Wednesday, May 11, 2011

An open letter to Kool 105 radio

I have been a long-time listener of Kool 105, and so it was with great disappointment that I logged onto Facebook this afternoon to find these two messages:

“Do you have a pet problem: Steve & Stephanie have a PET PSYCHIC on the show tomorrow, and if you’d like to talk with her---She needs a picture of your pet today! EMAIL A PICTURE OF YOUR PET-WITH THEIR NAME, YOUR NAME,PHONE NUMBER AND A SHORT DESCRIPTION OF THE PROBLEM TO today! We’ll contact you later today to line you up for tomorrow morning to talk with the PET PSYCHIC.”

Followed shortly by:

“We have a few more spaces open to talk to our PET PSYCHIC tomorrow morning…I need you to email me a picture of your pet with, your contact info. And we’ll line you up with Patty the Pet Psychic….send photo of Dog, cat, snake, bird, spider to right away.”

As a rational person, I find this reliance upon superstitious mythologies such as psychics (not to mention the silliness of pet psychics) horrifying. We live in a society whose very survival depends upon science. And yet, we have structured out society in such a way that scientists are not only generally misunderstood by the public at large, but people put their faith in anti-scientific nonsense like pet psychics.

I’ve been involved in the skeptical movement for many years. I am, of course, intimately familiar with the sorts of objections I am likely to receive to writing such a letter. First, I’ll be accused of being closed-minded. But this is certainly not the case. We must all of us remain open minded, but there seems to be a danger that if we open our minds too far, our brains will drop out. What I mean by this is that we must always be open to new and unusual ideas, but that we must demand a scientific high standard of evidence before we believe in any such claim. In the case of pet psychics, that burden of proof hasn’t come even close to being met.

And then of course, it is claimed that these things are just a bit of harmless fun. I cannot disagree more strongly. There is a truly marvelous website at dedicated to cataloging precisely what kinds of harm this superstitious flim-flammery can cause to innocent people. It is a very dangerous thing. It costs people their money, their health, their emotional security, their rational minds, and in many cases, their lives. So far, What’s the Harm has identified: 368,379 people killed, 306,096 injured, and over $2,815,931,000 in economic damages. And that’s just what their readers have reported to them. Surely there must be billions more people who suffer at the hands of charlatans.

Even in what would seem like a relatively benign incarnation of this belief system such as pet psychics, there is a very great and very real risk of emotional dependence upon charlatans, not to mention the thousands of dollars people can and will spend on such “services” after sadly becoming “addicted.” If nothing else, it is a risk being taken with no proven benefit. In fact, there’s not even a hint of a benefit. Nevermind benefit--there’s not even a hint of a way this could be possible without violating the known laws of physics.

These people are fakes, cheats, scoundrels, liars, and they need to be behind bars. Unfortunately, because the government seems all but completely unwilling to prosecute these cases of outright fraud, negligence, negligent homicide, practicing medicine without a license, and the list of potential charges goes on and on and on, we must rely upon the media to paint an accurate portrait of what’s really going on. And yes, that even includes entertainment shows such as yours. Instead of fulfilling your journalistic and decent human duty to protect people from fraud, you’ve invited a practitioner onto your program and solicited victims from the pool of your own listeners. This is a betrayal of your loyal fanbase, it is a betrayal of the scientific method, and it is a betrayal of common human morality.

Because, however, a radio show can be a great opportunity to provide a basic semi-scientific test of this psychic’s claims, I propose you do so. When the psychic is on your show, I suggest that she should be shown photographs of the pet (precisely the method she was going to take anyway), but instead of being told any information, she must first determine the pet’s name and what the problem its owner is having is. Surely the pet at least knows its name! It’s the single most common sound it hears! Why would she, a psychic for gods sakes, need to be told this simple piece of information? This is a great sort of informal test. It won’t make your psychic very happy, of course, because she’ll realize that you’ve discovered her to be a fraud. But it will help to protect your listeners.

Furthermore, and perhaps even easier for you to do on air, is the Million Dollar Psychic Challenge. James Randi and the James Randi Educational Foundation are currently offering no less than one MILLION dollars to any psychic who can demonstrate their abilities under scientific observing conditions which preclude the possibility of cheating. It’s a simple test, and the only protocols in place will not interfere in any legitimate phenomena--they will only prevent fraud. The claimants even help to design their own tests. If they succeed, they get a million bucks, and a public admission from Randi that he was wrong. Put this pet psychic on the spot: challenge her publicly, on your program, to take the test. Surely she could use a million dollars. If she says she doesn’t do it for the money, perhaps she could think of a charity. I’m sure sick children, or a veterinary clinic (perhaps more her cup of tea) would love such a donation. There is absolutely no excuse not to take Randi’s challenge. If she can really do what she says she can do, it’s easy money. The only reason she could refuse is if she knows she’s a fraud and doesn’t want to be caught.

Do the right thing. Defend science and reason on your show. Don’t promote dangerous superstition and fraud.


Bob Lewis

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