If you have been following the news lately you know that Amanda Berry (along with Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight) was recently found alive after being kidnapped in 2003. This is a happy story but there is an element of it that highlights an important issue regarding the benefits of scientific skepticism when it comes to our mental health. Amanda Berry’s Mother who, sadly passed away before her daughter was found, sought solace and information by consulting “psychic” Sylvia Browne on a 2004 episode of the Montel Williams show. Browne bluntly informed Berry’s mother that “She’s not alive, honey.” Browne further went on to state that she envisioned Amanda’s Jacket in a dumpster with DNA on it. She is now rightly, being discredited by the media as a fraud. Browne is indeed a reprehensible hack but that is not why I am writing about her; the event itself does a lot to illustrate that people who style themselves as “psychic” are either delusional or self-serving hucksters who prey on other people’s grief. I therefore didn’t really see a need to comment on it until I saw a video from the Dr. Oz show. Where, according to Dr. Oz, they were conducting a groundbreaking experiment on Theresa Caputo, the so-called Long Island Medium.
Dr. Oz is a trained surgeon so he should have a solid understanding of science and the scientific method but he has a history of subverting reality in order to get ratings. Nevertheless he is seen by millions daily and has a potentially large influence over a large number of people. The “groundbreaking experiment” was conducted on the Dr. Oz show by Dr. Daniel Amen who performed a Single-Photon Emission Computerized Tomography (SPECT) scan on Caputo and asked her to do a “reading” on an audience member and indicate when she was receiving a message from a deceased person. SPECT scans have numerous legitimate clinical uses and are very useful for imaging blood flow through an organ or organ system. Blood flow through an organ, however, tells us nothing about whether there is communication with the great beyond. Further the fact that they looked for activity after she claimed to be experiencing something is backwards. For the experiment to have been even somewhat valid they should have been able to see it first WITHOUT her telling them that she was speaking to the dead. They were simply confirming their own beliefs when they associated increased blood flow with psychic activity. In point of fact that could just be the part of her brain that gets active when she is cold-reading an audience.
Science deals with testable theories and the way to ensure that a hypothesis or theory is testable is to make sure it is falsifiable. I know that this sounds counterintuitive but a hypothesis that is so general that it is always true and can thus be applied to any situation is actually useless. For example, say that I offered you a magic pill and told you that it will make you become physically fit but that it is only effective if you completely believe that it works. If you take it and don’t get fit, it must be that you don’t truly believe. I can always blame the pill’s failure to work on the fact that you didn’t believe in it. If, you were to object and say that you did believe it, I would merely say that if you had believed, it would have worked. Since it is unfalsifiable I can always justify my hypothesis no matter what the outcome. This is how psychics and mediums work! They say they are talking to dead loved ones and if you don’t feel the presence of your loved ones you must not have believed in the first place.
When people like Caputo, Amen, and now apparently Dr. Oz conduct tests with scientific-looking equipment that does not test what they claim it does, they are doing nothing more than proffering pseudoscientific nonsense, which is damaging to public health and well being. Remember that increased blood flow to an area of the brain just tells you that the area is more active, it does not tell you why. Unfortunately to those who believe, I simply don’t see it because I don’t believe it; my skepticism is ruining it for me. To that I say remember this: although gravity is a scientific theory I am free to doubt its existence. Doing so does not, however, diminish its effect on me; it works whether I believe or don’t believe. Real facts are true whether you believe them or not.
Finally let me be clear that I do not mean to imply any disrespect to those grieving individuals who seek out psychics. I lost my Dad two years ago to cancer and the grief of that still periodically Boot-Stomps me in the face. I would love a chance to communicate, even indirectly, with him at least one more time. I know from experience that it is almost impossible to be rational while grieving. The sad fact is that these self-styled “mediums” are acutely aware of this. People like Sylvia Browne, Theresa Caputo, John Edward, James Van Praagh, among the many others are nothing more than predatory, self-aggrandizing frauds who don’t deserve a bit of the attention they receive and certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously by anyone.