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That one spooky thing (continued) January 21, 2014

Posted by ubi dubium in Brain Glitches, Responses.
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

(In this series:  Part 1   Part 3  Part 3.1 Part 3.2 )

Okay, more on this.  If you have deconverted from religion, and have gotten rid of most or all of your superstitions, what do you do with that one strange experience that you can’t explain?  How do you work that out?

My list of possibilities looks like this:

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
  • It’s technological
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
  • It’s “supernatural”

And last time I talked about natural and technological things that might be misinterpreted.  So lets continue with

Deliberate Hoaxes

People like to think that they are hard to fool.  And often they are completely wrong about this.   As Richard Feynman so famously said:

The  first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest  person to fool.

So let’s look at an example of a time and place where people are willing to be fooled – faith healing.

I once had someone respond to a blog comment I wrote, and she said that she was convinced that god and Jesus were real, because she had witnessed someone’s short leg growing right in front of her.  Probably something much like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPdJwh_0WPs

leg lengthening

So she saw someone’s leg grow, and that convinced her that the religion the person was selling was true?  Which is more likely, that she actually saw the leg grow, or that she was seeing a parlor trick done by a skilled conman?  I don’t know that there are real miracles, but I do know that there are real conmen, so I will default to the conman as the more likely explanation.  In the case of the leg lengthening miracle, it’s actually very simple.  The “healer” manipulates the shoe on the other leg, pulling the heel of the shoe forward to make the leg look longer, and then pushing it back on as they claim their “miracle” is happening.  Since everyone is focused on the shorter leg, they miss the obvious trick.

Here’s Darren Brown with a demonstration of how this con works. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpz_9_KalFY

Bethel Church in Redding CA would have a “glory cloud” descend on their services.  This doesn’t happen at every church, or at every evangelical church, it’s mostly just at this one.  Hmmm, suspicious already.

glory cloud    glitter

Believers there were sure it was a sign from god.  However, it looks exactly like someone dumped fine-grade glitter in the ventilation system.  I’m going with “conman” on this one.  Interestingly, when I did a Google search for people exposing this as a hoax, most of what I found was other True Believers™ that were calling out the Bethel church as dangerous heretics.  They didn’t disbelieve it because this kind of miracle doesn’t happen, they disbelieved it because it was happening to the wrong sort of christian.  They wanted to believe miracles that proved they were special, not miracles proving someone else was special.

Video of the “Glory Cloud”: http://www.ibethel.org/glory-cloud-video-at-bethel-redding

Let’s look at a few of the classic hoaxes out there:

Faith Healer Peter Popoff would “miraculously” know the names and ailments of people in the crowd, and proclaim them healed.  It turned out (as exposed by James Randi) that he had a hidden earpiece, and Mrs. Popoff had been feeding him information that had been collected by the staff earlier.  And he would rake in boatloads of cash from his faithful followers.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Popoff)

Power Balance bracelets are sold so convincingly, and the company has made so much money on overpriced rubber bands, that the company bought the naming rights to a sports arena back in 2011.   (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Power_Balance_Pavilion).  Yet their salesmen use a simple balance trick to sell them, a trick I also know how to do, and have taught many others so that they won’t fall for the hoax.  Skeptic Richard Saunders has done a wonderful expose on this fraud, and Australia has now banned their sale. (Full details here: http://www.skeptics.com.au/latest/news/power-balance-test/)

Famous psychic Uri Geller completely failed to demonstrate any powers on the Tonight Show (after James Randi had shown Johnny Carson how to set up a test that prevented cheating):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNKmhv9uoiQ  Yet, he’s sold thousands of books and made many paid TV appearances.

Psychic Sylvia Browne claimed that she had helped police solve many cases, but a careful review of those cases shows her accuracy rate was 0% (http://www.csicop.org/si/show/psychic_defective_sylvia_brownes_history_of_failure/)     Her fans would shell out over $700 for a personal 30-minute reading from Sylvia.   (She also notably failed to predict her own death, forecasting that she would live to 88, but dying at 77.)

What all of these hoaxes have in common is that the conman has something to gain by persuading people to believe in them.  Often money.  Sometimes they con people out of A LOT of money.   So, when you are evaluating that lingering weird thing that happened, consider whether someone was trying to get you to believe it.  If they were, consider what that person had to gain by your belief.  (Or, perhaps, the person trying to convince you had been taken in by a hoax themselves, and was now passing it on.)  If somebody stands to profit by your belief in a “miracle”, it was likely faked.

Next post I’ll comment on perception and memory.

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1. cag - January 21, 2014

So I followed one of the links re Power Balance and one of the video suggestions after the exposé was for how to tell if you have a fake hologram or a real hologram, that is, is it a fake scam or a real scam (scam scam or scam). I’m going to consult Peter Popoff’s wife as she obviously has all the answers (except those that Sylvia Browne has). By the way, never take Uri Geller to a glory cloud as it tends to bend out of the way. There is no glory in Uri.

Thanks for the laugh.

2. makagutu - January 21, 2014

Thanks for this. Great post.

3. Phil - January 22, 2014

I completely agree with you – you only have to see Derren Brown, Dynamo and David Blaine who perform illusions to see how real they look. I think they’re all in league with the devil they’re so good!

4. muggleinconverse - January 22, 2014

It’s amazing how convincing cons can be, especially to people who want so desperately to believe them. I’m really enjoying this series.

Do you listen to the Nightvale podcast? Now I’m wondering if their Glow Cloud was inspired by the Glory Cloud.

5. Sabio Lantz - February 2, 2014

I find the most interesting cons are the self-cons: perception (cogntivive, expectations and limited experiences. So I look forward to your next post which may address Feynman’s excellent quote above. I think self-delusion is unavoidable — we just try to manage it humbly.


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