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

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What's the harm?

These links and comments illustrate the harm done by occult, paranormal, pseudoscientific, and supernatural beliefs. The harm may be tangible and easily documented: physical, financial, or interpersonal. »What's the Harm? archives

December 19, 2008. In northern California, a psychic was arrested on a $500,000 warrant for financial elder abuse. Janet Adams appeared in San Mateo Superior Court today on a felony count of financial elder abuseJanet Adams for defrauding an 85-year-old woman of $93,000.  Adams  convinced the woman she had psychic powers and that she had to pay her to keep bad things from happening. Adams used the same technique in 2003 when she was convicted of defrauding a businesswoman of $90,000 and got a suspended sentence of nine months. While on probation, she convinced a 19-year-old woman to give her more than $14,000 to avoid harm coming to her family, which was a violation of her probation. Adams spent two years at the women's state prison in Chowchilla as a result.

update: March 6. Janet Adams was sentenced today to six years in prison.

Fortune tellers bilking people of their fortunes is becoming too commonplace to deserve continued representation on these pages. Here are links to the last such cases I will cover:

  1. Police in Hollywood, Fla., allege a fortune teller bilked five customers of nearly $65,000 by promising to rid them of curses and evil spirits.
  2. The Internal Revenue Service has filed tax evasion charges against a suburban Chicago psychic jailed in connection with an alleged Tarot card scam.

    Tracy M. Tan, 37, of Naperville, Ill., is accused of making her clients think they were cursed in order to bilk them out of thousand of dollars in cash and jewelry, the Naperville Sun reported Monday.

  3. More victims say San Mateo 'psychic' robbed them.
  4. Gina Reed, 35, of Arlington Heights was arrested by Chicago police Wednesday on a count of felony theft by deception. She is accused of posing as a psychic reader, allegedly telling her clients she could reverse the troubles in their lives by blessing their money.

December 19, 2008. Thousands of Congolese children have been abandoned, after being abused in exorcism rituals that used to be sanctioned by tribal traditions but are now controlled by churches. According to one report:

“Fifty percent of Congo’s children begging on the streets have been abandoned and tortured as child sorcerers. The snowballing of the issue is frightening. Before it was the ‘wise men’ of the village, and now it is the church that is misusing its authority. Whenever someone comes with a problem the pastor cannot solve, the solution is to blame a child and purge the family of the problem.”

According to the Special Rapporteur on the DRC’s human rights, Julia Motoc, some 25,000 to 50,000 child refugees, war orphans and “child sorcerers” are roaming the streets of the Congo’s cities. “The child sorcerers are accused of having mystical powers and are abandoned by their families, sometimes because of financial difficulties. The revivalist churches have been maintaining this belief, which is harmful to children.”

December 11, 2008. I've heard psychics say that it runs in the family. Sylvia Browne, for example, has a son who runs the same kind of psychic scam she does. Last year I wrote about Lola Miller's arrest for running a cleansing scam as part of her "psychic" business. (The Brownes don't do cleansing rituals, as far as I know. Their specialty is getting messages from the dead.) Lola Miller is to be sentenced in January 2009, after pleading guilty last August to two counts of grand theft. Her victim has since died of cancer. The victim's widower has said he will contribute any restitution he receives to cancer research. Good luck to him. The month after her mother-in-law pleaded guilty to grand theft, Lisa Miller pleaded no contest to one count of theft by false pretense. She was sentenced to two months in jail and five years of probation. The judge also ordered her to pay full restitution, of which she has already paid $61,000, authorities said. Lisa Miller was also barred "from ever again engaging in fortune telling, psychic readings, tarot card readings, love spell castings, palm readings and spiritual advising."

If two psychics in a family is good, three must be better, right? Another daughter-in-law of Lola Miller, Danielle Miller, 23, also faces criminal charges for allegedly bilking $36,000 from a woman to cleanse her of evil.

I think we all know who needs to be cleansed of evil and it's not the victims of this team of psychics.

November 19, 2008. Christian preachers, or so they call themselves, are branding children as witches In some of the poorest parts of Nigeria, where evangelical religious fervor forms a deadly combination with belief in sorcery and black magic. Thousands of children have been blamed for catastrophes, deaths, and famine. The children "are then abandoned, tortured, starved and murdered...." Some are made to undergo exorcisms.

"Exorcism is big business. Preachers can charge as much as a year's salary for an average Nigerian to treat children."*  A 29-year-old Englishman, Gary Foxcroft, is the director of the UK charity Stepping Stones Nigeria, which is trying to do something about the treatment of children in Nigeria. He says: "It's an absolute scandal. Any Christian would look at the situation that is going on here and just be absolutely outraged that they were using the teachings of Jesus Christ to exploit and abuse innocent children."

For more on this outrage, read "A narrative of unimaginable cruelty" by Steve Ayorinde.

update: December 4, 2008. "Bishop" Sunday Ulup-Aya was arrested and charged with murder after a child rights campaigner led police to his church and negotiated a consultation fee for an exorcism. Five others have been arrested and the state government says more arrests are planned.

update: February 16, 2009. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ojo Madueke, claims that the "children were paid to say they were tortured." Chijoke Odum, chairperson of a civil liberties organization in Nigeria, replied bluntly: "The minister told a lie."

update: May 20, 2009. In a special edition of ABC News "Nightline," Dan Harris documents a new and growing phenomenon in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children are accused of witchcraft by Evangelical pastors and subjected to abusive "exorcisms" held at churches throughout the Congolese capital. "Child Witches: Accused in the Name of Jesus" will air Thursday, May 21, 2009.

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* AmeriCares *

The Skeptic's Shop

About harm

It is difficult to assess the harm done to society and the world at large by the spread and encouragement of anti-scientific, irrational, and magical thinking. It is also difficult to measure the extent of harm done to individuals and their families who give up thinking for themselves to follow some guru astrologer, psychic, or cult leader.

It is impossible to calculate the losses to those bilked because they are ignorant of basic logical and psychological principles. Even so, Tim Farley gives it his best shot.

For those cancer patients who are thinking of trying an untested alternative therapy, please read Dr. Stephen Barrett's A Special Message for Cancer Patients Seeking "Alternative" Treatments.

Read this book and you will wonder no more about the harm done by false beliefs


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