Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Snake oil for sale, only $2 a bottle

In my previous post, I mentioned that people like to have some reassurance about their dead loved ones. If you believe in eternal souls, and life after death, there is no way to verify anything about how your dead loved ones are doing. Consequently, there is a lot of opportunity here to make some money exploiting this fear. Just such a movement emerged in the mid-19th century, called "Spiritualism." Ostensibly "communicating with the dead" became a cottage industry, with all sorts of people offering seances and the like. After Humler discovered what he could do by double-exposing film, there was already a market for what he was offering.

Unfortunately for Humler, this was in the age of P. T. Barnum. If you wanted to be a successful fraud, you had to be able to trick P. T. Barnum. This did not happen. Humler went to court for fraud, and Barnum actually testified against him. He was found "not guilty," but his career was still ruined.

I am here reminded of a Wired article I was reading about the growing fear in America that vaccines cause autism. (Spoiler alert: vaccines don't cause autism.)  Quoting from the article:
In 1905, French mathematician and scientist Henri PoincarĂ© said that the willingness to embrace pseudo-science flourished because people “know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether illusion is not more consoling.” Decades later, the astronomer Carl Sagan reached a similar conclusion: Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. “A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society,” Sagan wrote of certain Americans’ embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. “There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community.”
Science can do a lot of things for us, but it's not too concerned with our spiritual and emotional needs. If your wife dies, a church leader can tell you, "She's in Heaven with Jesus now." What if you want to make absolutely sure, by trying to contact her? You might be told, "Communicating with the dead is the work of Satan," for it is clearly prohibited in the Bible.  But if a medium right down the street from where you live can tell you everything you want to hear, making it seem like it's straight from the mouth of your wife, well, why wouldn't you pay her $20? Or $100? That is a kind of emotional comfort that nobody else can give you. We might know it's a fraud, deep inside our consciousness, but as long as nobody actually shows us "the man behind the curtain," we go on letting ourselves believe.

That is the price we pay for wanting to be certain about something, when confronted with so many uncertainties in our lives. Sometimes these certainties are innocent. Unfortunately, though, sometimes these certainties destroy people's lives.

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