy Koolaid, Squaring the Strange, and Skeptic Zone, the New York Times ran a feature story, both online and, notably, in print. “Inside the Secret Sting Operations to Expose Celebrity Psychics” described the setup, the execution, and the final coup-de-grace, the reading itself. A stroke of luck also came, when comedian John Oliver a few days earlier ran a segment on mediums.
Not surprisingly, Thomas John did not appreciate this type of attention. His response was a video, where he denied any wrong-doing, in particular using hot reading. How else he got the information, and why he didn’t realize at the time he was being set up, we shall never know.
You can’t have too much of a good thing, so I also got a brief interview with Susan Gerbic.
Claus: First, a big congratulations to you and Mark! The sting was well produced, and also well recieved by the media. I take it you are pleased?
Susan: Overjoyed. And itching to do it again. Now that I have proved myself I think I can find media that will want to get in on this. I have had great luck finding volunteers in the past, but I think they might have struggled with the tedious work that this kind of sting requires. They might have thought that nothing would come of their work. This publication is validation of what can be done.
I don’t think I’m going to have any shortage of money and volunteers in the future.
Claus: Both of you have mentioned on Holy Koolaid that Thomas John was pretty much spot-on, not just with you two, but also with the rest of the audience. Listening to the reading he gave you and Mark, and knowing what we know now, it seems that he is hot reading you, much less than he is cold reading. To what extent would you say he is hot reading compared to cold reading?
Susan: In our case, it was all hot-reading statements. But he has had a lot of practice making it fit naturally into the readings we were getting. If we were so focused on what was going on and if we were normal sitters in the audience, I don’t know if we would have put two and two together. If while waiting in the bathroom someone friendly had asked us who we hoped would be reaching out to us and I said my aunt Elizabeth. I might not have remembered telling that friendly stranger earlier. I might have thought, “I guess Auntie came through because I was just thinking of her”.
Claus: At the reading, you wore a thistle emblem, and Mark wore a military emblem, as bait, but Thomas John did not pick up on that. Why do you think he didn’t?
Susan: Because he didn’t need to. He was going to hot-read people. There were maybe 10 readings that night. The first three were hot-reads and likely the rest were also.
He also stayed on the stage the whole time, never moving except to take a drink from a water bottle (Mark thought he might have notes on the bottle to remind him) but he was pretty still, not even pacing. And from where we were sitting it seemed that his eyes were closed. He was obviously listening to someone, he would said it was “Spirit” I would say it was closer to the cloud.
Claus: Thomas John’s high hit rate is markedly different from lazy mediums like Teresa Caputo: When she is working a crowd, she misses a lot. We seem to be having a new type of mediums, who are not just media savvy, but also social media savvy. Will we see more of this from other mediums?
Susan: Well I think Teresa Caputo uses hot-reads also. Just to spike it up. The bigger the audience the easier it is to cold-read which is mostly what she does. They will point to whole sections of the audience and ask a general question and someone in that section is going to say she is talking to them. They badly want to get a reading that they might ignore parts of what was said so they can get to their dead loved one.
If a person is being read and the hits stop coming then the medium just moves to the person near them that is nodding their head in agreement. They make the rules on how this all “works” so they just say that someone on the other side, pushed the other dead person aside and they now want to talk.
The social media savvy ones are going to rise to the top. I’ve looked at lots of these websites and some old-school ones still use words like “tape a reading” instead of “record a reading” or they don’t want to use Skype only phone. The old-school ones are not getting a lot of work, their websites aren’t often updated and they are fading away.
To be in this game you have to spend a ton of your time marketing, I get an email almost every day from Thomas John and every week from Matt Frazier (Operation Peach Pit) with some “sale” or announcing their next 6 months of gigs. I think they personally do all this work themselves until they grow big enough to hire people.
Claus: I love the tweet he sent you after the session, because it tells us so much about him: That’s basically a big middle finger to you, he thinks he is outing you, not the other way around. Operation Pizza Roll must thus have been a huge shock to him. What do you think of his reaction?
Susan: Well I think he was just giving me a wink when he sent a tweet with only a heart on it. I’m sure he was shocked that I went to this much trouble to sting him. In his live video he released after the NYT article came out, he said he recognized Mark as the “guy who wrote that book”. And we were also not getting all the hits he was giving us, so he must have been confused. But he kept going. He does not have good mediumistic abilities or even listen to his gut. He should have moved on right away when we weren’t acting like his normal sittings.
BUT there was a problem with that. If he was hearing from someone who was feeding him information he had no way to say, “stop and give me the info for the next reading”. I suppose he could have said he needed to take a 5-minute break, but we were near the beginning of the show.
I was told in advance that he is a big bully, threatens people and lies all the time. So I knew he was going to try and come up with a threat (like that is going to work, please please sue me) or make excuses. According to his live video, he has finally come up with one. He said he received an email from a woman after the reading (she knows nothing about a sting) and she was sitting two rows behind Mark and I. She was wondering if possibly it was her reading, she has a brother who died of cancer (it was all over his body not just the stomach) and his real name was Andrew, but they only called him Michael. Also he had a tie to Michigan.
That is a really lame excuse, even if this woman really exists. Is she a twin to this brother? Why would he say his name is Andy when he was only known as Michael. and Michigan? So what most of the room has some connection to Michigan if they really think about it.
He is just reaching at straws, he knows his faithful fans will never look into it, and they will send him love and hearts and tell him what an amazing medium he is.
Claus: Before Operation Pizza Roll, Thomas John was well on his way to become a big name. In 2018, he was starring as the “Seatbelt Psychic”, but you also busted his performance in an article on CSICOP. After this media coverage, do you think we will see a second season of “Seatbelt Psychic”?
Susan: In his dreams he was on his way to being a real star. He was a nobody and probably would have stayed that way. He has a criminal record and I’m really surprised that Lifetime Network would even work with someone who had a record for scamming people. Seriously people? Don’t you Google people?
What happened is that he now has a Wikipedia page, it has everything on it, and most of it isn’t something that people would want to represent themselves. It’s only getting more content on it as he is reported about in the media.
If he gets another season I would be surprised, not greatly surprised because these Networks are greedy and don’t care that they are a lot of the problem.
I would be surprised that he would get another show when there are still so many other reality shows they could do: “Show me your belly-button and I’ll show you mine”, “Garbage Man – picking up trash on your street and all over town”, or “9-Ball Mania – with cue wars”. I mean it just gets stupid, everyone can be a star. And people will watch it. So who knows?
If Lifetime gives him a new season, I’m sure TJ will start talking about it all over his social media. Then I can rally the skeptic troops and make sure Lifetime is aware he was busted more than Gallagher busted watermelons.
Claus: Without revealing too much: Should mediums anticipate future revelations from you and your team?
Susan: Oh yes, I’ve been approached by media across the world and also the skeptic community is really keen. I don’t know if the stings will be just like this one, I really doubt it. I have way more people who can help now, and I think we are ready to go for a much bigger prize. I have lots of ideas and am feeling pretty confident that I can pull it off. I’m now looking for the media that will follow the project and report back on it. I think the media should help clean up the mess they gave us.
Operation Pizza Roll
The New York Times Magazine
Inside the Secret Sting Operations to Expose Celebrity Psychics
Full audio recording of Operation Pizza Roll
Squaring the Strange
Last Week with John Oliver
Burger King salaries
Image: S. Gerbic, Creative Commons