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That time 'Batman: The Animated Series' busted a psychic fraud


That time ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ busted a psychic fraud

Expert detective work in a fantastic world.

The DC superhero Batman debuted in Detective Comics# 27, way back in 1939, and is often referred to by enemies and allies alike as “the world’s greatest detective.” One of the best aspects of the Caped Crusader in the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, which ran from 1992 until 1995, was the exercising of his mind to solve mysteries. From deep within the Batcave, and with the aid of his Batcomputer, Batman could access Gotham PD’s mainframe, identify exceedingly rare chemical compounds, and pull up archived newspaper articles or obscure bits of knowledge to help solve a case.

Despite living in a universe with magic, Batman always approached a problem from a skeptical point of view — open to the possibility of the supernatural or paranormal, but grounding his thinking in the scientific method. Batman’s skepticism is perhaps no better displayed than in Season 1 Episode 19 of the animated series, named “Prophecy of Doom.”

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That time 'Batman: The Animated Series' busted a psychic fraud

Instead of a costumed sociopath, mobster, or intergalactic supervillain, the kind of evil Batman fights in this episode is one motivated by pure greed. “Prophecy of Doom” begins with a ritzy casino boat exploding at sea. Back in Gotham, Ethan Clark, one of Bruce Wayne’s wealthy friends, is convinced that a self-proclaimed psychic calling himself “Nostromos” is the real deal, because he warned Clark not to go on the cruise. Bruce and Clark’s daughter Lisa remain skeptical, with Lisa remarking that she believes Nostromos somehow makes his prophecies come true.

Curious, Bruce agrees to go with Clark and attend a secret meeting of “the Brotherhood,” a handful of Gotham’s richest individuals who’ve come to believe in the power of Nostromos. At the meeting, Nostromos predicts the death of Bruce Wayne, as the wine glass Bruce is holding shatters dramatically. Most of the crowd is impressed, but not Bruce.

Back in the Batcave, Alfred asks how the glass could’ve shattered, to which Batman sarcastically replies, “Psychic vibrations, Alfred. Although I’d bet on a high frequency sonic device.” Nostromo isn’t the only one skilled at sleight of hand, however, as Bruce managed to lift his fingerprints and identifies the “psychic” as Carl Fowler, a former actor convicted of petty larceny. His partner and muscle, Lucas, has a background in special effects, and was suspected of fraud. Although he can’t prove it yet, Batman suspects both men are conning Clark and the others.

After Lucas sabotages the elevator at Wayne Enterprises in an attempt to kill Bruce, the plan being that Wayne’s death would’ve absolutely convinced the Brotherhood of Nostromos’ power, we learn that Lucas has been the one engineering disasters to fulfill the prophecies. Taking advantage of his brush with death, Bruce pretends to convert to the Brotherhood.

Believing he now has the Wayne family fortune at his fingertips, Nostromos reveals his ultimate plan — convincing the Brotherhood of an impending economic collapse referred to as “the great fall,” so they’ll funnel all their money into a trust fund controlled by Clark. By kidnapping and threatening Lisa, Nostromos bullies Ethan into signing over control of the fund to him. Of course, Batman swoops in at the last minute to save the day, and both Nostromos and Lucas go to jail.

What’s great about this episode is the way it unambiguously treats Nostromos as a fraud. Even though psychic powers are something that genuinely exist in the DC universe, for the sake of this episode, they’re treated as pure chicanery. Nostromos is a con artist, plain and simple.

“Prophecy of Doom” also does an exceptional job of portraying Nostromos accurately as a channeler. Channeling is the practice of “a person’s body being taken over by a spirit for the purpose of communication.” In the episode, Nostromos instructs the Brotherhood, “We are but radios for the cosmic transmitter, tune your receivers, hear the inner voice,” speaking in such a way that’s common for self-proclaimed channelers and mediums.

While no channeler or medium has tried to pull off a scheme of such a grand scale, plenty of them have made veritable fortunes on the credulity of others. Consider someone like J.Z. Knight, who became a multi-millionaire writing books and giving seminars in which she “channels” the spirit of “Ramtha,” a 35,000-year-old Lemurian warrior who fought against the Atlanteans. Or look at alleged mediums like John Edward, Sylvia Browne, Theresa Caputo, and Thomas John. These individuals practice the carny arts of cold reading, whereby a mentalist makes vague statements or guesses in an attempt to “fish” for information the subject unknowingly discloses.

For example, “I see someone with a ‘J’ name … I’m getting a ‘J’ … Jim? Jeff?” at which point someone in the audience will say they had an uncle or a brother or a cousin with a J-name. Of course someone could always employ hot reading, whereby they have an assistant who’s already “cased the mark” and obtained valuable information. The psychic can then make it appear as though they know things which they otherwise wouldn’t. In Nostromos’ case, he didn’t have the talent for either — he’s just a charlatan with hired muscle.

Batman's "psychic," Nostromos

The best part of “Prophecy of Doom” is the ending. Clark is thoroughly embarrassed that he was fooled by Nostromos, and feels tremendous guilt over endangering his daughter’s life.  Bruce then makes a remark about his own feigned gullibility (since neither Ethan nor Lisa know that Bruce Wayne is, in fact, Batman), which serves as a poignant lesson. Quoting William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “As the Bard said, ‘The fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.’” We must be responsible for our own well-being and our own destiny, and not trust in higher powers or those who claim some deeper wisdom.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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