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Why People Believe Peter Popoff PDF Print E-mail
Swift

Twenty-five years after James Randi exposed Peter Popoff as a liar, the disgraced televangelist is back. He's now making tens of millions of dollars peddling a supernatural debt-relief scam, according to ABC 7 News in Los Angeles. (Video)

How is that possible?

The JREF's Facebook and Twitter feeds have been buzzing about this, with a lot of people expressing disbelief that any thinking human being could fall for this transparent swindle by a man who is now most famous for being caught in a lie. Why would anyone think they could escape debt by throwing away hundreds or thousands more?

It would be easy to chalk it up to “some people will believe anything,” and dismiss the people who’ve fallen into Popoff’s trap as stupid or gullible. But that doesn’t explain why thousands of people have been taken in by the scam, or help others to avoid making the same mistake.

The reason people believe Popoff isn’t really that they’re gullible people who believe anything. The same people giving money to Popoff may be very skeptical when it comes to the person their daughter is dating, or someone trying to sell them a car. What makes people prone to believe Popoff isn’t some kind of inbuilt credulity. It’s desperation.

Imagine for a minute that you’re driving in your neighborhood and your car breaks down. A bystander approaches you and says he’ll go get his friend who drives a tow truck, and they’ll come back and help you—but he needs $20 for a cab to get to his friend’s place. Would you do it?

Now imagine you’re in a narrow desert canyon 100 miles from the nearest town. You’ve been pinned by a giant boulder for a few days, Aron Ralston-style. You are starving and dehydrated and you probably won’t make it another 24 hours. An opportunistic hiker approaches you and promises to go for help, but only if you give him all the money in your pockets. Would you?

There are several factors at play in these scenarios that all figure into your decision: What’s the worst that could happen if you believe and you’re wrong? What’s the worst that could happen if you don’t believe, and you’re wrong? If the benefit is real, how valuable is it to you? In other words, how desperately do you need it to be true?

Beyond the material costs and benefits, what are the psychological costs and benefits? If you don’t accept what’s being offered, is there an alternative? Even if you think the hiker is probably lying, would you rather live out your last 24 hours in the canyon relieved that you were finally going to be rescued, or cursing yourself and wondering if you threw away your one chance to be saved?

Desperation changes the balance.

The idea of Peter Popoff’s supernatural debt reduction scam, for anyone who is not pinned under a crushing boulder of debt, is sheer lunacy on its face. But for someone who has lost their job, their health insurance, and their life savings to a serious illness, and who is just weeks away from homelessness, Popoff is the only person offering a solution.

It’s a scheme that’s incredibly unlikely to work. But when there’s no other solution available, the alternative is to give up and acknowledge that there is no solution, that your life is shot and it’s only going to get worse.

Popoff’s scheme also costs money. But if that $100 won’t keep a roof over your head for another month, what good is it doing you? If putting everything you can toward your debt wouldn’t even cover the interest, using a little bit to buy a glimmer of hope doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. And once you’ve given a little, Popoff asks for just a little more, knowing that most people will want to honor sunk costs and keep that hope alive.

For skeptics who want to help people defend themselves from predators like Peter Popoff, this presents an serious challenge. If you had the opportunity to intervene—if you had just five minutes to talk with someone on the verge of mailing their first check to a known liar who’s promised that Jesus will make their debt disappear—what would you say to stop them? Would your arguments address their real reasons for believing?

If you would tell them not to give their money to Peter Popoff, what would you tell them to do instead? Would they be better off giving that $100 to the bank that’s about to foreclose on their house anyway, or to the landlord about to evict them? If we have no alternative solution to offer, then our best arguments may boil down to this: false hope is expensive, and hopelessness is free. That’s not a strong selling point.

People need hope. We have a powerful need to feel like we have some control over our fate, even if it is an illusion. That’s why those with the most serious illnesses spend the most money on quack therapies. And it’s why we can’t save desperate people from the likes of Peter Popoff through debunking alone—we need to offer a positive alternative that meets their needs.

For some people, that could be as simple as a referral to a legitimate nonprofit credit counseling service that can inform them of their legal rights and options, which can be hard to find in a sea of similarly-named debt relief scams. Or it could mean connecting them with community organizations, so that instead of turning to a profit-driven church for the support and community they need, they can join together with other people facing similar problems and fight for better jobs and affordable housing. Whatever it is, if we want to demonstrate the value of critical thinking, we need good alternative ideas to which that thinking can lead them—ideas that work better, make them feel more in control of their lives, and give them real hope.

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written by tudza, March 03, 2011
How about this for a reason. Give the guy $100 and you'll not only be poor, but a chump as well.
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written by MadScientist, March 04, 2011
@Tudza: Part of the problem is that people in emotional distress will not necessarily see all the signs of a con which would be obvious to most people. This is why many funeral parlors press the bereaved to go for the most expensive option - take advantage of people while their critical faculties are not at their best.
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Coyne has a good idea for a similar problem
written by Donovan from New England, March 04, 2011
The evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True book and blog) was giving a talk on the insidious absurdity called creationism. While there are creationist atheists (Raelians, for instance), the odds are better than 9 in 10 that if the person your speaking to insists he has no relation to a monkey, he's also a religious devotee. But we can't just get rid of religion directly, nor do we necessarily want to. So what do we do? According to Jerry Coyne, we do what we've know we're supposed to since kindergarten.

There is a correlation between religion and societal health. No, it doesn't show causation. This is true. Those that love yelling, "Correlation does not mean causation!" because they love to repeat "facts" whether they understand them or not may do so now.

[courtesy pause]

Okay, on we go. Correlation does show correlation, which is why scientists look for it. After we find correlation, we guess at causation and test that guess. Coyne says we make a large gamble on the causation, almost Popoff style, since the other way won't work we need for this way to work. If we assume healthy societies raise hope, critical thinking, and financial stability (rather than their opposites lowering society's health, hopelessness and instability spurred on by some other force), then to slam Popoff down and bury him beneath the corpses on a thousand other such scams, we must work to improve our society: we need to be nice to one another. smilies/grin.gif
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Excellent article...
written by bigdoggy, March 04, 2011
...and very well written.

As for Popoff, aren't there laws against this? Claiming money under false pretences, or something.
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Just-world
written by Gaius Cornelius, March 04, 2011
The comment about the illusion of control and the link to the Wikipedia article on the Just-world fallacy set me thinking about the logic of religious belief. We love stories and the most popular stories generally support this just world fallacy; I guess it is something humans naturally find satisfying. In the stories that organised religions tell, there has to be a heaven and hell - or something much like them - to balance out the injustices of this world; it is as satisfyingly logical as knowing that Terra Australis must exist to balance the geography of the earth.
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written by I Ratant, March 04, 2011
"written by bigdoggy, March 04, 2011
...and very well written.

As for Popoff, aren't there laws against this? Claiming money under false pretences, or something. "
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With the usual snake oil salesman, it's possible to prove the nostrum is ineffective.
Like the Power Band.
But you can't prove that god is ineffective, as there's nothing to test, and too many people have the idea there is something like that.
Probably immune from normal legal procedures.
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Hope vs. Hopelessness
written by garman, March 04, 2011
I thought Brian Dunning at skeptoid.com covered the issue of Hope vs. Hopelessness very well in his podcast "Despicable Vulture Scumbags" (Ad Hominem, I know).

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4089
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written by Willy K, March 07, 2011
@Brunori
So you've learned that wisdom does not come with age! Don't you wish our elders realized that?

If it were true then the "elder statesmen" of the world wouldn't be constantly sending the young and unwise to fight and die in wars. They would be wise enough to prevent conflicts smilies/cry.gif

Peter Popoff profits from young and old fools. smilies/angry.gif
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written by brucea, March 10, 2011
I haven't watched Popoff's tripe for 2 or 3 years, but last time I did, he was offering some magic wafer or water, so out of curiousity, I called the toll free line. "Talked" to an automated system (not a person), and over the next year or so, received mail costing >$10 for him to post. At least the $ isn't in his pocket. Try it yourself?
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written by Blushingmule, March 24, 2011
Hi Brunori,

Quote "I wish I could remember the name of this other guy who starts blabering in tounges while closing his eye's and people send him everything."

I'd bet it's Robert Tilton. One of the worst (best?) at his trade.



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