This is something I’ve wanted to write for a while, but whenever I put pen to paper, or fingers to keys, I seem to run out of steam. Not because the subject is pointless, or because there isn’t much to say but because of the reverse. There is just so much to say on the topic. As a skeptic, and especially as one whose focus is the paranormal, I am often met with people who genuinely believe in what it is I am presenting a skeptical view of.
I don’t want to somehow say those of us who are predominantly paranormal skeptics somehow have a harder time and more difficult job than other types of skeptics because that would be insulting to groups like The Nightingale Collaboration and similar that do sterling work in tackling the claims of alt med. Nor am I suggesting that I get the type of backlash someone like Richard Dawkins does due to his views on religion- though that is likely more because I am not as famous as he is.
But when dealing with the paranormal you are dealing with an area that touches people deeply and on a very personal level. It is not easy to talk about death and some people get genuine comfort from belief in the afterlife. Do I really want to be the one to tell a grieving parent that their 6 month old child is gone forever and not continuing on in some form of an afterlife? Even writing those words, in a blog that is likely to be read mostly by like minded people, they are difficult. Because I don’t want to come across as dismissive.
Just to state my opinion- I do not believe there is any form of afterlife. I believe once we are dead, we are dead. Now there are some opinions from some people who will outright dismiss all psychics as scammers, and dismiss ghosts as not real so why waste the time in trying to explain them. There are also people who believe that get quite angry when they see someone trying (or at least appearing to in their eyes) to destroy what little hope they have left. When you are someone whose main topic of discussion and show is directly linked to the concept of life after death you can meet all manner of people.
My show, How to Talk to the Dead looks at the tricks and scams of mediums and psychics over the years. There is- some might think disappointingly – little in the show bout modern mediums and how they operate. One reason for this is the show is intended to appeal to the broadest audience, having run for three years on the Edinburgh Fringe, where your audience can range from hardened skeptic to full on believer. I like to think I am not dismissive or cruel and start the show with a warning that though I might not believe in psychic ability that doesn’t follow that all psychics are intentional frauds. There is a lot to be said about the comfort belief in an afterlife brings and I am not sure the risk/ benefit ratio is tilted enough that I need to be vicious in my presentation.
But as a skeptic of the paranormal it is not uncommon to be met with people who genuinely believe and although I have had some difficult Q&As in my 6 years of doing these types of shows, the hardest part has always been when confronted by people who genuinely believe. How exactly should we respond to those people?
Some would say to simply dismiss the claims to psychics, tell them all psychics are frauds and ghosts aren’t real so grow up. I do not think that is the right approach, in fact I think it is so much the wrong approach I would consider those that make it to be more damaging to rational discourse than those who insist that ghosts are real. So how do we respond to those who approach us skeptics with their tales of ghosts and psychics?
Quite simply, I don’t know what the best way is. On the one hand you don’t want to be bolstering peoples beliefs in something, it would almost defeat the purpose of having done the show in the first place. On the other hand telling them that there is no afterlife and they should find another way to grieve is worse. I was at a funeral recently and the widow, knowing I was a skeptic, told me a story of an incident the previous day where she experienced something she attributed to her husbands spirit. I responded in the best way I could think of – simply to say that I couldn’t comment much, having not been there but if she believes it and it gives her comfort then I am not the one to take it away from her.
Another young woman (on an event page for one of the shows) asked for genuine advice in how to contact the dead as she was recently bereaved, it seems of a younger sibling. I was in a very difficult position, on the one hand I didn’t want to give her a list of psychics, but didn’t want to shatter any comfort she got. In the end I simply said that the page she was commenting on was a show, and offered her some links to local bereavement counselling stating it wasn’t my place to comment further. She thanked me, but even weeks later she plays on my mind.
I am not dismissive in my shows, I only offer possible explanations and advice on what to look for to catch out a scamming psychic. It would be wrong of me to do anything other than that.
What we need to remember is that these are real people, who are hurting and in pain and our desire to be right, or to point out where psychics might be lying does not trump that. Although there are cases of psychics taking people for thousands of pounds in cons, I do not think the majority of people fall into that camp. The whole question of “What’s the harm” needs to be on a case by case basis- this isn’t like Burzynski and his piss treatment where there is no proven benefit to health and people may actually be endangering themselves. If a grieving parent is asking me to disprove an incident where they believe their deceased child has visited them I am not going to shoot them down, I will tell them my position but add that if it is giving them hope and comfort it isn’t my place to take that away.
But it does leave me feeling that I’m a bad skeptic at times- surely I should be a lot more forthright and insistent? I don’t think I, or anyone else, should though. I don’t want to cause people harm. Now, if they’re coming to a sceptically themed show then they may already be wavering in their belief and all I can do is explain my position, if they go away and think about the discussion and come to the conclusion they may have been wrong then fine- to some degree at least. Because if I do convince anyone that their experience might not have been paranormal, then what am I taking away from them? Is having one more skeptic in the world worth the hurt and pain that could cause? I am lucky, I became skeptical of these things before I experienced any real loss- even with my Nan, I was already a non believer in the heaven form of an afterlife.
So how do I deal with loss if I don’t believe in an afterlife? I don’t know, I just do. I have no choice but to deal with it. And that’s the key- we deal with these things in our own way and if someones way of dealing with it is to pay out £30 three times a year to see Psychic Sally then who am I to tell them they can’t? £90 is a small amount to pay to bring someone comfort and happiness.
If the persons belief is not causing them any actual harm- physically, mentally or financially- then let them have their belief. It is, for me anyway, only when someones belief begins to have a negative impact on their life that I feel we need to be a bit more certain in our position and explain more thoroughly what might be going on.
And the worst thing is? Getting to the end of this article, I am not even sure if I have reached any conclusion. I don’t know how much, if at all, anything I have said has been worthwhile. Or if I’ll even feel the same way tomorrow. Because it is such a difficult area. I get very uncomfortable during Q&As because I know the question is coming (most of the time anyway) and I don’t know how I’m going to answer it when it comes. So maybe nothing I’ve written here means anything, maybe nothing I’ve said will come back in to play. Maybe I’ll answer in a different way. Because we are dealing with individuals who are in pain, and as much as I want to help people avoid being scammed, if they are getting genuine comfort at no real cost to themselves, then really, is it my place to shatter their belief?