The oldest newest skeptic

My grandmother is a rare old bird. At 83, she works on a market stall selling dolls, has bright red (dyed) hair, and frequently wins line dancing medals. But there’s no denying the stubbornness of old women, and she can be a royal pain in the rear when it comes to being ‘right’.

For example, a few years ago I had an exchange with her in which she insisted that psychics had abilities which no-one could explain. After discussing cold reading and the ethics attached to the profession, I pointed out that if one genuinely had a gift, one wouldn’t be charging £10 a time to read palms at the local funfair. She thought about this for a moment then said “yes, real psychics don’t charge money”. That settled the matter to her, and I couldn’t persuade her any further.

She’s used mediums and psychics several times over her lifetime, and although I wouldn’t call her a woo, she’s always favoured the mystery explanation over the scientific. Being a working class girl who ran away to join the army aged 16, she relies heavily on luck and fate for her worldview, as they’re easy ways to explain why life might have dealt her a rough hand. And at her age, I wouldn’t expect her to change that philosophy, especially as she’s likely to be thinking about death a lot. The afterlife is probably more comforting to those closer to it.

However, my journey into organised skepticism has been the source of some curiosity in my family, and they take an interest in “whatever it is I do in Vegas every year”. My grandmother, being old and a shade into dottiness, doesn’t quite have a handle on the specifics though, so I was amused and surprised when I had the following exchange with her this week. Rather than simply type it, I have made an agony-aunt style photo story for your amusement. I promise this is word for word, and also really photos of us.

I am tempted to just leave the story there, cryptic and surreal. But instead I will tell you that she didn’t mean David Blaine, for obvious reasons. She actually meant ‘Baby Mind-Reader’ Derek Ogilvie, the subject of a UK documentary on Thursday in which Derek applies for Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge and…well, take a guess. Better still, if you’re in the UK, watch the show. USAians will have to wait til someone YouTubes it, sadly. I’ll post a link as soon as I find one.

Anyway, I’m not sure if at 83 my nan qualifies as the oldest skeptic, but as she’s just about to watch her first James Randi footage, she certainly qualifies as the newest.

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  1. Respect! It is not so easy to change your attitude; especially if you are old.

    My grandmother isn’t a skeptic (yet) but at least she is able to surf the internet . The person in my family who distresses me is my aunt (38 years old). Her child (5) stutters but instead sending my cousin to a speech therapist she sends her to, and please sit down for that, a “healer”! The therapy is as follows: He lays his hands on her head so that the energy can flow better from her brain to her mouth. W00t?
    I tried my best to convince her that this is pure BS but she won’t even listen. In her opinion it works and she already sees an improvement…

    Nothing I can do, can I?

  2. This was made even more cryptic and surreal by my company’s net filters, which allowed me to read the article but blocked the image. So, what I saw was:

    Rather than simply type it, I have made an agony-aunt style photo story for your amusement. I promise this is word for word, and also really photos of us.

    I am tempted to just leave the story there, cryptic and surreal. But instead I will tell you that she didn’t mean David Blaine, for obvious reasons.

    I re-read the article several times, looking for where anyone mentioned David Blaine. Finally clued in and did a bit of an end-run around the filters, at which point all became clear.

  3. @davethekilla: Perhaps you could collect some anecdotes of people who have successfully used speech therapy for stuttering. It doesn’t really eliminate the magical thinking, but a lot of people seem to give greater credence to anecdotes than to facts. Better if you know and can name the person. Better yet if your aunt also knows (or knows of) that person too.

  4. My otherwise bright and articulate sister believes in mind over matter after doing a fire walking session. She firmly believes that absent the group mind power thingy she would have burned her feet. No convincing her otherwise regardless of the facts. This was an apparently strong emotional moment for my sister and the chemicals that bathed her brain at the time of the event are clearly a stronger chemical reinforcer/motivator than what a rational explanation could evoke in her brain neurons.

    Thingdoll however provides other forms of neural net chemical bathing.

  5. @JRice: Are you just noticing how beautiful she is? Randi’s Beard, man, have you been under a rock!? For the record, though, that pic also doesn’t do her justice. The first time I saw her in person, I was stunned to silence for a solid half-minute.

    Also, this is a great story. Maybe the two of you will start seeping skepticism through the rest of the family. It’s a step in the right direction, at least.

  6. I refuse to engage in this shameless Teek-worship … But I did want to say that my mother and I had very similar conversations during the 90s, except at the time, she was a diehard Catholic in her early 50s and was going to college for the first time – something about an education that really triggers the skeptical bug.

  7. I wish I could convince ANYONE in my family about the dangers of das woo. The last time I tried, went as follows.

    My grandmother (84 years) mentioned the possibility of hiring a water-dowser for the backyard. I interjected, asking if it was really the best way to spend the money on something with no scientific basis or reputation for success whatsoever, and that maybe we should just hire an Ojibwa shaman while we’re at it (rude? yeah it was rude).

    Almost the whole family interjected: my grandmother, father, and my sister all in an uproar. Not because my sudden outburst of rudness, but because they all knew that water dowsing worked, because we know people that did it: my late-grandfather, and my great-aunt.

    I pointed out that these things typically rely on having the believers remember the hits, so even if my grandfather did indeed shake his stick and find a well, how many times did he shake a stick at nothing?

    “He never missed” my grandmother said defiantly. That was her way of telling me to ‘shut-up’.

    But my grandmother raised me to be a little more confident in my convictions than that, so I asked the three believers at the table “what is the mechanism that this works? Is it magnetism? electricity? gravity? What?”

    “It just works” was the reply. “Your grandfather used to take a willow branch shaped like a Y and …”

    I interrupted: “But why is it a willow-branch? Why not red-maple? Why not white-pine, spruce, cedar or poplar? Other so-called dowsers use wire-coat hangers, why not them? Why is it a y-shape? What is so special about willow?”

    My grandmother’s response said it all “Because willow is the only one that works”.

    At that point I could see she was taking it personal, and I wasn’t about to upset my 3-times widowed grandmother over her last husband during one of the few times I go home to see her.

    So yeah. My family hardly knows of my skepticism, as I grew up in a house of mysticism. Astrology, dowsing, psychics and naturopathy surrounded me, and they don’t understand why I won’t go with them to see a psychic, or why I insist on taking medicine persribed my physician.

    So, Tkingdoll, I envy you for having a family member who you can discuss skepticism with. Well met!

  8. Good for the Granny!

    I love this story because my own grandmother (whom I called, simply, “Granny”) was of a highly skeptical nature. She also taught me the Mystical Art of Sarcasm, of which she is one of the Immortal Masters. Unfortunately, she is no longer among the Living Masters, a title which she passed down to my brother and I (my parents couldn’t quite get the hang of it).

    My favorite Granny story happened five or so years before her Alzheimer’s got nasty.

    Granny was an RN who worked in a nursing home for… Pretty much forever. Sadly, we had to put her in the same nursing home once things turned for the worst, but it worked out well since all the employees loved her. Let’s just say that, even if no family member had ever come to visit, she was never lonely.

    After she “retired,” (there is no such thing as “retirement” in my family) Granny still worked at the Home part time. A few young girls started working there, and one of them, whom Granny actually took a liking to, soon pissed her off with one simple phrase…

    “Therapeutic touch.” The second she heard the young girl describe it, Granny attempted to shoot her down.

    After a brief conservation, in which the young girl attempted to defend her pseudoscience and Granny continued to shoot her down, the girl replied, “Well, I believe it works. And my patients believe it works.”

    Granny said, “Well, you know what I do? I go out in the woods and find some poison ivy. Then I rub it all over someone’s body.”

    The young girl objected. Granny simply looked at her and said, straight-faced…

    “Well, I believe it works. And my patients believe it works.” And walked off.

    Yep, Granny kicked some serious ass.

  9. Hooray, i can finally log in to the site! Bit late but never mind.

    Thanks for the compliments, I think it’s fair to say that I get my genes from my nan :D

    Taypro is not my mom. My mom is a person who recently talked about the Kubrik movie “A Chocolate Orange” and also stated that the Hadron Collider is a waste of money because “not knowing is more romantic”.

  10. Once I rented a documentary about the Manhattan Project and my mom saw it sitting there and said “Oh! I know what that is. That’s when they gave a bunch of people LSD!”

    ….so maybe we’re actually sisters. haha.

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