A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies

The Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter

Volume 15 No. 3

March 2016

"Tell me the story now ... wrap it in glory...." Van Morrison, 'One Irish Rover'

What's New?

Revised: the SD entry on ghosts.

Updated: the SD entries on the p-value fallacy and Robert O. Young (alkaline diet).

The Confidence Game

Maria KonnikovaMaria Konnikova's The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It ... Every Time (Viking 2016) explores many cognitive biases and illusions that plague all of us all of the time and are particularly exploited by the con artist.

The confidence artist works hard, but not blindly, to gain our trust and persuade us to act foolishly, greedily, and self-destructively, yet willingly.

The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything; he makes us complicit in our own undoing. He doesn’t steal. We give. He doesn’t have to threaten us. We supply the story ourselves. We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want— money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support— and we don’t realize what is happening until it is too late. Our need to believe, to embrace things that explain our world, is as pervasive as it is strong.

You might think, then, that skeptics, who question beliefs as a matter of course and who have cultivated a deep distrust of claims not backed by good evidence, would have a leg up against being conned. Not so, according to Konnikova. None of us stands a chance when the con artist sets out to snare us. Skeptic and true believer alike are equally vulnerable, at least some of the time. Well, I'll give her that, but it is simply not true that those of us who have studied cons and hoaxes, and done battle with believers of everything from the efficacy of homeopathy to belief in miracles, ghosts, angels, and gods, are likely to fall for some of the more common cons. For example, I doubt there is a skeptic worth her salt who would fall for the Nigerian scam in any of its many variations.

Konnikova reviews dozens of biases and illusions that render many people vulnerable to con artists, but she completely ignores the one factor that is probably the most important hindrance not only to critical thinking but to avoiding being conned: ignorance. She uses the word 'ignorance' only once in her entire book and in that one case she attaches it to 'wilful' as in the wilful ignorance of some people who just don't want to face the truth. Readers of The Skeptic's Dictionary know that I have been maintaining for decades that the greatest hindrance to thinking critically is ignorance. If there is anything that can protect us from the con artist it is knowledge of the history of scams and hoaxes. Even so, there will be times when some people who should know better will let themselves be conned because, for example, they are overcome with love or they think they are too knowledgeable to be scammed by someone presenting them with fake works of art and a grand story about why these wonderful works of art have been hidden and unrecorded for decades. There will also be many intelligent people who will be sucked in by the appeal to an in-group (Jews with Bernie Madoff, for example) made by a person who exudes trust and competence, while making promises that any rational, knowledgeable person would recognize as too good to be true.

The knowledge that skeptics have of how psychics and cult and self-help recruiters work their bullshit should be sufficient protection against falling for those cons. Knowledge of how subjective validation and cold reading work is an essential element of the skeptic's protective armor against persuasive nonsense. Knowledge of the many frauds and hoaxes, cognitive biases, logical fallacies, and various psychic scams, pseudoscientific gibberish, and purported alternatives to science-based medicine that are covered by The Skeptic's Dictionary and many other skeptical websites and books, should protect us against most cons. Still, there will be times when even the most knowledgeable skeptic will be duped, hoaxed, or conned. You may think you are invulnerable, but you are deceiving yourself. I would reveal the last time I was conned, but it is too embarrassing. Suffice it to say that it involved telling a car salesman that I did not want the extra five-year warrantee and road service for $4,000, yet found myself an hour later signing the documents. (I'd like to blame my recent cancer diagnosis and emotional vulnerability that led me to think I was protecting my wife in future years when she would inherit my luxurious car, but I think I'd be deceiving myself.)

Konnikova does a good job of connecting how con artists work with how they play on our many natural biases and illusions, but she does not seem to think that just knowing about these biases is a sufficient defense against getting duped. I have to agree with her there. The more I have studied beliefs and the more I've attempted to get people to change their beliefs by presenting them with good evidence contrary to what they hold true, the more I have come to recognize that it is nearly impossible to get anyone to change their long-held beliefs, no matter how much the evidence piles up against them. In fact, the more evidence we produce against, say, the anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, acupuncturists, energy healers, etc., the more likely they are to find new reasons to believe. Believers are highly motivated to defend their beliefs, and the smarter they are the easier it is for them to confirm their biases even with evidence that others see as counting against them.

Many of the con artists' stories presented by Konnikova, either as examples of what she considers psychological principles that make us vulnerable to the con or as examples of the various steps she lists as comprising the con formulary, are taken from Jay Robert Nash’s Hustlers and Con Men: An Anecdotal History of the Confidence Man and His Game (1976) and Robert Crichton’s The Great Imposter: The Amazing Careers of Ferdinand Waldo Demara (1959). These stories are supplemented with a rich assortment of stories of other scams that have been covered in news stories over the past few decades. Beginning with chapter two, she goes through the steps of the formulary chapter by chapter: the set-up, the play, the rope, the tale, the convincer, the breakdown, the send and the touch, and the blow-off and the fix. This gives structure to her narrative but one wonders how many cons actually run through this list from top to bottom. It also makes for a lot of repetition, as several of the cons serve as examples in multiple chapters.

Some of the cons Konnikova presents seem so farfetched to this reader that I find it hard to believe that there have been people gullible enough to fall for them, yet the author claims that some of these farfetched scams have had hundreds of takers over centuries! Sir Francis Drake died in 1596, yet hundreds of years later people are taken in by a tale that he left an astonishing fortune that, for some strange reason involving an illegitimate son, hadn't been collected yet, but anyone who now puts up some cash to free the fortune from some sort of legal entanglement

would make back his original investment multifold, as a thank-you from the current heir. For “every dollar you invest to help free this treasure ... a hundred will be returned to you.” It would all be there the moment the bureaucratic red tape was cut, at long last.

Right. I've come across many very gullible people over the two decades I've been running the SD website, but I don't think even the dimmest or greediest of them would have fallen for this Sir Francis Drake nonsense.

In any case, Konnikova's method is to weave tales of cons with stories of research on various cognitive biases and illusions, while going through the con formulary from the set-up to the fix. Her work is entertaining, but the real value of the book, in my opinion, is her review of various cons. The more cons you know about, the better prepared you will be to avoid being taken in by the psychopathic narcissist with Machiavellian ethics living on your block, peering at you from your television set, or mutely making promises on a website devoted to natural cures, easy weight loss, spiritual enlightenment, or some other desire driving you to become the next sucker waiting in line to be conned by the most honest-sounding person in the universe.

AG's Plan

Marco RubioAfter being trounced in the Republican primary election by Donald Trump in his own state of Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio declared that it was all part of some god's plan. His god, of course, is the god of Abraham (AG), the same god who inspired the Taliban to destroy centuries-old Buddhist art works and the same god who allegedly supports destruction of mosques, churches, and religious art as well as genocide of Christians and other infidels by the enraged fanatics trying to establish a caliphate for Muslims who want to live as Muhammad did in the 7th century. First, of course, these devotees to AG must exterminate anyone who is not a Sunni Muslim willing to join in the bloodbath. This murderous rampage in the name of AG is not new and it did not originate with Muslims. AG is, in the words of Richard Dawkins, "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." Abraham is just as repulsive. Praised by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike for being willing to murder his own son because his god commanded it. Defenders of Abraham praise him for his faith; the rest of us should condemn him for his madness.

Apparently, in Rubio's world Donald Trump's rise to stardom in the Republican party is part of AG's plan for the world, too. What a plan! Didn't Sarah Palin claim that her rise to high status in the Republican party was also part of AG's plan? Ted Cruz, as far as I know, gets his AG messages from the Bible; whether he thinks he's part of some divine master plan, I don't know. What I do know is that all this talk about being part of AG's plan is a major turnoff in this neck of the woods. Another major turnoff is the notion that America should return to the days when Christian prayers started the day in public schools, and Christian prayers were said by teams before public high school football games, and Christian prayers were said to prime the brains of city council members before discussing potholes at public meetings, etc. America was not great before Brown vs. Board of Education; nor was it great before Roe v. Wade; nor was it great before the civil rights movement; nor was it great before it took seriously the business of regulating corporations to force them to stop polluting our air, land, and water indiscriminately. I look at my life in America these past 70 years and I do not see my president as a traitor trying to destroy America as Rubio and other Republicans do. I do not see a weak, disrespected, disintegrating country as many paranoid politicians do. To me, America is still a great country and it is getting greater as we move toward more freedom, more equality, more tolerance, and more justice. I do not want to live in a theocracy. To do so would be as oppressive as communism. And I don't want to be led by anyone who thinks he has the green light to do whatever he sees fit because he believes some god sanctions his every belief.

Is there work to be done? You bet. Neither party has done much to reform both campaign financing and the disruptive influence of corporate lobbying. Neither party has done much to rein in Wall Street and the banks.

Just leave AG out of it, please.

A Meaningful Life without gods or religion

To return to Maria Konnikova's The Confidence Game:

Con artists, at their best and worst, give us meaning. We fall for them because it would make our lives better if the reality they proposed were indeed true. They give us a sense of purpose, of value, of direction. That, in the end, is the true power of belief. It gives us hope. If we are endlessly skeptical, endlessly miserly with our trust, endlessly unwilling to accept the possibilities of the world, we despair. To live a good life we must, almost by definition, be open to belief, of one form or another. And that is why the confidence game is both the oldest there is and the last one that will still be standing when all other professions have faded away. Ultimately, what a confidence artist sells is hope. Hope that you’ll be happier, healthier, richer, loved, accepted, better looking, younger, smarter, a deeper, more fulfilled human being— hope that the you that will emerge on the other side will be somehow superior to the you that came in.

I and many other skeptics and atheists have devoted much of our lives to proving wrong this sentimental and pathetic view of humanity. Yes, she is right that the charlatans promising miracle weight loss products, natural cancer cures, communication with dead loved ones, spiritual bliss, infinite energy machines, easy money, paranormal powers, secrets to success and self-fulfillment, and esoteric pathways to ancient truths about the universe are selling hope. But it is a grand delusion to believe that hope in these kinds of fantasies is the only way to find meaning and purpose in one's life. The alternative to belief in the palpably not true is not a life of despair. You do not need any of this nonsense to live a happy, healthy, meaningful life.

In a recent op-ed piece for the Huffington Post, Ryan Stinger, a graduate student in philosophy at my alma mater the University of California at San Diego, wrote about living a meaningful life without religion. I think what he says about religion applies equally to living a meaningful life without psychics, fake healers, etc.:

Meaning in life without religion can be found in the many familiar, meaning-conferring elements that aren’t religious in nature. These include friends, family, romantic love, pets, good careers, personal projects, learning, teaching, noble causes, helping others, striving for moral excellence, notable achievements and experiences, hobbies and recreational activities, and so on. There are many non-religious sources of meaning in life, and it’s in virtue of such things that life without religion can be meaningful....

Religion doesn’t have a monopoly on providing a sense of purpose in life. Instead, we can give purpose to our own lives. Taking care of our loved ones, helping needy humans or non-human animals, fighting for good causes (e.g., freedom and justice), striving for moral excellence, contributing to science, music, literature, art, or other areas of enduring human culture — such things can provide the non-religious with a sense of purpose in life. (Yes, Life Without Religion Can Be Meaningful)

I pity those who would not strive to be morally good unless commanded to do so by some god and I pity those who think the only meaningful life must include immortality and constant worship of a megalomaniacal being who demands obedience to his calls to murder and genocide.

Happiness and Greatness

Thomas JeffersonFor many centuries, the topic of happiness was the provenance of philosophers. Since the 18th century, utilitarianism dominated the discussion among Western philosophers, so much so that when Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence he listed "the pursuit of happiness" as one of three "unalienable rights" (along with Life and Liberty). Of course, this slave owner also declared that "all men are created equal" and that our unalienable rights were "endowed by" a Creator. Philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and David Hume identified happiness with pleasure, physical and intellectual, and social utility. It seems at least in his own life, so did Jefferson. In any case, it requires a complete distortion of the history of Christianity to identify happiness with living a life of physical and intellectual pleasure, or with creating a society devoted to maintaining the common good. Happiness for a Christian involves worshipping AG, not satisfying bodily and mental pleasures. Prosperity Christianity came late to the game and occupies one small sector of Christianity, and in any case is essentially selfish and only concerned with the general welfare insofar as it contributes to one's personal wealth and well-being. To claim that liberty and equality are fundamental Christian values is a blatant falsehood. Christianity has opposed the extension of liberty and equality in so many ways over so many centuries that it seems fairer to call it an enemy of liberty and equality rather than a friend. And these days, Life as an unalienable right seems blindly restricted by evangelicals to the right of every human sperm to fertilize an egg and every human fertilized egg to be brought to full birth no matter what.

These days, however, happiness is in the provenance of economists and other social scientists. The United Nations will celebrate World Happiness Day on March 20 and recently it published a World Happiness Report.The report ranks the happiness of 156 countries. Pleasure is not one of the criteria by which the economists measure happiness, however. Still, something like Mill's principle of acting so we bring about the greatest good to the greatest number does seem to be lurking in the background of the UN's report. Based on decades of economic, sociological, and psychological research, the report claims that being happy seems to rely on at least six main factors:

1) being mindful and allowing ourselves to feel "captured" by emotions like awe or joy, 2) access to necessary material resources, 3) stimulating work and decent work conditions, 4) personal freedoms, 5) good governance, and 6) strong social ties and the opportunity to spend time with family and friends.

Happiness so understood, say the authors, helps us live longer, healthier, and more productive lives. Inequality, on the other hand, was strongly associated with unhappiness. Based on these standards, Denmark ranks as the happiest nation on earth. America ranks 13th.

At the bottom of the list ... was Burundi, where a violent political crisis broke out last year. Burundi was preceded by Syria, Togo, Afghanistan, Benin, Rwanda, Guinea, Liberia, Tanzania and Madagascar. All of those nations are poor, and many have been destabilized by war, disease, or both.

Of the world’s most populous nations, China came in at No. 83, India at No. 118, the United States at No. 13, Indonesia at No. 79, Brazil at No. 17, Pakistan at No. 92, Nigeria at No. 103, Bangladesh at No. 110, Russia at No. 56, Japan at No. 53 and Mexico at No. 21.

The authors of the happiness document found that three-quarters of the variation across countries could be explained by six variables:

gross domestic product per capita (the rawest measure of a nation’s wealth); healthy years of life expectancy; social support (as measured by having someone to count on in times of trouble); trust (as measured by perceived absence of corruption in government and business); perceived freedom to make life choices; and generosity (as measured by donations).*

If we measure the greatness of a nation by the happiness of its people rather than by its military might and a bullying attitude toward the rest of the world, I'd say that America is one of the greatest nations on our planet. We don't need to be made great again. We have been and continue to be one of the greatest nations on earth.


Written by Bob Carroll
with the assistance of John Renish
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