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Skeptic Fail #2: Manipulation vs Critical Thinking

March 8, 2015

Welcome back to this series that looks at the blind spots and failures that skeptics are especially prone to making.

In Part 1 we saw the well known skeptic Michael Shermer fail to debunk the “law of attraction”, simply because he hadn’t researched the topic enough — before making a silly, self-indulgent video about it.

This post features Dr Shermer again, but in a different role. This time he becomes the victim of a rather frivolous piece of journalistic trickery, and thereby demonstrates the mechanisms that get people sucked into scams like the law of attraction. Critical thinking skills offer limited protection under such conditions.

I am going to highlight this incident because skeptics — including Dr Shermer — tend to underestimate the role that deliberate manipulation plays in popular scams like The Secret. The bad science in that film has been well covered by skeptics, but as far as I know, no professional skeptic or large skeptic organization has commented on the emotionally charged advertising tactics that the film makers employed. And none seem to have noticed the highly manipulative subliminal images in the opening sequences.

27-cScreenshot from The Secret – in ancient Egypt a terrified young priest tries to protect the “secret” for future generations, as soldiers with burning torches run towards him. The flaming figures in the background are part of a fade into the next scene. Images of people burning, as well as sexual images abound.

Furthermore, The Secret built an exploitive relationship with the viewer, by surreptitiously pulling them into the film’s narrative until they became participants themselves in the propagation of the story. As well as being impelled promote the film to their friends (viral marketing), countless people were sucked into entering a highly exploitive personal relationship with one or more of the teachers in it — that was the whole aim of the film.

123The first appearance of James Ray in The Secret – a subliminal image. Four people died while attending his events in 2009.

Professional skeptics overlooked all this because they tend to focus on what they are good at: logical fallacies. This leads to a rather superficial view of human behavior, and an annoying smugness, and most importantly, an impotent response to the most successful popular scam in decades. 

No matter how good your “baloney detector” is, it won’t protect an unsuspecting person from a complicated scam like The Secret that’s specifically designed to deactivate their defenses. It won’t even protect you from a simple con trick…. As Dr Shermer discovers in the exchange below….

The email exchange below, published last year on the Daily Beast website, shows how a trickster mimics a safe situation, and how a person under stress will take greater risks than usual, with less care.

To set the scene, Shermer is under stress because of accusations about him that were circulating in the internet (and which will not be discussed here!!!). He has initiated legal proceedings, but this also requires his own silence, no doubt leaving him feeling defenseless and highly frustrated. He is contacted by a journalist called Ian Murphy:

Dear Mr. Shermer,
I’m writing a story about the recent ugliness in the atheist/skeptic community/movement (last week, and the past two years) for The Progressive, AlterNet, or Salon (not sure yet), and I’m obviously hoping you’ll be gracious enough to answer some questions.
Phone would be best, but I’d settle for email–any way to get your side of things out there.
Regardless, thanks for all you’ve done for the skeptics of the world.

The journalist presents this, basically, as an offer of help from a fan. In effect he is saying I have what you need, and I will serve you. This of course is the promise of every scammer in history.

Shermer politely declines, citing his lawyers and a book he is busy writing. The journalist replies:

I figured as much, but I had to ask! And have fun writing. (One fortunate thing about all this is that your sales will be higher than ever! Look at Paula Deen. Silver lining? Yesh. Sorry. ) Anywho, will you please forward my request to your attorney? Pretty please? A presumptuous thanks! Or awwww. Thanks for your time.

Here are offers of emotional and moral support as well as more clearly submissive signals, softening the persistent request for further attention. Shermer refuses again, and it goes back and forth a bit until the journalist blurts out:

To be honest, I’m not entirely certain what the charge is? You bought a woman drinks, for god’s sake?! What, she felt taken advantage of the next day–years later?–because you’re a charismatic person, memories are dramatizations of someone’s dogma du jour!? The story’s not about the “charge,” whatever that actual is, it’s about skepticism, truly, no?

Here the journalist is modeling the behavior he hopes Shermer will impulsively imitate — trying to get Shermer to respond with the same kind of out-blurting. And it works.

Shermer:

“….I haven’t been charged with anything. An anonymous woman told another anonymous woman to tell PZ Myers that I raped her at some unspecified time in the past at some unspecified conference which was alleged reported to unspecified persons who allegedly covered up whatever it is I allegedly did….”

The journalist responds with some speculation about how he might include those remarks in a story he wants to publish. Shermer, still not smelling any rat-like aromas, tries to assert his authority:

Ian. Stop. Nothing I have written to you can be quoted…

Shermer issues this imperative, having believed the journalist’s submissive behavior from before. And when the journalist persists, he sharpens it:

No, Ian, you cannot “convey the meaning of the emails….”

Shermer still thinks he can assert his authority here, and it only slowly dawns on him that the journalist is no longer being submissive. But by then it’s too late.

Shermer is incredulous and invokes his lawyers, but the journalist knows his legal rights and informs Shermer that he will publish the entire email exchange, which he does. (No dire consequences ensue, beyond some chuckling and some grizzling about journalistic ethics.)

Once the Murphy had gained his trust, it simply did not occur to Shermer that the journalist might not share his goals. Nor, of course, would it be likely occur to anyone else in such circumstances.

But, like many scam victims, had he been psychologically capable of doing even the most basic background check, Shermer probably wouldn’t have fallen for Murphy’s submissive signals. A minute on google, and he would have discovered that Murphy had recently spent a week in jail, in preference to doing 70 hours community service — which he found “boring”. And this was after a “public nuisance” conviction for showing up at an anti-gay Christian rally and interviewing people with a dildo. All this does not exactly fit the profile of the obsequious fan-boy he played for Shermer!

And real scammers don’t pull the plug as swiftly and honestly as Ian Murphy did. Once you have signed the charges to your credit card, they keep it rolling until they have taken everything they can get to.

Posted by Yakaru

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2 comments

  1. Blimey, poor bugger. But it doesn’t seem just like a case of a manipulative journalist. I mean it is that, but if you’re in legal proceedings and know you’re not supposed to talk to anyone about it, it’s pretty irresponsible to talk to anyone about it, no matter how on-side they seem. You shouldn’t whisper about it to your nearest and dearest, let alone put it in print to someone you don’t know. I’m not sure it’s something anyone would do if they’re a bit stressed. It’s pretty naive. Or have I missed something? The journalist doesn’t seem at all genuine, either. I’ve had subtler emails offering to transfer large sums of money into my bank account for no good reason.


  2. All valid points, Lettersquash.

    I may be being too soft on Shermer in order to illustrate how easy it is to get scammed, and also to make it clear I don’t want to stir up any old scandals. (I will get some flak for even mentioning it, I know.)

    It may also be that he picked up the journalist’s rather spontaneous character, and decided he might make a good ally at some point. Also, as a well known figure with a well earned status among skeptics, he would certainly have been well used to deferential behavior, and found it quite credible.

    However, I do recall this blogpost at the time it happened, which would appear to support your contention that he could maybe have seen through it:
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/almostdiamonds/2013/08/16/shermer-speaks/

    I also think people deserve a bit of a kick in the butt if they fall such idiotic lunacy as The Secret, and for some of the stuff I’ve believed in and no doubt still believe in. (Apparently the tax office does NOT cease to exist when I ignore it, for example…)



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