The Harm Psychics Do, Continued

You know, I was going to write about the Pastafarian who won the right to wear a metal colander on his head for his driver’s license photo – but by the time I got home from work yesterday, half a dozen other atheist bloggers had already posted about it, so never mind. Here’s something a little heavier instead.

I wrote a post in 2008, The Harm Psychics Do, about a self-proclaimed psychic who announced on the basis of no evidence that a local woman’s autistic daughter was being molested. Thankfully, that claim was conclusively disproved by evidence and went no further. But not all flirtations with woo have such a satisfying ending. Sometimes, people trust the reassuring lies of psychics and pay dearly for it, as this jaw-droppingly horrifying story shows:

Mr Day, 60, revealed he had already planned his suicide as he spoke with Mrs Stack in a session that was recorded on a CD.

She told him: “I would understand why you would do that.” She later said: “Well you go with my blessing then” – adding: “If you do die, come back and have a cup of tea and a chat with me.”

When a despairing client announced that he was contemplating suicide, this loathsome psychic pretender told him to go ahead and do it – and then encouraged him to come back afterward and have a chat with him from the afterlife. And a few days later, sure enough, he went home and fatally shot himself. He called the police just before he did it, and when they called back, they got a voice-mail message saying, “If you want to contact me, you’ll have to get in touch with a clairvoyant.”

As I’ve written before, the religious teachings about an afterlife distort morality by making this life seem less real or less important by comparison. This fraud was no doubt just following her usual line of patter when she told her client that death isn’t the end of consciousness, but a mere transition into another world from which he could return at will. And while that wasn’t the whole cause of his suicide, it certainly was a contributing factor, as his last voice-mail message shows.

The defense she offered at the inquest was that she was only an “entertainer” – i.e., someone not qualified to help with people’s serious personal problems, which begs the question of why she was passing herself off as one. And then there’s this:

The ex-Samaritan said her training meant she could not break the confidence of anyone, even if they planned to die.

Even if “psychics” are under the same legal restrictions on disclosure as psychiatrists or real counselors, which I doubt (and, in the U.S. at least, even a doctor can report a client to the police if they believe he’s in imminent danger) – there’s a cryingly obvious point: She didn’t have to encourage him to kill himself! Was she really so malicious to say this to a suicidal stranger, and if so, why? Or, worse, does she genuinely believe that death isn’t harmful, in which case she might well give this advice to more people in the future? (“Lost your job? Getting a divorce? Go ahead and kill yourself! Things will be much better on the other side.”)

By definition, most of the people who seek psychics’ help are either gullible, desperate, or both. This makes the potential harm of bad advice much worse, and this story is a tragic example. Charlatans enriching themselves by telling people soothing lies is bad enough, but causing death and chaos in the real world is far worse. The lesson we should learn is that, whether it’s traditional orthodox hate and hellfire or New Age fashionable nonsense, there’s no such thing as harmless woo, which makes it imperative to defend reason and expose these con artists for what they are.

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.

  • Little Stone

    This is awful. Absolutely awful.

  • Jeff

    New Agers are fundamentalists. They’re just as firmly wedded to their inane beliefs as are the Christian fundies – and, as is the case with the Christians, facts are irrelevant, and anyone who offers them evidence to the contrary becomes the enemy and has to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. It’s a cosmic joke that the two factions dislike each other so vehemently, because they really are two sides of the same coin.

    I’d like to see the old laws against fortune telling revived and enforced (even though I realize they were enacted originally to placate Christian authorities). No one realizes the harm these people do.

  • anna

    I think psychics should be required to state at each reading etc that they are doing this for entertainment pruposees only and have no real psychic powers. Unless they manage to pass a proper test (something like the James Randi million dollar test) proving they do, of course.

  • Alex Weaver

    [gallowshumor]I guess that psychic wanted to have some “Friends on the Other Side” too.[/gallowshumor]

    (Damn kids’ movies x.x)

    I should pass this one around. >.>

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    Woo induced absurdity that leads to tragedy. The psychic needs to see jail time.

  • http://blog.adamhighway.com Adam Highway

    @#5 – really? Jail time?

    No, she’s a nonsense, woo-pedaler, but I don’t think she’s legally culpable. I’d even argue that, within the confines of the “business”, she’s not really morally culpable.

    Horribly wrong, misguided and harmful, yes, but to argue for jail time seems … excessive.

    I’d rather it led to something more akin to the idea that Anna expressed, the “disclaimer” approach – that would be something positive coming from a horrible negative.

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd

    Imagine a stranger comes to you and tells you that he’s decided to take his own life, and that nothing can shake him from his purpose. He only wants to know what awaits him on the other side. If you believe him – a decision which can’t be made lightly and is going to depend upon his tone of voice, body language, etc – what would you tell him?

    Stack’s comments may have been made in the context of easing his passing, in the same way that one might support (if not encourage) a dying relative in their decision to be euthanised. If she – a relative stranger – had tried to convince him otherwise, there’s every reason to believe he would have killed himself anyway.

    I’m not saying that my construction of events is necessarily true. The Sun article certainly neither confirms nor denies it, and it may well be that Mr Day could have been persuaded not to kill himself. However, I couldn’t help but imagine myself in Stack’s position: deeply rattled and disturbed, reaching for the first comforting statement that comes to mind.

  • Kacy Ray

    Here’s another reason why I see “reason” and not “atheism” as the only antidote to faith and fraud. Without a solid foundation in reason, there’s nothing stopping an atheist from falling for this sort of nonsense just as easily as a theist could. You need not believe in a god or gods in order to believe in an afterlife.

  • cheribom

    Soren Bowie wrote an article on Cracked.com about psychics only a few days before this one: http://www.cracked.com/blog/why-psychics-need-to-stop-pretending-they-can-solve-crimes/

  • Erik

    Not morally culpable for encouraging suicide? I don’t buy that.

  • Erik

    #7 – “Go with my blessing then” isn’t just a ‘comforting statement’ – it’s an endorsement and an encouragement.

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd

    Erik: I’m not sure we can really decide whether her remark was comforting or encouraging; in my opinion tone of voice and the context of the conversation would bear heavily on that question. If she was actually encouraging, not just endorsing, then that’s quite literally insane, and I’m a bit wary of assuming that level of poisonous insanity when any other interpretation is available.

  • paradoctor

    The _correct_ woo-woo reply to a client announcing suicidal intent would be to say “No, don’t do it, suicide never helps, that’s what all my ghost friends say.”

  • Alex Weaver

    Erik: I’m not sure we can really decide whether her remark was comforting or encouraging; in my opinion tone of voice and the context of the conversation would bear heavily on that question. If she was actually encouraging, not just endorsing, then that’s quite literally insane, and I’m a bit wary of assuming that level of poisonous insanity when any other interpretation is available.

    Benefit of the doubt only works when there is reasonable doubt. “Go with my blessing” cannot sanely be interpreted as anything other than encouragement.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    To what degree did Mrs. Stack cause Mr. Day’s death? That’s the question one must answer to determine moral and legal culpability here.

    She certainly did not help. However, as Mr. Day appears to have had the entire matter planned out in advance before the conversation occurred, it would be (and was) difficult to bring criminal charges.

    There’s a much messier issue underlying all of this concerning the exact circumstances in which it is permissible to help others commit suicide. Cases like this do not help in the slightest.

    Encouraging an unemployed man to go forward with suicide, regardless of how old he may be, what his job prospects really are, or how much debt he has, is extremely callous. I can’t see what kind of circumstances would justify her actual response, no matter how much she “understands”.

  • Kacy Ray

    “Go with my blessing then” isn’t just a ‘comforting statement’ – it’s an endorsement and an encouragement.

    True as that may be, it’s not any worse than those Christians who won’t accept any medical treatment or allow any for their children, or Scientologists who discourage their membership from seeking badly needed psychological treatment, or any other mystic with a genuinely held yet dangerous belief who passes that belief onto others as truth.

    Assuming she honestly believes taht death is a mere transition from one plane of reality to another, a good argument can be made that she genuinely didn’t know she was encouraging him to end his existance permanently.

    To what degree did Mrs. Stack cause Mr. Day’s death? That’s the question one must answer to determine moral and legal culpability here.

    For the reasons stated above, I am inclined to place the moral responsiblity for his death squarely on his shoulders. The legal issue is seperate. Should it be a function of the law to protect people from their own evasion? I don’t know. If you say yes, then you’re opening the door for every church to have to have a disclaimer on the door “What you hear in here is not anything more than just what people believe and may have no bearing on reality”. If you say no… then how is she culpable?

  • Alex Weaver

    True as that may be, it’s not any worse than those Christians who won’t accept any medical treatment or allow any for their children, or Scientologists who discourage their membership from seeking badly needed psychological treatment, or any other mystic with a genuinely held yet dangerous belief who passes that belief onto others as truth.

    Who should also be prosecuted.

  • NIklaus Pfirsig

    Most psycholgists and social workers understand that, when someone has made up his mind to commit suicide, he will simply go ahead and do it. However, when a suicidal person contacts someone else, as in this case, he has not made the descision to commit and is looking for someone to give him an excuse or reason to live or give him permission to kill himself.
    I don’t think this could be considered an assisted suicide, but if she had told him that her “otherworldly contacts” informed her that suicide victims faced an eternally bad after life, and that he had an important purpose in the future, he might have been dissuaded from taking his own life.
    What bothers me about the case is that Stack showed no remorse for her part in this tragedy.

  • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd

    Who should also be prosecuted.

    If your only solution to problems is the legal system, every asshole starts to look like a criminal.

  • Ritchie

    I’m not sure we can really decide whether her remark was comforting or encouraging; in my opinion tone of voice and the context of the conversation would bear heavily on that question. If she was actually encouraging, not just endorsing, then that’s quite literally insane, and I’m a bit wary of assuming that level of poisonous insanity when any other interpretation is available.

    A sensible point of view in my opinion, especially as the Sun newspaper is… shall we say… not known for its cool-headed impartiality when imparting the news.

    If we take the story on face value, it would of course be horrific, but something about this article smacks more of sensationalist reporting to me.