Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Evil spirits and evil scams

Sometimes I'm asked why I care so much if people believe weird stuff.  Isn't most of it harmless?  What does it really matter if people believe in astrology or Tarot card divination?

In one sense, the answer is "it doesn't make much of a difference."  Other than cases where the harm is direct and immediate -- such as taking homeopathic "remedies" instead of seeking out medical care when you or a loved one is ill -- there doesn't seem to be much real damage done by falling for woo-woo fads or being superstitious.

The problem, though, is that there's a less obvious downside to cultivating a habit of credulity.  Once you accept that the touchstone of reality is something other than hard evidence, you put yourself at risk of falling prey to scam artists.  You have let something other than logic and rationality direct your view of the world, and you can all too easily become a victim, not to other credulous true believers, but to callous and calculating charlatans.

Take what has become all too common amongst recent immigrants from Asia to New York City.  Swindlers have begun to approach individuals who are relatively recent arrivals, and who are more likely to subscribe to superstitious beliefs, and have scared them into forking over money that most of them can ill afford by convincing them that they've been cursed by evil spirits.  One 65-year-old was told, "Your son is going to die."  The poor woman, horrified at the prediction, was then told that the man who had made the statement was a "spiritual healer" and that he would avert the ill fortune on her behalf if she would bundle up her money and jewelry, and "lend" it to him to be blessed.  Terrified of losing her son, she did as she was told, and the "spiritual healer" took it away for a while, and returned the bundle a few hours later.  Upon receipt of the "blessed" bundle, she was instructed not to open it for several days to give the magic time to take effect.

When she did, of course she found that the money and jewelry was gone, replaced by a lumpy assortment of water bottles, beans, and cough drops.  The scam artist by that time was long gone.

In less than a year, these swindlers have taken two dozen victims for amounts up to $13,000 -- in some cases, these people's life savings.  Fortunately, police have caught five of the perpetrators and charged them with grand larceny, but by this time the likelihood of the victims recovering their money is probably slim.

What it boils down to is that superstition is pretty unequivocally a bad thing.  It engenders a worldview where magical forces can alter reality, leaving you wide open to being taken advantage of by people who know how use that belief to attract, encourage, or frighten you.  Other scams have involved love potions, good luck charms, and (in some cases) black magic -- but in every case, the victim was cheated out of his or her money, and given nothing in exchange but a worthless bill of goods.

In the New York City case, posters have been put up in English and Mandarin warning people to be cautious.  "It has to do with the idea of not necessarily adopting Western belief systems about magic and incantation systems, but staying with some of their traditional spiritual beliefs," said Alan Hilfer, director of psychology at the Maimonides Medical Center.  "And, in many cases they're so lost and desperate in a foreign culture they will turn to anyone who offers them something in a language they can understand."

I think that Hilfer is right, but I would go further than that.  It is far more than just poor Asian immigrants who subscribe to these sorts of beliefs.  Look at how popular astrology is; look at how many street-corner palm-readers there are; look at the packed houses "psychic mediums" get for their dog-and-pony shows.  It is critical to eradicate superstition wherever possible, and not to pussyfoot around the issue in the interest of being "sensitive."  In the case of recent immigrants, it may not be compassionate, or even possible, to do so; but it is possible in schools.  We can raise a generation of children who are far better insulated against scams than their parents were.  But this is only possible if we are willing to address directly the credulous, irrational belief in superstition, belief that largely goes unmentioned in public schools for fear of treading on toes.

There are two equal and opposite errors we can fall into, with respect to belief.  One is credulity -- believing anything, as long as it is appealing, or frightens you into acting out of fear.  The other is cynicism -- disbelieving everything, because you've decided that everyone is lying to you, and that there's no way to tell what's true.

Both of these, I think, are simply lazy.  Both absolve you of the difficult work of thinking.  It's harder to be skeptical -- to learn some logic and science, and then to rely on your own brain to discern what's real and what's not.  But that's the only way to steer between the Scylla and Charybdis of credulity and cynicism, and the only way to avoid falling prey to people who will be happy to do the thinking for you... for a price.

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