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.

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