A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Skeptimedia

Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.

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Skeptimedia replaces  Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.

Belief Armor

February 10, 2009. When arguing with a fervent believer in woo-woo, sometimes you wonder what you could have written or said that would have been more persuasive. Other times, you realize there is no weapon in your arsenal that could pierce the belief armor worn by your antagonist. Yesterday, an astrologer I've written about before sent me a link to her website to remind me, I guess, of how powerful her craft is. She believes that a lunar eclipse predicted the deadly fires that have been devastating large parts of Australia. When I asked her how she knew that it wasn't the fires that caused the eclipse, she replied: "multi-branched are the minds of the indecisive." Sounds almost biblical. Should I sacrifice my first-born?

People who believe they are psychic are also impenetrable, as witnessed by my latest exchange with Natalie. All I asked of her and Ray (another claiming to have precognitive visions) was to participate in a little test. All they had to do was provide me with specific predictions, which I would post. We'd let the chips fall where they may. No dice. As soon as I asked them to put their abilities to the test, they cut off communication.

Believers in psychics are also impenetrable. I recently received an e-mail from someone who asked that I not post her letter because all she wanted to do was "dispel my doubts" about an alleged psychic I'd written about. She claims she witnessed some amazing psychic abilities that consisted of two strangers telling her all about herself and her family. Had she understood subjective validation, confirmation bias, and the many facets of cold reading, perhaps she would have had some tools to help her see an alternative explanation for the apparent accuracy of the apparently clairvoyant couple. For some reason, she was adamant that the material she provided me was for "information purposes only." She also told me that one of the psychics had been tested "by the people at Columbia University who specialize in that area and they judged him authentic also." I didn't know they tested psychics at Columbia. Maybe Lisa Miller tested this fellow. Or perhaps Gary Schwartz has found a new home.

Another group of impenetrables are the supplement fanatics. Another study was published yesterday that failed to show that vitamin supplements prevent cancer or heart disease, at least in older women. I knew when I read the piece that it would have no effect on most of the millions of people who take daily vitamin supplements in the vague hope that doing so will benefit them. It is estimated that 40% of women and 30% of men take a daily vitamin/mineral supplement.* The new study involved observations of 161,808 postmenopausal women over an eight-year period. When the women were divided into those who regularly took vitamin supplements and those who didn't, there was no significant difference in the number who got cancer or heart disease, or who died during the study. The good news is that this study, unlike an earlier one, did not find that taking supplements increases your risk of cancer. There have been several high-quality studies that have found no general benefit to taking vitamin or mineral supplements, yet there is no risk of the supplement industry suffering much from that information during the current recession.

In the case of the supplement impenetrables, it seems that the common heuristic "what harm can it do?" is used frequently. Also, wishful thinking is clearly involved: "well, maybe it will do me some good." Even so, the empirical evidence seems overwhelming that you are wasting your money on supplements unless you have a specific deficiency. As noted in several studies, however, there is a risk of harm from taking some supplements.

There's probably no general health risk in believing you or someone else is psychic, but there certainly are situations where such beliefs could be harmful or even deadly. Anyone who relies on psychic intuition or visions when deciding whether to consult a physician is asking for trouble. One of the saddest cases I've written about involved an inventor of a woo-woo energy healing practice that ended up killing her. She was diabetic and proper medical attention would probably have allowed her to live a much longer life. What was most distressing about her case was that her partner in life and in the invention of the woo-woo known as Consegrity was a trained physician. After Debra Harrison's death, her ex-partner, Dr. Mary A. Lynch, moved to another state and founded Consilience Energy Mirrors. Several years later, the enterprise is still going strong, but it seems that someone named Sonia Hoffmann is the main contact these days.

I think that for some people the best we can do is offer the not-so-comforting epitaph: she died with her armor on.

*

Five minutes after posting the above, the following e-mail came in:

RE: Dr Matthias Rath article on your site.

Dear Skeptic,

Skeptic (Random House dictionary):

“a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.”

It’s easy to take swipes at people who are pioneers in their field. Dr. Matthias is certainly one. But this is the dismal history of the so-called ‘scientific mind’. Any new idea that comes along and shakes the status quo is immediately attacked as preposterous, dangerous, and – my favorite – un-scientific. Why? Because the established elite has no interest at all in seeing the status quo come apart. By definition they are reactionary. And medical science – so called – is one of the worst offenders. For godsakes [sic], please remember that it was only a short 150 years ago that medical doctors viciously attacked the doctor who discovered that something called ‘germs’ was the cause of what was spreading infections in hospitals! Wow! What a quack he was!

If you want something to be skeptical about – i.e. questioning the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual - here are a few ideas for you to explore from a skeptical point of view:

(1) “Medical science is the only answer to a healthy and disease free life.” Please check out Iatrogenic Deaths (more deaths are caused by medical science per year than the combined totals of heart, cancer and auto deaths) – are doctors forthcoming about this shocking fact?

(2) “Cholesterol is the cause of heart disease.” This myth was based on “flawed” studies back in the early part of the 20th century – and the lie continues to this day, to the detriment of millions. [Really?]

(3) “Vitamin supplementation is useless at best, and dangerous at worst.” Extensive and well-documented mega-vitamin studies were conducted back in the 1940s and 50s that had very high success rates in the prevention and reversal of heart disease, cancer and MS (and other diseases). If you’re a true skeptic, certainly you’d want to do some valid research on this subject??

(4) Any high school student with enough interest could blow the cover off Big-Pharma’s greed based business model. Have you ever listened to any of the numerous ex-marketing people who used to work for Big-Pharma (and there are dozens speaking out now)? Check it out. You might have a genuine awakening.

Anyway, I could add many more ideas for you, but I think you get the point. I am simply respectfully suggesting that if you truly are open-minded and keenly interested in the truth, why not follow some of these myths and go wherever they lead you. It’s okay to be skeptical. In fact, it is necessary for a healthy and just society. I would invite you to not fall lockstep into being an apologist for Big-Pharma and/or the medical establishment. You might be surprised by what you find. Happy hunting!

Brian

Happy hunting, indeed! The conspiracy armor is perhaps the toughest to penetrate, especially the armor of those who think there is some sort of conspiracy by "The Establishment" to maintain the status quo. Each refutation of the conspiracy addict results in them moving to another point until that point is refuted, at which point the process repeats itself. When all their points have been demolished and thrown on the ash heap, they resort to noting every error made by every scientist who ever lived (like Linus Pauling and vitamin C?), as if that had any relevance to the issue at hand. They think they get bonus points if they also refer to some people who got laughed at because they were thought to be wrong, but who had the last laugh by being right.

I suppose Brian thinks that by attacking a quack like Rath I am automatically a defender of Big Pharma and a believer in the infallibility of medical science. I've noticed this tactic in some of the 9/11 conspiracy folks. Try to put your adversaries on the defensive by challenging them to explain things that aren't quite central to the issue at hand. The inability or unwillingness to do so is taken by the conspiracy monger as further support for his position.

*

A few hours after Brian's e-mail arrived, another of equal synchronicity was delivered to my inbox. I've corrected the typos, but left the piece mostly intact:

Hello Skeptic


     Well thank you, for your site. By the way I am a true believer. Lets see, I'm a believer in Ghost, UFOs, ESP, remote viewing. But what led me to your site is the link that talked about the Aura. Kirlian Photography to be precise.
     I do disagree about the true Scientist being a Skeptic. To truly be a scientist you must view an event from a neutral point, to be free of the prejudice that either side would inject into the conclusion of the data. Let the data decide the truth.
     Let us start with the Aura, you made a claim that the phantom image of the leaf that was torn off was fraud or residue. Do you have any facts to back up your opinion. Did you do any experiments yourself before you said the Aura People were liars. If there was no experiment to test your opinion, where is the Science Skeptic. Also if the Kirlian effect won't happen in a vacuum could it mean that oxygen is needed for the effect. Like a cutting torch in space needs its own oxygen supply. You maybe right, but I'm afraid you will have to use science to prove your findings. Empty opinions don't count data, data, data.
     Now let me tell you what happened after I read your article about the Aura. I stepped into my kitchen and started talking to my Love. During our conversation I noticed a small bubble about 1/4 inch in diameter floating downward in front of me. She was doing the dishes so that was where it came from, I tried to blow it upward so it wouldn't hit the floor. It floated over in her direction at a downward slant. When the bubble past between her and the counter she was next to the bubble stopped dead and hung in the air. There is no fan or heater on in the house and the doors are not open. The bubble stays motionless until she tries to move her torso a few inches back and forth. Then the bubble moves the same way she moves still suspended there a few inches from her body. The bubble hung there for a minute 15 seconds till it burst. Gravity did not effect that bubble for 75 seconds why? It was almost like the bubble was stuck in the currents of her Aura.
     I was amazed at what I saw, so now I am reading your whole site to see what kind of things will happen after I read about it on your site. This site is making me more of a believer if that was possible.
     You are right though about how many fraudulent Psychics, Martial Art Masters, and Auric readers there are. You Skeptics keep exposing those fakers, thank you for your site. Peace and Blessings oh sorry I guess you don't believe in blessings, well peace anyway.

 A believer, thanks to You

I don't think I deserve any more credit for this fellow's beliefs than a shoe manufacturer deserves credit for a shoe fetishist's obsession.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the anti-vaccination crowd. These folks have double-plated belief armor. Only favorable anecdotes can get through. Any scientific studies that demonstrate vaccines are beneficial, not harmful is cursed with crossed fingers and garlic-breath hissing noises.

See also Evaluating Personal Experience, Why Do People Believe in the Palpably Untrue?, Defending Falsehoods, and Why Woo-woo Wins.

further reading

New Rationally Speaking: An Evening with Paranormalists Massimo Pigliucci describes an encounter with a couple of folks wearing full-body belief armor defending psychics and spirits by evidential threads so thin they're transparent.

New The comfort of your convictions by Julian Baggini The dangers of shielding beliefs from criticism is not so transparent.

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