Friday, October 21, 2011

Psychic Kids, Skepticism, and TMI

And the most evil show on television not involving Jenny McCarthy marches on......

Rebecca Watson posted Mark Stewart's report on the Psychic Kids panel at DragonCon today over at Skepchick. I urge you to head over there to read it. Nothing really has changed. The show still makes me physically ill, their psychologist is still a full fledged believer which makes her largely useless for these poor kids, and the believers still ignore all skeptical criticism by building strawmen to beat on while ignoring our actual arguments.

The "all psychic children are mentally ill" strawman always gets under my skin.

I'm not going to deal with Mark's report here. If interested, go read it. It is good shit.

Instead, I want to try to explain why I hate this show so much. Yeah, other paranormal shows presented from the classic believer viewpoint annoy me, but nothing else paranormal inspires this level of revulsion in me.

I haven't always been a skeptic. From 12 to 20ish I was heavily involved in Wicca and other new age forms of witchcraft. If this show existed then, I could have been on it.

Was I mentally ill? Not at all. Part of it was rebellion. I wasn't indoctrinated into a religion until 11 when my mom decided to return to Catholicism and force it into me. Part of it was the time period. In my backwater town, Wicca and the like had just began hitting the bookstore shelves in force and I would read anything. And a large part of it was just feeling broken and searching for anything to believe in. Every member of my family, all my friends, everyone my young mind knew at the time all believed in some form of God.

I believed because my extensive pagan library told me what I was doing was real. My mind would seek coincidences and attribute them to spells. My experiences were filtered through the lens of pagan belief. And of course, my circle of close friends all either believed as I did, or weren't confident enough in their own beliefs to question mine.

Belief in magic, witchcraft, psychic ability, etc, is set up to defy any proof against. Spell didn't work? Sometimes they don't. Couldn't connect with a spirit? Sometimes they don't want to connect. Asked to prove it? Sorry, nothing will work if a non-believer is around. Bending reality is hard enough work as it is.....

My first year in college, I would sit in the off campus coffee house and read the Tarot for spending money. My accuracy amazed not only those I read, but myself as well. At first I'd maybe do a reading a day; after the first month I had to turn people away. I thought I had proof finally.

Then I took my first Psych class and my entire worldview shattered. I didn't know the term "cold reading" yet, but I knew why my readings were so accurate, and it had nothing to do with the cards or the paranormal. I was using what I had picked up of human psych on the streets to read people for clues. I would start with classic general cold reading statements, stopping at each card until the client recorded a hit no matter how many different avenues I had to travel to get the hit, and gradually forcing them to give me enough information to supply a stunningly specific hit on the last cards.

I spent the next 4 years examining every other paranormal belief I held without the assumption that they were true, while still clinging to any shred of belief I could muster.

Then came the self-destruction as I could no longer be the person I had been for the last 12 or so years.

All kids who claim to have "powers" aren't mentally ill. I've never even seen any of us make that claim. Some are to be sure, some are attention seeking, some are suggestible, and some just have a perfect storm of causes surrounding them.

I can not even begin to imagine how much worse off I would have been with a tv show and adults I respected confirming my beliefs at every turn. Could I have ever escaped? And, perhaps more importantly, how much worse would it have been if the beliefs did crash around me?

These people are sick, and I don't mean the kids. Some of these kids will become the next generation of TV psychics, and some of them will get out relatively unscathed.

But some of them are going to watch their entire lives crumble around them. Watch the persona this show helped to create disappear leaving them alone to try to figure out who they are and how to make sense of the past how many years.

And some of them are not going to be able to get through the fallout.

Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I'm convinced this show is going to have a body count. If not from outright suicide, then from drug abuse or other self destructive behaviors.

I tried it all without a TV show.

I hope in 15 years or so when we can do actual follow-ups on these kids that I am proven wrong.

1 comment:

Foster Disbelief said...

Lactosefermenter at skepchick commented:

There is a simple test to determine whether someone who claims to be psychic is telling the truth…

Ask them to tell you how many fingers you’re holding up behind your back.

A simple task for someone who is truely psychic.

Keep in mind there is a 10% chance they would get it right just by guessing so they should have to repeat the test should they give a correct answer.

My response?

Problem is, at least in my experience, any “psychic” would not only refuse your test, but deny it had any meaning.

I personally never claimed I could perform on cue like that. That would be a “vulgar display of power” and cost me in the long run. Not that I would have tried, but if I did attempt to guess, no amount of wrong answers would have convinced me.

The key is listening to the “psychic” explaining exactly what he/she is going to do, watching/examining while they perform, and then explaining to them exactly how they did what ever trick they happened to do. Even then, cognitive dissonance is going to wall them off from your explanations a good bit of the time.

My beliefs didn’t shatter until I realized exactly how I was performing the “paranormal” ability. Even then it wasn’t easy.

It isn’t about coming up with a test that you feel is valid. It is about confronting the exact claim the “psychic” is making and showing them exactly how they are doing it. Until that moment, I could have rationalized anything.