30 June, 2008

Damn You, Morals! I Could've Made Millions...

Confession time: I used to be into woo, big time. I'd been a right little skeptic as a kid, despite loving fairy stories. People would tell me about how accurate their horoscopes were: I'd look at more than just mine and notice that a) every single one could apply to me and b) that amazing romance projected for this month somehow never happened. Not to mention the astrologers seemed to leave themselves an awful lot of outs.

People were always making extraordinary claims. I wanted evidence. Unfortunately, no one bothered to teach me much of the scientific method, so evaluating evidence turned out to be a whole other story. Couple this with some supreme boredom, and you had a recipe for woo. In high school, I fell in with a guillable group that believed a lot of crazy things, including the power of rutilated quartz to fortell the future. I still trot that out for fun sometimes - when people don't understand the way pendulums work and how tiny muscle movements can have a large effect, you can really impress them. Especially when you ask questions you have a high probability of guessing the correct answer to.

Dream interpretation, blowing coincidences out of proportion, channelling, all that rot - had immense amounts of fun with it all. I wouldn't trade those days, either. I wouldn't have gotten into SF without that silly belief in magic and powers beyond human ken. Without SF, I doubt I'd have fallen in love with science. I'd probably be writing pedestrian mystery novels by now - which is where I'd originally envisioned taking my writing career. So no science aside from forensics. No excuse to study absolutely everything in the entire universe. No Pharyngula. No En Tequila Es Verdad. No you. And I really like having you guys around.

SF remained, but I abandoned woo a long time back, after learning enough about science to be able to reevaluate my "evidence" and laugh myself sick over how silly and guillable we'd all been. Woo just irritates me now. People don't think. They don't examine. They'll believe nearly anything. And if I wasn't a moral person, I'd be making an assload of money about now.

You see, I'm good at this woo shit. Being a writer means having to lie convincingly - fiction is nothing more than a pack of lies, salted with enough truth to make it taste good. Back in my woo days, I could persuade nearly anyone of nearly anything: I can see into your dreams. I can see into your future. I can channel. I can wield powers beyond the imagination. Don't even have to break a sweat.

My morals won't let me use that power of persuasion for anything other than fiction. And that's really too bad, because there are a lot of people out there who would pay cash money to have me lie to them. Writing's damned hard. Woo is easy.

Just take Sylvia Browne.

By way of Bad Astronomy, I came across StopSylviaBrowne.com, and this little gem of a takedown. Robert Lancaster went to her show in Vegas and totally pwned her. It's an entertaining read.

There are two things here that make me wish I could meet my morals in a dark, deserted alley and strangle them to death.

One, in order to make buttloads of money being a psychic, you don't even have to be good at it. Her show starts with Astounding Insights. Now me, being a writer who likes to deliver upon what is promised, I would think the Astounding Insights should at least be within the neighborhood of astounding. However, this is how "astounding" is defined in the psychic shyster lexicon:

She then proceeded to spend a few minutes complaining about the weather in Vegas, and said that the dryness was what made her voice
sound the way it did (which sounded to me just like her voice always sounds), and complained that she woke up in the morning hacking and coughing just like a

She then proceeded to give what was, in effect, a commercial for her upcoming cruises, including ones to the Caribbean, Ireland and Egypt. She then proceeded to give a plug for her "Farewell Lecture Tour", and assured us that she would not be like Cher, and have "fifteen of them." She then went on to plug her upcoming book, End of Days.

But wait! There's more. More of the same sort of shit you'd get from your crazy Aunt Dottie. There's no need to pay for this kind of crap when you can collar any woo-loving relative and get it completely for free.

She then moves on to "readings." She's not even trying anymore. Check these unbelievable psychic powers:

These people generally asked the same types of questions that the audience members on the Montel Williams Show do:

What is my spirit guide's name? (Sarah, Raul, Martha, Tiffany, Corinne, Doreen and two Elenas were mentioned, among others).

When will I meet Mr./Ms. Right? (two years, three years, two years, next spring, one year, two years, five years)

What will my true love's name be? (Keith, Joseph, Peter, Carl)

Oh, for fuck's sake. Two Elenas? Read a baby name book, for crying out loud! It's a spirit guide - shouldn't we be talking more along the lines of Ramtha? Shouldn't there be some zing and zip, some jazz, something a little more fucking interesting than a list of whitebread names that fucking duplicate?

Look, if people ask the same sorts of questions every bleeding time, you could at least get a little creative with the answers. Jeez. As an SF author, I'd have the best spirit guide names evah.

That brings me to the second reason I wish I could murder my morals. The clientele make this job cake. Absolute cake. They ask silly questions whose answers can't be proved or disproved, and they want so much to believe they'll swallow anything you feed them. Even when three - three - skeptics got up and asked questions she got absolutely wrong, a woman still followed those skeptics out to the parking lot claiming Sylvia's the greatest psychic in the whole wide world.

Are you fucking kidding me? People are really this lame? Cha-ching! I could be raking in the dough.

Sylvia's not even a good cold reader. I am. I'm a pretty damned good one. And I know better than to try to give specific answers that could be debunked.

The thing is, though, I can't bring myself to do it. I couldn't live with myself, fleecing people. Fiction writing is one thing - it's advertised as fiction, it's got "NOT TRUE!!!" written all over the disclaimer (This book is a work of fiction, all resemblance to people living or dead, blah blah). People know I'm lying to them, but that's what they're there for - a good story.

What Sylvia's providing isn't even a good story. My little high school woo-group, we told good stories. We could curl the hair on a billiard ball. We could make nearly anyone believe the most ridiculous shit possible, and we came up with more creative names for spirits - there wasn't a Martha to be found, and you can be damned sure there weren't two Elenas. We fucking amateurs were so much better at the game. And I could take that, parlay it into a fortune, if I didn't care for people too much.

You see, I don't think people should be duped.

I don't think their vulnerabilities should be exploited.

I don't think it's right to charge someone $100 a pop to lie to them and say their dear dead dad is very happy on the other side and is still watching over them.

I think people should be encouraged to be skeptical, to think critically, to see the world for what it is, not snookered into believing that all of this marlarkey is really truly true.

I'd have to start every show with a disclaimer: "This is all just fun and games, folks. I'm joshing you. I'm having you on. I'm pulling your leg. Don't believe a single fucking word that's emerging from my mouth." And that would either kill the show or make everybody believe I'm the most genuine psychic in the universe. That last is just not something I could face.

So the easy money's right out. Can't do it. Which is really too bad, because I'd love to see Sylvia's furious face when I stole her believers away....


Nicole said...

Dana, what's my spirit guide's name?

Also, you could very quietly advertise your services as fiction and you wouldn't really be fleecing people.

george.w said...

My sister gets this service on the cheap - in fact she makes money believing. Somehow she has convinced herself that every time she finds a penny, it's our dad watching out for her. Since her life has been full of pain and trials this is a great comfort to her. I don't understand the logic but I am careful not to tamper with it.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you could try to be the next Derren Brown... (A few weeks ago PZ posted a link to my favourite shows of his "Messiah" - some serious and much needed woo-busting!) Have just been reading his book Tricks of the Mind which is definitely worthwhile for any sceptic!

Eric said...

Whew! I know exactly what you mean. I used to read cards for people at parties. Interestingly enough, I would just wing the interpretations of what the cards meant (I just used regular playing cards as they were more handy, and had a vague idea of how the tarot deck is interpreted, so I would make up the missing bits) - but I wouldn't actually answer questions, just lay out the cards, interpret their arbitrary meanings and let the person come up with the relationship to their life on their own.

At the time, I kind of half-believed this (re: the difference between gathering and analyzing data). But I see from my more mature position now that I was basically allowing them to fool themselves.

Damn Morals... I wouldn't even have to *lie*.


Hmmm- how about a non-fiction book entitled, "All this is bullshit"...

BTW- I came over from Pharyngula - and stayed because I *like* the company of elitist bastards- cheers all!

JB said...

Randi, Penn&Teller, Banacheck, and lots of other people do make a good living doing just that - telling an audience they're using cold reading and trickery, then doing it anyways.

It's a lot more fun for the audience when you look at it as showing off a well honed skill rather than using some mysterious magic power.

Cujo359 said...

For me, it was the Ancient Astronauts thing that taught me to be sceptical. For those who might be too young to remember that one, it was a movement that formed around someone named Eric Von Daniken. He believed that space aliens visited here a long time ago and started our civilizations. Or something like that.

I was a teenager at the time all this was happening, and so hadn't developed the sceptical nature I'm cursed with today. But a science program on PBS looked at the claims and the "issues" that Von Daniken supposedly had with scientific explanations for the things he thought were evidence of extraterrestrials. Needless to say, it taught me how gullible people can be. It also taught me that looking into someone's claims doesn't mean reading more of his books. It means finding counter information and examining its validity.

Lightning Rose said...

Larsen: What was my paternal grandfather's first name?

Browne: [after a pause] Howard.

Larsen: No. Thank you.

No, no, no, never ask a question about about a paternal ancestor! How do you know for sure what his name is? ;)

Mechalith said...

I used to be pretty good at reading the runes and other methods of applied vagueness and cold reading myself.

Looking back, it's amazing how easy it is, and somewhat sad that the charlatans of the world can't at least be troubled to display better showmanship.

Bad enough, one would think, to cheat and lie to people... but at least put in a little effort.

Anonymous said...

Been reading for a while (Since either the spike before the most recent Pharyngula spike, or the one before that, my memory is crap for... everything.) and I've been intrigued enough to want to comment before, but damn. This here is -exactly- what I was thinking after I read that bit on BA.

I can't cheat my morals either, no matter how many little tricks and justifications I used. My plan was to try and do it with such a heavy air of sarcasm that I could claim that scamming them is for their own good... but those are just thoughts, and crap ones at that. It would be so -easy-. But I suppose it's best not to try, because I know once I got into the news, the whole charade would break. Especially if the blogs I read called me out on it. Finding a reference to some terrible woo I'd managed to scam folks with on one would likely cause me to shoot bricks from various orifices at relativistic velocities.

Of course, I remember back when I was all for that sort of thing. Psychic powers, energy fields, impending spiritual doom, aliens visiting earth for a spot of tea... all sorts of things. I don't quite remember where my turning point was, though I think it was falling in with a group of Southern Baptists my first year of college, though there were likely moments before that. They were all geeks, sure, but I realized that if they sounded like that, I had to sound similar. That's where the biggest conscious separation from crazy began.

Now I'm just a jerk. One could say an elitist bastard, but it's hard to be elitist when you don't have much to bring to the table. So, just a bastard then!

george.w said...

Having a functioning moral compass makes you pretty much an elite in today's political economy, Andre. So Elitist Bastard it is.

Chaos Lee said...

Exploitation is capitalism in its purest form. See Dana, you are a filthy un-American liberal pinko anti-christ.

(And why we love you)

Efrique said...

That's one of the saddest things about woo - how unutterably lame most of it is. Yet it still works on enough people to keep them going.

I once said "Someone who is good at making stuff up becomes a writer. Someone who is crap at making stuff up becomes a psychic."

I've seen smart people, people with higher degrees in areas peripherally related to science, who believed the most appallingly banal nonsense. Not just ordinary nonsense, but the totally cringeworthy stuff.

What is it about humans that makes us so gullible?

I know how easy it is to get into the trap of uncritical thinking. When I was a very young teen I was taken in by Uri Geller (this is mid-70s). My skeptical stepdad managed to get me to think about it more critically (and later, his skeptical attitude helped me to think about everything more critically). Then James Randi came along and reproduced a lot of Geller's stuff as magic tricks, which blew away any remaining doubts that it was anything but nonsense.

I also saw Randi debunk a psychic who was big at the time. He was thrown off one popular TV show here because his debunking upset the host so much. But by thenm I had seen enough to know he was right, and that it was all just standard magicians trickery. Once you realise its all a show, you can see ho wmuch better they should be doing it.

So it's easy enough to be taken in, but it seems to me, unless you're a willing dupe, it's easy enough to be cured of it, because it just takes one person to stand up and say "Well, I can do that too, except I'm going to tell you how I am faking it".

george.w said...

"What is it about humans that makes us so gullible?"

We're scared, we're lonely, we're grieving, we're ashamed, we're middle-aged and thought there'd be more to our lives by now. Surely, there must be more to existence. And it seems so impossible that the remarkable people we knew are really gone. Or we're young and raised on the myths, as our parents were. If it were not true, then the people we love and respect are wrong. We look up and an awful gulf of cold, dark space yawns above us. We experience pain and we're hard-wired to anthropomorphize it.

The question is: what is it about humans that lets any of us ever come to rationality?