Critical Thinking vs. Victim-Blaming

This caught my skeptical eye: an article about police efforts to fight the “blessing scam” in Asian neighborhoods in New York City. The scam involves a con artist who approaches the mark, usually an elderly person, to convince them that their cash and valuables are tainted by bad luck that can be removed by a special blessing ritual. The victim is persuaded to put their valuables in a bag and hand them over, but during the ceremony, sleight-of-hand is used to switch the bag for an identical one filled with junk. By the time the victim gets home and discovers the theft, the criminal is long gone.

I wrote on Twitter that this was an example of how superstitious beliefs cause harm to people, to which Jamelle Bouie objected:

Since the brevity of Twitter tramples on nuance, let’s be clear about this: I’m not saying that the people who are scammed like this deserve what they get, or that their superstitious beliefs make them culpable for the harm done to them. The moral responsibility for crime always rests on the criminal, and no one else.

However, I don’t think it’s blaming the victim to say that certain superstitious beliefs create an avenue for criminals to exploit that wouldn’t otherwise exist. If I belong to a religion that commands me to leave my front door unlocked on Thursdays, then a burglar who knows that might seize on the chance to rob me blind. That doesn’t make him less guilty of burglary, but it does mean that my beliefs left me defenseless against a crime I might otherwise have been able to protect myself from. (A less fanciful example would be real-life affinity frauds where hucksters sell Ponzi schemes to church groups by persuading their victims to pray for guidance about the deal. Since prayer doesn’t work, the gullible hear only what they want to hear from this.)

This same principle applies to quack doctors and sham therapies. If I have cancer and I go to a crackpot who claims he can cure me by faith healing and prayer, or watching funny movies, or dancing under a full moon in a ring of quartz pebbles, and I die as a result of forsaking real medicine, who’s to blame? Morally, the responsibility should lie with the crackpot who deceitfully promised a cure he couldn’t deliver. But if I’d educated myself in critical thinking and basic biology, I’d have known this was pure quackery, and could have secured a better outcome for myself by pursuing a different course of treatment.

Con artists who prey on and victimize others should undoubtedly be punished, but we should also encourage people to educate themselves so as to make these kinds of crimes less profitable and enforcement less necessary. This is a both/and strategy, not an either/or: blame the criminal, educate the victim. And I’m firmly against any attempt to shame people who fall victim to these crimes – I imagine being ripped off like this is shame and deterrent enough. But I am in favor of using these stories as cautionary examples, to demonstrate to others why superstitious beliefs should be discarded, because they contribute to real harm in the real world.

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.

  • Linux Mint Book

    Yes, you CAN be stupid without harbouring supernatural beliefs, but it’s a whole lot harder.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    So how about parents who rely on prayer or faith healing for their kid’s ultimately fatal conditions. Who are the victims and who are the criminals? We could (and do) prosecute the parents for negligence, but shouldn’t we prosecute their Church for selling them the hokum belief in the first place?

  • L.Long

    “The moral responsibility for crime always rests on the criminal, and no one else.”

    Yes IF he points a gun at you and says give it to me or else. Or breaks into your house.

    But under the criteria stated in the blog then every commercial is crooked, every religion is crooked (well yes) and most politicians are crooks (obvious), because they SAY things and you are stupid enough to buy into it.

    But I say ‘I have a red shirt when its blue’ or ‘I can use magic to heal you’, now if your silly enough to believe either then whose fault is it?

    Personally they are stupid!?!! BUT…. ANY con man (person or church) who says ‘XXXX’ for money then they are selling a product and should be sued to the hilt if they did not deliver!!!!

    But as many commercials lie (AXE will not make women swoon) the product must still do what it sold for (soap will get you clean) and if it does not work you get the money back or sue them if harmed. So at least they should be sued to the full measure.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Maybe people find it similar to saying “that woman should not have been having casual sex/drinking/wearing that clothing” for rape cases? It’s possible for people to say that risky behaviors (or beliefs) make one more vulnerable to crime, without saying the victim therefore deserves or is responsible for what happens, but it gets tricky. A line is easily crossed.

  • Omnicrom

    This is what I thought as well. I’ve heard far too many times that we should “educate” women on how to be safe to avoid rape. Such a statement tacitly blames the woman for not taking these steps to be safe and therefore has brought the trauma on themselves.

    It has to do with phrasing as well I think. Saying that “This superstition opened an avenue for abuse” is a passive sentence. It tacitly suggests, and surely without meaning to, that some of the blame rests on the believer for opening that avenue.

    Perhaps a better way to say it is that “Con artists often prey on the superstitions of their victims”. That is an active sentence that puts the blame squarely on the subject, the conmen. If you follow up by saying “Better education can root out those superstitions preventing Con artists from taking advantage of them” then you again put blame on the perpetrator of the crime. It also lets you suggest a way to stop those crimes without mentioning the victim or blaming them.

  • Lagerbaer

    I think the distinction one hast to make is: Are the precautions that are recommended reasonable?

    Locking your front door does not severely inconvenience you. But adjusting what you wear, when and with whom you go out, having to constantly watch your drink lest someone puts drugs in it and the rest of the laundry list of things women are expected to do in order to protect themselves from rape are very inconvenient and restrictive.

  • Alejandro

    Why does it have to be one or the other one? Responsibility is not a zero sum game. Just because the rapist/con artist/criminal is 100% responsible for his crime, doesn’t mean other people don’t need to be careful, and doesn’t mean that nobody has the right to point out when they engage in irresponsible, dangerous behavior.

  • kraut2

    “But if I’d educated myself in critical thinking and basic biology, I’d
    have known this was pure quackery, and could have secured a better
    outcome for myself by pursuing a different course of treatment.”

    That is also called taking responsibility for your actions.

    Falling for a scam is not the same as someone physically assaulting you. The responsibility to check out any claim rests with you, the potential mark. Do you believe every ad, every internet testimonial?

    Then you are too stupid to be a responsible customer or client. You might not deserve what you get (who gets what he/she deserves anyway? I am still waiting for the lottery win I deserve) but by your gullibility you helped the scammers success and the further survival of the breed.

    As to victim blaming in general: There are bad people out there, and bad neighbourhoods. The responsibility for an assault lie squarely with the criminal. But one should have enough street-smarts to behave in a certain way to reduce the risk of an assault. If you leave a bar half drunk and walk home through dark streets, saving the taxi fare? You did nothing to help prevent an assault. You actually put yourself in harms way. Again – responsibility for your own actions.

  • RayRobertson

    A crime is one thing. But how do you feel about people who use both western medicine and might also dance under a full moon in a ring of quartz pebbles? Or pay someone $60 for a Reiki session as part of preparation for receiving chemotherapy?

    Critical thinking and basic biology is not enough to pronounce some faith-based healing as quackery. The practice of integrative medicine, which includes some faith-based healing techniques, is gaining ground among respected, modern institutions. The reason? It helps some people.

    An early 20th century critical thinker would have likely disdained the idea of particles entangled over long distances or the theory of multiple universes. Consider how science views those ideas today. I try to keep an open mind.

  • Paul Sanders

    I think a good way of phrasing it is that these people have been victimized twice: Once by whoever inculcated them with the superstitious belief in the first place. And second by the con artist who exploited their gullibility. Also, there’s the fact that human beings are prone to these short-circuits of our reasoning faculties in the first place. It’s like a thief on a motorcycle snatching a purse from a pedestrian.

  • Jason Wexler

    If current demographic trends continue, in the not to distant future this suggestion won’t be an absurdity but a reality. It isn’t currently politically feasible (says the third party voter) to prosecute religions selling hokum, but by the end of the century it may be possible and with luck quite common.

  • Paul Sanders

    The multiple universes thing is a hypothesis, not a theory. And anyone who believed in particles entangled over long distances without good reason to believe it was perfectly justified in not buying it. There are infinite numbers of claims that could be proved true in the future. Should we “keep and open mind” about them all indefinitely because of that possibility? You’re shifting the burden of proof here.

  • Paul Sanders

    Nobody has the responsibility to prevent someone from assaulting them. It’s just wise to do so in order to secure the best outcome for themselves and defend themselves from harm. But to say you have a “responsibility for your actions” to prevent crime from happening is victim blaming. The responsibility for the crime belongs with the criminal.

  • B-Lar

    “This is a both/and strategy, not an either/or: blame the criminal, educate the victim.”

    YES.

    I tend to weigh more blame onto the criminal though. Maybe a 75-25 split. They made the choice. If someone has been educated then they might be protected themselves, but the criminal will simply find someone who isn’t educated.

    The criminal is the lynchpin for the crime.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Quite true. I certainly don’t think the onus is on the potential victim, or that they are to blame if they don’t do those things. Of course, reasonable precautions should be taken. By the same standard, one would be ill-advised to go out late at night in a neighborhood which is known to be crime-ridden-the risk of mugging is high. Even so, it is the mugger who should be blamed if a robbery does occur.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    I don’t think that advising certain precautions be taken is bad. However, it should never be deemed victim’s fault. The blame should fall squarely on the perpetrator of a crime, as it does legally.

  • Azkyroth

    Consider how science views those ideas today.

    As surprising but supported based on peer-reviewed evidence gathered in controlled experiments designed to minimize or eliminate confirmation and observer bias rather than breathless credulobabble testimonials and blatant advertising?

  • kraut2

    I do not know where you grew up – but where I did, your own safety was part of YOUR responsibility, even as a kid: do not go into a vehicle with a stranger…and it proceeds from there – that was called street smart.

    That does not mean that I am responsibility for the actions of a criminal, but that it is my responsibility to minimize my risk to get victimized. What the fuck does that have to do with blaming the victim?

  • Cheryl in Tucson

    Personally, I think it’s best to stay away from rape analogies. Rape is an unusual crime in that the onus is too often on the victim to prove a crime happened in the first place. Nobody is going to question the victim of the bait and switch. We might shake our head in disbelief at the victim’s gullibility, but we’re not going to say they weren’t victimized.

  • RayRobertson

    As surprising but supported based on peer-reviewed evidence gathered in controlled experiments designed to minimize or eliminate confirmation and observer bias rather than breathless credulobabble testimonials and blatant advertising?

    We all yearn for patterns which assure us that A is always followed by B (ask any fundamentalist). The scientific method is a great way to increase knowledge. But just as the results are subject to change, one day we may find methods which make controlled experiments and even the math behind physics look antiquated.

    You are free to disregard testimonials and shared experiences. But one of the primary goals of medicine should be to help people feel better. When the patient says something helped, should the method of treatment automatically be dismissed if it cannot be reproduced in a study?

  • smrnda

    My take on this is that the real issue was they trusted some guy on the street who was making an outrageous claim. Granting the whole premise is ridiculous, but if someone pretended to be a mechanic just to steal your car stereo, it’s wrong for them to pretend to be able to do something they can’t, but the stealing of the stereo is an additional wrong.

    if the guy opened up a shop, did blessings for a fee, and then took the contents of a bag, I wouldn’t regard it as any different than if I checked a coat and someone took the $$$ out of my pockets. Even though the business is based on bullshit, the guy is saying “I’ll take this bag, do X, and give it back to you,” and in that case he’d not be delivering on what he advertized. In this case, it’s just an issue of consumer protection, where I’m willing to allow people to blow money on BS that doesn’t work, but if you go out and buy bullshit, you should only get the bullshit you paid for, not additional bullshit that wasn’t in the fine print.

  • smrnda

    The problem with advice like ‘don’t walk through bad neighborhoods’ or ‘take a cab’ is that these things aren’t equally viable options to all people. If you don’t have much money, a bad neighborhood may be the only place you can live, and you may have to walk through it at night.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Good question. I think that the moral calculus is different in that case. If you harm yourself through negligence or ignorance, there’s no reason for the state to get involved; in a sense, it’s its own punishment. But if you harm someone else through negligence, that’s a different matter. Rational adults ought to have the autonomy to make poor choices, but I think the state can and should protect children who don’t have the same degree of freedom or independent judgment.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I think a good way of phrasing it is that these people have been victimized twice: Once by whoever inculcated them with the superstitious belief in the first place. And second by the con artist who exploited their gullibility.

    Well said!

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    The practice of integrative medicine, which includes some faith-based healing techniques, is gaining ground among respected, modern institutions. The reason? It helps some people.

    I tend to think that it’s “gaining ground” because there are a lot of credulous people with money, and medical schools and other such institutions find it profitable to offer potential paying clients what they want, regardless of its efficacy.

    If an ineffective treatment helps some people, it’s because of the placebo effect. And while the placebo effect can be surprisingly powerful, it’s also notoriously unreliable and varies wildly from person to person. The purpose of clinical trials is to find something that works regardless of the recipient’s belief in it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Falling for a scam is not the same as someone physically assaulting you. The responsibility to check out any claim rests with you, the potential mark.

    I disagree. There are numerous claims that you and I lack the ability to investigate for ourselves, however rational or skeptical we might be. That’s why we have things like clinical trials, to verify marketing claims that are beyond the capability of any private individual to prove or disprove.

    But one should have enough street-smarts to behave in a certain way to reduce the risk of an assault. If you leave a bar half drunk and walk home through dark streets, saving the taxi fare? You did nothing to help prevent an assault. You actually put yourself in harms way.

    Unless you’re assaulted by the taxi driver.

  • RayRobertson

    There are infinite numbers of claims that could be proved true in the future. Should we “keep and open mind” about them all indefinitely because of that possibility?

    Yes. Otherwise, we close our minds to new possibilities and discoveries. We have theoretical physicists proposing that the flow of time in nothing more than illusion. How could I not keep an open mind about, say, acupuncture, just because of the ancient beliefs which accompanied its creation?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    The connection is that, when you tell people it’s “their responsibility” to protect themselves, the implicit conclusion is that people who become victims of crime must have been behaving irresponsibly. At worst, this leads people to conclude that the victim was “asking for it”, and that the criminal can’t really be blamed. We see this all the time with rape and sexual assault, for example.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    “Keeping an open mind” about some claim isn’t the same thing as believing it to be true. It just means that we reserve the right to begin believing it if future testing bears it out. And when it comes to specific examples like acupuncture and homeopathy, those therapies have been tested and have failed, in the sense that they show no greater effect than a placebo. With acupuncture, for example, it doesn’t matter where you place the needles or even if they penetrate the skin.

  • RayRobertson

    I tend to think that it’s “gaining ground” because there are a lot of credulous people with money, and medical schools and other such institutions find it profitable to offer potential paying clients…

    Is there a basis for your suspicion? Big Pharma brings a whole lot of money to the table. Does that makes certain clinical trials suspect?

    And while the placebo effect can be surprisingly powerful, it’s also notoriously unreliable and varies wildly from person to person.

    Agreed. But in the not-so-distant-past many critical thinkers might have dismissed the placebo effect entirely. Since we are a long way from understanding this effect, I’m not ready to label it as the only possible explanation for alternative medicine helping people.

  • RayRobertson

    With acupuncture, for example, it doesn’t matter where you place the needles or even if they penetrate the skin.

    For a discussion of acupuncture and other alternative medicines, I defer to NPR’s latest episode of Science Friday. http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/07/05/2013/is-alternative-medicine-really-medicine.html

  • Azkyroth

    I think there’s also a distinction to make between ostensibly providing a motive, and tangibly providing a mechanism, for theft.

  • Azkyroth

    Why should going about one’s daily life be like fighting a war?

  • Azkyroth

    But one of the primary goals of medicine should be to help people feel better.

    Why should we support people paying thousands of dollars for something they could achieve with a $30 vibrator if they weren’t being lied to?

  • Azkyroth

    Pharmaceuticals have a plausible and documented mechanism of action.

    You’re comparing apples and orangutans here.

  • http://stevebowen58.blogspot.co.uk/ Steve Bowen

    Yes, but to what degree should we hold the churches culpable? Apart from the direct coercion from the pulpit (hell and damnation) a lot of peer pressure can be brought to bear on individuals to keep the faith.

  • Evangeline Claire

    Agreed… very important.

    ” If I belong to a religion that commands me to leave my front door
    unlocked on Thursdays, then a burglar who knows that might seize on the
    chance to rob me blind. That doesn’t make him less guilty of burglary,
    but it does mean that my beliefs left me defenseless against a crime I
    might otherwise have been able to protect myself from.”

    There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out or even working on it if it means lessening this. I feel very sorry for those people who get their shit robbed like that >.>

  • ahermit

    If we have good data that contradicts those ancient beliefs (.. and we do..) we shouldn’t ignore it.

    Also there’s this…http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/07/04/judo-acupuncture-needle/

    The therapist accidentally pierced Ms. Ribble-Orr’s left lung during acupuncture treatment that was later deemed unnecessary and ill-advised, causing the organ to collapse and leaving it permanently damaged…

    Too many people have this idea that “alternative” treatments are OK because might make people feel better and “can’t hurt anyway…” Unfortunately this is not true. Another example is the use of mega-vitamins…http://www.nih.gov/researchmatters/october2011/10172011supplements.htm

    Just because something is promoted as “natural” doesn’t mean it can’t have side effects.

  • Azkyroth

    So for example if I buy a new rolex and immediatly go and flash it in front of a known criminal gang, am I not behaving irresponsibly?

    No, you aren’t. You’re behaving crassly. Which is nothing new for you, and yet, not a single one of your oleaginous, blinkered comments here has resulted in you being robbed. The difference? The presence or absence of a robber.

    Do I think the criminal is not to blame on those cases?

    Yes, because how else can it be the victim’s “responsibility” to prevent the crime?

  • Azkyroth

    *facepalm*

  • smrnda

    I do believe that hemlock and death cap mushrooms and poison dart frogs are also natural.

  • UWIR

    “I’ve heard far too many times that we should “educate” women on how to be safe to avoid rape. Such a statement tacitly blames the woman for not taking these steps to be safe and therefore has brought the trauma on themselves.”

    This is just ridiculous. Should we not educate women? Why do people insist on saying that things mean other than what they say? “We should educate women” means “We should educate women”. Your idea that when someone says something that means one thing, and they mean that for it to mean that one thing, and everyone knows they mean it to mean that one things, it can still mean something else, is nonsense. People like you are making women less safe by making people afraid to talk about prevention for fear of being accused of “blaming” women. We shouldn’t have to wade through a minefield of PC BS just to have a conversation.

    In your last paragraph, you say that we should simply state the problem, rather than suggest solutions. That’s really counterproductive.

  • UWIR

    There’s something called “The Just World Hypothesis”, where people want to believe that the world is fair, because it means that they don’t have to worry about anything bad happening to them. When something bad happens to something else, they are caught between empathy for the victim, and wanting to continue to believe that the world is fair. Often, they convince themselves that the victim was careless, and since they aren’t careless, it won’t happen to them. So one thing to look at is “Are they saying that there are preventive measures to educate people, or are they saying it to reassure themselves that they know how to avoid it?” Another big thing to look at is whether they are focusing on the past or the future. If they trying to prevent it, they’ll be focusing on the future, and saying what people in general can do in the future. If they’re blaming the victim, they’ll be focusing on that particular victim rather than people in general, and saying what that victim could have done, rather than what people can do.

  • Omnicrom

    So if you were going to “educate women” about remaining safe and avoiding rape what exactly would you suggest that isn’t tacit victim blaming?

  • Azkyroth

    You really don’t see a problem with blithely comparing the actions of conscious human beings with intent to the effects of machinery, natural disasters, or animals?

    Really?

  • Ohtobide

    Daylight Atheism
    Let’s say the con artist did not say ‘Your valuables are tainted by bad luck’ but ‘Your valuables are contaminated by a dangerous virus’. Do you see? Would believing in dangerous viruses be ‘creating an avenue’? Any beliefs whatsoever can be used by con artists who want to rob people. You cannot tell people to believe nothing.
    The only protection against this sort of thing is to never trust anyone, ever, at all. And how could we live like that?

  • GCT

    Seriously? If someone walked up to me and claimed that the contents of my bag were contaminated by a virus, I would look at them the same way I would if they were to claim they were cursed. How in the hell would they know anything about the contents of my bag? It has nothing at all to do with not ever trusting anyone and everything to do with being reasonable and rational.

  • Rose

    But most rapists know their victim. A woman is most likely to be raped by her partner or ex-partner. A girl is most likely to be raped by her father or other male relative.
    And the demographic who is most likely to be killed by a stranger is young men age 16-24. If it was really about common sense you would be telling young men to be careful.
    I have walked home late at night and had teenage lads try to pick a fight with a male friend and not bother me at all.
    Also existing as a woman is not the same as owning a Rolex. Be very wary about what analogy you use, they usually come across as objectifying women.


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