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Monday, 18 November 2013

In defence of charlatans

There was an interesting story on the news the other day about Sylvia Mitchell, an American clairvoyant who was sentenced to fifteen years in jail for conning customers out of thousands of dollars. One woman re-mortgaged her house after Mitchell told her that, in order to “break her attachment to money” (which had been developed in a previous life as an Egyptian princess) she should hand over $27,000. Most of the clients had forked out money for the psychic to rid their lives of ‘negative energy’, but Mitchell’s defence team argued that she had not conned them, but had merely charged money for a service that they had agreed to buy.

I am not exactly a believer when it comes to the power of so-called clairvoyants, but I do think Mitchell’s defence team had a point. Let’s leave to one side the question of whether or not the statute book should protect someone stupid enough to believe that she should hand over a bucketload of cash to atone for having been an Egyptian princess in a previous life. Critics argue that psychics prey upon the gullible and vulnerable, but –beyond the purchase of food and shelter- every commercial transaction we undertake exploits our desire for happiness and, in that sense, all consumers are willing victims. Many folk who employ the services of psychics will perceive themselves to have benefited from their consultations, so whose perception is more important here: the people who don't believe or the people who -for whatever reason- choose to suspend disbelief as part of their contract with a clairvoyant?

If a music-loving, middle-aged bloke like myself buys a 're-mastered' box set of albums by an artist I love when I already have everything that artist has ever released, am I being preyed upon for my gullibility? And, even if I concede that I am somehow being exploited, what if I choose to do it anyway because, on some level, it makes me feel better to own that box set? The record company and the psychic are both selling stuff that, strictly speaking, their clients don’t really need. It can be argued that my arrangement with the record company is no different from the arrangement between a clairvoyant and a lonely old woman who hopes that she might make contact with her deceased husband. In both cases, the consumer believes that their emotional or intellectual well-being will be improved by the exchange.

I’m worried that the Mitchell case might set a precedent; if we accept that ‘exploitative’ clairvoyants should be prosecuted for their practices, who will the law go after next? How about shrinks, counsellors, chiropractors and all holistic practitioners? What if I worked in a beauty salon and persuaded an ugly woman to pay for an expensive makeover, then told her that she looked sensational once it was done? If some bad-mannered person later pointed out that she was still ugly, could I be prosecuted for fraud?

I suspect that most clairvoyants are charlatans, but we should defend their right to practice their charlatanry, because interventionist approaches are invariably based on subjective judgements and are usually illiberal and authoritarian. When we grant the state the power to outlaw ‘harmful’ stuff on behalf of those perceived to be unenlightened or likely to be exploited, it not only makes huge assumptions about those people, it leads inexorably to more things being deemed ‘harmful’ and more things being banned. Look around and you’ll see plenty of examples of how this process works.

If someone uses a psychic to 'communicate' with a dead relative and that 'communication' gives them solace, who are we to deny them that? Isn’t it better to live in a society that allows folk to get at least some comfort from mumbo-jumbo than a society in which the authorities decide, on our behalf, whether or not something is ‘good’ for us?

I suspect that many of the folk who use psychics probably know, in their heart of hearts, that it is phoney-baloney. They just choose, for reasons we have no right to disdain, to suspend their disbelief.

And if that helps them make it through the night, why should the law take an interest?

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Let's hear it for humankind

In the recent BBC 2 show ‘Don’t Panic – the truth about population’, the statistician Professor Hans Rosling provided an amusing and refreshing antidote to some of the alarmist guff regularly peddled in the mainstream media about the ‘dangers’ of human development and population growth.
I’m not sure whether the doomsday merchants drive or merely reflect public opinion, but we do seem to have something of a fascination with the day of reckoning. There are always people willing to predict that apocalypse is imminent; these dire forecasts used to be mostly about food and resources, but current concerns about the environment appear to have added some misanthropic spice to the cataclysmic mix. Indeed, some folk now place the interests of animals and vegetation above those of their fellow human beings. David Attenborough, considered by some to be a national treasure, announced on his TV show ‘The Life of Mammals’ that:

"Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we controlled the population to allow the survival of the environment."

Forget racism, homophobia, sexism and any other form of prejudice you’d care to mention. It’s hard to imagine anything quite as bleakly misanthropic as that quote. Who, I wonder, does Mr Attenborough want to save the planet for?

But none of this stuff is new. In the nineteenth century, Thomas Malthus was considered to be something of a prophet because of his widely-read grim prognostications about population growth. Needless to say, his predictions didn’t work out. In the twentieth century, Paul Ehrlich was the darling of the catastrophe set when his best-selling book 'The Population Bomb' forecast -with some relish- food riots in the USA and the introduction of martial law by the mid-seventies. Needless to say, his predictions didn’t work out.

Chatter about population control is usually carried out among citizens of developed countries and the 'problem' usually refers –directly or indirectly- to people in underdeveloped countries. Some might argue that there is an unsavoury aspect to this, but whatever the motivation, you get the distinct feeling that folk who talk about 'controlling the population' invariably believe that there is just enough people like them, but rather too much of, you know ... other people.

Whenever the subject comes up, it is often useful and illuminating to cut to the chase by asking these questions:
Who are the people who should be told that they can't have any children? Who are the people who should be told that they can't have more than one child or two children, or whichever number is deemed to be 'too much'? Who gets to decide what is ‘too much'? Where do these people who will be ‘controlled’ live? How is this 'control' to be exerted over them? Who will exert it? From where will the ‘controllers’ derive their authority?

The developed world, alas, is never going to be short of people with an unhealthy appetite for apocalypse porn, but all of their horror predictions have one startling thing in common: they fail to take into account the sheer ingenuity of humankind when it comes to overcoming difficulties. Instead of seeing each new human being as a potential prize-winning scientist or wealth-creating entrepreneur or a decent, loving, responsible person who might raise and nurture a hard-working family, they see each new person as a potential problem. It is an utterly abject and anti-humanist outlook.

But don’t take my word for it. Watch Professor Rosling’s show for yourself and decide which camp you’d rather be in. As he so eloquently puts it:

“I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m a possibilist.”