Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The psychic and the guru

A question I frequently am asked is why I care so much about whether people believe weird, irrational, counterfactual stuff.  What does it matter?  How is it harming anyone if someone believes in ______ (fill in the blank with your favorite from amongst the following: astrology, psychics, homeopathy, Bigfoot, aliens, crystal energies, or about a hundred others).

Rather than answer that question directly, let me tell you two stories.  (Sources: The Orlando Sentinel and JREF)

Priti Mahalanobis is a college-educated mother of two who managed her father's business, Shiv Shakti Enterprises, LLC of Orlando, Florida.  Due to the economic downturn, the business had not been doing very well for about two years.  Add this to the fact that Mahalanobis had been experiencing some health problems, and her brother, to whom she was very close, was having marital problems.  Mahalanobis was understandably depressed, anxious, and stressed.

It would not be out of the ordinary for someone in this situation to seek out counseling, and Mahalanobis went to the Meditation and Healing Center in Windermere when she received a coupon for a $20 introductory session with a "spiritual guide."

The guide she met called herself Mrs. Starr, but her real name is Peaches Stevens.  Stevens, after a brief "psychic reading," told Mahalanobis that there was a curse on her family, which could only be lifted with her assistance.  Over the next few months, Mahalanobis went to Stevens repeatedly, purchased a variety of items from her including seven "tabernacles" that were intended to help lift the curse, and performed a variety of rituals under Stevens' direction.  Stevens reportedly told Mahalanobis that the cure for the curse would be costly, but that the price of leaving it in place would be a dreadful toll on herself and her family.

Mahalanobis opened several new credit cards, sold as many personal items as she could manage without her husband knowing (including a reported $65,000 worth of jewelry), and all told ended up giving over $135,000 to Stevens for her curse-removal services.  By this time, she had put herself into hock up to her eyeballs, her father's business had folded, and she had to find work part time in a school cafeteria to make enough to live on.

She did, however, finally recognize that something was amiss, and hired a private investigator to look into Stevens.  With the information from the investigation, police were finally able to arrest Stevens for fraud last week.

"I learned a lot," said Mahalanobis.  "Not to let fear or guilt control you or your actions.  Also, listen to your gut, your instinct, that little voice in the back of your head.  Because your mind can fool you."

Someone should have given that same advice to Chantale Lavigne, a Qu├ębecois woman who followed a self-help guru named Gabrielle Frechette.  Frechette runs seminars and gives advice on life, health, and spirituality, and claims to be able to channel the biblical figure Melchisedek.  According to sources, Frechette has quite a commanding presence and an "air of authority."

Last week, Frechette was running a session called "Dying in Consciousness," and Chantale Lavigne was one of her "students."  As part of the session, the participants were supposed to allow themselves to be covered with mud, wrapped in plastic, and have their heads placed inside cardboard boxes with instructions to hyperventilate.  They were told that they had to remain motionless in this situation...

... for nine hours.

When Lavigne was removed from her mud and plastic cocoon, she was unconscious, and only at that point did Frechette call 911.  When paramedics arrived, her body temperature was 40.5 C (105 F).  She died soon afterwards at a hospital in Drummondville.  Frechette has "denied all responsibility for Lavigne's death."

This is not the first such death from hyperthermia during a quack cure or woo-woo ritual.  Sweat lodges, and overheating to "remove toxins," have become commonplace, and just last year James Arthur Ray was convicted of negligent homicide in the deaths of three participants in his New Age "spiritual warrior" retreat, in which he had encouraged dozens of people (who had paid Ray big bucks for the privilege) to spend hours in an overheated, smoky room in the Arizona desert without drinking any water.  So despite Frechette's denial of responsibility, there is precedent for "gurus" to be found culpable for their followers' deaths -- in the US, at least, and it's to be hoped that Canada will follow suit.

It's easy to say that in both the case of Mahalanobis and Lavigne, they "should have known better."  And in one sense, that's true.  But we live in a culture that celebrates, even encourages, ridiculous beliefs, and in many cases turns them into big business.  Skeptics like James Randi and Michael Shermer are accused of being "narrow-minded" when they call these beliefs what they are -- unscientific, irrational, bogus, potentially dangerous nonsense. 

The question is, why should we handle such beliefs with kid gloves?  Why should we look the other way when psychics are allowed to bilk the public for millions of dollars annually?  Why should homeopathic "cures" be allowed on pharmacy shelves?  Why should the so-called mediums and channelers of the spirits of the dead be on television, raking in money from people made vulnerable by their grief?

Except in a few cases -- such as Ray's case, where deaths occurred and were directly attributable to the influence of a "guru" -- our government has been reluctant to step in.  The only answer that remains, then, is education -- teaching people how to think, giving them a sound backing in the principles of scientific rationality and skepticism.  I'll end with a quote from Carl Sagan, from his wonderful book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (which should be required reading in every high school in the world):
If we can't think for ourselves, if we're unwilling to question authority, then we're just putty in the hands of those in power.  But if the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us.  In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights.  With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit.  In the demon-haunted world that we inhabit by virtue of being human, this may be all that stands between us and the enveloping darkness.


  1. "I could never work a 9 to 5, sitting behind a desk."
    "I'm a peculiar person. I need peculiar employment."
    "I have a gift."

    I'll say it. Most woo-woos are weak individuals who, instead of seeking gainful employment, putting in the hard effort and strife of a job, instead seek ways to make easy money without having to put themselves out or conform to societal norms. What a travesty to their free spirit that would be, right?!

    Sitting before a crystal ball at their dining table, wrapped in some discombobulated, gold adorned, middle-eastern inspired regalia... seeing "clients" between episodes of "The real Housewives" ... No amount of mental gymnastics can escape the fact that this "job" of theirs just entitles them to be a lay-about. The only credentials they need are the ones they manifest.
    Where are all of the psychic inventors, who can foresee a product need and be the first to invent it? Why is psychic ability never... constructive? (Rhetorical)

    Turning a barn into a "cleansing hot-house" is easy. Low effort, high yield. All that is required is a little melodrama, deception, and duct tape to seal the windows.
    These ideas aren't original. We all think of silly ideas like this when we think about ways to earn extra income. Difference is that most people have a conscience, so when these ideas pop up, we snicker to ourselves and move on.

    Do the community a REAL favor and go get a REAL job, you bums. Old ladies will get to keep their retirement money and less people will die of heat-stroke. It's a win-win.

    I always put the onus on the deceiver, not the deceived.

  2. Tried to email you, no methodology...

    Seems Newt Gingrich is a woo-woo!
    (making grand claims that are not backed by evidence and essentially deceiving, for personal gain)

  3. Wow. And people are even CONSIDERING someone that out of touch with reality for president?

    My email is jaggy 227 (at) fltg . net (just trying to prevent the spambots from picking up my email)... if you run into any more interesting stories!

  4. Thank you, sir!

    Gingrich isn't stupid. I'll give him that much. He's out-and-out lying. Pandering for votes in NASA lovin' Florida.
    Idiocracy beats at the gates, which is what is allowing the aforementioned senator to run (in part) on a platform of family values, while demonstrating that he has none. By virtue of espousing family values, he makes them relevant to his run for presidency... then all of his misgivings come to light. A question at a debate rightfully asks "what's the deal?" (paraphrasing), and he just grandstands his way out of the hot seat, claiming indignation over having been asked such a low-brow question... to a standing ovation.

    I'm suddenly struck with the desire to thank you for being a teacher...

  5. I appreciate the thanks! I've been teaching for 25 years, and still enjoy it. Most days, anyway. I'm increasingly appalled by the bad press teachers get -- so many Americans (or maybe only a few, extremely loud ones?) think that teachers are freeloading incompetents who do nothing but take from the system. I'd like one of those folks to follow me around for a couple of days, and see what they think, then...

  6. Many people's beliefs are not their own. Don't even need confirmation bias when the idea is someone elses. It only needs to sound good and be repeated enough times and voila!

    It's the same thing any sociology teacher will tell you.
    "The man doesn't want an intelligent society of free thinkers."

    The only way to compete with China is to become them. Free thinkers won't be compliant with soldering the same widget 15,000 times a day. The only way Apple will bring their manufacturing back to America is if there are enough zombies to fill the factories.

    Convincing people that teachers are charlatans is part of the zombie making machine.

    Unfortunate, to say the least.