Criticisms of Delusions
Steven Novella, neurologist and professor at Yale School of Medicine and founder of the New England Skeptical Society, emphatically disagrees with Gallagher’s claims, and he is not alone. He criticizes Gallagher for succumbing to his own patients’ delusions and more importantly for lacking the skeptical awareness that he claims to possess. “Richard Gallagher is now a classic example of how even a highly trained professional can fall prey to bad logic and the desire to believe.”
Gallagher writes that many patients with claims of possession are indeed suffering instead from psychological disorders and that their defense mechanism is to project these internal maladies onto an external source (i.e., demons). But then in the same paragraph, he asks, “What am I supposed to make of patients who unexpectedly start speaking perfect Latin?”
Novella’s answer to Gallagher’s query is simple – the patients memorized Latin phrases. He goes on to dissect Gallagher’s essay with what he believes are logical conclusions to all the phenomenon Gallagher has experienced while chastising him for assuming numerous fallacies.
“He makes an argument from personal incredulity. Because he cannot explain a phenomenon, he thinks it is unexplained. He goes from that fallacy to confusing unexplained with unexplainable. He then makes the argument from ignorance to fill in the alleged gap with his preferred belief, demonic possession. This is a very common true-believer trifecta, which is often wrapped in faux skepticism.”
Novella suggests cold readings, an old trick of fortune tellers and mediums used to read people, as an explanation for Gallagher’s observations of “hidden knowledge.” Furthermore, he points out that some people just have the knack of sensing other’s vulnerabilities and manipulate those weaknesses.
He decries the lack of video or photographic proof of extraordinary strength, flying objects, or levitation, despite the widespread proliferation of cellphones today. Even though Gallagher anticipated this last criticism by saying demons are too smart and crafty to be recorded, Novella rejects the reasoning as a classic, universal excuse for lack of evidence. He goes so far as to accuse Gallagher of harming his patients.
“The worst thing you can do to a patient who is delusional is to confirm their delusions. The primary goal of therapy is to reorient them to reality. Telling a patient who is struggling that maybe they’re possessed by a demon is the worst thing you can do. It’s only distracting them from addressing what the real problem is.”
Continuing God’s Work in the Pursuit of Science
Gallagher will not be deterred, not because he is Catholic, but because he believes he is following fact and evidence, and because he believes he is, in fact, helping his patients. “My job is to assist people seeking help, not to convince doctors who are not subject to suasion,” he writes. Lastly, he believes that he is not alone, that there are many other mental health professionals who believe as he does, and that the belief is growing even though very few will give it voice.
Gallagher says that the exorcisms he’s witnessed and the possessed patients he has worked with have brought him closer to God. “It deepened my faith. It didn’t radically change it, but it validated my faith.”