Arguing with a True Believer

It’s a waste of time.

I’m a skeptic. I’ve been a skeptic for at least the past 10 years, although I didn’t have a label for it way back when. After realizing that there was no proof in a lot of things I’d been told to simply believe, I started looking at things with a more skeptic eye. Although you can’t prove a negative — for example, something doesn’t exist — you can withhold believe until proof of the positive. That’s where I sit now.

Mary’s Mother

It’s also where I sat a few days ago when a house guest brought up the topic of a person’s spirit continuing to exist after death. When she — we’ll call her Mary (not her real name) — asked me whether I believed a person’s spirit existed after death, I said, without hesitation, no. She then launched into a long story about why she believed that spirits do go on after death.

It was kind of pitiful. Mary’s mother had died about two years before after about a year of declining health. Mary lived in California. Her mother lived in New York. Her mother was financially stable and had hired in-home nurses to care for her as she began the dying process. She’d been an alcoholic for most of her life and although she was always upbeat and fun, her last months were painful. Mary believed that the Hispanic nurses had held back on pain medication until her mother “accepted Jesus” — not very likely, as she was Jewish — and, as a result, her mother’s eventual death was more painful than it should have been.

Mary and her brother visited during the months their mother’s health was declining. In the end, they stayed until it was over.

Mary claims that a few days after her mother died, she had a dream that convinced her that her mother had died “a horrible death.” (I have trouble believing that, as she was fortunate enough to die at home with family nearby.) Mary claimed that her mother’s spirit was trapped in her house, unable to escape to whatever other place spirits are supposed to go.

Desperate to resolve the situation and save her mother’s tortured spirit, she sent a family member to the now unoccupied house to tell her mom to leave. (Mary was back in California by this time.) I don’t know if this family member actually did this.

Mary then contacted a psychic in California for assistance. I didn’t get all the details on the first contact. Apparently, Mary e-mailed the psychic a photo of her mother. I don’t know if she provided her mother’s name. In any case, they spoke by phone and the psychic managed to convince Mary that she could communicate with her dead mother. Tarot cards were involved; Mary didn’t understand why she needed them but was willing to put that aside. She told Mary that her mother was indeed trapped in her home and that the only way to free her spirit was for three people in three different places to light candles and play her mother’s favorite music and pray to her mother to “cross over.” I think they had to do this for three days in a row, but I may have that wrong.

So Mary asked her husband and cousin to do this. She did it, too. She says she’s not sure if her cousin did it.

Afterwards, she met with the physic in person. The psychic told her she did not remember their initial contact. She asked the psychic about her mother’s spirit. The psychic said that her mother’s spirit had been trapped but then something had “popped” (her word) and her mother had crossed over.

Mission accomplished.

I don’t know how much money exchanged hands, but I know Mary can afford whatever it was. And I do know that Mary is happy now, so I guess you can easily argue that no harm was done.

I’m not quite that generous, though.

Cold Reading

What followed was a discussion of cold reading, where a “psychic” makes a bunch of guesses and then reads his subject’s response to zero in on actual facts. It is documented that the human mind is more likely to remember correct guesses than incorrect ones. So if a “psychic” does a “psychic reading” and makes 5 correct yes/no guesses, 9 yes/no misses, and one direct hit, people come away thinking that the “psychic” has real psychic power.

Of course, John Edward came up in our conversation. Mary fully believed in his power. She had examples of “proof” of his power. She was not interested in the fact that every John Edward Crossing Over show is taped and then edited. They edit out the discussions he has that result in mostly misses and leave in the results that are mostly hits. The result might be something like this, which I don’t think is very convincing:

Did you watch this video? This is classic cold reading. Throwing out a common name, picking the person who responds, and asking questions to get information. Guessing all kinds of things that are relatively common — cancer, military service, etc. Pulling info out of people with questions. And they think he has real power. But listen carefully. How much is he actually getting right? How much is he telling them? Isn’t it more of a fishing expedition to suck information from people who already believe in his ability?

As Joe Nickell writes in his piece about John Edward:

The “psychic” can obtain clues by observing dress and body language (noting expressions that indicate when one is on or off track), asking questions (which if correct will appear as “hits” but otherwise will seem innocent queries), and inviting the subject to interpret the vague statements offered. For example, nearly anyone can respond to the mention of a common object (like a ring or watch) with a personal recollection that can seem to transform the mention into a hit.

I could not convince Mary. She was not willing to believe in my explanation of how he could have gotten a particular detail correct. The discussion got heated. She kept trying to convince me. I could not be convinced about a “trick” when I knew how it was done.

What I find particularly disturbing about all this is that Mary has a PhD in psychology and treats patients with particularly troubled backgrounds. She should be the voice of reason in these people’s lives. I hope that “woo” does not find its way into her diagnoses or treatments.

Another Friend

When I tried to relate this story to another friend of mine, he said two conflicting things in the same sentence: “You know I’m skeptical about all kinds of things, but I really believe the psychic I go to has real power.”

It was difficult for me not to explode with laughter.

He then went on to tell me about what was likely a personal, one-on-one cold reading. He’d make an easy subject. He’s a real talker and it wouldn’t take much to pull information out of him. He’s also willing to believe, which makes him more likely to remember hits more than misses or turn partial misses into hits by voluntarily providing information that makes a wrong guess right. This is why true believers will always continue to believe. They don’t understand that if a person had real psychic power, he/she should be able to make far more factual statements than errors. And the technique wouldn’t be a glorified guessing game, like the one John Edward plays on his television show.

My friend told me I should go see his psychic for proof. He’d set up an appointment. He’d tell her that I was a skeptical friend —

I stopped him right there. I told him I’d go, but only if he didn’t tell her a single thing about me — including my name. He didn’t seem to understand that she could simply Google me to learn all kinds of things about me that would be useful in her “reading.” It wouldn’t be a cold reading anymore; it would be a hot reading. She could simply recite things off my bio.

Will I go? Only if I’m sure she doesn’t know anything about me when I arrive. I may throw out my first name to see if she takes the hispanic bait (in Arizona, it’s far more likely for a woman named Maria to be Mexican than Italian). I’ll likely dress myself up a bit to alter my appearance and lead her to believe things about me that might not be true. I think these would be good tests of her ability to read minds rather than physical appearances. It would be an interesting experiment.

After all, I am a skeptic. Although I don’t believe that anyone has psychic power, I’m willing to let them try to prove that they do.

3 thoughts on “Arguing with a True Believer

  1. I accept you premise that preying on innocent people to their disadvantagei s not ethical. But here you have a placebo effect. While I have not researched the literature, I am comfortable with it’s real effect. So is the issue the method of satifying your friend’s need or just you being offended by the success of such a clumsy effort. Perhaps if the price were low and the reading more polished such that effort had some redeeming qualities you would have less of an issue? I wrestle with this issue. I sell crystals at fair market prices to people that believe in their ability to make their life better. And they work. (if you believe). So does organized religion. I am not equating the charlatans and an ordained minister. I am positing the idea that the power of belief is real and using a person’s power of belief to heal them as they desire is not unethical. BTW It was the fact that you fly helicopters that attracted me to read. I spent 20 years flying combat rescue helicopters most help drivers are worth listening to.

    • Hank: At least crystals are aesthetically pleasing.

      The way I see it, the “psychic” my PhD friend visited sucked her in twice: first for the initial advice and again to confirm that her mom had “crossed over.” While it’s nice that my friend feels some closure — I personally believe she suffers from guilt because she couldn’t spend more time with her mom near the end — I don’t think it’s right that people should make money claiming to communicate with the dead. I wonder, also, if my friend will visit this “psychic” again for some other reason. I hope not.

  2. It’s tricky isn’t it. It’s a lovely article you’ve written. I can’t help feeling that it’s a systemic change we need. Starting with childrens’ education. Less structure, more project based learning etc. Otherwise we’ll continue to have people clashing because one or both have filled a vacuum in their understanding of the universe with attractive, but nonsense material.

    I’m also skeptical, but I don’t call myself a skeptic. I avoid nouns in describing myself because it sets me up for failure in conversations and arguments. I prefer adjectives like skeptical, inquisitive, etc. Richard Bach says it very well in Jonathan Livingston Seagull:

    “A name is a label, and as soon as there is a label, the ideas disappear and out comes label-worship and label bashing, and instead of living by a theme of ideas, people begin dying for labels…”

    Cheers,
    Andrew.

What do you think?