Select Page

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.