Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Fakers

1. I recently read The Fakers: Exploding the Myths of the Supernatural (Fleming Revell 1980), by Dan Korem and Paul Meier. 

It's similar to secular debunking books except that it was written by two Christians. At the time, Korem was a magician while Meier is a big name in Christian counseling. It has a foreword by Josh McDowell.  

I used to own one or more books by Meier. (I may still have them in a box somewhere.) I was bothered by his cookie-cutter approach. As I recall, he has a classification system adapted from depth psychology, and he pigeonholes people according to that formulaic taxonomy. He also has a rather mechanical view abnormal psychology, like there's a recipe book. 

In this book, Meier frequently appeals to his extensive professional experience with patients ("thousands of patients"). However, the book was published in 1980. I assume the manuscript was submitted for publication no later than 1979. Meier graduated from Duke University in 1975. So wasn't his professional experience pretty limited at the time of writing?

I'm also somewhat dubious about his coauthor. More recently, Korem produced this profiling system:

That looks really flaky to me. It raises the specter of one charlatan denouncing other charlatans. 

2. One aim of the book is to debunk popular candidates for the paranormal like dowsing, the pendulum, Ouija board, automatic writing, table tilting/rapping, firewalking, psychic surgery, necromancy, and fortune-telling (e.g. psychics, cartomancy). 

i) I'm happy to stipulate that some of this is flimflam. If I were making a case for the paranormal, I wouldn't cite some of those as evidence.

ii) However, the authors fail to distinguish between necromancy and apparitions of the dead. There's a difference between initiating contact with the dead and the dead initiating contact. I think there's credible evidence for grief apparitions and crisis apparitions. That doesn't involve a medium.

iii) I think the authors miss the point about the Ouija board. The question at issue isn't so much if that's a way to discover the future but whether people who play with Ouija boards sometimes open a door to the dark side which they can't close. 

iv) Although fortune-telling in the pop culture is bunk, that doesn't mean there's no evidence for precognition. 

v) Psychic surgery might well be a good candidate for sleight of hand. However, I find the studies of Sidney Greenfield on occult healing intriguing, so I don't rule it out tout court:

3. One of their targets is the Lutheran exorcist Kurt Koch. The allegation is that Koch was hoodwinked because he's unfamiliar with how magicians fool viewers. I think there's some validity to that criticism. If someone like Koch had training as a magician, he'd be better equipped to spot the tricks of the trade. Some candidates for the paranormal may well be legerdemain. 

However, the authors only interact with a handful of Koch's voluminous case studies. That's hardly representative. Moreover, Koch is by no means the only source of information on the paranormal and the occult, although he was a very prominent figure at the time of writing. 

4. The authors lean on the work of debunkers like Milbourne Christopher. However, he was a member of CSICOP, founded by Paul Kurtz. That's an organization of militant atheists committed to naturalism. They rule out the paranormal and supernatural a priori because they think the physical universe is all there is, and that's a closed system. Another example is D. H. Rawcliffe. 

This doesn't mean secular debunkers can't expose charlatans. It's a target rich environment. 

5. The authors are skittish on demonic possession. They affirm it in principle, but are dismissive in practice. However, I've read psychiatrists who refer some of their patients to exorcists, after ruling out natural causes. Meier's experience isn't representative. 

6. A basic problem with the book is a double standard, where they accept biblical reports without question, but default to naturalistic explanations for extrabiblical reports about similar phenomena. When it comes to extrabiblical reports, they explain that away by appeal to coincidence, chicanery, the law of large numbers, psychosomatic illness. But that's an artificial dichotomy which smacks of special pleading. It's the same way secular debunkers automatically discount all healing miracles, answered prayers, premonitory dreams, &c.

In the case of Meier, no one is disputing that some people experience hallucinations. Those are easy to call. The real test are hard cases which resist or defy naturalistic explanations. 

1 comment:

  1. On the topic of occult healing, I have a Christian friend who is a campus minister in Africa. He himself is African but holds a theological degree from a Western nation. He has told me stories about some of his (he believes) demon-possessed relatives. He has told me, for instance, one of his female relatives would go into a trance, then, speaking with a voice decidedly not her own, accurately predict things for other family members time and time again. He has told me that his demon-possessed relatives have even healed other relatives, though they have also done mischief to his relatives. That is, family members were told to listen to this female relative, and do what she said, but when they did not, bad things would sometimes befall them. I may be misremembering, but I think he even once mentioned a relative died when this relative failed to listen to the possessed female relative. In any case, my friend believes this possession is from a sinister source that wants to control his relatives. Apparently that's why a lot of his fellow Africans are still into witchcraft and the occult, i.e., because it "works". Of course, it's literally making a deal with the devil.