Believe in the paranormal? You must be mad!

This post has been edited since it was first published to correct some (though probably not all grammar errors) one sentence has been removed for flow and a paragraph explaining the unethical aspect has been added. Also one reference to misogyny has been altered to sexism.

By Keir Liddle

005GNDGBD_Barry_Taff_001It 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 aliens have abducted them 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 are 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 by holding outlandish views you are 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 your common or garden homeopath to Catholic priests. This is not big and it’s certainly not clever. Should you doubt this point read almost any skeptical forum and you will never be that far from someone using the language of mental health in relation to an ideological opponent.

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” based on one of his own investigations.

Taffs post, an opinion piece, is problematic from the get go entitled as it is “Psi and Psychosis: Be afraid, be very afraid” starting with a negative association with mental health issues could simply be an error of judgement in selecting a snappy title but Taffs post nosedives further into a pit of stigmatising language and unethically details his “disturbing” meetings with individuals in the paranormal community.

Taffs thesis is that “the paranormal attracts more emotionally disturbed people than any other area of human interest or endeavour.” which he attempts to explain by wondering if “Perhaps many such troubled individuals enter this field with the hope of resolving their own emotional demons?” and pondering “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”.

None of Taffs assertions are 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. 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. Terrifying crazy people that the tone of Taffs post makes it clear we are meant to point and laugh at. For instance 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 can think of no modern reputable psychologist, in any field, who would even think of making such a bold sweeping statement.

He recounts meeting “Ellen” an individual who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. Taff makes the following worrying and unethical claims about Ellens character and her state of mind.

“I am unaware if these delusional episodes of entity attachment were the result of substance abuse, brain damage, or growing up in a totally dysfunctional home with its concomitant abuse and neglect.”

It seems Taff is not content to diagnose “Ellen” with substance abuse problems and neurological damage but he is more than happy to decide that her family either abused or neglected her. What evidence Taff has for this we will likely never know but given the tone and style of the rest of this post I for one am less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume this was based on anything other than his prejudices.

Next Taff describes “Brenda” an individual he labels a “blatant, paranoid schizophrenic” who he briefly insults and suggests is simply attention seeking. If you have your mental health stigma bingo cards handy you may be getting excited at the prospect of a full house round about now… Folllowing “Brenda” Taff describes “Robin”,a woman he met through an online dating site:

“During the summer of 2011, I met this strikingly beautiful girl on an online dating website. “Robin” was about ten years younger than myself and was stunning beyond words, but her exterior is where the beauty apparently ceased.”

Which highlights another niggling little undertone to Taffs post a sexist obsession with recounting the physical appearance of these women. But I digress, we will return to this sexism. before our denouement . “Robin” confides in Taff her desire to kill herself. Taff reports reacting by first asking “Robin” if she is worried about the impact the trauma will have on her daughter but also reports leaving the date with a “witty” retort asking if “Robin” will give him her car as she will not be needing it soon. In a startling lack of perspicacity Taff declares “Robin” to be selfish.

These are simply the first few cases Taff describes, there are three more equally as depressing anecdotes in a similar vein, but so far he displays a seemingly chronic lack of empathy or understanding for the individuals he has encountered and of mental health issues in general. Indeed for much of the post it’s hard to escape the notion that Taff just wants us to feel sorry for him.: to feel his pain and frustration as he deals with all these allegedly mentally ill people who harass and hound him. 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.

Taff also explains why more women then men appear in his post. I quote the following without comment:

Why are there so many more women discussed here than men you might ask? Because women are far more open about their feelings, thoughts and emotions, while many men are stoic, far too insecure to divulge such disturbing truths about themselves publicly. Women tend to be more in touch with their inner selves and are therefore more comfortable talking about such obscure matters. While men may have such inner beliefs and attitudes, they are not generally voiced in a society where they are better known for their acts and deeds as opposed to verbalizing their deepest thoughts. These incidents are but the tip of a very large iceberg when it comes to dealing with the overwhelming paranormal psychosis that exists out there.

Taffs blog post is deeply unethical and it is highly disturbing that anyone who has come anywhere near a psychology course could even consider it ok to publish this. The clumsy disclaimer placed at the end does little to diminish the attitudes revealed and language used. Nothing less than a retraction and an apology to those individuals mentioned comes close to making amends. It is simply not ok for someone to post mocking accounts of their dealings with individuals they have diagnosed as mentally ill if that person claims a degree of authority in this area. By virtue of having a psychology degree and claiming the title of Parapsychologist Taff falls into this category. No psychologist should comment on an individuals mental health where that individual might reasonably be identified. No psychologist should come close to mocking mental health issues in such an offensive manner.

Indeed professional associations specifically prohibit such activities and discipline members who transgress in such a manner.

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.

You might not think you are as bad as Taff but I’ve seen you at your worst and it is not a pretty sight.

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16 Responses to Believe in the paranormal? You must be mad!

  1. Timrek says:

    Hi, Keir,

    I appreciate and support your basic point – that people with mental health problems, or with behavioural or learning difficulties, shouldn’t be callously mocked. I agree, too, that believing in things that are unlikely, unproven (or impossible to prove), or downright impossible / contrary to the laws of physics, etc, doesn’t necessarily or even usually mean someone is mentally unstable, and / or has learning or behavioural difficulties.

    But why are you calling out ‘skeptics’ and atheists in this instance? A parapsychologist, which is what this Taff fellow is, is rarely taken seriously by other psychologists or scientists. Any skeptic would be very skeptical indeed about the ‘scientific’ opinions or claims of someone whose doctorate is in parapsychology. He represents no one but himself and, to some extent, his field – the non-science of parapsychology.

  2. Pete Chapman says:

    i had the displeasure of reading Taffs’ rant a few days ago. The article is exactly as you describe and he is a terrible, tedious writer. If one attempts to deal with human folly and not revert to basing things on a higher power a humane skeptic should choose the higher ground. Mr. Taffs doesn’t seem to have ever considered this approach. Thanks for posting your critique.

  3. JHJEFFERY says:

    It is difficul to take seriously an article as full of error as is this one. I counted at least 4 missing possessive apostrophies, 2 missing commas, the use of quotes for the name of one of the subjects, but not the rest; R0bin?, really? The grammar and syntax are simply awful. I know nothing of this man but no educated person could write this clumsily.

    Putting aside the godawful form, the piece lacks sustainable thought processes. The author alleges a lack of ethics on behalf of the man he criticizes but does not identify what manner of ethics has been breached.

    Like Timrek above, I am at a loss to see where skeptics and atheists fit into the picture (and the first letter of each should not be capitalized). There is simply no connection between the latter and the rest of the article. The connection must be in the author’s head because it did not come out in print.

    I have never heard of either of these gentlemen but, based upon the article here, would probably bet that Taff is more correct and accurate than this writer. And, yes, I do think that claiming alien abduction is evidence of mental illness. Obviously the diagnosis cannot be made from that fact alone, but it surely points in the direction of mental illness.

  4. JHJEFFERY says:

    t on difficult

  5. The R0bin thing is a wordpress anomaly. The rest is my fractured and idiosyncratic approach to grammar. I will go back and proof read the post again if that will make you happy.

    Not specifying the ethical breach was remiss. Though in my defence I took it to be fairly obvious.

    It is not ethical for a non-qualified individual to diagnose mental health issues in others. It is distinctly unethical for someone with a degree in psychology, albeit not clinical, to then make public their diagnosis, including a number of snippets of information that would allow at the least the individuals to identify themselves if not friends, acquaintances and co workers.

    It is particularly unethical to do this in order to poke fun at people you believe have mental health problems.

    Taffs thesis is bereft of evidence. It is written in a style that any competent psychologist would baulk at and it is highly, highly offensive.

    One does not have to be crazy to believe crazy things. Sleep paralysis, likely to be the root cause of alien abduction experiences, is not a mental illness. Rationalising strange experiences in irrational ways is not in of itself anyway indicative of a mental health problem.

  6. If one wonders why Skeptics and Atheists are mentioned (the two being capitalised in reference to the corresponding social movements) it is because they do abuse the language of mental health in a stigmatising manner.

    Take the case of David Mabus search for any of his old spam posts or tweets. Note the response. Note the language used. Note it is being used by Skeptics and Atheists.

    Note also that the David Mabus affair culminated in calls for him to be institutionalised from no less than PZ Myers. A position at odds with modern mental health care and implicative of stigmatising attitudes towards the mentally ill. That they are dangerous and need to be locked away.

    Or if you want a more recent example look to the number of discussions on gun control on skeptical and atheist forums. Rational Skepticism has a number of posts using derogatory language and stigmatising concepts relating to the recent school shooter. Despite the lack of evidence of a mental health problem. See the tweets from the likes of Michael Shermer calling him a nutter. See the arguments calling for the withdrawal of basic fundamental rights from the mentally ill as an alternative to gun control.

    Look for all these things. Look for Skeptics and Atheists saying these things.

    Regrettably you will never have to look far.

  7. Oh and FWIW I am fairly educated, despite my anarchistic grammar, currently holding four degrees in psychology and undertaking my PhD.

    In part my issue with grammar arises from the medication I take due to my mental health condition. It does not help with attention to detail.

    But that is not an excuse not to double check, triple check and ensure such simple mistakes are not made.

  8. JHJEFFERY says:

    “It is not ethical for a non-qualified individual to diagnose mental health issues in others. It is distinctly unethical for someone with a degree in psychology, albeit not clinical, to then make public their diagnosis, including a number of snippets of information that would allow at the least the individuals to identify themselves if not friends, acquaintances and co workers.”

    But apparently that is not what Taff did. He wrote an article using, I presume from your one-time use of quotes around a name, anonymous names. He did not diagnose and treat these people, nor name them publicly. He wrote an article. Nothing even remotely unethical about it.

    “baulk at and it is highly, highly offensive” To whom? It wasn’t to me.

    And what was that connection again between paranormal psychologists and atheists (note no capital)?

    You should wander over to the Richard Dawkins site where your goofy little piece is being completely dissected.

    BTW, would you mind sharing your credentials?

  9. JHJEFFERY says:

    “If one wonders why Skeptics and Atheists are mentioned (the two being capitalised in reference to the corresponding social movements) it is because they do abuse the language of mental health in a stigmatising manner.”

    Oh, now I see the above. Absolute piffle. Completely without foundation. More wishful thinking by a faithhead than anything else.

  10. I am an atheist.

    I am a Skeptic. Indeed I am the founder and organiser of the worlds largest free festival of Skeptical events.

    Might I suggest you have committed the fundamental attribution error regarding this post and assumed motives in writing it that are unrelated to the actual motivations.

    As for my credentials I have a BSc in psychology from Glasgow University.
    A Post Grad diploma in Psychology (Conversion for Graduates) from the Open University.
    A Masters in Psychology (By Research) From the Manchester Metropolitan University

    and although I never bothered to properly graduate (you may quibble over me counting this if you wish) I qualify for a Diploma in Psychological Research Methods from the Open University.

    I did not complete this as I was offered a funded PhD position in the NMAHP-RU at the University of Stirling of which I am about to enter my third funded year.

  11. Helen says:

    Hmm, well as a sceptic with mental illness, I would like to point out that absolutely nothing is worse for someone with a psychotic illness than to be encouraged to believe their delusions. It is WAY more likely that someone who believes they have been abducted by aliens or can read minds or get messages from a supernatural being is having a psychotic episode than that any of these things have actually occurred. Taff deliberately chooses subjects who have had a number of these delusions in order to differentiate these people from those who may just have been culturally conditioned to believe in a higher power. His point (or the one which I came away with) is that people with these delusions are being failed by a society which normalises these things and treats irrational beliefs in supernatural beings as worthy of respect.
    When I was in a psychiatric hospital I made close friends with a man suffering from paranoid schizophrenia who was also an atheist and a scientist and because of his rational mentality, he was able to overcome his mental health problems and work as a molecular biologist doing important work developing proteas inhibitors. It is unclear why some people suffer from schizophrenia – his own research showed some indications to do with mothers suffering from SAD in the last three months of pregnancy but this was inconclusive – however because his rational mind did not accept his delusions he was able to have more self awareness than the majority of people ever manage. To begin with he never saw demons or ghosts because delusions come from the individual’s mind and he did not believe in them. Instead he saw dead bodies and believed that people were trying to kill him. He was able to recognise that these delusions were likely to be delusions and self regulated his medication to an extent where his episodes passed quickly.

    The solution to the problem of people suffering these kinds of delusions is not for everyone to be patronising and pretend they may be right or ‘respect their experience’ (horrible phrase used by psychiatric nurses) but to reason with them. A psychologist should certainly not humour people. Respect your patients by assuming that they are capable of understanding a rational world view and recognising a mental illness.

    • The advice from Rethink (one of the UKs leading mental health charities) is not to directly confirm or deny a patients delusions during a psychotic episode.

      Both have equal potential to be damaging. Everyone is different.

      For instance I have a friend, details will be sketchy to preserve their privacy, who occasionally experiences auditory hallucinations. In these cases what has worked to help calm them down has been to talk through the hallucination with them. To console and comfort them that though I can’t hear the voices it’s obvious they can. That they aren’t going mad and that it’s a symptom of their illness. Which I suppose is similar to the rational approach you posit.

      Though that doesn’t always help. On occassions when I am in the grip of a paranoid episode I rationally know that not everyone is out to do me harm. But that is little comfort going through the experience. But who knows maybe that little voice at the back of my head saying it’s not real is a boon to my overall mental health and survival.

  12. Pingback: Darwiniana » Believe in the paranormal? You must be mad!

  13. Just in case anyone is labouring under the misapprehension I mean ALL skeptics and atheists stigmatise the mentally ill.

    They patently do not. Given in a skeptic and an atheist and I don’t.

    However a significant minority do and it’s not uncommon for people to use the language of mental ill health to dismiss views they disagree with. That is inherently problematic. Not because the people doing it are “bad” or “evil” but because it’s just accepted that all manner of unconnected things are connected with mental health problems.

    It’s stigmatising.

    It’s also worth noting I am not saying atheists and skeptics are worse than anyone else. Simply that anyone claiming to base their world view on the rational and scientific cannot possibly square that with stigmatising the mentally ill.

    Atheists and Skeptics should do better at this.

  14. JJ says:

    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 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 edge-case 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 succintly when used sparingly and carefully?

    But for Liddle to broadly associate skeptics and atheists with the extremely poor taste and astonishingly callous 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 religions’ foundations.

    I’ve suffered what might be termed mild mental illness, in comparison to that reported by Taff. I’ve seen worse. I have friends with brothers who suffer badly. My Dad drank himself to death dealing with his own personality. Yes, we need to continue to work to reduce the stigma of mental illness. But no, broad-brushing and stereo-typing another group with their worst examples (and Taff, as has been pointed out by other comments, is arguably not even an member of the group being tarnished here) is just bad, and ironically repeating a kind of behaviour similar to that which this article is trying to stop.

  15. Roedy Green says:

    There is a big difference between asserting some paranormal phenomenon definitely exists and might exist.

    I have had a number of events happen to me over my life that don’t quite fit with my consensus view of reality. In there somewhere might be the germ of a new discovery.


    I recall that in the late 1800s physicists were sure they now knew everything, and it was just a matter of tightening up the decimal points. They ignored one tiny anomaly — light emitting from hot bodies. When they got around to studying it, the whole of quantum mechanics popped out like some jack in the box.

    I think it probable we will make similar errors over and over in future. Science is not really geared at present to study anything that happens rarely or spontaneously.

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