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Winners of the 2002 ‘Citizen Sane’ Awards

The Editors

Skeptical Briefs Volume 13.1, March 2003

This year, as last, we received many fine entries for our Citizen Sane contest. Our judges rated each entry independently, and the ratings for each piece were later averaged for the final ranking. This year we had a dead tie for the best article submitted by a reader, and we are pleased to present both here in the Skeptical Briefs.

The first is a letter to the editor of The Southtown, a large, local newspaper in Chicago. In it, Stan Clements uses an earlier Southtown article on psychic predictions to remind readers of psychics’ failed 2002 predictions. He gives many specific examples, and mentions cold reading and Randi’s million-dollar prize for proof of psychic powers.

Lisa Goodlin’s entry was an editorial in the Syracuse, New York, Post-Standard about recent workshops on sexual trauma held at Syracuse University by Courage to Heal co-author Ellen Bass. Despite little supporting evidence (and though neither Courage to Heal author has any psychological or psychiatric training), Bass has for years promoted the idea of repressed memories of sexual abuse. Goodlin reminds readers to temper Bass’s ideas with “the findings of scientifically conducted studies.”

We sincerely thank all those who submitted published op-ed articles and letters to us for consideration. We are pleased that so many people are active in writing to the editors and authors and taking the time to get the facts and valid criticisms to their fellow citizens. Much rationality and critical thinking can be spread through grassroots efforts such as these, with ordinary but well-informed citizens speaking out in their communities when they hear or see nonsense. If editors and writers do not hear criticisms of the paranormal and pseudoscientific bunkum they produce and publish, they will assume that their readers accept or agree with it. Do not give them that excuse...take the time, write a letter, make a phone call. Make your voice heard!

'All psychics are frauds all of the time'

Early in January 2002, the Southtown published an article in which area psychics revealed their predictions for 2002. How did these “gifted” individuals do?

Jacki Mari said President Bush would break down from the stress of recent months, possibly requiring an extended hospital say. She also expected a major war involving three countries to break out in the Middle East. People will stop claiming holy wars, she said. She also foresaw that the most important development will happen when a Midwestern woman will demonstrate the power of the mind to cure sickness and disease. “She will prove undeniably, that everyone can heal themselves,” Mari said.

Funny, I don’t remember hearing about any of that.

Gina Evans predicted a major disaster, most likely at the hands of terrorists, somewhere in the United States early in 2002. She said it would rival what happened September 11. “Nobody should be taking an airplane, even a train or a bus,” she said. She also saw that the war on terrorism “won’t take too long. It will not take years.” She forecast a quick economic turnaround during the first few months of 2002. She said the year will close with harmony worldwide.

I must have missed all of that somehow.

Bianca Johns also predicted a quick end to the war on terrorism. She predicted that Osama bin Laden would be located without much trouble; President Bush would not be burdened by as many difficult decisions as he faced in 2001; and overseas skirmishes will be less frequent. “It will be a peaceful year,” she said.

Police looking for missing Washington, D.C., intern Chandra Levy received hundreds of tips from psychics, none of which panned out. Self-proclaimed psychic Sylvia Browne said Levy’s body would be found in a swampy area. It was found on a hillside.

No psychic successfully predicted any of the major events of 2002, just as none of them predicted the World Trade Center attack.

Here is a truth at can save Southtown readers time and money: All psychics are frauds all of the time. If you think that you know a psychic who is not a fraud, give them an opportunity to become rich (without using your own money!). Encourage them to demonstrate their “psychic abilities” for the James Randi Educational Foundation, which has a standing offer of a $1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate such talents. Sylvia Browne, on the “Larry King Live” show, agreed to the protocols for such a test. That was well more than a year ago. She doesn't seem very anxious to grab that money for some reason.

If you think a storefront psychic has shown powers to you, read up on a technique they use called “cold reading.” With a little study and practice, you too can be a successful psychic, enriching yourself at the expense of the gullible.

Stan Clements, Oak Lawn

Recovered Memory: Unproven strategy to find evidence of past sexual abuse

While I am sure it was well-intentioned, I question the choice of Ellen Bass to conduct workshops September 26 and September 27 at Syracuse University and elsewhere for professionals who work with survivors of sexual trauma, and to give the featured address at an evening of healing for survivors.

Bass’s book, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, promotes the recovery of repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse. This book encourages women to conclude that they were sexually abused as children, although they lack memories of abuse or corroborating evidence.

In the words of Bass and coauthor Laura Davis, “Many women who were abused don’t have memories, and some never get any. This doesn't mean that they weren't abused"; and “If you think you were abused and your life shows the symptoms, then you were.”

Serious questions have been raised regarding the “memories” recovered in therapy. The American Psychological Association’s Working Group on the Investigation of Memories of Childhood Abuse issued a report in 1995 that notes recovered memory is rare. It states that “there is a consensus among memory researchers and clinicians that most people who were sexually abused as children remember all or part of what happened to them, although they may not fully understand or disclose it.”

“At this point,” according to the APA, “it is impossible, without other corroborative evidence, to distinguish a true memory from a false one.” Thus, says the APA report, a “competent psychotherapist is likely to acknowledge that current knowledge does not allow the definite conclusion that a memory is real or false without other corroborating evidence.”

In Britain, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has officially banned its members from using therapies designed to recover repressed memories of child abuse.

Bass also presents information on “body memories” and “satanic ritual abuse,” the existence for which there is no evidence. By evidence I mean data that has been obtained using scientific methods.

Bass’s book is filled with heart-rending and gut-wrenching stories, but it is important to remember that anecdote is not evidence. In response to first-person accounts like those found in The Courage to Heal, FBI Special Agent Ken Lanning investigated more than 300 cases of alleged satanic cult activity and found no evidence of the existence of such cults. He wrote, “Until hard evidence is obtained and corroborated, the public should not be frightened into believing that babies are being bred and eaten, that 50,000 missing children are being murdered in human sacrifices, or that Satanists are taking over America’s day-care centers or institutions. While no one can prove with absolute certainty that such activity has not occurred, the burden of proof is on those who claim that it has occurred.”

Should this not make us question other “findings” of this type of therapy? In the Investigator’s Guide to Allegations of Ritual Child Abuse, Lanning goes on to say that “it is up to the mental health professionals, not law enforcement, to explain why victims are alleging things that don’t seem to have happened.”

In the mid-1990s, after books like The Courage to Heal began to appear and therapists started “training” in these methods, there was a rash, some would say an epidemic, of abuse allegations by women who had recovered memories in therapy. Many of these women later retracted their stories-but not before many lives were destroyed.

It is because of these destroyed lives that it is imperative to provide alternative information about recovered memory therapy so that Bass’s ideas may be tempered by the findings of scientifically conducted studies.

To learn more about recovered-memory therapy, I recommend these books: The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, by Elizabeth Loftus, a well-regarded researcher of memory and professor of psychology; Making Monsters: False Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria by Richard Ofshe, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and a Pulitzer Prize winner; and Carl Sagan’s chapter on therapy in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

On the Web you can find critical information at these sites: The False Memory Syndrome Foundation and The Skeptics’ Dictionary entries on repressed memory therapy and repressed memories.

Lisa Goodlin, Syracuse