A Skeptic in Paris

My plans for a blog entry this week were supposed to be around an advertisement for a perpetual motion machine that I had seen whilst watching a match earlier in the week. Unfortunately there was a death in my girlfriend’s family and I had to travel to Paris for the week. This by the way is my excuse for the delay in my post. The trip did however bring up a lot of skepticism related topics that ranged from homeopathy, dowsing and my all time favourite subject Religion. When it comes to subjects such as this I think of myself as one of those old water features you see in Japanese movies. The ones where the water drips slowly into a container until finally it reaches the point where it is heavier than the counterweight keeping it in place, and the water spills over. For me, the drip, drip, drip of pseudo-scientific claims and religious observances take their toll in the same way.  The murky waters of woo eventually overcomes the resistant counterweight of tolerance and topples the container. The question is did I manage to prevent that happening whilst doing my utmost to support my girlfriend in her time of need. Well let’s see…..

I knew going away that with a catholic ceremony ahead of me there was going to have to be some lip biting and tolerant nodding on my part. This is usually quite difficult for me as I have an especially low tolerance for religious bullshit at the best of times and the temptation to pipe in with even modest criticism is usually a stepping stone to scenes of me spewing a constant stream of argument at an unsuspecting believer. This tends to be punctuated only by whiskey travelling at the same rate in the other direction with predictable consequences. I have to mention this is also not helped by my limited grasp of the French language. Not only does it result in many things getting lost in translation but the scent of a discussion related to any sort of ‘Woo’ is very seductive when your previous five conversations have revolved around such lofty topics as the weather, me being Irish and how tall I am. (It’s my fault entirely to be fair, I’ve had 6 years of French in school and a girlfriend who teaches French for an addition 6 years and yet I learn nothing). Faced with this religious ceremony I took care to ensure I was respectfully dressed in my best (and only) suit and that my diplomacy dyke, as Tim Minchin would put it, was as strong as it ever was.

The first drips started soon. With the ceremony in French I was insulated from a lot of the language of the mass but my familiarity with the whole ordeal from my time as an altar boy, six years to be exact, left me with a rosetta stone of bullshit with which to decipher what was being said. It was the usual servile crap about the wisdom and beauty of god and how we are merely granted time in this world at his pleasure. The donation basket was bandied around the church with obvious intent. Like religion does best, it was taking advantage of people at their most susceptible. The majority of the people in the room, my girlfriend assured me, were actually Atheists. Some believers I’m sure were there but when we were asked to place our hands on the coffin to pray, everybody complied irrespective of their beliefs. Everybody that is but me! I admit that at first I was going to join in so I wasn’t making a scene but I held back and luckily there was no, discernable, reaction. The next part of this grandiose ceremony had the holy water being passed around with what looked like a metal baby-rattle for us to all douse the coffin with. After my heroic stand (shut up it was) against the last peer pressure ceremony, I reluctantly took the magic stick and sprinkled the magic water on the coffin. Honestly, I just didn’t want to give the impression that I was showing disrespect. I barely knew my girlfriends grandfather but I knew enough about him and what kind of person he was to respect him greatly. Cracks were forming in my respectful facade, however, and eye rolling was becoming an unconscious and all too frequent response. I was far from breaking though and even managed to resist saying something ‘disrespectful’ as the numerous ten euro notes were placed in the collection basket as people left the church.

Onto the short journey home with my girlfriend, her father, her mother and myself in the car ,where a conversation had started between them about a friend of Fanny’s mother. I will qualify this story with a description of Fanny’s mother first. Angel is her name, pronounced On-Gel, and she is, without doubt one of my favourite people. She is a genuine, caring, intelligent and remarkably loving person. She holds beliefs that are completely opposed to me but never condemns me as close-minded or zealous, which is something all too common amongst most true believers. Angel does however hold a lot of superstitious beliefs. She visits a psychic and gives readings herself to people over the phone. This is not with the aim of getting money out of them, I will add, but with the aim to help them. She is also a big proponent of homeopathy which I know can’t be true, never mind just being improbable. For homeopathy to be true, physics and chemistry have a lot of explaining to do. The story of Fanny’s mother friend, you with me?….ok, we’ll call her Suzie for convenience sake, is that Suzie has cancer and a pretty aggressive form of it. The conversation in the car revolved around how it was horrible that Suzie needed to take over 50 pills a day. I sympathised and asked what she was on. (I take methotrexate for Arthritis and knew it was used in some cancer treatment but, honestly, I really just wanted to have something to say). The pills however turned out to be most homeopathic, or in other words, fucking useless. I raised my concerns about this slightly hoping not to rock the boat. No real response! The conversation passed on as the drip, drip, drip continued, albeit quietly, in the background.

Drips continued over the day in the form of references to the afterlife and granddad looking down on us. The kind of thing you can brush off and allow as the day to day approach that a lot of people have. So, dinner done with, and Fanny off to bed after a long day, Alain, Fanny’s father, and I had our usual drink and discussion about life the universe and everything. This is where the cracks really started to show. Now, Alain and I agree on a lot of things and he is a very rational man but occasionally we come across a topic that we both hold firm positions on and things can get heated a little, however when they do, a level of respect always keeps it just below the boil. Further to the drips of the day that lay lingering in the background, there was the addition of a dousing session by Angel using a pendulum and chain to predict to future. Add to that a large quantity of alcohol, consumed by yours truly, and my cup overfloweth.( The dousing  by the way was explained to me as Angel’s body’s intuition, feeding information to her brain which then travelled to her arm and manifested as a circular pendulum motion for yes or a back and forth motion for no. Questioning why she couldn’t just intercept it when it got to the brain was met with no reaction. That comment was a sign that I was already teetering on the verge) Alain and I went on to talk about science and the emergence of society and culture and whether it existed outside of the human species and to what degree. You know, the kind of light and fluffy topics that pepper most nights of drinking. This continued with varying degrees of success due in part to alcohol and in part to the language barrier. So it went on until we reached the topic of homeopathy and vaccines. Now, having listened to a lot on both these arguments I have a fairly good command of the facts. I know the facts of herd immunity and the fabricated controversy over thimerosal that was regularly fuelled by ignorant irresponsible celebrities like Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy until it was eventually removed and shown, as predicted, to have no fucking effect. Because of this information I am particularly susceptible to reaching a, what’s a good way to put this, agitated state. These fuckers are ignorant of what the truth is and they are endangering people because of it. It’s amoral and it’s supported by the TV evangelists like Oprah who preach it to their slavish followers. The same ignorant masses that depend on the opinions of these morons so they can decide what clothes to wear and what books to read. The blood boiled as similar ideas ran through my head and they, unfortunately, came out in my conversation with Alain. He was giving credence to the idea that homeopathy was scientifically invalid but still felt it had a place in medicine because Fanny was always treated by a homeopathic doctor. Pointing out the non-validity of anecdotal evidence and the logical fallacies in his arguments only drove us deeper into our positions. The accumulation of two days of ‘grin and bare it’ led to a proper row with him doubting vaccines and supporting homeopathy, and me, driven by what I considered a justified position, arguing against him and calling into question his morals.

Ok, so that was a bump on the road to being the supportive non-judgement boyfriend, here to help, that I wanted to be. Fortunately, Alain and I are practically impossible to offend. We hold our opinions out of what we at least imagine is a reasoned position and we respect that the other person holds that view for their own reasons, even if we disagree. So things moved on. That was Wednesday and I worked for the next couple of days from their house in Paris and in that time I got into a few discussions on twitter. With twitter, I generally seek out those people who hold opposing views to me. I love debate and more importantly I always want to put myself in the mindset of the person who believes in something that I can’t believe in. The arguments are usually futile to be fair but they do give you a unique insight. On twitter you are occasionally faced with people who will never change their minds about something. This is mostly due to the fact that I generally argue with fundamentalist Christians and there is rarely any place for facts in their philosophy.(I like to say that debating fundamentalists is like playing charades in a straight-jacket, unless the answer is crazy, you don’t stand a chance) It did, however, draw a comparison for me with the discussion with Alain. After days of suppressing my skeptical muscles I was entrenched in that mindset. Not voicing it just made it all the louder in my head. The reason I saw this was because, in our discussion, Alain was not voicing his objection to vaccines in the way that the moron Jenny McCarthy does, he was actually looking at it from a statistical risk perspective. I still think he was wrong but I didn’t see his argument for what it was at the time. I was too determined to vent some of the pent up frustration of the previous two days and because of it I defaulted into what I had read before about this argument. These were positions that Alain knew about but just didn’t agree with. Now, just to be clear, Alain is wrong regardless of the reasons why, so don’t think that I am justifying his position. The point is, that because of my blurred perspective at the time, there was no hope I would ever turn him around to see my position. I wasn’t arguing his points, I was fighting Jenny McCarthy. I was referencing my book of information to dismiss his position without really listening to it and because of that I was as bad as the guys who quote verse to me over twitter. Skepticism and a natural offshoot of that in my opinion, Atheism, are both reliant on reasoned discussion. That’s what this blog is about for me. Learn the arguments and know how to convey them. Don’t memorize the lines but instead learn the subject so you can help other to understand it. There are many paths to the wrong understanding of something and because of that it’s not just one battle of ‘Us against Them’. ‘Them’ is a group of people who believe something that we might see as unreasonable but possibly for very different reasons from each other. Unless those reasons are addressed specifically we will never change minds.

Sally Forth-coming

A week on from my first introductory blog and I’m fairly sure my prediction of readers being restricted to my close family and friends has come true. Still I will persevere and hopefully attain even a modest following. Anyway, on to this week and the decision about what to write has to be dealt with. So far this week I have come across a scam for a perpetual motion device to power your home, an article by Tim Minchin on censorship of his recent appearance on Jonathan Ross’ new show and advertisements for the Sally Morgan’ Psychic show, on in Dublin in the coming months. Where to begin and does it warrant writing a full blog entry about?

Tim Minchin manages to capture the whole JR Show thing himself pretty well as you might expect and you can read that here: http://www.timminchin.com/2011/12/22/im-not-on-the-jonathan-ross-show/. The perpetual motion machine I will actually save for next week because it really is a highly concentrated form of pseudo-scientific bullshit they are peddling. I have to read up if I am to do justice to the lies and deceit being spouted by these rainmakers. What’s more, they use the typical ‘Secret that the big energy companies don’t want you to find out about’ shtick to lure in the painfully ill-informed public. I mean how many times does this need to be shown to people? Haven’t they heard about the first two laws of thermo………..urrghh….mff…..ok!! That’s for next week. For now I will draw my sights on the figure of our seemingly innocuous entertainment psychic Sally Morgan.

To begin I would like to start off by saying that in assessing Sally, I will at least attempt to remain honest through a thin veil of impartiality that hides the contempt that I invariably hold for anybody wishing to speak on behalf of people who can’t speak for themselves. In my opinion, a self interested business woman whose lies, created for her own self serving interests, can only be changed in the mind of the victim by an equally unscrupulous charlatan whose motives, we can only hope, are as altruistic as our Sally’s. (I do also have to mention that there is the possibility, however slight it may be, that she is a genuine person merely trying to help those in need with what she believes is an actual power. Although I couldn’t condemn her for that if she is so deluded, I don’t believe this is the case, I just have to admit to there being a chance) Anyway, on to my impartial review!!

Ok, let’s start off with our Sally’s site. A quick google and you get a nice taste of what’s in store. The second link I find, after the ticketmaster site selling her tickets, is for her site sallymorgan.tv. The first line under the link is the pricing, which really does get to the heart of what she really is about. Let’s not be confused here people, her site shouts, this priceless gift of psychic powers must be charged at a rate of £1.53 at least, lest we cheapen what has been bestowed upon us. Once into her site you are instantly hit with offers for her books and tour events all nicely accompanied with the smile of the unassuming and warm woman we can all trust. I’m not sure yet whether she is intentionally dressing in a comical way or not but I imagine it can only help to allay any fears that this is anything but a regular woman just trying to share the gifts god gave her. (By the way if this seems dripping with angry cynicism, then rest assured it is completely intentional and comes from the heart, he says as the thin veil of impartiality drops limply to the floor). Accompanying Sally on her adventure are many fellow psychics manning the phones to answer your questions and give readings to anybody who requires a meaningful interaction with a lost loved one and who subsequently has the cash to backup this need. The site consists of many plugs of various Sally merchandise you can buy and a helpful blog where Sally can regale you with stories of people fleeced in lands far and wide and of course testimonials, speaking to the validity of Sally’s undoubted power and how she has affected the lives of those around her.

So, how did this lovely lady do when visiting Ireland last you may ask? She is coming back so she must have done something right….right? Well actually it turns out it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Reviews for her show seem to fall one side of the fence or the other but what I see as the most important point is that the reviewers all seem to be people who held some initial faith in our Sally. Who better to ask than them? So what were their major complaints? Let’s take a few examples and examine the reasoning behind their satisfaction with the show or otherwise. I’ll kick off with those who liked it and move down to the ones that give me a little hope in this otherwise bleak scenario. The final review is the kicker and leads to a part of Sally’s story that might not be well known to those of you who live outside Ireland.

The first satisfied customer review of her performance shows that she is definitely an entertaining night out even if you do hold a level of scepticism about whether it’s actually true or not.

“not sure if I believe or not, but hey ho what a show, I loved it…

Favourite moment: when Sally was talking about the man who was there one minute and gone the next, his sister was sitting in front of me.”

The favourite moment however reeks of the broad stroke approach used by most cold readers. In a crowd of two thousand people, the odds of finding a person who knew somebody who died suddenly is going to be overwhelmingly in her favour. In these cases you are spoilt for choice especially if the numerous references in other reviews to the desire people had for readings, irrespective of whether they applied, are true. Example of this is the next review which gave the show a 3 star rating:

her first half of the show was much better because people were willing to let faith take its course if it was meant for u it would happen but in the second half people became desperate for a sign or reading and would put there hands up if Sally said boo! She was accurate a few times but I think people’s desperation to get value for money slowed the show down! I would go again but wouldn’t rush to buy tickets like I did this time.

The wording of the second part of that review is what bothers me the most. ‘She was accurate a few times’ is the type of thing you would imagine would raise alarm bells of ‘it’s not real, it’s not real’ in the back of your mind. The dead are apparently initially restricted to exclusively giving gender and initials up until the point where somebody has said it’s their Great Aunt Gregamira or something similar. From that point the guessing starts and in the mind of the observing believer, accuracy is a reflection of Sally’s success, however any and all inconsistencies or failures end up being put on the person who apparently mistakenly let Sally read them. This is common throughout and regularly in the reviews that award her 3 or more stars, it crops up. Here are a few examples:

4 Stars:

I was in the balcony and could see that numerous people putting there hands up for each new reading but one particular group in the front put their hands up for everything, eventually they railroaded themselves on to a reading, that only half a name applied to them (ryan looking for cath, her name was catherine but didn’t know a ryan, this took 15 mins to get to this fact) it was very dragged out but it was due to the crowd, not sally

3 Stars:

Poor Sally. She really didn’t get a chance. As soon as she mentioned a name A member of the audience would call out and say it was for them. The problem was it rarely was for them. With the result the “message” never got to the intended person. This went on all night. I spoke to a number of people outside and they almost all agreed that it ruined what could have been a good night.

And this 2 star review ends on a very telling note:

First half was definitely better than the Second. Not sure if it was Sally or the audience as in the wrong people standing up etc which wasted a lot of time to find the right person to whom Sally’s messages were aimed. Overall disappointed with the show and undecided as to whether we would attend again. Our friend was very disapointed as the last message may have been for her but as the “house lights had gone down”, Sally wouldn’t finish the message which was frustrating.

I mean, Sally is claiming to be in the position where the dead relative of a person sitting in the audience ahead of her has a message from beyond the grave. A message that this person obviously wanted so much to get on to the audience member, that shuffleboard with Elvis and Newton had to be put on hold, not to mention the daily TV appearance from the dear leader that the deceased all know and love (that might be North Korea, I’ll have to check). Nonetheless, Sally says no!! The lights are off which means the show stops. Stick some more coins in her ass, the bullshit jukebox has stopped. Although the writer of this particular review seems to have been undecided on our Sally, the friend was obviously still victim to the need to believe and more upset by not having been included than deciding whether inclusion was worthwhile.

There is a serious case of cognitive dissonance going on here, he said hoping he was using that term correctly. People are reasoning around the evidence to get to the position they believe in. Facts are merely obstacles to what they ‘know’ is true. I mean 3 stars for somebody who rates the show like this?…

3 stars

Disappointed I didn’t receive a message myself but I don’t think those who did receive a message got much comfort from them, as they were very vague.

I mean COME ON!! The pieces of the puzzle are staring you in the face and when you put them together it spells fraud (to mix metaphors).

Ok, quickly on to one specific negative review found on the site and then the real point about whether our transcendent host for the night is deserving of a full house on her glorious return. The review shows a nice indication of the magic of television and lends some explanation as to why she is able to draw crowds of approximately 2000 people a night.

I was very very disappointed wit the Sally show
I always watched her on tv and she came across
Very sharp and sincere on tv. Her show was nothin like that
She didn’t give many msgs to people and I felt it was
More of a guessing game, I couldn’t believe how different it was
From her tv show, it was a real let down. I would never
Go to see her again nor would I watch her show
And would advise anyone who thinks of going to her
Not to waste their money.

This was found surrounded by the more common one liner reviews along the lines of, she’s a fake, don’t buy into it, and what a waste of money. A healthy perspective from someone who identified that they were tricked by a well produced TV program and finishing nicely with a new outlook and revised opinion. There is hope yet! The main interesting review however is this one and it triggered a minor controversy in Ireland and the UK:

Myself and 9 members of my extended family went to see Psychic Sally last Sunday, we were really looking forward to it! Overall we were really disappointed with Sally, she came across as if she was playing with people’s heads, most people she spoke with were searching for answers after tragic death circumstances, I had never thought about this before when watching her on TV. One person thought she might have a message for him as he was adopted and didn’t know if his biological mother was alive or dead, she quickly brushed him aside and told him that he had family in Australia! What a thing to say to someone who is searching for answers! Also we heard on the Joe Duffy radio show the next day that the people in the back row could hear a mans voice behind their wall, basically talking to Sally obviously through an ear piece telling her what to say!! She also regularly said ‘this is amazing the work that I do’ I thought this was a bit weird, she was trying to convince us that she was amazing. I’m afraid to say that I think Sally is a scam, making money from misfortunate people, what a disappointment!!

Sally has voices she hears alright but unlike her claims that they have been with her since she was a child, these are more related to the man at the back of the theatre feeding her the information. Ok then, get the presses rolling and let’s get the word out. She can’t survive a scandal like this can she? I want the TV to show me spinning newspapers with pithy headlines that involve puns on Sally’s name and slate her for the fraud she is. Cue the interviews and discussions about Sally’s show on news stations and radio shows like the BBC News site. BBC did do a piece on it and the status quo, of showing both sides of the argument, resulted in Uri Geller weighing in with his opinions on the truth claims of a fellow con-artist. Uri is regularly dancing back and forth over the lines of calling himself psychic one day and then implying he is just a magician when his transparent crap falls on its ass. He, toeing the line, decides to say nothing really meaningful at all except to claim that some frauds exist and they tarnish the reputation of ‘real’ psychics. He also gets the last word in being able to attack the man holding the skeptical position, finishing off with ignorant bullshit about déjà-vu and the sense people get when they go somewhere for the first time but know it already. This is his standard for proof but I didn’t honestly expect more from him.

So where is the nail in the coffin of Sally’s credibility? Does scandal like this not lead to doubts and questions about the validity of this woman and to a small extent the whole profession? The answer is no and most people will agree with me that true believers can’t be turned around on the truth of their beliefs; like the reviewer’s friend who strained to hear the final message of the night in a vain hope that it would be directed at her, even though she had been unimpressed by the whole night. Her need for closure, the same need that Sally is exploiting, is what drives her belief and not her reasoning about whether it’s true or not. I’m sure those who managed to get readings that they were happy with, came away from the experience immune to the reports of possible fraud. ‘It worked for me’ and ‘That was definitely my Johnny telling me that he accepts my apology for the issue with the money’ (or something similarly vague) are bound to be their overall impressions.

So what’s the harm you say? Where does the line get drawn between comfort and the need for that comfort to be based on reality rather than magical thinking? For me, broad belief in this crap and acceptance of it from those who don’t believe, inevitably leads to the victimisation of a minority few. By the way, that’s being generous to the swindlers here. I wouldn’t be surprised to find ‘minority’ is a wholly inadequate adjective to describe the offense this market of lies produces and equally unsurprised to find ‘minority’ only a suitable tag for those who actually gain something from this disingenuous masquerade. It grants somebody who is completely removed from the relationship of the two people involved, the right to speak on behalf of one of those people. They abuse and lie for money and their victims are those of us in the weakest positions.

Sally is coming back to Ireland and she is bound to impress a few who are easily impressed, speak on behalf of those she has no right to speak for, and leave in her wake a large amount of vulnerable and confused people who can’t get what they need from Sally because she doesn’t have it. Speaking out against it might not do anything but the alternative is silence and that is too often confused with support. On the other hand, she could just be crazy.

Note: Just to be clear, the reviews I pasted into the blog were taken from the site word for word with spelling mistakes and all included. My punctuation might be terrible but I can use homophones like there, their, and they’re. Just for the record. J