White Coat Underground

Death of a scam artist

Oral Robers, a man infamous for his televangelism and faith healing, died yesterday. The coverage of his life helps remind me why I’m a skeptic. There are many wonderful skeptical bloggers out there—I’m not one of them. Sure, I aim a skeptical pen at improbable medical claims, but my posts aren’t dripping with skepticism in the same way some of my favorite blogs are. But from time to time, it’s good to remember why skepticism is a very good way to approach the world.

Oral Roberts was a scam artist. He built an evangelical empire on the wallets of his victims. He famously told his marks that God would strike him dead if they didn’t send him eight million dollars. The man was no better than a drunken carny keeping teddy bears from toddlers, but he had significantly greater reach.

Folks like Roberts are brilliant. For most psychics and faith healers, other human beings are simply sheep to be fleeced. To fleece a sheep, you have to know sheep, and these folks know their sheep. They understand human nature very well and are are experts at exploiting this knowledge. They know that human beings are seekers of patterns and that a mark “probably thinks this song is about you”. These hucksters rely not so much on their own talent at “reading” people but on our own inherent cognitive biases. They know that we are likely to think well of ourselves, to interpret vague statements specifically, and to remember “accurate” statements over inaccurate ones. An they exploit our basic hopes and fears.

There will always be predation in human societies; this we can’t avoid. But when so-called mainstream elements of society cozy up to them, we legitimize the crooks and become their accomplices.

Psychics faith healers are real—real thieves who steal real money. There is always—always—a better explanation for their results than the supernatural. Unfortunately, the harm is quite real.

Comments

  1. #1 Rev. BigDumbChimp
    December 16, 2009

    As I said else where

    I’m not happy he died, but I sure am glad he’s no longer around.

    And to quote Samuel Clemens

    “I did not attend the funeral, but I sent a letter saying I approved of it.”

  2. #2 HP
    December 16, 2009

    Sir! You besmirch the noble carny. No carny has ever swindled anyone out of more than the price of E ticket. No carny promises more than a memorable day at the fair. How many of today’s skeptics felt that first glimmer of suspicion when they were handed a gaffed ring in a ring-toss game, or worked out the physics of the milk-bottle game?

    And for what it’s worth, carnies have a sense of honor and integrity. It might not be the same sense of honor and integrity that the rubes and the marks profess, but nonetheless they have standards, and they stick with them. Once you promise people eternal life after death, all standards go out the window.

    Some people go their whole lives without learning from a carny that the house always wins. Those people go on to give the likes of Oral Roberts their life savings.

  3. #3 bad Jim
    December 16, 2009

    “I was devastated to hear of his death. For years the only thing keeping me alive was the hope of seeing him hanged.”

    Garrison Keillor, approximately, quoting someone else.

  4. #4 Arnold T Pants
    December 17, 2009

    Hitchens’ statement after Fallwell’s death is relevant to Roberts: “If you gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox.” (Approx.)

    @HP: Don’t forget about the carnie code. Kings among men.

  5. #5 Joe
    December 17, 2009

    I think it was James (The Amazing) Randi who wondered, aloud, why a faith healer had to build a hospital.

  6. #6 DLC
    December 22, 2009

    If Roberts was right about there being a god and an afterlife, Then he is now facing an angry and punitive god.