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.