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 tuberculosisâ€”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?