Saturday, October 20, 2012

Weekend Post - They're just charlatans

We’re surrounded by people who are deceiving us. I’ll be charitable and acknowledge that some of them are doing it out of ignorance, some of the ones selling us “alternative” health remedies and potions. I’ll be charitable. I suspect that a few of them genuinely believe the rubbish they say when they claim acupuncture, homeopathy, reflexology and QXCI machines actually DO something. Of course there’s precisely no evidence that they do anything, there’s even an enormous body of evidence suggesting that they do nothing at all but maybe these people haven’t seen that yet.

They’re the na├»ve, perhaps even gullible ones who believe they’re actually helping. My disdain is reserved for other groups.

Firstly I have moderate contempt for those that secretly suspect that their cures, potions and practices are nonsense but deliberately close their eyes to the evidence, presumably because they’re making an income out of it. And yes, despite the way “alternative” practitioners present themselves, they’re in it for the money. Their products and services aren’t free. Luckily for them there’s more than enough people who are easily conned by smart-talking salespeople selling pseudoscience and miracle cures. Who want money.

There’s another group whose outlook on life is reliant on nonsense: the believers in magic. It somehow fits into their worldview that science is bad, progress is evil, that there are magical explanations for complex phenomena and that fairies, hobgoblins and thokolosi exist. They believe in nonsense in a deep, almost religious way. For them nothing would be better than humanity turning it’s back on progress and diving back into the dark ages when we were all “more in touch with nature”. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that we were also more in touch with smallpox, dysentery, staggeringly high levels of child mortality and a life expectancy in the 30s.

Then there’s the least palatable crowd, the ones for whom I have complete contempt. The people who know they’re lying. Amongst this despicable group you can find a horrible mixture of so-called traditional healers, fake TV evangelists and my pet hate, psychics.

I suspect that everyone reading the Weekend Post knows that so-called traditional healers are charlatans. You’ve only got to read the stories in the tabloid press about how many are arrested, how many are illegal immigrants and the cons they pull on their unsuspecting victims. Like the fake termite mound one group of them created that contained a cellphone and speaker. A fellow crook could then call it and produce the voices of ancestors to convince the victim to part with more cash. Complete crooks.

You might think this is comical but presumably the (admittedly very gullible) victims were presumably desperate for help.

TV evangelists are worse. Perhaps the best example I know to illustrate how corrupt they can be is Peter Popoff.

Popoff was (and remains) a con-man. His ability to “see” the personal details of sick people who came to his miracle conventions was remarkable. He would “know” everything about his gullible victims in the audiences, including the illnesses they were suffering and even their home addresses. Of course this was all a huge con. The attendees had all filled in a questionnaire as they arrived and then Popoff’s wife would read the details to him over a radio link to a tiny receiver in his ear. After Popoff’s scam was exposed by James Randi he rapidly went bankrupt but that didn’t stop him bouncing back a few years later appearing on TV selling “miracle spring water”, “holy sand” and more cons.

You can still see the same thing happening with a variety of TV evangelists. The people who attend the meetings often are required to supply their personal details before they attend. These days it’s simple for the evangelist’s support team to then discover all sorts of things about the worshippers before they attend.

That approach is called “hot reading” and is a common technique also use by so-called psychics. A little Googling can unearth all sorts of facts about you that you might have thought were secret.

The other technique used by psychics is a little more clever. “Cold reading” involves a mixture of educated guesswork and responding to the clues the victims give as they talk with the psychic. Here’s a simple example. I sense, through the newspaper you’re holding, or the web page you’re viewing, that you’ve lost a relative or friend whose name starts with M, or perhaps S or E? If you respond by telling me it was one of your grandparents I can also be fairly certain they had some chest problems in the year before they passed away? Or perhaps problems with mobility? Of course a psychic does this face to face. The moment he sees your eyes light up he’ll know he’s onto something and will seize that as proof he has a connection with your lost relative. You’ll conveniently overlook the initials he got wrong or the non-existent chest complaint.

Psychics and TV evangelists use these techniques repeatedly to produce their fake miracles. The reason is simple: money, large quantities of it. The good news is that just a little knowledge of psychology and of hot and cold reading can help people see through their tricks.

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