Skeptical Commentary Following Tragedy: Exploitation or Education?

May 8, 2013

A few weeks ago, after the Boston marathon bombing, I wrote a two-sentence Facebook post pointing out that psychics had failed to predict the attack, and suggesting that if they had the powers they claim innocent lives could have been saved. I didn't write a long blog or column about it, but simply briefly noted the psychic failure.

Yesterday when news broke that the mother of Amanda Berry, one of the kidnapped girls rescued in Cleveland, had consulted "psychic" Sylvia Browne and been told she was dead, prominent skeptics such as Ben Goldacre, D.J. Grothe, Sharon Hill, Mark Edward, Barry Karr, and others joined me in pointing out that Browne had been completely wrong.

But not everyone is happy about this.

A few people responded on my Facebook page and elsewhere to state that this sort of commentary (limited though it was) is inappropriate, that skeptics should not point out psychic failures in tragedies like these. They feel that commenting on events like these smacks of exploitation, a sort of hijacking or co-opting of a sancrosanct event in which commentary should be focused on sympathy for the victims.

Is it somehow insensitive or exploitative for skeptics to point out that psychics failed in these cases? Should skeptics remain silent when an event occurs that makes it clear to even the most obtuse person that psychics are wrong? To be fair, only a handful of people (and even fewer skeptics) complained, but I felt that their point was worth examining more closely.

In both cases a sudden, unexpected tragedy occurred in which psychics could reasonably have been expected to give accurate information about a life-or-death event. In one case psychics failed to predict (and help warn against) an important tragic event, and in another case a prominent psychic gave provably wrong information about a tragic event (and failed to locate and help rescue a missing girl she was asked specifically about).

In the Boston bombing, three people were killed and hundreds were wounded. The Cleveland case is no less horrific; details are still sketchy, but it seems that three young girls were abducted and subjected to physical and sexual abuse for years-perhaps up to a decade. Both are potentially sensitive cases involving crime, life, death, and horrific tragedy. And in both cases it is fair to point out that psychics made glaring, indisputable errors.

No one-and certainly no skeptic-was gloating about these tragedies, crassly exploiting them, or in any way diminishing the gravity of the situation. All we were doing was commenting in passing about one particular aspect that would otherwise likely be missed by the public, and trying to educate the public.

The fact is that psychics are often consulted by (or offer their services to) grieving families, those whose loved ones have been abducted or killed. It is psychics-not the skeptics who help expose them-who try to gain money and prestige from people's sorrow and misery. It's inherently an exploitative business, which is why so many prominent skeptics (myself among them) are out there trying to educate the public and put an end to the exploitation.

Being timid about publicizing and highlighting psychic failures serves no one but the psychics, and it robs skeptics of a salient opportunity to bring psychic failures into the public eye. These events were, to borrow a hackneyed phrase, "teachable moments." It's not that psychics hadn't glaringly failed to predict other important, potentially preventable history-changing tragedies (such as the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks), nor that psychics such as Browne had never been wrong about the deaths of missing children (such as Shawn Hornbeck in 2002). It's that these are events that we're all talking about at the time, and a skeptical view could be added to the conversation.

Teachers and psychologists know that when you're trying to teach something it is much more effective to use a real-life, concrete example that everyone has heard of than it is to give an abstract, theoretical, or historical example. Commenting factually about one often-overlooked aspect of a tragedy is not exploitation, it's smart education and community outreach. Tragedies and events such as the Boston bombing and the abduction of Amanda Berry and the others invariably spark discussions about what could have been done differently, how signs could have been missed, and so on. In those discussions it's perfectly legitimate to remind people when psychics fail, and remind people of the real-world consequences of psychic failures (and what the world would be like if psychic powers were reliable and proven to exist).

In my experience it's very useful to take every opportunity to remind the public that psychic detectives consistently fail, and that their advice is far more likely to harm a police investigation than help it. The public usually only hears one side of the story; in books and magazine articles and on TV shows, psychics regularly run roughshod over the truth, exaggerating and in some cases fabricating their claims of success. It is far rarer that people get a chance to hear the skeptical viewpoint, from myself or Randi or Mark Edward, or Michael Shermer, Gary Posner, Jim Underdown, Joe Nickell, and others who focus on psychics. Because skeptics are in the tiny minority, we may only get the rare chance to make these points to the public regarding a situation most people have heard of.

To longtime skeptics it can often seem like we're repeating ourselves. But it's important to remember that many of the things we know and take for granted are not necessarily obvious or shared by others. I sometimes get tired of saying the same things, but my skeptical colleagues remind me that you can't just say something once and expect anyone to hear it. Audiences are constantly changing; the people you write for or speak to one month may be different than the people you write for or speak to the next month. Even if they hear what you say, they may not be paying attention, or may not think it's relevant to them. So you can't just point out psychic failures in one high-profile tragedy or missing person case and feel you've informed the public.

If skeptics can get even a few people to think for a second before giving money to a psychic, or listening to one, then to me it's worth it if one or two people feel that maybe it was in poor taste or "too soon." The potential consequences are too high; when you're dealing with psychics who claim to have special precognitive abilities but cannot (or, worse, inexplicably choose not to) warn people about preventable tragedies and terrorist attacks, the gloves need to come off. When you're dealing with callous grief vampires who lie to grieving mothers and tell them that their missing children are dead, the time has passed to be genteel.


#1 Todd W. (Guest) on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 8:37am

Sharon, thanks for your thoughts on this. The Berry case moved me to comment about Browne’s failure because I was so enraged at how grieving families are taken advantage of by people like Browne. As I wrote my post, I tried to keep very much in mind the families affected and to not be exploitative about it. Hopefully I succeeded.

#2 S.Hill on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 9:58am

Err. Ben wrote the above. Not me. But maybe I was the tweet link that got you here.

But here I am to comment. I would not have mentioned psychics in response to the Boston bombing because it was not part of the story. Sylvia Browne was a direct part of this story, telling the mother particulars about the case and then it’s all made worse that the Mom died thinking Amanda was dead. That’s VERY DIRECT and a perfect opportunity to point out the harm done. We had the transcript for goodness sake. Powerful stuff.

I would say that at the end of the year, to feature a story about psychic fails, to point out how often they missed a big event, is appropriate. It does seem harsh to do it for every event they miss, everyday, all the time. Then, the message may get tuned out. Strategic highlighting, like this current story, is skeptic gold. I’m very glad to see the coverage about it is widespread and I suspect it means the end of Sylvia’s career (considering her age).

#3 Benjamin Radford on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 12:15pm

Sharon’s point is well taken, and it is true that psychics were not part of the Boston bombing story specifically—just as they were not part of the 9/11 story, or any other huge event that psychics SHOULD have known about if they have the powers they claim. In a way, of course, that’s precisely the point, and pointing out negative evidence (what didn’t happen) can be just as useful and valid as pointing out positive evidence (what did happen).

I also agree that it would be harsh (and pointless) to do it all the time, with every psychic miss because it would be constant. That’s why I’ve only pointed out such psychic failures in three or four high-profile events over the years. And in the Boston case I only wrote two sentences on it, and mentioned it in passing.

I do have to wonder whether this will spell the beginning of the end for her…

#4 Dorion on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 12:33pm

While psychics may not have been directly or immediately part of the story in Boston, they ARE part of Radford’s story. That is, he’s been tireless in his investigation (and criticism) of their claims. For him to make the connection and the commentary makes complete sense to me, and I had no problem with it (tender as the subject admittedly was).

I suspect much of people’s negative reaction to Radford’s quick comment has to do with agenda fatigue. Who ISN’T tired of pundits exploiting every visible event as a cudgel for their pet cause? (See: Rep. Louie Gohmert’s completely insane ramble re gun control and gay marriage.)

If Radford had forced his mug into the 24 hour news cycle to use Boston as a platform to push for legislation of psychics, I’d see it differently. As it was, I saw it as someone who regularly speaks on the very topic reminding people that psychics continue to fail.

#5 aminfidel on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 12:51pm

good job, Ben Radford.  psychics should be help up for examination/exposure every chance there is.

#6 Will9090 (Guest) on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 3:15pm

I myself do not believe in gods, devils, heavens or hells.  I do not even believe in a separate reality that people call the “spiritual”.  However, I am not omniscient and going to say that the paranormal, ghosts, esp, psychic ability and the possibility of alien life forms ABSOLUTELY do not exist.  I am not going to take the non-scientific approach of jumping too quickly to conclusions I have no evidence for.  I do not know everything about everything so it is stupid for me to “instantly dismiss” the possibility of such things.  Pay attention carefully here, I am not saying that such things are real yet COULD be a possibility.  I have to have evidence and proof in order to be convinced such things could be true.  I have always said that the paranormal phenomenon of ghosts and psychics could be things science hasn’t explained yet.  I think it is childish and narrow minded to make fun of those who believe in such things.  How do you know with 100% certainty that such things are NOT possible?  I am sure some and their arrogance would spend all day trying to argue away such things despite evidence.  I also think it is interesting that the academic community instantly looks down their nose at any research into the paranormal or the possibility of ufo’s.  Why?  Are they afraid to have their FINAL CONCLUSIONS proven wrong?  Yes, I feel it is human arrogance which is why they call such research pseudo-science or act like people are crazy for daring to think outside the norm.  I do think it is disappointing that some instantly say such things are not real.  I think it would be better to DOUBT that such things are real.  DOUBT is not saying you believe anything yet are open minded to the POSSIBILITY that such things could be real.  In regards to psychics, I have to say that as an atheist I am convinced that the human mind could have some potential we may not be aware of.  I do have a friend that has been consistently accurate when it comes to such things.  I have no explanation of how they are so accurate yet I think it is a “natural” phenomenon and NOT spiritual.  To say it is “spiritual” is to suggest there is more than one or a “separate” reality to which I disagree.  There is only ONE REALITY and to think otherwise is insanity.  However, I do feel there could be different dimensions from the scientific perspective.  Also, to suggest that nothing happens after death is to be as silly sounding as those who claim they go to heaven when they die.  The fact is nobody can die and come back and be able to prove with certainty what happens.  What if we have a separate energy body that disconnects its self from our corporeal body and simply moves on in a non-corporeal form thus explaining ghosts.  Anyway, I don’t know and have no scientific evidence for such things.  What if there is other life in the universe?  Why do some instantly say this is not possible?  Are they a God that knows everything about this reality?  We discover new life on our own planet all the time and nobody calls people crazy for seeing a new species.  My point is that too many skeptics think that being “skeptic” means instantly dismissing the possibility of ghosts, esp and aliens.  It is absurd that these types of skeptics think they are “omniscient”.  The next time you (speaking in general to all) say someone is crazy for saying they had seen a UFO then it may be that you are crazy for jumping to conclusions and instantly dismissing others claims.  I do take all things with a grain of salt.  I just take the approach of DOUBTING everything and not believing anything.  However, to not test or even consider other possibilities is really limiting one’s self.

#7 Steve (Guest) on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 4:14pm

Thanks for calling out this despicable charlatan. It was absolutely appropriate to do so, although I imagine it would have been more difficult if the circumstances were the opposite (if Browne had claimed the victim was still alive when indeed she was not). What’s most saddening is that the girl’s mother, who presumably believed Browne, had lost the will to live according to friends and relatives.

#8 Bernie Mooney (Guest) on Wednesday May 08, 2013 at 7:30pm

I think it was the right thing to do. People get hurt by these frauds and this is coming from a guy who has many problems with skeptics.

I think this is a good example of how skeptics can actually contribute constructively rather than just be perceived as party poopers. (that sounds worse than the way I mean it) And that’s where my main complaint lies.

Whether someone believes that ghosts, ufos etc exist is of no consequence to society at large. It’s benign. No one gets hurt by those beliefs. That is why I think skeptics should concentrate on things that can and do have real world ramifications. Lord knows there’s enough of them. (oops! Sorry for invoking the title a non-denominational deity) This is one such issue. That’s where skeptics can make a real positive contribution.

Now, having said that, I don’t mean that skeptics should refrain from providing real explanations for seemingly paranormal events or weird sightings. And by “real” explanations I don’t mean, “it could have been…”

#9 don2135 (Guest) on Friday May 31, 2013 at 12:32pm

I think Wil9090’s comments would have been more valid about 50 years ago.  Psychic phenomena have been examined to death and keep coming up empty.  After a while it’s just time to move on.

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