Aug 07 2017

Token Skepticism about Exorcism

I was interviewed a few months ago by a journalist, John Blake, doing a piece on exorcism. That article has now been published, and I’m afraid it’s disappointing in all the predictable ways.

The article is mostly about Dr. Richard Gallagher, a Yale-trained psychiatrist who believes in demonic possession. Gallagher is like catnip to a journalist – someone with credentials who has a fantastical story to tell. Is demonic possession real? This Yale psychiatrist says, “Yes.”

I have already deconstructed Gallagher’s claims, and the CNN article provides nothing new. Gallagher’s evidence that some people are actually possessed is predictably thin and proves only his lack of critical thinking. He cites the claim that possessed people display hidden knowledge, but his examples are far more easily explained as cold reading. He cites displays of extraordinary strength, which is not unusual for ordinary people under the influence of adrenaline.

He also cites hearsay – other people have told him they saw levitation, although he never witnessed it himself.

The CNN article offers one case, “Julia” – a member of a satanic cult, as a major piece of evidence:

Objects would fly off shelves around her. She somehow knew personal details about Gallagher’s life: how his mother had died of ovarian cancer; the fact that two cats in his house went berserk fighting each other the night before one of her sessions.

I have already addressed the “secret knowledge.” The other evidence often offered is essentially that weird stuff happened. It’s not hard to have thing fall of shelves, or even fly across the room. You can just throw it. Did Julia throw the book when no one was watching? Did she have an accomplice? Did a book just fall off the shelf because of other commotion in the room? I don’t know, because we are not provided actual evidence to investigate, only word of mouth.

Gallagher has an answer for that, the same answer he has given previously:

He says demons won’t submit to lab studies or allow themselves to be easily recorded by video equipment. They want to sow doubt, not confirm their existence, he says. Nor will the church compromise the privacy of a person suffering from possession just to provide film to skeptics.

Skeptics will recognize this a special pleading, otherwise known as making up lame excuses to explain why you don’t have any actual evidence. Gallagher says that demons are “crafty.” In the same way UFO proponents claim that aliens are too smart to get caught red-handed. Bigfoot is also brilliant, and can turn invisible at will. Psychic powers don’t work when skeptics are looking, and “Western” science cannot test “Eastern” medicines.

Bad Journalism about Pseudoscience

Blake’s article is especially disappointing because he had all the information he needed to write a hard-hitting piece of journalism but didn’t. I had already addressed all of Gallagher’s claims and points, but Blake chose to follow a typical approach which is somewhere between token skepticism and false balance.

How a story is framed is what matters most. But journalists will give themselves plausible deniability by including, deep in the article, the token skepticism. They can then convince themselves they wrote a “balanced” piece. But they didn’t. What they did is better described as false balance, and often not even that.

The format that Blake follows is this: First, setup the premise, a self-described “man of science,” a Yale-trained psychiatrist who has become convinced by compelling cases that demonic possession is real. Let the sensational crank lay out their story in the beginning of the article, to control the framing, and to paint themselves as a hero.

Then, deeper into the article than most people will read, include the token skepticism. Yeah, but this skeptic thinks that Gallagher is wrong and here’s why. Granted, that’s better than no skepticism, but not much.

Because the token skepticism is then followed by giving the crank the final word – they get to answer the skeptics, but the skeptic has no opportunity to respond further. In this case I had already responded in my previous article (which Blake used as a source) but that response was not included. It didn’t fit the flow of the piece, which was favorable to Gallagher.

Then finish up by emphasizing how important it is to keep an open mind, how the crank is too busy saving people to worry about the skeptics. And finally finish with a flourish that amounts to,
“Who knows?”

“Is Gallagher doing God’s work, or does he need deliverance from his own delusions?
Perhaps only God — and Satan — knows for sure.”

Ugh! I have confronted journalists in the past with this criticism, and their typical response is that they gave all the information and their reader can make up their minds for themselves. But that is just a dodge, a justification for bad journalism. Any good journalist knows that you are not just relating facts, you are telling a story, and how you frame that story is the real bottom-line message.

In this case Blake framed the story as Gallagher the open-minded scientist as hero who came to believe something extraordinary.

You could tell the exact same facts and frame the story very differently, such as – Gallagher the dangerous crank who uses his credentials to promote his own faith at the expense of his mentally ill patients.

Again, journalists typically hide behind the claim that they are being neutral (let their readers decide), but that is demonstrably not true. The story is not framed neutrally at all, it is framed as Gallagher the hero. He gets the final word, he gets to frame the story, the story opens with him just wanting to help people and declaring himself a “man of science.” The token skepticism is buried. I believe journalists call that “burying the lead,” although they get to decide what should lead.

Imagine the same exact story told differently – open with the skeptic, appalled that a fellow professional is harming mentally ill patients because he fell for their delusions, in service to his own faith. There are plenty of anecdotes of people being harmed by exorcisms. Blake does tell the story of Emily Rose, but that is also buried. Why not open with that, or any of the hundreds of similar stories.

If you open with a story about an innocent person suffering from a mental illness who was killed by an exorcism gone wrong, that would frame the piece very differently.

The bottom line is that the journalist gets to tell the story they want. They include facts along the way, but the facts are not the story. Blake chose to tell the story of a psychiatrist and reluctant exorcist as hero, who has to also battle against those nasty skeptics who are just closed-minded.  Then he can pat himself on the back for including “both sides.”

What is further disappointing is that every journalist I have spoken to on this and similar issues doesn’t believe the pseudoscience. They known demonic possession is bunk, for example. They choose to tell what they think is the more sensational story. That is all.

What I have tried to do is to convince journalists that the more sensational story is the real one – the shocking lack of critical thinking that leads to demonstrable harm of innocent victims. That is not the formula they are used to, and the sad fact is that magic does sell. But then don’t pretend you are doing real journalism. At that point you are just entertaining.


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