We human beings sure are gullible. Polls report that 27 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, and 25 percent in astrology. Others believe mediums, fortunetellers, faith healers, and assorted magical phenomena.
I'd think the astrologers or the psychics or the ghost hunters would be eager to prove they were for real. Not only would they convince skeptics, they'd make a million dollars.
That's what James Randi, the magician, author, and debunker of bogus claims, will pay anyone who can prove he or she actually has an ability that can't be explained by science.
"All people have to do is make a claim, come to us, fill out the form, arrange a protocol, and then we have somebody else do the test," Randi says. He won't do the test himself, he says, because when psychics failed in the past, they claimed that Randi put out "evil vibrations" to thwart their powers.
Has anyone taken up the challenge?
"We've done over 200 of them all over the world."
These days, TV is filled with commercials that claim that a bracelet will make people stronger. One shows people who are easily pulled over when they're not wearing the bracelet, but who withstand the pulling when wearing one.
I asked Randi the secret of this apparently sincere demonstration of the power of the bracelet. Apparently, when the subject wears the bracelet, the demonstrator covertly props him up. But even the test subject doesn't notice.
Why do so many people believe in such "magic"?
"They want magic answers." Also, the media "promote interest and belief in these things because sponsors love it. It sells products."
I have been surprised over the years, reporting on people who sell breast enlargers, baldness cures, and similar nonsense, that many were not just cheats. They had come to believe that their stuff worked. They saw what they wanted to see. Randi is skeptical that the big-name psychics actually believe.
"They have to know what they're doing," he says. "Sylvia Browne alone gets $750 for a 20-minute conversation over the telephone, and she's booked up for the next two years. Now, that's a pretty good business."
She doesn't really believe she has a gift?
"I don't think so. Because when ... she comes up to something which is absolutely wrong ... she makes all kinds of excuses right away. You have to be quick-thinking in order to do that."
If she really did believe, I'd think she'd volunteer for Randi's million-dollar challenge.
"I'm amazed (that) there isn't a line of people saying, 'I want the million,'" he told me. "A million dollar prize. It's there. Come get it."
It's good that Randi and occasional TV reporters expose the sellers of such "magic." But after I did that for 25 years, I concluded that the harm done by those hucksters is minor compared to the scams perpetuated by politicians.
They promise fiscal responsibility. Then they spend like drunken sailors.
They promise to cure poverty. Then their programs make it worse.
They promise to create jobs. But then they make life so complex and unpredictable that entrepreneurs are afraid to create jobs.
Almost none of their promises come true. But few people approach government with the skepticism it deserves.
Whether you believe in God—or psychics, or global warming—that's your business. I may think you're stupid, but if you waste your money on, say, a "strength" bracelet, you only harm yourself.
But being gullible about government hurts everyone. Government is force. When it sells us bunk, we have to pay even if we don't believe in or want it. If we don't pay up, men with guns will make sure we do.
It's good to be skeptical. It's really good to be skeptical about government.
John Stossel is host of Stossel on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of Give Me a Break and of Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity. To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at johnstossel.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.
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