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Culture Clashing

by Mark Edward, Feb 20 2010

Karla McLaren

Are skeptics being too rude, insulting and obnoxious in our quest to spread critical thinking? Are our methods and actions demeaning and cruel? Do we come on too strong? I know that I have little patience with all the woo peddlers and my blogs here are usually characterized by sarcasm and a call to arms. That’s where I’m going with Guerrilla and Ambush Skepticism and I make no apologies for taking a stronger stance against the bottom feeders like the phonies I have been putting up here for the last few weeks. But what about the great masses of undecided people who are on the fence? Could the “greater movement” of skeptical thinking be putting these people off?  This is probably happening right now – and it’s a shame. I recently received an article that appeared in “Skeptical Inquirer” back in 2004, “Bridging the Chasm Between Two Cultures.” In it, a once full-time new age author Karla McLaren, tells a powerful story of her own awakening, her position on critical thinking and the hard fought trials and tribulations of what some might call an “ordinary mystic.”

The complete article from Volume 3, May/June 2004 can be found here:

I was pleasantly surprised to find out after reading this article that a news segment on cold reading that I did was partly responsible for Karla’s eye’s opening to a more rational acceptance of what she was doing:

“For instance, an understanding of cold reading would have helped me a great deal. I never knew what cold reading was, and until I saw professional magician and debunker Mark Edward use cold reading on an ABC News special last year, I didn’t understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone—I simply picked up the technique through cultural osmosis.”

Penn admonishing

Karla’s main point is that by being too strident, name calling and other outbursts of emotion that many of us who have been in this movement for so long have finally began resorting to doesn’t work. As much as I admire Penn Jillette, his “Bullshit”style rants only have a small chance of reaching the ears of vegans, people who meditate or think they are psychically communicating with their pets. We get it,but there are thousands – millions maybe – who don’t have a clue.  Karla’s expereince has to be one that many other people certainly have when they first read or are exposed to skeptical thinking. In this case, a chance viewing of a television segment turned her thinking around and helped her to get a more balanced picture, starting her on the road to critically realizing what she was doing. Imagine what effect a prime time television production would have if it was put together in the right way. The right way being exactly what Karla wrote about. Multiply her transition a thousand times and skepticality might have a fighting chance.

I remember feeling much the same way back in the 70’s when I was a young magician beginning my endeavors in the world of mentalism and psychic entertainment. I hadn’t made up my mind either way about telepathy, clairvoyance or tha myriad of other strange beliefs that were flowering out of the late sixties environment. I had never heard of The Amazing Randi back then. I was a lot like Karla. At that point Randi seemed to me to be a hard nosed guy who was bitterly down on Uri Geller for some unknown reason. I thought the whole debunking must have been showbiz rivalry of some sort, which was/is so common in the so-called “magic fraternity.” I didn’t know any better. I had no idea of where my interests in what he was doing might one day lead. If I hadn’t been a fellow magician who also saw through what Uri was doing, I might not have been left with any other impression. Slowly, through patient study and seeking out other people who were asking the same tough questions, I had a complete turnabout.

We face the same problem today – only the paranormal and all its offshoots have mushroomed into a billion dollar industry with no end in sight. There are no new Randi icons out there to guide us. The skeptical movement can’t afford to be too vitriolic if we want to reach the merely curious, the undecided and the culture that is springing out of this Pandora’s Box. The lid is off the box and it’s out of control. We can’t be heard by only being naysayers in a crowd.

For my own part, I prefer to take it to the streets. This is because I’ve talked the talk for too long. It’s difficult for me to withhold my rage. I know the tricks of the trade and I’m out to teach these cons to the masses in whatever ways I can. I’m a performer not a scholar and my approach may not be right for everyone. If others can listen and begin to pay attention to Karla’s suggestions – the kind of headway we really want may begin to happen. Another more recent blog from should show us that we are gaining support:

“What Does Karla McLaren’s Conversion to Skepticism Mean?

Apr 24th, 2007 by chris

It’s rare when a New Age/metaphysical believer turns into a skeptic. In fact, I use to think that such a thing was pretty much impossible. Why would someone take that step backwards, was my thinking. Well, it happened, giving me cause to reflect on my own convictions and basis for why I believe in what I believe.”

Steps backwards huh? Hey chris, don’t get me started. Think again. Anyway, this same person posited some useful first steps. I wish I had heard them back when I was trying to make some sort of sense out of the paranormal:

“There are three approaches that I’ve found useful. I’ll go into them in more detail in a later post, but three key things that you can do to maintain a balanced world view are:

  • View faith-based concepts as tools that are valid as long as they are useful.
  • Be grounded by engaging in physically-oriented exercises and activities.
  • Practice non-attachment, especially to ideas and beliefs

If we put these ideas into practice, then we won’t feel personally threatened by ideas that challenge our beliefs. And if we do have a change of heart, we won’t have to go through the pain and distress that Karla experienced.”

Wouldn’t we all like to avoid pain and distress?

Well. …okay.  To my way of thinking, some of the loser mediums and phony psychics out there deserve plenty of pain and distress. I will deliver it to them however I can. While I can’t say I will be toning down my own personal way of dealing with all the woo, Karla’s suggestions bear some consideration by all of us who want to promote skeptical thinking. In the spirit of a mutual search for communication and truth I agree with Karla in principle when she writes:

“It’s vital that a way be found to help people in my culture question, think about, and critically interpret the barrage of information and misinformation they receive on a daily basis. However, it’s also vital that the information be culturally sensitive.”

FORCE ONE and its operatives are on a mission. We want to be in the face of the opposition, but understanding Karla McLaren’s cogent point of view can help us all when we may find ourselves in cocktail party type moments. Remember how you felt when you began to ask questions.

AND THIS JUST IN:In case you don’t ascribe to the well-known aphorism: “What Goes Around, Comes Around,” it’s tragic but true in this case from Orange County, CA headlines. The story reads like an episode of “Perry Mason:”

“Fortune Teller Murder: Tanya Nelson Killed Mind Reader and Daughter Over Love Advice She Didn’t Like”

Bummer. Like I always say; no matter how phony you are, when you are giving psychic advice, try to keep keep it positive…

Dead Fortune Teller

Ha “Jade” Smith, known as Miss Ha in the local Vietnamese community, did card and palm readings and had clients across the country. She was famous among Vietnamese-Americans for wearing expensive jewelry and was considered a skilled fortune-teller.”

So much for skill. I guess she didn’t see that coming huh? I would of course never wish such a harsh retribution as ten stab wounds for anybody, but one might hope that any aspiring psychics who read this and like expensive jewelry will take note.


43 Responses to “Culture Clashing”

  1. stargazer9915 says:

    Keep up the “Geurrilla Skeptisism”. Someone has to do it. There are a number of other bloggers on this site who will try to use plain old reason, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, I think we need the geurrillas out there doing what they (you Mr. Edward and your colleagues) do. There needs to be more than just one angle when tackling mainstream woo. Don’t let the naysayers get you down for the fine work you are doing. Just know that there are some of us out there who think what you are doing is the right thing to do.

    Keep fighting the good fight and be proactive when taking it to the woo pedalers.

    • I am a supporter of “Geurrilla Skeptisism.” I’m equally supportive of tactics that involve a barrage of abuse. I’ve come to a stage where being nice just doesn’t work. Advocates of woo simply will not listen so I prefer hitting them hard. The benefit of this is they usually respond with an argument that degrades quickly from illogical arguments to mindless babble. At that stage, the battle is won.

      • stargazer9915 says:

        Undoubtably supporting geurrilla skepticism. Yes, we need the Novella’s of the world but we also need the Edward’s. The more the merrier I say.

        Tell me though, what can one do when one has so little free time on one’s hands. I would love nothing more than to get involved but have so little time to spare. Any suggestions?

      • It;s a shame that most of the skeptical shows won’t go all out and call these assholes out.

        I work with a production company. We have our own studio and shoot on a RED camera so it would be great to get something out there with the highest of production value.

      • Brian the Coyote says:

        We absolutely need full-spectrum skepticism. It makes the best use of peoples’ talents and reaches the biggest audience. Shakespeare opened many of his plays with a bang just to get the audience’s attention and then went on to weave the subtle magic(and the “bang” was magic too). If you want to reason with someone you have to get their attention first.

        The misled masses need to be taken by the hand. The sincere but ignorant need a gentle shake. The hardcore woo-profiteers need a boot to the ‘nads.

        Good Hunting!

  2. Somite says:

    Good article but why mention vegans along with people that think they can talk to their pets? It’s probably healthier to eat more plants and less meat. I say as long as there are no therapeutic claims made about food stuffs without proper research you should be able to eat whatever you like.

  3. drSubs says:

    The issue I have with this article is the idea of “conversion” to skepticism, as though one suddenly needs to take on a completely new set of “beliefs” to be skeptical. To me, this carries with it the connotation that skepticism is a “belief system” that you need to buy into. I think it’s more accurate to say that you “pull your head out of your [expletive]” when you finally realize that things that are real (e.g., science-based medicine, as opposed to homeopathy) happen for a well-understood reason and not because of “mystical forces.” Once you’ve made that clear step—it’s only a step because you rely on those same well-understood reasons when you, say, take your car into the mechanic’s—to applying critical thinking across all aspects of your life and not just across most, I wouldn’t say you’ve “converted” to anything, but rather decided to believe in no more than the solid evidence of the world around you.

    • danekart says:

      Although critical thinking skills are very important, they aren’t sufficient for most people to judge many complex issues. AGW comes immediately to mind, and how badly Randi was “bitten” by being skeptical about Global Warming.

      It seems to me (and prominent skeptics have said so, so this is not my original thought) that much of skepticism involves acceptance of mainstream consensus science. Evidence-based medicine, as you said. Theory of Evolution. Nobody has the time to independently validate all of modern-day science, or even a part of it. Nevertheless we accept (or should) many of the results of science because we understand that the scientific method is one which proceeds towards truth and understanding, and the scientific results are produced by people following the method of science and validated by other people following the method of science. So to that extent, it is a belief system. I believe, for example, that the universe is 13.7 billion years old because that’s the consensus scientific opinion and there are people who can explain why that’s the result, and there’s evidence which I can see or even run my own experiments to independently validate this number (although launching a space telescope is presently beyond my means).

      I don’t think it should be embarrassing to call skepticism a belief system. All belief systems are not equal – the difference between this and religion is that religion has no evidence and its conclusions are invented, whereas we have plenty of evidence and reasoning to back up our beliefs.

  4. WoolyMerkins says:

    “…small chance of reaching the ears of vegans…”

    Either I’m hard of hearing, or Ms. McLaren assumes too much- Personally, it was my skepticism which led directly to my veganism.

    • Dave says:

      Uhh yes thanks for that WoolyMerkins. In the skeptical activism talk I lead in our Chicago Skeptics meetup today I mentioned how there was alot of woo in the vegan circles but it’s not an inherent trait. My newfound skepticism has enabled me to purge alot of that and get to the bottom of issues but has strengthened my resolve to avoid speciesism. Much of that is due to Singer and Dawkins actually. Potshots like these are disappointing but it’s something I better get used to eh? Classy.

  5. I’m always pleased to see Karla McLaren’s already-classic article given new attention. (I may even have contributed to a recent resurgence of interest in the piece, pushing it to my colleagues on Twitter and Facebook.) In my opinion, this is one of the most important articles ever published in the skeptical press. It should be required reading for all skeptics — especially newer “skepticism 2.0″ skeptics who are still getting the lay of the land.

    Are there times for skeptics to set aside genteel good manners? Probably. But a great deal of my energy is spent advocating the view that skepticism is better-served by too much respect and civility than it is by too little.

    • John Rael says:

      I agree in so far as calling someone out for having baseless and/or harmful claims is neither disrespectful or uncivil. Most of the time there is no need to be rude in order to explain that someone is straight up wrong.
      I would also never condone literally kicking someone in the nuts :)

  6. Pete says:

    What’s weird about talking to pets? Now, if they answer you, it’s weird…..

  7. AUJT says:

    I have friends that are ‘believers’. I tell them that I refuse to embrace people that would lie or that are lying to them and that I hope that they can respect that in me.

    I have a big problem with religion and to the religious I ask for them only to try and understand why I believe the way that I do, to examine the information that I have.

    To the psychics and the snake oil sales persons. %&!# &*$ @$$&%^#$

    Perhaps we can get a little guerrilla politics on president Obama- WARNING! Not for young ears!—>

    • I have no problem with religion. Religion can result in people doing some amazing things. It can also have negative effects. I consider religion to be much the same as my neighbor’s dog. Pretty to look at from a distance and never a personal issue until he decides to shit on my lawn.

      The Mormons never knock on my door. Not after I yelled at them for waking me at 9am on a Sunday morning. Actually, I’d yell at anyone peddling religion regardless of the time.

      • kabol says:

        what about the mormons who practice child abuse and incest? no problem as long as they aren’t on your lawn?

    • rustle says:

      What does that video have to do with skepticism?

      • Sgerbic says:

        “To the psychics and the snake oil sales persons. %&!# &*$ @$$&%^#$”

        I think you misspelled that last word. It’s %&!# ))*$ @$$&%^#$, not %&!# &*$ @$$&%^#$.

  8. shawmutt says:

    There’s a place for all types of skeptics, from the ambushers to the comedians. We skeptics overanalyze at times, and I think this is one of those times.

  9. AUJT says:


    Yeah, I definitely need a proof reader. ;-)


    “What does that video have to do with skepticism?”

    I thought that it was clear that it didn’t have anything to do with skepticism and everything to do with “guerrilla” tactics within the context that Mark uses it. I also posted it for a bit of comic relief. I hope this explanation is sufficient.

  10. MadScientist says:

    Karla was one of the honestly deceived people; we know they exist and they seem to me to be a rarity (though who really knows how many psychics out there honestly believe their stuff). Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge tests are meant to make it clear that claims of the supernatural are incorrect (or, should anyone win, that there is little room for belief that the claim is not correct) yet we have seen so many fail the test and then come up with excuses. Their disappointment is understandable; what would someone like Connie Sonne do for a living after being shown that she is not psychic as she believes? Even for the honestly deluded it seems to take an exceptional character to say “oh no, I’ve made an awful mistake” and get on with their lives and do something different, so Karla is exceptional even though she may be too modest to admit it. More often than not we see publicity for people like John Edward who know full well they’re pushing a scam.

    • MadScientist says:

      Incidentally, if people think the psychics get upset at being told they’re wrong, I get into trouble just for trying to explain the basis of cold reading to people who want to believe. I don’t even use my habitual vocabulary such as “bullshit” and I don’t tell people things like they believe silly stuff or that something they believe is wrong; I just explain how much all we humans have in common and how extremely rare it would be that someone would not have much in common with everyone else on the planet then proceed to explain how that fact can be exploited to appear to know things about a person. I have yet to try an explanation on someone who doesn’t come up with a version of the “oh sure, but my psychic isn’t like that” excuse. I guess that’s why many psychics sell themselves using words like “beware of the fake psychics”.

      • Sgerbic says:

        Do you know a lot of people that go to psychics? Maybe you should change friends or move or something? I don’t know anyone (and I live in a very superstitious city) that uses a psychic.

      • MadScientist says:

        Most people I know don’t believe in psychics. Unfortunately at the moment I live in an area infested by public servants and many of them do believe in psychics (and I’ve met a few of *them*). It would be very silly to look for different friends simply because they believe in woo-woo; better to try to teach them than simply run away and ignore the problem. Most of my friends are religious but I don’t run away and look for other friends just because these people have creepy sado-masochistic beliefs and cannibalistic rituals.

  11. danekart says:

    Keep up the guerilla skepticism. We need hardliners too. If being sympathetic or respectful of woo beliefs feels like “accommodationism” then you are probably a hardliner and not speaking your mind would be morally quite disturbing.

    Calling out nonsense as nonsense is a very valuable social service. It may not win over the shut-eyes but it is nevertheless useful. Woo must not find the niche which Religion has – protected from criticism, “beliefs must be respected” and so on.

    I call on all hardliners everywhere, to use the tools at your disposal – logic, cunning, laughter, wit etc – to de-legitimise woo around the world.

  12. Robo Sapien says:

    Guerrilla Skepticism, while commendable in intent, can be dangerous to the movement as a whole. You simply cannot “ambush” somebody into thinking reasonably, they either do or they don’t.

    Humans are, by nature, control freaks. We have a deep-rooted need to control our surroundings and interactions. Even the passive, quiet types are that way because the ability to retreat into their “own little world” gives them a form of control. This is a big, crazy world. Facing the harsh realities of life will take away anyone’s sense of control, and drive them to find a new control mechanism, many of which will find it in the guidance of a medium.

    Most who seek alternative medicine do not do so because they are whack-jobs, but because conventional medicine does not yet have a cure for their ails, thus by investing their faith (and money) into an AltMed “Healer”, they are regaining some sense of control because AltMed therapies come bundled with all kinds of promises and false hopes that real science just won’t give.

    Only those with the capacity for critical thought will ever actually do it. This doesn’t mean critical thinking is a genetic trait, but our method of thinking and analysis is developed young, and resistant to change as we age. With that in mind, it is only fair to consider that guerrilla tactics might serve only to destroy credibility. It seems to paint us as non-believing cynics, the exact branding we have strived to break free of.

    Penn & Teller could be considered guerrilla skeptics, but they artfully wrap it up in comedy. Every time Penn introduces someone by “And then there’s THIS asshole..” I get a chuckle. The most successful comedies are those based off an element of truth, people laugh when you joke about roommates eating your food because they can identify. We need more comics and entertainers to bring skepticism into the light in this fashion.

    The world needs a new George Carlin.

    • SeanG says:

      As Greta Christina recently wrote about the atheist movement, let the firebrands be firebrands and let the diplomats be diplomats. There is room and we need both. Personally, I find it more effective to play good cop with my friends and family, and bad cop with the con artists trying to sell woo to my friends and family.

    • “And then there’s THIS asshole..”

      I die every time

      • Sgerbic says:

        “Guerrilla Skepticism, while commendable in intent, can be dangerous to the movement as a whole. You simply cannot “ambush” somebody into thinking reasonably, they either do or they don’t.”

        I think the idea of guerrilla skepticism isn’t aimed at the believers as much as at the people making money as scammers. What Mark (and others) is trying to do is to put these leaches on notice that they are not going to get away with just taking money from the desperate/gullible/uneducated/ect without sometimes being challenged.

        Mark probably didn’t make any headway towards the believers when he punked Sylvia Browne. But people on the fence might look up the names he recited and/or google the names on the papers he left in the restroom. Sylvia (and Montel) knew that he was on to them, they understood that they are no longer safe with just an audience of fans.

        They know that someone lone skeptic will stand up and ask a question that she will get wrong, the skeptic can say “that was wrong” and sit down, but little has been done. All her fans will recite “Sylvia isn’t correct all the time” but punking her, and the way Mark handled it sent the message to her.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        That is an excellent example, but I am still a bit disturbed. We can hold whatever opinions we want about Sylvia, but she still has a right to sell crazy and her “victims” have a right to buy it up. Guerrilla Skepticism to me just seems like a diluted form of vigilante justice, i.e. “You are selling BS, the law wont stop you, so we will use subterfuge and sabotage to hinder your business.” Until she does some harm or claims to cure cancer, Sylvia technically hasn’t done anything wrong. We can’t wage a credibility war on her just because we don’t like her service.

        Go to any store and you will find useless products on the shelves, does that mean we should all go and hide them behind the good products while we are shopping? A fool and his money are soon parted, and this concept is a driving factor in our economy.

        All in all though, punking the psychics does sound like a lot of fun. I would love to go to a live show as Mark did, carrying a large scoreboard to track the hits and misses, held up high for all to see. Maybe even put a little dinger bell on it.

      • Sgerbic says:

        A dinger bell! Great idea. But they would throw you out in a minute if you tried to do anything like this. And I support their right to do so.

        When you say we have to wait till Sylvia has done harm….what….have you ever visited Try and you will get an eye opening look at the harm this woman and other psychics have done.

        Just because psychics have not done harm to ME does not mean they do not do harm. (insert Susan’s rant here)

        Google the names that Mark mentioned on the video and you will see he picked some doozies of her failures.

        If you kept track of all her hits while her show was going on, you would be overwelmed with all the hits. These are believers, they will find a way to fit whatever she is telling them into their world of right. She also does not give statements that can be checked right now. She tells people you will meet Mr. Right in a year, you will have a baby boy in three years, you will get your degree in Art….Nothing that can be checked right then.

    • stargazer9915 says:

      The ‘ambush’ as you say is not aimed at the believer but rather the ones pedaling the woo. Geurrilla skepticism is not to change minds like more reasonable types (re Steven Novella) but to expose the frauds and liars (ie sylvia brown). It’s broad spectrum…

  13. Steve Karmesin says:

    While I agree with 99.9% of what Mark says, I think tossing “people who meditate” in there is casting too wide a net. Meditation at its core is simply a technique for calming the mind, examining your thoughts and feelings, developing mental fitness and related things. It won’t let you fly, teleport, stop time or related things that you sometimes see claimed, of course.

    Similarly with the vegans as noted above, while there are people who meditate who could use a great deal more skepticism, meditation itself is a perfectly valid.

  14. Mark Edward says:

    Many seem to have misunderstood my “vegan/meditation” comment. I was merely showing how Penn & Teller tend to take such things to extremes and jibe more stridently in THEIR work. I have total respect for both these pursuits – I just wish I could stay with it and have more time to eat right and stay calm while developing a mental fitness program that allow me to keep cool in the face of all the woo that endlessly cascades over me each day.

  15. kabol says:

    it’s been my experience, on various internet forums where woo abounds, that even calm, measured skeptical responses and input are almost immediately rejected and referred to as “badgering”,”slamming”, “hating”, etc.

    i really can’t understand it in any way other than that these onslaughts are from the people who are making money from the woo industry — these are people who are on their toes with the weeding out of any skeptical opinions by deeming skepticism as evil or arrogant or just plain mean.

    they already have their own guerrilla teams. it’s time for skeptical teams.

    imho — every skeptic should be on woo internet forums for at least a little bit here and there; not preaching to the skeptical choirs.

    • We need the skeptical equivalent of the A-Team. Can I be B.A. Baracus? Man, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to say “I pity da fool” in a real life situation.

      I agree with you. It doesn’t matter whether you approach the subject of woo with calm logic or extreme criticism. They simply refuse to listen and brand you a shill, disinfo agent, hater etc etc.

      So why opt for calm logic when you can kick the front door in whilst holding a baseball bat? I figure if you’re going to fight woo you best have a tactic that will have woomongers in fear of peddling their wares in daylight.

  16. Chris says:

    I just noticed this blog post today. Thanks for the mention, too.

    I’m constantly engaged in debates with my “skeptical” friends, and while I do value reason, I also allow room in my belief system for things that are as yet unproven by science. Especially when they are useful in navigating this world and at the same time have not been dis-proven. In my experience, however, skeptics can be just as unreasonable as the people that they rail against. For example, I often hear statements such as “well, such-and-such a phenomenon will never be proven because it just isn’t true …”. Also is the example of the well known media doctor who seems to have made up his mind (based on the evidence of some studies) that acupuncture is hocus pocus – and then refuses to consider other studies that demonstrate some efficacy to it beyond the placebo effect.

    So perhaps in all the eagerness and passion for coming down on believers, skeptics need to crank it down a notch just enough to make sure they aren’t too attached to their own belief system for its own sake.

    By the way, Karla is back on the book writing circuit. And while she is definitely striving to base her information on the most current scientific studies, I catch glimpses of new age terminology intermixed with her revised message. As I anticipated in my article, she seems to be in the process of finding some balance between either extremes.

  17. Insults don't convince anyone says:

    The very fact of using terms like “woo” says it all. How does it strengthen one’s argument to indulge in insults – adolescent ones, at that? Insults and ridicule have no place in a rational debate. All they do is demonstrate a desire to appear superior on the part of the user.