True believers


Michael Shermer has a book titled Science Friction: Where the Known Meets the Unknown, about all the ways in which people deceive themselves or allow themselves to be deceived by irrational beliefs.

“As pattern-seeking primates,” he says in the introduction, “we scan the random points of light in the night sky of our lives and connect the dots to form constellations of meaning. Sometimes the patterns are real, sometimes not.”

A recent review of the book begins, “That about sums it up, but here I’m going to focus on Shermer’s career as a psychic. Note Shermer is not a psychic, and does not claim to be – in fact, he believes as I do that no one is. Nonetheless, he had the opportunity to play one on TV when Bill Nye invited him to be a guest on the show Eyes of Nye and spend a day as an astrologer, tarot card reader, palm reader and psychic medium talking to the dead.”

The book and the review describe how easy it is to con people, especially in the area of the paranormal. Shermer’s experience as a “psychic” is in line with the psychologist Ray Hyman who has written extensively on cold reading. [Try this.]

It reminds me of a time in an introductory philosophy course when I was lucky enough to have as a student a professional psychic reader named Madame X. As we were talking about evidence, false claims of paranormal powers and the like she came to see me and told me that she was working her way through college by doing readings. She also knew the whole thing was total bullshit! She did several “readings” in class with eager volunteers. Her abilities were superb. She would inevitably begin with “I see you are having financial difficulties” to which she almost always got a warm and positive response from her college student clients. Money and relationships. Those two themes were all she needed plus a good line of BS.

After the session she and I revealed to the class that it was all phony. The revelation didn’t change the true believers’ minds at all.

Later in my office, Madame X told me that most of her clients were faculty members.

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