Barnum and Bunkum

I’ve been think­ing over the Project Barnum debate, as seen on Jourdemayne’s blog. It’s a good example of how two intel­li­gent people sin­cerely try­ing to work out what is best can dis­agree. Following alleg­a­tions against Sally Morgan, should psychic events be banned from theatres? Jourdemayne argues no and Michael Marshall says yes.

Zoltan, mechanical fortune teller

Zoltan, a fortune-teller who prob­ably won’t sue for libel.

I agree with Jourdemayne, but not with how she gets there. One example she uses is that ban­ning psych­ics also leads to ban­ning reli­gious events. I can see that at least all but one of them are false, but it misses a fairly obvi­ous fact. Usually it’s not enough that an act is com­mit­ted for some­thing to be a crime, you need intent. Religious lead­ers prob­ably believe what they say. There’s a sin­cer­ity of action than a psychic being fed lines from back­stage lacks. I don’t believe you can talk to the dead at a Spiritualist church, but I’m open to the idea that the speak­ers believe they can. It’s not easy to draw a line.

If these alleg­a­tions are true, I think the Sally Morgan case is almost fraud — except I’d expect some­where in the theatre there’s a notice say­ing the show is for enter­tain­ment pur­poses only. An example is this line from Gravesham Council.

Due to the intro­duc­tion of recent European legis­la­tion Woodville Halls would like to make you aware that Sally Morgan’s per­form­ance at the venue is for enter­tain­ment pur­poses only.

Hayley Stevens at Project Barnum has quite rightly cri­ti­cised this, partly because it gives the impres­sion it’s the psych­ic­ness that is caus­ing the trouble, not the likely fraud. She adds that people do not burst into tears for enter­tain­ment pur­poses. So credit is due to Gravesham Council for adding:

There is no cred­ible, inde­pend­ent evid­ence what­so­ever that the per­former has the abil­ity to make con­tact with dead people, or fore­tell the future.

The other line of argu­ment that Jourdemayne uses is free­dom of access to inform­a­tion — which may or may not be true. I almost agree. I’m fully in favour of free­dom of speech so long as it includes the free­dom to take respons­ib­il­ity for those actions. That last bit isn’t always so pop­u­lar. It’s also hard to enforce. For example the Daily Express said Global Warming couldn’t pos­sibly be hap­pen­ing and one reason it gave it couldn’t hap­pen is that it wouldn’t suit the UK’s tax sys­tem. Now if the next dec­ade is warmer than the last, how much respons­ib­il­ity will the Express take, and how much should it take. Obviously not all, but will it recom­pense the UK for the actions of its read­ers if it turns out that UK fiscal policy can­not con­trol the climate?

Usually unless there’s a gross out­come with a clear line of cause and effect, it’s simply not prac­tical to make people account­able for speech. The other altern­at­ives are either to ban some forms of speech alto­gether, or to counter it with bet­ter argu­ments. If you are in favour of bans then who do you trust with the power and how do you pre­vent it’s abuse?

It both­ers me because now any tin­pot fraud can now set them­selves up as ‘The Psychic They Tried to Ban!’ without men­tion­ing it was the fraud and not the psych­ic­ness that was the reason for the ban. I don’t know any scep­tic who would want to ban a dis­play of genu­ine psychic abil­ity. With his allu­sion to the Randi Prize, it’s obvi­ous Michael Marshall feels the same way. I do like his point that pound for pound you’d be bet­ter off with a one-to-one ses­sion with a psychic than with a theatre tour — if psychic con­tact is what you’re after. It hadn’t occurred to me, and if he ever sets up a ‘good psychic guide’* he should really ham­mer that point home. But it’s not good enough to argue for a ban. It just means the live shows of TV psych­ics are really bad value for money.

While I’m sym­path­etic to the aims of Project Barnum, I think the strength of scep­ti­cism is that it wel­comes an open mind. You don’t have to see things this way. Instead you can believe that you don’t know everything and that you’re being fooled in a way that you don’t under­stand yet. The 1023 event was excel­lent because it provided a com­par­ison between homeo­pathic claims for the power of the pil­lules and a scep­tical counter-example. The pub­lic could decide for them­selves. A ban car­ries an implic­a­tion of “we’ve decided for you.” What would really be bet­ter is for a ‘psychic’ to demon­strate a sense of humour fail­ure and attempt to bully crit­ics into silence. Obviously that’s bet­ter in a light-weight PR sense of the word. Not bet­ter for the poor soul who’s being bullied.

Completely unre­lated to that last sen­tence, I see from Jack of Kent that Sally Morgan has issued a vague threat against per­sons unknown that they’ll get what’s com­ing to them.

* Yes, that would be a chal­lenge. Rate them between 0 to 5 for demon­strable psychic abil­ity and 0 to 5 for enter­tain­ment? That way you’d have a list of tested psych­ics with scores between 0 and 5.

Photo: Zoltan! by Dex. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC licence.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.