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.