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Dear Swift:

My mother has always been a hard-headed realist. (She does attend Methodist church off and on, but that's more a matter of upbringing than anything else.) She is a stubborn, no-nonsense lady and a hard worker, and she's always kept her wits about her. She is also twice-widowed - the first time when my father died in 1976 (sudden heart attack), and again when her second husband, Rupert, died in 2007 (another heart attack). Mother is 74 now and just beginning to slow down, and I'm concerned about a habit she's developed since Rupert's death.

Rupert died in the fall, just after he and mother returned from their summer cottage in upstate New York. She was crushed, and she stayed that way. In 2008, mother forwent her usual trip to the cottage and stayed home in New Jersey. This year she decided she wanted to go again. She thought it might shake her out of her grief -- which, troublingly, hadn't abated much in the nearly two years since Rupert's death. I joined her there in July for a week and a half, and discovered a distressing thing: she was having nightly, hour-long conversations with what she believed was Rupert's ghost. These conversations weren't merely monologues. They were full-fledged, apparently reciprocal dialogues.

My mother has never believed in ghosts before, which is the first thing that disturbs me. The second thing that disturbs me is that, before, she would have disapproved of anyone making such fanciful claims, but she is completely unembarrassed about this now -- she is frank about Rupert's presence in the cottage and doesn't see why anyone would think it's weird. Third, I am disturbed because mother has effectively stopped grieving. Where she was depressed, she's now almost ebullient. Manic, even. Mother has never been manic before.

So I'm torn. Half of me wants to think that mother has suddenly embraced irrationality, and that this is an intellectual thing that demands frank, skeptical discussion. The other half of me suspects that this may be an actual medical issue. If it's the latter, I'm worried that I've already mangled the situation by trying to talk mother out of her delusion last summer. Have you or anyone at the JREF ever encountered a similar situation?

Thank you,

- Concerned About Mom


Dear CAM:

No, we haven't encountered a similar situation. Which is why you should get in touch with a medical professional or grief counselor before spending our two cents.

If you do wish to spend our two cents, here they are: Abandon "frank skeptical discussion." Your mom doesn't sound like someone who's lived her life prancing through the intellectual wilderness, waiting for a noble skeptic to whisk her home to terra firma. She sounds like a lady who's behaving this way because she needs to. Which isn't to say the present situation is acceptable. I'm just saying that what she requires isn't a dose of skepticism.

This is surely an extremely painful situation for you, and objectivity will not come easily. Watching a parent change so profoundly, so quickly, can make one feel completely unmoored from anything solid or sure. So be careful. Try not to behave rashly, or try to force your mother into waking up and seeing reality because it would be more comfortable for you if she did so. She's not talking to Rupert's shade because she's made a carefully considered conversion to spiritualism, and she won't cease because of a carefully considered conversion to skepticism.

The one bright spot: your mother seems willing to talk. At the moment, she's talking to a dead person. But maybe, slowly, you can convince her to talk to you instead. After you speak with a professional, try to set aside a goodly amount of down-time where you and your mom can chat, shoot the breeze, and discuss whatever might come up in a low-pressure environment -- precisely the kind of environment that you couldn't create earlier this year, when you were so surprised by your mom's sudden turn that you tried arguing Rupert's ghost out of the summer cottage. Ignoring that subject completely, ask your mom how she's feeling, what life is like without Rupert, what she misses, what she likes. If she can drop the manic thing and talk with you about what's really going on, maybe all will turn out for the better without too much professional intervention. In the meantime, stay cool, stay calm, watch her carefully, remain available, and seek help. That probably won't make the problem disappear all at once, but it's the best way to encourage its diminution over time.

(And remember: If she does suddenly lose faith in Rupert's ghost, her grief will likely return full-force. Be prepared for that.)


Hey! Why the **** don't you turn all that skepticism of yours towards the farce known as Anthropogenic Global Warming? Guess your liberal bias prevents you from questioning your lefty party line. Too bad!

- One Of The Gazillion Well-Meaning Earthlings Who've Sent The JREF Profanity-Strewn Letters On This Topic

Dear Earthling:

You're not asking for advice, so technically your letter shouldn't appear here. However, we get a lot of letters like yours -- every day -- and it might be best to put the issue on the record and have done with it. Here's what Randi has to say: "It's not our purview, and it's outside our area of expertise. The end!"

I'll elaborate on that by drawing what will hopefully be a meaningful contrast between Anthropogenic Global Warming and the reading of Tarot cards, or "cartomancy."

Although millions of people all over the world believe in the efficacy of cartomancy, to our knowledge there are no cartomancers who are serious scientists. Nor are there serious scientists for whom cartomancy is a primary area of study, because there is no controversy within the scientific community surrounding the efficacy of cartomancy. Belief in cartomancy's efficacy is silly on its face, because not a single reputable source has ever offered data suggesting that cartomancy works, and because no one has ever hypothesized even a half-rational mechanism by which cartomancy might work. So the JREF has an opinion on cartomancy: it is probably a waste of your time. (And if you believe otherwise, you should click here.)

Now, hundreds of millions of people all over the world believe in the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming, and some of them are serious scientists. There are many scientists for whom AGW is a primary area of study, and there is considerable controversy within the scientific community surrounding AGW's reality. Belief in AGW may be silly, as far as we know, but it is not silly on its face, because the thin (and fragile) envelope of gas surrounding our homeworld is mysterious even to those who study it, and those who do study it seem to argue a lot. Since people who are more scientifically literate than we cannot agree about AGW, we have no official opinion on it, save this: Be skeptical of everything.

That said, Earthling, you should bear in mind an old country saying: whenever you point a finger, there are three pointed straight backatcha. Are you a climatological genius for whom the workings of the planet's atmosphere are clear as... air? If so, please collect your Nobel immediately. (And why aren't you writing for us?) If you're not a climatological genius, try being a little less smug. Seriously. You sound like a jerk.