Super Powers

Super Powers – Debunked

PsychicIn this final installment of my talk about Super Powers I’ll explain how some truly great people have spent much of their lives debunking those who hope to defraud us by claiming abilities beyond the normal. Yesterday I talked about the tremendous amount of fraud that is based on people who make such claims particularly in the realm of religion. Today I hope to demonstrate that the people who claim super powers are largely interested in stealing your money.

This sort of fraudulent behavior goes back as far as the written word as soothsayers in ancient Greece like the Oracle at Delphi made their living with fake prophecies for the desperate and gullible. The skeptics of the world have always doubted such nonsense and tried to debunk them.

I consider Gaius Julius Caesar one of the most admirable and remarkable men in history. In ancient Rome it was common for a soothsayer to look at the entrails of a recently slaughtered goat to determine if good or bad things were in store for the day. Suetonius attributes this quote to Caesar about that very subject: The entrails will be more favourable when I please; and it ought not to be regarded as a prodigy that a beast should be found wanting a heart.

Suetonius is trying to vilify Caesar but of course elevates him. Caesar knew this sort of fortune-telling was nonsense and makes no pretense about it.

In any case, let’s move forward in time to another of the greats, Harry Houdini. Mr. Houdini is best known as a magician and escape artist but he spent a great deal of life as a skeptic attempting to expose frauds who claimed super powers. He was a member of a Scientific American committee that offered a cash prize for proof of super powers. Prize never paid.

Here’s the rub, if someone had super powers, they could prove it in two seconds. If I could fly it’s easy to prove. If I can read your mind, it’s easy to prove. Sure, there are tricks that seem to indicate this ability but under controlled environments no one has ever succeeded. Ever.

Mr. Houdini’s friend, Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame, was a firm believer and tied himself in knots trying to figure out how Houdini was proving all these other psychics wrong. It’s an interesting story should you care to read further. But, it illustrates how invested are people who want to believe in Super Powers. Again, religion comes to the forefront here as people want to believe so badly they are willing to suspend their reason and end up defrauded.

Before Mr. Houdini died he hired his friends H. P. Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy Jr. to write a book called The Cancer of Superstition. Sadly, Mr. Houdini passed away and a great book was never written. I mourn.

The modern inheritor of Mr. Houdini’s assault on mysticism and super powers is James Randi. He has offered a $1,000,000 reward for anyone who can prove  paranormal powers. You’ll be stunned to learn, unclaimed. A million dollars!

Now, most of the true believers claim those that really have the power keep it a secret and don’t try for the reward. This is a common argument tactic of faith-based thinking. It is a fallacy called Argument from Ignorance. Essentially, a proposition is true because it hasn’t been proven false. A great man named Bertrand Russell came up with an excellent example to prove the unsound nature of this argument. He suggested that there is a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. You can’t prove it’s not there so it must be there. Be alert to Arguments from Ignorance when dealing with people who claim Super Powers exist in one form or another.

Back to Mr. Randi. He wrote a book calling Uri Geller a fake and subsequently won a lawsuit filed by Geller against him. Mr. Randi brilliantly set up a privately financed, fake psychic program called Project Alpha to show how flawed were the efforts to prove Super Powers. In a famous television appearance he debunked James Hydrick who claimed to be able to turn pages of a book with his mind. Mr. Randi simply put packing kernels around the book to prevent Hydrick from blowing the pages. Debunked!

In 1987 Mr. Randi wrote an important book called The Faith Healers as an outlet for his anger rising from compassion for the helpless victims of fraud. Sick people manipulated, defrauded, used. Well done, Mr. Randi! Well done, indeed.

Mr. Randi’s inspired a young magician named Penn Jillette who continues this good work today with books, a television show, and a Las Vegas show.

The point here is that when someone claims to have Super Powers they are trying to defraud you. Whether this is religious powers, supernatural powers, or comic book style super powers their goal is to steal something from you. Use your skepticism, your powers of logic and reason, inspire those around you to do the same.

We skeptics, we logical thinkers, can’t snap our fingers to make the world a better place but we can lead by example. We can show people better methods of thinking and inspire children. If we can raise generations of skeptics, of critical thinkers, then, we will change the world.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist

You can do Anything if You Set your Mind to it

PlatitudeThe final day of my weeklong attack against Facebook Platitudes has arrived and I like to think I’ve save the best, and by that I mean most egregious, for last.

You can do anything if you set your mind to it.

I can do no better than to quote the magnificent Penn Jillette, “Eat the sun”.

I’m fairly certain I could simply call it a blog right there but I’m going to analyze the idea behind the platitude, the well-intentioned hopes, and the disastrous results.

There are two thoughts behind making this statement one of which is well-intentioned and the other is malicious. The first is to encourage a person to be adventurous and try things. This is excellent advice. Life is better if we enjoy it broadly rather than narrowly. There is much that is good in this world and being afraid to try things leaves us with a less than full life. It’s great to encourage a person to try things. This is just a poor platitude to do it.

Parents encourage their children with this platitude in the hopes the kids will leave their fear behind and experience life to its fullest. Again, excellent sentiment, I wholeheartedly approve.

The negative situation where I see this platitude thrown around is to blame people for failing to complete a particular task. It is often used when the failure is beyond the person’s control and is the tactic of a bully to deflect their own culpability in the events leading up to the failure.

You didn’t finish the job? Why not, you can do anything if you set your mind to it.

The bullies of the world take over when the achievers are not allowed to succeed. This is one of the central messages of Randian Objectivism and I’ll talk about it in another post.

Now let’s move onto why this idea is not only silly but dangerous.

If we tell children they can do anything they might actually believe us. A child that is told they can do anything is doomed to disappointment. They cannot do anything. They can accomplish more than they think they can, they can do amazing things if they plan and execute with realistic, objective thinking. But, this platitude sends a ridiculous message of entitlement. I’m going to talk about the sense of entitlement that pervades our culture in a later post. I really do think that telling kids they can do anything leads to adults who are unrealistic and entitled. This is bad for our nation. When we talk about greatness it is usually in reference to people who achieved after a great struggle. People who think they are entitled don’t bother with struggle. They quickly give up. Having to work for something is not a bad thing, in fact it is the opposite.

I’m playing a lot of chess lately and because I live in St. Louis, Missouri with its world-class chess club I get to see guys like Hikaru Nakamura play. Thanks to modern computers I get to watch a fellow with the monikor Chess Network play live on Twitch and actually get to play him now and again. I’m not of the opinion that I can beat either of them. However, I’m working on my game, playing better chess, advancing, and feeling pretty good about that.

This to me is the most important thing of all. We can’t raise a generation of people who have unrealistic expectations about themselves and about the world and hope to see western style democracy finish what the founding fathers started. So, don’t tell your children they can do anything. Teach them to think objectively, to plan, to try new things. And don’t just teach them. Show them. Be the example. It can be something as small as trying a new thing at the restaurant but not with peanuts if you are allergic to them! Be bold but understand the challenges and your limitations. Be prepared!

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Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist