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.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The psychic and the murder accusation

What will it take for people to stop believing in psychics?

Most big-name psychics -- James van Praagh, "Psychic Sally" Morgan, Sylvia Browne, Uri Geller, John Edward -- have come under fire from skeptics, and many of them have been caught cheating (in the case of Morgan, more than once).  Each time it happens, I think, "Maybe this will be it.  Maybe people will stop listening, stop going to their shows, stop sending them thousands of dollars for bogus 'readings.'"

And I keep being wrong.  Each time, no matter how plausible the accusation, no matter how well supported the criticism, they bounce back.  "... (W)e (psychics) are here to heal people and to help people grow," van Praagh said in an interview on Larry King Live.  "(S)keptics... they're just here to destroy people.  They're not here to encourage people, to enlighten people.  They're here to destroy people."

And their fans, bleating softly, come right back, and the money starts flowing in again.

A recent story illustrates this brilliantly -- and has me once again thinking, probably wrongly, that this will be the time people will sit back and say, "Okay, that's it.  We're done with you charlatans."  (Sources here and here.)

This is a tale about a psychic who calls herself "Angel" and a couple in Liberty County, Texas, north of Houston.  "Angel," whose real name has yet to be released, called the Liberty County Sheriff's Office in June of last year, to report that there were 25 to 30 dismembered bodies buried on a piece of property.  She directed them to the home of Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton, where she said the bodies were, and told them she'd received the information in communication directly from an actual angel.

The Sheriff's Office, astonishingly, didn't guffaw directly at "Angel" and hang up on her; they went and investigated, and in fact dug holes all over Bankson and Charlton's property looking for the alleged bodies.  Meanwhile, the story of the mass burial site was picked up by local news services, and it spread -- first to Houston-based KPRC-TV, then to ABC News, and finally to Reuters, CNN, and The New York Times.  All of this, based on (1) a tip from a "psychic" who heard it from an "angel," and (2) zero actual dismembered bodies.

Well, finally the police gave up, but not before Bankson and Charlton's property looked like a minefield, and the couple themselves had to defend themselves against accusations of being serial killers.  As far as "Angel," the Houston Chronicle said, "The 48-year-old woman, who asked to only be identified by her nickname of Angel, said she never wanted any attention and fears the worldwide interest in the case will destroy her life if her identity is known publicly." And about her failed psychic tip, she defends herself thusly, in an interview with KHOU News of Houston:
I didn’t file a false report.  If they make it to be false, that’s up to them, you know. ... I did what I was told to do.  I followed what Jesus and the angels told me to do.  It’s up to them from there. ...  They [the police] up front asked me how I got the information, and I am a reverend.  I am a prophet and I get my information from Jesus and the angels, and I told them that I had 32 angels with me and they were giving me the information.
So now she's bringing in the big guns: Jesus and no less than 32 angels.  Because that obviously makes it all right.

Well, predictably, Bankson and Charlton aren't buying it.  They're suing "Angel," the news outlets, and the Liberty County Sheriff's Office for defamation.  Now, I'm not a huge believer in lawsuits, but this is one I'm behind 100% -- and in a fair world, it should be a slam dunk for the attorney representing Bankson and Charlton, Andrew Sommerman of Dallas.  In fact, I think that Bankson and Charlton should not only win monetary damages, I think that "Angel," the Sheriff of Liberty County, and the CEOs of all of the news agencies that reported the story as legitimate news should be forced to completely re-landscape Bankson and Charlton's property using only hand tools.

But, of course, it's not a fair world.  Nor is it a rational one.  I don't think their lawsuit is a sure thing at all -- superstition, ignorance, and irrationality still rule the day all too often.  People are sadly prone to wishful thinking, clinging to a counterfactual view of the world that still for some reason gives them comfort, and their memories are short.  And if "Angel" is acquitted -- which I think is all too likely -- it wouldn't surprise me to hear that she puts her shingle back out, and will be back to passing along messages from Jesus and the angels in no time at all.


  1. Whipping out the big guns definitely pulled out Jesus and 32 of the angels, wonder if she asked them their names?

    I wonder what her manner and composure was when hole after hole nothing was found.
    Doesn't that mean Jesus and the 32 angels lied to her, Of course, Jesus wasn't there nor were angels or anyone else, other than the voices in her mind. If they were, they were probably sat there etherally on the wall chuckling themselves stupid.

    Her prayers that night "Jesus, why did you embarass me so today?"
    Jesus - "Yeah erm, sorry about that. We all had a running bet that you wouldn't actually be able to convince anyone to dig up another persons property, get them accussed of being serial killers. I now owe Samuel 10 gold harp strings".

  2. Your articles are very well written and unique.
    Alissa Monroe

  3. A psychic reading needs to come from a genuine energy. Spiritual vibrations are everywhere!

  4. What a well written article. And we thank you for voicing what we have been thinking for two years now... WHY would someone with ANY sense believe in someone who claims to be "psychic" and sees visions and hears voices? Most people like that I have heardof are in asylums by now. But, I degress, and just wanted to say thanks.