Thursday, November 3, 2011

Paranormal success is a psychic's only power

I've a column on the ABC today, 'Paranormal success is a psychic's only power'.

I'm discussing the strange world of psychics, and the failure of philosophy to attract those interested in novel or different ideas. A sample:
Audiences... suspend their disbelief for the performance, as with a film. And then they never stop suspending it. This is often because of grief, illness, family loss, anxiety – physical or psychological pain, for which psychics provide succour. The danger in this, as Randi argues, is that audiences and customers are misled about genuinely important problems. They ignore medical treatments, for example, in favour of faith healing or other dubious remedies. They avoid psychological counselling, in favour of temporarily comforting messages of eternal life. They spend money – 1.53 pounds a minute, for example, for Sally Morgan's "live readings" by phone – which might go towards goods like education, healthy food, debt repayment. The magical thinking is understandable given our common human frailty, but often unhelpful. 
Who is responsible for this saddening industry? On CNN, Randi described professional psychics as "vultures", who "sit in a tree and… wait for the grieving to come by". Informed by his own stage magician talents, and various debunking studies, Randi portrays most professional paranormalists as rapacious frauds. It is difficult to disagree, though Randi notes that many genuinely believe they have "powers".
Many in the media encourage this. The popularity of astrology in the newspapers and glossy magazines, for example, relies on editors willing to put aside journalistic scrutiny in favour of folk mythology. In 2009 Channel 9 aired advertisements by former "faith healer" and "Miracle Spring Water" spruiker, Peter Popoff, who was earlier debunked embarrassingly on camera by James Randi. There is a buck in bunkum.

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