A question I'm frequently asked is why I'm so vehemently against woo-woo beliefs. What harm does it do if someone believes in astrology or the Psychic Hot Line? And even if it's a belief that impels someone to spend their hard-earned cash -- like the millions of dollars wasted annually on homeopathic "remedies" -- well, it's their choice, right? Really, how much harm does it do?
The answer is: a lot. Belief in irrational bullshit can do a lot of harm.
I ran into an example of this just yesterday. [Source] Most of you by now have probably heard of the death of Jenni Rivera, the Latina "Diva de la Banda" whose music is immensely popular amongst Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike. Rivera was killed in a plane crash on Sunday near the town of Iturbide, Mexico, while on the way to a planned concert in Mexico City. Officials in Iturbide confirmed the crash of the plane, saying that there were no survivors; radar tracking of the aircraft indicates that it lost 28,000 feet of altitude in the last 30 seconds before it struck a mountainside. One person who visited the site said that the plane struck so violently that what's left of it is "scattered like a wash of pebbles."
A horrible tragedy for Rivera's family, friends, and fans. But things suddenly got worse on Monday, when a "psychic" named Gilbert Salas posted on his Facebook that he was certain that Rivera and her makeup artist, Jacob Yebale, who was traveling with her, were still alive.
"Yes it is correct that Jenni Rivera is still alive," Salas wrote.
"I believe Jenni and her makeup artists survived, they are located 12
miles west from where they believe the wreckage occurred. It is located
behind the mountain on theunderbelly [sic] side near a canyon. It is not
visible from an aerial view because it is in a covered area. She is
near a stream and she is able to hear the search teams fly overhead
that's how close they are to her."
The result is that the family members have launched a campaign to rescue the injured singer and her companion -- and no one has been more insistent about this than Rivera's eleven-year-old son, Johnny Lopez Rivera. "My mama is alive," the boy tweeted on Monday, after reading Salas' post. "I lost hope but I got it back. She is not dead." Lopez Rivera and other members of Jenni Rivera's family have become so insistent that the singer survived that the hashtag #SaveJenni has trended on Twitter.
Of course, no one who has actual information about the crash thinks there is the remotest likelihood that anyone survived. It's not like there haven't been people at the crash site; eyewitnesses to the wreckage say that the plane was so thoroughly destroyed that there's barely anything recognizable, only twisted bits of scrap metal, cloth, and body parts. But facts barely matter when hope and tragedy meet -- especially when that hope is buoyed by someone who claims miraculous, supernatural knowledge of the situation.
This isn't the first time psychics have given the victims of tragedies false hope, only to be dashed when the real circumstances are confirmed. But somehow, these consistent failures never seem to keep the psychics from doing the same thing again -- or keep next bunch of bereaved loved ones from believing them. And of course, there's nothing illegal about what these charlatans are doing. Convincing someone that a lie is the truth isn't a crime, more's the pity.
But I do have to agree with the commentator quoted in Sharon Hill's wonderful blog Doubtful News, in response to the Rivera story: "If there is a hell, there is a special circle reserved for psychics who pull this crap."