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Being Yourself in the Golden Age of the Con

by Mark Edward, Jul 09 2012

Chris Parker is a young lady who is DOING SOMETHING about psychics and the real-world harm they do. We met this weekend after I spoke with her by phone about my take on the psychic business a few months ago.  After attending  my Reason4Reason pub lecture on “Psychic Blues” Saturday night in San Francisco, she expressed an interest in having me post her thoughts on how she made a difference to her college class (and in particular the class professor) in her own lecture on psychics. Once again I may be “preaching to the choir” on this issue, but people continually ask me, “…What can I do?” So here is an excellent example:

The following is an excerpt from the speech Chris gave to her class last semester. Her topic was psychics and the harm that results from their “unsavory business practices.” The assignment was to give a persuasive speech, which according to Chris by definition, requires that she attempt to influence the values, attitudes, and beliefs of her audience. 

“We were asked not to offend anyone with our choice of topic. Basically, we were warned that our speeches should not be aimed at changing anyone’s personal beliefs, so as to keep the classroom a “safe” space. Is that not the exact opposite of what a persuasive speech is designed to do?

Now, not only did I have to worry about coming off as offensive, but my professor then informed me that he had a personal interest in my topic. He confessed to me that he’d been a long-time psychic user, his drug of choice being 900 numbers. While he seemed open to my criticism of the industry, he told me that he was only skeptical of the in-person psychics/fortune tellers, but he couldn’t see how the phone psychics could possibly be fakes (since they cannot gain info based on appearance).

The speech seemed to go over well; I had everyone’s attention and did my best to sound informative rather than angrily critical. Afterwards, I was asked this question: “Why do the police allow psychics to try and help solve these missing children cases, especially if it hasn’t worked?” I said that it’s the family that is actually allowing them to participate. Imagine that your child is missing, whether it’s several hours or several days, if the police aren’t making any headway, you’re going to be desperate. If a psychic came up to you and offered to find your child for you, how easily do you think you could turn them down?

     Finally, there’s the issue of my professor. After class he commented on what I’d mentioned regarding phone psychics. He said, “Well you know, I’ve been calling my woman for years, but I didn’t realize until today, I did tell her a lot about myself in the first 5 minutes of our phone call. They gave me 5 free minutes and I figured I’d save time and money if I gave her some direction!” I just smiled sympathetically because at that moment, it was clear to him, that by phone or in person, you give them exactly what they need to make a sucker out of you.

     I was originally nervous about giving that speech, because as a skeptic and atheist, I sometimes worry about the repercussions of “being myself” in place like school or the workplace. Sure, some of you may ardently argue that we should be cramming our agendas down the throats of everyone we meet, but that’s not always practical (or effective). There’s a time and a place for everything and seriously, who wants to be the critical thinking equivalent of a bible thumper? For one afternoon, I was able to educate my classmates on a topic that they probably had never considered before and I even managed to get my professor thinking more critically. I count that as a win for our side. ‘

I agree.

In the realms of education and social activism, it’s getting harder and harder to “be yourself.” Schools or workplace situations unfortunately demand a stealth approach in this PC day and age. It’s as if being wrong is right or else you may find yourself in danger of being ostracized as an outsider. This is what it’s coming down to.

The other day I happened to have a short dialogue with a security guard who works at one of the facilities I’m involved with. He was going on and on about how he and his wife watch all the ghost hunter shows on television. Being myself, I mentioned that paranormal shows are totally scripted bullshit and can actually make situations far worse for home dwellers who allow the show’s writers and producers to further aggravate an already bad situation by allowing them into their “haunted houses” and pumping up the script with even more egregious crap to get a better story and ratings.  He looked wounded and said to me, “…You mean those ghosts aren’t real?’  This is a guy CARRYING A GUN folks.  His job is to rationally make quick law and order decisions and keep the community safe.  And he totally thought I was the outsider on this

Do we need just a tad more attention to facts in the media …or what? Starting with engaging college professors may help.

I applaud Chris Parker on her bravery in the face of Overwhelming Woo (OW) and hope others will take heart in her willingness to DO SOMETHING.

FYI: Sylvia Browne will be in Las Vegas this weekend at the same time TAM will be in town. Do you think any one or two attendees or leaders of our august and prestigious skeptical movement will take this golden opportunity to show a presence and bust this grief vampire down?  Penn & Teller? Max Maven?


23 Responses to “Being Yourself in the Golden Age of the Con”

  1. Susan Gerbic says:

    Fantastic job Chris! I love hearing about new people finding their feet in this cause. One more person who is trying to do something. We need more people like her.

  2. Lei says:

    That is what I love to see – someone who sees a chance to make a difference (however “small”) and takes makes it happen! I am impressed!

  3. Dustin Phillips says:

    Very awesome, Chris!!! The first thing all skeptics, free thinkers, humanists, and anyone else on the side of reason and reality, should do is not be afraid to speak out. Speaking out in front of your class was brave, and kudos for sewing seeds of reason!

  4. CParker says:

    Thanks, Susan! The photograph of the guard is awesome, btw Mark.

  5. Daniel says:

    “He looked wounded and said to me, “…You mean those ghosts aren’t real?’ This is a guy CARRYING A GUN folks. His job is to rationally make quick law and order decisions and keep the community safe. And he totally thought I was the outsider on this.”

    Nice example of a skeptic acting like an asshole. You’re belittling a guy who by all accounts makes an honest living and presumably is competent at his job. The guy believes in ghosts, whatever. He watches the Ghost Hunter show, most likely for entertainment value. What a dangerous knuckle dragger he must be.

    He’s not demanding that the phenomena of ghosts be taught in public school science class. It doesn’t appear that he’s blowing large chunks of his paycheck on Sylvia Brown seances or calling up Miss Cleo.

    To quote the Dude, “No, you’re not wrong wrong Walter, you’re just an asshole.”

    • Ben says:

      “You’re belittling a guy who by all accounts makes an honest living and presumably is competent at his job.”

      Belittle away. If you watch ghost hunter shows and actually think they’re real, you deserve to be made fun of. If he thought pro wrestling was real, would you still come to his defence?

    • LovleAnjel says:

      Should we give people a pass because they have a full-time job that they can perform adequately? Now, if he was homeless or alcoholic, fire away with the dickishness!

      • Daniel says:

        It has nothing to do with “giving someone a pass.” It’s a superstitious belief. Virtually all of us have one in some shape or form. It’s also harmless. Much moreso, say, than the attachment many of us have to professional sports. People start riots and spend a lot of their disposable income watching other people who they don’t know and who could care less about you playing a game. Attributing weird noises in your house in the middle of the night to a ghost seems much more reasonable in comparison.

        You go from that to make fun of the guy and say he must be incompetent to do his job, accompanied by the snarky comment that you somehow feel unsafe because of it. (My good friend’s father, who was a devout Catholic and believed in Adam and Eve, was a well respected surgeon, and quite frankly a much more decent human being than a lot of the smug folks that hang around here).

        It’s like that teenage atheist who goes around moaning and groaning about all of the stupid unenlightened religious sheeple. More often than not he doesn’t have a lot of friends and doesn’t get laid a whole lot, not because he’s a noncomformist, it’s just because he’s dick about it.

      • Mark Edward says:

        “Presumably competent” is the operative phrase and thanks for being such a wonderfully understanding human being. Once again, someone who can’t take a joke has managed to throw this whole thread into a meaningless rant about diskishness – again.

        Know what: I’m a dick – deal with it Daniel.

        I don’t have any superstitions and I’m damn sick and tired of coddling morons who do. It’s not harmless if you fire off a few rounds at a shadow because you saw Paranormal State say it’s a demon. If you don’t like the heat, stay out of my kitchen.

      • Susan Gerbic says:

        Guess Mark beat me to it.

        I’m uncomfortable with security or police not capable of good critical thinking. We are not talking about a hairdresser or a professional singer.

        They need to be focused on what is real. The job is stressful enough. We can’t have them freaking out because they have to enter a graveyard or a “haunted” building.

      • gdave says:

        Mr. Edward, I don’t want to further derail this thread with a meaningless rant, but I found your reply to Daniel interesting.

        I don’t have any superstitions and I’m damn sick and tired of coddling morons who do.

        How do you actually know you don’t have any superstitions? I realize that there are some New Agers, post-modernists and others who explicitly reject reason and evidence and embrace “other ways of knowing”, but don’t most folks who believe in ghosts, or other superstitions, think they are basing those beliefs on reason and evidence? Isn’t it at least possible that you hold some irrational beliefs that you don’t realize are irrational?

        I don’t think I have any superstitions, but I also think that I am human and fallible. I think that it is possible that I have some unexamined beliefs that aren’t well founded on reason and evidence. How can you be so sure that you don’t?

        And do you honestly believe that anyone with any superstitious beliefs is a moron? Or is that another joke?

        It’s not harmless if you fire off a few rounds at a shadow because you saw Paranormal State say it’s a demon.

        Please forgive me if you’re still joking here and I’m too dense to get it. And again, I don’t want to meaninglessly rant about dickishness. But if you are serious here, are you contending that there is a significant negative correlation between belief in ghosts and the ability to make proper decisions on the use of force? What evidence is there for this?

        I get that you believe that “dickishness” is meaningless, or that being a “dick” is actually a good thing when it comes to dealing with superstitions, and I don’t want to get into a debate about that with you. But I am curious 1) if you seriously believe that having a superstitious belief makes someone a moron and indicates that they shouldn’t be trusted with a gun, 2) what constitutes “coddling” such a moron, and 3) what makes you so sure that you aren’t a moron by your definition.

      • Karolus says:

        I sometimes feel this way, but on the other hand it’s these kind of people we need to be patient with, as Ms. Parker has demonstrated. I also have no superstitions (that I know of :-)), but we all know people who do. And though we’d all like to think they are “morons” (contrary to ourselves, of course :-)) they regularly demonstrate to me that they’re not. I guess the trick is to find a way to show them the error of their ways :-), as did Chris Parker.

  6. CParker says:

    Okay, so maybe I’ve missed something here, but did anyone read the part where Mark called this guard a “raging douche bag moron with ridiculous beliefs?” NO. No you did not. Mark was clearly pointing out that the makers of those types of shows are immoral pricks. He doesn’t mention attacking this man for his beliefs.

    While some (Mark included) might question whether or not this man might not be fit to carry a gun, he didn’t say anything about calling this man a moron to his face. The worst thing you can say that he did was burst this man’s ghost-believing bubble. Which was actually doing him a favor, in more ways than one. Hell, ghosts and demons would be terrifying if they were real, right?

    And thanks Daniel, for starting this totally unnecessary sidetrack. It’s conclusion jumping jerks like you, that make people like me wary of being myself in public spaces, so you unknowingly proved the point I was making in my article. Well done.

    • gdave says:


      I’m assuming you are the Chris Parker referenced in the article above. Kudos to you. It took some courage to go ahead with your presentation knowing it conflicted with your professor’s beliefs. And it must have been a pretty good presentation, since it convinced your professor to reconsider those beliefs. Good job.

      Also, kudos to the unnamed professor in this story. It’s not easy to re-examine our own beliefs, and it takes courage to admit to an error and faulty thinking, even more so for a teacher to admit such to a student. So, good job all around.

      • tmac57 says:

        Well said gdave!
        And to Chris,I hope that you realize what a great advantage you have in life by being able, at such a young age, to have the tools of critical thinking at your disposal to help you navigate through all of the nonsense (and there is so much to navigate through too). Good job!

  7. Max says:

    Wall Street Journal article about guns and superstition

    “Wartime brings out the superstitious side of the troops, whose very survival is often at the whim of forces well beyond their control…
    ‘Everybody’s got their superstitions,’ says First Sgt. Vic Martin. ‘The more dangerous the job, the more superstitious.’
    In a Marine camp where every job carries risks, few face more danger than the scout snipers, who have elaborate superstitions to protect them.”

  8. Susan Gerbic says:

    “And thanks Daniel, for starting this totally unnecessary sidetrack. It’s conclusion jumping jerks like you, that make people like me wary of being myself in public spaces, so you unknowingly proved the point I was making in my article. Well done.”


    This is the reason why people are wary of speaking out in blogs (comments and otherwise) if every single written thing will be scrutinized and criticized. I hope you don’t do this in person.

    As I stated in my above comment. If the police have to enter a “haunted” building to check something out. They shouldn’t be thinking they will find a ghost floating around, but focused on real shadows.

    Grammar and spelling corrections aren’t exactly welcome either. Now if you want to politely correct it when asked to review something that is meant for serious publication,then okay.

  9. CParker says:

    Thanks gdave, I am the Chris Parker in question.

    I was also really impressed with my professor! He was initially very guarded about his personal experience with psychics, but the more I talked, the more he opened up. I think he was possibly waiting to see if I was going to make fun of him in some way or make him feel stupid for having been a long-time participant. And of course I did neither, just gave him the facts.

    I was actually *incredibly* worried about offending him because I had planned to ask him for a letter of recommendation for when I transfer school soon. But it went well all around and he happily wrote me that letter. :)

    • double-helical says:

      Chris Parker, you are amazing. Well done, both on the speech and on the way you reasoned with your professor. And you got the letter of recommendation! I wish you well in your career. It’s been many years since I was a young man in school, and I sometimes regret not having the critical thinking skills at that age that I now know that I should have had. I will make a prediction: you will do well in whatever field of endeavor you choose!

  10. Ed Martin says:

    I’m offering a $1,000,000 award to all psychics. Reply by mental telepathy with name and address.

  11. Donna Gore says:

    I find the idea that a professor would call Psychic lines really unsettling.

  12. step back says:


    I think you meant to say, “to all true psychics for doing you know what …” at comment #10.

    But then again, they already knew that.
    I’m merely mentioning it for the sake of all the inept non-psychic readers here who use the physical mediums of communicative exchange (i.e. Internet) rather than the faster-than-light telepathic ether.

    p.s. I already sent you my response 2 weeks before you posted the offer. ;-)

  13. Janet Camp says:

    How do you get to be a Professor and not have come across a debunking of psychics? I agree with Donna Gore. I also agree with all who are concerned about a ghost-guy having a gun! What if he thinks I’m a ghost and starts shooting? It’s official–I’m becoming a recluse.

    Thanks, Mark Edward, for sharing this positive example. I get really down about the spread of woo and my own inability to persuade most of my new-agey acquaintances of anything rational. I joined a skeptics group instead, but found many of them to harbor their own pet woo–yoga for instance, or certain fad diets. It goes on and on.

    Finally, I accept that you are free of superstition and so am I as far as I can conclude after much honest self-examination. It isn’t difficult when you become an atheist at age eight, but you do have to work at it the first twenty years or so.