Just A Believer Deep Down*

A popular reaction to the piece I wrote regarding comments made by Amy Bruni has been to assume that I believe in psychics and that I was writing from that perspective. Some even went as far as suggesting that “deep down” I was a believer even if I claim otherwise.

The truth is that I don’t believe in psychics, or the ghosts and monsters that I investigate but I did come to my skeptical position from a position of belief in such subjects. I guess that’s why people think I am “defending” believers when actually I’m just pointing out that they might have a point in their criticisms, or when I say things like “belief is complicated” in response to people acting as though it is anything but.

Weird, isn’t it, that when you show empathy with those who believe in psychics or ghosts some people are unable to get their heads around it? As though you’re either with or against the psychics, with or against the believers. It’s irrational to deal in such absolutes. Another would be that “all psychics are con artists” which leaves no room for those people who aren’t psychic but genuinely believe they are and aren’t intentionally scamming people. It’s a lazy generalisation.

Anyway, I digress. The point I was making in my previous blog post on this subject was that I didn’t think the ends justified the means when it came to the Guerilla Skeptics “stings” on Chip Coffey. This wasn’t to say stings shouldn’t be used as people seem to have assumed I was saying. I absolutely think that sting operations can be justified and are a useful tool of expose but I do not believe they are a method that should be deployed without careful consideration and experience. Daniel Loxton wrote a great piece about this over at skeptic.com

I also wrote that although they’re trying to reach the middle ground- people who neither believe or disbelieve- I thought it was more likely that the outcome of their actions wouldn’t make the waves people were expecting because, after all, they didn’t actually reveal very much that people didn’t already know. It’s also naive to presume that believers will not listen to skeptics. When I ran Project Barnum- a now closed educational resource about psychic trickery -I was sometimes contacted by people who had believed in certain psychics who had started to question that belief because of our resources or because they had spoken to someone handing out our leaflets outside of a theatre show. People also used our “learn how to be psychic” horoscope game to demonstrate to their relatives who believed in certain psychics how easy it was to fool people.

I’m not an expert when it comes to educational engagement but I have enough experience to know that it’s really difficult to get it right and really easy to get it wrong. I am living proof that people can be inspired to change their minds when presented with the right information in the right manner and because of this I am not so keen to chalk up believers as some sort of a lost cause, or as people who need to be rescued from themselves. Maybe they do but I don’t think that’s my call.

If you disagree with me about any of the above I’m totally fine with that because I’m not egotistical enough to demand that you accept that I am right and I won’t bombard you with comment after comment about how wrong or ignorant you are.

However I do think it is odd that some involved with the Guerrilla Skeptics seem really keen to launch sting operations against other psychics at the drop of a hat as seen below. screen shot of discussion about sally morgan sting

It almost seems personal and that can be unwise… but what would I know? I’m clearly just a believer deep down*.

*not

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Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

5 thoughts on “Just A Believer Deep Down*”

  1. I think the problem is there are two sort of sceptics. There are ones like me who loved, in my case, stories of Borley Rectory and suchlike as a teenager, and would certainly have liked some of this stuff to be true, but realise that human failings, deliberate and accidental, explain all the ‘evidence’ we’ve seen, so, unless better evidence comes along, in the proper scientific spirit, accept that ghosts etc. don’t exist. I get the impression you have similar views.

    Then there are the hardline skeptics (almost always with a k) who KNOW with a religious fervour that the paranormal is rubbish, and everyone who takes an interest in it, sceptical or not, is an idiot. And they shout loud – but it doesn’t mean they are taking the best approach – and it’s certainly not a properly scientific one. I honestly wouldn’t waste my time with them – but I think that there is nothing wrong with scepticism, its just that particular brand.

  2. Hi Haley,

    I’m the “Paul” from the Facebook post you clipped.

    I agree with most of what you say…. “But”…

    I think things are a little more nuanced, there are grey areas, probably a lot more than 50.

    Sure, there are many self identified psychics and clairvoyants who are genuinely nice people. They care about others, They have a need to comfort others, they have good empathy skills and an understanding of people. They are excellent natural cold readers. They cold read their clientèle without even knowing they’re doing it. They genuinely believe they have a gift and in fact they do have a gift. They just attribute it to supernatural causes when it’s really their own skill with people that’s doing the magic.

    There are some that turn this into a business, not out of greed or in the knowledge they are making a fast buck out of the gullible and vulnerable by saying what they want to hear, No, they’re doing it for honest reasons but still need to put food on the table and maybe take some satisfaction from their celebrity psychic status.

    At the other end of the spectrum are the fraudsters who’ve recognised that grieving and vulnerable people are a cash cow that’s easily milked. They also have people skills. Skills to manipulate and deceive. They may have once been one of the “nice” psychics in the past, but that’s long gone. Greed has taken over and they are now using their skills to make as much money as possible out of those who believe.

    I think it’s the “Intent” that’s important and the deciding factor on how Skeptics react to psychics. The Sylvia Browne’s of this world deserve nothing but contempt. They take millions from their victims and often leave a trail of heartache and emotional problems behind them. I would have no problem setting up a sting for such a person. Not because I’m a ranting Skeptic, not because I think their psychic act is fake but because they are crooks and need to be exposed to their existing and potential victims.

    When I left school in the 70s, I went to work at a fun-fair where we had our own resident psychic (The Boss’s mother). A cold cynical and skillful woman who could turn on the mystical charm like a light switch. She had all the props, and was very convincing. All the fairground workers knew it was a scam and knew how it worked because she showed us how to cold read and how the props worked. 95% of the punters were fooled. They genuinely believed. Over the years I picked up many more snippets of info on this kind of manipulation.

    In 2011 we interviewed you on The Skepticule Podcast and you told us about a project you were working on but couldn’t give any details just yet. This turned out to be Project Barnum and I was blown away. All these techniques I’d heard about over the years were all documented and concentrated in one place. The techniques even had names. I really wanted to get involved with what you were doing, a noble cause without being a dick. I shed a tear when you closed it down and I felt your frustration in your “Retiring Barnum” blog post.

    In general I’m with you on this. Rational education, critical thinking and evidence is probably best, but Hayley, some of these psychics are just so despicable that I see red, emotion takes over and I want to see a cold clinical takedown in true Randi/Popoff style.

  3. I was at the Chip Coffey show where the sting in question went down, I was sitting in the back watching it all.

    In a response on her Facebook page, Ami Bruni said, “Why do you care how others spend their money and time?” In cases like this, I care for the same reason that I care when others lose their life savings to the likes of Bernie Madoff, or lose thousands of dollars to a Nigerian scam, or to a fake IRS scam. I care because I’m a fellow human being and it bothers me when someone is wronged, even if you can say it was their own choice. It bothers me when people spend money under false pretenses.

    If Chip Coffey billed himself as “I’m going to entertain you by pretending to talk with your loved ones and tell you what you want to hear, or what I think you need to hear,” I’d have no problem with it. Because, honestly, the man IS entertaining, and he clearly has some skill at reading people.

    But here’s the thing: At the show I was at, a young woman (completely unrelated to the GSoW sting) stood up to ask Chip about her loved one. When Chip asked her how long it had been since he passed, the answer was “Last Saturday.” The man (not sure if it was the woman’s husband or boyfriend) was about 30, I think she said. Chip proceeded to tell her that the man wasn’t being “allowed” to communicate, it was too soon, but he (Chip) was getting that old saying, “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” The woman nervously laughed at that, and more-or-less agreed that the man would have agreed. Chip repeated that saying at least three times. Then he urged the woman to call him for a private reading in a week or so, when the man would be allowed to communicate.

    Did the woman leave feeling better? Perhaps; I didn’t talk to her and it was hard to tell by looking at her. But even if she did, it was based on a lie.

    Did Chip Coffey take advantage of a woman who was completely vulnerable, still in the raw pain of losing a loved one only a few days before? Absolutely he did. To none of the other people that he talked to that night, not the GSoW people nor the others that he did a reading for, did he urge them to get an expensive private reading. Only the young, extremely vulnerable woman. I’m sure that Chip-believers will respond by saying that he was genuinely wanting to help her. Sure. For a price.

    In your previous post you said, “It isn’t always about being right and it isn’t always about point scoring.” I totally agree. This is a place where the public perception of skeptics is out of line with reality, and I’m frankly surprised that, as a proclaimed skeptic yourself, you repeat it. Skepticism and skeptical activism is NOT about being right. It’s about the truth. It’s about what the evidence does and does not support.

    The truth is that Chip Coffey proclaimed that he was talking to the loved ones of the GSoW stingers when those loved ones were either non-existent or not dead. That is not one little human mistake, that is three times (three supposedly dead loved ones) a statement that is at glaring odds with reality.

    You are right that believers don’t need to be rescued from themselves, no one associated with this sting was trying to do that. People do, however, deserve to have as much good information available as possible in order to make informed decisions. That’s all the GSoW were trying to do, gather and spread information.

  4. I think the problem stems from saying that “deep down”, you’re a “believer” in ghosts. “Believer” and “sceptic” both have certain connotations to them that just can’t be avoided. It’s a sad fact, but people either assume you worship Dawkins or the Gauss meter. Being anywhere inbetween makes you an anomaly stuck between warring factions.

    I say this as a non-religious, science-loving, occult-loving Fortean writer and paranormal investigator. I don’t classify myself as either believer or sceptic. I love the paranormal, yet I have varying opinions on it and am fine with bluntly saying, “I have no idea; it’s as-yet unexplained.” Over the last 20 years, I’ve changed in some ways, one being that I dislike the work ‘ghost’ and prefer ‘ghostly phenomena’. It sounds trivial, but while ghosts (i.e. spirits of the dead) have strong religious implications, what interests me (and I feel needs to be studied far more) is the phenomena people ascribe to ‘ghosts’. Whatever the cause may be, the range of experiences people have warrants for more research and far less dismissiveness, in my opinion.

    But that doesn’t matter; like it or not, I’m stamped a “paranormalist” and tossed in the lunatic pile. Because everyone can be pigeonholed into categories neatly like plant species.

    Any meeting between both sides is like Christmas dinner with your relatives. In the end, someone is drunk, someone else is crying, and everyone’s appetite is completely ruined. People don’t like those of us in the middle trying to stay neutral; we’re pulled by both sides as if it’s a custody battle. Playing nice or respectfully disagreeing isn’t allowed. The unbiased voice of science is drowned out by people shouting personal agendas back and forth. No one listens to anyone else because they’re right and the other person is wrong. Instead of anyone asking the important questions like what causes certain phenomena, one camp shouts, “Swamp Gas! Venus! Hallucinations!” while the other screams, “Disembodied souls! Demons! Interdimensional beings!”

    It makes my head hurt sometimes.

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