Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Good luck, Dawkins! by Sue Blackmore

Sue Blackmore
reposted from Guardian

Superstitions like astrology, Tarot reading, crystal-gazing and mediumship may be fun, but they are not harmless.

I enjoyed Richard Dawkins' first episode of his new Channel Four documentary, Enemies of Reason, but then I would, wouldn't I?

He's taken on the role I used to call "rent-a-sceptic" - the one who goes on TV, talks to all those nice, cuddly, "spiritual" people, and tries to point out that they are making false claims, deluding themselves and others, and profiting out of other peoples' suffering. It's a tough job because you always seem to be on the side of the misery-guts, debunkers and kill-joys.

You always seem to be telling well-meaning, sincere people that they are not only wrong but bad. It's not fun, and after a while it gets you down. I know because I did it for the best part of 25 years and eventually I couldn't stand it any more.

Why does he do it, then? And why did I? Richard claims that superstitions like astrology, Tarot reading (I used to be a pretty good Tarot reader myself before I became so sceptical), crystal-gazing, and mediumship impoverish our society and harm both individuals and their families. So someone needs to stand up to them. And I think he is right.

I didn't always think so. Indeed as a student I was blown away by what I saw as a more spiritual way of looking at the world, full of exciting new (or terribly ancient) theories that "establishment" scientists rejected, and rich with opportunities for understanding myself and changing the world for the better. I embraced all sorts of whacky theories and decided to devote my life to studying them. A few years of research changed my mind completely and I went from being a believer in just about every New Age phenomenon, through totally rejecting it all, to something far harder to sustain - an open-minded scientist trying to disentangle the grains of truth from the mass of superstition, deception and ignorance.

There are some grains of truth in there. Out-of-body experiences happen, even though nothing leaves the body, sleep paralysis happens and is terrifying if you don't know what it is, mystical experiences can change people's lives for the better, and some alternative therapies can be wonderfully relaxing and enjoyable, even if their underlying theories are completely false. Even so, these grains are hidden in a vast mass of delusion.

During the programme Richard asked: "Am I taking all this too seriously?" I'm sure some viewers will think he is, and that it's all just harmless fun. But it's not.

To give one example I've never forgotten, I was once in the London audience for the Jimmy Young television programme with the famous medium Doris Stokes. Appearing to be a kind, and caring granny type, she "communicated" with the spirits and brought messages to their loved ones here on the lower planes.

I sat next to a bereaved couple from Manchester who travelled to London every week to visit Doris who, they said, gave them comfort and hope. Between takes they told me that one of their three young girls had been playing near an upstairs window and fell out, impaling herself on the railings below, and dying of horrific wounds. It must have been appalling and I could only imagine their sorrow. But above all I was angry at what Doris Stokes was doing. This couple were spending money and time they clearly could ill afford, leaving their other children at home, and being deluded into thinking they were talking to their dead child. This is no way for either them or their other children to come to terms with grief.

Doris Stokes died a few years later and the critics revealed how she had used all the same old shoddy tricks, even using accomplices to make her séances more impressive. Yet many people still remember her warmly as the best medium of her generation.

Among all the hundreds of mediums, psychics and Tarot and I-Ching readers I met, I think the vast majority were sincere, and honestly believed that they were doing more than cold reading or using their intuition.

Nevertheless this does not change the fact that they are making false claims, defrauding people of vast sums of money and convincing people that it's all right to believe something just because you feel deeply that it's true.

I met people addicted to their favourite psychics - people who would not make decisions without consulting their astrologer, and people who were terrified because of false predictions some reader had given them. In a stressful and unpredictable world it's understandable that people turn to those who can offer them false guidance but I've seen too many horrible outcomes to think it's just a bit of harmless fun.

After all those years of research I try not to get involved any more. I find it too upsetting. It's amazing how unpopular you become by trying to tell the truth, and how little effect experiments and evidence have on the exploitative and money-making New Age world. So good luck, Richard! I hope you won't get too depressed by it all.

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