For Entertainment Purposes Only: On Psychics and Legislation

consumer

There is a UK Gov petition doing the rounds that states ‘Make all those who sell psychic services, prove that their abilities are real.’ You can read the petition in full here. 

It is well intentioned but it isn’t going to work. I know not because I am a psychic myself, but because consumers are already covered by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008 which replaced The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.

It was under this previous piece of legislation that psychics and mediums would use ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ disclaimers to avoid prosecution for fraud. This is a practice that still continues, probably to avoid breaching the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 which prevents service providers from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on.

Yet despite the use of entertainment disclaimers at the start of their show many psychics and mediums will go on to deliver what is considered a serious psychic performance or seance. It will upset people, give them false hope, and those who come away from the venue will often believe that what the psychic was doing was genuine.

This is proof that is doesn’t matter if you force psychics and mediums to prove their abilities before the can perform to the public, people will still seek out their services regardless of the risk of being tricked out of their money.

People who visit a psychic show do not deserve to have their money taken from them dishonestly, but the best way to stop this from happening is to educate people about how to spot trickery for themselves and by raising awareness of existing legislation that is there to protect us as consumers.

There are a number of things that people can do to cover themselves; get a receipt, record your session with a psychic, learn what the tricks psychics use are and familiarise yourself with reviews from others who have seen the psychic in question. It’s also important to check the Terms and Conditions of purchase of the venue you’re buying a ticket from as many theatres do not issue refunds.

When I created Project Barnum (an online resource about psychic trickery) a group of volunteers and I phoned dozens of UK venues at which Sally Morgan, Derek Acorah and other well known psychics would be performing. We posed as potential customers and asked for clarification about whether the psychic was real or not because they had entertainment disclaimers.

We would ask “are they a real psychic or are using psychological trickery to make it seem so?” and none of the venues were able to tell us. We would then ask “if it turns out they’re using misleading tactics and aren’t really psychic can I get a refund?” Again, the venues were unable to provide any of us with consistent answers. Had I been a real customer I would have been very confused. Had I been an actual customer refused a refund I would have taken it to Trading Standards and I’m confident that it would be possible to get a refund as a result.

The only outcome of stopping psychics and mediums from performing will be to move what they do from the stage where we can all see them and into back rooms, secret shows, or back into the parlours that our psychic ancestors would hold seances and reading during the Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism trends. I think that’s a big risk that skeptics should consider very carefully. I don’t think it’s an outcome that anybody really wants.

 

London Accountant Claims Business Partners Ghost Changed Life

acrooge

Here is the story that we discussed in the Christmas Special of The Spooktator podcast which you can listen to below

 

Originally reported in The Spooktator by Chuck Dickens

London based accountant claims business partners ghost changed life

PLAGUED BY STRANGE APPARITIONS that warned him of impending doom London-based accountant claims that his brush with the afterlife has turned his life around.

THREE apparitions brought Ebennezer Scrooge warnings of his doom in the days that led up to Christmas, prompting in him a change that his family, neighbours and colleagues just cannot believe. “He’s so generous now and before we were scared to even ask if we could turn the office heating on” one employee told The Spooktator.

Scrooge claims that he was visited by his business partner Jacob Marley who died on Christmas Eve seven years ago. The ghost was swamped with heavy chains which, as punishment for his greedy and self-serving life, his spirit has been condemned to wander the Earth with.

The shocked accountant recalled that Marley informed him that three spirits would visit him during each of the next three nights to stop him meeting the same fate. “I thought I was hallucinating but I know what I saw.”

Mr Scrooge, 56, who has no history of mental health awoke from a heavy sleep to find a child with a GLOWING HEAD at his bedside which whisked him off through time into his past. The accountant, who has a seat on the London Stock Exchange, claims to have watched Christmases from his earlier years replay in front of him. “Nobody could see me, but I could see them and the memories brought up great emotions in me.”

He claims to have visiting the school he attended as a child, the merchants at which he apprenticed in his youth and even saw the tragic ruin of the relationship with his past fiancée, Belle.

The apparitions kept coming. Scrooge, whose nephew Fred is his only living family, claims he was next visited by a JOLLY GREEN GIANT which took him through London to unveil Christmas as it would happen in the days to come. Scrooge claims to have watched the impoverished family of his employee Bob Cratchit living in poverty before zipping through London to his nephew’s house to witness a Christmas party. Was this an other-worldly protest at the London housing problem forcing hundreds to live in unsuitable accommodation? Things took a macabre turn when this ghost revealed two starved children under his coat called Ignorance and Want before vanishing. It was then, Scrooge claims, that he noticed a dark, hooded figure coming toward him.

The accountant claims he was led to his grave. But not before being shown businessmen discussing his riches, vagabonds trading his personal effects for cash, and a poor couple living in a bedsit expressing relief at the death of their unforgiving landlord.

“I didn’t realise at first that I was being shown my own legacy” he claims, “I begged the ghost to tell me the name of the dead man. The next thing I know I’m in a churchyard and the ghost is pointing me towards a grave. Mine. Sent chills right up my spine, that did.”

The Londoner claims that this shock to his system make him renounce his insensitive, uncaring ways and to honour Christmas with all his heart and he found himself back in his bed.

Neighbours claim that they saw Mr Scrooge rushing into the street the next morning. One neighbour told our reporter “he was shouting something about a turkey. It was really odd and I thought he’d gone mad to be honest.” The turkey was purchased with sweetmeats from Fortnum and Mason and sent to the house of his employee Bob Cratchit whose family rely on hand outs from the local food bank despite having a income. Cratchit told The Spooktator “my son, Tim has been very unwell and finances have been tight. It was a huge surprise to find Mr Scrooge on the doorstep with the food. He’s turned over a new leaf.” His son Tim added “God bless us, everyone!”

The city is rife with the talk of the ruthless businessman who has changed seemingly overnight into a kind hearted philanthropist like something out of a Victorian ghost story, but is this a real-life ghost story that proves that christmas really is the season of peace and goodwill, or is there more than meets the eye to these spectral apparitions?

Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychology Unit who studies paranormal claims at Goldsmiths University believes that this could all be a product of Sleep Paralysis – a disorder which affects around one in twenty people. ‘Our research confirms the results of previous studies in showing that sleep paralysis in its most basic form is surprisingly common, associated symptoms include a strong sense of a presence, difficulty breathing due to pressure on the chest, intense fear, and a wide range of hallucinations.’

When asked if he thought this could account for his experiences Mr Scrooge looked doubtful and said ‘Bah, Humbug!

Paranormal Podcasts

podcast

You can go on youtube and find some evidence of ghosts…

Within three minutes of clicking play these terrible, terrible words are spoken and I should switch off. I should walk away. I’ve got a million things to do. I’ve been investigating weird stuff for over a decade. I’m hardened to such statements, I have no time for nonsense… and yet I sit and continue to listen because I think I might be addicted to The Parapod. Gozer help me.

Barry Dodds is a believer, Ray Peacock is a non-believer and their discussions about the paranormal are fascinating.

I discovered the podcast after recently launching The Spooktator, a podcast-version of the Weakly Ghost Bulletin I used to produce on this blog. Someone pointed out that I might like the show and I was skeptical and yet here I am frantically listening my way through the first ten episodes. The only time I can listen to podcasts is on my 30 minute commute to work so I have to listen in halves but it’s worth the effort. You can listen to them on Soundcloud or iTunes and you should!

While on the subject of podcasts I feel I must introduce you to the world of The Spooktator where myself, Paul Gannon, Ash Pryce, Alistair Coleman and Mike Gage discuss the previous months ghost stories that made the news. We broadcast live on youtube and then edit the show down to an audio podcast. We’ve just been added to iTunes and Soundcloud so do subscribe and check out Episode 1 in which we examine October 2015 (and discuss that ominous Most Haunted Live from 30 East Drive.)

Also worth a mention – I was recently a guest on Inkredulous which will be published soon – keep an eye on the Merseyside Skeptics Society podcast page here.

Free Speech Is Bittersweet And That’s The Whole Point

404 freedom of speech

When I started Project Barnum (the now defunct online resource into how to spot psychic trickery) I did so with a petition that urged theatres and performance venues to not host psychic stage shows. At the time there was some controversy with people suggesting that the petition was calling for the censorship of psychics (something Deborah Hyde suggested in an interview at the time) but that wasn’t the case.

With the petition I wanted to show that people were concerned about these sorts of shows but I look back now and can see that putting obstacles in the way of people getting a psychic reading isn’t going to stop them from getting a psychic reading, just as banning books won’t stop people reading those books. The best thing to do is to provide people with the knowledge that’ll help them understand the situation and ideas they encounter, and to meet misleading speech with accurate speech. The petition was a valid form of protest though and it did garner a response from one of the biggest theatre chains in the UK.

I’ve always tried to champion freedom of speech and freedom of expression and I was shocked when people started talking about censorship. I changed my approach with Project Barnum and instead made it something that people could use in their own best interests if they wanted or needed to and as a result several people managed to get their money back after seeing dodgy psychics and mediums. Win!

Why am I writing about this? Well, I wanted to give some insight into how my perspective of free speech has shifted over the years. I am very much of the opinion that if you want free speech then it has to come with no clauses. “I believe in free speech but not for them” just doesn’t cut it but it’s really easy to fall into the trap of justifying the silencing of a particular group or individual because of your personal biases.

In recent years there have been a spate of concerning censorship incidents at UK universities in which non-religious students have been censored because they offended religious students and women have been no-platformed because their opinions are deemed to be offensive and it’s unacceptable. You’ve a right to be offended but you’ve absolutely no right to have your offence catered to. Obviously there are times when a hate crime might be committed and that’s a legal issue, but these particular cases did not class as hate crimes and yet the offended students have their offence treated as though it was a priority. A priority over the freedom of speech and expression of the non-religious students.

Then, more recently, came the horrendous incidents in Paris and the on-going brutal murders of secular bloggers in Bangladesh.

Now, I’ve already taken a bit of a leap with this post. Censorship of psychics is hardly on the same level as the censorship (and murder) of atheists, right? True, but it’s still problematic and the moral of the story is there throughout. You can’t think it’s okay to censor one group of people and not okay for another group to be censored. Such a standpoint lacks consistency.

Anyway, I digress.

The whole reason for writing this post was because of my experiences in the last few weeks on Twitter. I made this following retweet in late July:

and I added the following comment to my Retweet:

At the time of the retweet I didn’t know about the drama in which author Ophelia Benson has been accused of being a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist.) The retweet was made as a note of observations of an issue I have seen arising for a while now with friends and acquaintances of mine being added to the Blockbot along with racists, misogynists and homophobes for simply having a dissenting point of view, or for asking questions. My use of the phrase “scummy biology” was a nod to the number of times I’ve seen people called “cis scum” for just sharing an opinion.

Almost immediately I was called out for supporting TERFs and for “finding the suffering of trans people hilarious.” At this point all I had done was point out that the Blockbot is used by some to punish women for holding dissenting p.o.v’s but somehow I was guilty of a bigger crime. Then, a while later, I retweeted a series of tweets from Becca Reily-Cooper in which she discussed the treatment of Ophelia Benson as the accusation of her being a TERF grew into quite an ugly series of online attacks.

I don’t know the technical details of the whole Benson situation but I know enough to say that when asked if a trans-woman was a woman she didn’t offer a yes or no answer immediately and has apparently shared links to content that is considered by some to be “Trans-Exclusionary” in nature. Guilt by association, some might posit and I was about to become guilty of the same crime. After retweeting Becca I received several comments about supporting TERFs, defending the oppression of the “most marginalised LGBT group”, that such opinions were akin to racism, to people telling me that it’s okay for women to be silenced because they’re being offensive to marginalised people.

Earlier this year Peter Thatchell co-signed a letter in the Observer expressing ‘alarm at attempts by some trans activists to ban their feminist critics from speaking at universities and other institutions’. For this he was attacked online and received threats of violence and worse. He wrote of his experience in the IB Times ‘For me, free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights. It is the foundation of a democratic, open society. It should be defended without exception, unless it involves threats, harassment or incitements to violence … I have not endorsed any anti-trans opinions. I simply defended free speech for feminists who I disagree with, which is what genuine freedom of expression is all about. ‘

This is what my objections boil down to, too. For some people, just questioning the status-quo makes you an enemy and that isn’t a healthy approach to discourse. A lot of women I follow online have raised questions about biological definitions of being a woman and being female. Now, I personally don’t think it’s an issue to say that you were born female if  you were born with male genitals or vice versa. I don’t think it helps to be too caught up on technicalities about these subjects at all. I also have differences of opinions with a lot of women I know online and in-real-life about sex workers too (I think that many people accidentally objectify women while fighting against the objectification of women) but I don’t think people deserve to be silenced if they think otherwise.

Pointing out something you disagree with is great and I’d never suggest protest isn’t a valid form of expressing disapproval – but protest shouldn’t be a form of shutting people up. Having emotional reactions to things we do not like is fine because we are humans and it’s what we’re good at but using those emotional reactions as a basis for making decisions doesn’t always work out so well though, especially when those decisions come in the form of 140 characters on social media where you don’t even have to think twice about something before it’s out there for the world to see.

I think that half of the people who are accused of being TERFs or transphobic probably aren’t and it sometimes seems that the accusation of “TERF!” or “TERF Supporter!” is used to silence people who hold dissenting opinions or question what is being said. Paint someone as a TERF and nobody will listen to them and then you do not have to answer their criticisms, questions or their points. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book – in my particular field of research the same can be said of the accusation of being “a closed-minded skeptic!” or “a cynic!”

I understand that for people who have to deal with discrimination because of their gender identity having to deal with numerous criticisms or questions online can be exhausting, upsetting and overwhelming (with Twitter being particularly difficult because it is constant) but I still don’t think this justifies the way in which people are shot down for speaking out. You can disagree with people and what they say about gender, you can find them offensive and you can block them on your account if you want to, but to chase them off of a public platform (or to support those who do) can’t be justified.

If you have to engage with those you disagree with meet speech with speech, educate and debate. If something becomes a hate crime take the appropriate action, but to remove public spaces of any speech that you happen to find offensive or happen to disagree with cannot be justified as anything other than devious. To then accuse those who highlight this as TERFs or transphobic is disingenuous.

note: edits were made post-publishing to the paragraphs about Project Barnum

Selina Scott’s Haunted Kitchen: Tune Into BBC Radio 4 Tomorrow

Brain Cogs

If you’re a regular listener of BBC Radio 4 you may have caught the last two one-to-one segments with Selina Scott interviewing people about ghosts. Scott believes her kitchen is haunted and has been exploring the topic for the one-to-one slot. She first interviewed Canon Paul Greenwell from Ripon Cathedral who carries out ‘home blessings’ for people who think they have encountered a ghost or spirit. Secondly she interviewed Yasmin Ishaq a spiritual healer who doesn’t believe in ghosts but in Jinn, supernatural creatures from Islamic tradition…

and tomorrow, for the final segment of her three part series, the interview that Scott did with yours truly will be broadcast. Unlike the previous two people I don’t believe in ghosts full stop and point out to Selina that sometimes to get to the bottom of mysteries you have to detach yourself from the personal.

I got the impression that Selina was surprised when she found out that I was a non-believer and I think she perhaps thought I was a ghost-buster in a similar fashion to the two previous guests. I didn’t know that the show was inspired by her belief that her kitchen was haunted and was rather put on the spot when trying to come up for rational explanations.

Tune in to BBC Radio 4 tomorrow (Tuesday July 21st) at 9:30am to hear the show. You can listen online here.