Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 2.19

I live in Texas, and like most places in the south (and indeed in the U.S.), there is no shortage of Christian churches. They are all around me. However, the neighborhood in which I live boasts an inordinate amount of psychics and palm readers. They easily outnumber the churches. The little shops dot major streets and neighborhood lanes alike just about everywhere I go.

What kind of new age businesses, or pseudoscience organization, or faith-based group do find most near you? And do we, as purveyors of critical thinking, have a responsibility to confront or speak out directly against these establishments in our neighborhoods?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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74 Comments

  1. There’s a “Psychic Advice and Pawn Shop” co-located across the street from the horse races and slots operation where I live. Interesting juxtaposition.
    I haven’t seen any sign that they are open, though. No cars, windows heavily draped, never seems to be any cars in the parking lot.

  2. Phoenix is the end of the bible belt. When I first moved here from Seattle in 1991 I was amazed that on every corner there was a church.

    But, there is also other beliefs. There are more places for high colonics, chiropractic, homeopathic, Riki masters, and other woo woo.

    I think they go together. Someone who does not have a disciplined mind to understand medicine or science is easily talked into “organic” medicine (whatever that means). They go to church, then they get their colonic.

    Or — put another way — BS in then BS out

  3. I tried google map searches on my location, looking for “psychic”, “homeopathic”, “alternative medicine” and “spiritual”. Lots of hits on each. Interesting that the various searches cause clusters of markers on the map. Birds of a feather sort of thing, I guess. Or maybe zoning laws.

  4. I have a Fresh and Natural Foods right by my house. They carry a bunch of woo. A chiropractor is in the same stripmall. Can’t say that I know of any psychic’s offices anywhere around here. ..lots of churches, however.

  5. I’ve been thinking about the “duty” to speak out quite a lot lately. Can’t say I’ve come to any conclusions but I’d like to see what everyone else thinks.

    There are tarot card readers, psychics, practicers of aromatherapy, chiropractic, reiki, herbal medicine, acupuncture, etc. There’s the local ghost hunting group. There are several historical sites and tours that make use of ghost stories.

    Just this weekend I saw a local chiropractor who proclaims in his window to be able to treat such ills as ADD, autism, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, migraines, you name it! It’s disgusting.

    And there’s a culture of organic food, raw food, detoxing, vegan, all-natural bullshit that runs very strong. I’m happy that this means I can get local produce fairly easily and at a good price but I don’t appreciate the woo that comes along with it.

  6. the things i notice most are chiropractors. there’s actually one on the cornere a block down the road (which on my street is four of five houses). i’ve seen one palm reading sign and there is one “health” store nearish me. i think the other one i knew about closed. i’ve been in a couple of those and they always seem odd little store because there’s usually no one in there except the owner/worker and they usually seem kind of not quite clean, the store, not necessarily the worker. those places creep me out.

    i think the only time you need to confront them is if they engage you in conversation trying to drum up some business, or if you know someone who is spending money they don’t have for their services. otherwise i’m inclined to let the buyer beware. i’m not opposed to discussing it if someone brings it up, but to actively confront them just because? if you do that then you also would need to confront all the churches in your area. IMHO anyway.

  7. I hate to say this, but i’ve gotten to the point where I don’t notice the woo-woo and drive thru liquor stores around here. It’s just background noise that I’ve learned to tune out.

    I did grow up near the Texas Chiropractic College. Sadly, it wasn’t until I became an adult that I found out what Chiropratic really is. When I did, I couldn’t believe so many people take them seriously.

    I think we should try to do something to stop woo, but quite frankly, I’m not good at it and don’t know how.

    Here’s an example of me doing a bad job at fighting woo…

    A while back, I went into a grocery store around here and a strange woman started speaking to me. At first, she seemed harmless enough. Just an elderly woman taking about how her kids never see her. (I get approached by elderly people all the time, don’t know why, I guess because I smile and listen.) But, then the conversation gravitated toward her “psychic” powers. Then, she forced a psychic reading onto my son (gratis) and predicted that he will be a “manipulator…but in a good way” and that we would grow up to be a middle manager. She made this prediction while my little boy was distracting me and talking me into getting him some cookie monster cookies.

    Instead of getting angry, when she started in on the psychic crap, I felt my heart sink. I felt sorry for the woman. Here was this innocent little old lady who’s delusional and lonely.

    I didn’t call her out on her nonsense. She wasn’t causing any actual harm to me or my child. So, why bother?

    I’ve never been confronted with a psychic out in public. I didn’t think much of it till I got home and realized that I was wearing my JREF shirt. I don’t know if she knows who James Randi is, but she did keep looking at my shirt (or maybe my boobs) most of the time that she was speaking to me.

    Maybe she wasn’t so innocent? I don’t know. But, I started kicking myself afterwards and thinking that I should have confronted her…not in a crual way, but I should have made it clear that I understood what cold reading is, that any parent would consider their toddler a “manipulator” and that there’s so many middle managers around, it’s a fairly vague prediction.

  8. In my street there is at least one serious looking practice that announces a mixed bag of “alternative” medicine, like Bach’s flowers therapy (I don’t know what it is called in english)

  9. I’m really tempted to sneak “warning” stickers into my local grocery store and put them on products like HeadOn, Zicam and Airborne. Something like a black-box with
    “WARNING:
    Contains No Active Ingredients”.

    I wonder if that would be considered vandalism or performance art.

  10. There is a catholic grotto a few miles from where I work where a woman claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. After that experience the woman started delivering apocalyptic prophecies at one of the local churches until the Archdiocese of Baltimore told her to can it. Apparently, this particular miracle isn’t endorsed by the Catholic Church? Anyway, as a skeptic I don’t really feel this one is worth my time.

    Now, if she said the moon landing was fake… then I would probably start getting angry.

  11. @Steve: performance art is in the eye of the beholder.

    Around me it’s mostly psychics, palm and tarot card readers. there’s also a fair amount or “wellness” centers and chiropractors.

    There’s also a lot of “aroma therapy massage spa’s” but I’m fairly certain they are providing an entirely different kind of service that’s quite, shall we say, effective. I don’t have an issue with those places as they are only lying to the people that don’t go there.

  12. I north of you in Wichita Falls. We have a psychic that advertises everything, crystals, tarot, sands, etc. whatever is in the public consciousness. They have been in the same building for at least a decade. There is an oxygen bar that claims to be able to cure cancer. Several chiropracters. Did you chiropractic is tax-deductible as a medical treatment? Also you can get a degree in Kinesiology at the local university. A duty to confront? No, I tell my family and friends what I think of these people and why. But I’m not going to picket their offices.

  13. Lots of psychics. In fact, the dive bar I frequent has a psychic right next to it, which for some reason makes me lol.

    I have a few close friends who are REALLY REALLY REALLY REALLY into astrology. They are otherwise very intelligent. It makes me sad. :/ One of them wants to start a business doing readings, etc. Including Tarot readings. Why are otherwise smart people so convinced that this b.s. is real?

  14. I live in a suburb of Baltimore, and I really don’t see too many psychics or crystal healers or Scientologists. Lots of chiropractors, but thats about it. Maybe I just don’t have the right circle of friends to know where these kinds of places are.

  15. Churches are bigger than Starbucks here. And often, they serve coffee. Chiropractic is also pretty huge. There are psychics here and there, though not many homeopaths because the big box stores sell all the homeopathic crap you could want.

    The interesting, and sometimes frightening thing about this area is the defensiveness of the people. I’m probably not alone in experiencing this, but any challenge on belief, even slight, is met as a personal attack. Often people will react as if you just physically assaulted them. And don’t ever start up a conversation about religion in a bar. You think bar fights over seating arrangements are bad? Try bar fights over Jesus.

  16. I live in Southern California and there are a lot of pseudo-medical facilities around here, though we have our share of churches and psychics. But here’s a thing. Some years ago a friend insisted I go with her to a psychic she and her Mom frequented. I tagged along and even had my Tarot cards read. But the psychic/card reader was just an old Mexican lady, living with her son. She had no sign, no ad in the phone book, nothing marking her as a professional. She had almost no English (my friend and her Mom are fluent in Spanish.) She had just generated a (large? small?) clientele totally by word of mouth. This makes me think that there can be a LOT more psychics in any given area than you might think from looking at a phone book or the internet.

  17. @Tyler Durden:

    Yes, this is something I encounter as well. I live in a very liberal area of town. There are all kinds of people, and tolerance for ideas, beliefs, and lifestyles is off the chart. But some people behave as though since they live in my neighborhood, they are automatically exempt from questioning or challenge, and can become quite defensive, even at very pedestrian inquiries.

  18. I am surrounded by hippies here in Flagstaff which, coupled with the crazies in nearby Sedona, leads to all sorts of quackery. The most prominent thing I’ve noticed is new-age healers and psychics. Sedona is home to “energy vortices” which – oh I don’t know what they hell they are. But supposedly if you stand near them or on them you’re cured of everything from post nasal drip to leprosy. There are several stores in town hawking homeopathic remedies and crystals. It would be entertaining if it weren’t — well, you know.

  19. @Amanda: Well the masks are a slight improvement. I just visulize the old guys who used to sit on bags of dog food in the little grocery store I worked in during high school. They would sit there with their oxygen tube up their nose while the wife did the shoping. Still think of the hygeine of someone who would spend money in an oxygen bar. A bar bar can easily wash the glass ware. Can you even run a plastic oxygen mask through a hobart? You’ll be huffing lavender, B.O. and old spice. yummy.

  20. And on the topic of speaking out – I absolutely believe that citizens, whether “in the skeptical community” or not, should speak out when they see shenanigans being pulled in local business. How else are people not “in-the-know” to learn about the wool being pulled over their eyes unless someone who can see lifts it off? That being said, I’m very very bad about confronting it myself. Mostly because of my busy busy schedule and a tendency to shy away from confrontation. But I’ve recently resolved myself to start scanning the articles and letters to the editor in my local paper daily to be on the look out for questionable claims and actually make an effort to respond where I feel qualified to do so.

  21. Actually, of course, there are chruches here. It’s Germany here, there are massive amounts of churches. And real ones, with belltower and everything, and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a church. Each village has one, and towns have lots of them. There’s so many of them I didn’t even think of them.

  22. @Steve:
    My wife hates it when ever we walk by that trash in the store, usually because I loudly proclaim, “Hey, you know that is just water.” She rolls her eyes and says, “Yes, dear for the hundredth time.”

    Oh, and my favorite one is when people tell me how great Hy-Land teething tablets are. I will straight out tell them, those are just milk sugar, and luckily for you they don’t actually contain what they say they do or your child would be dead.

  23. I live in south Georgia next to a military base. That means there’s a big Korean population and a lot of Korean-style woo woo. Herbs and cards and leaves and such.

    But most of it is done out of peoples homes and not in a formal business format. So in this case, no. It’s not my place to speak out.

  24. There’s a homeopathic “clinic” not too far from where I live. And too many chiropractors to count. I don’t know about the whole speaking out thing. I guess if they started putting up signs or fliers making specific claims about curing diseases, I might report them to… who? The state attorney general’s office? FDA? FTC?

  25. Singapore – we have churches, mosques, Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, Sikh temples, etc., etc. and a mixture of Western woo that follows the expat community with Chinese exorcists, Fengshui (quite big), Chinese astrology, ghost beliefs, etc., etc.

    Confront? No. My Dad, who spent enough years in the trenches fighting cancer quackery, taught me better than that. It engages the fight or flight response and while you may walk out of there feeling like Mad Max in Thunderdome, it won’t advance the cause of sanity in the world.

    Question it, question it, question it. My dad was on a talk show many years back with a reflexologist and an accupressurist focusing on feet and their therapeutic charts for where to rub for what were quite different. So he pointed out the discrepancy and asked them which one of them was right. After they bumbled around a bit, my Dad concluded that where you rub the feet doesn’t matter, but it may feel nice … a perspective that he hopefully swayed some of the audience to.

    So you still want to do Fight Club … great, when the purveyors of lunacy try to make it a matter of public policy through government funding or licensing or education or whatever, it is time to bring out the long knives and the short knives and the terrifying nail clippers and earth crossing asteroids if you’ve got them.

    In short, intellectually kneeing someone in the groin for coming up to you and wanting to heal your aura (and who knows they may be an Oliver Sacks chapter) is somewhat antisocial; kneeing them in the intellectual groin and then stepping on them as you walk past as part of a policy fight is why people claim to hate politics and then love to watch it.

    PS If you are too young to get the Thunderdome comment, get your grandparents to explain it to you …

  26. @Gabrielbrawley: Okay, I just find the oxygen bar thing hilarious. Do those same oxygen-bar huffers go out and buy antioxidant supplements afterwards? hmm.

    Here in Edmonton, Alberta, we have a Church of Scientology downtown. I haven’t been brave enough to venture near into it yet.

  27. Lots and lots of alternative medicine, chiroquackers for people, pets and horses, energy field adjustments, spiritual healing through organic raw fair trade veggie types and liberal crank conspiracy loons. If you go over the mountains to eastern Washington state you can find all the crank conservative conspiracy critters who eat loons for breakfast.

    Frankly the church folk often come across as the more rational and normal among all the other kinds of woo up here in the corner north of Seattle. Just north of here in BC it’s thick with all kinds of Asian woo and traditional Chinese medicine.

    @drockwood: On the bright side I see a specialist in Portland and she’s a very science based medicine type.

  28. @marilove greetings fellow Phoenician. Ah- we have the basis for Arizona skeptics. Sedona is beautiful but the thin air leads to people not getting oxygen in their brains.

    I do think religion, chiropractic, psychics, homeopathy, naturopaths, and fuzzy thinking are a separate genetic allele — we should name that Gene — I propose – IDI OT 1

  29. “What kind of new age businesses, or pseudoscience organization, or faith-based group do find most near you?”

    The federal government. (I live in the DC metro area). (and, I’m really not joking about my answer)

    “And do we, as purveyors of critical thinking, have a responsibility to confront or speak out directly against these establishments in our neighborhoods?”

    Absolutely. Especially with regard to the establishment I listed.

  30. I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy going down to Santa Monica and arguing with the Creationists that set up shop on 3rd st as much as possible. Last time me and another skeptic rattled the guy so much he shut the microphone off.

  31. There are several “sports rehab” and “pain management” clinics in my neighbourhood, all of which offer physiotherapy, chiropractic, AND accupuncture. Isn’t physio a real science-based medical discipline?

    Also I live on the same block as a “Traditional Chinese Healing Massage” establishment, but you can hardly call that woo – I’m sure the “therapy” they perform there is perfectly effective in ridding you of your pent-up, um, chi. Or something.

    I can’t do anything about the chiro/accu places, but I’ve considered complaining to our councilman about the massage place. I certainly frown pointedly at anyone I see entering or leaving it.

  32. @KristinMH:

    Yeah, I think a lot of the sports rehab and pain management places are mixed bags. They may offer strengthening therapy, stretching, and other sound measures for injury rehab, but also aroma therapy and other crap like that. Just got sift through the bad to get the good.

  33. @Gabrielbrawley: I forgot to add, Kinesiology is a real discipline – the study of movement, I believe. I’m not entirely sure what a kinesiologist does, but I think a lot of them work with athletes and dancers or become phys ed teachers. You’re thinking of Applied Kinesiology – that one’s the woo.

  34. @Joerg – you wrote “It’s Germany here, there are massive amounts of churches. … you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a church. Each village has one, and towns have lots of them.”

    I want to clarify my understanding of religion in Germany. You have lots of church *buildings*, but you don’t have a lot of religious people, is that right?

  35. I live in Austin, TX, and the one and only entrance to my neighborhood is flanked by a catholic church on the left and a baptist church on the right. I consider them background noise for the most part…except when the baptist church gets creative with their marquee sign. A couple weeks ago they posted the following message:

    “A Christian who doesn’t evangelize is an imposter.”

    Funny, I’ve always considered evangelizing southern baptists to be human imposters.

    I spent a large portion of my childhood being challenged and bullied by southern baptists (“saved” teenagers were inordinately cruel). I only allow myself to be drawn into a debate with evangelical christians if I’m feeling sadistic or masochistic.

    Of course my boss is about as woo-tastic as they get, and working in state government regulation requires more belief-stealth than other areas of Austin. My boss told me the other day that my daughter isn’t in the terrible two stage…she’s an indigo child who should be hugged instead of punished due to the very powerful indigo aura she puts off. To be fair, our three foot tin-pot dictator is running a household crime syndicate…have you ever tried to put a toddler, a 90lb puppy, and two cats in timeout? That’s my day, every day. I can see trying to justify turning a blind eye…but indigo?????

  36. @guest1999:

    I want to clarify my understanding of religion in Germany. You have lots of church *buildings*, but you don’t have a lot of religious people, is that right?

    Not quite as extreme as in the US, but still, a lot. 31% Roman-Catholic, 30% Protestant (that’s one flavor of protestant), 4% Islam, a few other. Still a lot, and especially since the reigning party CDU has “Christian” as their first letter :(

  37. When I lived in Arkansas, I knew where just as many churches were as liquor stores. We even had a large, warehouse type liquor store. The first time a friend saw it, he called it “walmart of liquor stores”….but I digress.

    Around here in NOVA, I see a couple of palm readers. There are a couple chiroprators, (spelled right?), and a Scientologist. We have the Mormon Temple, you can see it from 495, and it looks pretty, but if you aren’t a mormon, you can’t enter, and for those of you interested in the Iluminati, we have the Masionic Temple also. Very, very pretty, and very, very banned…I think.

  38. @infinitemonkey: We’re in the same neck of the woods. I’m up in the Eastern Peninsula of WV because I can’t afford NOVA.

    We have a Kingdom Hall not too far from here, now that I think about it.

    I’ve seen the Mormon Temple – Most non-Mormons call it the “Emerald City,” ’cause it looks like the one from Oz.

    WI was kind of funny, because every town seemed to have a bar and a church at every intersection.

    @Ashley.Ele: WTF is an “indigo child?” It sounds like a 60’s rock group or something.

  39. @QuestionAuthority: Don’t really know. She said something about cosmic energies, colored auras, and my toddler being a poet warrior who may rule the world one day. Since she is the chick who signs my timesheet, I distracted myself by cracking a joke about discriminatory language and wavelength-challenged auras.

  40. I like about 30 miles from Sam, and did a search on psychics, homeopath, and the like. I got one hit, for a psychic, which appears from the street view on google maps to be a pretty nice home adjacent to the country club golf course. By contrast to Sam’s part of the city, my area is more middle-class and less eclectic, and probably more conservative.

  41. I live in Colorado Springs, home of New Life Church (of Ted Haggard fame), Focus on the Family (with its fearless leader James Dobson), and Jerry Jenkins (co-author of the Left Behind series). That’s more than enough craziness for a town this size.

  42. I live in Portland, OR. There is a dedicated night at Dante’s called “Ground Zero” where the woo-woo gather and make shit up. It’s also the reason I’m trying to get a Skeptics in the Pub meeting going here. This city is drowning in woo-woo.

  43. I live in a neighbourhood that contains quite a number of elderly people, so within fifteen minutes’ walk of my house there’s an Anglican church, a Lutheran church and a United church. (That last is the one my parents attend.) There’s also a chiropracter within walking distance, but he’s the kind who only treats spinal problems, not the kind who claims he can cure an ear infection. The vitamin shop nearest my house went out of business, though.
    If I go downtown, there are two or three specifically New Age Wiccan-y type stores and a number of places that sell bongs and hemp clothing and organic tea and suchlike. (What can I say – it may be Victoria, but it’s still the West Coast.) For some reason natural soap stores are also all the rage – there are two pretty much across the street from each other – and there’s at least one aromatherapy spa.
    I admit, I actually go to some of these places, some of the time. Not for the woo, but for things like good tea and pretty jewellery and nice-smelling shampoo. There are also a couple of the vegetarian restaurants that do a cheap and tasty dinner. And generally the people are pretty friendly and fairly harmless-seeming, so I don’t mind.

  44. I live near San Francisco, and this place is lousy with Scientologists. There’s a center not too far from my place, and they make it even more convenient by regularly leaving pamphlets, invitations and the like on my doorstep overnight, not to mention the occasional in-person solicitation.

    I actually picked up one of their promotional DVDs while strolling around town one day, just for laughs. About 10 minutes in I was so enraged that I had to just turn it off. I thought I could at least enjoy it making fun of it, but I just found myself getting progressively irritated.

  45. There is a psychic nearby not to mention a Jack-in-the-Box. The jury is still out on which one is more dangerous. I did find a picture of Jeebus in my Breakfast Jack one day….ummm, delicious. Almost made me visit the psychic.

  46. I live in a provincial city in New Zealand. We have a large immigrant population and the closest bits of weirdness are an Islamic temple and a Chinese health centre.

    Further down the road, on Church Street funnily enough, are the Xtian churches of every sort – fundy and traditional. The closest church is a huge fundy enterprise that has motivational billboards on the side – every couple of weeks these are redone with the next theme. They are well presented and designed to appeal to families.

    This sort of thing is still relatively new in our town – it is a bit backwards and we are still dominated by trad Church of England type worship.

    We drive past this church daily and every time, my husband comments that we should be making a visual log of the rubbish they post.

    Otherwise, we have the same unwholesome mix of health food/crystal/newage that I guess is found everywhere.

    My husband and I have recently started speaking out about the weirdness – starting with our very small campaign against a visiting pyschic. We glued little pieces of paper saying I DECEIVE THE BEREAVED over all the promotional posters we could find.

    My husband is a little more confrontational than I am – he claims not to have emotional responses so challenges are quite easy. I’m a bit of a sap and don’t like it when people get upset with me saying their beliefs are crap.

  47. There is a bookstore around the corner from our old loft that is entirely dedicated to new agey “disinformation” topics. Lots of “The Atlantis City Councilpeople are secretly ruling the world from inside the rectums of alien-probed cows” kind of stuff. Also, “miracle cures” that the government doesn’t want you to know about, because the last thing the folks staring down the barrel of Medicare insolvency would be interested in is cheap, effective herbal cures.

    It was kind of painful, since it combined my deep, abiding love of books with my scrotum-punching anger at ridiculous counterculturalism. It was a head-hurty mix.

  48. The last time I went to the most conveniently located pharmacy the prominently located shelf of homeopathic remedies anoyed me sufficiently to send me 200 meters down the row to the towns other phamacy where I made my purchase after browsing around and not seeing any homeopathy. I saw some other crap, but not as prominently displayed.

    I regularly get the urge to rip down posters for local woos from bulletin boards here and there, but I don’t, cause I like it here on the higher moral ground.

    And speaking of higher ground, the view down from my balcony is our garages and the local Kingdom Hall and its parking lot. Whenever I notice the witnesses arriving to or departing from one of their functions I go out on the balcony and masturbate proudly in their general direction.

  49. @physicsteech: I grieve for you having to live in Colorado Springs with those morons.

    I don’t mind vegetarian restaurants, etc. Most Americans could use a better diet…and I actually like a lot of vegan food. I also like the various soaps, shampoos, etc. the New-Agey natural stores sell. I’m partial ro sandalwood and Scottish Heather. :-)

    Jack in the Box should be bombed as a WMD.

  50. Chiropractic, mainly.

    Yesterday, while I was sitting in the lobby at the local veterinary clinic, I overheard the doctor tell another client that they do acupuncture there. I won’t be taking my cat there anymore.

  51. I live in Western Wisconsin – it’s pretty much all about the Lutheran and if not fundamentalist, then damn close to it Christianity.

    My godmother is a poet who also does dream interpretation (not analysis, interpretation, I have NO idea of the difference). She wondered if there was a store or clinic or something out here so she could come by and see me, and sell her book a bit at the local “spiritual” bookstore.

    I collapsed into gales of laughter.

  52. I live in rural Tennessee, equidistant from two small towns. If I turn to the right, down the two-lane rural highway I will pass 42 Baptist churches before reaching town (a distance of 17 miles). If I turn to the left I will pass 17 Baptist churches and one Methodist church before reaching the other town ( a distance of 18 miles). I have no idea how that Methodist church slipped in.

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