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.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Psychics and the right to comforting self-delusion

Today's post is a question with no answer provided: If an alleged psychic, or medium, or someone of that ilk brings healing and closure to a person who is grief-stricken from the loss of a loved one, has the psychic done good or harm?

I ask this because of a story called "I Only Want to Help: Psychic to Sceptics," that appeared in the New Zealand-based media outlet Stuff.  The article describes a visit to New Zealand by Australian psychic Deb Webber, where she will hold a free "private reading" this week for people who lost family members and friends in the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake, and another next month for those who lost loved ones in the Pike River mining disaster in November 2010.

Skeptics, of course, are disdainful of the whole thing.  New Zealand Skeptics spokeperson Vicki Hyde said that Webber's "readings" were "another sick example" of exploitation by the psychic industry, using vulnerable, grieving families as "a marketing drive" for free publicity.  "It's as bad as any of those shonky finance companies putting up free investment evenings - and it's about as useful," she said.  "No doubt at some point she will also be selling her services, which are very highly priced."

Webber, of course, defends herself, saying that she can't understand why she and her practice are being criticized.  "People need healing," she said.  "I never want to cause anyone more grief."

As far as the money end goes, Webber will be doing a public show in Christchurch, at a venue that seats 150, for $70 a person.  She denies, however, that she's living high from what she makes.  Anyone who thinks she's rich, she says, should look at her bank account.  "I'm actually skint," she said.

 Okay.  We've considered in this blog before the question of whether or not psychics actually believe that they're doing something real, or if they're just hucksters who are well aware that they can't do what they claim.  So for now, let's assume that Webber is acting from all good intentions, and really thinks she's contacting people's dead relatives.  My question is: does it really matter if what she's doing is real, as long as it makes her clients feel good?

The people who come to her, who lost family members and friends in dreadful natural disasters, want only one thing; to have comfort for their grief.  They want to believe that the people they loved are in a better place, and are happily past all suffering and pain.  They want to be given closure.

Webber gives them that.  She assures her clients that their loved ones are still there, smiling down from the afterlife, watching over those they left behind.  And I've no doubt that the majority of the people who attend her readings leave feeling better.

So if I, in my hard-headed rationalism, tell her customers that they're being deluded, that Webber didn't really speak to Grandma Betty and Uncle Frank, that the whole thing is a scam, who is doing more harm -- Webber or me?

It's a hard question to answer.  I once had a student tell me, in some distress, that he was finding himself unable to believe what his minister was saying in church on Sunday, but he was resistant to leaving the faith.  "I just don't know if I can do it," he said.  "Religion tells me that there's a reason that everything happens, and that if I just believe, everything will turn out okay in the end.  I don't know how I can trade that for a belief in nothing, that tells me that bad things just happen because they do, and that when I die, I'm just... gone."

It's strange, isn't it?  We are (obviously) drawn to what gives us comfort -- but will even stay with that source of comfort when the rational parts of our brains are certain that what is comforting us isn't true.  But the dilemma really falls on the shoulders of those of us who have already chosen the rather bleak road of accepting that the rationalist view is correct.  What should we do when we see others falling for -- perhaps even paying good money for -- a comfort that we believe to be based in a falsehood?

I can't bring myself to do it.  Even being a fervent, at times rather militant, atheist, I couldn't bring myself to tell my student, "Be brave and face up to it.  You know you're right, now act on it."  I just told him to keep thinking, reading, and talking to people he trusted, and eventually he'd find an answer he could accept.  As far as the New Zealanders who are planning on attending Deb Webber's talks -- it wouldn't work for me, but if it helps them to move past their grief and loss, I can't argue with the outcome.  I guess there's times that my compassion for humanity's inevitable sorrows trumps my determination to broadcast the cause of rationality.

On the other hand, there's a niggling part of my brain that keeps quoting Carl Sagan:  "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring."  And I can say that for myself, that is what I want -- but I would hesitate to make that decision for anyone else.


  1. Perhaps it will be of some comfort to you, to know that people will believe what they damn well want to believe no matter how much you point out the gaping holes in their logic. So I don't think you're doing any harm. But you are providing entertainment for the rest of us.

    These mediums aren't doing anything the churches don't do. They just charge a lot more for it. Somehow, churches manage to support a pastor and maintain a fancy building on voluntary donations, so I doubt Ms. Webber is really doing all that badly financially, unless she has a serious gambling problem or other expensive habits.

    So I guess I would suggest, if people need that consolation, they choose a less expensive options, such as one of the harmless religions -- Buddhist or Unitarian, say. One that doesn't try to ruin science curricula for the rest of us.

  2. I think if we look at the bigger picture of someone whole life, deluding oneself whether by a psychic or otherwise IS harmful. I think it would open doors to be further deluded once you convince yourself one delusion is a reality, at the very least it would be easy to add to that one delusion. To seek comfort in something that is not a reality it seems would weaken your character and self resolve. Take Catholicism or any other religion really with a history of extreme violence and see how their paritioners use faulty logic to explain those heinous acts. Take it beyond religion to any woo-woo you mention here.

    I just can't see being willfully deluded providing any real benefit to someone that reality can't.

  3. *doffs hat*
    You sir, are a paragon of objectivity.

    When attempting to discuss rationality and an afterlife, steeped emotion from the loss of a loved one is probably going to be a high effort, low yield situation.