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Just before the new Cosmos premiere last week, I noticed that “#LongIslandMedium” was trending on Twitter, a reference to a woman named Theresa Caputo. She’s just the latest in a long line of talking-to-the-dead hucksters who exploit the grief of the bereaved, using the same unsubtle cold-reading act that never fails to dazzle the gullible. I decided the hashtag could use an antidote to credulity:

Well, that disturbed the hornet’s nest, as a horde of infuriated true believers leaped to their idol’s defense. Most of them were just run-of-the-mill ignorance and abuse, not worth bothering with:

You’d think that last guy could have guessed that that wouldn’t have been a winning argument with me, based on my Twitter handle. Then again, sharp-eyed observation probably isn’t the strong suit of people who fail to spot that so-called “psychics” are just feeding back the information that people give to them.

But a few responses tried to muster at least the hint of an argument:

I like the assertion that “a lot” of the ticket sales go to charity. Really fills you with confidence, doesn’t it? I should try that one sometime: “Give to my food bank! An unspecified portion of the money collected will go directly to feeding the hungry!”

There’s also the perennial favorite of “you skeptics are grumpy killjoys, but my life is happy because I believe in magic“:

Notice that last person’s concern: it’s hard to challenge things that other people claim to be true. Life is so much easier, apparently, when you credulously accept anything and everything that anyone tells you and never allow yourself to wonder whether or not you’re being taken advantage of. There’s also the one who told me to “keep my negativity to myself” – the clear implication being that she doesn’t want to hear anything that might cast doubt on something she believes.

Contrary to what these people seem to think, I don’t view skepticism as a burden, but as a favor to be offered freely. The universe is much grander and more interesting than the small, human-centered myths we cling to, the ones that myopically insist that we small creatures are at the center of all existence. When we dispel this fog of illusions, we can see much farther and more clearly. I think the discarding of false beliefs is ultimately a gain, not a loss or a “negative”, and it benefits people whether or not they realize that initially.

There were also those who insisted that it doesn’t matter whether the Long Island Medium is real or not, as long as she makes people happy:

Let me put it this way: Nobody goes to a medium just because it gives them comfort just to hear someone pretending to be one of their departed relatives. People go to mediums because they think they can get in touch with the afterlife and be assured that death isn’t the end and that the deceased are happy. Therefore, whether she can actually do what she says she can do matters a lot. If I go around telling people with cancer that I’m a doctor and I can offer them a painless miracle cure, I may make them feel temporarily better, but if what I’m saying is false, I’m setting them up for grave harm down the line.

And medium acts aren’t necessarily a harmless, comforting fantasy. There have been some “psychics” who took advantage of their clients’ trust and swindled them out of millions of dollars. The belief that psychic acts never cause harm rests on the assumption that, whether for real or not, their practitioners are all benevolent – but if the skeptical interpretation is true, the majority of them must be engaged in an act of cynical, conscious deceit.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM—Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...

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