ABC News Special:

The Power of Belief

Content and programming copyright 1998 ABC News.
Transcript by Federal Document Clearing House, Inc.
All rights reserved.

How Our Beliefs Can Impact Our Minds

October 6, 1998

Announcer: "The Power Of Belief" with John Stossel continues.

John Stossel: Lots of people say they can predict the future--astrologers, psychics, tarot card readers. Yet their predictions, when tested, fail again and again. So why do so many of you give them money?

Psychic Hotline Operator: Are you ready for a real psychic reading?

John Stossel: (VO) Lots of people call these psychic hotlines, just $4 a minute.

Psychic Hotline Operator: That is registered with the US government and guaranteed authentic.

Carl Shilling: Phone bill's $642.

John Stossel: (VO) Carl Shilling says his wife, Keresa, became obsessed with the hotlines.

Carl Shilling: Here's one. One, two, three, four, five, six seven times in the same day.

John Stossel: (VO) Keresa started calling after her sister in Virginia disappeared.

Keresa Shilling: The not knowing, it'll kill you. All I want from these--from anybody, the police, anybody is to find my sister.

Clairvoyant: Keresa, I am a clairvoyant, which means I see information.

John Stossel: (VO) She taped some of the sessions.

Psychic: I don't feel her alive.

Keresa Shilling: You don't?

Psychic: No.

Carl Shilling: At least $10, 000 has--has been given to these people.

John Stossel: (VO) But maybe the psychics were on to something because many said the same things.

Keresa Shilling: We've heard over and over, wooded area, near water.

Keresa Shilling: A wooded area, near water is what almost all psychics tell the police because when bodies are missing, that means they've been disposed of somewhere. And wooded areas are pretty typical. And near water? Find me a place that isn't near water, river, a lake, the ocean, what? A faucet? You know, what counts as water?

John Stossel: (VO) Keresa's desperation led her to psychic sleuth John Monti (ph). Monti claims he saved 9-year-old Katie Beers' life because through him, Long Island police discovered the kidnapped girl in time.

James Randi: What happens is the psychic walks into the police department and says, "That murder of the little child down the block, here, I know something about that."

Police Officer: Well, what's your name?

John Monti: John Monti.

Police Officer: Monti, okay. Hang on.

John Stossel: (VO) We have these pictures because Monti got a local TV news crew to follow him around.

John Monti: She's tied up. The police should have found either a shoe or a sneaker. I can't tell which.

John Stossel: (VO) That was one of many tips he give police.

John Monti: She was being pursued through here.

John Stossel: (VO) But the police say she wasn't pursued through here and that Monti was of no use at all. But the Shillings didn't know that, so they paid him $2,000 to travel to Virginia to locate Keresa's sister. Monti took their money and led them here and here and here. But they found nothing.

Gary Matheson, Police Chief: He's no psychic. No more than I am.

John Stossel: (VO) In Texas, police chief Gary Matheson followed up on Monti's leads after 20-year-old Kelli Cox disappeared. First, Monti took the police to the city dump.

Gary Matheson: This consists of about 250 acres here.

John Stossel: (VO) Then to the city power plant.

Gary Matheson: John seemed to think there was some significance to overhead, high-power transmission lines.

John Stossel: (VO) To this apartment building.

Gary Matheson: We don't know anything more now than we did at the beginning. Has he been productive? Absolutely not.

John Stossel: (VO) Police waste hours following leads from psychics who say they sense things.

James Randi: I'm getting red and there's--there's an M or a double letter connected with this. And there's a car, a light-colored car. I think a small car. And I smell--I smell rain or water flowing. And it goes on and on and on like that.

Keresa Shilling: I have a lot of information. And to look back on it, where did it get me? I don't have my sister.

Carl Shilling: False hope will kill people. False hope and false information. Not only did she lose something very important, I have. I've lost my wife.

John Stossel: (VO) The Shillings are now living apart. Monti wouldn't talk to us about any of this. Of course, now and then, a few of the psychics' vague predictions come true and the publicity over that keeps the suckers coming. Other so-called "seers" work the same way.

Michael Shermer: They make lots and lots of statements, predictions, comments and so on, and you remember the hits and forget the misses. So they stand out as unusual when actually it's not.

John Stossel: (VO) I asked astrologer Susan Miller to do my horoscope. Miller writes astrology columns for magazines and has a Web site that's viewed 800,000 times a month. What she gave me was a chart 22-pages long.

Susan Miller, Astrologer: You have Jupiter in your Seventh House. So you do very well with partners, people who collaborate with you to help you.

John Stossel: (VO) This is what's called a cold reading, when you say so much, there's bound to be something in here that will come true. And, of course, there's plenty of flattery.

Susan Miller: You have Venus in the Tenth House, making you a very popular leader or personality. Do you want me to go on? (Laughter)

John Stossel: (on camera) Go ahead. (VO) In addition ...

Michael Shermer: They use warm reading techniques where they say things that are true for everyone.

Susan Miller: Those three planets in Pisces makes you very intuitive.

John Stossel: (VO) Who doesn't want to think that they're intuitive? There are certain things you can say about people that most of us think are true just about us. Like, "you have an above average sense of humor." Or "you're not living up to your full potential."

(on camera) This is silly. What you're saying about me, you could say about anybody. I'm an independent thinker, intuitive, thorough.

Susan Miller: But to the Nth degree.

John Stossel: Lots of people believe this about themselves.

Susan Miller: Yes, but I would give perhaps other people different adjectives to describe them.

John Stossel: (VO) To show how people fall for this, some years ago for Good Morning America, I had an astrologer do a chart on a mass murderer, Ed Kemper. (on camera) Let me pass these out. (VO) Then I gave it to these students telling them it was their horoscope. (on camera) Charlotte Hunter. (VO) Would the mass murderer's horoscope capture their personality? You bet.

First Woman: I love me. (Laughter)

John Stossel: (on camera) Why are you laughing? Is it accurate?

First Woman: Yes.

Second Woman: I don't know if I was a believer or a nonbeliever. I was kind of like in the middle. But this is very--most of it is me.

John Stossel: How many feel that this came pretty close to capturing you? Okay. I hate to tell you this, but you all got the same horoscope. (VO) And I told them whose horoscope it really was. (on camera) He's a mass murderer. (Laughter)

Third Woman: I'm glad I didn't tell anybody about this.

John Stossel: Your mate has a right to disagree with you. Be prepared to make some--I mean, you could say this about anybody.

Susan Miller: Yes, well. It's a gentle way of saying, you're going to have some disagreements with your mate this month and be prepared.

John Stossel: Well, who isn't?

Susan Miller: You don't just say anything that pops into your head. You have to do the math. You have to do the math.

John Stossel: If you can predict this, why aren't you rich? Why aren't all astrologers rich?

Susan Miller: Because I'm a Pisces, and I don't care about money. I give it all away.

John Stossel: (VO) And, of course, sometimes seers pick up cues from you. A witch at an occult store gave me a tarot card reading.

Witch: I see a lot of stress. Your back hurts you.

John Stossel: (VO) Just watching my body language might have told her that.

Witch: I see problems with your back.

John Stossel: (VO) Such predictions can be harmful because just as there's a placebo affect, there's also something called a nocebo. The voodoo priest says you'll get sick, and you do. That's the nocebo affect. Tell me I'll get back pain ...

James Randi: You'll notice every pain that you do have. Every morning you get up and you roll out of bed, if you get a twinge of any kind you'll say, "Hey, there it is." You start to feel bad immediately.

John Stossel: (VO) Some say that's what Gulf War Syndrome's about. Thousands of veterans now claim that serving in the Gulf made them sick.

First Gulf War Veteran: Chronic headache, fatigue, joint pain.

Second Gulf War Veteran: Chronic fatigue, a suppressed immune system.

John Stossel: (VO) The veterans have real symptoms, but major studies have found no germ or pattern of chemicals that could explain how the war caused those symptoms. If they were caused by chemicals, you'd expect the soldiers closest to the action to be sickest. But that's not the case.

Peter Jennings, ABC News: Tens of thousands of Americans may have been exposed to Iraqi chemical weapons.

John Stossel: (VO) All that publicity about poison gas, environmental toxins, about other soldiers getting sick--that plus the stress of military service can make people sick. (on camera) From believing it, some people really get sick?

James Randi: Whether something's really there or not may be irrelevant. It may just be the belief system at work.

John Stossel: We'll be right back.

Announcer: Watch these pilots, they may be a key to one of the world's greatest unsolved mysteries. What happens to us when we die? "The Power Of Belief" with John Stossel continues after this.

(Commercial Break)

John Stossel: When our life ends, is that it? After death, nothing? It's a frightening thought, and perhaps that's why most people say they believe that when they die, their soul or spirit will live on in some form. It explains why this book is a best seller. (VO) Seattle pediatrician Melvin Morse wrote Closer To The Light. Morse works with very sick children, and he says his 10-year study of kids' near-death experiences provides proof that something survives bodily death.

Dr Melvin Morse, Pediatrician: When you look at these children, when we resuscitate them, we do horrible things to them. Sticking them full of needles. Putting needles into their bones putting things in their tubes. And yet, when you talk to children who have been through such a thing, they say, "I was floating on the ceiling. God was keeping me safe when all that was happening."

John Stossel: (VO) His conclusion?

Dr Melvin Morse: I think it is quite possible that when we die, we see God.

John Stossel: (VO) The children give details similar to those cited by adults who've had near-death experiences. They talk about being in a tunnel, of hearing voices, of seeing a very bright light that made them feel safe.

Dr Melvin Morse: We don't want to fall. Watch out for that bump there.

John Stossel: (VO) Morse introduced us to 3-year-old Logan Grant.

Logan Grant: Here it is!

John Stossel: (VO) Who, after nearly drowning in this pool, says he saw a friendly light.

Logan Grant: It looked like a happy face.

Dr Melvin Morse: Where did you see the happy face?

Logan Grant: Up in the sky.

John Stossel: (VO) Dr Morse believes these children saw God.

Dr Melvin Morse: Near-death research is telling us that the dying process is serene, involves seeing God.

Logan Grant: I was ...

John Stossel: (VO) Of course, that's not exactly what the children say.

Dr Melvin Morse: Most of the kids don't say "I saw God." However, when you see the look in their eyes, when you see the awe that they describe the experience. I mean, clearly this is a extraordinary and it's spiritual.

John Stossel: (VO) What else would explain why so many report similar experiences? Well, what might explain it is hallucinations. Many fighter pilots see some of the same things seen by Dr Morse's children. When they put their aircraft through tight, high-speed maneuvers, their blood sometimes can't get to their brain, and they pass out.

First Trainer: Fifty-seven seconds.

Second Trainer: Thank you.

John Stossel: Dr James Whinnery, an aero-medical scientist for the Naval Warfare Center, studies pilots in this centrifuge.

First Trainer: Final countdown. Three, two, one.

Dr James Whinnery, Aero-Medical Scientist: What happens is you take somebody up to G about six seconds, they lose consciousness. And one of the things we see when blood flow begins to return to the brain, is we see these convulsive-type movements. Then we feel like the dream period occurs.

First Pilot: Well, I just kind of went off in dreamland.

John Stossel: (VO) And when they regain consciousness, many pilots report a happy feeling.

Second Pilot: I don't know where I am.

John Stossel: (VO) The feeling's similar to what's reported by Dr Morse's children.

Dr James Whinnery: We see a lot of euphoria. (Laughter)

First Pilot: I'm sorry.

Dr James Whinnery: A feeling of being very, very safe and warm. Not wanting to be awakened from the loss of consciousness. We have a large number of pilots who say, "Why did you wake me up? I was having such a nice dream, and everything was so very pleasant." (Laughter)

First Pilot: Now I know why you want to go back through this.

John Stossel: (VO) Many pilots also see that white light. But Dr Whinnery has a nonspiritual explanation for that.

Dr James Whinnery: It's probably the brain trying to make sense of the very last thing that it sees and the first thing it sees when you come back to consciousness.

John Stossel: (VO) Whinnery and Morse look at similar near-death experiences and conclude different things.

Dr Melvin Morse: It's clear that when we die, we're conscious, aware and awake and experiencing one of the most amazing spiritual experiences of our lives-actually feeling that we're in the presence of what people loosely call God.

John Stossel: (on camera) I'd like to believe that. What a comfort that would be. But I'm a skeptical reporter. We're not supposed to look for comfort. We're supposed to look for proof. Some thoughts on skepticism and happiness when we return.

(Commercial Break)

John Stossel: One thing that surprised us interviewing believers for this program is that some of the believers seem to be living in a different world. Often they were unphased by what science has to say about their claims. I was impossibly rude to the astrologer. But I'm suggesting your work is silliness. (VO) She just smiles and says things like ...

Susan Miller: I know. I'm really sorry you feel that way. But I--my heart understands your feelings.

John Stossel: (VO) The witches and the practitioners of therapeutic touch were similarly sweet. In Florida, I spoke to spiritual mediums. One of whom said right then I was being comforted by an elderly lady.

Steve Adkins, Spiritualist: This was a family member of yours that you would have known. I feel a grandmother with this ...

John Stossel: (VO) Now this is nonsense because I never knew either of my grandmothers. But I must say, imagining that she was there next to me felt good. (on camera) I'd like think that a grandmother is with me, touching my arm. It makes me feel warm and happy, cozy. But if I read Skeptic, it's--it's tiny print that I have to struggle through, it's not--it doesn't make me feel good. I like her world more than yours.

Michael Shermer: You would rather live with a lie and a fantasy just to make yourself feel good?

John Stossel: What's the harm in that?

Michael Shermer: There's harm in not being in touch with what we really know to be true.

John Stossel: A concept the 11-year-old who debunked therapeutic touch has gotten quite clearly. (on camera) Do you want to be thought of as a skeptic?

Emily Rosa: Yeah. It will help you in the real world.

John Stossel: Yes, it will. And the real world's all we've got. Believers in the supernatural claim to have special wisdom about the world. But real wisdom means knowing truth from falsehood, knowing the difference between evidence and wishful thinking. Yes, the real world is mysterious and sometimes frightening. But would the supernatural make it better? The real world has beauty, poetry, love and the joy of honest discovery. Isn't that enough? That's our program for tonight. Stay tuned for Nightline after your local news. I'm John Stossel. Good night.

Graphic Rule

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