From Abracadabra to Zombies
"Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework," claims George Lakoff. Conceptual frameworks can be big—like a concern for the level of rational thinking in American society—or small—like doing a puff piece on a successful author who claims she's psychic. The former will rarely, if ever, be found in the mass media. The latter is all-too-common. Allen Pierleoni's "The medium has a message" does more, however, than give Allison DuBois a platform for her new book. The Sacramento Bee's Public Editor Armando Acuña writes in his weekly column that of all the stories in last week's paper, the one more readers contacted him about was the one about DuBois. Both Acuña and Pierleoni brush off criticisms of the article as being misguided ("the critics want me to do an investigative piece to show that [DuBois] is a fraud or for me to challenge her and accuse her of being a fraud") or misread ("The story wasn't intended to be an investigative piece about DuBois or mediums. It's a straightforward discussion with a successful author peddling a new book on a subject most people find ludicrous.")
Let me say up front that I was not one of the critics who wrote to the Bee complaining about the article. I was tempted, though, especially after I read the following line from DuBois: "I've never heard of a skeptic helping anybody with their skepticism. To a large degree, they just want to shame somebody so they can feel greater than them. But they're not going to shame me. I'm very proud of what I do." To which Pierleoni responded by asking her: Any last thoughts?
I wasn't tempted to write to the Bee to complain about an article that encourages readers to believe in superstitious nonsense. I was tempted to write because the day before the DuBois piece appeared, I had received the following letter from a concert pianist and composer:
I wanted to write you to convey my deepest gratitude and respect to you and people like you. I was formerly a firm believer in the whole bag of new age rubbish. I bought into it all including homeopathy, astrology, gurus, acupuncture, energy healing, cranio-sacral therapy and most anything else that had a hippy tinge to it. I spent hours involved in daily meditation and even took time away from my college education to go on new age retreats that were not cheap. It became a religion to me and I truly believed almost every line I was fed. I began to have my doubts a few years ago, especially after I graduated college. The watershed moment was when I rented a few episodes of Penn and Teller's "Bullshit" on DVD. I saw myself in the poor saps that became the subjects of P&T's humorous, but revealing, investigations. It was like waking up one day, looking in the mirror and realizing you've become morbidly obese in one night. "Oh my god!", I thought, "I can't believe that's me!", "How could I let myself go?" Well, it's been a few years since and I've been all over the web in search of answers. Websites like yours and others really can make a difference and have proven to be extremely valuable to me in my search. They have made a huge, positive impact in my life. If not for people like you I might be wasting my time on more nonsense at this very moment. So, thank you. If you can only influence even a small percent of humanity to turn away from irrationality and superstition it will be worth it.
My initial reaction to articles like Pierleoni's is mild disgust. I know that if the book in question were one by Lou Dobbs claiming that all of America's ills are due to immigrants, that neither Pierleoni nor Acuña would treat the subject so lightly and narrowly. Their framework would be much larger than just reviewing a book by a successful author and TV guy. A racist xenophobe would not be able to finish reading the Bee story and interview with Dobbs without having his prejudices challenged. Because Acuña considers the subject one that most people find ludicrous and I find the subject one that way too many people find plausible and reasonable, what he sees as "straightforward discussion" I see as misguided pandering.
I was particularly bemused by Acuña's reaction to specific sentences that I obviously had framed differently. He found "a deliberate element of tongue-in-cheek to some of the 'serious' questions that are laugh-out-loud funny." For example, he seems to have found the following questions hilarious:
"Where do you believe your ability comes from?"
Isn't seeing dead people sometimes frightening? Sometimes you have uncontrollable mental flashes, such as seeing a woman murdered while you're grocery shopping. And you constantly get mental impressions from people around you. I can see where your ability might be a day-to-day hassle.
I didn't find the questions humorous, though I agree that the assumptions behind them are absurd. Many readers—many more than Acuña suspects, I think—would find such questions fit well with their superstitious worldviews. The kind of magical thinking that rules in many people's lives is reinforced by such questions because many people are not as clever or as skeptical as Mr. Acuña.
Were I to ask DuBois "Where do you believe your ability comes from?" at a James Randi forum in front of 500 card-carrying skeptics, the question would be met with out-loud laughter because most of the audience would know the question was a set-up. The context would supply the framework. Only a non-skeptic unfamiliar with my writing would take the question as straightforward.
Some readers complained, writes Mr. Acuña, because "the paper failed to out DuBois as a fraud, was overly credulous and gullible and severely lacking in skepticism." I don't think the paper should be expected to call DuBois a fraud. For one thing, she may sincerely believe she has psychic ability. She may really believe that she has helped solve crimes. She may be deluded rather than a fraud. Calling her a fraud or deluded, however, introduces a legal issue.
Acuña admits that the article could have been more skeptical, so I assume he agrees that even articles in the entertainment section of the paper should not be overly credulous and should possess a healthy skepticism. However, he seems to believe that certain subjects—and the subject of ghosts is one such subject—don't require serious treatment. I agree in principle, but not in this case. Leprechauns and Superman don't require serious treatment because only the terminally gullible believe in the reality of such beings and nobody should feel an obligation to cater to such a class of readers when setting standards for a newspaper. Ghosts and spirits, however, are widely believed in by most members of all classes of American society. Surveys vary in their results, but it seems that about one-third of all American adults believe in ghosts or spirits of dead people that can come back in certain places or situations. The President of the United States claims to consult a spirit on a daily basis to help him make decisions. He thinks this spirit communicates with him. This is not much different than what DuBois claims. In my frame, this is not a laughing matter.
Pierleoni told Acuña that "I never said I believed or disbelieved. My concern was interviewing a woman who has made a good living doing what she does." In the context of an interview with a woman making extraordinary claims that feed into people's superstitions, credulity, and tendency to magical thinking, the author's statement reeks of self-deception. To ask DuBois Why do the dead contact the living through you? is to ask a question that seems clearly to assume that the dead do contact the living through her. He comes across as wanting to know why her? Why not him or me?
Some of his questions were preceded by priming statements. For example, "You've performed 2,000 readings and you've got a waiting list of 3,000. Is there a common thread in the relationship between the living and the dead?" [Italics added to the priming statement.] Wow! She must be the real thing! "Where do you believe your ability comes from?"
Sometimes Pierleoni doesn't even ask a question. He just primes the reader:
In your late 20s, you spent four years, on and off, at the University of Arizona in Tucson as part of a program that studied psychic phenomena. Afterward, the head researcher emphatically stated that you're the real deal.
No question here. And no mention that the head researcher was Gary Schwartz. Again, Wow! She must be the real thing! (If I were Schwartz or any other parapsychologist I'd be jumping for joy at the way Pierleoni mentions psychic research at a major state university as if it belonged there along with chemistry and sociology.) "You write that your three daughters have inherited 'different aspects' of your abilities....In your first book, you predicted your father's death."
The reader was also primed by the sentence that immediately preceded his first question (labeled "Q" but it's really two statements):
DuBois, 34, lives in Phoenix with her husband, Joe, an aerospace engineer, and their three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Arizona State University.
How much more respectable can you get? Her husband's an aerospace engineer and she has a college degree. Why would anyone not trust this woman? Would an engineer put up with psychic claims if they weren't real? These are facts. But there are other facts about DuBois that would not be so flattering. For example, the show Medium is fiction, not documentary. DuBois claims she's worked with police departments and solved crimes such as murder and helped find missing persons. She's mentioned the Glendale Arizona Police Department and the Texas Rangers, but both deny DuBois worked with them (Joe Nickell, POLICE "PSYCHICS" Do they Really Help Solve Crimes? See also Benjamin Radford, "Psychic detectives fail in the real world but succeed on TV," Skeptical Inquirer. March/April 2005, 6–7).
Consider, however, that there are several hundred new books and authors each year that any reviewer can choose from. Why choose DuBois's book and not one by Joe Nickell, James Randi, or Michael Shermer? Why not Ann Coulter's new book on the church of liberalism? Interest, I presume. Interest on the part of the reviewer and assumed interest of the public by the reviewer. Books that promise hope, even false hope, are much more popular than books that raise doubts about the supernatural or the paranormal. Reviews of hopemongering books and books by celebrities are likely to attract more interest than reviews of skeptical books, no matter what the quality or importance of the books in question. Many more people will watch "Medium" than will watch "Is it Real?". Reviews of the former will probably outnumber reviews of the latter, as well. In the marketplace, true believers outnumber skeptics by at least ten to one. I suppose we should be thankful for whatever tokenism the media shows us.
Acuña writes that people (i.e., skeptics) should lighten up. But his framework is that some subjects are ludicrous on their face and need not be treated with the kind of critical eye or healthy skepticism expected of more serious topics. To him, this story is on par with the astrology column: harmless entertainment that's not going to change the way anybody thinks about anything.
Pierleoni writes that he's a neutral party and favors neither believer nor skeptic. To him, he's written a fair, unbiased, straightforward piece on a woman who makes a very good living by making incredible claims about getting messages from the dead, solving crimes with her psychic powers, and passing on her "gift" to her children. My idea of fair treatment by the media of stuff that panders to superstition, ignorance, and irrationality would be something like Robert Denerstein's review of "The Celestine Prophecy" movie.
Perhaps I'm just bitter that Pierleoni, the Bee's book guy, didn't interview me when my book came out. Maybe I'm irritated with the Public Editor for contributing to the stereotype of skeptics as party poopers who need to lighten up. On the other hand, maybe my framework is larger than theirs. Maybe the context I put their writing in is unfairly idealistic. Why should they care whether their writing elevates rational discourse or combats superstition and magical thinking? They're not educators. They have no duty to instruct their readers in the art of criticism or critical thinking. It's not their job to put anything in context. That's the reader's duty. Or so it seems.
As a courtesy, I notified Pierleoni and Acuña of this posting. Acuña sent a cordial and polite response. Pierleoni sent me an e-mail informing me that he wasn't going to read my blog and asking me not to send him "any more emails, faxes, letters, post cards, etc." Apparently, he remembers that two years ago I sent him an e-mail about an article he wrote promoting a local hypnotherapist. By coincidence, that article was also about an attractive blonde.
See also "Framing the Medicine Wars" and Language and Framing the Issues (framing the ID debate) by R. Carroll
last updated December 27, 2010