Posts Tagged ‘supernatural’

Sylvia Browne has died.

Spend more than a few minutes looking into the kind of thing she devoted her life to, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was pretty much one of the worst people it’s possible to be, driven by only the ugliest of human faculties and emotions.

We don’t need to forget or ignore this fact now that she’s gone, but neither is there any need to take joy in the news. Wishing suffering or vengeance on any part of the world only makes it darker and less lovely to be in. And death is still a far greater enemy than Sylvia Browne ever was, no matter how much she twisted it to her advantage over the course of a long and horrid career.

Some people will be personally saddened by Sylvia’s passing; they have my sympathies, even if I can’t honestly join them in their mourning.

For many, the news is a prompt to remind the world at large about this woman’s utter lack of psychic abilities, and the importance of learning how to avoid being taken in by obvious scams, swindles, and other misrepresentations of reality. I’m all for this, but I hope one thing that doesn’t get lost is the point that not everyone with the “wrong” belief in psychic powers is like this.

Some folk believe (incorrectly, sure) that they have some kind of power or gift, and are moved to try to help people, feeling a deep and sincere concern for the well-being of their fellow humans, rather than simply emulating the flimsiest charade of humanity. There is absolutely a non-null intersection between compassion and supernaturalism.

Sylvia Browne was not one of the good ones, by any measure. We can do better than to let any further cruelty and unfair judgment become part of her legacy.

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Revisiting some of Jim Butcher’s rather fun Dresden Files books has made me realise something that’s always bothered me about urban fantasy fiction:

In most fictional worlds where vampires, werewolves, and the like really do exist, most people’s attitudes towards them are exactly the same as in the world where they don’t exist.

That is, this world.

I should perhaps define some terms before getting into this. By “urban fantasy”, I mean stories which are essentially set in the real world, but with a certain fantasy twist. So, we’re not talking Middle Earth here: The Dresden Files are set in Chicago, Sunnydale is fictional but could be any regular town in California, that sort of thing.

There are important and obvious differences between these two tropes. In a completely fictional realm, living with orcs and elves and dwarves is the norm for your characters; with urban fantasy, the protagonist might be one of very few who can give you a glimpse of the magical aspects of your own world.

This isn’t always how it works – there are plenty of stories which take place in a slight variant on our planet, where most geography and history and culture are the same, but some aspect of fantasy has become mainstream, and witches in London are now as populous as hobbits in the Shire. But, in my experience with the genre at least, this is less common.

Most regular people Harry Dresden meets in Chicago thinks he’s crazy for advertising his professional services as a wizard. Awareness of Buffy’s vampire-slaying seems limited to a very exclusive clique, outside of which nobody seems to notice or believe in any of it.

Here’s the thing, though: In the real world, the majority react this way for a very good reason. In this world, if you meet someone who claims to be an actual wizard or to slay vampires, you’d have to be reasoning extremely poorly if you took them wholly at their word.

But in the world of urban fantasy fiction, there really are vampires and wizards and magic.

So why are there still skeptics?

Or perhaps I mean: why is the skeptical position so often depicted almost identically, when you’ve completely changed a crucial aspect of the context – namely, the actual evidence of the phenomenon in question?

The role vampires play in the lore of our world is pretty much exactly what you’d expect to see if vampires weren’t real. If they were really out there, they’d have had a much more significant impact. There ought to be numerous verifiable reports. They shouldn’t be such an elusive unknown quantity if they were real. It’d be like trying to pass off wasps as just an urban legend.

Harry Dresden conjures fire from the air at a single word of command. He summons the wind to do his bidding. He deflects machine-gun bullets with a magical shield. He’s a genuine, powerful wizard. Why is he still having trouble convincing anyone?

I don’t remember if Buffy ever really dealt with the skepticism thing. She knows damn well there are vampires. Most other people don’t, but they tend to come around to the idea pretty quickly when presented with evidence, often in the form of a set of fangs plunging toward their neck.

This is something I’m really struggling with in the urban fantasy novel I’m trying to write my second draft of at the moment. At first I just ignored it, and assumed as cavalierly as many authors do that all the magic and undead creatures wandering around have just been flying under the entire world’s radar for a few centuries. But the basic implausibility of that idea is probably going to be too much for me to comfortably ignore. I’m going to have to find some way to integrate the supernatural into the world at large, or explain its general absence. It’d probably still work as a story if I didn’t, and it wouldn’t bother too many people, but it’ll bug the crap out of me.

I don’t really have an end to this post, so I’m just going to stop abruptly in the mi

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Right. I’m back to a more regular schedule of actually blogging in my blog now. I’ve been struggling rather pathetically through quite a mild illness recently, and have intermittently been distracted by my very lovely girlfriend, who is still more interesting than you lot. But there’s a place for you all in my busy life, with some better time management on my part, so don’t get jealous.

Anyway. Here’s the first of a few things I would have been writing about here recently, had I not been coughing violently and/or in an actual time-consuming grown-up relationship: Bruce Hood will be presenting the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Good news, everybody!

These lectures happen every year, spread over several days around Christmas time, and have an illustrious history stretching back as far as my early childhood. In fact, I’m told they may even have started before that time, with some bloke called Michael Faraday. They’re generally made and presented with children in mind, and the bulk of the audience tends to be kids eager to volunteer for the hands-on experiments, but they’re wonderfully informative and engaging for anyone with an interest in whatever field of study they focus on, or simply in learning about the world.

And Bruce Hood is a great choice to present this year’s lectures. His book Supersense has become a fixture of the skeptical canon, examining the way supernatural thinking is built in to the human brain’s normal functioning, and the extent to which it can be examined by the brain’s own rational analysis. The lecture series which he now has to get to work preparing is called Meet Your Brain. Should be good.

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…and their ideas that some people seem to think they have.

PZ Myers commented recently on an article about religion. Specifically, it was about ways atheists are wrong about religion. He was not impressed.

Here’s my own examination:

5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism

Like PZ points out, the author of this “myth-busting” article has missed the point of atheists like Sam Harris here. It’s not that liberal religious people are directly supporting the extremists. Rather, the way faith and religious belief are held up as virtues to be respected, with moderate and benevolent examples being cited to support this, bolsters the cultural notion that religion in general should be respected and lauded, which makes it harder to see the obviously abhorrent aspects of fundamentalist religion.

4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God

I understand why anti-religious atheists are so reluctant to accept the fact that being religious doesn’t mean belief in the supernatural. The simplistic and convenient myth they’ve constructed would be shattered.

That we’ve constructed?

Dude, you’re welcome to believe in a “healing and renewing power of existence” and call it God if you want, but have you talked to any Christians lately? They’re not going to church to worship a “creative principle in life”. They’ve read their Bible, and they know who God is, and for upwards of 40% of them he’s the conscious and deliberate agent who created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years or so.

If you’re going to dismiss the whole idea of a personal god as a straw man, you’re either being pitifully disingenuous or you’re profoundly ignorant of what religion actually means to most people. Sure, plenty of people do deviate from that notion into a more vague “spiritual essence” kind of belief, but that’s only one faction. And it’s not like that faction goes uncritiqued by prominent atheists either, or by the godless community as a whole.

3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior

This is a weird one, because he cites Christopher Hitchens saying something very sensible which largely refutes it. As Hitch points out, religion often exacerbates, justifies, coordinates, and excuses many negative things done in its name, even if it can’t be directly blamed for the natural tendencies of our species.

But this doesn’t seem to give a lot of ground to the supposed myth-buster. It still admits that religion is a source of calamitous evil – but it’s also true that religion doesn’t prevent people from doing good things, or always inevitably lead to immorality. I don’t know any atheists who would disagree with this, but it’s still not exactly a recommendation. Religion is unnecessary for people to do good. On the other hand, I’ll let you come up with your own examples of atrocities which would never have been perpetrated were it not for a religious motivation.

2. Atheists are Anti-Religious

This is another one where the author effectively points to a few dried stalks sticking out of somebody’s collar and starts shouting “straw-man!”

A lot of atheists are anti-religious. I know I am. But it’s true that not every atheist is anti-religion, and even if you have no truck with faith systems, being an atheist doesn’t mean that you hold all people with religious beliefs in contempt.

Having said that, this is just stupid:

Atheism is not in any way shape or form related to an opinion about religion.

Really? Not in any way, shape, or form? You can’t see any correlation between atheism – a lack of belief in any god – and opinions on religion – a belief system typically centred around some sort of god? No? Not even a flexible, generally-indicative-if-not-100%-consistent link?

1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”

The author doesn’t link to the Greta Christina article he partially quotes here, but frankly I’m satisfied with her conclusions.

It’s certainly worth recognising the differences between religions, and the ways in which some are more destructive than others. It’s also important to note the psychological difference it makes to have your unsupported beliefs shared by a few billion people, and how this bears on the “crazy” label as applied to any particular person and their ideas.

Believing that you’re Napoleon will likely get you treated for mental health problems. Believing that you regularly commune with a 2000-year-old man-God who holds your eternal salvation in his capricious grasp is practically a requirement to be elected to the highest office of the world’s largest superpower. It’s legitimate to see one crazy idea as more strongly indicative of serious psychological issues than another.

But aside from their popularity, down at the actual level of rationality, all religious beliefs must be just as unfounded in reality as any other. If “faith” is such a virtue, they’re supposed to be believed without recourse to evidence or reason or the things we usual base our sane and sensible beliefs on.

It’s not that people are crazy. But religions themselves? Pretty much.

I suppose it’s possible that the author is right to complain that religions “which aren’t reliant upon any supernatural beliefs, miracles or magical claims” are being unfairly swept up with the others.

The problem there is that I have literally no idea what a religion like that would look like.

Answers on a postcard.

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One thing that makes the Righteous Indignation podcast stand out – at least among the other stuff I listen to – is the regularity of the interviews they get with non-skeptical types. They’re always friendly discussions, where the hosts mostly just ask questions to establish what their guests believe, and why, and how they respond to some of the common skeptical criticisms.

They don’t hide the fact that they’re skeptics and don’t really believe in any of it themselves, and they don’t hold back from dissecting a ludicrous idea as fully as it deserves. But they manage to keep the chat friendly when somebody’s taken the time to answer their questions.

A great example of this is the recent interview with Vicki Monroe, a psychic medium and “cold case investigator” who’s worked with the police on a number of occasions in this capacity.

Her website is full of the kind of sparkly sappy nonsense you’d expect, and there’s an unpleasant surprise waiting for anyone familiar with James van Praagh if you scroll down a way. But on the show, she was really hard to dislike, and I quickly gave up trying.

For about the first half-hour of the interview, I could only support and approve of just about everything she says. She was warm, she was friendly, she was open, and given that she believes she has this particular power (obviously I don’t believe she does, but simply being mistaken is no crime), she was virtually beyond reproach in the way she operates. She talked, for instance, about how important it is for her not to inject herself into an ongoing police investigation of, say, a missing person, except at the express request of the family or somebody else directly involved.

She specifically referred to the case of Madeleine McCann, the British child who disappeared a couple of years ago in Portugal and got a particular storm of media attention. Vicki’s stayed out of that whole case, because she hasn’t been invited in, and knows the potential that someone in her position has to make things worse for the family, if she were to butt in with her ideas uninvited. Numerous examples of other “psychics” with no such scruples are not heard to find.

She talked about other “psychics” who she felt didn’t respect these kinds of important ethical standards, and recognised the capacity for cons to be pulled on innocent people eager to believe. She even named names, and was barely less scathing about Sylvia Browne than you’d expect from any discussion on a skeptics’ message-board.

And she singled out the skeptical community for praise in their attitude toward psychics, and the importance of skepticism in a subject where fakery and being conned is such a danger.

You have to be skeptical. You have to be!

That’s a direct quote from Vicki Monroe, psychic medium. Not a sentiment you can expect to hear from Joe Power any time soon.

So, I like her. She seems like good people. Of course, on some level it all falls down when you get to that whole pesky psychic powers thing. But that doesn’t stop me from basically liking her.

It’s just fascinatingly bizarre, seeing how it goes wrong.

Because she gave a psychic reading, as part of the interview, to Hayley and Marsh.

And it was terrible.

I have no doubts about her sincerity. I fully believe that she means well, cares about people, and wants to help. I think if you’re a good person, and believe as Vicki does in your own psychic powers, then her behaviour is close to being a solid guideline for how to behave. But the actual efficacy of her abilities, and what constitutes evidence which should be taken seriously, seems to be a massive blind spot for her.

Let’s look at the things she said, when she tried to provide a reading for both the hosts of the interview, Hayley and Marsh, [whose questions and comments will go in square brackets].

I don’t know who has this terrier, it’s a little terrier-type dog… it’s a terrier of some sort, and it’s crossed over…

I’m looking at a dog right now. And I don’t know who it belongs to. Either you, or it belonged to someone in the family… there’s a woman who’s holding it.

This didn’t go anywhere. Nobody seemed to have had a terrier who died. That’ll be a miss.

Michael, did you lose your grandmother on your mother’s side?

Not exactly a stretch to imagine Marsh’s grandmother might be dead, but this was another miss. She mused that the woman she was seeing could be a great-grandmother, and she agreed that guessing that his great-grandparents might have died was hardly a powerful psychic feat.

I’m trying to figure out who Ann is. Or Anna.

[Is it someone who’s alive, or someone who’s dead?]


Hayley and Marsh both know someone called Ann or Anna. A modest hit, but Vicki’s admirably quick to avoid taking credit hastily.

She asks at this point, “I mean, who doesn’t know a Catherine or an Elizabeth?”, which I think was to highlight her acknowledgment that simply guessing they might know someone with a fairly common name isn’t a huge deal. (I mention this because, when Marsh was recapping things later in the interview, it sounded like he’d taken her mention of those names as a further psychic guess. I think she was just picking other common names to illustrate a point, and that’s not really a miss.)

I have… somebody saying the name Rebecca for Hayley…

Hayley, do you know who that is?

Hayley says no at first. Marsh mentions that he knows a Rebecca, and then Hayley admits that she also does, distantly. So, if that’s a hit, it’s pretty weak. There are far more prominent people in both their lives which these spirits could be mentioning, if they wanted to be taken seriously.

As Marsh is just about to elaborate on his Rebecca, though, Vicki jumps in again with a question directed at Marsh.

You date a lot, don’t you?

[*laughing* I absolutely don’t.]

Yeah, but she’s right around the corner!

[I think my girlfriend of two years would be quite annoyed if I was dating a lot.]

After these two clear misses, she moves back to the Rebecca connection. Marsh gently suggests that, with all these vague names being thrown out and only occasionally sort of going anywhere, it doesn’t seem to be going that well.

Vicki disagrees. The fact that she’s been able to provide no useful information about the people she’s performing a psychic reading for takes a back seat to the fact that she knows it’s happening. One way or another, she has these spirits talking to her, and she knows she’s not just making this stuff up, so whatever they’re saying must be meaningful in some way.

She’s allowing her subjective evidence to confirm its own validity. It reminded me of something which I’ve heard called the “toupee fallacy”. This is when someone claims to be able to spot when someone’s wearing a toupee, but never checks how accurate they are against any other objective measure. They just sometimes say “Oh, that’s a toupee,” and sometimes don’t, and consider that proof of their ability – ignoring the fact that they might be missing plenty of toupees that aren’t obvious enough for them to spot, and they’d never know it.

Vicki seems to be like that. She’s said nothing close to being specific or accurate enough to mean anything. Testing her spirits against external sources of information – like checking if someone’s really wearing a toupee – is returning almost nothing supportive. But she’s not deterred. Because that’s not how she’s measuring her success.

[Is that the great-grandmother on my mother’s side?]

…The one that I am talking to is the one that says “the one you liked”.

[What’s her name?]

She hasn’t given me her name yet.

[If you were able to get her name, that’d be really clear then.]

…Who’s Evelyn, or Ethel?


Note that she didn’t say that Evelyn or Ethel was the name she had for the great-grandmother in question, so she could technically wiggle out of this one being a miss. But it’s not a name that means anything to Marsh, so I’m calling that one a miss anyway. It was supposed to be important enough for one of these spirits to mention it, and it meant nothing.

Then Vicki spends quite a while seeming to regroup, listening to the spirits and muttering the occasional “okay” or similar. It seemed to me at the time like her confidence had been shaken as she realised this wasn’t exactly going well, and she needed a moment to pull herself together. I wouldn’t begrudge her that, but I could be wrong anyway. Her next guess doesn’t sound any more certain:

I’m not sure, because all I keep hearing is “Rita”, or “Anita”… or “Lida”. Something like that. I’m not sure.

She clarifies that this is an elderly relative who’s passed on to the other side, but doesn’t wait to see if this hits home with anyone. Straight away:

Helen, who’s that?

[Again, I know several Helens…]

They’re naming people that you know, because they watch you. They name people that you seem to be around a bit.

Another negligible hit. Anyone could pluck a series of female names out of the air like this, and be sure that a few of them would match up with the social circle of anyone who’s not a total recluse.

Lucille, do you know who that is?

Marsh doesn’t. Miss. He guides her back to Helen, though, who he knows “a bit”. This is Vicki’s idea of “a good validation”.

If there are spirits watching over Marsh, and monitoring his loose relationship with Helen, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask whether they might be aware of Helen’s surname, middle name, birthday, age, star sign, hair colour, home town, relationship to Marsh, favourite colour, or shoe size. If Vicki could provide any of these, or any of a number of other things actually about Helen, then this might validate something. But the fact that her subject has an acquaintance whose name matches one of half a dozen or so she’s put out there is totally meaningless.

Mary? Who’s Mary? That’s a deceased person.

She breaks off in the middle of a sentence here, in which she’d been explaining how it all works and why Helen was such a good validation, to move straight onto the next one. Hayley knew a Mary who is now deceased.

Cancer? Hayley, this was cancer?

No. Miss.

Okay, but she says a sickness.

Yes, Hayley confirms that Mary did die of a sickness. There are other ways to die than by sickness, so let’s generously call that another weak hit.

It feels like it’s a blood sickness, though.

Hayley says no. Miss.

…an infection of some sort.

[Yes, there was an infection.]

Yeah, but it came from a wound, or some kind of a… surgery or something… She’s saying that she developed either a septicemia or a staph infection…

[I don’t think so, no.]

…or a haematoma, or a blood clot. But it was very quick in the end.

[I didn’t know her very well, but I don’t believe it was an infection like that.]

It was a blood infection. You can check that out.

So a sort of hit on the infection, before she started trying to pin down the details. Then suddenly she’s entirely confident that she’s got this one absolutely right, and that any further research Hayley does into Mary’s past will vindicate Vicki’s prediction.

Which seems an odd point at which to start being unshakably confident. Given how much trouble she’s had so far in getting either Hayley or Marsh to recognise any of the names she’s thrown at them, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for the idea that this Mary is definitely the spirit of the first person of that name who Hayley happened to think of.

To her credit, she specifically asks for feedback on this if they ever do look into it further. I have my doubts, though, as to how regularly Vicki adjusts her view of her abilities, based on people coming back to her later with things that didn’t quite pan out.

Who the heck has a pig? That’s what I want to know.

Now we’re getting somewhere. That’s kind of unusual. Most people don’t own pigs. Hayley knows someone who owns a pot-bellied pig. A hit!

And they live in the house? That’s what I’m hearing.

D’oh. Miss. And you were doing so well.

I keep hearing the name Jennifer or Jenna. I feel like that would have been somebody who somebody would have known as a young child.

Yet another common female name. She should’ve followed up with the pig thing. Marsh vaguely thinks he might have gone to school with a Jennifer, but no-one he really remembers. I went to school with a lot of people, including at least one Jennifer, and I’m not alone in this. Another very general guess, and a miss.

Whose grandfather, or great-grandfather, smells like Old Spice?

About four seconds later she kinda answers her own question, when she says: “Back then it was what everybody wore”. Neither Marsh nor Hayley can confirm nor deny that any of their elderly male relatives favoured this particular brand.

And one of them smoked a pipe, I know that.

[Yeah, he did.]

And that has a vanilla scent to it.

[No, I think he just went for straight tobacco.]

No, but to me it smells like vanilla.

[Ah, okay.]

I’m not letting her claw it back there at the end. That’s one unimpressive hit, one specific miss.

And he has a pocket-watch.

A likely hit, but Vicki freely offers that this would also have been common for men of that era.

Hayley, you’ve lost grandparents, right?


Okay, because there’s a grandmother here… And she says she left you some jewellery?


And that… do you wear it on a necklace?


Or do you wear it on your finger?


Same pattern again. A hit on the vague stuff that probably applies to a lot of people, but a complete failure to get any of the details right. Vicki then starts talking about the jewellery in question, asking the spirit what it was (apparently not getting a straight answer) and then describing it, as if she can see it and is trying to think of the name for that type of jewellery.

Is it like a rosary, or something?

“Rosary” was the word she was searching for, while muttering to herself about beads, and it’s a miss. She says it’s very nice, whatever it is, and that the spirit is wearing the same thing.

So she can see this item of jewellery being worn… but can’t tell whether it’s got beads, or whether it’s worn on the neck or the wrist or somewhere else? I don’t understand.

She moves on then to the fact that Hayley likes chocolate, but describes it as “not a psychic thing”, so we can leave that one.

And… that’s it. This section of the interview lasted about 15 minutes, and I’ve listed everything that she got remotely correct. They have another quick chat about how important it is to call out the fake psychics who fool people and take their money, and Vicki agrees that what the skeptics are doing is important stuff.

And although it’s admirable that she can be this self-aware about something that means a lot to her, and recognise that skeptics’ doubt and questioning is often coming from a positive place, it’s so odd seeing the disconnect with her assessment of her own performance. “They think that was pretty good,” she says of the spirits she was talking to, and all the information they provided here.

It depends on quite how you’re counting, but I think my tally gives her 7 very weak hits on things like common names, 1 more specific hit on somebody knowing somebody who owns a pig, 1 not-that-impressive hit on the jewellery, and 14 misses in between.

And the dead relatives, we’re told, are proud of how much they managed to communicate.

Are these visions being obscured by a dry ice machine that the spirits don’t know how to switch off? Are they having to talk through the speaker system from a drive-thru? Why wouldn’t they be able to pass on some information that makes sense, that’s more easily understood, and that refers to something sufficiently specific to the people involved to be impressive?

Right to the end, I found Vicki Monroe to be friendly and likeable. I’m quite bewildered by her belief in herself, and the impermeable field of woo in which her usual appreciation for critical thinking doesn’t seem to apply. But you have to do worse than just be wrong or a bit confused to entirely lose my affection, and Vicki displayed none of the malice or reckless stupidity that’s often evident in her profession.

She genuinely seems interested in the truth more than any self-aggrandising or pushing her own abilities. When Marsh was recapping the list of names she’d gone through, she helpfully reminded him of a couple of the times she’d completely missed. She insists that anyone who has a session with her also makes a recording, so that they can refer back to it later. This helpfully allows her to pass off a lot of apparent misses as “future hits”, in a sense, but I really feel she’s genuinely interested in helping to make as much of a real connection as she can.

These are things that are worth remembering when dealing with somebody devoting their life to something you consider fictitious or illusory. You might be well aware of all the reasons why belief in psychic powers can’t be justified based on the available evidence, but if you forget that other people don’t always see that, then you’re left facing the awkward question of what terrible people they must be to persist in something so obviously bogus. But this is the same fallacy we’re much better at recognising when it’s turned on us.

Religious people often accuse atheists of being angry or resentful or rebellious toward God, missing the point that we don’t believe he’s real. Some psychics or other supernaturalists seem to think that skeptics are just out to ruin everyone’s fun, as if we knew as well as they did that paranormal phenomena exist but for some reason seek to deny it anyway. And for us to assume that every professed psychic is a shameless cynic cashing in on bullshit is exactly the same mistake.

So I make no apologies for saying I still like Vicki Monroe.

Or for saying that she’s utterly unconvincing and tragically deluded.

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This may end up becoming a regular feature, if anybody ever actually asks me anything. This is my attempt to describe how I’d react if I witnessed some paranormal event, and whether it would convince me of the reality of a supernatural world.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

If you were hoping to be told what card you’re thinking of by a carrion bird, I can only apologise for the disappointment.

Evan Bernstein reported recently about a woman who charges dying hospital patients $125 to spin some yarn about “who’s waiting to greet them on ‘the other side.'”

Talk about the repulsiveness of the image of an ambulance chasing lawyer. Well, this is a psychic chasing the hearse on the way to the hospital to pick up the bodies.

Seems an appropriate analogy to me.

There are people standing up for her, of course, and declaring that anyone who won’t instantly believe in these outlandish claims entirely at face value must be living a life with no hope or meaning. Which is bewildering enough, but okay, let’s work with them a bit. Let’s say she’s real, she genuinely has some power to do what she says she does, and she’s making a really, really good living by providing a legitimate service.

Personally, I find that a real stretch to believe. But let’s run with it. Here’s something that’s absolutely not a stretch to believe:

Somewhere, some unscrupulous con artist would read this article, see this woman making a fortune by telling dying people reassuring things, and think: I have got to get me a piece of this action.

This is easy to imagine. There are undeniably people like this in the world, trying to make a fast buck and not caring who they hurt in the process. Some of them rob banks. So why wouldn’t some of them, somewhere, decide that dispensing a few platitudes to some old suckers desperate for some comfort before they pop their clogs might be an easy gig?

And if it’s obvious that there really could be scammers trying to rip people off with a pale imitation of what the real psychics do, how do you tell the difference?

That’s not at all a rhetorical question. I’m not trying to say that you can’t tell the difference between a real psychic and a con artist, and so you’re a fool for believing that any of this is real. It’s genuinely worth considering how to distinguish the two, and avoid falling for someone’s dishonesty.

It’s something so many believers seem entirely unwilling to consider.

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So I’m in the middle of reading Bruce Hood’s Supersense, and so far it’s looking like a really worthwhile read. I’m going to wait till I’ve followed his reasoning through to the end before deciding exactly what I think of it, but it’s prompted me to think (and subsequently rant) about something that’s bugged me sporadically for some time.

The book’s about the natural human tendency to believe in supernatural ideas, seek supernatural explanations for phenomena we don’t immediately understand, and so forth. A big part of his thesis is that everybody, however rational they try to be, has some irrational or supernatural elements to their belief system. The main example he uses is the revulsion most people feel on being asked to don an item of clothing previously worn by a notorious serial killer. There’s no real, physical, material connection to anything negative whatsoever, it’s a completely innocuous item entirely unaltered by some irrelevant piece of information about its past… and yet most people would still feel icky about putting on Fred West’s sweater.

Our emotions – obviously a significant part of what it means to be human, and a part famously not over-burdened by rationality – are what he’s starting to talk about at the point of the book I’ve reached. As I say, I’m going to let him finish before passing judgement, but there’s an annoyingly prevalent assumption elsewhere in a lot of our culture that deserves a tirade.

Emotional != Irrational.

(That’s a makeshift “does not equal” sign, for anyone who was wondering.)

Films and TV like this one a lot. Whenever anyone in any kind of dramatisation does anything out of love, for instance, they’re generally seen as acting against logic. It’s a totally irrational act, they’re told, to have given up the chance for so many material pleasures just so they could get the girl – and this irrationality is held up as triumphantly praiseworthy. Screw reason, you’re doing something better.

Now, I acknowledge the obvious irrational aspects to something like love. Emotions are things that happen without recourse to reason, and I know there’s a significant difference between empirically assessing somebody’s attributes and calculating them to be laudable, and loving someone for being a wonderful person. I accept all that.

But that doesn’t make it an irrational thing to act on one’s emotions in any way, once they’re there.

Concrete example: I finished watching the complete series of Due South not long ago, and toward the end, Fraser gets an offer of some big fancy job of some sort elsewhere, with more money, more prestige, more whatever. It’s a promotion, a step up for him professionally in every way, and it’s his for the taking. But he doesn’t. He turns it down, and chooses to stay in his current position, a lower-paying job with a crappy apartment and few perks. And why? Because he wants to keep working with his partner, Ray, along with all the other people with whom he’s built up a relationship where he currently is.

Now, Ray’s the first to tell Fraser that this makes no sense, it’s an illogical choice. But it makes perfect sense. Fraser’s looking at his choices and deciding what would make him happiest, and it isn’t the pay rise and the fancy apartment in some other part of the country, it’s doing a job he loves with people he cares about. Staying where he is is entirely the correct and sensible decision, because of the emotions he’s feeling.

No doubt letting overwhelming emotions drown out any other factors at all can lead people to irrational decisions, where they fail to act in their best overall interests due to what feels right more immediately. But it’s annoying how everyone always seems to get described as “irrational” whenever they admit that emotions matter. Give rationalism a little more credit.

For that matter, don’t get me started on the phrase “I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for this”. “Reasonable” does not mean being in denial about the fact that there are very obviously vampires trying to eat you. For instance.

People saying that line (or one very like it) are so often mere moments away from getting shown up and humiliated/disembowelled for their oh-so-foolish-in-retrospect skepticism. Look, being skeptical when some crazy guy starts ranting about the zombie apocalypse is a good thing. Otherwise you’ll believe any old shit crazy people tell you. But once you’ve seen the hordes of dead rising from their graves, or looked into the dead eyes of your best friend as he gnaws on the leg of your brother’s corpse, or been provided with whatever extraordinary evidence the extraordinary claims in question need, then the “rational explanation” becomes holy shit you guys there’s fucking zombies.

Seriously, you’re allowed to be rational and still change your mind when new facts come in. If you’re Buffy, the most reasonable explanation for a lot of things is vampires, duh, but otherwise you really shouldn’t be chastised for not leaping straight to wacky assumptions about undead armies as soon as something odd crops up which needs explaining.

Okay, hold on… this has nothing to do with anything, but did anyone else see that the Large Hadron Collider was scuppered when a bird dropped some bread in it? It’s not clear from this one article quite how big a problem it’s caused – did they just notice that something was up, have a look, take the bread out, and get on with things? Should I take @ProfBrianCox’s silence on the matter as a sign that nothing too drastic has gone awry this time? Anyone know any more about this?

That’s derailed whatever minimal train of thought I might have had, now.

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