Believe in the paranormal? You must be mad!

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It is often common for people to declare that those who hold different and outlandish views from themselves are somehow mentally ill or defective cognitively. That those who believe they have been abducted by aliens are psychotic and those who believe in ghosts delusional.


It would perhaps seem obvious to assume that in some cases people with specific mental health problems might come to believe in outlandish and incredible things. That aliens exist and are controlling them perhaps? Or maybe that their loved ones have been possessed by some malevolent spiritual entity? But it is by no means necessarily a given people who can only be described as utterly sane believe all manner of outlandish and ridiculous things. Is everyone who believes that 9/11 was an inside job a paranoid and delusional schizophrenic? Is everyone who has faith in a higher power nuts?

No. Not in the least. The idea that to hold outlandish views you must be insane holds about as much water as a fractal sieve.

Indeed I would wager that the vast majority of people who believe in aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories are perfectly normal in mental health terms and indeed any other area you care to consider. To label them as otherwise based solely on their beliefs is dangerous, dismissive and grossly offensive.

Yet time and again Skeptics and Atheists will resort to the language of mental health and mental aberration when describing the views and opinions of everyone from homeopaths to Catholic priests. This is not big and it’s certainly not clever.

Given this happens so often you might wonder what straw it was that broke the camels back this time. Well wonder no longer it was this post by parapsychologist Dr Barry Taff.  Taff holds a doctorate in psychophysiology, claims to have investigated over 4,000 hauntings, has appeared on numerous TV shows and was technical consultant on truly woeful horror film “The Entity” which was based on one of his investigations.

Taffs post is condescending, a little bit misogynistic and utterly, utterly disgusting in it’s unethical treatment of individuals that Taff believes have mental health problems.

Written By: Keir Liddle
continue to source article at thetwentyfirstfloor.com

26 COMMENTS

  1. I would wager that the vast majority of people who believe in aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories are perfectly normal in mental health terms and indeed any other area you care to consider. To label them as otherwise based solely on their beliefs is dangerous, dismissive and grossly offensive.

    What Liddle would wager is irrelevant; discuss proven facts. In any case, while a stupid belief doesn’t necessarily imply its owner will show other signs of insanity, that doesn’t mean the belief is unworthy of criticism, however “offensive” it may be (there’s no standard for it anyway).

    time and again Skeptics and Atheists will resort to the language of mental health and mental aberration when describing the views and opinions of everyone from homeopaths to Catholic priests

    Prove it.

    Taffs [sic] post is… misogynistic

    Why? Because he thought a woman was pretty? Because he explained women’s greater numbers among those found to be disturbed in terms of their greater candour, rather than their actually being more predisposed to being disturbed (which genuinely would be a misogynistic idea)?

    None of Taffs assertions is backed up by evidence

    But the point of his piece is he has provided evidence believers in the paranormal are disproportionately emotionally disturbed.

    It’s a post seemingly designed to make us feel sorry for Taff as he tries to conduct himself as a serious parapsychologist surrounded by hordes of terrifying crazy people. That and it seems to also be a post designed to poke fun at a number of individuals

    How does Liddle know any of this?

    The use of the phrase “half a brain” is particularly jarring as it associates mental health issues with those of mental competence and intelligence

    I think Liddle is trying to take Taff literally (perhaps too much so) yet failing, since a literal interpretation implies he’s discussing those people who have had a hemispherectomy.

    I can think of no modern reputable psychologist, in any field, who would even think of making such a bold sweeping statement.

    Can Liddle think of any notable atheists or skeptics who say it, to back up Liddle’s own sweeping statement earlier? Literally the only person quoted is Taff, who is in fact a modern repubtable psychologist (to be precise, a parapsychologist, a fact Liddle already conceded).

    It seems Taff is not content to diagnose Ellen with substance abuse problems and neurological damage but he is more than happy to determine that her family either abused or neglected her

    Liddle’s own quote of Taff shows the latter was listing possible explanations; Liddle pretends Taff believes them all to be true.

    Taff frames mental illness as almost a moral, rather than psychological or medical, problem. He treats it as something to mock, to dismiss, to be alarmed be as he takes us on a guided tour on his own personal bedlam.

    Where is the former allegation evidenced? It doesn’t follow from the latter allegation, even if that is evidenced.

    I would dearly love the Skeptic community on the whole to realise that the mentally ill are not there to be your figures of fun, you don’t have to be mentally ill to believe weird shit and it’s appalling that any of you think it’s ok to appropriate the language of mental illness to describe someone you disagree with.

    One Taff does not a community make. Liddle doesn’t want the mentally ill characterised on the basis of a few people, but happily characterises skeptics on the basis of one.

  2. I’m tempted to think people claim paranormal abilities or experiences to appear ‘special’, ‘on a higher plane’ than we mere mortals. Simply an ego trip, or bolstering weak self-esteem and in some cases, sheer shysterism. No, hardly any of them are insane but it’s common to throw around the “you must be nuts” remark.

  3. It is apparent that all humans, psychologists included, are insane. It depends on ones definition of insanity.
    “INSANITY: 1. Mental illness or derangement. No longer in scientific use.”
    According to this definition, one might assume that any unfounded belief is delusional, not scientifically founded and therefore, insane. This would support what I have always believed, the human condition is one of insanity and as we discover the truth through scientific discovery we are slowly healing ourselves. Not hastily enough for the time I have left. I don’t want to die a lunatic like all the rest of humanity before me. Is there any way to expedite the evolution of the human psyche?

  4. @OP Indeed I would wager that the vast majority of people who believe in aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories are perfectly normal in mental health terms and indeed any other area you care to consider.

    Or any other paranormal or nutty belief you care to consider! Diagnosis by wager – must be a new medical procedure!

    To label them as otherwise based solely on their beliefs is dangerous, dismissive and grossly offensive.

    It was only a matter of time before the “offended card” was played in support of drivel!

    Yet time and again Skeptics and Atheists will resort to the language of mental health and mental aberration when describing the views and opinions of everyone from homeopaths to Catholic priests.

    Fancy that! – associating irrational mental contortions and assertive incompetent denial of evidence with mental incapacities! – and OOOooh! – Using the language of mental health – terms like “psychological projection”, and “Dunning Kruger Effect!”

    This is not big and it’s certainly not clever.

    Was there some point to this comment, in a post, itself with no citations, posturing as authoritative and clever?

    @TAFF – “Why would anyone with even half a brain even make such absurd, unsupportable claims, when they themselves have never succeeded at such? That’s simple, they’re insane”.

    @OP – None of Taffs assertions is backed up by evidence. But perhaps that is to be expected as this is not a post designed to sensitively address the issues of mental illness and outlandish belief.

    Supposedly – just like this zero-evidence, OP patronising reply, denigrating it then!! Gazooooing!!!

    I would dearly love the Skeptic community on the whole to realise that the mentally ill are not there to be your figures of fun, you don’t have to be mentally ill to believe weird shit

    I can’t speak for the mentally ill, be he’s certainly full of it!

  5. “Literally the only person quoted is Taff, who is in fact a modern repubtable psychologist (to be precise, a parapsychologist, a fact Liddle already conceded).”

    You must be kidding? Reputable parapsychologist? You consider someone who found a title on a park bench as reputable? You need a “parapsychologist” to tell you that the believe in so called “para” phenomena is nonsense and that the occurrences can be explained by physicists, chemists, psychologists etc. well enough without donning the mantle of a bogus title ?
    Maybe you need a Dr. in Chrismatology to explain to you that “no, deary, Santa does not exist”.

  6. You consider someone who found a title on a park bench as reputable?

    I tried to research Taff’s background, but I found no mention of him faking his credentials. Please give more details. I’ve literally never heard of getting titles from park benches, so I sincerely would like to learn how it’s done. However, the rest of my post is focused on explaining why I disagree with what you say.

    You need a “parapsychologist” to tell you that the believe in so called “para” phenomena is nonsense and that the occurrences can be explained by physicists, chemists, psychologists etc. well enough without donning the mantle of a bogus title ?

    Not at all. There are people who hep us know that, but they’re not parapsychologists. What parapsychologists do is study why people do believe these things. That the beliefs are wrong & unjustified is easily established. But when David Hume drew a distinction between two meanings of “why do they think that?”, namely “how is that justifiable?” & “from a causal perspective, why is that how things are in their heads?”, the fact that he conjectured an answer to the latter question doesn’t change the fact that it’s worth researching properly with an entire field dedicated to that.

    Maybe you need a Dr. in Chrismatology to explain to you that “no, deary, Santa does not exist”.

    No; but, in comparison with my point above, I wouldn’t mind a historian telling me what factors influenced the origin of the idea. This includes detailed facets of it; I’m glad to know, for example, that the red coat is Coca Cola’s fault, wherease before that the coat was green. (Either way, of course, the coat doesn’t really exist.) In theory, a discipline could foretell which possible future myths, or changes to existing ones, are more likely than others; for example, it might turn out his coat colour is unlikely to change again, but there’s a better chance he’ll have different foods left for him. Admittedly, these projections may seem trivial. However, what if we could say, “This is where religious beliefs are heading”? That could be very useful knowledge, especially if the details concerned how belligerent its future will be.

  7. I do not claim that he faked his credentials, I am saying that i consider the credential or the title “parapsychologist” fake.
    By the same token we would need a Dr. of Homeopathy to explain to us that it is fake science – and that is what parapsychology is: fake science, no matter if it is used for debunking or the confirmation of fake science. There is no “para” there, why a degreed speciality?
    We need no Christmatologist to explain to us that Santa is a real entity (really, he isn’t), we need a historian – as you explained.
    We need no Dr. of Homeopathy or Reiki to explain to us that those disciplines are nonsense, any real medical Dr. can do that.
    We need a Dr. of Creationism to debunk that nonsense? Any biologist worth his clades does that any time of the day

    Since when do we need a specialized field of study with the mantle of a degree to convey respectability to debunk non science?

    • In reply to #7 by kraut:

      I do not claim that he faked his credentials, I am saying that i consider the credential or the title “parapsychologist” fake.
      By the same token we would need a Dr. of Homeopathy to explain to us that it is fake science – and that is what parapsychology is: fake science, no matter if it is used for debunking or the confirmation of fake science. There is no “para” there, why a degreed speciality?
      We need no Christmatologist to explain to us that Santa is a real entity (really, he isn’t), we need a historian – as you explained.
      We need no Dr. of Homeopathy or Reiki to explain to us that those disciplines are nonsense, any real medical Dr. can do that.
      We need a Dr. of Creationism to debunk that nonsense? Any biologist worth his clades does that any time of the day
      A lot of people in the world have glimpsed a ghost or seen auras and so on. They can’t be all crazy. I suppose it depends on personal experience. If you have never had a paranormal experience then you are more likely to dismiss it out of hand than someone who has had a lot of such experiences.
      Since when do we need a specialized field of study with the mantle of a degree to convey respectability to debunk non science?

  8. Believe in the paranormal? You must be mad!

    A perfectly valid comment – IN THE VERNACULAR!

    In more precise language:- You don’t have to be insanely delusional, to believe in “hauntings”, the paranormal or supernatural – BUT IT HELPS!

    Nobody suggested that all the mentally ill have delusions of the paranormal, or that all believers in the supernatural/paranormal are mentally ill! (But I could be wrong on the last item.)

    Ranting about critics of delusional thinking, could however be a recognisable symptom!

  9. You’re still missing my point. I agree psychologists aren’t needed to debunk “X exists” hypotheses (unless the X has something to do with minds, I suppose), but parapsychology isn’t about doing that. Once we’ve established there are things believed in without their being evidenced, the question of why they are believed in is far harder than the same question is for evidenced things. It’s easy to understand why people believe in TV sets. Telekinesis? That one will take more of an explanation. It will, of course, be a psychological explanation. But psychology is such a big field it has specialties. I don’t see any reason why “causes of people believing things besides suitable evidence supporting them” can’t merit such a sub-discipline.

  10. Just like physical illness, mental illness is totally normal, mundane, and nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone has mental and physical ailments in some degree. If one is unaware, they haven’t looked. The OP is implying the pejorative sense, which reveals that they are unkind.

    Misogynistic? Tall order. That term can’t be bandied around lightly. It is a severe handicap and evidence should be apparent. There is none. Our society is misogynistic and abusive to females from childhood on, and this causes higher rates of mental illness in women. There are gender-bound mental illnesses such as postpartum depression, Victorian era Hysterics, Munchausen syndrome (also by proxy), sometime biologic and sometimes cultural. It is misogynistic to deny this fact, just as Bell Curve arguments are racist.

    The OP’s slip is showing. They become everything they rail against in this article. It’s quite embarrassing.

  11. Just read his blog post, it’s great

    http://barrytaff.net/2012/12/psi-and-psychosis-be-afraid-be-very-afraid/#comment-26460

    It also shows that the OP is nuts, how they could harvest their critique from this. The specific example they chime on, when read in context, shows Liddle is actively deluding themselves. There is no grey area here. Liddle is either a conscious liar/sophist or needs a shrink. Dr. Taff’s writing is very clear and has nothing to do with what is alleged.

    Because of his line of work, Dr. Taff is contacted by crazy people. It sounds like a very colorful component to his field of study. It can’t be easy and he has my sympathy. Again, an interesting read and I think he handled the subject matter with dignity and sensitivity.

  12. In reply to #7 by kraut:

    Since when do we need a specialized field of study with the mantle of a degree to convey respectability to debunk non science?

    That’s not what they do. It’s what they wind up doing because it’s all false, but that’s not their purpose. They study the human condition. In the course of researching they must understand biochemistry, physics, anthropology, and a variety of other sciences. There are doctorates for journalism, mythology, comparative religion, poetry, philosophy, etc.

    If you don’t think it is worthy of the title, you do it. You can debunk things, anyone can. You can not do what he does without the education and discipline assumed by a degree.

  13. I’m reading Paranormality by Prof Richard Wiseman at the mo, fantastic! Recommended reading. A rational explanation for all that para-guff that has infected society, and so blatantly lied to the gullible within.

  14. Hmm, well, i am not sure where that leaves all the sceptics who, like me, battle with mental illness. I think the key is that we battle and the battle is a very good thing. If I ever start saying I have been abducted by aliens or can hear God talking to me, I will very much appreciate everyone pointing out that I am absolutely nuts in no uncertain terms. I know we have a problem in our society where we think we should respect beliefs in all sorts of weird stuff but this takes the biscuit. What is most likely to benefit the woman on the run because she believes beings are accessing her mind? Everyone ‘respecting’ her right to so believe and telling her she may be right or people consistently telling her she is mentally ill and needs help urgently?

  15. In reply to #12 by This Is Not A Meme:

    In reply to #7 by kraut:

    Since when do we need a specialized field of study with the mantle of a degree to convey respectability to debunk non science?

    That’s not what they do. It’s what they wind up doing because it’s all false, but that’s not their purpose. They study the human condition. In the course of researching they must understand biochemistry, physics, anthropology, and a variety of other sciences. There are doctorates for journalism, mythology, comparative religion, poetry, philosophy, etc.

    If you don’t think it is worthy of the title, you do it. You can debunk things, anyone can. You can not do what he does without the education and discipline assumed by a degree.

    By that statement all those who argue that in order to critique religion you have to study theology.

    There is no evidence for a god or any god except certain old books of doubtful provenance, there is no evidence for any of the para normal BS except false memory, delusions, wrongly interpreted data and doubtful second hand accounts.
    If there is no evidence for something – you do not need a specialized science to debunk it. Any of the physical sciences and maybe psychology will do just fine.
    The degree of “parapsychology” means giving that “field” of specialized BS a degree of respectability that it does not deserve. Therefore my comparison to homeopathy, reiki, santa claus, creationism and theology.

    By your argument we need a chair of “creationism” in universities to refute the combination of religion, willful misinterpretation of data to refute it? Are you serious?
    There is nothing there to study, there is only refutation of an extraordinary amount of BS.
    Any good popular science writer can do a fine job pulling the necessary fields together to refute the pile of steaming dung.

  16. “Hmm, well, i am not sure where that leaves all the sceptics who, like me, battle with mental illness.”

    As I said before, the human condition is one of insanity and to qualify as a sceptic one would need to purge his mind of any belief except that of proven reality. Therefore, sceptics have every right to thumb their nose and poke fun at the mentally insane. To insult or make fun of those who claim a belief in the impossible is not only normal but healthy.

  17. If there is no evidence for something – you do not need a specialized science to debunk it. Any of the physical sciences and maybe psychology will do just fine. The degree of “parapsychology” means giving that “field” of specialized BS a degree of respectability that it does not deserve. Therefore my comparison to homeopathy, reiki, santa claus, creationism and theology. By your argument we need a chair of “creationism” in universities to refute the combination of religion, willful misinterpretation of data to refute it?

    Parapsychology is not analogous to specialising in debunking creationism. It’s more analogous to understanding what’s going on in creationists’ heads, which might help reduce its prevalence (since evidence alone doesn’t do it for many people). But in fact that’s no so much a perfect analogy for parapsychology as one of the many things that it does. Parapsychology covers the reason for all bad beliefs. There are enough of them for that to deserve an entire field. Do you really not have any interest in understanding better what those reasons are?

  18. Keir
    “Yet time and again Skeptics and Atheists will resort to the language of mental health and mental aberration when describing the views and opinions of everyone from homeopaths to Catholic priests.” (my italics)

    In most cases this is kindliness on the part of the critics, when the alternatives are mendacity, hypocrisy, bigotry, cruelty…etc

    Yes, this person Taff appears to have a brusque and sanguine attitude to mental affliction but be careful not to suppose that all comments linking mental illness to certain preoccupations (those who believe in ghosts or that they have been abducted by aliens) are therefore unjustified.

    You seem yourself to have a low opinion of insanity, something held in varying degrees and strengths by most people and on an ill-defined and idiosyncratic level. It is the ideas to which most of us refer when we say ‘that is insane!’. For all I know William Lane Craig, for instance, may be a very good cook…

  19. Liddle has a point. Taff’s piece expresses a kind of “get away from me you freak” attitude. Liddle is not suggesting that mental illness should be patronised, he is suggesting that people should be careful about using language that reinforces social stigma. In the same way that a term such as “gay” should not be used as derogatory, neither should the terms of mental illness. The comparison is not wholly appropriate since we can rightly say that there is a sense in which a mental illness can be something to strive to reduce (whereas, and it goes without saying to skeptics and atheists, the whole objective within debates on homosexuality is to remove stigma and discrimination). But there may be a temptation to use terms of mental illness as derogatory. Sometimes a dogmatic insistence on preposterous supernatural gumpf invites dismissive ad-hominem attacks, rhetorically implying that they’re so far removed from reality that serious debate is impossible. When John Shimkus was filmed in a US House Sub-committee on Energy and Environment, quoting the Bible, as “the infallible word of God”, as demonstration that there won’t be any more floods of the size survived by Noah (see YouTube), I wished the two people sitting behind him had crossed their eyes, hung their tongue out of the side of their mouths, and perhaps looped their fingers around their temples – a gesture that children at my school used to indicate “loon”. Happily such gestures are now unacceptable in civilised society.

    Where Liddle might be awry is in over-attributing such derogatory language to skeptics and atheists. I’ve just had a quick browse through the “I’m an atheist because” comments on the RDFS site, expecting to find a few usages of mental illness terms as derogatory remarks. I found three clear-cut cases out of 378 comments (a large proportion of the others being moving and insightful within the limit of 140 characters): “I’m not insane”, “I’m an atheist because I’m not a moron”, and “Atheist because when young taken to prayer meeting a person proclaimed ‘I was talking to god last night’ I thought these people are mental!!”, plus an odd debatable one. Obviously this is far from a thorough statistical analysis. Such an analysis would cover vastly more data and compare similar threads within non-skeptic/atheist sites/topics, but two things should be noted. Firstly, Liddle is correct that mental illness terms are used as derogatory remarks in the context he is claiming. Secondly, he’s making a very subjective accusation against a very broad set of people without sound data to back it up. These people, I might point out, are usually well-meaning and objectively humanist, arguably as demanded by their own insistence of objectivity!

    It really may be the case that skeptics and atheists use mental illness terms more than others when disparaging the kinds of things they abhor; it may be that those kinds of things particularly invite associations with mental illness since they really do persistently fly in the face of reality. Isn’t it barking-mad to believe that Joseph Smith read through a seer-stone the “reformed-Egyptian” golden plates, which no-one else saw, given to him by an angel (and you don’t need to know he was a known fraud to come to the conclusion)? Where is the line to be drawn? What other language does the job so well when used sparingly and appropriately?

    But for Liddle to broadly associate skeptics and atheists with the extremely poor taste article of Taff is surely wrong. My impression of Taff is not the same as Liddle’s. It appears to me that Taff is trying to be humorous. Failing terribly, but trying. The people he wrote about are clearly in need of help, not mockery. John Shimkus, Dr Lane Craig, others too numerous to mention, arguably retard humanity and need rigorous refuting … plus ridicule. Some inflictions on the mind may well in the future be remedied by research that is currently being impeded by religious dogma. The more we tolerate crackpottery (sorry) of any kind, the harder it is to argue against the established crackpottery of some of religion’s foundations.

    One final point. I note some criticism of Liddle’s writing style and grammar. To my fellow skeptics and atheists (I’m proud to call myself such) let’s maintain our high standards of debate! Valid argument doesn’t always come through totally correct grammar (my own “I’m an atheist because” ended “… integrity and reality demands it.” – ugh – a final pre-post fiddle left me forgetting to take off the “s” – shame on me). The version of Liddle’s article I’ve read reads well.

    • I agree that jumping to the accusation against atheists etc. based on a critique of one man is bad argumentation. Certainly when I consider several counterexamples.

      For my part, I don’t like to use the terms “insane” or “mentally ill” at all to describe superstitious, emotional, paranoid, or moralistic people because both are such blanket terms with too many evaluative connotations and a questionable applicability. They obscure more than they reveal.

      It’s sufficient for me to note that people aren’t built by evolutionary standards to be totally rational actors, but have been designed to survive and reproduce in both a physical and a social environment. That means liars, dupes, con artists, suckers, moralists, superstitious people, paranoid people, and power-mongers could just as well have been “naturally” and deliberately specified to behave so or to become more susceptible to such behaviours by their genomes, combined with their developmental history and interactions with the contingencies of their environment. To compare such a thing with an invasion conducted by an RNA virus or by malevolent bacteria (i.e. to real illnesses) is a weak analogy because such “mental illnesses” could just as easily be part of the program rather than a bug or a virus.

      Plus, calling someone “mentally ill” because their beliefs don’t match reality or can’t be justified through argumentation is either an ad hominem or an insult that won’t do you any favours, if only because it could mean anything from “your behaviour is very reminiscent of this specific mental disorder as classified in the Diagnostic Manual” to “you are a contemptible and utter idiot”.

      In reply to #19 by JJ:

  20. I now realise I am completely mad, I know this because I was recently visited by the ghost of an alien trying to sell me homeopathic cures. I nearly fell for it until he said he would throw in a Gideon bible. That tipped his hand. A lucky escape!

  21. “the human condition is one of insanity and as we discover the truth through scientific discovery we are slowly healing ourselves. Not hastily enough for the time I have left.”

    You and me, brother, one delusion at a time.

  22. In reply to #17 by Jos Gibbons:

    “Parapsychology is not analogous to specialising in debunking creationism. It’s more analogous to understanding what’s going on in creationists’ heads.”

    I agree with you here however, there is a larger nagging problem that Dr. Taff’s article poses. Discovering the reasons one behaves disagreeably helps us to identify ways to prevent this behavior in the future. Every example case in Dr. Taff’s article seems to be outlining a plan to deal with the delusional person in the following way: Attempt to insult the person’s delusional thinking until the person goes away (or presumably changes their mind).

    If one is attempting to get someone to be logical or rational, the last place one should start is an ad hominem attack. Dr. Taff’s article is at best about pushing minor delusional thinkers out the door for others to ‘deal with’ and at worst tantamount to wheeling out Parkinsonian patients onto a stage for ridicule. If preventing the behavior is the goal, the method – as far as the article explains – only seems to stop the behavior from occurring around Dr. Taff.

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