Thursday, April 24, 2014

Psychics, Mystics and the Culture of Exploiting the Gullible

Psychics can do more harm than good.
by Grant Andrews

In 2013, Sylvia Browne, the famous psychic and spiritual medium, died 11 years earlier than she had predicted. In her career where the overwhelming majority of her predictions or psychic messages were either unprovable or proven wrong, she still managed to amass millions of dollars and a large international following. Many people fell victim to her often reckless and cruel predictions, such as Louwana Miller, the mother of kidnapped Amanda Berry, who was told by Browne on the Montell Williams Show that her daughter was dead. Miller died two years later, before she could see the release of her daughter from captivity, and likely spent the final years of her life in mourning instead of searching for her daughter who was desperate for freedom.

This is only one of the many irresponsible “psychic” messages which Browne offered in her career, often to people paying up to $700 per reading. Many people do not merely visit a psychic as a fun diversion, but instead approach it as a religious activity, and often place unwavering faith in the readings and predictions.

How do psychics convince people to hand over their money for the illusion of access to some otherworldly knowledge? Why would people believe something which seems so ridiculous? Psychics usually employ a strategy known as cold reading in order to prey upon their targets. This means that they make a series of educated guesses and recognise what people respond to in order to convince someone that they have knowledge of their lives. For example, a psychic might guess that someone in their 30s has lost a grandparent, as many have, and then make vague assertions such as “I’m sensing the letter ‘M’ around this person. Does that mean anything to you?” Many times, the victims will form the connections themselves: “My grandmother was born in May! That must be the letter ‘M’! How did you know that?” This tactic has been employed for decades by self-professed psychics in order to exploit their victims. It can be seen clearly in the video below:
Clearly, these mystics do not merely offer harmless fun. Many people become obsessed with the messages from the dead which they believe psychics can give them, or the “easy” cures for everything from an unfaithful partner to a life-threatening disease which this form of magical thinking claims to offer. In recent years, Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret”, which promoted the power of positive thinking, was being sold as a way to earn money easily, cure disabilities and diseases, and make every desire which you have into a reality. For the vast majority of those who practiced this strategy, the results did not come. We did not suddenly have a worldwide spike in lottery winners, and thousands of men did not end up marrying Salma Hayek simply because they fantasised about it. What’s worse, many people did not seek treatment for diseases and decided to think themselves into health instead.
Luckily, many of these psychics, mystics and gurus have changed tactics, such as Uri Gellar, who no longer claims to have otherworldly powers but rather refers to himself as an entertainer. This alleviates some of their culpability, since when they are merely claiming to put on a show and are not preying on the grief or naiveté of victims, this might make it a less dangerous situation. But people like Sylvia Browne died without ever admitting to their pretence even when they hurt many people, and frauds like John Edward are still making millions off of taking money from vulnerable, grieving people.
James Randi, once a magician himself, works to expose many of these frauds and to educate people about the methods which are being used to exploit them. He has founded the James Randi Educational Foundation, where he shares information on scientific scepticism. The foundation also offers a $1,000,000 prize for anyone who genuinely proves that they have magical, mystical paranormal or psychic abilities, as part of the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. So far, after 50 years of the challenge and 18 years of the $1,000,000 being offered, no one has scientifically proven these abilities.
Are some people able to perform paranormal acts? Perhaps. The scientific scepticism movement does not have a definite answer, but it does not merely accept claims of abilities which are not demonstrated scientifically and which are at least accurately demonstrated most of the time. The history of popular mystics has shown many charlatans and only anecdotal or untestable evidence, but nothing worth handing over your hard-earned money for, or investing your belief and emotions in.