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, December 14, 2012

Jenni Rivera and false hope from psychics

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."


  1. like the millions of dollars wasted annually on homeopathic "remedies" -- well, it's their choice, right? Really, how much harm does it do?

    Does this include fraudulent behaviour by clinical scientists who are paid by the big pharmaceutical companies to fudge their data?
    Typical double standards by pseudosceptics!

  2. In answer to your rhetorical question of how much harm is done by homeopathy, this website shows exactly the harm that results.

    You suggest that it's hypocritical to criticize homeopathy without also criticizing some other thing. Typical deflection by a true believer. How about addressing the topic that was actually brought up, instead of trying to distract by bringing up something else?

  3. I understand your reasoning and completely agree with you. First of all a true psychic or astrological professional knows not to give any advice or opinion while claiming it is 100% accurate. Just like the weather forecast or such thins there is a certain probability of occuring, but no forecast can be confidently stated as 100% likely to occur. There is always room for error, there is a small probability of it no happening, and/or the person's effort and will power( the power of the subconscious mind) can be powerful enough to move mountains with the strength of desire. A professional should never exclude the possibility of a person's personal right to try to execute positive change in their lives.
    I am of the agreement that this statement by this psychic was too bold and without actually gauging the delicacy of the situation. I believe it was pretty unethical, and a professional should always consider ethics first and foremost. That is the main point of this subject. However, let us not base one person's error as a justification for generalizing to all psychics or astrologers. There are those of us who genuinely and sincerely do wish to help others and guide others in the best possible direction. But it is unfair to generalize and stereotype to everyone in a particular group based on one person's mistake in that group.