Tuesday, October 21, 2014
I was greatly surprised a few weeks ago when I saw that my pre-retirement college, Richard Stockton College, was having an appearance in its Performing Arts Center of the “medium” James Van Praagh. Though I recognized the privileges of freedom of speech that belong to Van Praagh, Stockton, and everybody else in this country, I was disturbed and offended by the college’s allowing this performance without any analytical or contradictory discussion. Like many other colleges today, Stockton is emphasizing critical thinking skills, and it seemed to me that to have Van P’s show, and nothing else, was really a failure to model such skills for students.
I put out a message to college faculty and staff, stating my position and asking whether anyone wanted to have a panel, discussion, “teach-in”, whatever you might want to call it. Feelings about this appeared to run high, but with a wide range of opinions, from those who shared my concerns to those who thought it was silly or even puritanical to criticize what was advertised as a “fun afternoon”. Nevertheless, some people stepped forward as willing to speak in public about their opinions of Van P, mediumship, and spiritualism in general.
The programs for Van P’s performance made very strong claims for his ability to talk to the dead and to bring messages from the dead to the living. (The dead presumably do not need a return service.) According to the program, Van P “is known as a ‘survival evidence medium’, meaning that he provides evidential proof of life after death via detailed messages from the spiritual realms.” I don’t think you can make the claim more plainly than that, nor can you make claims more plainly than Van P’s announcement during the performance that he can see people’s auras and know if they are lying, and that each of us has a colored ribbon from the top of our heads all the way up to a star that has our name on it.
Van P’s performance is presented as evidence that all his statements are correct. He states that a spirit is near him and identifies the age and sex of that person or states a name or an initial letter that may have meaning for someone in the audience. When there is a response from an audience member, Van P then spins out and develops the message by using information the person provides. “He was a man who liked facts”—“Yes, he was a lawyer”-- “You still have some of his law books”—“Yes”—“One is tan with a red top to the pages”-- “Yes!”, et cetera. In one case, however, there was what appeared to be a remarkable “hit” on a fact, which led me to wonder to myself whether there were confederates in the audience. If you’d like to know more about what Van P does, there is a youtube piece about this showman-shaman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_1TtZ1tNww.
What I actually want to talk about here is the discussion that followed the performance. I don’t suppose anything was said that has never been said before, but there were one or two points that I did not expect. A number of people from the audience followed us into the discussion room and demanded to know whether we would be “for” or “against”; when I said that was what we were going to talk about, they reversed course and were gone at once. Three people who were apparently believers in mediumship stayed for a short time and one spoke of a previous meeting she had had with Van P, as well as of her contacts with her recently-deceased mother. I appreciated her willingness to give this information. Most of the other participants were current or retired faculty of the college, or students, but Michael Cluff of the South Jersey Humanists was kind enough to come and address humanist concerns about exploitation of the bereaved by self-proclaimed mediums. Others talked about issues like the confirmation bias and poor judgment of probability that plague human thinking about spiritualistic practices.
A question that I did not expect came from a historian of religion, who asked us all why we need to debunk spiritualist beliefs, given, she said, that these must play some role in the culture’s functioning or they would not be there (a side argument almost started on that last bit). This excellent question forced many of us to think hard about the assumption that I and others made: that if it’s bunk, it should be debunked.
It took a while to focus on this issue, as we had all been too busy debunking to think about why we wanted to do it. The first reason was one that had already been mentioned several times-- that those who claim to talk to spirits and bring information to the living may be exploitative and drain the vulnerable of their resources. It was also suggested that for the bereaved to spend their time consulting mediums caused delays in the grief process; however, we did not really know if this was true or even if it had been studied systematically, and there was also some uncertainty as to whether grieving really has to follow the guidelines standardized for it in the Unites States in the last century.
After a while, people began to consider the “slippery slope” concern: that acceptance of an unfounded spiritualistic belief system might make it easier for individuals to accept without evidence other beliefs, leading to practical decisions that might be harmful. One participant pointed out the multimillion-dollar industry making homeopathic medicines-- drugs that are thought by their advocates to impart their “vibrations” to water, so that a highly diluted version is expected to have a more powerful effect than one that is undiluted (the opposite of the usual dose-response relationship). Drugstores stock these, and convinced parents treat their children and themselves with totally ineffectual homeopathic remedies rather than seeking real medical care, creating a potential for harm. Along the same line, I spoke about the issues familiar to some readers of this blog-- the conviction that mothers and unborn babies communicate by telepathy and that the mother’s thoughts of ambivalence about the pregnancy “mark” the baby psychologically, causing adopted children above all to be scarred in ways that cannot be treated with standard psychological or psychiatric care and must be “healed” by unconventional, potentially harmful, treatment.
We were thus able to find practical advantages to effective debunking (although we remained pessimistic about the possibility of actually achieving this with true believers). Still, I continue my commitment to my a priori position:
If it’s bunk, it should be debunked.
And it seems pretty clear to me that Van Praagh’s claims are bunk.