Every day at the James Randi Educational Foundation, we hear about "psychics" manipulating people, financially and emotionally; we hear from families who have been burned by false mediums, clients who have been scarred (literally and figuratively) by unfounded alternative medicine procedures, and even violence commited in the name of the supernatural. It can be easy to be overwhelmed by these stories coming in from seemingly every corner of the globe. But what can you do about it?
Introducing a new weekly column, right here at Randi.org, "What You Can Do to Fight Woo." Every week, I will share with you new stories from around the world (and next door too), about unfounded claims and the people (and sometimes animals) they hurt. But most importantly, I will tell you a quick way you can fight back, and make a difference. Here's what's on our radar this week.
New Jersey "Psychics" Co-Opt the Tragedy of Witch Burning to Defend their Practices
The Problem: "Psychics" Lee Van Zyl and Lee Ann LaRocca claim they have the ability to talk to the dead, converse with non-human animals, and have other psychic powers. Van Zyl, who once worked directly with remote villages in South Africa where people were assaulted and brutally killed for "witchcraft," used those experiences to defend her own alleged abilities. Of the comparison between witch burning and being ostracized for her own psychics claims, she said "I kind of saw what could happen if people were misinformed," in a recent article at nj.com. For $10-75 a class, you too can learn from Van Zyl and LaRocca how to perform reiki, channel a dead relative, or psychoanalyze your cat... or so they say. Their website even states that during a mediumship session, they will not demand a penny from you until they provide you with "proof of [the] identity and personality" of your dead loved one. Yet, not a single piece of scientific evidence currently supports the claim that mediums can talk to the dead.
What You Can Do: Ask Van Zyl and LaRocca to put our money where their mouth is! Challenge them to take the JREF's Million Dollar Challenge, to prove they have psychic abilities. If they win, they can give the winnings to the charity of their choice. Perhaps one that fights childhood witch burnings? Write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 973-866-0192. Always be brief and polite, for the best results. Simply challenge them to take the test and if they refuse, ask them to stop using the real tragedy of witch burning to defend their groundless claims.
"Ghost Hunter" Britt Griffith Uses Old Parlor Tricks to Mimick Ghosts
The Problem: Randi.org blog reporter Sharon Hill shared this story of Britt Griffith, star of the TV show Ghost Hunters, using old stage medium tricks to make people think a ghost was in the room for one of his public performances. The lights flickered, an object moved, and voila!, it must be a ghost. In actuality, of course, the same results can be produced using simple trickery, and there is no reason to think it more likely that a ghost is haunting the venue where Griffith showed up for his $30 performance. Spooky experiences like this one may seem like harmless fun, but when they are accompanied with claims that the spirits are real and that we need to "hunt" them to clean our homes and lives, terrible consequences can occur.
What You Can Do: Write to the Pasadena Playhouse, which housed this event, and ask that they examine future guests' props for signs of trickery, and require future "mediums" and "ghost hunters" to tell the audience if their performance uses stage tricks. You can reach them at email@example.com. Always be brief and polite. Keep in mind that the venue is not responsible for policing their performers; it would simply be kind of them to ensure that future guests are not fooled by fakers.
Swiss Acupuncturist Accused of Intentionally Giving Clients HIV
The Problem: An acupuncturist in Switzerland has been accused of intentionally infecting clients with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Although the practitioner was unlicensed and billed himself as a "healer," sixteen people might have been spared this awful turn of events had they known that the claims of acupuncture's efficacy are weakly supported by science, at best.
What You Can Do: Tell your friends and family the truth about alternative medicine. Be kind and straightforward. Let them know that alternative medicine is, by definition, either not proven to work, or proven not to work. You can also share this video on The Truth About Alternative Medicine on Facebook and Twitter.
For more ways to fight lies and help people, stay tuned at Randi.org.
Carrie Poppy is the Director of Communications at the James Randi Educational Foundation, and a regular contributor to Randi.org.