Jan 21 2016

Grief Vampires

Words are important. They definitely shape how we think about things, and are critical for affecting public opinion. I feel that as scientists and skeptics we are often on the losing side of the branding wars, probably because of our pesky attachment to technical accuracy, transparency, and honesty. Or maybe we just stink at marketing.

There is one turn of phrase, however, that I think perfectly captures a situation and is useful for communicating the skeptical position – “grief vampires.”

Grief vampires are self-proclaimed psychics or mediums who prey upon the loved ones of those who have recently died. They exploit the grieving for their own monetary gain.

It is, of course, usually impossible to know if an alleged psychic believes any of their own nonsense or if they are a pure con artist, but it doesn’t really matter. Most are a combination, somewhere along the spectrum, but regardless, the end result is the same. They are making claims and charging money, they are responsible for the outcome no matter what their intentions.

Often skeptics are dismissed with the attitude that psychics are harmless entertainment, and they may be at times. They are, after all, mentalists – magicians who pretend to have mental abilities, who use misdirection to feign psychic abilities, and who create an aura of mystery to enhance the illusion. There is a line, however, and magicians debate among themselves exactly where that line is. Self-proclaimed psychics and mediums, however, are way over the line.

There is direct and indirect harm. The indirect harm is fostering belief in a fantasy. Even if immediately harmless, relying upon gurus with non-existent powers is not a great life strategy.

Mediums often argue they offer the grieving closure, but this is just a rationalization. They, if anything, frustrate the grieving process. In the worst case scenarios they offer false hope, or sometimes even premature loss of hope. Sylvia Browne made many infamous gaffes in her career, including telling parents their missing child was dead when they were later found alive.

Alleged psychics and mediums are an industry, and a culture. They tend to follow a certain style that is currently in vogue. In the past it was common for alleged psychics to appear exotic, even other-worldly. While this style has not entirely faded, the new crop of popular psychics and mediums seem to be going for the “psychic next door” look. They are all fuzzy sweaters and loving animals.

A perhaps up-and-coming young medium personifies this new type – Tyler Henry. He is the antithesis (on the surface) of Sylvia Browne, young, photogenic, and innocent-looking. But make no mistake, he is likely just as much a grief vampire as Sylvia.

His goal is to work with parents whose children have died from suicide. That, by the way, is the number one worst loss and grief a human can experience. These are people at their most vulnerable. Into this mix Henry wishes to inject made up BS. He is not a trained counselor, and working with the grieving is very tricky. The potential for harm is tremendous.

Another example of harm is interfering with counseling which may be of benefit. This happens frequently, in fact on Henry’s Facebook page there is this comment:

Mr. Tyler, I do not desire a reading, but maybe a link or advice as to whom to turn to for help. My four year old Grandson has had “company” since infancy and he is dealing well with most of the ” company”, there are a few that are not nice and I thought you might know of a resource that may help. If he chooses to listen when he is old enough to decide, that will be his choice, but right now he has no say. This is hard on him and he does need help. Thank you for taking the time to read this and do hope you might share a link or person who knows how to help. Be well!

What is likely happening here is that a four-year-old child believes he is being visited. This may be just completely innocent “invisible friends” which the child will grow out of as a matter of course, unless his family encourages him to believe his invisible friends are real. It is also possible that this young child is having some sort of neurological disorder, and deserves medical attention, not psychic attention.

I have personally seen many cases of this – people who really need medical or psychiatric intervention being convinced that their problems are really supernatural. Henry may not be a raspy-voiced chain-smoking harpy, but the harm that he does can be just as severe, perhaps even magnified by his innocent demeanor.

In some ways I also see the “Hollywood Medium,” as he is calling himself, as a victim. He might have had a productive life if he were not sucked into an industry of exploitation and delusion.

Conclusion

I know in this article I have written with the assumption that psychics and mediums are not real. That is because they aren’t, according to all the reliable evidence we currently have. After a century of dedicated searching, no one has found any reliable evidence for ESP, precognition, or any manifestation of the afterlife.

Not only is there a lack of evidence for any extrasensory power, there is reliable evidence that alleged psychics and mediums are using mental trickery (either deliberately or inadvertently) to create the illusion of such powers. They are largely using cold reading, relying upon their targets to actively engage in confirmation bias to complete the illusion.

The psychic industry is also corrupt, and every member of that industry has to share in the responsibility. The few famous psychics lend their support to the much greater numbers of obscure psychics, some of whom con grieving elderly out of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is not a benign “entertainment” industry.

Tyler Henry may have a fresh and innocent face, but he seems poised to make that the face of a corrupt industry of grief vampires.

40 responses so far

40 Responses to “Grief Vampires”

  1. hardnoseon 21 Jan 2016 at 9:00 am

    “I know in this article I have written with the assumption that psychics and mediums are not real. That is because they aren’t, according to all the reliable evidence we currently have. After a century of dedicated searching, no one has found any reliable evidence for ESP, precognition, or any manifestation of the afterlife.”

    I think most psychics are fake, at least part of the time. However there is plenty of evidence that some are real. You ignore that evidence because it contradicts your belief system.

  2. Steven Novellaon 21 Jan 2016 at 9:07 am

    HN – wrong as always. I have not ignored any evidence, I have reviewed it extensively, as is well documented by the articles I have written examining alleged evidence. I don’t reject it because of any belief system, I reject it because the evidence is crap. This is also well documented, which has been pointed out to you many times.

  3. mumadaddon 21 Jan 2016 at 9:29 am

    Steve N,

    “They are, after all, mentalists – magicians who pretend to have mental abilities, who use misdirection to feign psychic abilities, and who create an aura of mystery to enhance the illusion.”

    I think this comparison gives the “psychics” too much credit, and is unfair on magicians. I think anyone who is a confident public speaker could read a 5 minute explanation of cold reading, practice for maybe a week, and they’d be as good as the bulk of “professionals” out there; it’s painful to watch most of them because they are so bad at creating the illusion, and their understanding of the psychology they’re exploiting is dime-store. They really rely to a large extent on their audience already believing in their magic powers — not so with magicians.

  4. ccbowerson 21 Jan 2016 at 10:08 am

    “Or maybe we just stink at marketing.”

    Of course, marketing is hard if you have “attachment to technical accuracy, transparency, and honesty.” This is true even when the truth is fairly simple, but becomes much harder with nuanced (i.e., most) topics. It is often trying to find a balance between accuracy and succinctness, then making that message compelling.

    This topic reminds me of the Coca Cola commercial in the “The Invention of Lying,” in which people did not yet develop the ability to lie. “I’m Bob. I work for Coke, and I’m asking you to not stop buying Coke.”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhtTU-guW60

  5. Marshallon 21 Jan 2016 at 10:16 am

    Hardnose, please cite one instance of a legit psychic with even a meager amount of evidence.

  6. hardnoseon 21 Jan 2016 at 10:19 am

    There are highly qualified researchers who have found good evidence. The trouble is, as soon as a highly qualified researcher starts investigating ESP you stop believing them.

  7. Steve Crosson 21 Jan 2016 at 10:29 am

    mumadadd,

    I agree completely. Most of the “psychics” are abysmal, and they never get any better. Which is a pretty strong indication that while they “believe” their crap, they certainly don’t understand it. Conversely, it’s a safe bet that most or all of the really good, i.e. “convincing” practitioners are self-aware con-artists.

    Only by understanding what you did wrong, can you actually learn from your mistakes. In all of science, indeed, the world, if you fundamentally misunderstand your premises, then your conclusions are extremely unlikely to be correct.

    The garden variety psychics believe in “magic” and thus have no effective tools to analyze and improve their performance. On the other hand, someone who knows they are faking it is in a much better position to recognize the “tricks” that work and those that don’t. Consequently, they are able to fine tune their “act”.

  8. RickKon 21 Jan 2016 at 11:40 am

    “There are highly qualified researchers who have found good evidence. The trouble is, as soon as a highly qualified researcher starts investigating ESP you stop believing them.”

    Yep. It has nothing to do with tiny effect sizes in the most positive studies and inevitable failures to replicate. It’s all about the mean skeptics keeping down all these people with super powers.

  9. Steve Crosson 21 Jan 2016 at 11:44 am

    In hundreds or even thousands of years of trying, no one has ever managed to do anything actually useful with “psychic powers”.

    No lottery winners, no unambiguous predictions of catastrophic world events before they happen, no accurate reporting of specific knowledge from “beyond the grave” … Nothing, Zip, Zero, Nada.

    Even if some “researchers” (with poorly controlled and statistically laughable “experiments”) are convinced that there is something going on “beyond chance”, it is still NOT USEFUL. Until (and unless) a phenomenon is understood well enough to make accurate predictions, it is worthless.

    And it doesn’t have to be perfect either. Even the very small effects that some researchers claim to have found would be enough to show a consistent profit in Las Vegas, but in the long run, the house always wins — because the odds are established by statistics instead of magic.

  10. RickKon 21 Jan 2016 at 11:59 am

    Grief Vampire is a great term for the woman in our neighborhood who lost her high-powered manager job and did a personal makeover into a “an ordinary woman with an extraordinary gift” and started charging $75/seat for her seminars. Woe to anyone who expresses skepticism to her new circle of true believer friends.

    http://www.amazon.com/Talking-Dead-Suburbia-Ordinary-Extraordinary/dp/0741451824

  11. hardnoseon 21 Jan 2016 at 12:03 pm

    “Until (and unless) a phenomenon is understood well enough to make accurate predictions, it is worthless.”

    There is evidence that has no practical value beyond proving that some kind of ESP was involved.

  12. Steve Crosson 21 Jan 2016 at 12:23 pm

    “There is evidence that has no practical value beyond proving that some kind of ESP was involved.”

    Which is completely indistinguishable from “I still don’t know what caused something”.

    Therefore, worthless.

  13. hardnoseon 21 Jan 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Researchers have carefully collected the evidence over more than a century. It is a fact that ESP can occur, but how and why is not known.

    Do you think we should ignore things just because we don’t know how or why they happen?

  14. Steve Crosson 21 Jan 2016 at 1:17 pm

    “evidence” — You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  15. hardnoseon 21 Jan 2016 at 1:19 pm

    I mean evidence from scientific controlled experiments.

  16. Steven Novellaon 21 Jan 2016 at 1:34 pm

    HN – you are stating as a premise that it is a “fact” that ESP is a confirmed phenomenon in the lab. My position is that this is not true. In fact, researchers have completely failed to produce convincing evidence of ESP. My criteria for “convincing” is entirely conventional and standard for all of science – a new phenomenon should show effects that are simultaneously 1) rigorous (in well controlled, peer-reviewed trials), 2) statistically significant, 3) adequate signal to noise ratio, 4) independently reproducible.

    No ESP research paradigm can achieve this. The simplest explanation for this failure is that ESP is not real.

    So – if you are going to persist in your claim that ESP is real you have to either provide a compelling argument for why my criteria are not reasonable, or provide references to evidence that meet those criteria. Just repeating your claim is not enough. Spouting straw men and ad hominem arguments will not be taken seriously, and persisting in doing so will be interpreted as a tacit admission that you are wrong.

  17. Steve Crosson 21 Jan 2016 at 1:39 pm

    Like I said, absolutely no idea what “evidence” means.

    Evidence:

    “Something very likely to be true as verified by PROPERLY controlled scientific experiments, which have been replicated independently producing the same results.”

  18. arnieon 21 Jan 2016 at 2:36 pm

    SN- “Just repeating your claim is not enough.”

    I think it’s a safe prediction that HN will keep spouting his claims as long as it gains him the satisfaction of all this attention and of successfully getting under others’ skin. I think his history on this blog shows that, indeed, “is enough” to motivate his repititious behavior. The only effective “treatment” will likely be either removal from the blog or being totally ignored. I don’t know if either of those options is possible to actually do.

  19. chadwickjoneson 21 Jan 2016 at 3:44 pm

    HN gives good lessons on sophisticated trolling, minus the sophistication. Moving on…

  20. Lukas Xavieron 21 Jan 2016 at 4:07 pm

    It is a fact that ESP can occur, but how and why is not known.

    It is a fact that poor experimental controls can occur, but despite the hows and whys being well known, paranormal researchers continually refuse to change their protocols protocols.

    How about citing a specific instance of a test of ESP, where the effect was clear, repeatable, and the controls were all in place? Can you do that? And if not, then what are you basing your conclusion on?

  21. steve12on 21 Jan 2016 at 4:13 pm

    PArt of the seduction is this bizarre fascination with the occult that people have.

    Whenever I talk to people who believe in this nonsense, they play the ‘science is boring and skeptics are just wet blankets’ card on me. The party is ruined because the science guy went and shit in the punchbowl.

    But I’ve always been struck by how backward that is; the actual current understanding AND real mysteries are so much more exciting and fascinating than vague nonsense about the “occult” (or whatever) could ever be.

    it’s a real disconnect to me. Considering the complete lack of evidence, what’s more boring than saying you’re psychic or that things are the way they are because God did it? How are we the more “boring” option there?

  22. hammyrexon 21 Jan 2016 at 4:18 pm

    One has to be amused that decades of research (including a Nobel Prize) demonstrating HIV as the cause of AIDS is on ‘shaky grounds’ because the research “isn’t good” according to an anonymous computer programmer on the internet.

    … But ESP is real, because telepathic dog experiments.

  23. steve12on 21 Jan 2016 at 4:29 pm

    “… But ESP is real, because telepathic dog experiments.”

    It’s just so stupid. I’d be fine with banning at this point.

  24. steve12on 21 Jan 2016 at 4:33 pm

    I suppose I’m breaking my own rule here, but…

    Reflexively disagreeing with the consensus of ALL branches of science (they’re ALL wrong? Really?), then then backpedaling just enough to keep commentors going, then refusing to engage and argue in good faith.

    It’s just. plain. stupid.

  25. mumadaddon 21 Jan 2016 at 4:54 pm

    Steve12,

    “But I’ve always been struck by how backward that is; the actual current understanding AND real mysteries are so much more exciting and fascinating than vague nonsense about the “occult” (or whatever) could ever be.”

    Agreed. I would also add = REAL (or at least as close as we can get), based on the most reliable methods we have, as opposed to just unchecked intuition based on everyday experience. This latter option just seems so small in comarison.

  26. Pete Aon 21 Jan 2016 at 5:29 pm

    Insanity might best be described, in the context of commenting on this website, as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

  27. arnieon 21 Jan 2016 at 6:21 pm

    “Insanity might best be described, in the context of commenting on this website, as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

    IMO, that’s exactly what’s happening and change will only come if we quit playing our feeding role. HN has no motivation to break his pattern as long as it’s being reinforced. I know I’m getting repetitive myself but I really see no options other than banning, ignoring, or reinforcing. Otherwise, he gives no evidence of ever changing his ludicrous same-old comments.

  28. Marshallon 21 Jan 2016 at 7:47 pm

    We know that hardnose will never offer a single piece of evidence that isn’t easily debunked, because none exists. Instead he will continue to say “there is evidence, I swear!”

    Hardnose, your word is worth nothing in science. You have to show, not tell; we aren’t in kindergarten.

  29. Pete Aon 21 Jan 2016 at 9:22 pm

    “we aren’t in kindergarten” Are you sure? The growing volume of evidence in the comments suggests otherwise, unfortunately.

  30. SteveAon 22 Jan 2016 at 7:33 am

    hammyrex:

    “One has to be amused that decades of research (including a Nobel Prize) demonstrating HIV as the cause of AIDS is on ‘shaky grounds’ because the research “isn’t good” according to an anonymous computer programmer on the internet.

    … But ESP is real, because telepathic dog experiments.”

    I’d like to see that on a T-shirt:

    ESP is real, because…
    telepathic dogs

    (Sad trombone)

  31. steve12on 22 Jan 2016 at 8:56 am

    “Agreed. I would also add = REAL”

    Right – and the fact that the real world is so fascinating make me wonder why these people need to invent boring nonsense to be fascinated by.

  32. roadfoodon 22 Jan 2016 at 4:29 pm

    I have witnessed first-hand how slimy these grief vampires can be. A few years ago I went to a Chip Coffey show. There was a young woman there whose boyfriend had died less than a week prior. She was obviously going through major grieving, reaching out desperately for any straw. Mr. Coffey, even after getting significant facts wrong (e.g. saying that the boyfriend was tall and dark-haired, turns out he was average height and blond), pushed on and instructed the woman that she really needed to call for one of his (expensive) private consultations.

    No, that was exactly what she did NOT need. She needed professional counseling to help her deal with the loss and be able to move on with her life, not the fiction of someone pretending to be able to communicate with her dead boyfriend. Mr. Coffey was taking advantage of a person in a very vulnerable state.

  33. Pete Aon 22 Jan 2016 at 7:33 pm

    roadfood, I agree with you. It seems to me that grief vampires are the very antithesis of those who are professionally accredited to practice (at the bare minimum) counselling. Residing in the UK with its NHS, I have no idea how much it would cost in the US to receive professional counselling for the situation that you’ve described. Would a personal reading from a grief vampire be less or more expensive than seeking professional help?

  34. mumadaddon 22 Jan 2016 at 8:18 pm

    We all inhabit a reality of perception, and we’re all constrained by its limits. It’s not that I think I’m at the zenith of possible understanding right now, but I just don’t know what would have had to happen to keep me at the point at which I thought people could read each others’ minds, consciousness could traverse the astral plane, survive death, and communicate with TV psychics in a deaf-blind, riddle laden version of Charades that’s indistinguishable from parlour tricks that can be explained to, and picked up by, most people within an hour.

    I guess I’m saying people who fall for this are stupid. Maybe. Ignorant and incurious at least. But the people who exploit them are worse; they’re c*nts.

  35. Pete Aon 22 Jan 2016 at 8:55 pm

    mumadadd, Neither energy nor any other type of ‘information’ can travel faster than the speed of light. I don’t know how far Earth is away from the bounds of the universe, but it would take a very long time indeed to: ascend to heaven after death; have our prayers answered from that place; and have telepathic communications with aliens, let alone those who are said to reside in the domain that lies [double entendre intended] beyond our universe.

    As I’ve attempted to show in a previous comment, believing that the mind alone can directly interact with reality is nothing other than a sad case of severe ontological confusion.

  36. BillyJoe7on 22 Jan 2016 at 11:37 pm

    People who believe in the paranormal and supernatural are beyond science and beyond reality, lost in a world where anything is possible and nothing is disallowed.

  37. Davdoodleson 23 Jan 2016 at 7:13 am

    BillyJoe7: “People who believe in the paranormal and supernatural are beyond science and beyond reality, lost in a world where anything is possible and nothing is disallowed.”

    True, and I’d add ‘…lost in a world where anything known-but-complex or ambiguous is a lie, and anything not-yet-known is conveniently-explainable by magic.’

  38. mumadaddon 25 Jan 2016 at 11:58 am

    On the subject of studies demonstrating “ESP” effects, I have a counter-hypothesis (and it’s not just the null) that might better explain the data: Researcher degrees of freedom — to use Dr N’s phrase — tend to bias results towards confirmatory outcomes (in general, not applied only to ESP studies).

    A good way to test this would be to look at the literature on fake phenomena, such as ESP, homeopathy, reiki etc., and see if there are any positive studies (you’d obviously need to be unfamiliar with your dataset). This wouldn’t prove my hypothesis, but it would be more robust support for it than any of the studies typically cited by ESP proponents are for the notion that ESP effects are real.

    I know this isn’t exactly earth-shattering, but I thought it was a cute way of reframing the so-called scientific evidence for ESP.

  39. Charcoton 27 Jan 2016 at 8:44 am

    Just some anecdotal information. I have a friend of longstanding who has recently come to believe that she is a psychic and a medium. She truly believes this and honestly feels she is providing a service to people. I’m not sure how accepting money for doing this plays into the mix, as I can’t discuss the subject in a way that is compatible with continued friendship. In her case I think the whole thing has more to do with her own issues than a desire to bilk the public. She has always been very suggestible to things like astrology and contact with her own deceased relatives.

    I offer this to make the point that while there are certainly people out there who are doing this as a scam, there are others who truly buy into this malarkey. Those people (like my friend) I find more disturbing than the grifters. Scamming is a timeworn and, to me, completely understandable (if not defensible) pasttime. Actually thinking you can talk to someone’s dead relative while you are Skyping with the live person? Not so much.

  40. leoneton 27 Jan 2016 at 5:28 pm

    Even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, that the most dramatic findings in parapsychology (e.g. the Ganzfeld etc.) were totally real, we would only have the notion that living (i.e. not dead) brains can transmit vague impressions of shapes that are only detectable over huge sample sets. We would still be light years away from evidence for what mediums claim, which is that they reliably receive complete (color!) pictures and audio from beyond the grave.

    In fact, the simplest explanation for psychic mediums in a world where ESP were real would be that they were parroting the mental “broadcasts” of the grieving people themselves. In other words, they would still be frauds and grief vampires.

    There’s a reason why extraordinary phenomena require extraordinary evidence and why real caring professions demand higher, not lower quality chains of evidence for their procedures. ESP or no, there is simply no ethical defense for the “celebrity mediumship” industry.

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