The Harm Psychics Do

Out of Toronto, this jaw-dropping story: Colleen Leduc, a local mother, was accused by school officials of letting her autistic daughter Victoria be sexually abused – based on the word of a psychic! (HT: Boing Boing).

Leduc’s weird tale began on May 30, when she dropped young Victoria off for class at Terry Fox Elementary and headed in to work, only to receive a frantic phone call from the school telling her it was urgent she come back right away.

The frightened mother rushed back to the campus and was stunned by what she heard – the principal, vice-principal and her daughter’s teacher were all waiting for her in the office, telling her they’d received allegations that Victoria had been the victim of sexual abuse – and that the CAS had been notified.

…”The teacher looked and me and said: ‘We have to tell you something. The educational assistant who works with Victoria went to see a psychic last night, and the psychic asked the educational assistant at that particular time if she works with a little girl by the name of ‘V.’ And she said ‘yes, I do.’ And she said, ‘well, you need to know that that child is being sexually abused by a man between the ages of 23 and 26.’”

Thankfully, despite the irrational hysteria that often surrounds claims of child abuse, this wild accusation went no farther. The Children’s Aid Society sent a case worker to Leduc’s home, who concluded that she was a diligent mother, called the accusations “ridiculous” and closed the case. It was probably a great help that Leduc’s daughter was equipped with a GPS unit that also continuously recorded ambient audio, providing conclusive proof that no abuse had ever happened. The accusations were unsupported by even a shred of evidence and were swiftly dropped.

Still, for those who would claim that a little belief in the paranormal never did anyone any harm, this story is a ringing counterexample. What if the phony psychic had said that Victoria was at dire risk of being kidnapped or harmed and that the authorities wouldn’t listen? Would this endlessly gullible educational assistant have taken it upon herself to spirit the girl away? What if the accusation had been laid against the mother herself rather than some non-existent man, thus adding the further injustice of a false charge against an innocent person? How far might this have gone if definitive counterevidence had not existed?

Psychic scammers can and do invent claims as it pleases them, with no regard for the truth. Since they’re unconstrained by facts, there’s nothing to prevent them from making up charges against innocent people or otherwise telling harmful lies. And when credulous people take those falsehoods seriously, the result is harm and suffering for those who’ve done nothing to deserve it. Consider the callous fraud Sylvia Browne telling a woman that she was the child of an affair, or falsely telling grieving parents that their missing son was dead. If the recipients believed these claims, imagine what would ensue – entirely needless anger and recrimination that could shatter a family, or despairing parents calling off the search for their child. Yes, phony psychics do cause harm – a great deal of it – and it is futile to pretend otherwise. (I’m glad to see Toronto readers offer similar thoughts on this story and roundly dismiss psychics. Way to go, Canada!)

I don’t know whether the laws permit it, but I hope the psychic who made this claim is punished for it just as anyone who falsely reported a crime to the police would be. She deserves to pay a penalty for the fear and heartache she’s caused this family and for her frivolous alarm causing a waste of state resources. And this educational assistant ought to be dismissed. Anyone who seeks out and consumes this pseudoscientific nonsense, and takes it seriously enough to act on it in cases like this, is not sufficiently rational to be entrusted with the care of others’ children.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • 2-D Man

    I’m glad to see Toronto readers offer similar thoughts on this story and roundly dismiss psychics. Way to go, Canada!

    While I’m flattered with such praise, I’d say it’s unwarranted: keep in mind that this liar’s business hasn’t been pushed to bankruptcy by a lack of customers. Hopefully, someday, people will open their eyes and find that they can see just fine without the use of a third.

  • Brock

    I hope the psychic who made this claim is punished for it just as anyone who falsely reported a crime to the police would be. She deserves to pay a penalty for the fear and heartache she’s caused this family and for her frivolous alarm causing a waste of state resources. And this educational assistant ought to be dismissed.
    This is a completely rational and responsible way of responding to this sort of charlatanism. If psychics were made responsible for the harm they do, they would be less apt to come out with such spectacular claims. Maybe the practice of psychic scamming would become less profitable, and there would be fewer of these frauds around.

  • Samuel Skinner

    I is just like the madness in “Why people believe in weird things”… at least this didn’t turn into a witch hunt.

  • Polly

    While I agree that the psychic deserves to be punished, I don’t think it’s straightforward from a legal perspective. Unless malicious intent could be proven, what you’d have is a case of the state vs. someone’s personal faith – their belief in their own ESP. This would be a very hairy case since the psychic may actually have believed her own story, in which case she was simply incorrect.
    More likely, the school and the authorities would (and should, IMO) establish a specific set of criteria upon which they would or would not act to investigate a claim. Psychic visions or other omens would naturally be on a “Do Not Investigate” list.
    The danger that a true believer would act unilaterally for the “benefit” of another is really the scariest part of this story. There’s just no defense against it. Not hiring people with stupid superstitious beliefs gets into murky areas of discrimination. Although, psych evaluations and educational standards for workers might help.

    I’m glad to see Toronto readers offer similar thoughts on this story and roundly dismiss psychics. Way to go, Canada!

    I have relatives in Toronto, so I second that. :)

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    While I agree that the psychic deserves to be punished, I don’t think it’s straightforward from a legal perspective. Unless malicious intent could be proven, what you’d have is a case of the state vs. someone’s personal faith – their belief in their own ESP. This would be a very hairy case since the psychic may actually have believed her own story, in which case she was simply incorrect.

    I’m not so sure about that, Polly. The New York penal law, for instance, says that the crime of false reporting occurs when a person reports an incident which they knew to be false or baseless. I don’t think it would be difficult for a good prosecutor to show that a claim of sexual abuse based on nothing but the unsubstantiated word of a “psychic” should be considered to be baseless.

    As an analogy, let’s say I hear a car backfiring, panic, and report to the police that a group of men with assault rifles are shooting their way down Madison Avenue. I don’t think sincerity would be considered a defense against a charge of false reporting; the claim I made was far too specific and was not in any way justified by the evidence available to me.

  • Polly

    Ebon,

    A person is guilty of falsely reporting an incident in the third
    degree when, knowing the information reported, conveyed or circulated to
    be false or baseless
    , he:

    The section I bolded seems to be the trouble spot. I think a prosecutor would have to prove that the psychic “knew” the information was false or baseless.

    WE have the lattitude to admit that psychic powerss are all bullshit, of course. But, if there’s any licensing then it can be argued that the state or city regards the service as a legitimate business. If so, then the psychic may have a “basis” for claiming to believe his/her own claims. It seems easy to get around…

    Unless there’s an obvious ulterior motive: if the psychic had a grudge against V’s parents, or the school, or was just looking for notoriety to drum up business. Those would be external factors that could win the case, rather than having to judge someone’s mental state.

  • Thropmorton Clackenhammer

    “phony pyschic”?…are you implying that there are legitimate ones?

  • Chris

    Two observations:

    1. If the mother had actually had a boyfriend in that age range he would probably be in jail right now. His existence would be sufficient corroboration of the psychic’s statement.

    2. IANAL, but I think that proving that the person knew the statement is false is often a difficult part of fraud suits and prosecutions. (In civil fraud suits at least you don’t have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.) Deluded people are likely to get off on the ground that they believed what they said. (There’s always the possibility that investigation will reveal a smoking gun proving that this particular psychic was a knowing fraud and not a deluded believer, though.)

    You also have the difficulty that in order to sue for fraud, you have to show that you *reasonably* relied on the fraud’s statements as the basis for some action and were harmed as a result. (I don’t know if this applies to criminal fraud.) The same statement can’t be so ridiculous that the fraud must have known it was false, but plausible enough that the victim could reasonably have relied on it; so in practice, the fraud must have *superior* knowledge of the subject matter, so that they can know they’re lying while it’s reasonable for the victim to believe them.

  • Christopher

    It’s hard to believe anyone still takes these fools seriously, but nonetheless we do live in such a world – even major world leaders have been known to consult with these mystics before making policy decisions. Thus causing me to call into question the wisdom of not just the “psychics,” but of much our society (as they seem to place a lot of faith in them).

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    “phony pyschic”?…are you implying that there are legitimate ones?

    Not at all. That’s why I dislike just writing the term “psychic”, without the adjective – that seems too much like validating their delusions to me.

  • http://lostaddress.org Ray

    Here’s the problem with a psychic – whenever they get it wrong, it’s not that they were wrong, it’s that the person who heard the message misinterpreted it. So the “v” in the story was clearly not that “v” but a different one. And the psychic is home and dry.

    I don’t care how plausible they seem, psychics are utter bullshit artists.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    What if the phony psychic had said that Victoria was at dire risk of being kidnapped or harmed and that the authorities wouldn’t listen? Would this endlessly gullible educational assistant have taken it upon herself to spirit the girl away?

    Which, ironically enough, would have proven the prediction true.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com superhappyjen

    I heard this woman being interviewed. She has chosen to pull her daughter out of school and is currently caring for her at home. So this isn’t exactly “no harm done”.

    (I’m glad to see Toronto readers offer similar thoughts on this story and roundly dismiss psychics. Way to go, Canada!)

    While I love to see Canada mentioned favourably in you post, remember that the educational assistant and school officials who cause this hoopla were also Torontonians. Not only that, they are the ones that are teaching our children! Egads!

    BTW: I have serious issues loading your site. As in type in your URL, go for lunch, come back. Click on the comments link to make a comment, go put the baby down for a nap, come back. Very sloooow. Any one else have this trouble?

  • Jim Baerg

    Very sloooow. Any one else have this trouble?

    Yes. I’ve taken to opening another window in Firefox & checking other websites while DA loads stuff.

  • Polly

    “Yes. I’ve taken to opening another window in Firefox & checking other websites while DA loads stuff.”

    Ditto, except I’m using IE.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Surely it doesn’t matter whether the psychic believed it – the psychic didn’t call the CAS, the “educational assistant” did.

  • http://radical.sapphoq.com/2008/06/more-on-victoria-and-psychic-62108.html#links sapphoq

    The xkcd comic strip on supernatural powers says it all: claims of supernatural powers have been thoroughly refuted by scientific experiment.

    Those who call themselves “psychic” certainly do harm to the gullible.
    Now there is an autistic child home from school, a mother home caring for the child instead of working, and a school board that will not pay for the Intensive Behavioral Intervention therapy which the mother believes the child needs.

    http://www.citynews.ca/news/news_23845.aspx
    and
    http://www.nugget.ca/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=1079288

    spike

  • Alex Weaver

    Not that the mother “believes the child needs.” Intensive behavioral therapy is, as far as I’m aware, the only approach with any significant track record of improving social functioning in autistics. The kid should have been getting this from about age 2, though…