Skepticism

The True Believer and You

I get dozens of e-mails a day through the SGU site and Skepchick, and a surprising number of them are people asking for advice on how to deal with family members, friends, or sexy potential partners who believe in the supernatural and fall for scams. Every situation is unique, and it’s usually far more complex then just calmly explaining to the believer why they are out of their minds.

In many situations, it is possible to have a positive influence on someone who believes a con. It’s doubtful that you’ll be able to convince them in one conversation, but it’s very likely that you can give them the tools they need to eventually come to a more rational conclusion. You can encourage them to seek out the facts, teach them about common logical fallacies, or just demonstrate that it’s okay to doubt.

Some situations, though, deal with the so-called True Believer. The TB (not to be confused with tuberculosis—we’ve developed a vaccine for that) is well-known in the skeptical community as an unmovable brick wall of irrationality, someone best left alone to their delusions.

While I agree that there are a good deal of hard cases out there, and probably even a good deal of people who will never change their minds about anything, I don’t think it’s healthy or correct to be pessimistic about the TB’s situation. For example, I’ve received lots of messages from former True Believers, talking about their journey into skepticism via blogs, podcasts, books, friends, and a good deal of inquiry.

There’s another reason why we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss True Believers: we may not be able to change their minds, but we may still be able to help them.

This occurred to me after reading this Wall Street Journal article (via Consumerist) about a very specific type of True Believer: the mentally incapacitated relative. These are mostly older parents and grandparents who have lost the batteries to their bullshit detectors, and so they fall for otherwise obvious scams.

The article gives some extreme examples and goes into ways that you can help your loved ones, even when they refuse to believe they’re being conned. Some of their tips include putting your loved one’s phone number on the Do Not Call list, giving them a script to use when answering the phone, or filling their time with other activities. One tip is even helpful to those of us who are already skeptics: “Gather scam mail in an envelop marked ‘Forward to Post Master: suspected mail fraud’ and put it in your mailbox. No postage is necessary.”

I’m wondering if any of our readers have elderly or mentally handicapped loved ones who fall for scams. If so, have you taken any steps to protect them? Are you on the look-out for scammers who may target them? Do you tell your grandparents about scams in the hopes that they’ll remember?

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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44 Comments

  1. I call my grandmother every Friday afternoon… partly to secure my title as “favorite” and partly to keep tabs on her.

    Letting her tell me all about the Bingo games also lets me hear about the freaky mail she gets and I have been able to stop some potentially bad scams from going down.

    Which is why, even if she hates that I don’t go to church and am sleeping with (without being married to) a vocal non-believer, I am still the favorite!

  2. As my dad has gotten older, he’s become much more inclined to throw money away on impulse purchases of products on late-night infomercials. That’s why my brothers and I each got a case of Sham-Wows at Christmas.

    Mom does a pretty good job of keeping this under control, but we (the sons) try to bring up the latest woo in conversation with him in the hopes that we can head off anything that Mom misses.

    He’s also gravitated to FOX News as his primary source of information, but that’s another problem entirely…

  3. My grandmother is a pretty sharp lady who doesn’t fall for anything so I don’t worry too much about her. The one I do worry about all the time in my uncle. He’s mentally handicapped and my mom is his legal guardian now, he’s almost 40 but mentally closer to 8 or 9. People do try to take advantage of him all the time and it’s amazing I still have faith in humanity.

    Not just scams either, I’ve caught people overcharging him and shortchanging him because it’s obvious he doesn’t understand money well. Then there are the people who try to talk him into buying stuff and he’s easily pressured. We keep a close eye on him but despite his limitations we have to give him some independence so he feels like an adult and it’s a hard balancing act.

  4. when both my parents were still alive, I and my sibs went through some of this.

    Sometimes I wondered if they fell for these scams simply out of loneliness and isolation. Ya know, someone called and actually interacted with them. So we (the kids and some grandkids) took the tact of calling in on them on a regular basis.

    This seemed to help (except for the occasional trinket or odd device that didn’t cost them too much). In fact, I’d get other things to interest them and that worked, too (buying CDs of their favorite performer they had not listened to in a long time worked wonders).

    I came to believe that it took a village to keep an eye on our parents especially as they got frailer towards the end of their lives.

  5. Luckily, my parents are still cognitively competent, and my maternal grandmother always saved anything that she wasn’t sure about to go over with my mother, but my paternal grandmother has a serious shopping problem and fills up her senior living community rooms with all kinds of stuff she had no need for. She sends away for stuff and forgets that she did, then makes my father call the companies and get them to stop sending stuff, she says “yes” to free gifts and doesn’t read the fine print that explains all the conditions… Fortunately, my father has been able thus far to stave off most of the damage. Unfortunately, my grandmother refuses help ahead of time and is very offended and nasty by any suggestion that she needs assistance…

    Of course, we have to watch out for our relatives, and our friends, and ourselves. Scammers are tricky bastards and they will try anything. We all think we know better, but sometimes they can surprise you. So offering our help to our older relatives, or even our younger, is a very smart and kind thing to do, but we have to do it patiently and nicely. Otherwise, we risk offending and alienating the people we love and want to help.

  6. I’ve never been convinced the problem is entirely an issue of getting old and forgetting how to ask questions. I wonder if its just old people have more money to blow. (80% of the wealth in the US is owned by people over 55) combined with the spare time.

    My Dad has treatment resistant Hep C. He buys a lot of “Herbal Supplements” which is nice way of saying “Totally unregulated but very potent bioactive chemicals.”

    I don’t really know what to do. Reality is better then fiction, but is false hope worse then despair?

  7. Just last night, I was talking with my roommate about space aliens, and I told him I was pretty confident of them not visiting Earth. All they do is anal probe rednecks and slaughter cows. What are they learning besides beef is tasty, and 1 in 10 rednecks don’t mind it?

    He said I made a good point. Y’alls thoughts?

  8. My mom has Altimeters but her natural frugality keeps her from spending on anything; including herself. We have to make her by nice things for herself. Although, near garbage day my garage stinks because she is trying to condense the garbage into one garbage can rather then putting two out at the curb.
    You just never know.

  9. My parents were hippies so their being older hasn’t made them any more gullible than they always were. They are just interested in different things. Miracle diets. So many books on miracle diets. Blood type, carb free, meat free, etc. Some crap written by something called a Dr. of Natureapthy which on its face sounds like utter bullshit. Also vitamins and natural supplements and organic food. Anything that promises them instant effortless weight loss. They went off milk for awhile because a book said that human adults were the only animals in nature that would drink the milk of a cow. I pointed out that their dogs and cats would drain a bowl of milk if they were given a chance. So they moved to a different miracle diet book.

  10. I think part of it is also fear. Fear that your body is breaking down as you age, fear of death, of the changing world, of other people, thongs, black presidents who are secret agent muslims, and the gay marriage.

    So they look for the miracle juice that will fix all their pains, watch Faux News to validate the phantoms they are afraid of and not feel so alone.

    I just hope that never happens to me when I get old.

  11. For things like religion, I respectfully just leave that subject alone unless someone is trying to convert me. For minor things like superstitions, I try to think of something clever and say it in a non-threatening way so that people are willing to listen and don’t become defensive.

    For example, 2 weeks ago I was playing D&D and one girl was having a lot of really terrible roles. Then she remembered that she had broken a mirror that week, and was a little superstitious about it. So I just told her that she shouldn’t have said it out loud in front of the dice, because know they know.

    Another woman in the group gave me a set of dice as a birthday gift because I didn’t have any yet. At the previous game, I mentioned that I should buy some, and she insisted that I have to go to a store and feel them and try them out and know which ones are right for me, rather than buying them online like I planned. Anyway, she asked how my new dice were working for me, and I said they seemed pretty random.

    A third time, with the same D&D group, this guy was going on about ghosts. I just asked him how it is that ghosts can go through walls but not fall through the floor.

    @infinitemonkey:
    This is a good one too, and I’ll have to use it next time the subject of UFOs comes up.

  12. I was actually thinking that when I’m at TAM in a couple of weeks (I’ll be at TAM in a couple of weeks! I’m still getting a kick out of saying that) I would suggest that for next year, there be some sort of panel discussion on how to date skeptically. The last few women I’ve dated have all believed in some really wild stuff – mostly alternative medicine type stuff.

    Maybe, Rebecca, you could make a generic post about some of the advice you’ve offered over the years to the skeptically lovelorn…

  13. @joemg7777:

    “I came to believe that it took a village to keep an eye on our parents especially as they got frailer towards the end of their lives.”

    Amen to that. My dad has always been a sucker for scamsters, particularly of the CAM and the sure-fire-riches variety. My mother had her own weaknesses, but she could step on some of his excesses (“Oh, honey, you don’t really believe that, do you?”) Since her death, he has become particularly vulnerable– age and loneliness being a big part of it, as lots have pointed out. However, my dad has always been terrified of death– as, oddly, are a lot of the military guys I’ve grown up around– and increasingly desperate as he gets into his late eighties. He puts money in get-rich-quick schemes, talks to psychics, is in every freaky right-wing mystical Catholic organization out there, sees quacks, tries a different diet each week. He is actually in good health for his age despite, oh, giving up “too acid” foods for months. But one of us, his kids, would have to live with him full time to protect him from the assholes who prey on people like him, and that’s not possible. We do everything we can that doesn’t absolutely leave Dad humiliated. I like that idea of reporting these dicks to the postmaster. We have reported them to the attorney general’s office in my dad’s state, and the BBB. We also alerted the local veteran’s associations & the bases nearby; they’ve actually been more helpful than anyone, by having a young guy in uniform stop by & talk w/my dad. Dad tunes us out after all these years, but by god he trusts a man in uniform.

    Sorry to whine. Anyway, thanks, Rebecca, for bringing this up. We can’t get so caught up in wanting to change how the people we love think that we forget that it’s more important to simply help them.

  14. @Matto the Hun: Yep. It seems that some people have a turning point when they can no longer accept a future, they just long for what they remember as their happy history. Fortunately, I’ve had older friends who did not feel this way. Nevertheless, if I ever feel like I’m hitting that point– the world is going to hell & things are never gonna be as good as they once were– I’ve given my partner orders to remove me by any means necessary. Hell, I’ve been depressed, but I can’t imagine feeling like the mankind is just hopelessly circling the toilet, waiting for the Big Flush.

  15. My mother-in-law, an atheist in her mid-60s and an otherwise intelligent woman, believes absolutely everything she reads about natural healing, superfoods, homeopathy, etc. About a year ago she called and asked if I would drive her to the local food co-op because she had a lot of shopping to do. (She doesn’t drive.) We got there and all she bought was juice. Gallons and gallons of fruit and vegetable juice. I finally asked her what was going on and she said she was going on an 12-day juice fast do detox her body. I was a little concerned, since her job is physically demanding and she is otherwise extremely fit. But she went through with it. Over the years she has also fallen for the blood type diet, a variety of natural healing scams, lots of homeopathy, etc. And vitamins. Sweet jeebus, the vitamins. She mail-orders them every month. Must be close to $200 a month by now.

    Then there’s my sister, mid-50s and devoutly religious. She’s a very lonely person who has never learned to be on her own, even almost 10 years after her divorce. Last summer she fell for the Nigerian scam. My siblings and I all suspected that something was not right; thankfully my brother puzzled it out before she actually sent money. But the scammer strung her along for a long time.

    I think the only thing these two otherwise very different people have in common is that there is a very strong desire for whatever it is they’ve fallen for to be true. In my mother-in-law’s case, she is terrified of growing old and infirm, so she is desperate for some miracle cure that will prolong her life and health. My sister, on the other hand, is desperate for companionship. She gets it in the form of her church fellowship, but her church is telling her that she is not complete without a man. So she is seeking a man. She so badly wanted it to be true that she was willing to overlook a lot of red flags.

    I don’t think I have ever wanted something to be true as desperately as either of these people.

  16. Ach, RW! Just to remind you , my friend, there sort of is a vaccine for tuberculosis (BCG) but it’s not clear how effective it is. It’s probably not effective against the usual pulmonary TB and is not used in North America.

  17. @catgirl:
    A third time, with the same D&D group, this guy was going on about ghosts. I just asked him how it is that ghosts can go through walls but not fall through the floor.

    Answering the question in-genre, I think ghosts can go through the floor if they choose to, and in fact your stereotypical fading-out-into-a-whispy-tail style of ghost is levitating at all times rather than standing on anything. If they choose to levitate in the middle of the room rather than sink through the floor or float up through the ceiling, it is because they think they can better frighten people that way. Other styles of ghosts, found in gothic romances or historically themed ghost stories, are more likely to have feet and respect such conventions as floors. This type of ghost is often portrayed as being in denial about their own metabolic status, or having some agenda other than scaring people, so walking around on the floor or ground is just part of their whole “acting like a person” shtick.

  18. This comment comes with the preface that my grandma belongs to a very moderate church that does not take advantage of her generous nature.
    I actually like that my grandma goes to church. My dad tells me that they didn’t practice growing up, but after she retired, she became very active in the church. I think it made her feel useful. After my grandpa died, it gave her a reason to leave the house, even if only once or twice a week, and provided a routine. Now that most her friends have died and she is not physically able to do a lot of the things she used to love, church gives her an outlet for socializing.
    I think the elderly need that. As a non-believer, I wonder where I will get it, should I be lucky enough to become old.

  19. I find that even if you can’t convince the true believers, you can at least have a conversation with them without inflaming things too much by asking questions instead of stating opinions. Statements make people react. Questions make people think.

    For example:

    There’s no evidence for the existence of god

    vs

    How do you know that god exists?

    The first will lump you in the “I’m going to ignore everything you say” category. The second will cause them to evaluate their own beliefs. Sure, they’ll come up with a rationalization, and it wont convince them right away, but at least it’s a step in the right direction.

  20. Most of these scams fall into the “organized crime” category. Home repairs, sweetheart swindles, latin lotto, 419s, and snake oils of every kind. Law enforcement calls them “elder crime.” Dedicated to compiling and disseminating data on perps is NABI: National Association of Bunco Investigators. More on them here: http://bobarno.com/thiefhunters/2008/03/bunco-squad/

    Remember though: the scammer’s job is to make a TB out of his target. How else to victimize him? Independent seniors are the perfect victims. They desperately want to maintain their independence, and are therefore, later, reluctant to reveal that they’ve been victimized. They’d rather try to rationalize it with the child/grandchild, not wanting to be “put in a home” or lose control of his own finances. To a senior, it may be preferable to come off as a TB instead of being embarrassed, controlled, and possibly belittled by family members.

  21. To ‘The 327th Male’:

    From a Buddhist perspective, I think that, to argue with a person practicing a religion, (someone who is not harming anyone, or fundamentalist in their views) about the existence of the object of their faith, because we think we know better, is a bit childish.

    Most of the arguments I hear from ‘skeptics’ stem from the lack of empirical evidence for the existence of these beings. From a Buddhist perspective, it is advised to develop faith through direct application and subsequent experience of the teachings. The basis of ones practice being the three principle aspects of the path, namely, concentration, moral discipline and wisdom. I know from my own experience that, as a result of increased levels of meditative concentration, the mind literally opens up, and things that were previously hidden, become visible, such as spirits etc.

    The way in which empirical enquiry functions currently allows no means for testing for and directly knowing the experience of an individual in this context. Quite simply, the existence of Gods, and other realms of existence is out of the scope of empirical enquiry. Millions of people have similar experiences with meditation states and prayer, and the actual nature of these experiences is not understood empirically, especially not under the present materialist paradigm that underpins most scientific thought. (A paradigm that is actually slowly changing).

    So, I find that, although I used to dismiss religious experience and the concept of faith as nonsensical, I live now with an open mind. To try to confront normal Christians, who are not holding fundamentalist, harmful views, about their faith, I find to be childish. We can argue about these issues forever, but as individuals, we will still not know for sure whether faith in these things is valid or not.

    Faith in deities is a state of mind, that is the basis for all spiritual paths. Is the validity of faith empirically provable? Nope. Provable to oneself by ones own experience? Definately.

  22. ADD-ON:

    To ‘The 327th Male’:

    I should have said, I agree with you! heh..

    I think that to simply state ones opinion, especially based on the lack of empirical evidence of some deity, or God is not really grasping the philosophy behind religion.

    Asking someone why they think that something exists is a far more constructive way to go about things. I think blind faith can be dangerous, but, faith generated through ones own personal experience is fine.

    Paul…

  23. @ Wallace Finch:

    “Uh…no. Personal experience is not a replacement for empirical evidence. A lot of anecodotes do not make a fact”

    What’s your point? I never said that personal experience alone could replace empirical enquiry.

    Read what I said again. I said that religious phenomena, such as the existence of God is outside the scope of current empiricism. God is not an empirically testable entity.

    Empiricism is thus the wrong tool to use to attempt to validate religous phenomena.

  24. @vjack:

    You can count me as a reformed True Believer.

    I ate the religion bait hook, line, and sinker. Speaking in tongues, faith healing, prosperity doctrine, “power” prayer, demonic possession and influence… *GULP* – swallowed it all. In fact, I swallowed it so completely that it engulfed other forms of woo:

    Aliens – A lie perpetrated by Satan to provide an alternate explanation for the coming rapture.

    Ghosts – Demons pretending to be the souls of the deceased in order to distract people from the truth of hell.

    Alternative Medicine – Concoctions made by witches to invite demons into the bodies of the unsuspecting, especially when they were weak with sickness.

    Meditation – An open doorway to demonic possession.

    Obviously, I came to my senses. I’m an intelligent woman and the cognitive dissonance was just too great to maintain – but it’s important to note that I owe that cognitive dissonance to Atheists and Skeptics who calmly and factually answered my questions and patiently engaged in measured and respectful debate.

  25. “Meditation – An open doorway to demonic possession.”

    I got that for years… It’s brilliant isn’t it. (Sarcasm). Becoming happier and more in control of my own mind through mindfulness must be demonic possession….

  26. @pauljg1974 said:

    Empiricism is thus the wrong tool to use to attempt to validate religous phenomena.

    Perhaps. But empiricism, in this instance, is the right tool to test for the reality of religious phenomena.

    @pauljg1974:

    For the most part, your argument rests on denial of, or ignorance of, the power of the chemistry of and function of the brain.

    There is a growing body of evidence that religious experience, visions, perception of miraculous, magical phenomenon, etc. ad infinitum, is rooted in brain chemistry and/or brain dysfunction. And therefore, the fauna of religious experience, i.e., gods, God, Buddha, Allah, Sauron, et al, is also brain function phenomena.

    That particular body of evidence is found in research, not in wine and crackers, incense, or magic gold rings.

    The self-delusion that is religious experience, be it islamic, buddhist, catholic, what-have-you, is chemistry, electricity, and biology all within the cranium. And the evidence proving this is growing.

    In my experience, your “open mind” and the open mind of any true believer of any religion is invariably closed to such replicatable research and closets it in some la-la land of pleasant contentment, calm conviction, and the bliss of certitude.

    And yes, I suppose that to some degree that is an ad hominem.

  27. @pauljg1974: You sound like you are a true believer in Buddhism, which gives me an opportunity to practice what I preach. So here come the questions!

    First up, why do you think it is “childish” to question people’s beliefs? If a friend of yours believed in something you thought was ridiculous, would you consider it childish to try and convince them otherwise?

    Also, can you see how referring to such actions as “childish” could be interpreted as a passive aggressive dismissal of the other person’s opinions?

  28. @SicPreFix..

    Empiricism still attempts to explain phenomena of mind currently by fitting things into the materialistic paradigm. Chalmers, ‘The hard problem still remains’. ‘The brain does it all’. I can understand your point. Although, looking for the source of consciousness in something that is perceived by the mind is a circular argument. The fact that philosophical materialism and naiive realism are being found to be faulty premises by modern physics should be noted here.

    SicPreFix: “In my experience, your “open mind” and the open mind of any true believer of any religion is invariably closed to such replicatable research and closets it in some la-la land of pleasant contentment, calm conviction, and the bliss of certitude”

    Ever heard of the Kalama Sutra?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutta

    I will listen to the findings of science, of course. I would also investigate using the internal methods of meditation, in order to gain insight into the nature of the mind.

  29. “First up, why do you think it is “childish” to question people’s beliefs? If a friend of yours believed in something you thought was ridiculous, would you consider it childish to try and convince them otherwise?

    Also, can you see how referring to such actions as “childish” could be interpreted as a passive aggressive dismissal of the other person’s opinions?

    yeah, you’re right there. I shouldn’t have said childish. Sorry about that.

    I do think that to try to stick to the current philosophical underpinnings of empiricism, in order to attempt to explain the nature of religious phenomena, and the nature of mind is not sorrect.

  30. “There is a growing body of evidence that religious experience, visions, perception of miraculous, magical phenomenon, etc. ad infinitum, is rooted in brain chemistry and/or brain dysfunction. And therefore, the fauna of religious experience, i.e., gods, God, Buddha, Allah, Sauron, et al, is also brain function phenomena.”

    Yeah, sure. There is evidence that brain fucntion plays a role in our experiences, be they religious or otherwise. There is zero evedence, empirically, however that brain is the source of our experience. It comes back, time and time again, to the philosophical refutation of materialism.

  31. “First up, why do you think it is “childish” to question people’s beliefs? If a friend of yours believed in something you thought was ridiculous, would you consider it childish to try and convince them otherwise?”

    Not if my only argument for my opinion was merely one of incredulity.

    For the sake of argument:

    Is it valid to try to dissuade someone of their practice of faith in god, when they have a direct, personal experience, which benefits them, if we have no experience of the practice?

  32. “The self-delusion that is religious experience, be it islamic, buddhist, catholic, what-have-you, is chemistry, electricity, and biology all within the cranium. And the evidence proving this is growing.”

    Buddhism is ‘self delusion’.. Actually, Buddhism functions to counter the self delusion.

    “..And the evidence proving this is growing”

    Scientific proof of the materialist paradigm? Where is it? I’ve never seen it.

  33. @pauljg1974: “Is it valid to try to dissuade someone of their practice of faith in god, when they have a direct, personal experience, which benefits them, if we have no experience of the practice?”

    If religion was purely beneficial to the believer, and did not impact others, then I would not oppose it so strongly. Unfortunately that is far from the case. Please see what’s the harm for many horrific examples.

    Also, I’d watch the amount of replies in a row you are posting in here. I don’t want to see you get banned from skepchick and then accuse them of silencing you because they don’t agree with your opinion. Perhaps if you’d like to continue this debate, you might consider doing so on your own blog and then posting a link back to here so those who are interested can read it. I think most of the people who read and comment on skepchick enjoy doing so because it is a haven where they can converse with other like minded people who agree with them. Yeah I know, that’s kind of insular, but sometimes you just need a break from the arguments and it’s a relief to be involved with other people who share the same ideas. This isn’t the place for arguments or debates; for us, it’s the place we go to get our sanity back so we can continue the debates elsewhere.

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