Derren Brown vs Faith Healing

There are few things more difficult for the skeptic to let go of than their faith in their own intelligence.  After all, recognizing the untruth of something lots of people believe in (gods, psychics, bigfoots) does give one a sense of intellectual superiority.  I've certainly been guilty of a sort of mental vanity that is borderline absurd — not because I'm not smart but because no one is smart enough to overcome the inherent fallibility of the human mind.  Smart people are often just better at tricking themselves into believing whatever it is they wish to be true.

And this is why I so appreciate the work of Derren Brown, a mentalist and magician who captivated me last year when I read his book "Tricks of the Mind".  He reminds me of Stephen Fry — brilliant, funny, atheist, gay and charming — like something from an Oscar Wilde play, not of this time.  Derren's schtick is to do magic tricks while explaining why the mind falls for them — he's sort of like a psychologist of magic.  It's similar to Penn & Teller, but his tricks are less sleight of hand and more sleight of mind.  He has gotten some flak in skeptic circles because he usually has a trick or two he doesn't explain, retaining some of that appeal to mysticism that he's otherwise debunking, but it's all part of the show.

If you share with me a love of the horrifically compelling documentary "Marjoe" or the delightful Steve Martin film "Leap of Faith", or if you just hate swindlers, especially those abusing religion to take advantage of people, then you'll be interested in Derren's latest TV Special, slated to air in the UK on C4 Monday night at 9.  It is called "Miracles for Sale" which is a rather tame title considering the subject matter.

The special will follow Derren's attempt, which one assumes was successful since it's airing, to turn an average Joe from the streets into a faith healer, using only tricks of the mentalist trade.  Basically, he's going to see if people fall for obvious fraud.  Derren claims that this is not about God, but about exposing fraud, though it can't help but paint religion and the entire idea of faith healing in an intensely negative light.

Although I don't hide my own lack of religious belief, my repulsion at this scam comes as much from my days as a Christian as it does from simply being a human being observing ego- and money-driven fraud.

As a former Evangelical, Derren manages to have street cred with Christians, although many others see his de-conversion as some sort of personal insult or, typically, a sign that he was never really a Christian in the first place.  And of course he's already getting the kind of braindead responses you'd expect from the faith healing crowds.  "U say there's no proof of genuine miracle?  Where have u been looking??  I've personally SEEN the blind SEE the Deaf hear and many other miracles…" "Jesus heals people all the time.  It is not faith healing though.  When Jesus speaks to someone they get healed.  Everything he does works."

So much for helping those in need.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-O9aNl2Xrk&feature=related

I get e-mail! (TL;DR edition)

I have an account on OKCupid, mostly because I use it to take tests and answer questions, though I have in the past used it to date. I often get messages that are perfectly ignorable, but occasionally I get ones that are interested in my skeptical positions. A gentleman who is my age sent me a message, and here is the conversation we’ve had so far. Any editing is just to make it more readable.

I just wanted to say, I am totally interested in you and I kinda wanted to expand my mind by entering into a debate over religion and politics with you if that’s cool.

I start first by saying that I’m totally mature and open to even the deepest levels of debate on these taboo subjects…even deeper than most would feel comfortable.

Next, I was raise in a single parent home where my mother (who her own mother died of cancer) believed in GOD but hated his ass. When I was 13, I found GOD, and my Dad, and read the entire bible. My Dad who was a devout christian abuse me from 13 to 15.

I have seen a lot of shit and I’ve grown enough to realize that while there are things that occur that made me believe that GOD does exist, I too like mother hates even the mere thought of it. That some being over saw my life and CHOSE for or allowed that shit to happen…and to happen to all of the others in the world that suffer daily without justice or sufficient help.

I believe that religion is a method of control used to keep us in check. If life had no purpose than why would we buy IPODs right!?! They want us to buy and consume. It’s a fucking trick. It has ALWAYS been a political tool.

Now then, with that being said. I DO believe in and have witnessed to events occurring that appears to be beyond coincidence…like fate or something…I can’t explain it….Anywho your thoughts?

I was also raised in a single parent home by a devout mother, she lost both of her parents to cancer at a young age.

I was about 13 when I became really interested in religion because it all struck me as untrue. I read a lot about world religions, I wanted to see if anything struck me as true because the bible never had. Eventually, I decided I was agnostic, until 9/11 at which point I sort of dropped the whole interest in organized religion.

I’ve never seen anything that I think the only explanation could be god. Usually when exploring something either scientifically or statistically, rare events are actually very common. I obviously cannot speak to your specific experiences, as they are personal, but I can tell you that the experience of religion is a psychological one that people who are not religious can experience — it’s a set of chemical reactions, like the ones associated with near death experiences.

I think spirituality, particularly a questing one, is generally a positive thing, so long as it’s not overly credulous. People who believe anything they hear are prone to being swindled or hurt. Organized religion, on the other hand, is a manmade institution posing as a Godly one — and for that reason generally capable of the kinds of evil most men don’t even dream of.

Outstanding…I misspoke earlier…Instead of saying some experiences prove there is a God…I should have said some experience make me believe in the extraordinary or supernatural.

I totally believe that we are only conscious matter floating in space…but I also believe that things can occur that aren’t readily or easy explain…though I’m sure can be with the right mind. I’m speaking more about probability here because EVERYTHING ELSE CAN BE EXPLAINED THOUGH SCIENTIFIC AND LOGICAL METHODS. But can someone explain how or why back in 2007 when I was needing money for my family so I buy a lotto ticket, the 19 year kid behind me buys the same ticket scratches the jackpot…I can’t explain that…but I was pissed at who ever orchestrated that little joke on me….just saying..

Anywho thanks for humoring me this was fun…..Oh and I totally wish I typed what you typed earlier….cause I totally agreed… :)

Well, almost all the people who buy lotto tickets are in need of money. Socioeconomically speaking, the most economically disadvantaged tend to be the biggest buyers of lottery tickets — this is part of the reason that a lot of people have moral problems with state lottos as they are essentially a tax on the poor. So, everyone who ever buys a ticket is going to be horrified that someone else got the jackpot when they didn’t. People are incredibly self-centered, and so they remember the odd things that happened in which they were the star — which is why this stands out in your memory. In reality, if you ever play the lotto, the odds are pretty good that you won’t win, however someone has to actually win it. So while your odds aren’t that good, your odds of encountering a winner, especially if you play often and spend time with others who do as well, are pretty high.

God, I love you!!! I mean I freaking LOVE YOU!!! You’re sooo honest but equally informed, like Bill Maher or the old non bitch-assed Dennis Miller. That analysis of my 2007 lotto situation felt like…..liiiiike…..like a HARD kick in the nuts with a steel toe boot and I didn’t even braise myself. I just turned around and then WHACK!!! Right in the balls, yet in some masochistic way it welcomed….I can’t explain it really…I feel like revealing some other personal things about myself so you could dissect them again….then ram your results down my throat!

That was a joke…I’m not a creep…

Anyway – My retort: You’re totally right. I AM self-centered. Everyone should be. My interpretation of the world is based on MY own experiences as is EVERYONES. (World- including any cultural, societal, and spiritual beliefs/moral.) While this IS true (as I say, at least for me) I find that I’m also unusually empathic to the plight of other Sapiens though I can’t ever completely hone cultures that are totally different from the one I was raised (Western Civilization).

With that being said, I can not help my dark and selfish nature. I DO desire more than what I have, though I have more than most human beings because of our “luck” in being born here in privilege.

Referring back to your aforementioned statement regarding the emotion poor, arrogant, idiots endure from losing at an inherently masked and corrupted faux-tax dubbed “the lottery” – why can’t I assume that since I was “lucky” enough to be born out of oppression (African and South Asian countries) that I’d also be “lucky” enough to win the lotto AND not FEEL so self-centered!…. :)

One more thing, I have to go to work tonight around 5:30pm til 6am the next mourning so If I miss your reply today than I can’t reply again until this time tomorrow mourning…Thanks again for the attention.

If you think about all the encounters we have every single day, it would actually be really strange if there weren’t any coincidences.

My mom, for example, thinks she has the ability to make me call her because sometimes when she thinks of me, I do call her. But I call her all the time, and she probably thinks about me often. She just remembers when the two overlap and forgets all the times she thinks of me and I don’t call, or all the times I do call and she wasn’t thinking of me. Selective memory and confirmation bias.

Hmmm…..Totally feeling the coincidence theorem, but I feel that there’s more. Jesus-babble aside, How do you feel about telepathy, or ki energy/ aura manipulation, or other forms of extrasensory perception? My feelings towards these subjects are totally rooted in science.

I think all of that is, not to put too fine a point on it, complete bullshit.

Seriously!?! Really though!?! Crap, I have SOOO much more to say but I HAVE to leave for work in 30 mins. BUT BEFORE I GO – String Theory??? Quantum Mechanics??? Alternate Dimensions???

I think that particle physics is very interesting, but I think there’s a big difference in string theory and the nonsense put forth by “what the bleep do we know”.

Huh?? I don’t follow…What is “What the bleep do we know”??? Is that the name of something…like a noun. A title of a book or TV show??? What is the “nonsense” that you speak of. Can I google it for more info?

Anyway, I need to speak more about your mother’s supposed clairvoyance and how I feel its purposed presence is relevant to several theorem posed by some credible names in Quantum physics…..But first I need to eat my Corn Pops and watch Fringe….So I’ll typie type a little later. :)

Ok, sigh…..I know I’m JUST typing you back…but I encountered a traumatic experience last night and I’m soooo frustrated by it that I can hardly stand myself.

Here’s what happened: Last night, I disconnected my netbook then sat down stairs to watch Smallville and Supernatural while simultaneously typing my feelings on your “My Mom’s a telepath” example.

I typed soooo much stuff, and during second half commercials I went to my kitchen to blend some juice and frozen fruit. While I was doing that, Smallville was airing a showdown between Clark and an old Lex. So I sat down to watch this. Another commercial comes so I run in the kitchen to stop my blender, pour my beverage then sit back down to chill. When I looked back at my netbook, it was turned off. I figured it went to STANDBY. But when I tried to log on I realized that the friggin battery died!!! I gathered the wall plug then turn on my N-book, and realized then that NOTHING was saved!!! NOTHING!!!! I was livid!

Anyway, I don’t feel like remembering EVERY-FREAKING-THING I typed so I’ll summarize: Your mom COULD HAVE thought a thought that was “mentally emailed” and then received by you at the time of her first thinking of that thought, but that single thought wasn’t enough to overpower EVERY OTHER thought that you were thinking at that exact moment. So that thought “To Call Your Mom” was deferred to a later time/date or not EVEN important enough for you to store in your long term memory. So you forget the thought…until you “remembered” later only by then you think it’s your original thought then you call but LONG after SHE originally thought the thought in the first instance. It’s actually hard to measure unless you were doing some sort of trial experiments or something.

Thoughts “POP” into our heads ALL of the time but our primitive levels of cognition are always prioritized over all other less meaningful/important thoughts. For instance, hunger or pain or fatigue – all forms of discomfort – WILL cause you to forget or postpone even the most important of your daily tasks.

Imagine this experiment: Clear your mind of as many distractions as you can. Ensure that you’re completely comfortable. Then see if you can feel the thoughts of someone else in close proximity. The feeling should resemble the feeling of when a thought just “pop” in your mind.

There’s sooo much more I want to say about this subject but I want to send this (before my battery dies again) and have you respond to see if this even interests you…because I may need to change the subject I guess…..

Are you familiar with Occam’s Razor? It’s the premise with the least contingencies, the least clarifications, the simplest premise is usually correct.

What is more likely? That I usually call my mom several times a day regardless or that the entire world’s understanding of physics is incorrect and there’s some magical way for one brain to communicate with another, regardless of proximity, strength of connection or thought? A way of communication that has been repeatedly proven false in laboratory tests.

Basically what I’m saying is everything you just said is nonsense with no evidence and a complicated explanation for something that has an incredibly simple, natural explanation. No supernatural forces necessary.

http://listverse.com/2008/04/10/top-10-psychic-debunkings/

Magical!?! SUPERNATURAL!?! Ouch… Look, Ms. Tech – Einstein said matter and energy are equal. You and I are matter. We also emit low electromagnetic waves. Is it SO far fetched to believe that our bodies can interpret incoming “waves” as information!?! You’re starting to sound like a FLAT-EARTHER! lol

Okay……Okay, sorry about the name calling….I like to keep an open mind to EVERY possibility….plus I’m a little sleepy and in turn cranky. I’ll message again when I’m rested…again, I’m sorry :)

You are mixing your concepts. There’s no reason to think that people emit thoughts via electromagnetic waves. So, assuming that you could even detect electromagnetic waves, which humans can’t because they don’t have the necessary sensory organs, unlike sharks for example. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ampullae_of_Lorenzini ) Electric fields are generated by muscles, which your brain is most certainly not.

Furthermore, even in a conducive body (ie water), even with organs specifically directed to that purpose, sharks cannot sense small electric fields from great distances.

Finally, we’re not talking about something that no one’s ever thought of or investigated. It’s not like string theory, where it’s difficult to run experiments. Hundreds of experiments on psychic powers have repeatedly shown that any form of telepathy is complete and utter bunk.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xrbtt_110-esp_tech

My Dinner Date with PZ Myers

I have no camera, but I do have an iMac.  Apologies for any legibility issues, it says, “Notice: No Squid!  This is Bullshit!  PZ Myers.”

That’s the Gideon Bible what I stole and kept because it was green.  I stole it because that’s generally my MO in hotels, but I didn’t throw it away because it was green and I didn’t have a Bible to desecrate reference.  I got it signed because I had the brilliant idea at midnight when talking to a friend who was super jealous he couldn’t go.

I’ll probably do a separate post about the whole conference thing, but the dinner was really neat.  Firstly, there was someone else wearing the Squid vs. Noah shirt, and there was a very cool and interesting guy from Anchorage/Irvine/England who was wearing lime green.  I have forgotten his name.  There was also Phil Zuckerman and a cute blonde guy in glasses, who were sitting a bit down the table but occasionally joined in.

But dinner was really cool because it was basically just hanging out with some really interesting smart people who enjoyed snark.  And I learned new things about PZ.  We hit a broad range of topics but I’ll give the highlights.

We talked about his experiments with zebrafish.  Apparently fish in captivity are really dumb, and fish in the wild are really clever.  I’m not sure how much to talk about because apparently some jerkface stole something about the zebrafish experiments from PZ’s blog and published it so I don’t want to spoil anything.  Suffice to say we spent a long time talking about zebrafish and it was pretty interesting.

We talked about Neanderthals.  I asked how do we decide that Neanderthals are a different species from us since we could interbreed, to which PZ gave the witty reply that they are all dead, that’s how.  I’m fond of Neanderthals because they had red hair.

We talked about the Uncanny Valley and the creepy proportions of the Shroud of Turin.  And how the fingers look like they’re made of rubber.  Funny Alaskan said they were tentacles, and I made a jab about Onanism with tentacles for fingers and PZ drifted into a reverie for a moment or two.

I got to be directly catty about the comments in favor of the genital nicking on the part of pediatrics.  I feel often that my comments are fairly ignored over there, which isn’t that big of a deal, comments seem mostly about hearing yourself talk anyway, but it was nice to feel heard on the issue.

I found out PZ’s opinion on Andrew Sullivan (nuanced), Episcopalians (relatively OK with), men hijacking any thread about women to make it all about them and their issues (aware of), Dr. Who (for), Macs (for), Linux (against!), PZed (against!), Australians (arrogant bastards insist on saying PZed), and steak (medium).

I also got to see the cover of his upcoming book which apparently needs to be written.  I give the cover a B+.  It has tentacles, an elephant and a great deal of purple, but it doesn’t have PZ and there’s something weird about the color scheme in general.  I suggested he get a quote from Trophy Wife TM and if that happens I’m just going to go ahead and claim credit right now.

I never quite figured out what he was vaguely irritated with Michael Shermer for.  Michael Shermer, by the way, looks eerily like Jonathan Pryce and has a weird arrogant swagger to him that is both compelling and a bit unsettling.  He was super nice when I talked to him and I got his newest book, so nothing personal there, just an observation.

I also saw PZ at lunch where he said he knew what his grandmother’s face looked like when she orgasmed, made fun of Utah and Mormons, and laughed heartily at my True Stories About Atheism.  I made my mother’s friend cry when I told her I was an atheist.  Hysterically she asked, “Don’t you want to get married and have a family?!”  I told my ex-Catholic mother when she was taking me to college that I was atheist and she said, “I’m so disappointed you don’t believe you’re going to Hell.  Wait, that came out wrong.”

There was lots more and I don’t remember it right now, but if I think of it, I promise I’ll add it.  It was totally worth the money.  And not just for PZ but for the other interesting people who also wanted to have dinner with PZ.  It was all very snarky and civilized.

I forgot to ask him if he’ll do a bit appearance in Bible Con, my script making fun of Christians and atheists, if it actually gets made.

EDIT: The rest of the story: http://ashleyfmiller.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/ocfa-conference-2010-where-i-met-pz/