Embrace Your Inner Skeptic 2: Nobody loves a critic

This is a partial transcript of the talk I gave at St. Charles Community College on December 2, 2014.

  1. Amazing news!
  2. Nobody loves a critic
  3. Why skepticism is healthy
  4. What about religion?
  5. Evaluating information in the internet age
  6. Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
  7. Some advice on community building
  8. Q&A

Being gullible is a problem that affects everybody. If you think you’re not capable of falling for something, that’s exactly the time when you’re most vulnerable. The world is full of people trying to take advantage of you in some way. It doesn’t even have to be a life or death situation. Any time there is a motivation for significant personal gain, you’re going to find someone willing to delude themselves or lie to others in order to rake in a profit.

With that in mind, you would think it’s just common sense to be careful of how easily you accept what you are told. But you’d be surprised at how many people are opposed to skepticism itself, attacking the very idea that you should be critical of new information.

Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra is a new age guru who promotes alternative medicine, and tells people that you can directly manipulate the nature of reality using only the power of your mind. Deepak says:

“I’ve debated skeptics, and am amazed that they mistake self-righteousness for happiness. A sort of bitter satisfaction is what they reap. No skeptic, to my knowledge, ever made a major scientific discovery or advanced the welfare of others. Typically they sit by the side of the road with a sign that reads ‘You’re Wrong’ so that every passerby, whether an Einstein, Gandhi, Newton, or Darwin, can gain the benefit of their illuminated skepticism.”

James van Praagh

James van Praagh is a TV psychic and “medium” who claims he can communicate with the dead. He doesn’t like skeptics very much either. He writes:

“For years now, I and fellow contemporaries have been the target for those self entitled ‘skeptics’ who love to yield their self-inflated opinions about our work and have relegated their personal opinions by labeling us as ‘woo-woos’ or ‘new-age gurus.’  Rational thought, intellectual conversation and stimulating debate have been reduced to name calling and hostile, militant actions on the internet.”

 I’m not surprised that Chopra and van Praagh don’t like skeptics very much; their whole business model depends on people believing them. If nobody asks about pesky things like “proof,” they are much more successful! But even though they make skeptics out to be inconsiderate, rude losers, sometimes the stakes are actually quite high.

Sylvia Browne

Here’s another person who used to make a living from convincing people that she could do amazing things, no questions asked. Sylvia Browne was a celebrity psychic who claimed she could tell people their future, and even talk to the dead. She kind of specialized in taking advantage of people when they were at their most vulnerable.

In 2003, a 16 year old girl named Amanda Berry went missing from her home in Cleveland, Ohio. Desperate to find out where Amanda had disappeared to, her mother, Louwana Miller, appeared with Sylvia Browne on The Montel Williams Show. Sylvia Browne said: “I hate when they’re in the water. She’s not alive honey.” Miller asked her: “So you don’t think I’ll ever see her again?” And Browne replied “Yeah, in Heaven on the other side. I’m sorry.”

Ten years later, on May 6, 2013, Amanda Berry was found at the age of 26 along with two other girls. They had been kidnapped by a creep named Ariel Castro, who had been holding them prisoner in his basement the whole time. Berry was the one who took the initiative and escaped by herself. Without any help from the police or so-called psychics.

I don’t know if Sylvia Browne was embarrassed by this prediction, but she didn’t have to live with that failure for very long. She died last November. Of course, as a psychic, she knew it was coming. Larry King once asked Sylvia Browne if she knew when she would die. She answered without hesitation: “Yes. When I’m 88.”

Missed it by that much. …And by “that much,” I mean 11 years. She was 77. That’s pretty far outside any reasonable margin of error.

 Sometimes even people who don’t believe in psychics will dismiss skeptics, on the grounds that it’s just a bit of fun and entertainment, and anyway what’s the harm in letting people believe that there’s a little bit of extra mystery in the universe? Unfortunately, there are a lot of people like Sylvia Browne who use people’s fears to take their money. Occasionally, although not often, well meaning police departments will actually pay psychics to solve crimes that, in reality, they know nothing about.

 Every year so called “psychics” make a bunch of daring new predictions for the coming year. And there’s no follow up. These predictions never turn out to be more reliable than wild-ass guessing. When people in power like police departments and presidents act on these predictions, not only do they waste public tax money, but they also get distracted from doing their real jobs.




  1. Monocle Smile says

    Reaction to skepticism is a fairly decent initial litmus test when it comes to credibility. With a handful of exceptions, scientists generally don’t even address people who call their work bullshit. They mostly just go “yeah, I’ll be busy over here proving my hypothesis to the point where rejecting it makes you look dumber than a geocentrist.”

    There’s no need to be categorically dismissive or blatantly dishonest like Chopra and van Praagh when you can merely point to the scoreboard.

  2. edmond says

    These are wonderful so far, Russell!

    @Monocle Smile… agreed. It’s amazing how much flak we take for being skeptical, but you just won’t hear the kind of clarity of thought or coherence of reason, which Russell exhibits so well here, from people talking about magical healing or angels or whatever. I can’t read better essays on epistemology than on atheist websites, yet still we’re asked to just “feel” the truth of theist claims, or told to quit over-thinking it, or asked such mind-numbing questions as “You believe in nothing?”

  3. frankgturner says

    Even atheists won’t like being challenged on certain subjects. It is just a matter of finding something in which a person is emotionally invested. I dealt with some of that on another message board recently. Though I have to admit I am learning a lot from the expert that I am talking to as a result of it.