Belle Gibson is a pseudoscience hawker and the creator of an app you undoubtedly have seen if you own an iPhone or Apple Watch. She claims that she healed herself of brain cancer by various New Age practices and a “mindful diet,” which seems to mean basically an organic diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. She was a social-media celebrity first, gaining enough fame to write a book and an app, both called “The Whole Pantry,” in 2013. Apple picked up the app for their Apple Watch, meaning that it’d be packaged on every single device sold to consumers; the fit seemed about right for a company that’d been run by Steve Jobs, a noted pseudoscience enthusiast to the point of losing his own life trying to use “alternative medicine” (a decision he would come to regret) to cure his own cancer instead of real medicine. She was recently exposed as a liar.
And we’re going to talk about her today because I think her story is a cautionary tale for those escaping religion’s most harmful effects.
On the face of it, the claim and claimant both probably seemed like a safe bet for a news editor to run. Belle Gibson was pretty, blonde, well-spoken, photogenic, and seemed so normal and forthcoming that it was hard to doubt her earnestness–and she was smart enough to find a community of people who wouldn’t question her too much or think too critically about her claims. Alternative medicine enthusiasts are famous for their distrust of mainstream medicine as well as their overconfidence in their own educations and intelligence; they know “just enough to be dangerous,” as the old saying goes, and they tend to put a lot of trust into those charlatans quick-witted enough to validate their self-taught skills, ignorance, and fear. It’d be unthinkable for someone in this group to imagine one of “their own” lying to them or conning them–especially if that claimant is only echoing what they ache to hear.
And I got this surreal feeling, watching her story unfold, that I’d seen this tale many times over.
The video below is of Belle Gibson being interviewed by Tara Brown, who is the presenter of the Australian version of 60 Minutes. I’ve got a whole new respect for Australia if that’s the level of journalism produced there; that interviewer doesn’t let Ms. Gibson get away with squat. It’s worth the time if you like seeing pathological liars squirm (Mr. Captain begged me to watch it sometime when he wasn’t around, but I thought it was awesome. Here’s a link to some of the highlights.):
The real problem liars have, though, is that eventually they start feeling bulletproof. Their successes make them over-bold, and they start making bigger and more ambitious lies–or trotting them out around audiences who don’t buy into the core beliefs of the original marks.
Given enough accolades and adoration, liars inevitably make their first big mistake: they go outside the tribe to try to con people who aren’t their usual victims. For the Mormon conjob Mark Hofmann, he made a big name in his little pond selling fake historical documents about early Mormonism to fellow Mormons; when he decided to start creating similarly fake documents about general Americana, that’s when the scam fell apart–and it happened a lot faster than he’d even thought possible because out here in Reality-Land, outside his bubble, things don’t work the same way they work inside it. In the same way, as long as self-professed telekinetic James Hydrick stuck to scamming people in his small circle of acquaintances in prison then things worked all right, but when he got bold and decided to go national-level, pitting himself against master-debunker James Randi, the results were appropriately and predictably humiliating for him.
Similarly, Christian evangelist Tony Anthony, who claimed a truly cinematic past as a globe-trotting kung fu bodyguard, tended to step very lightly indeed around real martial-arts enthusiasts but couldn’t help but try to impress them like he’d impressed his usual marks–Christian evangelicals who already thought martial arts were dangerous and demonic (warning: page is so incredibly wrong and thickheaded that if you read it you run the risk of breaking your desk with frontal-bone impact–don’t say I didn’t warn you). Predictably, an actually knowledgable crowd very quickly figured out that Tony Anthony was peddling, well, bullshido, but Christians themselves like this Christian-bookshop owner who tried to speak out against him were generally ignored or even silenced until some big names got involved in the debunking.
Despite the many unveilings, unmaskings, exposes, debunkings, and exposures done of these types of liars, though, people still believe that psychic powers are real, that martial arts are demonic, that magic (be it religion or a special diet) can cure cancer, and that people can be totally changed forever by mouthing the Sinner’s Prayer at a time of great stress. So it should not surprise any of us that plenty of predators fly around in the air above these people, waiting to swoop in and gather up money and attention from these all-too-willing victims. In my opinion, the real miracle is that there aren’t a lot more of them than there are and making more ludicrous claims than they do.
Years ago I talked about this tendency of certain groups of people to reward outrageous lies. I called it “the Cult of ‘Before’ Stories” because it seemed like the more outrageous the pre-conversion claims made by the liar, the more rewards the tale-teller received from eager-to-believe, gullible flocks who could be absolutely counted on to never even once fact-check or even question anything being told to them. Just as door locks “keep the honest folks honest,” fact-checking may well accomplish the same goal; making a practice of double-checking every outrageous claim would cut down considerably on the number of outrageous claims being made. Liars do what they do because they know it’s unlikely that they will ever get found out or denounced.
And these liars gravitate to the communities of those desperate for miracles. Christian liars gravitate toward fundagelical churches, while swindlers gravitate toward the poor–and alternative-medicine gurus gravitate to the sick (or those fearful of becoming so). In all of these locations, one may find vast numbers of desperate people who have a deep need for snake oil.
Making matters worse, Christians feel that they can’t question someone who makes a miracle claim–or ask for proof. (Oh my stars and garters, you should have seen the reaction I got when, as a bright-eyed Pentecostal lass, I tried to do that. Oh, that did not go over well. At all. I was all but accused of not believing in miracles at all. Imagine that!) Those who support medical foofooroo like what Belle Gibson claimed “healed” her cancer don’t tend to question much that they’re told. It seems sad in this modern age that a certain amount of cynicism is the price of doing business in public, but that may well be what we must do to avoid a constant stream of con artists who perceive a fertile field in which to hunt their prey.
Things to Look For.
* Be thinking about what is reasonable to claim.
Conjobs have an angle to sell. Usually it’s a dramatic angle. In religion, people who grew up in the pews and had a pleasing affirmation of their beliefs don’t tend to end up smashing attendance records. Belle Gibson was claiming she’d cured cancer with herbs and massages, basically; her alt-med community accepted that claim without question because it validated their beliefs. Christian conjobs sell all kinds of miracle claims of the same nature and more besides: escapes from bad scrapes, medical marvels, strange changes of heart, shocking turns of luck. Imagine the same claim made by someone outside the tribe–using some other quick cure, or some other religious system; chances are it’ll start sounding a lot less plausible, and your skepticism may reawaken to start asking the questions you need to ask.
* Watch for silencing tactics.
Conjobs who can talk their marks into belief can sit back and drink mojitos while the tribe does the work for them. For Christians, silencing tactics may take the form of accusations of “divisiveness,” “muzzling the oxen,” or harming the “kingdom,” or attempts to shame detractors into silence with tried-and-true tactics like accusations of hypocrisy, demands for forgiveness (which means “pretending to forget anything happened” in Christianese), tone-trolling (dismissing a critic because the critic sounded angry), or the ferreting-out of “sins” committed by the detractors. Many Christians are hypocrites, so if one of them speaks out against another Christian’s hypocrisy that opens them up to examinations of hypocrisy in turn–and about the only time Christians ever want to delve into hypocrisy is when the accusation is being used to silence someone speaking out against whoever their idol is. A valid claim doesn’t need to silence criticism and questions; it welcomes them.
* Lies always ride single file to hide their numbers.
Not everything untrue is a lie. A lie is a misrepresentation told specifically with the intent to deceive others. Someone can be wrong without being a liar, just as someone can mess up without being a hypocrite. You’ll know which it is when you point out the correction; someone who simply got a fact or memory wrong will gratefully accept correction and “go and sin no more,” while a liar will drill down harder on the lie or else try to silence the messenger. When you find one thing you’re positive is a lie in a miracle testimony, treat it like a cockroach and assume you have an infestation on your hands.
* Most importantly: seek corroboration for supernatural or truly incredible claims.
If someone makes a medical miracle claim, especially if that person is asking you for money or attention, it’s not unreasonable to ask for hospital records or that person’s doctor’s confirmation. If a big part of someone’s claim is a demonic, murky past, seek corroboration of that past–look into anybody named, times and dates, employment and educational records, and especially prison/court records. I’m sorry that it’s come to this measure, but that’s the world we live in. Conjobs seek communities that will accept their stories without question and won’t make any inconvenient requests for documentation or evidence–or even think to test the claims made. In cases where such information might be dangerous or too personal to share, a church or community can work with a respected proxy they trust who can review information privately to confirm it (sort of like how Reddit does it).
Alas, if a conjob’s done his or her job well enough there’ll always be support from at least a few true-believers in the tribe, whatever that tribe might be. When the tribe’s mythology revolves around miracle cures and magical personality changes, that group will find it even harder to refute and reject members who take advantage of their need to hear stories confirming their mythology. Mike Warnke publicly endorsed fellow liar Lauren Stratford, who had a strikingly similar testimony to his, just as she herself later reinvented herself as a Holocaust concentration-camp survivor and publicly endorsed fellow liar Binjamin Wilkomirski, whose testimony was strikingly similar to her new one. I’m sure Mike Warnke was thinking later that this is exactly why he couldn’t have nice things, but as inconvenient as it is for the other kids in the clubhouse to have one of their own exposed so thoroughly, the tribe generally won’t connect the dots. Sometimes they won’t even see the first dot: Mr. Warnke’s still got some kind of ministry and Christians still send him enough money to keep him in hair product for his luxuriantly flowing old-dude mullet. And oh yes, you absolutely bet that despite having had his “testimony” debunked ten ways from Sunday, he is still claiming a “painful past history as a satanist [sic] high priest, hippie, drug addict, pusher. . .” Some habits die very hard indeed. At least he’s not still claiming to have been some big-time war hero badass who got wounded in action several times and killed a guy in a bar fight–but even that minor modification of his story was clearly done out of self-interest: lying about military service and awards gets you in a lot of legal trouble nowadays, whereas nobody’s going to fine or arrest you for claiming any of the other stuff.
Tony Anthony, too, had passionate supporters long after the rest of the world had figured out he was a total fake, and he’s still eking out a living preaching to churches that put tribal cohesion and belief in magic above the truth. One of his supporters even went on to claim that she was in on the real deal: “He’s just come over to do what he does, and that’s to spread the gospel . . . I know the whole story.” If a liar can trick one person into trusting him or her that much, then half the work is done toward getting back into the game.
Belle Gibson may well still have her own supporters who believe her story long after the rest of us realized that it’s nothing but one lie after the next. In the wake of Belle Gibson’s exposure as a serial liar, another health writer soon chimed in to try to silence her peer’s critics, pointing out that nobody had asked her a lot of questions about her own “‘not-quite-cancer’ miracle” so therefore apparently it’s not okay to talk about asking for this evidence from anybody else. “I deserved to be taken at my word,” she writes in a downright flabbergasting post, before declaring that asking for proof from “miracle” claimants of any kind is just meeeeeeeean.
I’d have thought the Belle Gibson saga was long over, but I might be wrong about that. Ms. Gibson’s own mother recently indignantly defended her daughter, saying that her daughter’s lies were just “little porky pies” that anybody would and indeed should be “allowed” to tell. Who hasn’t been there, right? Who wouldn’t be lying about a cancer diagnosis and subsequent miracle cure to sell millions of books and apps to people? Right? Isn’t it just THE WORST when people get mad about lies? How dare they? It seems clear that the Gibson camp at least still smells money in the game and aren’t willing to let go and move on to something new while a few marks remain waving money in the air. Everything at this point, for Belle Gibson’s continued success with this lie, depends on the alt-med tribe’s memory and willingness to overlook rampant dishonesty in the service of being told what they want to hear. We might not have heard the last of her.
That said, not every claim needs to be investigated. The “not-quite-cancer miracle” of that health writer kind-of-supporting Ms. Gibson really wasn’t that miraculous; it was the result of long research and perfectly understandable medical advances, and its claimant hadn’t had cancer anyway. She has always been very straightforward about these truths–and still sold a ton of books and got a ton of attention. According to everything I could see, she deserved all of it. There was never a real reason to doubt her. But when someone starts talking about curing real live cancer using non-standard methods like diet and meditation and whatnot, that’s when we need to start asking some serious questions.
As we start learning what’s true and what isn’t, as we start valuing the truth over group cohesion and identification, we start learning which claims are outrageous and which ones really aren’t that weird. And we start holding accountable those who peddle lies to gain money and attention from us. It’s a long journey but a rewarding one. When you hear claims, be thinking about what you’re being told and why, and what’s reasonable to expect in those situations. Chances are you’re going to notice–as I did–just how pervasive these sorts of claims are in our modern world. Just know this: you’re not required to debunk every single claim out there. Before opening your checkbook or wasting your time, tears, and stress over something like an alternative-medicine, weird-sounding diet system, or New Age-ish spiritual claim, spend the time necessary to check into it.
One thing I do is type the name of the claimant or product into a search engine with “scam” (like I did here, here, and here). Doing that, I come up with plenty of reading about why a claim or product might not be what its claimant wants us to believe. “Debunk” also works very well for this. What you get might not be necessarily 100% reliable, but it ought to give you the gist of any objections to the claim.
Your time, sympathies, and money are finite, and there are a lot of claims being laid to all of them. Don’t waste these precious commodities of yours on things that aren’t true, is all I’m saying. Be purchased more dearly than that. If you’ve escaped one thing, then don’t go leaping back into something else that’s just as bad for you just because it feels good to hear, validates an off-the-beaten-track opinion of yours, or sounds like a good story.
Sometimes that’s all it is: a story.