Maybe it’s just me, but I have noticed a steady increase in the amount of pseudoscience and paranormal programming, books and interviews in South Africa. I’m not talking about the hoax e-mails and old-wives tales I am bombarded with on a daily basis, I mean the increasing number of pseudoscientific books in the “Science” shelves of the local bookstores, the increasing numbers of “psychic medium” books on the other shelves, the plethora of psychics and other peddlers of nonsense being interviewed on local radio and TV and the overwhelming explosion of “miracle cures” and scientifically unsound remedies being advertised and sold on the TV, radio and in pharmacies, natural health stores and supermarkets throughout the country. And let’s not forget the intrusion of religion into our public schools and being spouted from the leaders of the South African state institutions.
Whenever I am in a bookstore (which is NOT a small percentage of my time spent in shopping malls) I go straight to the science shelves. Obviously, this is where my interest lies. Unfortunately many South African book stores have very poorly stocked science sections. What irritates me more though is when the few precious feet of shelving space dedicated to science are invaded by the unscientific drivel that I am compelled to move to its rightful place (OK, the rightful place is the garbage dumpster out the back of the mall, but I can’t put them there, I’m sure that would be illegal in some way). At first I tried taking the offending books to the cashier’s desk and asking that they pack the books which are not SCIENCE in more suitable sections. That stopped when I watched the manageress of the Estoril Books in Fourways Mall bring the pseudoscientific books right back and put them in the space I had just removed them from, while I was standing at the next shelf over!
Well, that sure showed me. Since that day I have taken to relocating the books myself. I follow a few basic rules when I do so, because I’m a little obsessive about putting things in their right place. Let me share with you a few hints, just in case you are a bookshop shelf packer (these are guidelines based on my own experience, of course, and not necessarily infallible);
- An author who includes some kind of honorific on the cover of his “science” book should probably be regarded with some scepticism. “Professor Hotpants McTightshorts, MD” (not his real name) is probably relying too much on his alleged qualification and might also be trying to cover up the lack of science in his book by establishing some kind of authority to carry the reader through the book and be more inclined to accept what he is saying.
Why not compare a few scientists with street cred? Those authors who value the stringent guidelines of the scientific process and go to extreme lengths to perpetuate scientific accuracy in their popular works;
- Carl Sagan
- Richard Dawkins
- Simon Singh
- Edzard Ernst
- Steven Pinker
These are all highly respected scientists with published books in the public sphere and I have never seen any of them use any kind of honorific on the covers of their popular works.
- If the book’s cover contains the words “the bible is scientifically correct”, do not – I repeat DO NOT – put the book in the science section. The bible is NOT scientifically correct and only the most hardcore believer would even try to prove that it is. There is no scientific correctness in the Bible! Put it in the damn religion section where it belongs and stop polluting the science section.
- Likewise, any claim to use science to prove any kind of psychic ability should be regarded with extreme caution. Be thorough here. “Dr. Icanseeyour Future MD” needs to have been published in a peer reviewed journal. Does the scientific community support his “research”? Do they even consider it worth the time and effort to try and reproduce it? Scientists are a curious bunch, they have to be. Furthermore, discovering a new phenomenon, especially some kind of previously unproven one, would lead to massive interest and an injection of capital to do further research. The key here is that if there has been no follow up, no further publications and no arousal of scientific curiosity, there is probably no real effect. Pack this book in the Mind, Body and Spirit section.
- Does Deepak Chopra endorse the book or make any claims as to the author “revolutionising science and unveiling a new paradigm”? Put the book in the Mind, Body and Spirit section. Simple. This also applies to books on which the cover features the words “not since Newton, Einstein or Darwin” (or any other combination of popular scientists). Scientific progress is made by incremental increases in the body of knowledge. It is extremely rare for someone to come along and single handedly revolutionise a discipline. Sure, it has happened. But is the author truly able to compare his unproven ideas about healing through touch (or whatever) with a theory as groundbreaking and widely accepted as Einstein’s theory of General Relativity? Seriously?
Once I have established that a book is of little scientific value, I move it. It’s that simple. Sure, I might get into a little trouble, but I think it’s worth it to know that I’m doing my bit for the future of the human race. A future which cannot be predicted, not even by all the psychic mediums popping up like toadstools all over South Africa’s media.
Psychic mediums seem to be spreading like the plague in South Africa. Barely a day goes by where I don’t hear some reference to a psychic on the radio or television. If you find yourself tempted to believe in the powers claimed by some “psychic” do yourself a favour, read The Psychic Mafia by M. Lamar Keene. The fictional character of Madame Flora in Menotti’s opera The Medium sums it up perfectly when she says;
Listen to me!
There never was a séance!
I cheated you!
Do you understand?
Cheated you, cheated you!
Keene’s book details his 13 year career as a spirit medium and after reading it you will never again be fooled by someone claiming to speak to your dead relatives, or someone who claims to use psychic powers to reveal information about your life (even incredibly detailed information like your ID number!). Trumpets, materialisations, ghostly ectoplasm and many more, are revealed for the deceptive tricks they really are. If you are not convinced by The Psychic Mafia to at least be sceptical of psychics there truly is no hope for you. Take your brain out of your skull and frame it because it is a wonder of the world (and you’re not using it anyway).
Psychic mediums are taking advantage of the gullible. They are knowingly defrauding people, stealing from them. The next time you hear someone claim that they are psychic, ask yourself (and the “psychic”, if possible) a few of the following questions;
- Has he applied to the James Randi Educational Foundation for the MILLION DOLLAR prize? All a medium would have to do is to prove that he has any kind of psychic ability and he will be awarded a million dollars. When I say prove, I mean PROVE to a committee of open minded people that he can perform the stated task in a test devised by him and the testers to be a fair method to establish the truth of the claim. Who wouldn’t do that if they had an actual ability? I wouldn’t waste ten minutes! I’d be filling in the application forms at the drop of a hat!
- Has he made any testable predictions which have not come true? By this I mean has he actually nailed his colours to the wall and stated that X will happen and then X does not actually happen. This is important because an obvious miss shows that all of the medium’s other claims should be treated with suspicion. When Marietta Theunissen confidently states that the spirits have told her that the next coach of Bafana Bafana will be.
Of course, the field of psychics and fortune tellers is more crowded with aspiring frauds than Durban Beach in December, but that doesn’t mean that any of them is actually tapping into some mystical force, bending the laws of physics and talking to the dead. It’s a ludicrous proposition without a shred of evidence. But thousands of people are conned out of millions of rands by these frauds every year.
“Alfred Russell Wallace, one of Darwin’s greatest collaborators and progenitors was a dedicated attender of spiritualist sessions, where ectoplasm was produced by frauds to the applause of morons” – Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist
Even when a psychic is publicly exposed as being a magnet smuggling conman, they seem able to brush the facts under the carpet and carry on fleecing people as if nothing had ever happened. Why? How is it possible for someone to be found out, to have his deception de-masked, and to continue stealing from people with the same party tricks? I think it comes down to the power of the frauds advertising agent. If my spin doctor can create enough positive hype, the negative blot is wiped from my name. Luckily in today’s internet-empowered society, that stain can never be truly erased. The evidence is always available for the curious mind to rediscover and then the conman has to start all over again.
This applies to pseudoscience, phoney psychics (there isn’t any other kind), bogus remedies and healthcare scams. No magic pill, no bendy spoon will ever be able to hide from the harsh light of exposure again. With enough people searching out the frauds, with enough people standing together and refusing to be duped, we can actually make a difference. It will start small, and it will take a long time, but I will not rest, I will not give up. Beware fraudulent peddlers of phoney baloney, the Skeptic Detective is on your case. If you make a factual claim which is not backed up by the evidence, I will do everything in my power to reveal your trickery for what it is!